Jeri And John Skinner’s Westport Holiday

In 1969, John Skinner was a pilot for Pan Am.

His base was moving to JFK. He and his wife Jeri came east, to look for a new home town (and home).

They looked all around New Jersey and Connecticut, but grew discouraged. “Bias of all kinds was pretty prevalent,” Jeri recalls.

Finally — on their way back to the airport — they read a Holiday magazine story and stopped in Westport.

Holiday Magazine used this photo to illustrate its 1969 story on Fairfield County. And yes, that is a helicopter nose in the left side of the shot. (Photo by Slim Aarons)

The rest is history. The Skinners moved here; became involved in many aspects of town, and over the next 4 decades made quite a mark. (One example: They founded Builders Beyond Borders.)

The other day, Jeri sent me that 1969 magazine article that changed their lives — and ultimately so many others’.

Titled “New York’s Best Address,” it’s a long look into Fairfield County — or, as the subhead says, “The Connecticut county that is fast becoming the bedroom of the affluent New Yorker.”

Author Stephen Birmingham — who wrote over 30 books, many about America’s upper class — began by noting that a Greenwich woman said she lived in Fairfield County “because we’re so rich.”

Birmingham described suburban Fairfield County as “one of the most beautiful residential areas in the country.” He noted the “jagged, rocky coastline with hundreds of tiny coves and harbors, secluded beaches and deep-blue water dotted with diminutive offshore islands and, on any summer weekend, clouds of sailboats.”

Inland, “the land rises in a series of wooded hills threaded by bright streams and narrow, winding roads.”

Birmingham described many towns in detail — without shying away from issues like anti-Semitism at country clubs. Most communities were isolated from each other, he said.

For example, said Westport actress Bette Davis:

Bette Davis

My God, I’d never be invited to a party in Southport — unless they wanted me there as some sort of curiosity. After all, I’m unmarried, a woman who works for a living, and one who makes her money in the entertainment industry. If I lived in Southport I’d never be accepted. Here, of course, it’s quite different.

Westport, Birmingham wrote, “has always been different.”

Early in the 1920’s (it) was discovered by New York writers and artists who began coming there for the summer. Soon they were buying and restoring old farmhouses and barns….

At one point most of the celebrated Algonquin Round Table had houses in Westport. They were joined by people from the theater and films — June Havoc, Eileen Heckart, Ralph Alswang, and David Wayne.

To this rich brew were added infusions from the worlds of radio and, eventually, television and book publishing.

To top it all off, a large contribution has been made to the population from the world of advertising…. This has given Westport the feeling of a bright, brash, assertive — raffish, but very well-heeled — artists’ colony.

Downtown Westport, Birmingham said,

abounds with what are called “fun” shops. There are fun dress shops, men’s shops, gourmet-foods shops, gift shops, ice cream shops, cheese shops, delicatessen and grog shops — and many others.

Collectively the fun shops of Westport exude an aura of franticness. The fun totters on the brink of hysteria, as though the shops were not at all sure how they were going to pay the bills for the fun merchandise. One suspects they are as overextended as, indeed, many of their best customers doubtless are.

Birmingham spent time describing 2 important elements of Fairfield County: zoning and transportation.

Ad executives Tom Wright and Frank Gromer wait at Grand Central for the train home. Just above Gromer's head you can see "Westport & Saugatuck." (Photo by Slim Aarons)

Commuting, he said, “has developed into something of an art form, and each train has a character and conveys a status all its own.” The 6:58 and 7:37 out of Westport were for the “bright, aggressive, ambitious young man on his way up.”

The 9:13 was for “the bankers, the lawyers, the heads of companies whose first engagements of important on any given day occur not much before lunchtime.”

Returning to Westport, Birmingham said, “wives wait tensely at the wheels of cars, motors racing, while their menfolk sprint across the Tarmac.” Of course, certain commuters told their wives they were taking the 7:18, when they actually arrived at 6:03 and spent “the intervening time at the station tavern.”

Birmingham noted that “the celebrated ‘rural character,’ so carefully preserved, does not make a particularly good place to raise teen-age children.”

It has been said — albeit facetiously — that if all the students in Westport’s luxurious Staples High School who have sampled marijuana and other drugs were expelled, there would be no school to run….

On the streets of Westport after school, a group very much resembling Greenwich Village hippies hangs out, looking bored and disaffected. There have been incidents of vandalism and breaking and entering — all laid to teenage boredom.

To ease the problems of isolation, Birmingham said, many parents give their kids their own telephones, cars — and charge accounts with taxi companies.

Bored Westport teenagers -- just like those described in Holiday magazine -- hang out in the library park ("Needle Park") on the corner of Main Street and the Post Road.

But, Birmingham concluded, “for all its shortcomings, Fairfield County is, to those who love it, a very special sort of place. They regard it with a special affection very close to love.”

Reading about that type of place — in 1969 — John and Jeri Skinner were attracted to Westport.

Holiday Magazine is long gone. Westport is no longer an artists’ colony, and in the intervening years the Skinners not only formed B3, but grew it into a huge organization and then gave up its reins.

Some things have not changed. Zoning and transportation remain huge issues; so does teenage boredom.

It’s interesting to look back, and re-read one travel writer’s view of us 43 years ago.

And it’s interesting too to speculate on the chance effect one magazine story had, on one couple from California. They read that piece, were intrigued by our town, moved here — and made it their home for the rest of their lives.

16 responses to “Jeri And John Skinner’s Westport Holiday

  1. Yes, I remember living nearby in 1969. My memory of that year is joining 250,000 people in Washington to protest the war and joining 500,000 people in Woodstock to celebrate the age of aquarius. And thinking that the people who still read “Holiday Magazine” must be living on another planet.

  2. what a great betty davis quote regarding not wanting to be made a curiousity.

    • In her later years, Ms. Davis stayed with her long time personal secretary, a Mrs. Brown who lived on Cross Highway. She stayed in a small cottage in the back of farm house that was adjacent to my parents house on Hitchcock Road. Ms. Davis could be heard undergoing drunken rages well into the night. She became more than a curiousity!!

      • well, good for you for providing that trivia. i’m sure i’m not the first person to tell you that others’ ‘dirty laundry’, even that of deceased neighbors, shouldn’t be used as social currency.

        • Actually YOU are the first person to tell me that. I am not sure who appointed you the Queen Bee but you must have not lived here long not to know the gossip that circulates at every dinner party in town. Plus, it is in her autobiography.

          • i’ve attended dinner parties within Westport and Weston since the middle/late-1970’s, and while of course unflattering ‘gossip’ was/is shared it was/is an unwritten rule that it was/is never to be put into print/shared with anyone not at that particular dinner party/within a particular clique. at one point a relative of mine married the son of an owner and editor of a gossip publication. he and his family weren’t welcome at non-religious holiday dinner parties for a very, very long time.

            • Oh bullshit. What do you think this blog article is about? There is no unwritten rule. Townspeople are still talking and writing about Martha for God’s sake. Stop being so prissy. Dirty underwear went out with Prohibition.

        • Dirty laundry. LMAO. You should tell that to Newman’s best buddy who wrote a rather unflattering, but truthful, book about him. Welcome to the 21st century anonymous.

        • Saugatuck Santa

          Dirty laundry. LMAO. You should tell that to Newman’s best buddy who wrote a rather unflattering book about him after his death. Welcome to the 21st century.

          • The Hotchner book on Newman was excellent. Did you read it? CAS’s observations about Davis were common knowledge at the time — and they didn’t emanate from his parents, who were models of discretion. Nobody much cared about Bette’s behavior, which had been atrocious for years. The guess was that she’d probably moved to Westport so that she could behave any way she wanted without having a spotlight on her. Many other “curiosities” moved here for the same reason and the town was — and still is — richer for their presence. Btw, it’s kinda hard to use a celebrity anecdote as social currency when the user displays only his/her initials. I’ve known CAS for 50 years and have never heard him speak of his parents’ famous neighbor. Many of us in that small town had famous neighbors. Most of us didn’t care. As kids it just wasn’t important to us.

  3. As always, a great piece, Dan! Aren’t we lucky that Jeri and John read the article? And if Birmingham were to re-write the article today, instead of commenting on how many high school students in Westport smoke marijuana, he’d have to remark on how many local kids’ lives have been changed by not only going on one of B3’s humanitarian missions but spending a year raising the money to do so. Kudos to Jeri and John for making Westport a much, much more wonderful place to live (and it was pretty wonderful to begin with!).

    Keep up the good work, Dan!

  4. Great piece on the history of ‘our town’.Thank you Dan.

  5. Love the photos, Dan. That’s the way I remember the park next to Westlake Chinese! Of course, I was 10 or so, and remember looking on with great curiosity and fear at the teenagers! Great info and looks like Mad Men!

  6. My parents moved to Westport from Long Island in 1972. My Dad was an Exec at Pan Am and was good friends with Jeri Skinner. The illustration of the exec being picked up by the helicopter is as good as true. My Dad used to get picked up in a chopper in a field near our house on Clapboard Hill Rd!

  7. Comments from Michigan (Marianne Pettee Churchwell, Staples 1971 – same year as Dan):
    “great article-most of it accurate-however it is not the all of Westport story– not all teenagers in Westport hung out at needle park –all teenagers are however bored-isn’t that integral to separation–not all had parents who commuted-the whole Saugatuck element of Westport aka 2nd generation westporters whose families made there living as local merchants, craftsmen, and service workers- is often not captured in the editorial snapshots of “Our Town”-i suppose it was a small population –but in many ways it is that element that prevented the town from having the same veneer as Darien or Greenwich-not exactly affordable housing –but more affordable than the blue blood 95 ghettos–loved the article and describes the terrain as it is –still– .”

  8. Marianne is correct, Mike. Saugatuck was an anomaly in many ways. However, for many of us who grew up in Saugatuck in the 50s and 60s Westport was the anomaly to which we’d get almost no exposure until Staples. I vividly recall my first day at Staples in ’63: a parking lot full of very cool expensive cars, including a wooden Morgan (driven by Mike Golden ’65) that cruised past me. Johnny Folsom ’66 — my longtime Saugatuck neighbor — and I stood there with our mouths open. Suddenly we were a long way from Saugatuck. Fortunately, Dan, with his wonderful interviews with Lou Santella and Walt Melillo, among others, has managed to capture the favor of the community that Linda Valiante Palmieri ’65 calls “Our Saugatuck”. Birmingham missed the boat on Saugatuck which, in ’69, was, despite the construction of I95 in ’57, still a thriving community.