Keeper of the Flame
BY Jeremy Kinser
September 23 2010 10:00 AM ET
Every few years a new biography of Dean is published. How are writers still unearthing new information about a man who died 55 years ago at 24?
It’s amazing, really. New photos keep turning up too. We’re always discovering new photos of him. There were several books that came out in 2005 and they all had different angles, such as The Making of Rebel Without a Cause. The best one was James Dean by George Perry that I worked on with Dean’s family. Perry uncovered new information too. I guess it’s just the author’s job. There have been a lot of books that were based on hearsay, and often writers will read other books and rehash their own versions. But some, like Val Holley, will do their own research and delve into it and get new information.
What in your opinion is the definitive biography of him?
There are three I recommend: James Dean: The Mutant King by David Dalton, which was published in 1974. Most of the serious Dean fans still consider it the best. There are a few inaccuracies in it, but nothing too serious. The Val Holley book is just terrific. It’s probably the most accurate, but it doesn’t deal with the movies at all. It covers his childhood and college years and early years in New York doing television and Broadway. It pretty much ends when he starts his movie career. And James Dean: A Short Life by Venable Herndon, which also came out in 1974. It was good. He uncovered and interviewed a lot of people close to Dean for the first time. Also, the book by George Perry, which was authorized by Dean’s family. It’s pretty accurate.
You mentioned that you’re still finding undiscovered photos of Dean. How is it possible that there are so many photographs of a man who was famous for just a few months while he was alive?
[Laughs] Well, the camera loved him. It’s strange, but it’s almost like he was planning his destiny or his legend. He always had photographers with him. There were six major photographers he hung out with and who followed him around. There were an awful lot of childhood photos too. I think he gravitated toward the camera. If he saw someone with a camera, he’d make sure he got in the middle of the picture.
Who was the most instrumental gay person in Dean's life?
Probably Rogers Brackett [a well-connected radio director], who got him started and gave him a lot of help in California in the early days. He gave him some financial assistance and made a lot of early Hollywood connections for him.