James Dean: Tragedy of A Legend

        At a young age my mother introduced me to “Giant”, starring James Dean, and I was instantly in awe of him. There was a quality to him besides his good looks that drew me to him. What was it? It was a vulnerability, a strength, and a twinkle in his eye combined with a mischievous nature. Later I became a fan of his other two films, “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause”. His talent was obvious and effortless. He starred in only 3 films, folks! Yet James Dean is an icon of cinema. Sadly, this is all we will ever get from him. Some believe his tragic death added to his legendary status but this is difficult to measure.        My family and I decided to take a day trip to James Dean’s hometown and resting place. Since we live a mere hour away we decided to drive to Fairmount, IN. Sitting at his grave affected both my husband and I more than we thought due mostly to the reverence fans obviously still have for the actor. Many people had left gifts like cigarettes, dream catchers, bobby pins or lip stick kiss stains right on the tombstone. After a bit, we found the James Dean Gallery with many pictures and artifacts from his life while living in the small town. We did not experience any paranormal activity, but immediately I knew I wanted to write about what happened on that tragic day of his death, and the strange mystery surrounding his Porsche 550 Spyder. I had heard rumors about a curse on his car, but had never really looked into it.

        During shooting of his last film “Giant”, the studio had heard of Dean’s love of cars and forbid him to race during filming. Immediately after the film wrapped, James purchased his porsche and named it “Little Bastard”. Two weeks before his death, he filmed a commercial for The National Safety Council stating “Remember, drive slowly. The life you save, might be mine.” One of Dean’s girlfriends, Ursula Andrews, refused to ever get in “Little Bastard”. Several friends mentioned that they felt uncomfortable around it and warned him to get rid of the cursed car. One aquaintance of Dean’s was Alec Guiness who told James he would be dead in a week and cryptically this would prove true.  Scheduled to race in Salinas, CA, James Dean drove to see his mechanic Rolf Wuetherich to get his car thoroughly inspected. Rolf and James headed to Salinas with a few friends publicizing the race in a car behind them.        There were a few warnings throughout the trip regarding Dean’s habitual speeding. He was pulled over and issued a ticket midday and told by both friends in the car behind him at lunch to slow down. In Dean’s final moments, college student Donald Turnupseed was making a left-hand turn as the porsche was coming towards him. It was too late for either car to stop and they collided head-on. Rolf Wuetherich was thrown from the car and he suffered a broken leg, jaw, and internal injuries which he recovered from. James Dean was trapped in the car and quickly died from a broken neck as well as other injuries. On Sept. 30, 1955, James Dean was dead at only 24 years old with his career and life taken away from the world all too fast. Donald Turnupseed refused to ever talk about the accident and  Rolf Wuetherich later died in a car crash in 1981.

        George Barris bought the remains of the porsche for $2500 and immediately strange events occurred. While off-loading the porsche for the first time, a worker broke his arm. George felt impending doom whenever near it, however ignored his feelings to sell pieces of the car off for a great profit. The engine and drive-train were sold to two doctors, Troy McHenry and William Eschrid who were getting ready for a race at the Pomona Fair Grounds in southern California.  The day of the race they both crashed and Dr. McHenry, the owner of the engine died on impact. George Barris then sold two tires to an unnamed young man. After a week, the kid returned claiming that he had crashed into a ditch after both of Dean’s tires blew out at the same time.        Deciding not to sell any other parts, George donated the car to the Highway Patrol to use for safety exhibits. One night with the porsche being stored in a garage with some other cars, a fire mysteriously started. The only car not destroyed was Dean’s. While displayed in a safety exhibit at Sacramento High School, 3 bolts snapped and the car plowed forward off the stage and crushed a student’s hip. Almost every time the undrivable car was shipped, an accident happened again and again. On the way to the familiar Salinas, CA a flatbed truck carrying Dean’s car crashed. The driver was thrown from the car and landed in a ditch. Luckily he was still alive! Until, that is, the porsche fell off the truck, into the ditch and crushed the poor driver.

While on display in 1959, the car mysteriously broke in half. Finally, George Barris decided no one should ever be around it again and shipped it from California to Miami in a sealed box on a truck. When the truck arrived safely to Miami, Dean’s porsche had vanished never to be found again. The box it was stored in was still sealed!


        Had a malevolent spirit possessed the car? Did James Dean possibly haunt it? Was the porsche cursed by someone? I thought it was coincedence until finding out about the famous Vampira curse rumors. James Dean supposedly dated the Vampira actress, Maila Nurmi for about four months and became interested in the occult. Maila Nurmi was the first horror TV host and you might remember her from Ed Wood’s “Planet 9 From Outer Space.” The Finnish actress was always in costume and lived her role outside of filming, claiming she was a real witch. When Hedda Hopper, a famous gossip columnist confronted Dean about the dating rumors, he replied, “I don’t go out with witches!” James had also started dating someone else possibly afraid Nurmi would hurt his reputation. Nurmi was not happy and sought out revenge with a curse. A reporter snapped a photo of a black magic alter that had pictures and a voodoo doll of James Dean. Nurmi was at a party one night right before his death and was overheard saying, “James Dean will die soon.” She might have also sent James a picture of her next to a coffin, with a note saying, “Darling, come join me.” After Dean’s death in 1955 she came to a party with a friend who was dressed as the dead icon. That is not very nice. Most of this story comes from hearesay and rumors. However, the information is repeated all over the internet. The picture of the alter made me wonder. Could Vampira have cursed him? We may never know yet one fact remains: despite the tragedy of James Dean’s too-soon death, his legend continues to grow.

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