James Dean has always been one of my favorites. I have had a few of his biographies for years, but never go around to reading them. I am not sure what sparked my current James Dean obsession the past month, but I am in the middle of it. I ordered many memoirs by his friends and girlfriends and other biographies. The one I read last week, The James Dean Story by Ronald Martinetti published in 1975, I have had for years so it was about time I read it.
James Dean has always fascinated me. He was attractive and cool, every teenager’s dream. In fact, they call James Dean the First American Teenager. Dean only starred in three movies (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, Giant) before his untimely death in 1955 at the age of 24, and only one of them was released before he died. And yet Dean is so widely popular today over 60 years later. James Dean is an icon.
James Dean was born in Marion, Indiana on February 8, 1931 – the same birthday 10 years later as my favorite actress Lana Turner born February 8, 1921. Like me, James Dean was an only child. At the age of five, James Dean and his parents moved to California and four years later his mother died when he was only nine years old. Jimmy was sent back to Indiana to live with his aunt and uncle. At age 18, Jimmy moved back to California to go to College where he pursued acting. He did not graduate. Jimmy moved to New York where he was ‘discovered’ (after several plays and tv appearances) in a Broadway play and was cast as the lead in East of Eden, my favorite James Dean movie and the only one released before his death. Jimmy moved back to California to make East of Eden, then Rebel Without a Cause then Giant – back to back to back.
The studio would not allow Jimmy to race his car or ride his motorcycle while filming for fear he would injure himself and not be able to complete the movie. Racing was Jimmy’s passion. Within days of finishing Giant (he finished two weeks earlier than everyone else), Jimmy got into his new Porsche Spider and was heading toward Salinas (coincidentally the town featured in East of Eden) for a race. On the way another car crossed over the center line and hit his Porsche head on killing James Dean instantly on September 30, 1955 at the young age of 24. The voice you hear in James Dean’s last scene in Giant was not his, rather it was Nick Adams (who was also in Rebel).
I have known this story of James Dean most of my life from documentaries and reading some stuff here and there. Unfortunately, The James Dean Story did not tell me anything I did not know. But I guess in 1978, it was pretty revealing. I did learn, however, of another connection between my two favorite actors James Dean and Lana Turner. Besides having the same birthday 10 years apart, James Dean rented Lana Turner’s former home but sadly never moved into it because a columnist printed an item about it and tourists started flocking to it. Now that would have been a cool place for me to visit if both James Dean and Lana Turner lived there. I have three more James Dean biographies to read and five more memoirs by his friends, so I am sure I will find out much more interesting facts about Jimmy.
*Side note* If you want a great book on James Dean, read The Real James Dean: Intimate Memories from Those Who Knew Him Best by Peter Winkler. It is fantastic! It is a collection of articles from publications and excerpts from books from friends and family of James Dean. Definitely a must-read for any James Dean fan.