Late that afternoon, two cars traveling on a California highway to a racing competition in Salinas met with an unimaginable and horrific destiny. The decision to take the alternate route to avoid Bakersfield’s strict speed limits and vehicle codes may very well have been prophetic. At the wheel of his recently purchased 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, 24-year-old actor James Dean, was accompanied by his mechanic, Rolf Wütherich. Following the two men in a station wagon was a professional photographer, Sanford Roth, who had been assigned to do a magazine photo story of the scheduled race.
Just a few days after he had completed filming his role as Jett Rink, in the epic motion picture, Giant, Dean reportedly was thrilled to be behind the wheel of his recently purchased sports car and anxious to enter it in the competition. Another fateful twist involved the last minute decision to drive the Porsche to Salinas instead of towing it there as originally planned. Reportedly, both Dean and Wütherich thought that the drive on the open road offered the chance to road test the vehicle in preparation for the competition. En route to Salinas, at around 3:30 p.m., Dean was pulled over by a police officer near Bakersfield for speeding. He accepted the ticket and shortly afterward, they continued on their way to the race. Local newspapers reported that the police officer listed the violation on the ticket as “driving 65 miles an hour in a 45-mile zone of the winding Grapevine Grade Ridge Route Road south of Bakersfield.”
Less than three hours later, continuing on their journey, at approximately 5:45 p.m., Dean and Wütherich spotted a 1950 Ford Tudor driving East at high speed and heading toward them. When they saw the car moving into their lane to take the fork onto Highway 41, Dean said to Wütherich:
“That guy’s gotta stop. He’ll see us.”
But as the Ford’s driver, Donald Turnupseed, made a left turn and crossed over the center line into Dean’s lane, Dean apparently tried to steer the Porsche Spyder away, but the two cars collided head-on. The velocity of the impact of the collision resulted in Wütherich being thrown from the car and surviving, but Dean suffered a broken neck and massive internal injuries and was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital at 6:20 p.m.
September 30, 1955 is now a long, long time ago. But, like many from my generation, I remember that heartbreaking weekend with remarkable clarity. When I heard the news, I was an impressionable 12½-year-old devoted movie fan with a massive collection of fan magazines and pictures of James Dean all over my bedroom walls. I was in my room reading when the news broke, so I didn’t hear the radio broadcasts that my parents heard in the living room. A short while later, my older brother, Winston, who had previously delighted in teasing me about my fan crush on James Dean, walked into my room and handed me a rolled-up newspaper in which he had read the headline story. But instead of teasing me again, my brother displayed surprising empathy. Sitting with me, just listening and talking and allowing me to express the profound sadness and disbelief I was feeling.
For the children of the ’50s and ’60s, the 9/30/55 date was seared into our collective memories and synonymously linked to James Dean, our very own cultural icon. The archetypal sullen, disobedient and misunderstood young man of our era. Today, an incredible sixty-four years have passed since the shocking news. Yet, he remains frozen in time. Forever young.
The first time I saw him on screen, I was absolutely mesmerized. Transfixed and rendered motionless. His powerful and riveting performance literally took my breath away. He was like no one I had ever seen before. In the brief opening scene of East of Eden, a profusion of character information was on display in those few intense moments.
In his role as Cal, his tormented demeanor and body language revealed a tortured life of longing as well as his connection to the mysterious woman his persistent gaze was following and caressing as she strolled slowly past him.
In this, his first major film role, the world was introduced to the shy Indiana farm boy who burst onto the world stage and into our awareness like a meteor. In a matter of minutes, a few frames of film revealed a new brand of acting and a young performer of extraordinary talent. He was such a powerful and compelling onscreen presence that he owned every scene he was in. And his performance seemed so real that he appeared not to be acting or reciting lines that someone had written, but rather displaying genuine raw emotions. In an instant, he became an overnight sensation, a teen idol, and shortly thereafter in death, a pop culture icon and legend.
His heartwrenching portrayal of Cal Trask in East of Eden, the only one of his 3 films released while he was alive, resulted in his being nominated for an Academy Award for best actor, and then posthumously in the same category for his riveting performance as Jett Rink in Giant.
As an impressionable adolescent Catholic school girl growing up on the West side of Detroit, movies were a welcomed escape from the rigid rules and strict teachings of my parents and the nuns and priests educating me. An additional bonus was the fact that my uncle was the manager at the neighborhood movie theater and free admission was an incentive that I took full advantage of. My family had recently joined millions of other Southern Negroes in the Great Migration, leaving our Montgomery Alabama home for the promise of racial equality and better opportunities “up North”. Having lived under the pervasive shadow of segregation and Jim Crow laws, with no access to public libraries and first-run movie theaters, I was thrilled with all the possibilities that our family’s new life in the big city presented. I spent hours gathering and devouring library books, and carefully budgeted my weekly allowance to include the fifty cents price of a movie ticket at our neighborhood movie theater. In those days, with few notable exceptions, e.g., Dorothy Dandridge, and Sidney Poitier, there were precious few positive images of black people being depicted on the big screen. Stereotypical portrayals of Negroes were the norm, there was no balance in the characters being represented, and racial diversity was totally absent. Similarly, choices in terms of teen self-identity were also extremely limited, so our search for our own identities, different and separate from those of our parents, led us to the same teen idols as our white counterparts. When James Dean came along during this coming of age with such a forceful image of teen angst, adolescents and teens of every ethnicity easily identified with his reputation as rebel and loner, and we related to and embraced his non-conformity. Sadly, this real-time romanticism was short-lived while he was still with us. The announcement of his sudden and tragic death was stunning, and like millions of other kids, I mourned him with regular and devoted attendance at showings of his three films, voluminous stacks of fan magazines and books, and tribute even more photos of him lining my bedroom walls.
All of this happened a long time ago, and today, in my approaching dotage, with the perspective lent by the inexorable passage of time, I now see James Dean, not as Cal Trask, or Jim Stark, or Jett Rink or a cult hero, but as the real-life enigma, he was. His time on this earth, though brief, showcased a phenomenal talent to be observed and enjoyed and studied for generations to come. My guess is that he was unaware of the profoundly emotional and lasting effect he had on audiences. But we’ll never know. He left us too soon. His was a meteoric rise, soon followed by a sudden departure into eternity. The instant mythology created by the shock of his death has endured. And we are left to always wonder what might’ve been. But on the morning of September 30, 1955, when James Byron Dean hopped into his Porsche 550 Spyder and slid behind the wheel and drove away from his Sherman Oaks, California home, he began his last drive — into history. That journey has continued for 64 years and is now legend.
…and the legend lives on.
Recently a 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, the very same model as James Dean’s prized possession, sold for a record $3.685 million dollars.