The mystery of 'Red Elvis'
Virtually unknown in his native United States, folk singer Dean Reed was one of the GDR's biggest celebrities. Ernest Gill investigates the circumstances surrounding his tragic death.
He was called the "Johnny Cash of Communism" and the "Red Elvis of Red Square". His name was Dean Reed and he was a stunningly-handsome American folk singer and actor in a score of spaghetti Westerns.
Virtually unknown in his native United States, he was one of the East Bloc's biggest celebrities and his tragic death just before the fall of Communism was one of the great mysteries of the Cold War.
His life - and death - are the stuff of such drama that recently it was announced that Tom Hanks and Dreamworks studios had bought the rights from Reed's heirs to do a biographical movie with Hanks playing the guitar-strumming Reed himself.
Now the final scene to that movie will have a new twist amid revelations that Reed committed suicide and was not eliminated by the East German Stasi secret police, as had been assumed for years.
His life ended in a car at the bottom of a lake outside East Berlin. It started on a chicken farm outside Denver in 1938.
In the mid-1950s, when Elvis and Fabian brought sex to rock 'n' roll, Reed parlayed his wholesome, square-jawed, blue-eyed good looks and a sweet singing voice into a singing career.
Strumming his way to Hollywood, he signed a record contract with Capitol Records before he was 20. But in the high-stakes music industry gambling game, he somehow failed to make the charts in the US.
Yet in another twist, one of many in his life, his first two singles were chart-busters in Latin America. And his third single, "Our Summer Romance", was so popular in South America that the record sent him on a tour there.
More popular than Elvis Presley, he stayed to enjoy his incredible fame in Chile, Peru, Argentina. He made albums, starred in movies and had his own television show in Buenos Aires.
He was known as Mister Simpatia because he worked for free in barrios and prisons and protested against US foreign policy and nuclear bomb tests.
The further to the left that his politics drifted, the more he raised the hackles of authorities in Argentina, who finally deported him in 1966.
Sensing no career opportunities in the Western Hemisphere, Reed settled in Europe, where he made a few largely forgettable spaghetti Westerns in Italy.
Anti-Vietnam war sentiment was high in Europe and Dean's stridency soon attracted the attention of Communist officials who invited him on a concert tour of the Soviet Union in 1966.
As far as the Soviets were concerned, Dean was Dylan and Donovan all rolled up into one. They propelled him to mega-stardom through stage, screen and television appearances throughout the Eastern Bloc.
He was the big tall young American who could stand up at peace rallies and lash out at the Vietnam war in a genuine American twang. He was every inch the wholesome man every babushka wanted as a son-in-law. He was the sexy hunk every young woman desired. He was the talented celebrity every young man longed to be.
And he was the propaganda godsend every Communist government coveted. Settling in East Germany, he became one of the highest paid stars there, making movies by the score, largely romantic musical Westerns like the ones Roy Rogers had made a generation earlier.
His last movie, which he starred in and directed in 1981, was entitled "Sing, Cowboy, Sing". That was about the same time that he married East German actress Renate Blume.
But behind his flashing smile, he was not a happy man. There were rumours that he missed his family back in Colorado. He had marital problems. He regretted his defection to East Germany, a Stalinist regime viewed as hardline even by Kremlin standards.
And he was ageing. At 45 his looks were fading and even the East German propaganda machine had a hard time convincing crowds to turn out for his concerts.
Racked with homesickness, grappling with a mid-life crisis, he wrangled permission to go back to Colorado in 1985 to visit his family for the first time in 25 years.
He had dreams of re-launching his career, and told relatives of his plans for making a film about the Wounded Knee incident. His family says he wanted to return to Colorado to live but that he had a few loose ends to tie up first back in East Berlin.
Only a few months later, in June 1986, he was found dead in his car at the bottom of a lake outside East Berlin. Officially, the East German government called it "a tragic accident" and issued a ruling of death by drowning. He was 47.
But his family and friends claimed he had been murdered. His brother Dale Reed, who now lives in Seattle, said it also could have been suicide because Dean suffered for years from what would today be diagnosed as clinical depression.
It turns out Dale was right. A German newspaper last week reported that a farewell letter in Reed's handwriting has been found among documents in a former East German police archive.
Written in characteristically ungrammatical German, the letter said his beloved wife Renate despised him, describing him as "a two-bit Yank crooner", and that she had said he was "not even man enough to kill myself".
In a postscript to East German strongman Erich Honecker, he wrote, "Tell him politics had nothing to do with this. Communism is not perfect, but it is the only hope for solving humanity's great problems."
His brother Dale, who sensed what had really happened, recently told an interviewer his brother would have relished the idea that his life story could be a movie starring a multiple Oscar winner.
"He'd like that, boy," he said. "As long as they tell the truth. Of course, none of us know what his life was like, what the truth is. He lived a very exciting life."
[Copyright DPA with Expatica]
Dale Reed, 07/08/2004
I do not know who wrote the article about my brother Dean so do not know if I actually talked to him or her, but I do not believe nor did I ever say that Dean "suffered for years from what would today be diagnosed as clinical depression."
I do not even know what "clinical depression" is but if it is a "mental illness" I am a great big fan of the libertarian author Thomas Szasz who wrote "The Myth of Mental Illness."
I do not know if Dean killed himself, or if someone else killed him, but it is a fact that there have been a few suicides within the Reed family.
But I am confident that Dean did not die of an "unfortunate accident" as the Stasi claimed.