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A compendium of queer people in the 19th and 20th centuries // Drawn and researched by Michele Rosenthal

James  Dean

James Dean 1931to –1955

Iconic American actor, known for his roles in East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant, his only three films before his untimely death. Growing up, he was closest to his mother who always nurtured his creativity. But when she died of cancer when Dean was nine, his father sent him to live with his aunt and uncle in a small town in Indiana. He returned to California to study drama—against his estranged father’s wishes—but soon dropped out to pursue acting full time. Eager to advance his career, Dean met the radio producer Rogers Brackett while parking cars at CBS. They lived together for a short time and their relationship was probably sexual, though there’s been constant debate over the details of Dean’s bisexuality: whether he was attracted to men a bit or exclusively, if he used sex simply to further his career, or perhaps some combination of the above. His close friend Bill Bast admitted years later that they had “experimented,” and Dean himself is reported as saying that he wasn’t gay, but that he was “certainly not going through life with one hand tied behind my back.” He also dated a number of women, most notably the actress Pier Angeli, whom he almost married until she broke his heart and married someone else. Brackett eventually encouraged Dean to move to New York City, where television and theater provided better opportunities for young actors than the dying Hollywood studio system. There he would become one of the youngest people accepted into the prestigious Actors Studio. The big break came when his part in a play led to being cast in the film East of Eden. His expressive, partially improvised performance gained him immediate attention and adoration. Two more film rolls quickly followed, as the quintessential angsty teen in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, and a Texan tycoon in Giant. Dean didn’t live to see either film released. He was an avid auto racer, and on his way to an event in his brand new race car branded the “Little Bastard,” he collided with another car and died almost instantly. His early death solidified his status as a cultural icon, and he’s still remembered for his conflicted and vulnerable performances, his rebellious personality, and his enduring sex appeal.

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