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Did the "Real-Life Horse Whisperer" Bunk with James Dean?
Widely repeated claims from a massively bestselling autobiography are not supported by the historical record.
Last week, I came across a newly released YouTube video of horse trainer Monty Roberts claiming that he had been like “brothers” with James Dean during the four months they shared a house in the spring of 1954. Roberts made the claims during a 2015 interview, which had not been made public until last week, and I had only a vague recollection of the name from reading Joe Hyams’s biography of Dean several years ago. I tried to look up more about this unusual claim, which seems at odds with everything I know about the period in question, and that’s when I stumbled down an unpleasant rabbit hole that fell somewhere between a conspiracy of silence and outright promotion of an improbable claim.
Marvin “Monty” Roberts was 19 years old in 1954 when he and his future wife Pat shot a couple of bit parts for East of Eden near their homes in Salinas, California. They can be seen very briefly in the film, and there is one set photograph where Roberts can be seen in proximity to James Dean during some location shooting. Roberts provided some horses for use in the movie. That much is beyond dispute. The rest of the story, however, is another matter.
As late as 1988, Monty Roberts had not made any public mention of any sort of friendship with James Dean, as far as I can tell. In a 1988 newspaper article telling his life story, he merely mentioned that he had been in East of Eden with his then-girlfriend. “The couple also had parts in the now classic movie, East of Eden, starring James Dean,” the Lompoc Record reported on November 27, in a lengthy profile. (Roberts and his wife married in 1956, according to Roberts.)
But in 1992, Roberts told gossip writer Joe Hyams a surprising story that he hadn’t simply been on the set of East of Eden but that the movie’s director, Elia Kazan, had hired him to teach James Dean how to be a farm boy for the film, According to Hyams’s account in James Dean: Little Boy Lost, shortly after arriving in California from New York in the spring of 1954, Dean traveled to Salinas where he spent a week with Roberts while learning the art of rustic living. Roberts claimed that during this period, when Dean bunked with the ranch hands in the bunk house on Roberts’s father’s ranch, Dean became closer to him than a brother, and they developed a lifelong friendship. Roberts told Hyams that Dean was interested in buying a ranch near Salinas, so Roberts purchased a property for him that was scheduled to go into escrow the first week of October 1955. Roberts and his future wife were to be Dean’s property manager, he said. Dean, Roberts added, was traveling to Salinas to finalize the purchase when he crashed and died. Roberts further added that the injured passenger in Dean’s car, Rolf Wütherich, with a broken jaw and before his surgeries for lacerations and contusions, rushed to a telephone to call Roberts so he would be the first to know of Dean’s death.
Five years later, Roberts published his autobiography, The Man Who Listens to Horses: The Story of a Real-Life Horse Whisperer, which sold six million copies. In his memoir, he told a version of the story he gave to Hyams, but with several differences. In this version, the time Dean spent with him expanded to three months and now took place when Roberts was 20 and involved Dean staying in the bunk beds in Roberts’s own bedroom. Roberts further suggested that he had accompanied Dean on his later movies, and he portrayed their relationship as a deep and profound friendship. However, he backed off on the claim of having bought Dean a ranch, revising the claim down to merely allege that Dean was interested in property and had planned to visit Roberts to look at some available lots after his race in Salinas.
A year later, Roberts again revised his claim. He alleged that Dean came to stay with him when “I was 18 or 19,” having remembered in the meantime how old he actually was in 1954. (He turned 19 in May 1954.) The time they spent in the same bedroom expanded to four months. He told a newspaper that “when I lost Dean,” he lost his interest in movies forever.
As best I can tell from a survey of news coverage from the 1990s, virtually no media outlets cared about Roberts’s claim in 1992, but after the publication of his memoir, newspapers across the country uncritically reported his claim to have lived with Dean and to have been one of Dean’s closest friends. As far as I saw, no one offered any critical commentary on the claim at the time. Indeed, his memoir earned significant praise from many critics.
By the late 1990s, Roberts was famous as the “real-life Horse Whisperer,” claiming that he was the inspiration for Robert Redford’s Horse Whisperer character in the movie adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks novel of the same name. He traveled the world, appeared on talk shows, and even said that Queen Elizabeth II had personally suggested that he write his autobiography.
It should have been obvious that something wasn’t right. Both Horse Whisperer screenwriter Nicholas Evans and Sparks denied basing the title character on Roberts and instead provided ample evidence that the real inspiration was primarily Buck Brannaman. “Others have claimed to be the inspiration for Tom Booker in The Horse Whisperer,” Evans said. “The one who truly inspired me was Buck Brannaman. His skill, understanding and his gentle, loving heart have parted the clouds for countless troubled creatures. Buck is the Zen master of the horse world.”
In 1999, Roberts’s aunt and cousin wrote a self-published book, Horse Whispers & Lies, alleging that Roberts was a massive liar whose memoir was a work of fiction. Primarily, they focused on his claims that his father had been abusive, which they denied. For our interest, let us note what Roberts’s brother Larry told the San Francisco Examiner in a story about the controversy over Horse Whispers & Lies: “He’s a bare-faced liar. We slept in the same room, and if somebody’s going to be sleeping in my bed for four months, I’d know about it.”
Even without Larry Roberts’s testimony, Monty Roberts’s claims about James Dean are improbable on the surface. Roberts describes Dean as a “city-slicker” who didn’t know how to wear real country boots. Of course, we all know Dean grew up on a farm and took flack for being too much of a country hick. There is no evidence from the production of East of Eden that anyone thought Dean needed rustication lessons. Roberts’s claim that Dean spent three months—expanded to four months in his 2015 interview—is similarly suspect. Dean arrived in California at the end of March 1954, and East of Eden was in production by late spring. In a letter of April 26, 1954, Dean outlined his itinerary around California for the month of April and complains that after ping-ponging between Los Angeles, Borrego Springs, and San Francisco, “I don’t know where I am.” Similarly, correspondence his agent Jane Deacy sent to him during this period was addressed to him in Burbank and answered from Burbank, where he was during the months Roberts claims he was at the Roberts’ ranch in Salinas. There is simply no time for Roberts’s claims to be true.
Even though Dean photographed himself extensively with virtually everyone he ever met (with one notable exception: his male sexual partners), in his book Roberts couldn’t produce a photo of himself with Dean, except for a weirdly cropped bit of set photography from East of Eden. All his photos from this period are from the film set. There is also no evidence that Rolf Wütherich ever met Monty Roberts, much less made him his first thought after the accident.
Because Monty Roberts is still alive and somewhat cantankerous, it seems that other writers have been hesitant to offer thoughts about whether he is telling the truth. No one want to take on a six-million-copy bestseller. As in so many cases, however, what people know and what they say are two different things. After Joe Hyams accepted his claim as true, no later writer on James Dean followed suit, which strongly suggests that these writers—who all read Hyams’s book—do not accept Roberts’s claims. While I can’t say for certain whether there is a grain of truth them, I see no reason to use them in my book about Dean either.