A lifetime ago, a young girl heard a radio news report about the tragic death of the Hollywood actor, setting her on a path of discovery she still walks today. Who is James Dean? Join Pamela Des Barres on her personal quest to find that out…
Born and raised in Southern California, the teeming cradle of popular culture, I careened from Mickey to Barbie to Elvis to the Beatles, basking in the brilliant San Fernando Valley sunshine where nothing could go wrong on Jamieson Avenue. I was a member of the Mickey Mouse Club, my devoted mama let me play Barbies on top of the TV set, and Elvis records over and over on my very own portable record player. Immersed in pop culture before the term existed, I’ve always been greatly influenced by several icons in profound and subtle ways.
Elvis reigned supreme in my pre-teen imagination, and I still have images of him all over my house (and his signature tattooed across my back) as I am eternally loyal to the artists that have shaped and streamlined my persona. Even as a little kid I was attracted to those with rebellious natures, people who ignored the stifling rules and regs—fearless individuals who shook, rattled and rolled up their sleeves to take on the status quo.
One of my lifelong obsessions began one late summer evening in my parents’ pale green ’48 Ford, a car I’d named Betsey after my treasured Betsey McCall doll. (Sadly, I later left her in the bathroom at a Youth for Christ meeting). My head was resting in mama’s lap, my feet snuggled into daddy’s side as he drove, as always, with the radio playing. I was drowsy and cozy when the crooner (probably Nat or Frank) was interrupted with a news bulletin that the young Hollywood actor, James Dean, had died in a car crash on Highway 46. Suddenly awake, I sat up and asked, “Who is James Dean?” A question I’ve been asking ever since.
I had just turned 8 years old but was haunted by the idea that this beautiful blonde actor was gone forever. I hadn’t experienced death yet, all my pets still happily alive, my parents hale and hearty despite the constant clouds of tobacco smoke billowing through Reseda. The finality of James Dean’s demise filled me with trepidation and a longing I didn’t understand, so I went on a search to find out more, more more. At our local drugstore, sitting cross-legged on the tiled floor, I pored through movie magazines, gazing rapturously at his chiseled visage, aching to hear his voice, see him move, breathe, and come wildly back to life on the silver screen.
By the time I got to Junior High, I’d seen Rebel Without a Cause, Giant and East of Eden several times on TV, and like another huge Dean fan, Elvis Presley, I could spout his lines at will—Natalie Wood’s too: “I love somebody,” she cooed, before receiving the most tender kiss ever planted on an actress.
After setting my alarm to see yet another middle-of-the-night screening of Rebel, swoony and close to fainting, I’d hold my breath before that sigh-inducing smooch. I’d read William Bast’s ’56 biography endless times, carrying it around with me like a rebel bible, along with a magazine photo of Jimmy’s (that’s what his friends called him, you know) lipstick-covered Indiana tombstone tucked in my wallet like a talisman. I compared all the boys at Northridge Junior High to Cal Trask, Jett Rink and Jim Stark—the characters Dean played in his movies. Fat chance, fellas. David Dalton’s ‘70s best-seller, The Mutant King, perpetuated the Dean myth, bringing him back into pop consciousness, where he has remained, nestled between Marilyn Monroe and the King. But why is this person who made a mere three films, so revered, so studied, and so idolized 62 years later?
Indeed, he died young and beautiful, and the phrase, “Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse,” has long been attributed to him. He was said to be moody. He was often called rude and full of mischief. He may have been bisexual. When asked about his sexuality, he said, “I don’t want to go through life with one hand tied behind my back” way before such statements were allowed.
Despite all the curiosity surrounding this new Hollywood upstart, James Dean somehow managed to remain mysterious—but was not afraid to cut all the way loose on screen. I don’t think he could help it. Yes, Brando and Monty Clift came before him and were his favorite actors, but they stopped short of revealing such dripping angst and staggering vulnerability. Jimmy shredded himself, wide open and exposed, as if his heart was beating outside his body. The scene in East of Eden where he begs a stunned Raymond Massey to take money he made for his birthday is almost unwatchable, unless you want to feel his devastating disappointment, the pent-up tears almost gagging him as he clambers all over his horrified father. James Dean made it OK for men to weep and moan. To be confused, flustered, overwhelmed—to freely suffer on screen. He was so alive in the moment that the moment still lives.
After writing my third book, Rock Bottom, a difficult, painstaking foray into a maddening plethora of rock tragedies, I was searching for the next project to stir my creative soul and, as a lifelong diehard Dean fan, decided to finally take on my childhood idol. Since it was close to the date of his death, September 30, I joined the Deanfreaks on their annual trek to the intersection at highway 46 and 41 (formerly 441) where 21-year-old Donald Turnupseed had seen Jimmy’s silver Porsche as a wavering mirage that fateful day back in ‘55.
I met up with the folks driving classic cars to the death site at a groovy little record shop, Ear Candy, owned by kindred Dean fan, Kip Brown. He’d been working on his own Dean project and was full of knowledge about the eternal rebel that I eagerly gobbled up. He’s also a guitar player and music aficionado, so of course we bonded immediately. In fact, Kip has been driving my ‘I’m with the Band’ Rock Tours for a dozen years now.
Dean had been on his way to race his Porsche in Salinas when he was killed instantly, his little silver car crumpling up like an aluminum accordion after Turnupseed’s 3-ton Ford station wagon slammed into him head-on. Forty-two years later, I turned in at Blackwell’s Corner, a little country dive, where Jimmy supposedly stopped for an apple and glass of milk, perused a copy of his final speeding ticket posted on the wall, and tried to feel his vibe permeating the aging floorboards.
At 5:23 PM, standing on the very highway where Jimmy had drawn his final breath, I was moved to tears by the loss of such a radiant, reckless, restless spirit. He still had so much to do. I silently spoke to that spirit, asking for a connection, and felt an undeniable rush of thrumming energy slam my solar plexus like an adrenaline wand.
When I decide to get near someone, I am undaunted, climbing over or under any walls that may be seen as impenetrable, no holds Des Barred. In this case, the person I longed to know was no longer on the planet, so getting close to his comrades was as close as I’d get to him. That’s what I believed then anyway.
(I just went to grab my mail, and as often happens when I’m entering DeanLand, my quarterly DeanZine arrived. Last night I found a little card under my desk with notes for my long ago Fans Weekend speech about Jimmy. My ex-hub, Michael called to tell me he’d just watched East of Eden and was once again mesmerized…Go on, scoff if you will. For those who seek him out, Jimmy’s spirit is alive, alive!)
So I started delving into all things Dean, rounding up many of his aging show biz cronies, hoping for tell-tale, untold shenanigans, and some insight into my earliest inspiration. I also started planning my first visit to Fairmount, Indiana, where Jimmy was raised by his aunt and uncle after losing his beloved mother at age nine. In fact, he had accompanied Mildred’s casket on the long train trip from California to Indiana, which must have been a difficult journey indeed.
I took the flirty soundtrack composer of Rebel and Eden, Leonard Rosenman, to Musso and Frank’s, gleaning first-hand insights from a kindred scoundrel. He suggested I also meet up with his ex-wife Adele who told a surprising story about a troublesome New York cocktail party. Apparently, Jimmy considered the Rosenmans his family away from family, and busted Leonard for having an affair with Eden actress Lois Smith, also present at the bash. Oops. Lenny didn’t speak to Jimmy for six months. Several people insisted that they were his best pal, but I spent a week with his actual best friend, Lew Bracker, in Kansas City, and got a real peek into Jimmy’s complex, yet fanciful psyche. Lew finally wrote a book about their friendship a few years ago [Jimmy & Me, 2013] and it’s by far my fave.
Kip and I saw Rebel on the big screen, at Graumann’s no less, with a few of the actors who’d played Buzz’s gang members, including Frank Mazzola, who shared off-screen antics during the screening. I even found Dick Clayton, Jimmy’s Hollywood agent, and hosted a dinner party for him, Lew, Lenny and Frank. Listening to them recall memories of Jimmy was mind-boggling and chill-inducing. Lenny and Lew had never discussed his death, and when the mood became suddenly somber, Kip and I almost felt like intruders.
Kip had told me the best bios to read, and which to avoid, and I soon discovered there were enough Dean biographies; a few too many actually. Some maligned him, made shit up and put words into his beautiful mouth. Most just repeated the same mythology. I needed to find an untold tale. An unsung story. A couple of the books mentioned a “one-legged galpal,” so I asked Kip if he knew anything about this intriguing woman. “That’s Toni Lee Scott,” he said assuredly, “a jazz singer who lost her leg in a motorcycle accident.”
My course was set. Who was she? Where was she? Was she even still with us? A good friend was an internet sleuth, and found her very much alive, tucked away in Marin County. He convinced her I was an honest soul, but when I called her, it took some serious convincing on my part, because Toni had kept the story of her relationship with Jimmy to herself for decades. She was feisty, cautious, and a bit leery, but finally relented to my sincere pleading to interview her, and plans were made for a visit up North.
After the short hop to San Francisco and lovely drive to Marin, I handed Toni Lee a huge bouquet of yellow roses as she greeted us at the door in her wheelchair. After giving us the once over twice, for the next several hours, Kip and I were held enthralled as she told us about her very special friendship with James Dean.
The young singer met the burgeoning star at Googie’s, a trendy diner next door to Schwab’s drugstore on the Sunset Strip. She asked him to pass the sugar. He slid it down the counter. She saw a hotshot motorcycle gleaming through the window and asked if it was his. Of course it was. She then told him he should “get rid of it,” as she had lost her leg the first time she rode one. He was always curious, wanting to know more. She didn’t know who he was but soon found out when he started showing up at her door for middle-of-the-night visits, asking her to run lines with him. She visited him on the set of Rebel. He even tried to get her a small role. When he was moving on up, he suggested she move into his former second-floor guest house so she could learn to navigate the stairs with her crutches. He was in the audience when she resumed her singing career, cheering her on. He sent her to his acting coach so she could truly feel her lyrics. After seeing a bust of Brando in a storefront window, she took Jimmy to meet the sculptor Kenneth Kendall, and the Dean bust he created still greets visitors at Griffith Observatory, as well as on Main Street in Fairmount. He asked her to come to see him race in Salinas, but she had a gig that night. They had shared private thoughts, a distrust of Hollywood, revealed their broken hearts and forged a deep understanding—and then he was gone.
Toni lived in a classic Hollywood duplex on Doheny, next door to Dennis Hopper, and when she found out Jimmy had died, went across the hall to tell him the tragic news. Dennis was so shocked and horrified he hauled off and slapped her across the face before they both collapsed in tears. Late that night, they both had a visitation from Jimmy.
Toni showed us a series of photos taken in front of Googie’s the day she walked to Jimmy the first time wearing her prosthetic leg. Only the side of her face was showing, but Jimmy’s smile lit up the Sunset Strip. “I know I was looking into the camera for the final shot that day,” she said, “but it’s never turned up.”
Toni had been terribly slandered (“One-legged galpal” is just the tip of the deception) in a couple scuzzy Dean bios and had long wanted the truth of their friendship told. I vowed to somehow assist in this all-important cause, and by the end of our visit, I could visualize their story in blazing technicolor. Back in LA, I started looking a for screenwriting class.
I often spent time hunting down Dean photos, books and memorabilia on eBay, and one afternoon I clicked on “Rare James Dean Photo,” and gasped. There was Toni’s missing photo — her beaming face gazing directly at me! It was the original print, and quite rare, but I won the auction (of course) and the smile she gave me when I handed her the picture equals the one she flashed that day at Googie’s. The final photo now hangs on her wall, along with the rest of the series.
In May of ‘98, Kip offered to accompany me to Fairmount, having visited himself a few years earlier. This tiny Midwestern town had long been one of my Meccas, and it was high time I paid my respects at the lipstick-printed tombstone I’d carried around in my teenage wallet.
Fairmount is more than an hour north of Indianapolis and as we drove up Highway 69, Kip and I listened to Leonard Rosenman’s poignant soundtracks, my heart slamming ecstatically as we turned off exit 55 and through the amber waves of grain. I was so familiar with the shots taken of Jimmy all along Main Street, I felt a woozy déjà vu settle over me as we slowly drove along the three blocks that make up downtown Fairmount. There’s the diner, the record shop, the building that once sold the caskets in which he’d eerily posed for a Life magazine shoot. And ahhhh, there’s Kendall’s towering glowering bust of Jimmy looming over all, thanks to Toni Lee Scott.
I was actually nervous heading into Park Cemetery at dusk, as if I was about to meet James Dean in the flesh, and what happened is as close as it gets. Jimmy’s cousin Marcus Winslow and his wife Mary Lou were busily tending his grave as we parked in front of his humble tombstone. We approached tentatively, but Marcus greeted us warmly, as I discovered he always does when his cousin’s fans swarm the tiny town of 2,500. He invited us to visit the Winslow farm the following day and I was struck dumb with joy.
That night Kip and I stayed at a frumpy motel in nearby Marion and the next day went back to Fairmount, straight to the James Dean Gallery, where I met two fellows who’d become family to me almost instantly. There’s something about people drawn to James Dean, a lurking rebellion, restlessness, a wistful, innate understanding that attracts us to each other, creating an immediate bond. David Loehr and his partner (now husband) Lenny Prussack insisted Kip and I stay with them in their 100-year-old abode, once a coroner’s residence, now housing Dean artifacts galore. We, of course, took them up on such a gracious offer, and 20 years later, I’ve taken the same 4-hour flight more than 30 times and consider the Gallery my second home.
I discovered that whenever I touched Jimmy’s signature, a piece of clothing he wore, anything he’d actually held or owned, my hands felt like they were on fire, with a zap and a tingle that slid up my arms and opened my solar plexus like a heavenly shoehorn (go ahead and scoff). So the afternoon Marcus opened his door to me and Kip, inviting us into the home where James Dean was raised, I lit up like a cosmic firecracker. So much was the same as in the photos I’d intently studied and drooled over most of my life. My glowing hands lingered on the ancient doorknobs and trailed along the original staircase handrail. Marcus must have sensed our true devotion because he led us up to Jimmy’s room, where his bed and maple dresser still stood. As I gazed around in awed wonder, Marcus pulled a couple of boxes from under the twin bed, one full of Jimmy’s record albums, and another filled with a dozen busts of famous composers wrapped in crinkly faded paper. He let us go through the records and hold the little figures, and my hands heated up like they’d been dipped in a paraffin bath. Ecstatic and swimming in gratitude, I could barely breathe.
In September Kip and I returned to Fairmount with Toni Lee in tow, so she could speak at the annual Dean memorial, held at Friend’s Back Creek church, where Jimmy had long ago been a member. I’d taken many trips to Marin County, and had, indeed, started screenwriting classes at UCLA. I was already immersed in Toni’s courageous story about a dauntless singer (called a “cripple” back then) determined to sing her songs against seemingly impossible odds, with the help of an American icon. The church was jammed while Toni told stories that Dean fans had never heard. Stories Toni had never told before. Memories recalled, sorrow relived – cathartic, emotional, uplifting, renewing. Later she stood in front of the Kenneth Kendall bust, marveling that she was responsible for its existence, remembering that day driving down Melrose Avenue, spotting a bust of Marlon Brando in a picture window.
One dusky, chilly evening I walked the half mile through the swaying cornfields from the Gallery to the gravesite and lay down atop Jimmy’s grave as if it were my own resting place. As I closed my eyes, trying to merge with his welcoming spirit, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise as if a magnet was floating in the air above me. When the crawling tingle reached the top of my head, then gently dissipated, I knew I’d been touched by infinity. It felt like our souls were dancing.
The memories I’ve made in Fairmount are delightful and numerous, but a particular stand out was the night Dave let me slip into the jeans Jimmy wore in Giant, and wriggle into his worn white tee-shirt, usually on display under glass. While wearing his clothes I felt completely permeated. I don’t know how to state it any other way. Totally stoned out of my mind, lost in Eden, giddy, slap-happy and turned inside-out, my temperature would have boiled mercury.
I’d often wondered how the fuck Jimmy had been able to be so REAL onscreen, so damn free. He’d been accepted into the rarified inner sanctum of the Actor’s Studio but soon left, stifled by the irrevocable rules. Where did that irrepressible bravado come from? As I worked on the script, Jimmy started visiting me in my dreams, and one morning I rose out of a doozy, in which I’d been walking through a cavernous space, with rows and rows of farming equipment on display. Jimmy appeared from behind a tractor, wearing denim overalls, and led me over to one of the huge pieces of machinery. “This is a combine machine, a thresher,” he told me, “very powerful, complicated — actually four machines in one – the header, the rotor, the sieves and the chopper.” He then motioned me over and lifted the hood, “And this here is the engine. You can’t see how it works, or where that immense power comes from,” he said, emphatically slamming the hood back down — “because it’s hidden.” Then he turned, looking at me intently, “That’s how I act.”
On one of my later trips to Fairmount I was wandering through the small museum that houses some Dean artifacts, and I stopped, agog, looking through the glass at a school paper written by a young Jim Dean entitled “How a Thresher Works,” complete with a hand drawn picture of the very machine he’d shown me in my dream. I also discovered that his Grandpa, Cal Dean, had been an auctioneer of farming equipment.
I told this dreamy story in my first speech during a James Dean Fan’s Weekend, but my thunder was stolen a bit by another fan, Rufus Wainwright, who dropped in unexpectedly to share his Deanlove. Many creative souls have made the trek to Fairmount. I wish I’d been in town the night Bob Dylan arrived in his tour bus and asked to be shown around town. Marcus woke up at 2 AM to take Dylan out the barn where Jimmy had once played his conga drums for the livestock.
So much has happened to me in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere, and I could go on and on, but I can’t write an entire book here. Dave and Lenny are my soul brothers. I officiated their wedding in Niagara Falls a few years back, and it was a perfectly blissful event. And about time too. They just celebrated 35 years together. It wasn’t easy for them when they moved from New York to Fairmount after Dave asked for a sign and Jimmy sent him a shooting star, but they are now enmeshed, the very fabric of Fairmount. Lenny and I dance like sockhoppers every September at the annual Dean Fest (where more than 20,000 fans unite yearly) and we’ve come in second many times, finally winning first place three years ago. Not bad for a couple of seniors.
Along with the Festival, I attend as many Fan Weekends as possible, often playing the Vanna White role at Lenny’s James Dean Jeopardy. I only entered the contest once, and miraculously came in first. I’m a proud card-carrying longtime member of the James Dean Fan Club, and Jimmy’s signature now accompanies Elvis’s, tattooed on the back of my neck, along with his birth and death dates. I’m serious about my heroes.
It’s taken 20 years, but I finally feel comfortable around Marcus Winslow. The night he and Mary Lou took us to dinner with Toni Lee, we were chatting about our various collections and I brought up my copious array of vintage silhouette pictures that line my pink walls, describing how the images are painted directly onto the glass. “Didn’t Jimmy have a couple of those in his bedroom growing up?” Mary Lou asked Marcus. Turns out he did. Mary Lou found them tucked away in a drawer and they now hang at the Fairmount Museum, so fans from all over the world can gaze upon the romantic little pictures of a cowboy and cowgirl in love, just as Jimmy had seven decades ago. (It took me a while but I found the exact same pair and they hang over my writing desk for inspiration).
Yesterday was Toni Lee Scott’s 86th birthday. I called her, of course, and am so happy we met and have stayed such good friends. She had a long, successful singing career and owned several jazz clubs up North with her husband, Angelo. In Dylan’s book, Chronicles, he writes that he came out of a long creative funk after wandering into a certain jazz club where the music being played woke up his mojo. Yes, it was Toni’s club. I’m pleased with the script I wrote about the precious time she spent with James Dean, and I’d love to see it up on any size screen while she’s still here, jazzing up the planet. It’s a good story. A true story.
Because of my Dean adoration I’ve met so many like-minded, non-judgmental kooks like myself. I may not have known the rebel himself, but through his fans, often called “Deaners,” I’ve been able to keep my own wild-assed rebel spirit blazing bright. In that rarified world I can do no wrong because I love James Dean and all he stood for—all his lively spirit still stands for. Sixty-two years ago, I sat up in the Ford I called Betsey and asked the question, “Who is James Dean?”
If you haven’t asked yourself that question yet, ask away. Take the leap. It’ll open doors you didn’t even know were closed.