On the day that James Dean died, at 24, the autumn air all across America filled with the high-pitched wail of teenagers in mourning. On Sept. 30, 1955, just six months after the release of his first major film, East of Eden, his silver Porsche slammed into another car at 75 m.p.h. on a rural highway in California. Eden had made him a star; death made him an obsession. Teen grief got its first poster boy.
For young fans in the ’50s, an era that valued conformity, Dean’s scowl, his motorcycle and his back-off manner personified their own dream of breaking free—of parents, authority and the world’s expectations. He called himself “a serious-minded and intense little devil,” and he meant it. In Rebel Without a Cause, released soon after his death, he was the prince of their torments, sometimes flying at his father in a rage, sometimes curled up in a fetal crouch.
Even critics of voting age considered him a powerful actor, though some called him a half-pint Brando. Yet while his muttering onscreen manner owed a debt to the Actors Studio, the legendary New York City training ground where both Brando and Dean honed their mumbles, it was also a legacy of his upbringing among tight-lipped Indiana Quakers. After his mother died of cancer, when Dean was 9, his father sent him off to live with an aunt and uncle in Fairmount, Ind. Though they were loving, the sense of being cast out stamped him with a permanent aura of grief.
His injured manner made him irresistible to young fans. But they misunderstood him too. In life, their hero wasn’t a rebel so much as a riddle. Always starved for affection, Dean became a boy toy for both sexes. Yet he also had a loner’s petulance that could make him a brat without a pack who indulged dark moods that drove off friends and lovers, including the devoted starlet Pier Angeli.
Death preserved him in amber, taking him before time could run its cold hand through his swept-back hair or equip him with Brando’s middle-aged gut. “He left behind a legend,” said Humphrey Bogart. “If he had lived, he never would have been able to live up to his publicity.” And if he had lived, James Dean would have been 61 this year. Because he died, he will always be 24.