What do Miles Davis, Joseph Pulitzer, Celia Cruz, Robert Moses and Fiorello La Guardia have in common: Woodlawn, the Bronx’s breathtaking cemetery
New York City has some of the most extraordinary cemeteries in the world. Woodlawn Cemetery in the northern Bronx is one of them. Reachable by the No. 4 train — it is appropriately the last stop — the cemetery is one of the finest you will find anywhere on earth.
Its gentle sloping hills, lawns, trees and wildlife are an urban oasis — you could be dropped here and conclude you’re no where near New York City. The mausoleums and monuments are designed by renowned architects and sculptors, and how they complement the natural setting is breathtaking.
Woodlawn is also home to a grand constellation of amazing interments, people who were influential in a range of fields. The list of notables here is too great for any one blog post, but I have selected a handful of graves that are extraordinary to behold.
The fall is a wonderful time to explore the cemetery, as I did recently with map in hand. Here are some selections from my visit, organized in order of how I encountered them as I strolled from the main gate on Jerome Avenue:
J.C. Penney — yes, THAT J.C. Penney — rests here.
F.W. Woolworth started his legendary, namesake five-and-dime chain, about as simple and all-American as you can get. His grave, however, is anything but a five-and-dime. In fact, building it required a staggering amount of nickels and dimes, just as his skyscraper in lower Manhattan did.
The Cuban flag rests on her crypt, along with photos of the beloved salsa performer. She shares the mausoleum with her husband, Pedro Knight.
"La Guarachera de Cuba:" In Cuba back in the day, they called salsa “guaracha,” so the epitaph appropriately remembers her as “The salsa singer of Cuba.”
This is her tomb’s stained-glass window, as seen from the outside. It depicts the patroness of Cuba, Our Lady of Charity of Cobre (la Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre).
Fiorello La Guardia
Fiorello La Guardia’s tombstone is simple yet elegant, and has a bit of a 1940s air. Fiorello means “little flower,” so it’s only natural that his grave should depict one.
These music legends are in the “jazz neighborhood” of the park.
Roach and Jacquet are across from the grave of Sir Miles Davis. His tomb is dramatic, but the lettering can be somewhat difficult to read.
Of course, the fulcrum of the jazz neighborhood is the grave of Duke Ellington. He and his relatives rest under a large tree, flanked by two stone crosses. It’s a simple but dramatic sight.
The grave and family plot of Irving Berlin, who penned some of the most memorable songs ever. Pay your respects during the Christmas season (“White Christmas”) or Easter (“Easter Parade”) or whenever, really.
Jay Gould, 19th century industrialist and robber baron, rests in this impossibly ostentatious, interpretable (and unmarked) temple set on a vast lawn.
He may not be a household name anymore, but this robber baron’s baby is: The Long Island Rail Road.
Elizabeth Cady Stanton
Elizabeth Cady Stanton, suffragette and pioneer of the women’s rights movement, is buried here. Her tombstone sums up her achievements.
Yellow journalist (and namesake of the considerably less yellow Pulitzer Prize) Joseph Pulitzer contemplates his final deadline here.
This is one of those graves where you just ask, “Wow, HE’S here?” Indeed, Herman Melville, the creator of “Moby Dick,” rests in Woodlawn beside his wife.
He’s hardly a household name, but J.C. Leyendecker is a big deal in the history of American illustration, publishing and advertising. He was the illustrator of the iconic Arrow Collar Shirt Man, and his work graced the cover of the Saturday Evening Post before the magazine’s famous association with Norman Rockwell.
Here lies the great political cartoonist and Tammany Hall scourge Thomas Nast, who crafted the popular image of Santa Claus and the Republican Party elephant. This is definitely the time of year to pay your respects.
This was perhaps the most surprising tomb, not so much for its ostentation but rather for its utter lack of it. Here lies Robert Moses, one of the most powerful men in the New York of the 20th century, who ruthlessly transformed Gotham and the region through public work projects that to this day remain both vital and controversial. Yet here he lies, in a mausoleum, surrounded by the fellow New Yorkers his decisions influenced, who are far from powerbrokers. It’s shocking, really.
Text and photos: Rolando Pujol
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