A Visit to Ferncliff Cemetery

October 24, 2022
By: Amanda Davis

Happy LGBT History Month! A couple of weeks ago, I visited Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, just north of the city in Westchester County. It’s a place I’ve been wanting to visit for a few years now because it’s where writer and activist James Baldwin is buried.

Before my mother and I drove to the cemetery, I looked up the “Celebrities & Notables” list on Ferncliff’s website to see who else we might visit. It’s a pretty impressive list!

LGBT notables there that we didn’t visit, due to time constraints, include society leader Elsa Maxwell (1883-1963), actress Ona Munson (1910-1955), who played Belle Watling in Gone with the Wind (1939), and novelist Cornell Woolrich (1903-1968). Also of note is Conrad Veidt (1893-1943), a straight actor who starred in what is believed to be the world’s earliest pro-gay film, the German silent movie Different from the Others (1919). It was co-written by sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, who is not buried at Ferncliff but whose 1930s visit to New York City is mapped on our website. Gay icon Judy Garland (1922-1969) was interred at Ferncliff until 2017, when she was moved to Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles at the request of her daughter, Liza Minnelli.

The following three people from Ferncliff’s list of notables — all pioneering LGBT African Americans — are featured on our website. With Pride flag in hand, my mother and I navigated our way around the cemetery to pay our respects on what turned out to be a picture-perfect October day.

Gravesite of Moms Mabely and her daughter Bonnie at Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York. Photo by Amanda Davis/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2022.

The first gravesite we visited was Jackie “Moms” Mabley (1899-1915), a stand-up comedian in the mid-20th century who was known as “The Funniest Woman in the World.” She is mentioned in two places on our website: the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where she is credited as the first woman to headline a performance there, and the Ed Sullivan Theater in Midtown, where she appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s.

Gravesite of James Baldwin and his mother Berdis at Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York. Photo by Amanda Davis/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2022.

We next visited novelist and civil rights activist James Baldwin (1924-1987). He is featured in several places on our website, including his Upper West Side residence, which we successfully nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in 2019 for its significance to Black and LGBT history. The rowhouse at 81 Horatio Street in Greenwich Village, where he lived from 1958 to 1961, was where he worked on his third novel, Another Country (1962). This December will mark the 35th anniversary of his death.

Gravesite of Alberta Hunter at Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale, New York. Photo by Amanda Davis/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2022.

Our last stop was the gravesite of blues legend Alberta Hunter (1895-1984). She is featured in several places on our website, including her Harlem residence at 133 West 138th Street, which she owned from 1927 until at least 1945, and the Apollo Theater, where she performed.

I almost thought we weren’t going to find her because when we followed the grave numbering system the spot where she should have been was just a patch of grass. We looked in several other places and then, when I was just about to call it a day, I looked to my right and saw her smiling face looking back at me! If you’d like to visit her just know that she’s in the same row that you’d think she’d be (if you follow the numbering system) but she’s a bit further down to the left. We also shared a quick clip of the Pride flag swaying in the breeze by her gravesite on our Instagram page to commemorate the anniversary of her death on October 17th.

More Cemetery Tributes
The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project team loves paying tribute to LGBT people in their final resting places. Co-director Jay Shockley and I visited Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C., last month to visit the likes of gay rights leaders Frank KamenyBarbara Gittings, Kay Lahusen, and Leonard Matlovich, as well as Alain Locke, known as the “Dean” of the Harlem Renaissance. You can catch our Instagram Reel from that trip.

Green-Wood Tour, group shot 2018
Attendees help us place Pride flags at the gravesites of LGBT notables during our annual “Gay Green-Wood” trolley tour in Brooklyn, 2018.

Want to join us in the future? We lead cemetery tours annually at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx and place Pride flags at the gravesites of LGBT notables. These are typically held in either the spring or the fall and are always very moving and popular events. Follow us on social media (@nyclgbtsites) or subscribe to our email list (sign-up box below) to be the first to know the next time we schedule an outing.