They sat in lawn chairs with cups of fruit punch and cake plates balanced on their knees, under a white tent surrounded by bright green grass and flower-decorated graves, unaware of their place in the San Fernando Valley’s short literary history.
Literary history? The Valley?
Sure. But that comes later.
Meanwhile, back to the 18 men and women, who were holding a quiet celebration on a sunny Sunday afternoon in a setting of sad tranquility.
The founders of SOPHIE (Save Our Pets’ History In Eternity) had gotten together to mark the second anniversary of their rescue of the pet cemetery in Calabasas. Developers had been about to take over the cemetery, where some 42,000 pets have been buried and cremated in the past 60 years, outraging those who had buried animals there.
The pet owners not only outmaneuvered the developers and raised $100,000 to buy the land. They also succeeded in passing a state law protecting the cemetery’s status in perpetuity, just like cemeteries for humans.
The cemetery owns 10 acres, of which 3.5 acres are covered with lush grass and well-tended flowers. There are thousands of graves, marked by headstones. On many of them--even those of animals dead for 15 or 20 years--were fresh flowers.
There are famous Hollywood animals-- Valentino’s dog, Hopalong Cassidy’s horse, Gloria Swanson’s cat and Spot, the lovable mutt from the Little Rascals early film comedies.
Atop a hill, under a large tree, is an imposing stone monument to Tawny, a lion who died in 1940. “His adored tomcat pal sleeps beside him,” says the inscription on the headstone, which frames a sepia photo of a dyspeptic-looking lion with a striped tabby crouched on his back.
There was a fresh bouquet of white flowers on the grave of Corky, a police bomb squad dog who died in 1983. “Our number one,” his headstone says. “Your partner, Jimmy.”
“Our Precious Muffin. Little Miss Independent,” reads another.
“Sweet Little Dukie-Doo. Mommy Loves you.”
“Winnie--Please wait for us.”
“Till we meet in heaven.”
“You need a strong heart to look at all of this,” said Mary Bayr of Panorama City, the manager of the park, as she showed a visitor around. “So much love here.”
The SOPHIE members sat under a white open-sided tent in the St. Francis Circle. Fruit punch bubbled in an elaborate, three-layer punch bowl, the sweet, red liquid dribbling decoratively down thin silver chains from one level to the next.
“My poodle, Peppy, would like to have his name in the newspaper,” said Laurie Alexander, one of the founders and spark plugs of the drive to save the cemetery.
It does not matter that Peppy is beneath one of the little headstones, she said. “He’ll always be alive in my heart. My son, the poodle.”
“I thought I was the only one who felt this intensely about my animals until I met this group,” said Sue Spencer of Van Nuys, who buried four cats here.
None of the members of the group recognized the name of “The Loved One,” an icepick-sharp satirical novel on life and death in Los Angeles by English author Evelyn Waugh. The book followed a visit to Hollywood by Waugh in 1947, in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to negotiate a contract for the film rights to his classic “Brideshead Revisited.”
Waugh, appalled by Southern California in general and Forest Lawn Cemetery in particular, set most of the novel in a thinly disguised Forest Lawn. His hero, however, a young English poet, works in a pet cemetery, the very idea of which Waugh obviously found bizarrely, hilariously American.
The one in Calabasas?
The novel describes the cemetery only as, driving from Hollywood, somewhere out past Burbank “almost to the extremity of the city.”
That fits Calabasas well enough. And the pet cemetery was operating under private owners then, and was well known in the Hollywood community when Waugh visited.
But although Waugh left enough material in diaries and elsewhere for literary historians to pin the rap for “The Loved One” firmly on Forest Lawn in Glendale, there seems to be no proof that the Calabasas pet cemetery was Waugh’s “Happier Hunting Ground,” according to Waugh-ologist William Anderson of Cal State Northridge’s English lit department.
But the odds appear high. If not there, where? And the Valley, with its short history, has few enough spots to note as literary landmarks.
(The others? Well, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s place in Encino is now a westbound lane of the Ventura Freeway and James Jones wrote the last chapter of “From Here to Eternity” in a trailer camp on Lankershim Boulevard. And, as all Valley trivia buffs know, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who named Tarzana after the fictional ape-man who made him rich enough to own it, is buried under a tree on Ventura Boulevard. This just may exhaust the list.)
The SOPHIE celebrators had little interest in links to literature, not even the possibility that their park inspired perhaps the grandest punch line in the history of satire. The novel’s hero arranges for his gross American rival in romance to receive the pet cemetery’s standard memorial card each year on the anniversary of the death of the corpse beautician they both loved:
“Your little Aimee is wagging her tail in heaven tonight, thinking of you.”
To them, their happier hunting ground is no joke.