Last this week, we learned that Donald Spoto, the celebrity biographer, died at the age of 81. Spoto produced many well-regarded biographies, including Rebel, about James Dean. I found that book particularly useful in writing my own manuscript for my James Dean book. Spoto was kind enough to read an early draft of my book before his death and offered both useful critical notes and a blurb as endorsement: “His new book The Rebel and the Fear is sure to evoke spirited debate, not least when he addresses the lure and lore still attached to that hapless young actor, James Dean (1931-1955).” Spoto will be missed.
Spoto and I differed on a number of points, mostly informed by the different periods in which we wrote. His 1990s-era book about James Dean reflected that era and the public unease over the increasing visibility of sexual minorities. Spoto, himself gay, grew up in a different time and was heavily influenced by the Christian mysticism he studied throughout his life. To him, James Dean was deeply confused, and like many men of the middle twentieth century, Spoto downplayed the impact that Dean’s personal life could have had on him, claiming that his many failed relationships had no impact on his art.
“No one could be quite sure just what James Dean wanted—a pliable man, a strong woman, a man who cradled him like a woman, a woman who acted like a man . . . It was all very confusing,” Spoto wrote.
It really wasn’t all that confusing. Today, we have access to more information than Spoto did thirty years ago, and it becomes easier to paint a fuller picture. But to his credit, although Spoto did not fully agree with the way I assembled and presented the fuller set of facts that came to light in the 2000s, he found it interesting and valuable, and worthy of an endorsement. And that--to find value even when you don't fully agree--is the mark of a gentleman and a scholar.
2/21/2023 07:03:14 pm
Good luck with your new book, Jason, but I think the market may be limited by its subject matter.
2/22/2023 09:16:04 pm
Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to make it all about you, again. Hope the hand-crafted leather lighter sheath business is treating you well. Ever consider doing a line for Zippo? Or the Mini Bic?
2/25/2023 12:54:37 am
"This field is also plagued with many confused individuals as well - which leads one to having many enemies and few friends."
2/23/2023 12:22:24 am
Your tribute to Spoto was “spot-on.”
2/23/2023 10:24:44 am
Reminds me of when the strange old man from the library started appearing in Nike commercials. Turns out he was the author of "Naked Lunch" amongst other works. My buddy befriended him later in life and wrote about it. His death affected my friend greatly. I sympathize and empathize with your loss. Getting to work with someone you admire, even for a short time, is a once in a lifetime opportunity most people don't get.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.