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When he died, he had Liz Taylor's phone number in his little black book, along with the bug exterminator, proving even rebels must at times lead normal lives. James B. Dean, Hoosier farm boy, alias the universal symbol of adolescent angst and attitude, died over 40 years ago in September of 1955. It was an abrupt conclusion to a life and a career
both revved up and cruising in high gear.
Dean was only 24 years old when his Porsche Spyder collided with another vehicle on a California highway. He had just completed filming his third and final motion picture, Giant, with co-stars Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. The impact of this collision was felt around the country, but nowhere more than the Indiana farming community of
Fairmount, where Dean was born and where he spent much of his childhood. The town would never be the same.
In life, Dean preferred the fast-paced life in New York City and Hollywood where he could perform before an audience, but in death he will forever reside in the rural Midwest town he called home. No place could be further from the fast lane, yet he still has his audience and his dedicated fans.
Since that September day, the icon James Dean, has inspired songs (at least 43 recorded about or in tribute to him) hundreds of articles, numerous books, monuments, fan clubs, scandal sheets, movies and plays. The young man given the label, The Rebel Without A Cause, created a sensation not only in the US, but around the world. Fans of all
ages still trek to Fairmount from as far away as Australia and Japan. Dean's instantly recognizable image, sporting blue jeans, the dangling cigarette and the characteristic slouch has been deeply etched into our own American culture. But was James Dean really the rebellious, lost youth as he's been typecast?
By all accounts Dean was active in school, playing guard on the basketball team, was a "sub" on the baseball team, and a champion pole vaulter. Even with poor eyesight and a slight build he was considered a well-rounded athlete. He rode his horse and played ice hockey with his buddies. Although his grades were only average, Dean won a speech
contest and an art award. He participated in the drama club, winning yet another award and joined the senior class trip to Washington D.C. It hardly sounds like the description of a tough and aimless young man. His classmates remember him as "just one of the guys."
Not unlike other young men his age, James Dean was enamored with motorcycles and speed. Residents of Fairmount recall seeing teenage Dean bouncing through farm fields and careening about town on his 1947 Czech
Whizzer, the first in a line of motorcycles. His antics on the cycle cost him his two front teeth and at least four sets of eyeglasses. He once told columnist Hedda Hopper, "I used to go out for the cows on the motorcycle. Scared the hell out of them. They'd get to running and their udders would start swinging, and they'd lose a quart of milk." Youthful
exuberance and high spirits yes, but hardly unusual for a teenage boy with a set of wheels.
Dean found his true avocation in acting. In his short career, he starred in only three movies. The first was East of Eden, adapted from a John Steinbeck novel. But, Jimmie Dean is best remembered for his second starring role in the film Rebel Without a Cause, originally intended as a vehicle for the fast-rising star, Marlon Brando. Ironically, Dean was
already in his grave by the time the picture opened in October 1955. His final film, Giant, also premiered after his death. James Dean was twice nominated, posthumously, for an academy award in the best actor category, though he didn't win.
Rebel or not, Fairmount cherishes their favorite son, whether for the tourism revenue or in genuine affection, who can say? Most of the town's residents, including Dean's family, expected visitors during the first few years after his sudden death, but no one could have predicted the phenomenon would continue for four decades. As of now, it shows
no signs of stopping. Fairmount, population 3000, manages to retain it's small town simplicity regardless of the continuing hubbub over Dean.
Even a fleeting delve into the James Dean phenomenon begs the question: why? Is it the lost potential we mourn when a young man dies, just when the world had begun to stand and take notice? Afterward, we're left to ponder (and continue pondering) what might have been. Still another theory suggests we appreciate Dean all the more because he
died long before he could disappoint us, unlike the burnt out Marilyn or the over-weight Elvis. Others are quick to tell you it's his charismatic screen presence and natural acting ability they admire.
Just two weeks before the car crash which took his life, Dean taped a public service television commercial with actor Gig Young, for the National Safety Council. The topic: highway safety.