Keeper of the Flame
BY Jeremy Kinser
September 23 2010 9:00 AM ET
The cult following of James Dean is one of the most unusual and enduring in the annals of film. When the 24-year-old actor died in a car accident in Cholame, Calif., on September 30, 1955, only one of his three major films, East of Eden, had been released. Dean had been famous in life for less than six months. With the posthumous release of his next two films (Rebel Without a Cause, a month after his death, and Giant, the following year) Dean’s impact on post-World War II young people was so powerful that fan worship reached near-epidemic proportions. Movie magazines and gossip columnists clamored for intimate details of his personal life, while fans lined up to pay to see the wrecked Porsche Spyder in which he died. In the five decades since, hundreds of books have been written about the actor and numerous film biographies and documentaries produced, all purporting to tell the true story behind the legend. While Dean’s popularity endures, to many he remains as inscrutable as ever. Each year thousands of fans from around the globe make a pilgrimage to Fairmount, Ind., Dean’s hometown, to look for answers, pay homage to their idol, visit his grave site, and see the massive collection of memorabilia in the James Dean Gallery. Owned by David Loehr, the gallery houses thousands of artifacts associated with the actor. Loehr speaks with The Advocate about his own fascination with the late star, Dean’s sexuality, and what the actor might have accomplished if he’d lived.
The Advocate: Why do you think James Dean continues to hold such appeal for gay audiences?
David Loehr: I think a lot of it was his sensitivity, which he was able to portray on-screen. Before him most actors were tough and weren’t able to show their soft side. Dean would cry and show emotions and feelings and vulnerability. And, of course, a lot of it is his looks. He was just incredible-looking. The facial expressions and the little things he’d do with his eyebrows and his eyes were just stunning. But I have to say, our gallery has been open for 23 years, and he’s really very appealing to everybody. Older guys say that he was their hero in high school, and younger guys say they want to be like him, and straight women just love him and want to cuddle him. But we get a lot of gay men, and, surprisingly, a lot of lesbians come to the gallery. I think his appeal is broad. Everyone can enjoy his personality and talent and looks and whatever he had to offer. He’s still influencing people.
How did you discover Dean?
In 1974 a friend gave me a biography, James Dean: The Mutant King by David Dalton, for Christmas. I was traveling from Massachusetts to California on a bus, and I read the entire book on the way there. I didn’t know anything about him, really, just the name and the face. The book was so good that I was intrigued by his life. When I got to California I saw East of Eden on the big screen for the first time and I was knocked out by his performance. That was it. I was hooked.