On September 30th of 1955, less than a month before his most celebrated turn as Jim Stark in Rebel Without a Cause graced the screens, 24-year-old James Dean died shortly after his Porsche collided with another car at high speed. His funeral was held nine days later in Fairmount, not far from the farm on which he was raised by his aunt and uncle, Ortense and Marcus Winslow. A few days later, as millions continued to mourn his passing, the following letter—one of the most beautiful condolence letters I’ve ever read—was sent to the Winslows by Stewart Stern, a friend of Dean’s and the man who wrote the screenplay for Rebel Without a Cause.
Hollywood 46, California
12 October, 1955
Dear Marcus and Mrs. Winslow:
I shall never forget that silent town on that particular sunny day. And I shall never forget the care with which people set their feet down — so carefully on the pavements — as if the sound of a suddenly scraped heel might disturb the sleep of a boy who slept soundly. And the whispering. Do you remember one voice raised beyond a whisper in all those reverential hours of goodbye? I don’t. A whole town struck silent, a whole town with love filling its throat, a whole town wondering why there had been so little time in which to give the love away.
Gandhi once said that if all those doomed people at Hiroshima had lifted their faces to the plane that hovered over them and if they had sent up a single sigh of spiritual protest, the pilot would not have dropped his bomb. That may or may not be. But I am sure, I am certain, I know — that the great wave of warmth and affection that swept upward from Fairmount has wrapped itself around that irresistible phantom securely and forever.
Nor shall I forget the land he grew on or the stream he fished, or the straight, strong, gentle people whom he loved to talk about into the nights when he was away from them. His great-grandma whose eyes have seen half of America’s history, his grandparents, his father, his treasured three of you — four generations for the coiling of a spring — nine decades of living evidence of seed and turning earth and opening kernel. It was a solid background and one to be envied. The spring, released, flung him into our lives and out again. He burned an unforgettable mark in the history of his art and changed it as surely as Duse, in her time, changed it.
A star goes wild in the places beyond air — a dark star born of coldness and invisible. It hits the upper edges of our atmosphere and look! It is seen! It flames and arcs and dazzles. It goes out in ash and memory. But its after-image remains in our eyes to be looked at again and again. For it was rare. And it was beautiful. And we thank God and nature for sending it in front of our eyes.
So few things blaze. So little is beautiful. Our world doesn’t seem equipped to contain its brilliance too long. Ecstasy is only recognizable when one has experienced pain. Beauty only exists when set against ugliness. Peace is not appreciated without war ahead of it. How we wish that life could support only the good. But it vanishes when its opposite no longer exists as a setting. It is a white marble on unmelting snow. And Jimmy stands clear and unique in a world where much is synthetic and dishonest and drab. He came and rearranged our molecules.
I have nothing of Jim’s — nothing to touch or look at except the dried mud that clung to my shoes — mud from the farm that grew him — and a single kernel of seed corn from your barn. I have nothing more than this and I want nothing more. There is no need to touch something he touched when I can still feel his hand on me. He gave me his faith, unquestioningly and trustfully — once when he said he would play in REBEL because he knew I wanted him to, and once when he tried to get LIFE to let me write his biography. He told me he felt I understood him and if LIFE refused to let me do the text for the pictures Dennis took, he would refuse to let the magazine do a spread on him at all. I managed to talk him out of that, knowing that LIFE had to use its own staff writers, but will never forget how I felt when he entrusted his life to me. And he gave me, finally, the gift of his art. He spoke my words and played my scenes better than any other actor of our time or of our memory could have done. I feel that there are other gifts to come from him — gifts for all of us. His influence did not stop with his breathing. It walks with us and will profoundly affect the way we look at things. From Jimmy I have already learned the value of a minute. He loved his minutes and I shall now love mine.
These words aren’t clear. But they are clearer than what I could have said to you last week.
I write from the depths of my appreciation — to Jimmy for having touched my life and opened my eyes — to you for having grown him all those young years and for having given him your love — to you for being big enough and humane enough to let me come into your grief as a stranger and go away a friend.
When I drove away the sky at the horizon was yellowing with twilight and the trees stood clean against it. The banks of flowers covering the grave were muted and grayed by the coming of evening and had yielded up their color to the sunset. I thought — here’s where he belongs — with this big darkening sky and this air that is thirst-quenching as mountain water and this century of family around him and the cornfield crowding the meadow where his presence will be marked. But he’s not in the meadow. He’s out there in the corn. He’s hunting the winter’s rabbit and the summer’s catfish. He has a hand on little Mark’s shoulder and a sudden kiss for you. And he has my laughter echoing his own at the great big jokes he saw and showed to me — and he’s here, living and vivid and unforgettable forever, far too mischievous to lie down long.
My love and gratitude, to you and young Mark,