COLUMN NINETY, MAY 1, 2003
(Copyright © 2003 The Blacklisted Journalist)
Myth-Shattering Biography of an Icon
THE JAMES DEAN STORY
(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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
But, for Dean, his commitment on Giant was
officially over. He was now free to
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
"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
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
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
Dean went into the office and thumbed through the
newspaper, but within a few minutes he was back, looking impatiently over
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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,
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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