Monday, September 7, 2015


"Dream as if you'll live forever. Live as if you'll die today."  ~  James Dean

Until I picked up Keith Elliott Greenberg's Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: James Dean's Final Hours, I had never read a book about James Dean, despite admiring his work and hanging one of his posters on my wall as a kid. So why this one? Why now? And why are there still books being written about James Dean, is there really more to tell?

Even sixty years after his death, Dean evokes feelings of mystery and iconic Hollywood status. I've always been curious about his ability to remain such a beloved, almost cult-like, figure even though (or maybe because?) he died so long ago at such a young age (24). Greenberg's biography takes a look at the life of this enigmatic and tragic figure and does an admirable job of dissecting the issue of Dean's longevity.

Too Fast alternates between the story of Dean's life (from the time of his childhood in Fairmount, Indiana, through his movie career and death) and current accounts of how his life and death continue to touch and impact people around the world. The latter is the portion of the book I found most fascinating.

Dean's film career totaled just three movies (East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant) over a two-year period. Indeed, as Greenberg notes, "the fascination with Dean seems disproportionate to his body of work." Yet to this day, every day, tourists visit businesses neighboring the site of Dean's fatal accident to ask questions of the people working there. And every year on the anniversary of his death, over 20,000 people pilgrimage to Fairmount from all over the world in order to walk where Dean walked and visit his remaining family and friends.

How does a young man who was in the public eye for such a short time engender dedication that feels almost religious in nature? By all accounts, Dean was magnetic, sensitive, caring, charming, badass yet uncertain, brilliant, glamorous yet human. He seemed to have qualities everyone could relate to, no matter how different they were from the next person he met. He was chameleon-like in his ability to be different things with different people and relate to them all (perhaps one reason he was so good at his craft). Says one fan:

But there's something much deeper. Through Facebook, the internet, coming here [Fairmount]...talking to people, realizing that all of us find something in Jimmy that resonates and makes our lives worth living. Because we aspire to live in the moment and be mindful and make every day as good as it can possibly be. Because you have someone who died at twenty-four and...he's still inspiring people now. And I just find that stunning...And I love the fact that people from all over the world, regardless of their backgrounds...their religion, their color, their age, their gender find something in Jimmy that inspires them, and it brings us all together...We all have this commonality.

Too Fast is the intriguing tale of what made James Dean the fascinating person he was, from his birth in a small town to the death of his mother in a large one, from the many talents he dabbled in to his never-waning desire to act, from his verve for life to his need for speed. It addresses issues of angst, sexuality, religion, pedophilia, family, friendship, daring, and Dean's love for the book The Little Prince (seriously, who knew?). At times it felt a bit salacious, but in the end I thought Greenberg did a decent job discussing the more private areas of Dean's life without making too much of them.

As promised in the subtitle, Greenberg spends a fair amount of time on the accident, the days leading up to it, and its aftermath. My understanding is that this account does add previously unknown, or at least unwritten, details of those events (Greenberg admirably gives credit to other Dean biographers for their writing on the actor). Stories of premonitions (about death generally and the car Dean died in specifically) and curses (super interesting history on the Porsche Dean was driving that day, both before and after the crash, as well as the tragedies befalling so many of his co-stars) also abound, and always have where Dean is concerned.

While it's easy to ascribe meaning to words in hindsight, there's little doubt Dean's family and friends were concerned about his racing and intent to live life to the fullest, particularly when combined with the Porsche Spyder. I wasn't sure what to make of the way things shook out for Dean's co-stars and the other individuals involved in the crash (including the car). I can't say I've ever been one for curses, but it was engrossing reading, to be sure.

STREET SENSE:  If you are at all curious about James Dean, his beginnings and legacy, Greenberg's biography is a great resource. The author has obviously done his homework, and parts of the book have a journalistic feel (particularly those surrounding the facts of the accident, which is a good thing), but it never loses its story-telling quality. I'm not a huge fan of airing details of private lives and felt a tad uncomfortable during parts of Dean's story, but Greenberg didn't take those details to levels that put me off the book. That's a very personal line, so I can't say how other readers might react, but you should know they're in there. All in all, I recommend Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die if you're a fan or want to know James Dean a little better than you do now.

A FAVORITE PASSAGE:  From the moment that Rebel Without a Cause opened on October 6, 1955 -- less than one month after Dean's accident -- Jimmy became the hero of the cynical, the unconventional, the disenfranchised.

COVER NERD SAYS:  I have mixed feelings about this cover. I like the image, but let's face it, just about any gritty, black and white photograph of James Dean is going to be attractive. I was a bit put off by the highway sign icon, along with the title and subtitle. To me they were playing on the accident and Dean's death too heavily, and the subtitle seemed to promise some kind of 48 Hours/Dateline drama. I don't think that really served the book well and is a bit misleading. The book is more than a story of Dean's final hours and, frankly, more interesting as a whole than as some eleventh hour "New details!" drama. I don't think the cover made that very clear. Not a fatal flaw, but for me that was enough to keep this from being a stellar cover.

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About Malcolm Avenue Review

I was lucky enough to be born and raised in a nifty, oak-shaded ranch house on Malcolm Avenue, a wide-laned residential street with little through traffic, located amid the foothills of Northern California. It was on that street and in that house I learned most of my adolescent life lessons, and many grown-up ones to boot. Malcolm Avenue was "home" for more than thirty years.

It was on Malcolm Avenue, through and with my family and the other families that made up our neighborhood of characters, that I first learned about and gained an appreciation for the things I continue to love the most to this day: music, animals, photography, sports, television/movies and, of course, books.

I owe a debt of gratitude to that life on Malcolm Avenue. It gave me a sense of community and friendship, support and adventure. For better and worse, life on that street likely had the biggest impact on the person I've become. So this blog, and the things I write here, are all, at their base level, a little bit of a love letter to Malcolm Avenue.


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