Friday Flashback #217

Have you ever heard of Vivien Kellems?

I had — vaguely — but I sure couldn’t tell you who she was, or what she did.

Alert — and history-minded — “06880” reader Wendy Crowther recently stumbled upon a story about her.

According to ConnecticutHistory.org, Kellems was a women’s rights activist and suffragist. She earned her main fame though for her battles with the IRS.

The Iowa native, and University of Oregon BA and master’s in economics graduate, partnered with her brother Edgar, who in the late 1920s invented an improved cable grip for electrical wiring. Their Kellems Cable Grip company made equipment used in the New York subway system, Chrysler Building and George Washington Bridge.

Vivien Kellems, with a cable grip.

In 1942 the firm moved to Westport. Vivian ran for Congress, but lost to Claire Boothe Luce — Connecticut’s first female representative. Kellems also ran for the US Senate in 1950, ’56 and ’62, and governor in 1954. She lost each race.

The history website says:

A year after moving to Westport, Kellems opposed the country’s use of a graduated income tax and publicly announced her decision to abstain from paying federal income taxes. After having her patriotism called into question for withdrawing financial support for her country during time of war, she backed down, but only temporarily.

In 1948 she announced that she would no longer withhold federal income taxes from employees. She became one of the first interviewees on a new TV show, “Meet the Press.”

That same year, she lost a zoning battle with Westport.

According to CourtListener.com — also sent to “06880” by Wendy Crowther —

The defendants’ property consists of an approximate two-acre tract of land situated between Riverside Avenue and Franklin Street in the Saugatuck area of Westport, together with a one-story white frame building housing some fifteen machines including a turret lathe, small lathes, milling machines, welding machines and other experimental and manufacturing equipment.

To the north of this property is located a two-story yellow frame building, leased by the defendants, wherein is conducted a very substantial part of their manufacturing, consisting in fabricating wire into cable grips in sizes from one-half inch to four inches in diameter.

The fabricating process requires the constant use of forming tools, winding lathes and solder pots, and the operation of a variety of machines driven by electric motors. At the time of trial the defendants employed thirty-eight persons in their manufacturing operation; an employee load far below the peak of 150 persons employed during the recent war years.

Judge J. Cullinan noted:

The defendants’ challenge to the town’s zoning regulations, while many-sided, may be summarized in the general contentions that the regulations are not uniform for each class or kind of building or structure in the Saugatuck district since other buildings in that business district are used for manufacturing purposes, either by virtue of the fact that they were thus used when the regulations became effective and thereafter continued as nonconforming uses, or by virtue of the regulation permitting industrial uses in a business district when such uses are clearly incidental to the conduct of a retail business conducted on the premises; that the prohibition of industrial use of the defendants’ premises estops them from making the highest and best use of their property; that the Saugatuck district should be an industrial or manufacturing area and that a restraint on industry creates an arbitrary and unlawful limitation; and that the prohibition against light industry amounts to an unconstitutional taking of property without due process of law.

Vivien Kellems (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Institution)

Saugatuck, the most densely populated area of Westport is, in reality, a community within a community, containing as it does, a very substantial number of moderate and low-priced residences; a number of large and valuable estates, whose assessed valuations exceed half a million dollars; a variety of retail stores, whose right to operate in a business zone is unquestioned; a community coal and lumber yard; and a sprinkling of properties, which, when the zoning regulations were adopted, were devoted to nonconforming industrial and manufacturing uses and which, by law, were permitted to continue without suppression.

Concluding that “zoning legislation is a valid exercise of the police power within proper limitations,” he upheld the town of Westport’s position. The judge then fined Kellems $250.

After that defeat, Kellems moved her company to Stonington. She closed it in 1962, “proclaiming it an end to the era of small business in America.”

Her IRS battles continued. Connecticut History says:

Protesting that tax laws unfairly penalized unmarried individuals, Kellems never filled out another tax return. She, instead, signed blank returns every year and sent them to the IRS. She continued her fight for tax law reform right up until her death in 1975.

Do any “06880” readers remember Vivien Kellems — either personally, or her manufacturing company? Click “Comments” below, to fill out this fascinating piece of history.

(To read more from ConnecticutHistory.org, click here. To read the court’s decision, click here.)

8 responses to “Friday Flashback #217

  1. It looks like Vivien Kellems plays a mean cable grip.

  2. Dorrie Barlow Thomas

    I would love to know if she ever got audited or fined or otherwise bothered by the IRS…or does simply signing the form count for enough?! :))) If she had had any children, I’d wonder if they got nailed for all her back taxes.

  3. When I saw her name I recognized it but don’t have any tidbits to offer. The information here was news to me. But, yes, her name was well known. Hopefully there will be some personal encounters that others will have to offer.

  4. My grandparents spoke of Vivien Kellems often. The way they told the story was Ms.Kellems was unhappy with the imposed collection of payroll tax deduction on the Government behalf. This of course was without compensation to the employer for the additional bookkeeping costs. She had promised to hold the money in escrow and would submit it once they paid her additional bookkeeping fees. She also included an invoice for the time and continued to do so. The Government sat back while applying interest knowing at some point they would collect. This standoff lasted until her passing. The government received their money from the estate and Vivien got the satisfaction of standing her ground.

    Another story that is apropos for this time of year is VOTING. Ms.Kellems was opposed to the party lever, she was of the opinion that voters should know the names of the candidates and not be able to pull a single lever to vote an entire ticket. Prompting voters to “Pull the bottom lever” was contrary to all she believed. My understanding is that she would always show up as the polls opened, entered a booth, unfold her stool and stay until the polls closed at night. She would tie up the voting booth all day long. This presented problems and confusion for the first few times. The polling committee used to spend time and find where she was registered. They would then order an additional voting booth so she could be accommodated.

    Fact or fiction, still quite a woman!

  5. Vivian Kellems was instrumental in the restoration of the Goodspeed Theater. She became involved in another restoration project that did not move ahead for various reasons.
    The project was to restore the Sterling Theater in Derby.
    It was housed on the second floor of the former Derby City Hall. Ms. Kellems came to Derby in 1966 to lend her support to a local group of citizens representing the Sterling Theater Restoration Committee.
    Unfortunately,Vivian forgot to bring her checkbook.

    I grew up in Derby and recall the series of events to restore the Sterling which had a rich history back in the day.
    Red Skeleton apparently appeared there along with many other artists and performers. My father was involved in local politics in Derby and the Sterling was a frequent topic at dinner time.
    I’m sure you can find more about the Sterling as it is still in Derby but not restored.

  6. My father, J. Kenneth Bradley represented Vivian Kellems in many of her lawsuits. The two of them spent numerous hours in our living room plotting strategies but it all came to nothing as far as I remember. In person she seemed as hard as nails… To me she was just a cranky old lady with beautiful clothes.
    And how did I get to drift through the living room while they chatted away? Surprisingly, my parents never sent us out of the room while the grownups talked and schemed (we were a political family, after all, my father in the thick of things.) As long as we children didn’t whine or act rowdy we were never sent from the room, regardless of our age. And somehow just listening to the “grownups” was sort of interesting….

  7. Holy cow, I didn’t know a thing about this fascinating/principled/fearless woman. Now THAT’S the kind of person you want in your team. Too bad Westport drove her out. Thanks for resurfacing Vivian (and her Westport connection) on 06880, Wendy and Dan!

  8. judith freedman

    Great article…I was a child when she ran for office but I remember the legacy..as well as that of Claire Booth Luce. Thanks for sharing a piece of CT history.

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