Posted by Susan Doll on June 10, 2013
Back by popular demand is another installment of “Searching for Old Hollywood” based on my recent trek to Hollywood Forever Cemetery looking for clues to uncover some unique or forgotten insight into the lives of big-name stars and other celebrities. The first part focused on the final resting places of lesser-known film industry figures, while the second spotlighted the legendary stars of Old Hollywood’s romantic and often notorious past. As with the first two parts, I wanted to find a thread to tie together the figures for this final installment. I decided to focus on epitaphs and inscriptions.
The grave markers of Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira, and John Huston are across the lane from each other. The ghoulish television hostess and legendary director have nothing in common save for their markers, which display imagery that provides clues to their lives. Nurmi hosted her program of old horror movies on KABC-TV for only a year, but she parlayed the publicity into a career, more or less. Vampira became Nurmi’s contribution to popular culture, and her only claim to fame; when Cassandra Peterson came too close to her act with the character Elvira, Nurmi unsuccessfully sued. Nurmi died alone and broke on January 10, 2008, her decomposing body found by an acquaintance. With no named next of kin, red tape prevented her from being interred until February 17, when her cremated remains were buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Loyal fans spent a year throwing fundraisers to secure the money for a gravestone that befitted her image. Erected in July, 2009, it reads “Maila Nurmi, 1922-2008, Vampira, Hollywood Legend,” and includes an etching of her wearing that tattered gothic gown, which showed off her legendary 17-inch waist. In other words, the gravestone features all the signifiers to her image that a fan would want to remember. (On a personal note, I discovered that Nurmi, who was born in Finland, spent her youth in the Finnish community in my hometown of Ashtabula, Ohio.)
In contrast, John Huston’s marker sports a Celtic knot, an image that had personal meaning for him—not necessarily his fans. Many times, the director had visited friends in Lugalla, County Wicklow in Ireland. Gazing out the window of a sporting lodge on his first visit, he became entranced with the beautiful countryside. In his autobiography, he noted, “I’ll never forget that first impression. I was Ireland’s own from that moment.” In the early 1950s, he made St. Clerans, County Galway, his home. However, the Irish landscape wasn’t the only reason for his decision to become an expatriate. The bullying tactics of the Senate’s House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) coupled with Joseph McCarthy’s own, self-serving investigation to uncover Commies under everyone’s bed disgusted Huston. And, he found the resulting actions of some of his peers disturbing. Never again would Huston reside solely in America. The simple symbol is a complex reminder of his Irish heritage, his love for the beauty and history of Ireland, and his decision to be an expatriate.
Jesse L. Lasky was laid to rest in the large mausoleum called Abbey of the Psalms. Lasky, who is considered one of the three founding fathers of Hollywood alongside Cecil B. DeMille and Samuel Goldwyn, served as Vice President of Production at Famous Players-Lasky, which later evolved into Paramount Pictures. He was one of the most powerful moguls in the industry during the 1920s. He died a year after publishing his 1958 autobiography I Toot My Own Horn. Considering the title of his biography, the epitaph on his vault should come as no surprise:
“Beloved son of California who in 1913/headed the company that produced/the first feature length motion picture made in Hollywood.His greatness never lacked simplicity. Carry the song along the passage/you, the soul of all there is/in glory forevermore.”
Turning 30 or 40 must be difficult for stars who are famous for their youthful beauty and know that their careers will fade with each landmark age. Barbara La Marr, who was dubbed “the Girl Who Was Too Beautiful” by Adela Rogers St. John, never made it to 30. Hence her epitaph on her crypt in the Cathedral Mausoleum, “With God in the Joy of Beauty and Youth,” reflects her star image, which was tweaked in death to signify the bittersweet destiny of a beauty who remains forever young. La Marr lived her life like she was never going to make it to 30. Married five times in her 29 years, she also had a child by an unnamed lover, had a fling with John Gilbert, and had an affair with her former dance partner, Robert Hobday, during her third marriage. Hobday’s sister, Virginia, who had been La Marr’s manager, married Jules Roth, owner of Hollywood Memorial Cemetery (the original name of Hollywood Forever). Roth had also been La Marr’s former lover. I wonder when she had time to star in 27 films. Fond of the fast lane, she drank heavily and was rumored to have indulged in drugs. La Marr once remarked that she rarely slept over two hours per night. This lifestyle contributed to her death from tuberculosis and nephritis. (The photo at the top is from La Marr’s funeral.)
Compared to Barbara La Marr, stuntman-turned-cameraman-turned director Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz; A Guy Named Joe) led a dull life, though most of us would find it filled with intrigue and romance. In the silent era, he courted several movie stars famous for their sexual appetites or romantic exploits, including Clara Bow, Bessie Love, Norma Shearer, Lupe Velez, and Alice White, among others. In 1933, he began an affair with the wife of his good friend, director Arthur Rosson, which resulted in her pregnancy. The pair eventually married, but in 1948, Fleming embarked on a torrid affair with Ingrid Bergman, the star of his version of Joan of Arc. His inflamed passion for 29-year-old Bergman must have been too much for the 59-year-old director, because he died of a heart attack two months after the film’s release. Or, it could have been the stress caused by the critical and financial failure of Joan of Arc. After all, he died on January 6, the real Joan of Arc’s birthday. Or, perhaps it was the drinking. Given his messy personal life, the epitaph on Fleming’s crypt made me curious: “He Leadeth Me.” The phrase is from the 23rd Psalm: “He leadeth me in the path of righteousness.” Fleming didn’t strike me as a religious man. I checked David Denby’s biography Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, which reveals that his mother actually selected the grave plate for his crypt, perhaps hoping for a more spiritual journey for her son in the afterlife.
Every article about Hollywood Forever includes a reference to the gravesite of Tyrone Power, which is located next to the tomb of Marion Davies. Instead of a traditional gravestone, Power’s final resting place is marked by a marble bench decorated in classical motifs. At one end stands a large marble tome representing a volume of classical plays because it features the masks of comedy and tragedy on the spine. The seat on the bench includes two passages from Act V of Hamlet. The first is spoken by Hamlet and the second by Horatio after Hamlet dies.
“There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow/ If it be now, tis’ not to come; /If it be not to come, it will be now; /If it be not now, yet it will come; / The readiness is all.”
“Good Night, Sweet Prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
Nothing about the unusual marker reflects anything about Power’s career as the too-handsome movie star exploited for his attractiveness. On the surface, it references his career in the theater. Before becoming a successful romantic lead at 20th Century Fox, Power enjoyed his stint in the legitimate theater as part of Katharine Cornell’s summer stock troupe. In the 1950s, he periodically returned to the stage, playing the lead in Mister Roberts in London, a part opposite Judith Anderson and Raymond Massey in Charles Laughton’s production of John Brown’s Body, and various roles in other distinguished stage plays. When he moved to Hollywood in the early 1930s, he went as a bona fide actor.
However, according to Jeanine Basinger’s terrific analysis of the star system titled The Star Machine, the studio did not need him to be a talented actor. Instead, they exploited his looks and sex appeal in every way: The studio assigned him to play romantic fantasy figures such as pirates or rogues; in his films, he was deliberately framed or blocked to be gazed upon like a passive object of beauty; the Fox publicity department repeatedly compared him to Valentino. In a fanzine, a Fox press agent ghost-penned an article calling Power “a dreamy boy with the melting eyes.” Bizarrely phrased, but you get the idea. When he wanted to marry French actress Annabella, studio execs and press agents turned on him, because they knew he would lose some of his devoted female fans. At that point Power realized the cost of becoming a male movie star, and he considered his handsome features and star image to be limitations to his career. After he returned from a three-year stint in the Marines during WWII, the tension between his desire to be taken seriously and his star image increased. Many movie stars found ways to maneuver within their star image and even took advantage of it, but Power did not appreciate the subtleties of the star system. As Basinger noted, he knew “he wasn’t going to be asked to play Hamlet,” an ironic comment considering his epitaph.
In small ways, Power rebelled and rejected his career as a movie star, but he did not turn his back on it. He lobbied to star in films such as Nightmare Alley, complained privately to friends, returned to the stage occasionally, left Fox in 1952, and drank too much, which took its toll on his beautiful physique and features. His theater-themed gravesite reflects Power’s rebuff of the movie career that made him famous, while acknowledging his respect for what he considered serious acting. The two quotes from Hamlet seem more than a nod to every serious actor’s dream role. The first, spoken by Hamlet, suggests that humans have no control over any events but a larger guiding hand determines their fate—and, according to Basinger, Power felt, well, powerless in the hands of studio execs. And, the “Good night, sweet prince” quote associates the tragic tone surrounding Hamlet’s death to that of Tyrone Power, who had a massive heart attack while shooting Solomon and Sheba, yet another costume flick. He was fighting a duel with George Sanders, a familiar arch-villain in Power’s historical romances and pirate films when his heart failed. He died that day, November 15, 1958; he was 44 years old.
The memorial service was held at the Chapel of the Psalms at Hollywood Forever. The active pallbearers were officers from the U.S. Marine Corps, but honorary pallbearers included Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Tommy Noonan, Cesar Romero, George Sidney, and Lew Wasserman, among others. Romero gave the eulogy, which featured a tribute written by Sanders just hours after Power had been stricken on the set: “I shall always remember Tyrone as a bountiful man, a man who gave freely of himself. It mattered not to whom he gave. His concern was in the giving. I shall always remember his wonderful smile, a smile that would light up the darkest hour of the day, like a sunburst. I shall always remember Tyrone Power as a man who gave more of himself than it was wise for him to give, until in the end, he gave his life.” Henry King, who had directed Power in Jesse James, and introduced him to flying, flew over the funeral in his private plane. King later recalled, “Knowing his love for flying and feeling that I had started it, I flew over his funeral procession and memorial park during his burial, and felt that he was with me.” Power’s grave marker may have referenced serious theater, but his funeral was all Hollywood.
They say that dead men tell no tales, but through their unique gravesites, the famous and the forgotten at Hollywood Forever still manage to grab our attention, confess their sins, and remind us of their place in pop culture.
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