1931-02-08

JAMES DEAN, American actor born (d. 1955); an American film idol. Dean’s status as a cultural icon is best embodied in the title of his most celebrated film, Rebel Without A Cause, in which he starred as troubled high school rebel Jim Stark. The other two roles that defined his star power were as the awkward loner Cal Trask in  East of Eden, and as the surly, racist farmer Jett Rink in Giant. His enduring fame and popularity rests on only three films, his entire starring output. Today, Dean is often considered an icon because of his “experimental” take on life, which included his ambivalent sexuality.

There have been several accounts of Dean’s sexual relationships with both men and women. William Bast was one of Dean’s closest friends, a fact acknowledged by Dean’s family. Dean’s first biographer (1956), Bast, an acquaintance of this writer’s,  was his roommate at UCLA and later in New York, and knew Dean throughout the last five years of his life. Bast published a revealing update of his first book, in which, after years of successfully dodging the question as to whether he and Dean were sexually involved, he has finally admitted that they were. In this second book Bast describes the difficult circumstances of their involvement and also deals frankly with some of Dean’s other homosexual relationships, notably the actor’s friendship with Rogers Brackett, the influential producer of radio dramas who encouraged Dean in his career and provided him with useful professional contacts.

Journalist Joe Hyams suggests that any homosexual acts Dean might have involved himself in appear to have been strictly “for trade,” as a means of advancing his career. Val Holley notes that, according to Hollywood biographer Lawrence J. Quirk, Gay Hollywood columnist Mike Connolly “would put the make on the most prominent young actors, including Robert Francis, Guy Madison, Anthony Perkins, Nick Adams and James Dean.” However, the “trade only” notion is debated by Bast and other Dean biographers. Indeed, aside from Bast’s account of his own relationship with Dean, Dean’s fellow biker and “Night Watch” member John Gilmore claims he and Dean “experimented” with homosexual acts on one occasion in New York, and it is difficult to see how Dean, then already in his twenties, would have viewed this as a “trade” means of advancing his career.

In his Natalie Wood biography, Gavin Lambert, himself Gay and part of the Hollywood Gay circles of the 50s and 60s, describes Dean as being bisexual. Rebel director Nicholas Ray has also gone on record to say that Dean was bisexual. Consequently, Robert Aldrich and Garry Wotherspoon’s book Who’s Who in Contemporary Gay and Lesbian History: From World War II to the Present Day (2001) includes an entry on James Dean. Dean avoided the draft by registering as a homosexual, then classified by the US government as a mental disorder. When questioned about his orientation, he is reported to have said, “Well, I’m certainly not going through life with one hand tied behind my back.”