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Remarkable Life, Tragic Death: Fairmount Boy James Dean

James Dean Headstone at Park Cemetery in Fairmount, Indiana
James Dean Headstone at Park Cemetery in Fairmount, Indiana: Notice the Lipstick Prints
Those of you who managed to catch the Little Indiana Facebook Page update may have already seen my James Dean hint. I shared that a photo of mine was featured on the website and that I would be sharing something about that topic this week.

For those of  you who may have forgotten, or never knew to begin with, September 30, 2015 marks the sixtieth anniversary of James Dean’s tragic death. I think that now is a fitting time to share a bit not only about James Dean, but also about other Fairmount, Indiana James Dean landmarks–like beautiful Fairmount High School.

Was James Dean alone when he died? How did James Dean die exactly? Was James Dean drunk when he was driving? The easy answer is that he was in a car wreck with his mechanic and that he was not intoxicated. The long answer is a lot more complicated.

Who was James Dean?

James Dean was born in nearby Marion, Indiana but his family soon moved to the small town of Fairmount. I’ve heard stories of the way Fairmount was back in the day. It sounded like a wonderful place to raise a family. After hopping around to different homes in the town, the Deans made a major move, and headed out to California when James was five. Only four years later, his mother would pass away from cancer.

Not capable of raising the young boy all alone, Dean was moved back to Fairmount, Indiana, to the farm of his uncle and aunt, Marcus and Ortense Winslow. Ortense was often described as friendly. James Dean fans frequently knocked on her door, yet she would always answer and give them a tour, chatting away all the while.

Fairmount High School in Fairmount, Indiana Where James Dean Attended School
Exterior Front of Fairmount High School in Fairmount, Indiana Where James Dean Attended School
According to the information on the Grant County website, James Dean entered Fairmount High School in 1945. Although I had previously read that James Dean didn’t make such a splash on the stage there, perhaps the fact that he received an award in dramatics (in addition to art and sports) upon graduating proves otherwise. In fact, he went on to place first in the Indiana State Contest of the national Forensic League, an organization that enables high school kids a chance to compete while working on their acting and speaking skills. He won with his presentation of The Madman by Charles Dickens, and placed sixth in the National contest in Longmont, Colorado.

Originally enrolling in pre-law at Santa Monica City College in California, he soon transferred to UCLA to major in theater. He attended for two years until he decided to head to New York and try to make it onstage. He succeeded. In 1952 he was cast in See the Jaguars. After his role in The Immoralist, he received the Daniel Blum Award, now known as the Theater World Awards, as the most promising newcomer of 1954. The result was his role of Cal Trask in East of Eden. After its success, a role as Jim Stark in (affiliate link) Rebel Without A Cause quickly followed. 

James Dean was an actor who was just beginning to find his groove. The release of his first movie (affiliate link), East Of Eden 2 Disc Special Edition DVD Starring Julie Harris, James Dean and Raymond Massey, brought him instant celebrity. He had only just finished filming Giant. The film was in post-production so he quickly signed up for a huge Salinas race, having been barred from racing during its filming. After his death. a different actor was used to complete a few voice-overs necessary to finish the film.

Actor Alec Guinness, of Star Wars, Lawrence of Arabia and the Bridge over the River Kwai fame, shared a chance meeting with James Dean. In his autobiography, (affiliate link) Blessings in Disguise(1985) Guinness shares that he was exhausted, having just undergone a very long flight. He couldn’t get a seat in a restaurant because his female companion was wearing slacks. Upon stepping out of a restaurant, James Dean approached him, saying they could sit with him. On the way back to the restaurant, Dean stopped, showed Guinness his new Porsche, and Guinness reports that he told James Dean that he:

heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognize as my own, “Please, never get in it.” I looked at my watch. “It is now ten o’clock, Friday the 23rd of September, 1955. If you get in that car, you will be found dead in it by this time next week.”

He laughed. “Oh, shucks! Don’t be so mean!”

One week later, James Dean and his mechanic, Rolf Wütherich took to the road, tackling the drive from Los Angeles to Salinas. Why was he traveling with his mechanic? The car was apparently hard to handle and would take some getting used to. Entering it in a race with so few miles logged on behind the wheel would make it difficult to win! So, his mechanic was along for the ride, to give him tips while he drove. They were followed in another car by stunt coordinator Bill Hickman and Collier’s photographer Sanford Roth.

You Can't Go Home Again: Fairmount High School Graffiti at James Dean's Old School
You Can’t Go Home Again: Fairmount High School — Graffiti at James Dean’s Old School
California highway patrolman Otie Hunter of Bakersfield issued Dean a speeding ticket at 3:30 PM–two hours, and just over one hundred miles away, from Dean’s fatal car accident. He was driving sixty-five miles an hour in the fifty-five zone. It was a $25 ticket. The officer stated in an interview that he believed Dean to have been traveling at a speed of ninety miles per hour but that he slowed down when he noticed the police car. At the intersection of highway 41 and 466, twenty-three year old  Donald Turnupseed, a Cal Poly college student, made a left turn in his 1950 Ford Tudor–in front of Dean’s lightweight racing car.

The force of the impact caused numerous injuries to James Dean, including a broken neck. He was pronounced dead upon his arrival at the hospital. Wütherich was ejected from the car, receiving a broken leg and a broken jaw, while Turnupseed sustained only minor injuries. Rumor has it that Turnupseed had to find his own way back to his home in Tulare. Wütherich went on to become a rally driver for Porsche. He was later killed in a car accident in 1981.

During the inquest, another man was reported to have been run off the road by James Dean moments before the fatal accident.

Although Turnupseed was technically at fault, since he turned left into an oncoming car, other factors, like the speed of James Dean made it hard to tell just how fast the other car was going, Dean’s earlier speeding ticket, and the glare of the sun, led to a jury relieving Turnupseed of negligence. The fact that Turnupseed said he never saw him struck a chord with the jurors.

Film Star Dean Killed Los Angeles Newspaper Headline
Film Star Dean Killed Los Angeles Newspaper Headline
Turnupseed was reported to speak of the accident only once, to his local paper the day after the accident, and then never again. He later successfully ran an electrical contracting business. He died in 1995 at the age of sixty-three due to lung cancer. Visitors to Find a Grave appear sympathetic, leaving behind kind words and hopes for peace.

There was only one film behind Dean at the time of his death, East of Eden. Several folks at the scene of his accident had never heard of James Dean before though word of his death spread through the area, causing many folks to visit the wrecked car and the scene of the accident. After the release of Rebel without a Cause and (affiliate link) Giant: Special Edition, his fame grew quickly. James Dean received a Golden Globe Special Achievement Award posthumously for Best Dramatic Actor as well as two Academy Award nominations for his work.

There are many conspiracy theories surrounding the death of James Dean. An Unexplained-Mysteries forum points to a report stating that James Dean had a lack of blood, with a facetious jab about aliens. An eyewitness at the accident claimed that James Dean was actually the passenger and that Rolf Wütherich was driving. Dean was accused of not wearing his glasses.

The Telegraph reported a 2005 documentary, The Day that James Dean Died, that claimed to show via computer that Dean was driving seventy miles an hour (less than previously thought) and did not try to accelerate past Donald Turnupseed, as Wütherich had originally stated, but instead braked hard. One report states that they had stopped for soda and a piece of apple pie. Other reports deny that they stopped. And on and on.

James Dean’s Old High School

Fairmount High School in Fairmount, Indiana Where James Dean Attended School
The Walls Came Tumbalin’ Down at Fairmount High School in Fairmount, Indiana Where James Dean Attended School
Our boys and I were putzing around the town of Fairmount. Although I had visited before, it was their first time. We had lunch, we walked around a bit, and then we decided to go check out the water tower. I know, all in a day’s fun, right? But the water tower was cute and kind of neat because it paid a tribute to two of its local boys who made it big: Jim Davis of Garfield fame and James Dean.

On our way to the water tower, a hulking building caught my eye. It was Fairmount High School, built in the 1800s! In fact, it was James Dean’s (and Jim Davis’) old high school. Situated on a slight hill, it made an already imposing building seem ever so much more.

Fairmount High School was listed in Indiana Landmarks Ten Most-Endangered List for 2001, 2002, and 2003 if I remember right. A building isn’t saved just to be saved. Its value is in restoring it and giving it a new purpose that fits with the needs of today. That’s exactly what the forward thinkers of Fairmount were planning.

According to various sources, including the Huffington Post, multiple ideas for reusing the building, as a museum, library, and a community center were discussed. The Fairmount Lions Club had long ago removed the stage and, last I heard, is still storing it in a secret location for the day when there is a place to put it. I’ve heard talk about a pavilion but I do not know if plans for that moved forward or not.

But enough money never came in. Walls fell down and, during the time of my visit, a crew was working on taking it all down, from what I could tell. I don’t think you even needed to attend this high school to feel a bit of grief at its loss. They don’t make schools like this anymore. For those fortunate to have schools as incredible as this, (seriously, go take a look at Richmond High School in Richmond, Indiana–it is fantastic!) you can feel the sturdiness and solidness of these buildings.

Much like our own 114 year old Victorian home, you can feel how it is built to weather any storm. To lose another old school, after the not too distant losses of abandoned Indiana schools like the old Lowell High School and Hanging Grove is just…maddening. And saddening. It sure stirs up a lot of emotions. I can only imagine how it must feel for those who attended there or who saw the big opportunity just wasting away. What a boon it could have been for the town to have been able to use, especially in conjunction with its James Dean events.

Celebrating James Dean

James Dean Fan Club Memorabilia
James Dean Fan Club Memorabilia

Oh, yes, there are events. As I stated above, 2015 marks the sixtieth year of James Dean’s death. He is in no way forgotten! In 2005, during the 50th anniversary of James Dean’s death, Volo Car Museum in Illinois offered up a cool one million dollars to anyone who came forward with the twisted remains of “Little Bastard.” At the time, the museum was hosting a temporary exhibit, with items provided by George Barris, that included the door of his car. They wanted the rest of it!

According to the press release, George Barris “built the ’49 Mercury that Dean drove in the movie [Rebel without a Cause] and supervised the famous chicken-race scene.” He has since added a long list of custom cars to his roster for both celebrities and film. He has an impressive portfolio.

Barris did the customization on the 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder, like the “130” and “Little Bastard” painted onto the car. Again according to the press release, Barris had purchased the wreck and toured it around the country in order to promote car safety. The remains of the car disappeared in Florida. Even with the million dollar incentive, James Dean’s Spyder never did turn up.

James Dean Festival and Car Show

Fairmount, Indiana Watertower with James Dean and Garfield
Fairmount, Indiana Watertower with James Dean and Garfield
Tourists mark their calendars well in advance to celebrate the life of James Dean. Where better than the place where he spent his formative years, but in little Fairmount, Indiana.

It’s the time of year for it. Big James Deans fans are probably packing for their yearly sojourn to Fairmount, Indiana for the James Dean Memorial Service at Back Creek Friends Church on September 30, from 1 PM – 3 PM. After the service, they will then head to Park Cemetery.

Many will probably add their own bright lipstick prints to the front of his tombstone, like others before them. Judging from the other items scattered around his headstone, they may also leave a cigarette (Winstons and Chesterfields are said to have been his favorite brands) or pennies. Leaving pennies has long been a silent signal to show the deceased’s family and friends that they have been visited and that someone still cares.

There are several James Dean landmarks scattered around the town. For those interested in retracing the steps of Dean any time of year (and not just during festival weekends), you should make it a point to head to the places listed below.  Most are a simple drive-by. Carters Motorcycle Shop and the farm are not open to the public.

James Dean Landmarks in Fairmount

James Dean Gallery Fairmount, Indiana
James Dean Gallery Fairmount, Indiana
Back Creek Friends Church — CR 150 East
Carters Motorcycle Shop — CR 150 East
Fairmount Friends Church — 124 W First Street (where Dean’s service was held)
James Dean Boyhood Home (and still in family possession) — CR 150 East
James Dean Grave Site — Park Cemetery, CR 150 East
James Dean Memorial Park — Main & 2nd Streets
James Dean Gallery (yes, I will be writing about this one) — 425 N Main Street, 765.948.3326 — Great people. Lots of James Dean items to browse and a neat retro shop in the back.
Fairmount Historical Museum — 203 E Washington Street, 765.948.4555 — Excellent museum. Unique James Dean items as well as a Garfield room and town history.

There is so much more to the story. He had a Siamese cat, his first purchase in Hollywood was a Palomino horse, and his favorite song was said to be Billie Holiday’s When Your Lover has Gone. He lived. The life of James Dean still inspires, judging from popular songs that have included his name and the many books, films, and television specials that have appeared over the years. Now here it is sixty years later and he still manages to intrigue people of all ages from all over the world. Amazing, don’t you think?

What do you think he would be like today? Have you visited the James Dean Festival? Did you attend Fairmount High School? We would love to know YOUR story! Please, leave it in the comments section below. 

Small Towns: Destinations, not Drive-Thrus! I’m Jessica Nunemaker and THIS is little Indiana!

Just don’t forget to tell ’em that  little Indiana sent you!

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About Jessica Nunemaker

Jessica Nunemaker is the Owner of Little More than a website, Little Indiana is a PBS segment on the state-wide program "The Weekly Special," a bi-weekly column in a local newspaper, and a book. Look for "Little Indiana: Small Town Destinations" published by Indiana University Press in April 2016--just in time for Indiana's BIG 200th Birthday Celebration.

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