When Marilyn Monroe died on Aug 5, 1962, she became forevermore Hollywood’s golden goddess. Luminous and legendary, she regularly appears on lists of top-earning dead celebrities. You might expect she’d be buried somewhere grand. In a Greek pantheon, perhaps, or a mausoleum fit for an immortal.
Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery sits southeast of Westwood and Wilshire boulevards, a few miles west of Hollywood. The first thing you notice is how hard it is to find. I circled the block twice before I spied the gates set off from the road and tucked away in the middle of a busy downtown block.
The second thing you notice — if you don’t already know — is that Westwood boasts more famous names per square foot than, well, anywhere. Along with Monroe, its better-known residents include Truman Capote, Walter Matthau, Burt Lancaster, Eva Gabor, Jack Lemmon, Gene Kelly, Peggy Lee, Dean Martin and Natalie Wood. And that’s just for starters.
When I arrived, I stumbled around trying to find anyone famous. All I found was Don Knotts’ grave, but that hardly satisfied. Absorbed in my search, I failed to notice the broom-wielding older woman wearing a kaftan and fuzzy pink slippers.
“Do you want to meet my friends?” she asked right behind me. I nearly jumped. She introduced herself as Jean.
I looked around for Jean’s “friends” but saw no one. Then it dawned on me: she was offering to show me their graves. I followed as she pointed out the famous and almost famous, stopping now and then to relate an anecdote or sweep away an offending leaf. There were few names Jean didn’t know, though she had little regard for the real estate moguls and business “nobodies” who’d bought their way in.
Along with the famous are also some fame-makers, including Darryl F Zanuck, cofounder of Twentieth Century Fox, who had Monroe under contract and was said to loathe her. Somewhat kinder was writer/director/producer Billy Wilder, whose Some Like It Hot ranks as one of Monroe’s most successful pictures, along with costars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.
Few of Westwood’s markers are large or ostentatious, least of all Marilyn’s. At long last, Jean pointed me to a wall of crypts with small brass plaques affixed. Monroe’s was just one of dozens, with little to make hers stand out from the others, apart from a couple of fresh roses and the imprint of a pair of lips on her tomb wall.
While we walked, I asked Jean if I could take her picture. She refused, pointing to the photo of a smiling young woman on a wall. “That’s me,” she said. It took a moment to realize it was her future grave, inscribed with her name.
Being curious, I asked, “How much?” A lot, as it turns out. A Westwood plot can cost upward of a quarter-million dollars. That’s pretty pricey for such a modest investment, though if you spread that amount out over, say, eternity, perhaps it’s really not that bad. Not surprisingly, it’s Marilyn’s presence that keeps the price up.
While alive, Monroe received a decent actor’s contract wages but nothing like what a star of her stature should expect to earn. Her grave has the same effect. It’s incredibly modest for someone so big in life, and who remains so in death.
Jeffrey Round is the author of five books, including the literary-noir thriller Lake on the Mountain.