The Death of James Deanby Warren Newton Beath
“Beath’s profiles of some of the odd, obsessed fans who keep the Dean legend alive [are] brilliant, recalling Nathanael West.” –Publishers Weekly
Just before sunset on September 30, 1955, James Byron Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder collided with Donald Gene Turnupseed’s 1950 Ford Tudor on California Highway 46. At age twenty-four, America’s newest screen idol was dead. What really happened? Drawing on the inquest transcript and other previously unpublished material, Warren Beath cuts through the welter of conflicting reports and rumors to provide a taut reconstruction of Dean’s final hours. In addition, Beath has explored every nook and cranny of the Dean legend, and his book is studded with fascinating asides: Elvis Presley’s worship of Dean; Dean’s strange friendship with Maila Nurmi, TV’s Vampyra and star of the gloriously execrable Plan 9 from Outer Space; Hitchcock’s use of Highway 46 in the famous crop-dusting scene in North by Northwest; death threats against Giant director George Stevens if he dared to excise so much as a single frame of Dean’s performance. Beath’s definitive account of James Dean’s death concludes with a memorable portrait of the Dean cult, a strangely moving record of his posthumous life in the hearts of his adoring fans.
“Beath’s profiles of some of the odd, obsessed fans who keep the Dean legend alive [are] brilliant, recalling Nathanael West.” –Publishers Weekly
There is a telephone pole in California. It stands by a highway on a grassy plain twenty-eight miles north-east of Paso Robles, which is itself two hundred miles north up the coast from Los Angeles on Highway 101. An aluminium plaque is hammered into the wood with heavy nails. It has become yellowed and rusted with rain and wind. It depicts movie idol James Dean at the wheel of the low-slung and predatory racing car he had nicknamed “The Little Bastard”. Dean is wearing glasses, his head turned sharply to profile. The picture was taken by his uncle on the day Dean died, 30 September 1955. The wreck was at the intersection to the east.
The intersection as it existed at the time of the accident was obliterated in 1959 when the highway was widened and rechannelled with a safety island. In the early 1970s, mechanical pole lights were added to illuminate the intersection at night. Warning lights were strung overhead to wink an ominous yellow.
On the road surface, in the middle of the safety lane, a group of self-styled Dadaist artists from Union City, disguised as surveyors, painted a four-colour portrait of Dean on his birthday in February 1982. He would have been fifty-two years old. The rainy months and the black scrubbing of tyres have left it a mere smoky smudge.
A mile to the west, around a curve in the highway, is the sign CHOLAME. This is the Cholame Valley. That is Cholame Creek. Those are the Cholame Hills. The name has its origin with the long-dead Chumash, the Indians who lived on this land before there was a highway and telephone poles. Past the sign, there is a grove of trees to the left where a school once stood. On the right, set off the highway, is a tiny 10 ft by 7 ft ramshackle U.S. Post Office. The little building has been there since 1935, when it was the quarters for the foreman of the road crew building the highway.
Near the highway is a tree. Snaked around it is a gleaming chromium sculpture as striking and anomalous as a spaceship settled in the desert in a 1950s horror movie. It was built and brought here from Japan in 1977 by a rich Japanese businessman named Seita Ohnishi at a cost of $15,000.
February 8 1931 September 30 1955 p.m. 5:59
There is the symbol of infinity. The mirror surface of the steel reflects the intersection where it happened.
On Saturday, 26 September 1981, Ohnishi returns to his monument from Japan. He has brought his interpreter. The occasion is the advent of the twenty-sixth anniversary of Dean’s death. He is met by Roger Cannon of Carmel, the founder of the James Dean Memorial Car Rally. Cannon presents him with a complimentary rally map and route guide. Each year, participating Dean fans retrace the route their hero took from Los Angeles on his last day.
Around 2 p.m., twenty hot-rodders pull up. They are members of Will o’Neil’s vintage car club. Led by o’Neil, they, too, caravan every year from Van Nuys on the death route to meet at the cenotaph. The two rallies do not celebrate one another’s arrival. The o’Neil club is more car-orientated, and the day is largely an excuse to get out and show off their restored machines. The Dean purists of Roger’s rally tend to look down on them.
The 1949 Mercs and 1950 Fords clustered around the monument give it a festive air. Ohnishi has brought some Japanese lanterns, each bearing a letter. Once in place, festooned across the sculpture with coloured bulbs, they spell out JAMES DEAN FOREVER.
Ohnishi, who speaks no English, hands out small cards which read:
A TRIBUTE TO JAMES DEAN
His name was James Byron Dean. He was an actor. He died in an automobile accident just before sunset on September 30, 1955 at the intersection 800 meters east of this tree, which has long been called the “tree of heaven”. He was only twenty-four years old.
Aside from appearing in several Broadway plays, he starred in just three motion pictures before he died: EAST OF EDEN, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, and GIANT. Only one, EAST OF EDEN, had been released prior to his death. Yet, before he was in his grave, he was already a myth. With the subsequent release of the other two pictures, he became a legend.
It is fitting tribute to his brilliance as an actor that his movies continue to be shown throughout the world even today. Every day somewhere, in a cinema or on television, his image lives on, an inspiration to millions everywhere, young and old alike. His fame is international; his impact, historic. He was the brief, living manifestation of a new era, the persona to which a whole generation pinned its hopes for a better tomorrow. He was more than merely a movie star. He was, and remains, a symbol.
I am only one of many who feel strongly that James Dean should not be forgotten. There are some things, like the hatred that accompanies war, that are best forgotten. There are others, like the love inspired by this young actor, that should be preserved for all time.
Yet this monument is not intended to be merely a tribute to James Dean. It is also meant to be a reaffirmation of the value of all human life. That is why, in accordance with an old Japanese custom, this marker has been placed at the site of the accident that took his life, to serve both as a memorial to the young man I so admired and a reminder to all that life is a precious gift to be preserved at all costs.
I have at long last been able to realize my dream. Having transported this monument across the Pacific Ocean from Japan where it was designed and made, I have had it erected on this spot and dedicated to this day. For me, there is no greater happiness. It is but a small token of the appreciation I feel for all that I have learned from America.
Months earlier, a woman from Shandon, the little town up the road, had approached Ohnishi saying that she owned the hulk of the old tow truck which had hauled the wreck of Dean’s sports car from the roadside on the fatal day. Ohnishi had instructed his aide to peel three hundred-dollar bills from a roll and hand them to her. He had restored the truck at a Paso Robles body shop, and on this day it has been hauled on a trailer for display at the monument. Some local people say knowingly that it is the wrong truck, including the son of the man who owned and drove it in 1955.
A movie crew is on hand from Hollywood. It is an independent company filming scenes from a script called “The Junkman”. It is a project which had run out of money, but they have found new backing and the cameras are rolling again. The makers claim that one hundred and fifty cars will be wrecked in the course of the story, which is a thinly plotted celebration of speeding cars and highway destruction. Dean’s spirit is pervasive. The shooting locale is the vicinity of his death. Inquest photos have been obtained for inclusion, and the retired patrolman who had actually investigated the accident in 1955 will be interviewed in front of the monument. The premi’re is to be Dean’s apotheosis – the God of Fast Driving.
That night they all packed up and went home. It was the most excitement the place had ever seen. It is usually dead quiet.
Lilly Grant has been the postmaster for many years. She works from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon. When the weather is bad, or when she does not feel well, she sleeps at the post office. She has two large scrap-books in which she has taped the newspaper articles about the monument, and also letters and photos and signatures from people who have sought her out with questions. There is no one else to answer them.
Though the violent death of Dean at the wheel is a central ingredient in his myth, not even the locals seem to know exactly what happened that day in 1955. Some say he ran off the road and hit a tree or a pole. None of the Dean biographies which have been published devote more than a sentence or two to the accident itself – and most of this is misinformation. Some say that Dean’s head was nearly torn from his body. Many disagree as to where the crash occurred. All give the impression that the accident was pretty much a cut and dried thing, despite the fact that there was an inquest. The only thing that everyone agrees on is that Dean was speeding. The man who fills your tank at the Chevron station at Cholame will tell you, when asked, “He came out of those hills like a bat out of hell.” Yet the few living people who were closest to the events of that day have their doubts.
Though the sign outside the town says, POPULATION 65, no one appears to live in Cholame. “Trouble is,” Lilly Grant says, “I don’t know where Cholame is. I live in Cholame, but I live fourteen miles from Cholame.” Residents are deemed such only for postal purposes. Mostly ranchers, their homes are scattered throughout the hills outside the city limit.
Besides the post office, there is a restaurant called STELLA’s COUNTRY KITCHEN. It is known for the quail and buffalo meat on its menu. It sells a few posters, T-shirts, and postcards with Dean’s face on them. On the way to the lavatory, there is a bulletin board with pictures and an article which tells the story of the wreck. Near the coffee counter are faded xeroxes of the newspaper accounts of Dean’s career and death. One article says that he had a premonition of the crash which killed him.
Promotion of the souvenirs is reluctant. The restaurant owner, Ed Randall, is disgusted with the whole Dean business. The visitors to the monument come in and use the lavatory and mess it up, then leave. They do not eat, nor do they buy anything. Randall would like to sell out. Like Lilly, he does not live in the village, though his son sleeps sometimes in the shed at the back.
In 1955 the building was owned by Paul Moreno. It was not a restaurant but a grocery store with two petrol pumps at the front. He operated a garage and towing service in the big tin barn next door. A deputy sheriff, he also had the only ambulance in the area. He ran the big Buick wagon out of the adjoining shed with sliding wood doors. The garage has been closed for many years, its windows broken or boarded. Its trade has been assumed by the new Chevron station a stone’s throw down the road, which is run by Ed Randall’s brother. A big metal sign, CHOLAME GARAGE, hung for many years over the door with its eyeless light socket where June bugs used to buzz and tick on summer nights. Fallen or removed, it now rusts against the side of the building.
In the south-east corner of the restaurant, the initials P M and the date 1953 can still be seen where Moreno wrote them in wet concrete many years ago. The land itself is now owned by the Hearst Corporation. The garage is empty except for bags of the polished stones from Japan which are stored to replenish those taken from the base of the Dean monument for souvenirs.
Sleepy and tranquil as it appears on the surface, the landscape is prone to strange and violent assaults from above and below. In 1974, the spot was singled out for a meteor shower. There are occasional earthquakes that rattle the windows of the Chevron station and ripple the walls. A geology professor from the California Institute of Technology has predicted a dubious distinction for Cholame: he believes the town will be the epicentre of the ultimate Killer California Earthquake. Kerry Sieh insists that an earthquake of a magnitude of 6.0 on the Richter Scale will hit a thirteen-mile-long segment of the San Andreas fault that winds through the hills. He is convinced this will topple other geological dominoes and set off a greater earthquake – a 7.0 or even an 8.0 – along a sixty-two-mile-long crack in the area. The locals do not worry. They generally believe they are more likely to die on the highway.
Originating at Highway 99, seventeen miles north of Bakersfield in Kern County, Highway 46 stretches west on an almost straight line for nearly a hundred miles through such isolated towns as Wasco and Lost Hills to Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County. Though the name was shortened to Highway 46 in the 1960s, the street signs in Wasco still read 466. The landscape is flat and arid, more like Kansas or Texas than one’s idea of California. Director Alfred Hitchcock used to commute by car on this route from Los Angeles to his home in Scotts Valley near Santa Cruz up the coast. When he filmed his classic North by Northwest in 1957, it was to this highway he returned for the famous scene in which Cary Grant is stranded on a dusty roadside and pursued across a barren field by a homicidal cropduster. Except for the dog-leg that jogs around an old section of highway up in the hills that was abandoned by the state in 1959, the road retraces the identical route James Dean drove to his death. And at the Kern County line about five miles east of Cholame, the road suddenly narrows into a little two-lane, just as it was in 1955.
Pockmarked with chuck holes, the crumbling road surface is lipped at the outside edges. There are small dirt shoulders, and no turnouts or passing lanes for motorists. Though the chief of the California Transportation Department’s maintenance division claims there is “no significant correlation between pavement roughness and accident rates’, in the five-year period from 1978-81 this ninety-two-mile stretch of Highway 46 has seen 761 traffic accidents resulting in 47 fatalities.
James Dean died in 1955, yet interest in him continues unabated. He is still one of our most popular and beloved stars. As a symbol, he has come to occupy a unique place in our history and culture. Twenty-five years after his death, his name was in lights on Broadway marquees as the central figure of a controversial play. His name is frequently invoked in the lyrics of rock music. In 1983, the 1956 film Giant was bought by Kino Productions and released theatrically again solely on the strength of Dean’s final appearance in the film. Two documents signed by Dean have been assigned a value of $7,000 by a respected appraiser. Billboards outside Sacramento invite travellers to visit JAMES DEAN’s “49 MERC at the Harrah’s Auto Collection in Nevada. A sandwich is named after him in Los Angeles. The nearly three decades intervening since the release of Rebel Without a Cause, Dean’s primary manifesto, have seen it elevated to firm cult status with disciples who know no equals in ferocity of devotion.
The same weekend which sees the car rallies at Cholame witnesses other annual tributes in Fairmount, Indiana, 2,000 miles away. Cholame and Fairmount are the two poles so magnetic to Dean fans. At the first, he died. At the second, he is buried.
Fairmount is the small Indiana town where Dean was raised by his aunt and uncle from the age of nine through his high school years. He had been born in nearby Marion, to Winton Dean, a dental technician, and Mildred Wilson. When he was a toddler, the family moved to California where Winton worked at the Veterans Hospital at Sawtelle. When Jimmy was nine, his mother died of breast cancer. He accompanied her body on the train ride to Indiana for burial. He did not return to live with his father in Santa Monica until he graduated from high school.
Marcus and Ortense Winslow became his mother and father. He worshipped Marcus, and he called Ortense ‘mom”. The two-storey farmhouse on the Jonesboro Pike was home. It was to here that his body was returned after his highway death at the age of twenty-four. For many years, at the top of the varnished hardwood staircase, Marcus and Ortense kept Jimmy’s room just as he had left it. He laughed noiselessly from a framed portrait on the bureau. His bongos were silent, while his motorcycle gathered dust in the barn of the 180-acre farm.
His grave is visited nearly every day by the awestruck. The tombstone is chipped and cracked by putty knives, hammers, and picks. The letters of his name are chiselled and gouged by the relic hunters.
The impetus for the adulation of James Dean has always come from outside Fairmount. Local participation is grudgingly conceded. The town is of two minds.
On the one hand, there are the Dean boosters. The most conspicuous is Adeline Nail. Now in her seventies, she had been Jimmy’s high school drama teacher. With Hugh Caughell, Dean’s old biology instructor, she will show one of Jimmy’s movies on his birthday, or organize a slide show during Museum Days. She is frequently visited in her home by fans. When Hollywood actor Martin Sheen organized the Fairmount Dean tribute in 1979, Adeline was on the memorial committee. When Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean played in New York, Adeline attended on the arm of Dustin Hoffmann.
On the other hand, there is the Fairmount Museum and organizers of Museum Days. Museum Days is held always on the weekend nearest the anniversary of Dean’s death, and it sees an influx of Dean fans from the world over. And yet it is not called ‘dean Days’. James Dean is Fairmount’s main, if not only, tourist attraction. The curious are legion. Yet the Fairmount Museum, supported mainly by subscriptions and donations from Dean fans, when it moved into the spacious and historic old Nixon House on Washington Street, alloted only a 12 ft by 15 ft cubbyhole to Dean and his memorabilia. It is rumoured that many Dean items were kept for years under a bed in a private home, supposedly because their custodian was afraid they would be stolen if displayed.
Adeline feels she, and Jimmy, are somewhat slighted by the townspeople during Museum Days. It is significant that Adeline lives in Marion, not Fairmount.
The restraint cannot be entirely accounted for by Hoosier/Quaker reserve. The probable roots of this unspoken antipathy reach back to Dean’s own lifetime. It was bad enough that he had gone to New York to become an actor. But a twice-told tale is that the local American Legion discovered he had registered for the draft as a homosexual. His family was decent Grant County bedrock, so talk was hushed out of respect and sympathy for them.
The Indiana townspeople have never been comfortable with the hysteria which followed the death of the home town boy who became a movie star. Perhaps they are not comfortable with themselves. The rabid fans who come to visit are “crazy as hell”. “We’ve seen all kinds of weirdos,” says Don Reeves, of Don and Ted’s Standard station. “While back here, they had to send the police out because some guy in a sleeping bag was laying on the grave. We’ve been here thirty-three years. For the first five–ten years after he died, it was a madhouse, and they’re still coming.” Don should know. “We’ve got the only restroom in town, so they line up to pee here. When they had the twenty-fifth anniversary, they were lined up four deep.” Brother Ted glances up from the television set in the station. “We’d go through a roll of toilet paper every fifteen minutes.”
Yet their money is the same colour as that of sane folks. So plaques outside town advertise Fairmount as the “home” and “final resting place” of James Dean, while many local people spit in disgust at the delirium which has never receded, yet never quite become an accepted fact of Fairmount life.
Especially upsetting have been the strange goings on at old Park Cemetery outside the town. The nutty rites, the burning incense, the motley parades tramping about and setting up tripods on the ground in which their forefathers rest cannot sit well with the natives.
Sometime in the night of 14 April 1983, a pick-up truck pulled up next to Dean’s unassuming plot in Park Cemetery. When it left, the rust-coloured headstone was gone.