James Dean was the icon of millions, his brooding sensuality made him an instant star, but his smoldering looks hid a secret pain.
Iconic 50s actor James Dean is still a legend 65 years after his death, even though he only made three films in his entire career.
His mystique is the fruit as much his monumental talent, as the rumors of his tormented love life which might have led to his tragic death at the age of 27.
Taylor was shattered and had a breakdown after his death, and would only speak of their relationship years later, in an interview she insisted should remain unpublished until her death.
Studio portrait of James Dean circa 1954 | Source: Getty Images
THE RISING STAR
Dean skyrocketed to fame in Hollywood. He started his career at the age of 22 after dropping out of UCLA, five years later, he was the industry's hottest leading man, scooping up roles contested by the likes of Paul Newman and Marlon Brando.
His first movie, "East of Eden" made him an instant star. Dean's boyish good looks, and his intensity, coupled with a disturbing fragility dominated the screen. Audiences swooned, and the studios showered him with offers.
James Dean as a young boy, undated | Source: Getty Images
THE LOST BOY
But behind the image hid a young man still dealing with the pain of losing his mother, Mildred Marie Wilson to cancer when he was just 9. His father had been unable to cope and had sent Dean to live with relatives on a farm in Indiana.
James Dean as Cal Trask in Elia Kazan's 'East of Eden' in 1954 | Source: Getty Images
"When Jimmy was 11 and his mother passed away, he began to be molested by his minister. I think that haunted him the rest of his life. (...) that was one of the things he confessed to me."
James Dean on the set of 'East Of Eden' in 1954 in California | Source: Getty Images
LOOKING FOR LOVE
A biography of Dean, "James Dean: Tomorrow Never Comes" written by Darwin Porter and published in 2016, detailed his constant search for love, which led to countless affairs with both men and women, many of them Hollywood stars.
James Dean on the set of the movie "Giant" in July 1955 in Marfa, Texas | Source: Getty Images
Among his conquests was the equally volatile and vulnerable Marylin Monroe, who confessed that she and Dean had even spoken of marriage. Monroe described Dean as "romantic and loving" but stated:
“It wouldn’t work. We’d end up destroying each other.”
Marilyn Monroe in a still from the 1948 film "Ladies of the Chorus" | Source: Getty Images
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE
His second leading role was in the iconic "Rebel Without a Cause" opposite Natalie Wood. The film cemented his growing fame, and also provided him with another conquest. Wood confessed that she and Dean had had a love affair, and revealed why it came to an end. She said:
“Sometimes Jimmy liked to hurt his partner and be hurt. I don’t go in for that.”
James Dean and Natalie Wood in a scene from 'Rebel Without A Cause' in 1955 | Source: Getty Images
THE LOVE OF HIS LIFE
Dean was desperately trying to fill in the void left by his great love Pier Angeli. He met the Italian actress in January 1954 at the studio while filming "East of Eden." Dean and Angeli were in love, but her domineering mother disapproved. Dean admitted that he wasn't ready for commitment, and said:
“I wouldn’t marry her unless I could take care of her properly. And I don’t think I’m emotionally stable enough to do so right now.”
James Dean with Italian actress Pier Angeli circa 1954 | Source: Getty Images
Dean was shattered when Angeli announced her engagement to singer Vic Damone in October 1954 and married him a month later. A disbelieving Dean is said to have sat on his motorbike, watching the church from across the street during the ceremony.
James Dean poses on the set of 'Giant' in 1955 in Marfa, Texas | Source: Getty Images
Hollywood biographer Joe Hyams, claimed in his 1992 biography "James Dean: Little Boy Lost," that Dean had told him that Angeli had revealed that she had married Damone because she was pregnant. The weeping Dean confided that he believed the child was his, and not Damone's.
James Dean holding the three trophies he won in the Palm Springs Road Race in May 1955 | Source: Getty Images
LOVE FOR SPEED
After the end of the romance with Angeli, Dean threw himself into his passion for racing, yet another activity he indulged into extremes. His reckless driving was a worry to friends and the studio, and another of his lovers, singer Eartha Kitt revealed that a ride with Dean in his Spyder had been "a nightmare" she thought she might not survive.
Elizabeth Taylor - studio portrait, circa 1952 | Source: Getty Images
In September 1955, Dean was finished filming his third film, "Giant," opposite Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Once again, Dean had sought a replacement for Angeli in the arms of a leading lady. Dean told Taylor's husband Michael Wilding:
“I’ve fallen in love with your wife. She is going to divorce you and marry me.”
James Dean in a still from Robert Altman's documentary movie 'The James Dean Story' | Source: Getty Images
But shortly after, Dean died, speeding down a country road at night, and crashing into a car turning onto the thoroughfare. Taylor was shattered and had a breakdown after his death, and would only speak of their relationship years later, in an interview she insisted should remain unpublished until her death.
James Dean poses with his Porche Speedster in 1955 in Los Angeles | Source: Getty Images
BIRTH OF A LEGEND
The death of James Dean the man, was the birth of the legend. The young actor who had a brief career in television, and a three-movie career in film, has become a symbol of reckless, romantic rebellion to successive generations.
Sadly, the lover of so many had sought love desperately and unsuccessfully his whole life. James Dean will forever be remembered as the unfulfilled promise, the young man who might have been the greatest of all Hollywood stars, lived too fast and died too young.
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