Gregory Peck’s Last Exit

“Aren’t there any programs here?” the middle-aged man asked his companion.

“Not for us common people,” the woman sniffed.

The venue wasn’t 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 cathedral’s crypt. The solemn event was preceded by a swirl of stardust as invited mourners from Hollywood’s A-List emerged from Our Lady’s parking structure and past a viewing public armed with snapshot cameras.

“Ooh, there’s what’s 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 cathedral’s steps. “Harrison Ford, it’s Harrison Ford! She’s young

If this evening-attired procession bore the look of a premiere or Oscar night, it also reflected the city’s 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 day’s resentments came from the fact that all morning long, media had been announcing that the service was open to the public when it wasn’t.

“We just wanted to pray for Gregory Peck’s soul,” said Margaret, a gray-haired woman in a lavender dress. “But we’re disappointed because we can’t.”

“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, she’s famous! That’s 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.

“It’s 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.

“It’s a shame,” she told Hahn. “We came all the way from Universal City and can’t get in. It’s 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.

“You’re right,” he said simply, and Margaret returned to her friend.

My reporter’s notebook eventually caught the attention of the church’s 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 Hollywood’s great liberals and a man who gave “inclusiveness” a good name. Even a barnacled conservative like Charlton Heston publicly admired Peck’s 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 Peck’s role as the principled lawyer Atticus Finch in the 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird.

I couldn’t suppress the lump in my throat when all the news readers mentioned Peck’s 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 America’s 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 we’ve 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 Monday’s service, I couldn’t 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 Mahony’s 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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