on September 30th 1955, actor James Dean was killed in a collision while en route
to a road race in Salinas, California. For OutUK, Paula Martinac looks at
the James Dean legend and the continuing questions about his sexual preferences.
James Dean's premature death in a car crash, after having made only three
movies, transformed the enigmatic young actor into a legend, the subject of
books, films, and plays. Over the years, one of the most enduring questions
about Dean, whose androgynous, almost delicate, looks were alluring to both
men and women, concerns his sexuality - was he straight or gay, or did he
fall somewhere between the two ends of the Kinsey scale?
One way to address Dean's sexuality is to examine the company he kept. An
early mentor in his hometown of Fairmount, Indiana, was the Rev. James
DeWeerd, minister of the local Wesleyan Methodist church. When he knew Dean,
DeWeerd was in his 30s and unmarried, liked poetry and classical music, and
was partial to the company of boys.
The teenage Dean - whose mother died when he was eight and whose father
abandoned him to be raised by an aunt - spent a great deal of time alone with
DeWeerd, which is suggestive of a sexual relationship or molestation. But no
evidence of either has come to light. At Dean's funeral, however, DeWeerd
eulogized him as "a boy who knew how to seek counsel from men older and
wiser than himself."
In fact, Dean's success in Hollywood, where he relocated in 1949 at age 18,
did stem in large part from the contacts he made with influential gay men.
One of his few documented homosexual relationships was with Rogers Brackett,
the sophisticated, 35-year-old radio director of a prestigious advertising
agency, whom Dean met in the summer of 1951 while working as a parking
attendant at CBS. At a time when many radio programmes were created, written,
and cast at ad agencies, Brackett was a particularly good person for a
struggling actor to know.
Just two weeks after they met, Dean began living with Brackett in his
Hollywood flat. Brackett used his social and professional connections to find
Dean work on radio shows like Hallmark Playhouse and soon Dean was
also getting bit parts in movies.
Most biographies of Dean, including a recent TV biopic, acknowledge the
sexual component of this relationship, but also claim that Dean had sex with
Brackett purely out of expediency - he needed acting jobs, and the
well-connected Brackett could get them for him. Brackett, however, remembered
their relationship differently - although he later said that, because of
Dean's talent, "my primary interest in Jimmy was as an actor," he added that
"I loved him, and he loved me."
Later that year, Dean moved with Brackett to New York, where most radio
programmes were produced. There Dean began getting television work and
eventually theatre parts, including a pivotal role as a gay Arab houseboy in
Andre Gide's The Immoralist, opposite Louis Jourdan. That, in turn,
garnered the young actor the lead role as Cal Trask in the Elia Kazan film
East of Eden.
While in New York, Dean began dating a singer-dancer named Elizabeth "Dizzy"
Sheridan, who seems to have been his only serious girlfriend; he even asked
her to marry him. Dean confided in Sheridan about the relationship with
Brackett and also said that he planned to end it. "He did not want to be
gay," Sheridan recalled years later - a telling statement that, coupled with
the fact that he continued seeing Brackett, hints at a possible practical
side to Dean's romantic involvement with Sheridan. Being openly (or even too
suggestively) gay would have quickly ended his career at that time, when gay
actors like Rock Hudson were being forced into sham marriages to protect
It's not surprising, then, that when Dean's movie career began to take off,
he started appearing at Hollywood events with pretty starlets on his arm. The
press - and his studio, Warner Brothers - made much of his supposedly
passionate love affair with the lovely Italian-born Pier Angeli, one of the
stars of The Silver Chalice. But though Dean's colleagues and friends
maintained that he was heartbroken when Angeli decided to marry singer Vic
Damone, Dean's relationship with Angeli was, she herself later said, "all so
innocent." Kazan once told an interviewer that he "did not think Jimmy was a
very effective lover with women."
Another of Dean's documented gay relationships was with Jack Simmons, a young
actor who, by all accounts, was devoted to him. Because the attachment was
kept quietly in the background - Dean virtually lived with Simmons while
filming Rebel Without a Cause but had his own apartment - studio officials
did not seem to mind. That may have also been because the Warner publicity machine
was busily getting articles like "The Dean I've Dated," by Lori
Nelson, into fan magazines.
Dean took the secret of his sexuality to his untimely death, which occurred
soon after he finished filming Giant. (His next scheduled role, in
Somebody Up There Likes Me, went to Paul Newman.) Although Dean can hardly
be called straight, it remains unclear if he identified as gay or bisexual,
or if he was questioning. Since he was only 24, his sexual identity may, in
fact, have been still in formation.
Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary
Award-winning author of seven books, including The Queerest Places: A Guide to Gay and
Lesbian Historic Sites. Books about James Dean and his films
are available from Amazon including
Rebel Without A Cause
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