Though he died far too soon—behind the wheel of his Porsche 550 Spyder at the age of 24—you can still find traces of 1950s Hollywood heartthrob James Dean in Fairmount, Indiana. Fairmount is a town that takes you back in time, straight to the Heartland, with an all-American backdrop that’s changed little since Dean strolled its streets more than 60 years ago.
The Winslow Farm, where Dean was raised by his aunt and uncle following the death of his mother when he was just 9 years old, is still an operating dairy farm run by Dean’s cousin, Marcus Winslow Jr. Outside of the former Carter’s Motorcycle Shop, where Dean bought his first motorcycle, a wooden sign still advertises Indian motorcycles for sale. Back Creek Friends Church, where the Dean family attended Sunday services, is still an active place of worship—and it’s standing room only for the many fans who gather at the church each year on September 30, for Dean’s annual memorial service.
Today, most of the 19th-century storefronts along Fairmount’s Main Street stand largely intact. Locals frequent the Main Street Barber Shop, and the postmaster still knows almost everyone by name. The quaint commercial street is still home to the Armes-Hunt Funeral Home, where, during one of his home visits in February 1955, Dean playfully posed in one of the coffins. Six months later, he was back—for his own funeral service.
Law school and lipstick prints
Soon after graduating from (the recently demolished) Fairmount High School in May 1949, Dean hit the road to Hollywood with his dog Max. At first, he studied law at Santa Monica College, but switched his major to drama and transferred to UCLA. His big break came in 1953, when director Elia Kazan cast him in the role of Cal Trask in the film adaptation of John Steinbeck’s 1952 novel East of Eden.
The James Dean Gallery, housed in a grand Victorian home on Main Street, offers an even closer glimpse into Dean’s short but brilliant life. Copies of his high school yearbooks, examples of his early school work, a tiny violin that he played as a young boy, his BB gun, and snapshots from his high school years pack the display cases. The walls feature original movie posters in several different languages, illustrating Dean’s universal appeal.
A 1955 model of a bronze bust by sculptor Kenneth Kendall is as close as one can get to the actor’s real-life appearance (the original is on display at Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory). Kendall, spurred by Dean’s tragic death at age 24, created the bust of Dean using magazine photographs and a life mask loaned to him by Dean’s father.
After his funeral, Dean was laid to rest in Fairmount’s tiny Park Cemetery, located within walking distance from the Winslow Farm. His pink granite headstone, almost always covered in red lipstick prints, was further memorialized in 1988 when Morrissey filmed a music video at the gravesite. The song, “Suedehead,” was inspired by the musician’s lifelong admiration of Dean. It’s not Dean’s only musical tribute: Included on The Eagles’ third studio album in 1974 is a song simply titled “James Dean.”
“We’ll talk about a low-down bad refrigerator / You were just too cool for school / Sock hop, soda pop, basketball and auto shop / The only thing that got you off was breakin’ all the rules.”
Dedicated to Dean
James Dean Gallery founder David Loehr grew up on a farm in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He attended Parsons School of Design in New York City, followed by the Lester Polakov School for Stage Design. He took advantage of New York’s vibrant art and music scene, becoming friends with many of the artists he admired, including Andy Warhol. He was a glam performance artist, painter, concert and music festival organizer, and booking agent, who ran one of the first “hippie retail shops.” He even operated a t-shirt and spandex clothing factory.
Loehr’s life took a turn in 1973, when a friend gave him a copy of James Dean: The Mutant King by David Dalton. Then he saw Dean’s three films—Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, and Giant—on the big screen, unwittingly launching into a lifetime dedicated to Dean’s legacy. He began scouring used book shops, memorabilia stores, and flea markets, looking for anything related to Dean.
While making a cross-country move from Los Angeles to New York, hoping to reconnect with Lenny Prussac, a former lover, Loehr decided to make a pit stop in Fairmount to see for himself where the star was born. “The small Midwest town looked the same as it did in the photos taken during James Dean’s last visit home in February of 1955,” says Loehr, who documented his incredible adventures in his recent memoir, That’s How Strong My Love Is. “I was mesmerized by the town and the few people I had met. All kinds of ideas were running through my head.”
A prime location
A few months later, Loehr returned to Fairmount with Prussac, eager to experience the town’s annual Museum Days festival, dedicated to local history. “It was an all-American, Norman Rockwell, hometown atmosphere,” he says. “So different from our New York City, scrap-metal-yard neighborhood.”
The couple was so enamored with Fairmount, they visited several times a year over the next 14 years. On one visit, a friend pointed out a large Victorian home, with a prime location on Main Street; it was for sale, and they suggested that Loehr purchase it to house his ever-growing collection of Dean memorabilia.
But purchasing the home and making the move from New York City to the tiny town of Fairmount would be quite an undertaking for the duo, who at this point lived together in a home they owned in the city. “There was a lot to consider,” Loehr says. “Late that night, I was walking around the fields at the Winslow Farm and I said out loud, ‘Jimmy, should I be doing this?’ At that moment, a bright shooting star shot straight across the entire horizon. I had my answer.”
Too young to die
Early on, the couple, who lived in an apartment above the gallery, encountered opposition from Fairmount locals in the form of cruel taunts, acts of vandalism, and even rocks thrown through their windows as they slept. But as the gallery soon became one of Grant County’s most popular tourist attractions, locals began to appreciate the couple’s hard work and dedication. When they finally married in 2014, they received cards, flowers, congratulatory phone calls, and even a delicious apple pie baked with love from neighbors.
“It felt nice to get such a warm response to our marriage,” says Loehr.
When the James Dean Gallery opened in 1988, Loehr’s devotion to Dean became his legacy. Today, the gallery is home to the world’s most extensive collection of Dean memorabilia, lovingly curated. At the rear of the gallery, Prussac helms REBEL REBEL Collectibles, featuring a large assortment of 1950s and ‘60s collectibles, including lamps, ashtrays, ceramics, books, magazines, and customized men’s button-up shirts handmade by Prussac himself.
“It still amazes me that I will forever be remembered for my close association with James Dean,” says Loehr.
And Dean’s legacy? In 1956, the actor became the first to receive a posthumous Academy Award nomination for his role in East of Eden. The Eagles summed it up best: “You were too fast to live, too young to die.”
If you go
Fairmount’s annual James Dean Festival takes place during the last full weekend in September and features a hot rod car show, street fair, carnival rides, live entertainment, a 1950s dance contest, and a James Dean lookalike contest. On September 30 of each year, there is a Memorial Service at the Back Creek Friends Church, and year round, visitors are invited to hike the James Dean Landmarks Trail. While in Grant County, don’t miss the Fairmount Historical Museum, Ivanhoe’s Drive In, and James Dean’s Birthsite Memorial in neighboring Marion, Indiana.