Photographer's Note

Along a desolate stretch of road lies this impromptu memorial to James Dean, near the intersection where he was killed in 1955. Fans from all over the world leave items in his memory: we saw tokens from Germany, Japan (where he is still especially popular), France, Australia, and many other nations when we were there.

I realize that I haven't posted too much about the site I recently visited, or about Dean himself, even in some of the other related photos.

James Byron Dean (1931-1955) is, of course, the movie star and cultural icon, who I would assert is far more famous in death than he was in life, as only one of his three movies, "East of Eden," had been released before his untimely and tragic demise. The other two, "Rebel Without A Cause," the movie which would make him immortal, and the screen epic "Giant," appeared after, with the latter still incomplete at the time of the accident, and the former opening only a week or so after he met his tragic fate on this lonely road at sunset on a fall Friday evening.

Dean's path to stardom was a circuitous one. He sprang from rather humble beginnings as a rather shy but passionate high school actor in diminutive Fairmount, Indiana. (VERY small: even today, the town still only has ONE traffic light!) Dean, known to just about everyone as "Jimmy," was actually born in Marion, a slightly larger town just a few miles up the road to the north, where his mother is buried. She died of cancer when he was just 9 years old, and because his father was unable to both work and care for him, Dean went to live on his aunt and uncle's farm, located about two miles outside of town. The beautiful farm is still owned and operated by Marcus Winslow, Jr., a cousin of his, who as a child is seen in several famous photos of Dean in his hometown during periodic visits to the farm. He was last in Fairmount in February, 1955, about seven months before his death. The family has taken great care to keep it much as it appeared when "Jimmy" was still alive. The farm is also situated less than a mile north of where Dean (along with his aunt, uncle, father and stepmother) is now buried.

James Dean moved to Los Angeles after high school (actually Santa Monica, to live with his father and stepmother while he was studying engineering at UCLA), but after dropping out of college, he made a break with his absentee father over his desire to study acting. Dean subsequently relocated to New York to work on the stage, but eventually migrated back to Hollywood, where he became a reluctant but recalcitrant rising star. Due to the fervor over his image, it's sometimes difficult to burrow beneath the surface of the pop-culture-persona to actually become acquainted with the individual who lived and died so many decades ago, which may be part of Dean's allure. Even in life, Dean was reportedly difficult to get to know. Much has been lost to time, but the portrait that emerges from what information remains reveals that Dean was a complex and rather troubled youth, who confounded friends and rivals alike with his antics and often bipolar-esque behavior that drove many to question his sanity. He made only three movies, but turned out such remarkable, iconic performances that he was posthumously nominated for academy awards for two of them, "East of Eden" and "Giant," but not for what has become his most famous film, "Rebel Without A Cause."

James Dean was killed in September of 1955, in central California, near Cholame, a small town about 30 miles from Paso Robles, while traveling to Salinas to compete in a car race the following day. He was driving the now-infamous silver Porsche Spyder 550, which is almost as famous as he is (the car he was driving, now lost, has a story all its own). As he had only owned it for a little more than a week, Dean believed that it needed more "break-in miles" before the race, although he had initially planned to tow it, even purchasing a vehicle and trailer for the purpose. Some associates were, in fact, driving the other car and trailer, but were apparently lagging some distance behind the race car at the time of the accident. At the intersection of Routes 466/41(the former now Route 46), Dean and his Porsche-factory-trained German mechanic, who was riding in the passenger seat, were broadsided by a much larger vehicle than the tiny, almost toy-like race car he was driving. The driver of the Ford that struck them, a 23-year-old college student, apparently didn't see him coming from the opposite direction at sunset in the nearly-invisible silver car, which was only about two and a half feet high.

Dean's car was sent airborne from the immense force of the impact, according to witnesses, and cartwheeled several times before coming to rest in a mangled heap along a stretch of wire fence (the exact location of the impact and the particular spot where Dean's car came to rest is hotly debated even today). Dean's mechanic was ejected from the car and suffered multiple severe injuries, including serious hip and jaw fractures. Only the driver's seat was equipped with a seatbelt. In retrospect, being ejected from the careening car may have been the only thing that spared him.

Dean was not so lucky: he took the brunt of the force of the impact, on the driver's side of the car. In fact, his head and upper body may have actually made contact with the other car's bumper. One of his friends, along with a professional photographer who was traveling with them to document Dean's activities, both in the other car with the trailer, arrived at the scene some minutes after the accident. They found James Dean with his head hanging over the passenger-side door, his neck bent unnaturally at a near-90-degree angle, sprawled across the seats of the mangled Porsche, which was wedged against a telephone pole. Suffering from fatal injuries, Dean survived the crash for only a short time, dying en route to a hospital located some thirty miles away in Paso Robles: he was pronounced dead on arrival. Oddly, the ambulance in which he and his mechanic were riding was itself involved in a minor sideswipe accident on the way to the hospital, requiring that the crew stop to exchange information with the other driver and to assess the damage. What effect that incident may have had on Dean's death is unclear, but, in actuality, it probably counted for very little. The cause of death was cited as a "broken neck" and "internal injuries," ambiguous descriptions that would be insufficient for a death certificate today. No autopsy was conducted to discover the extent of the damage. Dean's body was transported back to his hometown, where he had lived with his aunt and uncle, and where he had first taken acting courses in high school, for burial a few days later.

What remains, of course, is the larger-than-life - in this case, literally - persona and image, which endures. I include here a passage from a book I read recently, entitled "The Death of James Dean." It reads as follows:

"'The Dean Fans-who are they?' And who am I? 'This new group that persists to this day is a stratified assortment from various walks of life. Some are nostalgia buffs who mourn the loss of a former lifestyle and fantasize about a happier time; others are drama fans or artistic types who recognize Dean's sensitivity; some are wistful romantics who wish they had known and loved him; others are morbid, troubled souls that identify with and desire a type of power and charm Dean exhibited.'... There was a purgative relish in describing the 'darker side of the Dean cult phenomenon.... People would camp in and around his home, tear up the ground in front of the house for remembrance. A fan even stole some of Jimmy's belongings from his aunt and uncle. The headstone of his grave has been mutilated by morbid souvenir hunters and his name on the marker is now a memory. A monument to Dean was desecrated when an avid fan ripped the bust from atop the pedestal.'"

After his death, fans endlessly harangued Dean's friends, family, co-workers and even his employers, reportedly sending death threats to "Giant" director George Stevens threatening murder if he so much as removed a single frame of Dean's performance in the movie which proved to be his last. Even decades later, as can be seen in the multiple documentaries made about James Dean, even people with dubious connections have tried to "play up" their relationships with him. Just a few years ago, the orange goggles Dean was apparently wearing, or at least, which were in the Spyder at the time of the crash, were discovered at the home of a woman who had taken them from the scene of the accident when she and her husband stopped to take a look around as the scene was being cleared. They're now on display at Blackwell's Corner General Store (I'll post a photo of the display later). Much of this fervor has since died down, of course, but thousands of people still make a sort of pilgrimage to the two most significant sites now associated with him. Fans from all over the world leave items to his memory: at the impromptu roadside memorial, located along the fence line near where the car was believed to have ended up after the crash, we saw items from Germany, Japan (where he is still especially popular), France, Australia, and many other nations when we were there. People still leave mementos and tributes to his enduring legacy at both this location, the place where he lost his life more than six decades ago, along an isolated yet beautiful stretch of highway in central California, and at the cemetery just outside the little farming community where he is now laid to rest, less than a mile from the Winslow farm where he grew up and spent some of the happiest days of his short but monumental life.

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Additional Photos by Terez Anon (terez93) Gold Star Critiquer/Gold Star Workshop Editor/Gold Note Writer [C: 92 W: 78 N: 1159] (2064)
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