A little more than 56 years ago, cultural icon James Dean died tragically in a head-on traffic accident on Sept. 30, 1955. Dean, only 24-years-old at the time of his death, had starred in just three major feature films–but had captured the angst-ridden feel of the Beat Generation. He was the first actor to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for his performance as a loner in East of Eden (1955). He remains the only actor to have received two posthumous acting nominations, the second was for the surly ranch hand in Giant (1956) (See photo at left.) In between those two films he starred as the misunderstood teenager in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Dean’s iconic appeal has been attributed to “the public’s need for someone to stand up for the disenfranchised young of the era.” To this day, James Dean fame is legendary and his estate earns millions.
Another reason Dean remains such an iconic figure is because his life ended so abruptly one early autumn afternoon where two rural highways meet in Southern California northwest of Bakersfield. The young star, who enjoyed racing cars, had recently acquired a Porsche 550 Spyder, one of only 90 manufactured. On this particular September day, Dean and his mechanic Rolf Wütherich were heading to a sports car race at Salinas, California. According to reports, “Dean was driving west on U.S. Route 466 (later State Route 46) east of Cholame, San Luis Obispo County, when a black-and-white 1950 Ford Custom Tudor coupe, driven from the opposite direction by 23-year-old Cal Poly student moved to take the fork onto State Route 41 and crossed into Dean’s lane. The two cars hit almost head-on.”
It is said that Dean (who was driving within the speed limit) received massive injuries after being thrown from his car and died soon after the crash. His mechanic survived but suffered multiple injuries including a broken jaw. The college student “received a gashed forehead and bruised nose and was not cited by police for the accident. He was interviewed by the Tulare Advance-Register newspaper immediately following the crash, saying that he had not seen Dean’s car approaching,” according to Wikipedia.
The James Dean Memorial (pictured at left) is located a short distance from the crash site. A stylized sculpture composed of concrete and stainless steel surrounds a ‘tree of heaven‘ outside the Cholame, Calif., post office. The sculpture was made in Japan in 1977 and the entire project was sponsored by Seita Ohnishi.
The location of the actual crash site, the intersection of Highways 41 and 46 was dedicated the James Dean Memorial Highway in September 2005.
The memorial is in Cholame, Calif., on State Route 46 about 25 miles east of Paso Robles on U. S. Route 101, and 37 miles west of Interstate 5.