Los Angeles and vicinity can claim its share of dead celebrities, but the east coast is no slouch. In April 2010, my wife and I woke up early one Saturday morning and drove through four states to visit some of the eternal resting places of some dead celebrities, 2500 miles from their colleagues.
We arrived at sprawling Ferncliff Cemetery, a vast conglomerate of poorly marked outdoor plots and several multi-level mausoleums. The kind employees in the administrative office apologized for the confusing layout of the place, but offered a many-times xeroxed map of the crypts and a listing of notable long-term residents.
(In early 2017, Judy’s remains were removed and reinterred in Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, at the request of her daughter Liza Minnelli.)
Here’s Ona Munson, best known as “Belle Watling” in the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind. Ona committed suicide with an overdose of barbiturates in 1955. She left a note reading: “This is the only way I know to be free again…Please don’t follow me.” (I didn’t see the note before my visit.)
There are many more celebrities buried here, but the place is huge and grave sites are not easily identifiable. It’s so large, they even have their own Staples!
We headed up Interstate 287 to Gate of Heaven Cemetery. As we drove through the wrought iron archway at 3:55 pm, a sign informed us that the “Gates of Heaven” are locked promptly at 4 o’clock. We made haste in finding legendary Yankees manager Billy Martin.
Martin served as the Yankees’ manager five times and was fired each time by Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. He was preparing a sixth run at the position when he died in a one-car accident on Christmas Day 1989. His elaborate headstone, decorated by carved religious symbols and bookended with two carved numeral “1”s (Billy’s retired uniform number), is inscribed: “I may not have been the greatest Yankee to put on the uniform, but I was the proudest.”
Babe Ruth’s plot is marked by a huge carved headstone depicting Jesus imparting the secrets of home run hitting to an eager young boy. The Babe’s grave is adorned with baseballs and bats and Yankees hats of different eras, all left by reverent fans. Interestingly, on the day we were there, a prior visitor had fittingly left a bottle of beer for the Babe. Babe Ruth is buried here with his second wife Claire, who outlived her husband by 28 years. Claire’s birth year is incorrectly shown as 1900. She was born in 1897.
We drove through the narrow roadways and came across an ominous flock of turkeys, out for a stroll among the graves… just like us.
Armed with a map and location, my wife and I drove around Section 48, searching for the grave of Bess Houdini, the master magician’s wife and assistant. We circled the perimeter of the small, yet crowded section of headstones for a little over an hour until we spotted Bess’ grave.
Harry Houdini’s remains are at Machpelah Cemetery in Queens. Bess wished to be buried with her famous husband, but since she was not Jewish, she was not permitted to be buried there. Instead, Bess’ family had her interred at Gate of Heaven.
As we started toward the front gate and were approached by a security guard in a car who instructed us to slow down as he unlocked the long-closed gates to release us.
* * * * *