James Dean’s Last Drive: Correcting the Record

James Dean 75

“God,” said Mies van der Rohe, “is in the details.” If that’s true, then car people are very godly people because they love, and appreciate, and relish in, the details of automobiles. I experienced this yet again the other day when I received a letter from Steve Conlin, an ex-bartender at the Bar at the Hotel Bel-Air, one of Southern California’s most famous see-and-be-seen cocktail lounges.

As Steve says, he has “shaken cocktails for everyone from President Ronald Reagan to O.J. Simpson, from Clint Eastwood to Britney Spears.” Among his interests are automobiles and James Dean, seen above in a photo from Wheels of Change, probably at a race in Palm Springs in 1955, the year he died. Although the book is not out yet (but soon, very soon!), while perusing the Net Steve came across the excerpt from the book about Dean on my website. Enlivened by brisk detail, here is a piece of what he said:

Hi Kevin, Here’s wishing you great reviews and huge sales for your soon-to-be-released California auto book. I was browsing random Internet files when I came across an excerpt, your story on James Dean’s fatal drive in his 1955 Porsche Spyder 550.

As a California native and UCLA alumni you might be surprised to learn that the gas station fill-up photo you referred to as being taken at Blackwell’s Corner was actually snapped at the corner of Beverly Glen and Ventura Blvd., in Sherman Oaks. This was perhaps two blocks from Dean’s home at the time, and where he probably had a credit account. James Dean at gas station

You are correct that it was the last picture of Dean alive [the picture you see here], but it was snapped as his caravan headed from Hollywood through the San Fernando Valley for the drive north on Highway 99.  Photographer Sanford Roth had taken a few action shots of Dean driving along the Hollywood Freeway and along Ventura Blvd. just prior to arriving at the station.

The old station office still stands, although it has been converted to a funky flower shop. The extended roof over what was once the pump bay is newer, heavier, and the two slender support columns that can be seen in the James Dean picture have been strengthened to hold it aloft. Interestingly, the footprints of the three red 1950s gasoline pumps are still preserved on their original concrete island. The fill-up photo you mention was actually taken by Rolf Wutherich, Dean’s mechanic and passenger, with Dean’s own Leica camera. The sturdy Leica survived the accident and Dean’s family had the film developed shortly afterward.

Kevin, most of this information is based on the research of my friend Warren Beath, author of The Death of James Dean.  I can send along a few of my own photos of the station, if you’re interested. Best regards, Steve Conlin, Los Angeles

I thanked Steve for his letter and his desire to correct the record on some of the details about Dean’s fatal last drive. On his way to a race in Salinas, Dean smashed into another car near San Luis Obispo while speeding in that silver Porsche Spyder and was killed. The star of “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause” remains a top Hollywood earner despite being dead for more half a century. The Wall Street Journal said in a piece last week that Dean’s estate netted $5 million in licensing fees for his image.

Steve and I have exchanged e-mails, and perhaps we’ll meet at one of my speaking gigs for Wheels in southern California in November and December. Tomorrow I’m off to The Book Seller to talk about the history of cars in historic Grass Valley. My radio interview with Eric Tomb of “Booktown” of KVMR Radio aired on Monday; if you’d like to listen to it you can find it here on his blog. Just click on the link at the bottom that says “to hear this program.”

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3 Comments

Filed under Adventures in Writing, Books, Cars, Wheels of Change

3 responses to “James Dean’s Last Drive: Correcting the Record

  1. Lillian Kaiser

    Dear Kevin, just to keep the record straight, or
    give the devil his due as it were, the Mies van
    der Rohe quote “God is in the details” is a variant of the original attribution to Gustave Flaubert, based on the dating of Flaubert’s usage prior to Van der Rohe:

    “According to the Discussion Forum at “Phrases, Sayings, and Origins” this phrase relates back Gustave Flaubert’s ’Le bon Dieu est dans le detail’ (God is in the details). Here’s the complete source notes:

    DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS – The “Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings” by Gregory Y. Titelman (Random House, New York, 1996) shows this phrase as a variation of “God is in the details – Whatever one does should be done thoroughly; details are important. The saying is generally attributed to Gustave Flaubert (1821-80), who is often quoted as saying, ’Le bon Dieu est dans le detail’ (God is in the details). Other attributions include Michelangelo, the architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, and the art historian Aby Warburg. ’The Devil is in the details’ is a variant of the proverb, referring to a catch hidden in the details. ’Governing is in the details’’and ’The truth, if it exists, is in the details’ are recent variants. Listed as an anonymous saying in the sixteenth edition of Barlett’s ’Familiar Quotations,’ edited by Justin Kaplan.”

    However, Bartlett’s 16th may be taking the most accurate view by calling it an anonymous saying.

    Love from Lily the Librarian

  2. Dan Crouch

    I thought Michelangelo’s version was, “In trifles lies perfection, and perfection is no trifle.”

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