I recently read: James Dean: Little Boy Lost, by his close friend, Hollywood columnist Joe Hyams. My interest in James Dean stemmed not so much from his life, but his afterlife. He really had only one year in the spotlight, the last year of his life, 1955. That was the year he completed his three movies: East of Eden, Rebel Without A Cause, and Giant. Yet, it has been said that his enduring afterlife has been exceeded by only two other stars: Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. James Dean has become a cult hero: the undying personification of rebellious youth.
James Dean certainly did affect people. When news of his sudden and untimely death reached Elizabeth Taylor, one of his co-stars in Giant, she collapsed and had to be hospitalized for 5 days. And she barely knew him.
As I have done before in reviewing biographies, I want to focus on the health aspects of his life, since this is a health blog. But, I want to start by sharing some amazing parallels between his life and that of another Hollywood legend, Clark Gable. Both were an only child, born on a farm in rural Indiana. Both had adoring mothers who died when they were young boys. Both had fathers who gave them up to relatives who became their surrogate parents. Both remained largely estranged from their fathers for life. Both were mediocre students in school, but both caught the acting bug from participating in school plays.
However, there was one thing that distinguished James Dean’s early life from that of Clark Gable: In high school, James Dean was molested by a trusted family friend, the local minister, Reverend James DeWeerd. It was a sexual relationship that lasted for several years. If James Dean was traumatized by it, he never said so. And sporadically, he had other homosexual affairs after that, including a recurring one with Hollywood producer Rogers Brackett. However, James Dean was also a ladies man, coveting some of the great beauties of his day, including Natalie Wood, Ursula Andress, and Pier Angeli. And his romantic, emotional attachments were always with women, not men. The times that he fell “in love” (and there were many) always involved women. However, it does seem that bisexuality was deeply rooted in his nature.
After graduating from high school, James Dean moved to Southern California to live with father and step-mother. The plan was that he would study pre-law at Santa Monica City College, but he only did well in his theater classes. He switched to UCLA so as to major in theater, and there he did Shakespeare, taking on the role of Malcolm in Macbeth. After that, he dropped out, hired an agent, and began his professional acting career.
At first, he mainly did commercials (starting with a Pepsi commercial) and bit parts on television. He also got bit parts in movies, including a Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis comedy and a John Wayne war movie. However, none of these gigs paid very well, and he struggled to get by. Then, his friend and fellow-actor James Whitmore urged him to move to New York to study at the Actors Studio, which he did. At first, he continued to be limited to television commercials and bit parts, but eventually, he starred in two Broadway shows: See the Jaguar and The Immortalist. Neither was a tremendous hit, but he, personally, received rave reviews.
His big break came when Elia Kazan, the head of the Actors Studio, was chosen in 1954 to direct the movie, East of Eden, based on the celebrated novel by John Steinbeck. Kazan knew instantly that James Dean was perfect for the role of Cal Trask, and upon meeting him, John Steinbeck agreed. Dean was, indeed, brilliant in it. You can’t watch that movie without reacting to the emotions of the troubled relationship between Cal and his father, and eerily, it very much resembled the relationship Dean had with his own father. After that, Dean was a shoo-in for the role of Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause, his signature movie. I, actually, did not appreciate Rebel very much. I thought his acting was fine, but I found the script and the dialogue to be cheesy and unrealistic, and the story was downright depressing. Then came Giant, his last movie, which was still filming at the time of his death (although his scenes had been completed). All of that happened in 1955, ending in a fatal collision on California Highway 466 on September 30. Although James Dean was famous for his wild, reckless driving and received a speeding ticket earlier in the day, reports that he was speeding at the time of the accident were later retracted.
But now, let’s take a look at the health aspects of James Dean’s life. First, he had good physical proportions, and he was actually very athletic. Just think: he made the basketball team at Santa Monica College at a height of less than 5’8”. In high school, he also played baseball and ran track. However, it was always a struggle for him to maintain his weight. And the problem only got worse over time. During the making of East of Eden, they had him drinking heavy cream by the quart in order to bolster his weight. Why did he stay so thin? There were times, early in his career, that he missed meals because of a lack of money, but that had little to do with it in the long run. And usually, there were people helping him, fronting him, and from what I can gather, he did most of his eating in restaurants. And it was typical American food: steaks, burgers, spaghetti, etc. So, why did his weight keep slipping?
For one, James Dean was a heavy smoker. He smoked unfiltered Chesterfields, which are up there with unfiltered Camels as the strongest American cigarettes. Elia Kazan said that during the 9 hour flight from New York to Los Angeles in 1954 to begin work on East of Eden, James Dean chain-smoked the entire 9 hours. Smoking does a number on your digestion. It chokes off circulation to the digestive tract; it dries up digestive secretions, including saliva; and it indurates the membranes where digestion takes place. I realize there are smokers who are overweight, however, James Dean was the classic “ectomorph,” meaning that he was, by nature, slender, slim-waisted, long-limbed, and generally delicate and fragile. Ectomorphs have “short guts,” meaning that they have less surface area from which to absorb food. When ectomorphs smoke, and heavily at that, they are bound to lose weight.
For two, James Dean drank alcohol, which interferes with and retards digestion. I know that many people believe that drinking wine with a meal aids digestion, but that is a complete myth. It has the opposite effect. I believe that in today’s medical world, James Dean would have been diagnosed with bipolar depression. He was subject to very erratic behavior and severe mood swings, both before and after he became a star. He was never treated medically for this condition, but he did treat himself- with alcohol. He often got drunk. He often drove drunk, and it scared people. And when he was under stress, which was often, he relied even more heavily on alcohol.
Regarding other drugs, there are no reports of his ample usage of anything else. He probably smoked marijuana occasionally and may have done other drugs sporadically at parties, etc. But clearly, tobacco and alcohol were his drugs of choice. And really, it’s amazing that he never got started on medical drugs because he suffered with severe insomnia. This was during the same period that Marilyn Monroe was wrestling with her terrible insomnia and taking heavy-duty barbiturates for it. But when James Dean couldn’t sleep, he just got up. And I don’t mean to read, or watch TV, or listen to music. I mean that he got up and got dressed and went speeding off on his motorcycle looking for all-night taverns, diners, and speakeasies. And that brings us to our first health lesson from his life: Is it better to treat insomnia with drugs or to just live with it? And I think that, clearly, it’s better to just live with it. James Dean did better than Marilyn Monroe in that respect. And the reason is that as your sleep debt builds, eventually, it pushes through the resistance, and you “crash” and do find sleep. Of course, it isn’t an ideal way to live. But, I think it’s better to fluctuate between good nights and bad, which is likely to happen, than to condition yourself to taking sleeping pills. There are a few things you can take to bolster sleep which are safe, such as melatonin, L-Theanine (from green tea) and certain herbs, such as Lemon Balm. But none of the prescription drugs for sleep, then or now, are any good, in my opinion. So, don’t go down that road; you are bound to regret it.
Another thing James Dean had in common with Marilyn Monroe was a penchant for Freudian Psychoanalysis. And it sounds like it did him about as much good as it did her, which is to say, not much. By the way, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe did meet- at the Actors Studio in New York.
And granted, James Dean had plenty to stress about. Until his last year, life was a real, hand-to-mouth struggle for him. And even when he died, his estate was only worth $96,000, which went to his father. However, that included a $100,000 life insurance policy, which meant that he must have had net liabilities of $4000 at the time of his death, not counting the insurance policy, which would have been worthless had he lived. He had many friends and many lovers, but many of his relationships ended badly. His greatest stress may have come from his love affair with actress Pier Angeli, considered to be the love of his life. While he was filming East of Eden, she was working at another set at the Warner Brothers studio, and that is how they met. It was love at first sight for both of them, but her mother did not approve of James Dean, partly because he was not Catholic, and also because of his reputation. So, Pier wound up marrying actor/singer Vic Damone, who was Catholic. James Dean never got over that, and apparently, neither did Pier Angeli.
In closing, I think James Dean was a great actor. But perhaps because of his bipolar depression, he lived very self-destructively. It’s amazing that Warner Brothers didn’t try harder to protect their valuable asset- from himself. They did try to limit and control his dangerous driving but not his smoking or drinking. But then again, it was a time during which almost everybody smoked and drank, and especially Hollywood types. But, the most amazing thing to me is what all he did accomplish, despite his dysfunctionality and self-abuse. Besides his acting, he found time to seriously delve into art, music, literature, and photography. He learned enough about bull-fighting to get paid to teach it to other actors. And he competed in car races against seasoned professional drivers, finishing as high as 2nd. It’s simply amazing to me how much abuse the human body can withstand.