Monday, October 5, 2009

The Bells of Valhalla

Joseph Campbell has a lovely quote that goes something like, "The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are." I've already set forth my little manifesto a few posts ago, but among the things I am is a lover of cemeteries--great and small. I guess it's pretty well known amongst my family and friends because when I told them I was going to Kensico Cemetery, in Valhalla, New York, on Sunday, there was nary a "why?" or "huh?" More like a virtual nod via email that I was heading off on one of my little adventures again.

I've been to (literally) hundreds of cemeteries during my life. The "gentleman of significance" in my life and I have wandered the "streets" of Pere Lachaise befriending the resident cats while we ambled; we've walked and held hands in the beautiful surrounds of Mount Auburn and Forest Hills cemeteries near Boston. I've walked many miles and spent many happy hours in London's Highgate and Brompton cemeteries (as well as some of the other "Magnificent Seven")--followed closely by eager packs of roving squirrels on both occasions, I'll have you know. (They were very interested in sharing my sandwich from Pret a Manger!) And one of my favorite parts of living here in New England has to be the small graveyards that populate the edges of so many towns. Not only churchyards, but small familial plots of 10 or 20 stones from the 17th and 18th centuries.

So you get the idea...I'm very well acquainted with cemeteries. It's not so much that I'm overly interested in the entombed stars and luminaries (though that often is the impetus for a visit) it's more about the sentiments expressed and the art and architecture of the place. I've seen some of the simplest and most elegant thoughts expressed on headstones--"be still" (all lowercase); At Rest (often seen with low-relief carvings of clasped hands). And over the years I've become an aficionado of the antique varieties of grave markers, most too unique to be labeled mere headstones. From the moving and poignant small lambs usually reserved for infants or children to the large scale mausoleums of the wealthy and well-known, it all fascinates me. As a small digression, I must say, I rather disdain of the modern style of headstone or marker when compared to those of bygone days. Contemporary headstones are rather cookie cutter when held to the standard of 19th and early 20th century granite and marble achievements. There used to be many variations of masterfully sculpted and carved sheaves of wheat, grieving goddesses, veiled urns, rough-hewn wood-look crosses and of course, the obelisk and the column. And then there are the really unique markers...a small stone kepi for a Civil War soldier, the beloved 'Stone Doggie' at Forest Hills, the Famille Raspail tomb at Pere Lachaise, and one that I saw today that is unlike any I've ever seen before--the marker for Hillary and Margaret Ireland Bell at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, NY.

I should say at the outset that if you're in the area, on a nice fall day, you could do much worse than a good stretch of the legs around Kensico. The administration office is very friendly and happy to help you find whatever/whomever you might be looking for. There's a nicely done handout that they print, as well, of all the big names--lots of entertainment sorts--that includes a very sufficient history, too.

Now on to the good stuff! It was getting on in the afternoon and I'd already hiked like a mountain goat (a well shod one, but still...) around the various plots and the only thing left that I really wanted to see was the Ziegfeld plot, which I couldn't find for anything. (I did, eventually, but it was more due to being able to identify a weeping beech tree than any map or directions!) While driving around I saw this odd elevated stone...very unusual. I grabbed the camera, turned off the Twins game and set off for a closer look.

This unconventional monument, the gravesite of Hillary Bell and his wife, Margaret Ireland Bell, isn't on the "greatest hits" part of the tour, but it's quite special. It's built, for lack of a better word, as though it's atop a pedimented roof and supported by four simple columns. Like a Grecian temple that's 3/4 covered by the debris of time. On the "roof" part is an open book, a large and simple cross, and artist's palette with flowers and what appear to be stylized palm leaves. Each of the four corners is guarded by a lion's head. Nothing very unusual, symbolically speaking. As I said though, I've never seen a monument quite like this--the empty space under the structure, the unique method of design. It was quite a nice find, I thought. Yet, I couldn't help but wonder who merited this scale of memorial--but wasn't included among the "famous" inhabitants of Kensico?

So who were the Bells?

Hillary Bell, born outside of Belfast, Ireland, was many things. An artist, dramatist, and theatre critic for The New York Press at various points. He married Margaret "Rita" Ireland at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on 5th Ave in NYC in June of 1888. According to the society page in the NYT from 7 June, 1888, it was a "very pretty church wedding" and, "the bride wore a dress of white corded silk and the traditional veil." Her sister, Florence, was her maid of honor and they held a reception at the home of the bride's parents at 44 W 47th Street, NY, NY. It appears that the couple then made their home in Manhattan--a news story from 1889 recounts Mr. Bell as being among the artists who suffered losses when there was a fire in some studios above the YMCA. And in May 1893 the couple is listed, again on the society page, as sailing for Europe on the Britannic for an "extended tour." In an odd sign of the times, their address was even listed in the announcement--52 E 23rd Street in Manhattan. (Note to burglars--they were going on an "extended" tour!) There are small mentions of Hillary's playwriting and such, but sadly, he was to die suddenly in 1903. His death, under very odd circumstances, while hiring a servant girl from the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary--a Roman Catholic home for Irish immigrant girls--warranted a spirited write up in the New York Times from April 10, 1903. The cause was apparently apoplexy and the article does tell a good deal about his portrait painting, the play he produced in San Francisco and his marriage to "Rita" in 1888. (Try this LINK to the NYT archives from 1903 for the full piece.)

Rita, or Margaret Ireland Bell, would survive him and her name is found occasionally in the listings of ladies who attend various weddings and such. She died in 1929. They had no children.

I found a small mention, in a google-digitized magazine on granite and marble from January of 1905, that The Harrison Granite Company had "just completed the Hillary Bell monument at Kensico Cemetery. The monument, of Barre granite, is a departure from beaten styles and is much admired."

"A departure from beaten styles" seems an understatement, but I would hope it remains much admired. As a monument, it's a mix of styles, ornaments and symbols...that somehow seem together to form a cohesive piece of art. I've always felt that people are less gone from our presence and memory if we speak of them or mention their names on a daily basis. Today then, I fondly recall the artistic vision of Hillary and Margaret Ireland Bell and the monument they've left behind to inspire and intrigue us.

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