Los Angeles' Bendix Building. Photo by Jordan Cronk.
The bats have left the bell towerThe victims have been bled Red velvet lines the black box
Bela-Bonkers Brit Bloke Brazenly Boosts Bendix-Building Black Bandana!
In the annals of Los Angeles crime, it was hardly an episode to titillate James Ellroy. Was it even really a crime? I was on the short stairwell that connects the 11th—the top—floor of the Bendix Building, a Garment District block on the corner of Maple St and 12th St, when I spotted the square of white-patterned black cotton. Into my pocket it rapidly went, compensation for the fact that my quest for rooftop access had been stymied. An orange plastic sign across the door up ahead, warning (bluffing?) of alarms that would ring out if opened, dissuaded further progress. I wasn't too disheartened—my unplanned visit to the Bendix Building had yielded sufficient delights. And besides, I wanted to reach Bela Lugosi before sundown.
The Saturday epic: ten miles on foot from Downtown to Culver City and the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery on Slauson Avenue, final resting-place of cinema's greatest vampire. Just as his Count Dracula had travelled
from Varna (Bulgaria) to Whitby on one pestilential sea-vessel—the Demeter—Lugosi sailed on the Gróf Tisza Istvan from Montefalcone (Italy) to New Orleans aboard an another ill-starred ship, arriving in chaotic (and still-controversial) circumstances in New Orleans on 4th December 1920.
Within ten years and three months—Tod Browning's Dracula opened in the USA on St Valentine's Day, 1931—he was, as the saying goes, the toast of Hollywood ("I never drink... wine..."). It was, of course all downhill from there: a sixteen-foot fall through a stage trap-door during a Los Angeles production of Murdered Alive in April 1932 resulted in three broken ribs (some sources say he only fell twelve feet and only broke two ribs!) and an eventual reliance on pain-killers that gradually spiralled into drug-addiction. Ed Wood, and all that.
Hastened by a diet that included a daily bottle of Black & White blended whisky, the end (coronary occlusion with myocardial fibrosis) finally came on 16th August 1956 in his poky apartment at 5620 Harold Way. Two blocks south of Hollywood Boulevard; one north of Sunset. As everyone knows, Bela Lugosi was then buried in his high-collared vampire cape—indeed, in that final coffin of his he wears full Dracula fig, with lily-white bow-tie and silver Ottoman-style sunburst medallion around his neck.
"If the hero join combat with the night and conquer it, many shreds of it remain upon him!" —Jean Genet
The idea to visit Lugosi's grave had originated two full years before the Saturday epic, after I'd been to Bronson Canyon—a ruggedly rural-looking spot on the fringes of Hollywood, versatile backdrop for literally thousands of low-budget movie and TV productions over the years. Few of them were as profitable as Victor Halperin's catchpenny, Haiti-set smash White Zombie (1932)—the first ever zombie picture—in which Lugosi incarnated the extravagantly-eyebrowed, unforgettably-monikered, commandingly hypnotic slave-master Murder Legendre.
Not that the success was much help to Lugosi who—in the aftermath of his departure from James Whale's Frankenstein (differing explanations abound regarding the exact circumstances)—had already adopted a "say yes" approach to all offers, no matter how derisory the remuneration. And money perpetually ran through Bela's long fingers like the blood of a slain virgin—even though he wasn't especially extravagant, in Hollywood terms. Indeed, his chief expenditure may have been on house-moving, as he is recorded as living in no fewer than 20 different properties over the last 25 years of his life, "all in Los Angeles. Though he lived as far west as Blue Heights Drive (in what is now West Hollywood) and as far east as Cedarhurst Circle (in Los Feliz), Lugosi generally preferred Hollywood, particularly the hills.
No, Bela's main financial outlay seems to have been in the form of charitable "donations" to hard-up compatriots. He was, in direct contravention of his dastardly screen-image—and despite a certain personal froideur—incurably generous; a soft touch, even. California in those days was full of Hungarians fleeing tumult in Europe. And Lugosi—who arrived in New Orleans with barely a fillér to his name—never spurned the chance to aid a countryman in distress. And the fact that after his Universal contract ended with Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) he chose to operate as a freelance, jobbing thespian—away from the machinery of the studio promotional system—resulted in the kind of precariousness and oscillations of fortune which the safely contract-bound likes of Boris Karloff never had to endure. On 14th October 1932, less than six months after Rue Morgue's release, Bela Lugosi filed for bankruptcy.
My 2013 visit to Bronson Canyon was part of researches for an article in the Slovenian magazine KINO! about White Zombie. These investigations had yielded—via the enjoyably morbid, invaluably specific website Find A Grave—details of Lugosi's interment at the Holy Cross, and I'd seriously toyed with the idea of paying a call. But Culver City was a bit of a hike from Chinatown, where I was staying back in March 2013—a dozen miles, give or take—and for various reasons I never got round to it.
The idea revived in Palm Springs this March, when I was in town for the American Documentary Film Festival and—in conversation with a Kosovar pal and an Californian chum—talk turned to celebrity graves. The three of us were all heading to Los Angeles at the end of the festival, and decided first to check out John Cassavetes (nestling among office-blocks in the dinky Pierce Bros Westwood Memorial Park), then Lugosi in Culver City.
For various logistical and communicational reasons, our joint expeditions never materialised. I found Cassavetes easily enough at the start of my Los Angeles sojourn, but it wasn't until the final Saturday of my trip, more than a fortnight later, that my solo Lugosi project came into focus. And despite my fondness for Los Angeles' bus and (especially) Metro systems, the plan was always to do the trek on foot —my preferred mode of transport around a city where allegedly "nobody walks."
Hot dog! Los Angeles is a fantastic city for walking, one of the very best in my experience: it's mostly pretty flat, with varied architecture and distinct neighbourhoods; the walker is never far away from a store or gas-station if liquid and/or solid sustenance is required. Even the occasional and inevitable long wait at pedestrian crossings (the cops are hot on jay-walkers, as I discovered to my chagrin in Pasadena one sultry afternoon) can become an advantageous chance to contemplate one's surroundings.
Heavily-populated and teeming with fascinating eye-level detail, this city is a series of colossal intersecting grids, with streets and boulevards so long and straight that the navigator is always stumbling across an unvisited stretch of some familiar thoroughfare. The fact that Los Angeles is so emphatically a city of—and for—cars also adds to the fun. Any fool can perambulate Paris or Berlin, but to be a pedestrian in the California megalopolis is truly to stand out from the crowd. Especially if the journey in question is more than a block or five from A to B.
I've never owned any kind of "smart" phone and am unwilling to carry maps around—both strike me as somehow "cheating", and tend to be more hindrance than help when it comes to fully absorbing and appreciating an urban environment. Proper preparation is much more important, even if it does involve another manifestation of 21st century technology—Google Maps—in conjunction with the unbeatably old-school technique of pen-and-paper (which is fine so long as you don't lose the piece of paper). I jotted down a basic route to Culver City from my Downtown starting-point, a friend's apartment on Spring St, between 6th and 7th Streets:
BEARS LEFT: OLYMPIAD DRIVECONTINUES: ANGELES VISTA BOULEVARD________________________ON L: BRISTOL PKWY R: HOLY CROSS
As is always the case with Downtown, my progress was impaired by the sheer splendour of the venerable architecture in this much-maligned heart of the city. I could have stood marvelling at the Arctic-blue, blocky art-deco grandeur of the Eastern Columbia Building (1930)—with its magnificent four-faced clock tower—for an hour, but forced myself on. It was early afternoon, but I reminded myself that even if I got to Culver City before sundown, I would have to use public transport to get to Hollywood for the 7:30 Noir City Film Festival screening of Cy Endfield's The Underworld Story (1950) at Grauman's 1922-vintage Egyptian Theatre—just half a mile along the street from Lugosi's Walk of Fame pavement star (which can be found in front of Juicy Burger Shakes-N-Fries at 6340 Hollywood Boulevard).
The Bendix Building, however, proved more of a distraction. I'd spotted the bold, red neon, vertical BENDIX—complete with outsize B—sign on its roof a few days before when taking a drink on another rooftop about a mile away: the imaginatively-named Upstairs Bar of the newly-opened Ace Hotel, emblem of Downtown's rapid "progress" towards hipness. Walking along Main Street en route to Culver City, I spotted the unilluminated Bendix sign poking above the low-rise stores and warehouses of the Fashion District—and then, from the glow of neon tubes visible through its windows, realised that the building wasn't the derelict shell it had initially appeared. I ventured off Main towards the Bendix, expecting it to be located in some unvisited, unconsidered quasi-urban zone.
Not a bit of it. The streets were thronged with Saturday shoppers, loud with the bells of popsicle-hawkers, whole families swarming over the Fashion District's pavements, in and out of its innumerable small businesses, pouring in and out of 'The Alley' (El Callejon), and Santee Alley, flea-markets-cum-malls. Nearly everyone was Hispanic—all the eateries and food-trucks (with ungoogle-able names such as 'El Hot Doggy #1') dispensed Latin American edibles—and nearly everyone seemed to be having a good time.
The Bendix, when I got within a block of it, turned out to be the proverbial hive of industry—the thrum of light machinery audible through open windows, some mustachioed middle-aged dude languidly leaning out surveying the street-scene from his seventh-storey vantage-point. Gawping, I made a tour of its exterior, noting terracotta bas-reliefs of distinguished-looking gents symbolising Education, Progress, "Invention". Along one flank, at ground level, business after business bustled with mercantile activity: a small-store packed floor-to-ceiling with socks of all kinds; Hamid Gailery [sic], presumably run by folk of middle-eastern background, selling framed imagery of Italian-American big-screen gangsterism to (primarily) Latino customers.
Entering the small main lobby, I bought a polystyrene cup of black coffee (95 cents) from a septuagenarian-looking Chinese couple operating a tiny kiosk by the door, and sipped its contents while surveying the long list of small businesses on each floor (several names, like MayNor Cuajin, suggesting Chinese ownership) reading a photocopied newspaper story on the wall giving details of the Bendix's construction and special rooftop features: a huge arrow and number 9 ("installed by the Neale Rainbow Light Corporation") giving the direction and distance to the nearest major airport. Back in 1932, that meant Grand Central in Glendale, which was (along with Union, in Burbank) the main Los Angeles air-terminal until after WW2 and the rise of Mines Field, later redubbed Los Angeles International, now LAX.
Designed by architect William Douglas Lee, the Bendix Building was built for the Bendix Aviation Company—hence the navigation-friendly sign and arrow—by the Casler Construction Company, owned by pioneering female businesswoman (and former plumber) Florence Casler. Casler and Lee (the latter, according to some sources, worked on Hollywood's Chateau Marmont Hotel) were noted for their "love of modern design enhanced with revival accenting and molding in terra cotta and stone, which lifted their buildings above the utilitarian norm" and several of their landmark constructions can still be seen in and around the Fashion District.
The Bendix was Casler's biggest project, and effectively her epitaph as a construction-magnate: it is the last recorded enterprise of the Casler Construction Company, all of whose assets were sold off during the Depression. Eight decades later, the USA is still coping with the impact of 2008's downturn—but to wander around and inside the Bendix Building, and take in the view from its upper floors, is to be reminded of the sheer mercantile energy which, at least among certain sectors of the population, shows hardly any sign of abating.
I ascended in one of the building's two elevators—for some reason I felt as though the coffee in my hand endowed me with a businesslike, untouristy air—and on a whim got off at the 10th rather than the 11th floor. High-ceilinged, airy corridor—on the left, a door open allowing a glimpse of the clothing-business within: machinery-thrum, colourful fabrics in rolls, Spanish female voices. To the right, what looked very much like original 1920s windows, proper glass, metal frames, and a stupendous view of the Los Angeles cityscape. Planes approaching and taking off from LAX to the south-west; the skyscraper-dominated skyline of the Business District to the north-east (I remembered the line from the photocopied newspaper in the lobby, noting that the Bendix, in 1930, "Reache[d] the height limit in Los Angeles."
I opened the windows and looked down at the hectic streets of the Fashion District, closing my eyes to appreciate the multi-layered sounds drifting up: rhythmic thump of Latino pop; the trilling and chirping of birds; innumerable voices and footsteps; the occasional—relatively good-natured—honk of car-horns. Ascending in the lift, I found myself on the top floor: much quieter, wooden beams, a lower ceiling. Only one business up here: Chic Little Devil, some kind of PR firm. My main business was getting up on the roof, to find out if the giant 9 and arrow were still there; I found an unused black bandana instead. Bounty enough for one day.
Tearing myself away from the Bendix Building took some effort, but with one eye on the clock, I called for the lift. Eventually it came, and called at most of the floors on the way down. Most conspicuous of my fellow-travellers: a middle-aged, shortish Chinese gent dwarfed by the huge transparent plastic bag he hefted on one shoulder, bulging with fabrics, to the unconcealed, genial amusement of the passengers. I followed him out of the lobby and down the back alley, noting the lack of ornamentation on the less-frequented southern sides, and the magnificently unadorned red fire-escape.
Within seconds a low-key Mexican eaterie—promisingly invisible from any traffic-bearing street—took my eye and, reckoning I needed energy for the miles ahead, I ducked inside. On the wall, a printed page recounting the legend of The Sleeping Woman Of Iztaccíhuatl. A couple of fish tacos later I resumed my progress towards Culver City, heading along Los Angeles Street, under Freeway 10, until its abrupt termination at the junction with 23rd Street: right in front of the intriguingly unassuming Las Casitas Motel (which somehow looks as though no-one has ever stayed there) just along from the sprawling Frida Kahlo High School.
Along 23rd to Main Street, a long walk through an industrial zone—spotting an intermittent "tent city" of homeless on the opposite side of the road, no sign or sound of any occupants. Chief sight of note: Himco Security products on the corner of Main and Jefferson, where a sign promises "DECORATIVE PROTECTION (NOT PRISON LOOKING BARS)". Main St eventually became Broadway Place for a short spell, then I turned right onto Martin Luther King Jr Boulevard, crossing under the 110 Freeway, then noticing a major sports venue, the Los Angeles Coliseum, on the right. Some kind of event involving USC, families of fans in red and yellow in the huge car-park, young lads pitching footballs back and forward. Spring Training, I gleaned from a hoarding.
The Coliseum didn't look like much from the road, but MLK Boulevard does afford a fine view of what proclaims itself to be the Los Angeles Swimming Stadium (and is now officially 'The LA84 Foundation/John C. Argue Swim Stadium'). Five large interlocking rings on its flank a give-away that this impressively austere, palely neo-Classical affair was built for Los Angeles' first stint as Olympic host, in 1932. Even Lugosi, not an obvious sportsman, got drawn into the excitement. On May 22nd of that year he called upon Hungarians to attend the event, broadcasting "as part of an all-star CBS radio gala" beamed to 105 countries: "inviting the Germans was Marlene Dietrich, the French, Claudette Colbert, the Russians, Olga Baclanova"—the latter having just starred in another Tod Browning horror-classic, Freaks. A week later, tireless Bela was up in Portland, Oregon, reprising his New York stage version of Dracula at the El Capitan theatre for a week and a day.
Back in Los Angeles during spring 1932, a new theatre was—without benefit of Lugosi—making headlines in what was then a very quickly up-and-coming part of the city. Laid out by the Olmsted Brothers, landscape architects run by step-brother sons of the great Frederick Law Olmstead—responsible for New York's Central Park—Leimert (pron. "luh-mert") Park was designed to give the air of a European village. In effect restricted to white residents until 1948, when various "restrictive deed covenants were outlawed by the courts," Leimert Park is now largely African-American, a congenial square mile of middle-class and working-class households clustered round Leimert Plaza Park.
MLK Boulevard leads into the Leimert Park neighbourhood, where the major landmark is the elegant, tall, sea-green tower of what's now a community venue known as the Vision Theatre, but which was opened in 1932 as the Leimert Theatre—a more modest cousin of the eye-popping movie-palaces constructed Downtown throughout the 1920s and 1930s. ("It is of reinforced concrete construction, and is topped with a 115-foot ornamental tower, equivalent in height to a nine-story building. The auditorium is oval-shaped, and has 1400 seats, a feature of the architectural arrangement being provision of more space between rows than in any other theater, so far as is known, it was stated.")
Howard Hughes was involved in the Leimert's very early days, but soon bailed out when the movie business suffered a downturn mid-1931—from which horror productions seem to have been relatively immune: Dracula was still doing roaring trade, and Lugosi's next notable star-vehicle White Zombie only months away. Returning a peace-sign proffered by an elderly black gentleman in Leimert Plaza Park—a small lozenge of green, with a couple of homeless folk slumped across the grass in the April sun—I munched on an orange and headed up Olympiad Drive (further echoes of 1932) to Los Angeles Vista Boulevard, which quickly climbed through pretty fancy residential areas. Well-trimmed lawns, immaculately shaped hedges, hardly any pedestrians to be seen. The boulevard was if nothing else well-named, as when I turned my head I looked across a vast expanse of the city, through a layer of smoggy haze to the skyscrapers of the financial district some six or seven miles distant.
Up and up I went, eventually after another mile or two reaching West Slauson Avenue and the concomitants of civilisation—most helpful of which was a small convenience store where I purchased a coconut flavour popsicle, its hard ice pleasantly unyielding to my tongue. Slauson soon dipped, levelling out as Culver City loomed in the distance. The final furlong—along the edge of what street-signs identified as Windsor Hills. The Jet Inn motel, presumably so-named to attract custom from passengers and crew from LAX, opposite a vacant lot at the junction of Slauson and Heatherdale, where some church or other (perhaps the Jehovah's Witnesses just up the road) had erected a double-sided display-board, the same scripture passage on both sides, in black, incomplete letters. Not much of a puzzle, to be honest.
and on the back
I noted down the fragmented lines, still sucking on my lolly-stick, and pushed on into Culver City. The first ecclesiastical structure I spotted was a false alarm: St. Mary Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, it turned out to be, Ethiopian script a sparse tangle of curved strokes. A mile or so further on, and the sprawling green of Holy Cross was unmistakable. Knackered ("that type of weariness," as Don DeLillo put it, "that seems like a blessing of the earth") and quietly elated at having nearly reached my goal, I approached the guard sitting in a booth at the entrance marked 'Information.
"I'm looking for a particular grave," I told him, my eye casting over the undulant acres of the cemetery, spotting the blockily modernist white-and-blue grandeur of a large hilltop chapel. He handed me a basic photocopied sheet—so basic it might even have been mimeographed—with information on both sides ("Idling, loafing or any boisterous activity within the cemetery or any of its buildings is prohibited.")
On the back, a map identifying each of the 32 section by letter (each also has a name, e.g. 'Precious Blood', 'Mother of Sorrows', 'Beloved Disciple') but containing no mention of illustrious residents. A semi-random sample: John Ford, Mary Astor, ZaSu Pitts, Charles Boyer, Sharon Tate, Rita Hayworth and Darby Crash. On these gentle slopes can be found both the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) and the Tin Man (Jack Haley) from The Wizard of Oz, plus my personal favourite what-might-have-been star of yesteryear, Richard Arlen.
"I'm looking for Mr Bela Lugosi."
"I don' know no L'gozee."
"Which way is the office?"
"Up the hill, behind the chapel."
One last little hike, up the incline. A few families wandering quietly, but not especially mournfully, among the graves and the flush-to-the-ground metal plaques. Up to the wide chapel, even more impressive up close; I turned and could make out, on the horizon, a strip of gold-reflecting ocean (the sea is nowhere near as visible in Los Angeles as visitors expect; getting there is usually a considerable palaver, with or without a car). Around the back of the chapel, to the office. Which was, at 5pm on a Saturday, shut. According to the map I'd been given, the cemetery closed at 6pm. And there was also the matter of getting back to Hollywood for the 7:30 screening.
After a much-needed visit to the toilet (the lack of public conveniences is among the few major demerits for the Los Angeles pedestrian, but some kind of alternative can usually be found at a pinch), I was able to consider the situation more clearly. I realised that extreme circumstances were compelling me, with Murder Legendre-like persuasiveness, to compromise my minimal-technology "rule." So I sent—via my very basic "burner" flip-top Samsung, which had earlier in the week somehow survived total immersion in the Los Angeles River at Highland Park—text messages to the American friends I thought would be (a) online and (b) possessed of enough common-sense to help out. "Greetings from Culver City. Need the exact location of Bela Lugosi's grave please."
Becoming acutely conscious of the passage of time, I sat down and waited for the phone to beep. After a couple of minutes and a couple of clarifying texts I had the information I needed: five rows from the grotto (marked clearly on the map), just along from Bing Crosby. Re-energised, I headed for the grotto—charming, low-key, the lapping of green water on ancient rock—and saw a young woman with glasses, dyed hair, tattoos (a Doctor Who design on her thigh, complete with Dalek) and a Damned T-shirt wandering among the headstones and plaques. "Are you looking for Bela Lugosi, by any chance?"
In an alternative dimension, this would be how I met your mother. But back in reality, Deanna and I simply teamed up and found the grave; exchanged obscure horror-film tips, enthused over It Follows. She took my photo on her smartphone—they have their uses—and emailed it to me on the spot. We waited for her pal (who'd been to Bela before, and knew the score) to show up. And he showed up, and I departed—my only tangible souvenir that mysterious, ownerless black bandana from the Bendix Building—post-haste to Hollywood. Ten miles dead.
Photo by Deanna Deadly
In righteousness shalt thou be established: thou shalt be far from oppression; for thou shalt not fear: and from terror; for it shall not come near thee. Behold, they shall surely gather together, but not by me: whosoever shall gather together against thee shall fall for thy sake. Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the waster to destroy. No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn.