Greenwood Heights

Green-Wood Historic Fund honors legendary author-documentarian Geoffrey Ward

Cemetery Takes Another Step in its Transformation into a Place of Living History

September 15, 2016 By Andy Katz Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
From left: Documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, Green-Wood President Richard Moylan, author and honoree Geoffrey Ward and documentary producer Lynn Novick. Eagle photos by Andy Katz

It’s rare that the legacy of a great man coincides comfortably with that of a very bad one, but that is just what happened at Green-Wood Cemetery on Wednesday night, when the Green-Wood Historic Fund bestowed an award named for one of New York’s greatest men onto the great-grandson of one of its most notorious. Accepting the ninth annual DeWitt Clinton Award for Excellence, author and seven-time Emmy Award-winner Geoffrey Ward described his ancestor, swindler Ferdinand Ward, as “the Bernie Madoff of his day — a man without a single redeeming characteristic whatever.”

It should probably come as no surprise that both former New York Gov. Clinton and Sing Sing prison alumnus Ward are interred at Green-Wood as well. Both are, in the parlance of cemetery staff, “permanent residents.”

Cemeteries are typically thought of as static structures — silent, forbidding necropolises upon which the living intrude only for funerals and occasional, solemn visits. In honoring a historian with Geoffrey Ward’s renown, Green-Wood continues to transform its focus from the dead onto the living.

Already well known for its Battle of Long Island re-enactments, Memorial Day concerts and trolley tours that wind along the cemetery’s steep paths, the Green-Wood Historic Fund pressed forward with an auction presided over by Manhattan School of Music Conductor Brian Worsdale. Included among the items auctioned were a guest-conductor spot for 2017’s Memorial Day concert, autographed editions of Burns-Ward documentary collaborations and an insider’s tour of the restored Weir Greenhouse.

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“We had 250,000 people visit Green-Wood last year,” Green-Wood Chairman of the Board Payson Coleman told the audience.

“‘We’re looking to a point, not far [from] now, where Green-Wood will have run out of room for traditional interments,” Green-Wood President Richard Moylan explained. “The model [for the Green-Wood Historic Fund] is somewhat like the Prospect Park Alliance, only we don’t rely on public funds to the same extent.”

With that in mind, New York Times Food Editor Sam Sifton, who emceed the event, reminded the audience: “The fuel of New York philanthropy is alcohol!” before turning the podium over to Worsdale for the auction.

Once fundraising chores were complete, it was time to honor the author and co-author of 18 books, more than a dozen documentary scripts and former editor of American Heritage magazine.

“My work with Geoffrey Ward has been the most significant collaboration of my professional life,” famed documentary filmmaker Ken Burns said by way of introduction. “To know him is to know me.”

Accepting the engraved Tiffany crystal, Ward spoke eloquently of how sites such as Green-Wood have the power to bring visitors closer to the past: “It’s important to get historians to understand the importance of this place,” he told the audience.

“We have a lot going for us,” Moylan said later.

Certainly Green-Wood has long since joined the ranks of Paris’ Pere Lachaise and New Orleans’ St. Louis No. 1 as a significant tourist destination. Recent online editions of Newsday, Trip Advisor, Time-Out NY and Hello Brooklyn all list Green-Wood Cemetery as a must-see for visitors to the borough.

City Councilmember for the 38th District Carlos Menchaca summed up the Green-Wood Historic Trust’s mission: “It’s beyond the brick and mortar; it’s the hearts and minds!”

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