Who Killed Jimmy Dean?
This story first appeared in the anthology, Mondo James Dean, published by St. Martins Press in 1996, edited by Lucinda Ebersole and Richard Peabody. Ducts thanks them for allowing us to share it with you here.
"They were friends with a hint of desire between."
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It was the spring of 1954 when James Dean squinted into the California sky. The sun cowered behind a cloud. Triumph shone in his blue, deep- set eyes.
"Quite a trick, Jimmy," the young woman on the grass next to him smiled with more than a hint of irony. "You really think you control the solar system, don't you?"
Jimmy's laugh was a half- silent chuckle. "Get those orbs off me, Marnie. Stop trying to x-ray me. I'm not that transparent."
The woman stretched luxuriously and moved closer to him. "Aren't you, James Byron Dean? I think you are." She loved the feel of his name on her tongue, calling him James or Jimmy depending on her mood at the moment. She was dressed in red overalls and a matching red baseball cap. Marnie tossed off the cap and ran her fingers through her wavy, blond hair.
"I'm just a simple farm boy," James said giggling. He hooked his thumbs under his suspenders and composed his face into a parody of innocence.
Marnie enjoyed watching him; their faces were almost touching.
"You're a swell girl, a remarkable girl," he went on. "How would you like to date a famous movie star?" Jimmy made a beckoning motion with his hand. "Come with me to the Hollywood hills and I'll ravish you under the stars."
"I'm tempted James, really I am, but we came out here to rehearse a scene, remember? I want you to get inside Cal's skin, realize him in all his possibilities."
James bit his lip and hunched his shoulders with an inimitable combination of desire and hostility.
"That's it, kid," she said approvingly. "I can see Cal Trask emerging."
They were on the set of East of Eden deep in the heart of the Salinas Valley in northern California. Behind them the rust colored relic of a train promised a Hollywood journey into the early nineteenth century. Marnie was a twenty-six-year-old script and story editor from Los Angeles who had taken to helping James rehearse between takes. She hadn't liked James Dean much at first. She found his flirting, his pouting supremely adolescent. She was annoyed by his rudeness on and off the set, his outright disdain for anyone who dared to interfere with his artistic reverie. She had begun to think this twenty-three-year-old rebel from Indiana had more braggadocio than talent when he bowled her over with his genius. It was during the shooting of a pivotal scene in which Cal was to appeal to his mother for $5,000 and, more insidiously, the love she had denied him. James's balance of arrogance and fragility, his hooded gaze, the insistent whine in his voice, his slow motion turns around imaginary curves, the naked greed on his face, the raw pain, all in a tapestry of seconds, left Marnie awestruck. She told James how she felt; he lapped up her praise like a famished puppy. When they weren't reading lines to one another, he would talk in a shy voice of his Indiana childhood; he told her about his mother's death when he was nine, how he still longed for her in a hall of nightmares, blaming himself for her dying. He told her how the glare of fame made him shrink into a shadow of himself like a lost little boy. And Marnie, who believed in the power of optimism, the sheer American will to create someone over again, determined to help James realize his talent as a man and an actor. "Aren't you a little bit in love with the James Dean of the movie magazines?" Marnie had said incisively. And James, chameleon like, had emerged from his soft-shell and grinned at her. "Maybe." She could tell he liked her honesty.
One night they drove high into the Hollywood hills and James took her to a favorite cliff where they could look at the stars. He seemed to gather the darkness around him. "Wouldn't it be something to be up there," he said. Then more softly, "Sometimes I feel, I don't know, so boxed up inside myself--the devil and angel in me kinda toying with each other. Way up there I could start all over again."
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Marnie touched his shoulder lightly and James snickered. "Best move I've come up with yet, ain't it, honey? Save me from the great abyss."
"Knock it off, Jimmy. I'm not one of your love sick fans." They were friends with a hint of desire between. Marnie liked it that way. It left room for fantasy and expectation. And besides, on a primordial level, she was afraid of Jimmy--afraid of what he might awaken in her.
James giggled appreciatively. "One point for you, girl."
Then he began to tell her his dreams of becoming a great actor and a great director. He would blaze a trail of glory.
"You'll make it, Jimmy," Marnie had reassured him.
On that warm day in April, Marnie and James had planned to rehearse a scene that had become James' nemesis. In the character of Cal Trask, he was supposed to be drunk and full of hope and self-inquiry; teetering on a roof outside his brother's girl's window, he had to ask her to help him plan his Dad's birthday party. Then hitting his head against a tire, he was to demand of himself, "Why did I hit my brother so hard?" Take after take, James was leaden. He couldn't get the right balance of yearning and self-reflection.
"Life isn't worth a damn if I can't get a scene right," he told Marnie.
"Let's try it again," Marnie encouraged him.
James ran a hand through his hair. "Damn it, Marnie, I can't. I just can't."
"Come on, kid, everyone says you're the master of complexity," she reassured him. "You've got it in you."
James wasn't listening. A production assistant in a tight white sweater and peddle pushers that fit like a glove walked by. He simonized her with his eyes. The girl gave him an intense look, a promise of honey.
"We haven't got all day," Marnie said impatiently.
"Come on," James said, suddenly serious. He took her by the hand and led her into the tall grass in front of the train with the painted sign saying Salinas. She felt she was in an exotic jungle with only James beside her. He was breathing hard. "I've got to really get inside Cal's skin in order to play that scene, know his every thought, feel his heart beat. I've got to become Cal Trask."
Marnie laughed. Her eyes were shining. "Oh, I see, first you order the sun behind the clouds and now you're going to negotiate with the calendar." She touched his cheek affectionately. "You're something else, Jimmy."
It was as if all his energy were concentrated in what he said next. "Come back in time with me, Marnie. I can become the real Cal Trask. I can bring him to life."
"You're crazy," Marnie said, her voice hoarse and expectant.
"Trust me. We can do it together." His eyes were blue and pleading, "Will you?"
Marnie was mesmerized by his intensity. "Sure," she heard herself say, not believing, but wanting to believe in the possibility of anything. James could give her that hope.
He pulled her up onto the mammoth train; suddenly it moved. Marnie could hear the call of the steam engine. Through the window, she saw rows of vegetables, a panoramic spring of yellow and blue and gold; mountains lingering in the distance. She grabbed James hand. "What's going on here? This isn't real. It can't be. My God it's beautiful."
"Ain't it," he said in a western twang that seemed both foreign and familiar. A crystalline rain started to fall, but the sky kept a peppermint cleanness she could almost taste. Marnie felt a chill of fascination. "Is this really happening, James?" she asked the man sitting next to her who both was and wasn't Jimmy. "What's really going on here?"
"Names, Cal," he shrugged with elaborate casualness. "This here sure is beautiful country."
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They got off the train. Marnie found herself near a village square and followed the booming sound of a marching band. There were soldiers in brown uniforms with their rifles held tight against their shoulders. Marnie saw low stone buildings, abundant green trees and American flags and banners everywhere. A man in a top hat and a sparkling red, white and blue suit paraded as Uncle Sam. Marnie saw him tread over a newspaper. She ran over and picked it up and studied it carefully. It was dated April 6, 1917. The headline glared up at her, War on Germany.
"This is happening," a voice inside her screamed.
Cal walked beside her swinging his arms in time with the band. He stopped to offer her a piece of licorice and then jokingly took it back again.
"That's him," Cal said. "I want you to meet my Dad."
Adam Trask was just as Marnie had imagined him, a tall gangling man with a square jaw and a biblical voice. He was tinkering with the engine of a Model-T Ford. Cal's brother, Aaron stood beside him, tall and lean with angelic wide set eyes.
"Nice to meet you, Mr. Trask, Aaron," Marnie said. Cal was saying excitedly, "There's fortune to be made in beans, Dad. I'm gonna make you rich, honest."
Adam Trask stood up to his full height. And Marnie was struck by his graceful, Lincolnesque presence. He planted a big hand on Cal's shoulder. "It's not money, I want, Cal. I want you to be a good man. Good men don't make money off the war. Now take Aaron here. He wouldn't think of doing a thing like that, would you, Aaron?"
"No, Father," Aaron smiled. He looked sideways at his brother. The coldness in his gaze made Marnie shiver.
Cal gave a low, animal wail. "I was only figuring a way to help you out, Dad." Then a mask of contentiousness came over his face. "Never mind. I don't care if you get rich or not. I don't care what happens to you."
"You don't mean that Cal," Marnie said. Although his smile frightened her, she wanted to defend Cal. "Cal loves you so, Mr. Trask, but he's afraid of love." She spoke slowly, carefully from a well of feeling. "Half the time he doesn't even know who he is or who he wants to be and..."
"Love," Cal cut in, rolling his eyes at the sky. "Who wants love. Ain't nothing in it." He snickered. "Love, good and bad, them's just words. " He put his hands in his pockets and began to slink toward his brother. "Now take Aaron here, he's goodness itself. That's 'cause he's too scared to look evil in the eye."
"Stop it, Cal," Adam said sternly.
"Stop it, Cal," Cal mimicked his father.
Cal put an arm around his brother. "I gotta a surprise for you, Aaron. Marnie and me are gonna take you on a little trip. You got the guts to come with us?"
"I've got more guts than you'll ever have," Aaron said confidently.
Marnie shivered, sensing the shattering power of Cal's cruelty. "You don't have to do this," she told him. She wanted to wrap her will around Cal and subdue his impulses.
Cal kept his arm around Aaron moving it back and forth with the sinuous gesture of a snake charmer. "Come on. There's something I want you to see."
"I won't let anything bad happen, Mr.Trask, I promise," Marnie called over her shoulder. Her heart was beating wildly as she followed the brothers out of the square, back onto the train and down the California coast to the sultry fishing village of Monterey.
When they got there, she saw the sky had begun to curdle with rat-gray clouds. Even the mountains and the sea looked menacing. Cal led them down a narrow, unpaved street to a row of ramshackle houses. A snarl of wild bushes made it difficult for Marnie to distinguish the houses from the street. Cal ushered them up to the porch of one of the houses and knocked on the door. A girl of about eighteen opened it and let them in. She had luminous eyes and unnaturally white skin.
"We're here to see Kate," Cal said harshly. "I'm Cal Trask. She knows me."
The girl led them into a polished foyer. "Wait here," she said. Marnie felt herself sink into the carpet. The tinkle of jazz music, the smell of musk infused her senses. "Come this way," the girl said. A velvet curtain parted and she entered a large square room with apple green walls and chairs upholstered with cushions in the same color. Lamps with silken shades gave off a rose-colored light. A bed with a creamy white satin coverlet stood in one corner. She wanted to touch the satin, linger over its softness.
An unfamiliar voice from the other side of the room made Marnie turn. She saw a woman sitting behind a roll top desk. The woman wore black with only a hint of lace at her throat and wrists. She had delicate patrician features. Her white-blond hair was tied back in a bun. Marnie noticed a thin scar on the woman's forehead. She was horrified by her eyes: they were as impenetrable as glass: gray and shallow. She sat so still, Marnie marveled that she was actually alive.
"Come to take another look at your mother, Cal?" the woman asked sharply.
"Yes mother," Cal answered, "but this time I've brought company." He shoved his brother forward. "This is my brother, Aaron, the angel in our family. Isn't he handsome, Mother?" Marnie saw the light spastic motion of Cal's shoulder. "Aaron, this is your mother, Kate, the madam of the toughest whorehouse in California. She's not dead Aaron. She shot our father in the arm when we were little and ran away from us."
Marnie saw Aaron's face drain of color. He started to fall as if he were going to faint. She tried to support him, but he ripped himself away from her and fled from the room.
Kate came to life when Aaron had gone. She made a high cackling sound. "You are like me, Cal; you have a talent for heartlessness."
Marnie saw Cal's rage had passed. "Why did you shoot him and go away?" he asked mournfully. "You shot him. Why?"
"Because," Kate flailed at him, "your father tried to box me in. He wanted to eat me alive with his goodness." She ran her tongue along her sharp, white teeth. "He wanted to own me like this woman wants to own you."
Marnie felt her head begin to spin. She hadn't realized Kate had noticed her. "I am not trying to own Cal," she said fiercely. "And he's not like you. He's just jealous of his brother and angry and confused."
Kate leaned toward Marnie and whispered evilly. "You think you can change him. Wipe all the badness out of him. White wash him into a minister of virtue."
"I don't want him to be perfect," Marnie hurled back at Kate.
Kate's smile lingered. "You want to make him over into whom you think he should be."
Marnie heard Cal's voice behind her. "You got that right, mother."
The truth tasted like salt and made Marnie grimace.
Kate was watching her. "You like it here, don't you, honey? You'd like to lie on those sheets with my son and let him teach you all about love. That's what you really want from Cal."
Marnie felt the heat of her anger. "Don't you talk to me like that--don't you ever--you--you evil witch."
Kate placed her hands under her small pointed chin. "My evil's in you and in my son too."
Cal walked up to his mother with a look of undisguised hatred. "We're mean with our meanness, not yours," he told her.
Marnie thought she saw a spasm of regret contort Kate's face. "Oh, Cal," Kate said. Then the hardness came back into her eyes and voice. "I'll leave you two to celebrate your own brand of evil." Then she was gone.
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Marine and Cal were alone in the dimly lit room. They moved toward each other, making a home for themselves on the satin coverlet. Marnie smelled Cal's breath on her face, tasted his lips on her lips, felt his hands moving over her. Their clothes fell away, and they began to mold one another like moist, uncertain clay. Marnie felt an exquisite glow in her solar plexus; there were no shapes, no sounds, and no colors. Only this concentric flame. She felt herself being born again into a wholly new shape.
Marnie was never sure how she arrived back in the present. Her journey back in time lived in her bones like a new life that had been imprinted upon her, a dimension of herself she could not deny. She and James became shy with one another as if they needed to find shelter in separateness. James acted masterfully on the set; he performed the scene with his brother's girl with a Machiavellian tenderness that made the director applaud. Marnie decided that Cal and Jimmy were locked in one skin and the boundaries between them were only those of time and space.
The film ended and she and Jimmy went their separate ways. Their good-byes were full of affection and promises to write. James was becoming a sensation in Hollywood. Marnie realized that his talent, his mirth, his irreverence were his; she was not his puppeteer. James felt lost to her. He showed her dozens of pictures he had taken of himself in the mirror to applaud his celebrity status. They all looked the same. His sullen face decorated the cover of movie magazines. Marnie sensed he was moving further and further away from himself; she felt powerless to help him.
James wrote to her from time to time when she went back to Los Angeles. Sometimes cobwebs of fear showed in his letters. While filming Rebel without a Cause, he was worried the director wouldn't bring out the best in him. He said he wanted to turn himself into the superman that Nietzsche envisioned, a man of energy, intellect and pride. Marnie felt turmoil between the lines. "I miss you," James added furtively at the bottom of the page and she felt her heart tug.
Sometime later he sent her a picture of himself standing in front of a silver Porsche. He was dressed in white and his hands were clasped in front of him. The next night she dreamed of a beautiful lone bird with golden wings setting itself on fire and then soaring up from its ashes to create a new life. In the morning she remembered the Egyptian myth of the Phoenix rising, the symbol of immortality.
On September 30, 1955 Marnie read of James' death. Driving his Porsche into the California sunset he collided with another car. She saw pictures of the wreckage: the rumpled accordion of steel that had been his death chariot. She couldn't associate Jimmy with that twisted metal. He was still alive for her: hovering, inviolate. She saw his picture everywhere in the months that followed. He was idolized as a symbol of disconsolate youth. James Dean fan clubs cropped up like viruses; in death women lusted after Jimmy and men envied him. His films Rebel without a Cause and Giant were released posthumously. He could be seen wielding a knife, thirsting after oil, or loyally protecting a friend. Marnie thought of the angel and the devil that had warred in Jimmy; she wanted to smash this cardboard image of James Dean and find the James she had known.
One night driving in the Hollywood hills, something made her stop and look at the stars. One shone so brightly that it drew her into its magnet. All at once she sensed that James was there--that he had chosen his position in the firmament--that now at last he was free to make himself into the person he wanted to be. "Good luck, Jimmy," she called into the bowl of the sky. She thought she saw the star shine even more brightly. Then it disappeared into the night.
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