There’s a fine line between historical curiosity and morbid fascination, particularly when it comes to a Hollywood legend like James Dean. But when 30 unpublished photos documenting Dean’s fatal crash make their way to public auction six decades after his death, it’s definitely newsworthy.
Dean, the 24-year-old actor and racer who starred in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, was killed on September 30, 1955, when his 1955 Porsche 550 Spyder collided with a 1950 Ford Custom driven by Donald Turnupseed near Cholame, California. Dean was driving the Porsche to Salinas for the upcoming Salinas Road Race, scheduled October 2, and he was accompanied by his mechanic, Rolf Wütherich, who survived the crash but suffered serious injuries.
A famous color photograph shows Dean and the car—nicknamed “Little Bastard”—at a fuel stop on that fateful day, and a few black-and-white crash-scene photos were published in newspapers and magazines at the time. But a cache of more than two dozen photographs that were used in court proceedings is expected to bring $20,000 or more at RR Auction’s Pop Culture online sale August 8–15.
The photos come from Robert A. Coyle, the son of Robert Everett Coyle, who served as the attorney on behalf of Donald Turnupseed and his insurance company.
The original black-and-white photos measure 8.25 x 10 inches and vividly document the crash site. There are 12 overhead views of the junction of Route 46 and Route 41, where the crash took place, and 18 ground-level photos, half of which show the damaged Porsche, wearing Dean’s #130, in close-up detail. Photos of Turnupseed’s Ford Custom are also included.
On 26 of the photos, the reverse side is stamp-dated “Russ Schober Photo” or “Stevens Studios.” “Wutherich vs. Turnupseed-Dean-Coulter” is written in pencil on the reverse of all ground-level photos, referring to Wütherich’s attempt to sue the insurance companies of both Dean and Turnupseed. However, Wütherich returned to West Germany in 1957, and the legal proceedings never came to fruition.
Turnupseed, by the way, escaped the horrific crash with only a bloody nose and scratches.
The photos are accompanied by a signed letter of provenance from Robert A. Coyle. The letter, in part, says: “Official photos taken at the scene after the crash and published by Stevens Studios in Paso Robles, CA… used in court case Wutherich vs. Turnupseed, Dean, Coulter… Our father, Robert E. Coyle, was the attorney for Donald Turnupseed… When the case was dropped, he was still in possession of the photographs, and being a history buff, made sure they were not destroyed.”
The remains of Dean’s Porsche were transported around the country as part of a driver’s education campaign. The 550 disappeared during one of those tours and was never seen again.
Perhaps the 30 photos up for auction will help satisfy the public’s insatiable fascination with Dean and the circumstances surrounding his death. Hey, we know you looked. So did we.