Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse

Searching for the site of James Dean's fatal car crash leads to Nowhere.

Published September 25, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

It's a good thing I was looking for Cholame, or I'd never have realized it was there. On my map, it looked to be about halfway between Yosemite and Los Angeles, which is to say it was in the middle of nowhere. This was not the California of international repute -- neither the glories of the Sierras nor the glitz of the coast -- but the tough, dry, hilly grazing land that leads down to Grapes of Wrath and Cesar Chavez country, where migrants work bent in the fields of the San Joaquin valley until sunset, their rusted pickups parked haphazardly along the road side.

I spent the morning entirely on four-digit roads, the kind of roads that are unnumbered on state maps, their lines printed in a gray so pale it looks like it might fade into the paper at any moment. Narrow strips of asphalt, barely ten feet wide, they wind from one tiny township to the next, ten or twenty miles away.

The creekbeds were dry except for an occasional shallow greenish scum, and the grass on the dry rolling hills had withered to deep gold. The whole landscape was waiting for the first rains. Even the black cattle huddled under the occasional stand of scrub oak seemed to be waiting for moisture.

I kept going south, guided by the sun rather than my map. The radio picked up one Latin music station after another, the music absurdly happy, full of a lusher, more vibrant life. By the time I emerged onto Route 46, about twenty-five miles east of Paso Robles, it was early afternoon.

"Cholame, population 65," said a sign.

Wherever those sixty-five people were, they were very well hidden. There was no small cluster of buildings, no store, just the occasional semi taking the sole east-west route through this part of California that could accommodate heavy trucks. The only building I could see was the Jack Ranch Cafe, whose rundown wooden frame shivered and trembled in the slipstreams of the trucks, as though it might collapse in on itself at any moment.

Maybe I'd been given a bum steer. This didn't seem to be the place I wanted. But if the cafe didn't look promising, it did at least offer the prospect of a hamburger. I'd been hungry ever since Coalinga, and if you're hungry enough, even the worst hamburger can taste pretty good.

Two semis were parked in the shade of a large tree off to the side of the cafe. I drew up alongside, searching for a bit of shade left over for the Expedition. Only when I nosed around behind the big trucks did I see that there was a kind of sculpture built around the trunk of the tree: two curved, overlapping four-foot-high walls of what looked like brushed aluminum, flecked with shreds of sunlight coming through the branches. And at the foot of the silvery walls, a plaque.

I'd found the right place after all.

The plaque was titled "Tribute to a Young Man." In more modest versions, I'd seen hundreds like it all over the United States, homespun roadside memorials to young lives cut violently short. A makeshift white cross, a browned and dried bunch of flowers, a hand-lettered sign: pathetic but touching attempts to rescue sons and daughters from the anonymity of traffic casualty statistics. But this memorial was neither modest nor homespun. In this place, it was jarringly professional.

"His name was James Byron Dean," the inscription began. I'd never known his middle name was Byron. How perfect. "He died just before sundown on September 30, 1955, when his Porsche collided with another car at a fork in the road not nine hundred yards east of this tree, long known as the Tree of Heaven. He was twenty-four years old."

The implied idea of James Dean in heaven struck me as thoroughly odd, since he lived his life as though he had no intention of going any where but hell. This plaque might suit a saint. It was tailored to the romantic idea of youth as innocence, and there was something in its use of the tree that reminded me of the John Keats poem about the basil pot, the one where the beautiful Isabella's lover is murdered by her brothers. In a weird combination of the gruesome and the romantic, Isabella finds the body, cuts off the head, takes it home, and puts it in a gardening pot. Then she plants basil over it, and waters the basil with her tears. The basil flowers profusely. Love lives on in fragrant foliage.

Jimmy Dean would have sneered at the idea.

A smaller plaque declared that both plaques and sculpture had been erected in 1977 by a Japanese fan called Seita Ohnishi. He had evidently given the tree a suitably romantic name while he was about it. And fudged a detail or two. There was no mention of how fast Dean had been going. Nor of the name painted on his car: "Little Bastard." Too earthy for a legend, perhaps. And though it's true that Dean crashed at 5:59 p.m. on that day, he didn't die on the spot; he suffered severe internal injuries, and died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital in Paso Robles.

The Spot. That was where I wanted to be. That was why I'd come here. To stand on The Spot where Jimmy Dean died. Forget ambulances and fussy details of time. Despite what I knew, it was fixed in my mind that James Dean died here, in Cholame. Sort of.

I was disappointed. Aside from the memorial and the ramshackle cafe, there didn't seem to be any "here" here. Why erect a memorial if it wasn't on the right spot? Why wasn't it nine hundred yards east?

I ambled over to the cafe. The screen door banged to behind me, torn screens flapping. I stood with the light behind me, squinting into the dark. The lone stranger riding into town again. Only there was no town here. I'd expected at least the truck drivers, but the cafe was empty. Even the bar was empty.

Over to one side, a concrete-floored room -- a former garage with the wall knocked through -- served as the showplace for what a crudely lettered sign advertised as "James Dean Memorabilia." I wandered round the oddly sparse collection of photos, posters, tin trays, and plaster plaques, all in the kind of bright, primary colors that make Ted Turner's colorized movies look subtle and restrained. The kind of colors, that is, usually reserved for portraits and sculptures of saints. There was a rack of T-shirts, but only two designs, both featuring garish pictures of guitars with the words ROCK AND ROLL in large letters and "James Dean" in small ones; a handful of pens with a wraparound photo of Dean on them -- the same pens I'd found some months before in a variety store in Seattle, where they were half the price they were here; and a rack of postcards in fake sepia tint showing bedroom-eyed Jimmy doing his come-hither stance long before Calvin Klein stole the idea and put it on bus-stop advertisements all over Manhattan.

There was a scuzzy, half-hearted feel to the room, as though the owners of the cafe would much rather ignore the whole James Dean business. I could understand that; it must be strange to make your living on someone else's death. Or perhaps they were born-again Christians and just didn't approve of Dean.

I picked out a few postcards -- how would I explain Jimmy Dean to the third-grade kids? -- went back into the cafe proper, and knocked on the glass counter. "Hello?"

"Coming," replied a weary voice from somewhere out back.

She looked tired, as though the place had been jam packed until just a moment before I walked in and the last thing she could face now was yet another customer. She was in her forties perhaps, but something in her face said that she had looked this tired ever since she was a girl.

"Can I get something to eat?"

"It's a cafe, isn't it?"

I ordered a burger and she called back the order. That accounted for at least two of Cholame's population of sixty-five. As she poured me some coffee, I asked why the memorial was here and not up the road where the crash actually happened.

"He couldn't get the land there," she said. "That Chinaman millionaire. Or Japanese. Whatever." She sniffed derisively. "County wouldn't give it to him."

"So why here?"

"Got permission to use this land from the Hearst family." She spilled the coffee and made a desultory dab at wiping it up. "You heard of them?"

"As in the newspapers?"

She gave me a suspicious look, as if to say, "If you know so much, how come you're asking questions?" I was glad I hadn't said, "As in Citizen Kane."

"Yeah," she replied. "Them. They own a lot of the land around here. They let him use it, and that out there is what he did."

I wasn't sure if she objected on the grounds of dislike for modern sculpture, or for Ohnishi's ethnic origin, or for Dean himself. A change of subject seemed in order.

"What kind of tree is that?"

She shrugged. "It's called the Tree of Heaven," she said in a monotone, clearly bored with my questions.

"Yes, but what species of tree is it?"

She stared at me like she would at an idiot. "It's a Tree of Heaven tree," she said flatly.

I returned the shrug, and gave up. It had to be a kind of gum tree, I thought, the name merely a fanciful homage invented by a besotted fan. But later I'd look it up in the Sunset Western Garden Book, the bible of every gardener west of the Rockies and the major reference for my own floating garden back home.

"Ailanthus altissima, tree of heaven," said Sunset. "Deciduous. Native to China. Planted in the 1800s in California's gold country, where it now runs wild. Fast growth to 50 feet. Leaves 1-3 feet long are divided into 13-25 leaflets 3-5 inches long. Inconspicuous greenish flowers are usually followed by handsome clusters of red-brown, winged seed pods in late summer and fall; great for dried arrangements. Often condemned as a weed tree because it suckers profusely and self-seeds, it must be praised for its ability to create beauty and shade under adverse conditions -- aridity, hot winds, extreme air pollution, and every type of difficult soil."

Jimmy would have liked that little detail "suckers profusely and self-seeds." For my part, I liked the bit about the difficult soil.

The pivotal figure in James Dean's death is not really Dean at all, nor even his car, but a young man called Donald Turnipseed who was driving the car that Dean swerved to avoid.

Donald Turnipseed: the name straight out of central casting. The hayseed chewing on a blade of grass as he lumbered on out into the movie star's path. In fact he was a college student, but fact has nothing to do with myth. Turnipseed had his moment in history, playing an accidental role as the deus ex machina, the god in the machinery.

For a moment, a blink of an eye, Turnipseed was graced by his encounter with fame. Like a deer caught in the headlights, he was frozen in place -- we have just that one mental snapshot of him, in that one moment and that one place -- and then was swallowed up again by the darkness of oblivion, to live out an ordinary life.

But what would have happened if Turnipseed had stopped before starting his engine that afternoon to scratch at a mosquito bite or blow his nose? Or had dropped his keys and fumbled on the ground to pick them up? Or paused to light a cigarette? Anything that would have meant a delay of even a second or two.

Or maybe that's exactly what happened: Turnipseed did one of these things -- scratched or blew or fumbled or lit up -- and that's what made him arrive at The Spot just a few seconds later than he otherwise might have, at the precise moment when James Dean came speeding over the rise, saw him turning onto the main road, swerved, and crashed.

So, Donald Turnipseed blew his nose. Or didn't. And we then have to imagine James Dean alive. Instead of Jett Rink in Giant, his last movie role, we have to imagine him in his sixties, gone to booze like Jack Kerouac or to drugs like Elvis Presley. Beer-fattened, puffy-faced, hair gray and thinning, the flesh that made him now betraying him.

But no, the very idea is anathema. The cult of James Dean depends on his youth. By the grace of speed and danger, he remains young, the puer aeternus, eternal boy. A sexualized Peter Pan. He had to die young. And if so, it had to be in a car. And not just any car.

The car is an essential part of the cult. To die young while driving a Hyundai is not conducive to romance. Imagine Isadora Duncan with her long silk scarf wrapped around the rear wheel spokes of a Buick. As they say in Hollywood, it doesn't play. The car had to be something expensive and exotic, though a Rolls Royce Corniche does betray a certain lapse in her myth-making ability. It's just a tad too obvious; a Bugatti would have served better.

Jimmy Dean made no such mistake. The little bastard was a Porsche Spyder, with its racing number, 31, painted on the hood. A two-seater convertible. The perfect car in which to act out Dean's famed manifesto: "Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse."

Except for that little detail about the beautiful corpse.

Whoever would have taken Dean for an ironist? Yet he must have known that the only beautiful corpses are in fairy tales, vampire stories, and the undertaker's studio. The terrifying brutality of blood turning black in the sun, of tendon and muscle ripped and shredded, of scattered shards of bone and globules of brain -- none of this makes for beauty, though it certainly makes for a corpse.

We deal with violence by romanticizing it. A natural reaction for a culture raised on the version of death delivered in Hollywood westerns, where a bullet either kills a man instantly or finds a relatively innocuous home in the soft muscle of his shoulder, providing an opportunity for the golden-hearted whore to nurse the hero back to amazingly limber health.

Even in war movies, romance steals the show, painting everything with the glowing brush of blood and guts and glory. The sick surreality of being under fire is transformed into heroics, panic into decisiveness. Perhaps the sickest transformation of all is the reaction of many, including myself, under fire, a kind of defensive illusion: "It's just like being in a movie." We force our senses into the numbness of the passive moviegoer, as though that way the bullets and shells will have as little effect on real flesh and blood as they do in the safe darkness of the theater.

And no matter how hard you try later to convey what it was really like, you are brought up sharp against that movie-fueled romantic aura. You see a look of respectful awe come over the listener, as though by having been there -- a mythical realm on the brink of death from which you have returned to tell the tale -- you have achieved some measure of the heroic. Even though at the time it was far more likely that it was all you could do not to foul your pants.

A crude detail? Of course, and deliberately so. But the truth of it doesn't get through. That strange alchemy by which the ugliness of war is transformed into heroics is at work here in Cholame too: the car crash is transformed into romance. People lose the use of their senses; they become deaf and blind, unable to see the mangled mess of flesh or hear the haunting, inhuman, animal-like cry of someone in mortal pain.

Romance makes undertakers of us all. We beautify the bodies, paint on the makeup, hide the stomach-turning damage. By the time we have finished, the person we knew and loved as much for human faults as virtues has been dolled up into some ghastly simulacrum of a plaster saint.

To romanticize death becomes the ultimate pornography.

Nine hundred yards east of the Jack Ranch Cafe, I found The Spot. The one place in America that is essential to anyone in search of the romance of death and cars.

At least I assumed it was The Spot. There was no marker, no plaque. Just a narrow dirt road joining Route 46, paved for the fifty yards or so before the junction. I drove up and down, consulted my map. There was no other turning. This had to be it. The precise spot where Donald Turnipseed steered his car onto the main road just as James Dean came speeding over the rise to his right.

The Spot was right by Cholame Creek, which at this time of year -- the same month as Dean's crash -- was nothing more than a dry ditch. Traffic whizzed past, kicking up dust. Across the road, the landscape fell away to desert hills, barren and forlorn.

I walked up along the side road, turned, and saw the four elongated white letters painted on the asphalt just before the junction: STOP. The white was wearing away. Everything would wear away in this dusty landscape.

A light wind had come up. I could hear it soughing through the barbed-wire fences, whispering over the empty hills. A semi would come past and drown it out, then the wind would take over again, blowing the dust of the semi's tracks in swirls over the four white letters on the ground.

A grain of dust lodged in my eye and I circled away from the wind, blinking, then back into it again, scanning the landscape in the vague belief that there was something more I should be seeing here. Some thing that evaded me.

What did I expect? Bloodstains? Shards of broken glass? To see the scene of the collision play itself out in my imagination as I stood there? Feel the soul of James Dean rising up out of the ground to possess me?

I wanted to be able to say that I shivered in the summer heat. But I didn't. That a cloud passed over the sun as I wheeled in slow circles, though the sky was clear. That my mind achieved some small epiphany, not earth-shattering, but relevant, at least to me. But there was none. And this perhaps was the essence of it. There was nothing here. No sign, no omen, no epiphany. Just the sad, mundane fact that once upon a time, a long time ago, a collision took place, a man was killed, and no sign of it remained.

By Lesley Hazleton

© 1998 by Lesley Hazleton. Used with permission of the author. Lesley Hazleton is the author of eight books, including "Jerusalem, Jerusalem"; "Where Mountains Roar"; and "Confessions of a Fast Woman." Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Harpers and the Detroit Free Press, where she writes a weekly column on cars and driving.

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