Los Angeles, USA

Rockhaven Sanitarium

I had recently done a show for The Friends of Rockhaven Sanitarium in Glendale, a former mental institution that they were trying to preserve. They later invited Geoff and I to take a tour of the now crumbling and allegedly haunted facilities. We went at the end of July, there was no air conditioning, and it was really hot. That made the place feel even more oppressive. The only way it could have been scarier is if we had gone at night.

The first thing I thought was how great this would be for a Halloween haunt, and they would not even need to restore it. They even claim that there are actual ghosts there. Many a caretaker there has reported sightings. Being there, I had no doubt. If any place was haunted, this was.

The current grounds of what was once a beautiful sanctuary for women with mental illness.

It is a big rambling 3.4 acre property with lots of buildings, including guest cottages and old hospital wards. It is also just as spooky as you would imagine an old neglected mental institution would be. In its time, though, it was a revolutionary facility offering incredible care to the patients, who were all women. To understand why it was so important, you need to understand what mental health care for women was like in the 1920s, when it was founded.

At the time, the number one condition diagnosed for women was hysteria. In reality, there was no such thing, but women could still be put away for it. Women could be institutionalized for being too outspoken, for going through menopause, or because a husband wanted to leave them and putting them away was easier than divorce. Many a sane woman got put away and went crazy from the mistreatment that was typical at facilities that housed women. They could be chained to their beds and experimented on. I know, it was horrible.

A very young Agnes Richards

Agnes Richards had worked in a number of psychiatric facilities and observed the not uncommon abuse. She opened Rockhaven as a place where women could get better rather than be mistreated. It started with a single house with 24 patients. Professional gardner Ivan Cole landscaped the grounds and made it beautiful. The rooms were nicely decorated and painted to make the place more cheerful. Women were treated with dignity. It was a model for mental health care for women.

Remnants of the once majestic gardens

It became known as the Screen Actor’s Sanitarium for the number of show business related women it housed. Billie Burke, best known as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, struggled with mental health issues and spent several years there.

Stage and silent film star and flapper Gwen Lee may have been one of the few women falsely sent to Rockhaven. Her parents were actually the crazy ones, and it was her mom who managed to get her locked up for a short time.

Several show business celebrities spent their final years there, including, leader of the all-girl band The Hollywood Redheads Mary Florence Cecilia (Babe) Egan, and famed acting teacher and former wife of Clark Gable, Josephine Dillon.

Broadway actress and legendary Ziegfeld show girl turned-producer and real estate financier Peggy Fears suffered from dementia and was cared for at Rockhaven. She had been romantically linked with actress Louise Brooks, and had a long term relationship with the love of her life, Tedi Thurman. Tedi was one of the most famous voices in the country in the 1950s due to her sultry announcing of the weather on the hugely popular 40 hour long weekend Monitor radio show. The two lived openly together on Fire Island, which Peggy helped build into a major resort town that was open to the LGBT community, even though most were closeted at the time. She passed away in 1994, with Tedi frequently at her side.

Peggy Fears and Tedi Thurman

In the photo below we are in the now very sad looking former room of Gladys Pearl Eley Baker. She was the estranged mother of Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn claimed her mother was dead when she became a star. When the press found out her mother was alive, Marilyn explained that she never really knew her mother and wanted to protect her from the spotlight. Gladys had suffered from severe mental illness Marilyn’s entire childhood and had never been able to take care of her. Marilyn spent most of her childhood in a series of foster homes and an orphanage. While wanting nothing to do with her mother, she did take care of her, by paying for her to stay at Rockhaven, then considered the best facility in the country for women.

Marilyn Monroe’s Mom’s room.
Three year old Marilyn (then Norma Jean) and her mother at the beach in 1929.

I was familiar with Rockhaven even before the show, as a close friend of mine won an Emmy for her documentary on Rockhaven. Did I mention that she is my extremely humble friend who does not tell anyone about it. If I won an Emmy I would wear it dangling from my neck. Here is her Emmy but I won’t mention her name, but I will say that both Geoff and I are extremely proud of her.

The Emmy for the Rockhaven documentary.

In 2008 the city of Glendale purchased the property and it has been sitting, neglected ever since. Without water for years, the grounds have badly deteriorated. The gardens are mostly gone. It does look like it will have a new life, but at this point, the details are very sketchy.

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