A Walk Among the Stars: Visiting the Hollywood Royalty of Yesteryear
Yesterday I crossed the street to visit Marilyn Monroe. The platinum-haired beauty wasn’t much of a car enthusiast—the only automobile she’s said to have ever owned was a 1956 Ford T-bird she received as a Christmas gift—but she did appear in the 1950 John Huston movie The Asphalt Jungle, the title of which I appropriated for the monthly column I’ve been writing for roughly 15 years now. So she’s in my “club.” Playboy founder Hugh Hefner lies immediately to Marilyn’s left, having long ago purchased the marble crypt so he could be assured of sleeping forever next to the star whose photograph became his magazine’s first-ever centerfold.
Hugh was a car enthusiast; he especially loved German metal. Among his wheels: a 1969 Mercedes-Benz 600 Pullman limo, a 1959 300SL roadster, and a 1972 BMW 3.0CS. Some folks even say the name of Hefner’s groundbreaking monthly was inspired by the then-newly defunct Playboy Automobile Company. (Playboy co-founder Eldon Sellers’ mother worked for the car company’s sales office in Chicago.)
Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park is tiny at just 2.5 acres and, if you didn’t know where to look, all but impossible to find. Its entrance is hidden away behind a few nondescript office towers on Los Angeles’ busy Wilshire Boulevard. But I walk there often. It’s nearby, quiet, and peaceful. Filled with flowers and handsome trees. And on a per-square-foot basis, it hosts more celebrities than the lunchtime dining room at Spago.
When I walk past the graves of Monroe, Hefner, and the many other storied names at Westwood Memorial, I can’t help but pause and try to imagine the lives they led—working under the lights, the parties, the beautiful homes, the interactions with fans and critics, stardom’s delirious highs and crushing lows. But of course I also wonder: What did this person drive? And did their cars outlive them? Are their wheels in museums or still prowling the streets today?
Near the Monroe and Hefner crypts rests crooner and actor Dean Martin. (He died on Christmas Day in 1995.) The Sinatra pal and Rat Packer owned a slew of sweet rides, including a ’76 Stutz Blackhawk and a car I once profiled in Motor Trend Classic, the avant-garde 1962 Italian-American Ghia L6.4—one of just 26 ever built. (Sinatra had one, too.) Edgy as it may have been (the L6.4 was based on the striking 1957 Chrysler Dart concept car), the Ghia wasn’t cool enough out of the box for “The King of Cool,” so Martin had famed Hollywood car customizer George Barris (of original Batmobile fame) tweak his with an extra helping of suave. A little research suggests the car was last sold in 2012 with an asking price of $ 199,500. The Ghia was said to be in immaculate, unrestored condition—with only 46,000 miles on the odometer. I’ll have to whisper that to Dino on my next visit.
Actress Natalie Wood is buried under a tree amid the central lawn, having mysteriously drowned off SoCal’s Catalina Island in 1981. She was just 43 years old. Two-plus decades before her death, at age 19 and already a huge star, Wood purchased a brand-new 1957 Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster—and promptly had the car painted bright pink. A subsequent owner, not surprisingly, had it repainted back to its original Silver Blue—but the red leather interior and highly desirable Rudge wheels remain as Wood enjoyed them. The car—restored to concours condition—sold at auction in 2014 for $ 1.84 million, well above estimate. Whenever I stop here, Wood’s grave always seems to be adorned with flowers, but the day of my December visit, someone had also placed a small Christmas tree. It had tipped over in the wind, so I set it back up straight and tucked it in, remembering how gorgeous Wood looked when I first saw her in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. And how alive.
What did this person drive? And did their cars outlive them? Are their wheels in museums or still prowling the streets today?
His crypt not far from Monroe’s, actor Robert Stack, like Wood and Hefner, was also the proud owner of a Mercedes 300SL roadster. Although probably best known to contemporary audiences as the blundering Captain Rex Kramer in 1980’s Airplane! or as the host of Unsolved Mysteries, in 1960 Stack was the rising young star of ABC’s hit drama The Untouchables, where he played famed Chicago law-enforcement agent and Prohibition enforcer Eliot Ness. It’s said that every day Stack would drive down Sunset Boulevard on his way to the studio and, passing an auto showroom, stare at a bright green ’57 SL on display. Finally, his wife, Rosemarie, threw up her hands and said, in effect, “Just buy the darn thing!” Yet Stack didn’t do so, telling a MotorTrend writer in 1998, “I’d never pay that much money for a car for myself.”
As fate would have it, though, Stack didn’t have to spend a dime. Unbeknownst to him, Untouchables producer (and I Love Lucy star) Desi Arnaz bought the car for Stack, a gift for his having won the Best Actor Emmy for 1960. Stack owned the SL right up until his death in 2003. A decade later, the car—now painted dark red but otherwise almost completely original—sold at auction for $ 808,500. Sorry, Mr. Ness, but that good news merits a cold martini.
Actor Jack Lemmon, who died in 2001 at the age of 76, has the best headstone in Westwood Memorial. It reads simply: “Jack Lemmon”—then, below, “In.” Yet the two-time Oscar winner was the complete opposite of a car guy. In a 2014 interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Lemmon’s son, Chris, confessed: “[My dad] was the worst friggin’ driver. He wrecked a magnificent sports car for pretty much every film he ever did. For How to Murder Your Wife, he wrecked an Aston Martin. During Tribute, he wrecked a vintage MG that he bought from Bill Bixby [late star of the 1977–82 hit CBS series The Incredible Hulk].” Lemmon’s grave lies in a prime spot, at the end of a line of four that includes actor Carroll “Archie Bunker” O’Connor, legendary writer-director and Lemmon favorite Billy “Some Like It Hot” Wilder, and actor Peter “Columbo” Falk. It’s a 12-foot walk of fame.
For me, Westwood Memorial isn’t a sad place; it’s a celebration of lives lived uniquely—and full-up. It’s also, at times, a reminder of the utter absurdity and unpredictability of existence. (The child star of the 1982 horror hit Poltergeist, Heather “They’re heeerrrre!” O’Rourke, rests in a crypt near the entrance; she was only 12 when she died of septic shock in 1988.) Thankfully, near Lemmon lies comedian and actor Rodney Dangerfield; inscribed under his name on the headstone: “THERE GOES THE NEIGHBORHOOD.” Mr. “I don’t get no respect” died in 2004, just shy of his 83rd birthday. Whether Dangerfield gave one whit about cars, I don’t know, but every time I come to Westwood Memorial, I’m uplifted by memories of the comic’s hilarious stand-up routines, many of which revolved around his wife and her lousy driving. One of my faves: “My wife took her driver’s test . . . oh, she was happy. She got 18 out of 20! Yeah, two guys jumped out of the way!”