It was a pretty straightforward mission that landed me yesterday at Home of Peace Memorial Park and Mausoleum on the east side of Los Angeles. I was off to track down the grave of a distant relative I’d never met, and to see if from its inscription I could deduce any more information than I had about him, and possibly his ancestry. And indeed, I did find his grave, precisely where the helpful man at the cemetery said it would be.
But there was something else at this cemetery—the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Los Angeles area—that I needed to see. Some years back, my well-traveled colleague David Jackson told me he’d been at a Jewish cemetery in East L.A. immediately after the 1994 Northridge earthquake to check on reports of damage and he’d seen an odd sight there.
While he waited for a cemetery official to talk to him about the damage, he watched a steady stream of visitors all go to a single grave. It was in an older section of the cemetery, and David said these people didn’t look like mourners so much as they appeared to be tourists.
David wandered over to have a look for himself at what might be drawing so many visitors, and found a tombstone much like all the others in the area. It marked the grave of Jerome Howard, who died nearly 60 years ago in what might fairly be described as the prime of his life—48 years old. It took him a lot of thought, he told me years later, to figure out that Jerome Howard—Yehuhda Lev, son of Shlomo Natan the Levite, according to the Hebrew inscription at the top of the tombstone—was in fact Curly of The Three Stooges. There was no stream of visitors to Curly’s grave the bright February afternoon I was there, but the man at the cemetery desk told me Curly drew several hundred people a year to his tomb.
The full view of the grave bears witness to Curly’s enduring popularity. While a few of the other graves in the area showed some signs they’d been visited recently—Jews have the custom of leaving pebbles on a grave when they visit—nothing was even close to the stones and coins that festooned Curly’s grave.
Standing there, it seemed odd to give a moment of silence to a man who had given me so much laughter over so many years. I was struck to discover that he was dead before I was even born (which I hadn’t known before seeing the dates on the tombstone).
There are, to my continuing astonishment, people who don’t find the Three Stooges funny. My wife Chris is in this category. So, I’ve discovered, are most of the other females in the world. (My daughter Rebecca may be an exception to this sweeping rule. She was when she was about eight, but I haven’t polled her on the issue since she entered adolescence. Things could have changed.)
I was also a little surprised to read that this guy who’d made so much in life funny was himself not amused by life. Taciturn and anti-social when not performing, he apparently found humor increasingly in his life from alcohol. He suffered a series of strokes and did not perform much for the final five years of his life.
Even after my reflection on the ironies of life and the distortion caused in life by the lens of a camera, I wasn’t quite done at Home of Peace. The clerk had told me I might also want to stop into the mausoleum that dominates the center of the cemetery.
There, in a solemn marble corridor, without benefit of his Hebrew name inscribed on the plaque, was one of Curly’s older brothers—Shemp.
Shemp didn’t outlive Curly by much—three years. And in my estimation, and the estimation of a good many other fans of the films, his comic abilities never rose to the level of his younger brother.
I did not drive away from Home of Peace with any great insights on the Meaning of Life or thoughts about existentialism. But I did find myself on the ride home smiling privately about one pratfall or another I’d remembered from my youth seeing The Stooges do.
And that, I guess, would be the meaning of it all.