Remembering Toni Cunningham

The Independence Day fireworks are Westport’s biggest community celebration of the year.

It’s when Soundview Drive — our town’s handsome, quirky beachfront exit road — turns into a party promenade.

This year — as we prepare for another year of cookouts, hanging out, and bombs bursting in air — we should also pause for a moment (on Soundview) to remember Toni Cunningham.

The grande dame of Compo died on Thursday. She was 101.

Toni Cunnnigham, at her 80th birthday celebration.

In that century of life, she saw astonishing changes at the beach just outside her front window. She herself contributed to many of them.

Toni first came to Westport as a teenager. During the 1930s her parents — who lived in Scarsdale – rented #75 (now #17) Soundview Drive. She crewed on Star sailboats, often swimming out to join friends to help in races.

Gail Cunningham Coen — one of Toni’s 3 daughters — says that Toni also swam to Cockenoe Island and back.

When her parents moved here full time, she’d walk to Cockenoe in winter over thick ice.

Toni and Frank Cunningham, in front of 17 Soundview Drive.

Every year in late June, Toni’s father Frank Bosco drove to a special “fireworks contact.” He shot them off from a card table on the beach in front of his house. Neighborhood kids loved it.

Frank was a longtime treasurer of the Compo Beach Improvement Association — which really did spiff up the area.

The group organized field days, and swim races to and from the floats anchored offshore. Toni was an avid participant.

She also loved riding on the seaplanes that landed on shore.

In those days, “air conditioning” meant opening windows. Toni’s daily piano playing was enjoyed by everyone who strolled by. She knew all the popular songs, and was often asked to sing and play for parties.

As she grew older, Toni succeeded her father as treasurer of the CBIA. She also became secretary. Her talent for shorthand guaranteed highly accurate meeting notes.

Compo was a family affair. Toni’s mother, Margaret Bosco, created the first “beach rules.” They ensure safe, responsible behavior — and strong litter prevention practices. (Interestingly, Toni’s daughter Gail later became CEO of Keep America Beautiful.)

In 1938, a strong hurricane hit the area. Toni refused to leave, and rode out the storm.

In fact, during her 85 years on Soundview only one hurricane forced her to leave. That was in the 1950s, when waves chewed up the road and deposited huge chunks of the seawall in front yards.

As she earned fame for riding out storms, reporters regularly called her for blow-by-blow news.

Toni and Frank Cunningham, playing a 4-hand duet.

July 4th was not the only holiday  Toni enjoyed. She also loved New Year’s eve. In the early 1960s she built a party room on the 3rd floor of her house at 27 Soundview, where she and Frank raised their family.

It featured a Steinway baby grand. But the party wasn’t in full swing until Toni sat down to play. Governor John Davis Lodge and his wife Francesca were frequent guests.

Today a small sign on the flower bed at the start of Soundview Drive — near where the boardwalk begins — honors Toni Cunningham for her dedication to the CBIA, and her beautification efforts at Compo.

The sign on Soundview Drive.

It’s a simple gesture, but an important one. In many ways, that stretch of Compo Beach is Toni Cunningham.

Think about that as you enjoy the fireworks — the first 4th of July Toni Cunningham has not been alive for in over a century.

(Contributions in Toni’s memory can be made to the Compo Beach Improvement Association Traffic Calming and Beautification Fund, 40 Compo Beach Road, Westport, CT 06880.)

13 responses to “Remembering Toni Cunningham

  1. Michael Calise

    A Great and inspiring story of a life well lived!

  2. Michael Calise

    The recent Compo Pictures reminded me of the “watermelon races” (races out to the floats where the winner won a watermelon) Nice to know how and when it all started

  3. Bonnie Bradley

    Toni was a lovely person, a good friend to all who knew her, to Westport and especially to Compo Beach

  4. Bob Fatherley

    Any possibility that Frank Cunningham was a descendant of John
    Cunningham, President of the Westport Water Company after whom
    Cunningham Place was named?

  5. Adam Stolpen

    There are very few times that an event can be pinpointed as marking the end of an era. I’ve known Toni Cunningham since I was a small boy, and her passing dramatically puts a coda to an era in Westport.

    For the friends of her children she was the marker of our youth and innocence while at the same time embodying the style and flair of the madman era of Westport. She was a riff on the piano, clicking cubes in a cocktail glass, a wise comment, an unseen tinkling laugh and an ever present flirtatious smile.

    She’ll be missed by all of us who knew her.

  6. Joyce Joiner

    Wow! Perhaps there’s a reason some people live to 101— with that kind of a joyful, generous, adventurous and loving soul it makes you wish she was here another century…
    As a ‘newbie’ in the Westport area ( almost 10 years, but that doesn’t quite get you into the Club… ), I can’t stress enough how many things there are to treasure in this lovely town. The flowers planted at Toni’s garden were ones that I had wanted to plant in my own!
    Thank you, Ma’am, for making my favorite part of Westport— Compo Beach— the jewel it is. I will send something to your loved one’s thoughtful choice to remember you that will hopefully continue to bloom in homage to your beauty.

  7. Fred Cantor

    A terrific tribute. (And I had never heard that interesting story before about the third floor addition.)

  8. Grateful for that history of Toni, grateful for her. Always gracious and courageous. She is to be remembered.

  9. Colleen C. Cunningham

    Article so Town and Country as the Cunningham’s of Soundview Drive close the final chapter of their long life in Westport.
    Movie star handsome and Wall Street
    sucess. beautiful and talented, my
    Aunt and Uncle were loved and
    Admired by their Chicago family who always looked forward to visits that were filled with music and laughter.

  10. Tom Feeley Sr

    What a beautiful lady…she didn’t miss a thing. Toni took fabulous shorthand and meeting members were sometimes shocked “Did I say that!?” at her accuracy. She loved Compo Beach and served as its beautifier her whole life. Gonna miss her smile🙏

  11. Merritt Jacob

    thank you for this beautiful tribute

  12. I feel honored to have know Toni and her family and have them as my friends for the last 25 years, have fond memories that i will cherish for time to come.

  13. Cindy Simmons

    Such a beautiful story, and I can see where Gail got her beautification efforts and spunk!