The Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel is about to receive an honored guest. Ruthless media mogul Logan Roy roared his last on the stunning third episode of the final season of Succession. After much fearful dithering by his offspring, Logan’s body was removed from his private plane and headed for the most renowned funeral home in the world, Frank E. Campbell’s, where even fictional characters go, not to be seen but to be viewed.
Just five blocks from the Carlyle hotel, on the corner of Madison and 81st Street, Frank Campbell’s has sent everyone from Leona Helmsley to Heath Ledger, Enrico Caruso to Celia Cruz, Cardinal Spellman to Toots Shor, Gloria Vanderbilt to Lee Radziwill, on their final journey. Mere mortals, too, are prepared for burial or cremation. “Some people just like to see ‘Frank Campbell’ on the death certificate,” explains Dominic Carella, the former vice president of the funeral home. “It gives them class.”
Dominick Dunne always knew he wanted to be buried by Frank Campbell’s. When the celebrated writer passed away on August 26, 2009, in Manhattan, there was never any doubt as to where the funeral would take place. “It was something he had really given a lot of thought to,” recalls his son, the actor and director Griffin Dunne. “From the music to the pallbearers and the speakers, we had our instructions—many drafts of them.”
When Dunne’s family met with funeral directors, they were warned that when somebody of note dies, it attracts “professional mourners”—people who crash the funerals of the well known. “And it made me smile,” says Griffin Dunne, “because Dad was a professional mourner. He and my mother lived a block from Campbell’s, and Dad could not help but swing by, just to see what the matinee was, because it was always either a very prominent mobster or a movie star, somebody of note who attracted a real crowd. It used to drive my mother crazy.”
Founded in 1898, Frank E. Campbell’s “Burial and Cremation Company” forever changed the way people honored and buried their dead. Before Campbell’s, funerals were usually held at home, but as houses gave way to smaller apartments and residence hotels, this became increasingly difficult.
Frank Campbell had gotten his start in Camp Point, Illinois, where, at the age of 12, he helped make caskets and later drove the hearse for the village undertaker. When he arrived in Manhattan, in 1893, the 21-year-old go-getter began work at the Stephen Merritt Undertaking and Cremation Company, earning $10 per week.
Five years later, he bought out Merritt and went into business for himself, first on West 23rd Street and then in an old hotel on Broadway at West 66th Street, which he turned into a sumptuous series of viewing rooms—the Gold Room, the Blue Room, the Red Room, the Broadway Room—decked out in tapestries, Oriental rugs, potted palms, and cheerful works of art meant to dispel gloom. It was here that, in 1921, Campbell held his first big memorial service for the legendary opera star Enrico Caruso. It gave Campbell a taste for fame.
Campbell’s was the first mortuary to take out large advertisements, for which his colleagues in the trade roundly berated him. For the easily embarrassed he let it be known that he employed both male and female embalmers. He was the first to use automobiles as hearses. It all worked. By the time Campbell was 51 he owned nine Rolls-Royces and could most often be found aboard his yacht.
In 1938, the funeral home moved to its current location at 81st and Madison, turning three four-story brownstones into its headquarters. Today, it has six “reposing rooms,” and the embalming work goes on in the basement.
The list of personalities buried by Campbell’s over 11 decades is a cornucopia of film, theater, music, and sports stars, as well as society doyennes, politicians, journalists, wits, composers, playwrights, gangsters, and moguls.
It includes Otto Preminger and Lillian Gish, Charles Addams and Ethel Merman, James Beard and Fatty Arbuckle, Irving Berlin and Ed Bradley, Tommy Dorsey and Jack Dempsey, Geraldine Ferraro and Dorothy Kilgallen, Rocky Graziano and Jerry Orbach, Kitty Carlisle Hart and Billy Martin, Rita Hayworth and George S. Kaufman, George Plimpton and Dorothy Parker, Norman Mailer and Diana Vreeland, Ayn Rand and Tony Randall, Beverly Sills and Luther Vandross, Biggie Smalls and Peter Jennings, Arturo Toscanini, Ed Sullivan, James Thurber, Lena Horne, Mae West, Arthur Ashe, Tallulah Bankhead, Walter Cronkite, the restaurateur Elaine Kaufman, and Ivana Trump, before her burial at Trump National Golf Club in New Jersey.
When somebody of note dies, it attracts “professional mourners”—people who crash the funerals of the well known.
During his tenure at Campbell’s, Dominic Carella handled “all the high-profile funerals.” He grew up in the business—his family owned a funeral parlor in Queens. Even as a six-year-old, when asked to draw a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up, Carella drew stick figures carrying a casket. “Every day is different: a different family, a different church, a different cemetery. I love helping people.”
His former colleague, Martin Kolibas, began working for Campbell’s as an embalmer in 1969. He marvels at the fact that Frank Campbell was the first funeral director to have a yacht with a chapel on it, for taking bodies down the Hudson or the East River to a burial at sea. Campbell was also the first to have his own biplane for scattering ashes from the air. “After all,” Kolibas explains, a funeral is “organized grief, which is drama. So a funeral is really theater.”
The Valentino Stampede
Campbell’s prospered from the beginning, but what really put the mortuary on the map was the send-off it prepared for silent-screen heartthrob Rudolph Valentino. It was the first Hollywood funeral in New York.
When Valentino died of a perforated ulcer at the age of 31 on August 23, 1926, his female fans were inconsolable. The film star Pola Negri announced that she had been secretly engaged to him; in London, another actress committed suicide surrounded by signed pictures of the screen idol.
Campbell was keen to create a sensation. He had started the ball rolling by paying mourners $1 to show up and even to start fights. He had also hired 10 men to dress up in the black shirts of the Italian Fascisti to stand guard over the coffin, purportedly at the express request of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
More than 200 policemen, including some on horseback, stood outside the funeral home, but neither they nor Campbell had counted on the sheer mass and fervor of the crowds. When the funeral parlor opened its doors, hundreds of people stampeded to the entrance. Many were trampled underfoot or struck by rearing horses and police clubs. Fistfights—of the unplanned variety—broke out, women wept openly, and windows were broken up and down Broadway.
When the police line gave way, fans poured into the chapel and tore it apart in a mad hunt for souvenirs, fighting over strips of wallpaper and ripping apart the flower arrangements. A contingent of anti-Fascists showed up and chased the pretend blackshirts away. By the end of the day, it was estimated that more than 60,000 people had tramped through the devastated funeral home. But it was worth it. It was the biggest send-off Manhattan had ever seen.
End of the Rainbow
Nothing could keep them from seeing her. “There was nobody downtown, the Village was practically empty,” recalls a fan who, along with 20,000 others, stood for hours in the hot and humid air, waiting to get in to Frank Campbell’s. Many held her albums and sang her songs. Judy Garland was back in New York.
Garland had died on June 22, 1969, from an accidental barbiturate overdose while honeymooning in London with her third husband, Mickey Deans. Her body was flown to New York, and, escorted by two Port Authority police cars, Campbell’s director and his assistant drove their hearse to Kennedy Airport to pick up the casket.
By the time they returned to Manhattan it was one a.m., but already 50 to 60 mourners were waiting outside the funeral home. No official announcement had been made, but her fans instinctively knew she’d be going to Campbell’s. By eight a.m., police had towed all the cars parked from Madison to Fifth Avenue, and barricades were put in place. By 11 a.m., along with camera crews, photographers, and reporters, there were thousands of people in the street.
But there was a problem. When Garland was removed from the casket, they found that she hadn’t been embalmed properly. The dress she was wearing, the gray chiffon she had been married in, was beginning to fall apart.
Campbell’s director dispatched an assistant to a dry cleaner around the corner. It took some negotiating to get the moldering gown cleaned in time for the public viewing just hours away, but the dry cleaner was up to it. “This guy is like the most brilliant dry cleaner in the world, hidden away on 82nd Street,” recalls the assistant. “He can remove death itself from a wedding dress.”
A hairdresser and a makeup artist were flown in from MGM at the studio’s expense because, at the end of her life, Judy Garland was broke. The makeup artist “painted a picture of her face on top of her face,” says the assistant. “He literally painted her portrait.”
After all the preparation, one p.m. arrived, and it was showtime. “It all falls into place, like a Hollywood production,” recalls Carella. “Here comes the coffin. Boom. We roll it downstairs. Boom. Pick her up. Boom. Put the glass top over her. Boom. We roll her into the room. It’s a jungle of flowers. Without a second to spare, at one o’clock we just walk over and open the doors. And it’s perfection. And the whole world just poured right in.”
“This guy is like the most brilliant dry cleaner in the world.... He can remove death itself from a wedding dress.”
For two days, Garland’s fans streamed through the ground-floor chapel. By Friday, an estimated 22,000 people had gazed upon her glass-topped, white-metal casket, where she lay like Snow White in her dry-cleaned gown, on a cushion of pale velvet, holding a black prayer book. Though Campbell’s stayed open all night, 2,000 fans had to be turned away.
When it was all over, the pallbearers hoisted up the coffin and “walked her on their shoulders out of the funeral home” while her family and friends sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” “It was really something to behold,” one of Campbell’s staff recalls. He noticed that Liza Minnelli’s voice was breaking as she tried to sing along.
That night, in the hot streets of Greenwich Village, the Stonewall Rebellion began. One rioter threw a drink in the face of a policeman, exclaiming defiantly, “That’s for Judy.”
The Émigrés’ Last Stop
When the composer Igor Stravinsky died, on April 6, 1971, at the age of 88, all three television networks interrupted their programming to announce the news. His body was taken to Campbell’s, where a Russian Orthodox service was held the following day. Burial, however, would take place a week later, because Stravinsky wanted to be interred in the San Michele cemetery in Venice. “It’s always harder, and much riskier, when you send a prominent person to lay to rest outside the country,” Carella explains, but it’s all part of the service. “We call it a ship-out.”
When George Balanchine, the great choreographer, died in 1983, more than a thousand mourners attended his funeral, which had been arranged by Campbell’s at the Russian Orthodox Church on Park Avenue and 93rd Street. “He was placed in the ‘444’—the ‘rail-less’—a birch casket that has no handles on it,” Carella recalls. Carrying it down the spiral staircase of the church required expert balance.
By eight a.m., the church was completely full. Among the mourners were Balanchine’s most famed dancers, including three of his former loves—Alexandra Danilova, Maria Tallchief, and Tanaquil Le Clercq in her wheelchair. Mourners, each carrying a white candle, filed past the open coffin. Campbell’s directors were worried that the flames from all those trembling candles might ignite a dancer’s crinoline dress. Following the service, Balanchine’s coffin was carried aloft while dancers wept. Or most did. Danilova, in her 70s but still elegantly beautiful, did not cry. She later explained: “Makeup and tears don’t mix.”
Candy Darling on Her Deathbed
She wanted a Frank Campbell funeral. She wanted to be in the Gold Room. She wanted to go out like a star. She had attended Judy Garland’s funeral, waiting in line for hours, and had been so impressed by it that when Candy Darling knew she was dying, she called Campbell’s and made all the arrangements herself.
Darling was born James Lawrence Slattery in Forest Hills, Queens. Her parents were characters right out of Damon Runyon (Campbell’s class of 1946). Her father, a tough Irishman also named James, was a violent alcoholic. But his son was fascinated by beauty and movie magazines, and by the early 1960s he was making his first trips into Manhattan, where he transformed himself into Candy Darling, a stunningly beautiful drag queen.
Darling became well known as part of Andy Warhol’s Factory. She appeared in society columns, corresponded with Vogue editor Diana Vreeland (Campbell’s class of 1989), and inspired two songs by Lou Reed, “Candy Says” and “Walk on the Wild Side.” In 1972, Tennessee Williams (Campbell’s class of 1983) cast her in Small Craft Warnings, with a part written especially for her.
“It’s always harder, and much riskier, when you send a prominent person to lay to rest outside the country. We call it a ship-out.”
In late 1973, the 29-year-old Darling was admitted to Columbus-Mother Cabrini Hospital in Manhattan, suffering from stomach pains. “Candy didn’t know it,” wrote Bob Colacello, then editor of Warhol’s Interview magazine, “but the doctors had told [her mother] that Candy had leukemia and a malignant tumor in her stomach.” The society doyenne Nan Kempner and Maxine de la Falaise, Elsa Schiaparelli’s muse, helped to pay Darling’s hospital bills.
“She wanted somebody to take her picture,” recalls Darling’s closest friend, the filmmaker Jeremiah Newton. “Robert Mapplethorpe was out of town, so she called Scavullo, and then Avedon—she went through a whole list. Then she called Peter Hujar, who at that point really wasn’t famous. He came right over and photographed her in the hospital. It was a lot for her—she wasn’t feeling well.”
Newton tried to stop the session, but Candy insisted they go on: “‘No, no, no—I want this done. I feel that I’m not going to look so good anymore, and I want people to remember me.’ Nobody realized at the time,” Newton says, “that ‘Candy Darling on her Death Bed’ would become such an iconic image.”
The day Candy Darling died, Newton called Halston, the designer, and asked for a dress for her to be buried in. Newton remembers that Halston yelled, “I’m not giving my dress for a dead drag queen!” “Then I call Giorgio di Sant’ Angelo on the phone, and Georgio said, ‘I’ve got the perfect thing for her. Come right down and get it.’” The designer gave Newton a beautiful peau de soie, off-white gown with long sleeves, covered with a sheet of rhinestones on the back. “Candy wore this at a fashion show,” the designer told Newton. “She loved it. I should have given it to her then.”
Hundreds of people attended her funeral in the Gold Room of Campbell’s. The mourners broke into two camps: the Slatterys on one side in mourning clothes, and Candy Darling’s friends on the other, in glitter and feathery boas. Mr. Slattery, with his calloused hands and his nose broken from an ancient brawl, strutted around saying with pride, “That’s my son there—Candy Darling.” Campbell’s had two different Mass cards made up, one with James Slattery’s name on it, the other with Candy Darling’s, and after the funeral the mourners gathered on the sidewalk and began trading them like baseball cards.
As her coffin was being placed in a hearse, a chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royce paused in front of the funeral home. Its black-tinted window came down, and a tiny, elegant woman in white fur stuck her head out and asked, “Whose funeral is this?”
“Oh, Candy Darling!’ And she gave the coffin a white-gloved salute.
“It was Gloria Swanson,” remembers Newton. “Candy would have loved that. It was perfect.”
Mourning in America
“The Kennedys like to die at home but they rarely do,” sportswriter Pete Hamill once said, but Jackie died at home on May 19, 1994, after months of battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and that’s where she had her laying out.
Eugene Schultz was president of Campbell’s at the time and a friend of the Kennedys’. He and Kolibas went to her apartment at 1040 Fifth Avenue, where scores of people had gathered in a 24-hour vigil.
“Eugene said, ‘We have a crowd outside, so don’t be too dressed like a funeral director. Come incognito,’” Kolibas remembers. “So I dressed in jeans, and I put all my equipment in my duffel bag.... I was [at the apartment] for four or five hours, doing the preparation. After I had finished, they woke up John Kennedy Jr., and he came out and he looked at her and said, ‘Fine, thank you,’ and then we left. We didn’t place her in the casket until the day of the funeral.”
Maurice Tempelsman, Jackie’s longtime companion, had chosen a Jewish casket for her, but John junior quickly said, “‘No, no, Caroline and I like this one.’ We were taken aback,” recalls Kolibas, “because he didn’t know that the casket he chose was the same one that was used for his father, President Kennedy. It was a mahogany casket made by Marcellus of Boston and renamed ‘the Presidential’ after Kennedy’s funeral.”
The Return of Biggie Smalls
“Notorious B.I.G. was a cremation,” remembers Kolibas. On March 9, 1997, the six-foot-three-inch, nearly 300-pound Brooklyn rapper was shot while waiting at a red light in his GMC Suburban in Los Angeles. Biggie Smalls was rushed to nearby Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, but doctors couldn’t save his life.
Ironically, the rapper had become an overnight sensation with his first album, Ready to Die, and his follow-up album, released posthumously, was titled Life After Death … Till Death Do Us Part. An early advertisement showed B.I.G. standing beside his own tombstone.
Kolibas knew his funeral was going to be a huge event. “We got in touch with the 19th [police] Precinct,” he recalls. “We set up barricades across the street.” Biggie was laid out in a double-breasted white suit and hat. The mourners at Campbell’s included music stars Mary J. Blige, Queen Latifah, and his former girlfriend Lil’ Kim.
The body of the 24-year-old rapper was then driven in high style from the Upper East Side to his old neighborhood in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, like a movie of his life run in reverse. “We had his hearse pass through Brooklyn, blaring out the music, and everyone turned out,” says Kolibas.
Campbell’s brought Biggie back to his home turf like a slain hero. His ashes were divided among his wife, Faith Evans; Lil’ Kim; and his mother. His murder has never been solved.
Dominic Carella and Marty Kolibas have seen a lot of death in their lifetimes. Before coming to work for Campbell’s, Kolibas served nine brutal months in Vietnam as the last man from New Jersey to be drafted in that war. But one death seems to haunt both men—John Lennon’s.
“It was in December,” Kolibas remembers. “They took him to St. Clare’s Hospital. He was still alive, and we knew we were going to get the call. Everyone was on standby. I saw Mr. Lennon on the table. And they had all his things—his jacket, his shoes—all lined up. And they were looking at the four shots that went in. [Mark Chapman] emptied the whole revolver into him.”
Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, asked Campbell’s to carry out the cremation. “The media assumed we would be handling the funeral, so they camped out around the building,” says Eugene Schultz. When it was time to move Lennon’s body from the chapel, a decoy hearse was sent out. “The press followed the wrong hearse,” recalls Schultz. “Five minutes later, the correct hearse pulled up to the door, and Mr. Lennon was brought out.” They proceeded unmolested to the crematorium at Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York.
After the cremation, Ono came to Campbell’s and carried the ashes out of the building. “And you just don’t know what happened after that,” Carella says. “I think about it in the middle of the night sometimes. What happened to that urn? John Lennon may be the only person to be buried in Central Park. We’ll never really know.”
Tricks of the Trade
“There are many challenges to high-profile funerals,” Carella explains. “You have months to plan a wedding but only a day or two to plan a funeral. You only get to do it once. I want my funerals to be flawless, which is important because there are cameras all over the place.”
“If we’re going to shoulder a casket of a vice president or a movie star, it better be perfect because, if not, that could be the photo, and you don’t want it on the front of The New York Times and the Post, you know? That’s why the pallbearers have to be of equal height.”
“The two back guys are equal, two middle guys and two front guys are all equal, because most of the time the casket’s on a slight angle. And they’re trained professionals. We do walk-throughs, because the one thing that stands out is the pallbearers. You look at Cardinal O’Connor’s funeral, Jackie O.’s funeral, the casket never tilts, never wobbles, and those guys all step in sync together.”
Despite the careful preparations, mistakes can, on occasion, happen. At the burial of Frank E. Campbell himself, who died in 1934, the sarcophagus casket he’d arranged was too big for the family crypt, so he was stowed under the mausoleum’s stairs, where he remained for 80 years.
He was finally removed to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, where he now lies among some of the most prominent New Yorkers of the last century—Irving Berlin, George M. Cohan, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, the Helmsleys, the Belmonts—many of whom were brought to their resting place by Campbell’s.
As for Logan Roy, played magisterially by Brian Cox, he will repose in good company, befitting a patriarch who loved, tortured, and confounded his children. Campbell’s will make certain of that.
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL. Previously a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, he is the author or co-author of several books, including Sinatraland: A Novel, When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School, and Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends
Additional reporting by Nancy Schoenberger, author of Blanche: The Life and Times of Tennessee Williams’s Greatest Creation