By Phoebe Neidl / July 29, 2009
BROOKLYN — Green-Wood Cemetery has proven to be fertile ground for author Benjamin Feldman. This summer marked the release of his second book, and just as his first, it tells the true and titillating tale of one of the historic cemetery’s permanent residents.
“I like raising the dead,” says Feldman, “revivifying the past, and connecting with what was blowing in the wind back in the 1850s or 1920s.”
After years spent unearthing documents in dusty basements, courthouses, libraries, and of course, the Green-Wood archives, Feldman emerged with Call Me Daddy, which recounts the story of millionaire real estate mogul Edward West Browning, a man whose salacious antics frequently graced the sensational front pages in 1920s New York.
After divorcing his first wife in 1924, Browning placed an ad for a teenage “playmate” for his 9-year-old adopted daughter, interviewing many of the 12,000 applicants as they sat on his knee. When it turned out the chosen girl lied about her age and circumstances, Browning, 51, turned to sponsoring high school sorority dances, where he met his 15-year-old wife-to-be, Frances “Peaches” Heenan. The couple’s divorce proceedings went on for years and were avidly followed by a scandal hungry public as the eccentric details of their union were spilled in the courtroom.
“It’s not so different from what goes on today,” says Feldman. “People have an interest in scandals and highly eccentric stories, men who have no self control. If we really thought it was awful we would ignore it.”
Feldman’s first book, Butchery on Bond Street, tells a similarly sensational, albeit more gruesome, story of the murder of a prominent Manhattan dentist, Dr. Harvey Burdell, and his mistress, Emma Cunningham, who was suspected but acquitted of the crime in a trial that made front page news for months in 1857. Thirty years later, Cunningham ended up buried in Green-Wood, just a few hundred yards from Burdell.
“If you were anyone if Manhattan or Brooklyn, and you weren’t Catholic or Jewish, you were buried in Green-Wood. Everyone was buried there,” says Feldman. Founded in 1838, Green-Wood was one of the first “rural” cemeteries in the country, and with its beautiful landscaping, gently sloping lawns, and impressive sculptures, it was a huge tourist attraction as well. It is the final resting-place for more than a half million people, ranging from the noted to the notorious, and behind every gravestone is a story.
“I lived in New York City for 31 years before I set foot in Green-Wood Cemetery,” marveled Feldman, a Tennessee native who at age 10 vowed to live in New York.
“I went to the Memorial Day Concert in 2000, and at the intermission wandered around and came upon Jeff Richman’s beautiful book [Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery: New York’s Buried Treasure, 1998],” Feldman recalled. “I took it home and I couldn’t put it down. I finished it that night, of course.”
And so the gothic gates of Green-Wood offered Feldman passage to another life. After toiling away as a lawyer and real estate executive for decades, Feldman now devotes himself full time to writing, and to New York City history, a lifelong passion. “I was the in-house historian,” Feldman says of his real estate days. “I was the guy poking around in the basement after we bought a property.”
Now he works as a volunteer archivist at the cemetery every week. Although people are still being interred at Green-Wood, “it is trending toward becoming an historic site,” says Feldman. Its rapidly growing archive is home to thousands of historic items — photos, paintings, letters — mostly pertaining to the cemetery’s interred, making it a tremendous historical repository of 19th and 20th century New York, and an endless source of inspiration for Feldman.
In addition to his two books, he has published several essays on other historic figures and objects he has come across in his time at Green-Wood.
“There is a lifetime of work at Green-Wood for me,” Feldman says. “I just love the place.”
To purchase Call Me Daddy or Butchery on Bond Street, both of which are published by the Green-Wood Historic Fund, visit www.green-wood.com. The books are also available on Amazon and at Barnes & Noble stores in Manhattan and Brooklyn. For updates on Feldman’s abundant research, visit his blog, new-york-wanderer.blogspot.com.
© Brooklyn Daily Eagle 2009