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Moody New Star: A Portrait of James Dean by Dennis Stock

Dennis Stock was a young photographer working for the Magnum agency when he met James Dean at a party hosted by director Nicholas Ray at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood in the winter of 1954. As Stock observed a moody Jimmy slouched on a chair, he wondered what Ray had seen in him to give him the lead role Rebel Without a Cause (1955). After exchanging a few polite words, Stock learned they had someone in common: Gjon Mili, the renowned photographer for LIFE magazine at whose New York studio Elia Kazan had shot Jimmy's screen test for East of Eden (1955). Stock had worked as Mili's apprentice for four years upon his discharge from military service and was also his good friend.

Because Stock was unfamiliar with Dean's work, he accepted Jimmy's invitation to attend a preview of East of Eden later in the week at a Santa Monica theatre. When Dennis saw the film, he was mesmerized by Jimmy's heartfelt performance and realized right away that he was witnessing the debut of a legendary actor. «There's no question that a star was born with the first public screening of East of Eden. The entire audience applauded as the house signaled the end [...] I knew that I had to do a story on James Dean,» Stock later wrote.

LEFT: Dennis Stock in 1954. RIGHT: James Dean and Dennis Stock in 1955.

After the screening of East of Eden, Stock and Dean made a date to meet the next day for breakfast at Googies, a popular Sunset Strip rendezvous for young aspiring actors. Jimmy spoke of his childhood in Fairmount, Indiana with such feeling and nostalgia that Stock told him he would like to do a «visual biography» of his youth, as well as of his early days as a struggling actor in New York. What Stock was proposing was a photo essay that «reveal[ed] the environments that affected and shaped the unique character of James Byron Dean.» Jimmy said he was planning to go to New York to «tidy up some of the loose ends of his life.» After that, he wanted to go to Fairmount for a few days' rest at home with his aunt and uncle, Ortense and Marcus Winslow, who had raised him on their farm after his mother died of cancer when he was nine years old. He invited Dennis along to chronicle the experience, which he eagerly accepted. And thus began a soul-searching journey into the depths of James Dean.


PART I: New York, New York | January 1955 

Jimmy and Dennis flew to New York together and parted company at the midtown bus terminal, scheduling a meeting for the following morning at the actor's top-floor apartment on West 68th Street. When Stock arrived, he was surprised to find a small and stateroom-like flat, crammed with books, records and other artifacts indicative of Jimmy's interests and inner life.
James Dean in his apartment on West 68th Street in New York City.

According to Stock, «Jimmy had a need to be surrounded by books, but I'm not sure he was a real reader.» Dennis spotted dozens of books about theatre, Charlotte's Web by E. B. White, Death in Venice by Thomas Mann and several works by Franz Kafka. As for his interest in music, Jimmy said, «I collect everything from 12th and 13th-century music to the extreme moderns, you know, Schönberg, Berg, Stravinsky. I also like Sinatra's Songs for Young Lovers album.» The horns and cape that hung on the wall reflected his interest in bullfigthing, which a minister in Fairmount had turned him on to when he was younger. «I don't know whether Jimmy actually ever saw a bullfight, but he played a lot with that cape, fantasised, I suppose,» Stock wrote. «There was something bull-like about Jimmy: testy, untamed, aggressive

James Dean in his apartment on West 68th Street in New York City.

The following morning, after a breakfast of coffee and toast at Cromwell's Drugstore in Rockfeller Center, they went for a walk through the city Jimmy loved. They visited many of Jimmy's old haunts, including Jerry's Bar on West 54th Street, across the street from the old Ziegfeld Theatre, and then Stock photographed the brooding young actor in a number of different situations: playing the conga drum with musician Cyril Jackson; attending a dance class with Katherine Dunham (one of the attendees was Eartha Kitt, with whom he later had a date); visiting the office of his agent, Jane Deacy; chatting with actress Geralding Page in her dressing room before having coffee with her; visiting a barber's shop near Times Square, where he simply walked into without any explanation; and returning to the legendary Actors Studio just around the corner, where he had studied method acting under Lee Strasberg.
LEFT: James Dean at Jerry's Bar on West 54th Street. RIGHT: James Dean learning to play the conga drums with musician Cyril Jackson.

LEFT: James Dean in a dance class with Katherine Dunham. MIDDLE: Eartha Kitt and James Dean. RIGHT: Jimmy and Eartha looking at a poster for East of Eden.

James Dean in the office of his agent, Jane Deacy.

James Dean with actress Geraldine Page. They had appeared together in the 1954 production of the play The Immoralist by Augustus and Ruth Goetz.
LEFT: James Dean at a barber's shop near Times Square. RIGHT: James Dean at Lee Strasberg's Actor's Studio, where he studied method acting.
Over the course of a few days, Dennis photographed Jimmy interacting with people while wandering the streets of Manhattan. «I wasn't interested in a lot of the poses Jimmy took,» Stock later recalled. «They were artificial, so I let him go through a lot of nonsense until he relaxed and become spontaneous. Then I took photos that I thought were revealing of his true character. Our collaboration was the best imaginable for a portrait exploration.» 
Jimmy occasionally stopped during his meandering and Dennis took these opportunities to capture him against billboards, below the 42nd Street marquees and in front of a paddy wagon. The classic picture of Jimmy walking alone in the rain in Times Square with a cigarette dangling in his mouth is a perfect example of their collaboration and has been considered one of the foremost iconic images of the 20th century. In his biography of James Dean, David Walton wrote:
«The Times Square photograph is a perfectly realized image of what Jimmy tried to do all his life: set up a situation in which he would play the starring role. He enters the scene a rainy, cold city street wearing an oversized coat with collar turned up, frail body slightly bent, preceded by a wet seallike shadow. It tells his story: the loner in the city, exuding nausea, sensitivity and inner pain. Yet Jimmy does not despair; he walks into the picture, inviting us to follow with a rakish tilt of his cigarette

LEFT: James Dean near 55th Street. MIDDLE: James Dean walking down West 52nd Street. RIGHT: James Dean braving the rainy weather in Times Square.

PART II: Home Is Where the Heart Is | February 1955
After two weeks in New York, Dean and Stock flew to Indianapolis, Indiana and then went by bus to the small farming town of Fairmount, where Jimmy lived from the ages of nine to eighteen. Within minutes of their arrival at the Winslow farm, Jimmy changed into his old work clothes — green shirt, green army-surplus fatigue pants, worn boots and a camel-hair cap. He was excited to be back where he grew up, anxious to show off the place he called home.
Stock soon realized that his initial guess was correct; one of the major influences in Jimmy's life was his rural upbringing. Most of the photographs Stock took of Jimmy during the time they spent in Fairmount were on the Winslow farm. These included Jimmy lying down in a grain trough with heifers, posing with a huge sow, playing his conga drum surrounded by livestock, playing around with his cousin Markie, listening to his paternal grandfather's tales, and reciting his favourite poet, fellow Hoosier James Whitcomb Riley.
James Dean enjoying life on the Winslow farm.

LEFT: Jimmy and his cousin Markie. MIDDLE: Jimmy with his grandfather. RIGHT: Jimmy reading a book of poetry by James Whitcomb Riley.
As Jimmy guided Stock through the streets of Fairmount, clusters of townsfolk gathered around them. Although East of Eden had not been released yet, Jimmy's numerous appearances in television dramas had turned him into a local celebrity. He was at ease joking with old friends and young fans, who did not seem to be aware of Stock discreetly taking pictures. They visited Jimmy's old high school, where a Valentine's Day dance was being held, as well as Fairmount's Park Cemetery, where the young actor stood alongside his great-grandfather Cal Dean's headstone. Ironically, Jimmy's character is East of Eden is also named Cal.
LEFT: Jimmy and Markie talking to the locals. MIDDLE: Jimmy in his former schoolroom. RIGHT: Jimmy signing autographs during the Sweethearts Ball at his old high school.

James Dean at the grave of his great-grandfather at Fairmount's Park Cemetery.
On one of those cold days in Fairmount, while walking through the town, they passed by Hunt's Furniture Store on Main Street. Jimmy asked Dennis to follow him as he walked into a closed and windowless back room where there were dozens of coffins on display. To Stock's horror, Jimmy took off his boots and climbed into a bronze casket. He crossed his arms and instructed Dennis to «snap away.» The photographer promptly refused, saying that it was «in bad taste,» and told him to get out of the casket. Jimmy insisted and Stock indulged him by taking a sequence of pictures showing the young actor lying down with his hands clasped over his chest, smiling and making infantile expressions. «He was not funny,» Stock later recalled. «I had no idea he was going to do that, and I'd never have suggested he do such things. It frightened me, and I know it frightened him, too. In retrospect, I think his way of dealing with fear was to make fun of it, to taunt it.» The last photograph Stock took at this location was of Jimmy sitting up in the coffin, hands clasped and staring directly at the camera, a lost expression on his face. «I just wanted to see how it felt,» he explained. Considering the fatal events that happened just seven months later, one inevitably wonders: did he know?
James Dean at Hunt's Furniture Store in Fairmount.
Stock later recalled their feelings when their stay at Fairmount came to an end:
«We were both saddened by the end of the week in Fairmount. Jimmy knew he'd never come back to the farm. That's why he had me set up the last shot of him in front of the farmhouse, with him looking one way and his dog, Tuck, turning away from him. It was his interpretation of that line, 'You can never go home again.' I don't mean that he thought he was going to die, but that he just felt it was gone. There was no way he could ever return to what he'd been, and that's what the farm represented to him
Just a few months later, Jimmy returned to Fairmount and was buried alongside generations of Deans and Winslows in the meadowland outside of town.
Jimmy on the farm. Stock captioned the 2nd photo, «You can never go home again.»


EPILOGUE:  Who Wants to Live Forever
After saying goodbye to Fairmount, they flew back to Los Angeles, where Jimmy was due to start filming Rebel Without a Cause. By now, Dennis and Jimmy had become good friends and were able to carry on their relationship during the making of the film, since Nicholas Ray hired Stock to work on the production as a stills photographer.
While Dean was shooting his next picture, George Stevens's Giant (1956), Stock was in France photographing Spencer Tracy on location for the film The Mountain (1956). He returned to Hollywood as Giant was wrapping production and Jimmy invited him to accompany him to Salinas, California, where he planned to race his brand new Porsche 550 Spyder. Dennis initially accepted, but then something inside him made him change his mind. The following day, newspaper headlines announced that James Dean had been killed in a tragic car accident while driving west through Route 466, on his way to the Salinas Road Races.
James Dean sleeping on the plane while flying back to California.

Published in LIFE magazine on March 7, 1955, Stock's remarkable photo essay on James Dean captured «an introspective, intensely self-analyzing (and occasionally self-absorbed) artist — albeit one who could, at times, also be self-deprecating almost to the point of parody.» Stock said the editors did not appreciate his «down-home» approach and the fact that his story was focused on an unknown actor. «How can we tell this is a star? How do we know who the hell this is?» they asked. Luckily, one illuminated editor rescued the story: «Look, this kid Dean is going to be really hot. As Stock's the only one who's got it, so we've got to go with itLIFE revealed the farmboy's true identity by also including stills from the upcoming East of Eden and an explanatory note on the first page of the story, which they titled «Moody New Star.» When Stock's beautiful photographs appeared in LIFE, in conjunction with the release of East of Eden two days later, James Dean became a bona fide movie star. 
If only he had lived long enough to enjoy his success.
James Dean: «Dream as if You'll Live Forever» by Karen Clemens Warrick (Enslow Publishing, Inc., 2006)
James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography by David Walton (A Capella Books, 2001)
Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: James Dean's Final Hours by Keith Elliot Greenberg (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2015)
All photos found on


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