Jaunty in a straw hat, khaki shorts, white socks, and sneakers, Philip Desiere stands, foldout map and a binder in hand, beneath the soaring Gothic revival brownstone spires of the Fifth Avenue entrance to New York’s Green-Wood Cemetery. “At the end of the 19th century, this was the place to be. It was the place to be seen, dead or alive,” Desiere says.
On a June day, coinciding with Brooklyn Pride, Desiere, like a gay Charon afloat on a rainbow river Styx, ferried 30 people through a two-hour trolley tour of Green-Wood’s notable LGBT graves.
Founded in 1838, Green-Wood is a bucolic, 478-acre chunk of Brooklyn that is home to nearly 600,000 permanent residents, with graves stacked three to a plot.
On our abridged visit, Desiere’s first stop is the weathered marble headstone of Louis Moreau Gottschalk, America’s first pop star, a handsome, mustachioed composer and lifelong bachelor of Jewish and Creole descent.
“He was like Liberace!” Desiere says. “He initiated that trend of playing to the female audience, and women would swoon over him. But all of his major friendships were with men, and there’s no evidence of his involvement with women.” Gottschalk died in Brazil in 1869, at age 40. He collapsed on stage following a performance of his song “Morte!” (“She Is Dead”).
“Leonard Bernstein is just up the hill,” Desiere says, indicating Battle Hill, the most prestigious area of Green-Wood and the site of the first military engagement of the Revolutionary War after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
Over the hill, a great, white marble keister catches the warm afternoon sun. “Civic Virtue,” says Desiere. “It’s a very homoerotic sculpture.” The 11-foot-tall, 22- ton-statue of a nude, husky young man (Virtue) trampling two nude female figures (Vice) was controversial when it was erected in 1922, and stood in City Hall Park until Mayor Fiorello La Guardia exiled it to Queens in 1941. In 2012, it ended up at Green-Wood.
A few years ago, Desiere, a 61-year-old former art director, combined his two loves of walking and New York to form his tour guide company, Walk About New York. In 2008, for his now-husband’s 50th birthday, the couple pilgrimaged to Père-Lachaise, in Paris, to visit Oscar Wilde’s tomb and stayed in the same room (number 16 at l’Hôtel) where the writer died in 1900. The experience had a lasting effect.
Other points of interest on Desiere’s Gay Graves Tour include the Tiffany family plot and the grave of Violet Oakley (1874–1961), who, in 1902, received the largest public mural commission for an American woman until that time, at the Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg. She lived in a “Boston marriage” with three other female artists (nicknamed the Red Rose Girls). There’s also the grave of Paul Jabara, who wrote Donna Summer’s 1978 hit “Last Dance,” and later invented the now-iconic red AIDS ribbon.
Along the manicured shores of Sylvan Water, where the mausoleums edge together like little clubhouses, Fred Ebb, the Broadway composer, is entombed alongside Edwin Aldridge, a stage manager, reportedly his lover, and a third man, Martin Cohen, all under the inscription together forever. Two doors down, encircled by stately marble columns, lies Emile Pfizer (1866–1941), the president of the pharmaceutical company.
“A prominent businessman who never married?” Desiere teases.
In Section 76, just off Evergreen Path, we duck beneath a wide-set oak tree into a shadowy alcove where the Stebbins family rests. While studying in Rome, sculptress Emma Stebbins (1815–1882) met and fell in love with American actress Charlotte Cushman, known at the time for playing male roles like Hamlet and Romeo. The two would go on to spend the rest of their lives together.
Back in New York, Stebbins received a major public-art commission for what would become one of the city’s most famous landmarks, the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. Atop the fountain, a bronze, eight-foot-tall winged angel touches down, modeled on Cushman.
“You might say a lesbian angel stands over all of Central Park,” Desiere said.
He’d like to see the cemetery commission a replacement headstone for Stebbins, since the original marble is disintegrating from decades of weather. The text is nearly illegible, though just below her name one can barely make out the remains of a verse, from Romans 13:10.
Love is the fulfilling of the law, it reads.