Thursday, March 3, 2011
The Hard Way
Wednesday, March 2, 2011
The freeways are relatively clear and fast-moving as I speed by the Pasadena train station in my car on the way to Griffith Park and the adjacent Forest Lawn Cemetery. This is one of the last stops on my list of sights to see before I begin to head back east on Saturday.
First I cruise through Griffith Park, past the LA Zoo and a couple of museums devoted to train travel, which don't interest me much. Down at the south end of the park is the Griffith Observatory, built in 1935 with money bequeathed by Griffith Jenkins Griffith himself. When he first tried to donate the money in 1912, the City of Los Angeles accepted it but the Park Commission didn't want it and enjoined him from making the donation. Perhaps it was because of the unfortunate incident at the hotel in Santa Monica where he shot his wife in the face while she kneeled in front of him. But hey, he'd done his time, paid his debt to society and all that. Eventually he left the money to the city in his will and they got it when he died in 1919.
The Griffith Observatory is well known--one of the biggest tourist attractions in the area. Due in part to some bad memories involving college astronomy classes, I have a bias against looking too deeply into space, but I go up anyway because the view of Mother Earth is pretty decent. The Hollywood sign comes into view as I approach the summit, and downtown LA is spread out in all its glory on this hazy day.
Inside the observatory are a number of dislays on outer space. Models of the planets and movies about the impenetrable mysteries of the universe. Blah blah blah. Little exhibits abound with captions like "Our Sun is a Star," and "The Moon is Our Closest Neighbor in Space." Things that everyone over the age of eight who isn't from the jungles of Borneo already knows. I take the elevator up to the roof and walk around, enjoying the view of the Hollywood Hills and the vastness of the metropolitan area. Now it's time to move on.
With my love of cemeteries I couldn't very well come this close to Forest Lawn without dropping in. On the north side of Griffith Park, up by the freeway, I leave the park and drive west around to the entrance of the graveyard. This is one of about a dozen branches of Forest Hills. Maybe because it's near Hollywood, the Land of Make Believe, this one is a little like a Greenfield Village for the dead. There's a full-scale replica of the Old North Church in Boston, for instance, and other chapels that resemble things like a quaint white New England country parish church. And lots of paeans to patriotism in the form of tributes to great Americans and flags and monuments to soldiers. The place is vast, appearing even more so because there's a mountain on the edge of it and it looks as if the graves will some day go all the way up it.
Many of the graves by the Old North Church are those of Armenians, who in life fill the nearby City of Glendale. Some of the markers are written entirely in the unique and interesting alphabet of that language. Just a little uphill from the church and the dead Armenians is a huge monument dedicated to George Washington. At the top, twenty feet up, stands the father of our country in his military garb. Below him on the pedestal are the busts of four generals from the Revolutionary War and below them on the plinth sit the female personifications of various virtues and travails. A couple dozen thin metal prongs stick straight up out of Washington's bare bewigged head, suggesting that he's having a bad hair day. They're intended, I suppose, to keep pigeons from sitting and shitting on him. There's a lot going on here. As I stand back to take in the entire Washington extravaganza a woman approaches me. She's wearing a blazer that makes her look like a real estate agent. As it turns out she is, sort of. She works for Forest Lawn, in sales. She hands me her card, bearing an Armenian name and stating that she's in "Advance Planning." She wonders if I need any help purchasing a final resting place. Although I'm thinking I wouldn't mind being buried here by the Old North Church in the shadow of George Washington, I tell her that I'm just visiting from out of town. We chat for a bit and she says she has relatives in the Detroit area. I tell her I'm not surprised, because there's a significant Armenian population there. Though I don't tell her so, I'm thinking she might be related to another Armenian from Michigan, Jack Kevorkian. And, coincidentally, they're in different ends of the same business.
The only drawback to Forest Hills is that it's a memorial park, so most of the grave markers are flush with the ground. Few interesting tombstones. On the plus side they don't allow artificial flowers, so lots of the bronze vases dotting the gentle slopes are filled with freshly-cut carnations, roses, and birds of paradise. A definite improvement over the weatherproof plastic and silk flowers you find in most memorial parks.
As much as I enjoy looking at the final resting places of unknown folks, I'm thinking there must be some famous people here, too. On the way out past the front gate I stop at the small drive-up building labeled "Information." I ask a well-dressed young man if he can tell me where the graves of the famous people are. He's trained to be helpful, but this is first and foremost a business--a going concern where they're trying to put bodies in the ground, not a tourist attraction. Naturally, however, there's something to be gained by having well-known people in your cemetery. It increases the cost of real estate, for one thing. The guy in the booth eyes me the way a concierge at the Hotel George V in Paris might examine an underdressed tourist who walks in off the street to ask directions to the Eiffel Tower. "We don't keep that sort of information here," he says with amiable gravity. He forces a smile as he looks at the bungee cord holding my left front fender together. "But since you've driven all the way from Michigan I suppose I could show you where you might see a few celebrities." He disappears into the small building and comes back in a few seconds with a map of the cemetery on which he has circled a particular section, a group of mausoleums. I thank him and he smiles and waves as I make a U-turn and drive back in.
Rather than simply numbering its sections, Forest Hills gives them names. No doubt they're designed to provide a sort of comfort to the living while assuring them that their loved ones are resting in a place that's strictly top of the line. Names like God's Acre, Bright Eternity, Abiding Love, Blessed Assurance, and the Vale of Peace. I drive by the Sheltering Hills and the Vale of Hope to arrive at the Courts of Remembrance, which is what they call the collection of large mausoleums my concierge has circled on the map. I park the car in front of the entrance. Almost immediately I see that he was being a little coy when he suggested there "might be" some famous dead people here. To the left of the entrance stands the tomb of none other than Bette Davis. Actually she's in there with her mother and sister, too. Just the girls. On the white marble box beneath a statue of an angel, under her name, is inscribed "She did it the hard way." I guess that refers to how she navigated her career through the straits of the rigid studio system that held actors in a sort of well-paying bondage throughout their careers. But it could mean any number of other things.
My appetite for the famous whetted by this early sighting, I proceed on through the gates of the mausoleum, where the dead are slid into drawers and stacked six high on both sides of wide walls fifty feet long forming squared enclosures. Occasionally large tombs like that of Bette Davis sit in front of the walls of bodies. Liberace and his mom and a brother are in one. I set about systematically scanning the brass plates on the three-foot square fronts of the crypts, going from top to bottom and then back up again. Each marble front has two knobs, one on each side of the nameplate, on which metal bud vases can be hung. My efforts are soon rewarded with sightings of Charles Laughton and Clyde Beatty the lion tamer. Eventually, after slowly working my way around the inside and outside of six or eight large courtyards and looking at thousands of names, I see the crypts or tombs of several more celebrities, including George Raft, Freddie Prinze, Sandra Dee, Andy Gibb, Lou Rawls, Albert Broccoli the producer of James Bond movies, heavy metal vocalist Ronnie James Dio, Isabel Sanford (Weezie on The Jeffersons), and Roy Williams the Big Mooseketeer. A pretty damn good haul, and enough for one day.
At last I wander to my car and drive slowly out, past sections called Devotion, Gentleness, Blessed Promise, and Ascending Dawn, leaving behind the legions of the dead of Los Angeles. Important and unimportant, rich and not so rich, loved and unloved, good and bad, they're all part of the quiet landscape of Forest Hills now. And like Bette Davis, they all got here the hard way.