Upon her death in 1981, Academy Award-winning costume designer Edith Head left $4,000 for the care of her cats. In his will, W.C. Fields, the screen's premier child-hater, expressed a desire to fund a nondenominational school for orphans. And in papers filed in probate court following the 1978 bludgeoning death of Bob Crane, a measly $350 price tag was affixed to the state-of-the-art video equipment that may have led indirectly to the actor's demise.
Death warmed over? Not to Ted James, the self-confessed movie buff and legal junkie who operates Celebrity Collectables, a Phoenix-based company specializing in celebrity wills and other stellar death documents. Perhaps the country's only venture of its kind, the mail-order house reportedly does a brisk business selling public records to researchers, writers, biographers, fans and what James calls "the just plain curious." Recent customers have ranged from the English biographer who needed a copy of Lon Chaney Sr.'s will to the ill-informed Hedy Lamarr fan who requested a copy of his idol's death certificate.
"I'm afraid I couldn't be of much help there," confesses James, who has managed to track down the dying wishes of more than 200 entertainers, politicians, writers and artists. "It turns out Hedy Lamarr is still among the living."
But when Lamarr finally goes to the big fade-out in the sky, it's a cinch James will be hot on her paper trail. Less than six months after their deaths, he's already preparing to add extensive files on Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Richard Nixon to his catalogue of wills. (Write to Celebrity Collectables, 2303 North 44th Street, Suite 4-175, Phoenix, AZ 85008.) Bound in legal "bluebacks," the wills sell for $10 to $20, depending on the length and content of the material; in addition to wills, most of the files also include inventories, funeral requests and other death-related documents.
"A will is nice, but generally it's the claims, the petitions and the things that go with it that are really interesting," says James. "That's where you start to see the people come out of the woodwork, and that's why I think collectors are so fascinated with these documents. It's a chance to take a look at the darker side of celebrities' lives through records the public seldom gets to see."
Following Clark Gable's death in 1960, a woman unsuccessfully filed a $100,000 claim against the actor's estate; she argued that Gable had coerced her late press-agent husband to accompany Carole Lombard on the ill-fated plane that crashed, killing everyone aboard. Flip through Marilyn Monroe's file, and an unpaid psychiatric bill for $1,400 reveals that the troubled star racked up more than 50 hours on a psychiatrist's couch during the last month of her life; she sometimes required the services of her analyst twice a day. And after Sharon Tate was butchered in her rented Bel Air home in 1969, the owner of the house successfully collected several thousand dollars by claiming the actress's estate was responsible for damages the Manson family had done to his property.
Judging from a number of the files in James' collection, there's nothing like a will to finalize a long-simmering family feud. Settling an old score not long before a brain tumor claimed her life in 1975, embittered actress Susan Hayward scribbled a vitriolic codicil to her will, specifically cutting off her sister without a penny. Hayward's sister, a welfare case who never missed an opportunity to poormouth to the press, subsequently filed a $20,000 claim against the actress's estate. "What it came down to was that she was suing the estate because Hayward had been a bitch to her," explains James. "It was one of those insane claims that you can't believe any lawyer would actually bother to handle."
Claims, counterclaims and legal skullduggery surrounding the 1979 death of former 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck provide one of Celebrity Collectables' juiciest offerings. Reading more like a Sidney Sheldon novel than a stack of court documents, the Zanuck package includes an affidavit claiming that the signature on the mogul's will was actually forged by his daughter, as well as allegations that Zanuck's son Richard Zanuck (the Academy Award-winning co-producer of Driving Miss Daisy) had kidnaped his father and threatened to drown his mistress. Fifteen years after the death of the studio boss, the Byzantine estate has yet to be settled.
Using information gleaned from obituaries, death certificates, newspaper stories and other sources, James determines where a will was filed, then requests a copy of it at the appropriate courthouse. "But knowing where to look is just half of it," explains James. "You also have to know what name it's filed under. Robert Preston, The Music Man, filed under his real name, Robert Meservey. A lot of women file wills under their married name. It can be a challenge--we still can't find Carolyn Jones."
And even when there is a will, there's not necessarily a way. James claims lax security in some courthouses (notably the one in Los Angeles County, a veritable Forest Lawn of stellar documents) has allowed light-fingered collectors to steal celebrity records.
"As recently as two years ago, I know the original documents on Babe Ruth were on file in New York," reports James. "Now they're gone--somebody has walked out with them. The same thing's happened with Montgomery Clift. Is this illegal? Sure it is, and you could do some nice time if they caught you--you're tampering with state records."
Although James gives high marks to security in Maricopa County's Clerk of the Court Office ("Good luck trying to get a file out of there," he says of the place where he unearthed the wills of Buster Crabbe and Don Ameche), he's baffled by the state's refusal to issue copies of death certificates to anyone who requests them. Still steamed because he wasn't able to include a death certificate in his Bob Crane file, he says, "That's public information as far as I'm concerned."
Nor is James thrilled about the recent proliferation of "living trusts," relatively airtight alternatives to probate that, unlike wills, are not in the public record.
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"If a person is really together on their estate, is fairly clean of debt, hasn't pissed anybody off and isn't trying to fuck anyone, you generally won't find a probate file," explains James. "We went to L.A. last week, because there have been a lot of great folks who have expired in the past year. Henry Mancini? Nothing. Dack Rambo? Nada." Ditto Nicole Brown Simpson.
"You would think that someone like River Phoenix would definitely have a good probate file, because he was such a young guy when he died," continues James. "Uh-uh, not a thing. He must have had a really good manager who kept everything clean." No stranger to lawyers himself, James has received a "cease and desist" letter from attorneys representing a licensing firm that handles the estates of a number of dead luminaries. As a result, James has temporarily withdrawn the names of James Dean, Greta Garbo, Liberace, John Belushi and Will Rogers from his catalogue until he can do a little legal homework himself. "What an ideal business!" says James, not a little disdainfully. "The guy you represent can't even argue with you. Marilyn Monroe's estate generates over $1 million a year, and it goes to someone Monroe never met in her life." (Acting coach Lee Strasberg, the main beneficiary of Monroe's will, died in 1982; since then, money from the Monroe estate has gone to Strasberg's second wife.)
"When I first started this, I worried about getting letters from the family," confesses James. "If I got a letter from Candice Bergen saying, 'Out of respect for my father, will you take this thing out of your catalogue?', I probably would. I'd sure be more inclined to do that for a family than I would one of these letter-writing attorneys.
"You know what's really sick?" asks James. "Every letter I get from some lawyer is costing that estate at least $200.