Three James Dean handwritten letters to his girlfriend, never before offered for sale, will be sold at Christie’s London November 23, 2011.
James Dean handwritten letters are among the rarest and most valuable of Hollywood autographs. Only a few have come to market since Dean’s tragic death in a 1955 car crash, just 24 years old. So when Neil Roberts, Christie’s Head of Pop Culture in London, asked for any information we might have on them to help him with a potential consignment, I had to know more.
But I had to wait….
“At the moment they are reluctant to send me any copies,” Neil said. “However the names and places they provided seem to add up. I’m sure you will understand that at this time I cannot pass on any details.”
That was a year and a half ago. The wait was worth it.
On November 23, Christie’s will auction three James Dean handwritten letters never before offered for sale during their fall Pop Culture: Film and Entertainment Memorabilia sale. They’re so rare that even one would be a noteworthy event—I don’t know if three have been auctioned in the last 20 years. What makes these 1954 letters especially fascinating—and desirable—is that Dean wrote them to his on and off girlfriend for two years, Barbara Glenn, during the period he was discovered and became a star. They’re filled with his feelings and experiences during that time. They are as passionate as Dean was onscreen, and sometimes even more raw.
The letters provide candid accounts of Dean’s life, sent from out of town tryouts for “The Immoralist” in Philadelphia and from behind the scenes of his first foray into Hollywood, “East of Eden.” The emotional letters reveal the strains of Dean’s work and their long distance relationship, and come with copies of never published, private family photographs of the couple from Barbara Glenn’s son, filmmaker Keith Gordon.
“As I remember her stories,” Gordon recalls, “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 or 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’ [first published 1974]. She is the first person thanked in the book’s 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.”
The letters are being sold individually, each with prints of four 8×10 photos of Dean and Glenn, three on the beach and one with friends. Copyrights aren’t included. The auction catalog isn’t online yet, but Neil was kind enough to send me descriptions of the lots. Due to copyright restrictions, we can’t publish the letters completely—believe me, I asked! (Hmmm…is there a book in the works?)
The first handwritten letter from James Dean to Barbara Glenn is dated in pencil in another hand (most likely Barbara’s) 1-10-54. The one page letter, in blue ink on a single sheet of St. James Hotel, Philadelphia, stationery, starts out Darling, Don’t worry about me. I’m O.K.? It’s filled with the thoughts and feelings Dean is experiencing during rehearsals for the theatrical production of “The Immoralist,” a play set in Tunis. Dean played Bachir, a North African houseboy, and was so well received in the role, he left the play early for Hollywood.
At the top of the letter are Dean’s doodles of North African style buildings, likely similar to the set; and one of a stressed-out caricature of a head, presumably his. Dean candidly stresses in the letter how unimpressed he is with the play, Probably a monster success; but to me it’s still a piece of shit, even though he concedes that he can’t tell much about it yet. His writing soon turns to more personal matters. He finishes the letter underlining his loneliness and insecurity by asking Barbara to Please write to me darling…. Please come and see me, Love Jim. The original envelope is included, postmarked Philadelphia Jan 10 1954, and with a sketch of a steer and additional writing on the back in Dean’s hand.
The second letter from James Dean to Barbara is three handwritten pages on two sheets of paper, and includes the original envelope. It’s dated 5-7-54, also in pencil, most likely in Glenn’s hand. Written in blue ink, the second and third sides are each signed Love Jim. It was written in response to letters Dean mentions receiving from Glenn only a couple of hours earlier and begins, Oh baby. Dean’s exasperated start develops into the tone of a very protective, caring boyfriend.
You know how I am about stuff like that. But god damn it honey with all the gory detail… when I get hold of that son of a bitch…. before developing into a more concerned and caring manner, asking how he could help her and saying how much he wanted to see her. He would soon be going on location for two weeks, and asked her if, upon his return, maybe you could come out here then? Please tell me if you could, would, etc…. Dean goes on to explain that he’d had a rough day at the studio before going on to the stable to ride his horse, Cisco, and how conquering him is a long drawn out affair. Dean expresses admiration for the horse, stating he’s full of life and I love him, before changing the subject back to his schedule, and asking again Barbara to visit him If you want to? before signing off Love Jim.
The second sheet of paper, the third page of the letter consists entirely of a post-script in which Dean returns to the subject matter of the circumstances Barbara has found herself in, exclaiming Listen to me god damn it, before pointing out Barbara’s failings. $8000 to see you in a bathing suit, boy that’s sellin’ out cheap. He ends with You’ve got no god damn respect for yourself , signing off love Jim.
The third letter from James Dean to Barbara Glenn is two pages in blue ink on both sides of a sheet of plain note paper, and includes the envelope. The letter is dated 5-19-54, also in pencil, most likely in Glenn’s hand. It’s signed Love Jim twice on the second side. The letter starts out Darling, and begins with the surprising opening line, I haven’t written because I have fallen in love. As you read it you realize Dean is talking about his horse, referring to the picture of Cisco the Kid, the new member of the family that he enclosed. The original photograph of Cisco and his trainer is included in the lot along with the four other photos mentioned.
Dean goes into detail, explaining that Cisco is a well-trained but very spirited horse, a thoroughbred Palomino…. may use him in the movie, before abruptly changing the subject matter by stating I’m very lonely and how I hate this place. In the next paragraph he tells Barbara not to call, explaining that he still doesn’t have a place of his own.
Just keep writing. Honey these are the nicest, sweetest letters in the world. Dean’s thoughts then turn to his and Barbara’s associates, which flames his fond memories of friends and places, and his dislike for his current location. In the last paragraph Dean asks with a sense of despondency, Maybe you can come and see me sometime, before ending on the positive note, I’ll be home soon Love Jim. A postscript asks Barbara to return the picture and finishes with a second Love Jim.
Christie’s estimates for the three lots are $£5,000-6,000 [$8,000-9,500]; £3,000-4,000 [$4,800-6,300]; and £5,000-6,000 respectively. But these are the low estimates many auction houses are known to use. While you never know what something may bring at auction, I wouldn’t be surprised to see these letters bring three-times estimates or more, even much more. They’re that rare and desirable. A friend said it best:
“These letters are very personal, and to my knowledge nothing comparable has ever come to market. They are the holy grail of this pop icon and should produce very spirited bidding, including from me.”
—John Reznikoff, University Archives
Go to Christie’s Pop Culture Department to ask for more information about the letters, or to get on Christie’s Pop Culture mailing list. Or call their London, South Kensington location at +44 (0)20 7930 6074.
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