Wednesday, 30 June 2010

City Of Angels: Final Resting Places, Part 1: Forest Lawn, 1712 Glendale Avenue, Glendale

So intrigued was English novelist Evelyn Waugh by the concept of Forest Lawn and its American - or rather Hollywood - way of dying that he famously immortalised this cemetery in his book, The Loved One, where it stands in for Whispering Glades. In fact, Waugh's fascination with Forest Lawn was so great, that it prompted him to jot down the following lines in his diary on Thursday, February 13, 1947: "I found a deep mine of literary gold in the cemetery of Forest Lawn and the work of the morticians and intend to get to work immediately on a novelette staged there".

Founded in 1917 by Dr. Hubert Eaton who, as a staunch believer in life after death, intended to remove the morbid aura which ordinary graveyards are invariably surrounded by, and elevated the cemetery concept to a higher ground, one which would make people forget that they are actually in a place where the dead are laid to rest. And so Eaton went on to create an environment that reflected his optimistic convictions. Indeed, there is nothing sinister about these immaculate, pristine grounds which, with their manicured lawns and grand mausoleums that resemble regal mansions, put London's Hyde Park to shame in shame and appearance.

Approaching Forest Lawn's gilded gates, and looking at the splashing fountain teeming with swans and the faux-Tudor-style mansion next to it, calls to mind images of stately homes in England. Of the five Forest Lawn branches (Hollywood Hills, Covina Hills, Long Beach, Cypress and Glendale), the Glendale branch easily outshines all others in grandeur and opulence for besides being a cemetery - even though there is precious little that reminds the casual visitor of that - Forest Lawn Glendale also boasts a small art museum, a variety of replicas of statues by Michelangelo, as well as a stained glass reproduction of Da Vinci's Last Supper which, when lit up from behind, gives the impression of the sun rising at daybreak, until over the course of a ten-minute light show, the light gets gradually dimmer, eventually giving the dumbstruck spectator the impression of the sun setting right behind Jesus and his disciples.

So posh and un-cemetery like is Forest Lawn Glendale in fact, that some people even choose to get married here, as in the case of Ronald Reagan and his first wife Jane Wyman, who exchanged their wedding vows right here in one of the churches on the grounds. With all its glitz and splendour, it is hardly a surprise that Forest Lawn Glendale has been one of the preferred resting places for Hollywood Royalty ever since it first opened its gilded gates. More Hollywood luminaries are buried here than in any other cemetery around town, but most of them are kept under lock and key and with Forest Lawn's strict celebrity policy, trying to track down some of the burial sites can be a rather frustrating and daunting experience. In the Sanctuary of Benediction in the Great Mausoleum - which actually looks like a French chateau - for instance, is where Red Skelton, Sid Grauman (the founder of the Chinese and Egyptian Theatres), David O. Selznick, Clara Bow, and Irving G. Thalberg and his wife Norma Shearer are laid to rest. On a wall in a wing in the same building, but cordoned off and thus inaccessible to the casual visitor - are two plaques next to each other, indicating the final resting places of Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Then again Jean Hersholt, an actor of Danish origin of the silent era after which the Academy Award for Humanitarian Achievement is named, is buried in a crypt just outside the Great Mausoleum.

Forest Lawn, which in a way is like the Disneyland of cemeteries, reflects the glamour and artificiality of Hollywood to a 't' and as such, it couldn't be anywhere else in the world but here.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

CITY OF ANGELS: Santa Monica, part 2 - Sights And Landmarks


Although this is an old picture, Salka's home still looks exactly like it did back then, the fact notwithstanding that it appears to have received a new lick of paint recently.

Salka arrived in Los Angeles in 1928 along with her husband, Berthold, and their son, Peter, who later also became a writer and screenwriter. Berthold had been an established theatre and film director in Germany. Besides his collaboration with Hungarian film theoretician Bela Balazs on Die Abenteuer eines Zehnmarkscheins (Defa/ Fox, 1926), just prior to their departure for Los Angeles, he worked on a production of Ibsen's Peer Gynt at Max Reinhardt's Deutsches Theater. The Viertel's decision to leave Germany was prompted by an invitation from William Fox, who'd already lured F.-W. Murnau away from Germany and whose assistant Berthold was supposed to become.

Salka Viertel played a decisive role in the life of the German emigre community, although the name 'community' is deceiving as often, the only things the emigres had in common was language and their opposition to Nazi Germany. Consequently, it is more truthful to speak of a community that was made up of various emigre circles. One such circle frequently gathered at Salka's Mabery Road home which became a sort of emigre hub similar to the one, for instance, at Ernst Lubitsch's. However, while Lubitsch by the nature of his profession, tended to attract emigre film artists, the crowd gathering at Salka's place was intellectual and political. Among them were Brecht, Feuchtwanger, the brothers Mann, and Gottfried Reinhardt - son of Max - with whom Salka entered into a long relationship, even though she was still officially married to director Berthold Viertel. Gottfried - a producer and director - and Salka - a trained actress-turned-screenwriter - collaborated on Garbo's last film, A Two-Faced Woman (MGM, 1941). It was to become Garbo's only bonafide flop, prompting her to hang her film career and retire.

After her - amicable - divorce from Berthold in 1947 which coincided with the onlaught of the Hollywood witch-hunt, of which Salka became a victim due to her active role in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League ten years earlier, she eventually left America behind her to permanently settle in Klosters/ Switzerland, where she was later joined by her son, Peter, and his wife Deborah Kerr.

OCEAN HOUSE - BEACH HOUSE OF MARION DAVIES, Pacific Coast Highway, architect: Julia Morgan, 1929

Before Malibu became the celebrity retreat of choice, Hollywood's film community favoured a stretch along the beach at Santa Monica, then known as Beach Palisades Road (now Pacific Coast Highway) as their preferred weekend playground. Many Hollywood bigwigs either had a hideaway there or, as in the case of Irving G. Thalberg and his wife Norma Shearer, lived there permanently.

Although all of the houses were grand and usually fitted with the latest amenities, none of them matched Marion Davies' stately Ocean House, built for her by her lover, press tycoon William Randolph Hearst. It boasted 110 rooms, 55 bedrooms with an equal number of bathrooms, and was furnished with entire interiors from European castles. Ocean House also featured a huge ballroom, a 16th century English tavern, more than thirty fireplaces, and is said to have had the largest swimming pool in all Los Angeles. Hearst and Davies never married, although he doted on her and lavished her with everything money could buy including priceless jewellery, which Davies later famously sold to get Hearst's companies out of debt.

To promote Davies' career, Hearst had set up a production company, Cosmopolitan Films, which was initially based at MGM. When over a dispute with MGM's Louis B. Mayer, Cosmopolitan Films moved to Warner Bros. in 1935, Hearst agreed to paying $ 100,000 for the raising of the roof by 30 feet of soundstage 16 to accommodate the elaborate production numbers in the musical Cain and Mabel, starring Davies alongside Clark Gable, making it the second biggest soundstage in the world (the biggest being at Pinewood, outside London).

After the attack on Pearl Harbour, living anywhere on the Californian coastline was deemed unsafe, and so Hearst and Davies refrained from spending time at Ocean House and instead, retired to the even grander Sam Simeon Castle in San Luis Obispo County. With five mansions to his name on the West Coast alone and with his company already in dire straits, Hearst and Davies were forced to divest themselves of Ocean House in 1945 as the cost of its maintenance was no longer sustainable.

Passing from private beach club to hotel, in 1956 Ocean House fell into the hands of the State of California, only to be part-demolished by its subsequent owner, whose intention it was to erect a motel, a plan which eventually was abandoned.

The left wing is all that's left today of Ocean House. It has recently been restored by the Annenberg Foundation and is now functioning as a community centre.