The double tragedy of James Dean

From the moment that he was born, James Dean was the centre of his mother’s life. She lovingly doted on him, and used to say that one day her beautiful son was going to be a great actor.

When James was five, he and his parents moved from Fairmount, Indiana to Los Angeles – his first time in the city where he would make his name world-famous.

James enrolled in school there, and his mother scraped together money for violin and tap-dancing lessons.

When James was just nine years old, his mother started suffering stomach pains, and went to the doctor. X-rays confirmed that she had incurable cancer. A short time later, at just age 29, she died in hospital, with her husband and nine-year-old son by her side.

Following his mother’s death, James travelled back to Fairmount, and when he got there, the debate started as to who should look after him.

His father, who remained in Los Angeles, said that he couldn’t afford it. The only ones offering to take him in were Ortense and Marcus Winslow, his aunt and uncle.

Ortense and Marcus already had a 14-year old daughter – but they had always wanted a son. James became part of the family, and settled into farming life. At school he loved sport and performing in school plays and, outside school, his adoptive father Marcus introduced him to one of his other great passions – motorbikes.

Although he would be an outsider all his life, he basked in his loving family environment. He rarely heard from his father.

At 18, James Dean graduated from high school and left Fairmont. He went back to L.A. to try his luck in the Dream Factory. Starting in radio, he moved to stage where he got larger and larger roles. He picked up some TV work, and managed to survive – though still having to write back to Ortense and Marcus occasionally to ask for money.

Director Elia Kazan was looking for an actor who could portray a troubled adolescent in his next movie. He considered Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift – but after seeing James Dean on stage, invited him to his office for an interview.

Dean knew this could make his career, and, wanting to impress Kazan, took him for a ride on his motorbike. Kazan hated it, but knew that Dean had the right attitude for the part, and hired him for ‘East of Eden’.

The film didn’t open until he was making his next film, ‘Rebel Without A Cause’. When the studio started receiving fan mail by the sackful, they knew they had a star.

James went straight from ‘Rebel’ to the set of ‘Giant’. During that shoot he met with his friend, and insurance agent, Lew Bracker. He showed him a picture of a car he had just bought – a Porsche 550 Spyder – and told him that he wanted to take out insurance.

Bracker prepared a $100,000 accidental death policy. He asked Jimmy who the beneficiaries should be. James said that he wanted $5,000 to go to Grandma and Grandpa Dean, $10,000 for his cousin Markie’s education, and the rest to go to his adoptive parents, Ortense and Marcus.

“The way it’s distributed has to be written in your will, Jimmy”, Lew explained, “Have you make that out yet?”

“No” replied James, “I’ll do it next week”.

Two weeks later, James Dean was dead, killed when his Porsche collided head-on at high speed, on his way to the racetrack. He was 24 years of age.
His assets at the time of his death included several thousand dollars in the bank, a motorbike, and the insurance money for his crashed Porsche. His biggest asset was the $100,000 insurance policy.

After taxes, the estate was worth $96,438.11.

All the money went to Winton, his father. But Ortense and Winton, who had raised him, and to whom he had made a silent vow to repay by becoming a success, got nothing.
And all because he died without making a will.

‘James Dean: Little Boy Lost’ by Joe Hyams with Jay Hyams, Random House & AMP Estate Planning Service ‘The Art of Preserving Wealth’

The story of screen legend James Dean provides a haunting Hollywood reminder of how the law can channel our hard-earned dollars to unintended beneficiaries – if we fail to make a proper will, and keep it updated.

James Dean had the best of intentions when it came to providing for those he loved most. But the best intentions mean little if they’re not followed through with a plan that will put them into action.

Do you have a will? If you do, is it right up to date with the latest law?

Don’t put it off until “next week” – DO IT NOW!