Category Archives: Arts

Remembering Margaret Barnett

Margaret Barnett — a longtime Westporter, and volunteer for countless civic causes — died earlier this month, in the bedroom of her South Compo Road home where she had lived since 1954. She was 103 years old.

A graduate of Barnard College in 1936, where she majored in botany, Margaret married Dr. Roy Barnett in 1941.

She was active in many local organizations, particularly the Norwalk Symphony Orchestra and Earthplace (she was a founding member, when it was called the Mid-Fairfield County Youth Museum).

In the 1960s she hosted a weekly classical music show on WNLK radio, “The Norwalk Symphony Hour.”

Margaret Barnett in 2008, age 91.

Margaret was also very active in the successful effort to prevent construction of a nuclear power plant on Cockenoe Island.

She was known as a world traveler, tennis player, birder, a music, art and theater lover, devoted mother and grandmother, and great friend to many.

Margaret is survived by her sons John of Norwalk, and Ted of Rochester, New York, and 4 grandchildren. She was predeceased by her husband and daughter, Judge Edith Barnett.

Elle Vail: Young Westport Author Inspired By — And Inspires — Others

Elle Vail is a writer and blogger. So are many Westporters (including yours truly). 

What makes Elle special is that she is only 13 years old. Here — in her own words — is her story.

Ever since I was in 1st grade, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wanted to be an author from the first time I found joy in writing at Saugatuck Elementary School where my teacher, Ms. Bader, made us write about our weekend every Monday.

As the years went by my passion grew greater. Once I reached 4th grade I practically rewrote “Dork Diaries” in 53 pages. Not the best first story, but it motivated me to write more.

Once seventh grade approached I was ready to write another long story. Luckily I had another life-changing teacher, Mrs. Hallama, to help me out. I told her I wanted to finish a book by the time I was 13 (which was the next year).

She helped me get to work by contacting her literary agent with questions, FaceTiming with her author friends and helping me bring out what I had into my writing.

Elle Vail is now a Staples High School freshman.

I was surprised she wasn’t already published. Soon after I left her classroom she emailed me that she got a book offer for 2 of her books to come out on Halloween of 2020 (knowing Mrs. Hallama, they will not disappoint).

By December in her classroom, I gained the confidence to commit to my first published novel, “adVerse Wishes.”

Through this journey, I had so much support from my friends and family especially author Howard Greenwald (the dad of a good friend of my dad’s), who influenced me to finish the book.

With so much help I completed the book by August 2018. I had written 75 pages but I was ready to write more.

November was National Novel Writing Month (I have to thank Ms. Rao for informing me about it at Bedford Middle School).

By the end of November, I had written 49 pages. With my 2 novellas done I was ready to self-publish.

I wish I could say I created the 2 beautiful covers for my books but really my amazing friends, P. Pretty and H. Fiarman, did it all.

By March 29 and 30 my books were out to the world. Although it took a while I eventually got them onto Kindle, Amazon, the Barnes &Noble website, the Bedford Middle School library and the Bookcycle.

Elle’s books, at Compo Beach’s Remarkable Bookcycle.

I am working on getting my books into the Barnes & Noble store, Westport Library and the Staples High School Library.

During this process I began to publicize that I was working on publishing 2 books, through Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. I post at least once a day on my social media accounts.

Local bestseller Emily Liebert inspired me to get on social media for writing and to blog. I met her when she did a speech at a National Charity League event as an author. I was intrigued by her story.

Soon after I reached out to her. We had coffee at Aux Delices. She talked with me about my books and how to go to the next level.

As I am starting 9th grade at Staples High School, I am sadly more short on time for writing, so writing another novella or writing a novel can be hard. Because of this, I started my blog. I now post at least once a week on evailwrites.com. I enjoy blogging so much and I hope to continue it for as long as possible.

After having coffee with Emily she released another incredible novel called “Pretty Revenge.” I was lucky enough to go to one of her book signings to meet her very kind friends and fellow authors Jane Green, Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke.

Elle Vail at a book signing with authors Liz Fenton (left) and Lisa Steinke.

From the experiences with Emily Liebert, I learned the significance of reaching out to those you look up to in the profession you would like to pursue. This can help you plan for the future, and get some wise words from those who are more experienced than you.

I 100 percent recommend more kids go for it and advance their dreams at a young age. For all of the young aspiring authors, find someone who can motivate you and just write! Anyone can self-publish like I did with a couple of guidelines; all you have to do keep writing.

Westport: The Write Place

The statistics are in: 18 iconic Westport locations. Six library spots. Six pick-your-own-spots. All told, 250 “writes” during last month’s Write Here project.

Jan Bassin

Led by Jan Bassin — Senior Center coordinator of writing programs, and the Westport Library’s Maker-in-Residence — each hour-long session began with a brief introduction. After a prompt, Westporters of all ages, abilities and backgrounds began writing. At the end, volunteers shared their creations.

The proudest — or bravest — uploaded their writing to a dedicated website.

But those dry facts don’t come close to telling the whole “story.”

Like many participants, Bassin knew some of the writing locations well. In her case it was the Senior Center, Westport Country Playhouse, Compo Beach, Wakeman Town Farm, Levitt Pavilion and Farmers’ Market.

Others she hadn’t visited or thought about in years: Earthplace, Rolnick Observatory, Westport Historical Society.

She’d been to Toquet Hall only once; the Westport Weston Family YMCA and Ned Dimes Marina never. She had no idea where to find the police station entrance.

Writing at Earthplace …

Jan was excited to “discover” those new places. But just as intriguing was the chance to look at familiar places with new eyes: the Town Hall lobby, for example, and train station.

She realized too that classrooms at fire and police headquarters, picnic tables at Longshore and chairs under a tree at the Farmers’ Market were as exciting as the more “sparkly” venues.

Each site brought new revelations. Jan and her group sat spellbound as Nick Marsan described his circuitous, unexpected route to becoming a firefighter; Sue Pfister spoke of shifting her focus from business to social work, then finding a population where she could help; Lori Cochran-Dougall shared her passion for sustainability; Carleigh Welsh offered her heartfelt philosophy about the importance of the arts, and Shannon Calvert showed photos of the universe taken at the observatory.

… the Westport Country Playhouse …

Each visit, Jan says, “felt like a private and special writing party.” Everyone at every site treated the writers as special guests.

At the end of each talk, she guided the group into “feeling” the place they were in. The writing that followed was “amazing.”

It was “beautiful, connected and gorgeous” — even from people who insisted, “I don’t write.”

When she designed the month, Jan did not expect to be as moved as she was, every single day. “People’s voices and stories still play in my head,” she says with awe.

… and the Westport Farmers’ Market.

The project was as much about “place” as about words. “We can’t actually think of ourselves at any point in our lives without remembering where we were,” she notes.

“By writing together in a series of places in our town, we ask: What makes a community?”

The answer, it turns out, is write right here.

(Click here to read the writing posted to the Write Here website.)

School Calendar Showcases Student Art

The 2019-20 school year is underway.

But it hasn’t really started unless you’ve gotten your Westport Public Schools calendar.

How else will you know every concert, play and meeting, at every school in town?

Not to mention — far more importantly — every vacation, day off, even half days?

This year’s Westport edition — published by Friends of Westport Public Art Collections — is on sale now. (Including at Back to School Nights. Even without the calendar, you know when those are — right? It’s in last year’s calendar. Every year’s calendar runs 13 months: September to September.)


The cover of the 2019-20 Westport School Calendar was designed by Coleytown Elementary School kindergartner Beatrice Anderson. Her colorful image shows the a variety of school mascots.

The calendar is as Westport as it gets. Works from young local artists and photographers — representing every school — fill the pages. They’re culled from a record 646 entries (up from 178 in 2018!). They show our water, sunsets, woods, wildlife and more.

In addition to Back to School Night, you can order the Westport Schools Calendar online (click here). It’s available too at ASF, Earthplace and the Westport Library.

All proceeds support the Westport Public Art Collections.

The back cover — showing National Hall — is courtesy of Saugatuck Elementary School 3rd grader Liam Harrison.

If You’re Thinking Of Living In Westport …

… then this Sunday’s New York Times has a story for you.

We’re the subject of this coming weekend’s Real Estate section feature. Sometimes a neighborhood is featured; other times, a village or — like us — entire town.

The piece begins with a story about a British couple with 3 young daughters. They rented in Old Greenwich, but found it very “finance-driven. They wanted to be part of “a real community.”

The New York Times map of Westport.

Westport — with its “scenic waterfront, proximity to New York City and variety of restaurants, as well as its international contingent and cosmopolitan atmosphere” — offered “ nice balance of diversity, understated successful people and enough of a European vibe.”

1st Selectman Jim Marpe then touts Westport’s “global mind set,” along with the arts, education, abundant recreational facilities and — according to the Times — “2 downtowns.”

One of our downtowns serves as the main image for the New York Times profile of Westport. (Photo/Jane Beiles for New York Times)

“The lifestyle here caters to a range of interests,” Marpe says. “And to high expectations.”

Marpe notes, “We live in a place that dates back to the very start of this country. There is a sense of history here, but we are firmly focused on the future.”

The rest of the piece includes information on Westport’s geography and neighborhoods (I learned that there’s an area known as “In-Town,” which is “within walking distance of the main downtown”); the housing mix (there are 8,818 single-family houses, 104 multifamily homes, 546 condos in 21 complexes, 292 rental apartments in residential and mixed-use buildings, 4 affordable-housing complexes with 217 units, and 1 building with 36 age-restricted cooperative apartments); the price range ($350,000 to $22.5 million, with homes under $1 million selling fastest and waterfront properties listed at a premium).

An aerial view of the Saugatuck River.(Photo/Jane Beiles for New York Times)

There’s also this, headlined “The Vibe”:

From “The Twilight Zone” and “Bewitched” to the current sitcom “American Housewife,” Westport has long been cast as an affluent suburban backdrop for television. Stereotypes aside, the town blends a laid-back ambience with year-round cultural offerings, high-end shopping and dining, and a slew of outdoor activities.

“With roots as an artists’ colony, Westport remains a creative hub,” The Times continues. The Westport Country Playhouse, Community Theatre, Levitt Pavilion, Westport Writers’ Workshop, Library, and MoCA Westport (formerly the Westport Arts Center) are all mentioned.

Schools get mentioned too, including the district’s #1 ranking in the state (and 28th in the country) by Niche, and Staples’ 7th place state rating by U.S. News and World Report.

Girls soccer: one of the many great activities at Staples High School. (Photo by Jane Beiles for New York Times)

Finally, there’s a section on the “64- to 90-minute” commute (though Marpe notes that more people now come to Westport for work than leave), and a bit of history of the Minute Man monument.

It’s a very fair and balanced picture of our town.

It’s just a week after Labor Day. But clearly, every realtor in Westport has just been handed an early Christmas or Hanukkah gift.

(Click here for the full New York Times story.)

Jill Johnson Mann Takes Lara Spencer To (Dance) School

The other day, “Good Morning America” host Lara Spencer made a moronic, smirking “joke,” mocking Prince George for taking ballet classes. Her co-hosts cackled along. Audience members joined in the laughter.

The internet erupted in outrage. This is 2019, after all.

Jill Johnson Mann went one better. The Westporter wrote all about ballet in the Washington Post.

Jill Johnson Mann

She should know. Her 4 kids — 2 girls, 2 boys — have all taken dance classes. Plus, she’s a writer. And — oh yeah — back in 2012, she interviewed Lara Spencer for Greenwich Magazine.

Her 9-year-old son Jamie had just performed in “The Nutcracker.”

Jill is a lot softer on Lara than I would be. But she pulls no punches when she talks about her family’s experiences with dance.

She describes how Jamie was “entranced” the first time he saw “Swan Lake.” He was 3 years old.

At 7 he saw “Billy Elliot the Musical” on Broadway. “My son took the leap and began taking ballet classes — with all girls, which is often the case in the suburbs,” Jill writes. “He was not fazed. He loved it.”

The next year, he joined Alvin Ailey’s Athletic Boys Dance Program.

Commuting 90 minutes to class was worth it, so he could experience a studio filled with 25 boys who loved to dance as much as he did. The program is free — a common perk for young male dancers. Especially at ballet schools, the lure of free tuition compensates for the threat of teasing.

In fact, there was teasing. Jamie wanted to go to private school.

But 5th grade “turned out to be fine. Jamie was becoming a stronger dancer and fighting to have a strong viewpoint about what is okay for boys and girls to do. He began studying ballet with a tough Russian teacher who made the boorish kids at school seem like kittens.”

In 6th grade, things got even better. Jamie was accepted into the School of American Ballet — and danced with New York City Ballet. The Wall Street Journal included him in a story on boys in ballet.

Jamie continued to rock the dance world. He landed his dream role of Billy Elliot, in 4 productions from Florida to New Hampshire. Jamie’s parents — including his “ball sports guy” dad — watched proudly as he played his part: “a physical and emotional feat unmatched by any other child role.”

Jamie Mann in “Billy Elliot the Musical.” (Photo/Zoe Bradford)

Still, Jamie was living a real life — not a Broadway musical. His mother writes:

Despite an Actors’ Equity card in his pocket, the biggest test for Jamie was daring to don ballet shoes and perform Billy’s “Electricity” in his middle school’s talent show. In 2016, even in artsy Westport, Conn., “dare” still felt like the accurate term. He got cold feet a few days before. My husband insisted he not do it. “You don’t know how boys are,” he told me. I countered, “He has to do it, for every boy who comes after him and wants to dance.”

I remember Jamie’s mop of golden hair and his white ballet shoes as the spotlight fell across him during his dramatic entrance. My husband and I braced ourselves for heckling, but instead the audience roared with encouragement. Classmates shouted Jamie’s name as though he were a star. He was, because he made it a little bit easier for kids like George.

“06880” wrote about that day. It’s still one of my favorite stories ever.

Jamie is now 3 years older. He’s continuing to dance — and to dance beautifully. This summer, he performed in a new musical at Goodspeed Opera House. It’s based on the great children’s book “Because of Winn Dixie” — a story about kindness and acceptance.

It was a fantastic show. I look forward to watching him on stage this fall in “Mamma Mia!” with Staples Players.

And if Lara Spencer wants to come, she’s welcome to sit next to me.

(Click here for Jill Johnson Mann’s full Washington Post story.)

By The Book: Cathleen Schine

Every Sunday, the New York Times Book Review section runs an author Q-and-A. The questions are often probing; the answers, intriguing.

Yesterday’s was also local. And for me, it was personal.

Cathleen Schine

Cathleeen Schine — Staples High School graduate, and best-selling author of novels like The Three Weissmanns of Westport — was the subject.

To the question “What book should everybody read before the age of 21?” she responded:

The Phantom Tollbooth. Our teacher read it to us in 4th grade. It changed my life. Words are real!”

She’s right. Too bad though that she did not give her teacher — Burr Farms Elementary School’s immensely talented, much loved, died-way-too-early Annette Fournier — a shout-out by name.

How do I know?

I was in that class too.

(Click here for the entire interview. Hat tip: Fred Cantor)

[OPINION] Hans Wilhelm: Causes Of Suicide Are Not Always Physical

Yesterday’s post on suicide drew many comments — public and private. Hans Wilhelm — self-described “mystic, author and illustrator of over 200 books with sales of more than 40 million copies,” former Westporter, current Westonite, and recipient of a Westport Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement in Literature — wrote:

Hans Wilhelm

Your post on the suicide of Mark Snedeker was a sad reminder that more Americans now die by suicide than in car accidents. The cause is not only physical, but in many cases also disconnectedness and loneliness — predominantly with the young generation. This is often paired with a lack of deeper purpose of living.

In a society that focuses mostly on material goals our soul, our spiritual side, often comes too short. Over the years I have found that particularly our youth does have a strong longing for deep spiritual nourishment and information which organized religions don’t seem to fully satisfy.

A few years ago, I started to make short illustrated videos that explain the basic spiritual laws of the universe — mostly for young people. Since their attention span is rather short, I also keep all videos brief and to the point.

I was surprised that my video on suicide quickly became one of the most watched clips of the series. From emails and comments, I learned that this video helped a lot of people over the years, as not every suicidal person has a physical health cause. Here it is:

R.L. Stine To Star At Saugatuck StoryFest

When Alex Giannini told his mother that R.L. Stine was coming to Westport — he’s the keynote speaker for the Westport Library’s Saugatuck StoryFest next month — she said, “That’s all you read as a kid.”

“I know,” the library’s manager of experiential learning said. “He’s one of the main reasons I read the authors I read today.”

R.L. Stine (Photo/Dan Nelken)

Alex is not alone. Nearly every American under the age of 45 or so was weaned on Stine’s works: the dozens of “Goosebumps” books — and many other fiction/horror/ thriller works — by the man called “the Stephen King of children’s literature. He has sold more than 400 million copies worldwide.

On Saturday, September 28, his many fans of all ages get a chance to see him in the flesh. Stine will speak for half an hour in the Forum, answer questions, and autograph copies of his latest book, “Slappy World.”

Stine’s appearance was confirmed only recently. Library officials learned he was coming the morning their Saugatuck StoryFest brochure was going to press.

He joins an impressive list of authors and others appearing at the 2nd annual event. Co-sponsored by the Westport Public Schools, it’s an innovative, immersive 3-day experience, celebrating a wide variety of genres and interests.

Last year’s celebration of writing and stories drew more than 3,000 people, from around the tri-state region. This year’s event — held entirely at the newly transformed Library — builds on that foundation.

The theme for Thursday, September 26 is “Beyond Our Earth.” The StoryFest starts with a 6 p.m. “Gravity” show by new media artist Balam Soto. Using the Forum’s video wall, he’ll help participants “move planets” and “shape the fabric of space-time” with their fingertips.

He’s followed by Ray Bradbury’s biographer, Sam Weller, and Kate Howells, the author of “Space is Cool as Fuck,” who takes audiences on an interplanetary adventure far beyond our galaxy. The library can’t say it quite this way, but it will be exactly what the title promises.

Friday, September 27 — the only day of the 3 that is not free — features Mallory O’Meara (author of “The Lady from the Black Lagoon”), Broadway’s Rob Rokicki (“The Lightning Thief”), illustrator Dave O’Neill and the cast of Broadway performers for Rokicki’s “Monstersongs,” a rock musical song cycle celebrating literary monsters.

Joining Stine on Saturday, September 28 for a full day of panels and book signings are Tiffany Jackson, L.L. McKinney, Stoker Award winners Gwendolyn Kiste and Paul Tremblay, Hugo Award winner Seanan McGuire, horror editor Ellen Datlow, bestselling thriller writers Lynne Constantine and Wendy Walker, and more.

Saugatuck StoryFest promises to be an entertaining, fun, family-friendly 3-day celebration.

It’s enough to give you goosebumps.

(For more information on Saugatuck StoryFest — including panels and times — click here.)

Pic Of The Day #853

This shot has it all: an artist, the cannons, a seagull, and a Compo Beach sunset (Photo/Fred Cantor)