In Memory of JAMES DEAN

"...dream as if you'll live forever,
live as if you'll die today.."
James Dean

When he died, he had Liz Taylor's phone number in his little black book, along with the bug exterminator, proving even rebels must at times lead normal lives.

James Byron Dean, Hoosier farm boy, alias the universal symbol of adolescent attitude died over 45 years ago in September of 1955. It was an abrupt conclusion to a life and a career, both revved up and cruising in high gear.

Dean was only 24 years old when his Porsche Spyder collided with another vehicle on a California highway. He had just completed filming his third and final motion picture, Giant, with co-stars Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor.

The impact of this collision was felt around the country, but nowhere more than the Indiana farming community of Fairmount, where Dean was born and where he spent much of his childhood. The town would never be the same.

Playing with his cousin, Markie, in Fairmount

At the Sweethearts Ball in Fairmont, February 14, 1955
(seven months before his death)

In life, Dean preferred the fast-paced life in New York City and Hollywood where he could perform before an audience, but in death he will forever reside in the rural Midwest town he called home. No place could be further from the fast lane, yet he still has his audience and his dedicated fans.

Since that September day, the icon James Dean has inspired songs, hundreds of articles, numerous books, monuments, fan clubs, movies and plays. The young man given the label, The Rebel Without A Cause, created a sensation not only in the US, but around the world. Fans of all ages still trek to Fairmount from as far away as Australia and Japan. Dean's instantly recognizable image, the dangling cigarette and the characteristic slouch, has been deeply etched into our own American culture.

James Dean in the 130, Spyder Porshe

But was James Dean really the rebellious, lost youth as he's been typecast? Dean was active in school, playing guard on the basketball team, was on the baseball team, and a champion pole vaulter. Even with poor eyesight and a slight build he was considered a well-rounded athlete. He rode his horse and played ice hockey with his buddies. Although his grades were only average, Dean won a speech contest and an art award. He participated in the drama club, winning yet another award and joined the senior class trip to Washington D.C. It hardly sounds like the description of a tough and aimless young man. His classmates remember him as "just one of the guys."


Like other young men his age, James Dean was enamored with motorcycles and speed. Residents of Fairmount recall seeing teenage Dean plowing through farm fields and careening about town on his 1947 Czech Whizzer, the first in a line of motorcycles. His antics on the cycle cost him his two front teeth and at least four sets of eyeglasses. Youthful exuberance and high spirits yes, but hardly unusual for a teenage boy with a set of wheels.

Dean found his true avocation in acting. In his short career, he starred in only three movies. The first was East of Eden, adapted from a John Steinbeck novel. But, Jimmy Dean is best remembered for his second starring role in the film Rebel Without a Cause, originally intended as a vehicle for the fast-rising star, Marlon Brando. Ironically, Dean was already in his grave by the time the picture opened in October 1955. His final film, Giant, also premiered after his death.

James Dean was twice nominated, posthumously, for an Academy Award in the best actor category, though he didn't win.

Rebel or not, Fairmount cherishes their favorite son, whether for the tourism revenue or in genuine affection. Most of the town's residents, including Dean's family, expected visitors during the first few years after his sudden death, but no one could have predicted the phenomenon would continue for four decades. As of now, it shows no signs of stopping. Fairmount, population 3000, manages to retain it's small town simplicity regardless of the continuing hubbub over Dean.

And why is that? Is it the lost potential we mourn when a young man dies just when the world had begun to stand and take notice? Afterward, we're left to think of what might have been. Still another theory suggests we appreciate Dean all the more because he died long before he could disappoint us. Or perhaps it's his charismatic screen presence and natural acting ability they admire.

The following quote might sum it up best:

"...There is no simple explanation for why he has come to mean so much to so many people today. Perhaps it is because, in his acting, he had the intuitive talent for expressing the hopes and fears that are part of all young people ... in some movie magic way, he managed to dramatize brilliantly the questions every young person in every generation must resolve.."

Just two weeks before the car crash which took his life, Dean taped a public service television commercial with actor Gig Young, for the National Safety Council. The topic: highway safety.


Filling up that final day

A photo snapped by a fan who recognized Dean as he drove by; taken just minutes before the crash

On September 30, 1955, James Dean & his mechanic were driving his Porsche Spyder from Hollywood to a sports car race in Salinas when, late in the afternoon around Cholame, a young Cal-Poly student turned left in front of them on his way home to Fresno for the weekend. The crash crumpled the tiny Porsche race car and instantly killing Dean, with the mechanic (who survived) being through out of the car.

Donald Turnipseed, the student, lived until just a few years ago (November 2000), claiming to his death he never saw Dean's car. Ironically, Dean's last words were "He's GOT to see us."

The crash scene ... loading the victim

One last ride

"Every man has to die,
but not every man lives"

For anyone who wants to know the real James Dean, I highly recommend Elizabeth Sheridan's fantastic book Dizzy & Jimmy, which chronicals one of the greatest love stories of all time.

I personally consider Dizzy (as she was known then) as the closest thing to being "James Dean's Widow", because theirs was a love that you only find once in a lifetime, if you're fortunate.

Liz went on play many roles through the years, and is probably best known for her portrayal as Jerry's Mom on "Seinfeld".

But after reading her incredible book documenting her relationship with Jimmy, she will forever be linked as the great love of James Dean's life.

In one of the stars, I shall be living,
In one of them I shall be laughing.
And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing
When you look at the sky at night
You, only you, will have stars that can laugh.

(from The Little Prince)