James Dean Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die
Keith Elliot Greenberg
Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2015
The cult of James Dean has endured decades longer than his life, which barely extended into adulthood. His short, but eventful twenty-four years have been the subject of endless analysis and multiple biographies. Now in a new book, Keith Elliot Greenberg explores the day of the fatal crash that killed the actor and the unprecedented fandom that would grow after his death.
Though Dean was film actor for only two years, and not in the public eye for much longer as a stage and television actor, he made an impression that has endured for generations of fans. He had the good fortune of being born with both the talent and ambition necessary to make a splash in Hollywood quickly.
The James Dean you meet in Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die is not the angry rebel often associated with his legend, but a high-energy small town boy with a strong connection to his roots. Though the actor lost his mother at an early age and was not able to maintain a strong relationship with his father, he was loved and wanted by his aunt and uncle and lived a happy childhood on their Fairmount, Indiana farm.
Dean had an early love for speed. The actor bought a motorbike as a teen and would race it as fast as he could get away with. As a popular high school student he participated in sports and drama, and was known for his confidence and ability to excel in many areas. He was confident and destined for success.
Since his fatal accident, there has always been the rumor that young Dean had a death wish. He'd talk about "flaming out" and his idea to pose in a coffin for Life magazine photographer Dennis Stock in a famous photo shoot screamed symbolism to all who wished to see it. To those who knew him though, the actor seemed high on living, and almost too much so. As his friend and costar Natalie Wood said, "He may have grabbed to strongly at life." That impulse is likely what also helped him to rise so quickly as an actor.
During Dean's brief time in Hollywood, many of his peers were envious of the actor's fast rise to fame. His impact was almost immediate. Even in a bit part, where he spoke a few lines at a soda fountain, he oozed charisma. His inventiveness as an actor made a stir on his sets; the young actor was adept at accessing the emotions of his characters, and giving them bits of business that exposed their true selves more thoroughly than with any line they spoke.
The book explores this appeal as it leads up to the crash, searching for that claimed death wish. When you realize what he had going for him, it doesn't seem likely that Dean would be unnecessarily reckless. He had projects to look forward to, and he knew he had yet to reach his peak.
All three of the films Dean starred in were worthy of classic status. While East of Eden (1955), Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956) all showcased him as similarly rebellious, emotionally unsteady characters, there was no doubt he had the talent to grow as an actor as he found many nuances to distinguish these roles. He certainly had the role models to draw from too, meeting Alec Guinness, Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, Natalie Wood, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Sal Mineo, Sammy Davis Jr. and Eartha Kitt, among many others in his short life.
When Dean bought the notorious Porsche in which he'd lose his life, many of those he knew were repelled by it. One time girlfriend Ursula Andress was too frightened to ride in the low slung car. Eartha Kitt had a terrifying drive with the actor and swore he'd die in the car. Guinness made the same comment when Dean coaxed him out of a restaurant to proudly showed him his new acquisition.
Dean felt confident in his abilities to drive the car safely though, and it appears he acted responsibly that final day. Greenberg follows his last ride and reveals that upon investigation of the crash he was sober and not driving excessively over the speed limit. The problem was more of visibility; the low, light-colored car was likely not seen in time for the driver that hit it to stop.
While the loss of Dean so young continues to inspire grief among fans, perhaps the most heart wrenching stories in Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die are of the men who survived the crash. Donald Turnspeed was a college student when he hit the actor's car, and the shy, reserved man was hounded for the rest of his life by fans of Dean. Even more heartbreaking is the story of mechanic Rolf Wutherich, who sat next to the actor in the car and never got over the trauma of both the crash and the way the world responded to him afterwards.
Perhaps the most interesting element of the book is its exploration of Dean fan culture. Greenberg describes the annual James Dean Festival in Fairmount and how the town has become a monument to the actor. Dean's cousin Marcus has accepted that the farm where the town's most famous son grew up will always be a tourist attraction, and he has tried to be friendly to curious visitors. There are some who have even settled in the town because they feel inspired by the actor.
At times the book can feel a bit padded. There's a long story about the supposed long history of bad luck associated with Porsches that includes a detailed description of the assassination of the Archduke of Ferdinand that feels unnecessary. Another lengthy detour into the chaotic funeral of Valentino in an attempt to draw parallels between the two actors is similarly superfluous.
This is a compelling read though, drawing on extensive interviews with what appears to be every living person who had any association with Dean. There are a lot of perspectives here and they are woven together into an interesting, meaningful narrative.
Many thanks to Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group for providing a copy of the book for review.
All images from Classic Film Scans.