Story: In the City of Angels, a fixation with morbid death scenes exists



Sidebar: Five decades of L.A.-area tragedies (external links section)

This piece has also been published by The Orange County Register and La Opinion.

Every day, students at the new Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Los Angeles will live history.

The $578 million school, which houses 4,200 students in kindergarten through the 12th grade, opened this fall on the site of the former Ambassador Hotel, steeped in Los Angeles history.

Opened in 1921, the hotel was an L.A. hotspot. It hosted six Academy Awards ceremonies. Hollywood’s heavy hitters -- Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and others -- played at its famed Cocoanut Grove nightclub. Political powerhouses from the United States and abroad stayed there.

And in 1968, a young U.S. senator named Robert F. Kennedy met his death at the Ambassador, assassinated after delivering his acceptance speech in the California presidential primary.

It’s one of the dozens of spots in Los Angeles that through the years have come to be known for its place in the city’s darker history. If you dig deep enough, you will find an entire network exploring a more violent, morbid Los Angeles, one that follows the trail of celebrity murders, unsolved mysteries and famous crime scenes. Some of the sites have become memorialized, and in some cases, even are subject to public dispute for legal protection and preservation. In most cases, they are tourist attractions.

The list of such crime scenes goes on and on, including the steps outside the condominium on South Bundy Drive where the brutally murdered bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were found in 1994. Or the sidewalk in front of the Viper Room, where actor River Phoenix collapsed and died after a night of drug use 17 years ago this month. Or the bungalow at the Chateau Marmont on Sunset Boulevard where actor John Belushi died in 1982 after injecting cocaine and heroin.

“I think that the fascination with murder is not unique to Los Angeles,” said Dr. Karen Sternheimer, a professor in the department of sociology at the University of Southern California, “But there might be an enhanced interest because the city has been thought of as Eden-like and murder and assassination belie that image.”

It is not surprising that people are fascinated with murder mysteries and scandalous crime scenes that make national news, especially in a city that is known for glory, fame, and prosperity, she said. But sometimes it becomes less about the crime and more about the crime scene.

There are tour companies that follow such gruesome tales of the city’s past, such as the mystery of Elizabeth Short, known as “The Black Dahlia” after her death in 1947. One company, Dearly Departed Tours, bills its Tragical History Tour as a way to see “100 scenes of celebrity scandal and death…and scope out their locations where many celebrities took their last breaths” in just two and a half hours. An official at another tour company, Esotouric, explained that visiting the place makes the story of what happened come alive.

“Our crime tour guides are serious social historians who use the criminal history of the city as a lens through which to explore the history and culture of the place," said Kim Cooper of Esotouric.

A Dearly Departed Tours official suggests that people take the tours mainly out of curiosity.

“There aren't that many more taboos.  Death was probably the last of them, and we still know so little about what happens afterward;” said Scott Michaels, founder of the Dearly Departed Tours. “Almost everyone has a curiosity for this sort of thing; some are just more comfortable with it.  Some want to visit all these sites and don't have the time to search for themselves.”

However, the intimacy between a crime and the space where it occurred can only suggest a deeper inevitability of association. Whether the sites are visited because of curiosity, respect or simply a desire to participate in a shared memory, the point remains that people do so by physically being at the scene of the crime.

“Well I think that any time someone becomes a celebrity, fans want to feel a little of that celebrity for themselves and want to be as close to that person as they can,” said Chris Brown, information and marketing manager for the Petersen Automotive Museum. That was the last place rapper Notorious B.I.G visited before he died, shot just a short distance away after leaving a party there in 1997.  “A lot of his fans feel a connection to the place he was at his last moment.”

Sternheimer agreed that the reason for fixation on such locations of violence is the connection it offers and the ability to partake in a possible spiritual bond. 

“Locations of assassinations or other high-profile acts of violence become sacred ground for many people,” Sternheimer said. “… A last connection to the person or people, or in the case of RFK, ideals.”

But what then becomes of a site when its morbid past - like the infamous home where actress Sharon Tate and friends were killed by the Manson Family in 1969 – is engraved into its very structural foundation? The Tate house, for example, was torn down and rebuilt in the 1990s after the current owner claimed in a magazine story that area residents who were tired of the curious trolling their street prompted the demolition. Even with the remodeled house barely resembling the original style, the property still remains labeled as the “Sharon Tate house” and will forever be referred to as such.

On the other hand, there were some who had a vision for the Ambassador Hotel as something so much more than the place where Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant, shot Kennedy on June 5, 1968.

After Kennedy’s death, the Ambassador -- once the heart of Hollywood’s Golden Age -- instantly became a mark of tragedy and pain. Slowly but surely the hotel was abandoned, forsaken and left to rot.

But Kennedy’s memory resurfaced after the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) asked to turn the hotel into a public school. The Los Angeles Conservancy pushed to preserve the hotel and make it a historical landmark. Ultimately LAUSD won. As the debate lingered over whether RFK’s memory would best be honored as a memorial or a school, the underlying fact remained constant that the site held justifiable historical significance and the memory of the assassination had to be confronted in one way or another.

The family of Robert Kennedy dealt delicately with the issue, saying they supported the decision to make the hotel into a school but was cautious about memorializing it as a landmark.

“The family was very clear they wanted the hotel torn down,” said Jarad Sanchez, policy coordinator for The Alliance for a Better Community, one of the main community groups supporting the school. “The senator would have preferred to have a school on that site.”

Los Angeles Unified School District, who bought the property, dedicated it to RFK to honor his life rather than his death.

“We now have a means to deal with education, housing and health for children and their parents. The school will serve as a basis for community development, change, and improvement. That was really what RFK was about,” said Paul Schrade, former advisor to Kennedy who was there when the senator was shot. “The family was opposed to saving the hotel because it was such a tragedy… but thought a school would be appropriate.”

So the Kennedy name -- and the ties to the Ambassador and Los Angeles’ tragic history -- will live on. The story of June 1968 will continue to be told time and again. So will the stories of the others who died too young in Los Angeles.

“Why else would there be tours to places where celebrities die at if people didn’t have an inherent need to feel as close as possible to person they are a fan of?” Brown said. 

External Links

Five decades of L.A.-area tragedies

2010: Actor Corey Haim (“The Lost Boys”) collapsed at his home at the Oakwood Apartments at 3600 Barham Blvd., between Burbank and Hollywood. Originally thought to be a drug overdose, it was ruled he died of pneumonia and heart problems. He was 38.


2009: Starlet Brittany Murphy died at age 32 at 1893 Rising Glen Road in Hollywood Hills. It was determined by autopsy that she did of pneumonia and anemia -- the same conditions that reports said caused the death of her husband, Simon Monjack, in the same house less than six months later.


2009: Paramedics were called to the house at 100 N. Carolwood Drive in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles, told the resident was unconscious. That man, Michael Jackson, was pronounced dead minutes later at UCLA Medical Center. The King of Pop was 50.


2003: Legendary music producer Phil Spector brought a guest home to 1700 Grand View Drive in Alhambra, and she wound up dead. Actress Lana Clarkson was shot in the face, and Spector was arrested on suspicion of murder. After a first trial that ended in a hung jury, he was convicted in 2009 of second-degree murder.


2001: Actor Robert Blake took his wife to dinner at his favorite restaurant, Vitello’s at 4349 Tujunga Ave., Studio City. After dinner, the wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, was shot to death while sitting in the car. Blake explained his absence by saying he returned to the restaurant to get the gun he had left there. Blake was arrested, tried on murder charges, and found not guilty.


1998: Actor Phil Hartman (“Saturday Night Live” and “NewsRadio”) was shot as he slept by his wife, Brynn, at their home at 5065 Encino Ave., in Encino. She later killed herself.


1997: Actor Brian Keith (“Family Affair” and “Hardcastle and McCormick”) committed suicide in his home at 23449 Malibu Colony Road in Malibu following long illnesses.


1997: Rapper Notorious B.I.G. -- born Christopher George Latore Wallace and also known as Biggie Smalls, attended the Soul Train Music Awards, then an afterparty at the Petersen Automotive Museum at 6060 Wilshire Blvd. After the party, he was traveling in a GMC Suburban back to his hotel, and at a stoplight, another car pulled up next to his, and the driver rolled down the window and shot at the Suburban. Wallace was 24 at his death.


1996: The granddaughter of famed novelist Ernest Hemingway, actress Margaux Hemingway, overdosed on pills at her home at 139 Fraser St. in Santa Monica.


1996: Haing S. Ngor, winner of an Academy Award for his role in “The Killing Fields” was robbed and shot to death outside his home at 945. N. Beaudry Ave.


1996: Game-show host Ray Combs (“Family Feud”), said to distraught over financial and marital problems, hanged himself in his room at Glendale Adventist Hospital at 1509 E. Wilson Terrace. He had been taken there on suicide watch after attempting to kill himself at his home.


1994: Nicole Brown Simpson, the estranged wife of football star turned actor O.J. Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed outside her Brentwood-area condominium at 875 S. Bundy St. Simpson was  charged with their murders and found not guilty in the “Trial of the Century.” The house has since been renumbered. The home where he lived at 360 N. Rockingham Ave. in Brentwood was sold and bulldozed by the new owner.


1993: Actor River Phoenix died of a drug overdose outside the nightclub The Viper Room at 8852 W. Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood. He was 23 and had already made more than a dozen movies, including “Stand by Me.”


1990: Del Shannon, a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, shot himself in the head at his home at 15519 Saddleback Road in Canyon Country.


1990: Christian Brando shot and killed Dag Drollet, who was the boyfriend of his half sister, Cheyenne, at 12900 Mulholland Drive in Hollywood Hills. Cheyenne had claimed that Drollet had abused her. Brando, the son of actor Marlon Brando, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served five years in prison. After his release, he would become involved with Bonny Lee Bakley, who later would become the victim in a notorious Los Angeles murder. Cheyenne killed herself in 1995, five years after giving birth to Drollet's son, Tuki, who now is a model for Versace. Christian Brando died of pneumonia in 2008 at age 49.


1989: Kitty and Jose Menendez were watching television when intruders burst into their home at 722 N. Elm Drive in Beverly Hills. Both were shot to death. The shooters? Their sons, Lyle and Erik, who said they had been at the movies and returned home to find the gruesome scene. Three years later, they were indicted, and in court, claimed they killed their parents to escape years of abuse. After their first trial ended in a hung jury, they were convicted after a second trial in 1996. Both are serving life sentences in California prisons.


1989: When fan Robert John Bardo knocked on the door at 120 Sweetzer Ave. in North Hollywood, Rebecca Schaeffer answered the door. Schaeffer, just 21, had starred in a sitcom (“My Sister Sam”) and had a stalker in Bardo. When Bardo thought Schaeffer had been rude to her, he left, got something to eat and returned to her home. When she again answered the door, he pulled a gun out of a bag and shot her. Her death led to anti-stalking laws in California.


1984: Marvin Gaye, the famed Motown singer, was shot to death by his father during at argument at 2101 S. Gramercy Place in Los Angeles. Gaye was best known for his hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”


1983: Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys drowned off the coast in Marina del Ray.


1982: John Belushi, who rose to fame in “Saturday Night Live” and became a star in “Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers,” died from a fatal mixture of cocaine and heroin at the Chateau Marmont, 8221 Sunset Blvd. in West Hollywood.


1982: Actress Dominique Dunne, 22, (“Poltergeist”) was murdered by her former boyfriend at 8723 Rangely Ave. in West Hollywood.


1981: William Holden, an Academy Award winner (“Stalag 17”) from Hollywood’s Golden Age, died at 535 Ocean Ave. in Santa Monica after falling, hitting his head and bleeding to death.


1980: Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten was killed by her husband at 10881 Clarkson Road in Westwood after he learned of her affair with director Peter Bogdanovich.


1977: Up-and-coming actor Freddie Prinze (“Chico and the Man”) shot himself at age 22 at 86575 Comstock Ave. in Westwood. Initially ruled a suicide, the cause of death was later changed to an accidental shooting.


1976: Sal Mineo, who had co-starred with James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” was robbed and stabbed to death outside his apartment at 8563 Holloway Drive in West Hollywood. He was 37.


1971: Peter Duel, the young star of the television series “Alias Smith & Jones,” shot himself in the head at 2552 Glen Green Terrace in the Hollywood Hills.


1970: Singer Janis Joplin died of a drug overdose at age 27 at what was then called the Landmark Hotel at 7047 Franklin Ave. in Hollywood.


1969: Actress and model Sharon Tate, expecting her first child with husband/director Roman Polanski, was killed with friends at her home at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. The bodies of Tate and another victim were found in the house, with two others discovered in the driveway. Another man was found murdered in the driveway. Charles Manson and his followers, known as the Manson Family, were convicted of the murders. The home has since been demolished; the new one built in its place has a different street number.


1968: U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, a presidential candidate, is shot and killed while leaving the Ambassador Hotel at 3400 Wilshire Blvd. His assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, now 66, is serving a life sentence at Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga.


1966: Comedian Lenny Bruce died on a drug overdose in the home at 8825 Hollywood Blvd. in West Hollywood.


1962: Marilyn Monroe was found dead in her home at 12305 Fifth Helena Drive in Brentwood. The cause of death was ruled a drug overdose, but there are some who believe she was murdered.


  • The article incorrectly states that "Kennedy’s memory resurfaced after the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) asked to turn the hotel into a public school. The Los Angeles Conservancy was outraged and pushed to preserve the hotel and make it a historical landmark. Ultimately LAUSD won." In fact, the Los Angeles Conservancy very much wanted to see a school on the site. The difference was that we wanted the district to reuse the iconic hotel building as a school rather than tear it down and build the pseudo-replica that's there now. Using the historic hotel as a school would have provided a truly unique and inspirational learning environment. But the district wasn't interested. Jessica Burns Communications Coordinator Los Angeles Conservancy

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