At 5:45 PM on September 30, 1955, 24-year-old James Dean was killed when the Porsche he was driving hit a Ford sedan at an intersection. The driver of the other car, 23-year-old California Polytechnic State University student Donald Turnupseed, was dazed but mostly uninjured; Dean’s passenger, German Porsche mechanic Rolf Wütherich was badly injured, but he survived. At this point only one of Dean’s films, East Of Eden, had been released. Rebel Without A Cause opened a month later and Giant was released a year later. Dean was on his way to stardom, but the crash made him a legend.
Dean loved racing cars. In his brand-new, $7000 Porsche Spyder convertible, he was on his way to a race in Salinas, five hours north of Los Angeles. Witnesses claimed that Dean wasn’t speeding at the time of the accident. It seems that Turnupseed had made a left turn right into the Spyder’s path, but he must have been driving fast: Dean had received a speeding ticket in Bakersfield, 84 miles from the crash site, at 3:30 p.m. and then had stopped at a diner for a Coke, which meant that he had covered quite a distance in a short period of time. Still, there was the gathering twilight and the glare from the setting sun which could have made it impossible for Turnupseed to see the Porsche coming no matter how fast it was going.
That Porsche, which Dean had nicknamed “Little Bastard”, seemed cursed. After the accident, the car rolled off the back of a truck and crushed the legs of a bystander. After a used-car dealer sold its parts to souvenir hunters all over the world, the strange things began to happen: The car’s engine, transmission and tires were all transplanted into cars that were then involved in deadly crashes, and a truck carrying the Spyder’s chassis to a highway-safety exhibition skidded off the road, killing its driver. The remains of that car vanished from the scene of that accident and have been seen again.
Wütherich, who always felt extreme guilt after the car accident, tried to commit suicide twice during the 1960s. In 1967, he stabbed his wife 14 times with a kitchen knife in a failed murder/suicide, and he died in a drunk-driving accident in 1981. Turnupseed died of lung cancer in 1995.
By October 2, his death had received significant coverage from the media. Dean’s funeral was on October 8, in Fairmount, Indiana. The coffin remained closed to conceal his severe injuries. 600 mourners were in attendance, while 2,500 fans gathered outside of the building during the procession. He is buried at Park Cemetery in Fairmount, second road to the right from the main entrance, and up the hill on the right, facing the drive.
The film September 30, 1955 (1977), written and directed by gay filmmaker James Bridges, is about the ways various characters in a small Southern town react to the news Dean’s death. The film Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), by gay writer Ed Graczyk, directed by Robert Altman, is about a reunion of Dean fans on the 20th anniversary of his death.