Monday, September 28, 2015

60 Years Ago James Dean Was Killed & It Wasn't His Fault

Yes, believe it or not, James Dean was killed in a two car crash 60 years ago on September 30th. His Hollywood career was just beginning it's meteoric rise after appearing on dozens of television shows, six films and starring in three films in a row. Only one of those films was released in his lifetime, "East Of Eden" (1955); but he had the big buzz, ya dig daddy-o?

After finishing his part of the principle photography in "Giant" (1956) in September, 1955, Dean was ready to go do some racing. He had recently purchased a Porche Spyder, which he nicknamed 'Little Bastard', and wanted to race it for the first time. Dean had entered the Salinas Road Race scheduled to be held in Salinas, California on October 1st and 2nd. On September 30th Dean left Los Angeles for the event with his mechanic, Rolf Wutherich, friend and stunt man Bill Hickman and photographer Sanford H. Roth. Originally, Dean was going to tow the Spyder on a trailer hooked to his new station wagon, but Wutherich suggested Dean drive the Spyder to Salinas because it had low break-in miles. Dean, with Wutherich as his passenger, drove the Spyder, while Hickman, with Roth as his passenger, drove the station wagon towing it's now empty trailer.

(James Dean with the Porche Spyder at Blackwell's Corner. The station wagon and trailer can be seen in the background. Dean would be killed in about 30 minutes. Photo by Sanford H. Roth; Fair Use)

At 3:30pm, near Wheeler's Ridge, Dean was pulled over by a CHP officer (as was Hickman) and given a written citation for speeding, 10mph over the 55mph posted limit. After going over the Grapevine, the group stopped at Blackwell's Corner before going on the next leg to Paso Robles for dinner. Once back on the road, Roth took the final picture of a living James Dean before the station wagon fell behind the faster roadster. About thirty minutes later, Dean would be killed.

(Last photo of James Dean. Photo by Sanford H. Roth; Fair Use)

The "Y" intersection of then highways 466 and 41 is where the auto accident occurred. In some accounts that began to appear only 40 or more years after the event, one could be forgiven for believing the highway was packed with cars. It's sort of like the stories that began circulating in the days immediately following Dean's death. One would think that half of Hollywood warned Dean his new car was "cursed", "evil" or "haunted". There's even an 'account' that cars were three abreast across the highway as Dean was madly speeding and passing cars with no regard for safety. Yep, dead men can't defend themselves after the fact.

It was approximately 5:45pm when the accident happened as Dean's Spyder approached the "Y" intersection and a 1950 Ford Tudor Coupe driven by 23 year old Cal Poly student, with the odd name (considering) of Donald Turnupseed, coming in the opposite direction, began to turn left onto highway 41. The resulting crash was a violent one, with Turnupseed's car spinning about 45 feet and Dean's car spinning about 35 feet and into a ditch next the highway. The damage to both vehicles was significant, but of the three people involved, only Dean's injuries were fatal. Turnupseed had facial lacerations and a bloody nose and Wutherich, after being thrown from the car, had several broken bones that required immediate care.

(Turnupseed's car, note the heavily damaged left side. There is also a spider break in the windshield indicating Turnupseed smacked his head against it. Photo by Sanford H. Roth; Fair Use.) 

(Dean's car. It should be noted that there are no released photos of the car before Dean was removed, so there is some damage attributed to getting him out of the car. Considering the car he hit, the Spyder is in better condition than it should be because it bounced off after the initial impact. Photo by Sanford H. Roth; Fair Use.)

According to a crash recreation, estimates are that Turnupseed was traveling about 55mph and Dean was going about 70mph. The left side of the Coupe hit the left side of the Spyder as Turnupseed inexplicably decided to turn left onto highway 41. James Dean's head bounced off the left headlight of the Coupe and he remained trapped by the legs in the Spyder as it spun to stop. The initial injuries were certainly the fatal ones. However, the accident was not his fault as is, to this day, commonly believed.

It has rarely been mentioned in the lore, history or mystique surrounding James Dean's death, but a CHP diagram of the accident shows two different sets of skid marks for the Ford Tudor. Lore has it that Dean's last words were about the car up ahead, "That guy'll stop. He's gotta see us." Whether the utterance was true or not, Turnupseed did see him as the first set of skid marks indicate. Then, he decided to make his turn and again, he saw the Spyder and braked once again producing the second set of skid marks which ended with the impact.

Why, if Turnupseed saw the car that caused him to locked his brakes the first time, did he decide to go ahead and make the turn anyway? Dean did try an evasive maneuver to the right but there just wasn't enough time. Turnupseed's decision to make the left turn means the accident was not Dean's fault. As to the why, there is not enough evidence to make even an educated guess. Turnupseed never talked about the accident publicly and all that exists is a mention of it in a letter to a friend. All he does is mention the accident in passing and spends most of time talking about what it will take to fix his car!

I suppose the belief that Dean was reckless and was the cause of his own death feeds into the mystique of such a bright star meeting a sudden and violent end. Perhaps the strange behavior of Turnupseed just prior to the accident and his subsequent closed-mouth publicly simply isn't as mysterious or ghostly for the usual narrative. Regardless, a brilliant actor was killed before he could use all his true talent or grow old into a tiresome actor who wound up co-starring in a soap opera or a combination of both.


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