New York Times, Saturday, July 12, 1986
The Eastern Odyssey of a famous unknown American
By Kurt M. Campbell
Dean Reed, an American-born singer who I spent the last 15 Year's of his life behind the Iron Curtain, died last month in East Germany. He was one of the Kremlin's favorite performers, and Pravda praised him as "a true friend and comrade". Yet his passing drew scant attention in the West, and obituaries in Major newspapers failed to capture the tragedy of his life and possible intrigue shrouding his death. In the end, the Soviet System, he strove so tirelessly to promote, might very well have seen to his death.
Who was Dean Reed, virtually unknown in his native country but idolized in Eastern Europe? He was a disaffected American cultivated by Moscow to serve as a propaganda pawn in its ideological struggle with the West. His odyssey began as a man of 22 in 1962 when he purportedly left his country because of racism at home and American Imperialism abroad.
Dean Reed spent several years in Latin America and Italy singing anti-American protest songs in coffee houses and bars. The late 1960's and 1970's witnessed an exodus of defecting Soviet performers to the West and Soviet authorities realized the propaganda value of an American who abandoned the United States for the Soviet bloc. Soviet officials cultivated Mr. Reed and eventually brought him to Moscow in the early 1970's. From this point on, he became a kind of cultural ambassador for all things Soviet, reassuring Eastern Europeans of the superiority of their political system, and way of life.
Mr. Reed recorded 13 albums and his repertoire included protest songs about Chile's military Government, the United States' support of the contras in Nicaragua and renditions of popular American hits such as "Blue Suede Shoes" and "Rock Around the clock". He starred in 18 films, many of them Westerns, which led a Soviet reviewer to call him "our version of a Clint Eastwood." He traveled widely a in the third world under Soviet sponsorship and never publicly veered from Moscow's foreign policy line.
Western visitors to the Soviet Union will remember that in any discussion about the Kremlin's human rights policies, Soviet citizens and officials would invariably accuse the United States of oppressing one of its greatest stars, Dean Reed. The puzzled reactions by Americans to this unknown only served to reinforce Soviet preconceptions about the power of the American media to repress information.
For his loyalty Mr. Reed was given all the acclaim and comfort that the socialist System can bestow, He was the only American - he retained his citizenship throughout his self imposed exile - to win the Lenin Prize for artistic achievement. He was provided with a fine house in East Germany and married an East German actress Renate Blume-Reed. Yet the accolades and rewards ultimately did not satisfy him.
Mr. Reed's manager and longtime associate Dixie Lloyd' confirmed that the singer et had grown increasingly restless under the severe restrictions imposed by the Soviet bloc and longed to return home. In his one exposure to an American audience, on "60 Minutes," Mr. Reed spoke in an early accented English about a desire to return to Colorado, launch a socialist Political party and win Gary Hart's Senate seat. He visited Denver his hometown in October for the opening of "American Rebel", an American made documentary about his life.
The East German press agency reported that Dean Reed died from a "tragic accident" but provided no other details. His mother, Ruth Anna Brown, said she was told by East Germany authorities that he drowned while swimming in a lake near his home. However his manager charged, and some Western diplomates stationed in East Berlin speculated that the security apparatus had a hand in his death because of a fear that he would turn on his socialist masters and "defect".
With Mr. Reed's death, the Soviet authorities can preserve the unblemished legacy of his commitment to Soviet socialism without fear of some future indiscretion. His mother expressed hope that we in America would "remember him with love and admiration". However for most Americans, Dean Reed died as he lived, in obscurity.