Tag Archives: forest lawn cemetery

Written in Stone

Yesterday in Glendale, Elizabeth Taylor, who altered America’s cultural landscape, became the latest luminary to make the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery her permanent home.

Housed in the same building a few corridors away, one of her new neighbors made his mark by altering America’s physical landscape.

Gutzon Borglum was born to Danish immigrants in Idaho on this date in 1867. He showed artistic promise early and as a young man studied sculpture in Paris, where he was influenced by the creator of The Thinker, French sculptor Auguste Rodin. 

Back in America in 1908, Borglum was commissioned to create the statue of Union Gen. Philip Sheridan for Sheridan Square in Washington. President Theodore Roosevelt judged it “first rate,” which may have influenced Borglum’s later decision to include TR on the face of Mount Rushmore (proving yet again that “nice matters”).

Borglum was given an opportunity to create his first massive sculpture by carving the heroes of the Confederacy at Stone Mountain, Georgia. He was chosen for this commission partly based on his xenophobic and racist political beliefs, since the KKK was one of the major sponsors of the monument, and Borglum was a powerful member in the organization.

Borglum learned a great deal about creating large sculptures at Stone Mountain before leaving Georgia behind after clashing with the backers of the project.

His next assignment called for him to transform a mountain in South Dakota’s Black Hills into an American cultural landmark.

For fourteen years until his death, just over 70 years ago in 1941, Borglum and his son Lincoln supervised the carving of the 60-foot likenesses of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt into the granite face of Mount Rushmore, a mountain known as Six Grandfathers to the native Sioux in the area.

The carving, while unquestionably majestic, still evokes controversy generations after its completion.

Many Native American groups consider the monument to be a glorification of the government-endorsed policy of greed known as “Manifest Destiny.” Some see the decision to place the statue on Indian land acquired through broken treaties, as a celebration of conquest, rather than of liberty.

Some critics view the sculpture as a defacement of the mountain’s natural beauty, while others decry the choice of commissioning a racist to create a national icon.

The example of Elizabeth Taylor and Gutzon Borglum proves that neighbors in death, as in life, can have nothing in common.



Meeting ‘God’

Comedian George Burns, who died 15 years ago today just after turning 100, had an amazing 90-year career.  After starting out in vaudeville, he and his wife Gracie Allen enjoyed successful runs in radio, film, and television as the comedy team Burns and Allen. After Gracie died in 1964, George continued working, winning an Oscar at the age of 80, and whimsically portraying the Supreme Being in 1977’s Oh, God!

I met George Burns on two occasions. “Met” is actually too strong a word – encountered would be more accurate.

The first encounter took place at LAX when an escalator malfunctioned and he stumbled on top of me. I helped him up, made sure he was okay, gave him a knowing nod after recognizing who he was, and we went on our merry ways.

The second took place at the spot where you can find him today: Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale.

I was supposed to be in church that morning because the religious college I was attending at the time required that I go, but was powerless to make me happy about it. I made an appearance, but when I saw a jerk that I knew mount the podium to deliver the sermon, I grabbed a friend and bolted for the door. 

My friend knew that I liked to explore cemeteries to find the permanent homes of the famous and infamous and had always wanted me to give him a tour of Forest Lawn. It seemed like a perfect place to hide out for a couple of hours from the all-seeing eyes of the church police, so we drove to Glendale.

I took my friend around to the graves of all the biggies at the top of the hill – Walt Disney, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy – and then went inside the mausoleum to introduce him to lots of other folks, like Nat King Cole, Alan Ladd, Clara Bow, and George Burn’s late wife and comedy partner, Gracie Allen.

We exited the building and turned the corner, and for the second time in my life, I literally ran into George Burns.

Now, I’m not a big guy, but compared to me, George Burns in his eighties was a Smart Car next to a Hummer. (It was like the time at Warner Bros. when I rounded a soundstage, and bounced off John Goodman like a pinball.)

Luckily, he was none the worse for wear, and gave us a quick “Hello, boys,” before heading into the building to visit his beloved Gracie.

After he walked away, my friend turned to me and said, “See what happens when you talk me in to cutting church? God himself shows up!”

I stop by Forest Lawn from time-to-time to check in on George and Gracie. They are now entombed together with Gracie’s name listed first, since George wanted her to finally get top billing.


Greed, Graft & Greystone

Have you ever wanted to go inside one of the Vegas casino-sized mansions that are sprinkled around Beverly Hills?

There is one mansion that us commoners can explore called Greystone which the city of Beverly Hills has maintained as a park for the past 40 years. The massive 55,000 square foot behemoth sits on sixteen acres of prime real estate north of Sunset Boulevard.

While the mansion is often used as a setting for films, photo shoots, videos, and television shows, it could star in its own Hollywood blockbuster, based on the dark history of scandal, suicide, and murder which took place within its walls.

Greystone was originally the home of Ned Doheny, the only son of the massively wealthy L.A. oilman Edward L. Doheny. If you want to imagine the character of the senior Mr. Doheny, think of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance in There Will Be Blood, which was loosely based on him (the bowling alley scene at the film’s conclusion was actually shot at Greystone).

Doheny got rich by drilling wells in what is now downtown Los Angeles. He also had huge leases in Mexico that were protected by his own personal army of 6000 men. Between the years of 1910 – 1925 he earned an average of $10 million per year and used three-million of those dollars to build Greystone, which he gave to his son Ned as a wedding present in September, 1928.

In the 1920s, greed got the better of Doheny, as he was implicated in the Teapot Dome Scandal, which soured the public on the administration of President Warren G. Harding.

In case you don’t remember the specifics from your high school U.S. History classes, the scandal went down like this: the Navy had oil leases in an area of Wyoming called Teapot Dome, as well as in the San Joaquin Valley in California. Interior Secretary Albert B. Fall, a close friend of Doheny, talked the Navy into transferring the leases to his department, which he then turned over to Doheny and another oil man for kickbacks totaling over $400,000. Doheny had his son Ned and Ned’s secretary Hugh Plunkett deliver the bribe to Secretary Fall.

When the scandal eventually broke, it was rumored that the Dohenys tried to get Plunkett, who was said to be displaying signs of mental illness, to agree to be institutionalized in a sanitarium to be kept free from testifying.

On this date in 1929, only six months after Ned Doheny and his family had moved into Greystone, Plunkett appeared at the mansion with a gun and shot the 36-year-old Doheny to death before turning the gun on himself.

At least that’s the official story. After the murder-suicide, the papers hinted at other scenarios, including the possibility that Plunkett was in fact Doheny’s lover, and that Ned’s wife had shot them both. Another rumor suggested that the murder-suicide was carried out by Doheny. This story was given credence when the two men were buried within a few feet from each other at Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery, and not in the consecrated ground of the Catholic cemetery where Doheny’s parents were eventually interred, as this cemetery would have been off-limits to someone who had committed suicide.

Doheny’s widow continued living in the mansion until 1955, when she sold it to the owner of the Empire State Building. It eventually became a city park in 1971.

Some of the movies filmed at Greystone include The Social Network, Spiderman, The Prestige, Ghostbusters, All Of Me, The Big Lebowski, X-Men, Batman and Robin, The Loved One, as well as the aforementioned There Will Be Blood.

Greystone today.

Fire and Ice

Dona Lee Carrier ('a cup of gold on the ice') and her ice dance partner Roger Campbell. Both would perish on Sabena Flight 548.

The rectangular markers for the graves at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale are uniformly flat to the ground to make it easier for groundskeepers to mow the grass. Most are fairly non-descript, generally displaying only the deceased’s name, years of life, and the occasional personal message.

In the private Garden of Honor section, near the plots of Sam Cooke and Sammy Davis, Jr., is a grave that tells a lot about how the life it represents was lived, and how it ended.

The deceased was a young female ice dancer by the name of Dona Lee Carrier, who was only a few months past her twentieth birthday at the time of her death.

Her marker reads: “Our Beloved Daughter – Dona Lee Carrier – Gold medalist and member of the U.S. Figure Skating Team, representing the U.S. in World Competition which was to be held in Prague. She perished at the peak of her career with all her teammates in the Sabena Airlines crash in Brussels, Belgium. She was beautiful, talented and good. ‘A cup of gold on the ice.’ …”

While Dona’s name may not be familiar these days, the plane crash that claimed her life and the rest of the U.S. Figure Skating team on February 15, 1961, is being remembered around the country today on its 50th anniversary.

Figure skating gold belonged to the Europeans for the first half-century of the Olympics, but great strides had been made by the U.S., culminating in gold medals won by both the American men and women at the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960. After the games concluded, most of the medal winners retired, clearing the way for a new crop of stars. The 1961 World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia was to be the coming-out party for these future Olympians.

It was not to be. The Sabena Airlines Boeing 707 that was carrying the team to Prague dropped from the sky just outside of Brussels, killing everyone on board. The entire 18-member skating team was lost, plus an additional 16 coaches, officials, and family members. The tragedy even reached into the White House as one of the skaters, Dudley Richards, was a personal friend of President Kennedy and his brother Ted.

Other sports teams had been lost to airplane crashes in the past, but the Sabena crash was different. Since all the elite American skaters were on the plane, it was the closest a sport has ever come to decapitation in this country’s history.

The crash on February 15, 1961 could have proven fatal to figure skating, but like a phoenix, it rose again from its ashes, thanks in large part to the $10 million USFS Memorial Fund which was created in honor of the crash victims. The fund, which still exists, is used to support the training of promising young skaters, including Peggy Fleming, whose gold medal at the 1968 Olympics helped bring the Americans back to prominence in figure skating – a sport that could have died seven years earlier along with its 1961 World Championship team.

(In remembrance of the tragedy, Rise, a film about the crash and its aftermath, will be shown in theaters nationwide for one day only this Thursday.)

The First Female Casualty of WWII

Carole Lombard 1908 - 1942.

By mid-January 1942, America had been fighting World War II for just over a month and had already suffered the loss of thousands of men during the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Most of these casualties were unknown outside of their units and families.

It was a far different story when America lost it first woman in the conflict. Her name was Carole Lombard, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, and the wife of superstar Clark Gable.

Lombard, one of the most gifted screwball-comediennes at the time of her death, was born Jane Alice Peters in 1908 in Indiana. Young Carole moved to Los Angeles with her mother when she was six after her parents divorced. She began her acting career in silent films at the age of 12 after a director spotted her playing baseball. She would retain a tomboyish personality spiced with bawdy humor that contrasted sharply with her classic beauty.

She co-starred with future husband Clark Gable on the set of No Man of Her Own in 1932 and saw her career take off in 1934’s Twentieth Century. She was nominated for an Oscar two years later for her role in the screwball comedy My Man Godfrey in which she co-starred with her ex-husband William Powell (awkward!).

Later successes included Made For Each Other, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and To Be Or Not To Be, which was released after her death.

Lombard began an affair with Gable while he was still married to Rhea Langham. Louise B. Mayer, the head of MGM, was able to land Gable for the role of Rhett Butler in Gone With The Wind by giving him a contract that would pay him enough money to divorce Langham and wed Lombard. The couple was married during a break in filming in Kingman, Arizona, with Otto Winkler, Gable’s press agent, in attendance. They lived together on a ranch in Encino for the next three years.

In 1942, Lombard, accompanied by Winkler and her mother, flew to Indiana on a mission to sell bonds for the war effort. The trip was very successful, with Lombard selling over $2 million worth of bonds in a single day. On the flight back to Los Angeles, the plane they were in crashed into Mt. Potosi near Las Vegas, killing all 22 people on-board.

A grief-stricken Gable, who was rumored to have been engaged in an affair with Lana Turner at the time of Lombard’s death, flew to the crash site. He purchased three adjoining crypts in Glendale’s Forest Lawn Cemetery for the couple and Lombard’s mother, where all three are now interrred.

Lombard’s final film To Be Or Not To Be (1942) was in post-production at the time of her death. After the crash, the producers cut out a line of dialogue in which her character rhetorically asks, “What could happen in a plane?”

Lombard was posthumously honored by the U.S. government with the launch of a Liberty Ship SS Carole Lombard, and with the Medal of Freedom as the first woman killed in the line of duty during the war.

The question arises: Was Lombard really the first American woman to die as a result of World War II?

Most certainly not. There were previous civilian female casualties at Pearl Harbor, but like their male counterparts, they were unknown to the general public. As a well-known personality, Lombard’s death was used by the media and the War Department to personalize the conflict, and to strengthen America’s resolve.

This plaque at Lombard's crash site was stolen in 2007.