Jim Hammond, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Famous Writers And The Westport History Rabbit Hole

Jim Hammond grew up in Westport. He graduated from Staples High School in 1979, but has not been back for a long time.

Jim Hammond

A few weeks ago, he heard about the controversy surrounding TEAM Westport’s “white privilege” essay contest.

That led him down the “06880” rabbit hole — and a story on fellow Staples alum Deej Webb’s documentary about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in town.

That spurred him to write and post an essay on his philosophy-and-literature website — 2 of his passions, since he was a teenager.

And THAT led him to send these thoughts to “06880”:

Fitzgerald lived on South Compo Road, near what is now Longshore, in the summer of 1920. J. D. Salinger also lived on South Compo, from about 1950 to 1952.

I read a Salinger short story, and asked my mother, Nancy Hammond, about old Westport. She lived there from 1957 to 1997, and was involved in local politics.

When she arrived, Westport was home to the Famous Artists School, which purported to turn people into artists. Prominent artists like Norman Rockwell lent their names to the scam.

Norman Rockwell (center, bow tie), with some of the Famous Artists School’s faculty.

You would send in a sample of your work. They would write back, saying you had great potential, and should enroll in their school. Salesmen combed the country, recruiting gullible students. Ads filled the newspapers, Money rolled in.

It was so profitable that a Famous Writers School was also established in Westport, using the same template. Bennett Cerf of Random House was a founder. Prominent writers like Clifton Fadiman, Bruce Catton and Mignon Eberhart lent their names. By 1969 the stock price had risen from $5 to $40.

The next year, Jessica Mitford published an exposé, called “Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers,” in the Atlantic Monthly. An investigation was launched, the stock price fell, and in 1972 the Famous Writers School went bankrupt.

JD Salinger

When J.D. Salinger moved to Westport, Famous Artists School had been going for 2 years. It’s likely that he heard about the school. In 1952 he published a short story about an art correspondence school, called “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.”

When I was growing up in Westport, the phrase “Famous Artists” rang in my ears. The school rented space from Eddie Nash on Riverside Avenue. Since money was rolling in, they decided to build a new headquarters.

They chose my neighborhood as the site. Specifically, they selected an area we called the Gravel Pit. Now known as Partrick Wetlands, it’s between Partrick Road, Wilton Road, the Merritt Parkway and Newtown Turnpike.

According to rumor — spread by my mother, in countless phone conversations — Famous Artists School planned to build a large office, with a parking lot for 1,000 cars.

My mother banded together with other neighbors, and formed a group called Families for a Residential Westport.

A pond near the Partrick Wetlands. (Photo/Scott Smith)

They referred to their opponents as the Boyd Group (or The Boyds). John Boyd was a prominent Westport lawyer, who favored business and development. One of his allies, Lu Villalon, ran the local newspaper, the Town Crier.

My parents were Republicans. So were the Boyds. The battle over Famous Artists wasn’t a Republican-Democratic battle, or a conservative-liberal one. It was a development battle, similar to those fought in thousands of American towns.

My mother’s group won the battle. Famous Artists never moved to my neighborhood. They built their new headquarters on Wilton Road, along the river.

Cockenoe Island, off Compo Beach. In 1967, it almost became the site of a nuclear power plant.

The next development battle in Westport was over Cockenoe Island, where Northeast Utilities proposed building a power plant. Anti-development forces used the fledgling newspaper, the Westport News, to help rally support. The anti-development forces won, and the paper became the dominant one in town.

A third battle was fought over a dairy farm, Nyala, where Stauffer Chemical proposed building their headquarters. They won that fight.

Fortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s house is still standing. I plan to take a look on my next visit to Westport.

And maybe I’ll visit Partrick Wetlands too.

25 responses to “Jim Hammond, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Famous Writers And The Westport History Rabbit Hole

  1. Seth Goltzer

    I grew up on Patrick Rd and remember the battle to stop the Famous Artists’ Schools moving there very well. There were 3 schools. Artist, Writers and Photographers. The downfall came due to their deceptive financing practices.
    The fight to stop the Power Plant spawned the newspaper Fairpress, now long gone.
    Another battle was to stop Bloomingdales from being built on what is now Winslow Oark. Amazing that a study was done and concluded that 3000 cars a day wouldn’t affect Post Rd traffic negatively. Amazing what conclusions money can buy.

  2. B Altmans/ Winslow Park. They couldn’t stop Arnie’s Place. In Weston they took the whole community in Valley Forge for the Saugatuck

  3. Just curious: where did you see that Salinger lived on South Compo? A biographer found, based on letters I believe, that Salinger lived on Old Road for a period of time.

    Also, if your dad’s Lou Hammond, he coached our team, the Dodgers, to the 1964 Minor League World Series title. I don’t recall any Hammond kids on the team; he was simply giving back to the community. (Mike and Jack Rea were on that team.)

  4. Scott Kuhner

    My parents were photographers and were close friends with most of the artists like Al Parker, Austin Briggs, Bob Faucet, Steve Dohanas. I remember one night in the late fifties when Austin Briggs and Bob Faucet were over for dinner and Austin said that the Famous Artist School had opened an office in Japan and that people were lined up to become students. I turned to Austin and asked him if he knew how the school made money. I then said the the school offers such great service that it costs more than the tuition but so many drop out before they complete the course that ultimately the school makes money. However, the Japanese will never drop out and the school will ultimately lose money in Japan. And they did.

  5. Michael Calise

    Your Mom, Nancy and Holton Harris were two of my closest friends on the RTM where we fought the battles you speak of with a majority of RTM members we put together. Staffer Chemical also part of the DDD zone concept which fostered these developments was another matter It was very different as it saved the pastoral setting of Nyala Farms for generations to come with a low impact facility which has become Westport’s highest taxpayer as apposed to a very large subdivision which would have brought us much higher taxes.

    • Michael, I read your post to my mother, and she said she remembers you “with great fondness.” And I remember the Calise brothers, Mike and Dominic, who were among the best athletes Staples ever had. Anyone who played sports in Westport in the 1970s, as I did, would remember Mike and Dominic Calise.

      • Two of the best softball players around. We lost the nationals in Cincy in the last inning in 1982.

  6. Wondering if John Hammond is the son of John and Esme, my mother and step father, the Keans, close friends? Great review anyway I remember all of those issues good to see them chronologically mentioned with just the right amount of detail. Thanks!

  7. Bonnie Bradley

    Married, age 22, I worked at Famous Artists for about a year in the Promotion Dept. where I spent all day, 5 days a week, opening envelopes containing newspaper/magazine ads – we called them “the coupons” – for registration in the “courses” offered, sent by aspiring artists. I was paid $35 per week. The only positive thing about it was that anyone in prison (you could tell by the postmark) was offered the “courses” free.

    And, don’t forget Longshore, saved from a big housing development by the Town. The Baron’s property, saved also, where I believe there were plans to build a bank, And, Compo Beach, won as a result of a lawsuit against the owner – my great grandfather David Bradley. I think he was awarded $2,000 in compensation by the court. Not bad in those days!

  8. Bonnie Bradley, are you related to Dan Bradley? Myrtle Ave. Evergreen Ave?

  9. Bonnie Bradley

    Not to my knowledge but it’s a big family and anything is possible. 😊
    If Dan Bradley’s ancestor was Scudder or Getshom Bradley then – yes.
    The Bradleys have been in CT for so long that my family tree looks like a forest. My direct ancestor, Francis, arrived here, in Hartford, from Coventry, England in 1636. The more the merrier!

  10. Bonnie Bradley

    Above should have been “Gershom” – dreaded typos!

    • Thanks, Bonnie. I thought you might be related to Bradley’s that lived next to us on Myrtle Ave. many years ago. I knew it was a big family, but thought I’d try to make a connection.

  11. Famous Artists School was not a scam. Students got real art training and real critiques and if they dropped out they were allowed to re-enroll at no extra cost. FAS alum, which includes Charles Reid (you know, the artist who is currently on exhibit at the Library) still offer testimonials.

    FAS made a lot of money in Japan — millions of dollars — which kept to US operations going. FAS never made much money on US operations. It was only recently that FAS discontinued its license with Japan, and that was only because the owners began winding down operations.

    After the owner Robert Livesey (who purchased FAS in the early 70s) died, FAS began closing and stopped offering enrollments about 18 months ago and formally ceased school operations as the last of the enrolled students finished their certificates a couple of months ago. While Famous Artists School is closed as a school, one can still purchase the digital editions of their textbooks at arthomestudy.com.

    I know all this because we built and maintain their websites and have since 2004. Disappointed that you didn’t do any fact checking before you wrote this.

    • I accept your point, there may have been some sincere and effective teachers at Famous Artists, just as there may have been some sincere and effective teachers at Trump University. But the basic idea of Famous Artists is dubious, if not downright fraudulent: tell people they have talent, and tell people they can make money as artists. Salinger mocks Famous Artists in his story “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.” You may want to look at Jessica Mitford’s exposé of the Famous Writers School:
      Famous Artists and Famous Writers had the same business plan. Perhaps Famous Artists became more conscientious after Famous Writers was exposed as a fraud and shut down.

  12. Bill Boyd (Staples 1966)

    Good stories! Thank you!

  13. Tom Allen '66

    Not “may have been some sincere and effective teachers” at FAS, Jim. Most of the many accomplished professional artists in Westport did a turn at FAS. For artist moms, it was a good place for them to earn a salary in their hometown, instead of commuting to NYC, while their kids were in junior high or high school. My mother was a classically trained (Museum School in Boston) artist who was a top fashion illustrator in NYC from the mid-1940s until the late 90s, counting Halston, Liz Claiborne and major NY department stores and ad agencies among her clients. Her work appeared regularly in the NYT, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmo, Glamour, etc. In addition to FAS, where she taught while my younger sister was finishing Staples in the late 60s, she taught classes at FIT, Silvermine and Parsons. She was no hack, nor were her colleagues. Was the work at FAS inspiring for the pros who worked there? No, but they took it seriously and enjoyed the company of their colleagues before rejoining the freelance rat race in NYC. Most were unaware of the school’s faulty business plan until after they left., when some lost their FAS investment when the stock tanked. That nit aside, Jim, I enjoyed reading your piece.

    • Tom, I don’t doubt that your mother was highly educated and completely sincere. But why do you call the FAS business plan “faulty”? Both Famous Artists and Famous Writers were extremely lucrative. I’m sure they thought their business plan was anything but faulty.

      “Between 1960 and 1969, revenue from tuition [at Famous Writers] increased from $7 million to $48 million, and individual stock shares increased in value from $5 to $40.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Famous_Writers_School)

      After Mitford published her exposé of Famous Writers, “attorneys general in several states initiated lawsuits against the school. The school’s stock steadily declined, and in 1972, the school filed for bankruptcy.” And Famous Artists had the same business plan as Famous Writers.

      I wouldn’t call this business plan “faulty,” I’d call it deceptive. As you correctly point out, Famous Artists wasn’t completely fraudulent, I would call it semi-fraudulent. Doubtless there are for-profit colleges in the U.S. today that are semi-fraudulent. You’re choosing to emphasize the positive, I’m emphasizing the negative. Maybe we’re both right.

  14. Jean Whitehead

    I know someone who graded submissions for Famous Writers School. She read every application and answered them individually. She discouraged more than a few from committing to the course. I don’t think everyone was encouaged to sign up.
    She made many friends who taught for the Artists School. They were sincere and talented people. I don’t think it’s comparable to Trump University….of course it’s possible it was initiated as a scam from day one……but it makes me sad to think of certain people from that era being dismissed as greedy phonies. The ones that I knew took the job seriously…..ANYWAY nice to look back at those days, thanks.