(Copyright 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)

A Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
(Copyright 1975, 1995 Ronald Martinetti)


By SEPTEMBER THE SUBJECT of racing was very much on Dean's mind.  So far he had kept his promise to Stevens, but Dean's impatience was growing.  He had missed the Hansen Dam race in June and the Torrey Pines contest in July.  Over Labor Day he had attended a race in Santa Barbara, watching Lew Bracker drive.  As a favor to the car club, Dean had gone on Tom Harmon's KNX sports show to promote the event.  Driver Jim Matthews recalls: "Dean's answers to questions were, 'Yes' or 'No.' He seemed incapable of ad-libbing.  I heard the program and nearly cringed in sympathy for Tom.  Pulling words out of Dean was like pulling teeth.  Tom was POed at Dean and furious with me for setting up the interview."

As sometimes happens, Tom Harmon's perception---and recollection---were different from Matthews's.  In 1974, the former Michigan football hero recalled: "I had been told that Dean would be difficult but I found him just the opposite.  He chattered like a buzz saw and was very engaging in his conversation .... As I recall, James Dean seemed excited about the silent battle and danger that all race drivers know.  I think Dean accepted that fact of a driver's life and readily enjoyed flirting with danger."

Dean had loaned Bracker his racing helmet for good luck, but his friend did not have one of his better days, finishing twenty-fifth in a field of thirty-nine.  He was sixteenth in class F.

Back from Santa Barbara, Dean spoke constantly of racing and the events he planned to enter once Giant was completed, as it soon would be.  There was a rugged road race, the Carrena Americana Mexico, that Dean had set his sights on.  The two?-thousand-mile race was run down the Pan American Highway, and simply to finish was an achievement.  But the race was run irregularly; no definite date had been set for the next event, and in the meantime there were other club meets the actor planned to enter.  He told columnist Harrison Carroll in mid-'september: "I want to enter at Salinas (on October 1), Willow Springs, Palm Springs, all the other places." Jimmy added that he was going back East later in the fall for some television work, but "maybe I can catch a race back there." When Carroll asked if Warners approved, the rebel finally drew the line.  "When a man goes home at night," he replied, "the studio can't tell him not to do what he wants to do."

Since his return from Marfa in July, Dean had been shopping for another car, one with more horsepower and a finer racing edge.  He had put a small down payment on a Lotus Mark IX, a British racer, planning to put an Of?fenhauser engine in it.

But now, through Lew Bracker, he heard of another car, a Porsche 550 Spyder that Bracker had spotted in the window of Competition Motors on North Vine Street.

The car was a beauty.  It cost six thousand nine hundred dollars and was capable of 150 miles per hour.  Its body was made of thin aluminum and had no windshield or bumpers; only seventy-five of these cars had been manufactured by the Porsche factory in Stuttgart.  "This is strictly a racing car," Dean said.  "It goes like a bomb.  It'll be very hard to catch."

Jimmy traded in his old Porsche Speedster, paying the difference.  Before completing the deal, however, Dean insisted that Rolf Weutherich, a young mechanic at the shop, promise to accompany him to his next race and check the car before he competed.  Weutherich, a thin former Luftwaffe pilot who had recently come to this country from Germany, readily agreed.

The mechanic had seen the actor race and admired his driving.  "He was one of the best drivers in California," Weutherich said.  "He had that essential feel for fast cars and dangerous roads.  When he drove, he drove with his whole being.  He had steel in his hands."

The deal was completed the same morning Dean visited the shop.  It was Monday, September 21, 1955.

The next two weeks were busy and crowded with activity. Rebel Without a Cause was sneak-previewed in Westwood, near UCLA, and Jimmy went with several friends.  "He was sitting there just behind me," Sal Mineo recalled, "and half a dozen times when he was really terrific I turned around and looked at him.  He was giving that grin of his and almost blushing, looking at the floor."

In 1976, shortly before he was tragically murdered---a victim of random violence---Mineo was to say: "I still am emotionally unable to watch reruns of Rebel.  I still talk of Jimmy to my closest friends, still find myself thinking of him at odd moments, still run into complete strangers who ask me to tell them something about Dean."

Jimmy's own verdict was that the movie was good but could have been better, and that he was dissatisfied by a number of his own scenes.  Afterward, he told Dennis Stock he was a bit put off by Nicholas Ray's Hitchcock-like appearance in the movie.  In the film's final frame the director is seen walking toward the planetarium with his back to the camera.

But, for the moment, Dean kept the comment to himself, and after the preview, Ray, Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo, and Nick Adams---the whole gang---went to Googie's for a midnight celebration.

Largely as a favor to Lew Bracker, Dean had recently taken out a $100,000 life insurance policy

Dean promised
to write a will
but never did

with Bracker's company, Pacific Indemnity, and one afternoon Bracker brought the policy by the studio.  Dean signed the policy, telling Bracker he wanted the bulk of the money to go to his aunt and uncle, and the rest to be distributed among his relatives in Indiana.

Bracker explained that he should make a will, specifying each amount.  Dean agreed, but never followed through, and on his death his entire estate went by law to his father.

Jane Deacy, Dean's agent, had come to town for several days on business, and Dean was happy to entertain her.  He met her at the airport and filled her Chateau Marmont suite with flowers and candy.

Miss Deacy got right to work negotiating a new contract for her client with Warners.  Dean's base salary for Giant was fifteen thousand dollars---though an overtime clause raised the figure to nearly thirty thousand dollars---but in the future he would receive one hundred thousand dollars per film.

Miss Deacy had also lined up two television specials back in New York.  One was a dramatization of The Corn Is Green with Judith Anderson, to be done on NBC in late October.  Dean was to play Morgan Evans, the young Oxford-bound coal miner's son. The other show was A. E. Hotchner's adaptation of the Hemingway short story The Battler, in which Dean would play Ad Francis, the battered prizefighter.

In addition, MGM had gotten Warners' approval to borrow Dean for Somebody Up There Likes Me, which was scheduled to go before the cameras in January.  Dean had read Graziano's book and liked it.  "What a guy," Dean said.  "One day when he was in the Army, he got tired of it and just got up---walked out---went over the hill.  The army never forgave him .... You've got to admire that kind of nerve."

Dean met Dore Schary, the head of MGM who approved him for the part.  Decades later Schary still recalled the outfit Dean wore that day he dropped by for the interview: jeans, Indian moccasins, and sunglasses---his James Dean wardrobe.  As Jimmy strolled around, casually examining the well-ap?pointed office or picking up objects on the desk, Schary found him "a strange combination of immaturity and aggressiveness." Dean made sure MGM would match his hundred-thousand-?dollar salary.  The studio boss also mentioned that Pier Angeli had been chosen to play Graziano's wife and that Sal Mineo, another Dean friend, who had a cameo in Giant, was going to be in the cast.  Mineo later remembered that "Dean was looking forward to doing the film since he knew Pier was in it."

Dean's future appeared secure.  The starving artist had never been his m'tier.  Now, he was willing to capitalize on his fame; the carrions of Hollywood were there to oblige. He was asked to endorse a clothing line and talked about obtaining a Porsche dealership to be called Jimmy Dean Motors.  A Beverly Hills business management firm was called in to help handle investments.

On Friday, September 23, Dean was having dinner at the Villa Capri.  Sir Alec Guinness, who had only arrived in Hollywood that day, was there, and Dean asked Sir Alec to join him.  "You are my favorite actor.  I'd like to meet you," Dean said.  Guinness found Dean "very agreeable," and the two talked casually about actors and acting. Dean insisted on showing him his new Porsche, which was parked outside. "When he told me the speed he wanted to go in it," Guinness remembered, "I begged him never to get into it.  Something made me say: 'If you do, you will be dead in a week.'?

This was not the first premonitory warning, nor was it the last.  Several days later Dean offered coproducer Henry Ginsberg a ride to the studio, and when Ginsberg got there, he told the production department: "If you have any loose ends, you better tie them up quick.  The way this kid's handling that car I don't think he's going to be around much longer."

The next day Dean completed his work on Giant.  This was the famous banquet scene in which Jett Rink collapses and passes out in front of a packed ballroom.  Later, Lee Strasberg was to say that this was "an enormously difficult scene" that Dean had played "superbly." Although Giant was his favorite of Dean's three pictures, the tough teacher still felt that his pupil never "achieved the fulfillment that he was capable of as an actor."

To make him look older and more dissipated, Dean's hair had been shaved back and dyed gray.  Jimmy kept missing his lines and the scene had to be reshot several times until Stevens ordered it printed.  Stevens, though was still not satisfied with the print, and after Dean's death, Nick Adams was quietly brought in to dub additional dialogue.

Afterward, Stevens was to say of the young actor and his growing legend: "He'd hardly broken water, flashing in the air like a trout.  A few more films and the fans wouldn't have been so bereft.  This first bright phase would have become an ordinary light and wouldn't have produced this kind of thing." He also said: "Jimmy had no will to die.  He was very much planning for the future.... He was a boy with a wonderful sense of the theater.  All this encourages young people, par'ticularly young actors, to behave eccentrically.  They saw it paid off for Jimmy."

But, for Dean, his commitment on Giant was officially over.  He was now free to race.

Looking forward to the big event on Saturday, Jimmy invited several friends to go along with him, but for a while it didn't look as though he could get anyone to go.  Nick Adams was leaving for New York to be with Natalie Wood, and Lew Bracker had tickets for the USC-Texas game.  "Okay," Dean told him.  "It's your funeral."

Bill Stevens told Dean he couldn't leave Friday morning as Dean planned, but would drive to Salinas that night and be there in time for the race the next day.  Stevens was packing his bags for the trip when he learned of Dean's death.  "If I was with him it wouldn't have happened," Stevens remembered sadly.  "I never let him drive that way."

Finally, Dean convinced Bill Hickman to accompany him, and photographer Sandy Roth, who was doing a story on Dean for Collier's, agreed to go too.

On Wednesday, September 28, Dean relaxed much of the day, then went to the movies that evening with Ursula Andress and Lew Bracker to see I Am a Camera.  The film and play of the same name were based on a novella by the English writer Christopher Isherwood, who then lived in Santa Monica.  Jimmy pretended to know and admire him.  A few weeks earlier, Dean had even promised to introduce his pal Bill Bast to him.  Later it turned out that Isherwood had never met the actor. To the end, it seems, Jimmy never outgrew his fondness for exaggeration.

Thursday, he drifted around town, appearing at Warners around noon in his car.  He talked with Stevens a few minutes, then drove off, telling the director, "So long, I think I'll let the Spyder out."

For several days, Dean had been toying with the idea of driving the car to Salinas himself instead of towing it on a trailer.  Driving around Hollywood he had only managed to put a couple of hundred miles on the odometer, and Weutherich, his mechanic, felt he needed to drive the car at least five hundred miles to properly learn to handle it. Thursday, Dean definitely decided to drive the car himself.

Late in the afternoon, Dean picked up Bill Hickman to drive up the coast to Santa Barbara to put more mileage on the car.

"In those final days, racing was what he cared about most," remembers Hickman, who later did the stunt driving in The French Connection and who died of cancer in the 1980s.  "I had been teaching him things like how to put a car in a four-wheel drift, but he had plenty of skill of his own.  If he had lived he might have become a champion driver.  We had a running joke, I'd call him Little Bastard and he'd call me Big Bastard.  I never stop thinking of those memories."

The car handled well on the road to Santa Barbara, but when fog rolled in from the ocean, Dean was forced to turn back. Driving back to town, a highway patrol car followed them for speeding, but the Porsche managed to outrun it.

That evening, Dean stopped by the apartment of Jeanette Miller, a young actress who was another of Dick Clayton's clients and whom Dean sometimes dated when he and Ursula were on the outs. 

Several weeks before, Elizabeth Taylor had given Dean a Siamese kitten, which he named Marcus.  Because he was going out of town, Jeanette had agreed to take the kitten and Dean brought it over.  Jeanette had been looking at an old movie on television, The Boy With Green Hair, but Jimmy was too restless to watch the picture.  Jeanette later said of their relation'ship: "We talked a lot.  We laughed a lot." But that night Jimmy appeared "tense" and "irritable." They talked for a while, and before leaving the apartment around 9:30, he wrote a formula for feeding Marcus on the back of an old envelope.

"Be careful at the races," she said.

"Sure," he drawled softly.  Then he kissed her on the forehead, scratched the kitten, and left.

When Dean got back to his house, he phoned his father and asked if he wanted to attend the race.  Winton Dean declined the invitation, but promised to drop by Competition Motors the next day, along with Dean's uncle, Charles Nolan, who was visiting from Indiana.

Too keyed up to sleep, Dean drove his Porsche up to Coldwater Canyon and raced along the narrow road.  Below the lights stretched the reach of the valley toward the shadows of the distant mountains. Then, he finally returned home.


Early Friday morning Dean was awakened by Nicolas Romanos, who often dropped by to fix breakfast and straighten up the house.  The actor was still groggy from lack of sleep. 

"He didn't say hello," Romanos remembered.  "He never would.  He kept his drums at the bottom of the stairs and he would sit down and beat them.  He would never talk until his coffee was ready."

Dean left the house at 7:45, dressed in blue jeans and a T-shirt.  Romanos stayed behind to clean up and put the breakfast dishes away.

It was a warm morning.  Dean drove his Ford station wagon to Hollywood, the Porsche mounted on a trailer behind.  On the side of the Spyder he had painted his racing number, 130, and across the rear he had written the nickname "The Little Bastard."

Dean was at Competition Motors by 8 A.M. According to Aljean Meltsir, who wrote a detailed

seat belt
remained unfastened

account of that day, Weutherich went immediately to work, checking the Porsche over.  Dean paced the floor, then came over and asked the mechanic if he needed help. "No thanks," Weutherich oked. "You'll only complicate things."

Dean went into the office and thumbed through the newspaper, but within a few minutes he was back, looking impatiently over Weutherich's shoulder.

When the mechanic had finished checking the car, he attached a safety belt across the driver's seat.  Since Dean was going to be alone during the race, he didn't fix one for the passenger's seat.  Dean sat in the car and tried the belt.

Around ten o'clock, Hickman and Roth showed up at the shop.  They were going to take the station wagon on the trip.  The mechanic would ride in the Porsche with Dean.

A few minutes later, Dean's father and uncle walked in.  Jimmy offered to take his uncle for a ride, and they drove around the block a couple of times.

At noon, Weutherich went home to change clothes, and Dean and the others went to the Hollywood Ranch Market, half a block away, for coffee and donuts.

When they got back to the shop, Dean told his father he had an extra ticket if he wanted to see the race, but Winton was unable to make the trip; several hours later, when Dean's body was taken from the wreckage, he still had the ticket in his pocket.

At one-thirty they were at last ready to leave.  Jimmy clipped on his sunglasses and tossed his red jacket in the backseat; the safety belt remained unfastened.  Winton and his brother drove off.  Roth photographed Dean and Weutherich as they sat in the car, hands clasped above their heads in a victory salute.

Afterward, George Stevens would say Dean "worked hard to get publicity and always had a photographer with him." The trip to Salinas was no exception.

Traffic was heavy as the two cars drove out to Ventura Boulevard toward Highway 99 (now Interstate 5), which cuts through the mountains between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.

The sun was high in the afternoon sky.  Sometimes the Porsche led, sometimes the station wagon moved out in front as they headed toward the mountains.

Dean smoked cigarette after cigarette, which Rolf lit for him, all the while pumping the mechanic with questions about how the car was operating.

Rolf finally closed his eyes against the sun's glare and leaned his head back, almost lulled to sleep by the soft purr of the motor.

Dean was happy behind the wheel.  The wind rushed by as they wound through the mountain range that brushed against the sky.  "Life is wonderful," Dean is supposed to have murmured.

A few minutes before 3 P.M., they stopped near the top of Ridge Route at a roadside place for something to eat.  Dean had a glass of milk and Rolf ordered a dish of ice cream.  The mechanic warned Jimmy not to go too fast during the race the next day.  "Don't try to win," he told him.  "It's a big jump from a Speedster to a Spyder.  Try for second or third.  Drive for the experience."

"All right," Dean replied.  "You give me the pit signals."

A few minutes later, Roth and Hickman came in and ordered sandwiches.  When they finished eating, they all left the restaurant.

Back on the highway, the Porsche was quickly in the lead.  The car wound down the mountain and raced along the flat, dusty plains.  A highway patrol officer, 0. V. Hunter, flagged down the car for speeding.  Dean was given a ticket for doing sixty-five in a fifty-five-mile-per-hour zone.  Jimmy explained to the officer that the Porsche wouldn't perform well if driven under sixty miles per hour.  The cop advised him to go slower anyway.  Roth and Hickman, who had pulled up alongside in the station wagon, were also given a summons.

Before they drove off, Dean and the others decided their next stop would be for dinner in Paso Robles, 130 miles away.

Dean headed toward Bakersfield.  They drove through the town, with its broad, palm-lined boulevard, and moved west, past the black oil pumps and balls of tumbleweed that dotted the highway.  The land was bare, burnt brown by the September sun.  Only a farmhouse or two stood in the empty fields.

As Dean approached Blackwell's Corners, a gas sta'tion-general store perched along the highway, he spotted a Mercedes 300-SL and pulled off the road to examine it.  The car belonged to Lance Reventlow, Barbara Hutton's son, who was also on his way to the meet, along with race driver Bruce Kessler.  Jimmy and the two drivers talked for a while; they too had been ticketed for speeding earlier.  It had been a busy afternoon for the highway patrol.

Before the two left, Dean told Kessler that he had hit one hundred miles per hour on the open stretch of road between Bakersfield and the Corners.

Roth and Hickman arrived in the station wagon.  Roth bought a bag of apples for the road.  "How do you like the Spyder now?" Dean asked, his face flushed from the sun.  "I want to keep this car for a long time---a real long time."

Dean bought a Coke and shared his cigarette with Hick?man; then he got back into the Porsche.  His safety belt remained unfastened.

"See you in Paso Robles," he yelled to Roth. Later, Hickman told writer Paul Hendrickson: "The way he died was grim, fatalistic---proof of everything people were saying about him.  The mythmakers had what they wanted."

On Highway 466 (now 46), Dean continued west.  The setting sun loomed over the mountains in the distance, shining in his eyes.  The narrow road curved through the hills, then dipped to the Cholame Valley and the farmland below.  The wheat and barley had been harvested in the surrounding countryside, and the brown, flat fields stretched toward the horizon.

Dean pressed forward, invited by the open road.  The Porsche hugged the ground, its silver body, the traditional German racing color, blending into the land as the car raced through the valley.

At a narrow intersection in the road, about thirty miles from Paso Robles where Highway 466 met Highway 41, a Ford, driven by a young Cal Poly student named Donald Turnup'seed, prepared to turn left.

Dean saw the car too late, crying out as it hurled into them.  The impact tore the left front fender off the Ford.  The Spyder was thrown in the air and cartwheeled along the ground, coming to rest near a telephone pole.  The crash threw Weutherich nineteen feet from the car.  His jaw was broken and his hip fractured in several places, but he recovered. (In later years, he became a rally driver for Porsche and was killed in an automobile accident in Germany, in 1981.)

Turnupseed suffered minor injuries; an inquest was held but he was absolved from blame.  He later said that the accident happened "in a snap of a finger."

Dean's body lay twisted in the car.  His neck was broken and his chest crushed where the steering wheel had smashed into him.

He was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital.

On October 8 funeral services were held at the Friends Church in Fairmount, Indiana, where Dean had worshiped as a boy.

Some three thousand people, more than the entire popula'tion of the town, turned out to pay their last respects.  The church was filled with family and friends, and hundreds of others gathered outside.

There was very little evidence of Hollywood glitter.  Henry Ginsberg was there representing the cast of Giant and Elizabeth Taylor had sent an arrangement of orchids.  The accompanying card said simply, "With love always, Elizabeth."

Ginsberg knew that Dean had been difficult on the set; later, he would say simply that the young actor "had his peculiarities." But in Fairmount, he spoke only good of the deceased star.  The producer told the townsfolk that Dean "was not only well liked, but highly respected by his fellow workers in the movie industry.  He was adjusting himself well to his sudden rise to stardom."

A handful of Dean's personal friends---Lew Bracker, Nick Adams, and Dennis Stock---came to say good-bye.

The Quaker service was a simple one.  The Reverend James DeWeerd, Dean's boyhood friend, read a brief eulogy.  "We cannot measure a life in years, moments, days, or minutes," he said.  "Although Jimmy's life was a short one, he accomplished more than most persons do if they live to be seventy or eighty."

The organist played Going Home from Dvorak's New World Symphony, and as the service ended, Dean's body was borne from the church.  Five young men with whom he had played basketball in high school served as pallbearers.

The first chill of autumn in the Indiana air, James Byron Dean was buried beside his mother in a small cemetery at the edge of a cornfield, a patch of land, shaded by evergreens, that had once been an Indian burial ground.  ##  



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