Nine Famous Non-Angelenos Who Died in Los Angeles

Jelly Roll Morton

There's a saying: someone moves to Manhattan and five minutes later he calls himself a New Yorker, while someone lives in Los Angeles for twenty years and he still says he's from somewhere else. What defines an "Angeleno" when one is not born and raised here? How long do you have to live in this city before you can call yourself a local? For the purposes of this list, I'm going to define Angelenos as those who spend more than half of their active careers living and working here. In this respect, Groucho Marx, Alfred Hitchcock, and Charlie Chaplin were Angelenos, whereas Bertolt Brecht, William Faulkner, and Kurt Cobain – though they all spent time here – were not. Nor were the following nine people, who nevertheless met their mortal end in the City of Angels and its environs.

  1. George Gershwin, 1937. Like most in this list, Gershwin came to Hollywood for the work, but it was only towards the end of his short life, and only after he produced the bulk of his oeuvre in New York and Paris. He died of a brain tumor at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital at just 38 years of age.
  2. Jelly Roll Morton, 1941. The New Orleans-born-and-bred Morton arguably invented jazz. Although he never lived in Los Angeles, he was here on a visit, attempting to restart his career, when he died of complications from knife wounds received in a Washington D.C. nightclub a few years earlier. His exact age is unknown, but he was in his fifties. Morton is actually buried in Los Angeles.
  3. Robert F. Kennedy, 1968. The only notable assassination to occur in the city of LA, Democratic presidential candidate Kennedy was campaigning at the Ambassador Hotel when he was gunned down by Sirhan Sirhan, an Arab nationalist (and a Christian). RFK, like many on this list, died young. He was 42.
  4. F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1940. The Minnesota-born author of The Great Gatsby was another New York/Paris denizen, until financial worries brought him to Hollywood in the late '30s to write screenplays. He had not yet finished his fifth novel The Last Tycoon when he died of a heart attack at his girlfriend's apartment in West Hollywood, a block away from his own. He was 44. Another notable writer not often associated with Los Angeles, Theodore Dreiser, the outspoken socialist author of An American Tragedy, died in LA at 74.
  5. Janis Joplin, 1970. Believe me, I looked for more famous women who did not live in Los Angeles yet died here, but the legendary '60s blues/rock singer stands alone. Raised in Port Arthur, Texas, and becoming a star in San Francisco, Joplin was recording an album in LA when she overdosed on heroin in her Hollywood hotel room at the age of 27.
  6. George Harrison, 2001. The former Beatle spent the bulk of his life in England, though he was wealthy enough to own homes all over the world. But it was in a rented Hollywood Hills mansion, reportedly once leased by Paul McCartney, where Harrison actually passed, after unsuccessfully seeking treatment for lung cancer. He was 58.
  7. Sergei Rachmaninoff, 1943. Just four days shy of his 70th birthday, the great Russian pianist and composer, who emigrated to the United States in 1918 after fleeing the Russian Revolution, died of melanoma at his home in Beverly Hills. It's not certain how long he lived here – Rachmaninoff was a world traveler – but it's estimated that he moved to Beverly Hills less than two years before his death.
  8. Truman Capote, 1984. Born in New Orleans, raised in Alabama, the toast of the town in New York City, author/socialite Truman Capote breathed his last in the LA home of Joanne Carson, ex-wife of Tonight Show host Johnny. A lifetime of heavy drinking finally got the best of Capote's liver. He was 59. Some of his ashes are interred in a Westwood tomb near UCLA.
  9. R. Buckminster Fuller, 1983. I could have ended this list with John Belushi, who died in 1982 (at 33) of a drug overdose at the Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood. (Belushi, raised in Chicago, spent most of his short career in New York.) But everybody knows about that, so instead I'll close with the eccentric architect Fuller, visionary designer of the geodesic dome and other oddball marvels. Raised in the Northeast, Fuller taught in universities all over the country, but it was in Los Angeles, while tending to his comatose wife, where Fuller suffered a fatal heart attack, dying just 36 hours before his spouse at the ripe old age of 87. I have not been able to find out why or when the Fullers came here in the first place.