Dean still cool after all these years

Rugged rebel
Rugged rebel
The memory of oh-so-cool actor James Dean lives on in his hometown of Fairmount.
By Scott Hickey of The News-Sentinel

FAIRMONT -- It's hard to keep your cool when you're dead, but the legend of James Dean hasn't dropped a degree.

Dead almost twice as long as his 24 years of life, Dean still packs a mighty impact that reaches around the world and back again. At his grave in Fairmount's Park Cemetery, the endurance of the ongoing love affair the world has with the man the locals call "Jimmie" is as clear as the writing on the rock in front of his gravestone.

Phil Royal, a groundskeeper at Park Cemetery, also serves as an impromptu tour guide. Taking a break from mowing grass, Royal happily talks to visitors and gives directions to Dean's nearby childhood home and the shop where he bought his first motorcycle.

"All kinds of people, from all over the world come here -- from any place you can think of. People still want to be close to him," he said mopping the sweat from his forehead. "Most pay their respects and go, but some leave flowers, coins, guitar picks or stones.

"Some even leave letters to him," he said, pointing to a flower vase used as a makeshift mailbox for the dead star. "But I don't think he's picking up his mail anymore."

Whether it's desecration or decoration, many scrawl their initials on a whitewashed stone in front of Dean's grave. Rat Pack '99 IL; CG & DB '98 and California 1998 are a few who have left behind their ink.

But the only lasting mark is the one Dean made when he left Fairmont for California in 1949. Three acclaimed performances in three movies -- "East of Eden" and "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955) and "Giant" (1956) -- put him and Fairmont on the map.

In 1955, while driving to a car race in his new Porsche 550, Dean was killed when a truck rammed his Porsche. "Rebel" and "Giant" were released posthumously, and Dean's legend grew from the grave.

Today, the icon has become a cottage industry in his hometown.

Fairmount, population 3,200, looks like a typical small town. At noon on this day, the fire siren moans and a funeral procession trickles slowly down Main Street. It's lunch time and there's hardly any traffic.

But life in Dean's shadow has given Fairmount a cosmopolitan feel, said Lenny Prussack, a Dean fan who sells '50s and '60s collectibles from the basement of the James Dean Gallery.

"I was living in New York when I came down here the first time. The next year I came back and stayed longer. The next time I came back, I opened a store here," he said. "It looks like a small town, but it's not. I never feel like I'm living in a small town, because all kinds of people are always coming and going."

Notable Dean fans who made the pilgrimage to Fairmount include a midnight run by rock legend Bob Dylan, actors Martin Sheen and Max Caulfield, the bands Rancid and Offspring, and the gloomy English pop singer Morrisey.

"Morrisey actually filmed his video for the song "Suede Head" here in town. That brought a wave of Morrisey fans to town for a while," said Prussack, who creates and sells '50s-era bowling shirts. "I can't put my finger on it, but James Dean attracts a certain kind of fan -- creative in some way. They're just cool, friendly people."

The entire business district hasn't changed much since Dean left, Prussack said.

"Hardee's wanted to open a restaurant here, but the City Council voted it down," he said. "They want to keep that old-time feeling alive here. I think that's great."

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