67 years ago on this day…
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 12-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.