Rebellious Facts About James Dean, Hollywood's Tragic Icon

June 24, 2020 | Stephanie Kelsey

Rebellious Facts About James Dean, Hollywood's Tragic Icon

James Dean only spent a few years in Hollywood—but his gruesome end and the scandals he left behind have undoubtedly immortalized him.

1. His Story Is Legendary

James Dean is one of the most fascinating Hollywood queer icons, not just because of his tragically short life, but because of the endless number of rumored affairs attached to his name. His secretive private life and the mysterious “curses” surrounding his dark fate make for one of the wildest celebrity stories in history.

Portrait of James Byron Dean.oneredsf1 , Flickr

2. His Family Struggled

Though destined for celebrity, James Dean came from very humble beginnings. When he was only three, his parents decided to become bullfrog farmers in Fairmount, Indiana—but sadly, it was a doomed venture. Thanks to the Great Depression, the farm was a massive failure. Unfortunately, there was an even greater tragedy in store for the family.

B&W photo of James Dean - rare pose for a fan.John Irving ,Flickr

3. He Was A Mama’s Boy

Growing up, James Dean was especially close to his mother Mildred. She was a big believer in the arts and would even construct miniature theaters out of cardboard for her son to play with. Because of her, Dean learned to play the violin and dance, and gained a long-lasting appreciation for poetry.

However, Dean’s deep love for his mother would deal him the greatest blow imaginable.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing suit and looking at side - from the East Of Eden (1955).Warner Bros, East of Eden (1955)

4. He Experienced Grief At A Young Age

In 1938, James Dean encountered the first nightmare of his life. His beloved mother had uterine cancer—and two years later, she succumbed to her illness. At only nine years old, Dean experienced the kind of grief no child ever should. However, Mildred’s influence stuck with him.

Dean eventually ended up studying drama at UCLA—but he paid a chilling price for it.

Eliza, Flickr

5. He Defied His Father

James Dean clashed mightily with his father over his career choice—and enrolling in UCLA was the last straw. Though Dean ended up estranged from his only surviving parent, he didn’t pump the breaks on his acting career in any way.

After landing some early opportunities, he dropped out of school altogether in 1951 to focus entirely on becoming an actor. But as we know, this dream would have a horror story ending.

James Dean lies in the dirt with his head leaning on his hand,Hulton Archive, Getty Images

6. He Had A Scandalous Living Situation

The same year Dean dropped out, he moved in with a radio director named Rogers Brackett. As a young hopeful, Dean had met Brackett while working for CBS studio as a parking lot attendant. However, there was something rather scandalous about this friendship. Not only was Brackett much older, but Dean also shared a bed with him. This, of course, was only the tip of the iceberg.

Cropped screenshot of James Dean in the trailer for the film East of EdenTrailer screenshot, Wikimedia Commons

7. He Was Likely Queer

Although today it is widely accepted that James Dean was likely queer, back then, the actor did his best to keep his personal life under wraps. Dean made sure to tell his friends that he and Brackett slept in different beds. Though the details of their dynamic remain uncertain, what is certain is that Brackett helped Dean get his start in show business.

Studio publicity still, Wikimedia Commons

8. He Was A “Kept Boy”

Yes, Rogers Brackett may have helped James Dean land his first major role on Broadway—but this relationship had an incredibly disturbing undertone. Down the road, one of Dean’s biographers and old friends, William Bast, referred to the actor as Brackett’s “kept boy”. Moreover, Bast shared how he’d made an eerie discovery in one of Dean’s sketchbooks.

Photo of James Dean from an appearance on Schlitz Playhouse of Stars - 1955Barkin, Herman & Associates, Wikimedia Commons

9. He Had His Secrets

According to Bast, Dean had made a twisted drawing of a lizard, but had replaced its head with Brackett’s likeness. This begs the question: If there was a transactional relationship here, did Dean deeply resent Brackett?

While there are still rumors that James Dean slept his way to the top, there’s no doubting that the man had a natural talent. Though he may have got his foot in the door with the help of powerful men, he proved himself right out of the gates.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean in white shirt is reading a book - from the East Of Eden (1955).Warner Bros, East Of Eden (1955)

10. He Was Angst-Ridden

The first feature film James Dean starred in was East of Eden. Initially, the director Elia Kazan had been looking for an actor similar to Marlon Brando for the role of Cal—so naturally, James Dean, in all his brooding splendor, fit the bill to a tee. Even the author John Steinbeck thought he was perfect. So, in 1954, the actor jetted off to Hollywood, where fate continue to throw him the most surprising curveballs.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing white shirt and sweater is looking with sad face - from the East Of Eden (1955).Warner Bros, East Of Eden (1955)

11. He Was A Masterful Improviser

East of Eden really laid the foundation for Dean’s lasting legacy. He played the part of the complicated outcast so genuinely that most of his scenes were unscripted—the director keeping many of his improvised performances in the film. But that wasn’t all.

During the production, Dean met an actress he couldn’t keep his eyes off of.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing white shirt and dark jacket is looking at front - from Rebel Without A Cause (1955).Warner Bros, Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

12. He Had A Workplace Meet-Cute

The Italian actress Pier Angeli was working on a film in a different studio lot when she crossed paths with James Dean. There was an instant spark between them—and what began with flirtation quickly evolved into an incredibly deep love for one another. But like many love stories in Hollywood, this romance did not have a “happily ever after”.

James Dean stands with Italian actress Pier Angeli. - 1954Bettmann, Getty Images

13. He Fell Deeply In Love

Angeli’s later descriptions of her relationship with Dean have something of an innocent quality. According to her, they visited the beach often, “sitting there or fooling around, just like college kids”. Dean even described Angeli in the most reverent of ways: "Everything about Pier is beautiful, especially her soul”. Their entire courtship seemed dreamy—but reality got in the way.

kate gabrielle, Flickr

14. He Couldn’t Impress Her Mother

Though Dean may have been truly in love with Angeli, her mother turned her nose up at him. She had a strong distaste for his fashion, his vices, and his overall behavior. But perhaps worst of all, she detested the fact that he wasn’t Catholic—so much so that she barred Angeli from seeing her dashing bad boy. But that wasn’t the only thing keeping them apart.

B&W photo of James Dean looking at side.kate gabrielle, Flickr

15. He Said No To Marriage

James Dean’s studio, Warner Bros, also didn’t want him to marry. After all, there was nothing more marketable than a hunky, young bachelor. Though Angeli defied her mother, continuing to date Dean, it was only a matter of time before this young love imploded—and when it did, hearts shattered.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing white shirt and jacket is standing outside - from Rebel Without A Cause (1955).Warner Bros, Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

16. He Let Her Go

Though James Dean had many affairs during his short life, it seem like Pier Angeli really stood out from the crowd. Following their failed relationship, Angelic went on to marry the singer Vic Damone in 1954. On the day of her wedding, Dean reared his head—and did something only a jilted lover could be capable of.

James Dean and Pier Angeli at the premiere of Culver Pictures, Wikimedia Commons

17. He Staked Out Her Wedding

For James Dean, Pier Angeli really was the one that got away. According to gossip reporters, while Angeli and her new beau tied the knot, Dean could be seen across the street, straddling his motorcycle. When the wedding came to a close and the newlyweds emerged, the actor dramatically rode off. Whether this is true or not, he didn’t have to worry too much—there were far more conquests in store for him.

Actors Pier Angeli and Vic Damone on the steps of St Timothy's Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles - 1954Archive Photos, Getty Images

18. Nothing Could Stop Him

1955 was the most jam-packed and tragic year of James Dean’s short life. On the heels of his breakout film East of Eden, he starred in another huge film, Rebel Without a Cause, alongside Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo. During production, Dean and Wood had a secret fling—but her response to their affair was scathing.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing red jacket is driving a car - from Rebel Without A Cause (1955).Warner Bros, Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

19. He Was Too Agressive

In the end, James Dean certainly wasn’t Natalie Wood’s cup of tea because she reportedly said, “Sometimes Jimmy likes to hurt his partner and be hurt. I don’t go in for that”. But did this stop Dean from pursuing some of the most beautiful women in the business? Not a chance.

Portrait Photo of the Actress Natalie Wood taken in her London Home in BelgraviaAllan Warren, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

20. He Had A Scandalous Fling

According to the biography James Dean: Tomorrow Never Comes, the actor managed to woo the hottest blonde bombshell in Hollywood history—none other than Marilyn Monroe. Apparently, the two stars shared a romantic getaway together, and Dean even considered marrying the troubled actress. Of course, their romance had a very different fate.

Photo of Marilyn Monroe while filming The Seven Year Itch on the streets of New YorkChristi Caller, Wikimedia Commons

21. They Were A Terrible Match

Though they may have looked like a picture-perfect pair, these two actors certainly had their personal demons. Even Monroe eventually admitted, “It wouldn’t work. We’d end up destroying each other”. Dean and Monroe were undoubtedly doomed from the beginning of their romance, but of course, all of Dean’s romances were doomed—the clock was already ticking.

Rock Hudson factsGiant (1956), Warner Bros.

22. He Wooed A Married Woman

Dean’s very last film was only his third major project. While working on Giant, he met the violet-eyed Elizabeth Taylor, who cast her spell as expertly as she did with many other men in Hollywood. Apparently, Dean was so infatuated with his co-star that he confronted her husband Michael Wilding and said, “I’ve fallen in love with your wife. She is going to divorce you and marry me”.

Portrait of Elizabeth TaylorJames Vaughan, Flickr

23. He Had A Soulmate

James Dean certainly had a bad track record for following through on marrying any of his partners, and Elizabeth Taylor was no different. However, there was one woman he connected with on a spiritual level—one who was not just a romantic partner but became one of his closest friends right to the end. Her name was Eartha Kitt.

JAMES DEAN AND ELIZABETH TAYLOR - 1955Scio Central School Website, Flickr

24. He Had A Close Confidante

While it’s difficult to parse fact from fiction in much of James Dean’s alleged relationships, his deep connection with Eartha Kitt cannot be denied. To her, James Dean was simply “Jamie,” and behind closed doors, they were like “soul brother and sister,” with Kitt later confessing, “Our love for each other just happened. I became his confidante and I taught him about stage presence”. But that wasn’t all.

Eartha Kitt visit to Israel, wearing a white dress, lying on a bedBoris Carm, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

25. He Went Both Ways

While their relationship may have been founded on a deep friendship, it also took a wildly scandalous turn. Perhaps one of the most dishy confessions out of Hollywood was that James Dean had slept with Eartha Kitt and Paul Newman at the same time. It was the stuff of every tabloid’s daydreams—but it gets even better.

American actor Paul Newman speaking to an unspecified woman - 1955Michael Ochs Archives, Getty Images

26. He Left Quite The Impression

Buckle up, because Eartha Kitt really did spill the tea. In reflecting back upon her time with Dean and Newman, she called it “one of the most celestial experience of my life”. Oh, but she went even further saying, “Those two beauties transported me to heaven. I never knew that lovemaking could be so beautiful”.

Most importantly, however, Dean and Kitt shared far more than just their bodies.

Photo of Eartha Kitt sitting on a couch wearing black dressBoris Carmi, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

27. He Was Still A Country Boy

Both Dean and Kitt came from the country and they bonded over the fact that they were two lost souls trying to make it in the big city. Kitt believed that she was so close to Dean that when she saw him for the very last time in September, 1955, she knew something was terribly wrong.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing white shirt is looking at side - from Rebel Without A Cause (1955).Warner Bros, Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

28. His Best Friend Had A Premonition

On that sad last meeting, Kitt embraced Dean, but couldn’t “feel his spirit”. It was a chilling omen. However, when she told him this, the actor simply shrugged it off, jesting, “Kitt, you’re on one of your voodoo trips again”. Still, she couldn’t shake the bad feeling—and horrifyingly, she’d be proven right in the worst way possible.

Publicity still of James Dean for the film Rebel Without a Cause, wearing black jacket, white shirtIn-house publicity still, Wikimedia Commons

29. He Passed Too Soon

Only a couple days later, Eartha Kitt received the news she’d already seen coming. One of the chorus girls told her “Jamie’s dead”. In reminiscing on that harrowing moment, Kitt simply said, “I already knew it. He was gone the Sunday before when I had hugged him. He wasn’t there”.

After only a few years in Hollywood, James Dean was gone at the age of 24…but what were the circumstances leading up to his tragic demise?

Cropped screenshot of James Dean in the trailer for the film Rebel Without a CauseTrailer screenshot, Wikimedia Commons

30. He Loved Racing

In addition to acting, James Dean had a keen interest in racing and had even participated in several auto racing competitions. On the fateful day of September 30, 1955, Dean was on his way to a racing event in Salinas, driving his shiny, new Porsche Spyder convertible.

He’d originally planned to have it towed to its destination, but his mechanic Rolf Wütherich urged him to get a feel for the vehicle before the big race. So Dean got behind the wheel, while Wütherich took the passenger seat—but this was a huge mistake.

John Derek factsalan farrow, Flickr

31. He Received A Dark Warning

This one might give you chills. Alec Guinness, the actor best known for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, met Dean at a restaurant in Hollywood just after Dean had bought the Porsche Spyder. Guinness had warned Dean to stay away from the car. Guinness reportedly said to Dean: “If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week”.

Sadly, this premonition that came true.

James Dean and Porsche Speedster #23F at Palm Springs Races, March, 1955Chad White, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

32. He Got A Speeding Ticket

At 3:30 pm, something uncanny happened. Dean received a speeding ticket in Bakersfield—an omen for what was to come. Afterward, he grabbed a coke at a diner—but little did he know, he only had about two hours to live.

At 5:45 pm, while driving along what used to be US Route 466, Dean’s Porsche was in a head-on collision with a Ford Tudor sedan. The consequences were gruesome.

James Dean with his car.John Irving, Flickr

33. He Didn’t Surive The Accident

While the driver of the other vehicle, Donald Turnupseed, survived the crash with light injuries, James Dean wasn’t so lucky. The crash had compressed his foot in between the brake pedal and clutch, and he had broken his neck and arms—not to mention all of his internal injuries. He passing was almost instant. His passenger Wütherich, on the other hand, managed to pull through.

Those who witnessed this nightmare had a shocking story to tell.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing suit is opening a garage door - from Rebel Without A Cause (1955).Warner Bros, Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

34. It Wasn’t His Fault

Though Dean had indeed been nailed for speeding only hours before the crash, witnesses insisted that he’d been driving at an acceptable speed at the moment of impact. Shockingly, they said it was the other driver, Turnupseed, who had swerved into Dean’s lane. Considering the low light, it would have been very difficult for Turnupseed to have seen Dean coming.

But oddly enough, James Dean’s story was far from over.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing white shirt with tie and crying - from Rebel Without A Cause (1955).Warner Bros, Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

35. His Last Words Were Chilling

Dean's reported last words, uttered just seconds before the accident, were absolutely chilling. When the coroner interrogated Dean's passenger Rolf Wütherich, Wütherich claimed to not remember the moments before the crash. However, sources reported that Dean's last words were, "That guy's gotta stop... He'll see us," right before he crashed into a car crossing over the centerline.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing red jacket is laying on the bed - from Rebel Without A Cause (1955).Warner Bros, Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

36. His Passing Sparked Rumors

James Dean’s heartbreaking end secured his immortality in celebrity culture. But the rumors that sprung up following his demise sought to root out every corner of the actor’s life. First, there was the interminable gossip surrounding the crash itself. People began to whisper that Dean’s Porsche was cursed—and for good reason.

Brad Hammonds, Wikimedia Commons

37. He Had A Cursed Car

In the wake of the crash, there were even more victims. After falling off of a truck, the Porsche crushed a mechanic’s legs. Then, when a used-car dealer dismantled the Porsche and sold its parts, there were twisted consequences. For instance, the cars that held the Porsche’s transmission, tires, and engine, were also in awful collisions. But that was only the beginning.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing red jacket is driving a car - from Rebel Without A Cause (1955).Warner Bros, Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

38. His Car Disappeared

Even the truck that transported the Porsche’s chassis, slid off the road—and the driver sadly perished. Wilder still, the chassis was nowhere to be found at the crash site, which means the legend of James Dean’s missing Porsche is still circulating today. Unfortunately, this story only gets sadder.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean standing outside with upset face - from the East Of Eden (1955).Warner Bros, East Of Eden (1955)

39. His Passenger Had Survivor’s Guilt

Rolf Wütherich, James Dean’s passenger, may have seemed quite lucky, having survived the awful crash—but he also wrestled with feelings of guilt for the rest of his life.

Not only did he try to take his life twice, but he also tried to end his wife’s life in a botched murder/suicide attempt. In the end, he passed in yet another car accident in 1981. He’d been drinking before he’d gotten behind the wheel.

However, there was another part of James Dean’s life that seemed to be cursed.

Portrait of American film actor James Dean dressed in a dark-colored sweater, early 1950s.Hulton Archive, Getty Images

40. His Co-Stars Also Met Dark Ends

Rebel Without a Cause was Dean’s biggest film, but it too seems to have had “cursed” repercussions for its lead actors. You see, most of them lost their lives before they turned 45—and in the worst ways imaginable. First, there was James Dean and his car accident. Then, a little over a decade later, Nick Adams overdosed, taking his own life. But the bloody trail didn’t end there.

Cropped screenshot of James Dean and Natalie Wood in the trailer for the film Rebel Without a CauseTrailer screenshot, Wikimedia Commons

41. He Was A Magnet For Mystery

In 1976, Sal Mineo fell victim to murder, while Natalie Wood passed in a suspicious drowning accident in 1981. The mysterious coincidences that seemed to hover around James Dean only built him into a more mythical figure. And once people started digging up his personal life, the rumor mill practically exploded.

B&W photo of James DeanInsomnia Cured Here, Flickr

42. He Had A Torrid Affair

By far, the wildest biography of James Dean was James Dean: Tomorrow Never Comes by Darwin Porter and Danforth Prince. It truly mined all of James Dean’s romances, especially his queer dalliances. But perhaps the most shocking claim of all was that the actor had had a scandalous affair with Marlon Brando.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean seating on the ground and talking with a female - from the East Of Eden (1955).Warner Bros, East Of Eden (1955)

43. He Was Brando’s Successor

James Dean had a lot in common with Marlon Brando. Both actors had been taught by Lee Strasberg and had connections to the director Elia Kazan. Even their brooding, bad-boy images lined up. However, according to Porter and Prince, Dean’s affair with Brando was rather one-sided, with Dean far more invested in the romance.

Marlon BrandoScreen Archives, Getty Images

44. He Was Obsessive

Even composer Alec Wilde weighed in on the alleged romance, saying, “I really believe that Jimmy fell in love with Brando that year. As for Brando, I don't think he ever loved Jimmy”. The book even went so far as to claim that Dean would wait outside Brando’s home, obsessively staring up at Brando’s room. But it gets even more unhinged then that.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing red jacket is driving a car - from Rebel Without A Cause (1955).Warner Bros, Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

45. His Alleged Romance Had A Dark Side

Apparently, Dean’s roommate Rogers Brackett witnessed Dean covered in burns. When he took a closer look at the actor’s skin, his blood ran cold. They were cigarette burns, and Dean claimed they were made by Brando. The whispers surrounding this alleged affair painted Brando as the dominating force—but the actor had another story to tell.

Insomnia Cured Here, Flickr

46. The Truth Is Buried

According to Brando’s memoir Songs My Mother Taught Me, he never had a relationship with Dean, going so far as to say the actor was “never a friend of mine”. It is exactly this uncertainty surrounding the truth of James Dean and his private life that has made him such a sensational figure. There are secrets here that, even today, fans desperately want access to.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing suit is seating inside a car - from Rebel Without A Cause (1955).Warner Bros, Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

47. He Had One Last Secret

Though James Dean’s relationship with Pier Angeli concluded long before his passing, there was one more secret about this couple to uncover. Apparently, after his passing, something shocking was found amongst his personal effects: an Order for the Solemnization of Marriage pamphlet.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing suit and shirt with tie is looking at side - from Rebel Without A Cause (1955).Warner Bros, Rebel Without A Cause (1955)

48. There Were Too Many “What Ifs”

This pamphlet confirmed that James had indeed wanted to marry Angeli, as the name “Pier” had been written in the spaces meant for the bride’s name. It was a heart-wrenching memento of all the “what ifs” James Dean never got to see through. But what makes this story even more depressing is that Pier Angeli herself passed quite young as well—from taking too many barbiturates at the age of 39.

Pier Angeli and her new husband, film composer Armando Travajoli - 1962Keystone, Getty Images

49. Elizabeth Taylor Kept His Secret

As you may remember, James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor worked together on the 1956 film Giant—and even had an alleged in fling. In the mid-90s, Taylor talked to an interviewer about her relationship with Dean—and made a heartbreaking confession

Taylor made the writer promise not to reveal what she told him until after her passing, and he kept the secret for over a decade. She said that while they were making Giant, she would stay up late into the night with Dean talking. It was during one of these sessions that he told her he'd been abused by a minister when he was just 11 years old, a few years after his mother's passing.

Grayscale Portrait Photo of the American Actress Elizabeth Taylor in a publicity photo by MGMMGM publicity still, Wikimedia Commons

50. He Was A Hero For Teens Everywhere

American teens grieved the loss of James Deans deeply: young women swooned and even boys were brought to tears. When Rebel Without a Cause hit theaters mere weeks after his fatal accident, American teenagers showed up in droves. What these youths saw in James Dean was a cool and powerful role model with a soft side—a hero they never knew they needed.

B&W photo of James Dean looking at side.kate gabrielle, Flickr

51. He’s Still A Mystery

To this day, much of James Dean’s life has been pieced together through allegations and secondhand accounts. As he’s no longer here to speak for himself, so much of his story has been built on speculation. And though his queerness has been hotly debated, let’s not forget that Dean said himself, “I’m not a homosexual, but I’m not going through life with one hand tied behind my back”.

Screenshot: photo of James Dean wearing suit is looking at front - from the East Of Eden (1955).Warner Bros, East Of Eden (1955)

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