Ray By Ray: A Daughter's Take on the Legend of Nicholas Ray

Ray By Ray: A Daughter's Take on the Legend of Nicholas Ray

by Nicca Ray


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Tuesday, February 1


Nicholas Ray was cinema. The legendary director of such classic films as Rebel Without a Cause was an innovative force who dramatically changed the Hollywood landscape. He was also Nicca Ray’s dad, Nick.

After he disappeared from her life in 1964, Nicca began to imagine her father as a hero who would return and whisk her away from a life in LA where she never felt safe. However, the man who finally reappeared was not the legendary figure she dreamed of. Through his movies and letters along with her intimate interviews of family members and Hollywood icons, Nicca stitches together the seemingly disparate pieces of the real Nicholas Ray: A man so devoted to his craft he insisted on spending the last hours of his life surrounded by a film crew; a man who lost everything to drugs and gambling; an absentee father she longed to connect with.

Both well-researched and deeply personal, Ray by Ray: A Daughter's Take on the Legend of Nicholas Ray unravels the lives entangled in Nick’s, including those of Gloria Grahame, Dennis Hopper, John Houseman, and the Ray family itself. Nicca tracks her father’s whereabouts during the years he was missing from her life and works to reconcile his artistry with his persona. In discovering the truth about her father, she navigates her own path beyond the shadows cast by the Golden Age of Hollywood.

An essential new perspective on Nicholas Ray, with more than 50 photos and letters from the author's personal archive, Ray by Ray redefines this legendary figure through the eyes of a daughter searching for the truth about her father.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781941110874
Publisher: Three Rooms Press
Publication date: 04/28/2020
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 778,320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)
Age Range: 16 Years

About the Author

Nicca Ray was raised in Los Angeles, not far from where scenes from her father’s most famous film, Rebel Without a Cause, were shot. In her early teen years, she became heavily involved in the L.A. punk scene, and spent a decade mimicking her father through drug and alcohol abuse. After becoming sober in her early twenties, she moved to New York City, where she still lives. At 38, she graduated from New School University, writing and directing two films, and creating and staging several plays. She has spent the years since researching and interviewing friends and family of her father, including Wim Wenders, Dennis Hopper, Norman Lloyd, Tony Ray, and many more. Her research is the basis of Ray by Ray.

Read an Excerpt

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself . . .
by Nicca Ray

I am the youngest child of the film director, Nicholas Ray, best known for directing James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. After his death in 1979, when I was seventeen, people who I met at the clubs around Hollywood called me a rebel with a cause. I didn’t know what they were talking about. I hadn’t seen my father’s movie. The only cause I had at that time in my life was to get wasted.

I come from a long line of alcoholics and drug addicts. Aside from alcohol, speed was the drug of choice amongst us. Although I did dabble in heroin, I was squeamish with needles and blood, and so I never made it to full-on junkiedom. My father, Nick, was notorious for carrying a doctor’s bag full of pharmaceuticals during the height of his career directing twenty movies (not including the films he doctored while under contract at RKO) in sixteen years. By the time I was born his illustrious career was on the skids, a doctor had prescribed methamphetamine to treat his alcoholism, and a nurse was coming to the house to shoot him up. At the same time my mother Betty, his third wife, was ingesting Preludin, an amphetamine that made her mind spin around in circles so quickly she could barely move. After Betty left Nick, she got off the Preludin, but continued popping the caffeine tablets, Vivarin and NoDoze, like candy.

I was five years old and standing in the small living room of the house my mother had called a shack when it became clear to me that I had to have a strong sense of self before achieving success. Otherwise, I’d become my parents. This is the first clear memory I have of childhood.

When Nick came to visit us ten years after my parent’s separation, he brought along his drug dealer who always carried with him the best Bolivian and Peruvian flake. Not that I knew what cocaine was at the time. Hell, I didn’t even know what the tiny silver spoon was that my father had dropped on our living room carpet. When I’d asked my older sister what it was, she looked at me like I was from Mars and said, “Coke, Nicca, coke.”

I started my love affair with speed when I was twelve. First, I tried white crosses, pills that resemble an aspirin tablet but do much more than kill the pain. I graduated to their bigger sister, the time released black beauty, by the time I was fourteen. Two years later I was snorting cocaine practically every day. It was not a problem getting my hands on it. I’d started going to clubs on the Sunset Strip when I was fourteen. There were always men willing to give a pretty girl drugs.

I loved alcohol just as much as I loved speed and would put myself in the same precarious situations to get my hands on another drink that I would to get another line of coke. By the time I was of age I was sober, so I never took a legal drink and therefore had to scam for drinks just as I had to scam for drugs. Another family trait I shared was mixing alcohol and speed. The two just seemed to go hand in hand. Mixing cocaine and liquor really did the trick, though. The coke kept me from getting messy. Without it I was a falling down disaster.

Nick, once a Hollywood golden boy championed by the producer, John Houseman, and the director, Elia Kazan, became a fall down drunk in his later years. The doctor who had prescribed him the methamphetamine believed the speed would keep the alcohol from destroying Nick. It only added to his mania. I knew nothing about Nick’s mania until I was in my forties and started on this search to find out about my father’s career and life, the reason for my parent’s separation and eventual divorce, and ultimately to learn what kind of a man Nicholas Ray was. In so doing I hoped to come to a better understanding of myself.

When I looked into the mirror, there was always a hole where my father was supposed to be. I could see my mother in me, because I had grown up with her, but I had not grown up with my father, in fact I’d only seen him a handful of times, and I was always left with an emptiness, a not knowing. And I needed to know what parts of me came from him because I was his namesake. I had been making attempts to shape my life in his image since I was a teenager running through my high school from cops with their guns drawn. The troublemaker, rebel, non-conformist. I’d gone to many bookstores and stood in the film book aisle reading about what a renegade Nicholas Ray was, reading how he understood the misunderstood, reading about his kinship with the troubled teen.

That was me! The troubled teen. He had been one, too. He’d been kicked out of high school sixteen times after his father died. After Nick died, I dove into a punk rock lifestyle that at first saved me. In the late 1970s it was the only place where it was okay to be an angry girl. The anger I had been feeling since Betty married a second time, putting my sister and I into danger and leaving us both the victim of violent rages and incest, amplified after my father’s death. I met girls who were angry like me, girls who understood. I cut off all of my hair. I dressed in black with chains and spikes. I spent my nights slam dancing (we didn’t call it moshing then) in the pit to bands like Black Flag, The Adolescents and The Circle Jerks. In the mornings my friends and I would count our bruises like they were badges of honor. We didn’t live at home with our parents. We couldn’t get jobs because of the way we looked or keep them because we couldn’t wake up in time. We spent the money we earned panhandling on black beauties and Thunderbird wine or Olde English 40-ounces, instead of food, and eventually I got sick with hepatitis.

Nick’s mother always came to his financial rescue and his three older sisters were always there to help him pick up the pieces. Nick would never risk actual homelessness, not even later in his drug addled life. He had directed the masterpiece, Rebel Without a Cause, and that was the calling card that would always be his savior.

I had no such calling card to save me. Everyone in my ­family was always scrambling to save themselves. I have one full-blooded sister, Julie, and two half-brothers, Tony and Tim. Tony is Nick’s son from his first marriage to the writer, Jean Evans. Tim is Nick’s son with his second wife, the actress Gloria ­Grahame. If you’re a film buff you may recognize her as Ginny Tremaine in Crossfire, Violet Bick in It’s a Wonderful Life, or as Rosemary Bartlow in The Bad and the Beautiful. If you aren’t a film buff but are big on Hollywood scandals of the 1950s you’ve probably heard about Gloria Grahame marrying Nick Ray’s first son, Tony, eight years after she divorced Nick. And if you haven’t heard, I am here to tell you.

For me Tony and Gloria’s marriage signified that relationship norms weren’t upheld in our family.

The Rays had their own ethics. Navigating through them as a kid nearly killed me.

The acts of violence done against me as well as my alcohol and drug addiction took away whatever sense of self I had. By the time I was fourteen and fifteen and going to clubs I had a singleness of purpose. Not to feel anything at all. In adulthood I have learned that I am an emotionally driven person. I had purposefully wiped my core self out.

My father was an emotionally driven person, too. His movies are emotional canvases portraying what it means to be human.

Here, let me breathe and assure you that my sister and I are okay. In fact, we’re both doing really good and, as a family, my mother, sister, and I have healed. It’s important that you know that.

I got clean and sober two weeks after turning twenty. I had first tried getting sober when I was nineteen, but felt that I was too young, and could figure out how to control my alcoholism and addiction. One year later, in 1981, the year I got sober, there weren’t a whole lot of people my age admitting their lives had become unmanageable because of alcohol and drugs. More than anything I wanted to continue fitting in with my misfit friends in spite of my not imbibing. And I did for a time, as well as you can when you’re the only one in a room not shooting drugs. My first serious boyfriend, the first boy I ever lived with, became a full-fledged junkie right before my eyes. He was eighteen when we met and I was twenty and two months sober. We lived together for nearly three years. I never picked up, not once. Everyone I had been close to before I got sober was getting strung out. At first, I didn’t see any reason why I should remove myself from their company. I was not threatened by their using. I knew I was done. I knew if I drank or did drugs again, I would die. I felt that I had come close to dying and never ever wanted to experience that kind of fear and compulsion again.

Nick got sober before the end of his life but was diagnosed with terminal cancer before he ever really had a chance to discover the riches of a sober life. However, I do believe he was at the threshold of attaining an artistic clarity he had lost in his drunken and drugged out years. Directors such as Milos Foreman and Wim Wenders were bringing him back into the fold, casting him in movies such as Hair and The American Friend.

Nick’s sisters used to blame Hollywood for ruining Nick. Nick’s son, Tim, felt that he was at his happiest when he was involved with the musicologist, Alan Lomax, and bringing the likes of Leadbelly, Pete Seeger, Josh White, and Woody Guthrie to the stage. Nick’s first love as a boy had been music. He’d wanted to be a conductor. His second was poetry. He was in love with the poetry of Robinson Jeffers. When I first learned this, I rushed out to buy a book of his collected works and devoured his poem, “The Roan Stallion,” in hopes of discovering something about Nick’s personality. It didn’t give me the definitive look into my father’s psyche I’d hoped for, but it did shed light on how he found comfort in poetry that spoke of discomfort and unease.
I have found comfort in music that sang of discomfort and unease. My love of music and desire to be up close and personal with the bands on stage never left me. Newly sober, I continued going to see bands like TSOL, Youth Brigade, The ­Vandals, ­Circle One, at the Cathay de Grande in Hollywood and Godzillas in the San Fernando Valley. I spent my ­twenty-first birthday watching the great D. Boon and Mike Watt play in their phenomenal band, The Minutemen, at The Anti-Club in East Hollywood. I sat on stage in front of the amps watching Motorhead play at The Country Club, a mid-sized club in Reseda, and shivered with excitement when Lemmy, the lead singer, wagged his tongue at me. When the Bad Brains played the Whisky, I didn’t steer clear of the madness in the center of the club floor. When the Ramones played the Palace in Hollywood, I moved through the pit and up to the front of the stage. I was as comfortable then as I had been when I’d been high. I had achieved a goal I’d set for myself when I first got sober: To be able to go into the pit without being drunk.

I know, some people would think a person getting sober at twenty would want to go to college and steer a more mainstream course for their life. Not me. I wanted to find comfort in my weirdness. I was weird. I’d always been. When I was ten, I got the nickname Freaka Nicca because I wore hot pants to school, and that was before I ever did any drugs. It wasn’t the drugs or the drinking that made me a misfit. It was me that made me one.

I would end up going to college in my thirties. Before I had the confidence to even apply, I had to attend to personal issues. I had to reconcile the abuse I’d endured as a child. Well, to tell you the truth, it wasn’t like I woke up one day and said, “Hey. I think it’s a good time to look into my past and see the damage that was done. Golly gee.” No. I started having a recurring nightmare that I was being chased through my house by a rapist. That got me going to a therapist and for the first time in my life I started talking, really talking, not just telling someone what had happened to me as a way to get sympathy or a drink or a line of coke, no, I started really talking about the four years my mother was married to my stepfather and the abuse I endured. It unraveled me. I couldn’t eat or sleep for days on end. I was in an emotionally dark place for a couple of years. I came close to shooting drugs again but before I did, I removed myself from that which was tempting me. I moved from Los Angeles to New York City and saw the darkness through without destroying my sobriety. Sometimes we need to unravel to find our true selves.

When I was twenty-eight, I fell in love with an ­artist, Jesse McCloskey. We met at Dojo’s Restaurant on St. Marks Place where we were both working at the time, me as a server and he as a bartender. He had just graduated from the MFA program at Parsons where the artists Paul Resika and Leland Bell were his teachers. They passed along to him the teachings of Hans Hofmann, an abstract expressionist who was an important teacher in the New York School of Painting, famous for teaching the “push and pull” in painting.

Jesse and I were friends for a year before we ever kissed. He’d grown up on a horse farm in Massachusetts and would walk me home after our night shifts telling me about the harvest moon and sharing stories about the shenanigans that went on in the barn while tending to the horses. His stories of growing up in a small Massachusetts town at the beginning of the Cape were both unlike any I’d heard and strangely similar to mine. On many Sunday afternoons, Jesse would accompany his father on the drive back from the track. On the way home he’d pull into a bar’s parking lot and tell Jesse to wait in the car. Hours would go by before his father staggered back to the car. There was a day to day uncertainty in both of our childhoods that shaped us and brought us together. Like my family, his had its problems with alcoholism. Like me, he wasn’t paid much attention to when he was growing up.
Unlike me Jesse was not an alcoholic. He wasn’t self-­destructive like I had been. He was focused and driven and saw art and college as his way out of his upbringing. He was the first one in his family to graduate from high school, let alone get his masters degree. He had the kind of inner strength that could withstand whatever storms blew his way. It was evident, just by the way he carried himself, he was not going to let anything stand in the way of his leading the kind of life he wanted. An artist’s life.

I let him lead the way.

Since we were first together, I’ve known he is a man of his word. Before we had sex, he insisted I get tested for AIDS. He had just gotten his test results and was negative for HIV. I asked him what he would do if I tested positive. He said he wouldn’t leave me and that we would figure it out together. Back then it took a few weeks to get your test results. I was so scared I’d be positive for HIV. I had so much shame about my sexual history. Jesse held my hand the entire wait time. He told me he loved me before we were ever sexually intimate. Even if my test results had come back positive (I tested negative) I knew without a doubt that Jesse would never leave my side.

I strongly believe that I would not have ever been able to find my way back to writing had it not been for my sobriety and Jesse’s love. I have been sober thirty-eight years and with Jesse for thirty. This is not the kind of stability my family ever knew.

At ten years old I was writing stories and plays and had ­drawers filled with them. I would bring them to school and give them to my fifth-grade teacher, Mr. Harasick at Franklin Avenue Elementary. He would read my stories to the class. It embarrassed me but I craved the attention. I would try to share these stories with my mother, but she never had the time to listen. I ended up throwing away all of the stories and only writing if I had to for school. Then there came a time when I was so numb from drugs and alcohol, I couldn’t even write a paragraph.

I was in my late twenties when I started writing again. I had been studying acting until then but when my focus and concentration returned and I was writing plays and publishing short stories I stopped studying acting and started going to The New School University where I hoped to (and did) attain an education that would make me a well-rounded person and therefore hone my skills as a writer. It was while I was an undergraduate that I began to broach the subject of Nicholas Ray. A friend of mine was working at the long defunct magazine, Icon, and mentioned how they were looking for my nephew, Tony’s eldest son, in hopes that he would write about Nick for their legacy column. I said, “Let me write it.”

I had just seen Rebel Without a Cause for the first time. I still knew very little about Nick’s life. I wrote what I knew at the time, which mostly had to do with me finding a connection with him. I had just shot my first non-sync 16mm film and was editing it on a flatbed. It made me think back on watching him in an editing room in East Hollywood during the early 1970s, watching film go around and around like a hamster on a wheel. What had compelled him then, I thought was the same thing compelling me to sit in a dark room by myself trying to find the rhythm in the images and syncing them together. It gave me comfort.

Recently, I’ve been letting it sink in that I am my father’s legacy; that is my birthright. It’s been hard for me to accept that my birth gives me the right to anything, especially anything having to do with him. What comes from him to me isn’t material. That’s what stumps me every time I want to define what it means to be his legacy. Yet, I know there are those things inherent in me that come from him. I am of my father: not him, yet forever entwined. My legacy is not to take from him or to be him, it is to share and introduce his work so that he is not forgotten. I am Nicholas Ray’s namesake, but it’s taken me a lifetime to embrace who I am. I am the standard bearer of my family’s history and carry the weight of their trespasses on my shoulders and the breadth of their artistry in my wings. I am the teller of their stories and the peacemaker of their turmoil. I am of them, not them, forever entwined with them. Allow me to introduce you to their stories and in sharing them I share myself.

Table of Contents

Introduction Samantha Fuller i

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself 1

Tinkerbell Betty 11

For Love and Theater 26

For Love and Music 38

The Darkness 46

Be Free 56

States of Mind 61

For Love and Hollywood 67

Bigger than Life 73

My Keechie to His Bowie 84

In a Lonely Place 93

Betty 102

Rebel Without a Cause 110

Near Death Party Girl Experience or

How to Kill a Party Girl Spirit or

How to Zap a Star of Its Shine or

It Would Have Been Easier to Kill Yourself

Than to Have Married Nicholas Ray 114

Babies Speed and Movies 126

A Dog Does Not a Father Make 148

Photo Interlude

Family Ties 165

Identity Lapse 184

Homecoming 216

Boys and Drinks and Dirty Old Men 233

Break Your Plans Because I Have Five Minutes to Give You 250

Dear Darling, I've Come to Say Goodbye 254

The Call 261

Abandon 272

In Your End is My Beginning 294

Bring It On Home 299

Sources 303

Letters 317

Acknowledgments 327

About the Author 329

Customer Reviews