Rolling Stock 12/1986
DEAN REED: 1938-1986
The Mysterious Death of The Iron Curtain Cowboy
Dean Reed, the American who became a superstar in the Eastern Bloc, is dead. There seems to be little doubt that he was murdered, and yet his death has received only a passing mention in the Western media. It is true, as Reed's friend an film biographer, Will Roberts points out (see obit), few Americans even knew Dean Reed existed, and of those who did, some considered him to be an American traitor (see KOA KO'd) rather than an American rebel (the title of Will Robert's documentary about him).
So it should really not suprise anyone that Dean Reed's death has stirred so little attention in the American press. He was an Internationalist, at home anywhere in the world, and this, it seems is unamerican. On the other hand, as the coroner's report makes clear, he did not die of natural causes, and he was, in fact, an American citizen. Reed's mother, Ruth Anna Brown, points out that while the 1964 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and the 1981 Bi-lateral Consular Convention between the US and the GDR deny the State Department the right to interview or take sworn statements from East German nationals, this has never stopped the West from making a ruckus over what is seen as an injustice.
The total disinterest on the parts of Americans over Dean Reed's death is an indictment in itself. Why hasn't 60 Minutes done a follow-up story on the mysterious circumstances of his death which occured a mere six weeks after the Mike Wallace interview with him was aired on national TV? Why hasn't the State Department demanded a more plausible explanation of how he died? Why is his mother left to draw her own conclusions? Not that Ruth Anna Brown - in her seventies and working on her Ph.D. at the University of Hawaii - isn't capable of speculating on a trail of evidence that was freeze-dried from the start. She gives the account of his disappearance as related by Reed's wife, Renate Blume-Reed, an East German movie star:
"It was Thursday, June 12th, about 10:30 p.m. when he left his home to drive to Gerhardt (Gerrit, d.Red.) List's house some 40 miles away in Potsdam. List was the producer of the film he was to start shooting on Monday. Renate says Dean didn't explain why he needed to see him or why he couldn't have talked over the phone, but there were a lot of details still to handle - I expect it wasn't easy to direct the film while also acting in it - and there was the reporter to meet, and a production meeting to attend on Saturday. Renate also said he took a sleeping pill (but then decided, I assume, not to go to sleep right away?)
"The police dindn't find his body until Tuesday morning (17th), the morning I received the telegram saying he had died 'while swimming' in the lake. They found the car (in full view of Berliners who flock to the lake every weekend) and his body, full clothed, in the water nearby, ten miles from home. The car had a bump on the right fender."
It's hard to believe that Reed would take a sleeping pill and then decide to drive 40 miles to visit a friend. The coroner's report mentions a sleeping pill only just "beginning to dissolve", which would seem to imply he left immediately after taking it. Perhaps he had an argument with his wife and drove off in a huff? This, in fact, has been suggested; there are even rumors that he committed suicide as a result of this domestic squabble.
Although the suicide theory cannot be rejected out of hand, it seems highly unlikely. Although he undoubtly loved his wife deeply, he wasn't the type to kill himself over a rocky marriage. That he killed himself "because his career was not going well in the GDR," or because he'd rather die than not return to the States, is equally implausible. At the time of his death he was deeply involved in making a film he dad spent 3 years preparing, and any plans he had for returning to the states were being arranged for the fall of 1987. Will Roberts remembers him saying that "the only reason he might consider ending his life was if he discovered he had a fatal illness. But even then he would go to a dangerous part of the world and give his life for a cause."
But back to the "facts" of the case as given to Ms. Brown in the police report, which makes no mention of suicide, but describes the cause of death as "accidental drowning."
"The police story smacks of a fairy tale! They say he got sleepy, bumped into a tree, got out of the car, walked over to the lake where there is a small canoe pier, leaned over to wash his face, fell in... and drowned! When they told me that one at the police inquiry - I couldn't help it - I laughed out loud! Two years ago I watched him on a trapeze act with one of the leading trapeze groups of Europe. He does all of his own stunts - and he is good!"
"The autopsy revealed a healthy 47-yr. old man, who had eaten a supper of vegetables, possibly - but they weren't sure - had a glass of wine. The sleeping pill hadn't dissolved yet, but was beginning to. They say there were no marks on his body, although Will Roberts saw a large bump on his head. The police said he did not bump his head - he bumped his chest." There were also reports of rope burns arround his neck.
Ms. Brown goes on to explain how she questioned this tale and was reprimanded for bringing up the possibility of murder. The GDR, it seems, makes it impossible to play detective, because they steadfastly maintain that "there is NO CRIME in the GDR." Consequently they had an answer to everything. "We kept asking why he was dressed so strangely. It was warm June night in the 70's, and he wore a denim jacket and topcoat - both lined. It took the detectives a couple of days to come up with an answer to that one. Seemed that Dean couldn't find an old topcoat to wear in his upcoming movie, so he had purchased a new one, and he wore it all the time to get it look worn. They said he even wore it to bed!"
Like everyone who knows and cares about the case, Ruth Anna Brown has endless scenarios running through her head. Because of his heavy clothing and the fact that he was carrying his passport - which she says he never carried unless he needed it to cross international borders - she questions his destination. "Perhaps he knew a hit squad was out to get him, and had decided to 'cross-over.' Maybe they thought he was going to say something he shouldn't to the London Sunday Times reporter, or had discovered some 'earth-shaking episode' he had sworn to tell the people..."
"Renate, who should be able to tell me the most, can't remember much about that evening. As she said the first day I was there - she couldn't remember at the end of a sentence what she had said at the beginning. She was thoroughly tranquillized; and although I kept on suggesting to ALL the MANY people who continually surrounded here that they were giving her too many - my message never got through. I know they weren't letting me talk to her because there was something I wasn't supposed to hear, and I think Renate knows a lot more than she will say.
"As for the film producer, Gerhardt (Gerrit, d.Red.) List, who met us [Reed's first wife, Patty and daughter Ramona accompanied her] and acted as interpreter, I disliked him right off. One of the first things he said, 'You know there isn't a mark on his body!' He said it almost gleefully! He and other members of the film compamy [DEFA Fimls] were present everytime I turned arround. They set up the Memorial Service and the cremation, lent us a car and chauffeur for the five days we were there. It was nice of them to look after us, but sometimes there is a thin line between chaperoning and surveillance."
Dean Reed's mother was one of several people who phoned his house during the 5 days between his disappearance and the discovery of his body. "I called up and spoke to Renate on the 16th, and she didn't say one word about his disappearance." Russell Miller - the English journalist who had arranged to interview Reed on the 14th, was even more confused by the train of events. He arrived in West Berlin with his wife on Friday 13th, and phoned to Dean Reed's house. He was told Reed was in hospital with a lung infection.
"I spoke to his wife at some length when I was in Berlin, and so did my wife who is German born and a fluent German speaker, and we didn't have a single indication that the story she and the film producer, Gotleib Wieczaukowski were telling us was anything other than the truth. Their demeanor and attitude was exactly that of a wife and a business man/film producer who were concerned that he'd been taken to hospital with a virus." [A minor point in a much larger mystery: is it possible that the producer Russell Miller talked to is one and the same as the Gerhardt (Gerrit, d.Red.) List Dean Reed was supposedly on his way to visit? Miller says Wieczaukowski gave him a home phone number in Potsdam, but when he called it, he was told no one of that name lived there.]
"What I couldn't work out was why they didn't get rid of me immediately by suggesting there had been a terrible mix-up - Dean Reed was supposed to see me the next weekend, or some such mistake. Instead they invited us to ring back later, after they'd heard from the hospital, and so we hung around, a continuing irritation and potential problem. It was odd behavior and it wasn't sensible for them to react the way they did. We were shocked when we returned to England and discovered on Wednesday morning that he was dead."
"I'm not familiar with the machinations of the East German Security Apparatus, but there's no question in my mind that Dean Reed was an extremly valuable propaganda tool, and would only remain so while he was a resident in East Berlin. The moment he ceased to be, he would become a problem for them instead of a distinct advantage. I'm sure that his enthusiasm to be interviewed by me was in part because he was anxious to get exposure in the Western media. I think he thought The Sunday Times would give him a slightly more sympathetic ride than he was getting in the American press. From the cuttings I saw, they considered it an outrage than an American should choose to live in East Berlin.
"There were some American radio stations that phoned me up after my piece came out in the Sunday Times [June 22nd], but even more amazing in this case has been the attitude of the American Government Establishment. As far as I know, the last American nationals killed in Germany resulted in the bombing of Lybia. Whereas here we have an absolutely authentic, fully paid-up American citizen who happened to live in East Berlin and who died in mysterious circumstances and it didn't appear that anyone gave a damn about it. When I spoke to the person at the American Consulate in West Berlin, he said, "What the hell!" and he shrugged his shoulders; and I know it was because he thought that Dean Reed was a commy bastard."
Anyone investigating the mysterious death of Dean Reed comes up across a blank wall: first of all there is the iron courtain, and then the mirror image of the State Department's blank stare across a desk of official papers... And between these walls of silence, crushed by the paranoia perhaps of two States, floats the body of Dean Reed. For Will Roberts, who also attended the Memorial service, it was like "being on the set of an Agatha Christie novel on Mars. Whenever you caught someone out in a lie, they'd say it was deliberate, and for a good cause.
"Gerhardt (Gerrit, d.Red.) List came up to me after the Memorial Service and told me how he and Renate had made up this story about Dean being in the hospital with a lung problem. It had been a deliberate lie, he said, because they didn't know where Dean was and hoped he would turn up soon. Then, just before I left, I had a moment alone with Renate, and she told me that she was worried about me, that my life was in danger. I don't know exactly what she meant, but I do remember Dean telling me how his father, Cyril, always said there was a fine line between stupidity and courage, and he was never sure which Dean had. At this point I'm not sure which I possess either.
"I caused a great deal of difficulty over the police report, and you could tell they didn't like me, but they kept coming up with new scenarios. When I said they should investigate murder, they began to give strong implications it was suicide. When I told them Dean wouldn't have committed suicide unless he had a lethal illness, they came up with a report that he had stomach cancer and had driven his car into a lake. But his daughter Ramona drove the car a week afterwards, and there's no question it could have been in the lake."
I interviewed Dean Reed a year ago, and when the article I wrote (Iron Courtain Cowboy, Rolling Stock #11) came out four month later, his American manager, Dixie Schnebly got in touch with me. A Denver business woman with interests in trucking and oil (and who has made records hauls herself as a truck driver), she had known Reed when they were growing up in Wheatridge, and had renewed his acquaintance at the showing of American Rebel at the Denver Film Festival last year. Reed had persuaded her to take on the job of promoting him as a singer, director, actor and writer over here, and she was already hard at work when I met her. It was no easy job to sell this "most famous American in the Soviet Union," but the strangeness of his story, and the fact that he was unknown in this country, was already attracting a certain amount of curiosity from the media. Unfortunately, the attention he was getting, and the arrangements he was making to develop a career in the states seemed to be a threat to parochial sensibilities and must have lead directly to his downfall.
Those who claim Dean Reed was a "failed singer" in the Eastern Bloc, and would never make it in the West, also don't understand that he was more than a pop star: he was a filmmaker who wrote, directed and acted in his own movies. The film he was working on was about the 1972 seige at Wounded Knee. In a previous film, Blood Brothers (1975), he played the part of an officer sent in to wipe out the Utes at the Sand Creek Massacre. In one scene, as the tipis are burning all around him, he breaks the staff of an American flag over his knee. This symbolic gesture of frustration over the senseless slaughter of Indians was made much of in an ABC TV spot on Dean Reed, which implied it was unamerican.
It is strange that Americans only respect rebels who work close to home. As soon as they leave and defend the oppressed abroads, rebels become traitors. Whatever the motive behind his murder, Dean Reed was doomed to "accidentally" slip between the cracks of a world that doesn't want to be the Humpty Dumpty who is put back together again. As the following extracts from his letters to Dixie Schnebly show, he believed he had a role to play in bringing the East and the West together. In hindsight it seems naive to suppose that he would be allowed to give it a chance.
I'm sitting at John F. Kennedy airport waiting for the departure of my plane. I have a few minutes and would like to write you a couple of my thoughts and emotions. I have spent 5 weeks in my homeland this time, more than at any other time during the last 25 years. The trip was the happiest trip I've ever made to America. I've seen my blue skies again and my battery was recharged. I saw my mountains and remembered my boyhood years. I saw so many faces of my homeland: Denver, L.A., Minneapolis, Columbus, New York; so many people, so many histories and past experiences. But all I believe must have common future, a future of peace, a future where the money that is now being wasted on armaments shall be spent to alleviate the hunger and poverty throughout the world. The day shall come and I believe I have a role in bringing these changes about. It is time I returned to my own land and try to do what I have done in 32 other countries. First I shall make the best film that I can. One step at a time.
Jan. 4, 1986
... I begin to write my shooting script with my cameraman on the sixth. That will be the fifth and last (I hope) writing of my script. It is time to begin filming the movie! Then in Feb. I shall be in Prague to make the LP and when it is finished I shall send you an original tape... I think a four page borchure, along with video copies of the ABC TV segment and the 12 new songs - is a package one could use to get a record contract, a tour and a publishing contract...
... don't forget, one must ask the question, What makes Dean unique? There are thousands of singers in America who are younger than I, better looking than I and who can sing better than I... I shall never be of a commercial quality for the normal American. I am a political human being and shall continue being so... To be a rebel, and an American is not negative. To be a rebel against injustice and exploitation and war can only be positive. The word revolutionary is also not a bad word. Two hundred years ago, we were proud to call ourselves that. Personally, I am very proud that I was an American Rebel throughout my life and dedicated my fame, life and time to rebel against injustice wherever I saw it...
Jan. 21, 1986
... I consider myself a member of an international family - I accept no boundary lines or racial lines dividing me from the rest of mankind. I feel I have the obligation to do whatever I can (at the risk of losing my career or my life) to try to make sure that my life on this little planet has a value, and that because I was here for some short years, the planet will be a little better off after I die, because I gave my grain of sand along with thousands of others into the effort of making it better, juster and more peaceful place to live in...
Feb. 28, 1986
... Let's not put the "Country" lable on me. For various reasons. I don't think that CMA is important to us - what are they going to do? Nothing... Country Music and the South are the most conservative and reactionary in their political feelings within the entire USA. I doubt very much if you will find anybody in Nashville who will put his heart into making me a star - he'd be afraid that his office may get bombed by the klu klux klan if he did! I believe that Hollywood is the better direction to go - as I did 30 years ago almost. The people nearby in New York and Hollywood and Detroit are much more sympathetic to liberal causes than Nashville - and there it will matter less if they know my political background and some of the lyrics to my songs! ... Beware of using the fotos with the cowboy hats too often. One on the brochure is enough. We shall get a lable we shall not be able to get rid of - and I definitely don't want to live in Nashville!
... I am sitting in a small recording studio outside of Prague. The bass player keeps making so many mistakes that he is either a bricklayer in disguise, or a CIA agent who is trying to sabbotage my LP! Those are some of the advantages of socialism, which over the years have turned into disadvantages. Here we have no unemplyment. We could use millions of workers we don't have. Nobody must live with the fear of being fired... so sometimes we have people whoe are lazy or untalented who we cannot fire...
... It is difficult to write on paper all my thoughts concerning how I see my return to America ... My value as a person and an artist is precisely what will scare some people away ... But in each city across America there are thousands of people who also believe as I do - and who are fighting for their own freedoms and for the freedom of others...
I still believe very deeply in the film American Rebel to be used for my first tour of American Universities in '87. This film can introduce me and my work and life to those 13 million potential fans, friends and fellow progressives in the fight for a better, juster and more peaceful world...
March 3, 1986
... I am sorry that the film was not sold out in Denver - and of course am a bit disappointed... I see that we are going to have a harder job ahead of us than I expected. But I still believe we can organize a successful return to the USA... Don't get upset when some people get up and leave. During the past 25 years, thousands of people have been getting up and leaving from my speeches and concerts throughout the world - but millions have been coming! I would imagine that in all the countries where I have lived and worked, the people are about evenly divided. About 50% love and respect me and the other 50% hate me. NOBODY is neutral about me, my life and my art and my beliefs. But Paton always said that if all people were more or less neutral about a human being - then that human being was a hypocrite. Anybody who stands for certain ideals and defends those ideals no matter what the consequences - shall have many who love him and many who hate him. I have become accustomed to it...
March 7, 1986
... The last three days have been very good. I found the hippy that I needed for my film (I have been searching for him over a year!) and I found a small 8 year old boy from a circus who rides a horse and throws a lasso like a real cowboy. The boy plays an important role in my film - and I was beginning to worry that I wouldn't find him. And today guess what? I found another copy of the BAM film ...wich I made during my trip from Moscow to Siberia. I shall get it off to you on Monday...
March 14, 1986
... You can already put together the publicity video ... I think ten to fifteen minutes is long enough ... Show only the most important things from American Rebel, ABC, Entertainment Tonight, Mike Wallace and the BAM film. You should have copies with you when you head for Hollywood or Nashville. The other videos I think should wait until you have the record contract. The record company will then put up the money to make the videos of the songs. If necessary, I can fly in for a couple of days to film them.
My days and nights are packed with work because of the film and my TV special. For some reason also I am not sleeping well. Must be Spring time! ...
April 7, 1986
April 31, 1986 [April 30 or May 1?]
... Just talked to my mother, and her response to Mike Wallace was completely favorable! Will also says all the responses he's gotten have been only positive. I am happy as hell that Mike was fair... We need one more show of that quality exactly when I return in a year and a half. Then we can sell books! And the concert halls at the Universities will be sold out...
... Also good news on the home front. Today we decided by the Film Studios that I should direct the film alone. I and my crew are happy about the decision because it is rather difficult to work with two chiefs at the same time. Renate is also sighing a sigh of relief...
May 29, 1986
... I just received a letter from CBS in New York with many letters directed to the network thanking them for allowing me to state views on prime time - and stating how important it is to have an American like Dean Reed as an unofficial goodwill ambassador in the world.
... Hey - last night the man from London Sunday Times finally got through to me - and is arriving on June 14th for an interview. Also CBS called me this morning, and were so exited about the 60 Minutes shot, that they have asked if they can send three people to the Soviet Union to film me while I am making my film. Of course I answered in the positive! I believe that probably the other networks will also show up for the filming along with the New York Times, Time and Newsweek. It would not hurt us to keep the ball rolling with a Time or Newsweek story from the Soviet Union...
The following is from a reply to an invitation to attend his High School reunion.
June 1, 1986
Destiny took me on a different path than many of you. A path which has led me to 32 different countries and with many advantages and disadvantages - as all paths are. I speak now four languages, (English is probably the worst since I haven't spoken it for more than 25 years!) I have sat in prison cells in six countries because I felt that the only value of being famous is that one has the responsibility to raise his or her voice to speak out against injustice and war. I felt that I was an unofficial good will ambassador from the people of the United States (not the government) and I feel that I have done my job as well as I could. I have made mistakes in my life, (as we all have), but I have tried to remain honest to myself and to the world family throughout the last 25 years since I left America.
... If I were with you all during the reunion, I am sure that we would not agree an many points, but that would be only natural and normal. The point is not to concentrate on what divides the people in the world who have different faiths, religions and political beliefs, but instead to concentrate on what unites us all. We all have one future. Either we all on this planet shall learn to live together in peace with one another, respecting the right of the other to search and to have other truths than our own, - or we shall all perish together. We still have that power in our hands - either to stop the arms race - or the human race. I personally feel that the human race is more important thant the wealth accumulated by five percent of the privileged Americans from the arms race.
I wish you all much peace, love, courage and happiness in your lives.
"Dean's newest film was to be on location close to Yalta - some 600 or so miles from the Chernobyl accident. When I was at his house in June I found several unopened letters from Hollywood stars telling Dean that they would not be playing a part in 'Bloody Heart' because they are afraid of the fallout."
Ruth Anna Brown