Dead Ends: An Irreverent Field Guide to the Graves of the Famous by David Cross
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is a great idea, though poorly executed. The concept of this book came to the authors when they visited the grave of Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas in Paris, where they had a religious experience. They hoped this book would “encourage readers to discover the joys of pilgrimage.” Unfortunately, while they may name the cemetery where the object of pilgrimage waits, they don’t provide burial ground addresses. Also absent were actual birth and death dates, so you could time your pilgrimage symbolically. Most sorely missed: the book doesn’t even describe the tombstones.
Rather than focusing on graveyards, as implied in the title, this directory is filled with generally unenlightening capsule biographies. “The Wright Brothers owned a successful chain of small bicycle shops but were consumed by the idea of flying.” Really? Luckily, the writers succeed better when they pursue agendas: “this Puritan minister helped establish intolerance as a way of American life” (Cotton Mather) or “although he denied having AIDS, an autopsy proved otherwise. The Liberace Museum charges six dollars a head and its attendance rivals Graceland’s” or “Novelist, playwright, feminist, and lesbian” (Virginia Woolf).
I found additional frustration in the incompleteness of the book’s choice of subjects. It lists Bela Lugosi (Holy Cross, Southern California) and Peter Lorre (Hollywood Memorial Park, ditto), but not Boris Karloff. How can they mention Harvey Milk (whose ashes were scattered), but not Dan White (buried in Golden Gate National Cemetery)? Many of those included must be personally significant: Typhoid Mary, Nixon’s spaniel Checkers (Bide-a-Wee Pet Cemetery, Long Island), Anthony Trollope (Can you name anything he wrote?), and Joan Hackett (Even knowing that she starred in Will Penny doesn’t help me). Did you need to know that Charlie McCarthy (Edgar Bergen’s dummy) was not buried, but is displayed at the Smithsonian?
In terms of death lore, the book’s scope is once again limited. It reports correctly that Jayne Mansfield is buried in Pennsylvania, but doesn’t mention her plaque at Hollywood Memorial Park, where rumor says black magic rituals are performed. There’s no reference to the Walt Disney cryogenics controversy, only a note that he lies beneath Forest Lawn.
One of my favorite elements of the book was a reader’s annotation — this was a library book — which said that while Frank Lloyd Wright had been buried in an unmarked grave in Wisconsin, as the authors reported, his widow moved his remains to Arizona. I’m not the only person catching omissions.
The authors’ biographies said they were working, in 1991, on a second volume. I hope they’ve learned from the first.
Cheap copies can be had from Amazon: Dead Ends: An Irreverent Field Guide to the Graves of the Famous (Plume)
This review originally appeared in Morbid Curiosity #2.
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