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James Dean: The Early Years

James Dean aged 1
The Great Depression was at its height when James Byron Dean was born on February 8, 1931 in Marion, Indiana, a small industrial town about 50 miles north of the state capital, Indianapolis. A handsome blue-eyed baby, he was delivered at home and given the first name of the attending physician, James Emmick. His middle name, it is said, is for the English poet Lord Byron, a personal favorite of his mother. His parents, Winton and Mildred Marie Dean (neé Wilson), were of mostly English ancestry, with smaller amounts of Scottish, German, Irish and Welsh. Both were native Indianans Winton was a Quaker from a long line of original settlers that could be traced back to the Mayflower, while Mildred came from a Methodist family that Jimmy later claimed was part Indian. For the first few years of his life, Jimmy lived in the Green Gables Apartments, a building constructed in the late 1920s, located at the corner of 4th and McClure Streets in Marion.

When Jimmy was almost three, his father quit his job as a dental technician at the Marion Veterans' Hospital and the Deans moved to Fairmount, a small farming community about ten miles to the south, where they lived on Ortense (Winton's sister) and Marcus Winslow's farm in a small cottage along Back Creek, a meandering country stream that flowed through the property. There, his father took to raising bullfrogs, but the venture proved a disaster and the family soon returned to Marion, where Winton settled back comfortably into his old job. However, a year later, in 1935, he was transferred to the Sawtelle Veterans' Hospital in Santa Monica, California. Mildred was reluctant to leave her family and start a new life, but conditions were hardly ideal in either Marion or Fairmount.

Jimmy with his parents in California
The Deans moved into a typical Southern California "creamcolored stucco igloo" and enrolled Jimmy at Brentwood Public School in West Los Angeles, although he was soon transferred to the McKinley Elementary School in Santa Monica. Mildred kept in touch with their family back in Indiana, frequently sending photos of little Jimmy to Winton's parents in Fairmount. Jimmy's grandmother, Emma Dean, used to say that he was a sweet-looking child with features "of a china doll, and the complexion of a ripe apple. Almost too dainty for a boy." While young Jimmy may have been "sturdy looking in build," he was "delicate by constitution," often suffering from nosebleeds and internal bleeding that caused black and blue marks on both his arms and legs.

Jimmy was very close to his mother, who would often recite poems for him. Mildred wanted her son to grow up appreaciating the arts as much as she did. Jimmy especially liked tall tales from American folklore. After hearing the story of the legendary Johnny Appleseed (real name John Chapman), the American pioneer who introduced apple trees to several parts of the United States, including Indiana, Jimmy asked his mother for apple seeds, intent on raising an orchard in his back yard. Mother and son could often be seen playing games together. One of their preferred afternoon diversions was to make up stories and plays on a cardboard theater that Mildred built for the both of them to enjoy. Using dolls as actors, they would occasionally put on skits for Winton and their neighbors; both Jimmy and Mildred loved to hear the applause when the number was over. Mildred was fond of saying that her beautiful son was going to be a great actor one day. Jimmy's favorite childhood fantasy was what they called the "wishing game," a variant on the myth of the Tooth Fairy cleverly devised by Mildred to indulge her son. Before he went to sleep, Jimmy would put underneath his pillow a piece of paper with a wish written on it. His devoted mother would then slip into his bedroom while he was asleep, read the wish and, if possible, she would make it come true the next day.

James Dean in 1938
Jimmy's relationship with his father, however, was somewhat strained. Later in life, Jimmy explained, "I never understood what he [Winton] was after, what sort of person he'd been, because he never tried to get on my side of the fence, or to try and see things the way I saw them when I was little." In turn, Winton remembered how curious Jimmy was about many things and how quickly he lost interest in them, as well as his stubbornness. He found it almost impossible to displicine his son. "You'd try to order him to do or not do something and he's just sit there with his little face all screwed up and closed," Winton said. "It didn't take you very long to realize that you weren't going to get anywhere with him. Spanking didn't help. Scolding didn't. And you couldn't bribe him." Winton particularly disapproved of Jimmy's eager interest in acting, even as simple child's play. He thought that acting was something done by people who were "a little odd."

When Jimmy was just nine year old, Mildred was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. In May 1940, Winton wrote to his mother in Fairmount and asked her to come to California immediately. Seven weeks later, Jimmy travelled with Emma Dean on the same train that carried Mildred's body back to Fairmount to be buried. Shortly before Mildred died, Winton told his young son that his mother was not going to come home again. "Jimmy said nothing just looked at me," Winton recalled. "Even as a child he wasn't much to talk about his hurts." After Mildred's death, Winton considered returning to Fairmount with his son, but moving would have worsened the already aggravated financial condition which his wife's illness had created. Winton had sold his car to pay for Mildred's last operation and could not even afford to go to the funeral in Fairmount. Sending Jimmy to live with his aunt and uncle seemed like the best thing Winton could do at the time.

Jimmy in front of his house on the Winslow farm
For the next nine years of his life, Jimmy lived on Marcus and Ortense Winslow's 180-acre farm. The handsome fourteen-room house still stands on a small hill which rolls down in the meadowlands that lead eventually to town. Although heartbroken over his mother's death, Jimmy was happy to be near his grandparents, who still worked the land they owned on the other side of Fairmount, though they had moved to a little pink house in town. Jimmy enjoyed the routine of farm life; his chores consisted of milking, collecting eggs, feeding the stock and harvesting. By the end of his first year with the Winslows, he could drive the tractor. One day, he found the runt of a litter of pigs, bottle-fed it to keep it alive and it became his pet. When Jimmy and his dog, Tuck, ran across the farmyard, the little pig could be seen squealing and oinking behind them, trying to catch up.

According to his cousin Joan, Jimmy was "never one to sit still. Always had to be the best at everything." During his first summer on the Winslow farm, he learned to swim by throwing himself backwards into the creek that runs through the property. He often caught carp in the pond and, one day, he was swinging so successfully on the trapeze Marcus had set up in the barn that he swung right into a pipe and broke his two front teeth. (Jimmy would later embellished the story, saying that he lost them in a motorcycle accident.) As an adult, he reportedly enjoyed surprising new acquaintances by casually removing his false teeth in mid-conversation. Although the Depression had brought hard times for the Winslows, they conscientiously made sure that their nephew got everything Joan did and more. Jimmy repayed them by modeling himself after his uncle Marcus in every way: "he wore a T-shirt and blue jeans, slouched a bit and distrusted strangers, working diligently at his job and even made his occasional forbidden cigarette a Camel." His aunt Ortense became "Mom" and in her Quaker way raised Jimmy as if he were her own son.

The Fairmount High Quakers basketball team
(Jimmy is second from left)
At Fairmount High School, Jimmy was an average student, but a standout athlete. Despite being nearsighted, short and skinny, he played baseball and basketball and also ran track. His basketball coach, Paul Weaver, once told a reporter that Jimmy was "a heady player and a good competitor. He was what you would call a clean-cut, All-American type boy." Jimmy particularly excelled at pole vault, breaking the county record by the time he graduated in 1949. In the spring of 1948, Fairmount High principal Roland Dubois asked the students to write a short autobiography and Jimmy turned in "My Case Study." He wrote the assignment on lined notebook paper and said this about his future: "I think my life will be devoted to art and dramatics. [...] I got it and I know if I better myself then there will be no match. A fellow must have confidence."

During junior high, Jimmy's interest in acting became more serious and he started performing in several school and church plays. One of them was called To Them That Sleep in Darkness, in which his portrayal of a blind boy moved Grandma Emma to tears. "I wished he wasn't quite so good at it," she said. "I cried all the way through." As a senior, Jimmy starred in most of Fairmount High's productions, including a spoof called Goon with the Wind, in which he played a monstrous Frankenstein, and You Can't Take It With You, appearing as the eccentric Russian ballet master Mr. Boris Kolenkhov. After one school production, the cast presented their drama teacher, Adeline Nall, with an orchid. The next morning, Jimmy asked to borrow the flower, but would not tell his teacher why. Later, he returned the orchid along with a painting he had made of the blossom, explaining that now she would have it forever. He signed it: "Her Pride." Nall treasured the painting and kept it as long as she lived. It is now on display at the Fairmount Historical Society for visitors to enjoy.

Jimmy's high school yearbook
Before graduation, Jimmy appeared in the front page of Fairmount News, which announced that he had won first place in a dramatic speaking contest in Peru, Indiana. His text of choice was a passage from Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers (1836) called "A Madman's Manuscript," the story of a man who kills his wife after driving her insane. "Jimmy was wonderful," said Nall. "He would be very crazy and the next minute perfectly sane just like an adjustable lunatic [...] It was a monologue, but it had about as many emotions as you could use in a reading. You never get more than five or six characters in a reading, and he had at least that many moods and voice changes." At the National Forensic League's finals in Colorado, where he represented Indiana, Jimmy placed sixth.

As graduation day approached, it became clear that Jimmy wanted to pursue a career in acting. In late May 1949, he left Fairmount and returned to Santa Monica, planning to enter the University of California at Los Angeles to take a course in dramatics and fine arts. He lived with his father and stepmother, Ethel, whom Winton had married in 1944. Jimmy was polite enough to Ethel, but the two never became close; in fact, "they occupied mutually distrustful corners." When Jimmy announced to his father his desire to act, Winton would not hear of it. Instead, he bought Jimmy a 1939 Chevy in an attempt to convince him to abandon the idea of acting and enroll at Santa Monica City College, which was nearby and offered "courses you could use to earn a better living." But Jimmy went ahead anyway and joined the local summer stock company, where he acted under the stage name of Byron James in a musical production of The Romance of Scarlet Gulch at the Miller Playhouse Theater Guild. At the end of the summer, however, Winton won Jimmy did not go to UCLA as he planed; instead, he reluctantly joined the pre-Law programme at Santa Monica City College.

Jimmy tried to compensate his complete lack of interest in Law by signing up for as many theatre courses as he possible could. He also joined the Jazz Club and Jazz Appreciation Society and appeared in the Santa Monica Theater Guild production of Millard Crosby's She Was Only a Farmer's Daughter. At the same time, he began to experiment with himself, expanding his repertoire of gestures and impersonations. He carefully watched the way the California kids behaved, "mimicking a beach boy's bop or a freshman's moon-faced stare." When Jimmy went home and eagerly put on shows for Winton and Ethel, "they suffocated him with their lack of response."

Jimmy as Malcolm in UCLA's production of Macbeth
In the fall of 1950, Jimmy left Santa Monica College for a theater arts major at UCLA and Winton's home for a room at Sigma Nu fraternity. While at UCLA, he landed a part in Macbeth, the university's first big theatrical production. Jimmy wrote to his aunt and uncle: "The biggest thrill of my life came three weeks ago, after a week of grueling auditions for U.C.L.A.'s four major theatrical productions, the major being Shakespeare's Macbeth which will be presented in Royce Hall (seats 1600). After the auditioning of 367 actors and actresses, I came up with a wonderful lead in Macbeth the character being Malcolm (huge part) [...]."

For as much as Jimmy was enjoying his acting stints at UCLA, he soon discovered that academic life was not for him. Moreover, his fraternity brothers teased him about being an actor and he lost his temper when they made derogatory jokes about "actors, fruits and ballerinas." After Jimmy punched two of them, the fraternity threw him out. His roommate at Sigma Nu, future screenwriter William Bast, was also unhappy with his living arrangements in the dorm and Jimmy asked if he wanted to share an apartment. When Bast agreed, Jimmy was so ecstatic that he began describing his dreams and ambitions for the future: "All I know is, I've got to do something. I don't know exactly what it is yet [...] I've got to keep trying until I hit the right thing [...] It's like I want to be an actor, but that isn't it [...] Just being an actor or a director, even a good one, isn't enough [...] To me, the only success, the only greatness for man, is immortality. To have your work remembered in history, to leave something in the world that will last for centuries. That's greatness."

In January 1951, Jimmy decided to dropp out of UCLA to pursue a full-time acting career. He quickly obtained small roles on television and in films, including Universal's Has Anybody Seen My Gal? (1952), in which he played a hipster youth hanging out at a small town drugstore who asks for "a choc malt, heavy on the choc, plenty of milk, four spoons of malt, two scoops of vanilla ice-cream, one mixed with the rest and one floating." In October 1952, following the encouragement of Academy Award-nominated actor James Whitmore, whose workshop he had attended, Jimmy went to New York to "test himself against the uncertainties of an actor's life in the teather, refine himself and if possible become a member of the Actors Studio." For the 20-year-old James Dean, it looked as though success, greatness and immortality were just around the corner.

James Dean: "Dream as if You'll Live Forever" by Karen Clemens Warrick (2006) | James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography by David Walton (2001) | The Unknown James Dean by Robert Tanitch (1999)


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