In 1981 Carolyn Campbell, a publicist at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., took the advice of her mentor, art critic John Russell. Campbell jumped on a bargain flight to France to visit the renowned Père-Lachaise Cemetery to find Oscar Wilde’s tomb.
Once Campbell was there, she realized there was no good way for travelers to guide themselves through the final resting spot of celebrated figures such as Frèdèric Chopin, Édith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Amedeo Modigliani and Marcel Proust — not to mention the graves of nearly 100 other artists, writers, architects, musicians, dancers, filmmakers and actors.
“The maps they gave out were Xerox sheets,” Campbell said of a 107-acre labyrinth with about 1 million souls buried at the time. The hunt proved frustrating.
That frustration turned into a three-decade project in which Campbell revisited and studied the cemetery, eventually creating an app for Francophiles. Now she and British landscape photographer Joe Cornish have a new book of 100 photographs, “City of Immortals: Père-Lachaise Cemetery,” with an illustrated pullout map of 84 noteworthy grave sites.
Established in 1804 by Napoleonic decree, the graveyard became an open-air museum of sculpture, architecture and history. Visitors can see an elaborate Corinthian obelisk commissioned in honor of Napoleon’s conquering of Egypt, a life-size relief sculpture of famed French soprano Marie Caroline Miolan-Carvalho, not to mention Wilde’s gothic tomb, which Campbell visited several times. Through the years admirers covered the Wilde stonework, designed by sculptor Jacob Epstein, with graffiti.
“Hardcore devotees were kissing the Irish dramatist tomb out of adoration,” Campbell said. “What they didn’t know is the oil in lipstick was seeping into porous limestone.”
The Irish came to the rescue, paying for a radical cleaning and degreasing of the tomb and restoring a Plexiglas shield around the tomb. Yet fans and admirers continued to climb over the shield to give the writer a messy kiss.
Chopin’s tomb is restored every year due to acid rain and other pollution. The bronze headstone of Doors singer Jim Morrison, one of the most visited in the cemetery, was repeatedly vandalized with drug paraphernalia and liquor bottles. The lizard king’s bust, a sculpture by Croatian artist Mladen Mikulin, was stolen in 1988 by two thieves on a motorcycle.
Just in time for Halloween, Campbell will sign copies of her cemetery tome on Tuesday at the West Hollywood Library, 625 N. San Vicente Blvd.