Last month’s post about “I Love Lucy” and Westport’s Minuteman statue — plus many of the characters in that story — struck a chord with alert “06880” reader/longtime resident Jeff Seaver. He writes:
I first experienced Westport at age 17, visiting the family of a college friend. Ralph and Betty Alswang lived on Fraser Lane. He was a theater designer of note, and we became friends. Eventually he took me under his wing as an intern in theater architecture. (Mercifully, he later suggested I leave the field and “try something more fun.”) In the meantime I helped work on Lucille Lortel’s White Barn and Playwrights Horizons, among other projects.
At the Alswang home I was exposed to an astonishing collection of the special denizens of Westport. This included the Alswangs themselves, Bob and Eileen Weiskopf, and their delightful children.
Ralph and Betty’s house on Fraser Lane had once been the studio of the sculptor James Earle Fraser. With its stone walls, imposingly large doors and windows, and dark slate roofs, the house was an architectural marvel. I understand that Fraser found the villa in Italy, purchased it and had it disassembled and brought here — along with Italian masons — to be reconstructed, stone by stone.
James Earle Fraser and his bust of Theodore Roosevelt, around 1921.
I am told that Fraser’s original for the cast bronze equestrian sculpture of Theodore Roosevelt with an American Indian (now standing at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History) was created within those walls. Sculptures were rolled out through the 2-story-tall swinging doors on to a massive concrete loading dock, later converted into a patio.
Ralph and Betty had a lively, eccentric home life: 3 vibrant, smart kids; a pair of neurotic Siamese cats; dogs here and there; huge spreads of food; lots of laughter, storytelling and music; remarkable friends, and deeply held — usually radical — political views, loudly expressed over meals.
Ralph was a larger-than-life character. He built a coffee table sturdy enough to stand on to facilitate the delivery of his fabled orations: smart, opinionated, always hysterically funny. And everyone, it seemed — especially my college chums — had secret crushes on Betty.
The Alswang home was open to neighbors and friends like Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sydney Poitier and their families; director Otto Preminger; actor Gary Merrill (who had been married to Bette Davis); attorney Leonard Boudine (who lived across the street); Lucille Lortel, and many others.
Some were luminaries, some mere mortals, but all of them fascinating, talented folk. I would stumble out of Ralph’s studio, bleary-eyed from work, and find an assembly of guests lounging over coffee at the outsize dining table or enjoying the sun in back. As a naive teenager, I assumed this lifestyle must be how all adults lived.
Ralph Alswang (5th from left), with a galaxy of stars as they arrived for a session of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington, D.C. The group includes June Havoc, John Huston, Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Danny Kaye, Jane Wyatt and Ira Gershwin.
Sad to say, this extraordinary madness was not to last. Betty Alswang, whose beauty (she was a model in her youth) was matched by her wits, died from cancer. As sometimes happens, Ralph died of a heart attack not long afterward. It was a heartbreaking loss, and the aftershocks left holes in many lives.
But the children carried on the tradition of style, talent and smarts. The Weiskopfs’ son Kim, who became a friend, went on to some celebrity as a TV writer in California. Fran Alswang became a TV producer, working with Michael Moore among others. Hope Alswang has a distinguished career as a curator of the decorative arts at various museums. Ralph Alswang was, among other things, official White House photographer for the Clinton administration. The Poitier children who once scampered around the house have found their own special callings.
Ralph and Betty and their circle remain emblematic for me of the greatest attributes Westport had to offer, when its gravitational pull attracted a constellation of brilliant lights in the theater, visual and literary arts.
Given the changes over the past 30 years in Westport, I’m skeptical such a powerful confluence could occur here again. But I feel blessed to have been invited in briefly, if only as a spectator, during that special time.
I later set about crafting my own dynasty. I got as far as designing and building a beautiful loft in Chelsea, filling it with Siamese cats, and marrying another talented artist.
In 1999, after 25-plus years of carving out a successful career as an artist in New York, I began searching for a life outside of the city. I wanted our 5-year-old daughter to experience exotic, rarefied things like grass, birds and squirrels.
One evening, while scouting locations in Connecticut, I looked up and recognized the road that leads to Longshore. I crossed over from there to Compo Beach, parked by the legendary cannons and stared out across the beach, flooded with recollections. I stopped over at Allen’s Clam House, and took a drive back up north to Fraser Lane, where so many other wonderful memories came flooding back.
Poof — the decision was made.