“It was very hard for men who wanted to come out of the closet in those days. The men that I knew — Monty and Jimmy [Dean] and Rock — if anything, I helped them get out of the closet. I didn’t even know I was doing it. I didn’t know that I was more advanced than most people in this town. It just never occurred to me.”
Who was James Dean? A shining beacon of talent whose bright light was extinguished far too early, Dean lived with a privacy that would be unheard of in today’s celebrity culture. “He was very afraid of being hurt,” costar Elizabeth Taylor said of Dean. “He was afraid of opening up in case it was turned around and used against him.”
The young actor, who starred in only three films before his fatal joy ride, became a bona fide icon after his death. His skill as an on-screen force was heralded by the best. He worked and walked with the rich and famous. Yet during his brief moment in the spotlight, Dean offered little insight into the man behind some of cinema’s most cherished characters. He had his demons, this is no secret, but the mystery that surrounded him during his life became nothing short of legend with his passing.
Rumored to have been the object of affection from men and women alike, Dean’s elusive sexuality has left many searching for answers. A screenwriter and theater student from UCLA, William Bast and James Dean lived together as roommates for a number of years. It would be more than fifty years after Dean’s death that William finally disclosed what many had already speculated: that his relationship with James was more than platonic.
Known for a ‘live and let live’ demeanor, Dean never seemed to go through life with restraints. He was even the subject of a well-known bet between Giant stars Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. “Elizabeth and Rock took bets on who could get James into bed first,” recounted Giant co-star Noreen Nash. Word got around.
So, who was James Dean? Was he a man open to new experiences, without regard to labels and gender? Or do we crave the fantasy of an icon of Dean’s stature – the image of sex, masculinity, and rebellion – as gay? Dean’s ambiguous relationship with Sal Mineo in the angst-ridden Rebel Without A Cause has led many to speculate and view this golden age film as years ahead of its time. Many, including Rebel director Nicholas Ray, have gone on the record to say Dean was gay and had knowledge of gay bars. Dean, unfortunately, isn’t here to settle the curiosity.
Perhaps, an extremely guarded individual, Dean learned early on to shield himself from the scrutiny of the public eye. We may never know who James Dean truly was, but we are left with some parting insight from the man of the hour: “I’m certainly not going through life with one hand tied behind my back.”
As for the bet, the Dame is said to have come up short.