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Long-Secret James Dean Files Offer Surprises
The auction of a cache of papers held by Dean's agent offers new revelations about psychoanalysis, the draft, and homosexuality.
Nearly seven decades after James Dean died, I would have thought that everything that could be known about him was known. All but a small handful of people who knew him in life are now dead, and those left alive have had nothing new to say in decades. The magazine and newspaper articles have been raked through many times, and the scraps of archival materials picked clean. Then, to my amazement, Nate D. Sanders Auctions announced the sale later this month of more than 500 pages of James Dean’s business, legal, and personal correspondence and papers from the estate of his New York talent agent, Jane Deacy, who died in 2008. These papers, never before seen, are, frankly, astounding in what they reveal.
The auction site photographed and published 400 lots of Deacy’s Dean papers, totaling somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 pages of letters, telegrams, contracts, photographs, and other ephemera, covering the period from January 1952, when she officially took Dean on as a client (after several weeks of informal advice as Dean agent-shopped), to the period after Dean’s death, when his father assigned to her all of Dean’s copyrights and life rights in exchange for 50% of future royalties.
The documents for sale are not a complete record. Many pieces of correspondence referenced in the files are missing from the collection, specifically letters in which Dean almost certainly said things his heirs found embarrassing or indiscreet. I have no indication whether these have been withheld or whether they were destroyed after his death along with the rest of his papers that his father and friends felt could compromise his reputation. The descriptions from Nate D. Sanders make clear that the auction house did not see the missing correspondence, so it was not present when the collection was cataloged.
Most of the material is workaday business correspondence of little inherent interest, except for the portrait it paints of Dean’s finances. He made much more money than biographers assumed, and also spent all of it, though Deacy had no idea what he could have wasted so much cash on. He also seemed completely indifferent to money, ignoring bills, even for essentials like health insurance, and taking loans he failed to repay, leaving Deacy to dock his paychecks to cover expenses.
However, several documents are astonishing. Since I am writing a book in which I intend to use these archival materials as sources, I won’t discuss every detail here. I have to save something for the book! But a few highlights will indicate how transformative the previously secret paper are.
On the low end of shocking, the papers contain written proof that James Dean was seeing a psychotherapist and that the idea to see one originated with him. In an undated letter written around the middle of April 1954, Dean announces that he is “returning home after picture [East of Eden] to find analyst.” Subsequent correspondence from Deacy later in 1954 responds to a now-missing letter from Dean informing her that he has entered therapy. A March 1955 bill from Bela Mittelmann, a prominent New York psychoanalyst, gives us the name of the doctor he saw, presumably for much longer than previously surmised.
According to popular history, Marlon Brando told Dean that he needed a therapist in the summer of 1954, and Shelley Winters did the same in November or December of 1954, paying for a session. The first reference in print to Dean’s therapy occurred shortly after his death, when a brief blurb in the January 1956 Modern Screen, citing his Los Angeles agent, Dick Clayton, said that “psychiatry was also helping him [Dean] to mellow” and grow closer to his father.
Most biographers claim Dean entered therapy sometime in 1955 in Los Angeles. Gossip columnist Joe Hyams claimed in 1992 to have a bill from a different therapist in Beverly Hills along with correspondence indicating Dean was also seeing a New York therapist. He never provided the paperwork to prove it. Long story short, Dean had a therapist on both coasts so he could continue analysis wherever he was currently residing and had likely been in therapy since at least early summer 1954.
At a much higher level of shock is a letter from Deacy to Dean from August 12, 1954 responding to a now-lost letter from Dean. In the letter Deacy offers what seems to be the clearest proof we will ever see of the longstanding rumor that Dean avoided the draft by asserting to the draft board that he was a homosexual, which in those days was disqualifying. I previously requested that the National Archives search for the correspondence between Dean and the Selective Service Administration on this issue, and the Archives reported that after an extensive search, they determined that the records were destroyed in the 1960s or 1970s, pursuant to document retention policies of the era.
In the letter, Deacy is responding to a question from Dean about whether his plan to marry Pier Angeli would change his draft status. It is evidence from the response that Dean was terribly worried about the issue and had asked Deacy to find out what consequences would follow: “I don’t know what to tell you,” Deacy replied. “I found out that if you get married, you have to advise your draft board, and whether they will reexamine you or re-classify you or what happens, I can’t find out.”
The words “reexamine” and “re-classify” clearly imply that he had previously been examined and classified, supporting assertions from Dean’s best friend and onetime lover William Bast and his ex-lover Rogers Brackett that he had been classified as 4F after being examined by a psychiatrist and sending documentation of homosexuality to the draft board. Bast also asserted that in the summer of 1954 Dean was very concerned that his assertion to the draft board would become public, though Bast said he did not know why Dean feared this would happen.
In 1948, the original Selective Service Act exempted all married men from the draft. However, during the Korean War, Congress changed this and ended the marriage exemption in 1951. Subsequent changes in 1963 and 1965 are beyond our concern here. As is obvious, Dean was quite concerned that being married would change his draft status. The only way that would be a concern is if his draft status were contingent on him not being married, and homosexuality was the only classification that would be affected by marriage. Under the law, entering into marriage was prima facie proof of heterosexuality (absent conviction for sodomy). Of bigger concern for Dean, even if he resigned himself to induction, would be explaining his previous 4F classification and why marriage would have voided it. Warner Bros. gave out the false story that his eyesight disqualified him, but this was obviously false (vision correctable with glasses was not disqualifying) and marriage wouldn’t change one’s eyesight anyway.
The proof Dean sent to the draft board, incidentally, was evidence that he was sharing quarters with Rogers Brackett, a known homosexual, and was financially supported by him, according to Brackett himself. Brackett, 15 years Dean’s senior, had entered into a relationship with Dean in 1951, when Dean was 20, and the wealthy Brackett paid Dean’s expenses for several months in L.A. and New York while they lived together off and on. He also arranged professional opportunities for Dean and, according to both Brackett and Bast, arranged sexual encounters with directors and producers in exchange for these opportunities. Dean later described the arrangement as exploitative and called the men “vampires.” “I refuse to be sucked in to things of that nature,” he wrote in a letter, adding in parentheses, “pun, ha ha.” He left Brackett permanently after an undescribed incident aboard a Broadway producer’s yacht that has been described since 1957 as a sexual encounter, typically asserted to be between Dean and the producer, and, according to Bast, not pleasant. Not long following the incident, Dean purchased a switchblade knife and carried it with him to meetings with producers thereafter.
This leads us to the most shocking of all the revelations in Deacy’s papers: Dean’s ex-boyfriend sued him and demanded a payoff.
In late 1954, Brackett lost his lucrative advertising job when his position was eliminated. At the time, he was in the process of developing a doomed musical with the composer Alec Wilder, and he needed money. (This is not in dispute—Brackett and Wilder both discussed this in interviews.) But what wasn’t previously known is that Brackett went much further than Wilder suggested in trying to get that money. In interviews with his future biographer, Wilder said that Brackett asked Dean for a loan. This is not the whole story.
Starting in the fall of 1954, Brackett began harassing Dean for money, alleging that Dean needed to pay back all of the money Brackett had spent on his room, board, and gifts between their first meeting in 1951 and the termination date he assigned to their relationship, January 1, 1953. According to a letter of November 29, 1954, Deacy informed Dean that “Rogers Brackett called me just now, and he’s on the warpath again. He wants some action.”
Wilder and Brackett both claimed that Wilder arranged a meeting about a “loan” between Brackett and Dean to get money for their musical. It did not go well. At the meeting, according to Wilder, Dean became angry at Brackett’s demands and shouted at him that his relationship with Brackett had turned him into a prostitute. “I didn’t know it was the whore who paid,” Dean yelled. “I thought it was the other way around.” Wilder told Brackett to sue Dean for repayment of his financial support.
That’s where their anecdotes end. But it’s not where the paper trail ends.
On January 28, 1955, Brackett’s attorney, Albert Heit, sent Dean a demand letter requesting a payout off $1,200. Some correspondence is missing from the sequence, but Dean offered to split the difference and give Brackett a payout of $750, arguing that money for his long-term hotel stays was not a reimbursable expense since it could not be construed as a “loan.” Brackett filed suit in the Municipal Court of the City of New York shortly before the premiere of East of Eden, when he knew Dean could least afford a scandal of any kind, much less one in which a well-known homosexual was suing him for repayment of what amounted to the gay equivalent spousal support. He hired Theodore R. Kupferman, then an entertainment industry lawyer and later a Republican congressman, to represent him in negotiations with Brackett’s attorneys.
On March 7, 1955, Dean settled the case of Brackett v. Dean out of court for $800, paid weekly in $100 installments. Brackett’s and Wilder’s musical failed and ate up all the money.
Dean and Deacy managed to keep the arrangement out of the press, though it was known to Dean’s West Coast agent and his Los Angeles business managers—and therefore, almost certainly, to everyone in Hollywood. The story of Brackett v. Dean remained unknown before now and does not appear in any of the major biographies of James Dean.
The documents are truly extraordinary in providing archival proof of longstanding rumors and unexpected surprises. It is deeply saddening that this important set of materials is being auctioned in two weeks, to be scattered to the winds, likely to never be seen again. These papers belong in an archive for future researchers, but it is, I suppose, a blessing that they were placed online for me to see while writing my book rather than auctioned privately an unseen.