Years ago, my ex-wife Cyndi got me a birthday present I will remember fondly until the end of my days, a 2 ½ hour tour of Hollywood and its environs in a late-60s Cadillac, a very special Cadillac indeed, a silver hearse (my first trip in that sort of vehicle, likely not my last). The tour company was called Grave Line Tours, and they operated an excursion through the dark side of Tinseltown, to the sites of infamous killings and gruesome carnage, to the very places where stars of the silver screen twinkled their last twink. Is this in exceptionally poor taste? Without a doubt…and deliciously so. But for someone obsessed with foul play and the high price of fame and fortune (like most avid mystery readers), the tour was a gourmet delight.
We got aboard (a-slab?) just behind Mann’s Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, the movie palace where previous owner Sid Grauman immortalized stars’ footprints in concrete in the front courtyard. The Cadillac was as subdued as one might expect of such a, um, deadicated vehicle. The only noises, in fact, apart from the gentle whoosh of the tires, were the alternating narratives, half on tape (with appropriate sound effects), the other half live.
We visited the Cielo Drive scene of the Sharon Tate murder by the infamous Manson Family; the Brentwood ranch home where Marilyn Monroe allegedly committed suicide (I wonder if the truth of that tale will come out in my lifetime); the Chateau Marmont, where John Belushi ingested a deadly cocktail of heroin and cocaine; and to the visible-from-space Hollywood sign, where English starlet Peg Entwistle climbed fifty feet to the top of the letter “H”, and leapt to her death in 1932, surprisingly the only person to date to have committed suicide by jumping from the sign (and if you can’t be first, why bother?).
The commentary, both live and taped, was hilarious in a morbid sort of way. About George Reeves, the original TV Superman, who died of a gunshot wound, the narrator pointed out thoughtfully that “he was indeed not faster than a speeding bullet.” Or about Jack Haley, the Tin Man from the Wizard of Oz: “You know that heart he got? You’re about to see where it stopped beating…”
One of the recurring themes was about how many of the stars died penniless, after a lifetime of excess (and excess in the heady early days of Hollywood very likely trumped any excess before or since): Judy Garland, Bela Lugosi, Sammy Davis, Jr., the list goes on and on. Our tour guide mentioned several times just what a sobering thing it was.
At a bathroom/coffee/cigarette break mid-tour, I cornered him and offered a slightly different perspective: “You know, in my estimation, dying penniless isn’t something to be avoided, but rather something to aspire to! Basically, I want to spend everything I’ve made before I go, if at all possible, and to leave an insurance policy for my heirs to say thanks for putting up with me all these years. If I were to work my whole life only to leave a multimillion dollar estate behind, I would be truly annoyed. To be sure, in my dotage I don’t want to be eating saltines and cat food in an unheated garret in some industrial backwater, but all in all, better then than now.”
He drew in a deep drag on his cigarette, and allowed as to how he had never thought about it that way. For my part, I made my way back to the hearse, and settled in for part two of the tour, during which editorials about the sadness of a pauper’s death were conspicuously absent.
The tour closed with owner Greg Smith’s wry observation: “Certainly it’s the only time you’re going to remember riding in a hearse…”