Meet the Man Who’s Been Living in James Dean’s UWS Apartment for 50 Years

West Side Rag- Meet the Man Who’s Been Living in James Dean’s UWS Apartment for 50 Years

“It was a little eerie,” said Russell Aaronson about the moment he found out he was living in James Dean’s former apartment, 5F, at 19 West 68th Street. He had no idea when he rented the $80-a-month, rent-stabilized place in March, 1974, that Dean had rented it in 1954, and lived there for more than a year — even after moving to California to film “East of Eden” — until his tragic death in a car crash in 1955.

But when “James Dean: The Mutant King: A Biography,” by David Dalton, came out in 1974, word quickly reached Aaronson. “Although James Dean‘s career was cut short at age 24, the three films he starred in were enough to make the actor a legend,” PBS wrote. “People were coming up to me with the book saying, ‘Do you know where you live?’” Aaronson recalled, in an interview with West Side Rag. He saw his address in the biography, along with pictures of Dean in “their” apartment.

Since learning of its prior tenant, Aaronson considers himself a custodian of the space, not an authority on Dean, although he has contributed stories and poetry to “The DeanZine,” the James Dean tri-annual magazine, which first started publishing in 2000.

Images of James Dean. That’s Russell Aaronson, far right.
Images of James Dean. That’s Russell Aaronson, far right.

Over the years, people have shown up from all over the world to visit the apartment as word has spread about its existence. “I consider this place a living, breathing museum, because it’s the same setup as he had when he was here,” said Aaronson. He gets about 10 visitors a year and gives free tours as a way of “earning my keep,” he said.

Some things have changed in the apartment, which Aaronson affectionately refers to as ‘the ship adrift in the city.’ In the 1960s, a fire destroyed an original shelving unit, which had to be replaced. The fire also affected the inside porthole windows; new square windows were installed, but the outside round limestone facade remains. The trees planted in 1976 have grown from three feet up to his window now, and the construction of what will eventually become the tallest building on the Upper West Side, at 50 West 66th Street, is now visible in the skyline.

In the late 1990s, a turn-of-the-century model, cast-iron, white-enamel sink with brass faucets was long in the tooth, so Aaronson borrowed a friend’s car and drove it to the James Dean Museum in Fairmount, Indiana, Dean’s childhood home, where it now sits alongside his posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in his role in East of Eden (1955). Fairmount is also home to Dean’s grave.

Russell Aaronson in the apartment.
Russell Aaronson in the apartment.

Aaronson believes he has felt Dean’s spirit in the apartment, recounting experiences of paranormal activity. One involved a spontaneous jam session with a woman from Los Angeles in 2019. They were listening to Chet Baker and playing on a djembe hand drum together, when the downstairs neighbor came up to ask them to stop the noise, threatening to call the police. Aaronson turned off the stereo, and his guest went to the deck to get some air. Suddenly, three loud whacks reverberated from the drum. “She looked over and I looked over, like, ‘What are you doing?’” But neither of them had touched the drum.

“The strangest encounter occurred when a husband and wife visited me,” said Aaronson. “As we were seated and talking about James Dean’s interest in certain music, suddenly an empty [beach] chair, usually reserved for my cat, unlocked from a locked position and [opened].” Was it possible Dean’s spirit was sitting down to enjoy the conversation?

The roof. “A ship adrift in the city.”
The roof. “A ship adrift in the city.”

Larry Gates, who portrayed Polonius in Hamlet at Lincoln Center in 1975, told Aaronson (who worked on the show as a dresser) about a memorable night in the 1950s when Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, and Dean once gathered on the roof of the 68th Street apartment. “Jimmy was on the conga, and Harry was singing ‘Banana Boat (Day-O)’ — and this was two years before the song was even out,” Gates said. The group enjoyed their music session until three or four in the morning. Dean was known to rehearse on his roof, which has two levels and a view of Sheep Meadow.

Aaronson, 71, currently works as the dining room captain at The River Club of New York. He shares his home with his cat, Ms. Mittens. The apartment is brimming with James Dean framed photos, books, and a replica pair of bull horns, with a replica matador cape exactly where Dean kept his. In the book “Dizzy & Jimmy: My Life with James Dean” by Liz Sheridan, who famously played Jerry’s mom in the TV show “Seinfeld,” Sheridan recounts a romantic evening with Dean in Central Park where they took turns playing the bull and the matador before snuggling up together underneath the original cape. Aaronson treasures gifts given to him by travelers, like the crocheted beaver, hanging on the inside of his door.

James Dean plaque

In 2018, with the approval of the landlord, Dean’s cousin, Marcus Winslow, made the journey from Fairmount, Indiana to 19 West 68th Street to affix a plaque on the façade of James Dean’s Upper West Side home.