Saturday, November 26, 2016

VALHALLA, NEW YORK: KENSICO CEMETERY

I always thought "Upstate New York" referred to the northern portion of New York State, but it really refers to just about everything north of New York City, which means most of the state. The map below shows "downstate New York" broken off from the rest of the state. Are all Westerners as clueless as I am?
Map from here
Therefore, all of the places we visited outside of NYC were "Upstate," even though some of them were within an hour's drive of the city. However, Upstate and Downstate New York are very distinct. The population of the 4,000 square miles that make up Downstate NY is over 12 million, while the population of the 54,500 miles that are Upstate NY is 7 million.  The population density is 3,077 people/square mile in Downstate NY and 130 people/square mile in Upstate New York. BIG difference.

We loved driving around in Upstate New York, even though we never made it to Upper Upstate New York. The drive from Albany back to NYC reminds me of West Virginia, hilly and heavily wooded.




I loved all of it . . . well, almost all of it:

Ever since we visited the Oz Museum in Wamego, Kansas, I've been on a Wizard of Oz kick.  High on my list of Places to Visit in Southern California is L. Frank Baum's grave in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, which is between Los Angeles and Pasadena. By chance I read somewhere that W. W. Denslow, the illustrator of the original Oz books, was buried in Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York. His simple, magical drawings are part of what made me an Oz convert, and so I convinced Bob that it would be worth a slight detour to stop at the cemetery on our final day in New York as we drove back to the airport.
First a word about Valhalla. In Norse mythology, Valhalla is a heavenly paradise for slain warriors. In New York State, it is an unincorporated area, population 3,100, in the town of Mount Pleasant, population 44,000. The star attraction in Valhalla is, fittingly, a cemetery. 
The first interment in Kensico Cemetery was in 1889. The cemetery's website gives a good overview:
In 1889, at a time when cemeteries in New York City were reaching full capacity, the Kensico Cemetery founders sought to establish a cemetery consistent with the new, rural concept of the time. A 250-acre tract of farmland located in the hamlet of Valhalla in Westchester Counter was carefully selected, approved for use as a cemetery, and developed to take advantage of the natural features of the landscape. Roads were designed to curve gradually and gracefully through the valleys and over hills, creating a spacious, tranquil, pastoral place where loved ones could be buried and remembered for eternity.
I enjoy visiting cemeteries, and this is a particularly lovely one. It's so lovely, in fact, that it has attracted many famous people to choose it as their final resting place, including Beverly Sills, Anne Bancroft, Florenz Ziegfield (Founder of Ziegfield Follies), comedian Soupy Sales, and others.
We picked up a map (yes, just like Forest Lawn) and found the area where W. W. Denslow's grave was supposed to be. The "important" graves are marked with a number like this:
We looked and we looked, but we never found it. I was very disappointed.

If we had found it, Wikipedia says it would look like this:

However, as compensation, we DID find the grave of Billie Burke, wife of Florenz Ziegfield--not that I care about that.

What matters to me is her most famous acting role as Glinda the Good Witch of the North:

Not far from Billie's modest marker is this larger-than-life sculpture. An inscription on the base reads "In memory of my mother, Blanche Beatty Burke 1844-1921." Sweet Glinda. What a nice thing to do for your mom.

If you've read some of my other posts about cemeteries (here, here, here, here, here, and here, to name just a few), you'll know I'm a cemetery paparazzo, so of course I had a few other names on my list that I wanted to tract down, such as the memorial to Russian-American Ayn Rand, author of the book Atlas Shrugged, among others. 
Her husband was not Frank O'Connor the famous Irish writer, but Frank O'Connor the actor, rancher, and painter, whom she met on a movie set where they were both extras.

Ayn and Frank were married in 1929 and stayed married for 50 years. Theirs was a true love affair, with Frank giving up acting to become a rancher so that he could support Ayn in her writing.
Picture from here

We were intrigued by these gifts left on the headstones: coins and rocks. Ayn Rand was Jewish, and it is a poignant Jewish custom to place rocks on tombstones to indicate the grave has been visited and the deceased has not been forgotten. I'm not sure about why the coins were there (leaving coins is actually a military tradition), but they seem a fitting tribute to Rand's philosophy of Objectivism, a kind of uber-Capitalism.

Next was the grave of Tommy Dorsey, the Big Band Era trombone player, composer, conductor, and bandleader. He is buried at Kensico next to his third wife, Copacabana nightclub dancer Jane Carl New:

Listen to this for a minute and you'll understand why he was called "The Sentimental Gentleman of Swing":

Set back in the trees is a large Orthodox cross, the marker of the burial spot of Russian composer, pianist, and conductor Sergei Rachmaninoff:

Listen to him playing his own composition, Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, with the Philadelphia Orchestra. If you don't want to listen to the whole thing, skip through to view the interesting images of Rachmaninoff that the video creator has paired with the music:

He composed one of his most famous piano pieces, Prelude in C Sharp Minor, when he was just nineteen years old. Listen to him playing it here. 

Sergei is buried next to his wife Natalya Satina (whose name is covered by the greenery), who was his first cousin.


Photo of Natalya and Sergei from here
Next to them is their oldest daughter Irina, who married German royalty. Her husband died shortly before the birth of their first child, however, and Irina and her child were basically supported by her parents thereafter.

Irina and Sergei. Picture from here.

Of all the graves we saw, however, our favorite was baseball great Lou Gehrig's, decorated with about two dozen baseballs, a baseball mitt, a New York Yankees hat, and two American flags (along with a bunch of pebbles on the headstone):


I recently learned that Lou Gehrig weighed almost 14 pounds at birth. He was the second of four children, and his three siblings all died of childhood diseases. As a baseball player, he won six World Series, was the American League home run hitter leader three different times, and once hit four home runs in a single game. He was only 36 when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), and he died just short of two years later. ALS is now commonly known as "Lou Gehrig's Disease."
Lou Gehrig, 1923. Photo from here.
Lou and his wife Eleanor only had eight years together and had no children, and though Eleanor outlived Lou by 43 years, she never remarried. She is reported to have said, "I had the best of it. I would not have traded two minutes of my life with that man for 40 years with another." She was buried by his side.

So many great stories are buried in cemeteries.  I'd love to just walk around, chose ten random headstones, and find out who is buried underneath. One of the things I've learned in my career of teaching English is that everyone has a story.

Well, it was time to get to the airport, so we left Kensico Cemetery and Valhalla . . . 

. . . and we got back on the road:

But wait! Here is another famous name:


I guess Jackie Robinson, another of America's heroes, will have to wait for our next trip to New York City.

3 comments:

  1. I enjoyed the tour of Valhalla - especially Lou Gherig's grave. Who knew that he died from Lou Gehrig's Disease - what a tragic coincidence!

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  2. I love the education on up-state and down-state NY. It seems crazy that the state is governed from Albany. I also love the idea of the stories of all of the deceased people everywhere. People are fascinating.

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  3. Here's one of the saddest parts of the trend of cremation: those who wander the cemeteries of the future will miss our generation, with our stories and tragedies and love stories. I love cemeteries, too.

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