Michelle and Me

John J. Nazarian
May 3, 2024

Coincidence or what, that in 1974 I had taken a job at Groman Mortuaries on Venice Boulevard in Los Angeles. Back in those days I was looking for a job and these meat houses provided an apartment and I could get paid too! Shit, back then I would have done almost anything to just get by, a job and a place to live, bingo! As luck would have it, my time being employed there was not going to be very long. My first job as an apprentice was at Mater Mortuary in Alhambra and my first teacher was an old embalmer by the name of Bob Gelher. I remember going and picking up a Chinese man who had died at home. Carrying him down those stairs to the First Call Car was not easy. I was young and lifting heavy objects was a part of the job. The deceased was a little over weight and was still warm to the touch, even after getting him back to the ‘prep room’.

I was young and had turned my back to get my smock on and when I turned around Bob had raised the right carotid artery and there was blood flowing like a fresh spring. For a second I was shocked, my first corpse and it was bleeding like we had just killed the guy! ( more later ) The blood flowing out of the incision was still very warm.

My first pick up of the evening at Groman’s was to go to LAX to pick up the body of Cass Elliot. Cass had been shipped back to America from England and as I recall looking at her upon returning to the mortuary to assure that she had not soiled herself in transit. I recall that she had already been embalmed. It was a pretty non event for sure, I knew of course who she was from listening to her and the Mammas and the Papas on the radio and I had a few 8 tracks in my 55 VW. The Mamas & the Papas were big and I was actually a fan of the group. Back in those days we had no cameras generally in our possession as we all do today with cell phones. Back then the idea of a cell phone alone was all Dick Tracey imagery! Otherwise I would have likely taken a photo. I do have photos of my days in the prep room, it is painful, I was muscular and not bad looking as I pumped ‘juice’ into remains of the dead.

In my time as an embalmer and making ‘first calls’ I would see many famous corpses. Jack Benny was a big star (there he was on a table and dead. I had watched him dozens of times on TV ) he is entombed at Hillside Memorial Park. That is the place that back in the day if you were Jewish and famous/rich that is where you went……. another Groman enterprise. It is still ‘the’ place for the Jewish community. My training would also take me to Forest Lawn, “The Disneyland of Death” I was assigned to the Hollywood Hills Facilities. I got to see the embalmed corpse of Freddie Prinze who was only 22 years old when he accidentally shot himself in the head in 1977. Freddie was placed into a crypt very close to his father, Edward Pruetzel who would join Freddie in 1979… both are at eye level. These crypts are the chosen ones as you are at waist/eye level, this is choice location. Unlike some who get a crypt and are way up… those that you have to stretch your neck are much cheaper for obvious reasons!

I do recall the casket Cass was placed, it was not a traditional shape casket as what was used here in the states, it was kinda ornate. It was narrowed at the head, wider at the shoulders and tapered towards the feet, nice! A few days later I would be dismissed due to my getting into an altercation with one of the embalmers on a whole different issue. My recollections here have a reason, 30 years plus later I would get called to assist with an issue by none other than ‘Michelle Gilliam’ aka ‘Michelle Gilliam Philips’. Michelle was the hottest member of the Mamas & the Papas. Back in the 70’s she was a fantasy of many young teenage boys and here I was sitting in her home.

The first time I met Michelle was at her home that she has lived in for much of her life. She bought a beautiful home during the hay days and kept it, smart. The house sits in a very prestigious area of Los Angeles, the homes look like nice houses not the garish mansions that many celebrities seek out to impress. Michelle is very famous and she is also very well grounded in how she lives. Michelle had a problem and needed me to figure it out and to get the problem out of her life. It did not take me very long to understand what needed to be done and I did it quickly! Poof! Piano player, GONE!

Michelle was such a great client and over the years we became close, to this day we are still friends. Back in the day I was invited into her inner sanctum, I was still not aware of who she was! Upon entering the well furnished home I was ushered into the office. I was looking at dozens of gold records that lined the wall and began to realize, this is Michelle Phillips! As I turned away from the wall Michelle was looking at me, her glasses sitting on her nose and said, “Yup that’s me”. Michelle would go on to explain that she went by Gilliam in hopes that she would not get taken advantage when dealing with people she would hire to do work for her. Over the yeas I would attend parties at her home and we would meet at times for lunch or dinner and lots of laughs!

One of the best places we would visit was the famous Traders Vic’s at the Beverly Hills Hotel. The best Mai Tais and the food was always excellent and Michelle was always welcomed by the entire place. You want to have a good time, hang out with true celebrities at hot spots…. it is a level of cool you cannot imagine! Unfortunately, like so many great spots in and around Los Angeles and Beverly Hills, Trader Vic’s no longer exists except in memory……. another recollection by one of this countries most famous private investigators.

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