“The cemetery is an open space among the ruins, covered in winter with violets and daisies. It might make one in love with death, to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”
―from “Adonaïs” 1821 by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822); the English poet describes Rome’s Cimitero Acattolico, where his friend John Keats and himself are buried.
The weather on Saturday, the 14th of June was picture perfect for what I affectionately call, the Gay Graves Tour at Green-Wood Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark in Brooklyn. This was a historic tour, the first one to focus on the gay men and lesbians buried at this beautiful cemetery. The 30 tour participants enjoyed the sights, the views and the history offered up as part of this unique tour. We had some good laughs, too!
The first stop for any tour at Green-Wood is always its fabulous 1863 entry gates. Waiting for the tour to begin, I stood on a hill near one of Green-Wood’s 8,000 trees; three hundred of them were downed by Hurricane Sandy at Green-Wood.
At the foot of Battle Hill I explained to the crowd New York City’s 1869 monument to its fallen soldiers of the U.S. War Between the States. The monument is constructed of Maine gray granite; but there are no records of the designer or builder. This is most unusual for such a significant monument.
From behind the 1922 Altar to Liberty I am pointing out the direct sight line to the Statue of Liberty. This is where the American Revolutionary Battle of Brooklyn, also known as the Battle of Long Island, was fought. The Altar to Liberty was built by Charles Higgins, who made a fortune with ink. His goal was to recognize the historic importance of this August 27th 1776 battle, the first to be fought after the Declaration of Independence was signed. It was also the largest battle of the American Revolutionary War, engaging a combined total of 50,000 men from both sides.
I am about to place a stone on the grave marker of Maestro Leonard Bernstein (1918–1990). In the Jewish tradition a stone, not flowers, is placed at the grave of the deceased. The stone represents the lasting memory of the deceased. Maestro Bernstein was one of the first of the gay graves we visited; his is located on Battle Hill. Maestro Bernstein was gay.
With the group of tour participants I am standing next to the grave of the man I call the bad guy of the tour. Eli Siegel (1902–1978) developed a philosophy he called Aesthetic Realism. An aspect of this philosophy advocated that by following it a gay man could be cured, or become straight. This is why he is the bad guy of the tour.
Here I stand by the headstone of the good guy of the tour, Dr. Richard Isay (1936–2012). In his psychiatric practice he helped gay men accept themselves; this was rare in the 1970s. He also pressured the American Psychoanalysts Association to allow openly gay men to train and practice psychotherapy. For these reasons he is the tour’s good guy.
The Stebbins family plot at Green-Wood holds the remains of Emma Stebbins (1815–1882), one of two lesbian artists on the tour. She sculpted the Angel of the Waters for the fountain at Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace. Her white marble gravestone is badly worn by acid rain. I believe, because of her artistic contribution in general, and to Central Park in particular, she deserves a more legible headstone.
Brooklyn-born Jean-Michele Basquiat (1960–1988) was not gay; but he had many gay artist friends, including Andy Warhol, who had a crush on him. It was an unrequited love, or perhaps lust! Visitors to Basquiat’s grave often leave mementos; therefore at the top of headstone, and at its base, poems, artwork, sunglasses, cigarette lighters, etc. can be found.
Another Brooklyn native, Paul Jabara (1948–1992) shares a grave with his sister, next to their parents. This grave-side visit was an emotional experience. Mr. Jabara is credited with the red ribbon idea. Today, because good causes are awash in a rainbow of ribbon colors it is often forgotten that the red ribbon was the first. In 1992 Mr. Jabara created it to call attention to the devastating AIDS crisis. This simple accessory was first worn at the 1992 Academy Awards ceremony. I remember it well. Thank you Mr. Jabara.
Born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Fred Ebb (1928–2004) is the only gay man on the tour who has a mausoleum. This is waterfront property, facing one of the four glacial ponds at Green-Wood. This fronts onto Sylvan Water. Mr. Ebb is “Together Forever” here with Edwin ‘Eddie’ Aldridge, who managed Kandor & Ebb Broadway musicals, and with Martin Cohen, who is mystery man. I could not find any information about Mr. Cohen.
The simple but elegant stained glass window at the rear of the Ebb mausoleum shows a torch with one flame parted in three.
I must thank my husband Tom for taking these photos. He was a great support throughout the Gay Graves project.