A Breakdown of James Dean’s Bisexual Affairs

“I’m not a homosexual,” James Dean once told a reporter, “but I’m not going through life with one hand tied behind my back.” Throughout his short lifetime, the actor’s exact sexual preferences remained a mystery. But even under the intense moral scrutiny of the 1950s, Dean seemed uninterested in dispelling rumors of his own bi-curiosity.

When Dean burst onto the screen with East of Eden in 1955, he presented a new kind of leading man: one who was roiling and moaning with existential dread. Director Elia Kazan originally envisioned Marlon Brando for the part, but Dean, with his lean features and moody exterior, so naturally captured the angst of teen character Cal Trask. Even author John Steineck, who disliked Dean personally, knew he was perfect for the part. In the end, much of Dean’s performance was unscripted. His next role, in Rebel Without a Cause, only cemented that brooding reputation.

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The meteoric stardom Dean found following those two films was representative of a shifting preferences. He did not look like a typical leading man, up until that point. Brando had primed audiences for the instinctual intensity of method acting — A Streetcar Named Desire premiered in 1951 — but Dean fulfilled a younger prototype, more embedded into the emergent teen culture.

Dean would die the same year both those films debuted, 1955, after crashing his Porsche in Cholame, California. He was 24 years old. But the image of Dean, with his blue jeans and his indelible smirk, would live on forever, revolutionizing and challenging the American picture of masculinity.

And so, Dean’s alleged affairs — with both men and women — are still fascinating today. They are also historic.

Marlon Brando

James Dean and Marlon Brando engaged in a secret, sadomasochistic (S&M) relationship shortly before Dean’s death, according to multiple sources. And unsurprisingly, Brando was the dom. In the 2005 book Brando: Unzipped, author Darwin Porter reported that Brando was romantically linked to Dean, as well as Cary Grant and Montgomery Clift, But, Porter says, his relationship with Dean was the longest — and the most troubled. By most accounts, Dean was hopelessly in love with Brando, who was nine years his senior.

Porter’s subsequent book (written with Danforth Prince), James Dean: Tomorrow Never Comes investigates the affair in greater detail. It posits that the two met when Brando went to speak at The Actor’s Studio following the success of the Streetcar Named Desire play in 1949. Brando later told Actors Studio co-founder Bobby Lewis that he remembered a young Dean staring at him from the audience “so intently that I felt my skin burning.”

From there, a dark romance flourished. Stanley Haggart, a friend of Dean’s, said that:

“I got the impression that Jimmy was engaged in a cat-and-mouse affair with Brando, with Brando being the cat, of course … Brando seemed to be toying with Jimmy for his own amusement. I think Brando was sadistically using Jimmy, who followed him around like a lovesick puppy with his tongue wagging.” 

from James Dean: Tomorrow Never Comes

Dean also derived pleasure from Brando burning him with cigarettes, witnesses say.

Rogers Brackett

James Dean and Rogers Brackett via 24celebs.com

James Dean was a struggling actor when he met the gay advertising exec Rogers Brackett during the early 1950s. Quickly, Dean moved into Brackett’s apartment and while Dean’s own commitment to the relationship is unclear, it appears that Brackett was all in.”My primary interest in Jimmy was as an actor — his talent was so obvious. Secondarily, I loved him, and Jimmy loved me,” he is quoted saying in 1996 biography The James Dean Story. “If it was a father-son relationship, it was also somewhat incestuous,” Brackett added.

Brackett, who was well connected in media, introduced Dean to many important players around New York City. Although, Dean’s friend and first biographer William Bast said he once found a crude sketch of Brackett’s head on a lizard’s body in one of Dean’s notebooks. Bast, too, claims to have been intimate with Dean.

William Bast

William Bast via Homo History

William Bast and James Dean met as acting students at UCLA during the early 1950s and became roommates. Then, in 1962, Bast followed Dean to New York City where they remained friends — and potentially more. In his personal account, Surviving James Dean, Bast recalls dating the same woman as Dean, as well as experimenting with him sexually one night at a hotel near San Diego. Bast’s work is a key in the public realization of that Dean was, in fact, a bisexual man.

Liz Sheridan

Liz Sheridan on Seinfeld via TV Insider

Yup, you read that right. The Seinfeld mom bagged James Dean. Raised in Westchester County, Liz Sheridan moved to the city sometime during the 1950s to pursue life as an entertainer. She was dancing in nightclubs when she met James Dean. She has described their time together, though brief, as a great love affair: her first. She says they lived together until Dean, hitting a stride in his acting career, pulled away.

In 2009, Sheridan published a memoir on the topic: Dizzy & Jimmy: My Life with James Dean; A Love Story. In it, she writes:

“When we fell in love, he was just my Jimmy. A skinny, nearsighted kid not yet twenty-one, whose glasses always seemed to be sliding down his nose. He was shy and broke and he mumbled. And I adored him.”

from Dizzy & Jimmy: My Life with James Dean; A Love Story

In 1960, Sheridan met the jazz musician Dale Wales and they remained together until his death in 2003. They have one daughter, Stephanie.

On April 15, 2022, Sheridan died at age 93.

Barbara Glenn

Barbara Glenn and James Dean, via BBC

After being introduced by Martin Landau around 1954, James Dean and the actress Barbara Glenn dated for on-and-off two years. Although her career never took off, Glenn was thrust back into the spotlight five years after her death, in 2011 when her son, the filmmaker Keith Gordon, auctioned off the couple’s letters for $36,000.

The correspondence reveals some of Dean’s inner thoughts, including his anxieties over his broadway play The Immoralist. The notes also illustrates the arc of their relationship. In the collection’s final letter, Dean tells Gordon: “Darling I haven’t written because I have fallen in love.”

Perhaps he was referring to Pier Angeli…

Pier Angeli

James Dean and Pier Angeli via Vintag.es

James Dean met the Italian actress Pier Angeli in 1954 when she was shooting on an adjoining Warner lot. And by all accounts, Dean was smitten. In James Dean: The Biogprahy, he’s quoted saying, “Everything about Pier is beautiful, especially her soul. She doesn’t have to be all gussied up. She doesn’t have to do or say anything. She’s just wonderful as she is. She has a rare insight into life.”

However, any future with Angeli was uncertain. Her mother disapproved of Dean’s reputation and wanted her daughter to be with a Catholic. Dean also told Angeli he did not want to get married — although an Order for the Solemnization of Marriage with the name “Pier” penciled in was found among his possessions after he died.

But those who knew Dean well, including William Bast, scoff at the notion that the two were serious; Bast went as far as to called the relationship a publicity stunt. However, director Elia Kazan allowed Angeli free rein on the set of East of Eden, where she would hook up with Dean (loudly) dressing room.

Angeli herself only publicly spoke of Dean once, 14 years after his death. She told this romantic story:

We used to go together to the California coast and stay there secretly in a cottage on a beach far away from prying eyes. We’d spend much of our time on the beach, sitting there or fooling around, just like college kids. We would talk about ourselves and our problems, about the movies and acting, about life and life after death. We had a complete understanding of each other. We were like Romeo and Juliet, together and inseparable. Sometimes on the beach we loved each other so much we just wanted to walk together into the sea holding hands because we knew then that we would always be together.

From James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography

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