Washington Cemetery is a historic treasure

Eye on Real Estate: Hollywood actress and 'the Jewish Shakespeare' rest in peace at this Brooklyn graveyard

August 16, 2017 By Lore Croghan Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Washington Cemetery is an important Brooklyn graveyard. It was founded in the 1840s. Eagle photo by Lore Croghan
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Ten thousand fans rioted at her grave.

Crowds at Washington Cemetery went wild at Brooklyn-born Hollywood actress Lilyan Tashman’s March 1934 burial.

According to a United Press newswire account, 30 police officers formed a square around her grave to hold back a mob of mostly female fans.

They came to bid farewell to the glamor girl who died of cancer at the tragically young age of 37.

During her short life, Tashman appeared in 67 films, having made the transition from silent movies to talkies thanks to her experience as a theater actress. She was nicknamed “the Best-Dressed Woman on the Screen” because of her dazzling off-screen wardrobe.

What her fans didn’t know, but writers about Hollywood’s history revealed in recent years, was that Tashman was one of Greta Garbo’s lovers.

The cemetery where Tashman was laid to rest amid her fans’ hysteria is in the middle of Brooklyn, at the intersection of Bay Parkway and McDonald Avenue. The 100-acre graveyard is located partly within a neighborhood called Mapleton.

Have you been to Washington Cemetery? It’s a historic treasure.

We made a visit the other day so we could pay our respects to another celebrity of yesteryear who was buried there — a playwright known as “the Jewish Shakespeare.” More about him in a minute.


Cemetery founded in the 1840s

The cemetery was founded in the 1840s by James Arlington Bennet. His claim to fame is that when Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, decided to run for President in the 1844 election, Bennet was his first choice for vice-presidential running mate.

Explanations vary about why Bennet wound up not serving as Smith’s running mate.

Anyway. Washington Cemetery started out as a non-sectarian cemetery. Then in 1857, it was consecrated as a Jewish burial ground.

This past March, Washington Cemetery was in the headlines because 42 headstones fell over. Elected officials feared the graves had been vandalized.

But cemetery management and the New York Police Department both said the tombstones’ old age caused them to fall over.

Author of ‘The Jewish King Lear’ transformed Yiddish Theater

Fortunately for Brooklynites who make graveyard visits for the sake of reflection and remembrance, Washington Cemetery is open to the public six days a week.

It’s a tranquil, spiritual place for a looong walk. Thousands of tombstones are packed tightly together in some parts of the graveyard. In other spots, the density subsides and there are family plots with grassy lawns. Here and there, stately mausoleums stand tall.

Austerely sculpted headstones from the distant past contrast with modern-day black tombstones that are laser-etched with portraits of the dearly departed.

“The Jewish Shakespeare” whose grave we went to visit, Jacob Gordin, is buried in a family plot that has an eye-catching monument.

Ukrainian-born Gordin, who came to New York in 1891, brought realism and naturalism to Yiddish theater. He wrote around 80 plays. Many were adaptations of works by literary titans like William Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen.

Gordin’s best-known play, “The Jewish King Lear,” wrung audience’s hearts because it made them think of aging parents they had left behind in Europe.

Gordin died in 1909.


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