Gone but not forgotten
How star Ann Sheridan's cremated remains were rescued from storage and laid to rest 38 years after her death
When Karen McHale began research on a biography of Ann Sheridan last fall, she quickly found herself in the unusual position of literally writing the last chapter of the actress' life story before typing one word of the manuscript.
Thirty-eight years after the classic film star's death, McHale helped bring about the inurnment Sheridan had requested but that had been forgotten.
McHale, who is also a Hollywood cemetery history buff, knew that Sheridan's cremated remains had been kept at Los Angeles' oldest crematorium, Pierce Brothers Chapel of the Pines, since her 1967 death from esophageal cancer at age 51.
What she wasn't aware of until she obtained a copy of Sheridan's last will and testament was that the screen beauty had never intended to spend eternity in a private drawer.
According to the public document, which was probated in Los Angeles under her married name, Clara Lou McKay, the Texas native stated that she wanted her executor to place her cremated remains in a niche at a Los Angeles columbarium of his choice.
"As her biographer, I needed to find out why Ann's cremains were left in storage against her wishes, but I also felt an equal responsibility toward her as a human being to correct the situation if I could," said McHale, a first-time author who lives in Whittier, California.
McHale's sense of duty resulted in several months of legwork that led to Sheridan being laid to rest in proper fashion at Hollywood Forever Cemetery's Chapel Columbarium during a celebratory memorial service on the day that would have been her 90th birthday, February 21, 2005.
Step 1: Locate a survivor
First, McHale first needed to locate a Sheridan survivor, no small task considering she had already established that Sheridan's husband, actor Scott McKay, died in 1987; she never had children; and her immediate family, including five siblings, were also all deceased.
McHale got the break she needed after following leads on a genealogy Web site. In short order she was in contact with the Rev. Sallie Watson of Beaumont, Texas, whose late mother was Sheridan's first cousin.
Watson was surprised and delighted to learn of McHale's book proposal, as well as her interest in the unresolved state of her famous relative's cremated remains.
The Presbyterian minister explained to McHale that somewhere along the line Sheridan had become estranged from her family for reasons unknown to the current generation. Watson was only 10 when Sheridan died and never had the opportunity to know cousin Clara Lou ("Loudie," she was called), but agreed with McHale that claiming her cremated remains and interring them as directed in the will was the right thing to do.
Step 2: Find a columbarium
By comparison with finding a relative, locating an appropriate columbarium niche was "a no-brainer," according to McHale. Now acting as an authorized family representative, she brought Sheridan's case to Tyler Cassity, owner and president of Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.
The historic 60-acre site is not only the burial place of hundreds of movie industry workers, including notables such as Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Jr. and Cecil B. DeMille, it's also located next door to Paramount Studios in Hollywood, where Sheridan began her film career in 1933.
"We're deeply honored that Ann Sheridan's family chose our cemetery as her final resting place," said Cassity, who knows a lot about rescuing human remains from obscurity. He saved the former Hollywood Memorial Cemetery when it was in danger of permanent closure by purchasing it for $375,000 at a bankruptcy court auction in 1998.
Since then, his family's company has restored the once-neglected property, revitalized it with added mausoleum space and started offering families video biography memorial production services.
Meanwhile, McHale discovered that Sheridan's executor, her business manager Bart Hackly, lived near Los Angeles. She spoke with him by phone and he recalled that Sheridan's husband (her third, to whom she was married less than a year) handled all the mortuary details, and he chose not to interfere.
Once Sheridan's debts were settled, there wasn't a lot of money left over, Hackly said, so he didn't pursue the matter of interment. In retrospect, he expressed regret for not having done so and gave McHale his blessing for the relocation.
Step 3: Handle the paperwork
Verbal permission from Sheridan's family and estate executor notwithstanding, a three-step county and cemetery documentation process also was required:
First, McHale, again serving as family representative, signed a Los Angeles County Department of Health application for disposition of human remains that authorized a permit for the disinterment and removal of Sheridan's cremated remains from Chapel of the Pines.
Next, a Chapel of the Pines form was signed by both Watson and her aunt, Sheridan's last remaining first cousin, notarized and returned along with a certified copy of McKay's death certificate. These documents served to legally verify the two women as Sheridan's closet living survivors and to grant Chapel of the Pines permission to release her cremated remains to Hollywood Forever.
Third, McHale signed a Los Angeles County burial permit and a Hollywood Forever interment order that authorized placement of Sheridan's remains in a specific niche.
"It was a very uncomplicated process that was made all the more efficient by the friendly and cooperative efforts of the staff at Chapel of the Pines," McHale said.
With the paperwork in order, McHale accompanied Hollywood Forever's celebrity funeral care liaison Michael Roman, who had been assigned to the case he calls "a labor of love," on a weekday afternoon drive to nearby Chapel of the Pines. There she witnessed the simple copper box holding Sheridan's cremated remains changing hands, an experience she described as being "unceremonious yet historically and emotionally momentous for everyone involved."
Step 4: Create a personalized niche
Once the remains were secured in a vault on Hollywood Forever premises, McHale put on her "niche stylist" hat to spearhead the design of Sheridan's new memorial.
With Roman's assistance, she had already chosen a 35-by-30-by-12-inch glass-fronted, brass-toned metal niche specifically for its location on the airy, windowed second floor of the cemetery's Chapel Columbarium. She had learned that Sheridan was claustrophobic. "I couldn't bear to think of her in a dark enclosure knowing that she hated that when she was alive," said McHale.
McHale's friend Mike Steen, "Funeral Director to the Stars" and author of "Celebrity Death Certificates" of Woodlawn Cemetery in Santa Monica, California, donated an elegant l0-inch white marble urn featuring deep green and caramel brown art deco inlays finely outlined in brass.
Drawing inspiration from the urn colors and Sheridan's earthy femininity, McHale found coordinating brass-toned and green satins and a shimmering copper-colored sheer for the overall backdrop, deftly styled by a cemetery employee who has a background in movie set decorating.
Her father, a woodworking hobbyist, custom cut boards to fit the back wall and used them to anchor the fabrics and support a hanging framed portrait.
Opting to decorate the niche in a less-is-more fashion that would still represent Sheridan's life and 35-year career, McHale found it a challenge to select a single headshot for the back wall—there were dozens of possibilities to choose from. "Ann was extremely photogenic, and from what I've seen she never took a bad picture," McHale said.
McHale decided on a 1939 portrait by famed Hollywood photographer George Hurrell because it matched the niche's overall theme and encapsulated Sheridan's smoldering sensuality. Hurrell's former student and Hollywood historian Mark Vieira donated the print, which he struck from the original negative using Hurrell's darkroom techniques.
Sheridan was one of the first movie stars to appear on the cover of Life magazine. Roman, a knowledgeable classic film enthusiast, tracked down an original copy that he framed to match the Hurrell portrait. It was placed on the shelf to the right of the urn.
To the left is a smaller candid pose, from McHale's research collection, which she put in a pearled frame. It shows Sheridan standing with Air Force personnel in front a World War II fighter plane that bears her face and name on the nose art in tribute to her tireless patriotic volunteer efforts cheering the troops and selling war bonds.
By far the most personal items in the display are Sheridan's wedding band, inscribed "Ann Scott 66," and a pair of gold hoop earrings. Both were discovered in an envelope inside the original storage box when her cremated remains were transferred to the urn, indicating that most likely she was wearing them when she died.
"Michael called me as soon as they found the jewelry, which is not expensive but highly sentimental. It was an overwhelmingly exciting moment for us both, because until that point we were concerned about not having anything that had belonged to Ann to leave with her inside the niche," McHale said.
The display was completed with an engraved plaque placed in front of the urn which reads "Clara Lou Sheridan McKay Ann Sheridan - February 21, 1915 January 21, 1967 - Star of Stage and Screen."
Step 5: Hold a memorial service
Atypical stormy weather on the day of the memorial did not keep the Sheridan faithful away from the service orchestrated by McHale and Roman. Approximately 100 family, friends and fans gathered in the chapel amid torrential rains, thunder, lightning and a few moments of hail.
Referring to Sheridan's fondness for pulling pranks, Hollywood's Honorary Mayor Johnny Grant quipped during the ceremony that he had no doubt his friend was "right now looking down from heaven and smiling because she's got her hand on the water faucet."
Roman hosted the service on behalf of Cassity, who was out of town on business. He noted that it had been only four months earlier that he had begun working with an enthusiastic McHale on "springing Ann Sheridan from storage," and that she could now be crossed off the list of silent and Golden Age film actors whose remains are unclaimed.
On a personal note, he expressed his belief that the entire process, one of the most non-problematic and joyful in his experience, was due in large part to the presence of Sheridan's spirit, an energy that undoubtedly had been the source of her reputation for being easy to work with in life.
The Rev. Watson, who flew in from Texas with four friends, spoke on behalf of the family and gave the opening and closing prayers. She thanked Cassity and the Hollywood Forever staff for their sensitivity and their hospitality in providing her cousin a "beautiful resting place," and to McHale for her hard work, good humor and sleuthing skills.
Watson told the gathering that despite past family differences that she does not understand, "being here today we have come full circle," and added, ''To paraphrase a saying we have in Texas, Ann may not have been originally buried here but she got here as fast as she could."
Grant, a longtime friend of Sheridan's, regaled the attendees with humorous stories from their halcyon days. He said that back then it was not politically incorrect to define Sheridan as "the greatest broad I ever knew," and that she loved being known as "a gorgeous babe and one of the guys."
Sheridan's language could be colorful, Grand said. "More than once she told me where to go and made it sound eloquent." But more important, he remembered the kindness and generosity she showed him and everyone she met, especially her fans.
In line with the cemetery's offering of video memorials to their clients, Hollywood Forever's celebrity biographer, Annette Lloyd, introduced the tribute she produced around Sheridan singing the song ''Love is Born, Not Made" from the film ''Thank Your Lucky Stars." It also included various photos, magazine covers, print ads and other movie clips. After its premiere at the service, the video was uploaded to Sheridan's archive on the cemetery's interactive "Library of Lives" Web site at www.ForeverNetwork.com.
Following the video, veteran Paramount producer A.C. Lyles spoke of Sheridan's early days at his studio as a contract player after she won its "Search For Beauty" talent contest at age 18 and her subsequent rise to stardom with Warner Bros.
He echoed Grant's recollections of her, saying, "She could take a four-letter word and make it sound like a phrase from a church hymnal."
The four words he used to describe her that he believed she would agree with were sassy, saucy, sexy and sensuous, he said, adding, "she could be your best friend,"
Actress Carole Wells, who portrayed Sheridan's daughter on the CBS primetime series "Pistols 'N' Petticoats," the project she worked on until three days before her death, came from New York to speak about Sheridan's positive spirit and her courage in the face of death.
"I saw the suffering in her eyes, but she never complained," said Wells, who also said that knowing Sheridan changed her life for the better.
Quoting an anonymous poet who wrote that one never dies as long as one's memory is not forgotten, Wells expressed gratitude that now Sheridan would not be forgotten, thanks to her new permanent resting place.
Before Watson's dosing prayer, McHale read a letter from Vincent Sherman, unable to attend due to health concerns. He directed Sheridan in the films "Nora Prentiss" and "The Unfaithful," and paid tribute to her as a talented actress and fun-loving woman, writing, "I can hear her hearty laugh as I write these lines."
Following the ceremony, guests were invited up to the second floor columbarium above the chapel to see Sheridan's new niche and pay respects that were long overdue.
Because the event was also a birthday celebration, the viewing was followed by a coffee and cake reception in the chapel foyer.
With Sheridan now interred as she had originally requested, McHale has turned her attention back to researching the movie star's short but very full life.
"The past few months have been a uniquely rewarding and educational experience that has helped to make me a better biographer than I would have become otherwise. But more important, Annie's story is finally complete," McHale said.