Cemeteries you should visit in New York, US: Green-Wood and Woodlawn cemeteries

Now, there are certain guys and dolls in the world for whom a slow perambulation through a cemetery is like catnip. Show them a graveyard and a headstone or two and they will be happy like a pig at a trough.

This is easy for me to say for I am one of them. We are what the educated among you will call a taphophile (a personage who takes an inordinate interest in such things; from the Greek) but which other people will call a cemetarian or a tombstone tourist.

I am happy any way you might like to crumble that cookie. Just point me to Sydney's Rookwood, London's Highgate or Pere Lachaise in Paris and I am happy for hours just paying my respects to Oscar Wilde, Monsieur Parmentier (of potato fame), Karl Marx or Douglas Adams.

And so I am in New York and wish to do the same to the late and very great Damon Runyon, who is a literary hero of mine. I am more than somewhat taken with Mr Runyon's work, especially titles such as Guys and Dolls and the short stories contained in the On Broadway collection which takes pride of place on my bookshelf whenever I have a bookshelf.

Mr Runyon, who died in 1946, was a newspaperman of great repute who wrote comic stories in a singular present-tense style about the demi-monde of crooks, gamblers and hustlers who populated Broadway and thereabouts in Prohibition-era New York.

It is my assertion that he is too little known today outside mentions of the aforesaid Guys and Dolls. No matter. While the others in my Constellation Journeys group are off visiting the 9/11 Memorial or The Met I set my sights on the Bronx, for research shows that is where the writer is buried, in Woodlawn Cemetery.

However, said research reveals also that Jean-Michel Basquiat, William "Boss" Tweed and Leonard Bernstein are buried in Green-Wood, a cemetery in Brooklyn, at the opposite end of New York.

I think perhaps Mr Runyon is telling me something. Come talk to the worms in the Big Apple, maybe?

I decide to leave Mr Runyon until last and make plans to go to Green-Wood first. It seems every writer and their dog is visiting Green-Wood at one time or another. Charles Dickens, Paul Auster, Patricia Highsmith and Walt Whitman all rhapsodise about it on the map and guide I pick up at the gothic archway which doubles as the front entrance on 5th Avenue and 25th Street.

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There are 478 acres of landscaped land here and Basquiat, it transpires, is right over the other side near the Fort Hamilton Parkway entrance. It is a bit of a trot so I head instead for Leonard Bernstein's memorial, which turns out to be an understated plaque set flat in the grass. There are several little American flags planted around the plaque and a single red rose in cellophane placed just so. Bernstein's wife, Felicia, is ensconced next to him.

It is a pretty spot but also fortuitous in that to reach it I have to pass both the Civil War Soldiers' monument and Minerva and the Altar to Liberty (a sculpture commemorating the Battle of Brooklyn in 1776). In reading about these two impressive memorials I also discover that this is the highest natural point in Brooklyn – an odd fact to get the old noggin around, given the views of the soaring Manhattan skyline across the river.

I decide to give Basquiat a miss – he'll keep – and just explore this small north-eastern corner. Here, I come across the memorial to the Brooklyn Theatre Fire of 1876, the Van Ness-Parsons Mausoleum (a pyramid-shaped monument with Christian and Egyptian symbols) and a modern art installation by one Sophie Calle called Here Lie the Secrets of the Visitors of Green-Wood Cemetery.

It is a delight, this place, this massive necropolis full of peace and wonder and surprise, its trimmed lawns, hillocks and gentle rises overlaid with more than 7000 trees that throw gentle, bosky shade on dead and living alike. You could spend days here and not be bored.

But Mr Runyon calls and it is time to hightail it to Woodlawn station, which is at the end of the Number 4 line (the Lexington Avenue Express), about 45 minutes from Grand Central station.

Woodlawn, established in 1863, is 400 acres large and the final resting place of 310,000 individuals and counting. Some 100,000 people from all over the world visit it every year.

I am in a small outer foyer at the Jerome Avenue entrance, trying to get my head around the cemetery guide (it's not easy to fit 400 acres and 310,000 dead people on to a manageable-sized map, believe you me), when a woman appears and asks what I am about. What I am about, I say, is trying to find Damon Runyon but also, now that I am here, I would like to pop by to see Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Irving Berlin, Herman Melville, E.L. Doctorow, the Bache Mausoleum and the Pulitzer Memorial.

"How long you got?" she asks. Well, in truth, she does not say any such thing but I am sure I see it in her eyes. Instead, she photocopies the map and we sit down in another office while she pinpoints my wish list and uses a pink highlighter to draw the most efficient way of reaching them all in less than the month it will take me if left to my own devices.

My advisor has been working at Woodlawn for 17 years and as such knows where all the bodies are buried. I wish I had taken down her name down as I would like to thank her for her help.

I follow her pink trail as best as I can. Miles Davis and Duke Ellington are within a trumpet call of each other, as are E.L. Doctorow and his idol, Herman Melville. Quite apart from the burial plots and marble and stained glass mausoleums on my list this is a place of fascination and wonder at the methods and means by which we choose to commemorate life and death.

The Woolworth Mausoleum, for instance, is an Egyptian revival tomb which contains the earthly remains of the store founder F.W. Woolworth (1852-1919) and those of his poor-little-rich-girl grand-daughter Barbara Hutton, who was interred here in 1979.

Augustus Juillard is here, as is Fiorello LaGuardia, the first woman  to swim the English Channel and the guy who designed the "Uncle Sam Wants You" poster. The one person who is not here is … Damon Runyon.

After much searching I find the Runyon family plot and a simple headstone which says, Runyon. However, he is not and never was, under it.

Runyon died in New York in late 1946, age 66, and was cremated. His friend, the World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker took said ashes and scattered them – illegally – over Runyon's beloved Broadway from his DC-3 airplane.

So, if you are were walking along Broadway on December 18, 1946, you probably inhaled a bit of Damon Runyon. I am happy to lay a little 6 to 5 that the man himself approves.

Keith Austin was a guest of Constellation Journeys.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-york

woodlawncemetery.org

green-wood.com

TOUR

Constellation Journeys is one of Australia's newest travel companies and offers unique, all-inclusive itineraries aboard privately chartered aircraft and trains around the world.

Upcoming tours include a 20-day trip from Moscow to Berlin on a privately chartered train (departing June 2019) and an 18-day trip from Cape Town to Addis Ababa (departing April 2019) by privately chartered aircraft and the renowned Blue Train.

Constellation Journeys' next Around The World trip – in a 747 updated to an A380 interior – leaves Australia on September 30, 2019, and visits South Korea (Seoul), Israel (Jerusalem and Bethlehem), Malta, Spain (Barcelona); Colombia (Cartagena), Peru (Cuzco and Machu Picchu) and Easter Island. See constellationjourneys.com.au

STAY

We stayed at five-star Parker Hotel on West 56th Street. . The enclosed rooftop swimming pool has magnificent views across the city. See parkernewyork.com

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