Hair. Always been a big deal to me. I accomplished hormonal lift-off at 11 and immediately shifted into hyper hair-awareness mode. I simultaneously stumbled upon my first rebel role model — James Dean. I became fascinated with him, not for his work in film — Who knew what a method actor was? — but for his bohemian, New York-based lifestyle as represented in the only fan magazine I ever owned.
Through the fan mag’s photos and a detailed bio, James Dean introduced me to my cultural mecca — Greenwich Village — and saved me from a devastating hairstyle dilemma.
Most of my comrades had begun to sport DAs, pomade-laden artifiacts that swept backwards into a stunning representation of a duck’s ass. The front of a DA featured oily ringlets of hair that dangled down the forehead, Sal Mineo-style. This baroque rendering required copious amounts of Brylcreem and frequent visits to the boys’ room to keep the entire mechanism in perfect form.
DAs worked best if you were dark-haired and Italian. I was neither. Nevertheless, I set out to cultivate my own DA.
A terrible obstacle discouraged my DA grooming attempts. I had a cowlick that wreaked havoc with the left side of my scalp, a tornado swath of untamable hair that ran from front to back. No amount of Vaseline, Brylcreem, or motor oil would tame my hair into the DA’s required contortions. But then I met my fan mag hero, James Dean. Jeez!! His hair was a mess but he still looked totally cool! And he wore glasses, just like me!
Not many of my classmates knew about James Dean. He was my secret. And if anybody cracked wise about my hair, I’d just show them this picture, tell ’em he was a movie star and walk away, secure in the authenticity of my own weirdness.
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Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.
Interesting that you focused on his messy hair and bohemian lifestyle rather than his rebel movie image. When I first saw Rebel Without a Cause, after hearing about it for years, I was surprised how tame it was. I suppose that’s what passed for rebellion in 1955.
At the time that I was aspiring to sculpt my DA, I hadn’t seen any of Dean’s films, only my fan mag. At 11, I understood rebellion via my family’s values and their response to being blacklisted. However, I don’t think I could have judged James Dean or Natalie Wood in Rebel w/o a Cause as any more or less rebellious than Doris Day and Rock Hudson in Pillow Talk!
Loved hearing this from a guy’s perspective! James Dean was the coolest ever!
i liked the incredible honesty and authenticity to the story…and funny, too!
Thanks for your above comment, TSSNYC… Delighted by any hint of laughter. And yeah, the cowlick was the real thing, and yes, I have been licked on head by salt-seeking cow but doubt that created the dilemma.
Still seeking that James Dean look…
i had a James Dean poster in my apartment for many years during and after college (his ‘walking the wet streets of Greenwich Village in a trench coat’ poster) and he was my ideal of ‘cool’, so I can empathize. Thanks for sharing!
Understood, LB! In ‘Retrospect,” I said final goodbye to a NY girlfriend and walked all the way from Greenwich Village to 84th… in the rain… with my trench coat on, indulging in my sorrow. It’s all James Dean’s fault.
Charming story about your 11-year-old self. I love the picture of James Dean reading The Complete Poetical Works of James Whitcomb Riley (had to google the pic to get it large enough to see the book title).
Sharp eyes, Suzy! I was lookin’ at the hair when I found Dean’s pic. See? Plenty of cowlicks. Moo.
Love the role model citation, but frustration with accomplishing it. See my essay and you’ll see that I admired Joan Baez and went in that direction in my youth until the care got to be too much. I’m growing it again (women can do that), but never that long again. Isn’t it funny how hair defines us?
Oh, I bet your Joan Baez admiration required you hanging your head above an ironing board and ironing your locks, yes?
No, just hanging upside down and using a blow dryer. Thankfully, I never needed to iron my hair, which is thick, but not curly.