Boulder Weekly 24.02.1994
Who Killed Dean Reed?
Denver 1938 - Berlin 1986
A real American rebel
I only saw Dean Reed once. It was 1985, and he had returned to Denver for a showing of Dean Reed: American Rebel, a film about his life made by director Will Roberts. I knew nothing about Reed except that he was some kind of star behind the Iron Curtain.
The film, which includes documentary footage of Reed and others telling the compelling story of his life: his frustration with Hollywood movies, television and the music business; his drive to become a big star, which culminated in his unparalleled career behind the Iron Curtain; his immense compassion for the poverty he saw around the world.
Roberts and Reed got up after the screening to answer questions. The 45-minute session backed up the impression given by the film; with his soft-spoken demeanor and intense, blue eyes, Reed was a walking, talking contradiction of the post-World War II period. Although he was in the United States for only the third time since 1961, he expressed an interest in returning to his homeland that evening.
Than, just a little more than a year later, word came that Reed had drowned mysteriously in a lake near his home in East Berlin. There were conflicting reports from his widow and German Democratic Republic officials, who later reported finding a suicide note.
Just my short experience with Reed made that all seem so improbable. And as Justin Mitchell points out in a fascinating story that begins on page 6 , Reed's death could have been one of the final tragedies of the Cold War. I've asked a lot of local people the last couple of weeks as we prepared this story what they knew about Dean Reed. Few recognized the name or knew much about his life, which fueled my enthusiasm for running the story.
It's important that we not forget people like Reed. That's why Stan Oliner at the Colorado Historical Society is managing the 200 pounds of memorabilia and pictures in his care. Why the International Film Series is screening "American Rebel" on April 6 at CU's Muenzinger Auditorium at 7 and 9 p.m. And why we running his story - for those who many not know yet about one of Colorado's most unsung heroes.
The lonely death of Dean Reed
By Justin Mitchell
To Brother Deen (sic) Reed, Poet of Love and Peace and the Plead (sic) of Human Rights and Honour. For me, thee and the world all over.
From a letter and poem to Dean Reed
In the southwest corner of Boulder's Green Mountain Cemetery (Section K, Lot 521) between the Flatirons and federal land, lie the ashes of Dean Cyril Reed, Colorado native, American rebel and perhaps the state's best know entertainer and activist.
Bigger than John Denver and better known, that is, in the former Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc. In the United States and his home state Reed was more obscure except to a few. To many of those he was, at best, an enigma of curiosity. At worst he was seen as a defector or Commie dupe. To those who knew him he was none of these, although his mysterious death in East Germany arguably makes him one of the last Cold War victims prior to the Berlin Wall falling.
A musician and actor, Reed left his homeland in 1961 to seek greater exposure, initially in Argentina and Chile and later in the Soviet Union and East Germany, where he lived until his death. He never renounced his American citizenship. Except for three brief visits between 1961 and 1985, Reed didn't return to the United States until he was buried in Boulder on Dec. 9, 1991.
Reed rests with tragic company in Section K: Fred Shellman, founder of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, who fell to his death from an apartment window; children whose teddy bears and toys decorate their graves; young people killed in auto accidents; James Dockus and Christopher Schilling, both victims of the Michael Bell shootings.
A few miles southeast of Reed's polished river rock tombstone ("Denver 1938 - Berlin 1986 American Rebel"), his 82-year-old mother, Ruth Anna Brown, lives with her husband, Ralph Odom, and dog Ginger, in a South Boulder home that testifies modestly to her son's international acclaim. There are records albums in Russian, German, Spanish and English. Movie portraits. A black-and-white scarf presented to Reed by Yasser Arafat. A large engraved copper bowl from a Chilean fan club. Books, including a German film encyclopedia (Filmschauspieler A-Z), where Dean's picture and bio on page 388 follow Redford, Robert and Redgrave, Vanessa. Brown has pictures of a school and factory named after her son and proudly mentions an annual children's film festival held in his honour in Germany.
A life story now in storage
About 35 miles further east at the Colorado Historical Society, 200 pounds of Reed's personal effects are in storage. They range from letters, song lyrics, fan mail and his old Wheat Ridge High School letter sweater to his cowboy hat, jeans, castings of his teeth and an acoustic guitar and case, the latter covered with his German widow's handwritten declarations: "I desire you, I love you, I adore you." A hand-drown heart encircles their initials. His childhood nickname, "Slim," is also on the case. A macramé strap and yellow smiley face sticker adorn the Lederer guitar.
Testifying to his years behind the Iron Curtain and his long preoccupation with speaking and singing out against American imperialisms are reams of U.S. State Department documents and telegrams dating from 1971, when Reed was characterized by one American embassy official in Moscow as "a particularly obnoxious character (who) ... attacks the United States ... in a hysterical and scurrilous manner." A heavily and - in some cases sloppily - censored stack of State Department telegrams concerning inquiries about his 1986 death ends Dean Reed's Freedom of Information file but not the questions surrounding his death or his legacy here and abroad.
"There is no overwhelming cry either for information concerning his death or life," says Stan Oliner, curator of the Dean Reed collection. "He's a footnote to Colorado history, but I'm still intrigued. I will continue to collect Dean Reed stuff. As long as I'm at the Historical Society I will continue to make his presence known."
Oliner estimates that he receives about six requests a year for information on Reed. "Mostly from the media - England, Japan and some here. I'm at the point of listing the collection on an international data base."
A man before his time
"To his friends he was an honest, idealistic, big-hearted guy who had a lot of charm," says Jennifer Dorn, a Colorado writer working on a Dean Reed biography. "I wouldn't say he was naive as so much someone who believed in something that was before his time - the end of the Cold War and nuclear weapons. What was so odd about that? But he was also all contradiction on so many levels, a socialist who also wanted to be a superstar with al the self-centeredness that goes with it."
"He was a wild card. He was not a team player, and he was nobody's trained bear. He was nobody's little monkey," says Will Roberts, an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose movie on Reed, American Rebel, brought Reed back to Colorado after 25 years for a brief (and controversial) visit in 1985. "He rooted for the underdog, but he also did see things in black in white in many ways."
Roberts, who was recently in Denver, also agrees that Reed could be a walking contradiction. "He promoted peace while jumping around with a gun," says Roberts, referring to footage of Reed and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat celebrating together. "He was friends with Arafat but also got in trouble for singing 'My Yiddishe Mama' in Moscow.
He was also the first person to sing 'Rock Around the Clock' and 'Blue Suede Shoes' in Siberia. The Soviets knew, that rock 'n' roll was exciting and the social-pressure valve had to be released. It was Dean Reed who did that, who told them that rock 'n' roll isn't decadent, that it was rather music of the American working people.
I would put him in the category world beat. He sang in English, Spanish, German, Russian, Italian ... giving a menu of the world's music from where he had been. He made 'We Shall Overcome' famous in the Eastern Bloc."
Blond-haired and blue-eyed, Reed represented the ideal American pop star for Russians and East Europeans. He had sell-out crowds at Madison-Square-Garden-size concert halls in Moscow and once attracted 17,000 to an outdoor concert in Siberia. A 1979 TV special was the highest-rated Soviet TV show up to that time.
The boss of communism
In this heyday Dean Reed was variously described as the (pick one) Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash or Bruce Springsteen of communism. In an interview with me in 1985 during his appearance at the Denver International Film Festival Reed described himself as a "revolutionary artist" whose film and recording career took him to 32 countries. He held onto his American passport, and, despite the American Rebel moniker, said at the time that his odd life had been directed as much - or more - by chance than by choice.
A graduate of Wheat Ridge High School, Reed's first brush with national fame came in 1956 when he won a 110-mile foot race against a mule and rider. He did it on impulse after being bet 25 cents that it was impossible.
But music, not racing mules, was his real interest. With his Martin guitar, Reed played dude ranches, clubs and gigs around the University of Colorado, where he studied meteorology for two years.
Reed war interested in a different kind of high pressure system, however. He went to Hollywood, and by 1959 he had a contract with Capitol Records and made his first appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand singing "Annabelle" and "The Search."
"Joan Van Ark, president of the Boulder Dean Reed Fan Club, has written a letter to Dick Clark to thank him for putting Dean on the show," the Daily Camera reported. "More than 100 Boulder teenagers have signed the letter along with Joan to help get Dean Reed started on the road to fame."
While Van Ark's fame (especially as one of the stars of TV's 'Knot's Landing') eventually grew to eclipse Reed's at home (his domestic career stalled despite - or, perhaps, because of - performing songs such as "Twirly Twirly" and "Pretty Little Majorette" on TV shows like 'Bachelor Father'), Reedmania was inexplicably rampant in Chile, where Capitol Records distributes his records. A Chilean music chart from 1962 shows Reed topping a list of 20 popular singers ahead of Elvis (No. 2), Ray Charles (No. 4) and Sinatra (No. 10), among others.
"Why was my record so successful there? I don't know," Reed said in 1985, still sounding somewhat bewildered. "My manager had called me in 1961 and said, 'Dean, you're getting more mail from South America than the Kingston Trio are getting from the whole world.'"
Reed went to find out why and was met in Santiago by 50,000 screaming teenagers, from whom he reportedly needed a 58-man guard unit to escape. "In Hollywood I wasn't having success. In South America the offers were all there. This was a great shock to a boy from Colorado."
Taking a stand
A greater shock for Reed was the extreme social and economic differences he found in South America. "There are great differences ... and one must take a stand," Reed said in 'American Rebel'. "You were either for the status of quo, the 20 percent with all the wealth, or you stood on the side of the 80 percent who were illiterate, who were hungry."
Mixing politics with pop music, Reed was expelled from Argentina in 1965 and later drew the attention of U.S. Embassy officials beginning in 1970, when he was arrested by Chilean police for washing an American flag on the embassy steps in Santiago to protest the Vietnam War.
"The American flag is dirty with the blood of the Vietnamese people, dirty with the blood of the Negro people of America," Reed later said. In January 1971 he published an "Open Letter to A. Solzhenitsyn" in a Soviet publication denouncing the renowned author's portrayal of the Soviet Union as a "deeply ill society gripped by revenge and injustice."
By 1985 he had recorded 13 albums and starred in 18 films around the world, the best known of which was a western comedy popular in East Germany called "Sing Cowboy Sing". The only glimpse U.S. audiences had of his movie work was in a spaghetti western with Yul Brynner, "Adios Zapata".
Reed was on this third marriage, to an East German film star named Renate Blume-Reed, and at the time he expressed a desire to return to the United States, a desire tempered by Reed's fear that his non-English speaking wife wouldn't be able to adjust to life in the U.S. and by the reality that he was virtually unknown in his native country.
"I would like very much to be creative and productive here, but I have a feeling it would be very difficult to find a (movie) studio to give me any backing. My records, I don't know either," Reed said during an interview at the Brown Palace Hotel in 1985.
He expressed a desire to use some American entertainment connections through an old Hollywood pal, Phil Everly - half of the Everly Brothers - with whom he stayed in contact through the years. "I'm going to see if he can talk with people about making a long play (LP) for the States.
"After 25 years I can more or less live in any country I choose, but as I get older I have a great fear of growing old in a country that is not my own."
It was not to be.
On June 16, 1986, Reed's fully clothes (including a parka) body was found in a lake about 1,000 meters from his East German home. He had left home on June 12, supposedly to discuss the filming of a movie close to his heart, an East German-Soviet production of the 1973 FBI and American Indian Movement battle at Wounded Knee. It was a project Reed had nurtured for years and one he finally saw coming to fruition.
The official verdict at the time was death by drowning following a car accident, but a number of puzzling contradictions, rumors and mysteries continue to haunt Brown and those interested in Reed's life and death.
"He waited almost five years to do that film," says his mother. "He wanted to do it more than anything. Why would he disappear?"
His wife supposedly reported him missing on June 13, but, according to Brown, the same day Renate also told a visiting British journalist that her husband couldn't keep a previously scheduled appointment for a press conference because he was "hospitalized with a bad cold."
"You start right there, and the story just builds," says Brown.
According to his mother, who has traveled to Germany since the death, most recently to collect his ashes in 1991, the autopsy listed the wrong height for her son and omitted mentioning a scar on one leg. After she pointed out the errors, the paperwork was corrected. Reported damage to his car didn't coincide with the official story. Although he supposedly drowned, Brown says no water was found in his lungs.
About four years after his death a "suicide letter" suddenly surfaced in the wake of German unification.
"All at once the Stasi (the East German secret police) supposedly discovered in their secret files papers which are supposed to be Dean's suicide letter," says Brown, indignantly. "Just like that. After all these years! I have a copy, but I've decided not to let it out because I don't believe it, and I think the more people saw it the more they would believe it." While the handwriting is similar to Reed's, the letter includes several discrepancies, say those who have seen it - not the least of which is the fact that it wasn't Reed's style to kill himself. "He didn't suffer existential dilemmas," says filmmaker Roberts. "He once told me if he ever did commit suicide, it would be for a cause in someplace like Chile or Lebanon."
Reed had a better-than-average command of German. The note is written in German but, as Brown says, "The grammar is ridiculous. It's almost like someone was saying, 'This stupid American couldn't speak German, so this is how I'd write it if I were that stupid.'"
The letter is also reportedly almost entirely directed to the then-head of the East German film industry. Strange from a man who adored his mother, daughters (from previous marriages) wife and German stepson.
"If he were writing a suicide letter he wouldn't forget the important people in his life," says Brown. "The only mention is the very last sentence. A sort of 'oh-by-the-way, say good-bye to my mother kind of thing.'"
"My take is that they (German officials) are all a trail of liars," says Roberts firmly. He adds that some rumors following Reed's death have him being killed by Renate, the KGB and the CIA - and alive in Siberia following an Elvis-like disappearing act. He and Reed's mother place no significance in the suicide of Reed's father - who disapproved of his son's Iron Curtain career and killed himself following a long illness.
"You might as well that the UFOs did it," says Roberts. "It makes as much sense to me as suicide."
"We know now that the police lied to me every bit of the way," says Reed's mother. "We think he was killed, and somebody put his body in the water. Anyway, the whole thing stinks. I don't think I'll ever give it up. People say, 'Ruth, don't brood about it.' I'm not brooding. He was my son. I adore him, and if I can do anything to unravel the mystery, I will."
American Rebel, a documentary on Dean Reed by Will Roberts, will be shown on April 6 at 7:30 and 9 p.m. as part of the International Film Series at Muenzinger Auditorium on the CU campus. Ruth Anna Brown will also present the annual Dean Reed Peace Prize during the World Affairs Conference that week.