Remembering James Dean: The Intersection of Broken Dreams
The Asphalt Jungle
Sixty years ago, on September 17, 1955, James Dean's life was in top gear. Taking time out between some last-minute reshoots for his third movie, "Giant," the 24-year-old Hollywood upstart briefly left the set to appear in
a public-service announcement being filmed for the National Safety Council. In the short segment, actor Gig Young queried Dean about his love of sports cars and racing, and the rising young star dutifully played his part by cautioning viewers that fast driving was for the track, not the street. As Dean stood to leave, Young asked finally, "Do you have any special advice for the young people who drive?"
"Take it easy driving," Dean replied, looking straight into the camera and waving his hands in a gesture of caution. Then, instead of delivering the council's slogan, "The life you save may be your own," the unpredictable Dean raised his eyebrows, smiled wryly, and added, "The life you might save might be mine."
Less than two weeks later, James Dean was dead, killed in a nearly head-on collision when another driver turned into the path of his Porsche 550 Spyder at the intersection of Highways 41 and 466 on a quiet, grassy plain near the tiny California town of Cholame.
Over the years, I've retraced Dean's final drive dozens of times while making my way north from L.A. to Pebble Beach or Laguna Seca or San Francisco, and never do I make the trip without reflecting on the events of that fateful Friday, September 30, 1955. It's a contemplative drive as it is, much of it lonely two-lane cutting through the Golden State's rural Central Valley. But as the miles roll on, there's the added realization of what awaits: the site where a brilliant young talent was snuffed out needlessly, savagely—and before he'd even realized he was a movie icon. At the time of Dean's death, two of the mere three movies he starred in had yet to premiere.
Ironically, September 30 had opened with such excitement, even giddiness. In the morning, Dean arrived at 1219 North Vine St. in Hollywood, site of Competition Motors. The shop is gone now (replaced by a banquet hall), but in 1955 it represented a gift box of sorts for Dean. Inside awaited the low-slung, silver 550 Spyder race car he'd purchased for $7,000 just nine days earlier. The Porsche was a no-frills speed machine: a lightweight, aluminum-bodied bullet with an open cockpit, an agile chassis, and a feisty, flat-four-cylinder engine. Its skin bore racing number "130" and, in a flourish of script on the tail, Dean's nickname: "Little Bastard."
The route Dean took is well-known: On his way to a weekend race in Salinas, he was followed in another car by movie friend Bill Hickman (who would later star as the Dodge Charger driver in the famous "Bullitt" chase scene) and Collier's photographer Sanford Roth. And in the Spyder with him was Competition Motors mechanic Rolf Wütherich, who had tuned the Porsche that morning and would barely survive the crash to live out the rest of his life in a cloud of macabre celebrity.
The final preparations to his Porsche complete, Dean
departed Competition Motors about 1:30 in the afternoon. A quick nip and tuck through the city, then north to Interstate 5 (then known as Route 99), and Dean was on his way.
Angling off I-5 onto old Route 99 south of Bakersfield, the road falls to the vast valley floor. It was here that Dean was pulled over for doing 65 mph in a 55-mph zone. (Sharp eyes will find metal letters spelling "Dean" on a telephone pole at the spot.) California Highway Patrol Officer Otie V. Hunter had no idea who Dean was. The young movie star signed the ticket and listed his business address as "Warner Bros Burbank."
Past Bakersfield, Dean continued north on 99 to Famoso, where he turned west onto what was then Highway 466, now known as 46. Between Famoso and Wasco, the two-lane road arrows straight, flat, and clear for miles. It was on this stretch, Dean bragged at his next stop, that the Spyder reached a speed of 130 mph.
Soon, at the intersection of Highways 46 and 33, the traveler of 2015 comes upon Blackwells Corner. It was here, at a small service station, that James Dean made his final stop, buying a Coke and an apple and chatting with a few fellow racers also on their way to Salinas. The original building burned down years ago; in its place is a large convenience store that also sells Dean memorabilia. Two giant Dean likenesses outside are relatively new; the portrait of Dean has a small remembrance of the actor's visit on the back.
Back on 46, heading west, the road grows curvy. Then, like a crescendo before the finale of this journey, it begins a gentle ascent toward a mountain ridge. On the left, the peaceful fields are suddenly scarred by a giant, gaping, zigzagging wound. The San Andreas Fault.
From the ridge's crest, Polonio Pass, the road drops dramatically, and, as if a curtain has just been lifted, the entire Cholame Valley opens below. Here I always find the view momentarily dazzling. Etched across the valley floor, stretching to infinity, lie the sinuous ribbons of Highways 46 and 41. And there, still miles distant, center stage … the intersection where they meet.
It was roughly 5:30 p.m., the sky growing dusky, when Dean and Wütherich reached the valley floor and began hurtling toward eternity. Coming the other way on Highway 466, driving a black and white Ford sedan, was 23-year-old student Donald Turnupseed. Halfway through his 100-mile drive home for the weekend, Turnupseed was tired. When he reached the intersection, he looked up the road briefly, saw nothing, then turned left toward Highway 41 across westbound 466—straight into the path of the oncoming Porsche. Dean is alleged to have said, "He's gotta see us!" And then it was over. Dean was dead, Wütherich was brutally injured, and Turnupseed had begun his tormented life as The Man Who Killed A Movie Legend.
The intersection has been modified since the accident. It's wider now, and there are yellow lights to warn oncoming drivers of turning cars. Still, traffic continues to play the same game of cat and mouse that killed James Dean right here. Hanging on a barbed-wire fence is a framed photo of Dean at the spot where his crumpled Porsche is said to have come to rest.
About a mile farther on, just outside the tiny Cholame post office, stands a silvery, cubical monument to Dean built in 1977 by a Japanese businessman. But I always pull over at the intersection itself. Before pressing on to my destination, I stop, roll down the windows, take a few moments to listen to the birds, the insects, the wind. The setting is largely just as it was six decades ago—the hardscrabble flatland, the gentle hills, the promise of the tarmac escaping to the horizon. Never can I linger here without reflecting on time and chance and fate. And why it was that a gifted young man had to die on this quiet road to Cholame.