A gathering of the James Dean cult With a cause: The "Rebel Without a Cause" died 40 years ago today, and his hometown swells with pride and fans.

September 30, 1995|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

FAIRMOUNT, Ind. -- They didn't get enough of James Dean when he was alive.

Dean made just three movies in a span of 18 months. But he concentrated the intensity of a frustrated, misunderstood young man like no star before him. And then he died, 40 years ago today.

The cult that sprouted from his death has grown shoots, and now people who have been alive only half as long as Dean has been dead join the 25,000 who descend on his hometown this time of year.

Grunge-rock teens walk the streets of Fairmount along with slick-haired middle-age men reliving the 1950s in their custom 1949 Mercury sedans, just like the one Dean drove in "Rebel Without a Cause."

"I think he'd understand me. I can relate to him," said 20-year-old Derrick Babbs, of Chatsworth, Ill.

Mr. Babbs wore a white T-shirt with the sleeve rolled up to hold a pack of cigarettes and reveal a tattoo in the likeness of his role model. James Dean it is, although with bigger hair than the real man had.

Mr. Babbs drives to Fairmount as often as once a month. Most people come just once a year, in September, to the town that looks much the way it did when Dean left it.

Today, a procession will wind from a Quaker meetinghouse to the Park Cemetery, as mournfully as if the car crash that killed James Dean at 24 was yesterday. Today is for the few dozen die-hard James Dean fans who want the solemnity of a proper funeral, one most of them couldn't attend 40 years ago.

Last weekend was the fun part. Fairmount's population is 3,000, except for the annual festival the weekend before the anniversary of Dean's death. That's when hotels fill up from Kokomo to Muncie, from Fort Wayne to Indianapolis. Pilgrims come from as far away as Japan, London, Australia.

Vendors sell breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches and corn dogs. Carnival rides set up on Main Street. Locals hold their yard sales that weekend, on the smart hunch that people will buy junk just to say it came from James Dean's hometown.

Marjean Jones, 61, was a few years behind Dean at Fairmount High and said he never stood out. She is amazed at the adulation, the pouring in of fans.

"I have nobody that I would ever do this for, except Roy Rogers, maybe. I'm serious about that," she said.

They come to Fairmount to revel in the rebel, the star who never had time to get fat, like Elvis, or old, like Brando. And never mind about Roy Rogers. Dean is something else again. Women want him. Men want to be him.

"I've been in love with this man for 40 years and I just want to walk the ground he walked on," said Diane Smith, 57, who came last weekend from Dearborn Heights, Mich. Ms. Smith is a well-dressed, neatly coiffed blonde with a very practical demeanor. Except when she talks about Dean.

"I still feel connected to this man for some reason," she said.

"The first time I saw James Dean on the screen, a part of me was up there with him. It never happened with Elvis or anyone else."

Dean was the first teen on film that her generation could relate to, she said. She first saw him in "Rebel," when she was 18 and just out of high school in Detroit.

"After it was over, we sat in the restroom and waited so we could go in and watch it again," she recalled. The only screen teens before him were the sugary Andy-Hardy variety.

There was, of course, Brando in "The Wild One."

"But he was older," she said.

Dean played variations on the misunderstood rebel in "East of Eden" and "Giant" and had just finished filming on the latter when he crashed his Porsche Spyder on a California highway. His mechanic, who was sitting next to him and survived, reported his banal last words. As soon as a car pulled out in their path, Dean said to his mechanic, "He's got to see us."

The Winslow family, who raised America's most famous 20th-century rebel, has gotten over its grief and instead marvels at the lasting impact of their beloved Jimmie.

"There's probably more interest now than there was 10 years ago," says Marcus Winslow, Dean's cousin. They were raised as siblings after the death of Dean's mother. James Dean was 9, and his father, a serviceman, sent the boy to live with his Aunt Ortense and Uncle Marcus Winslow, now buried next to Dean in Fairmount.

"When he died, there was a lot of interest at first," remembers Mr. Winslow, who was 11 when his famous cousin's funeral drew thousands of mourners to town.

Fairmount has seen Bob Dylan stop his tour bus there at midnight and ask the police to see if a museum volunteer would let him in. He got in. Martin Sheen came in 1980 and talked with Dean's old drama teacher. And Morrissey filmed his "Suedehead" music video at Dean's grave in 1988. It tapped into a new well of James Dean fans. Every day in the summer, a carful of Morrissey fans arrives to see the simple tombstone, which usually has fresh lipstick imprints on it.

The Dean worshipers transfer qualities to James Dean that have more to do with their own lives. They need a role model, an understanding friend, and he's there, bigger than life.

"They all have to have someone to look up to, and Jim's a good fellow for them to follow," said Adeline Nall, 89, Dean's high-school mentor and drama teacher. She knew he had a glimmer of talent even then. When he had to play a bum, she told him to visit the forgotten men along Halsted Street in Chicago.

"I like him in 'East of Eden' very much, because that was just the Jim that I knew," she said.

She has held court most years at the Dean festival, leading tour buses of fans through Fairmount. She was limited this year, frail and in a nursing home. She has the only room in the place decorated with a life-size cardboard cutout of James Dean.

You can buy one of those at the nonprofit town museum, or you can just look at his baby pictures, his high-school letters, his glass-encased Triumph motorcycle. There's so much that only a real fan couldn't get enough.

"I feel that he's watching us now," she said, "and eyeing this whole thing and laughing about it."

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