The Douglas Fairbanks Memorial
DOUGLAS ELTON FAIRBANKS, SR.
May 23, 1883 — December 12, 1939
By Allan R. Ellenberger
When actor Douglas Fairbanks died of a heart attack at his Santa Monica home on December 12, 1939, the world mourned with all of Hollywood. Following funeral services in the Wee Kirk o’ the Heather at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Fairbanks’ casket was placed in a crypt next to Will Rogers, who, at the time, still awaited entombment in Claremore, Oklahoma.
The final resting place of Douglas Fairbanks at Hollywood Forever Cemetery is a stately marble sarcophagus estimated at the time to have cost $40,000. Add to that the cost of perpetual care and other expenses incidental to the building of the sarcophagus would bring the ultimate expenditure to about $50,000. At the time, it was one of the most costly of its kind in Southern California.
The crypt is set in front of four tall pillars of white Georgia marble, behind which is a panel that is inscribed: “Douglas Fairbanks, 1883-1939.” A bas relief bronze profile of the actor is positioned over the inscription.
In front of the sarcophagus is a long, narrow reflection pool, which, at the time, was lined with hedge trees.
The dedication ceremonies at Hollywood Cemetery were scheduled for May 25, 1941 – two days after the actor’s 58th birthday. Fairbanks’ close friend, actor Charlie Chaplin was selected to deliver the eulogy. Doug, Jr., who was touring South America at the time, could not return in time for the service. The simple ceremony was attended by 1,500 persons, including many of Fairbanks’ friends.
Fairbanks’ widow, the former Lady Sylvia Ashley, adorned in a white dress and veil, arrived at the ceremony with Chaplin, Robert Fairbanks (Douglas’ brother), Mrs. Fred Astaire and her sister, Mrs. Basil Bleck. Mrs. Fairbanks sat with the group in the first row of seats nearest the sarcophagus. Behind her were Norma Shearer and Kay Francis.
After the opening prayers by the Rev. Neal Dodd, pastor of St. Mary’s of the Angeles Episcopal Church, the widow placed her bouquet in the as yet unsealed end of the marble sarcophagus. Then, with trembling hands, she drew the cord unveiling the inscription and bas relief bust of her husband.
Chaplin’s eulogy was brief.
“We are gathered here to pay tribute to the one who might well be termed a great man. To name him thus would have brought incredulous laughter to his lips. That he was even a great artist he would have been the first to deny. Yet this modesty was but another facet of his greatness, and there were many facets.
His was a happy life. His rewards were great, his joys many. Now he pillows his head upon his arms, sighs deeply – and sleeps.
To the youth of a decade ago he was the epitome of knightly courage and romance… And as he worshiped heroes, so too did he worship those qualities a hero should possess.”
Relating Fairbanks’ versatility, Chaplin praised him most as the “eternal boy” – always fresh in viewpoint and interested in what each day would bring. Chaplin concluded with the inscription from Hamlet chiseled on the marble sarcophagus:
“Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
As he spoke, Fairbanks’ widow wept as she sat on the marble bench behind the sarcophagus.
Following Chaplin’s eulogy, Rev. Dodd read the memorial rites as Fairbanks copper casket was placed in the sarcophagus and the end was sealed.
In the section reserved for friends and family were the actors nieces: Shirley Burden, Mrs. Henri Chappellet, Mrs. Owen Crump and Leticia Fairbanks.
Other celebrities at the ceremony included Fred Astaire, Joseph Schenck, Randolph Scott, Bull Montana, Ruth Rennick, Richard Barthelmess, Daryl Zanuck and many more friends of Fairbanks.
Following the ceremony the crowd was permitted to file past the marble-columned memorial which faced a tree-lined reflection pool.
Fifty-nine years later, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. was laid to rest along with his father in the sarcophagus.
This photo was taken in the mid 1990s before the Cassity family bought the cemetery and it was in bankruptcy. El Nino ravaged Southern California that year, including the Fairbanks Memorial.
TRIVIA: For years there was a rectangular opening approximately one inch wide on the east side of the sarcophagus in which you could look in and see the top of Fairbanks copper casket. Over the years people tossed coins on top of the casket that remained there until Doug Jr. was interred with his father. Today that opening is still there.