Of the more than 200 books written on the subject of James Dean, few actually had the honor of being close to the man behind the myth. In his latest work Jimmy & Me: A Personal Memoir of James Dean Lew Bracker offers up his memories of one of the most dedicated actors of all time.
What were you like as a child? What are some of your most fond memories of that time? How have you changed most since then?
I have never really thought about how I was as a child. I grew up among a very large extended family in a small town, so I felt very secure with so many aunts and uncles and cousins around me. I do think it had a lasting effect on me in many ways. For one thing, family meant so much to me.
Did Jimmy ever talk much about his childhood? Did he ever speak of Mildred?
Jimmy never mentioned his childhood to me. Don’t forget, I only knew him the last 16 months of his life, and we were just getting started learning about each other. We both felt very secure in our friendship and in our mutual trust, but we were learning what we were really all about. Jimmy never mentioned his mother, or even Fairmount, for that matter. We just hadn’t got there yet.
Do you think it is fair to say that they both did remarkable things with the short time given them?
I can’t speak for his mother, but of course Jimmy had already accomplished remarkable things, beside his three movies, he had done quite a bit of TV and was on Broadway in plays.
What was it like to meet Jimmy via Leonard Rosenman?
Meeting Jimmy was not special. That was not why I was there. He was just a guy. I had never heard of him or knew what he did.
Aside from the love of cars what was it that first drew you to him?
The drawing together of Jimmy and me was our second meeting, also by chance. I was babysitting Lenny and Adele’s daughters one night when Jimmy dropped by. This was about a week or so after our initial meeting. We ended up talking the whole evening. Mostly about his and my girl troubles.
What was it about him that made him so easy to talk to on that second encounter? Did he have a way about him that made people feel safe around him do you think, made them trust him more than they would others?
No. Jimmy was actually shy, and he was very guarded when meeting or being exposed to strangers. And he compartmentalized his life quite a bit.
Jimmy seemed to always have a lot of questions. Did you ever get tired of those? Do you think his uniquely individual way of looking at the world with a sort of wonder was one thing that made him seem different from most?
Jimmy had a great curiosity and was always picking peoples brains by asking questions.
Did Jimmy have a hard time trusting people well enough to let them close? Do you feel honored to have been one of them?
Jimmy had trouble trusting anyone. Probably because his father put him on the train to Indiana with his mother’s coffin. But Jimmy trusted me and my family and was beginning to be more open.
You mention Jimmy having a Victorian moral streak. Do you think that is something that most of the world might be surprised to know? Did you admire how he stuck to his beliefs whatever they might be?
His Victorian streak was really a Quaker streak. He came from Quakers and was brought up by Quakers. Fairmount was founded by Quakers.
Is it true he used to talk of wanting to marry and having both of your children grow up as friends themselves? Did he seem to have a deep respect for children and the institution of family?
Yes, it is true that Jimmy and I had those conversations about someday, we would be married, our wives would be best friends and our children would play together. A little idyllic but it showed that Jimmy was planning for the future and wanted a family. He certainly adopted my family and our house as a family member.
Do you think if he had lived long enough he would made that comedy he had in mind? Was Jimmy good at making people laugh and lightening the mood?
When speaking of making movies, Jimmy wanted to make his own Western and his own Comedy, by that I mean directing. He was already going to make someone else’s Western, The Left Handed Gun for MGM.
Did Jimmy seem to enjoy improvisation? What was it like getting to watch him do that?
Jimmy loved acting. Improvs were a great exercise and a challenge. He was always trying to perfect his craft.
What was it like to hear Jimmy talk about something he loved? Did he get excited when talking about the races?
Yes, Jimmy got excited talking about racing and cars. But we talked about other things as well. Jimmy loved to discuss things.
What was it like to have Jimmy mother you along on your first race? Do you appreciate having had the chance to have him there?
Jimmy being by my side at my lst Race weekend just seemed natural. I wasn’t surprised or made any special note of it. I suppose I even expected it.
What would you say is the most valuable thing you have learned from your own friendship with him?
While Jimmy was alive, Jimmy probably learned more from me than I did from him. Jimmy even said that he thought he was getting more out of our friendship than he could give. I never measured. I just took each day as it came and never viewed Jimmy as anyone other than my friend. Now, 60 years later, I have much more insight and have a much better understanding of everything and everyone involved during that time.
Are the any particular moments from your time with him that you hold most dear?
Most dear? Not one specific thing. Just the entire relationship and the memories.
Do you yourself still have premonitions as much as you ever did or have they tapered off? Have you found it useful to listen to them?
Yes, I have always had premonitions at certain times.
Why do you feel that even with so many years since his passing you and Jimmy still remain the closest of friends? Do you think it is fair to say you will carry him with you always as such?
Jimmy and I bonded as friends. Call it chemistry. Why do any two people just simply bond? As for considering our friendship transcends all these years it is simply the way I feel about it. To me, our friendship goes on and I think about him all the time. When I was racing, I felt he was there in the car with me.
Do you take some comfort in knowing that before he died Jimmy was happier than he had been since Mildred’s death?
I believe Jimmy was about as happy as he had ever been after his mother died. I know he was beginning to open up to people, I called it, he was beginning to blossom.
What was the most challenging thing you faced in writing Jimmy & Me: A Personal Memoir of James Dean? Was it painful at times to relive the moments captured therein?
Yes, I did not want to write the book. I had put that entire part of my life in to a private place in my memory bank and locked it up. I did not want to revisit it. But I did, finally, and while it was some tough going, it also acted as a catharsis, and I am glad I wrote the book. At times, I had to leave the computer and come back to it later, as I became emotional. But I knew that would happen and was a main reason for avoiding revisiting that part of my life.
What do you hope the readers learn from this particular body of work?
Readers may learn a little from this interview, but as readers all over the world have told me, they learned more from my book, about Jimmy, than in all the other books put together. And my book was all true. I wrote every word, and only about what I experienced firsthand.