Saturday, June 30, 2007

Warren Beath Talks about Rolf Weutherich

Rolf Weutherich is a sort of mystery figure, isn't he?

And a fascinating character. He was a party animal who had two interests—cars and girls.

He survived the accident that killed James Dean, but was himself killed in a car wreck?

In Germany. He died after missing a curve. He hit a house, and it was assumed he was drunk. They had to use the jaws of life to pry him out. He was asked about James Dean throughout his post-accident life and finally consented to an interview on German radio in his later years.

What did he have to say?

He told a few people that he actually had been snoozing at the time of the crash. That mean's he was not a good witness to how fast James Dean was driving, or toDean's last words.

He did not testify at the inquest?

No, but he was deposed in the hospital. BothErnest Tripke and a local Menonite minister helped translate. Rolf was apparently pretty out of it. But he estimated James Dean's average speed as 60-65 miles per hour. But Lee Raskin makes the point that Rolf had to have been referring to the tachometer. I don't believe the Spyder even had a speedometer. And if that was the tach reading, the speed would have been much faster.

James Dean was supposed to have said, "That guy's gotta stop"?

Or variations of that. "He's gotta see us." That sort of thing. But accident survivors pick up a lot of detail from people after the event and naturally fill in the blank spots in their memory. Plus there is amnesia from the trauma. So you have to take with a grain of salt the ghost-written recollections of Weutherich concerning James Dean that appeared in the movie magazines of the fifties on the anniversaries of the crash.

Rolf Wuetherich was gravely injured in the accident that killed James Dean?

He was hospitalized for eighteen months. He suffered headaches and toward the end of his life developed a stuttering problem. He became estranged from his family and they are reluctant to talk about him. James Dean's shadow hung over him the remainder of his life, though he was a gifted mechanic in his own right, and participated in numerous races.

How did Dean's shadow hang over him?

Well, immediately after the accident there was some sentiment that he was somehow responsible—that as the seasoned mechanic and racer he should have slowed James Dean down on that day.

Do some people think that at the time of the accident he was driving the Spyder instead of James Dean?

I dismissed that out of hand, because James Dean's feet were tangled in the clutch and brake assembly at the time of the accident. But Lew Bracker told me he would not have been surprised if Rolf was driving instead of James Dean, because he had that kind of personality.

What kind of personality?

He could be pushy and kind of imperious about things involving cars. He was impatient. Like Arnold Schwarzennegar, his difficulties with the English language didn't help. He would push people aside and take over. Don Dooley was a witness to the accident and he swears to this day that James Dean was not driving. The mechanic was driving. He says he can only imagine it was covered up to protect Rolf's career.

Did Rolf try to kill one of his wives?

He apparently had many, many problems after the death of James Dean. I've been told he was on medication and that when he stopped taking it, he experienced episodes like the incident with his wife that resulted in his spending time in a sanitarium of sorts. He may have been manic-depressive. Apparently his life resumed a semblance of normalcy once he got back on his meds.

One of the news reports at the time he was killed, said he had recently signed a book contract to tell his story of his days with James Dean. Is that true?

I haven't been able to track that down. But Alex von Wechmar of German TV is making a documentary of him and has interviewed a lot of people, located family members and talked to people who worked with Rolf both here and in Germany. It is scheduled to air in Germany on September 28. I hope it airs here.