For a week, I teetered between life and death.
I wasn’t ill or injured but living my best life in Los Angeles where I’d been invited to read a short story. Our six-person lineup for the VAMP Storytelling Showcase was led by three performance coaches and event producers.
Not only was I in Cali for a reading, but I was about to meet my second cousin Carl. It felt like I already knew him, both through his New York sister who I’m close with, and through the movies he’s worked on (as Jaws co-writer and screenplay, for one).
Earlier when I told him how near he lived to my West Hollywood venue, his message was hospitable: How terrific! I am in town and free that evening, and we’ll be hanging out while you’re in L.A., right?
As soon as I arrived in L.A. I found out Carl’s a night owl; he also had scheduling issues that week. Our only chance was late Thursday afternoon. No worries, from his place I could head straight to my event, held at a cool vodka bar.
Meet my cousin? Read my story with new friends and drink voddy martinis? What could be better?
One major thing.
Ahead of my reading, I had several days to explore the City of Angels. A day-long tour took me past clubs and hotels. One drive-by was the Viper Room; our tour guide pointed out the sidewalk where actor River Phoenix died of an overdose.
Next, our shuttle stopped in front of the Chateau Marmont where John Belushi died of an overdose and photographer Helmut Newton also died after crashing his car into the hotel wall.
The next day I carried my “death story” forward by spending half a day in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Founded in 1899, it’s one of the oldest cemeteries in L.A. and the final resting place for hundreds of Hollywood legends.
I’d wanted to visit after writing a story on how the cemetery hosts regular events for the community – live music and summer movie screenings. What a positive way to spin death into public celebrations. This cemetery has become a welcoming “living place” as well as a final “resting place.”
I also realized that Hollywood Forever was the closest I’ll get to a raft of notables, from those my parents adored to those who’ve entertained me.
I’ve never spent as much time or had such memorable moments in a cemetery, especially one with such a tranquil park-like setting. Usually, I’m at a gravesite because of a funeral; the season is generally winter, the weather is cold and dreary, and the day is sad because I’ve lost someone important.
Not this day! The sun shone, the temperature was mild and peacocks strolled when I started my walking adventure.
I read and recorded the stones and plaques of many celebrities interred in Hollywood Forever: Judy Garland and a memorial marker of Toto; Burt Reynolds, Valerie Harper, Chris Cornell, Rudolph Valentino, Mickey Rooney, Hattie McDaniel and so many more.
My husband, who stayed in Alberta, had one simple request: “Find Bugsy Siegal and send me a pic!” Bugsy co-owned both the El Cortez and the Flamingo, and was murdered in his girlfriend’s home in Beverly Hills. Our interest in Sin City’s mob history developed after spending a lot of time in Las Vegas.
Using the site map I’d purchased from the office, I entered a large columbarium with long rooms. Each room had hundreds of niches on either side; worse, every bronze plaque looked almost identical. I started with the furthest room and let my eyes trail across name after name . . . and suddenly there he was, Benjamin Siegal, with nothing more to draw attention than a few plastic flowers. Then I saw a row of pink lipstick kisses on the stone under his plaque! (I read later that kiss marks are for good luck in Vegas!)
I took several photos for Paul, pleased that others still found Bugsy a captivating character.
Another discovery was the life-size bronze statue of Anton Yelchin, an actor who died at age 27 when his own SUV crushed him in 2016. His statue faces a lovely bird-filled pond.
As I stood feet away and explored other headstones, a woman walked from a car and climbed onto the base of Anton’s statue. With closed eyes, she hugged his back and kissed it. Weird, I thought, she seems too old to be such an emotional fan. Minutes later she returned to her car and drove off.
Hollywood Forever was different from other cemeteries. I’ve never seen so many personalized plots, complete with rows of spinning whirligigs and personal items, from teddy bears to sports equipment. And many people ate at gravesites, arriving with lawn chairs and bags of food.
I carefully tiptoed around graves when a man on the nearby road waved and asked how I was doing.
“I’ve been to many cemeteries,” I said, “but they had more space, some even had dedicated paths. Here, I feel disrespectful. Should I be standing on their graves?”
He paused and with a smile said, “Don’t worry, I think they’d be happy you’re here.”
What a sweet comment; I felt my hand reach for my heart. When I said I came from Canada, he seemed impressed that I chose to spend my time in the cemetery instead of doing the usual tourist stuff. He lives in the area and comes often to walk, he said.
He pointed to Anton’s statue. “Did you notice that woman who hugged his statue? That was his mom. I’ve seen her before and she’s always crying.
Of course! She looked like Anton with the same dark curly hair! Again, my hand touched my heart.
“And this one here? This is the photographer Halyna Hutchins, the woman Alec Baldwin shot while making his movie?”
Moments before I’d read her name and looked at a picture someone had left.
“Come this way,” and he pointed to a mausoleum wall. “It’s not marked yet, but it’s for Anne Heche.” For the next half hour, he pointed out celebrity locations and told stories about them. My only offering was the direction to Bugsy’s niche, one he’d never been able to find.
It was Thursday morning, the day of my reading. Since this was my last full day, I’d planned to visit Westwood Memorial Park, another well-known cemetery.
While Westwood is smaller than Hollywood Forever, I would find many celebrities, from Marilyn Monroe, Rodney Dangerfield and Roy Orbison to my husband’s favorite Natalie Wood. But I had my afternoon get-together with cousin Carl and a 7 pm run-through at the bar.
Was I cutting my schedule too tight? I decided to pass on the Westwood excursion and relax at my hotel.
Minutes away from heading to Carl’s, a text from my husband pinged: Bad news – Crosby just died!
This news wouldn’t shock many. Musician David Crosby was over 80 and had battled drugs and health issues: a liver transplant, diabetes, hepatitis C and heart surgery.
But my cousin would be affected by his death. I phoned him to offer my condolences and let him know I was ready to come over. He cancelled, too overcome with emotions, processing his feelings and fielding calls and messages from others.
Dammit! But he’d come to my show, he assured me.
The evening was a lot of fun, filled with great stories, but Carl didn’t show. His text arrived at 11 pm as I sipped a martini and celebrated with new friends: Terribly sorry about missing our connection, Shannon, but David’s death struck me particularly hard, we were close friends for 50 years. Predating the Byrds even. I co-authored two books with him. Call me after your gig.
I’d been Carl-blocked and Crosby’d! Not to sound cold, but if only he’d waited a couple of hours.
And that “one major thing” I mentioned earlier? No more death stories, please. I’d had my share.
At least we had a deep and satisfying conversation when I returned to my hotel and phoned him. Carl told me he signs off messages and phone calls with “may all grief be far.” A fitting expression, considering how a celebrity death ruined the only chance for us to meet (Carl is over 80 and I live 1,700 miles away. Unless Hollywood calls me again, and soon, I might not make it back in time.)
Years ago, Carl sent me an autographed copy of their book Long Time Gone. While I didn’t meet my cousin in person, I have his writing with Crosby; in a small way that connects me to both of them.
Home again and watching a YouTube video taken at our event, a final irony made me grin. For the first time I noticed the tagline of my VAMP showcase: SAVING STORIES FROM THE GRAVE.
Talk about apropos.
When it comes to losing people I care about, I hope to keep everyone alive through my stories.