I guess it was important to see James Dean’s grave. If it weren’t, I would not have driven out of my way 150 miles to Fairmount, Indiana, a few days ago.
It was a warm, muggy day as Nebra steered the rented Ford Focus east at Lafayette onto highway 26. There may not be 65 miles of straighter and flatter road in America than 26. Like much of northern Indiana, corn and soybeans bedecked the roadsides. And there is an endless string of well-kept farms and small, neat “villes.” Rossville, Geetingsville and Russiaville, and also Sedalia and Indian Heights. Near Oakford, I got out of the car to inspect a large field of Roma tomatoes not quite ready to harvest.
Fairmount is probably the largest of these metropolises. Population almost 3,000 in the 2010 census. One of those 1950s places that seems to have ignored the march of time. Quiet. Young girls in shorts ambling along the streets with apparently little else to do here in the middle of summer. Almost no vehicle traffic to deal with the town’s two or three stop lights on Main Street.
An attractive sign on the west end of town announces you are entering Fairmount “Where Cool was Born,” an allusion of course to Dean. A full-size rendering of the actor is on the left. He stands there familiarly. Thumbs tucked into blue jeans below the famous red jacket seen in his most iconic film, “Rebel Without A Cause.” The only thing missing is the cigarette. that usually hung down from his lips. Yes, cool was the image of James Dean. An arrow trumpets the Fairmount Historical Museum with its “Authentic James Dean Exhibit. A second rendering on the bottom right depicts Garfield the Cat. The asthmatic illustrator, Jim Davis, grew up on a farm near Fairmount.
Dean died in 1955, victim of a car crash at a road junction in California. He was speeding of course. Everything for Dean came fast, particularly fame. I came to realize over the years that it was not so much Dean the actor that I admired. It was “Jim Stark,” the character he played in “Rebel.” The film was THE movie of my generation. I’d been to Dean’s death site near Cholame, California, three times. So, as I said, it was imperative to visit the grave.
It was too late to visit the Museum. It closed at 5. So we settle for the James Dean Gallery which stays open an hour longer. The Gallery has much info to offer the Dean fan. The collection covers three rooms in the front of the old two-story house on Main. Nearby is a room with a projector that shows rare film clips of Dean.
At the front desk, I bought a postcard, wrote a note at a table in the next room and addressed it to myself in Phoenix. I then handed the card to the Gallery owner. He assured me he would hand-carry it to the post office so it would receive the “Fairmount” postmark rather than the standard one in Kokomo.
As the sun descended, we concluded a walk-around of the high school James attended. It’s in ruins, the roofs completely collapsing last summer and the whole she-bang is on the razing block.
It was then we headed north on Main to the cemetery. Many of the graves were still decorated with plastic flowers and other ornaments. At one spot Nebra pointed to a large headstone of the Scott family. The “Dad,” Jay Dean” (1955-2010), was born a few months before Dean was killed, and next to him “Our Son,” Jared Dean (1988-2007). Had to be James Dean namesakes, we thought.
Using the free map of Dean sites we picked up at the Gallery, it took little time to find the grave on top of a small rise on the cemetery’s north side.
I was immediately struck by how small the headstone was. The grave of his father, Winton Dean and wife on the north, is larger. I don’t know precisely what I expected but something definitely of size.
Walking about the grave I was dismayed to see all the junk. If you didn’t know better, you might have thought it a pauper’s grave in the neglected part of town. The debris, if you could praise it even that much, was left by Dean’s fans and well-wishers, I suppose. Cigarette butts, smoked and dropped on the grave and around it. Rocks, pebbles, a comb, plastic flowers, a crumpled beer can, an old warped photo of the actress Elizabeth Taylor, who appeared with Dean in his last film, “Giant.”
White-washed stones line the cemetery’s driveways. The ones in front of the Dean marker were covered with autographs of passers-by.
But worst of all were the “kisses.” I counted at least a dozen lip-prints in various shades of red around the actor’s name “James B. Dean” on the grave’s front.
It is a strange custom, this decoration or desecration of a grave by people wishing to express their adoration. But is it really for Dean these tokens are left? Or is it more for the giver? I can see someone dropping a half-smoked cigarette there and then having a compansion shoot his photo with him by the grave pointing to the cig on the ground. Celebrity worship is one of the worst aspects of human life, I think.
I was glad to leave the grostequeness of James Dean’s grave behind. I remember near his fatal crash site at Cholame, people had pulled out parts of a Dean metal sculpture and, I assume, taken them away as souvenirs. Very materialistic, unsatisfied by their spiritual connection there with Dean.
Maybe this will change my mind on something. I have always hated the idea of cremation. Ashes in a jar, carried around by the gods know who. To me, it is a selfish act, cremation. It is cheap, yes, but you leave nothing for those who come later perhaps seeking a spiritual union. Or information on the tombstone. Birth, death whatever. Ashes for the famous may be the way to go.
Anyway, I saw what I came to Fairmount to see. It has offered in its own way closure for me and James Dean.