James Dean was killed in a car crash in 1955 – here’s how his fame kept growing

James Dean with Silver Porsche

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The last hours of James Dean: Looking back from 1956

Brilliant young star met a tragic end on eve of his greatest success — but even in death, his fame continues to grow

By Seymour Korman, Hollywood – Chicago Tribune (Illinois) February 5, 1956

The new racing car, a German Porsche Spyder, was delivered the last week in September, 1955. It was low-slung, lightweight aluminum, gleaming white. It cost $7,000…

James Dean with his Porsche

{Flashback … Often, in his brief 24 years, James Dean had dreamed of having a car like that. But it hadn’t been possible until now. He had received only $10,000 for acting in his first star film, “East of Eden”; $15,000 for ‘Rebel Without a Cause.’ Now with his latest –“Giant “– just finished and with other big productions in prospect, he had risen to the $100,000 a picture class.}

Those last few weeks of waiting for the Porsche had been the hardest for the Quaker lad from Marion, Ind. Warner Brothers studio had written into his contract for “Giant” that he couldn’t do any auto racing until the picture was completed…

The Porsche could speed up to 150 miles an hour…

{Flashback … Jimmy had always been in a hurry. He was that way when he was a star basketball player at high school in Fairmount, near Marion, in the late 1940s. Once, early in his employment at Warner Brothers, a studio executive saw him zoom away in a fast car, and remarked: “That crazy kid is going to kill himself.”}

Actor James Dean

Once in conversation with Marlon Brando, Jimmy said: “I’ve got to go places in a hurry. There just isn’t enough time.”

A movieland acquaintance added: “He was always racing somewhere because he didn’t believe he would live very long. He had a premonition of death.”

He drove the Porsche at moderate speed around Hollywood for a few days, Showing it off to Ursula Andress, pretty starlet…

{Flashback . . . There had been many lovely and talented women in Jimmy’s life — Natalie Wood, Lilli Cardell, Pat Hardy, Ella Logan, Lori Nelson –}

Ursula, the last, liked to ride fast, too. She wore T-shirts and slacks and the other casual costumes Jimmy preferred.

“Jimmy and I had broken off our dates, but he showed me the new car,” Ursula said, “I had tried so hard to understand him when we were dating, but we just couldn’t make it work.”

Vintage James Dean (2)

Many such there had been, but the great love of Jimmy’s life was Pier Angeli, the dark-haired Italian beauty, whom he met on a movie set. The romance was a whirlwind one; Pier, when she wasn’t acting herself, came to watch Jimmy do his scenes.

But the actress’ mother, Mrs. Luigi Pierangeli, didn’t care for James. She didn’t care for this moody, introverted lad, who would sit for hours listening to classical music, then shift to African chants, and bang the drums, who bought himself a horse because he took a sudden fancy to the animal, who flirted with the idea of being a bullfighter.

Mrs Pierangeli disapproved of Jimmy’s rough, often sloppy, dress. She was angry when he brought Pier home at very late hours. So the romance ended, and Pier met and married Vic Damone, the singer. When Pier and Vic came down the steps of a Hollywood church, husband and wife, Jimmy was across the street, watching, heartbroken.

He was due in Salinas, 90 miles below San Francisco, to compete in the auto races there on October 1…

{Flashback… That was going to be fun, but Salinas had additional meaning for Jimmy. The region was the setting for master novelist John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden,” the scenes of the film were made on location there, and those scenes skyrocketed Jimmy to movie stardom.

Now the narrative of the fateful hours of Sept. 30 is taken over by Sanford Roth. Roth is a writer and a photographer and was a close personal friend of Jimmy.}

Vintage James Dean (4)

“He had put about 250 miles on the car around Hollywood,” Roth related, “and now was ready to take it to Salinas. He planned to put it on a flatbed, attached to the rear of my station wagon. He was going to ride up in the station wagon with me. But then he found out that Rolf Wuetherich was willing to ride up with him in the Porsche.

“Rolf, a mechanic, was recently arrived from Germany and knew more about the Porsches than any other man in this country. He said he would ride up in the new car with Jimmy, to explain all its workings en route, and I would follow along with the station wagon.”

{Flashback…It wasn’t the first time that chance had played a part in Jimmy’s life. He hadn’t been getting anywhere in Hollywood in the early 1950s; then, a lucky conversation with an older actor sent him back to New York and a part in the play, “See the Jaguar.”

The show wasn’t successful, but Jimmy was noticed. His next play, “The Immoralist,” brought him an award for the most promising newcomer to Broadway. Television roles followed, and Hollywood called and he hit big in “East of Eden.”}

“We left Hollywood about noon on Sept. 30,” Roth went on. “I was always at least four or five minutes behind in my station wagon.

“Just before we reached Bakersfield, about 3:30 p.m., Jimmy was given a ticket for speeding at 65 miles an hour on a downgrade. He objected and said buses and other cars were passing him at 85 miles an hour, but the officer gave him a ticket because Jimmy was in a racing car. The officer didn’t recognize Jimmy.”

James Dean's car after fatal crash in 1955

{Flashback… Virtually no American teenager would have failed to recognize Jimmy. He was the idol of the junior high, high school, and junior college kids. They copied his carelessness in clothes, they wanted to drive cars as swiftly as he did, they aped his moodiness and sometimes surliness.

Some of the more daring and irresponsible criticized their elders as he did in his role in “Rebel Without a Cause.” Jimmy’s influence on teenagers was a strong one, but, often enough, not a good one.}

A few hours later,” Roth continued, “we stopped at Blackwell’s Corners, 35 miles east of Paso Robles, and had soft drinks. We met Lance von Reventlow, Barbara Hutton’s son. Lance had a new Mercedes and he, too, was on his way to the Salinas races. He and Jimmy knew each other and talked over the race prospects. We arranged to meet in Paso Robles that evening for dinner.”

{Flashback… Few of Jimmy’s other friends were in the exalted income bracket of young Von Reventlow. Jimmy didn’t frequent Hollywood’s gaudy night clubs; his favorite companions were young folk who were waiting for a movie break and were living on hamburgers in the meanwhile.}

“About 10 miles west of Blackwell’s Corners, near a little community called Cholane, is the intersection of two highways. I was following Jimmy and Rolf in the station wagon, and as I drew near I saw what thought, at first, was a roadblock. I saw a strange car, with someone sitting dazedly in it. Neither that car nor the passenger seemed damaged.

Vintage actor James Dean

“Then I saw the Porsche. It was smashed, completely. Rolf was lying on the ground, crying: ‘Jimmy, Jimmy!’ through bleeding jaws and shattered teeth. Rolf’s legs and arms were broken.

“I saw Jimmy. He was thrown back behind the wheel and I knew he was dead. His neck was broken. There was very little blood on him, only a small cut where his eyeglasses had cracked against his cheek.

Dean’s car had collided head-on with one driven by Donald Turnupseed, 23, a student at California Polytechnic college at San Luis Obispo. Investigation developed that Turnupseed had made a left turn at the intersection, and Dean smashed into him. “Turnupseed was cleared of any blame. Wuetherich is recovering in a Paso Robles hospital.”

ALSO SEE: See 35 vintage car wrecks from the days before seat belts & airbags

“Jimmy wasn’t a speeder just for speed’s sake,” Roth said. “He liked the skill involved in driving a fast car. He hadn’t been driving too fast that day.”

Official records dispute that last statement. From the time of his receiving the ticket below Bakersfield, at 3:30 p.m., until he was killed at 5:30 p.m., Jimmy had covered 150 miles.

That is an average of 75 miles an hour, and to achieve such an average, allowing for slowdowns in populated areas, stopping for refreshments, etc., he must have been hitting 90 to 100 most of the time.

Vintage James Dean (3)

They took James Byron Dean back for burial in Marion, beside the grave of his mother, who died in 1940. His father, Winton, was there and thousands from the countryside.

From lovely Elizabeth Taylor, who played with him in “Giant,” from George Stevens, who directed the film, and from Studio officials came tributes to him. And Hollywood experienced a remarkable thing — Jimmy had become greater in death than in life.

Frequently when an actor, no matter how prominent, dies, his following flocks to other heroes. It was not so with Rudolph Valentino nor with Jimmy Dean. “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause”‘ are playing to good houses. Warner Brothers studio expects “Giant,” which will be released next spring or summer, to make the memory of Jimmy even more glittering.

On the night of December 6, more than 800 of Hollywood’s most important personalities gathered in the grand ballroom of the Beverly Hilton hotel for the announcement of results of the first audience awards poll conducted by the Council of Motion Picture Organizations, in conjunction with The Tribune and 10,000 movie theaters. There were nearly 15 million votes cast by the people who pay at the box office.

Winner as ‘best actor” was Jimmy Dean, for his performance in “East of Eden.” It was the first time in the annals of the movie industry that so momentous an honor went to a dead man.

Natalie Wood, who was in ‘”Rebel Without a Cause,” accepted the trophy for him “on behalf of the thousands of fans who were touched by Jimmy’s greatness.”

James Dean magazines from 1 year after his death

Vintage James Dean magazines from 1 year after his death

Actor James Dean killed in car crash

Speed-loving James Dean, Hollywood’s latest bobby sox idol, was killed last night in a head-on collision of his $7,000 German sports car and another automobile.

Dean, 24, was driving from Hollywood to a road race in Northern California at the time of his death on a darkening highway 28 miles east of Paso Robles.

Los Angeles Times headlines - James Dean killed in auto crash

A car driven by Donald Turnupseed of Tulare, California, a 23-year-old Cal Poly student, turned left in front of Dean’s light aluminum Porche Spyder and the two automobiles crashed head-on.

Dean died instantly. His body was battered, and there were numerous broken bones and cuts. The low slung little Porche skidded more than 100 feet from the point of impact before it stopped.

Mechanic hurt

Dean’s passenger, Rolf Weutherich, 29, a mechanic from a sports car garage in Hollywood, suffered a broken leg and fractured jaw, but was in good condition at Paso Robles Memorial Hospital. Turnupseed escaped with a bruised nose.

Dean’s father Winton S Dean, a dental technician at Sawtelle veterans hospital here, traveled today to Paso Robles, midway between here and San Francisco to return the body to Los Angeles for the funeral.

Young Dean’s hobby of driving Porsche sports cars in road races was well-known in the cinema industry and a cause for worry among his employers, Warner studio.

James Dean car crash - scene

But the tousle-haired actor always insisted, “It’s not driving the races that is dangerous, but driving on highways and streets with those ordinary drivers.”

True to his fear, he met death not in the weekend race he entered in Salinas, but on the highway.

Dean had only last week finished work on “Giant” one of the top pictures of the year. His co-stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson, and director George Stevens, heard the news as they watched the day’s “rushes” in a projection room at Warner studio.

“We all sat there, just stunned,” said Stevens. “It is a great tragedy. A boy cut off at the beginning. He had extraordinary talent.”

Great future

Miss Taylor wept that, “I am so shocked I can’t say anything.”

Hudson called Dean a “faultless brilliant actor.” Miss Taylor’s husband Michael Wilding said, “Dean would have been the greatest actor of them all if he had lived.”

Dean was born February 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana, son of Winton and the late Mildred Dean. He attended high school in Indiana and studied at a Santa Monica, California, junior college and UCLA drama school.

Vintage James Dean (1)

Three years ago, he tried an acting career in New York, and won immediate success on such dramatic TV shows as Philco Playhouse and Kraft TV theater. He became an established star on Broadway in “See the Jaguar” and “The Immoralist.”

Director Elia Kazan tapped Dean for “East of Eden” in Hollywood. Dean took over where Marlon Brando left off in becoming the town’s most colorful character.

He whizzed about town in a motorcycle, and wore blue jeans and T-shirts. He was often moody and shy. He dated such young beauties as Ursula Andress, Lili Kardell and Jeanette Miller.

See young James Dean as a baby, a child, a teen - then as a star

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