Fifty years ago today, actor Jimmy Dean died in his beloved Porsche Spyder, "Little Bastard," on a rural road near the central California town of Cholame. He was just 24, (making him 74 he was still alive today) and even though he had only acted in three movies he was considered a superstar. Two of those films were released after his death, including his best-known film, Rebel Without a Cause.
This isn't the first time I’ve written about Jimmy on Sacred Ordinary and it probably won't be the last. To me he is an archetype of the vulnerable bad boy, though when I was an adolescent and loved him, I didn’t know an archetype from a lizard. I always find it fascinating, however, how an actor or entertainer, like Elvis and Jimmy, become more famous in death than they were in life. I did not remember this was the 50th anniversary of Jimmy's death, but my favorite local columnist John Bogert did with his own memories and comments about Jimmy. That started my morning.
I am not a Jimmy Dean cultist, but I distinctly remember the day my mom woke me up to tell me that Jimmy had been killed in his Porsche on his way to a race in Salinas. For some reason I have always thought I was about 15, but in actuality I was 18. On the wall over my virginal twin bed a photo of Jimmy from some movie magazine was thumbtacked. I burst into tears, called my girlfriends and we mourned one by one over the phone. I have a Jimmy SoulCollage card and periodically rewatch his films—and relived his life in the film done about him a few years back. Jimmy's death was one of my own loss of innocence milestones.
This morning NPR ran a feature on Jimmy which I was pretty amazed by. You can hear this story at the NPR link. When I had time I went to the official
James Dean website and found a live Internet memorial, which I didn't access.
I have seen a few of the memorials around L.A. where Jimmy is a figure, but this American Legends website has photos of several of them, including this one at a McDonald's in Eagle Rock. This is the town where, coincidentally, I was married at St. Dominic's in 1958--when there wasn't a McDonalds there that I recall.
And then, just like visiting the Civil War battlefields or specific places where a person or persons died, there is now a James Dean Memorial Junction.
Another tragic martyr-poet I am fascinated by is the late Sylvia Plath; I have written about her a few times here. As a 68-year-old woman, I marvel at how Jimmy lives in our memories as the martyred bad boy, forever 24 years old. When I rewatch his films and read about him, I am young again, too. That D.A., that cigarette, that attitude, that oozing of sex. He always said, "Live fast, die young and have a good looking corpse." Well, it's an oft quoted phrase but I’m glad I’ve gotten to this wrinkly, soft older age. It's just such a terrible tragedy when anyone dies young.