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Twisted Metal

September 30, 2017
James Dean in the movie poster for Rebel Without a Cause. Photo credit: Warner Bros.

I have to admit, until recently I didn’t know much about James Dean beyond what has entered into our collective cultural consciousness: a charismatic method actor who only had a few feature films to his credit before dying at the age of 24 in a car crash. The three movies he made are all classics, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), in which he starred as the eponymous troubled rebel; East of Eden (1955), an adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel, and his last movie, Giant (1956), a sweeping epic tracing the rise and fall of a Texas cattle rancher. If you know more about him than these three films it might be because you’ve seen James Dean: Forever Young, or one of the many other biopics that have been produced over the years.

I was compelled to look into James Dean’s life, or more specifically, the circumstances surrounding his death, when I found myself driving through the exact location of his tragic accident. I had always assumed that Dean wrapped his car around a tree in a drunken stupor. And when I saw that the memorial to his death is a concrete and stainless-steel sculpture wrapped around a tree in desolate Cholame, CA, that might have confirmed my assumption. But that’s not what happened, nor is that tree where the accident took place.

Close-up of the James Dean Memorial in Cholame, CA, wrapping around a tree about a mile west of where the accident took place. The memorial is made of stainless steel but looks a bit worse for wear from the removal of graffiti over the years. Souvenir hunters regularly steal the letters and numbers off of the memorial as well (ah, people, really?!)
photo credit: Tom Laemmel

I stopped at the James Dean Memorial on my way to a few days of wine tasting in Paso Robles, in the heart of the California Central Coast wine country. When James Dean died — 62 years ago to this very day — he was also on this way to “Paso” (as the locals call it) where he planned to have dinner with some fellow racers before heading on to Salinas for an event. He had been driving most of the day (as had I) and neither of us had been drinking any alcohol (yet).

James Dean’s accident occurred on September 30, 1955. He was driving west towards Paso on Highway 466 (now 46), approaching the intersection of Highway 41. Dean was in his new Porsche 550 Spyder, which he had picked up that morning in Hollywood, a 4+ hour drive to the south. His Porsche factory-trained mechanic, who was his passenger at the time of the accident, had encouraged Dean to drive the car from Los Angeles to Salinas to help break it in. At approximately 5:45pm a Cal Poly State University student, Donald Turnupseed, driving east, made a turn from Highway 46 onto 41 heading north, toward Fresno, apparently not seeing Dean’s silver Spyder heading towards him in the opposite direction. Dean collided with the turning car and was killed, his mechanic and Turnupseed survived the accident.

James Dean getting gas after picking up his Porsche from Competition Motors on 1219 N. Vine Street, in Hollywood, CA. on the day of the accident. Behind him is his Ford Country Squire station wagon and an attached trailer for the Porsche’s return trip. (photo credit: from the book James Dean at Speed, 2005.)

There are conflicting estimates as to Dean’s speed at the time of the crash, anywhere from below the posted 60 mph speed limit to in excess of 85 mph. When I stopped at the scene of the accident, now a median adjacent to the intersection (they realigned Highways 41 and 46 a bit), I was struck with what dumb luck the whole thing must have been. There was nothing out there in 2015, no traffic, no houses, no nothing, just the intersection of two quiet country highways. It must have been even quieter in 1955. So the fact that these two cars met at all was something of a fluke — a horrible coincidence of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If Donald Turnupseed had left home just a minute earlier, or if Dean had lingered just a few moments longer while stopping for sodas at Blackwell’s Corner 20 minutes earlier, the crash may never have occurred at all.

Close to where James Dean crashed at 5:45pm on September 30, 1955, in Cholame, CA. There is nothing to crash into around here, not even a tree. Not the exact location because it’s hard to pinpoint with the road having been realigned, but very close. (Photo credit: Tom Laemmel)
The wreckage of James Dean’s Porsche 550 Spyder on the night of the crash.
(photo credit: from the book James Dean at Speed, 2005.)

There have been more movies made about James Dean than the movies he has made. Have you seen any of them?

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