In the Shadow of a Giant: Fairmount, Indiana, James Dean's Resting Place

The town moves on, as much as the rest of the world will let it.

Editor’s Note, Feb. 15, 2013: James Dean was born on Feb. 8, 1931, in Marion, Indiana. This story about his youth and his final resting place appeared in our June 2005 issue alongside the feature story, “If James Dean Were Alive Today, He’d Be Dead.”

My dad used to play barnyard basketball with James Dean. It’s hard to drop that factoid into conversation without sounding as if I’m trying to brag—about my Hoosier credentials, I suppose. There’s something inherently Hoosier about a link to Dean’s hometown of Fairmount, the self-proclaimed Birthplace of Cool. My older brothers got to grow up there; by the time I came along, my family had moved to Huntington County, the decidedly less cool Hometown of Dan Quayle. But bragging intentions aside, I like my dad’s story because it places him and Dean in a place I associate with them—Grant County, 1947—and because it grounds Jimmie Dean, makes him less of a two-dimensional smirking poster boy. Yet when I try pressing my dad for details (What was he like? Did you get along with him?), he tunes me out as if he’s watching IU or Texas Tech basketball on TV.

To the throngs who visit Fairmount to buy a fake James Dean driver’s license at a souvenir shop or plant a kiss on his gravestone, Dean has eclipsed the place from which he came. Writers spell his name “Jimmy” and view his hometown in cliches, describing rural Fairmount’s roads as a patchwork of blacktops through cornfields, even though acre-for-acre, Grant County is more a soybean kind of place. Most of the people who live on those roads know the Dean the rest of us do: a three-film wonder who grew up simply and died young. “People ask me what it was like hanging with Jimmie,” says Tony Tucker, co-owner of the Fairmount Antique Mall. “Well, hell, I was 2 years old when he died.”

The laws of nature dictate that the fainter the light source, the longer the shadow. Given his brief career and long-ago death, Dean’s light should have been all but extinguished by now. But in Fairmount his shadow looms large, his name and image a currency to be traded. The Rebel Rebel gift shop and the Giant Bar & Grill and the Boulevard of Broken Dreams scene painted on the side of the antiques mall distinguish Fairmount from other Grant County map dots like Jonesboro and Gas City and Swayzee. To this day, his legacy—whatever it was, exactly—sustains his family through royalties from James Dean shot glasses and the like. The boarded-up Fairmount High School has fallen into disrepair, but Dean’s association with it helps the cause to save it. And though, like Tucker, not many folks around town knew Dean personally, they all know their connection: They bought farm equipment off his cousin or lived down the road from the man who sold him his first motorcycle or played basketball for the Fairmount Quakers.

Me, I spent a summer as Dean’s high-school drama teacher’s last student. Adeline Nall was a fine actress in her own right, with large expressive eyes and a speak-from-the-diaphragm nobility. When I was 10, my dad paid her $5 a week to teach me how to speak eloquently. I credit her with training me to call a “chimney” what my dad calls a “chimbley.” Nall died in 1996 at age 90, known mostly for her supporting role in Dean’s life.

My father was a bit player in Dean’s youth, and they played ball only when Dad visited his first-cousin-once-removed, who lived down the road from Dean. But he shares something with those who were closer to him: They repeat and re-repeat their stories for people who didn’t live them, hoping to sate the desire for more, more, more of Dean. And when they have no more stories to tell, they recycle the old ones—again. Take Bob Pulley, 73, Fairmount High Class of ’49, a Korean War veteran who retired from Citizens Telephone after 35 years and has lived a lot of life. Reporters call him once a week these days, now that the 50th anniversary of Dean’s death is approaching. “Everything I remember, I’ve told,” Pulley says. He speaks every year at a memorial service for Dean, and the faithful tell him they appreciate it, even though they probably heard the same speech the year before.

Marcus Winslow Jr., a 61-year-old man who still shoulders the name Markie around town, can’t answer whether he still sees his cousin, the boy 12 years his senior who was raised by Winslow’s parents, when he looks at images that now belong more to the world than to the family. He says he knows only that “Jimmie never took a bad picture.” Today he lets fans photograph the Winslow farm from the driveway, trying to accommodate them even if he doesn’t understand them. People who chip away at Dean’s gravestone for souvenirs are troubling; the lipstick impressions on it are just a hassle. “I’ve got a guy who goes out there once a month with lacquer thinner,” Winslow says. “It’s about the only thing we’ve found that’ll take it off.”

Until recently, I had never visited Dean’s grave. The idea felt as unseemly as getting your picture taken at Ground Zero in New York. I figured my dad was as disinterested as I, but when I asked if he’d been there, he surprised me. “Sure, lots of times,” he said. We drove out to Park Cemetery and took the second drive on the right at the top of the hill, just like the tourist directional signs instructed us. And there it was, James B. Dean, 1931-1955, a pockmarked rosy granite stone covered in red lipstick kisses. “They’re still chipping the dickens out of it,” my dad noted. We didn’t get out of the car.

On the way out, looking across the country graveyard, I spotted familiar family names: Curless. Wimmer. Jarvis. It hit me why my dad had been here, and I felt silly for not catching his meaning. Whole lives have been lived and lost in Fairmount since James Dean came and went. Those tourist directional signs that point out his grave aren’t there just to be helpful; they keep his fans from trouncing over everyone else.

Photo courtesy James Dean Gallery

This article appeared in the June 2005 issue as a companion piece to the feature story, “If James Dean Were Alive Today, He’d Be Dead.”