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Visiting the grave of Marilyn Monroe, pondering her passing

The 1962 passing of screen icon Marilyn Monroe at age 36 is a tragedy by any definition but one that enchances her legend. Marilyn's fame is greater now than it was during her 15-year Hollywood career, so much so that Ana de Armas was recently nominated for an Oscar for playing her in the fictional biopic “Blonde.” In 2012, the year of the 50th anniversary of MM's death, I visited her grave in L.A. to pay respects and to ponder her eternal appeal.

Peter Howell

Movie Critic

LOS ANGELES — Marilyn Monroe’s last resting place is easy to get to but difficult to find. I needed my rental car’s GPS device to locate it.

It’s even harder to define, in this 50th anniversary year of her untimely death in 1962, lost to a drug overdose at the age of 36. Why does she still exert such magnetic appeal, upon me and so many others?

Monroe’s memory should have faded by now, like the flowers that constantly come and go outside her marble-fronted crypt. So many other stars of her era have slipped from the popular conversation.

Yet Monroe remains as current as the approaching Academy Awards, for which Michelle Williams has a Best Actress nomination playing her in "My Week with Marilyn." The film likely played in one or both of the movie theatres that are a stone’s throw from Monroe’s crypt.

Monroe lies inside a tiny cemetery called Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park, in the Westwood neighbourhood near the heart of L.A. A sharp turn and sudden climb off the main road takes you to this quaint haven for the famous and not-so-famous.

No guards stop me and there are few other people about as I pay a visit on a recent sunny Saturday. There are no arrows or signs pointing to Monroe, or to the crypts or graves of her eternal neighbours, which include Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Dean Martin, Billy Wilder, Rodney Dangerfield, Miss Peggy Lee, Janet Leigh and many others.

There’s a serenity about the place, the stillness broken only by the sound of a worker watering the grass and removing dust from headstones. But there’s some very sly humour that borders on the macabre.

Comedian Dangerfield’s tombstone reads, “There goes the neighbourhood.”

Writer/director Wilder’s says, “I’m a writer, but then nobody’s perfect.”

Singer/actor Martin’s uses a line from one of his famous songs: “Everybody loves somebody sometime.”

Actor Lemmon, one of Monroe’s co-stars in Some Like it Hot, is drier than a perfect martini, prompting a double take. His grave lies behind a tombstone that reads simply, “Jack Lemmon in.”

It’s Lemmon’s final and greatest marquee!

There’s no such whimsy about Monroe’s crypt, which a person of average height would find just above eye level in an open mausoleum on one of the park’s surrounding walls.

A small bronze plaque affixed to it reads simply: “Marilyn Monroe, 1926 – 1962.” Next to it is a small metal holder of flowers. Legend has it that for the 20 years from her death to 1982, ex-husband Joe DiMaggio arranged for the delivery of fresh roses, three times per week.

The crypt stands out from the others surrounding it. The marble has been stained a salmon colour from the smudged palm prints and kisses of the thousands of fans who visit the park each year, with many more thousands expected this year.

My first instinct is to touch the crypt. I notice that also it’s the first instinct of other people who follow behind me. No wonder the stain is so obvious.

What are we expecting? Why do we care?

It’s a hard question to answer. But had the former Norma Jeane Mortenson lived to a ripe old age — she’d have turned 86 on June 1 — I suspect that no one would have been making movies like My Week with Marilyn, which recreates the filming of The Prince and the Showgirl, a 1956 comedy she made with Laurence Olivier that is remarkable only for its gossipy making.

The yearning and curiosity her passing evokes is for a beauty taken too soon from us, the “Candle in the Wind” of Elton John’s famous ode to Monroe — and later to Princess Diana.

The crypt immediately above Monroe’s is occupied by the remains of Richard F. Poncher, who died in 1986. His plaque includes a dedication: “To the man who gave us everything and more. You’re one in a million, Freddie.”

Poncher has a bigger bouquet of flowers than Monroe.

Who was this guy? An online search brings up a story from New York’s Daily News from August 2009, reporting that Poncher bought the crypt from DiMaggio, after the Yankees slugger split from Monroe.

Poncher’s widow Elsie is quoted in the story confirming a long-standing and creepy rumour: that he insisted on being interred face down over top of Monroe.

“He said, ‘If I croak, if you don’t put me upside down over Marilyn, I’ll haunt you the rest of your life,’” Elsie Poncher told the Daily News.

The story made the paper because Elsie had decided to sell the crypt and to relocate her husband, to pay off a $1.6-million mortgage on their Beverly Hills home. The crypt reportedly sold for a whopping $4.6 million, from a starting price of $500,000, yet “Freddie” stays put. Did the deal fall through?

A spokesperson for the cemetery sheds little light, in her efforts to retain dignity and privacy.

“The spaces surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s crypt are all privately owned,” says Jessica S. McDunn, the Houston-based voice of Service Corporation International, the cemetery multinational that operates the park.

“The owners have the rights to sell their spaces, not Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park.”

There are three crypts with no names on them, apparently empty, immediately to the left and above Monroe’s. One of them is reportedly the future final roost of Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy whose fame began when he put her nude image in the very first issue of his magazine.

McDunn says she’d never heard that story about Hefner. She also hadn’t heard of DiMaggio leaving the roses at Monroe’s crypt. The reclusive “Joltin’ Joe” died in 1999 at age 84, never confirming or explaining the story.

“We cannot confirm this story, as no one who works at the park now was with the park during that time,” McDunn says.

But she can confirm that amongst the thousands of people who visit Westwood Village Memorial Park each year are many Monroe fans who come bearing flowers. The most visitors are expected on Aug. 5, the anniversary of the blond bombshell’s death.

“Fans leave fresh flowers daily at Marilyn Monroe’s crypt, and they are removed by the maintenance staff weekly in accordance with our flower removal policy.”

McDunn says there is still room at the cemetery for anyone, famous or not, who wishes to be buried near Monroe and other Hollywood royalty: “Single crypts begin at $42,000, and double graves begin at $90,000. There is not a waiting list.”

No waiting list, maybe, but there is eternal interest in Monroe, whose fame has long outlived her 15-year acting career and the relative handful of movies, many in black and white, for which she is remembered.

She exists more on the screen and in the mind than she does in reality, as a visit to her tiny, plainly marked crypt makes all too real. 🌓

(This column originally ran in the Toronto Star.)


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