James Dean. Iconic. Eternal. After over a year of spent mostly at home, it was such a joyous time to celebrate my birthday with my dear friends Andrew and Jeff at our favorite spot. It is incredibly surreal to do things that were so natural before, but feel even more precious now. To see friends in person. They surprised me with an amazing book by renowned Life Magazine photographer Dennis Stock, who had a rare opportunity to spend time with James Dean and even travel with him to his hometown in Fairmount, Indiana, just before Dean’s tragic death. There are so many iconic photographs of James Dean that we often see, but this book had many secret gems. It felt very personal.
My dear friend Andrew Alexander is a respected and award-winning art critic in Atlanta. Before the pandemic, we would often go to art events and have amazing conversations about art, life, and all things wonderful.
As we were talking about the book, he mentioned that he and Jeff were going to Fairmount, Indiana to see James Dean’s hometown. The places we come from often define us in many intricate ways. Who really was James Dean? Andrew graciously shared his fascinating road trip with Zest & Curiosity. Enjoy it, dear reader!
–Garfield creator Jim Davis, Fairmount native
“In Fairmount, you’re born a James Dean fan.”
Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director
Zest & Curiosity
James Dean – Road Trip to Fairmount Indiana
On the surface, Fairmount looks a lot like many other small towns in America. Main Street is so quintessentially “Main Street” that walking around can give you the feeling that you’re walking around on a movie set. Fairmount is anytown, everytown. But it is also singular. There are many older Fairmount residents who recall James Dean, as a family member, as a friend, as a classmate, a neighbor. Many people visit because of Jimmy, and there is also a small but significant population of people who have moved here because of Jimmy. I like Fairmount for the same reasons they do. It’s a beautiful, friendly, strange, and reverential place. Everywhere you look, signs point to James Dean.
“I liken it to a kind of star or comet that fell through the sky and everybody still talks about it. They say, ‘Ah, remember the night when you saw that shooting star?’”– Julie Harris on James Dean, her costar in East of Eden
James Dean Museum
The history of Fairmount is so intertwined with Dean’s that almost the entire first floor of the Fairmount Historical Museum is given over to him. The museum contains the largest collection of Dean artifacts anywhere. From his baby clothes to his Triumph motorcycle, case after case, each object tells a story, and each object helps fill in a much larger narrative. Dean wanted to be a visual artist as a kid, and there are interesting drawings, paintings, sculptures, some dating back to his elementary school days. They show clear talent.
The museum is a dreamy and moving place for any fan to visit. Almost in a trance, I turn a corner and find myself in a room full of Garfield knicknacks. Garfield the cat is the town’s other most famous son, the creation of Fairmount native Jim Davis.
James Dean and Garfield
The juxtaposition–Dean and Garfield–seems jarring at first. But come to think of it, there is something very catlike about James Dean. It’s been said, even by Dean himself, that in his acting he often sought to emulate the cats and other animals he’d observed on his farm. Davis, like Dean, grew up on a farm observing its many cats. Like Dean, he attended Fairmount High School (he was 14 years younger than Dean so they didn’t cross paths there). But Davis did have Dean’s high school drama teacher, Adeline Nall, for speech class.
By Davis’ time, she had become a sort of celebrity herself, James Dean’s high school drama teacher. Class often involved stories about her favorite student.
And ultimately, isn’t there something rather Deanlike about Garfield? Garfield is suspicious of authority, determined to go his own way, he’s moody, he’s unabashed about indulging his whims and appetites. There is a knowing interiority about him. Garfield is cool because he is so thoroughly, honestly, entirely himself.
Images of Garfield and Dean have been reproduced so often that meaning can be diluted. But to be in Fairmount is to be conscious again of origins. Even the most ubiquitous idea was once dreamed up by someone, often just some kid on a farm. It’s not at all strange that both should come from the same place.
James Dean – Stories are Everywhere
A few blocks from the historical museum, we visit the memorabilia collection of Dean superfan David Loehr. Loehr began collecting in 1974 and moved to Fairmount from New York in 1988. A gallery showing his collection is on the ground floor of his sprawling Victorian home. His husband Lenny designs and sells cool ‘50s-style shirts and jackets from a vintage shop in the back of the house.
Cleopatra the dog trots around and keeps us company as we gaze in awe at Loehr’s collection. She curls up under a rack of James Dean t-shirts in the gift shop. Loehr’s new autobiography is sold out at the store. I’ve heard it’s fantastic, detailing Loehr’s decades-long obsession and his run-ins with the likes of Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, David Bowie.
I’m disappointed I can’t get a copy, but no matter: I buy just about everything else. I leave with a big stack of hard-to-find Dean books, Dean buttons, postcards, a couple t-shirts, a sexy cigarette lighter, a shiny belt-buckle, and a beautiful, glossy black-and-white photo of James Dean and Elizabeth Taylor clowning around on the set of Giant. The total for everything is a startlingly inexpensive fifty bucks.
James Dean Journey Continues – Marion
Jeff and I make a brief stop in the nearby town of Marion where Dean was born. The birth house itself–a rambling, ramshackle old apartment building near the train station called the Seven Gables Apartments–was demolished in 1975, but in 2015, David Loehr oversaw the creation and dedication of a beautiful new park and monument to mark the spot.
From the site, I spot a giant mural a few blocks away showing Dean, Garfield, and, of all people, Cole Porter. I walk over to snap a picture. As it turns out, Porter grew up in nearby Peru, Indiana. As a child prodigy, he took the train once a week to the Marion Conservatory of Music for violin lessons. Garfield, James Dean, Cole Porter…. What a trinity! Any display of pride in the area’s native sons is certainly justified.
Stop at the Farmers Market
We stop at a farmers’ market in Gas City thinking to stock up on ripe tomatoes and farm-fresh eggs, but we’re surprised when the market has neither. It is a farmers’ market for farmers; they have seed, dried beans and corn kernels in bright gemlike colors, scooped from buckets and sold by the pound. I’m curious about an old Wurlitzer jukebox in the back. It looks as though it’s been broken for decades. When I get closer, I see that it played compact discs.
The land outside of Fairmount appears flat at first, but I see there are actually enormous, undulating hills all around. They roll so gently, they rise so little, they can be all but invisible. Back in Fairmount, Jeff and I have a picnic on a bench in James Dean Memorial Park. A bee, hiding deep in the hollows of the park’s famous bust, flies out of Jimmy’s mouth as we come close. Sadly, anything in Fairmount bearing Jimmy’s name or image is in danger of being stolen. The bust had to be deeply bolted and firmly fixed into place. Even the letters of Dean’s name on the plinth appear to show some sort of fixative structure underneath.
My husband and I visit the Winslow farm where Dean lived from the age of nine. Dean’s younger cousin, Marcus “Markie” Winslow, still lives in the old farmhouse with his family, but he doesn’t mind if fans pull into the ‘working’ part of the working farm to have a look around. It’s a surreal place for a fan to visit, vivid from the biographies of Dean and from the famous photographs by Dennis Stock for Life magazine. Markie, a little kid then, appears in many of those photographs.
It’s touching that he still lives on the farm, still allows fans to visit, and still preserves so many of Jimmy’s things. Many of the objects in the Historical Museum belong to Markie and are on loan from the farm. Or else they are things Markie has laboriously tracked down (he hired a private investigator to find the Triumph motorcycle) to bring back home to preserve. The museum, like Loehr’s gallery, is free of charge: people in Fairmount seem to genuinely want to share their love of Dean.
As sunset approaches, we make our way to Park Cemetery. We’re stunned by how vast the cemetery is for such a small town. Even with signs pointing the way, Dean’s grave is surprisingly hard to find.
Over the years, fans have smeared his gravestone with lipstick kisses. Some have chipped away at the edges of the stone to take a piece with them; others have tried to hack off the letters of his name. One fan who dug up the headstone later confessed he did it because taking it with him was the only way he could think of to protect it.
After paying our respects to Dean, we wander the vast cemetery looking at the various stones and monuments. We come across the gravesite of a married couple whose headstone is in the shape of James Dean. A former editor of The Fairmount News has an Underwood typewriter etched into the back of his tombstone. The dates of his life and tenure suggest he must have published many stories about Dean and his legacy. I admire the little stone planters in the shape of cats, standing guard like Egyptian deities, on each side of his grave.
Until the Daybreak and the Shadows Flee Away
There’s a bench looking out over a lovely vista of Indiana fields in bloom. Like some of the other graves in the cemetery, the Reverend James DeWeerd’s grave has a little American flag marking the upcoming Memorial Day, honoring his service during World War II. The inscription on the family stone is from the Song of Solomon. I read it and think of Dean’s terrible insomnia as an adult, of how the Reverend DeWeerd delivered the eulogy at Dean’s funeral in 1955. “Until the daybreak and the shadows flee away…”
James Dean and Carter’s Motorcycles
We make a final stop to get a picture of the shop where Dean got his first motorcycle. We’re surprised to find it open. Carter’s Motorcycles has technically been closed for many years, but Markie purchased the property and often allows local clubs and organizations to meet there. The building was an old country schoolhouse before it became a motorcycle shop. We’ve arrived just as the members of a classic car club are firing up a big outdoor grill for dinner. They ask if we’re hungry and invite us to stay.
A guy in a black James Dean t-shirt and fedora hat turns out to be Fairmount resident Mark Kinnaman, vice-president of the James Dean Fan Club. He kindly shows us around, takes us to the spot where Jimmy would sit when he hung out, and shows us where he was photographed in the shop by Dennis Stock. Kinnaman points out a fantastic mural on an interior wall depicting Dean’s last Porsche and then modestly explains he is the artist behind it.
James Dean Journey – Leaving Fairmount
As we depart Fairmount Jeff and I are silent. I watch the farms and fields slip past the car window in the waning light of the setting sun. To visit Fairmount is to see a dream of an all-American small town, a place of friendly hellos on Main Street, of high school basketball games, of ice creams, and cheery fall festivals. But it’s also a place that is barren and freezing in the wintertime.
For a visiting Dean fan, the past–with all of its complications, tragedies, and uncertainties–can feel disconcertingly close. Fairmount grounded Dean. It’s where his dreams and ambitions began to take shape. He became an icon, an enigma, a star even to other stars. It’s fitting then that Fairmount should always remain such a beautiful, intriguing, and powerful place to visit. At the end of the journey, I suggest to Jeff that we could turn the car around and drive back to Fairmount. He promises we’ll come back soon.
I wish James Dean lived longer. I wish he’d performed as Hamlet, directed films, won races. Furthermore, I wish he’d worked with Tennessee Williams, visited Paris, opened a theater, and written his own story at the end of it all.– Andrew Alexander
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