Westwood Village Cemetery
Anyone who is a regular reader of my posts will know that I am fascinated by cemeteries and almost always include a visit to one when I’m visiting a city noted for its final resting places. Well I’m in Los Angeles for a few days and definitely up for a trip to one of the city’s many famous celebrity burial grounds, but which one? A quick check on the internet reveals no less than sixteen possible choices ranging from the massive Forest Lawn and Rose Hill to a couple of small Jewish cemeteries containing only a few celebs. With the help of this great website I was able to narrow it down to just one – Westwood Village Cemetery. Tiny in size at just over two acres, it contains a who’s who of 20th century actors, comedians, writers, composers and others who have all played a significant part in my existence. Unlike visiting the graves of famous people in say Pere La Chaisse in Paris, the people interred at Westwood Village Cemetery are ones I can put a face to and have direct memories of. Whether it was the otherworldly feeling I got on reading the works of Ray Bradbury or laughing out loud at the self-deprecating comedy of Rodney Dangerfield or being blown away by sheer acting talent of a Burt Lancaster, these are my people and yours. They deserve not to be forgotten. So won’t you join me as I go celebrity hunting; afterlife edition?
History of Westwood Village Cemetery
Officially established by the city of Los Angeles as Sunset Cemetery in 1905, apparently there were burials on site going back to the 1880’s. In 1952 the first of ten mausoleums was built where remains were placed in above ground slots. While most of the graves are traditional in ground burials, there are a few very famous exceptions as we shall see. If you are looking for grand funereal art such as you would see in many European and eastern North American cemeteries, then Westwood Village Cemetery is not your place. Despite being the last resting place of many of the wealthiest people in show business, there is nothing Tinseltown about this place. It’s simple to the point of almost blandness in appearance and lack of ostentation. Also, unlike many cemeteries that house famous remains, Westwood Village Cemetery does not trade on the reputation of its deceased residents. You will find no maps to borrow and no signs indicating where anybody is buried. Here is a link to a map you can download, which I did and it was invaluable in helping find the graves.
Finding the cemetery itself is another matter. Although it’s just off Wilshire Boulevard it has only one entrance off Glendon Ave. and you can’t see it from anywhere outside the cemetery. So enter 1218 Glendon on your GPS and keep you eyes peeled for this small size. It’s the only way you know where to turn in – I missed it the first two times.
The good news is that once you do find it and turn in, then you can park your car almost anywhere on the circular road around the cemetery. Yes, free parking in L.A.! Despite the fact that celebrity grave spotting is a big deal in Los Angeles, there was hardly anybody around and nobody bothered me during the two hours I spent on site. Here is the actual cemetery as you see it from the entrance area. Pretty ordinary looking.
I mentioned that there was little in the way of ostentation, but there is one big exception which you see right off the bat. This is the mausoleum where famous industrialist and one time broker of detente with Soviet Russia Armand Hammer is interred.
In this day of Trumpism, where money is sought and gained solely for the use and pleasure of it by the acquisitor, it’s easy to forget that there is such a thing as a billionaire who puts philanthropy and the common good ahead of personal gain. Hammer was a controversial figure due to the amount of time he spent in Russia from where his Jewish parents emigrated in the 1870s, however, most historians portray him as someone who genuinely wanted to see the Cold War end peacefully. Not far from where he is buried, you can visit, for free, the Hammer Museum where his extensive art collection is on display.
OK, let’s find some stars.
If you are a baby boomer like me, you are part of the first generation to grow up and take the fact of television as a part of everyday life. It’s easy to forget that before the 1950’s radio was the primary medium of home entertainment and movies the only place where you could see your favourite actors on a screen. All that changed almost overnight in the 1950s when many former radio and screen stars were lured to the huge instant audiences that a hit TV show could provide. One of the most successful to make that transition was Donna Reed who we will all be seeing multiple times over the Holiday Season in her role as Mary Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. The Donna Reed Show was one of the most popular of the early ‘family values’ sitcoms that included Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet and my favourite, My Three Sons. An Oscar winner as well, Ms. Reed rests in this simple grave under her married name.
As the 1950s sitcoms became a bit too sucrose for most audiences, they were replaced by a slew of over the top stupid shows that are, perversely, among the most popular to this day. However, it wasn’t an overnight process and I view The Andy Griffith Show as something of a hybrid linking the 1950s to the 1960s.
Here is one of early televisions’ most beloved comedians, Don Knotts who gained fame by playing Deputy Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show and then parlayed that into successful movie roles as The Incredible Mr. Limpet, The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, The Reluctant Astronaut and The Shakiest Gun in the West. Nobody could do ‘quaking in fear’ better than Don Knotts. It took me about five minutes to recall all the characters etched on this copper plaque. Younger readers might remember him as landlord Ralph Furley in Three’s Company after the Roper’s got their own spinoff. Don Knotts was as far from a controversial comedian as you could get. Unlike many edgier comedians, you laughed at Don and not with him. He was funny.
Let’s stick with stars most closely associated with their television roles – there’s a lot of them.
Here are two people you would hope to find buried in the same place – Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor aka Oliver Wendell Douglas and his wife Lisa from one of the great 1960’s sitcoms, Green Acres. Over the top stupid, Green Acres had some of the most memorable supporting characters in all TV, including of course, Arnold Ziffel, the celebrity pig.
Few people know that Albert was a decorated WWII hero who saved the lives of over fifty marines during the invasion of Tarawa. Like Don Knotts, Albert put his acting career on hold to volunteer to serve his country in time of need.
Let’s stick with famous sitcom characters, but with a touch of the truly macabre. This is Bob Crane aka Col. Hogan from Hogan’s Heroes who was murdered in Scottsdale, Arizona in 1978. The murder was grisly and led to revelations about Crane’s over the top kinky sex addiction. It has never been officially solved.
Here’s what I didn’t know about Bob Crane – he was married to the stunning Ingrid Valdis who played Col. Klinck’s secretary Helga on the show. Bob, if you had a dish like Ingrid back at home what the f*** were you thinking by screwing around with perverts?
Speaking of Hogan’s Heroes, here’s another cast member who went on to attain even greater fame as the host of Family Feud – Richard Dawson. I thought his best role was playing essentially himself as the evil game show host on The Running Man.
The Andy Griffith Show, Green Acres and Hogan’s Heroes – any other 1960s sitcom cast members buried in Westwood Village Cemetery? How about one of the most memorable characters in all of 1960s TV – Thurston Howell III from Gilligan’s Island, also known as Jim Backus. He was also the voice of Mr. Magoo.
While the 1960s were known for absolutely absurd sitcoms, the 1970’s brought in more ‘realistic’ scenarios like a husband and wife getting married to create a blended family called The Brady Bunch. This is the grave marker of Florence Henderson who played Carol Brady (no keeping your last name in 1970s). I wonder if it was intentional that she is described as ‘Beloved mother of four …’ and not six.
The face of American sitcoms changed literally overnight with the debut in January, 1971 of All in the Family, arguably the most transitional TV show of the era. Carroll O’Connor, who actually grew up in Queens, gave us one of the most memorable characters in the history of TV with Archie Bunker. At once bigoted, opinionated, ignorant and mysogynist, Bunker was still somehow a popular figure with audiences – how else to explain the fact that O’Connor played him for a dozen years? If there was an Archie Bunker, he would be horrified to be buried in a cemetery filled with the left wing Hollywood elites he professed to despise.
Also buried with O’Connor are his wife Nancy and son Hugh who died of a drug overdose in 1995 and led O’Connor to dedicate the rest of his life to fighting the American drug epidemic, in vain as it turns out.
Once All in the Family broke the mold on what you could and couldn’t say and do on a sitcom, a rash of others followed, none more successful than M.A.S.H. This is the final resting place of Trapper John or Wayne Rogers as he preferred to be called. Rogers quit the show after three seasons because of Alan Alda’s constant scene stealing and gradually faded into obscurity as an actor, but achieving financial success as an investor and consultant.
That pretty well does it for dead sitcom stars in Westwood Village Cemetery, but what about other TV personalities? You don’t get much more famous than Peter Falk in his classic series Columbo, which combined wry cynicism with understated wit and intelligence. The reference to Shera is his second wife Shera Danese to whom he was married 33 years.
I cannot believe it is a coincidence that right beside Peter Falk’s grave there is a bench that’s actually in the grave next to him. Agree?
Like Peter Falk, Karl Malden enjoyed great success as both a screen actor and a TV star. Born with the handle Mladen Sekulovich, he earned an Oscar for his role in A Streetcar Named Desire and also appeared in many classic American movies including On the Waterfront, Patton, Birdman of Alcatraz and How the West was Won. Malden then topped off his career on the TV series Streets of San Francisco with a young Michael Douglas as his sidekick.
One last star of really not that great of a TV series, but remembered for her astonishing good looks and underrated acting ability. Farrah Fawcett chose to play the role of real life battered wife Francine Hughes in The Burning Bed and completely changed my mind about her being just another airhead actress.
That about wraps up the people you might remember mostly from TV, so now let’s go looking for some real movie stars starting with the one that brings more people to Westwood Village Cemetery than any other – Marilyn Monroe.
Almost everything about Marilyn Monroe is mysterious, from her beginnings to her untimely and still suspicious death. She was literally the American icon of the 1950s and remains a figure of intense interest to this day. While her acting talents might be questioned, I was mesmerized by her performance in her last movie The Misfits. It was also the last movie for another great icon, Clark Gable. I think the paddle ball scene explains exactly why Marilyn Monroe was thought to be the sexiest woman alive. See if you agree.
I have seen kisses on grave sites before, most notably Oscar Wilde’s in Pere Lachaisse, but there’s a bit of a mystery about the kisses around Marilyn’s. If you look closely you will see that there are actually a lot more kisses on the seemingly empty place to the left of Marilyn. Well actually it’s not empty. Hugh Hefner bought the spot next to Marilyn many years ago and in September, 2018 he was interred here. The kisses are for Hef and not necessarily for Marilyn.
These are a pair who should be side by side as both were responsible for launching the careers of each other. Marilyn was the first centerfold in Playboy magazine in 1953 and this picture guaranteed that both she and Hef would get rich and famous in the aftermath. R.I.P Marilyn & Hugh.
If Monroe and Hefner were naturals for each other, here’s two great actors that were famous for their opposite personalities, so much so that they are remembered as the original Odd Couple.
Lemmon, ever the joker, couldn’t resist this final parting shot.
I mentioned how modest many of the graves are in Westwood Village Cemetery and this is a great example. There are several sections where there are one foot square markers all jammed together so you really have to look hard to find who you are looking for. Here, one of the true greats of the silver screen, Burt Lancaster.
Not all of the stars have burial sites, a number are commemorated by memorial benches including, to me, one of the coolest actors in Hollywood, James Coburn. If you were in both The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape you deservedly became a legend.
While Marilyn Monroe and Farrah Fawcett died far too young, there are others in Westwood Village Cemetery who not only died too young, in one case, way too young, but under tragic circumstances as well, starting with another lingering controversial death, Natalie Wood.
Nobody will ever know what happened on that yacht the day Natalie drowned except Robert Wagner, Christopher Walken and the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern and they aren’t talking. BTW the cross on the grave marker is Russian Orthodox, a reminder that Natalie’s real name was Natalia Zakharenko.
There was nothing mysterious about the death of Canadian playmate and upcoming star Dorothy Stratten. She was murdered by her estranged husband then raped and disfigured. It was as sordid a real life ending as one could find in Hollywood and while Dorothy didn’t get to star in any major productions, ironically her life and death did become the subject of two movies – Death of a Centerfold and Bob Fosse’s Star 80.
The really creepy epitaph is from A Farewell to Arms. Hemingway always seems to get his way into my posts, one way or the other.
The next person we’ll visit is probably the one responsible for me giving up watching horror movies – Boris Karloff? Vincent Price? Lon Chaney? No, six year old Heather O’Rourke who famously whispered in Poltergeist “They’re here!” which creeped me out because the child was so convincing and so nonchalant. She died at age 12 thanks to medical negligence – misdiagnosed with Crohn’s disease when she had a serious bowel obstruction which brought on septic shock and cardiac arrest.
OK, enough with the murders, suicides, drownings and medical negligence. Let’s have some laughs and some music.
One of everybody’s favourite comedians who ‘got no respect’, Rodney Dangerfield has now ruined the neighborhood.
Although not a comedian per se Merv Griffin definitely had a sense of humour with his epitaph. One of the most creative men in Hollywood, he had his own low key talk show for 23 years and invented the two most famous game shows in TV history – Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune.
The next star was before my time, but she was brought to life for all us by Barbra Streisand in her portrayal of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl.
Now for some music. First someone to write us a few good songs, including four Oscar winners, Three Coins in a Fountain, High Hopes, All the Way and Call Me Irresponsible. Sammy Cahn wrote as many good songs as any Hollywood based writer, although he always collaborated on the music, with an incredible 24 nominations for Best Song between 1942 and 1974. Since the holiday season is coming up let’s not forget Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.
As far as I can tell, Sleep With a Smile is not the name of one his songs. I guess he just died happy.
We’ve got the songs now the singers starting with Miss Peggy Lee.
How about the Velvet Fog, Mel Torme? I will forgive him for writing The Christmas Song.
Minnie Riperton had a five octave vocal range which she used to great effect as a backup singer with Chess Records, recording with Ray Charles, Muddy Waters, Etta James, Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry among others. However, she really came into her own with the transcendental Lovin’ You in 1975. At the height of her fame she was diagnosed with incurable breast cancer and died at age 31.
I’m pretty sure this next guy didn’t record any of Sammy Cahn’s songs, but he was part of the most important musical group to ever come out of California and I’m not talking about The Doors, The Grateful Dead or The Eagles. The Beach Boys were a phenomenon unlike any other in the music business and Carl Wilson, lead guitarist, songwriter and producer was as important to the group as his more famous brothers Brian and Dennis. If being the lead singer on Good Vibrations is not enough to get you into heaven I don’t know what is; maybe his lead singing on the beautiful and moving God Only Knows. If you’re a baby boomer Carl Wilson was an important part of your musical life. He died of cancer at age 51. The good do die young.
The next grave marker is ethereal to say the least and can literally be moved at the drop of a hat, because it is a hat. Roy Orbison is in an unmarked grave which someone has thoughtfully identified by leaving this.
Although he seemed to be around forever, Orbison was only 52 when he died and after his death had two albums in the top 5 on the U.S. charts and three in the U.K.
Time to wrap this up with a few writers and the main celebrity who made me decide on Westwood Village Cemetery as my L.A. stop.
Here is the oddest of the odd couples in the place.
Truman Capote and Joanne Carson, ex wife of Johnny Carson, practically lived together at the mansion she bought in BelAir after divorcing Johnny. He died there in 1984. Joanne waited 31 years to join him and now they are soul mates for eternity, or at least until Los Angeles falls into the ocean in the next great quake.
If you like science fiction or just good storytelling then you’ve got to appreciate Ray Bradbury. Not just the author of Fahrenheit 451 as his marker notes, but The Martian Chronicles and tons of great short stories, a great American author.
That brings me to the last star on the list and he fits into lots of categories including legendary singer, movie star, TV star, host of celebrity roasts and all round one of a kind personality, Dean Martin. Some of my friends call me Dino, not because I can sing, but more because I act like Dino at times. Another simple marker, belying the influence this man had on 20th century popular culture, I loved this man.
I could go on for another twenty or more entries with the like of Lew Ayres, John Cassavetes, Darry F. Zanuck, Frank Zappa (in an unmarked grave), Billy Wilder, Buddy Rich, Alvin Toffler, Cornel Wilde and many others, but I think this is enough to convince most cemetery nuts to include Westwood Village Cemetery on their next visit to L.A.