Anybody who is anybody in NYC and has lost a loved one knows the name Frank Campbell. Maybe they haven't even lost a loved one but just attended one of the many hundreds of funerals they service a year. Regardless the name Frank E Campbell Funeral Home is synonymous with Upper Class, Celebrity, Manhattan Elite and more importantly privacy and an almost Genie like funeral. They grant the final wishes of the elite akin to the late great Robin Williams of Aladdin in the Disney movie.
Frank and his funeral home first attracted international recognition in 1926, when a famously beloved on screen silent movie romeo Rudolph Valentino died of a ruptured ulcer at the tender age of 31. The crowds at the funeral were huge...and dramatic. There was a rumor that Frank had replaced Valentino's body with a wax figure because the crowd of fans became so maniacal. A little known fact was that Frank had paid some of the mourners to faint and swoon at the funeral to garner more coverage in the media. A bit like the keeners we had in old Ireland, Frank used some seriously innovative PR moves to engage the media and it worked. Apparently he also took out a $1 million insurance policy on his 15-year-old son, Frank Junior, making him "the most heavily insured boy in the country". His use of publicity, engagement of the media, innovation in the industry and advertising his funeral home built his home and name to what it is today.
Frank began this innovative voyage long before Valentino's funeral however and has even been credited with starting the purchase of obituaries in newspapers and of adding chapels of all faiths to a funeral home, something which is only hitting Ireland in recent years. When Frank founded the Frank E. Campbell Burial and Cremation Company in 1898, he attempted to change the way people thought about funeral service. At that time in America, most funerals were conducted in private homes, but New York was becoming a city of apartment dwellers and people no longer had space. He actually started it in Downtown Manhattan but Frank was a socialite in all the right circles and soon recognized his niche in the market and moved to the current address in the Upper East Side. He also began to use motor vehicles instead of the typical horse drawn carriages to carry the deceased. His innovative legacy continues today even though the funeral home is currently not in his family anymore but a part of the industry giant SCI.
“We make sure our entranceway is taken care of properly without having the family being inundated,” George Amato, current president of Frank E Campbell says. “In the building, we have a private elevator and a private floor for the visitation that takes place. We have our security men on the front door checking the people arriving to make sure they are on the list, and they are escorted properly upstairs.” Mobile or cellphones are banned from the main chapel. Simple additions but all add to the security, privacy and comfort for families of the rich and famous.
The home has catered for a huge variety of 'sombodies' including Heads of State, United Nations Ambassadors, Dignitaries, Royalty, and Celebrity members of the arts and entertainment world. The staff are well equipped in a variety of languages and religions and there are 3 funeral counsellors or 'experts' on site who are educated in everything from coffin sizing, decor, religion specifics and repatriation legalities. In total there are 53 people on staff but they regularly hire in extra staff on a regular basis such as off duty NYC police officers as security.
In 1969, when the beautiful and beloved Judy Garland died, as many as 1,500 fans stood vigil outside Campbell’s during a vicious NYC heat wave. Judy Garland's visitation lasted over 24 hours, some people coming through to pay their respects 3 times - up to 20,000 fans went past her glass-enclosed coffin to view her in repose. Mourners included Lauren Bacall (who became a Campbell's client when she died aged 89 on Aug 11th last year) , then-Mayor John Lindsay, Patricia Kennedy Lawford and Garland’s daughters, Liza Minnelli and Lorna Luft. In another PR stunt, the press was not allowed access which of course just heightened the appeal and intrigue.
Such is the association with Frank E Campbell's and Celebrity that when John Lennon was assassinated in 1980 the media presumed that they would be handling the arrangements, and camped out there. Such was the media mayhem that a decoy hearse had to be sent for the media to follow, which they did and Mr Lennon was transported to be cremated in peace.
George Amato says one of the most complex funeral arrangements in recent years involved the accidental-overdose death of 28-year-old actor Heath Ledger in January 2008. "I was very closely involved with the people who were handling him, because he was going to be sent to Los Angeles and then Australia," Amato says. "There was the Warner Brothers private jet that was being used for him and the family, so there was a lot of coordination to make sure that it all went exactly the way they wanted it, and we had to maintain the privacy and confidentiality that they wanted."
In terms of crazy requests George was not willing to divulge too much and with good reason. Confidentiality is their number one promise. However families can dictate whatever they want, and Campbell’s promises that no legal request is ever denied. When asked what requests he could tell me about, he told me of a time where a family requested a highly exotic and rare flower. Money was no object and rarely is, so I'm told. The funeral home's response? "if it is growing somewhere on this earth we will find it and get it to you for the service." And they did. At another service, a request had been made for the deceased’s two Doberman pinschers to stand at the foot of their master’s casket. They did and they never moved or barked.
The home deals with 'celebrity' in different ways too depending on family wishes. For example the recent Joan Rivers funeral was extremely private and had a guestlist whereas the recent Governor Cuomo was large and open to the public and they had to close down 79th to 86th street for 18 limousines to transport family and dignitaries from the home to St Patrick's Cathedral on 5th Avenue in Midtown (a HUGE deal and irritant to New Yorkers). Then when Vice President Biden wanted to pay his respects the entire cathedral had to be searched and locked down for the visitation which is a huge security task.
Campbell himself died on Jan. 19, 1934, at age 62 of heart disease.
The list of clients reads like a Who’s Who: Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Robert F. Kennedy, Ed Koch, Judy Garland, Leona Helmsley, Ed Sullivan, James Cagney, Greta Garbo, George Gershwin, William Randolph Hearst, Malcolm Forbes, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Joan Crawford, Rita Hayworth, L’Wren Scott, Heath Ledger, gangster Frank Costello and Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Last spotted at the Frank E Campbell Funeral home include:
Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle
Pedro Armendáriz, Jr.
Thomas E. Dewey
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Mary MacLeod Trump
The Notorious B.I.G.
Bishop Fulton J. Sheen