The mythology of the United States is a recent one, and this in itself presents a problem of good taste. Los Angeles in particular, does not not concern itself with where a historic battle took place or a king of England in the 1500’s is buried, but with where Halle Berry crashed her car into a pharmacy, or where River Phoenix overdosed on the street.
I decided to go with it. My first choice was a Manson murders tour. At thi stage of life I am making my peace with the fact I am morbid. John seems to go along with it in the most charming way possible. It has been a good decade since I ditched the eyeliner and penchant for black, but I spent my 29th birthday in a Paris cemetery visiting the graves of Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, and Jim Morrison, and it was wonderful.
The thing about fear is it equally repellant and attractive. Horror is the only literary genre that makes people avoid it because it does what it is supposed to. How many times have you heard “I don’t watch horror movies, they’re too scary”? That’s kind of the point. It wasn’t until I read Julia Kristeva’s essay on abjection that I realised the fascination with death is a way to connect with life. Also, what’s a story with death, crime, and tragedy? Nothing. The Bible is a treatise on blood, sex, and savagery. What I mean is, don’t judge me. The 24 hour news cycle makes a business out of other people’s fear and suffering.
The Manson tour was unavailable, but the tour company, Dearly Departed, offered a Tragic Lives tour. I fully expected a tacky ride through Hollywood, TMZ style. I was wonderfully, beautifully, proven wrong.
Before my tour I had some time and decided to visit the Hollywood Forever cemetery across the street. Judy Garland’s grave has recently moved there, so I went in search of Judy. The cemetery’s location seems to sum up everything about Hollywood. The entrance is on a stretch of busy road, just another location on a strip mall, next to a Subway and a car repair shop. This is not the Santa Monica Boulevard I imagined. The back of the cemetery is right next to Paramount Studios, its water tower looming over the dead. According to our tour guide, the wall between cemetery and studio is the most haunted in the city, with unknowing ghosts trying to get back in and into work. Considering how RKO, Paramount’s predecessor, treated their stars, I highly doubt it.
I wander aimlessly around the cemetery until I find The Garden of Legends. Of course celebrities wouldn’t be buried with the general population! The scene resembles Olympus. A beautiful pond full of koi with a large Neo-Classical mausoleum in the middle. I spot the life-size statue of Johnny Ramone first. Next to it, the souvenir-strewn grave of recently departed Chris Cornell. A woman comes down the path after me and throws herself onto the grave, dramatically touching the headstone whilst sobbing uncontrollably. Her companion is on hand to film the whole scene. Hello, Los Angeles.
I spot a large plot next to the pond, closed off with some rope and covered in flowers. A man sits on a lawn chair next to it. He isn’t reading, checking his phone, just sitting there. This must be Judy! Embrace the madness and all that, but I remain cautious and walk towards it slowly. I try and peek at the headstone and the man looks at me. I feel a bit ashamed at the intrusion and smile at him, walking off. I couldn’t make out the name but it isn’t Judy. I learn from my tour guide later that it’s Anton Yelchin of Star Trek, and the man is his father, who has sat there every day since he died to keep him company. I am heartbroken. It is a stark reminder that there is little to no distance here. This isn’t someone who died in the 1800’s, some of these people passed away last month.
Despite my fascination, there are lines not to be crossed. I don’t think the people who line up to throw themselves on the floor posing like the Black Dahlia murder victim are right in the head. I don’t quite understand the collection our tour company has amassed in their voices. Artwork by serial killers? Maybe. The bathroom sink from the house Karen Carpenter died in? Hmm.
I had this problem watching American Horror Story. In the Hotel season, serial killers gather for a dinner. These are serial killers, some of who are stiill alive. Some of these serial killers have survivors, and families of victims who are still alive. For a while I thought this was in bad taste. I still think it’s in bad taste…yet. This is America. American Horror Story doesn’t deal in facts, it deals in legends, mishmashed from Roanoke to Jeffrey Dahmer. Not the way they happened but the way they are told, elevating them to the status of Jack The Ripper or Jesus Christ. What’s so different, other than time?
Our tour guide, Brian, is a wonder. Firing off on all cylinders, I am led through Hollywood’s glittering and decrepit past. Not just the tacky murders and crime I thought we would see, but also architecture, history, politics. The man isn’t just a hired hand reading off a board. He is deeply in love with the work he does and the city he lives in. He tells us every August 8th he eats at El Coyote, the Mexican restaurant where Sharon Tate had her last meal. He spent his birthday in the hotel room Janis Joplin died. He knows that every August 5th there is a memorial for Marilyn Monroe at the quiet cemetery where she is buried, and that Hugh Hefner will be buried next to her. I have found a kindred spirit, I don’t need to explain myself to him or the people on the bus as we go grave hunting for Bettie Page. I win cookies in the trivia rounds as drive around, for knowing that Trent Reznor lived at Cielo Drive and Hugh Grant’s hooker was called Divine Brown.
We blast through Hollywood. Cedars-Sinai, CBS Television City, the witch house from Hocus Pocus, the fountain from Clueless, the hotel balcony where Sugge Knight hung Vanilla Ice out from the neck. Johnny Depp’s house, Usher’s house, Lucille Ball’s house. The Playboy Mansion, the house Michael Jackson died in, the toilets where George Michael was busted for playing with a policeman’s winkie (coincidentally opposite Trump’s LA home). We see The Viper Room, Chateau Marmont, The Roxy, Whiskey A-Go-Go. The street where they filmed the final scene in Halloween (now being used for American Horror Story’s new season, of course.)
Every side street, every anonymous little home is something else. The cheap apartment Bela Lugosi died in, the hotel where they filmed the end of Pretty Woman, the college from Glee, the side street where Chris Brown beat Rihanna up, and yes, the pharmacy Halle Berry crashed into. Even the restaurant Britney met Kevin in.
For a moment I think the magic is gone, everything seems so pedestrian. I wonder why celebrities live so close to busy traffic. The Chateau Marmont doesn’t seem as grand right next to a strip mall. Hollywood is filthy, busy, nothing is sacred but everything is sacred. You can rule the studios and be buried in a simple grave behind, I guess appropiately, a cinema. Yet it occurs to me that it is not the houses or the pavements that elevate the legends in this city, it is the legends themselves. They transcend shady hotels or grubby pay phones. It even seems beyond the people themeselves, who it is obvious when you walk around Hollywood eat and poo exactly like you do, only infinitely richer.
All that seems to matter in Los Angeles is a good story. Give it some sex and death and alcohol and it might just live forever. I can embrace that idea.