Tag Archives: Jean Harlow

Take an Assassination Vacation

3 Nov

by Cheri Sundra

How long does a memory resonate in the collective subconscious? 


 The JFK Assassination

Dallas: Dealey Plaza

Photo Credit:  Big Yank Ball

On November 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy arrived in Dallas, Texas, and never got out alive.  The nation’s 35th president was gunned down, while sitting in a convertible next to his beautiful young wife, as his motorcade traveled past the now infamous Dealey Plaza. The aftermath was one of the first mass media events that unfolded in real time on TV while the nation watched in horror.

Whether you believe that it was a single sniper or several shooters, and whether or not the Cubans or the Russians or the CIA or the Mafia were involved , once you step into Dealey Plaza, you will feel like you are on sacred ground.  It is the place where more than two million historians, assassination buffs, conspiracy theorists and citizens of the world in general, make an annual pilgrimage.
dealy plaza

Photo Credit:  Todd Landry

Some death scenes represent something far deeper than simple voyeuristic pleasure, and Dealey Plaza is a location that allows visitors to touch history in a real way, since images of the Kennedy Assassination have been burned into our collective consciousness as one of the most controversial cases in modern history.  Almost everyone who visits the JFK Assassination Site runs out into the middle of the road, risking injury by moving car, to set foot on the “X” that marks the spot where the fatal shot hit our handsome young president, turning the lights off in Camelot forever.

Right next to Dealey Plaza, people carve their conspiracy theories into the back of the fence that surrounds the train station parking lot where some say a second assassin stood to deliver the final blow to the President’s head. The fence scribes don’t seem terribly fond of Senator Arlen “Magic Bullet Theory” Specter.
The picket fence on the Grassy Knoll

Photo Credit: Chris Freeland

But things aren’t all doom and gloom in Dallas.  Visitors going to The Sixth Floor Museum inside of the notorious Texas School Book Depository,  where the Warren Commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald fired his rifle at least three times from a window perch, will also learn that a little song about an ant that pulls rubber tree plants wasn’t just something that Shirley sang to Laverne.  It was also John F. Kennedy’s campaign song performed by none other than Frank Sinatra.

The museum is the top tourism draw in North Texas and reminds visitors of the “Camelot” White House era by examining the life, times and legacy of the Kennedy Presidency, before getting to the event that changed the course of American history forever.  The exhibit also provides a moment-by-moment account of the day of the assassination, and a day-by-day recollection of that harrowing November week. Of course the museum exhibits images from the famous Zapruder film which has been examined more than any other footage in history, and visitors can see for themselves the spot where Oswald crouched and fired his rifle.

The MLK Assassination

Lorraine Hotel

Photo Credit:  Brian Bubonic

To support the city’s striking garbage collectors; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. went to Memphis and checked into the Lorraine Motel.  He was shot dead by James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968, when he stepped out onto the balcony outside his room, inciting riots across the country.

Years later, when the Lorraine Hotel was a foreclosed property slated for demolition, prominent citizens found a way to keep the site sacred as a memorial to the fallen civil rights leader.  The balcony where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot now exists as part of the National Civil Rights Museum where, with a little help from your imagination, you can ride on that infamous Montgomery bus with Rosa Parks.  In evocative displays, the museum chronicles the struggle of African Americans from the time of slavery to the present.

The Lorraine Hotel itself, with its 1950s style sign, is so well preserved that visitors forget what year it is when they walk down the ramp to the museum.  Seeing the place where King was shot, after seeing the print countless times as part of our Pop Culture lexicon, is a jarring experience.
Loraine Hotel-1

Photo Credit:  Carter G. Woodson Project TEACH

In the annex across the street, inside the building where James Earl Ray perched and assassinated Dr. King, you can experience for yourself where the gunman stood and visualize what he saw before he shot the Civil Rights Leader.  This building contains a provocative exhibit about the assassination and the case made against Ray.

The RFK Assassination

Ambassador Hotel and Cocoanut Grove nightclub (1921), 3400 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, California

           Photo Credit: Steve Minor

Shortly after midnight, on June 5, 1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy was shot in the pantry area of The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after delivering a short victory speech.  He died the next day.  Sadly, a website set up during efforts to have the site declared a historical landmark now reads “Everyone spoke, but it’s history”.

 Demolition of the Ambassador Hotel was completed in 2006, despite the historical significance of the property.  The Ambassador Hotel was designed by renowned architect Myron Hunt (Rose Bowl Stadium and Caltech) and was situated on Wilshire Boulevard.  For decades, the hotel’s Cocoanut Grove was the hot spot for live entertainment giving rise to stars like Bing Crosby and Barbra Streisand and hosting such celebrities as Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Gene Kelly, Diana Ross, Judy Garland, Louis Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Julie Andrews. It’s where Marilyn Monroe had her start as a model, as a client of a poolside modeling agency. Howard Hughes and Jean Harlow were some of the many longtime residents who made the Ambassador Hotel their home. The hotel was used so regularly as a set for film and television; people were calling it The Ambassador Studios. Yet, with all of this history, The Ambassador Hotel has disappeared forever, and so has our chance to experience that piece of our collective history in a visceral way.

Today, on the site of the former Ambassador Hotel, stands the Robert F. Kennedy Community School.  The school just completed the installation of a visible tribute to the iconic Ambassador Hotel in the form of an interactive public artwork for school children and educators.

The grand sweep of our history may not engage every American, but there are places and moments that manage to snag the public imagination.  In the case of the Ambassador Hotel, imagination is all that remains.

Cheri Sundra © 2010     

All Rights Reserved 


4 Oct

by Cheri Sundra

Marilyn Monroe's Grave

PHOTO CREDIT:  Brad Johnston

Halloween only comes around on October 31st, but gravesite tourism happens year round.   The Dead Celebrity Tour of Pop Culture is traveled by many.  That’s because they are always “in”, which is movie star Jack Lemmon’s   epitaph.     Don George, global travel editor for Lonely Planet, says that visiting dead public figures is something that people have been doing for as long as they have been traveling.  “It just takes a kind of a bizarre twist in a place like Hollywood, where the magnificence and the extravagance of the lives of these people is carried on into death,” George explained to Fox News during an interview.  The most iconic figures always draw the biggest crowds.  The trifecta of dead celebrity grave hopping would have to include Elvis Presley, Jim Morrison and Marilyn Monroe. 

Graceland at Night
Photo Credit:  Richard and Cindy Krause

As dictated by his larger-than-life personality while alive, a visit to pay your respects to the King of Rock and Roll is the Las Vegas of celebrity gravesite visits.  After a nasty episode that involved grave robbers at the Forest Hill Cemetery in Memphis, Elvis is now buried at home. 

The Eternal Elvis experience starts with a tour of Graceland,   as visitors are greeted by The King singing “Welcome to My World” as they enter through the front door of his iconic mansion.  Tourists get to see the world-famous Jungle Room, TV Room and Trophy Building.  Fans have the opportunity to tour his airplanes and can even eat a peanut butter and banana sandwich at the restaurant in the Graceland Plaza and Visitor Center Complex    across the street, as a form of communion with The King.  While at Graceland, you can’t help thinking that “the King has left the building” since it is like touring a monument to the excess that finally killed the poor boy of humble beginnings from Tupelo, Mississippi.
Elvis Presley's grave                                                              Photo Credit:  Eddy Abbott

While visiting Graceland, make sure you bring a permanent marker.  Fans have been writing messages to Elvis on the wall surrounding Graceland since it was installed in 1957.   Since his death in 1977, the unique cultural and sociological phenomenon has intensified.  Some of these personal tributes sound like petitions to Saints instead of graffiti.   Fans ask Elvis to bless them with everything from money and happiness to a cure for cancer. A crew cleans the wall regularly with a pressurized water system, so there is always room for new round of messages. 

Graceland Walls

Photo Credit:  ilovememphis

More than 2 million visitors set out on a pilgrimage each year to visit the Pere Lachaise Cemetery,   one of the most visited tourist attractions in Paris, where Jim Morrison is the main draw.  This historical cemetery, which holds the title “Most Visited Cemetery in the World”, also contains the graves of Proust, Chopin, Balzac, and Moliere, in addition to Oscar Wilde, whose tombstone can be identified by the purple lipstick smudges left by gay admirers.  Morrison, the front man for the Doors, is buried in “The Poets Corner”.  There are diagrams of the cemetery at each entrance.  Morrison fans have been notorious nuisances leaving litter, graffiti, and cannabis behind after their visits.   Complaints by numerous families of the deceased about desecration of surrounding grave sites seem to matter little to the Parisian authorities, who are well aware that Morrison’s grave has become a major draw for tourism on par with the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. 
The End (tombe de Jim Morrison à Paris)

Photo Credit:  cdomdom38 (dom combarnous)

Everyone visits Hollywood hoping to run into a celebrity or two.  A visit to the final resting place of Marilyn Monroe never disappoints gravesite tourists, since Hollywood’s most famous icon is interred at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park,  which has more dead celebrities per square inch than anywhere else in the world.   Located behind the skyscrapers that line Wilshire Boulevard, Pierce Brothers is just steps away from LA’s most fashionable addresses and busiest intersection.   The most intimate cemetery in Hollywood has acquired Rodney Dangerfield,  Farrah Fawcett, Dean Martin ,  Truman Capote and a host of other celebritiesincluding Marilyn Monroe’s co-star in Some Like It Hot,  Jack Lemmon and the movie’s legendary director,  Billy Wilder.    Incidentally, Marilyn Monroe fans should note that 12305 5th Helena Drive, the address where the goddess herself became immortal, is less than three miles away  from her final resting place.  But if you decide to visit, make it brief since the owners are not thrilled by Monroe fans seeking to take a peek at their property.  Another advantage experienced by gravesite tourists who make Marilyn Monroe  a destination, is that she is conveniently located near the two other memorial parks most chosen by the Hollywood elite as  their final resting place.
Farrah FawcettPhoto Credit:  Atwater Village Newbie

At Forest Lawn Memorial Park,    located in Glendale California, they claim to have more major Hollywood stars on their grounds than anywhere else in the world.    More than a million tourists make a pilgrimage each year to search for their favorite beloved dead celebrities and over 60,000 people, including Ronald Reagan, have actually been married at this historic cemetery.  “Golden Age” Hollywood stars are buried on these grounds such as Clark Gable, Humphrey Bogart, Jean Harlow and Errol Flynn.  Other tenants include George Burns, Walt Disney, Nat King Cole and countless other Hollywood mega-stars, but there is a huge downside to exploring this cemetery during a gravesite tourism outing.  The sheer size of the park can make finding your favorite star an exercise in frustration—over a quarter of a million people have been buried at Forest Lawn.   This park is comprised of over 300 acres of prime California real estate.  The cemetery does nothing to encourage sightseeing by movie fans and refuses to offer any assistance by way of directions or by providing a map pinpointing specific graves to help tourists.  Many of the celebrity tombs at this location are private, with no entry access for the public since they are located in exclusive gardens or behind locked gates.  Cemetery employees have a reputation for being downright hostile when interacting with fans seeking to pay homage to dead celebrities.   

Temple          Photo Credit:  Tom Barnes
Those tending to the stars at Hollywood Forever , often called Disneyland for the Dead,   are much more accommodating to the needs of tourists seeking the burial places of dead celebrities—maybe it’s because the location also offers a terrific view of the historic Hollywood sign.  These hallowed grounds are often used for birthday parties, political fundraisers and weddings.  Tourists can purchase a map pinpointing specific celebrity graves at the Hollywood Forever flower shop as they drive through the park entrance.  Hollywood Forever is located directly behind the famous back lot of Paramount Studios.  After a visit to Hollywood Forever, visitors will forevermore notice how many movie and television scenes with a cemetery setting are actually filmed in this memorial park.  Hollywood Forever boasts celebrity greats such as Rudolph Valentino, Tyrone Power, and punk rock legend Johnny Ramone.   You’ll also find monuments to stars not really buried at the cemetery, such as Jayne Mansfield, who was actually laid to rest in Pennsylvania.   Mansfield’s real grave is engraved with an earlier birth date than her cenotaph at Hollywood Forever.   Hattie McDaniel, the Academy Award winning actress who played Mammy in Gone with the Wind, was originally denied access to burial at the memorial park in 1952 because she was black.  In 1999, a new owner wanted to right the wrong and have McDaniel interred in the cemetery.  Her family did not want to disturb her remains and declined the offer.  Instead, Hollywood Forever erected a memorial in her honor that has become one of the most popular visitor sites in the cemetery.
Alfred or Not?

Photo Credit: Tom Barnes (Alfred or Not?)

Visiting dead celebrities has become so popular, that you don’t even have to leave the comfort of your own home to partake in the voyeuristic pleasure of peeking into the afterlife of the famous.  Thanks to various websites such as FindaGrave.com,     seeing the final resting place of your favorite star is just a mouse-click away.   This site relies on volunteers to contribute pictures and information to its database, making it a Wikipedia-like listing of burial places of just about anyone who amounted to something in anything.  Happy Grave hunting!

Cheri Sundra © 2010     

All Rights Reserved