These five famous accidents involving cars and motorcycles have an odd common denominator — they either killed or injured major figures in the arts, from music, literature and film to rock 'n' roll. All of them changed history, at least a little bit. And they all leave us with a simple lesson: Drive carefully, especially on a motorcycle.
His Life Flashed Before His Eyes. Joan Baez writes in her autobiography that going motorcycle riding with Bob Dylan was an experience. “He used to hang on to that thing like a sack of flour,” she wrote in her autobiography. “I always had the feeling it was driving him, and if we were lucky we’d lean the right way and the motorcycle would turn the corner.” He wasn’t always lucky.
On July 29, 1966, Dylan took his 1964 500-cc Triumph T100 motorcycle on a ride near Woodstock, New York. Various accounts say he hit an oil slick or was blinded by the sun. Either way, he fell off the bike and broke some vertebrae, suffered a concussion and some road rash.
Dylan later said, “I couldn’t go on doing what I had been…I was pretty wound up before that accident happened. … I probably would have died if I had kept on going as I had been.”
On a crazy international ride until then, Dylan retired to the country life in upstate New York, recorded the Basement Tapes, and radically changed his music.
What’s the Point? Albert Camus, existentialist, Nobel Laureate in 1957, didn’t like long car trips. Nonetheless he and his wife, Francine, were persuaded (on a January day in 1960) to take one with his publisher, Michel Gallimard, and his wife, Janine. Also on board was the Gallimards’ daughter, Anne, and their dog, Floc.
Albert Camus didn't like fast cars, but he died in one. (Photo: Dietrich Liao/flickr)
Following lunch in the village of Lourmarin, Camus would have preferred to take the train back to Paris. “Cars made him nervous. Fast cars more so,” writes Stephen Bayley. And, believe me, Michel Gallimard had a fast car. It was black with a beige leather interior, a Facel-Vega HK-500, a big, luxurious French car with a potent Chrysler V-8 under the hood.
Somewhere on the last leg of the trip, 70 or so miles from Paris, the speeding car — which may have had a worn-out tire — went off the road in a light drizzle. It hit one tree, then wrapped around another one. The women in the back were unhurt, but Camus was thrown through a window and suffered a broken neck. Gallimard died too, having uttered the phrase, “Was I driving?” An unused train ticket to Paris was found in Camus’ bag. The autobiographical manuscript also in there, "Le Premier Homme," wasn’t published in France until 1994. They never found Floc.
It Looked Like Up to Him. On April 30, 1966, the great folk-rock bard Richard Farina had just finished signing copies of his new and hot novel "I’ve Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me," which had been published two days earlier. At a party in Carmel Valley, California, celebrating wife Mimi’s 21st birthday party, he chose at the last minute to take a ride on a guest’s Harley-Davidson. The driver, Willie Hinds — who survived — was hitting 90 mph on a road designed for 30, and lost control. The bike went through a barbed-wire fence, and Farina was thrown off and killed instantly.
It’s interesting to note the timing. Dylan’s accident was only three months later. Dylan and Farina were friends, and rivals, too. The two albums Farina completed with Mimi are incandescent, and — like Dylan — he’d not only just gone electric, but played at the same Newport Folks Festival (in 1965) that changed Dylan’s direction. Who knows what Farina would have done, had he not taken that ride?
Is it Art? Jackson Pollock, whose abstract drip paintings changed modern art as we know it, was an angry, drunken mess in his latter days. On Aug. 11, 1956, estranged from his wife, Lee Krasner (who was in Paris at the time), an inebriated Pollock hopped into his Oldsmobile convertible with two young women — Edith Metzger and his mistress at the time, Ruth Kligman. He was reportedly annoyed because they wanted to go to a party and he didn’t.
Jackson Pollock in his Long Island studio, before the fall and before the crash. (Photo: Gayle/flickr)
“You want to go to this party?” he reportedly said. “How about this?” He pinned the accelerator, and the car hit 60, 70 and then 80 mph. The Olds skidded, bounced off a tree, and rolled several times. Pollock was decapitated, and Metzger was killed, too. Kligman survived, and wrote a book about the great man of art.
The End of the Movie. Like his fellow heartthrob, Steve McQueen, James Dean was obsessed with fast cars. But McQueen was the better driver. Dean’s death, at the wheel of his brand-new $7,000 Porsche 550 Spyder (nicknamed “Little Bastard”) came on Sept. 30, 1955. "East of Eden" had just been released.
No, that's not the real "Little Bastard." It's a model; the real one crashed, and the remains disappeared in 1960. But have they been found again? (Photo: R.T. Copenheaver/flickr)
The accident, in Cholame, California, was quite avoidable, since driving conditions were excellent. Dean and German Porsche mechanic Rolf Wütherich were on their way to a race in Salinas, California, in the Spyder, reportedly traveling at an extraordinary speed. A young student with the unlikely name Donald Turnupseed pulled out into the Porsche’s path in a Ford Tudor.
Turnupseed and Wütherich survived, though the latter was never the same — he tried to kill his wife in 1967. The Porsche, meanwhile, was totally destroyed, but some parts were reused in other racing cars, and the carcass was displayed as a macabre trophy by the late George Barris and others. The remains disappeared from a shipping container in 1960, after causing grief to several people who handled it. Cars with the transplanted parts crashed, too.
We may yet see James Dean’s death car — a man in Washington state, who may want to claim a $1 million reward, says he saw it walled up as a child. And he can lead authorities to it, for a price. It might be better to let it lie. Here's a fairly good recreation of the Dean crash, complete with a Broderick Crawford introduction: