The inscription on his granite tombstone has been chipped away by souvenir hunters. The town museum contains only some vintage photographs, one of his shirts and his childhood rock collection. The house where he was born was torn down four years ago to make way for a parking lot. But every September 30, with the predictability of Capistrano swallows, the fans of James Dean descend on rural Fairmount, Ind. (pop. 3,500). They come to pay homage to their departed hero on the date of his death in a car crash at 24.
This year is the 25th anniversary, and last week the only tribute ever formally organized on the occasion drew 1,000 admirers, including actor Martin Sheen. He dedicated a bronze star at the site of Dean’s birthplace in nearby Marion and a $1,000 bronze plaque that he bought for the wall of Dean’s high school auditorium. “Jim Dean and Elvis were the spokesmen for an entire generation,” says Sheen, 40. “When I was in acting school in New York years ago there was a saying that if Marlon Brando changed the way people acted, then James Dean changed the way people lived. He was the greatest actor who ever lived—he was simply a genius.”
Dean’s reputation as an actor and his status as cult hero derive from three films he made before he died—Giant, East of Eden and Rebel Without a Cause. His vivid, resonant statement in them seems in retrospect a prophetic theme: unloved, misunderstood, alienated youth. His fans seem unable to articulate precisely what draws them to Fairmount a quarter century later, but their devotion is plain. Hélène Robles, a 39-year-old secretary from Lyons, France, who has spent much of her savings on four pilgrimages to Indiana, says only: “I have strong feelings about Jimmy.” Colin Parrish, 52, a commercial photographer who named his son Dean, drove 2,600 miles from Vancouver, B.C. to be there this year. “My wife told me I’m crazy,” he says, “but this has been a lifelong ambition. I just can’t believe I’m really here. It seems like a dream.” Asked to explain Dean’s enduring appeal, he fumbles for words: “I saw East of Eden 25 years ago and I was hooked.”
To the people of Fairmount the Dean mystique is even more bewildering. “There are always people coming to my door,” says Dean’s aunt Ortense Winslow, 79, who raised him after his mother’s death when he was 9. “We don’t understand any of this—he’s just always been our Jimmy.” In deference to the fans, her son Marcus, 36, who has taken over the 180-acre farm where Dean grew up, keeps Jim’s room exactly as it was: His black leather motorcycle jacket and boots are still in the closet; his 1940 Ford sits in the garage; and the hand-and footprints he left in wet cement as a 13-year-old are still visible in the garage floor. Yet those who were close to young James Dean take pains to dispel the image of a brooding, restless delinquent. “He had a talent that couldn’t be ignored,” says his high school drama teacher Adeline Nail, now 74. “But it’s a bunch of garbage about him being a troublemaker and a loner. The only time he ever got in trouble was when some kid made fun of a dramatic reading he’d done and Jimmy punched him.”
Dean’s father, Winton, a retired dental technician, sent Jim to live with his Quaker aunt after his mother’s death. He now lives in Florida and assiduously avoids his son’s admirers. “He’s become a nomad,” says Ed Breen, city editor of the Marion, Ind. Chronicle-Tribune. “I’ve never even seen him, and I’ve been looking 15 years. If a reporter finds him, he’ll move that night.” Aunt Ortense is more tolerant of the cultists and has even become a surrogate mother to one—Montse Arranz, 31, a Lufthansa stewardess from Barcelona who visits the Winslows on two-week vacations twice a year. Yet even Ortense is losing patience with the annual influx. “As far as I’m concerned, this is going to be the last year for this,” she says. “I’m glad people like Jimmy, but enough is enough. He should be put to rest forever.”