Did James Dean's Ghost Turn Sal Mineo Gay?
A strange anecdote about queer ghosts reveals how homophobia shaped fake folklore.
I had meant to write a bit about this a while back, but I got bogged down with work and then a car accident and never quite got to it. While I was doing a literature review, I came across a truly bizarre anecdote that needed much more investigation. In Boze Hadley’s 1986 book Conversations with My Elders, I read the following supernatural (and supernally ridiculous) anecdote about James Dean’s Rebel without a Cause costar Sal Mineo:
Part of the James Dean legend had it that his younger costar “turned queer” after Dean’s untimely death in 1955. According to the story, Sal attempted fruitlessly to contact his fallen friend at a seance. He thereafter wrecked his car in an accident, but fate intervened to spare Sal's life. However, the words “James Dean” suddenly appeared on the car’s windshield, and from that moment on, Sal Mineo was gay.
Now, that is certainly the kind of ghost story I hadn’t heard before. James Dean’s evil ghost could turn people gay. Uh-huh.
Now, Boze Hadleigh is a difficult figure to take at face value since many of the stories he reported and the interviews he conducted have no independent confirmation, or are impossible. For example, in his many books he quoted multiple celebrities commenting on events that occurred after they died. However, despite the absence of citation, credit, or acknowledgement, Hadleigh was not the source for the claim, so we can set him aside.
The first version of the gay-conversion story I could find in print was in Martin Greif’s 1982 book The Gay Book of Days:
One of the articles of faith of the James Dean cult that grew out of the actor’s early death in 1955 is that Sal Mineo “turned queer” after the auto wreck that took his co-star’s life. As the story goes, young Mineo left a seance in which he had attempted in vain to contact his fallen friend, only to wreck his own car. His life was spared, but the words “James Dean” suddenly appeared indelibly on his smashed windshield. Supposedly, he was gay from that moment on. One can take or leave that bizarre coming-out story, but it seemed perfectly obvious to gay audiences almost three decades ago that Mineo and Dean only had eyes for each other.
As you can see from the similarity in wording, Hadleigh’s and Greif’s accounts are textually dependent. Since Greif did not originate the stories he provided in his anthology of queer anecdotes, I presume there must have been some earlier account unknown to me, probably in a gay magazine, that served as his source. Whatever it was doesn’t matter too much because it turns out that the story of the Dean’s homosexuality-inducing ghost is an interpolation into a previously published account from a newspaper.
Dick Kleiner filed a report for his Newspaper Enterprise Association syndicated Hollywood column in November 1969 claiming that at some unspecified time in the past, Sal Mineo held a party where he raised the spirit of James Dean via Ouija board. Mineo had invited a guest who was a huge fan of Dean and contrived to get the guest excited about contacting Dean’s spirit via Ouija board. The lengthy column is too long to quote here, but a few excerpts should make the origin of Greif’s story obvious. We’ll pick up after the “spirit” of James Dean hurled insults at his supposed admirer, whom Kleiner cloaked under the pseudonym of “Dee.” Dee and his girlfriend then left the party in a huff.
He [Dee] said the others would have to go out and see what had happened to his car.
Mineo and the others went outside. Dee’s Jaguar was wrapped around a tree. He said he had just begun driving away when it happened. And he pointed to the windshield.
There in red were the initials “J.D.” They slowly appeared as Dee was driving away.
They appeared to be inside the glass, and they couldn’t be washed or scraped off. Dee eventually got a new windshield, because he never could get those initials off.
Sal Mineo had long claimed to be interested in the occult, and appeared to revel in equal measure in pulling the legs of the gullible. In 1961, he told syndicated gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, “I’m beginning to be involved with seances and all that jazz. […] I had a spirit with me that I took to Israel. […] The spirit is a girl, and she was born in 2,000 B.C. She came to me through my Ouija board one night. I asked her, ‘Are you attractive?’ but she wouldn’t answer. However, she sounds pretty.” Mineo also told Graham that he was “not ready for marriage.”
Though the ghost girl appears to be a fairly obvious joke and a deflection from the marriage issue, Graham made it her headline scoop. Similarly, Kleiner’s story would appear to be another joke. At parties, Mineo would often perform a fake séance and manipulate a Ouija board for humorous ends. Newspaper reports from 1960s and 1970s mention both his massive parties and frequent séances. Similarly, the magically appearing etched letters are an old spiritualist trick. If Kleiner’s story isn’t a complete fake, it may well be that one of Mineo’s pranks went wrong, causing a car accident, which made it newsworthy.
Regardless of whether any Jaguars crashed into trees, the 1969 newspapers story is the obvious origin point for the later, more homophobic version. In the later telling, “Dee” drops out and is replaced by Mineo, and the result is that Mineo’s sexuality (he at various times identified as homosexual or bisexual), which became widely known after his 1976 murder, became linked to the supernatural “curse” of James Dean, whose own same-sex experiences became popular knowledge between 1974 and 1976 with a series of revelations in books and references on network television. Dean’s “supernatural” afterlife also experienced a revival with the spread of the legend of his “curse” in these same years. As I previously discussed, this revival seems tied to an effort to posthumously punish Dean for his homosexual betrayal of masculinity, a process that finds an unusual parallel in the late, corrupt version of Mineo’s Ouija prank.
All of that said, the supernaturalists who invent stories missed out on a rather chilling premonition. In 1961, Mineo told Graham about a recurring dream he had of his own death: “I know I’m dying and I can’t help myself. There’s a knife in my stomach and when I breathe I’m cut. Oh well.” He was off by a few inches. On February 12, 1976, Lionel Ray Williams stabbed him in the heart, and he died after stumbling a few steps and collapsing.