Christies to Auction James Dean Letters

A selection of personal handwritten letters by James Dean, which have never been offered for sale before, are to be sold at Christie’s auction of Popular Culture: Film and Entertainment Memorabilia in South Kensington on 23 November 2011.

The letters are each addressed to Dean’s on-off girlfriend of two years, Barbara Glenn. They provide candid accounts of his private life before becoming a star, sent from out-of-town tryouts for The Immoralist in Philadelphia and from behind the scenes of his first foray into Hollywood, the celebrated East of Eden. The emotional letters, which reveal the strains of Dean’s work and their long distance relationship, are to be offered along with copies of unpublished private family photographs of the couple directly from the son of Barbara Glenn – filmmaker Keith Gordon.

Keith Gordon comments, “As I remember her stories, my mother was introduced to James Dean – whom she always referred to as ‘Jimmy’ – by their mutual close friend Martin Landau in the late 1940s/early 1950s in New York, where they were all young actors starting out and struggling together. She never discussed their romance in great detail, but I did know Jimmy was her first serious, grown-up relationship. It was apparently very intense and involved numerous break-ups and reconciliations, but she often remained his confidant even during some of the “off-again’ times. Eventually my mother met my father Mark Gordon, an actor and director, and broke it off with Jimmy to go with my Dad. Jimmy actually gave her his blessing to leave – even he knew that what they had was too fraught with drama to ever be stable. Years later David Dalton tracked down my mother and interviewed her for his biography „James Dean-The Mutant King’ – she is the first person thanked in the books acknowledgements. As far as I know that was the first time she spoke ‘on the record’ about their time together. I think she was happy with the way the book captured the complexities of their relationship – I found several copies, along with James Dean’s letters to her and other memorabilia such as reviews and photographs tucked away safely in a drawer. I hope that a fan or collector can gain as much pleasure from owning these letters as my mother clearly did from receiving them, and as I did in learning more about my mother’s history.”

Neil Roberts, Head of Popular Culture says, “Christie’s is honoured to be offering these unique letters for auction for the very first time, providing a tangible insight into the mind of the film star James Dean. The letters have been treasured for nearly half a century, and will be sold during the 80th anniversary of his birth. They reveal a private side of Dean’s character far removed from his public persona – the young man who became a screen legend – a lonely, insecure, and caring person, dedicated to his craft.”

During his short life, James Dean quickly made a name for himself on television and Broadway. As he rehearsed for an adaptation of André Gide’s book The Immoralist – a performance that would be his last on Broadway and lead to several awards and calls from Hollywood – Dean wrote to Barbara Glenn. In the letter he criticizes the play, calling it “a piece of shit”, but rightly foresees that it would still “Probably be a monster success”. The letter was sent from St. James Hotel in Philadelphia on 10th January 1954 (estimate: £5,000-6,000) and also features doodles of North African style buildings – possibly Dean’s interpretation of the set, which was based in Tunisia. Positive reviews for his role as „Bachir’, a pandering North African houseboy, led to Dean’s early exit from the play (which had only opened two weeks earlier on 8 February 1954) and a move to Los Angeles.

James Dean’s first starring role in a Hollywood movie was as Cal Trask in East of Eden, for which filming began on 8th April 1954. East of Eden was released in March 1955, only six months before Dean’s tragic car crash, earning him the first official posthumous Oscar nomination in history at the 1956 Academy Awards. The second letter on offer dates from 7th May 1954 (estimate: £3,000-4,000) – just under a month into the filming for East of Eden. In the letter, addressed “Oh baby”, Dean angrily replies to a letter sent by Barbara about a swimsuit photo-shoot she had done, or was considering, telling her “boy that’s sellin out cheap” and questioning her motives. The tone of his writing is very protective and caring, but also incredibly disapproving. One can only imagine what was contained in the letter from Barbara that he was replying to. The final letter to be sold in November (estimate: £5,000-6,000) reveals James Dean’s teasing sense of humour, as it starts “Darling, I haven’t written because I have fallen in love.” Reading that first line, it appears to be a break-up letter, however, it transpires that he is referring to his horse, “Cisco the kid’ – “the new member of the family”, and he even proudly included a small photo of him (also included in the lot). Unhappy and homesick, Dean’s mood sounds rather despondent – he talks about how lonely he is, tells her how much he hates it there, and lists all the things he misses. He also thanks her for “the nicest, sweetest letters in the world”, which helped him get over his own self-doubt, clearly showing the value in their friendship.

Image: Hand-written letter from James Dean to girlfriend Barbara Glenn, dated 1-10-54. Estimate: £5,000-6,000. Photo: Christie’s Images Ltd 2011.

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