Entertainment

Excuse Her Dust: Searching for an Old Friend in the Bronx 


•• All photographs by Jim Burger ••

When it comes right down to it, there are only two ways to get into Woodlawn Cemetery, in the Bronx. You’re either a customer, or a visitor. Today, I’m just visiting. I’ve made the journey from Baltimore to seek an old friend who will be calling Woodlawn home until the end of time. The trip was easy enough: a couple of bumpy hours on Amtrak, a transfer to the 4 train to Woodlawn, and a ride to the end of the line. 

And for the over 310,000 souls who have found bliss eternal here, it really is the end of the line. 

I pass through the gate on Jerome Avenue, leaving the land of the living and breathing behind. A map courtesy of the Woodlawn Conservancy reads like a Who’s Who of business tycoons, celebrities, musicians, writers, actors, and athletes. They lie among ordinary men and women, but all have one thing in common—someone cared enough about them when they were alive to bury them here when they died. The day is cool and bright, and I can spend it searching the 400 acres for my friend, and meeting some of Woodlawn’s other residents. 

Nearby I see the tomb of James Cash Penney Jr. (1875–1971). I must pay my respects to the man who clothed me from kindergarten through high school; previous mourners have left pennies on the steps of the crypt. Penney opened his first one-room store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, in 1902, stocked high-quality goods, accepted only cash, and built an empire of 1,400 stores. Bucking a department store trend, 1,100 JCPenneys are still in operation today (accepting as payment the JCPenny charge card, Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express, PayPal, and, still, cash). Born into destitution, Penney was no stranger to what it would take to succeed: “Give me a stock clerk with a goal, and I’ll give you a man who will make history. Give me a man with no goals, and I’ll give you a stock clerk.” 

Across the lawn, another retailer, F.W. Woolworth, resides. Before Woolworth (1852–1919), shoppers asked salespeople to retrieve items from behind enclosed counters, then haggled over prices. Woolworth eschewed all of that, stocking fixed-price, low-cost goods on open shelves, so store patrons could examine products themselves. His first five-cent store failed, but when he introduced ten-cent articles, and the broader selection that came with them, business took off. Woolworth never looked back. From those nickels and dimes, he opened 1,000 stores and ran them from the Manhattan skyscraper—the world’s tallest building from 1913 to 1930—that still bears his name. His white-granite mausoleum is built in the Egyptian Revival style: Twin columns and winged solar discs flank a bronze door sporting royal figures and hieroglyphic characters. But the steps are guarded by female Greek sphinxes, and Egyptian sphinxes are male. Woolworth loved variety.

Also entombed is Woolworth’s granddaughter, Barbara Hutton. At the time of her mother’s death, in 1917, Hutton, then 5 years old, inherited $21 million of the Woolworth fortune, earning her the sobriquet “poor little rich girl” in the early years of the Great Depression. (Barbara found her mother’s body; Edna Hutton is widely believed to have committed suicide.) During her adventurous, albeit troubled, life, Hutton married and divorced seven men, four of whom were minor royalty. From 1942 to 1945, she was married to actor Cary Grant. At the time of her death, in 1979, she was nearly bankrupt, due in large part to her generosity to ex-husbands.

 

“Give me a stock clerk with a goal, and I’ll give you a man who will make history. Give me a man with no goals, and I’ll give you a stock clerk.”

 

No name is more synonymous with consumption than “Macy,” specifically, Rowland H. Macy (1822–1877). A New England shopkeeper who failed at business half a dozen times, on two coasts, he learned from his mistakes and invented the idea of the department store. From that idea grew “The World’s Largest Store.” He would pioneer children visiting Santa Claus at Christmas, large newspaper advertisements, lavishly decorated window displays, and the money-back guarantee. He and his wife, Louisa, lie beneath a substantial monument on Woodlawn’s east side, and, like the satellite stores that spread from Herald Square, Macy’s descendants are buried in all directions. 

Up a hill in the cemetery’s Arbutus section (in 2016, Woodlawn Cemetery qualified for Arboretum status for the number, variety, and condition of its trees), a simple stone reading “May R. Died 1-13-1928” marks the body of Ruth Brown Snyder. Snyder is one of six Woodlawn residents to die by capital punishment. She and her former lover, Judd Gray, were tried, convicted, and put to death for murdering Snyder’s husband, Albert. Snyder’s infamy came not from the murder, but rather the surreptitious, mid-execution photo of her in Sing Sing Prison’s electric chair. A Chicago Tribune photographer, working for the New York Daily News, attached a miniature camera to his ankle and snapped a photo just as the electricity was running through Snyder’s body. The lurid photo ran on the front page of “New York’s Picture Newspaper” the next day, and was a public sensation. Snyder was buried in the Brown family plot. But the ensuing publicity proved to be too much for the Woodlawn board of directors, and they quietly passed a resolution to accept no more victims of execution.

A cheerier energy emanates from the intersection of avenues Heather, Fir, and Knollwood. Known as the “Jazz Corner,” it is the final resting place for dozens of musicians and composers who created a hundred-plus-year-old finger-snapping sound, so dear to so many that the entire month of April is dedicated to jazz appreciation at Woodlawn. Within a stone’s throw sleep three giants: Duke Ellington, considered by many to be America’s greatest composer; Lionel Hampton, the “King of the Vibes”; and Miles Davis, who gave us the “Birth of the Cool.” Dozens of those stones, left by adoring fans, have landed on Davis’s shiny black-granite marker. Carved into the granite, the image of a trumpet, and the first two bars of the jazz standard “Solar.” A wealth of accolades has been heaped upon this trio: 25 Grammy Awards among them, President Nixon presented Ellington with the Medal of Freedom, and President Clinton gave Hampton the National Medal of the Arts. But it is their music that is eternal. For the rest of the day, the soundtrack in my head plays a continuous loop of Hampton’s “Flying Home,” Ellington’s “Satin Doll,” and Davis’s “Bye Bye Blackbird.” 

Up a hill and overseeing all of this is heavyweight boxer Harry Wills (1889–1958). Known as the “Brown Panther,” Wills held the World Colored Heavyweight title three times, finishing his career with 75 wins, 47 by knockout. But because of the so-called “color line,” Wills never got to take on white heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey to settle who the undisputed champion was. Fight fans will never know. Still, I think Wills got the better end of the deal. When Dempsey died, he was buried at the Southampton Cemetery, on Long Island, where the musical accompaniment can’t be nearly as good.  

In a cemetery filled with magnificent monuments, one of the most moving is the Straus Mausoleum. Isidor Straus was a co-owner of Macy’s department store with his brother Nathan. Beginning in 1873, they went from running a small concession in the basement of Rowland H. Macy’s original location, on 14th Street, to being part owners of R. H. Macy’s & Co., in 1884, to becoming sole owners, by 1896. Straus was returning from a European vacation with his wife, Ida, when the ship they were sailing on, the RMS Titanic, struck an iceberg and sank, on April 14, 1912. Isidor would not leave the ship while women and children were still aboard, and Ida was almost persuaded to board a lifeboat, but at the last moment handed her fur coat to her maid and told her to take her place. Ida joined her husband on the deck of the sinking ship, and surviving passengers heard her say, “We have been together for many years. Where you go, I go.” The family hired three noted artisans to construct their tomb: an Egyptian funerary barge carved by sculptor Lee Lawrie, a modest and simple stone structure designed by architect James Gamble Rogers, and ornate gates created by master blacksmith Samuel Yellin. Isidor’s body was recovered, but Ida’s was never found; his remains lie next to Ida’s empty vault. On a wall outside, a quote from the Song of Solomon is chiseled: “Many waters cannot quench love—neither can the floods drown it.” More than a memorial to the dead, the Straus shrine is a tribute to undying devotion. 

A straightforward stone mirrors the humble beginnings of songwriter Irving Berlin. Born in Imperial Russia, in 1888, his impoverished family came to America in the late 19th century, only to live in more poverty. With no schooling after the age of 13, the son of a synagogue cantor used the only tool available to him to earn a living … song. Singing in Bowery saloons for pennies, he honed his skills to create music that would endear itself to the audience—songs such as “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “God Bless America,” and the Academy Award–winning “White Christmas.” No less than George Gershwin called Berlin “the greatest songwriter that has ever lived.”

It’s a long but pleasant walk through the cemetery to reach the final resting place of Berlin’s crosstown rival George M. Cohan (1878–1942). No simple stone for the man who gave us the World War I morale booster “Over There,” as well as “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” and “You’re a Grand Old Flag.” His is a solid, gothic burial chamber, capped by a stone cross, with an interior bathed in the light filtered through Tiffany glass. Outside, two of those grand, not-so-old flags snap in the breeze. Aside from writing songs, Cohan was also an actor, producer, and theater proprietor—he rightfully earned his title “The Man who owned Broadway.” Cohan never won an Academy Award, as Berlin had, but James Cagney earned one portraying Cohan in the 1942 movie Yankee Doodle Dandy. So that’s the next best thing. 

Across Woodlawn Lake, in the Evergreen section, Joseph Pulitzer (1847–1911) is buried, along with seven other family members. Although he served in the U.S. House of Representatives for New York and the Missouri House of Representatives in St. Louis; published both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the New York World, newspapers that championed the working man over the interests of big business; led crusades against government corruption; and engaged in fierce circulation wars with publishing foe William Randolph Hearst (conflicts that coined the term “Yellow Journalism”), it is the prize given in his name for which he is best remembered. His monument features a lone, seated male figure, created by French-born American sculptor William Ordway Partridge. Two marble benches encourage visitors to just sit down. And nowhere, carved in any stone, is a mention of newspapers, or prizes. 

Fame eluded Herman Melville—during his lifetime Moby-Dick sold but 3,000 copies. But fame has found him now. Today, Melville (1819–1891) is considered an American treasure, his work taught in colleges and universities and studied in seminars and by literary societies. Beyond academia, the story of the great white whale Moby-Dick is the subject of movies and TV shows, and even fills the pages of comic books. At his gravesite, visitors have left behind flowers, coins, charms, a sailor’s cap, pencils, pens, weathered copies of his books, and even a fishing-lure-size metal white whale. The tombstone features the most exciting and terrifying object known to any writer—a blank sheet of paper. 

Twenty paces away, another writer, E.L. Doctorow, lies beneath a stone of granite etched with his signature. He was born in the Bronx and is buried in the Bronx. In between, he penned showpieces of historical fiction, such as The Book of Daniel, Ragtime, and Billy Bathgate. Upon his death, he was granted his last wish, to be buried as close to Herman Melville as possible. 

I finally find my friend’s headstone, that of Dorothy Parker. Parker, a writer, poet, wit, and founding member of the Algonquin Round Table, is a hero of mine for being all these things. Full disclosure, we never actually met, I just feel as if I know her through her writings. Unlike my trip to Woodlawn, hers was a long and arduous one. She was born in Long Branch, New Jersey, in 1893, sipped her last martini in New York City in 1967, and, a strong believer in the civil rights movement, bequeathed her estate to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., even though the two had never met. “I am deeply touched and gratified by this experience,” Dr. King said in a statement, on hearing about Parker’s will. “I am not referring to the monetary aspect at all. What impresses me and inspires me is that one of America’s most respected and warmly loved women of letters felt so committed to the civil rights movement that whatever she had she offered to it.” Following Dr. King’s assassination, the next year, her estate passed to the NAACP. In 1988, two decades after her death, including 17 undignified years in her lawyer’s filing cabinet, Parker’s ashes were finally entombed behind the NAACP headquarters, in northwest Baltimore. It was a peaceful spot, under some pine trees that swayed in the wind. The brass marker set in the ground even included Parker’s suggested epitaph, “Excuse my dust.” Over time, I brought many out-of-town visitors there when they asked to see the “real Baltimore,” and even wrote a few magazine articles instructing residents to make an excursion to the grave of our city’s adopted scribe. “Bring a flask to toast the old girl,” I wrote.

Everything was going fine until early 2020, when the NAACP announced that its headquarters was better suited for Washington, D.C. So Parker was on the move again. During one week in late August, her urn was exhumed and reinterred, this time at Woodlawn. Everything happened so fast, I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. So here I am. Her stone looks shiny and new compared to many I have seen today, adorned by the final stanza of her poem “Epitaph for a Darling Lady.” 

Leave for her a red young rose,
Go your way, and save your pity;
She is happy, for she knows
That her dust is very pretty.

A friend sent me a photo from the tombstone unveiling, on August 23, 2021. I noticed a couple of punctuation errors—a comma where Parker had used a semicolon, a missing period at the end. (That was the expression “It’s not like it’s carved in stone” at its most ironic … since this actually was carved in stone.) But these have since been corrected. Knowing Parker as I think I do, she would have seen the humor in the situation, and would have had something witty to say about it. It was getting late, and I had one more stop to make before catching the last train back to Baltimore, so I pulled a rock from my pocket, placed it on top of Parker’s new marker, and walked out the Webster Avenue gate. Cars were speeding down East 233rd street, heading toward the Bronx River Parkway, and suddenly the world got a whole lot louder. 

At the Algonquin Hotel, I find a peaceful nook in the back of the lobby and sink into a leather chair next to an, appropriately enough, round table. It is easy to imagine Parker sitting here gathering her thoughts before penning a piece for Vanity Fair, Vogue, or The New Yorker. The Blue Bar is temporarily closed, so after a little scrounging for ice, I conjure from my camera bag the necessary accouterments to produce a proper Martini. Algonquin management and staff seem unconcerned—I doubt I’m the first pilgrim on such a mission. Then I raise the glass, and say to no one in particular, “Excuse my dust.” Rest in Peace, Dorothy Parker, you finally made it home.  ❖

Jim Burger has been a photojournalist working out of Baltimore since 1982. His work has appeared in the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Examiner, the Sacramento Bee, the Washington Post, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He recently published a photographic memoir, What’s Not To Like? Words and Pictures of a Charmed Life.

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