Thursday, 11 February 2016

James Dean and the Curse of the Little Bastard

Jimmy in his first motorcycle
James Dean's passion for fast cars and bikes is almost as legendary as the man himself. His first real motorcycle, a 1947 CZ 125-cc, was presented to him by his uncle Marcus Winslow when he was just 15 years old. The CZ was lightweight and easily maneuverable, giving Jimmy a sense of freedom that was inaccessible to most teenagers in the small farming town of Fairmount, Indiana. In 1948, the Fairmount High School principal, Roland Dubois, asked students to compose a short autobiography and Jimmy proudly wrote, "My hobby, or what I do in my spare time, is motor cycle. I know a lot about mechanically and I love to ride. I have been in a few races, and I have done well. I own a small cycle myself." Marvin Carter, the man who sold Marcus the CZ, later remembered: "Jimmy was really a pistol. They called him 'One Speed Dean.' One speed: wide open." Teenage Jimmy often raced his bike on an improvised track behind Carter's motorcycle shop and quickly developed a reputation for mischief.

When he enrolled at Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio, Jimmy traded in his CZ for the more "exotic" Royal Enfield 500-cc, which was soon replaced by a maroon and gold striped 1952 Indian Warrior TT. While living in New York, Jimmy stored his motorcycle at the Greenwich Village garage where future actor Steve McQueen worked as a part-time mechanic and the two would bond over their love of bikes. After earning the starring role in Elia Kazan's East of Eden (1955), he used part of his salary to purchase a used red 1953 MG TD sports car and a shell blue 1955 Triumph T110. Three days after the filming of East of Eden wrapped, Jimmy traded his T110 for a 1955 Triumph TR5 Trophy at Ted Evans Motorcycles in Culver City, California. Like his first Triumph, the Trophy was shell blue, but Jimmy made made a number of modifications to it, including the removal of the muffler in favor of louder pipes. He also flipped the passenger seat backward, the same way Marlon Brando, his idol, did on his 1950 Triumph 6T in The Wild One (1953).

Jimmy in his 1955 Triumph Trophy
In March 1955, shortly before he began work on Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Jimmy replaced his MG TD sports car with a white 1955 Porsche 356 Super Speedster, which he bought new from Johnny von Neumann at Competition Motors in Hollywood. Although the Speedster was primarily a street car, it was also a popular entry in local road races run by the California Sports Car Club and the Sports Car Club of America. Later that month, Jimmy made his racing debut in the Palm Springs Road Races, finishing first overall in the novice class and second overall in the main event. In April, he raced in Bakersfield, achieving first place in is class and third overall. The following month, he entered another race in Santa Barbara, but was unable to finish the competition due to a blown pistol.

While filming Giant (1956) in July 1955 and barred by Warner Bros. from all racing activities Jimmy ordered a Lotus Mk IX from Burbank race car dealer Jay Chamberlain, but was told that the delivery would be delayed until autumn. As production on Giant drew to a close, Jimmy returned to Competition Motors and traded in his Speedster for a much more sophisticated silver 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder. He bought the Spyder on September 19 and immediately entered it in the Salinas Road Races, scheduled to be run the following week in Northern California. He also bought a Ford Country Squire station wagon, which he planned to use to tow the Spyder on an open trailer from race to race. Although the Salinas racecourse was actually just a temporary track, built at the municipal airport, the location was special for Jimmy, since the outdoor scenes in East of Eden were shot there. As he once told Judy Garland, "Salinas is where James Dean was born."

Preparing for the Salinas Road Races
Before competing in the Salinas race, however, Jimmy wanted to personalize his Spyder, so he took it to the Lynwood shop of Dean Jeffries, an up-and-coming painter and pinstripper. Jeffries painted the race number (130) that Jimmy had been assigned for Salinas in black non-permanent paint on the front hood, rear decklid and both doors. At Jimmy's instruction, he also hand-lettered a nickname Little Bastard, in quotation marks in a stylized script in a permanent black gloss enamel across the rear cowling. Reportedly, "Little Bastard" was a sobriquet given to Jimmy by his friend Bill Hickman, a Warner Bros. stunt driver who accompanied him to the Salinas race. According to Hickman, "I'd call [Dean] Little Bastard and he'd call me Big Bastard." Another version of the story claims that the nickname originated with Jack Warner, head of Warner Bros., who had once referred to Jimmy as a "little bastard" after the actor refused to vacate his temporary East of Eden trailer on the studio lot. 

Thirteen days before the Salinas races, Jimmy filmed a short interview with fellow actor Gig Young for an episode of Warner Bros. Presents (1955-1956), in which he discouraged speeding on public roads. Instead of saying the scripted phrase "The life you save may be your own," he nonchalantly ad-libbed, "Take it easy driving. The life you might save might be mine." During his last day of work on Giant, Jimmy showed off his brand new Porsche Spyder on the Warners lot and insisted that the film's director, George Stevens, take a ride with him. Stevens would later quote studio guards as saying, "You can never drive this car on the lot again; you're gonna kill a carpenter or an actor or somebody." "That," Stevens said, "was the last time I saw Jimmy."

Jimmy and Rolf Wütherich on the way to the Salinas Road Races

In the early morning of September 30, the Spyder was prepared for the race at Competition Motors by Porsche factory mechanic Rolf Wütherich. The original plan had been to tow it to Salinas on the Ford station wagon, but Wütherich recommended that Jimmy drive it instead to put some needed miles on the new and "notoriously temperamental" motor. Consequently, Jimmy got behind the wheel of the Spyder, with Wütherich riding in the passenger seat. Bill Hickman, accompanied by professional photographer Stanford H. Roth, who was planning a photo story of Jimmy at the races for Colliers Magazine, followed them in the station wagon, towing the unladen trailer.

The two cars made several stops during the 300-plus miles trip to Salinas, including at the Mobil gas station in Sherman Oaks to refuel. By the late afternoon, while driving west through Route 466, Jimmy accelarated on the Porsche and left Hickman far behind. At about 5:45 p.m., Dean confronted a 1950 Ford Custom Tudor driven by 23-year-old college student Donald Turnupseed turning left across the road from them. Jimmy, who was driving at a reported speed of 137 km/h (85mph), did not have sufficient time and space to execute an evasive maneuver. The Spyder struck the Ford nearly head-on, with the driver's side of the Porsche taking the brunt of the impact. The Spyder reportedly flipped two or three times before landing on its wheels in a gully beside the road. Jimmy, trapped in the wreckage, was pronounced dead on arrival at the Paso Robles War Memorial Hospital at 6:20 p.m. Wütherich was ejected from the car, but survived critical injuries, including a broken jaw and crushed femur. Turnupseed broke his nose and suffered facial lacerations.

Jimmy at the gas station in Sherman Oaks (reportedly, this was the last picture taken of him alive)

There had never been nothing since the passing of silent star Rudolf Valentino in 1926 to equal the mass hysteria which followed James Dean's untimely death. Fans worldwide refused to believe he was gone and it was not long before bizarre rumors began to circulate. The first one, and perhaps the most outlandish of them all, claimed that he was still alive and disfigured in a sanatorium. But even after this tale was debunked, it was replaced by the legend that the "Little Bastard" was cursed. 

Reportedly, the myth originated with auto customizer George Barris, who said he bought the wrecked "Little Bastard" from the Dean family in 1956. In his 1974 book Cars of the Stars, Barris wrote that when the Porsche was being unloaded in his shop, it fell on a mechanic and broke both his legs. Barris subsequently sold the engine to a Dr. Troy McHenry, who was apparently killed while driving a car powered by the Porsche's motor. After Barris reworked the car to display at various auto shows and highway safety demonstrations throughout California, he said it was in a fire in Fresno in late March 1959 that destroyed everything in the garage except the Spyder. On September 30,1959, the fourth anniversary of Jimmy's death, it supposedly fell off a display at Sacramento High School and broke the hip of a teenage boy who had been examining the wreckage. A few weeks after that, while being transported to Salinas, the car fell off the trailer and and killed the truck driver.

The "Little Bastard" on display at Sacramento High School in 1959

As if all of this was not enough, Barris also claimed that two years after crushing the trucker, the "Little Bastard" broke in half and fell onto a freeway in Oakland, California. (In later accounts, though not according to Barris, the road blockage caused a fatal accident.) Then, in Oregon, the car slipped off another truck and smashed into a store. In 1959, while on display in New Orleans, it crumbled into eleven pieces. By 1960, Barris had apparently had enough of these mysterious incidents and decided to load the cursed Porsche on a freight train to Los Angeles with the door to the boxcar sealed. Upon arrival, the door was unsealed and opened, but the container was completely empty. The "Little Bastard" had vanished was never seen again.

After decades of study, Porsche historian Lee Raskin, the author of James Dean At Speed, is convinced that most of Barris' stories are fabrications and several are completely false. According to Raskin, "The only part of the curse that can be proven is the death of Dr. Troy McHenry. Just about everything else is made up." Raskin believes that Barris made up all these stories as a way of perpetuating the James Dean myth, especially on the milestones anniversaries of his death. In fact, on September 30, 2015, the 60th anniversary of Jimmy's death, a man claimed he knew the whereabouts of the "Little Bastard." He said he saw his father and some other men hide the car in a building in Washington when he was six years old. This person will not reveal the disclose the exact location of the building until he receives a portion of the reward currently being offered by the Volo Automotive Museum in Illinois. Allegedly, the man has passed a polygraph test and has even offered some details about the Spyder that are, by all accounts, factual.

Whatever you choose to believe, curse or no curse, the "Little Bastard" doubtless played a major role in elevating James Dean to legendary status. All his life, for as short as it was, Jimmy strived for greateness and immortality; in a tragic, heartbreaking way, that little silver 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder gave him that. When Jimmy introduced himself to British actor Alec Guinness outside the Villa Capri restaurant in Hollywood, he asked him to take a look at his brand new Porsche. As soon as Guinness laid his eyes on the car, he thought it appeared "sinister." He told Jimmy, "If you get in that car, you will be found dead by this time next week." Legend goes that this fatidic encounter took place on September 23, 1955, exactly seven days before Jimmy's death.

History's Greatest Automotive Mysteries, Myths and Rumors Revealed: James Dean's Killer Porsche, NASCAR's Fastest Monkey, Bonnie and Clyde's Getaway Car, and More by Matt Stone and Preston Lerner (2012) | Legendary Motorcyles: The Stories of Bikes Made Famous by Elvis, Peter Fonda, Kenny Roberts, and Other Motorcycling Greats by Basem Wasef (2007) | The Unknown James Dean by Robert Tanitch (1999) | Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: James Dean's Final Hours by Keith Elliot Greenberg (2015) | Article on the "Little Bastard" by Rob Finkleman

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