As I said the other day, I am hard to buy a birthday present for. So I should not have been surprised when our older son and his wife bought my wife and me a joint birthday present of a guided tour of places in which Hollywood stars have died. (Our birthdays are less than a month apart.)
The Grave Line Tour was to leave at noon from Orchid and Hollywood Boulevard, just east of the Chinese Theater. Our vehicle awaited. It was a gray 1968 Cadillac hearse fitted with eight seats. A young man stood by an open door.
He said he was our driver-guide. He looked like the all-American boy. Sun- pink cheeks, big smile, curly blond hair. He said he was Jed Gillin, out of Kansas City, Kan. I wondered if he was an actor between roles, as all young men and women in Hollywood are said to be.
"Yes," he said. "I played a non-speaking business executive in 'Trading Places.' I had two minutes screen time."
He helped us into our seats. "These are all kick-the-bucket seats," he said, using the first of numerous ghoulish puns. Four young men filed into the seats behind us and another sat beside Gillin.
We started out, Gillin driving and interspersing his comments with a tape that he cued to cut in at various sites. "This tour is a pure spoof of all the other Hollywood tours," he said. "We call it 'Death styles of the rich and famous.' "
The first site on our itinerary was the motel in which Janis Joplin overdosed. Gillin and the tape gave the melancholy details.
Next came the Chateau Marmont, in which John Belushi overdosed.
Many Hollywood deaths, we were to find out, were suicides, overdoses or murders.
We rounded the Beverly Hills Hotel, in whose lobby Peter Finch had died of a heart attack.
Up a side street Gillin pointed out where Richard Dreyfuss ran his Mercedes into a palm tree. We saw the palm tree. The accident was not fatal.
We passed Gary Cooper's house, Jack Benny's, Lucille Ball's. Also Alan Ladd's house. Ladd died in Palm Springs of an overdose of sedatives mixed with alcohol.
In Bel-Air Johnny Weissmuller's house sat behind a river-like swimming pool an eighth of a mile long. The house had recently been gutted by fire.
I was surprised to find myself looking at several locations I had been familiar with as a reporter. One was the house in which Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio had spent their honeymoon. The day the marriage broke up I had stood out in front, along with numerous other jackals of the media, grinding out cigarettes in the lawn and waiting for one of them to come out and make a statement. DiMaggio finally emerged--as patient, gracious and straightforward as ever.
We passed Jayne Mansfield's pink palace with its heart-shaped swimming pool. Jayne once served me a drink in her bar while the entire San Francisco Giants baseball team was limited to soft drinks around her pool. Jayne was decapitated when her car rear-ended a truck.
We saw Virginia Hill's house, in which Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel had been rubbed out. We saw the house in which Lana Turner's 14-year-old daughter Cheryl Crane had stabbed Lana's lover, Johnny Stompanato, with a kitchen knife. I had attended the inquest, a circus at which Turner gave the performance of her career.
We saw the house in which Lupe Velez had left a poignant note ("May God forgive me, and you too . . . ") covered herself with flowers, and took a fatal dose. We saw the house from which Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner had left for Catalina, where she drowned in the bay.
We looked up Elm Street toward the house where Jose and Kitty Menendez had been murdered, allegedly by their sons. We saw the house where Jean Harlow lived when she died at 26.
"This is the house," Gillin said at one point, "where Rin Tin Tin rolled over for the last time and died."
Silence. "That usually gets a laugh," he said gloomily.
Gillin also pointed out that at one time Monroe and Harlow lived only two doors apart. "They both liked champagne and sleeping in the nude," he added, as if that were a remarkable coincidence.
On the way back we passed the Ravenswood apartments on Rossmore. Gillin pointed out that Mae West had lived in that building for 40 years or more. I had interviewed Miss West once in her apartment. It was pristine white. It is true that there was a mirror over her bed.
If there was any moral to be learned from this morose journey it was "paths of glory lead but to the grave."