James Dean at UCLA

Dean appears in UCLA production of Macbeth.

   After spending his freshman year at Santa Monica City (now Junior) College, James Dean transferred to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) in the fall of 1950. At UCLA, he took a cross-section of academic courses and enrolled in a ROTC program as an air cadet. Jimmy also joined Sigma Nu fraternity where one of his pledge brothers was James Bellah, whose father, James Warner Bellah, had written the screenplay for Fort Apache. Later, Bellah himself became a successful paperback writer whose novels include The Avenger Tapes (co-author) and Imperial Express.

   This interview was posted on American Legends in 2000; James Bellah died in 2015. James Dean was always a young man going places, and everyone seemed to know it. Bellah was no exception. Even at UCLA, he once told a biographer, Dean "had to be the best at everything he did." But, unlike Dennis Stock, whose photographic essay on Dean, "Moody New Star," in Life launched his own career or Joe Hyams, who after the actor's death often wrote about "my friend, Jimmy," Bellah never traded off his friendship with Dean--and biographers often found him a reluctant interview.

    A graduate of the Hill school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Bellah's reserved Eastern manner set him apart from Dean's circle of friends. Widely read in history, and a master of the King's English, he later taught writing at UCLA--and supported himself and his family as an editor for a string of West Coast magazines and publishing houses.

   As a novelist, his writing had a certain Elizabethan bawdiness, and-- as he cheerfully complained--he could not get passed the proper "Bryn Mawr readers" who vetted manuscripts at East Coast publishers. So, he spun out paperbacks at a steady clip--over forty by mid 1970s-- in the various genres that helped "keep the wolf a few inches from the door:" gothics, horror--as well as an occasional historical novel, like Imperial Express, that dealt with the last train out of Mexico following the revolution in the 1930s (and which reflected some of the many afternoons spent in the UCLA library).

   Steadfastly, Bellah resisted writing about Jimmy Dean with whom he had double dated at UCLA driving around with pretty sorority girls in Bellah's 1931 Model A Ford Roadster.

   "To tell the truth," Bellah wrote in 1976 to Ron Martinetti, a Dean biographer with whom he became friends, "I don't think I really could do even an article on Dean. There wasn't, for me at any rate, that much to the guy. He was neurotic as hell [but] a fairly nice guy who didn't really understand just how f--ked up he was. Besides he's dead, and I don't really want to disturb the grave."

   Bellah was one of Dean's few friends who knew about his relationship with Rogers Brackett, the accomplished theatre director with whom Dean lived in the Hollywood Hills after dropping out of UCLA.

   One afternoon when Rogers had disappeared from the room to mix cocktails, Bellah turned to his friend and said, " That guy's a fairy." In his nonchalant manner, Dean answered, "Yeah, I know." After the incident appeared in a Dean biography, Marty Landau, an actor friend of Jimmy's from New York, borrowed the anecdote for his own TV movie about Dean--inserting himself in the scene in place of Bellah.

   That was the world of Hollywood exploitation that Bellah had opted out of.

   In the nineties, Bellah moved to Oxnard where he lived with his second wife, Ursula, in a sprawling Spanish-style ranch house near the ocean. His last years were marred by financial reversals when he fell prey to one of the twin sirens of American life-- the lure of money, the pull of fame--and invested heavily in a real estate venture run by a Beverly Hills scam artist. In that respect, though his journey stretched much longer, Bellah paralleled the route taken by his college friend in 1955 when he set off on the road to Salinas looking for sportscar glory.

   Here, as originally posted, is James Bellah's recollection of Jimmy Dean.

 


AL:

What was the UCLA campus like back in 1950?

 

JB:

Fraternities and sororities dominated undergraduate life. If you weren't in a fraternity, you were considered "non-org"--a non-organization person. The political climate was all-American.

 

AL: And into this scene came James Dean.

 

JB:

We were in the same pledge class at Sigma Nu. I remember I walked in the house. He was vacuuming the carpet. He said, "My name is Dean," and showed me around.

 

AL:

According to one story, Dean got into a fight with another pledge and was asked to leave.

 

JB:

I wasn't at the meeting when he was expelled, so I don't know what really happened. But he didn't fit into that environment. He was an eccentric. Hollywood is full of born actors.

 

AL:

You got him his first agent, Isabel Draesemer.

 

JB:

I guess that's my claim to fame. We did a Pepsi commercial. There were a lot of young kids dancing around a jukebox. I was supposed to be the star. But Dean was a natural. He grabbed one of the girls and started jitterbugging-- tossing her over his shoulder.

 

AL:

You also appeared with Dean in an Easter special--Hill No. 1-- which had a religious theme.

 

JB:

I played a Roman solider. Dean had a speaking role as one of the Apostles. He had the flu, and his voice was husky. Some high school girls thought he was sexy and started a fan club. Even then, Dean could go through a lens.

 

AL:

Another student in the Theater Arts Department was named Bill Bast. Later, he wrote a memoir that became a cult classic. (James Dean, Ballentine Books, 1956)

 

JB:

I could never finish the book. He made James Dean sound like the sweetest boy he ever knew.

 

AL:

You also met Rogers Brackett, the radio director James Dean lived with in Hollywood and New York. Only one Dean biographer ever talked to him. What was Brackett like?

 

JB:

He was an elegant, Clifton Webb type homosexual. There's no question he was a swish.

 

AL:

Did James Dean ever talk about his relationship with Brackett or others?

 

JB:

Dean was a user. I don't think he was homosexual. But if he could get something by performing an act....Once, when I ran into him in New York City at an agent's office, Dean told me that he had spent the summer as a "professional house guest" on Fire Island--which was a big gay hangout. Dean said this in a loud voice--he wanted people to hear. He was crazy.

 

AL:

Someone once said that Neal Cassady, the hero of On the Road, had to act out every impulse. He was totally uninhibited. Maybe James Dean was the same way.

 

JB:

Dean had an ego. He knew what he wanted and how to get it. Like all actors, he was to some extent playing himself, using a different aspect of himself to project in a role. In Rebel Without a Cause, that's Dean: the outsider, the lost soul....

 

AL:

After James Dean's death, you and other UCLA friends were sought out by the media. Now, forty-five years later, you are still being asked about him.

 

JB:

Dean captured a rebellious spirit that has always been part of our national character. He also fulfilled a need. As human beings, we need icons to bow down to. And James Dean has become a perennial hero to nonconformists.

 


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