September 30th of this year will mark the 58th anniversary of James Dean’s death. He was 24, neither rich nor famous, and seemed to have a death-wish as strong as his desire to grow beyond his farm roots and achieve success in Hollywood. His enduring fame owes much to a series of candid and personal photographs taken just a few months before the car crash that would take his life. His Border Collie, Tuck, features prominently in the photographs.
The photos predate the premier of his first role as a leading man in East of Eden, the penultimate and iconic Rebel Without A Cause and his final film Giant, the only three films that he would star in. The photos were taken just before he literally turned his back on his dog, which he deemed a symbol of his simple rural youth, and bought the race car that he would die in a few months later.
The series heavily features Dean with Tuck in various situations, some intimate and friendly and others seemingly distant and coincidental. He embraces the dog at what appears to be the dinner table after a meal with his uncle in the background. In one shot his attention is on the dog, and in another he’s looking away at some distraction. This is a theme that is repeated, several shots juxtapose Dean’s love for Tuck only later to show Dean turning his back and looking away.
Out in the field before a tractor, he accepts a hug and rubs Tuck behind the ears. Inside the farmhouse, Dean takes a phone call, presumably with news from his incipient stardom in Hollywood or perhaps finalizing his purchase of a Porsche Super Speedster race car. Or maybe he’s arranging a final goodbye with someone in town before he leaves forever to a new life. Tuck waits loyally behind his chair as Dean pays him no attention.
James Dean with the family Border Collie, Tuck 1955
In February 1955, James Dean (1931-1955) visited his uncle Marcus in his hometown, Fairmount, Indiana; photographer Dennis Stock went along and took this picture of him with a farm dog. As a child, Dean had a dog called Tuck, and there is no doubt, looking at this photo, that he was at home with dogs. “There are a lot of things I learned from animals. One was that they couldn’t hiss or boo me,” he said. “I also became close to nature, and am now able to appreciate the beauty with which this world is endowed.” The following month, East of Eden, directed by Elia Kazan, was released. Dean was nominated for an Oscar, bought himself a Porsche in which to compete in races, and started working on Rebel Without a Cause. That same September he was killed in a car crash.
- Men & Dogs, Judith Watt, Peter Dyer
Fairmont, Indiana. Dean biographers have consistently pointed out that this is the true East of Eden. A flat piece of earth, fields as far as the eye can see – and people whose Puritanism forms virtually the opposite pole to the American ideal of happily lived materialism. Here, or more precisely in the small town of Marion, James Byron Dean was born on 8 February 1931 – ‘Byron’ being a hint from his mother who, as all mothers, had great expectations for her son, and apparently wanted to underline this by a reference to the great poet. Jimmy Dean spent his early years in Marion, and later the family moved to Fairmont where, after the early and traumatic death of his mother, he grew up with his Uncle Marcus and Aunt Ortense. The pair operated a small farm: “Winslow Farm.”
It was here that Stock and Dean returned in 1955. The little cabin on Back Creek represented the country roots, so to speak, of the demi-god James Dean. His simple – extremely simple – background is significant; it offers hope, and at the same time belongs as much as his early, fateful death to the components of the myth, to the process of legend-making. Stock and Dean visited the local cemetery where an ancestor named Cal Dean lay buried. For his photographer, the rising star sat down again at his school desk. He wandered around Fairmont, hands in his pockets, Chesterfield in the corner of his mouth. He looked at himself absentmindedly in a frozen puddle – or tested out a coffin at the undertaker’s, just to try it out. Dean’s longing for death has since become the object of a great deal of speculation. In any case, Stock found a valid metaphor for his hero’s necrophilic tendencies by translating Dean’s isolation into pictorial form: James Dean in the midst of cows; with a dog; with a pig. The affinity for animals that the star took as a matter course can in fact be read as a metaphor for loneliness.
Dean and Stock remained a week in Fairmount. It was simultaneously a reunion and a farewell. Stock later wrote that James Dean knew that he would never see the farm again, and for that reason insisted that the last shots were taken of him before the farmhouse. James posed himself, looking straight ahead, while his dog Tuck turned away. It was, according to Stock, the actor’s interpretation of ‘you will never return home again’. Fairmount had formed him, New York had changed him. New York was his laboratory, in which parts of him flew apart only to form together in an arbitrary manner. In New York, he had been discovered by Elia Kazan, director of Fast of Eden, the son of the land had become a god-in-the-making. Even if it took Hollywood to form his image definitively, New York was where the career of the coming star had been launched. Blue jeans, T-shirt, closed windbreaker belong to the Dean mythos just as much as the cigarette and the only partially tamed hair. Dennis Stock wrote “James Dean haunted Times Square”, beneath his perhaps most famous portrait of the young actor. “For a novice actor in the fifties this was THE place to go. The Actors Studio, directed by Lee Strasberg, was in its heyday and just a block away.” Dean is wearing a dark coat – because of the weather, of course. But the way in which he hides himself in it may also be interpreted as a reference to his vulnerability – it is a cocoon, even if it is in fact black. One should not perhaps over-interpret the color, even though we know that Dean will not live to see the premier of Rebel Without a Cause. On 30 September 1955 at 5:45 p.m., his Porsche Speedster will crash into a Ford sedan. It cannot be claimed that he made a “good-looking corpse”; but he had succeeded in living fast, and dying young -at age twenty-four.
It’s haunting that Dean and Stock would choose to feature Tuck as the poignant symbol of rejection and metamorphosis. Tuck was a shepherd and Dean was his Judas who paid for the instrument of his death with the 30 pieces of silver he was rewarded with for his betrayal.
While no one would call him a sex symbol, another son of Fairmount rose to fame and fortune without rejecting his humble farm roots. Jim Davis, creator of “Garfield” grew up in the same Indiana town on a farm with over 20 cats. Ironically as his wife was allergic to cats, the adult Davis enjoyed the companionship of a dog named Molly.
* * *
Comments and disagreements are welcome, but be sure to read the Comment Policy. If this post made you think and you'd like to read more like it, consider a donation to my 4 Border Collies' Treat and Toy Fund. They'll be glad you did. You can subscribe to the feed or enter your e-mail in the field on the right to receive notice of new content. You can also like BorderWars on Facebook for more frequent musings and curiosities.
* * *