Hooray for Hollywood (Forever Cemetery)!
It was the best of times, it was the best of times.
As if the Turner Classic Movies film festival of 2014 weren’t already a mind-blowingly awesome experience on its own, I topped off this year’s now-annual visit to Los Angeles with a super-cool tour of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (formerly known as the Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery).
Conducted by guide extraordinaire Karie Bible – who was clad in a fetching black lace vintage dress and carried a matching parasol – the tour ambled throughout the grounds of the beautifully peaceful cemetery, with Bible providing fascinating bits of information about many of the eternal residents. Equipped with my trusty digital camera, I took the tour with a group of film fans gathered for the event, excitedly scribbling in my notebook and snapping pictures at each stop.
I’m glad to share with you now, a few of the highlights from this memorable and most delightful experience.
Griffith J. Griffth
Los Angeles’s famed Griffith Park was named after this philanthropist and industrialist, who donated more than 3,000 acres of land to the city. But if that’s all you know about this double-monikered fellow, well, pull up a chair! In addition to being a wealthy self-starter (he was born in South Wales and came to this country, without a dime, at the age of 15), Griffith was a severely paranoid alcoholic who got the notion into his head that his wife was conspiring with the Pope (yes, the Pope) to have him assassinated. To get the jump on her, so to speak, Griffith shot his wife in the head – she lost an eye and was left with a disfigured face, but she lived to tell the tale (and testify at the trial). Meanwhile, Griffith pleaded “alcoholic insanity” (say what?). He was defended by lawyer Earl Rogers – who later became the inspiration for the Perry Mason book series – and spent a mere two years in prison.
Mansfield was the buxom blonde star of such films as The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957). She’s also the mother of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit star Mariska Hargitay and, sadly, was killed at the gone-too-soon age of 34, when her car rammed into the back of a semi-trailer on a Louisiana highway. (Hargitay, three years old and asleep with her siblings in the back seat at the time, was unhurt in the accident.) Mansfield’s headstone is actually a cenotaph – a new word for me! – which means that it’s a monument erected for someone whose remains are someplace else. Mansfield is actually buried in Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania, where the actress lived from age three to six. Her cenotaph at Hollywood Forever was placed there by the Jayne Mansfield Fan Club – although it incorrectly identifies her year of birth as 1938, instead of 1933. Incidentally, Mariska Hargitay was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in November 2013 – it’s right next to that of her famous mom’s.
Best known for his role as Larry Tate in the long-running sitcom, Bewitched, White and his first wife, stage actress Mary Welch, had a son, Jonathan, in 1955. Three years later, Welch died during of complications from her second pregnancy. (Larry Tate’s son on Bewitched, incidentally, was named after White’s real-life son.) Sadly, Jonathan was on the flight that was bombed over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, and David White died of a heart attack two years later. His final resting place is in the Hollywood Memorial Park Cathedral Mausoleum at the cemetery, a lovely structure flanked by marble statues in the main hallway of the twelve apostles. White’s remains are in a memorial niche, which is a bookcase-like compartment with a glass front. The niche also contains Jonathan’s remains, photos of White and his son, and a “Larry Tate” bust sculpture, which is a prop from a 1969 Bewitched episode.
The famed silent film star, who died at the age of 31, is buried in a crypt in the Cathedral Mausoleum, next to the crypt of June Mathis, the screenwriter who discovered him and wrote four of his movies, including The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1921) and Blood and Sand (1922). At the time of his death, Valentino was millions of dollars in debt and there was no money to bury him. Mathis owned a row of crypts and loaned one to Valentino’s family for what was supposed to be the actor’s temporary housing. Unfortunately, 11 months later Mathis herself died, at the age of 40. In the 1930s, Mathis’s husband sold the crypt to the Valentino family. To this day, women leave lipsticked kisses on the crypt’s marble stone.
The iconic canine in the beloved 1939 musical The Wizard of Oz was played by a female Cairn Terrier by the name of Terry. She was born in Chicago in 1933, and was also seen in 15 other feature films, including the Shirley Temple vehicle Bright Eyes (1934), and The Women (1939), starring Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford. Terry died in 1945, but her remains are not at the Hollywood Forever cemetery. After her death, she was buried at her owner’s ranch in Studio City, but her grave marker was destroyed in the late 1950s when the land was razed to make way for the Ventura Freeway (under which she lies to this day.) On June 18, 2011, a permanent memorial was dedicated to “Toto” at Hollywood Forever.
This Gone With the Wind (1939) Oscar winner is yet another personage with a cenotaph at the cemetery. The actress wanted Hollywood Forever to be her final resting place, but the owner at the time of her death, a man by the name of Julius Roth, refused to allow McDaniel (along with most other minorities) to be buried there. Her body is actually buried at L.A.’s Rosedale Cemetery. More than 40 years later, the cemetery’s new owner, Tyler Cassity, offered to have McDaniel ‘s remains disinterred and buried at Hollywood Forever, but her family declined. Instead, Cassity erected the existing monument, placing it in what is arguably one of the most tranquil locations in the cemetery. A dedication ceremony was held at the cemetery on October 26, 1999, the 47th anniversary of McDaniel’s death; the cenotaph includes a quote from McDaniel’s last living relative, her grand-nephew, which reads, “Aunt Hattie, you are a credit to your craft, your race, and to your family.”
Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
The famed father and son actors are buried together beneath a striking monument that reads, “Good night, sweet princes.” The area behind the monument is called “The Fairbanks Lawn” and movies are frequently screened there. (By the way, in case you didn’t know – and I confess that I didn’t until Karie Bible told us! – the main character in the 2011 Oscar-winning film The Artist was based on the life of Fairbanks, Sr.)
- Finland native Maila Nurmi played Vampira in Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space and as the host of the popular, Emmy-nominated 1950s late-nite TV horror show. Nurmi died penniless in 2008 at the age of 85; fundraisers were held to buy her headstone and bury her.
- Mr. Blackwell, famed snarky judge of star styles and wardrobes, is buried next to his partner of 59 years, Robert Spencer.
- Don Addams, famed for his starring role in Get Smart (and the voice of Inspector Gadget on the popular animated show), fought in the Battle of Guadalcanal.
- Virginia Rappe is the starlet whose death led to the eventual ruin of silent star Fatty Arbuckle, who was tried three times (and finally acquitted) for her murder. Rappe is buried next to her fiancé, producer/director Henry Lehrman, who reportedly carried her photo in his wallet until his 1946 death.
- Fay Wray, best known for her role in the original King Kong (1933), was supposed to have the final line (“It was beauty killed the beast”) in the 2005 remake starring Jack Black, but she died in her sleep in 2004 at age 96.
- From the grave of Cecil B. DeMille, you have a clear view of the water tower at Paramount, the studio he helped to establish.
- Carl Switzer, who played Alfalfa on the Little Rascals series, was shot and killed at the age of 31 over a quarrel involving money and a hunting dog . His father, by the way, invented a breast enhancing machine.
- Actress Janet Gaynor, perhaps best known for her starring role in the original A Star is Born (1937), is buried next to her husband, famed fashion designer Adrian.
- Orin Kennedy and Bernardo Puccio, the only two living personages on the tour, purchased a memorial at the cemetery that will house their ashes when they pass on to the Great Beyond. The two had an official unveiling of their classically designed monument in 2006, inviting friends and family to join them. The “living funeral” was the focus of a 2014 documentary on Kennedy and Puccio, entitled An Ordinary Couple.
Other notables included on the tour were Jean Harlow’s third husband Harold Rosson; Charlie Chaplin’s mother, Hannah; Tyrone Power, whose monument is a striking marble bench; Darren McGavin, star of The Night Stalker television series, and one of my favorite holiday movies, A Christmas Story; Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn; director William Desmond Taylor, whose murder is still unsolved today; noir and horror film veteran Peter Lorre; and voice actor Mel Blanc, whose tombstone famously reads, “That’s all, folks.”
If you’re ever in Los Angeles, I can recommend strongly enough that you take in one of Karie Bible’s tours of the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. (Contact information and tour dates can be found here.) It will be an experience you’ll never forget. Trust me.
You only owe it to yourself.