James Dean: “Let Me Go Quickly Like a Candlelight”

James Dean Death -- Fairmount News, October 13, 1955

On a darkening California highway one September evening in 1955,  Indiana native son James Dean careened to his death in a Porsche 550 Spyder nicknamed “Little Bastard.”  Speeding to an auto race in Salinas and riding with a former Luftwaffe pilot and Porsche mechanic named Rolf Wüterich, Dean tried desperately to avoid a crash as a 23-year-old Cal Poly student, Donald Turnupseed, turned onto the highway.  Sometimes ironically misspelled”Turnupspeed,” the other driver was judged not at fault, but Dean was severely mangled and died before arrival at the emergency room.

Less than a month before the release of his greatest film, Rebel Without a Cause, the 24-year-old actor was being readied at a morgue out West for his last trip home to the Hoosier State.

The date of his death was September 30 — sixty years ago tonight.


Dean Reading Riley 2
Dean reads Indianapolis poet James Whitcomb Riley during a visit back to Grant County.

Hoosier State Chronicles has recently digitized seventy-five years of James Dean’s hometown newspaper, The Fairmount News, which will be going up on Newspapers.com this November.  All Indiana residents can access over 1.25 million pages of Hoosier newspapers for free through the State Library’s INSPIRE portal.

A town of about 3,000 in Grant County, an hour northeast of Indianapolis, Fairmount was shocked by Dean’s horrific death.  He’s still the town’s greatest attraction today, and the onslaught of tourists and movie buffs visiting Fairmount’s Park Cemetery has hardly slackened since 1955.  One biographer has even referred to the hometown actor as an “industry” and “one of Fairmount’s most lucrative commodities.”  Doubly lucky, the community is also the childhood home of Garfield cartoonist Jim Davis, born in 1945.

The Fairmount News will be a boon to researchers trying to put together a fuller picture of the actor’s youth and background in this Indiana farm town.


James Dean Death -- Fairmount News, October 13, 1955 (5)
The Fairmount News, October 13, 1955. Before he moved to California to attend UCLA in 1949, James Dean — who was raised in an Indiana Quaker household — played basketball for Fairmount High’s team, the Quakers.

James Dean Death -- Fairmount News, October 6, 1955 (2)
The Fairmount News, October 6, 1955. The actor’s body came through Indianapolis International Airport en route from California.

The Fairmount News will also undoubtedly give insight into Grant County’s not always flattering history, especially in the 1920’s. Dean’s biographers have been quick to point out the actor’s feelings about the area’s history as a major base for the Ku Klux Klan a century ago.  (He wrote a negative poem about his hometown when he lived in New York.)  Times have changed in Grant County, but the past is never truly dead.  As William Faulkner said, it’s not even past.


Freedom's Banner, Marion, Ind., July 23, 1910

(Grant County history was tarnished by the most famous photo of an American lynching in 1930, just one year before Dean’s birth, but its past is more complicated.  Under the subtitles “We Want Justice, Not Charity” and “Liberty for the Masses–Not the Classes,” Freedom’s Banner, a short-lived Socialist newspaper, was once printed at 120 East Fourth Street in Marion, the county seat, back in 1910.  A selection of Indiana Socialist papers also goes online this fall.)


One looming figure is Fairmount’s history is a woman alleged by Jack Shuler, a historian of lynching, to have been the Hollywood star’s great-aunt.  This was the little-known “Quaker Klucker,” Daisy Douglass Barr, mentioned on Hoosier State Chronicles last week and in an article on HistoricIndianapolis.com.

A reformer gone astray, Barr died in 1938 when Dean was seven and she is buried just a few rows away from him at Park Cemetery.  In the mid-1920’s, she served as head of the women’s auxiliary of the powerful Indiana Ku Klux Klan.  Barr was also an influential evangelical Quaker minister, having taken to the pulpit at age 16 and led revivals and tent meetings all over the state — one of the few women to preach and lead congregations in those days.

From 1903 to 1910, Barr had been pastor of the Fairmount Friends church, the same church James Dean grew up attending and where his funeral was held in 1955.  Though Daisy Douglass Barr moved to Indianapolis around 1917 and died in a car wreck near Jeffersonville in 1938, the future star of East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause almost certainly met her.  He was born in 1931.  It’s tempting to think he may have attended her funeral in Fairmount.


The Fairmount News, April 7, 1938 (4)
The Fairmount News, April 7, 1938. Barr was the head of the WKKK in Indiana from about 1923 to 1925. A Klan hospital on North Alabama Street in Indianapolis, never built, was to be named after her.

Another “specter” from Dean’s past will likely surface in The Fairmount News.  This was a minister, close friend  and mentor of the young Dean’s who gave a eulogy as his funeral.

The Reverend James A. DeWeerd, a Methodist preacher educated at Taylor University, Marion College, and Ball State was at the time of the actor’s death the pastor of Indy’s influential Cadle Tabernacle.  By some accounts the largest church in America, Cadle Tabernacle, too, had a dark history dating back to the 1920s, when the Invisible Empire held many rallies there.  Its founder, evangelist Howard Cadle, had allegedly lost control of the place, but managed to turn it around.  Cadle Tabernacle became the base of a popular evangelical radio ministry in the ’30s and James DeWeerd preached there in the 1950’s — as did Civil Rights heroes Martin Luther King and Billy Graham, for the record.

DeWeerd, who “grew to be Jimmy’s ‘hero’ during high school years,” is also thought by several biographers to have molested or had a relationship with Dean, whom most scholars now recognize as having been bisexual.  Hoosier State Chronicles won’t weigh in on that — many people in Fairmount dispute it — but the charge against DeWeerd continues to be a controversial and interesting part of James Dean scholarship.


James Dean Death -- Fairmount News, October 13, 1955 (2)
The Fairmount News, October 13, 1955.

James DeWeerd yearbook pic
James A. DeWeerd was born in Olivet, Illinois, in 1916, to parents who had been missionaries in South Africa. DeWeerd, who died in 1972, is also buried at Fairmount’s Park Cemetery.

Here are a few other historic clips from The Fairmount News from the fateful year 1955.  Look for more on Newspapers.com when the paper goes live this November.


The Fairmount News, Special Dean Edition
The Fairmount News, special edition, October 1955.

The Fairmount News, January 13, 1955
Dean’s former high-school basketball team, the Quakers, won the Grant County basketball tournament in January 1955. They won the sectionals in March.

The Fairmount News, January 27, 1955
An ironic victory for Dean’s old team… The Fairmount News, January 27, 1955.

The Fairmount News, Special Dean Edition (2)
Reverend James A. DeWeerd read a poem by Black Elk Speaks author John G. Neihardt during Dean’s funeral. The pastor’s words were later reprinted in The Fairmount News.