Two or Three Degrees of Separation

 

So I lied about no more cemeteries. I had to see one more grave, the place where Buster Keaton was buried. Because Buster and I, we go way back.

Back in my wild Hollywood days…well, okay, they weren’t that wild. Mostly cruising down Sunset Boulevard and eating late night sandwiches at Canter’s Deli, but just go with me here. It’s my reminiscence and, in my mind, they were wild.

Anyway, Mike, Leah and I used to go to a lot of plays. They wanted to be actors. I just liked the excitement of hanging out in Hollywood all night long. During the course of these adventures, we met a wonderful lady named Jane who was a stage manager at the Las Palmas Theater. She’d been in the theater for years and had all sorts of fascinating stories about actors and acting.

Sometimes when some old movie that she thought we should see was on, we’d go over to her place, a duplex in North Hollywood, drink cream sodas and watch TV with her. (I never really cared for the cream sodas, but the only other choice was chocolate soda which seemed wrong on many levels.) She lived in the back house of the duplex, the smaller of the two. And on the wall up above the TV set was a huge oil painting of Buster Keaton, three or four feet high, with an expensive looking frame and a little key light at the bottom that threw light up onto his face. A small brass plaque on the frame had his name in fancy letters. Buster Keaton.

Just in case you couldn’t tell.

The painting was something of a mystery to us. I mean, anyone can have an obsession, but the Buster Keaton shrine seemed a little much. Beautiful, but totally overpowering. So one evening, Mike got up the guts to ask Jane why she had a huge expensive oil painting of Buster Keaton in her living room. She looked up at it a moment and shrugged.

“He was married to my sister.”

Now we had met Eleanor in passing once or twice. I don’t think she quite trusted us. I don’t know that we looked all that dangerous, but she would usually disappear into the front house soon after our arrival. But she didn’t look anywhere near old enough to have been married to Buster Keaton.

So Mike repeated it, just to be sure. “Your sister was married to Buster Keaton?”

Jane nodded. “Yes. That painting is from the Brown Derby. They gave it to her before they tore it down.”

We all look up at the painting as if it was a lost Da Vinci. So not only was Eleanor married to Buster Keaton, but the mystery painting came from the Brown Derby?

“THE Brown Derby?” Leah says, just to be sure.

“Oh, yes.” Jane gets out of her chair and goes to a bookcase over on the far wall. She pulls out a rectangular wooden case and sets it down on the dining room table. “These are his poker chips.” She opens the case and there are the most beautiful poker chips I’d ever seen. Mother of pearl maybe, dyed various colors. She took out a blue one and passed it around. “Buster loved poker.”

I just kept running the poker chip over my fingers, marveling at the color and the smoothness and the historicalness of it. Buster Keaton’s poker chip. I wanted to keep it, but, reluctantly, I handed it back.

Now we come to the most tragic part of the story. Because there we were, in that house full of Buster Keaton’s things, not ten steps from Buster Keaton’s widow, and not one of us had ever actually seen a Buster Keaton movie. At that point in time, they just weren’t available anywhere. So there I was, aching to ask questions, but having no idea what to ask.

Jane told us a few stories about what Buster was like and how he loved trains, but we were friends with Jane. I didn’t dare approach Eleanor without some concrete questions in mind.

Fast forward a few years. While I was out of state at college, I finally got to see “The General.” I absolutely loved it. I couldn’t wait to get back to California and see Jane and talk to Eleanor, finally full of all the Buster questions that I hadn’t had before. We made a quick visit while I was home for the summer, but Jane had been ill and we couldn’t stay long. She was happy that I’d loved “The General” and said Eleanor would love to hear my comments about it, but she was off at a silent film convention so I’d have to come back another time.

But that other time never came. We never saw Jane again.

But I’ve never forgotten sitting in Jane’s living room, watching TV under Buster’s mournful gaze. I’ve always felt very close to him, almost as if I’d known him for real.

So one last cemetery trip, to Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills, beside the wall near the Washington statue, to an elegant little tombstone etched with oak leaves. Someone had left him a huge bouquet of red flowers. And there was a little worn spot in the grass where people had stood to take a picture of his headstone. I leaned down and touched the edge of his monument.

So near and yet so far.

Seeing Dead People

So I dragged Elaine to another cemetery this weekend. Elaine says I’m turning her into a ghoul. That wasn’t really my intention. I find graveyards sort of fascinating, but then I write about vampires so I guess that kind of follows.

Holy Cross Cemetery does not have the eerie vibe that Hollywood Forever has. Beautiful place on a hill, like a fancy park with dead people buried in the lawn. The celebrities here are of a more recent vintage than most of the spirits we visited last week. People who were actually alive while I was alive.

Which apparently makes all the difference.

Rudolph Valentino and Charlie Chaplin’s mother Hannah have been gone so long that they have almost passed into legend, as if they never were living beings at all. Dead when I was born, dead now, no difference. But John Candy? I remember watching John Candy on TV, waiting impatiently for his movies, laughing at his guest spots. Now he’s up there in the wall above Fred MacMurray.

Dead.

And suddenly looking for dead celebrities isn’t so fun anymore. It’s as if the cold wind of mortality had brushed against the back of my neck, raising the hairs, chilling the soul. Because Rudolph Valentino is so dead, he’s in black and white.

But John Candy wasn’t.

And the walls of the mausoleum, stacked with row after row of bodies in tiny claustrophobic cubicles, seems cold and forbidding. I’m eager to get back outside into the sun, back to the rolling green lawns with the gorgeous view of the city, away from John Candy lying silent in his tomb.

That was when Elaine told me that she didn’t want to go to any more cemeteries.

Neither do I.

Offending the Ghosts at Hollywood Forever Cemetery

 

So last weekend, I dragged my friend Elaine to the Save Pickfair Studios rally in West Hollywood. Because I have a thing for silent movies. I don’t know why, but I do. Maybe I’m fascinated by the lost worldness of them, the way they show a Los Angeles that no longer exists.

Or maybe I’m just strange.

Anyway, last weekend on the way to the rally, we passed Hollywood Forever Cemetery. I’d heard of it. I knew it was where Rudolph Valentino was buried. And maybe Marilyn Monroe too. But I figured Elaine would have had just about her fill of silent movies after hanging around the outside of Pickfair Studios for an hour or two. But she didn’t. In fact, going to the cemetery was her suggestion.

So we went.

We wandered around reading names for hours. Found Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Power, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks (Sr. and Jr.) and Toto too. No Marilyn though. Turns out she’s buried in Westwood. But it was all a matter of chance. If we stumbled across a name we recognized, we took a picture, but other than Mr. Valentino, we had no idea who we were really looking for.

So this weekend, we returned with a list of locations for people we’d missed the weekend before. It did not go well. Because cemeteries are not as well marked as you’d think. And the Hall of Memories is almost identical to the Abbey of Psalms which is almost identical to the Sanctuary of Trust. Instead of the peaceful reverent feeling I’d had the week before, it felt like I was participating in a morbid sort of scavenger hunt.

And I wasn’t winning.

Mildred Harris, Charlie Chaplin’s first wife, proved too elusive to find, although she was supposed to be right beside Seena Owen who we discovered even though we weren’t looking for her. So we trudged and trudged, looking for The Abbey of the Psalms Corridor G-1.

Instead we found Iron Eyes Cody. You may remember him as the Native American who cries at the sight of all the litter cluttering up America. Or you may not. Anyway, Elaine wanted to take a picture. The plaque on the wall vault says “Iron Eyes Cody/Mrs. Iron Eyes Cody.” Just as Elaine takes her photo, I laugh and say “Didn’t Mrs. Iron Eyes Cody have a name?”

And the big dome light above us goes out.

No, seriously. Just boop. Out. All the other lights in either direction are lit. The light above Elaine, Iron Eyes and I is out. Elaine and I look at each other, give a nervous laugh and say “Guess he didn’t like that.” Ha, ha, funny.

In a creepy cemetery sort of way.

So off we go to not find Marion Davies. We do find Charlie Chaplin’s mother Hannah and are able to track down Virginia Rappe not too much farther on.  As I’m taking my photo of Virginia Rappe’s grave, I am telling the story of her death in a joking sort of way. (For those who do not know, probably most of the planet, she may or may not have been raped by Fatty Arbuckle at a party in San Francisco. She died of internal injuries four days later. Fatty was tried three times for manslaughter, but there wasn’t enough evidence to convict him. Most people think she actually died from an infection caused by a backstreet abortion performed the day before the party.) Elaine’s photo comes out crystal clear. My photo comes out…cloudy.

Elaine suggests that my lens is smudged. I wipe it off and take another picture. It also comes out very soft around the edges.

I turn to the left and take a photo of an egret wading in the lake. Clear. I take another photo of Virginia Rappe’s headstone. Not clear. I do the only thing I can think of. I apologize to her.

Virginia Rappe, not Elaine.

Because you shouldn’t really talk trash about someone while standing on their grave. It’s just a bad idea.

Apparently.

So we give up on finding Mel Blanc and head off for lunch at Canter’s Deli. And come out to find some poor guy being violently ill.

On the left rear tire of my car.

Which has no connection to anything involving the cemetery yet is darn odd and disconcerting anyway.

But everything is fine. Everyone gets home safely. Hours later, I’m bustling around the kitchen getting dinner ready. Well, really, reheating the previous night’s dinner for an encore appearance.  I’m in and out of the refrigerator about five times. The sixth time, a can of Barq’s root beer on the very top shelf leaps off the shelf and lands directly on my recently healed foot.

I was too astonished to even yell, although, yes, it did hurt quite a bit. But the sodas weren’t anywhere near the edge of the shelf. There was nothing to knock the soda off the shelf, barring an earthquake that I never felt.

My first thought was “Damn it, Virginia, I said I was sorry.” My second thought was “Oh, blog post.” But when I came in here to write it, my Wacom Tablet, which was working fine before dinner, was now unable to function. The computer told me it didn’t exist. After switching the tablet for a mouse, I was able to reboot and here I am writing.

Coincidences? Sure. I mean, anyone can have a day where a mausoleum light burns out over your head, your camera doesn’t want to take a certain picture, a guy vomits on your car, a soda can jumps out on your foot and your computer won’t work.

Who doesn’t?

But just in case, Virginia, Iron Eyes, and anyone else at Hollywood Forever Cemetery I may have accidentally offended, I promise never to do it again.