Monthly Archives: October 2009

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

Move over, Sarah Palin: Wheels of Change is Coming After You

Vallejo pic

Sarah Palin’s new book, Going Rogue, is coming out Nov. 17, nine days after the official publication date of Wheels of Change: From Zero to 600 M.P.H., The Amazing Story of California and the Automobile. Is the timing of the release of Palin’s instant bestseller a vast conspiracy to draw attention away from my book? How else can you explain the fact that I’ve been sitting patiently, and fruitlessly, by the phone all day waiting for Oprah to call but then I hear that she has booked Palin to be a guest on her show rather than me?

Oh well, Wheels of Change is not yet in bookstores but we’re starting to get a good buzz going, starting with a nice interview with me in the electronic newsletter of Heyday Books. Here is an excerpt from the interview:

Favorite place to eat?
Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank on Friday night hot rod nights. Cool customs and bikes pour in from all over, and the sounds of the engines make your ears hurt. It’s a slice of 1959 in 2009.

Proudest achievement?
Not killing myself when I was a stupid teen driver wheeling around the streets of Hayward and spinning donuts on the lawns of schools.

Scariest moment?
On a trip to Lake Tahoe two winters ago, we drove over Donner Summit on I-80 in the teeth of a howling snowstorm. It was a near-total white-out. We couldn’t see two feet in front of us. Thank God my wife was driving. I was a pathetic, sniveling wretch in the passenger seat.

First car you ever owned?
A British-made Austin America. It was possibly the worst car ever made. If I had to get somewhere fast or on time, it had a built-in electronic sensor that told the engine not to start.

An article about me and the book, entitled “Author Hopes Book Signings Are Standing Vrroom Only,” appeared in today’s Vallejo Times-Herald, promoting my upcoming appearances at Bookshop Benicia (Nov. 8) and the Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum (Nov. 14). The photo above accompanied the article, with me sitting in the front seat of a ’57 convertible Cadillac, which is owned by a local car collector who stores it in a warehouse.

Close observers of my interview in Heyday and Rich Freedman’s article in the Times-Herald will notice that I made a similar joke in both forums about that truly awful Austin America. This is what happens to all authors (including Sarah Palin, when she starts hitting the circuit). You find a line, it works for you, and you keep using it. Author talks are sort of performance art, albeit a very, very minor form of it.

I also did an interview Thursday with Eric Tomb, the host of “Booktown” on KVBR-FM in Nevada City, promoting an Oct. 28 appearance at The Book Seller in Grass Valley. The interview was taped at 7:30 a.m., and I believe I did not make the Austin America joke although I’m not really sure because I was half-asleep and unclear about what I was saying most of the time. Eric, who has been the radio host of “Booktown” for ten years, covered for me though, and I was fascinated to hear about the technology he uses.

He called me (he was at his home in Nevada City) on Skype, and recorded the interview into his Mac with Audiohijack software. Using an audio-editing software program called Amadeus, he takes my ramblings and through the miracle of modern technology, turns them into brilliant and insightful analysis of the history of automobiles in California. As of this writing, the program had not yet aired, but when it does, you will be the first to know. Count on it!

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Filed under Adventures in Writing, Books, Hayward, California, Personal, Wheels of Change

Bob Berndt: Counselor, Teacher, Friend

Bob Berndt

Bob Berndt, who had a generous nature, would not have approved of this piece. A private man, he did not like a fuss to be made about him, even in death. As far as I know, there was no memorial service after his death this past July. There may not have been even an obituary in the paper. These were likely according to his wishes.

Mr. Berndt was my high school counselor, teacher and friend, as he was for the many hundreds of other students he taught over the years. He was a social studies teacher at Hayward High. Throughout his life he loved and believed in education and after he retired, he volunteered as a docent at the Oakland Museum, among other activities. I believe he was in his early eighties when he died. A friend and former colleague of his at Hayward, Jeanne Lycett, sent me this note after I asked her about a service:

Yes, it really is too bad about Bob [she writes]. I had him over on the 4th of July for the past few years and it was great to reconnect with him.  Every Tuesday, Bob would meet for lunch with some of the other “Old Guys” (Dick Schultz, Georger Enderlin – 90 and still driving!, and Bob Giester.)  About twice a year, I was invited to join them and it was great fun. When Bob (Berndt) didn’t show up at last Tuesday’s lunch, Giester called and found that he had passed away that very day. As for an obit or a service of any kind, I haven’t heard anything. Bob was from Southern Illinois, and, I think, may have had a niece still in that area.  He also had absolutely NO religious beliefs, so I’m not sure if there will be anything.

As I recall Mr. Berndt and I never talked religion, but we certainly did talk about lots of other things. In my senior year at Hayward he arranged a special independent study class for me in which I was the sole student and he was the teacher, at least in name. He didn’t do much teaching in that class, and that was the point of it. The purpose of the class was for me to write, on my own, with only occasional guidance from him. The class was third period. When the bell rang and the rest of the students at Hayward gloomily trudged off to their teacher-led classes, I skipped off happily wherever I wished.

Sometimes I went to the library. More often I headed off to the parking lot to find Dave Costa or someone else who didn’t have class that period and who wanted to grab a bite at Quarter Pounder or create some other mischief off campus. Needless to say, I screwed around a lot in my independent study class. This would come as no shock to Mr. Berndt, who surely would have expected it. But I also read a lot during that time. And I wrote. I wrote about a writing hero of mine, George Orwell, and his book, Homage to Catalonia, about the Spanish Civil War. I wrote about my adventures as a pearl diver at Banchero’s Restaurant (memories of which can be found in this post and that one), and I wrote another longer piece about a forty-mile, late winter snowshoe trip I took to Ten Lakes in the Yosemite wilderness with Gordy Kulis, Tom Coopman and Allan Plougher. A few days after I turned in the Yosemite piece Mr. Berndt approached me and said, “I enjoyed my trip to Ten Lakes.”

The class in an inadvertent way-inadvertent to me, though not to Mr. Berndt, I’m sure-taught me a little about managing my time and a little about responsibility, and I’ve never forgotten the trust he placed in me.

Steve Bragonier, a successful Silicon Valley financial executive who has worked at Hewlett-Packard, Silicon Graphics, and other firms, was also a student of Mr. Berndt’s. “He was my teacher and my counselor,” Steve wrote me after hearing about his death. “I felt lucky to be in his class. He guided me to junior college and then on to Stanford rather than going straight to a state college. I’m not sure why he did that (probably my maturity level) but it was good advice in retrospect. I remember he had us keep a journal when we were freshmen. We also kept a journal when we were seniors. Sometime during our senior year he gave us both journals so we could see how much we had changed and matured in four years. I wish I had that journal to read today.”

No doubt many other students of Mr. Berndt’s could tell similar stories of how he had influenced them. That’s the way it is with teachers; they change lives. I am sure that if a service had been held to mark his passing, and all the students he had helped in his years of teaching had shown up, every seat in the place would have been filled and there would have been lines of people stretching for blocks outside. This is probably true of every teacher, the good ones anyhow.

Donations may be made in his memory to the Hayward Public Library, Stanford School of Education, Oakland Museum of California, and the Nature Conservancy, all causes and institutions Mr. Berndt believed in.

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Filed under Hayward, California, Personal