James Dean

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“If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man.” –James Dean

Rugged, aloof, and self-aware, James Dean was the epitome of cool. He personified teenage years with charisma, rebellion, and raw emotion, while holding a deep reverence for his craft as an actor. Dean believed in the method, ideally living out the experiences of the characters he portrayed in order to produce natural responses to the scenes at hand. Despite the angst-filled characters he portrayed in his films, Dean maintained a down-to-earth personality as an introvert in possession of quirky charms.

James Byron Dean was born on February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana, to Winton and Mildred Dean. Throughout his childhood, Dean was especially close with his mother. Eventually, Dean’s father transitioned from farm work to becoming a dental technician, leading Dean to move with his family to Santa Monica, California. While there, he spent time as a student at Brentwood Public School and, later, McKinley Elementary School. Tragically, Dean’s mother passed away from uterine cancer when Dean was nine years old. After his mother’s passing, Dean was sent to live with his aunt and uncle, Ortense and Marcus Winslow, on their farm in Fairmount, Indiana. They raised him according to their Quaker beliefs while Dean’s father served in World War II and remarried.

In school, Dean was active and engaged. He played baseball and varsity basketball, participated in theatrical productions, and competed as a public speaker in his school’s forensic league. He graduated from Fairmount High School and returned to California to life with his father and stepmother. There, he enrolled at Santa Monica College, where he majored in pre-law. He later transferred to University of California, Los Angeles, for one term, during which he changed his major to drama. This resulted in a strained relationship with his father. Though he participated in UCLA’s production of Macbeth in the role of Malcolm, he dropped out to pursue acting as his full-time career.

Dean made his first television appearance in a cheerful Pepsi commercial, soon taking on roles in different television specials. Nonetheless, getting roles was a struggle for Dean, so he found additional work as a parking lot attendant at CBS Studios. There, he met Rogers Brackett, who worked as a radio director for an advertising agency. He befriended Dean and assisted him in his career by helping him land his first Broadway role in See the Jaguar.

Dean moved to New York City in 1951 per Brackett’s advice. He studied at the Actors Studio, which produced numerous notable alumni and grounded Dean’s training in the tradition of method acting.

In 1954, Dean returned to Los Angeles to begin production on East of Eden (1955). Director Elia Kazan sought “a Brando type” for the role but screenwriter Paul Osborn suggested the relatively unknown Dean. East of Eden’s author, John Steinbeck, also thought that Dean would be ideal in the role. Much of Dean’s performance was improvised, including the heart-wrenching sequence in which his character, Cal, embraces his disapproving father, Adam. Dean’s performance in this film led to his posthumous nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, making his nomination the first posthumous acting nomination in Academy Awards history.

When Dean signed his contract with Warner Bros., he became romantically involved with actress Pier Angeli. The two were working on adjoining Warner lots and exchanged pieces of jewelry as love tokens. The relationship ultimately ended from pressures from Warner Bros. in addition to Angeli’s mother disapproval of Dean. When Dean was on a trip to New York after he had completed filming on East of Eden, Angeli announced her engagement to singer Vic Damone.

In 1954, Dean also became interested in motorsports after already enjoying years riding his motorcycle in Indiana and California. He purchased a Triumph Tiger T110 and Porsche 356, competing in his first professional event at the Palm Springs Road Races. He won first place in novice class and second in the main event. He competed in Bakersfield, received first in his class and third overall, hoping to eventually compete in the Indianapolis 500.

Dean’s next major role was in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which was particularly a hit among teenagers. In an effort to avoid being typecast as a character depicting teenage angst, Dean portrayed Texas ranch hand Jett Rink in Giant (1956). Giant was ultimately his last film, posthumously released in 1956. Dean’s second posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor in a Leading Role was for his work in Giant. At the time of his passing, Dean was slated to star in Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956).

Warner Bros. barred him from racing during the production of Giant. Once the film was in post-production, he decided to return to racing. Dean traded in his Speedster for a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder and entered the Salinas Road Race. On the way to the track, Dean was accompanied by stunt coordinator Bill Hickman, photographer Sanford Roth, and mechanic Rolf Wütherich. Hickman and Roth drove behind Dean, who was accompanied in the Spyder by Wütherich. Dean and Hickman were ticketed for speeding on the drive from Los Angeles to Salinas that afternoon. Roughly two hours later, the group approached Cholame, California, when a 1950 Ford Tudor operated by Donald Turnupseed turned onto the highway ahead of the oncoming Porsche.

Unable to stop in time, Dean’s Porsche slammed into the side of the Ford, sending the Porsche across the highway. Wütherich was thrown from the vehicle and Dean sustained several fatal injuries. Turnupseed survived with minor injuries. Dean was pronounced dead on arrival at the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital. Roth took the well-known accident photographs. A later inquest placed fault for the accident upon Dean.

Dean’s funeral was held at the Fairmount Friends Church in Fairmount, Indiana. A total of 600 mourners attended the services, with roughly another 2,400 fans watching the procession–a total more than the population of Fairmount itself. Dean passed away on September 30, 1955, at age 24. He was buried at Park Cemetery in Fairmount, Indiana.

Today, Dean is remembered with tributes in numerous locations. The memorial at the site of his birthplace is marked with a plaque on the southwest corner of E. 4th St. and McClure St., Marion, Indiana. A star-shaped plaque is located on the sidewalk at the far corner of the lot. The memorial plaque, dedicated in 2015, stands in a small park area, accompanied by a marker.

The Winslow Farm is privately owned by the Winslow family to this day in Jonesboro, Indiana.

James Dean Memorial Theater, housed in the CSA Civic Theatre, stands at 505 S. Washington St., Marion, Indiana.

Dean purchased his first motorcycle at the former Carters Motorcycle Shop, now known as the Historic Indian Motorcycle Shop. This is located at 7594 S. 150 E., Fairmount, Indiana.

Giant was partly filmed in Marfa, Texas, which now holds large plywood tributes to its stars, including Dean. They can be spotted seven miles west of Marfa, on the north portion of US Hwy. 90.

Much of the cast and crew from Giant stayed at the Hotel Paisano. The hotel has photographs and memorabilia relating to the cast and film. They also have the James Dean Room, which is where Dean indeed stayed during the course of filming. The hotel stands at 207 Highland St., Marfa, Texas.

Dean also occupied 19 W. 68th St., Apt. 5F, New York, New York, from 1954 until his passing. This location also remains.

Dean famously posed in a casket at the former Hunt Funeral Home, six months before his passing. Presently, this is the Armes-Hunt Funeral Home, located at 415 S. Main St., Fairmount, Indiana.  

James Dean Memorial Junction is located at 19215 CA-46, Shandon, California. The memorial to Dean is in this location.

Dean attended Back Creek Church, which stands at 7560 S. 150 E., Fairmount, Indiana.

Dean’s funeral was held at the Friends Meeting House, located at 124 W. 1st St., Fairmount, Indiana.

Dean is at rest in Park Cemetery, located at 8106-8334 S. 150 E., Fairmount, Indiana. There are signs pointing visitors to his gravesite.

Fairmount, Indiana, traditionally holds the James Dean Festival and Ducktail Run annually during the last full weekend of September. Visitors can also spot tributes to Dean throughout the downtown area.

The James Dean Gallery stands at 425 N. Main St., Fairmount, Indiana. They boast an array of memorabilia and movie props, and also have a small gift shop. Additionally, they gave us a free map of James Dean points of interest around the area, including his church, the farmhouse in which he grew up, his high school, grave site, and more. Don’t forget to take a picture with their Dean statue!

The James Dean Museum is located at 203 E. Washington St., Fairmount, Indiana. The staff members love to talk about James but also celebrate cartoonist Jim Davis, creator of the Garfield comics, who is also from Fairmount. The historical society contains many of his personal effects, literally scooped off of his desk by family members just after his death. They also house his motorcycles, and the story of one, in particular, was incredible. The historical society tracked Dean’s motorcycle to an owner in 1980s, who had no idea the motorcycle was owned by Dean at one point. This location has Dean’s homework, drawings, junior high basketball uniform, personal pictures, comb, conga drums, etc.