James Dean and Anna Maria Pierangeli’s Tragic Love Story

Vogue - James Dean and Anna Maria Pierangeli’s Tragic Love Story

James Dean and Anna Maria Pierangeli first met in 1954 at Warner Bros. Studios, where Dean was under contract. Although his first film, East of Eden, was still being edited, and he had only just begun work on Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, Dean—a handsome, brooding, slightly quirky young man of 23 at the time—was already considered a star to watch.

Pierangeli, born in Cagliari, Italy, was a year younger than Dean, but she too was on the rise. After Léonide Moguy’s Tomorrow Is Too Late (1950) had won her the Silver Ribbon for best actress from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists at 17, Pierangeli signed with MGM. In Hollywood, where she was known simply as Pier Angeli, she appeared in films such as Fred Zinnemann’s Teresa (1951), alongside Marlon Brando; Norman Foster’s Sombrero (1953); and Gottfried Reinhardt and Vincente Minnelli’s The Story of Three Loves (1953) opposite Kirk Douglas, with whom she’d have a brief affair.

Yet it was during production on her next film—the Warner epic The Silver Chalice, with Paul Newman—in May of 1954 that Pierangeli first crossed paths with Dean. After Newman introduced them, the sparks flew immediately.

Paparazzi soon began to follow Dean and Pierangeli to the restaurants in Santa Monica where they would dine after work. He called her “Annarella”—a cross between Anna and Cinderella—give her jewelry, and took pictures of her. Then, as soon as they could, they would escape together to the California coast, seeking refuge in a secluded cottage by the sea. Several years later, Pierangeli recounted of the period: “Sometimes we would just go for a walk along the beach, not actually speaking, but communicating silently to each other. We had complete understanding of each other. We were like Romeo and Juliet, together and inseparable. Sometimes on the beach we loved each other so much we just wanted to walk together into the sea holding hands because we knew then that we would always be together.”

It marked Dean’s first serious relationship after many fleeting affairs and much gossip about his sexuality. (The rumor in Hollywood had been that he was gay—he’d declared himself as such to avoid military service—or bisexual.) However, there was trouble brewing from the beginning. For one thing, Pierangeli was completely beholden to her uncompromising mother-slash-manager, Enrichetta “Enrica” Romiti Pierangeli, who had also brought another daughter, Anna Maria’s twin sister, Maria Pavan, to Hollywood.

Enrica was determined to keep her daughters away from any romances that could harm their reputations, and she had hardened reservations about Dean, considering him untidy and ill-mannered. (His atheism was another issue; Enrica was a devout Catholic.) Despite Dean’s attempts to win her over, including by dressing up for visits and renting a tuxedo for Pierangeli’s movie premiere, Enrica remained unimpressed.

Pierangeli and Dean continued to see each other in secret until November 1954, when—just six months into their courtship—he asked her to marry him. She instinctively said yes.

But two days later, after breaking the news to her mother, Pierangeli returned to Dean not only to renege her acceptance of his proposal, but also to announce that they must never see each other again. By the end of that month, she would surprise everyone by marrying the singer Vic Damone—an Italian-American and a Catholic. Needless to say, Dean was devastated.

He would have other short affairs, including one with Ursula Andress. But on September 30, 1955, seven months after his break-up with Pierangeli, Dean died in Cholame, California, from injuries sustained during an accident involving his Porsche 550 Spyder. He was 24. According to legend, in the glove compartment of his wrecked car was a new letter in which he yet again asked Pierangeli to marry him.

Pierangeli’s life was also sadly cut short. In August 1955 she had her first child, Perry, with Damone, but four years later she separated from her husband and initiated a long legal battle for custody (which she ultimately lost). After living in Rome for a time, she married the composer and orchestra conductor Armando Trovajoli in London on February 14, 1962. The following year, the couple had a son, Howard Andrea, but this second marriage also ended in divorce and another lost custody battle. Pierangeli then returned to Los Angeles, where—despite help from her sister, Maria, and close friend Debbie Reynolds—she was unable to revive her career.

Following further romantic failures, bitter disputes with the Italian tax authorities, and worsening financial difficulties, Pierangeli fell into a severe depression and entered a psychiatric clinic. On September 10, 1971, she was found dead in her Beverly Hills home from an accidental barbiturate overdose. She was only 39 years old. Pierangeli’s sister had her buried in Rueil-Malmaison, a suburb of Paris.

“I don’t think any man can save me now,” Pierangli had written in a letter to a friend two months earlier. “I think it may be too late. I think I was meant to live and die alone. Love is far away, somewhere deep inside of me. My love died at the wheel of a Porsche.”