by Loren Rhoads
The sky burned with gold as we rounded the block again. The Thomas Guide wasn’t helping at all. None of the buildings seemed to be numbered. I was ready to give up. I considered suggesting we ditch the graveyard altogether and see about getting up to Griffith Observatory in time to catch the afterglow, but it was probably too late in the afternoon for that. I had no idea where we were in the greater Los Angeles area.
Anyway, Brian was determined to show me a graveyard I hadn’t seen before. He’d been there once, years ago, but hadn’t been driving. All he remembered was standing amongst the graves and feeling boxed in by skyscrapers. He didn’t remember which skyscrapers. “That’s why they always shoot movies from the opposite angle,” he explained, “so you don’t see the buildings looming over you.”
The car was full of tense silence. Brian had already apologized so profusely for getting lost that I couldn’t get mad. The response had been short-circuited. Now he was absolutely determined to find the place. I kept thinking about that James Van Pelt story in After Shocks where the couple is trapped in their car in LA as a metaphor for Hell.
Finally on the umpteenth pass by Glendon on Wilshire, I spied a little white sign at eye level between the skyscrapers. “I think that’s it!” I crowed.
We circled the long block once more, passing the Westwood Presbyterian Church, the private school with the mysteriously painted mural, back through the neighborhood with the immaculate white houses and bright green grass.
We turned right onto Glendon again. “Slowly,” I cautioned. “I think it’s just past the pink building.”
Brian snapped, “Past the pink building is Wilshire.”
“No, there’s an alley…”
We were on top of the turn before I could see the little white sign for the Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park. They certainly didn’t want to draw attention to the graveyard in the center of the block.
The sign directed us down the alley toward a uniformed guy in a little lighted booth. Apparently he was there to sell parking for the movie theaters nearby. He didn’t motion for us to stop.
Another right turn and the graveyard resolved ahead of us. It was a tiny one. An open mausoleum took up the east side. In the northeast corner stood a little round chapel, which the map said would be locked. On the north, a solid wall of office towers rose behind the cemetery walls.
Brian pulled his car over and we got out. He started to lead me toward the southeast corner, which they had torn up for new construction. I glanced down at the Map to the Stars’ Bones clutched in my hand.
“I think we’re going the wrong way.” I turned around 180 degrees and oriented the map. “She’s in that corner over there.”
In fact, from where we were standing, you could pick out her slot in the “Corridor of Memories.” A large bouquet of red and white rosebuds adorned the vase on the marble slab. As we drew near, I nearly tripped over a pot of purple heather on the cement floor beneath her marker. I reached out to touch the brass lettering. It said simply “Marilyn Monroe 1926-1962.”
For someone whose legend exploded after her death, the humble monument seemed almost insulting. I mean, I’d known in advance that she didn’t have a grand memorial like Douglas Fairbanks’ reflecting pool or Al Jolson’s three-story waterfall, but this — the bare marble without even an epitaph…
“Do you know who the blank one beside her is for?” Brian asked.
“Hugh Hefner.” I’d read somewhere that he’d paid an exorbitant bribe to be buried next to her.
There weren’t really words I wanted to say. I liked the movies of hers that I’d seen, but hadn’t troubled to track down the rest. She was dead before I was born. I felt no connection to her, other than sadness for someone who never found whatever it was she needed to live.
A fan club had dedicated a little marble bench nearby to her memory, so visitors would have a place to sit to commune with her. Permanent Californians said Marilyn’s was the most visited grave in Los Angeles. Hard to believe, after all the hour and a half of driving around it took us to find it.
The security guard strode toward us, so we turned away from Marilyn’s grave. The map said that the cemetery was open until 7:30 year ‘round, but this January night was going to be pitch black long before then.
“Do we have to leave?” I asked.
“No, we don’t lock up ‘til 6,” the guard said affably.
“Are you allowed to tell us where anyone is buried?” Brian asked.
“I don’t actually know,” the guard answered. “This is only the second time I’ve been in here.”
He rounded the low boxwood hedge behind us and stopped in front of Marilyn’s marker.
“I’d like to find Darryl Zanuck,” Brian told me. Zanuck founded 20th Century Fox, where Brian worked.
I located Zanuck on the map. As we walked across the lawn, I read off the other famous names buried here: Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne from Poltergeist, Truman Capote, Natalie Wood, Jim Backus, Eva Gabor, and Frank Zappa. There were others listed that I didn’t recognize.
Only a luminous rosy glow remained overhead as we crossed the shadowy grass. Brian bent to examine an inset plaque. The epitaph remembered one of the greatest Iranian singers ever. Although she’d been dead eleven years, potted plants completely encircled the marker.
“Is this the anniversary of her death?” I wondered.
Brian consulted the plaque again and said, “No.”
Night was falling so fast that we didn’t have time to explore. According to the map, Zanuck was buried under one of the trees. Brian and I spread out to search the rows of plaques.
I got distracted when an Iranian man climbed out of a car parked in front of the office, a low building in the southwest corner of the graveyard. He carried a potted plant over to a grave already outlined with low houseplants. When he knelt at the foot of the grave to make his offering, I turned away to give him some privacy.
It grew too dark under the trees for me to read the dark plaques set into the black grass. I found a bench beneath a towering chestnut tree and sat down. The cement was chilly through my jeans, so I huddled into my leather jacket. The tip of my nose was cold, but the hand with which I’d been holding the map was colder.
A scant handful of graves had vigil candles burning, flickering like stars in the grass. Overhead, Venus burned like an icy diamond in the deep turquoise sky. A silver rind of moon hung nearby. If I wasn’t careful where I looked, the glare of the streetlights outside the graveyard burned away my night vision. It took time for my eyes to readjust.
I watched Brian’s silhouette walking a grid amongst the graves. I marveled that he could see anything. I had a mini maglite, but it was in my backpack in the car. Besides, I felt like if it was too dark to read markers without a flashlight, it was too late to read them.
I leaned back against the tree and wondered why I hadn’t heard birdsong as the sun set. The trees around the cemetery seemed inviting enough. I’d heard mockingbirds and seen robins already in San Francisco. I knew the spring migration had already started. Strange.
It was peaceful in the graveyard. I listened to the rush of cars going by on Wilshire, the sound of life in the city. It’d been a long time since I’d been in a cemetery at night. I felt very safe, knowing that the security guard would be back to throw us out before too long.
A big boxy Lincoln pulled up behind Brian’s Pulsar. An older couple struggled out of it. They rattled keys, wielding a flashlight as they let themselves into the locked “Room of Prayer” chapel in the corner near Marilyn. I wondered what they planned to do in there after dark.
About the Death’s Garden project:
For the next year, I’m planning to put a cemetery essay up every Friday. If there is a cemetery that has touched your life, I would love to hear from you, particularly if there is one you visited on vacation — or if you got married in one. The submissions guidelines are here.