Visiting Billy Wilder

Guess which clean crypt is Marilyn's.

Guess which clean crypt is Marilyn’s

The most visited grave at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park undoubtedly is Marilyn Monroe’s. I have empirical proof: her crypt face has to be cleaned regularly because of the lipstick build-up. Fans like to leave their lip marks smack on the stone.

Marilyn Monroe was the reason for our visit to the cemetery three weeks ago. My sister, who lives in Oregon, was visiting me in Southern California, and she is writing a novel concerning Marilyn, so off to the cemetery we went. A pilgrimage of sorts. A trip to post-modern Canterbury, via the 405 freeway.

I visit this cemetery once or so a year. I have a faulty analogy that explains my need to go: many years ago in a college Shakespeare class my prof told us gullible students that every educated man should read Hamlet once a year. I did that for several years–read Hamlet, dutifully, yearly. Then I realized hey, I’m not a man, and I felt freed from the obligation.

Visiting Marilyn’s grave is like that. I feel called to pay respects about once a year, more if an anniversary occurs that makes the trip extra meaningful. The 50-year anniversary of her death, for example, where we met many other pilgrims, including several who had come from out of the country (Germany, France, the Netherlands) to be there on the anniversary date. Also several drag impersonators, always a pleasure. Years ago my dad and I visited on Marilyn’s death anniversary, and were delighted to meet a woman and her cat. The cat was Marilyn incarnate, at least that’s what the woman said. The cat didn’t say anything.

So in the world of cool cemeteries, this one is pretty high on the list. Not the best cemetery (that award is reserved for Paris’s Pere Lachaise), nor the most moving (to me, that must and always will be the American cemetery at Normandy), nor even the one with the most

Cats at Montmartre Cemetery, Paris

Cats hanging out at Montmartre Cemetery, Paris

feral cats (Paris’s Montmartre cemetery), but those cemeteries do not have Marilyn Monroe. They also are not tucked in an urban surrounding, accessed by a small alley between high-rise buildings.

When I first moved to Southern California, I gave myself a mini quest. I was to find Marilyn’s grave without resorting to books or other research. I had to go to one cemetery at a time, hunt for her, and then move on. You can imagine that this took a long time, but quests are like that. Along the way my best friend and I found many important graves, most notably Liberace’s (the headstone engraved with his signature and drawing of a piano) and Tyrone Power (where a friend and I sat on his memorial bench and had a terrific conversation about waxing our mustaches) and we finally determined that Marilyn was buried in Westwood, the area of L.A. that also includes UCLA and the FBI building. However, because the cemetery is hidden, and because I could not access outside research, I had a heck of a time finding it. One night after a raucous dinner at Westwood’s Olive Garden where many breadsticks were consumed, two friends and I set out on foot to search the buildings and find Marilyn.

We did finally find the cemetery, but by then it was 10:30pm and the gate was locked. So we tried to climb over. It’s so easy to climb fences in my imagination! Much tougher to do after twenty breadsticks and facing an alert security guard. We were able to peer over the fence, but that’s all. I’d wanted more fanfare for achieving the quest.

Paramount publicity photo of Billy Wilder, 1946. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.

Paramount publicity photo of Billy Wilder, 1946. Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library.

If you go, and I hope you do, because every educated woman should visit Marilyn Monroe once a year, please know that Marilyn may not fulfill your quest. If you are a writer or film director, someone else rests at that cemetery and he calls to you: Billy Wilder. Funny-looking and brilliant. Ephemeral.

His grave is at the opposite end of the cemetery from Marilyn, an easy and direct walk because this cemetery is about the size of one meatball in a large pot of spaghetti.

On Wilder’s side of the cemetery, some who now rest there have used their headstones to IMG_0768make their presence more real. Their headstones carry clever messages that delight me and give me a sense of their lives and legacies. Rodney Dangerfield, for example. No dates, no pithy verse on his headstone. There is only his name, and then at the bottom of the headstone, a message that could only have come from him: “There goes the neighborhood.”

Example number two: Merv Griffin’s headstone reflects who he was in life. In case you can’t read the IMG_0769message in the photo at right (taken with my phone), it says “I will not be right back after this message.”

Such fun. Who knew the dead had retained their senses of humor?

But the best, the most original and self-effacing and just generally the all-around best-ever headstone is Billy Wilder’s.

Billy Wilder's headstone at Pierce Westwood Memorial Park

Billy Wilder’s headstone at Pierce Westwood Memorial Park: “I’M A WRITER but then NOBODY’S PERFECT”

When I think that all my writing is crap to be scraped off the page, I go see Billy Wilder. I sit on the bench next to his grave, and I talk to him. This means a time investment for me, because it takes an entire afternoon to drive to Westwood (on the northern edge of Los Angeles, bordering Sunset Boulevard and Bel Air), hang with Billy, and then sit in 405 traffic on the way home.

Entirely worth it. Sitting with Billy is a gift, every time. I guess if I had family members buried in SoCal I’d visit them, instead. But most of my family are in Oregon, dead and living, and the one Oregon grave I would sit by is 17 hours too far for an afternoon drive. I sit by Billy.

And so it was three weeks ago. My sister sat with Marilyn, I sat with Billy, and my other sister roamed the cemetery tracking Frank Zappa’s unmarked grave. Pierce Westwood Memorial has something for everyone.

If you are interested in checking out the other notables buried at Pierce Westwood, I recommend the following website: No, I did not use this site to find Marilyn’s grave. Even if the internet had been available in 1992, that would have been against the self-imposed rules of my quest.

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