|James Dean in Giant|
When we travel long distances by car, we generally pack a bottle of red wine, a box of snack crackers and some cheese. Then, at the end of a long day of driving, we can relax in our hotel/motel room with a glass of wine and hors d’oeuvres before going out to dinner in a restaurant.
We just returned from such a trip – down to central Indiana by way of Wisconsin and Illinois for a family wedding. Very nice trip at this time of year, if a little agriculturally oriented in this section of the country. If you think Iowa is where the tall corn grows, you ought to try Indiana. Illinois is no slouch either when it comes to growing corn. Tall corn stalks everywhere.
So after miles and miles of cornfields, come evening it is good to stop, check into overnight accommodations, pour a glass of wine, slice the cheese, slap it on a cracker and reflect. We had quite a bit to reflect about on this trip. Aside from the family obligations, it was devoted to a pair of American icons we met along the way.
The first was the actor James Dean, whose hometown, Fairmount, Indiana, was just minutes from our family gathering. We stole a couple of hours alone and went to the Fairmount museum devoted almost entirely to Dean. It is chock full of James Dean memorabilia, ranging from things he wore, to motorcycles he owned to letters he wrote and movie contracts he signed, together with hundreds of photographs depicting his youthful days in Fairmount through his New York and Hollywood years, and back to Fairmount where they buried him in 1955 at the age of 24.
It gives you pause. At least it gave me pause. Dean became a famous movie star when I was in high school, an instant teen idol, and he was killed in a sports car crash when I was still in high school. He made a big impression on my generation, appearing in just three movies: “East of Eden,” “Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant,” all released during my high school years.
You wonder how this kid from a very small Indiana farming town could establish himself as a genuine American icon in just half a dozen years after graduating from high school. He shows himself to be a fine, even brilliant, actor in those three movies (and several television productions, mostly before he became famous), but brilliant actors bubble up every so often, not all of them becoming icons and remaining household names 56 years after dying.
At the Dean museum, I spoke with what could only be described as an aged woman. White hair, wattled skin, portly figure, cane to steady her when she walked. She said she’d gone to school with Dean, a few classes ahead of him. You wonder, how could this young, vibrant guy have gone to school with this old lady, but, of course, looks and generations are deceiving. Dean would have turned 80 this year. Amazing.
Next stop? Several hundred miles northwest, in Spring Green, Wisconsin, at the home of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright – another American icon. Taliesin, as Wright’s home is called, is an imposing structure near the top – but not on the top – of a hill near the Wisconsin River, with a panoramic view of other hills, farm fields (yes, some corn) and winding roadways.
Wright’s colorful life is reflected in the home’s unique design, including some baffling qualities such as low-hanging doorways and passageways. It’s been said Wright was not concerned with people taller than he, who might bump their heads on the doorframes. People like me.
Oh, there’s so much to say about Frank Lloyd Wright that people either already know or don’t care about. But like James Dean, he’s an American icon, although there’s one big difference. Dean achieved this rare status by the time he was 24; Wright slowly achieved his icon status over 91 years.
Time to return home to Duluth, with one last stop along the way: Baraboo, Wisconsin, the logical place to spend our last night on the road. Baraboo, not far from Spring Green and cheek by jowl with the Wisconsin Dells, is the home of another iconic American family, the founders of the Ringling Brothers circus empire. We didn’t visit Circus World there, opting instead for a glass of wine and a few pieces of cheese on crackers.
But by then the cheese was very soft, having been kept at car temperature for many miles. So we left our cheese in Baraboo. Not everyone can say that. No cheeseheads we.