Gregory Pecks Last Exit
Arent there any programs here? the middle-aged man asked his companion.
Not for us common people, the woman sniffed.
The venue wasnt a theater or concert hall, but Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, and the occasion, Monday, was the memorial service for Gregory Peck, who had earlier been interred downstairs in the cathedrals crypt. The solemn event was preceded by a swirl of stardust as invited mourners from Hollywoods A-List emerged from Our Ladys parking structure and past a viewing public armed with snapshot cameras.
Ooh, theres whats his name, a woman standing at the mouth of the sepulchral garage said as a stern-faced man escorted Calista Flockhart across the courtyard and up the cathedrals steps. Harrison Ford, its Harrison Ford! Shes young.
If this evening-attired procession bore the look of a premiere or Oscar night, it also reflected the citys velvet-roped demarcation between common people and the heavenly bodies they gaze upon but are not allowed to touch; inside the cathedral, a tall blond wearing a black, midriff-baring halter top and capri pants tried to sashay through one of the celebrity side entrances leading to the nave, but was rebuffed by an usher who showed a firmness worthy of the Sky Bar.
Part of the days resentments came from the fact that all morning long, media had been announcing that the service was open to the public when it wasnt.
We just wanted to pray for Gregory Pecks soul, said Margaret, a gray-haired woman in a lavender dress. But were disappointed because we cant.
I wanted to see the cathedral, her friend Maureen, a brightly tinted redhead, told me in her Dublin brogue before being distracted by a new arrival. So we took a ride on this stupid Metro Line Cardinal Mahony should have pleaded for the public. Oh, shes famous! Thats the one who played a policewoman, she was married to Larry King Angie Dickinson!
Margaret spotted a tall authority figure who looked like he might listen to their complaints as he stood, momentarily alone, at the bottom of the steps.
Its Mayor Hahn, she said.
Go over and talk to him, Maureen urged. I would, if I had the cheek.
In moments Margaret was standing in front of a row of red-coated ushers, confronting the mayor.
Its a shame, she told Hahn. We came all the way from Universal City and cant get in. Its the fans who make the stars we were all admirers of Gregory Peck.
Hahn stood like a statue and took the heat, half staring away, half keeping an eye on Margaret.
Youre right, he said simply, and Margaret returned to her friend.
My reporters notebook eventually caught the attention of the churchs security detail, and I was led to what my husky escort called the property line the eternal separation of church and state otherwise known as the sidewalk.
Eventually everyone was allowed inside for the service. None of this had anything to do with Gregory Peck, of course, who was one of Hollywoods great liberals and a man who gave inclusiveness a good name. Even a barnacled conservative like Charlton Heston publicly admired Pecks integrity and the selflessness of his beliefs. And, for a few days last week, big media momentarily paused from their pillorying of Hollywood peace activists to recall Pecks role as the principled lawyer Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.
I couldnt suppress the lump in my throat when all the news readers mentioned Pecks enthusiasm for causes, remembering not only that time when it seemed that every week someone was being killed in Mississippi or Alabama, but also when Hollywood activists were not ridiculed by Americas sneering class. The new pack reflex to tear into the Garofalos, Sarandons and Robbinses for expressing political beliefs was vividly on display during the run-up to our invasion of Iraq and during the war itself. What makes an actor or comedian an expert on foreign policy? Like so much of the contemporary American conversation, the pundits query was a rhetorical question an invitation for smirks, boycotts and hate mail. No one, of course, blinks if an athlete or movie star is paid to endorse a pill, sneaker or car.
How far weve come from a time when Gregory Peck could force his countrymen to face an issue like racism by speaking out or making a film. At the end of Mondays service, I couldnt help but wonder if Peck had gone to, if not a better place, then perhaps a saner one. And, when the theme from To Kill a Mockingbird accompanied Cardinal Mahonys departure, many mourners unceremoniously applauded not from show-biz habit, but out of respect for what the music, like the man, stood for.
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