I was obsessed with James Dean in college at Northwestern. I had this Phil Stern photograph of him (left) on my wall. I saw the movie adaptation of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden for the first time and I was messed up by his intensity. There was something unbridled about his emotion that appealed to a 20-year-old. My acting teacher said to go with it.
A few months later, working for XS Magazine in Fort Lauderdale, I got to interview Julie Harris, who kissed him in that movie. She wasn’t overjoyed that I asked about shooting with James Dean when what she really wanted to talk about was Driving Miss Daisy, which she was doing at the local playhouse. Can’t blame her. The woman is a living legend herself. (Two years ago, I had another East of Eden one-degree: I rode an elevator with Lois Smith at the James Hotel in Chicago. I wisely kept my mouth shut that time even though I also wanted to hug her neck for Frank Galati’s adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.)
Some people are living lodestones. They get under the skin of other people. You can’t explain why.
It’s hard to believe that in 2014, it’ll be 60 years since East of Eden came out. When I see clips now, I can recognize that he was totally out of synch with his co-stars. They were more stagey, more calculated. They felt like every other 1950s movie. During his silent scream at being rejected by his father, he was modern, an exposed nerve, and still is, because he was like a beautiful walking wound.
Anyway. I always wanted to see where he died, a place in the forlorn middle of California close to sunset on September 30, 1955. But it was so far away. It’s in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been to San Francisco countless times, and I’ve been to Los Angeles countless times, but at no time have I casually been in the scrubby in-between a half hour east of Paso Robles, California.
I was in California for the past couple of weeks doing research (here’s one result: a feature about the new Cars Land at Disneyland), and this time I made a point of trying to see the fated intersection that I, in my over-dramatic collegiate mind-state, I had visited in my imagination to try to reverse the indelible.
It’s not pleasant to get to. After all, you usually have to go through Bakersfield.
I’ve wondered for years what this intersection was really like. I ‘m sure there are lots of people just like me, so while I was there, I made a little video to show how it all happened, and to show what the landscape looks like today. I want to help people put it all together.
Enjoy it (if that’s the phrase). It’s short, and you’ll get a good picture in your mind.
There are still no buildings in the bread-colored hills at the road crossing of Highways 46 (on which he was heading west, although it was then numbered 466) and 41. The Hearst Family, them of Patty and Mr. Rosebud, own most of the land there. Within a few years of the accident, 46 was slightly re-rerouted (you’ll see the change in the video) to make it slightly safer. And only slightly.
Despite the fact this road is in the middle of a mule’s ass, miles from any town, it positively pounds with speeding, heedless traffic criss-crossing the junction. I have rarely felt less secure on a rural highway. When you pull over, the passing cars are going so blazingly fast your whole vehicle shudders. I wouldn’t wish it on a traffic cone.
Dean was driving a wicked fast special edition Porsche Spyder that he nicknamed “Little Bastard,” and because he was iconoclastic on his way to a car race in Salinas (eerily, Steinbeck’s hometown), people have assume he was driving like a nut. But a recent crash investigation using modern forensic techniques determined that no, James Dean was going around 55 mph and he was exactly where he was supposed to have been. It was the student Donald Turnupseed, zooming along listening to Doris Day in his pimped out Ford, who turned into Dean’s lane without being sure it was safe. They were analogs. Dean was 24; Turnupseed was 23.
After the cops released Turnupseed in nearby Cholame, they left him on the highway. He had to hitchhike home to Tulare, where he remained, running an electrical firm, until his death at only 63 in 1995. He gave one interview, and then went underground until he died. It could be argued that one split second didn’t change his life, but it cast a shadow over it. One split-second error that strangers still re-live 60 years later.
Then again, can you imagine James Dean surviving to be crazy like Marlon Brando, fat like Elizabeth Taylor, or exposed like Rock Hudson? Old age can be so ugly.