James Dean’s Final Hours
Today is the 60th anniversary of the death of James Dean, the focal point of Keith Elliott Greenberg’s book, Too Fast to Live, Too Young To Die. In his book, Greenberg pieces together the puzzle of Dean’s final day and its everlasting impact. Here is an excerpt:
Ever since his toddler years, Jimmy had a keen talent for both observing the world and interpreting it for what was primarily a small but receptive audience. If his grandfather Charles crossed his legs, Jimmy imitated the gesture. If Charles then stretched his legs, Jimmy did it too. “It was more than just mocking Charlie’s gestures,” Emma said. “Even then, Jimmy
seemed able to be another person.”
And people wanted to watch Jimmy perform. “From the time I can remember him, he was cute, and he was always the center of attention, wherever he went,” Joan Peacock told CNN.
There was also a depth that separated Jimmy from his contemporaries. “Jimmy had a little something up here that the other boys don’t have,” Traster said, motioning at his temple. The nursery owner remembered Jimmy as a teen, becoming sullen and taking off on his motorcycle—Traster pronounced it “motor-sicle”—to the family property, where he’d “medidate” in private.
By Traster’s estimation, the young man “derived a certain amount of comfort” from being on the land that defined his ancestors. “He had the spirituality the average kid didn’t seem to have.”
In February 1955, Jimmy had returned to the farm with Dennis Stock, a photographer for Life magazine, working on a photo essay that would be entitled “Moody New Star.” East of Eden was already generating excitement, and—while he wasn’t yet a household name—the comparisons to Brando had begun. It was the public’s opportunity to see Dean not only in the place that shaped him, but also with the people who loved him in a way that his fans never could. The depth of the relationship between Markie and the actor he considered a brother was particularly evident. In one photo, Jimmy is waiting for the school bus with his younger cousin. In another, Markie looks over Jimmy’s shoulder as he reads. In a third, the two pay a solemn visit to Cal Dean’s grave.
Markie never forgot any of it. “That was kind of a special visit,” he says. “When Jimmy would go to town or something, he’d want to know if I wanted to go along. That’s why I’m in so many of the pictures. And, of course, even when I look at those pictures now, it brings back all those memories.”
Because of Dean’s death on the highway, people would later focus on the picture of Dean pushing his little cousin in a miniature race car, as well as the image of the pair playing with toy racers on the floor.
Jimmy’s grandfather Charles Dean also loved fast cars, purchasing his first vehicle in 1911 and disrupting the order of Fairmount by rocketing down the road at a then-blistering thirty-five miles per hour. Jimmy was a child when he began driving a tractor but quickly graduated to motorized bikes. Recounted Emma, “His motorcycles got larger and larger.”
Over the years, Jimmy owned an Italian Lancia scooter, English cycle, Harley, 500cc Norton, Indian 500, and British Triumph T-110—with “Dean’s Dilemma” painted on the side—in addition to a number of cars. But recently, he’d made his fastest and most expensive purchase: a Porsche 550 Spyder, a two-seat race car, possessing neither a windshield nor a roof, and capable of going as fast as 150 miles per hour. Costing in the neighborhood of $7,000, it would have been an extravagant choice, had Dean’s agent not just arranged a new deal securing the actor $100,000 for every future film.
Not since the Czech Whizzer had Dean been so exhilarated over a ride. Jimmy had been driving the 550 Spyder—one of only ninety the manufacturer produced—all over Hollywood, regularly stopping at his favorite restaurant, the Villa Capri, so friends could gawk at it. It was particularly thrilling to have his relatives, Marcus Sr. and Ortense, and another aunt and uncle, Charles Nolan and Mildred Dean, in town to view this material symbol of their nephew’s success. On Saturday, Jimmy was
scheduled to race the Porsche about three hours north, in Salinas, and he asked his relatives to watch him from the stands. Marcus and Ortense couldn’t make it; they’d been away long enough and were driving home to see Markie, Joan, and the rest of the family. Charles Nolan and his wife expressed interest in attending the race, and Jimmy had their tickets in his pocket as he made his way up the winding highway to the track. But, at the last moment, the couple decided to drive to Mexico instead.
Even so, Jimmy was overjoyed to be steering the Porsche around the curves of Route 466. Observers would later theorize that the twenty-fouryear- old star was simply infatuated with the race car’s power. He’d named it the “Little Bastard,” a proclamation, some thought, about the way Jimmy perceived himself. But, below his snarling facade, Dean’s sensitivity
allowed him to appreciate the Spyder as a work of automotive brilliance, renowned for its aerodynamic design, lightweight aluminum chassis, and air-cooled engine that could expand and contract as the temperature changed.