On a Saturday night in late August, hundreds of people assembled outside one of Los Angeles’ most popular cultural venues, waiting for its gates to open. Picnic bags and arm chairs hung on shoulders—The Jerk, the 1979 absurdist Steve Martin comedy about an ignoramus’ unlikely rise and spectacular fall, was to be screened—and many took surreptitious sips of craft beers. The line stretched two blocks along a strip-mall-heavy section of Santa Monica Boulevard in east Hollywood, rounding the corner of Gower Street for another few blocks. The questions pinging through the air were like those furtively asked outside a chic nightclub: “Do you think we’ll get in?” “Have you done this before?”
This wasn’t a revival theater or a movie night at the Hollywood Bowl. Rather, it was a typical Saturday night during the summer season at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which in the last decade has become as well known for its menagerie of eclectic events as for the many early film stars buried there—including director Ernst Laemmle, composer Franz Waxman, Yiddish playwright Peretz Hirschbein, and mobster Bugsy Siegel. That Saturday, the gates opened a few minutes after 6 p.m., and the masses poured in, streaming across the cemetery’s broad lawns. Picnic bags were opened, wine bottles uncorked, tea candles lit. The skunky bouquet of marijuana materialized, overwhelming the grounds’ natural jasmine aroma. By 7:30, about a thousand people had assembled, and a young Steve Martin emerged, projected 30-feet tall on a mausoleum’s whitewashed wall.
While a hit with partygoers, Hollywood Forever’s insouciant attitude toward matters of life and death elides its complicated past. Journalists have also been guilty of submitting to the charms of the place and its management. Most stories about the cemetery have focused on the success of its current owner—Tyler Cassity, a handsome 40-year-old from a wealthy Missouri family of cemeterians—and ignored the cemetery’s vibrant Jewish history, including the tale of Jules Roth, an ex-con who for much of the 20th century owned and ran it as a private fiefdom, milking it for money and terrorizing his employees. In a 2000 HBO documentary, The Young and the Dead, Cassity adopted a tone of almost philosophical whimsy when speaking of Roth, a bust of whom sits in the young entrepreneur’s office. “We’re still affected by his actions,” Cassity said. Now that several of Cassity’s business associates and family members—including his brother, his early partner at Hollywood Forever—have been indicted in a wide-ranging $600 million federal fraud case in Missouri, his statement seems less a nostalgic bromide than a literal statement of fact—and a warning of trouble to come.
Over the summer, I took a daytime tour of Hollywood Forever with a group from a West Los Angeles synagogue. Our guide was Karie Bible, a pale, bird-boned woman in a long-sleeved black dress. In one hand she carried a black parasol, in the other a book of photographs of famous cemetery residents that she employed as a visual aid. A collector of vintage clothing, Bible is, in the Hollywood tradition, a woman of many hats: She co-wrote a book, Location Filming in Los Angeles; she edits filmradar.com, a site covering “revival, repertory, and special film events and the venues which house them”; and works for a box-office recording company. She has been Hollywood Forever’s de facto in-house tour guide for nine years; offerings include a Jewish Tour and a Hidden Hollywood Tour.
Bible led us to what she calls a cemetery within the cemetery, the Jewish section known as Beth Olam. (Half of Hollywood Forever’s customers are Jewish.) While in other parts of Hollywood Forever memorials come in peculiar forms, such as a cenotaph of Johnny Ramone performing a power slide or voice actor Mel Blanc’s tombstone, which reads “That’s All Folks,” here the headstones are austere, massed so closely together that they nearly appear to be stacked on top of one another. Under Roth, the grass in this area had been allowed to grow wild.
In a shaded corner near the outer wall of the Beth Olam Mausoleum, Cassity built a fountain serving as a Holocaust memorial. To the right is a small tribute to Anne Frank. Mounted above a carved wooden bench, a bronze plaque carries an inscription from her diary: “This is a photo of me as I wish I still was. If so, I would still have a chance to come to Hollywood.” It’s an unexpected touch of schmaltz but consistent with the cemetery’s Old Hollywood mythos.
Born on July 23, 1900, Jules A. Hine Frederick Roth was a natural swindler. In his early twenties, Jack, as he was known, fell in with C.C. Julian, a silver-tongued con artist taking advantage of the tremendous oil boom occurring in Southern California. (Julian’s story is well chronicled in Jules Tygiel’s book The Great Los Angeles Oil Swindle.) Julian managed to attract thousands of investors, allowing him to set up a profusion of oil derricks and gas stations across the region. Roth was the vice president of Julian Petroleum and his boss’s right-hand man, according to Tygiel. The two spent lavishly, drank heavily, dated actresses, and became prominent members of the city’s social circuit.
But soon the Julian Petroleum Company began to unravel. The ledgers were a mess, the stock watered down. Roth’s and Julian’s reputations became increasingly checkered; raucous incidents like a fistfight with Charlie Chaplin probably didn’t help. (Chaplin decked a belligerent Julian.) On the night of Jan. 3, 1924, as Roth visited Julian at his home, someone fired three shots through a window, nearly hitting Julian. In April 1925, under federal investigation, Julian sold his shares in his company to the businessman Sheridan C. Lewis, under whom the shady investment operation only grew, roping in a wide swath of the city’s Jewish financial elite.
When Julian Petroleum finally imploded in 1927, the $150-million scam was widely regarded as a sign of the perfidy and greed of the country’s big businessmen. (Historians like Tygiel now regard it as an important precursor to the creation of the Securities and Exchange Commission.) A number of men went to jail, but mostly for crimes unrelated to the investment scheme. Motley Flint, a five-time-indicted lawyer who had helped to bring in Louis B. Mayer as a Julian investor, was testifying in a separate trial when Frank Keaton, who lost $35,000 to the scheme, shot him.
Both Jack Roth and C.C. Julian ran from the authorities. Facing a mail-fraud charge, Julian made it to Shanghai, where, after burning through his remaining funds in a wild spending binge, he committed suicide in 1934. Roth, wanted on 39 counts, including grand theft and securities violations, fled to Canada in 1932, using the name J. Chase. He was arrested in Winnipeg, but after a court hearing, he snuck through a door reserved for jurors and disappeared. He was later found in New York, where he was arrested again and extradited to Los Angeles. After a one-month trial, he was convicted on 21 counts and sentenced to nine to 95 years at San Quentin.
Roth didn’t spend long in prison, winning parole in 1937. In 1939, he bought what was then called Hollywood Memorial Park Cemetery, where his parents had been buried in 1917 and 1923. Founded in 1899 on 100 acres, the cemetery had sold off large tracts to Paramount Studios, which still stands to the cemetery’s south, its iconic water tower looming in the night like some kind of alien landing craft. (Facing financial problems in the late 1960s, Paramount almost sold its lot back to the cemetery.)
Despite the cemetery’s desirable location and the large roster of prominent early movie stars interred there—among them Janet Gaynor, Rudolph Valentino, Peter Lorre, Cecil B. DeMille, Fay Wray—Roth paid only intermittent attention to its upkeep. Instead, he siphoned money from its operations to pay for luxuries. He closed its grounds to most racial minorities. (Roth forbade Gone With The Wind star Hattie McDaniel from being buried there; a memorial was later added for her under Tyler Cassity’s ownership.) In the 1950s, echoing the anti-communist fervor of the times, Roth ordered an employee—he named the informant “Operative 16”—to submit daily secret reports on the cemetery’s other employees. He installed a wet bar in his office. He collected pornographic postcards from around the world. He bought a yacht that he argued was for scattering clients’ ashes and claimed it as a tax deduction. Instead, he mostly used the boat to entertain himself and various women.
The cemetery fell into disrepair, headstones and crypts crumbling, the grounds untended as questions grew about where the cemetery’s endowment funds went. In one year, Hollywood Memorial made more money disinterring bodies than interring them—relatives wanted their loved ones moved to better-kept environs. Finally, one of Roth’s employees reported his yacht scam to the IRS. To settle the resultant tax bills, Roth was forced to sell off some of the cemetery’s buildings along Santa Monica Boulevard; the imposing stone edifices became home to an auto-parts store and a laundromat.
By 1997, Roth, as old as the century and nearly as the old as the cemetery itself, was bankrupt. He died on Jan. 4, 1998. No obituary appeared in the Los Angeles Times. His body was dumped in an unmarked grave on a rainy night, later to be moved to a (marked) crypt near his parents. After his death, employees found stacks of urns in a closet in his office—ashes that were supposed to have been dumped into the Pacific from his yacht.
Tyler and Brent Cassity bought the cemetery that year, renamed it Hollywood Forever, and invested millions in revitalizing the grounds, offering events and tours to draw visitors and creating innovative products like LifeStories, documentary-style videos memorializing the departed. The cemetery’s turnaround has been tremendous; it’s become a must-see for the hip and the weird, the death-obsessed and students of L.A.’s history. Los Angeles magazine named it one of the city’s 101 sexiest places, and in The Young and the Dead, a cemetery employee practically brags about the carnal possibilities of the place’s many hidden nooks.
Under the shadow of Jules Roth, the Cassity family may be writing its own chapter in the cemetery’s criminal history. In November 2010, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in St. Louis named Tyler Cassity’s brother Brent, their father, Doug, and several business partners from their company National Prearranged Services in a 50-count indictment that alleged widespread fraud amounting to $600 million in disappeared funds. Until its collapse in 2008, NPS had been a big player in the pre-need funeral business, in which companies sell funeral plots to the living, often years before they might need them. Customers are promised lower rates, while funeral homes can invest the money, boosting their profits. But the industry is largely unregulated and filled with unscrupulous operators, Joshua Slocum, the executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, told me. “NPS always had a reputation for being very aggressive,” Slocum said, adding that their sales tactics were “particularly disgusting.”
The funeral business has long been notoriously corrupt, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that the Cassitys’ alleged behavior echoes that of Jules Roth. The government charges that Doug Cassity illegally removed money from pre-need funeral trusts and used it to purchase real estate and a 36-foot boat, among other luxuries.
Tyler Cassity hasn’t been charged in the case, but his original partner in Hollywood Forever, his brother Brent, has. It’s difficult to untangle Brent Cassity’s actual relationship with Hollywood Forever. In 2000, he sold his interest in Forever Enterprises, which he cofounded with Tyler, for $12 million to a company whose majority shareholder was a family-owned trust. A 2004 Fortune article named Brent as CEO of Forever Enterprises and Tyler as the company’s president. Forever Enterprises, which owns Hollywood Forever, belongs to the Cassity family’s RBT trust.
Theodore Hovey, a family counselor at Hollywood Forever, told me that when he started at the cemetery nine years ago, Brent no longer worked there and he doesn’t work there now. But as late as 2006, an article in St. Louis magazine described him as a co-owner of the cemetery, as well as being involved in the operations of Tyler Cassity’s Fernwood cemetery in northern California’s Marin County. His LinkedIn account lists him as president of ForeverNetwork, the web of cemeteries that includes Hollywood Forever.
Hovey said that Tyler Cassity owns Hollywood Forever but sometime in the last decade other owners joined the business. When I asked who else could be counted as an owner, he said, “Gosh, I wonder if I’m supposed to tell.” He then backpedaled, saying, “I’m not privy to that information really.”
On Saturday, E.T. will be shown at the cemetery. It’s the last show of the season. By the time screenings resume in May, the most consequential act of theater in the life of Hollywood Forever may be under way in a St. Louis courtroom, where the trial of Doug and Brent Cassity is likely to begin next year.
Jacob Silverman is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and book critic. He is also a contributing editor for the Virginia Quarterly Review.