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Friday, July 9, 2010

PERSONAL NOTE: Confessions of a Gravehunter

I have decided to take a segue into the macabre this week, if you find graveyards macabre that is. I personally do not, but that shall become obvious throughout the following article. With Rudy as my inspiration for the month, I began thinking about his grave site at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and how ardent fans still make their pilgrimages to see him every day. There is a mystifying quality to his crypt in the Cathedral Mausoleum, and legend has it that the ghost of the notorious "Lady in Black" still pays him visits as well as Rudy himself. It seems a bit odd for a ghost to haunt his or her own grave, if we indulge for a moment in the suspension of disbelief to give ourselves over to the idea of an afterlife, but cemeteries seem to be hot beds for unruly and restless spirits. Instead of reiterating the countless stories of specific hauntings, I thought that I would share with you a few of my own experiences. Having turned over nearly every stone in every cemetery in Los Angeles, I have more than one odd experience under my belt. Believe me or not, here are some of the best:


I'll begin with the most entertaining story. Westwood Memorial is one of the strangest cemeteries that I have come across. It is tucked behind a couple of skyscrapers in the middle of the city, situated in such an unlikely place that I drove up and down the street looking for it several times before realizing its less than obvious locale.  Once I found it, I was amazed at how small it was and yet how many of our fallen stars have landed there: Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon... I could go on, and on, and on. The nice thing about it is that it is an accepted tourist destination, so no one really minds if you're there taking pictures or just roaming around. You can't help but star gaze, after all, for every step you take lands you on someone famous.

One day I was there making a final trip to round off my list of the famous interred. It was a nice day, and I was listening to my ipod, which I normally never do at cemeteries, but this one is so lax it seemed appropriate. It turned out to be a fortunate decision. As I strolled around with my ipod on "shuffle," I came to Burt Lancaster's grave. After taking a moment to pay my respects, I snapped a shot and reached for my trusty list to see who was next. Right as my eyes hit the name "Carl Wilson," the song Good Vibrations came on my ipod. I froze for a second, with an "Oh my God" look on my face, and then I looked down. I was literally standing right on his stone! Needless to say, my eyes were bulging. I was quite tickled. I felt like this Beach Boy was just saying "Hi." Coincidence or not, the memory always makes me smile.


Now, despite the fact that I have become a sort of cemetery navigating expert, I can't deny that I quite often get lost, turned around, or just generally confused when covering new ground. Some of these graveyards are massive, and when visiting a new one I generally spend hours looking for just one person like a needle in a haystack. (Sometimes I think someone is playing games with me. Not cool). Sweating in the sun, climbing hills, searching for numbers and plots that don't seem to exhist... It gets quite exhausting. I'm pretty used to it by now and come prepared for every scavenger hunt, aware that it may take me all day, if not a few trips, to see everyone I want to see.

With this in mind, I made my trip up north to Mountain View. There was only one person on my list buried there, Superman George Reeves (right). For this reason, I delayed visiting for some time. It was a bit of a drive up to Pasadena, so I always found some excuse to put it off. One day, for no particular reason, I thought, "What the heck." So, into my car I went. All I knew was that he was buried in a mausoleum there. That's it. I expected to waste oodles of time bugging my eyes out for one little name but tried to focus on more pleasant thoughts. Now, in addition to getting lost in cemeteries, I must confess that I get lost in general. I get lost on my way home, on the way to a friend's house, on my way to places I've been a million times before. It's a problem-- driving in circles is kind of a curse with me. I expected as much with my drive up to Mountain View.

Thus, when I arrived unscathed, in record time, with not a wrong turn, I was a bit surprised to say the least. It was literally like I was driving to a place I had been a million times before. "Strange," I thought to myself warily. Once I pulled into the gates of the graveyard, I got a little intimidated. So much ground to cover, so little time. So, I thought, "Right or left?" For the Hell of it, I went right. I drove a pace and saw another side street to the right. "Should I take a chance and turn, or keep going?" I decided again to turn. There, behind the trees, was a mausoleum. I wasn't sure if it was the one I was looking for, but I thought I'd go for it. You gotta start somewhere.

I walked inside, and again wondered, "Right or left?" Both hallways looked menacing and long, so I decided to change it up and go left. As I strolled down the hallway, not a few steps, I saw something move beside me.  I jumped, like an idiot, only to realize that it was my own reflection in the mirror lining the wall. Catching my breath and laughing at myself, my eye was then attracted to something behind me in the mirror. Looking closer, I realized that it was an urn. An urn that said "Superman" in reverse. Gulp. I slowly turned around, and right before my eyes was the final resting place of George Reeves. Holy Moly. I didn't know what to do, so I just said, "Hi, George." This was one guy who really wanted to be found. Never have I ever been drawn so effortlessly to a grave.


Despite the occasional "spooktacular" event like the aforementioned, cemeteries in general do not frighten me or ruffle my feathers. In fact, there has only been one cemetery that I can remember having a very foreboding presence. That was the Jewish graveyard, Home of Peace. This place serves as the eternal napping location of two Stooges, Curly and Shemp, and the illustrious Warner brothers. (Jack, needless to say, has his own large and separate plot outside the family crypt). The grounds of the cemetery didn't bother me, and I found it quite interesting that several of the graves were buried under  elevated, cement slabs. (I don't know if that is a normal practice within the faith or is purely a choice of the cemetery, but I am interested to know).

The real danger, I would soon discover, seemed to be lurking in the mausoleum. I went inside to see the Laemmle family crypt and a few others. I didn't feel too bad immediately upon entering, but then I was close to the door. However, the farther back I went into the building, the more I began to feel incredibly claustrophobic. I felt as though I were being watched, and so paranoid did I become that I began thinking crazy thoughts like, "They don't want me here..." I decided to pick up the pace a little, got a few shots, and saw that the last name on the list was Louis B. Mayer himself. Of course, he was interred allllll the way at the back of the building. Great.

I mustered the courage to take a quick run, and I do mean run, to the back, where I found his crypt. I didn't feel well at all. I can't say for sure that it was Louis the whole time that was following me around or making me ill at ease, but I know that the moment I locked eyes with the picture of him on his marble slab was the climax of my discomfort. This voyage was an early one of my ventures, so I knew little of LB other than that he was a big studio mogul. Strange as it sounds, though, my instinctual feelings were telling me: "I don't like this guy." After learning more about him and how he used MGM as his personal brothel, I can justify where those feeling were coming from, but then again, maybe I was just over-excited and making a mountain out of a mole-hill. I got my picture and ran like Hell. Real or imagined, that is the one cemetery I have never returned to.

*** I have had similar experiences when I am strangely affected by a particular grave either positively or negatively. Another example similar to the LB experience was when I met the devious Bugsy Segal in the Beth Olam Mausoleum. I referred to this event in my previous article on Elizabeth"The Black Dahlia" Short. However, occassionally, I have a happy meeting with a deceased friend. The first time I came to the Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Jr. monument, I was filled with a profound sense of happiness. I felt oddly right at home. I have returned there several times to sit, relax, and say "hi" to the Dougs.


This has got to be the most frustrating cemetery in creation! Everyone is there. Everyone! But, the majority of them are locked up tight in the Great Mausoleum where no mere mortal is ever allowed to tread. For this reason, Norma Shearer, Jean Harlow, Gable and Lombard, Wallace Reid, Lon Chaney, etc, ad nauseum, continue to evade me. Despite this, it is nice to go inside to see the jaw-dropping Last Supper Window and know that you are surrounded by the remnants of greatness, even if you can't see them.

On the grounds, which are more expansive than you can imagine, you can easily find Jimmy Stewart, Alla Nazimova, Spencer Tracy, and Errol Flynn.  However, there are some gardens that are restricted and though the Freedom Mausoleum is open to the public, all of its corridors are roped off on the main floor. It seems like such a waste that such places are forbidden, and all those who martyred themselves from the public are now guarded from their fans like precious jewels. Ironic, considering how hard most of them fought to achieve their fame. 

Now, a normal person would shrug her shoulders at such obstacles and give up; say "Oh, well. What does it matter?" Not I. Oh, no. Not by a long shot. What follows goes down in history as one of the craziest series of events in my life.

My umpteenth voyage to FLG began almost apathetically. I had just finished researching the great Mary Pickford (left), and I was dying to go pay my respects, but I knew that she was locked away tight, so making the trek to Glendale seemed pointless. Still, I decided to go. At least I knew that there were still plenty of peeps I could visit while there who were out in the open. Armed with nothing more than hope, and oodles of time, I went.

Upon arriving, I had become more determined. I started with the Freedom Mausoleum. Clara Bow is a favorite. I had been able to crane my neck down the hallway to peek at her resting place before, but had not gotten close enough for a good look. Suddenly, I felt empowered, as if Clara were saying, "Go for it, honey." I decided that this was my chance, caution be damned! So, peering around to see if there were any cameras or guards watching, I hopped the iron rope down her corridor and snapped a shot of her. And Alan Ladd... and Jeanette MacDonald, (you get the idea). Quick as a flash, I returned to the main hall, acting calm and casual of course-- "Who me? I was here the whole time." I sauntered down a bit to the alcove where Dorothy Dandridge was interred and re-enacted my previous shenanigans. Now, I was a bit nervous, because this whole time I had heard two men talking downstairs rather loudly. I thought, "Crap, I hope that's not security." Still, I finished my feat and voila! Victory!

Notice the shaky camera work, haha!

Done with the upstairs, I figured I would take a chance and wander downstairs, hoping that the gentlemen whom I'd heard conversing so animatedly were guests and not employees. But, as I hit the middle of the staircase, the voices suddenly stopped. Silence. It was like they had heard me coming and didn't want to be rude by continuing their noisy chat. Curious, I continued down, expecting to see or pass someone. There was no one there. I peered down the hallways and didn't see a single soul. Where had they gone? I would have heard the large doors open and close if they had exited, not to mention the fact that their voices would not have stopped so abruptly but would have audibly receded as they distanced themselves from the area. I got chills. Had I mistakenly witnessed a post-mortem convo? I like to tell myself that it was Chico (below) and Gummo Marx-- both buried below-- hamming it up, but that's purely my imagination. I only wish now that I could remember what the voices had been saying. Could have been explainable; could've been paranormal. Who knows?

Now, my favorite part. Riding high off my Freedom Mausoleum experiences, I felt like I was invinceable. I was surging with energy, feeling like something was cosmically locking into place. The cemetery, and its residents, were my friends today. It is hard to explain, but I felt a synchronicity, which gave me a little more courage when I headed over to see little Mary. When I made it over to her nook by the David statue, the best I hoped to accomplish was catching a glimpse of the original movie queen's grave over the surrounding wall. I rounded the corner past the Miracle of Life sculpture and froze in my tracks. The door to the garden, normally locked and bolted, was wide open! As it turned out, they were mowing the inner lawn that day. God bless coincidence, (though, I personally prefer to think that Mary was with me that day, guiding me to see her). Not wasting a second, I ran inside, crouched down, and got a shot of the elaborate bacchanal of a stone that housed Mary Pickford and her brother, sister, and mother. I was beaming! Then I realized, hey... Isn't Bogey in here too??? Worried that a groundskeeper would appear at any moment, I moved fast. I found the location of Humphrey Bogart's ashes, snapped a shot, flashed a grin, and decided not to press my luck. Out I went, having accomplished every possible goal I could have imagined!

Now looking back at all of these little adventures, I think that I was simply carried away, let my imagination run away with me, and created epic "hauntings" in my mind. I had probably experienced nothing more than my own nerves. Had you asked me at the time, though, I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that I had encountered other-worldly presences while roaming around the haven of their afterlives. Sometimes, the feelings I receive are positive, as if the people I admire are somehow communicating with me and accepting me as one of their own. Other times, I feel unnerved and desperately in need of an escape route. Either way, I get chills.

I don't claim to know what happens to us when we die, and there are plenty of times that I think I should have my head examined for any of my obsessive delvings into the past, which clearly seem to go too far. But, I cannot deny my own instincts. It only makes sense that in voyaging into the past, coming to know so many different personalities, and literally walking the streets were they lived, died, and lie, that some hint of who and what they were would reach out to me. If you spend the majority of your life looking for ghosts, you are bound to find at least one. I feel proud to say that more than one has found me.


  1. Great post! I enjoy old cemeteries as well. I went up to Forest Lawn once to leave flowers for Gable and Lombard, but unfortunately the mausoleum was closed to anyone but families of the deceased. And I loved going to the Cinespia screenings at Hollywood Forever!

  2. Meredith you are so funny. I enjoyed your misadventures so much that I was laughing out loud.I’m sorry but I love how you took a solemn visit and turned into A Day at the Cemetery! I was thinking of visiting LA this summer to be part of the freak show at HF for Rudy’s memorial service. And if I can work my Chicago “clout” to get into the Great Mausoleum, your goin with! We have to see Lon and Jean. thanks

  3. Kendra: Glad you enjoyed! That stinks about Clark and Carole. It's such a shame :(

    Billy: Hahaha! You're on!!!

  4. Terrific!!
    I live about 2 blocks from Hlywd Forever and have always treated it like my neighborhood park. Everytime I'm there I always stop in to say hi and thank you to Rudy. I can't even count the times anymore.

    Perhaps I'm just as 'sensitive' to the energies as you are (or just plain nuts) because on the first dozen or so visits, while I was enjoying my moment with Valentino, I couldn't help but get a sense of, aggravation is all I can think to call it, coming from behind me. (I'm sure by now you know where this is going) Finally, one time I turned around and, sure enough, on the other wall, a few rows to the right and down a little, I see "Peter Finch"! Well "Network" is one of my favorite films of the modern era, and I guess Peter was just Mad As Hell that I wasn't paying attention to him too.

  5. Hahaha! Classic, Felix. I love it! ;)