My Life with James Dean: A Collector’s Story
At the young age of 14, I started my collection of James Dean memorabilia by accident. A friend of mine received a James Dean biography for her birthday when she was hoping for one about Humphrey Bogart. I had no idea who either actor was at the time. As I thumbed through the book, my friend told me to take it if I wanted it. I read the book in two days and I have been fascinated with James Dean ever since.
Like many people who collect, especially those of us who start younger, I can’t explain why I took such a liking to him; we didn’t have much in common. His life was sad and it ended tragically whereas I was happy and enjoying my early teenage years. Sadly, he wasn’t famous until after his passing and still he’s like the forgotten revenue stream after Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.
That one book led to a strong desire to find anything and everything related to James Dean. I had never really collected anything up to this point, so this whole adventure was new and exciting. I didn’t have much money, so all I could afford was posters and pictures mostly. Then I started branching out. I found his movies on VHS (and yes, watched them several times). I could only locate one of the three movies he made in local stores. eBay was just launching, so I searched for the other movies and found them. Collecting and researching the Internet for items opened my eyes to so many different collectibles and categories that I had never seen, or heard of, before. Anyone can pick a book from a bookstore or a shirt from a rack, but the uniqueness of the items online from collectors all over the world was amazing to me. At that moment I decided I wanted to collect the rare James Dean items that you don’t see often and are almost never on store shelves. I felt that I was being initiated into a very exclusive club – one of collectors.
From my online research, I found and bought a James Dean Collector’s Guide I hadn’t even known existed. I read and absorbed whatever I could to stay up to date on my knowledge of the James Dean items and memorabilia in existence. At 16 I really didn’t care what the items were worth, I just wanted to be able to pick up rare items at a fair price that meant something to me.
It wasn’t until I was 22 that I was finally able to travel to Fairmount, Indiana for the annual James Dean Festival. This experience was truly amazing and a turning point for me as a collector. Fairmount is a very small town that goes to every extreme to celebrate the life of James Dean. Houses are decorated and the main square is full of vendors and activities all related to this fantastically talented actor. In this small town, the museum is in a beautiful old Victorian house. It was filled with collections that I, and I’m sure many others, wished were our own. I visited James Dean’s gravesite and, though it may seem morbid to some, I do have a rubbing of his headstone, which is one of my most personally valued items.
My last trip to the James Dean Festival was in 2005. As an adult now, I have obligations and responsibilities that don’t allow me to go every year as I would like. But the 2005 festival was a big production as it was the 50th anniversary of James Dean’s death. Even with all the visitors coming from all over the world, it was a very personal experience for me. The environment was spectacular, it was almost as though I could create my own collectibles at that point. For instance, old movie posters were sold and various actors, who were in the movies with James Dean, signed them during the festival. They talked about who he was and told stories that they remembered. The people in town took visitors on tours and talked about what he was like in high school. I met a cousin who grew up with James Dean in Fairmount and he still lives in the same house today. A series of paintings were done for the event. Signed, dated, and numbered by the artist. I bought a painting to add to my collection. That painting is probably my most cherished piece because it was my first real piece of art that I had ever purchased with my own money. Also, it’s a one of a kind – there are no other duplicates. Another item I obtained that trip is a dated and numbered brick from the original Fairmount High School that James Dean attended. The town was selling them to raise money to remodel the high school.
I know, that many of my generation may hear the word “collector” and think of our parents or grandparents. I believe the word collector simply means that we’ve found something to be passionate about. I’m lucky to have found mine so young. While I know that someday some of the James Dean items I own may be valuable it’s worthy of mentioning that I collect not for what my things are valued for monetarily, but what meaning they have to me and the stories they have behind them.