The Star’s Last Gathering Place

Written by Rachel Pitts

Published Issue: Summer 2011

She said she never learned how to be happy.

By her own account, Norma lived in fourteen foster homes. She married at sixteen. Only the first of her three husbands was not an American legend in his own right.

When she died of an overdose of barbiturates at the age of thirty-six, the responsibility for her funeral service fell to her second husband, the great Joe DiMaggio. Bitter at her treatment by Hollywood, the Yankee Clipper chose to keep the funeral quiet and as private as the notorious occasion would allow. DiMaggio decided against holding the service at one of the cemeteries where moviedom’s greats were traditionally buried; where graves were turned into tourist spots for fans from all over the world.

DiMaggio knew that the last foster home where Norma lived in the lifetime preceding her unfathomable recognition as the vulnerable actress and sex siren, Marilyn Monroe, was the house where she felt the most comfortable. It was the closest place she came to finding a family.

Norma momentarily felt loved enough to call the lady who owned the home Mother. The older woman was a dyed-blonde with a square build and a toughness that overshadowed her efforts to be stylish. Her name was Grace Goddard. She was buried in one of the plots available in the 2.8 acres of Westwood Memorial Park in 1953, at the age of 59, following her death from barbiturate poisoning due to ingestion of Phenobarbital.

The Cemetery
At the time of Marilyn’s death, the Westwood cemetery had only one real star. He is completely forgotten now but, in the 1960s, audiences would have remembered the work of Robert Newton. He was a popular English actor who made more than twenty-five films, including the pirate flicks “Long John Silver” and “Blackbeard.”

Newton filled his nights. He married four times. He produced several children. He raised hell on several continents and died at the age of fifty from complications of an alcoholic lifestyle.

He was only in the Westwood Cemetery until one of his sons was old enough to gain control of his ashes and have them spread in England. It was a pattern that was duplicated decades later for another English actor, the once respected and sadly dissolute, Peter Lawford.

DiMaggio liked that Westwood Memorial Park was hidden from Wilshire Boulevard. The property is about halfway between the bungalow where Marilyn was discovered nude in her bedroom, surrounded by the detritus of a medication addiction and champagne, and the studios where she made her films. Beautifully kept now, it managed then a rather rustic look of a small rural cemetery.

Westwood, which is home to a university, UCLA, was itself a relatively sleepy community in 1962. The skyscraping buildings and the busy streets were a decade away from stealing the village appeal. Marilyn’s placement in the first section of what would become several vaults changed forever the make-up of the cemetery. Marilyn brought status and an entirely new clientele. Westwood Memorial Park became a favored spot for movie stars to find a last gathering place.

Burying the Dead
The Wyoming Funeral Directors’ Association does a good a job detailing humans and death. They explain how researchers have discovered Neanderthal remains from 60,000 years ago that were buried with animal antlers and flower fragments. Even then, and ever since, people of all kinds, from every civilization, have tried to make sense of death by memorializing those who mattered, and in some instances, didn’t matter to them at all.

There is no way to measure the number of graves in the United States. Everybody dies. According to the Unitarian Universalists, our country put the dead in graveyards or bone yards until the 1830s. A name change seemed to be in order. The Unitarians borrowed the Greek word “koimerterion” meaning ‘a place for sleep’ and made cemeteries peaceful places.
The Unitarians must like what has been done at Westwood Memorial Park.

It is hard to imagine a more peaceful spot in the middle of a modern city. The noise from the heavy traffic of Wilshire Boulevard is muted by the buildings surrounding the property. There is very little pedestrian traffic. The people who attend the movies nearby cannot see the cemetery from the street. You have to know where you are going; you have to know it is hidden away.

The first of the graves can be traced to a woman named Alice E. L. Brown. She died in 1906 and was joined by her husband, Albert, 20 years later. How they died is a mystery. Both were old at a time when old age was not common. Close by is Samuel Fulks. He served in the Civil War in the 35th Wisconsin Infantry.

We met a woman who worked at the park. She was coy at first about discussing the cemetery, but did not avoid us when we followed her as she nipped old buds off dying flowers that had been left behind by visitors. She was in sales. It was easier to get the impression that she was the grounds caretaker by the way she tended to different graves.

The respect for those who don’t leave the area is absolute. They had expectations when they bought a plot at Westwood that a park-like ambience of beauty and reflection would be maintained. They are not betrayed. We learned the woman was Canadian. She was in sales there, too, a different industry, yet she had experience with people who need something and are willing to pay a premium.

Marilyn and Friends
There isn’t a single day that goes by when someone doesn’t come looking for Marilyn’s resting spot. Sometimes, often in fact, they arrive unable to speak English, and when they ask unintelligibly for some kind of information, it is almost automatic that they are pointed in the direction of Marilyn’s crypt.

There are other interesting women that visitors come to see. An anonymous benefactor paid for the burial of adventurous pinup girl Bettie Page. She made a name for herself in the space between the end of the war and a last puritanical chasm in our American outlook toward sex. Her provocative pictures made her more famous than rich. She outlived both her fame and her fortune and died lonely at the age of 85.

Bettie’s grave is close to that of the beautiful and doomed Dorothy Stratten, the Canadian blonde who was a Playmate of the Year and the great love of movie director Peter Bogdanovich. She was murdered in a terrible fashion by her estranged husband. Lovely and too much idealized, she was victimized by a man in her life and was dead at twenty.

Another grave that was filled far too early, and also by someone who was supposed to have been loved by the one who caused her death, was the talented Dominique Dunn. She is under a stone that simply says, “Beloved Daughter and Sister. Loved by All.” None of the details of the night her boyfriend, violent early on in their relationship, a chef at a premier Los Angeles restaurant, choked her to death. There were flowers on her grave the day we visited. It is such a loss that she is gone, and the jackass that killed her was given the best benefit of a sometimes too gracious legal system and served only six years for manslaughter. Yes, the system said he didn’t murder her because the poor boy expected her to stay with him and he lost control when that proved not to be true.

Natalie Wood was perhaps the most luminous actress of her time. She made the transition from child actress, to teenage talent, to major Hollywood star. Natalie was forty-two when she got on a yacht with her husband and a co-star from her latest movie. There was a night of drinking. There was noise. If anyone really knows what happened they have kept it to themselves. Natalie got off the boat for some reason. Her body was discovered in the water the following morning. Natalie’s funeral was covered in newscasts around the world.

Farrah Fawcett was, for a short time, the world’s favorite star. Her poster with the wide smile and red bathing suit was the first to sell in the millions.

The fairytale life of the wholesome Texas girl who finds happiness in Hollywood did not endure. Her life was more complicated. There were great love affairs. There were disappointments. Her career sputtered. Her personal life ended up like most personal lives. There were challenges. She met them and it wasn’t sad or tragic.

She was extraordinary with her candor and courage when cancer took over her final years. She is buried in a six-person plot that is in a neighborhood of plots that includes several stars. The space next to her is empty. You can purchase it for $600,000 and rest there forever with a handful of family members.

The cemetery is a high-rent district. The only car in the driveway when we arrived was a Rolls Royce that was spotless and belonged to an old man, if not old money. The first of the mausoleums was constructed for Armand Hammer, a billionaire industrialist with close ties to Russia. There is one for the Witherbees, an early businessman, not much known about the family.

And, if you are so inclined, there is available space; one of the two remaining mausoleums that you can put your name on for a price that will be negotiated in the three million dollar range.

There are writers.

Truman Capote, the quirky, diminutive native of Alabama who grew up in poverty and is in a wall not too far from where John Cassavetes, the avant garde screenwriter and director is buried next to Eva Gabor. Eva was never as famous as her sister, Zsa Zsa, and her body is within calling distance of her “Green Acres” husband, Eddie Albert. Ray Bradbury’s wife is already present. Her husband, the author of such genius as “Fahrenheit 451” and “I Sing the Body Electric!”, will join her in time, just as Playboy creator Hugh Hefner has a crypt reserved next to Marilyn. Will and Arial Durant, the prolific historians could, if resurrected in time, talk about literature with Ernest Lehman, Billy Wilder, and the legendary Daryl F. Zanuck, the man everyone at 20th Century Fox called ‘Boss.’

There are stars every movie lover has cared about for the last half century. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, a wry one word on his tombstone that he must have laughed about when he decided how his mortal remains would be handled – “in” – . James Coburn’s ashes are interred under a bench inscribed with his last name.

The comic Rodney Dangerfield is in good company. The underrated actor and beloved middle-America singer, the favored Dean Martin, has a crypt. Karl Malden was placed in a quiet spot after a very long life; and there are the unmarked graves of the great George C. Scott, an Academy Award Winner for “Patton” and the powerful centerpiece of more than forty films.

Somewhere, nearby, the singers Roy Orbison and Frank Zappa are also hidden. Merv Griffin, the television host and investment guru, who left a note to visitors inscribed on his headstone that says, “I will not be right back.”

Carl Wilson, the sweet voiced middle brother of the Beach Boys is buried next to Paul Gleason, the gifted actor who is best remembered as the crazed teacher in “The Breakfast Club.”

Carroll O’Connor, the iconic Archie Bunker, and his boy, Hugh, who broke his old man’s heart when he died from the diminution of drugs, are together. In an equally heartbreaking story, the remarkably versatile actor Brian Keith had his ashes placed next to his lovely daughter, Daisy. Her death at 28 was also drug-related and his suicide the same year was the sad end to an otherwise very productive life.

While we were there, a white-haired gentleman from Mississippi drove up in a rental car and got out. He was a sportswriter. He wanted to see where Burt Lancaster was laid to rest. We found it; a modest square under which the great actor’s ashes were placed.

The sportswriter came to the cemetery as a tourist. He talked about the game at Yankee Stadium when Mickey Mantle’s career was honored. He said the great DiMaggio and Senator Robert Kennedy were both on the field, but they deliberately avoided each other; DiMaggio evidently forever hating the Kennedys for their treatment of Marilyn.

There are others who made their mark in Hollywood, many of them evoking certain public memories. Bob Crane, television’s Colonel Hogan and his gorgeous co-star and final wife are there. His murder in an Arizona hotel went unsolved. Mel Tormé, the songwriter; G. David Schine who was buried as a producer but had a much more interesting brush with fame as a youthful confidante of Senator Joseph McCarthy.

There are stars who probably thought they would never be forgotten. Pleasant actors like Jim Hutton, dead from cancer two days after his forty-fifth birthday and, if remembered, is usually recalled as the father of Academy Award winner Timothy Hutton. Robert Stack, a movie star once and a television personality for decades, had a long and enjoyable life before he was buried in Westwood. Fannie Brice, the real Funny Girl, was moved there. The spectacular Minnie Riperton has been there since her premature death at 31. Just go to the old records and be amazed by the celestial reach of her high-octave voice and the perfect phrasing of her greatest hit, ‘Lovin You’. She was dead at the beginning of what should have been a long career.

You can find the grave for Jim Backus, Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island, the voice of Mr. Magoo before that and, even earlier, a talented supporting actor who played with grim clarity the father of James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause.”

Not too far from the entrance to the cemetery is a very simple grave that belongs to the beloved Barney Fife, Emmy Award winning actor Don Knotts.

A movie buff can spend the day there remembering the contributions of Cornel Wilde, Lloyd Nolan, Richard Conte - Barzini from “The Godfather” - and the bearded Sebastian Cabot, an articulate and refined screen presence who actually got started in life as the son of a southern farmer.

Georgia Frontiere owned the Los Angeles Rams. She married many times. Her smile was like her personality; bright and lively. She was a woman of depth and energy. She is alone now in a crypt on the back side of the cemetery.

Even if the cemetery had not become a favorite of the rich and famous, it would still be a peaceful place to visit. The names, however, do conjure stories and are part of the collective memory of our country.

It is a place in time. It is timeless.

Article Search:

Join our Mailing List




Wrapper End
Wrapper Top
Wrapper End