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By William Hall
The History PressCopyright © 2011 William Hall
All rights reserved.
The sign on Highway 26 states proudly: Fairmount – Home of James Dean. And indeed Fairmount, Indiana (population 3,400 and located fifty miles north of Indianapolis), was where James Byron Dean grew up and made his home after being taken there by his parents at the tender age of ten months.
The town itself, just a speck on the map of Indiana, is like many other small Midwest towns in the Bible Belt of America. Main Street boasts a hardware store, the Citizens' Bank, a post office, a library and a single beer hall (closed on Sundays), while East Washington has the Fairmount Historical Museum and the surgery that once belonged to old Doc Holliday, the genial local practitioner who had no relation whatsoever to any nefarious activities that occurred elsewhere at a certain OK Corral in Tombstone, Arizona, in 1881.
Off Main Street you can find the offices of the weekly newspaper the Fairmount News, the town hall, the local school and fifteen churches – including the Quaker meeting house where visiting ministers would exhort the locals on the evils of drinking and smoking, and tender advice on living a God-fearing existence – or facing the wrath of the Almighty.
Outside Fairmount, mile upon mile of golden corn stretches away to the horizon, with grain silage towers jutting like sentinels against a landscape of scattered farm buildings and fields where pigs root in acres of muddy grass.
Jimmy, as he was called by all who knew him, had been born ten miles away in Marion, a busy metropolis with a population of fifty thousand. But when Winton and Mildred Dean took their baby son to settle in Fairmount, they were returning to the family base. Fairmount had been founded in the early nineteenth century by Joseph Winslow, one of James Dean's distant ancestors, who with other hardened pioneers had journeyed West in covered wagons through the Cumberland Gap in search of a new life.
The town prospered as a farming community, growing corn and beans on the fertile flat fields, and raising pigs and cattle on the rich pastureland. Around 1900, a group of businessmen set up the Fairmount Mining Company to market natural gas, which was indigenous to the area – indeed, Gas City still lies a few miles down the road today, though in Fairmount agriculture would remain the town's chief economic lifeblood.
The other major industry that kept the townsfolk active was religion – strictly the old-time kind. The pioneer founders had been members of the Religious Society of Friends, the Christian sect commonly known as the Quakers, founded in England in 1630 by Robert Fox, who would admonish his flock to 'tremble at the word of the Lord'. Hence their title.
Quakers have no formal creed, ritual or priesthood, refer to their churches as meeting houses, and anyone moved by the Holy Spirit is encouraged to stand up and speak. In the years before the Second World War Fairmount supported two Friends' meeting houses, and little Jimmy Dean attended Back Creek Friends Church – where eventually he would appear in public in his first acting role.
Jimmy was born on 8 February 1931 – just over six months after his parents had taken out a marriage licence at the Grant County Court House in Marion on 26 July 1930. His father Winton Dean was twenty-two, a tall, handsome man who worked as a dental technician at the Veterans' Administration Hospital in Marion. His mother Mildred, just twenty, loved the arts and recited poetry in local churches.
It has been said that James Dean was an unwanted child, and grew up with the stigma of knowing it, in a time when illegitimacy was a social disgrace to both parents and offspring. But Mildred, at least, was devoted to her baby son. Her younger sister Ruth Stegmoller would recall: 'She adored Jimmy. She just loved that little boy.' Winton was more reserved, distant and cold towards the son he never intended should have come into the world so soon, if at all.
They waited for ten months. Then, confident that enough time had passed for people to forget exactly when they were married or the date when little Jimmy had been born, Winton and Mildred moved from their cramped apartment in Marion back to Fairmount. After a brief stay with Winton's parents, they rented a cottage close to Back Creek, which was a small stream that bordered the edge of the farm owned by Winton's brother-in-law Marcus Winslow, surrounded by 180 acres of rich agricultural land.
Times were hard immediately after the Great Depression, and money was tight. Three extra mouths to feed proved too much of a burden, even though Marcus and his wife Ortense were kindly, hard-working people active in community affairs. Winton and Mildred took their small son to West Los Angeles when Winton was offered work in the Sawtelle Veterans' Administration, and the family rented a five-room furnished flat in Santa Monica where Jimmy was enrolled at the local McKinley School. They scraped together enough money to pay for their four-year-old son to take violin and tap dancing lessons, his first brush with show business.
Suddenly, when young Jimmy was nine, his mother began to suffer from severe stomach pains. Her mother Minnie Mae had died from cancer, and now X-rays revealed that Mildred was suffering from cancer of the uterus, already considerably advanced. Winton made the agonising decison to tell his young son that his mother was dying, and would not be with them much longer. 'Jimmy said nothing. He just looked at me,' Winton later recalled. 'Even as a child he wasn't much to speak about things close to him. He never liked to talk about his hurts.'
On 14 July 1940, Mildred Dean died in hospital in Santa Monica at the age of twenty-nine. Jimmy and his father were at her bedside.CHAPTER 2
Now came a pivotal period in the formative years of the young James Dean, a time that would leave an indelible mark on his psyche and, indeed, on his whole attitude to life. His father literally abandoned him to his uncle and aunt, sending him back to Fairmount alone on the train from Los Angeles – alone, that is, apart from his mother's coffin in the box-car. Each time the train stopped on its interminable journey across 2,000 miles of mountain and desert, young Jimmy would run down the platform to make sure the coffin was still there.
Back home, Mildred's open casket lay in the Winslow front room for two days – and minutes before her burial Jimmy slipped into the room and snipped off a lock of her hair which he kept under his pillow for months.
His mother's death left him deeply affected and insecure. Two weeks after his return he broke down weeping at his desk during arithmetic class. 'I miss my mother,' he told his teacher tearfully as she comforted him.
He attended West Ward elementary school, where one of his teachers Bertha Seward noted: 'Jimmy wasn't trouble, he wasn't a bad boy. He was more subdued and reserved than the other boys, just a good little kid, although in years to come I think he felt terribly mistreated that he had to lose his mother. I don't believe he ever got over her death.'
Mistreated, resentful even? But at least Uncle Marcus and Aunt Ortense had welcomed him with open arms, and soon Jimmy was calling them Mom and Dad and had settled down in the two-storey white-framed farmhouse built in 1904, with its thirteen rooms and L-shaped wooden porch. They even turned over their own bedroom to little Jimmy, while his aunt encouraged him to sketch, paint and sculpt with clay.
He was an average student, and as he grew older he made waves on the sporting field where he showed particular prowess at basketball, playing for the school team.
Back home in the evenings, Uncle Marcus would give him jobs around the farm, milking, gathering new-laid eggs, feeding the cattle. Marcus turned the barn into a gymnasium, installed a trapeze, and encouraged the lad to work out and keep fit. Indeed, Jimmy was already something of a daredevil – as the daring young man on the home-made flying trapeze he broke four front teeth in one stunt, and it was his father back in Los Angeles who eventually made a dental bridge to repair the damage. Jimmy wore it for the rest of his life.
If he was small for his age, Jimmy was sturdy and agile, though he had to wear glasses because he was short-sighted. By now it had not passed his guardians' notice that he was drawn to the theatre, and exhibited all the signs of being a natural entertainer. Jimmy had a gift for mimicry, and would delight his friends with impromptu and irreverent impressions of neighbours and teachers.
He listened for hours on end to the radio in the Winslows' living-room, and would daydream out loud about 'getting into the movies', causing his new mother and father to smile indulgently at the prospect of an Indiana farm boy taking Hollywood by storm. Even today Fairmount has no cinema – but they screen films at the town hall.
Jimmy was becoming more determined about his wish to act, and finally Ortense asked him to read in a contest held by her local Temperance Union. The boy was only ten, but he stepped up with a confidence beyond his years and won a silver medal. In later readings he would walk away with a gold medal clutched proudly in one small hand.
At Back Creek Church, which he attended with the Winslows every Sunday evening, various groups put on plays, and at the age of twelve Jimmy finally got his wish. He was invited to act in a Christmas play called To Them that Sleep in Darkness, portraying a blind boy who regains his vision. His performance was so touching that many in the audience remembered it for years afterwards. One resident recalled: 'Jimmy played a little blind boy who had been healed during the play. At the end, just before the curtain came down, there was a star shining up in the ceiling. You knew he had been healed when he looked up and said: "Mother, look! I can see the star!" It was so moving, it brought tears to our eyes.'
In autumn 1943 Jimmy started the seventh grade, which meant moving to Fairmount High School for his senior studies. On 2 November his aunt gave birth to a son, christened Marcus Junior, nicknamed Markie, and suddenly Jimmy was sharing the family home with a new arrival, though from all accounts he accepted his young cousin as a brother, and they remained friends over the years ahead.
It was at this time that young Jimmy, aged twelve, acquired his first taste for speed. It would develop into an addiction that became the talk of the neighbourhood, whether it was rigging up a ramp in the barn that ran from the hayloft and down to the barn door – where he would whoosh down it on a 'dolly cart' – or pedal a bike at hair-raising pace around the yard and out into the country roads.
Uncle Marcus waited until Jimmy reached the 'right age', and on his nephew's fifteenth birthday bought the young tearaway a Whizzer – a 1.5 hp Czech CZ motorcycle. It lit the touchpaper for a youngster who was to become obsessed with the heady oxygen of the fast lane – Jimmy would delight in performing such stunts as racing along at 50 mph while lying flat on the saddle, face down, and doing 'wheelies' long before such stunts became part of the youth culture that exists today.
His uncle Marcus once said, tellingly, some months after Dean's death crash: 'If Jimmy had fallen just once, things might have been different. But he never got hurt, and he never found anything he couldn't do well almost the first time he tried it. Just one fall off that bike, and maybe he would have been afraid of speed – but he was without fear.'
It was almost inevitable that Jimmy would fall prey to his passion for fast cars. One of his school friends owned a souped-up 1934 Plymouth, complete with a rumble seat, and the boys took turns in driving it. Young daredevil Dean won the respect of his fellow pupils by achieving the record for hurtling through 'Suicide Curve', an S-bend on a gravel road ironically situated close to Back Street cemetery, sliding through the bend at close to 70 mph.
Once, with eerie shades of one of the heart-stopping scenes in Rebel Without a Cause, Jimmy was challenged to a race by another boy, driving a Chevy. The other lad tried to keep up, failed, and crashed on the potentially lethal S-bend, rolling the car over and over but luckily emerging unscathed – unlike the rival roadster Buzz who took on Jim Stark (Dean) in the notorious 'chicken run' in the movie, and paid the ultimate price.
At night Jimmy and his pals would pile into the '34 Plymouth and roar off to the Hill Top Drive Inn close to the Marion city limits to drink frosted nonalcoholic beer, listen to the jukebox, and try to catch the eye of the local girls, just like so many other healthy teenagers coming of age in that postwar era that seems so innocent today.
Yet in those formative years in high school, James Dean never had a steady girl-friend, and it is from this time that those pundits who questioned his sexual tendencies in later years started to search for the first clues.
In his mid-teens, Jimmy was more interested in fast cars, bikes, sport, and the arts than in dating, although it is evident that girls found him attractive, and there were numerous 'double dates' when he went out in a foursome with his best friend Clyde Smitson and a chosen couple of local lasses.
More significantly, another kind of relationship began that would confuse the young teenager even more as he tried to come to terms with his emotions. Dr James DeWeerd was minister of the local Wesleyan church in Fairmount, a charismatic man in his thirties who had served as a chaplain with the US Army in the Second World War at Monte Cassino. He had come home from the field of battle with a Silver Star for gallantry, a Purple Heart, and a deep dent in his stomach from shrapnel wounds.
The good pastor was openly critical of Fairmount and its stultifying atmosphere, and would deliver searing sermons from the pulpit; their passion and zeal riveted his awed parishioners. Unmarried and much-travelled, he lived with his mother, and would lecture his flock on the beauty of literature, art, and poetry. Highly respected in some quarters, in others he was nicknamed Dr Weird, particularly by the groups of boys he would take to the YMCA gymnasium in nearby Anderson, where he would persuade them all to swim nude together.
In the young James Dean, Pastor DeWeerd saw more than just another farm boy. He became Jimmy's mentor, inviting him home to dine with his aged mother, with white linen and silver on the table and the music of Tchaikovsky in the background. Jimmy fell under the spell of his host's charm and eloquence, but all too soon the mutual attraction would descend to an unhealthy level.
One piece of advice the minister gave him stayed with the young would-be actor for life: 'The more things you know how to do and the more things you experience, the better off you will be ...' It struck a chord, and became the yardstick by which James Dean would measure his life.
The incongruous pair would go for regular spins together in the pastor's convertible Chevrolet through the country lanes and fields, and it was on one of these drives that Dr DeWeerd turned off and parked under a tree. He had seldom talked about his wartime experiences, but now he described how a shell blast had torn a gaping hole in his stomach. He asked Jimmy if he would like to put his hand in the wound, which was as big as the boy's fist. Gingerly, half-fascinated, half-repulsed, Dean did so – and found himself both frightened and excited by the intimate touch as he clenched his fist and placed it in the fleshy crater.
The stories of James Dean's reported bisexuality can be traced back to this one defining moment, in a relationship that was kept secret from the townsfolk of Fairmount and, until much later, from Jimmy's own circle of friends. People noticed, people talked. But in the Bible Belt where tradition and convention were so strictly observed most of them chose to ignore the implications and looked the other way.
The profound influence that Dr DeWeerd had on his young protégé was revealed in a rare interview with columnist and author Joe Hyams, in which the pastor recalled how he had taken Jimmy, then aged sixteen, to a race at the famous Indianapolis circuit. Afterwards they talked about speed, danger and the prospect of sudden death. 'I taught Jimmy to believe in personal immortality,' DeWeerd said. 'He had no fear of death because he believed, as I do, that death is merely control of mind over matter.' That reassuring, if flawed, philosophy may well have affected the thinking of James Dean in the years ahead – until it was too late.
His art teacher Gurney Maddingly recalled Jimmy as a promising student, with one painting in particular branded on his memory – of a line of people emerging from a grave.
Meanwhile, Jimmy pursued his acting ambitions with zest. His mercurial talent needed to be harnessed, and the person who stepped forward to perform this vital function was Adeline Nall, the drama tutor at Fairmount High, who also taught speech, Spanish and English at the college, and sponsored the Thespian Society.
Adeline recognised the raw talent of her new pupil, and a year after he captivated his audience as the blind boy she put him into another school play, the legendary horror tale of The Monkey's Paw, in the role of a young man mangled to death in factory machinery after falling foul of a three-wishes curse.
This was followed a year later by Mooncalf Mugford, with Jimmy playing an insane elderly man who had visions – and he startled the audience of parents and pupils by practically throttling the poor schoolgirl playing his wife in his enthusiasm for the role.
Excerpted from James Dean by William Hall. Copyright © 2011 William Hall. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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