John Darnton won a Pulitzer Prize.
During a 40-year New York Times career he covered African liberation movements and Eastern Europe during the Cold War. He served as deputy foreign editor, metropolitan editor and cultural news editor.
He’s published 5 novels, taught at the SUNY-New Paltz, and now curates journalism’s George Polk Awards.
Yet after traveling the world, Darnton’s devotion to Westport is clear. He lived here during his formative years — ages 4 to 14 — and this town, he says, was “critical to my upbringing.”
It’s not just idle chatter. In his new memoir, Almost a Family, the veteran journalist devotes several chapters to Westport.
This Sunday (April 10, 2 p.m.) Darnton focuses on that long-ago yet still-vivid time, in a talk at the Westport Library.
He has not been a stranger. Darnton returns often, usually visiting his friends Mike and Roz Koskoff. He met them when he covered the Black Panther trials in New Haven. (Koskoff was a defense lawyer.)
Darnton knows Westport has changed. But — with a reporter’s keen eye, sharp memory and vivid words — he recalls his younger days with clarity and grace.
He was 11 months old when his father — Times correspondent Barney Darnton — was killed in World War II. His ship was bombed by friendly fire off the coast of New Guinea.
Darnton’s parents had met in Westport. Both were married to other people. The 2 couples rented a cottage near Compo Beach, and Darnton’s mother and father fell in love. Both couples divorced — a rarity in those days. The lovers then married.
They bought a house on Godfrey Road, off Bulkeley Avenue. After his father’s death Darnton’s mother moved to Washington, D.C., then Washington Square in New York. She too was a Times reporter — and the paper’s 1st “women’s editor.”
She and her late husband had wanted to raise Darnton and his older brother in “bucolic surroundings,” so when Darnton was 4 they moved back to Westport. She bought a 1785 house on Edge Hill Lane, off Wilton Road.
Five years later the Darnton’s moved to Roseville Road, at the Whitney Street intersection.
“I lost myself in the woods every day after school,” he recalls. “Kids had total freedom. We constructed lean-tos, and played with dogs. We wandered for hours on end.” More than anything, he says, “those woods made me love Westport.”
Next came a rented apartment on Saxon Lane, off Bridge Street. By then his mother had set up her own business: the Women’s National News Service. It started well, then hit a rough patch. “She poured money into it, so we moved to smaller and smaller houses,” Darnton says. “We were downwardly mobile.”
His mother then returned to Washington for work. Darnton and his brother stayed, to finish out the school year at Bedford Junior High. They moved in with a friend of their mother’s, on the top floor of a rundown house on Riverside Avenue.
Years later, Darnton had dinner at Viva Zapata’s. When he went upstairs to use the bathroom, he realized that was the last house he lived in here.
But wherever he lived, he felt a sense of security. “Westport was not a suburban town,” he explains. “It was much closer in spirit to New England than New York City.”
He calls the Westport of the late 1940s and early ’50s “a self-sustaining village.” There were onion farms, unheated bungalows and “polluting factories.” No one locked doors; some even kept the keys in their car ignitions.
His mother — often the only woman — waited for the train with “a few dozen” commuters. The station’s screen door slammed in the summer; in winter the radiator clanged.
There were no shopping centers. Small local groceries delivered food — and deliverymen prided themselves on their ability to get through, even in blizzards.
“Westport was a very open place,” Darnton says. “There was not the suburban anomie that Cheever wrote about. Lucy and Ricky (Ricardo) hadn’t moved here yet. It was long before the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and the Stepford Wives.”
The Fine Arts Theater was the center of Darnton and his friends’ lives. They enjoyed Saturday matinees — with cartoons and newsreels — for 25 cents. Next door, a novelty store sold whoopee cushions and fake wounded thumbs.
He remembers the drug store where Tiffany is now, with a real soda fountain; Bill’s Smoke Shop, a “shack” with penny candy; Klein’s for toys, and Western Auto (now 5 Guys), a “very exciting store” for boys.
The two “poles” of the town were the YMCA — with a pool table in the basement, where “slightly shady kids” smoked — and, across Main Street, the library. Darnton spent hours there, reading.
“All in all,” he says, “this was a great place to live.” There was one problem: as a single parent working in New York, his mother was an anomaly.
“She saw pairs of people filing into PTA meetings like Noah’s Ark,” he says. Some wives were suspicious of her. Some men made passes.
To top it off, he adds, “she took to the bottle.” When she moved to Washington she joined AA, and stopped drinking.
Though he calls Westport “Eden” for himself and his brother, Darnton notes that it was also “a difficult time.” He reiterates that Westport — with its woods, friends and freedom — “saved” him.
“I biked and hitchhiked all over town,” he says. “Every child needs freedom like that.
“This small town shaped my life. I felt rooted. I knew the store owners, and drew a sense of identity from my surroundings. It gave me a great identity.”
Whenever he returns to Westport, Darnton drives down his old streets — Edge Hill, Roseville, Bridge Street.
“Your past is who you were, and who you are,” he concludes. “My past in Westport really helped sculpt me.”
(Click here for the Times review of “Almost a Family.”)