Dying to Know

Morbid Curiosity arrived in the office bound with gray electrical tape. There's no author or editor information and only the sketchiest publisher information available. Someone was clearly a dumbass. Inside, it was just a bunch of photocopied death certificates. I casually started reading the death circumstances of Hedda Hopper: born June 2, 1890; died Feb. 1, 1966, at 10:30 a.m. at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles. I started imagining 1890. Then 1966. Then I realized I've driven by the now Cedars Sinai Hospital on Fountain Ave. in LA about a hundred times. Hedda Hopper died there. Hmphf, funny. In my own back yard. Cause of death: "acute pulmonary edema, 2 days; arterioscluotic heart disease, 5 months." She finally succumbed to "bilateral bronchopneumonia." I saw her in the hospital bed. I saw her fluidy lungs. Autopsy? Yes. Cremated by Chapel of the Pines. I saw ashes, a gloomy day, flowers and a small group of mourners in black.

Then I realized I had just read the most technical information about someone I did not know, yet an intimacy was forged. It was a little creepy, but there was no doubt I had just walked the perimeter of Hedda Hopper's last days on Earth. And while I'd never given much thought to Hopper, I found her common death comforting. Her occupation? Listed as "actress & columnist." A plain statement for someone who, when living, was a wicked wordsmith with the power to break mega-stars. In death, she was just another person who'd had a job. Another hospital bed. Another jar of ashes. I liked her after all.

I flipped randomly to another certificate: Peter Lorre. Birthplace: Hungary. Name of birth mother: Unknown. Name of last employer: Jerry Lewis Productions. Age at death: 59. Married. Occupation of spouse: housewife. Cremation by Pierce Bros., Hollywood, at Hollywood Crematory, March 25, 1964. Cause of death: cardiovascular thrombosis, 1 day; hypertension, 7 years.

The Archbishop Cantwell. Full name: John Joseph Cantwell. Born: Dec. 1, 1874. Died Oct. 30, 1947, from arteriolesclerotic hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Single. Social Security number: none. Entombed at Calvary Mausoleum, 850 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles.

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I couldn't stop. Every certificate I flipped to had something that made me pause. Fanny Brice had a cerebral hemorrhage for six days. Carol Landis died of "ingestion of overdose of Seconal." Suicide at age 29. Gabby Hayes: mother, unknown. Mack Sennett: father, unknown. Humphrey Bogart. Father: Belmont DeForest Bogart; Mother: Maud Humphrey. Spouse: Betty Bacall Bogart. World War I veteran. Born: Dec. 25, 1897. Died: Jan. 14, 1957, of generalized carcinatosis, 3 months; carcinoma of esophagus, 13 years.

A half-hour passed quickly, and I knew more detailed information on some of the most famous people in the world than most famous people in the world know. What would I do with it? Was it polite dinner conversation to relay to a room over my osso buco that actress Ann Sheridan died of "adino carcinoma, gastro-eschlogeol with massive liver metastasis"? Would anyone care? Did I care? Perhaps "care" isn't quite the word. Nor is "fascinated." But curious, yes, and morbid, certainly. Maybe even in need of a life. But what does it matter? Eventually, I'll just be a slip of paper in a governmental ledger. But I might be next to Madonna. Or at least an Olsen twin.

Morbid Curiousity contains documents that are in the public domain. However, if you don't feel like chasing down death yourself, simply send an inquiry regarding copies of the book to Certificate Copies, P.O. Box 1127, Dept. BC, Westminster, CA 92684.

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