Jaime O'Neill: James Dean, the Epitome of Cool

[Jaime O'Neill is a writer in Northern California.]

James Dean died 55 years ago today, killed in a dramatic car wreck east of Paso Robles that became the stuff of legend. He was 24 when he died, and he inadvertently managed to take a lot of my generation with him, creating a cultural template for the risks we should take with our own lives. Had he lived, he'd be 80 in February.

I was 13 when I first saw him in the movies, and his films offered me an introductory course in how to be a teenage boy in the 1950s. I saw "Rebel Without a Cause" half a dozen times, mostly because I was studying James Dean — his moves, his posture, his way of speaking. I began filching cigarettes from my mother's purse, practicing how to flip the butt away when I'd smoked it down to a nub, a casually smooth gesture that was, for me and for legions of other aspiring punks, the essence of cool. So completely did I incorporate what I borrowed from Dean that even now, edging toward my own more natural rendezvous with death, I occasionally catch myself in a gesture of his expropriated more than half a century ago.

Dean also taught me, and lots of guys like me, that death was cool. We were a fairly death-soaked generation from the get-go, war babies and Cold War children with an emblematic nuclear mushroom clouding our futures. We were diving under our desks from first grade on, and we became consumers of the apocalypse, frightening ourselves with tales of what might lie ahead in movies like "On the Beach," or those cheesy sci-fi flicks that populated our dreams with monstrous mutants formed in the fallout from open-air nuclear testing. And there were books too, doomsday scenarios like "A Canticle for Leibowitz" or "Alas, Babylon," that posited post-apocalyptic visions we read as previews of what was to come....

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