A momentous moment seems to have passed by in Westport, almost unnoticed.
Lucie Bedford Cunningham Warren died earlier this month, at her Green’s Farms home. She was 104.
The granddaughter of Edward T. Bedford — who was a director of Standard Oil, founder of the Westport YMCA, namesake of Bedford Middle School — she was no slouch herself.
A benefactor of countless causes, Lucie volunteered at the Norwalk Hospital until she was 96, and the Pequot Library Book Sale through age 97. A champion golfer and sailor, she and her 1st husband — 1958 America’s Cup champion Briggs Cunningham — won numerous European sailing titles.
She was the mother-in-law of former US congressman Stewart McKinney, and grandmother of current State Senator John McKinney. She is survived by 3 children, 12 grandchildren, and 25 great-grandchildren — as well as her sister, Ruth Bedford.
Charlie Taylor did not know Lucie Bedford Cunningham Warren. But he knew Ruth very well. Lucie’s death prompted these recollections, about an earlier — and fascinating — time in Westport.
I worked as a landscape gardener and laborer for Ruth Bedford and her father Fred (Edward T. Bedford’s son) on their Beachside Avenue estate from 1958 — when I was a Staples sophomore — until I graduated from college in 1965. What a great place to work!
My dad had encouraged me to go to Nyala Farms to get a job at the dairy, as a 15-year-old. (NOTE: The 52-acre farm, now bordered by Green’s Farms Road and the Sherwood Island Connector, had been owned since 1910 by the Bedford family. Fred Bedford named it after the beautiful “nyala” — antelope — he’d seen on safari in Africa.)
Louis Gordon — chief gardener and estate caretaker — intercepted me. He told me to report on Saturday “down on the Shore Road. I’ll put you to work on the Bedford Place.” I stayed for the next 6 summers.
It took up 17 acres, mostly on the Sound. I spent all day cutting the front and back yard of the house, with a 6-foot Locke mower. I started at $1.10 an hour, for an 8-hour day.
There was a greenhouse where we grew cut flowers for the main house, and a truck farm across the road. I was in charge of storing a year’s supply of coal to fire the furnace for the greenhouse. A truck came at the beginning of June, and dumped a small mountain of coal. It took me 6 days — 8 hours a day — to move the coal into the bin.
The main house included a big game trophy room, and models of hulls of 12-meter racing boats.
The dock went probably 120 feet into the Sound. A little house at the end received guests in bad weather. Stairs went down into the water, to ease passengers onto the dock and walkway that led to the expansive backyard and rear entrance to the main house.
Mr. Bedford kept a long, black Cadillac limo for trips to his homes in New York and Palm Beach.
Numerous car commercials were shot on the estate, especially the semicircular pea gravel driveway. Every Friday I raked all the tire tracks from the driveway, in preparation for the weekend. It was so long, the job took 4 hours. I also weeded the driveway.
One day I was clearing brush. Mr. Gordon was talking to the man who owned the property next door. It was J.C. Penney himself. We were never introduced.
My favorite times were Friday evenings, at quitting time. Mr. Gordon would ask if I had a date that night. If I did, he’d whip up a corsage of carnations or other flowers for my date. If I was staying home, he’d make up an arrangement for my mom.
When I was in college, Mr. Gordon occasionally let me take dates down to the dock, to swim. He told me to be very discreet, however. And I was.
Mr. Gordon sent me on some dangerous assignments, like 50 feet into huge old elm trees to prune, or onto chimneys at the main house to cut back ivy. But I gained confidence during those summers. I learned to work and give all-out effort. He accepted nothing less than the best. There were no slackers on the Bedford payroll.
He made me very proud of myself. When he chewed me out, I deserved it. More to the point, he explained why he was chewing me out, and the importance of doing a good job.
I owe Westport, and the Bedfords, a lot. Miss Ruth, if you read this, thanks for the week I caught poison ivy so bad that when I showed up for work with a face and fingers so swollen, you sent me home — but you still paid me my $80 for the week I missed. I learned a lot from you too, Miss Ruth. Thank you.
(Charlie Taylor is now a senior development officer at the Vanderbilt University School of Engineering. He’s also a long-time musician. To keep busy while mowing the Bedford lawn, he made up song lyrics. He later studied songwriting at UCLA, and worked with musicians like Gram Parsons, Billy Preston and others. Charlie’s 3rd CD will be released soon.)