The Stories Behind the Stones

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

After your tour of the virtual cemetery, don't forget to visit the official store (or the brand new downtown location) on your way out and pick up a souvenir or two. Thanks!

Jack McDermott
(Sept. 9, 1893 – July 21, 1946)

Jan. 18, 2015 -- Even by Hollywood standards, Jack McDermott was a unique and eccentric character. He was an actor, director, writer and producer on dozens of silent films, then gave that all up when he decided that he wanted to be a playwright.

After a few relatively unsuccessful attempts, McDermott withdrew to the home he built in the Hollywood Hills, a massive structure cobbled together from an odd assortment of old movie sets, furniture and props.

McDermott spent much of his time traveling the world, and was known for hosting parties at his home, and around his unique and lavish swimming pool. After McDermott's death in 1946, his home was abandoned, and eventually torn down. But his pool remained, and it became much more famous and well-known than McDermott.

John William McDermott Jr., the oldest of four children of John and Emma McDermott, was born Sept. 9, 1893, in Green River, Wyoming, where his father, an Irish immigrant, and his mother, who was born in Canada, ran a hotel. When the family moved to Los Angeles, McDermott started working in the relatively new motion picture industry -– first as an actor, then as a director and producer, and finally as a writer.

McDermott made his screen debut in 1913 in "A Coupon Courtship," a comedy short produced by the Kalem Company, starring Ruth Roland. For the next several years, McDermott appeared in supporting roles in more than 30 films, mostly short comedies produced by the Kalem Company.

While appearing onscreen for Kalem, McDermott -– credited variously as John, Jack or J.W. McDermott -– also wrote and directed dozens of short films for Famous Players-Lasky, Universal, and several smaller studios, including "The Folly of Fanchette" (1917), "Patsy" (1921), "The Sky Pilot" (1921), "Mary of the Movies" (1923), "The Love Thief" (1926) and "She's a Sheik" (1927). McDermott worked with future stars William Powell, Wallace Reid, Dorothy Gish, Bebe Daniels, Adolph Menjou, Louise Brooks, ZaSu Pitts, Richard Arlen, Erich von Stroheim and Colleen Moore, and directors Tod Browning and King Vidor. In the late 1920s, McDermott decided to give up acting and directing, and focus primarily on writing.

McDermott's younger brother, Edward, followed him into the movie business, and worked as an editor on films including "Cleopatra" (1917), starring Theda Bara; "Daddy Long-Legs" (1919), "The Hoodlum" (1919) and "Through the Back Door" (1921), all starring Mary Pickford; "Daughters of Pleasure" (1924), starring Clara Bow and Marie Prevost; "Night Nurse" (1931), starring Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Blondell and Clark Gable; and "The Public Enemy" (1931), starring James Cagney and Jean Harlow. The L.A. Times described Edward as "one of the best film editors in Hollywood." Compared to his brother, Edward was working at the big studios, on bigger pictures, and with bigger stars.

In 1920, John McDermott was living in a large rooming house on South Hill Street near Pico Boulevard, with about 25 other boarders, including several other studio employees. One of his fellow boarders and best friends was Norman Z. McLeod, who became a successful director of comedies in the 1930s and 1940s. McDermott decided that he should have his own place, so he found a remote piece of property high up in the Hollywood Hills, on Vale Vista Trail, off Mulholland Highway, which he purchased in 1921.

McDermott started work on his house in 1923. But, since this was Hollywood, instead of using traditional building materials and construction methods, McDermott built his house using an assortment of sets, furniture and props he bought or took from discarded remnants from the various film studios where he worked.

McDermott started with six full rooms he took from the set of "The Song of Love," which starred Norma Talmadge. He took the sets apart, used donkeys to haul the pieces up the hill, and reassembled them. McDermott's house, a jumble of different architectural styles, became a virtual museum with pieces from many of the classic silent films of Hollywood, including girders from "The Thief of Baghdad," which starred Douglas Fairbanks; roofing from Lon Chaney's "The Phantom of the Opera"; a fence from "The Eagle," which starred Rudolph Valentino; three small cannons from "The Sea Hawk," with Wallace Beery; a large table from "Robin Hood," also starring Fairbanks; a goddess statue from Alla Nazimova's "Salome"; and even an assortment of tombstones from the Chaney version of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," which McDermott used as part of a stone wall.

The inside of the house was just as unique and eclectic -– visitors to the house entered through a tunnel and a shaft leading up to the center of the living room, and pushed aside a manhole cover to enter. The living room chandelier was an inverted baptismal font, stolen by McDermott from a church during renovations. There was a photograph of McDermott's girlfriend on the living room wall, with a frame made from a toilet seat. In the bathroom, the handle to flush the toilet also set off a blaring fire alarm. On the outside, the house featured a golden mosque-like dome, surrounded by gold-tipped minarets, and the cannons from "The Sea Hawk" were on the roof.

McDermott called the property his "crazy house." Neighbors referred to it simply as "the castle." The Associated Press bureau chief in Los Angeles called it "the craziest house I ever visited in Hollywood." The house featured underground passages, trap doors, sliding panels and secret rooms. In one room, everything was upside-down. Rugs and furniture were attached to the ceiling, the chandelier was on the floor, and the draperies and pictures were all upside-down. McDermott enjoyed putting inebriated and unconscious party-goers into the room, then watching through a peephole to see their reaction when they woke up. The property also featured a collection of white pigeons -– which McDermott dyed in pastel colors.

And, of course, like most Angelinos for the past 100 years, McDermott needed a pool. His pool was built on the crest of a ridge, up several steps from the house, and was surrounded by decorative semi-circles of white cement, and walls of brightly colored tile, with a central tile mosaic featuring a spider on its web. McDermott reportedly contacted tile manufacturers in France and Italy, told them he was a Los Angeles tile dealer, and requested samples -– and received thousands of dollars worth of free tile. That explains why much of the area around the pool was a colorful hodge-podge of mismatched colors and patterns.

For his pool parties, McDermott kept a collection of bathing suits for his female guests. What he didn't tell them, however, was that the suits would disintegrate when they came in contact with water.

By the late 1920s, talkies had taken over Hollywood, and McDermott's career was winding down. It wasn't just actors who had to make the transition to sound pictures; writers and directors had to change their style, too. Although he worked as a writer on a handful of films in the early 1930s, McDermott turned his attention to writing stage plays.

His first big production, "Squawk," a political comedy, opened with great fanfare, but weak reviews, at the Mayan Theater in downtown Los Angeles in March 1929. The L.A. Times called it "a misfire," and "in questionable taste." Less than a week after the opening, McDermott took out large newspaper ads, denying rumors that the play had closed, or was about to close. Two weeks later, the play closed.

In late 1930, McDermott took his next play, a working-class drama called "Rivets," to New York City. During pre-production, MGM Studios bought the rights to the play, which was never produced on stage. Instead, it was turned into a film, called "Fast Workers," which was released in 1933, and starred John Gilbert, Robert Armstrong and Mae Clarke, directed by Tod Browning.

McDermott finally had a play open on Broadway in January 1932, with "Adam Had Two Sons," a drama about two brothers who escape from prison and flee to Panama, where they fall in love with the same woman. The play closed after only five performances.

In 1931, in the midst of his foundering career as a playwright, McDermott's younger brother, Edward, the successful film editor, died of complications following surgery at the age of 35. McDermott withdrew from Hollywood. For most of the 1930s and early 1940s, he spent most of his time traveling and hosting parties.

McDermott did try another play in 1938, but not in Los Angeles or on Broadway. His comedy, "The Stork Laid an Egg," opened at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara, Calif. The play, which featured 9-year-old film veteran Dickie Moore in his stage debut, received generally positive reviews.

McDermott lived at his "crazy house" until July 21, 1946, when he was found dead from an overdose of sleeping pills at the age of 52. Friends reported that McDermott had been depressed prior to his death, but it isn't known whether the overdose was accidental or intentional, due to the end of his film career, the death of his brother, and/or his general failure as a playwright. McDermott was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park in Glendale, where Edward and their parents were also buried. McDermott's grave marker describes him simply as "a genius."

In his will, McDermott left $1 to each of his two sisters, Anna and Mary -– "(if they can find it) and I even begrudge the two bucks" -– and the rest of his estate, including his house, to his nephew, Edward McDermott Jr., the only child of McDermott’s brother.

After McDermott's death, his friend, Jacques Jaccard, also a former actor and director turned writer, moved into the house. Six months later, a fire of unknown origin broke out, causing extensive damage.

During the next few years, the house and property passed through several owners. The house was never repaired or rebuilt because, due to its original construction, it couldn't be brought up to the standards of the city building code. It was eventually abandoned, and attracted vandals and squatters. The last remaining sections of the house were torn down in 1962. (The following year, McDermott's nephew died in a plane crash in New Mexico, at the age of 46.)

After McDermott's death, his swimming pool became a popular shooting location for the underground "camera clubs" of the 1950s. Groups of photographers paid models to pose in various stages of undress, and McDermott's pool was an ideal shooting location -– remote, with a picturesque pool and beautiful hilltop views. Thousands of photographs were taken around the pool in the 1950s. Former silent film star Harold Lloyd, a talented and serious amateur photographer, took photographs at the pool, some of which were included in a photo book, "Harold Lloyd's Hollywood Nudes in 3-D!," which was published by his granddaughter, Suzanne Lloyd, in 2004.

For the most part, the photographs taken at the pool weren't published, although some did find their way into various men's magazines. The vast majority of the photos were for the private use of the photographer, shared among camera club members, and occasionally sold to outside buyers. Although the names of the photographers and models were rarely known, some of models who have been identified later became actresses or posed for Playboy magazine, including (WARNING: Some of these links contain actual human nudity. Either don't click on them, or just grow up.) Tura Satana, Diane Webber, Betty Blue, Dolores Del Monte, Donna "Busty" Brown, Dixie Evans, Jacquelyn Prescott, Thelma Montgomery, Donna Watkins and Melody Ward. (Bettie Page is probably the most well-known "camera club" model, although she worked primarily on the East Coast and Florida, and there's no evidence that she ever posed at McDermott's pool.)

By the late 1990s, when some of the photographs reached a much wider international audience, thanks to the Internet, it was noticed that a lot of the photographs were taken at the same location -– a distinctive swimming pool somewhere in Southern California. Due to an image on a large tile mosaic in some of the photos of a large spider in its web, the pool was given a nickname – the Spider Pool. Many of the photographs also showed the decaying condition of the pool, with cracked and broken tile, crumbling walls, and weeds growing up all around the property.

But no one seemed to know exactly where the Spider Pool was located, or even whether it still existed. For years, it was the Holy Grail for fans of 1950s cheesecake photography.

Fans of vintage pin-up photography from around the world shared information about the mysterious pool. They compared photographs, and studied the mountain ranges, trees, utility poles and any other distinctive landmarks in the background. They researched topographical maps, and attempted to identify the models. By 2004, they had narrowed their search, and finally discovered the remains of the famous Spider Pool, in a heavily wooded area of the Hollywood Hills, overlooking the Hollywood Freeway, and completely surrounded by private property.

What they found, however, was nothing like what they saw in the 50-year-old photographs. The distinctive spider mosaic was all that remained. The pool was gone, replaced by a grassy bowl of land, in the middle of thick shrubs and cactus, and infested with poison oak.

The few people who know the exact location of the Spider Pool remains are reluctant to divulge that information. Perhaps they want to protect it from the inevitable hordes of visitors, especially considering that the area is surrounded by private property, and there’s the very real possibility of arrest for trespassing. Perhaps they just want to hold its secret. It’s a genuine Los Angeles mystery. Not many of those remain, and maybe they want to keep it that way.

Perhaps McDermott’s Spider Pool is better off as a mysterious and undiscovered Shangri-La, a place where people can create their own idyllic playground, like McDermott did, far from reality. Perhaps it’s best remembered the way it was then, not the way it is today.

Scott Michaels of Dearly Departed Tours and Find-a-Death recently visited the Spider Pool site as part of his Tragical History Tour video series:

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