We paced back and forth in front of the mausoleum and waited for the Mexican grave diggers to finish their lunch. Bruce Pedy, my father’s lawyer, looked very nervous and kept looking toward the gate of the cemetery while playing with the volume controls on his hearing aids, as if he expected the police to come screaming up the driveway with their sirens blaring.
We were there not to make a deposit, but a withdrawal, and maybe the papers were forged, but I still think Bruce was being a little paranoid. I really didn’t care. I had gotten very drunk with my father on the way over to the cemetery, and the whole undertaking (no pun intended) had already taken on a surreal quality.
My grandfather, John Barrymore, made a great deal of money in his time. He also managed to live in a style grossly in excess of what even his ludicrous income justified. When he died in 1942, he was destitute. Not only broke, but several hundred thousand dollars in debt. Everything he owned was sold by the executors of his estate to pay off these debts. Everything, that is, except what my grandmother, Dolores Costello (an actress in silent and talking pictures), managed to “acquire” from him before, during, and after their marriage. My grandfather was quite a collector.
Upon my grandmother’s death in March of 1979, my father, John Barrymore Jr., and I, began to enjoy a greatly improved standard of living supported by selling off the Barrymorabelia we had pirated from her estate. There must have been 500 pounds of silver, including Georgian Knights candelabra, Georgian silver flatware, and dozens and dozens of silver plates and bowls. There were many sets of china and porcelain, as well as Staffordshire and wall sconces by such manufacturers as Meisen, Dresden, Beleek, prewar Japanese, ancient Chinese, Lalique crystal, etc. Also antique furniture from Versailles, Louis XV, and others. But the greatest treasures were the books. There were cases and cases of rare first editions, an early 16th century printing of Terence’s “Book of Comedies” (an incunabula) and a 13th century French “Book of Hours”-a hand executed, illuminated Catholic doctrine which chronicles the story of Jesus, or what my father used to call the “immaculate deception.” Also several triptychs and other old, valuable religious icons and a set of plique-a-jour goblets made for the coronation of Czar Nicholas by Anton Kopolvnik, a contemporary of Faberge.
After several years of abject poverty, we were now comfortably ensconced in adjacent one-bedroom apartments at 8440 Sunset Boulevard-now the site of the trendy Hotel Mondrian.
One of the people we “fenced” the Barrymorabelia off to on a regular basis was a notorious Hollywood reprobate who was widely known as Red Dog. Red Dog was an avid reader and collector, and we sold him many rare books. He usually paid us more than they were worth. Whenever we went to his house, he would read us something by Neitzsche, Stevenson, DeQuincey or some other author.
On one particular occasion, we were up there to sell him an edition of Hawkins’ “Complete Angler”. He gave me about twice what the book was worth and then said, “Buzz” (a nickname of mine he used to distinguish me from my father, who has the same first and last name as I) “I’ve got a poem here I think you’ll like.”
He proceeded to read us “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert Service. The poem is a tale of the frozen north, about a blood oath given by one man to cremate the remains of another. When Red Dog finished reading, I looked over at my father. He was crying. I knew what was on his mind. He was thinking of his own father’s wishes, and of the dishonorable acts that had left him entombed in Los Angeles.
He looked over at me and said, “Jake, we’ve got to get my daddy up.” I had already made the same decision.
John Barrymore had left specific instructions in his will that his body be cremated and his ashes be laid to rest next to his father and mother in the family cemetery in Philadelphia. However, due to the fact that his brother Lionel and sister Ethel were Catholic, and cremation had not at that time been sanctioned by the Catholic Church, the executors (Lionel and Mervyn Leroy) pulled some fancy judicial manipulations and my grandfather’s remains were entombed at Calvary Cemetery, in Los Angeles. It had always bothered my father deeply that his father’s wishes were ignored.
Soon after, we were sitting in my father’s apartment with Bruce Pedy. We brought up the subject of how one would exhume, or lay one’s hands on such a body. OK, perhaps the word “steal” was used, just for the sake of clarity. It involved getting a dispensation from the Catholic Church (since cremation was now sanctioned) and permission for an exhumation from the Health Department, as well as a few other documents including permission from all living heirs. Bruce got the dispensation from the church, and gave me the other documents to be signed by the heirs.
There was no way I was going to deal with my insane Barrymore relatives, and being a rather skillful forger, I took the path of least resistance. When I returned the documents to Bruce the next day, he looked at me as if he had anticipated more trouble in getting the signatures, but being an officer of the Court, I think he knew better than to ask about the details.
By the time we got to Calvary Cemetery, my grandfather had been joined by Lionel, his brother, and Ethel, his sister, as well as Irene Fenwick, Lionel’s wife, all in crypts adjacent to or in the vicinity of my grandfather’s. The mausoleum was also inhabited by various persons with our family names of Drew, Blyth, Devereaux, and Colt. Dolores Costello Barrymore and her sister, Helene Costello LeBlanc, were both outside in the cemetery proper with their mother, Mae Costello, and father, Maurice Costello. It was clearly the west coast family cemetery, located in a portion of Los Angeles which had, by 1980, become the mutual border of various ghettos.
The grave diggers finally finished their lunch, and we went inside. They removed the marble monument which served as the front wall of the tomb. It read “John Barrymore” across the middle and “Good Night, Sweet Prince” in the lower left hand corner. Bruce wanted it for a coffee table but the administrators of Calvary Cemetery made a big stink about not being able to match the marble and we gave it up so as to not make waves.
Once they got it off the smell of the thing assaulted us. He had been dead for thirty-eight years, and in spite of the fact that the body was embalmed it had still been decomposing. The casket was solid bronze, and although it had a glass liner, it must have cracked or something, because the fluids from the body had leaked out and had formed a kind of glue between the casket and the floor of the crypt.
The burly grave diggers pulled with all their weight on the end handle, but they couldn’t seem to move the casket. My father got impatient. “Out of the way!” he shouted, and shouldered them aside. He handed them each a red apple. It’s a tradition in my family to give red apples on opening night, and, this being an opening, Dad had stopped to pick up a bag on the way over.
He kicked off his rubber go-aheads, put one bare foot up on Ethel’s crypt and the other up on Lionel’s, and yanked on the handle. He only weighs about 150 pounds, but he managed to pull that casket halfway out with one jerk.
We muscled the thing up on the hand truck; the smell was really bad now, but somehow I managed to keep from choking. The Barrymore crypts were on the second floor of the mausoleum and the four of us-Bruce, Dad, a one-eyed Carpathian pirate named John Desko, and myself-wheeled the casket down a long ramp and out to the plain brown Ford van we had waiting outside. The body fluids were leaking out all the way.
We cruised over to the Odd Fellows Cemetery, which had the nearest crematorium. We flashed our phony papers and lots of cash and told them we wanted it torched. They said it would take several hours, so we picked out a square urn in the shape of a book and made arrangements for me to pick up the cremains the next day. My father insisted on having a look inside the casket before we left.
The body had been stolen once before. Thirty-eight years earlier, when he first died, some of Granddad’s cronies boosted the corpse and took it up to Errol Flynn’s house as a practical joke, so Dad wanted to make sure that his father was in the box. The employees at the Odd Fellows begged me to talk him out of it. I think that even these professional ghouls were a little squeamish about viewing a body that had been fermenting that long.
Dad was his usual intractable self, though, so after passing out apples to all the employees he and Bruce went in to have a look. I decided to pass on this one and only chance to see my grandfather “in the
flesh”-the smell had been more than enough for me. They came out together a few minutes later. Dad was white as a sheet and crying. He got in the car and said to me, “Thank God I’m drunk, I’ll never remember it.” I got a graphic description later from Bruce.
Apparently all the bouncing around we had subjected it to had sort of busted the jaw apart from what was left of the head. They were convinced it was John Barrymore by the very high quality dental work, and because although most of the flesh on the nose had decomposed, an incredibly long nose cartilage remained. At any rate, he was in there.
We went home and I returned the next day for the cremains. They handed me a square package wrapped in plain brown paper with a little label on the side that said “contains cremated remains of John Barrymore” in nice funereal script. It was going to take Dad some time to raise the money for the trip to Philadelphia by selling off more of the Barrymorebelia. He went on a sales campaign.
Meanwhile, I kept my grandfather’s remains stashed in the top drawer of my dresser underneath my shirts, like a stroke book. In about two weeks Dad had the cash together and went over to my pad when I wasn’t home and picked up the body, my best suit and three of my shirts. He took them and the Book of Hours with him to Philadelphia. I received a call from him in Philadelphia about 5 days later. The content of our conversation was as follows:
He had gone to the cite of the Philadelphia cemetery where many of our family were interred only to discover that it had been moved. He spent the next few days trying to find out where.
He went to the Historical Society, the Edwin Booth home for retired actors, and finally to the residence of Cardinal Krull.
After showing one of the nuns my grandfather’s cremains and the Book of Hours, the nun said to Dad, “Wait here, I’ll call you a taxi.” She then telephoned the police, who took Dad down to the station and had him interviewed by the police psychiatrist.
The psychiatrist declared him “sane enough” and he was released. By the time Dad called me from Philly, he was at the end of his rope. He was almost out of money, had been all over town and still not found the proper cemetery.
He said to me, “I can’t go on, man.”
“Fuck it; he’s in Philadelphia.” I said, “Well, you can’t just leave him anywhere.”
To which Dad replied, “Hey, man, he’s at the Fairmont Hotel! I’ll just toss him in the corner and bribe the janitor not to sweep up.”
I finally prevailed on Dad to continue his quest, and a couple of days later the Historical Society came up with the
proper cemetery. Dad went there and fulfilled his father’s wishes.
Back in Los Angeles, the marble monument was replaced over John Barrymore’s now empty tomb.