Author(s): Junior Burke
"Jimmy Dean, clip-on shades and motorcycle boots, walked late onto the set of the General Electric Theater. Cast and crew were there, as was Ronald Reagan, coproducer and actor-host. Jimmy was in character, although not precisely the one he'd signed on to play. He was deep into James Dean, New York stage actor, big screen Technicolor star . . ."
It's December 1954. During a live television performance of the General Electric Theater, a young James Dean brandishes a pistol at fellow actor (and weekly show-host) Ronald Reagan. Dean goes off script, and what happens next kicks off an alternate history, a "sliding doors" narrative that takes those real events in a slightly different direction. "The Cold Last Swim" features two cultural icons: one who would be dead within a year, immortalized as a symbol of cool rebellion; the other, in a little over a quarter century, would become leader of the free world, the standard bearer of traditional and even fundamentalist values. Each reflects fifties America: Reagan is firmly established among the open freeways and unblemished skies of sunny Los Angeles; Jimmy, emerging from the black-and-white shadows of a rainy New York street.
Told largely from Jimmy's viewpoint, but incorporating a diverse cast of period characters, "The Cold Last Swim" is classical Greek drama: Reagan's Apollo, god of light, warmth, and temperance; Jimmy's Bacchus, license, alienation, and impulse. In this era between the mid-fifties and mid-sixties, we recognize the seeds are being sown for the cultural gulf that divides America today.