NOTE: I was sent a copy of today’s book for review by the publisher. Aside from the free book, I am not being paid for this review. All opinions are my own. I only accept items for review on the condition that I am able to provide an honest, impartial review. (In other words, that $0.00 price tag has had no impact on whether I loved or hated the book!)
The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best is a new collection of writings about America’s most famous teen rebel, edited by Peter L. Winkler. Out August 1 from Chicago Review Press, this book features a foreword by George Stevens, Jr., son of the director of one of Dean’s three starring films, 1956’s Giant.
What sets The Real James Dean apart from similar collections is that its articles and essays are not the work of today’s film historians and critics, but are previously-published works by Dean’s co-stars, family, and friends. These recollections are sourced from out-of-print books, magazine back issues, and long-forgotten interviews — sources that are not readily available to the public, some only available on microfilm in library collections and some available to collectors, but only at steep prices.
To those of you who are regular readers of TMP, it should come as no surprise that this book is right up my alley, and I greatly enjoyed reading it. As a collector of vintage fan magazines and of classic film-related books, there are few things I love more than gleaning bits of “insider” information through star autobiographies, or sitting down with a fragile copy of Photoplay to learn all of 1954’s latest Hollywood gossip.
Winkler has collected a wealth of information with this book, saving the reader the effort of scanning through hundreds of magazine pages and book indexes for mentions of Dean, curating the best of those mentions into one easily-accessible tome through his obviously thorough research. Winkler goes a step further by fact-checking the included articles through footnotes, a great benefit to the reader who may usually take fan mag tidbits as truth.
In gathering information about James Dean through hard-to-find sources, Winkler creates a fascinating portrait of a young man whose life and career were cut far too short. Following Stevens’ foreword and Winkler’s introduction, the book is roughly chronological in content, covering Dean’s life from youth to death. It begins with a feature which includes a lot of information about Dean’s childhood and background. The remaining chapters track just about every bit of Dean’s life, from high school to college to Hollywood.
Humans are complex beings, and this book brings to light the many contradictions present in Dean’s life and legacy. Dean’s grandmother, for instance, paints a loving portrait of her family and of Dean’s relationship with his father in “The Boy I Loved,” a 1956 Photoplay magazine feature. A Modern Screen article, published just a couple of months before Dean’s death, portrays the father-son relationship as strained, saying that Dean rarely visits his father and implying that his father doesn’t understand his choice to pursue acting as a career. Later in the book comes my favorite recollection of Dean, written by Eartha Kitt.
The Real James Dean is an incredibly valuable resource for anyone looking to discover factual information about and personal recollections of the actor whose life was so tragically cut short. A must-have for any fan of Dean, and a great addition to the bookcase of any classic Hollywood buff.