NEW CANAAN, Conn. — An outing hosted by the New Canaan Historical Society reached way into the past, as participants in the second annual cemetery tour Tuesday set out to discover what stories might lie at Long Ridge Union Cemetery in Stamford.
With an eye out for notables resting in peace at this spot, the group met near a vault that dated from 1889, near the entrance. Tour leader Patricia Funt Oxman shared a story about a woman buried there. She had been a singer, so for years after her death, her husband would bring tapes of her singing and play them while visiting her gravesite.
From that spot, the group was led across thick, springy grass to the tombstone of a man named Smith. The last name emblazoned on one side of the stone did not do justice to his story. The other side revealed that it was the gravesite for one Walter Wesley Smith, more widely known as Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter Red Smith, who won in 1976, the second sportswriter to win, Oxman said.
At each stop along the tour, Oxman shared a brief biography of the person whose final resting place was visited, highlighting anything she found interesting, and showed the tour group a photograph of him or her.
Visiting Gilda Radner Wilder's site provoked the most reminiscences among the tour participants. Several recalled characters Radner had portrayed on "Saturday Night Live," sharing favorite catchphrases she used as Roseanne Roseannadanna or Emily Litella.
Not every person whose gravesite was visited was a celebrity. One family's story of tragic loss was tied to Peanuts creator Charles Schultz just by coincidence of a shared last name and a young boy's love of Snoopy. But hearing of his young fan's death, it is said the famed comicstrip creator visited the 8-year-old's grave himself.
Oxman shared stories of a famous boxer who married a Stamford socialite and distanced himself from his athletic claim to fame. Sports historians know James Joseph Tunney by another name, Gene Tunney, the man who defeated Jack Dempsey in a match famous for The Long Count.
Tunney's boxing career spanned 1915 to 1928. Yet there is no sign of that claim to fame at his gravesite. Instead, visitors may more quickly remark upon the unusual (for a cemetery) statue of three young boys on the site. His widow got special permission from the cemetery association to place the statue there. She and Tunney had three sons, as well as a daughter who was institutionalized after the murder of her husband.
After visiting several sites in the cemetery and a futile attempt to find one for Kenny Delmar, the actor who portrayed Sen. Beauregard Claghorn, the basis for the cartoon character Foghorn Leghorn, the group returned to the New Canaan Historical Society, where the tour had begun with Executive Director Janet Lindstrom.
There, author Patricia Brooks, whose book "Where The Bodies Are" inspired the first cemetery tour the society organized last year, gave a talk.
"This is the second annual cemetery tour, so we hope it will be an an annual event," Oxman said. She noted there are plenty of cemeteries nearby.
Why the attraction to visiting cemeteries?
“Part of it is so many people from so many different eras are all in one place,” Oxman said.
When visiting a cemetery in search of a particular gravesite, Brooks sometimes is surprised to find other interesting people buried nearby. She recommended stopping at a cemetery office and asking whether a map is available.
She recounted a visit to Westwood Cemetery in Los Angeles. While she was there, a bus with pulled up and a line of tourists visited Marilyn Monroe's grave. They then promptly returned to the bus and left.
"But so many other interesting people are here!" Brooks recalled thinking as she watched the bus depart. "They missed Truman Capote. He died while visiting Johnny Carson's ex-wife."
She explained that while some of his ashes were in Los Angeles, some had been taken back to New York at the insistence of his friends.
Brooks has included information on thousands of graves in her three books: "Where the Bodies Are," "Permanently New Yorkers," and "Laid to Rest in California." They can be found on Amazon.
For more information about the New Canaan Historical Society, click here.
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