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Was Werner Muensterburger Really "James Dean's Analyst"?
A passing reference in a 2013 biography gave the German-born psychoanalyst a new moniker, but the truth is less clear.
This past weekend, my local library held its annual book sale in which it disposes of unwanted books from its collection. This year, they liquidated their James Dean collection, so I picked up some of the few books I did not have in physical copy for a dollar apiece. One was a book I didn’t pay much attention to when writing my own because of its skimpy bibliography and narrow focus on Dean’s death. (I won’t embarrass the author by naming the book.) However, in skimming through it, I came across a claim I had not previously encountered. The author wrote that a certain Werner Muensterburger claimed to have been James Dean’s psychoanalyst. This was quite surprising.
For many years, Dean’s therapy was more or less a rumor known only from friends’ contradictory claims about whether it had occurred. In 1992, gossip writer and Dean biographer Joe Hyams reported on bills from Beverly Hills analyst Dr. Carl Van Der Heide for sessions held with Dean, along with a letter in which Van Der Heide discusses Dean continuing his therapy with a New York therapist. Earlier this year, the collection of documents from Dean’s talent agent that were made public for the first time included a bill from a New York therapist, Dr. Bela Mittleman, as well as letters to and from Dean discussing his desire to seek therapy, which he began in late summer/early fall 1954 and continued into the summer of 1955. All these documents are internally consistent and tell the same story.
Muensterburger’s claims did not seem to fit into what was otherwise a coherent narrative. But due to the aforementioned skimpy bibliography, I learned nothing more from the book, so I was forced to do some research to explore the claim.
Werner Muensterberger was something of an ambiguous figure. He grew up in interwar Germany, under the tutelage of a wealthy aristocratic cousin who taught him to appreciate non-Western art and insisted on watching him bathe naked every day. As a Jew, he fled the Nazis for New York City, where (according to one story) he sold an African mask to Nelson Rockefeller to fund his new life as an American psychoanalyst. (Another story has him keep the mask until he died.) Bisexual, he was a devoted Freudian and counseled men with same-sex desires that homosexuality was merely a psychological attempt to avoid responsibility, so he told them to bed women until they could repress their desires like he did with his three wives. He looted Africa for art, abandoned one wife who killed herself from loneliness, and when in his 80s, he had a young male “companion” from Chad.
In 1999, when Muensterberger was 86, he first claimed to have treated James Dean in an interview with Nicholas Shakespeare for Shakespeare’s biography of the bisexual British author Bruce Chatwin, who had died ten years before. Although he described his longtime friend Chatwin’s bisexuality in absurd detail, he provided Shakespeare with no details about Dean, nor does it appear that Shakespeare asked for any.
In 2005, Muensterberger began a series of interviews with German journalist Lisa Zeitz in which he told colorful, though perhaps not always credible, stories of his many alleged adventures. When he died in 2011, Zeitz wrote an obituary in which she described Muensterberger as having a long list of celebrity clients, including Dean, Laurence Olivier, and Marlon Brando. Not one of those celebrities ever mentioned his name, so far as a search of online newspaper archives, news databases, magazine repositories, and book archives can find. He is not listed as a therapist to any of them in standard biographies of those celebrities. Some people he originally claimed only to have met, like Nelson Rockefeller, were later described as clients, again with no record to support the claim.
In 2013, Zeitz produced a biography of Muensterberger in German, Der Mann Mit Den Masken, a book very hard to get hold of in the United States. (The nearest library copy to me is over 100 miles away.) Through the generous assistance of a historian who wrote a history of Freudian psychoanalysis in the 1950s—and who told me bluntly that for all anyone knows, Muensterberger made it all up—I was able to review the two relevant paragraphs of Zeitz’s book. They were not terribly enlightening, but I give them here in translation from the German:
Muensterberger also continued to work as a psychoanalyst in Manhattan. Despite all his discretion, he once let it be known that a California psychoanalyst had referred Marlon Brando to him—when the actor was in New York, he treated him. And when we happened to see a photo of James Dean in the newspaper, he confirmed: “Yes—he was my patient.” Dean was twenty-four when he had a fatal accident in his Porsche convertible in 1955. At the age of nine, the boy from Indiana lost his mother. In 1951 he began training at the New York Actors Studio and played his first roles on Broadway. He did not live to see the premiere of the cult film “Rebel without a Cause,” in which he played an unhappy, disoriented young man and thus captured an entire generation’s attitude toward life.
I ask Muensterberger whether he knows what James Dean dreamed about and whether recordings of their sessions exist. He taps his head: “It’s all in here.” As expected, he remains silent. Only when I mention Dean again during my next visit does he at least let out this sentence: “Jimmy was extremely afraid of growing old.”
From this, Der Spiegel and ABC News framed Muensterberger as “James Dean’s analyst,” the title under which he is now widely identified across the internet. However, as you can see, he offered Zeitz no proof and indeed claimed that the only records were in his head. (Zeitz did not respond to my request for comment as of this writing.) I am deeply annoyed that Zeitz, who was a close friend of Muensterberger, didn’t ask even basic questions about so sensational a claim. What year did he treat Dean? (Or Brando for that matter.) How long did he treat Dean? Who paid the bill? (Dean notoriously failed to pay bills, leaving others to handle debts.) Any of these basic questions could confirm or refute Muensterberger’s allegations. But Zeitz never asked.
I don’t see any way that Muensterberger could have treated Dean in 1954 or 1955. However, there is the possibility that he saw Dean in 1952. That year, Dean was drafted and to escape the draft his estranged lover Rogers Brackett paid for him to see a psychoanalyst who could sign off that Dean was homosexual so he could receive an exemption. We know of these sessions from Brackett, who in 1975 remembered them (probably incorrectly) as having occurred a year earlier in Los Angeles, and from Joe Hyams, who reported in a somewhat bowdlerized 1956 Redbook piece that Dean had seen a psychoanalyst to deal with “self-doubts” stemming from his discomfort with attention from homosexuals—and couldn’t pay the bill. His source appears to be Arlene Sax, a woman who knew Dean from 1951-1953 but not later. Brackett’s memory was flawed—the weight of evidence from a wide variety of sources places these events and others he described in New York in 1952, not L.A. in 1951—and it seems clear that both versions describe the same series of events, one badly remembered and the other intentionally obscured for 1950s propriety. [UPDATE: After reviewing paperwork I hadn’t previously received, I will amend this to reverse the conclusion: Based on Dean’s Selective Service record, it probably took place in L.A. in 1951, with his first biographer, Bill Bast, conflating events in his memoir.]
It's possible that the unnamed psychoanalyst was Muensterberger, but I can’t quite get over the idea that not a single one of his supposed celebrity clients ever mentioned him in any published source, nor did any of their biographers. Perhaps, then, the outsiders who comment on Muensterberger in Zeitz’s book have it right. One art collector called him a “rogue” and the artist Louise Bourgeous dismissed him as a “name-dropper” desperate for “social prestige.”