Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany
Chapter 1. A Colorado Cowboy Tragedy
The GDR Peace Council called to ask if I would show an American singer around town. I had met many Americans here from the infra-red end of the spectrum; this one was a Colorado cowboy with azure eyes, long blond hair, a model physique and magic smile. This incredibly handsome rock'n'roll man was a leftist!? I almost pinched him to see if he was real!
Dean Reed came from Denver, acted, sang, played guitar and brought a film about Chile to the Documentary Week. Protesting the Vietnam war, Dean scrubbed a US flag in a pail near the US Embassy in Santiago and got arrested; the publicity won a few percentage points which helped the Socialist Allende win the election. So said his film. I was a bit skeptical but had also rejoiced with Allende, and scrubbing seemed far better than flag-burning.
In Leipzig his film made less impact than Dean himself. He sang at the regular "Anti-Imperialist Evening" and was invited to sing elsewhere. I interpreted at his performances and for all those, mostly female, eager to meet him. Most persistent was Wiebke: slender, extremely attractive, once a teacher, now a successful model. The interest was mutual.
GDR-TV offered him a guest show, then came a big concert in Potsdam, after which over 100 women and girls rushed toward him. I saw a side door and pleaded: "Dean! We can duck out here before they get here!"
"Signing autographs is a duty owed an audience," he said, and gave every one a smile and a word or two while writing "Peace" and his name. He had become a GDR celebrity.
At college in Boulder Dean sang and played guitar. At a dude ranch job he raced a mule 110 miles through the desert. The mule, seeing no reason for such idiocy, lost! Dean won a quarter and 31 lines in Newsweek.
Giving up meteorology, he drove to Hollywood in 1958 and had luck. Trained in acting by Warner Brothers star-maker Paton Price, a pacifist who influenced him greatly, he also sang; somehow South America loved his songs and Capitol Records sent him on tour. Chile and Argentina greeted him like a conquering hero; he edged Presley and Sinatra from the top of the charts. But the carefree cowboy, whose father was a conservative teacher, was suddenly confronted by rural and slum misery. He opposed atomic testing, had a run-in with the US embassy, and met by chance a famous Soviet soccer star, Lev Yashin, who altered his stereotype ideas about "Russians". On his own TV show in Argentina he interviewed Tereshkova, the first woman in space, and flabbergasted her with a big kiss. The angry dictator of the day sent goons to rake Dean's house with gunfire; the peace council delegated him to a world congress in Finland.
After preventing a split with Chinese delegates by starting a sustained "We Shall Overcome" he was invited to the USSR and took it by storm. He moved to Italy with his American wife and made swashbuckling films with Anita Ekberg or Yul Brynner (who insisted the taller Dean stand in a ditch). One producer stalled in paying workers; Dean let himself be "kidnapped" until back wages turned up. When he spoke against the Vietnam war US pressure toughened; he visited Chile for the elections, made his film, got divorced, and landed in the GDR.
Two East Berlin film authors wanted him for the title role in a literary adaptation, "The Life of a Good-for-Nothing" and I interpreted. Most scenes were in a baroque chateau near Dresden where Dean enlivened the film by walking on his hands or juggling tomatoes. He got along well with carpenters, lighting men, grips and gaffers, noted that they got the same food as the stars, asked about working hours and chatted when possible - or resorted to arm wrestling matches.
With Italy out of bounds we filmed in Transylvania (without the Count). A small castle with drawbridge, narrow passages and winding stairs had a fine Romantic flair. A mountain climber was hired to climb down from a window high above a cliff. Dean rejected a double but told the cameraman not to cut the take so all could see it was really him! We were all nervous when he climbed out into the darkness; the lights picked him up and down he went! But alas, the climb was too long, the cameraman cut it after all; Their friendship was never again so close.
A little Gypsy girl of 10 fell in love with this fairy-tale Prince Charming from far away. She waited for him each morning, stood outside till he got into costume and makeup and tagged along during the filming. Dean never complained and gave a tongue-lashing to the receptionist who tried to chase her away.
One morning, driving to location, our bus was blocked on the narrow road by a cart stuck in a mud hole. We sank back, grateful for more sleep. Only Dean, seeing driver and horses in trouble, soon had his shoulder to the cart. If one leftist ran over, damn it, I couldn't doze on! And if two crazy Americans helped out, the others had to finish the job!
Dean got along with ordinary Rumanians but hated stuffed-shirt production assistants and snobs. The local studio provided a Mercedes for Dean, the director and me. One day we stayed longer and the director sent our elderly scriptwoman back with it. The chauffeur objected: "I only drive Americans!" A one-legged Rumanian had a bit role as bandit; his peg-leg, rags, livid facial scar and beard looked ghastly! When Dean politely guided him to the front seat the next day the chauffeur said nothing, but his jaws were working all the way to the hotel.
Nine stuntmen from Bucharest played elegant "bandits" in tuxedos and top hats but when shot off a moving coach one of them so clearly sought a soft landing that the director asked for a new try. The second man was unconvincing, too. By the fourth try the director was fuming! Dean whispered happily to me: "Just like Italy! They're paid by the fall and try to give every man a chance." All was forgiven in an unforgettable scene at a bonfire in an ancient hilltop castle, a peasant refuge, with the bandits singing in phonetic German under a starry sky!
Before leaving Rumania some final scenes had to be shot in a magnificent mountain gap with giant gray cliffs. Suddenly an officer appeared: "Halt! You cannot drive there!" Artillery maneuvers were beginning! I saw no money change hands but after 20 minutes of palavering he let us go ahead "if we hurried". We did! Before long we heard firing and saw puffs of smoke on the cliffs.
When the film was finished Dean and Wiebke got married and started rebuilding a small lakeside house in Berlin's outskirts, no simple matter with materials and craftsmen always rare.
Although not many of the million people who saw the film grasped the convoluted plot, least of all the youngsters who bought most of the tickets, filming was fun. I was glad to join the crew for Dean's second GDR film, based on Jack London's Klondike stories and filmed in the Tatra Mountains of Slovakia and Karelia in the Soviet Union. The cast included Armin Mueller-Stahl, Ralph Hoppe (the Goering in "Mephisto"), the beautiful Renate Blume and Manfred Krug, most prominent actor in the GDR and, after he "went West", in all Germany.
When Dean sang at a college in Leningrad on our way north I experienced his amazing popularity there. We also visited the Hermitage with its fine collection of French Impressionists and Expressionists tucked away on an upper floor, a result of long-standing suspicions about such works. Not only Stalin was suspicious: instead of admiring Matisse or Braque paintings Dean said, "Why didn't they learn to paint first? Anyone can smear up a canvas like that." He had grown up far from East Coast art trends and liked paintings to "look real". When the sophisticated Wiebke scoffed at his backwardness he sought support from me, his pal. But it was Colorado vs. Manhattan; I tried to mediate - but could not support him. After this double betrayal he stormed out. Wiebke had the coat checks so we expected to find him downstairs. Not Dean! In his rage he ran a mile coatless through the bitter cold. But at breakfast the two were as affectionate as ever.
Karelia's snowy landscape was beautiful, the hotel was quite good, the team interesting. We filmed on a long, narrow lake, our "Yukon"; the truck driver tested ice thickness now and then. For the race climaxing the film five men from the Chukchen region across from Alaska were flown in with sleds and fifty dogs which looked even less Alaskan than the sleds and ran so slowly that tricks were needed to make it look swift. The Chukchens, in Europe for the first time, were a jolly bunch. The director asked one to play a distant sled driver "shot" in one scene, throwing his arms up and falling down dead. After a few tries the take was fine, but each time he "died" his countrymen almost died with him - of laughter.
One day a Russian assistant pushed past me, I stumbled, dislocating my knee, and flew home with a plaster cast. Though the second GDR film was short on suspense and humor, I got to know him better on those cliffs and frozen lakes.
His political feelings were stronger than those in official circles. When he held up the clenched fist popular with western leftists in a TV show the scene was cut! His censors sized up audience sentiment better than he, an irony in view of claims that the GDR misused him for his leftist image. Dean was his own man, sincere about socialism, a hater of "capitalist oppression", but increasingly skeptical about unprincipled careerists and hypocrites; he called the heads of musicians' agencies in Prague and Warsaw "Mafiosi". He found more people he trusted in the GDR but was never naive - except about himself.
Clenched fists, real or verbal, did not go over with most audiences; the "left" in the radical American or West European sense was little known in the GDR (less still in Eastern Europe); when people heard self-seekers mouthing official clichés they came to reject not just the hypocrites. Dean lost popularity with rock'n'roll fans gazing enviously westward and with intellectuals for whom he was not highbrow enough. Despite many false descriptions of a land "cut off" from western culture, it was western fashions, pop or highbrow, which dominated, and many mistrusted an American who wanted to live in the GDR; unless they could dismiss him as a US failure he upset their dream of a western Paradise.
Dean was neither a failure nor a hypocrite, but his showmanship traits made many question his sincerity (unless they got to know him). Like most singers or actors he needed spotlights and autograph hunters; the revolution he yearned for, above all in Latin America, was linked in his fantasy, I think, with a white steed charging over barricades - and himself high in the saddle. I couldn't picture him at humdrum "Jimmie Higgins" footwork with no honors or applause. But so many seek the limelight with no principles or dreams except wealth. He made sincere sacrifices for his ideals, which involved egoism but not selfishness.
His German improved and we saw less of each other. When he dropped in or I went to his lakeside home - not overluxurious but with an American fireplace, a breakfast terrace and a narrow lawn leading to the small pier - or when we met at the Documentary Film Week, we laughed, argued and got along well.
He continued his work with the DEFA studios. In one film Dean played the white "blood brother" of a Cheyenne without racism or condescension. It was as good as any of a dozen DEFA Indian films and better than many American or West German ones. "Sing, Cowboy, Sing" was a Western parody mixing slapstick, a bit of class consciousness and gentle digs at GDR weaknesses. Intellectuals sniffed but the kids flocked in. In 1977 Dean made "El Cantor" about the Chilean singer Victor Jara, who Pinochet killers murdered; Dean saw himself as a similar singer for freedom and revolution. The film got praise from some western critics but not from me; it couldn't compare with Jack Lemmon's "Missing."
He got arrested sneaking into Argentina and in 1983 defied the Chilean dictator by appearing at anti-Pinochet gatherings. A controversial journey in 1977 took him to the front lines in Lebanon with Yasser Arafat, whom he met at the Berlin Youth Festival in 1973. He supported the Palestinians (and all people he viewed as underdogs); some Americans viewed his friendship with the arch-enemy of the day as anti-Semitic, but Dean was no anti-Semite. One of his standby songs was "Yiddishe Momma"; he led up to it with a few words about his Danish mother, then descended into the audience to sing directly to some elderly lady, ending with a few tears and a kiss. At a big Moscow concert even this song was seen as part of the troubled "Jewish question", hence taboo! Worse yet was the Israeli "Hava Nageela".
"No, Dean, not those two songs!"
"Those two or none!" he insisted. The Culture Minister herself acquiesced and he sang them to giant applause.
On a USA trip in 1978 he joined a farmers' protest in Minnesota against a company stringing power lines through the fields. He and nine others got arrested. The GDR media pounced on this like a lion on a gnu: "Dean jailed by the oppressors!" There were protests and petitions, Dean wrote Honecker and got the arrestees to go on hunger strike.
When I heard the charge was "trespassing" I thought: "My God! The worst he can get is a day or so in the hoosegow! Is that what the fuss is all about?!" When the romantic fighter against oppression of the downtrodden was acquitted the anticlimax did not raise his ratings with skeptics.
His quarrels with Wiebke worsened; despite their little daughter they were divorced. In 1981 Dean married his third wife, the beautiful, dark-haired, soft-featured actress Renate Blume who was in "Kit & Co." I had again done the first interpreting and my wife and I were at this (as at the previous) wedding party, this time a cruise through Berlin lakes and waterways.
Rare references to Dean in western media snidely exaggerated his wealth and said the GDR used him. True, he was given TV and film chances, but they paid their way. And how many American artists have been used in dubious causes?
As the 1980's wore on, Dean's doubts increased. We discussed them when we met, questioning not the merits of socialism but its application. With popular opposition growing, more people turned from Dean without knowing or caring about his doubts, questions or occasional run-ins. And his days as a juvenile hero were numbered. The GDR was small; fans raced to one concert and went to a second, but only the most avid visited a third one. He still had lots of magic if you were ready to like him. If not, his best stunts or songs couldn't win you.
Negotiations dragged on for his feature film about the Wounded Knee battle between Indians and the FBI, a co-production with Latvia (then in the USSR). Shooting was finally scheduled in the Crimea. His scenario was good, I was told.
In 1985 Dean visited Colorado for the first time since his youth. Some admirers (especially Dixie, a woman who claimed to know him from school) urged his return. He was always torn between illusions and realities; when his ego played a big part so did the illusions. Dean dreamt of starring as hometown boy returning from successes behind the Curtain. Renate was less than overjoyed, I think, about "USA manager" Dixie, who wrote and telephoned incessantly, and saw no sense in moving and ending her own career.
When "60 Minutes" planned interviews with East Berlin Americans, my vanity induced me to say yes despite warnings about Mike Wallace. Dean's vanity was hardly weaker. The popular program might help him make a US comeback; with GDR popularity fading and his film uncertain it was a new hope.
Wallace spent a pleasant day and a half with Dean and had tears in his eyes when he heard "Yiddishe Momma". But his eyes must have hardened, too; a woman from GDR-TV called to warn me that he asked tough questions on everything from Afghanistan to the Wall. Dean answered courageously, she said. I worried half the night on how to be halfway credible with rough questions and a very critical audience while smiling and never looking grim.
With my workroom jammed with lights, cameras and Mike Wallace I had to pull myself together and not get overly awed. He asked about my past and then - no Afghanistan, no Wall, just Dean Reed! He pounded away: Hadn't Reed been misused as a blond star to put it over on the populace? When I said not everyone liked his music or acting, Wallace pounced on this as if it were a revelation. "No? Why not?" I tried to explain, but figured I'd be damned if I'd bash my friend in front of a hostile camera. When he hit the "big blond" angle a third time I said this was not so special: most people here were blond. Wallace halted and said, "Why, that's true!" Luckily he did not use the interview with me.
An American friend copied and sent me Dean's interview. What a disaster! His answers were hardly adapted to US thinking. When he spoke of Gary Hart's chances for the White House (in 1985 not unlikely) and adding jestingly that the Colorado Senate seat might be vacant I nearly collapsed!
"Manager" Dixie sent him copies of letters to CBS condemning it for letting him speak. Some said his singing was terrible. One man wrote that he should be shot. Dixie said this was the end - and Dean spent hours in bed, reading and re-reading those awful letters. His dream was over.
While vacationing at the Baltic a few weeks later my wife and I suddenly saw on TV news: Dean's body, after "a tragic accident", was found in a lake near his home. Despite the mysterious wording I knew it must be suicide.
Countless friends from TV, film, the arts and politics attended the funeral. Dean's mother, here with his American ex-wife and daughter, spoke movingly. But she did not believe in suicide or an accident, especially since the police behaved so strangely. Evidently the SED leaders could not admit that this heroic GDR friend could take his own life! Everyone would ask why!
Their silence made it worse and rumors spread: he had been drugged or drunk, his feet bound or a noose around his neck; the CIA killed him, or Mossad. Encouraged by a letter from Dixie, western media pointed at the Stasi. I knew this was absurd. If Dean wished to spill dreadful secrets, as the tabloid press hinted, why did he pass up the chance on the "60 Minutes" show - and defend the GDR? Did the Stasi kill him for wanting to leave? Dean could go to West Berlin or the USA anytime he wanted, and often did! Many writers and actors left the GDR with or without permission. Why weren't Biermann or Manfred Krug murdered?
An American friend asked me: "What about some jealous husband, or skinhead types who vented their wrath on him?"
That was possible, but I heard of no signs of violence. And I knew of Dean's depressed mood and his impulsiveness. Years later I read the long note he left in his car; he had been angry with Renate, probably after a quarrel (I knew Dean's quarrels). He also wrote: "My greetings to Erich (Honecker) - I am not in agreement with everything, but socialism has not grown up yet. It is the only solution for the main problems in most of the world." After farewells to his daughters and adopted son, he added: "I love you and so many in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Palestine, the USSR, Czechoslovakia and the GDR, which became my second homeland for a short time. May all progressive people join hands and together create a better, just and peaceful world..."
When the urn with his ashes was interred in a tiny cemetery near his home I compared him, not to his white steed hero El Cid but to a Don Quixote who dreamt of changing the world but was destroyed in the process. I liked this difficult chap, sometimes in spite of myself; for fifteen years we shared a destiny as American leftists in East Berlin, with common ideals and common quandaries. He had a layer cake background with so many layers: a horsey, out-back childhood, the drive to prove himself and push to the top, Hollywood glitz and glamor with a love for showbiz gimmicks; treasured ideals learned from Paton Price, the revolutionary impulses from Latin America - an anger against poverty and "Gringo imperialist" aid for fascistic dictators - maybe also a macho tinge. Finally, the USSR and GDR and his readings in Marxism. His star had risen high but some things combined against him: style changes in entertainment and the inevitability of getting older. And he was a victim of the East Bloc's disintegration, becoming acute in the mid-1980's, which crushed far more than one lone cowboy singer and actor. I wonder, looking back: was he perhaps lucky not to live through the changes that followed?
|© Victor Grossman|