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.
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.
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