“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.
To me, James Dean is something of a romantic figure. He hailed from a rural town in Indiana, attended Quaker services, memorized the poems of Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley, lost his mother at an early age, followed his dreams of acting onstage, appeared in three major films, and had his life cut short right at the pinnacle of his career. But loss has created legend, and Fairmount, Indiana is extremely proud of its native son.
While attending Undergrad at Butler University, I had looked forward to visiting Fairmount for quite some time. It was on my bucket list for senior year, and one of my roommates, Maddie, was equally intrigued by James Dean’s mystique. The two of us hopped into my Altima and drove an hour north to Fairmount on a rainy Saturday in April. I should add that I was student teaching at a freshman classroom just south of Indianapolis, and my students encouraged me to take “lots of pictures” of the Dean points of interest.
Fairmount itself is a small rural town, accessible by long, winding country roads. The town has a very small downtown area, which apparently hasn’t changed much since Dean walked its very streets. (The above photo of Dean was taken in downtown Fairmount.) My roommate and I had a couple places of interest in mind, and stopped by as we encountered them.
While driving into town, we first encountered a sleepy, unfenced Park Cemetery, in which James Dean, his father, and stepmother are buried. Despite the fact that this cemetery seems to be situated in the middle of nowhere, James Dean still has a steady flow of visitors from all over the world. When my roommate and I found Dean’s grave, a minute later, a van of fans from England pulled alongside us. One of the passengers, wearing a leather jacket, said this trip was “a dream come true” for him and that he had idolized Dean since his teenage years. I trust that Dean receives visitors at all hours of the night, showing he is still missed and revered today. To quote from Findagrave: In a bit of trivia…his headstone is a soap opera with a life of its own. It is constantly being chipped away by souvenir hunters and many times it has been stolen intact, found and returned.
The next spot we visited was just on the edge of downtown Fairmount. Here, the town has a beautiful bust of James Dean, made by late sculptor Kenneth Kendall. Kendall created the bust of Dean for Griffith Park Observatory, but Fairmount holds a replica of the bust.
Our next stop was at the James Dean Gallery. Incidentally, they also maintain a Facebook page. The Gallery is free of charge, although they do accept donations. 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, gravesite, and even directions to an all-denim portrait of Dean. Don’t forget to pose with the life-size James Dean statue!
Our next visit was paid to the Fairmount Historical Museum, which is also free of charge and operated by some of the absolute sweetest ladies in Fairmount. They love to talk about James, but also celebrate cartoonist Jim Davis, creator of the Garfield comics, and fellow son of Fairmount. However, these ladies know “the scoop” about Dean, his friends, family, and just about anything you’d like to know. It was here that I received an intense history lesson about James Dean. 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 James Dean’s doodles on his homework, some of his written assignments, his junior high basketball uniform, personal pictures, his comb, conga drums, etc. One of my favorite artifacts includes a picture of James Dean on a visit home, playing his conga drums in the middle of a pig pen. He was a farm boy at heart, and that picture made him more endearing and human to me. Legendary James Dean to fans worldwide, he was and is still “Jim” to everyone in Fairmount. Likewise, Dean’s friends and cousins often frequent the historical society, and I’m not surprised–it’s a wonderful place!
The farm in which Dean was raised still stands to this day, and continues to be owned by his mother’s side of the family. It’s Winslow Farm.
Here it is today:
My roommate and I made just one more stop on the way out of town to the Quaker church which Dean attended as a boy.
It is also worth noting that Dean was a bit of a motorhead. People in Fairmount often paired him with the revving of his motorcycle, which he would maneuver both on the road and through the cornfields. But it is the fateful Porsche Spyder that will be linked to the tragedy of Dean’s death.
His funeral was held at the Fairmount Friends Church. To quote Findadeath, Dean’s funeral was attended by 3000 guests (more than the population of Fairmount), and his pallbearers consisted of friends from high school.
I highly recommend that you visit Fairmount, especially if you’re a fan of Dean and classic cinema. They also have a classic car/Dean festival in the fall, which continues to draw a crowd larger than the population of the town.
Remember that picture of James at the beginning? Here’s the location today.
Drop by Fairmount, and stroll the streets familiar to James Dean. It’s not to be missed.
Just a few additional shots of some amazing Dean items from the Indiana State Museum’s Dean Exhibit. My favorite is the East of Eden suit. Swoon. Also there’s the script from Giant, the car Dean drove his prom date in, the middle school basketball uniform, and much more…