The Undertaker Man and the Star

Joan Crawford paid for it, if you believed the rumours back then. Even some newspapers reported it was so – but I don’t know if that was true. My boss would have known, you’d think – but he never told and I didn’t ask. The newspapers also reckoned that she owed the famous actress a heap of dough. I know for a fact that the press made up some of the stuff they printed about her – so who knows? But looking back, given my feelings for her – well no matter what, it was the saddest job I ever had to do. In it I’ve seen much to make the average Joe shudder. I’ve done plenty of kids, brides, starved people, the homeless, the deformed, numerous murder victims – I’ve seen it all. But she was the one who really got to me. She was the same age as me when she came in. Now here am I – sixty-five in ’63. This year we’ve lost a President, our boys are going off to war in Indo-China but me? I’m happy as Larry and content with my lot. Life couldn’t be better, but thinking about her, though, after all this time – well it’s about the only thing that can bring me to tears. She was something special. She was some kind of dame.

By the time she reached me her life had been in a downward spiral. She’d been the toast of the town only a few years previous – and then I had to look at her spread out like that before me. My life – well, I’d never be on the same pedestal as her. My life has been steady, hum-drum in comparison – but I’m still here and plan to be for some time yet. I’ve a fine house in the Hills, a swimming pool overlooking the city and regular visits from the grandkids. As well I have Nora who’s been with me through thick and thin – still a classy lady in my eyes. And now, to top it all, I’ve retired – it’s time to enjoy it all. So, for all her fame, who’s ended up smelling the roses? She could have had all that if she played her cards right – but she never did.

Its a long way from where I am now to where it all began – to where I first laid eyes on her. Great Falls. Montana. It was a place of big skies and amazing mountain views – but boring as hell. My Pa was the town’s undertaker and I grew up learning the business, being at ease in the presence of the dead. And it was a good business – we never wanted for anything as kids. The money kept coming in as people kept dying. But the town itself – what a hole! I thought that then and I still think it. Absolutely nothing for a young fella to do. Most my buddies found themselves in trouble pretty quickly – those that didn’t escape. But I was a reader and that got me through. It took me to far away places and taught me there was a big wide world just over the Rockies. I knew I’d be ready for it when the time came – until then I’d keep my head down and take notice of what the old man was trying to teach me about getting folk ready for burying. I learnt well.

There was also the Bijou movie picture house of a Saturday night – that’s where I fell in love with her. Back in them days the whole town would get dressed up in their best to go see a silent movie – it was the thing to do. With a girl on your arm, dressed to the nines, it was fun – or as much fun as you could get it that place. And if you were lucky, more fun could be had after the show. These days, you can see a movie any time on any day of the week, looking like a hobo if you wanted to – back then it was an occasion. As far as Great Falls went, it didn’t get any better than that. But I wanted far better – I must admit, though, she took my mind off that for a short time.

Now, as I said, I was a reader and I’d discovered this writer by the name of Fitzgerald. Of course, everybody knows him as the author of ‘The Great Gatsby’, but back in the early years of the twenties he was just starting out. I’d gotten hold of one of his early ones called ‘The Beautiful and the Damned’. I liked what I read in that book, so when I saw a movie of it advertised at the Bijou as that particular Saturday night’s main attraction, well I made sure I didn’t miss it. And that’s where it happened. I have no recollection of who I took that evening to see it with, if anyone, but I couldn’t forget the other damsel I saw for the first time. I guess it was a bit like the infatuation so many guys had for Marilyn Monroe before she checked out last year – and I suppose, thinking about it, Marilyn’s story resembles hers in a few ways. Same fate too I guess. Once I saw her up there on that screen that night – well. Yes, I was hooked too – on Marie I mean, not Marilyn. I just had to find out more about her.

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She was the heroine of the piece. I knew the story from the book, but even so that all passed in a blur. I was mesmerised by her – by Marie Prevost. This Montana boy had never seen a woman so beautiful, so sexy in all his life. She was incredible, that vixen up there on that silver screen. I later found out the movie’s story was based around the relationship of Fitzgerald with his own missus, Zelda, but for a period of time, for me, the stoty was all about Marie.

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When she came in to be tizzied up for the showing after her autopsy, I had no idea who she was – just one in a long line, for in LA, dying young was a lot more common than back in my home town. Then I looked at the tag attached to her wrist and still, for a while, I didn’t twig. When the penny finally dropped I had to step away from the trolley in shock. That stunner who so charmed me back in ’24 didn’t connect to this lardy, blotched and bloated stiff that was before my eyes. I thought it couldn’t be – they just shared the same name. But turns out it was.

Yessiree, after seeing that movie I just had to know more about her. I bought up every film mag I could find in town for months and scrap-booked every word written about her, every picture taken of her. Pretty soon I had a fair handle on her life story to that point – assuming you could believe what you read in them. I knew even then they tried to stretch the truth – still did when they came to report on her in the days after my final encounter with Marie, a decade or so later.

By that time I was established in Tinsel Town myself. I’d made the move to LA just before the Crash of ’29. Back then Southern California seemed the most exciting place in the world to me. I suppose reading about Marie introduced me to it all, but I had no tickets on myself about being in the movies. I knew growing places would need undertakers and I was right – it sure was growing back in those days and death seemed more plentiful there somehow. By the end of 1930 I was married too – a shot-gun wedding it was. Just as well Nora and I were in love in any case, It all worked out swell. I had responsibilities once I had her. Pauline was born and soon after I had a place to live in Anaheim and another daughter on the way. Nora was the girl who answered the telephone at my first job in LA and what with courting her and what that led to, my ardour for Miss Prevost had long disappeared. I was just too busy getting ahead.

As I said, people die and LA was as good as any place to escape from Great Falls to. It sure had glamour and was growing plump on it, but there’s not much of that in being an undertaker. Saying that, though, it would never be a dying business and it paid well. So lack of glamour didn’t matter one bit. After a stint working in a couple of other funeral parlours, I set up on my own in the forties and was soon making a killing, working for myself and not at someone else’s beckoning. I was good at convincing that death looked normal and my reputation spread. But all that was later on – let’s get to what I found out about Marie Prevost back in Great Falls. I suppose really, although I had more than my share of small town girls before I laid eyes on her, she was my first true love.

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I discovered Marie was Canadian, but she moved as a child to Los Angeles – and was literally discovered off the street and became a movie star. It seems she was a secretary at a legal firm and had to deliver some documents to the studios of Mack Sennett. The great man spotted her doing so and immediately cast her in a small role in the movie he just happened to be making then and there. Back then it didn’t matter if you never had acting training nor spoke well – well obviously – but as long as you ‘looked the part’, well then you were in the movies. Marie, it turns out, was a natural in front of the cameras – and later on she sounded okay too. But at seventeen she was now one of the Keystone Studios famous bathing beauties, earning the princely sum of fifteen bucks a week – a small fortune for a girl who inherited just one dollar from her recently deceased father’s estate. In 1919 Sennett cast her as the lead in ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’, it was a hit at the box office and she was now a star. ‘Love, Honour and Obey’, the following year, took her to super-stardom. I suppose she then became a bit full of herself for she thought Sennett was stifling her creativity and she was angling to get to Universal. She squirmed out of her Keystone contract and signed at her new home for fifteen hundred green ones a week. Now she was rolling in it. A couple more movies followed before she again had itchy feet. This time the move was to Warner Brothers and into the arms of Kenneth Harlan, her co-star in her first outing for them – ‘The Beautiful and the Damned’. Then I realised what made her so luminous in it – she was really in love with the man she canoodled with on screen – she wasn’t pretending up there. At this point Jack Warner thought he was on to a good thing with their relationship and decided they should marry on set as a publicity stunt. The couple agreed – only to have the a newspaper find out Marie was already hitched – secretly, to social darling Sonny Gerke. They had parted soon after the nuptials but hadn’t worried about divorce – and Miss Prevost didn’t think to mention it at the time. Scandal. Jack W felt betrayed and started to lose interest in his best dinner ticket in a long while. With all the hoo-ha over that it was around then that I started to lose interest in her too. I began to think more and more about getting away from Montana.

It was only after I helped bury her that I caught up with the rest of her story, once the obituaries started to appear in the press. The nature of her passing was a real talking point in Hollywood for a while, but it didn’t last long as by then her star had lost all its gloss. Still, a fair few of the big names came out to say their farewells on the day – Gable, Wallace Beery, Fairbanks and Barbara Stanwyck all put in an appearance.

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Some of the scribes in the press decided she had topped herself, but officially it was a heart attack bought on by acute alcoholism. Her body was not discovered for several days; the neighbours alerted by a dog’s barking. Some reporters wrote that the canine in fact was in the process of devouring her remains. My boss at the time, Bill, soon stopped that in its tracks. I saw the tooth marks for myself on her, but we figured the little dog would only probably be trying to rouse her. But, gee, she was a terrible sight, even so. How, then, did she get to the state I had to use all my skill to fix up?

After the outcry over her secret husband she made a few more movies, some even well received, but when her contract was up for renewal, Jack Warner declined to have more to do with her. By now a divorce had gone through and she was married to Harlan. He was let go too. In ’26 her beloved mother passed away in an accident and she was distraught. The news of that, plus her loss of contract, sent her to the bottle. This led to depression – then the following year hubby moved on to greener pastures as well.

Howard Hughes, being also entranced by her in ‘The Beautiful and the Damned’, took her on and cast her in her final leading role. They also had a brief fling but nothing could last now. She was too far gone with the grog. Her next screen product was in ‘The Godless Girl’ – and for the first time her name wasn’t at the top of the bill. As the thirties dawned she had faded to well down the list. Friends interviewed said she didn’t seem in any way bitter about her change of fortune, but she refused all advice to get off the sauce. Her once sexy curves were by now well hidden by rolls of fat. If she did gain a bit part she dieted furiously, refusing to eat but continuing to drink – that taking further toll on her body and mind. She was last seen on screen as a waitress in ’36. By then she was broken in spirit, sodden in cheap booze and in a black, black place. There was no coming back from there. She didn’t even have enough to cover her funeral expenses. Bill had a few connections and put the word out.

Life couldn’t have turned out better for me but seeing her that day, when she came to us in that sick and sorry manner – well, it gave me cause to ponder. I am a careful chap by nature – goes with the job, but seeing the state she was in sure was a jolt for me. I resolved to doubly work hard, put Nora and my two girls first and make sure I didn’t get dibs on myself.

In the end I reckoned I made her look as attractive as it was possible – but it took some doing. It was nothing like how she shimmered and shone in her best years – but I could give her some semblance of that for all the pleasure she gave me in so many ways back in Great Falls. When they came in to have a gander at her, they still saw a pretty good lookin’ broad.

Now she’s almost forgotten, We’ve had other screen sirens since but for me she’ll always be number one. And the shock over the way she fell on hard times caused Hollywood to make sure it would never happen again to anyone else who reached Marie’s sort of fame. There’s now the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital to take care of any unfortunate enough to need it – all as a result of her. Since that day I have prepared many famous names for their final public appearance, but she was the only one that really meant something to me. I fell in love with her once upon a time but then moved on to fall in love with someone far better – my Nora, my beauty who gave me my two girls. Of course they’re all grown now and have given me a granddaughter each. Pauline called hers Marie. You’ll be sure I’ll especially be looking out for her as long as God gives me breath.

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