I was looking for Marilyn Monroe, when I nearly walked over Rodney Dangerfield. Literally. I didn't mean it to be an "I don't get no respect" moment, but the path to the most famous crypt in California leads right past the comedian's grave.
"There goes the neighborhood," reads the epitaph on Dangerfield's headstone at the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park. With Natalie Wood, Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder nearby, it really is a neighborhood. Even in death, the Hollywood crowd tends to form cliques.
Los Angeles, Spanish for "The City of Angels," has one of the world's greatest collections of cemeteries and memorial parks in the world. A who's who of what was.
Over the course of two days, I paid my respects to Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Jean Harlow, Rudolph Valentino, Jayne Mansfield, Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Walter Matthau and George C. Scott.
This was different than following the famous maps of celebrity homes sold on Hollywood Boulevard. I knew that once I found the right address, the star would be at home.
While Los Angeles County has more than 50 major burial places, just a half dozen or so attract a steady stream of visitors from around the globe. It can be a tricky trip for the dedicated grave spotter.
Rules and decorum vary wildly. At Hollywood Forever Cemetery, they sell maps to the stars' graves and even show classic films in the cemetery on summer nights. But across town at the sprawling Forest Lawn in Glendale, final home to more stars than anywhere in the world, the staff keeps its lips zipped about the permanent locales of silver-screen legends.
Cemetery operators have to walk a fine line, said Donna Steward, family-service counselor at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park.
"We understand the curiosity of the public, but our families come first," said Steward. "We don't allow tour groups to come in, no guide yelling 'so and so is buried here; so and so is buried there.' We ask people to show respect."
Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park is a good place to start a trip to the three most significant graveyards in the Los Angeles area. It's a tiny plot down a side alley hemmed in by the skyscrapers of Westwood.
Despite its small size, the memorial park is packed with famous celebrities, from crooner Dean Martin to rock guitarist Frank Zappa, movie mogul Darryl F. Zanuck to "Green Acres" star Eva Gabor and "In Cold Blood" author Truman Capote.
But all pale in comparison with the most famous grave of all the memorial parks, the crypt of 1950s film bombshell Marilyn Monroe. The pilgrims still come bearing tributes.
"We get a very big crowd," Steward said. "Sometimes it used to be a weird crowd, but it has been better in recent years."
If there is one Southern California graveyard that has "gone Hollywood," it is Hollywood Forever. Rescued from bankruptcy, the former Hollywood Memorial Park reopened in 1998 with a new name and a new mission that included embracing its position as a tourist attraction.
The location is right out of central casting - the Hollywood sign on the nearby hills can be seen between the crypts. There is no southern wall of the Memorial Park - the graves back up right to the workshops and sound stages of Paramount Studios.
Hollywood Forever has a split personality. It's still an operating cemetery - on the day of my visit the lanes were filled with cars parked for a funeral. But Hollywood Forever celebrates its permanent residents. In the flower shop, an attendant sells maps of the cemetery's main attractions, with top celebrity grave spots marked with stars.
It's a new role for Hollywood's oldest cemetery, which dates back to 1899. Along with Hollywood alumni, Hollywood Forever is the final resting place of early city power brokers like the Los Angeles Times' Otis and Chandler families.
Prior to Marilyn, the most famous celebrity grave was undoubtedly the crypt of silent-screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino, star of "The Sheik" and other sword-and-sandal epics. Thousands have filed past the silver-screen shrine, including the mysterious "lady in black," who made annual visits on the anniversary of the star's death.
Johnny Ramone, "legendary guitarist for the Ramones" as the tombstone is inscribed, arrived in 2004. The New York punk pioneer (whose real name was John Cummings) is shown playing guitar, the black rock block inscribed with salutations from famous friends.
"Forever here today, never gone tomorrow, my eternal friend, I love you," wrote Lisa Marie Presley.
Nearby is a more abstract black rock monument for bandmate Douglas Colvin (aka Dee Dee Ramone), who died in 2002. His epitaph: "OK ... I gotta go now."
The Los Angeles area's most famous cemetery is as fan-frosty as Hollywood Forever Cemetery is fan-friendly. The sprawling 300-acre Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale hosts the remains or memorials of dozens of classic Hollywood names: Bogart, Stewart, Harlow, Gable, Flynn.
But celebrity grave spotters aren't embraced. No map. No directions.
I was looking for the garden with Walt Disney's grave, marked by a little mermaid, when a security guard pulled up and politely said the park was closing.
Driving down the twisting lane that led out into the crush of L.A. traffic, I recognized a connection between the two most visited graves along my route. Marilyn and Valentino had followed the old Hollywood maxim.
Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.
If you go:
GETTING THERE: To the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park at 1218 Glendon Ave. in Los Angeles, take Interstate 405 north, exit Wilshire Boulevard and turn right on Glendon Avenue. To Hollywood Forever at 6000 Santa Monica Blvd. in Los Angeles, take Highway 101 north and exit Santa Monica Boulevard. To Forest Lawn Memorial Park at 1712 S. Glendale Ave. in Glendale, Calif., take the California Route 2 Freeway north, exit left onto San Fernando Road and turn right on South Glendale Avenue.
GENERAL INFORMATION: Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park (310) 474-1579; Hollywood Forever Cemetery (323) 469-1181; Forest Lawn Memorial Park (800) 204-3131