The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best

The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best


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In the decades following his death, many of those who knew James Dean best––actors, directors, friends, lovers (both men and women), photographers, and Hollywood columnists––shared stories of their first-person experiences with him in interviews and in the articles and autobiographies they wrote. Their recollections of Dean became lost in fragile back issues of movie magazines and newspapers and in out-of-print books that are extremely hard to find. Until now. 

The Real James Dean is the first book of its kind: a rich collection spanning six decades of writing in which many of the people whose lives were touched by Dean recall their indelible experiences with him in their own words. Here are the memorable personal accounts of Dean from his high school and college drama teachers; the girl he almost married; costars like Rock Hudson, Natalie Wood, Jim Backus, and Raymond Massey; directors Elia Kazan, Nicholas Ray, and George Stevens; entertainer Eartha Kitt; gossip queen Hedda Hopper; the passenger who accompanied Dean on his final, fatal road trip; and a host of his other friends and colleagues.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"A fascinating compendium..." —Library Journal

“Editor Peter L. Winkler … provides cogent commentary on the validity of the various stories presented here.” —Edge Media Network

“A rich and remarkably well-done anthology.” —The National Book Review

The Real James Dean by Peter L. Winkler is a fascinating read with each essay offering a unique reflection from one of Dean’s contemporaries. It’s much more approachable than a full in-depth biography.” —Out of the Past

“The book reveals an individual of complexity, admired by some and despised by others, but always fascinating. … It’s a must read for anyone interested in James Dean and Hollywood.” —Twenty Four Frames

“[A] corrective to fans, and crazies, who have done so much to keep Dean’s flame alive and shape his image since he died.” —Critics at Large

“[T]he most balanced and courageous portrait of Dean we’ve seen.” —Classic Movie Chat 

Library Journal

James Dean is a legendary screen icon who only made three movies before his untimely death in 1955 at age 24: Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, and Giant, all on the American Film Institute's list of the 400 best movies of all time. Yet many don't realize that Dean never saw stardom in his lifetime; of those three movies, two were not released until after the actor's death. That could account for Dean's almost mythic status. At the time of his shocking death, scores of interviews were given by those who knew him, and according to film historian Winkler (Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel), those recollections would have been lost if not gathered here. There are personal accounts from many, from his grandmother to ex-lovers to fellow actors with whom he worked. The volume paints a picture of a talented but complex and tortured man. VERDICT A fascinating compendium that may be of interest to film buffs; however, one wonders how many readers care about this level of detail on Dean anymore.—Rosellen Brewer, Sno-Isle Libs., Marysville, WA

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781613734728
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 08/01/2016
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 467,745
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

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The Real James Dean

Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best

By Peter L. Winkler

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2016 Peter L. Winkler
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61373-474-2


James Dean — The Boy I Loved

Emma Woolen Dean

Emma Woolen Dean was James Dean's paternal grandmother. Her article recalling her beloved grandson Jimmy appeared in the March 1956 issue of Photoplay. — Ed.

When you voted him one of your favorites for a Photoplay Gold Medal Award, I knew you loved him, too. And I knew you would want to know him the way I did

None of us will ever forget that last family reunion we had with Jimmy in the spring of 1955. He had finished "East of Eden." He'd got his wish: he knew he was a good actor.

Jimmy had been to New York, then came here to Fairmount before returning to California. Everybody here was excited — not that Jimmy had to be an actor to be welcomed in Fairmount; he didn't. People here always liked him. But this was different. When "East of Eden" was at the drive-in, so many people went it made a traffic jam.

But, in spite of all the fanfare, Jimmy only wanted to be with his family. We all gathered out at my daughter Ortense's farm. Ortense and Marcus Winslow raised Jimmy after his mother died. Jimmy and Charlie — that's my husband — had just come back from the cemetery, where Jimmy had taken pictures of his great-grandfather's and great-great grandfather's graves. When they came in, Jimmy turned to Charlie and said, "Grampa, do you think you could do some auctioneering?"

Now my husband Charlie has always claimed his father was the best auctioneer living. So with us, what Jimmy said was kind of a little joke. When Jimmy was little, Charlie would hold him on his knee and auction him off to me, and I'd buy him and Jimmy would laugh.

Well, it ended up this time that Jimmy talked Charlie into auctioneering little Markie Winslow's dog right back to Markie. (Markie is Ortense's and Marcus' little boy.) We laughed, but didn't think anything about this little joke until the next day when Jimmy opened this "satchel" he'd had standing around. It turned out the satchel was a tape recorder. You should have seen my husband's face when Jimmy played it back! Charlie said, "Hey, you shouldn't have done that without telling me. I used some words there that maybe don't belong in polite society."

Well, Jimmy wouldn't give in. He said, "That's how I'm going to take you back to California with me — for now. But someday I'm going to have a nice house and I want you and Grandma to live with me."

That was our Jimmy. His family meant a lot to him and he meant even more to us. While we're not the ones to do much lollygagging around, kissing and hugging each other, it does seem that whenever we are going to be separated and have to see someone off, we all have tears running down our faces.

You might say we're a close-knit family. That's what comes from living in one place for so long. The first Deans came from around Lexington, Kentucky, and settled in Grant County, Indiana, about 1815. My family, the Woolens, and Jimmy's mother's family, the Wilsons, got here about the same time.

Mostly, we've been around Fairmount or Marion — sixty, seventy miles from Indianapolis — ever since. Charlie and I live on Washington Street, in Fairmount, but he still farms, as he has always done. Charlie's a great hand at having two or three things going at once. At various times he's been a stock buyer, run a livery stable, sold automobiles and raced a string of horses. We're not rich, but we're not poor, either. So long as I live, I'll always have a porch to sit on, a rocking chair to rock in and a clock that strikes.

We have three children, Ortense, Winton and Charles Nolan. I don't want to get a lot of "begats" into this, as in the Bible, but so as you can keep all of us straight, I'd like to say that you couldn't ask for a nicer bunch of grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Ortense married Marcus Winslow and they have Joan and young Marcus. Winton married Mildred Wilson and Jimmy was born February 8, 1931. Charles Nolan married Mildred Miller and they have Joseph, David and Betsy Jane. Joan, who is now Mrs. Mayron Reece Peacock, gave us our first great-grandchildren, Gerrell Reese and Jane Ann.

They're all dear to us, but Jimmy was almost like a son in each of the families. We all tried to make it up to him for losing his mother.

I'll never forget the day Winton's letter came telling us that Mildred couldn't get well. They lived in Santa Monica where Winton was supervisor of the dental laboratory at the Veterans Hospital. Jimmy was just nine then. Winton asked if I could come out. Mildred, who was so young and lovely, had cancer. I took the letter to our doctor and he judged I'd be there six to eight weeks. I was gone seven, and when I brought Mildred's body back, Jimmy was with me, for after the services out there, I gave Winton the Winslows' message.

I said, I recall, "Now Winton, I want you to think this over carefully. If you see fit to let Jimmy come back to Fairmount, Ortense and Marcus would like to take him. They'll raise him for you, if you want." Having a boy on the farm would be nice. Joan was then their only child. Markie wasn't yet born.

Well, poor Winton just sat there and stared. At last he said, "It never occurred to me I might be separated from Jimmy."

But Winton knew what he faced. He had a living to earn and didn't have a single relative in California. At last he said, "You can't find a finer man than Marcus Winslow, and so far as choosing between the way my sister would mother Jimmy and how some housekeeper might take care of him, there's just no question."

Hard as it was, I've always felt Winton made the right choice, particularly since it turned out that he was drafted about eighteen months later.

It helped that the Winslow farm already was home to Jimmy. For a while, when Winton had worked in Marion, they had lived in a little cottage up beyond the Friends' Back Creek meeting house, on the corner of the farm.

And just to show you how Marcus and Ortense welcomed Jimmy, they even gave him their own room and moved across the hall. Ortense said, "He liked our bedroom set better. It was maple and that seemed right for a boy."

I don't mean to brag, but Ortense and Marcus are a daughter and son-in-law any woman would be proud to own. They do their share in the community, and besides their organizations, Ortense plays piano for the Friends' Sunday school and Marcus is interested in Earlham College, a Quaker school near here. Both are wise and gentle and have a great gift for loving. Theirs is like a Quaker home should be. You never hear a harsh word. Best of all, they are happy as well as good — and that's what Jimmy needed most after the shock of losing his mother.

Joan, too, made a great fuss over Jimmy, and so did her friends. Always, there were lots of young people around, for they all loved to come to the Winslow farm.

It's just two miles north of town and it's a beautiful place. Several farm magazines have used pictures of it on their covers and camera clubs come there for their outings. Every Winslow for generations has done something to improve it. The big square white "new" house, built in 1904, stands on a hill and the land rolls down to the farmyard with its white barns and sheds. A stand of timber along the creek sets off the buildings. In the near pasture, there's a big pond. Marcus ran an electric line out and strung lights so the kids could skate on winter nights. Summers there was always a picnic going.

Maybe the best way to tell you how Marcus and Jimmy got along would be to repeat what one of Jimmy's classmates said to me. "Ma Dean," he said, "I always envied Jimmy. My dad never took time to play with me, but Marcus was forever out there shooting baskets with Jimmy or passing a football or taking him hunting or showing him how to do stunts."

For Jimmy, it soon added up to health, happiness and that charge of energy which later was sort of able to break right through a movie screen. Seems like he could do anything. A professional figure skating teacher who happened into our town gave him a few lessons, then said Jimmy was as good a skater as he was. Jimmy also wanted to play basketball and, although he wasn't big and rangy like most boys that make the team, he was quick and sure of himself and turned out to be a good player.

One reason Jimmy could do so well was that he was a born mimic. Charlie and I used to laugh about it when he was a little shaver. Charlie and Jimmy always were awfully fond of each other. If Charlie sat with his knees crossed, Jimmy crossed his; if Charlie stretched out his legs, Jimmy did, too. It was more than just mocking Charlie's gestures. Even then, Jimmy seemed able to be another person.

He did right well with his 4-H projects. The first year he had baby chicks, the second a garden and then it was cattle. Eventually, his Guernsey bull won grand champion at the county fair.

But the funniest was Jimmy's pig. As a farm boy usually does, Jimmy got the runt of the litter. He bottle-fed it and it became his pet. There would be Jimmy and his dog, crossing the yard and that pig, running along behind, squealing and oinking and trying to keep up with them.

Marcus and Ortense saw that Jimmy had every advantage. He could draw and paint and work with clay. When Joan took dancing lessons, Jimmy got them, too. Ortense tried to teach him piano, but there was too much playing to be done outdoors for him to ever want to practice. Violin was no better, but when they got him a bass horn, Jimmy took to it. That and drums. Before he finished high school, he could play almost any instrument in the band.

He sure took after Charlie when it came to cars. Charlie bought his first car in 1911 and horrified the town by scorching along at 35 miles an hour. Jimmy learned to drive a tractor first, and then his bikes. He had a little boy's bicycle first, then his whizzer — a bike with a motor. A real noisy motor. You could hear Jimmy coming three miles away. Then he got to trading. Start an Indiana boy with a jackknife and he'll end up with a house and lot. Jimmy swapped his whizzer for a little foreign cycle and after that his motorcycles got larger and larger.

Clearest proof that Jimmy could do whatever he set his mind to was his marks in school. In grammar school, they called him Quiz Kid. It helped that he went to visit his father nearly every vacation, for then he'd stand up in class and tell about places he'd seen. In high school, it was a different story. Jimmy got the notion it was what he called "square" to study. Well, his senior year, Marcus had a talk with him. "You'll never get into college with such grades," Marcus told him. Well, sir, Jimmy got down to business. He stayed on the honor roll all year.

He had a hard time making up his mind whether he wanted to be an actor or a lawyer. Winton favored law, but he hadn't seen Jimmy in as many plays as the rest of us. Marcus, who always encouraged Jimmy in all he wanted to do, helped him decide on his school. First Jimmy wanted to go to Earlham, where Marcus went, but Marcus pointed out that if he wanted to act, he'd better go to California.

It was becoming plain to all of us that acting was the thing Jimmy was best at. He won declamatory contests, even a state one, but the thing that convinced us he was an actor was his appearance in a church play, called "To Them That Sleep in Darkness." Jimmy played the blind boy. Well, I'll tell you, I wished he wasn't quite so good at it. I cried all the way through.

Jimmy was in his glory when Joan got married to Reece Peacock. Markie was still a toddler, so it was Jimmy who was in the mischievous little brother position. It was during the war and rice was hard to get, but Jimmy found some. He went to store after store and saved it up for weeks. Then he tied stuff to their car. He sure fixed it up so they went clanking down the road.

I like to remember, too, the understanding Marcus and Jimmy reached before he left Fairmount. Jimmy wanted to earn his way, do it all himself, but Marcus knew that would be difficult. So Marcus said, "Now Jimmy, I don't want you running up a board bill. Stay out of debt. If you get short, let me know." Winton, I understand, said the same.

It was nice that Jimmy could spend a year with his father. Winton had been five years a widower when he married Ethel Case in 1945. Jimmy lived with them that first year when he attended Santa Monica Junior College. Later he went to UCLA and then to New York to study at the Actors Studio.

Thanks to television, we felt we shared those New York days with Jimmy. We had to buy television sets as soon as he began getting parts in programs. Marcus and Ortense had one of the first sets around here, and then Charlie and I got one. The old grapevine got going every time Jimmy was on Lux or Studio One or some program like that. They'd announce it in school and the neighbors would come streaming in to watch.

It's hard for us to understand why Jimmy's life had to end so soon. Seemed like he was just beginning to give other people the same kind of pleasure he had always given his family.

One thing I'll always be glad of is that Jimmy did get that house he wanted and that he had a chance to show it to some of those closest to him. Last fall, Marcus and Ortense and Charles Nolan and his Mildred went out to see Winton and Jimmy. Marcus and Ortense had ended their visit and were driving back. They didn't know about Jimmy's accident until they got back to Fairmount.

Jimmy had wanted his father and Charles Nolan to see him race that day, but at the last minute, Charles Nolan decided he couldn't make it down to the racetrack and still start for Indiana the next morning. Jimmy had their tickets in his pocket when he was killed on the highway.

We never saw such a crowd as came to Jimmy's funeral. The ministers tried to comfort us. Rev. James DeWeerd, who was on the school board when Jimmy was in school came from Cincinnati. He's the one who said that Jimmy, in his few years, had lived as much as some people do by 90. Our own pastor, Xen Harvey, said this was only part of Jimmy's own great drama. The first act was life, the second death, and the third, which Jimmy was just entering, was the Hereafter.

We have found comfort, too, in all that our close neighbors have done for us and in the wonderful letters people we don't even know have written. Friends continue to send flowers. On his grave at Christmas, we counted fourteen wreaths, a cross, a vase of fresh flowers, a vase of bittersweet and a big basket of red roses. We are touched that Jimmy earned such devotion.

But the greatest comfort comes from our children's children. Whenever little Markie or Reecy draw me a picture, or when small Joe mimics a television star, or when the others give us their bright smiles, Charlie and I know that the spark which Jimmy had has not died. It's the little ones we must think of now.

When I stand on the hill by Jimmy's grave, I sometimes feel I can look one way and see the work done by all the Deans who have been here. Then I can look ahead and see the promise of those still to come. Sometimes it is comforting just to have lived so long in Indiana.

The End


Excerpted from The Real James Dean by Peter L. Winkler. Copyright © 2016 Peter L. Winkler. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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