James Dean Revisited

Twenty-nine years ago I traveled to Fairmount, Indiana. Fairmount is a small farm community northeast of Indianapolis and a few miles south of Marion, Indiana, the birthplace of actor James Dean. Dean was raised by his aunt and uncle, Ortense and Marcus Winslow, on a farm in Fairmount. The farm house stands the edge of the village right next to the town cemetery, the cemetery where James Dean is buried. I went to Fairmount, Indiana for the twentieth anniversary of Dean’s death.

On September 30, 1955 James Dean was driving north from Los Angeles to Salinas, California for a race. He was driving the car he would enter in the race; a brand new silver Porsche 550 Spyder. He chose to drive the car to the race to put needed miles on the new engine. His mechanic Rolf Weutherich rode along in the passenger seat.

The engine purred as Jimmy raced along a flat open stretch of Highway 466 near the town of Paso Robles. Donald Turnupseed, was heading south on the same 2-lane highway. He did not see the small silver car streaking toward him at 80 mph, it melted into the gray ribbon highway in the early dusk light and Donald Turnupseed made a left turn into the path of Dean’s car. Rolf Weutherich and Donald Turnupseed both survived the crash. Dean did not.

James Dean made three films, only East of Eden had been released prior to that day, but he was already a movie star. In early October, Rebel Without a Cause was released and Dean was catapulted into legendary status. Giant, the film he had completed work on only days earlier, would not be released for another year.

I knew a man in Cincinnati who told me he remembered seeing Rebel and the next day going to high school and all his buddies were wearing jeans and white t-shirts, brooding and slouching against their lockers. My uncle who graduated in 1956 lived in jeans and white t-shirts, wore a red waist length zippered jacket and rode a Triumph motorcycle. Until the day he died, East of Eden remained his favorite film. I became fascinated with James Dean, it’s part of the reason I quit my job and moved to New York to be an actor.

Montgomery Clift and Marlon Brando had opened the door to a new acting style, method acting, spawned at the Actor’s Studio. Dean followed in their footsteps. He played bongos, loved bullfighting and prowled the streets of Manhattan searching for something real. Geraldine Page once told me, “Oh, he always tried to get me to ride on the back of that damned motorcycle of his, but I was afraid of them. He loved bullfights and I hated them, thought they were cruel. We argued all the time about it.” She twisted up her mouth as she was wont to do, considering, then chuckled and tossed back her head, “I remember one day Jimmy explained bullfighting to me in acting terms. He said, ‘Imagine standing in the middle of a ring and a two thousand pound bull is charging at you. Now, try not to move your feet.’ You see if you move your feet the bull will go for the movement and kill you. I understood his argument, actually I liked the image, but I didn’t like bullfighting any more than I had before.”

A friend of mine in the city had known Dean. One day at Child’s, a Times Square hangout for actors, Rawn Harding was sitting at the counter talking to Dean. He glanced at the door and suddenly said, “Rawn, quick, stand up.” He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her; a long and very passionate kiss. Then he paused and looked over her shoulder, “Thanks, let’s sit down now,” and they sat down. Seems a girl he went out with once and didn’t want to see again had walked in, he figured if she saw him kissing a beautiful girl she’d get the idea he didn’t want to see her anymore. The other woman turned on her heels and left the coffee shop. “He was a good actor, beautiful and very self motivated. I liked him, but he used people,” she told me.

Jack Winche was the head of audio at As The World Turns when I was first there. I had great respect for Jack, he’d been around a long time, worked on the Ernie Kovacs show back in the 50’s, he was a good man. Well, Jack had a James Dean story. He told me the story one frustrating day on the show when they’d spent the entire morning trying to shoot a bedroom scene between two actors, finally bedding each other for the first time.

“I don’t know Dan, they’ve got these two actors rolling around half naked all morning and it’s not sexy, it’s boring.” Jack grinned shaking his head, “I remember one time we shot a live TV drama in this studio with Lois Nettleton, I believe, and James Dean. He played an escaped convict. The character stops to talk with this woman who’s sitting on her front porch and before long he talks her into dancing with him and that dance got so hot, so tense you were never sure if he was going to make love to her or kill her. It was the sexiest moment I ever saw on screen and they never took any of their clothes off. He was a hell of an actor.”

I went to Fairmount, Indiana in 1975 as research for an article I was writing on Dean. People had come from all over the world; flowers covered his grave from Germany, France, England, Japan. James Dean look-a-likes showed up, slouching into trees a short distance from the grave. I met a woman, Carol Reddus from Birmingham, Alabama. She and her mother had been there every year for sixteen or seventeen years. She generously shared vast amounts of information and photographs she had collected, memorabilia that had so long consumed her life. I even met Adeline Nall, Dean’s high school drama teacher. Pictured here is a photograph of his grave. The vertical evergreens were planted in hopes the root system would keep fans from digging up the grave. On close inspection you can see his name on the stone has been chipped away by fans desirous of a piece of Dean, a piece of his fame.

At the time I was researching this article I also worked on the radio in Cincinnati as a rock and roll disc jockey. One night I wound up in a large hotel suite at a party following an Eagles concert. I was talking with Bert Stein national promoter for the group’s record label and mentioned I was glad the Eagles had performed the song James Dean. He asked why. I talked about the article, about my research. He grabbed my arm.

“Come with me,” he blurted out and dragged me across the room. There he grabbed Glen Frey’s arm and said, “Got somebody you need to talk to, come on.” Bert wrangled us through the crowded room into the bathroom, snagging a bottle of Jack Daniels along the way.

He locked the door, introduced us and told Frey about the article and my research. Turned out Frey, who sang and penned the song James Dean was a James Dean freak, so we sat on the tiled floor of that hotel room bathroom, drinking whiskey and talking about Dean for the next hour and a half. I was taken by how honestly excited Frey was to grasp every bit of knowledge about Dean I had; rather like Dean would have, I thought. He had the enthusiasm of a kid on Christmas morning, an innocence and vulnerability. We talked about Dean’s artistry and iconic status, we had a grand conversation all because of the impact of this guy who had been dead twenty years.

I originally discovered Dean because a friend brought a biography on him to me when I was in the hospital. I got hooked, mostly because of his keen ability as an actor to know himself and to know what he needed to do to elevate his artistry from good work to greatness, how he expected nothing less than greatness from himself. I later came to respect Brando and Clift for the same reasons, but it was Dean who initially sparked that passion in me.

I went to a psychic in Columbus, Ohio back in the 70’s and she told me I had a past life connection with Dean and gave me a message. I didn’t really think much about it until one day I was talking on the phone with an old friend who was also a psychic and out of the blue she tells me, the same exact thing as the other psychic, word for word. This struck me as odd and while it stirred my curiosity, I dismissed it as a silly coincidence.

A few weeks later I was driving across Indiana heading back to Cincinnati from a visit to Illinois. It was a beautiful day, so I got off the interstate and was cruising along 2 lane blacktops, slicing through thousands of acres of twelve foot high corn, when I realized I was heading in the direction of Fairmount. “If I push it I can make it to the cemetery before dark,” I mumbled to myself and pressed the old 356B Porsche a bit harder.

It was just dark when I nosed the car into the drive at the cemetery. Now, I have to admit I wasn’t thrilled about hanging out in a cemetery after dark, but I was already there so, why not. I stopped the car near the grave and got out. There was no moon that night but it was clear and the stars were bright. I sat down cross legged on the ground in front of the grave. A small bouquet of flowers had been placed next to the head stone. I just sat there a moment allowing my eyes time to adjust. When they had, I still could not make out what kind of flowers they were or read the name on the stone clearly.

After a bit I began to talk quietly aloud about my experience with the two psychics, “So ya see I need some sort of sign here, if there’s any truth to what these psychic’s have told me, otherwise I’m gonna just figure it’s so much hogwash.” Then I leaned forward using the evergreens on each side of the stone as sort of a frame and focused my attention on the space just above the head stone, trying hard to see something. After several moments of serious concentration and focus nothing happened.

“Well, I guess that’s that,” I muttered and lit a cigarette. I remained cross legged and leaned back, my palms on the ground behind me on each side as support. About a minute later, something grabbed my left wrist. The grasp was quick and firm and very real, except no one was there and I knew it. I sprung forward, took a last drag off the Camel straight crushed it into the dirt, “Okay, you got my attention.”

I allowed my eyes to focus on the stone and then as if a full moon concealed behind a cloud revealed itself, the flowers began to glow, reflecting a non-existent light source. The glow was sufficient that I could tell the flowers were plastic and I could clearly read the name and date on the grave stone. This lasted for nearly two full minutes, then as quickly as it had illuminated, it dimmed. I slumped forward at that moment as if someone had been holding onto and released me. I stayed real still for a long moment then lit another cigarette and looked around the cemetery, I was more relaxed that I ever recall being, completely comfortable sitting in the middle of this dark cemetery.

“Spirits always approach from the left side,” a friend who knew about those things told me on the phone a few days later. A bit more than a year later I moved to New York to be an actor.

“You are to finish what I began,” was what both psychics told me. I never figured out just what it was supposed to mean. Now, on the 49th anniversary of James Dean’s death, as I began writing this tale I wondered if I would be able to answer that question when I got to this point. Seems it has to do with the manner in which we pursue our lives, it’s in the levels of the intensity and passion we bring to the table. The answer is in living your life honestly, committing to what lies deep within your soul, to your dreams and to the pursuit of truth and reality in your work as an artist. It is about the great strength that lives in vulnerability.

Thanks Jimmy, for leading me here.
We’ll talk next time From The Road.

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