Irreverent Iconographer:  An exclusive interview with Dean biographer Warren Beath

Warren Beath

 Warren Beath is the author of the seminal book on James Dean's last days, The Death of James Dean which was published by Grove Press in 1986. Beath was the first Dean scholar--and one of the first film star biographers--to extensively use public records--court files, police reports, even coroner's notes in recreating the actor's fatal crash on September 30, 1955. Beath is also the author of a recent novel on Dean entitled Who Killed James Dean? which touches upon the actor's intimate relationship with the late stage director, Rogers Brackett. In short, Beath's characteristics as a writer--daring, innovative, controversial--make him an ideal student of the 1950s icon. Here, in an exclusive interview for American Legends, conducted by Brandon Yip, a Vancouver college student, Warren Beath discusses James Dean.

This interview was posted on American Legends in 2003. Today Warren lives in the Bakersfield area where he is retired from his job as a popular (no surprise) high school history teacher and hosts a Facebook page in which he continues to unearth and post newspaper stories, photographs, and other rare items that document the daring Mr. Dean's fateful ride to Paso Robles.

AL: You probably are the only Dean biographer to have actually met Donald Turnupseed, the driver who killed James Dean. What was he like?


WB: Everything about him was guarded and wary. He even seemed to move in slow motion as if he was walking in a mine field. A totally withdrawn personality.
AL: Did you discuss the collision with him?


WB: I told him that I was researching the accident and wanted to know if we could talk about it. He said, "Not a chance." Then, "Sorry." He had a condescending sense of humor but was gracious under the circumstances.


AL: It was rumored that after the crash, Sanford Roth took photos of Dean's shattered body. Roth had been a still photographer on Giant and was accompanying Dean in another car to the race in Salinas.


WB: Roth was quoted in Life magazine as saying he did. Later, he denied it. But Bill Hickman who was also on the trip told me Roth had taken such pictures.


AL: After your Dean biography came out, Beulah Roth, Sanford's widow, demanded an apology.


WB: Her version was that her husband had taken pictures at the crash site for insurance purposes. To her, it was somehow less mercenary. To me, it was just quibbling. The truth is that she was a hard, mercenary broad.


AL: Why did Dean have such an impact on young people?


WB: He seduces all of us at a certain stage in our development--by appealing to that primary emotion: "You better love me, or I'm gonna kill myself."


AL: Today, James Dean's face appears on coffee mugs, alarm clocks, china....


WB: They've killed my interest in him. He's possibly going to go the way of the Ninja Turtles and My Little Pony.  Remember Pop Rocks? Fizzies? Rice Krispies? They're overexposing him. After Lincoln died, it was supposedly said, "Now he belongs to the Ages." Poor Jimmy: Now he belongs to the lawyers.


AL: There are some people who look negatively on Dean's image because of his alleged bisexuality. How do you feel about that?


WB: They're latent homosexuals, in my opinion.


AL: James Dean would have been 70 this past February 8. What do you think he would be doing today if he were alive?


WB: I truly have no idea.


AL: If you could have a one night stand with any Hollywood actress--living or dead--who would it be with?


WB: Probably Roddy McDowall.


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