The Unlikely Watch Collector: Uncovering The James Dean LeCoultre
Join us as we travel to Fairmount, Indiana, to pay respects to the legendary actor’s believed-lost LeCoultre and speak with Dean’s cousin Marcus Winslow, Jr.
James Dean was more than an icon: The actor was iconoclastic.
His naturalistic onscreen performances stood in stark contrast to the clipped, stylized delivery of the movie stars before him. Fashion-wise, his image was dressed down, relatable, and very sexy.
Tragically, he truly was the epitome of the live-fast-die-young attitude at the center of his audience appeal. Yet even though he only got top billing in three films at the time of his untimely death in a car crash in 1955, those movies – East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant, are now canon.
Interestingly, although an enduring fashion icon, it is less widely known that Dean also had excellent taste in watches. His collection wasn’t huge, to be sure, but each piece had meaning to him and subsequently to his fans.
That is why Watchonista went to Indiana to visit one of those timepieces at the home of the largest collection of Dean artifacts: the Fairmount Historical Museum. The best part is our tour guide for this expedition was Marcus Winslow Jr., Dean’s cousin, de facto brother, and caretaker of the family history.
East of Eden (1955)
Dean was born in 1931 in Marion, Indiana. His family relocated to California when he was 6. But when Dean’s mother died when he was 9, his father sent him back to Indiana to live with his sister Ortense and her husband, Marcus Winslow. They lived on a farm in Jonesboro, a rural town located just outside of Fairmount, sitting on the highway between Indianapolis and Fort Wayne.
Marcus Winslow Jr. is a private and unassuming man, proud of his Indiana roots. And despite growing up with a cultural icon, Marcus Jr. still lives in the farmhouse in which he and Dean were raised, telling me: “I’ve lived my whole life here. It’s all I’ve ever known.”
Several years younger than Dean (he was only 11 when his cousin died), Marcus Jr. remembers Jimmie (as he’s known to friends and family) as more of a big brother than a celebrity. Although, he does recall when Life Magazine photographer Dennis Stock visited the family farm in February 1955 to take pictures of the actor on the homestead.
At that time, Dean had just appeared in East of Eden, his first leading role in a movie. Based on the John Steinbeck novel and released in 1955, the film was also the only one of the actor’s leading-man performances to be released before he died. Moreover, Dean was the first actor to ever be posthumously nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of the Cain-like outsider Cal Trask.
On an interesting side note: Dean was also posthumously nominated for his portrayal of Jett Rink in Giant. And to this day, he remains the only actor to garner two posthumous Oscar nominations.
But before Dean got this big break, when he was still a struggling actor in New York, he bought himself an American-made, yellow gold Elgin pocket watch.
The purchase was financially significant to the Dean – perhaps he saw it as an investment in himself. The actor thought that the timepiece brought him good luck and even wore it, along with a chain given to him by his father, while filming East of Eden, against director Elia Kazan’s initial wishes (although the famed director finally relented).
In 2013, the iconic timepiece was auctioned by Antiquorum. It was only estimated to sell for around $5,000, but it ended up selling for over eight times that at almost $42,000. In today’s current secondary watch market, that hammer price would be a steal!
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Growing up less than two hours away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, it’s not surprising that Dean was also fascinated by racing. After finishing up filming for East of Eden, he competed in his first professional event at the Palm Springs Road Races, where he took first place in the novice class and second place at the main event. Dean also took third overall at the track in Bakersfield a month later. Sadly, it was en route to a competition in Salinas on September 30, 1955, when he crashed his Porsche 550 Spyder and died.
Luckily, Dean’s memory lives on through people like his cousin and organizations like the Fairmount Historical Museum. The world’s largest collection of James Dean’s personal belongings, the Fairmount Historical Museum’s collection includes his matador cape and horns, conga drums, scripts, his racing suit and trophies, his motorcycles, and most of his wardrobe.
“It’s very special,” said Dorothy Schultz, Curator of the Fairmount Historical Museum. “The family saved everything. It shows how much they really loved him: from letters he wrote home to the artwork he did as a boy to the switchblades from Rebel Without a Cause and the little lasso he used in Giant. For James Dean fans, it’s the Mecca.”
President of the Fairmount Historical Museum, Christy Pulley Berry, added, “We love being able to share this collection with the world, especially during our annual James Dean Festival at the end of September. My dad, Bob Pulley, was Jimmie’s best friend growing up and President of the museum for many years. The museum meant everything to him, and now it does to me as well.”
Debuting in October 1955, almost one month to the day after his death, Dean’s first posthumous film debuted, Rebel Without a Cause. The film made Dean the symbol of the disaffected, post-war generation. And, as maladjusted teen Jim Stark, Dean wears what is believed to be a Westclox Wrist Ben.
The tonneau-shaped case, black dial, sub-seconds indicator, and luminescent art deco numbers make the Wrist Ben a pretty distinctive watch. So, even though no one knows what happened to Dean’s specific wristwatch from the film, judging by publicity stills, the odds are that this attribution is correct.
Westclox, like Elgin, was an American brand known mostly for making clocks and inexpensive pocket watches called “dollar watches.” The Wrist Ben was also notable for its ergonomic, curved-to-fit-the-wrist case construction. And because the watch was mass-produced and egalitarian (originally retailing for $6.98), they occasionally pop up on eBay and other online resale sites.
Fun Fact: The creator of the Garfield comic strip, Jim Davis, also grew up on a farm near Fairmount, and outside the museum stands a statue of Garfield wearing the same red jacket that Dean’s character sported onscreen.
That brings us to the watch that we have traveled so far to see in person: a 30mm 18K yellow gold LeCoultre circa the 1950s with a 17-jewel calibre 480/CW hand-wound mechanical movement. Shrouded in a bit on intrigue, some believe the watch is a Powermatic, but no one is quite sure because exorbitantly high import taxes at the time resulted in completely screwy watch model family trees.
In the 1950s, Swiss watches imported into the US were hit with high tariffs, but there was one loophole – as long as the watches were cased in the US, retailers didn’t have to pay the expensive duties. Thus, timepieces powered by Swiss Jaeger-LeCoultre movements were sold in North America under the LeCoultre name with cases crafted in the US. That also means that the US models from that era often varied significantly in designs from their European counterparts. In fact, the fancy lugs on Dean’s watch definitely feel a little flashier than their overseas cousins.
Believed to have been purchased to celebrate the success of East of Eden (and making appearances in both Rebel Without a Cause and Giant), the true origins of Dean’s LeCoultre are unknown even by his cousin. “I don’t know where he got it. If he bought it himself, or if someone gave it to him,” Marcus Jr. told Watchonista. However, sadly what is known is that the actor had it on him when he passed away.
Watchonista asked Marcus Jr. when he became aware of the watch’s existence. “When they settled the estate,” he replied. “They had to take inventory of everything. That was in 1955. It said ‘LeCoultre watch, no band.’”
Marcus Jr. continued: “In the 1980s, I was visiting his dad and noticed a watch with no wristband on his dresser. I asked him about it, and he said, ‘Yeah, that was Jimmie’s watch.’ His dad wouldn’t ever have sold it, but I don’t think he ever wore it.”
After Dean’s father’s death, the watch passed to Marcus Jr. “I thought it was neat,” he said, “but I’ve never even tried to wind it. I put it in the museum because I thought people would enjoy seeing it. I found it would have come in a box. I put it in the box and put a picture of Jimmy wearing it behind it in the display.” And amazingly, that is where it still sits today.
Standing in front of this tiny object is a powerful experience, steeped in history the way it is. Forgetting for a moment that this small piece of metal was once worn by Dean and pulled from the terrible wreckage of his Porsche crash: Most importantly, it was cherished by the family that loved him. So seeing it placed in the context of Dean’s life – his prized possessions sit alongside treasures from the town he grew up in – is powerful stuff.
As Schultz remarked during our interview, “I’m still overwhelmed by the enormity of it. A lot of fans want to come to Fairmount just to walk where he walked.”
A sentiment echoed by Marcus Jr., he closed the interview by saying: “I do know it should stay forever here in the museum. It’s a part of our life. I’ve told you everything I know now.”
To see the mysterious LeCoultre for yourself, we highly recommend making the journey to Fairmount, Indiana, and fork over the exceptionally reasonable $5 admission fee.
The Fairmount Historical Museum is located at 203 E. Washington Street in Fairmount, Indiana, and is open Thursday through Monday from 11 AM to 5 PM.
Finally, Watchonista would like to thank Dorothy Schultz, Curator of the Fairmount Historical Museum, for arranging and assisting with our visit, President of the Fairmount Historical Museum Christy Pulley Berry for assisting with our visit, and, of course, Marcus Winslow Jr. for agreeing to speak to us about such a special piece.
For more information about the Fairmount Historical Museum’s James Dean collection, please visit the museum’s website.
(Photography by Kat Shoulders, other sources mentioned)