Ruminations

A Tale of Two Hollywood Cemeteries

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When I close my eyes and picture Hollywood, I see grime and water-starved palm trees, white plastic sunglasses and discarded needles. For every Rodeo Drive, with its well-manicured streets, designed for beautiful cars and beautiful women, there are two or ten or twenty Melrose Avenues, the reason the descriptor "seedy" exists, slightly menacing, but mostly sad, where dreams of celebrity go to die and, from those ashes, give rise to cement, patchouli-scented sex shops, and Walgreen's staffed by more security attendants than cashiers. 

I first visited as a new graduate of the eighth grade. We landed at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. The heat was oppressive, but not nearly as stifling as the cigarette smoke in the air. I was too old for my first trip to Disneyland—once your child can articulate a critique of capitalism, it's probably too late—and shocked by how small the letters of the Hollywood sign really were. The age-inappropriate People magazine and E! True Hollywood Stories I mainlined like rolls of Ritz crackers suddenly made sense. This is the place where Drew Barrymore entered rehab at 14, Nicole Brown was nearly-decapitated in the courtyard of her home while her children were sleeping, and River Phoenix died on the sidewalk outside a club called The Viper Room at 23. 

My decision to return, almost a decade later, was born of curiosity and Seasonal Affective Disorder. Loathe to spend Christmas and New Year's in New York, I convinced my family to drive from Phoenix to the Pacific, stopping at every graveyard along the way. We wound our way through palo verde trees, which are green with the potential of full-body photosynthesis, and animated cacti, which at 10 or 12 or 14 feet tall are more humanlike than botanical. We greeted Joshua trees in their own special Seussian park—soon to be a cemetery of its own, thanks to climate change—and took photos of thin, shaggy palm trees commemorating the long-gone golden age of Palm Springs. In Los Angeles, I found the city to be as antithetical to my personal aesthetics as ever. But I also discovered a sense of appreciation (just enough to get me through the three-day trip) for some of that same ghoulishness that scared me as a child. 

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Every cemetery in Southern California has a celebrity or two buried within its boundaries, whether it's Judy Garland at Hollywood Forever Cemetery (subdivided a century ago to make room for Paramount Pictures) or Easy-E at the far-flung Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier. But one rises above the rest, like the crown jewel in Los Angeles's singular afterlife infrastructure: Forest Lawn Memorial Park Glendale.

Founded in 1906 by Hubert Eaton, his memorial park was supposed to offer "optimistic" burials for heaven-bound Christians. Eaton found other sites to be dark and, well, deathly. He wanted to create a space that was a home to artists and architecture students, that eschewed mass-manufactured grave markers for classical sculptures and personalized memorials, and, most of all, that celebrated life instead of focusing on that dull old specter of death. Not only would it commemorate forever the good lives lived in Los Angeles, it would serve as a space for entertainment and ceremony. Ronald Reagan was married there, for the first time, in 1940, the same year he played The Gipper.

As you can see in this vintage map below, Eaton's sprawling creation was divided into numerous thematic regions. Like a deathly Disneyland, it has carefully-crafted hills and valleys and rip-offs of classical European statuary. Famous corpses are sprinkled throughout Graceland, Slumberland, Liberty, Memory, Whispering Vines, the Dawn of Tomorrow. Walt Disney lies beneath a Little Mermaid statue in the Court of Freedom. Nearby, in the Garden of Everlasting Peace, is Erroll Flynn, the mustachioed Tasmanian pirate actor twice accused of rape. Sunrise Slope gives way, inevitably, to the Vale of Memory. The Garden of Ascension sits atop Inspiration Slope, which itself leads down to a plot called Everlasting Love. Due south, in the Wee Kirk Churchyard, are the remains of Jimmy Stewart.

But the most beloved celebrities are buried behind closed doors. 

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Approaching Glendale's Great Mausoleum, which is modeled on Genoa's Campo Santo cemetery, I fell silent, and was overcome by an inborn Catholic sentiment to genuflect—to make my humility physical in some way. But that somber sensibility quickly dissipated, for just beyond the camera-snatching security guards, in a comical facsimile of a Renaissance hall is a 12-foot tall buxom—and winged—marble woman, opening her arms to the hordes of fans, should any have assembled. Carved in "Roma" in 1929, the pedestal reads "Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor 1932-2011." 

As I walked toward the lifeless women, one on top of the other, I was shocked to find myself distracted by a booming voice, like that of God, funneled in through loudspeakers. A neighboring room housed, on all four walls, stain glass reproductions of Leonardo Da Vinci's Last Supper and other frescos. The voice explained, on an eternal loop, that these were part of Eaton's grand plan to bring the best of Europe straight to the citizens of Los Angeles County. On all sides were plaster casts, a few of the 1,500 statues on site, many of which I'd last seen in the Vatican. (California's Pietá looked more airbrushed than anguished.)

Walking around the Mausoleum, I was struck by how many celebrities were buried under their stage names. For example, Clark Gable has put his wife, Jane Alice Peters, in a marble wall around the corner under a possessive take on her box office billing: Carole Lombard Gable. Less surprising, but no less intriguing, were the number of celebrities who choose to be represented by metal casts of their autographs. I first noticed this on Sony Bono's grave in Palm Springs, but the stylish flair was waiting for me around every corner in Glendale. The show business expressed itself in more unique ways, too. George Burns is said to have given wife Gracie Allen "top billing," as they bought two shelves and he put her casket above his. 

For all the ostentatious display of wealth, celebrity, and even nationalism (what other country feels the need to reproduce every accomplishment of the Old World?), there was a paradoxical emphasis on privacy. Michael Jackson, a close friend of Elizabeth Taylor's, is buried in a portion of the Mausoleum accessible only to family. At the back door of the building, a constantly-replenished shrine is made to the King of Pop. Photos are not allowed, while quiet idolatry is encouraged, even cultivated. It's a beautified, sanitized, and permanent reification of the beliefs of those interred here: They knew that though they may die, in a way the rest of us never will be, they would always be immortal. 

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There's a cemetery across town with a decidedly different vibe. Forest Lawn's waxy-eyed commitment to "celebrating life" turned it into a Disneyland of Death. But the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary's commitment to restraint created the confines from which a true celebration might spring. 

Finding the Westwood cemetery was a challenge. We circled and circled the block, never quite ending up where the Google Maps pin told us to go. Finally, we realized the memorial park was in between the pink and white skyscrapers we'd been circumnavigating. Once we got the courage to climb up a concrete incline between the sinewy buildings, past a power-washing crew and a subterranean office parking garage, we stumbled into the intimate burial ground, a comfortable sunlight cutting through the towers and swinging palm trees. 

Don Knotts, the Armand Hammer family crypt, Rodney Dangerfield, Ray Bradbury, and Farrah Fawcett are there. So, too, are the unusual pairing of Truman Capote and "beloved friend" Joanne Carson, the ex-wife of The Tonight Showhost. (I later learned Joanne Carson's estate actually auctioned off Capote's ashes, in 2016, when Joanne died. Someone paid $43,750 for the privilege of owning the In Cold Blood author's ashes. Joanne is now alone.) But my priority was Norma Jean Baker.

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Buried under her stage name, Marilyn Monroe's death has been as messy as her life. (And for longer. She died 56 years ago, and only lived to the age of 36.) In 1962, after a fatal barbiturate overdose, her abusive ex-husband Joe DiMaggio brought her body here, to this little-known cemetery in what was then the boonies of Hollywood. He claimed they'd rekindled their romance in the days before her death, and that all she wanted now was a little peace and quiet. He bought the crypt above her for himself. 

But things didn't go as planned. A few decades later, DiMaggio seems to have sold his spot to a man named Richard Poncher. Upon his death in 1986, Poncher's wife fulfilled the creepiest last will and testimony request imaginable: to be buried upside down, on his stomach, so that he could look at Monroe for all eternity. (DiMaggio is buried in Florida.) Then, upon his death in 2017, Hugh Hefner had his body placed to the immediate left of Monroe, a woman he'd never met, whose nude photographs, taken when she was young and poor, Hefner had used without permission or in exchange for compensation to launch his magazine Playboy. 

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Wandering the grounds of the comfy, cozy cemetery, I felt anger and sadness for the life of Norma Jean and so many others used and abused by themselves, the industry, and the people they mistakenly loved. But I also felt a surprising buoyancy.

Never before or since have I been to a more beautiful cemetery than Pierce Brothers Westwood. While I'd never visit Elizabeth Taylor again, I could see myself making a pilgrimage to Marilyn Monroe and her neighbors whenever I returned to L.A. If it wasn't so incongruous to spend eternal slumber in a city you can hardly bear to wake up in, I could even see the appeal of being buried there one day myself. From where I stood, in near a reflection pond in a green, green grove, Forest Lawn is paid exorbitant sums to arrange and maintain the reputations of their clients—to the point of the entire burial ground feeling suffused with an impermeable air of artifice. Pierce Brothers Westwood, between its funereal politics and undeniable beauty, offers an authentic end to the Hollywood experience.

It just so happens, authenticity is often painful.


This was reprinted from my death + design newsletter, The Pine Overcoat. To see the entirety of The Pine Overcoat archive, or to subscribe to future issues, click here.