Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: James Dean’s Final Hours by Keith Elliot Greenberg (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books 2015) $25; 304 pp.
Markie Winslow Jr. adored his cousin, Jimmie. A few years older, Jimmy played with Markie and took him on motorcycle rides, but they never went too fast. With Markie, Jimmie wasn’t reckless, though he pushed the limits of it on his own. People in their hometown of Fairmount, Ind., didn’t care; they loved Jimmie — James Dean — because he was a local boy who’d done well.
No one was surprised that Dean ended up in Hollywood or that he became a star: he’d always loved to act. He’d entered and won contests, performed in church plays and had eschewed prelaw classes in favor of a coveted spot in a UCLA production of Macbeth. It was obvious where his career path was taking him.
And it took him there quickly. In just a short time, Dean was a heartthrob movie star, had performed on the new medium of television, and had gained a fiancé and enough money to indulge in the hobby of auto racing. When a guy signed movie deals for six figures, $7,000 wasn’t much for a car and he had his eye on a Porsche 550 Spyder, one of just a few made. He’d almost gotten arrested just looking at the car one night. What else could he do but buy it?
Overjoyed with his prize, he’d started to break the car in but some doubted that it was a good purchase. Others told Dean to be careful in that car, that it was dangerous, that it could kill him, that it would kill him.
And on September 30, 1955 (fully 60 years ago now!), it did.
Though its subtitle indicates a small focus of subject matter, Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die is more comprehensive and expansive than merely a few hours. That has plusses and minuses.
A little background is always a good thing, especially when you’re reading about a star who made only three movies and died six decades ago. Keith Elliot Greenberg finesses that backstory — including Dean’s childhood, his rumored bisexuality, his odd on-set genius and his rapscallion attitude — but Greenberg unfortunately combines it with fan-gushing from folks who traveled to Fairmount to partake in a James Dean festival. That’s charming at first but it becomes florid, and quite overdone.
Still, if you’re a fan and can ignore that, you’ll appreciate this book and its marking of a sad anniversary. If you own the iconic poster or t-shirt and want to know more, you’ll find that here, too. In either case, Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die may be just the ticket.
— Terri Schlichenmeyer
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 4, 2015.