At Woodlawn, they visited LaGuardia himself, but also his first wife, Thea, who died of tuberculosis, and their baby, Fioretta. “They died within months of one another in 1921,” said Vincent, touching the tombstone, covered in a green copper plate with a haunting etching of a mother reaching her arms out to an approaching toddler.
That same morning, the Gardinos visited the grave of the Western gunslinger Bat Masterson, the hero of a 1950s television show starring Gene Barry. “Not many people know Masterson ended his career working at The New York Morning Telegraph as a sportswriter,” said Robert. “He collapsed typing a story at his desk.”
“He died in the saddle,” Vincent added. “My kind of guy.”
The Gardinos’ fascination with graves grew out of their love of history and celebrity. While they were growing up in Hell’s Kitchen, their Italian immigrant father, a waiter at Danny’s Hideaway — another forgotten city gem — would bring home autographs of the rich and famous.
“He would bring them home to me in pencil,” said Vincent, 63, laughing. “I said, ‘You’ve got to get them in ink!’” His father’s treasured Robert Mitchum and Ed Sullivan signatures still grace the wall in Vincent’s apartment on the Upper West Side. (Robert, 60, has Parkinson’s disease and recently moved into the same building.)
As a teenage autograph hound, Vincent would spend all weekend at the local library, writing letters to presidential candidates, as well as other well-known figures, like Robert Moses. They all wrote back. So started his and his little brother’s autograph collection. “The only presidents I’m missing are Obama and Trump,” said Robert, sounding like an excited 8-year-old.
It was a trip to Arlington Cemetery to visit President Kennedy’s grave 20 years ago that started their hobby of grave tripping.
Their favorite character in Arlington is Dan Sickles, a Civil War major general who almost lost the battle of Gettysburg. He also lost his leg, which he kept, along with the cannonball that took it, on display at a hospital in Washington. “But we’ve been trying to find his foot,” Robert said. “No one knows where his foot is.”
Sickles was also the first man to use temporary insanity as a defense, after murdering the son of Francis Scott Key across the street from the White House because Key was having an affair with his wife. Sickles, a Congressman, was also awarded the Medal of Honor.