I had intended to write a full blog post today, but this week turned into a series of bad news leading to worse. The COVID-19 pandemic has taken its toll on my household's employment and finances, and a literal midnight email about mandatory pay cuts and furloughs will only make it worse. I was not in the mood to blog. However, I did feel up to working on the proposal for a new book I have decided to write, based on my recent article about Rebel without a Cause and the three 1947 national panics over communists, gays, and UFOs that turned out to be deeply interconnected.
Part of the proposal process involves laying out the whole book, and another part involves creating a sample chapter. I am currently working on the sample chapter, and I concede that it is going in a direction I did not entirely anticipate. My original intention was to create a revolving narrative interlacing material about the three panics, but I quickly discarded that idea because it was too dry and too academic. Instead, I took inspiration from Frederic Morton, whose two books about Vienna, A Nervous Splendor and Thunder at Twilight, were longtime favorites of mine. I thought that telling the story in the fashion of a nonfiction novel would create a more intriguing narrative.
This approach has worked better than I would have imagined, and the confluence of events in the early summer of 1947 is so astonishing that I would hardly have believed it all happened at once if I had read such coincidences in a novel. But what surprised me more than I expected is that I ended up with James Dean as the protagonist, whose life and afterlife are going to tie everything together. I had expected he would walk in and out of a story more centered in the corridors of power in Hollywood and Washington, but the heartbreaking section I wrote about him as a teenager in 1947 turned out so achingly beautiful that I had to concede that the story was telling itself, and I needed to get out of the way.
And, really, if there ever were signs from the gods that I was going the right way, it had to be this passage from Dean's high school art teacher that I discovered in Joe Hyam's gossipy and not always accurate 1992 biography of Dean while I was doing my background reading:
Gurney Maddingly, his art teacher as well as a former Broadway actor, remembers Jimmy as a promising student. One painting of Jimmy's still stands out in his memory. "It was of people coming up out of the grave. I knew his mother had died when he was a kid, and he was always fascinated with the idea of meeting somebody after death. We talked about mediums who contacted the dead, particularly Harry Houdini, and we discussed whether the pyramids were built by the Egyptians or people from outer space. He said, 'When we finally die we'll know all those things but we'll have to wait until then.'"
Well, there was a sign if ever there were one.
Maddingly, speaking decades after the fact, was probably conflating things a bit. Harry Houdini actually debunked seances and mediums, for one thing. The claim that space aliens built the pyramids wasn't common in the mid-1940s, though it had technically been proposed (by Garrett Serviss) in 1898. More likely, Maddingly was misremembering the kinds of occult claims that appeared in the pulps in those years, which often featured Rosicrucian advertisements teasing claims that the pyramids were the work of Atlantis or had been built by divine beings.
It doesn't really matter either way, but it's rather wild to imagine James Dean plumbing ancient mysteries.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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