A calm, cold breeze runs throughout the marble-encased, maze-like corridors of Forest Lawn’s Great Mausoleum, where the who’s who of Hollywood have come to permanently rest. But that changes once you reach its deepest and oldest cobweb-covered crevice after a number of stairs and enough security cameras to make you feel like you’re being monitored by the Secret Service.
The air ricocheting lightly off banisters just moments ago becomes heavy and stagnant. The chills, absent during the descent, come a little too eagerly. In a corner of this century-old foyer, across the tomb of razor magnate King Camp Gillette and near the crypt of silent-film-era comedian Harold Lloyd, the atmosphere takes an uneasy turn for the worse.
According to Jayne Osborne, grave hunter extraordinaire and all around cemetery enthusiast, this is the section of the Great Mausoleum that’s haunted. If it makes it any more plausible, a psychic has pinpointed the culprits of suspicious activity: the famously un-famous Sargent family, directly across the chambers of cross-eyed comedian Ben Turpin.
Thanks to Osborne and her boyfriend — celebrity grave historian Mark Masek, who has written several books on the subject, including “Hollywood Remains to be Seen” and the unauthorized guide to Forest Lawn Memorial Park — I have been granted temporary access into a tangible underworld that many, including members of the media, will never get to see.
Closed off to the public and only accessible by property owners, the Great Mausoleum was built in 1917 and modeled after Campo Santo in Genoa, Italy by Dr. Hubert Eaton, who is often credited with revolutionizing the funeral industry by swapping dreary tombstone-filled cemeteries for flat grave markers that gave way to lush hills, replicas of Michelangelo and Leonard Da Vinci’s pieces, as well as churches within the grounds that are often used for weddings and christenings.
The Mausoleum, with 11 terraces all named after flowers, contains the likes of notable residents Elizabeth Taylor, W.C Fields and Michael Jackson, not to mention victims of famous Hollywood crime cases like Marion Parker, the 12-year-old daughter of banker Perry Parker who was abducted and then horrifically murdered in 1927.
Gaining entrance to the Great Mausoleum, with its stunning stained glass windows and grand hallways mirroring England’s Westminster Abbey, is a coveted privilege of celebrity fans and grave hunters alike. It was this very surge in celebrity grave hunting, which saw devotees stealing flowers and whatever else they could get their hands on, that caused the Mausoleum to forever close its doors to mere mortals. Now, only those who have come to pay respects to family members or have the bank accounts needed to buy a plot themselves are allowed in.
“As beautiful as this is, no one comes to see it,” Osborne says as we stand near delicately muted burgundy marble floors.
The afternoon sun pours into the Mausoleum’s high windows. Forest Lawn’s rolling hills seem as green as ever. All is peaceful. So peaceful in fact, that it’s easy to forget we’re completely encased by tombs and urns containing the cremains of the rich or famous.
Countless hours can be spent exploring the intricate corners of the Great Mausoleum, but time works differently here. Attracting attention isn’t encouraged. So we lay low and move fast, zipping past security cameras and keeping our whispers low to evade audio monitoring.
We leave flowers for Jean Harlow, say hello to Clark Gable and pass Red Skelton.
The nostalgia sets in, but not for long, as we come upon a vault containing the cremains of a woman connected to an 80-year-old mystery unearthed in 2010 involving a nurse from Scotland, a steamer trunk, and the mummified remains of two babies wrapped in L.A. Times newspapers from the 1930s.
Part Two of this column will appear next Tuesday.
LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic.