The 60th anniversary of James Dean’s fatal car accident Sept. 30, 1955, catalyzed, as major anniversaries unfailingly do, new biographies of the short-lived but idolized actor. In “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die,” Keith Elliot Greenberg, a specialist in reconstructing famous figures’ final hours, narrates Dean’s drive from Los Angeles toward Salinas, Calif., at the wheel of his new Porsche 550 Spyder.
Dean was breaking in the convertible’s engine on the open highway before competing at a Salinas racetrack. Hallowed locations where Dean alighted that day loom like Stations of the Cross in the imagination of “Deaners”: the Porsche dealership, the Farmers Market in Los Angeles, a rest stop on old Route 466 called Blackwells Corner. Between essays describing such dots on the California map and straight-faced debate over whether the star of “Rebel Without a Cause” really did stop in Santa Clarita for a glass of milk, Greenberg intersperses interviews with visitors to Dean’s headstone in the Fairmount, Ind., cemetery or to the glistening memorial sculpture in Cholame, Calif., financed by a worshipful Japanese businessman. We encounter local history mavens, Dean “Death Ride” reenactors and perennial contestants in Dean look-alike face-offs. Many say they are motivated by bromides attributed to Dean, such as “Dream as if you’ll live forever; live as if you’ll die today.”
Greenberg’s favorite peripheral character in this opus is Rolf Wütherich, the gifted German mechanic who customized the Spyder’s engine and rode with Dean in the doomed roadster as they barreled across the San Joaquin Valley. After colliding head-on with a Ford Tudor, the Spyder flipped over multiple times, ejecting Wütherich so that he landed, barely alive, next to its driver’s side. Dean’s body came to rest slumped over the passenger door. Henceforth, speculation led zealous fans to accuse Wütherich of being the driver in the accident that robbed the world of Dean. Greenberg chronicles the misfortunes besetting Wütherich until his own fatal crash in 1981.
The mangled Spyder became a roadshow to encourage highway safety, but in Greenberg’s telling, it could scarcely be transported between exhibitions without killing or maiming anyone who touched it. Greenberg draws parallels with another ill-fated historical vehicle, the Gräf & Stift transporting Archduke Franz Ferdinand when he was assassinated in 1914, and inclines a grave ear to rumors that the Porsche company incorporated salvaged steel from the Gräf & Stift into Dean’s 550 Spyder.
“Too Fast to Live” carefully presents much additional interesting trivia but sadly adds nothing to what we know about Dean.
Holley is the author of “James Dean: The Biography” and “Mike Connolly and the Manly Art of Hollywood Gossip.”
By Keith Elliot Greenberg
Applause. 304 pp. Paperback, $24.99