Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

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Sanitariums in CV – Rockhaven Sanitarium Part 3


Last week I covered the physical aspects of Rockhaven Sanitarium – about its founder Agnes Richards, and its growth and development. But the history of Rockhaven would be incomplete without discussing the women that lived there in its decades of operation. Because it was upscale, it had quite a few resident celebrities, captains of industry and academics, plus many well loved wives, mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. Some lived there for just a few days, some for decades, and eerily, some seem to have stayed on even past their deaths.

Many entertainers lived at Rockhaven. For example, actress Billie Burke (Glenda the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz) was a long time resident. Also Vaudeville stars Babe Egan (a red-headed bombshell in the ’20s) and Marion Rose of the dancing duo Stadler and Rose who pre-dated Fred Astair and Ginger Rogers.

Mothers and wives of stars were common, too. Bandleader Spike Jones, the Al Yankovich of his day, had his mom at Rockhaven, and Clark Gable’s first wife Josephine Dillion lived there. Troubled actress Francis Farmer was rumored to have stayed there, but former Rockhaven owner Patricia Traviss tells us that she was up at Kimball’s Sanitarium on Foothill Boulevard, where Ralph’s is today.

By far the most famous Rockhaven resident was Marilyn Monroe’s mother Gladys Ely Baker. Gladys’ relationship with her daughter was tumultuous, and undoubtedly had much to do with the instability of Monroe’s troubled life. Most likely insane, Baker put Monroe in various foster care situations, while she herself went in and out of young Marilyn’s life, spending much of her time in state mental hospitals. When the actress achieved fame, she finally faced the confusing relationship she had with her mother, and in 1952 she had her transferred from the cold Norwalk State Hospital to the more personal care of Rockhaven. Monroe’s death in 1962 rendered her mother even more unstable and several suicide attempts took place, along with several very well publicized escapes.

Gladys was a tiny woman and once managed to squeeze out of an 18-inch closet window in her room, climb the fence, and walk 15 miles to a church in Shadow Hills. Her room and that tiny closet window are still there. Monroe’s estate after her death was entirely eaten up by unpaid taxes and creditors, leaving nothing for the care of Gladys Baker. Rockhaven, to its credit, kept Baker on gratis until 1967, when her other daughter took her in.

The darkened rooms of Rockhaven today are filled with evidence of caring families. In many rooms, still furnished as though the occupant just stepped away for a moment, one can find photos of grandchildren, Mother’s Day cards, and remnants of these women’s past lives, such as travel souvenirs and letters from their now forgotten families.

And about those Rockhaven residents who seem to linger on: When Glendale first bought the property, they hired a no-nonsense retired cop as a security guard. He told me quite matter-of-fact that he was regularly seeing people out of the corner of his eye, but when he turned to look at them, they disappeared. One city employee was shooting photos of one building when he noticed a curtain part, as though someone in the darkened building was peering out at him. He took his photo, showing the parted curtain, and then went to investigate, assuming another worker was in there. The building was locked up tight and no one was inside.

I’ve been inside many times to assist with the cleaning and maintenance of the now mothballed facility. I’m not a true believer myself, and for the most part the place still feels like the loving, caring place it always was. But there is this one time that I was cleaning the bathroom. I found high up on a shelf in a back corner, a little pile of crumbling pills, evidence that someone decades ago was resisting treatment. As I cleaned the rest of the bathroom, I distinctly “felt” someone walk up behind me, with a great deal of anger.

But of course, there was no one there.

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the
Crescenta Valley.
Reach him at
lawlerdad@yahoo.com.

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