Category Archives: History

Ed Vebell Tells War Stories, Sells Uniforms

At 95 years old, Ed Vebell could be ready to slow down.

The Westport artist has had quite a life. Here’s a quick summary:

During World War II he was an illustrator/reporter for Stars and Stripes newspaper. He’d be dropped off at a battle scene, told to find a story, then picked up 3 days later.

Ed Vebell, in Norman Rockwell-esque style, illustrates his own illustration.

Ed Vebell, in Norman Rockwell-esque style, illustrates his own illustration. The print sits atop many others in Ed’s studio.

After the war, he worked for French magazines (and covered the Nuremberg war trials). When she was 18, Grace Kelly posed for Ed. His first girlfriend was a star of the the Folies Bergère.

Two of Ed's sketches from the Nuremberg trials.

Two of Ed’s sketches from the Nuremberg trials.

Back in the States, he contributed to Time, Reader’s Digest and other publications. Specializing in military art, he drew uniforms from around the world for encyclopedias and paperback publishers. He worked for MBI too, illustrating the history of America from Leif Erikson through the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, and every war up to Vietnam.

Ed designed US stamps — some with military themes, some not.

One of Ed's US postage stamps.

One of Ed’s US postage stamps.

Oh yeah: He reached the semifinals of the 1952 Olympics, representing our country in fencing.

As I said, 95-year-old Ed Vebell could be slowing down.

He’s not. His latest project is selling his vast collection of uniforms.

They sprawl throughout the wonderful studio in his Compo Beach home, and in several other rooms. There are Revolutionary and Civil War uniforms, German helmets and Franco-Prussian gear. Buffalo Bill Cody’s hat is there too, in a bathtub surrounded by tons of other stuff.

He would have even more. But Hurricane Sandy wiped out his basement.

Two of Ed's many uniforms hang on a file cabinet.

Two of Ed’s many uniforms hang on a file cabinet.

Ed’s collection began years ago. He could rent a uniform for $15. But for just $10 more, he could buy it. That made sense; he had so much work, he needed plenty of uniforms.

So why is he selling?

“I’m 95,” he says simply. “I can’t keep them forever.”

Two auctions have already been held. He’s talking to more auction houses, and individual buyers too.

He knows each item. He points with pride to his Native American collection of bonnets, saddles and war shirts. He knows the differences between every tribe.

For years, he was hired for illustrations by editors out West. Why not use an artist closer by? he asked.

“We trust you,” they said.

Ed Vebell, in his Compo Beach studio.

Ed Vebell, in his Compo Beach studio.

The Civil War holds a special place in Ed’s heart. Years ago, he staged entire battle scenes in a Weston field. Models wore Yankee and rebel uniforms. Ed took photos, and worked from them.

He did the same with cowboys and Indians. “Those were great shows,” he recalls. “We had horses, riders, muskets and tomahawks. We entertained the whole neighborhood.”

It may be time to sell all those uniforms. But that’s not Ed’s only project.

At 95, he’s just finished two more picture books.

So now he’s looking around for his next one.

Ed drew this in 1944.

Ed Vebell drew this in 1944, in Italy.

Yankee Doodle Comes To Town

There are many reasons — probably more than 109 — to come to the 109th annual Yankee Doodle Fair.

But among the many — free admission! unlimited-ride wristbands! a bake sale with macaroons from 90-year-old Bev McArthur! — my favorite may be this:

Yankee Doodle himself is going.

The fictional colonial simpleton — who bears a striking resemblance to Westport artist Miggs Burroughs (designer of our town’s Minute Man flag) — will be there this week. In full costume.

With — of course — a feather in his cap.

Yankee Doodle, aka Miggs Burroughs.

Yankee Doodle, aka Miggs Burroughs.

For a $3 donation, you can take a selfie at the Yankee Doodle Fair (Westport Woman’s Club, 44 Imperial Avenue). With Yankee Doodle.

You gotta hand it to Miggs. When he borrowed his costume from fellow illustrator Ed Vebell, he realized it was a better fit for a 1776-size guy.

So Miggs found a tailoring kit, and fixed it himself.

Betsy Ross would be proud.

Which is not just a clever line. Fun fact: Miggs actually dated Betsy Ross.

No, not that one. He isn’t that old.

Miggs met this Betsy Ross in 1998, at a New Year’s party at Ann Sheffer and Bill Scheffler’s house. She grew up in Westport — as Betsy Peterken– and left Staples after 10th grade.

This is not the Betsy Ross whom Miggs Burroughs dated.

This is not the Betsy Ross whom Miggs Burroughs dated.

By the time she returned for that party she’d married and divorced Thomas McCaughey, married (and was in the process of separating from) wealthy investment banker Wilbur Ross — and was, in her own right (using the name Betsy McCaughey Ross) lieutenant governor of New York, under George Pataki.

A staunch conservative, she was also in the process of defecting to the Democratic Party — so she could run against Pataki. (She lost in the primary.)

Which brings us — in a roundabout way — back to Yankee Doodle.

The costume is hot. So Miggs will be in air-conditioned Bedford Hall — part of the Yankee Doodle Fair grounds — for limited hours: 6-8 p.m. on Thursday and Friday, June 16-17; 4-7 p.m. Saturday, June 18, and 1-3 p.m. on Sunday, June 19.

After 109 years, this Yankee Doodle Fair promises to be a historic occasion.

(Full hours for the Yankee Doodle Fair: 6-10 p.m. June 16-17,  1-10 p.m. June 18; 1-5 p.m. June 19. All proceeds help fund Westport Woman’s Club grants and scholarships. For more details, click here.)

 

Larry Lyons’ Stamp Of Approval

Postage stamps — those relics of yesterday — are all over the news.

The World Stamp Show has returned to New York for the first time in decades, drawing 200,000 visitors to the Javits Center. (Its 8-day run ends tomorrow, Saturday June 4.)

One of the most famous stamps of all time — the Inverted Jennie biplane, number 76 on a sheet of 100 — has resurfaced, after a disappearance of 61 years.

And a Westport man is there for both events.

Larry Lyons

Larry Lyons

Larry Lyons is executive director of the Philatelic Foundation. The New York-based organization certifies the authenticity of US and foreign stamps for buyers and sellers, and maintains an enormous reference library. Lyons played a key role in ascertaining the authenticity of the long-lost Inverted Jennie.

He’s also spent many days at the Stamp Show, meeting fellow philatelists and enjoying all that the enormous show offers.

Lyons calls himself a researcher and postal historian, not a stamp collector. His special area of expertise is carrier and local posts: the private, independent mail companies that issued adhesive stamps in 1844 and 1845.

Lyons’ love of philately dates back to his childhood. His father owned a grocery store in an immigrant neighborhood of upper Manhattan. Customers gave bags full of stamps — from South America, Cuba and Japan — to young Larry.

He grew up, owned a general contracting business in New York, and moved here in 1976. He retired in 2010, then began working for the Philatelic Foundation — which he’d served as a trustee since 1999.

The Foundation uses ultra-modern equipment to detect retouching and tampering in the stamps it is asked to certify. “There’s a lot of shenanigans,” Lyons says.

100 stamps showing a biplane were printed upside down in 1918 -- and escaped the notice of inspectors.

100 stamps showing a biplane were printed upside down in 1918 — and escaped the notice of inspectors.

The Inverted Jennie block of 100 stamps — printed in 1918 — has long fascinated the public. When the lost one turned up recently — and Lyons’ foundation was asked to verify it — the FBI got involved.

But Lyons — who regularly handles million-dollar stamps, much more valuable and rare than the Inverted Jennie — was unruffled.

For one of the stamp world’s top experts, it was just another day at the (post) office.

(For a New York Times story on the Inverted Jennie stamp that quotes Larry Lyons, click here. Hat tip: Mary Condon)

Weather Or Not: Memorial Day 2016

The threatened heavy rain never materialized. But the forecast moved today’s Memorial Day ceremony into Town Hall.

An overflow crowd jammed Town Hall, for the Memorial Day celebration. It was powerful, impactful — and for everyone there, from World War II veterans to youngsters born in the 21st century — very, very important.

(All photos by Dan Woog unless otherwise noted.)

Memorial Day - Town Hall flag - 2016

92-year-old Leonard Everett Fisher -- a former grand marshal -- wears his World War Ii uniform proudly.

92-year-old Leonard Everett Fisher — a former grand marshal — wears his World War Ii uniform proudly.

Troop 39 Boy Scouts lead the Pledge of Allegiance.

Troop 39 Boy Scouts lead the Pledge of Allegiance.

Grand marshal Joe Schachter -- a 90-year-old World War II vet -- poses with a patriotic fan. (Photo/Doris Ghitelman)

Grand marshal Joe Schachter — a 90-year-old World War II vet — poses with a patriotic fan. (Photo/Doris Ghitelman)

Grand marshal Joe Schachter asked all the veterans in the auditorium to stand. Two former comrades shook hands.

Grand marshal Joe Schachter asked all the veterans in the auditorium to stand. Bob Satter and Sam Brody delightedly shook hands.

The color guard stands stock still, at attention.

The color guard stands at attention.

A Vietnam veteran takes in the ceremony.

An Army veteran takes in the ceremony.

Bill Vornkahl has been organizing Westport's Memorial Day parade for 46 years. That's about 40 years longer than these fife and drum corps members have been alive.

Bill Vornkahl has organized Westport’s Memorial Day parade for 46 years. That’s several decades longer than these fife and drum corps members have been alive.

Navy veteran John Brandt stands as the Staples High School band plays "Anchors Aweigh"...

Navy veteran John Brandt stands as the Staples High School band plays “Anchors Aweigh”…

...and an Army veteran does the same for "The Caisson Song."

…and Army veteran Sam Brody does the same for “The Caisson Song.”

A Vietnam veteran stands silently in the Town Hall lobby. (Photo/Doris Ghitelman)

A Vietnam veteran stands silently. (Photo/Doris Ghitelman)

Many organizations worked for days on their floats. The parade cancellation was disappointing — but here’s a chance for “06880” readers to see what they missed:

The Westport Woman's Club float included Miggs Burroughs as George Washington (or is it Yankee Doodle?). (Photo/courtesy of Dorothy Curran)

The Westport Woman’s Club float included Miggs Burroughs as George Washington (or is it Yankee Doodle?). (Photo/courtesy of Dorothy Curran)

Westport's state champion 10-and-under softball team, and the 12-and-under runnersup, were all set to march (well, ride).

Westport’s state champion 10-and-under softball team, and the 12-and-under runnersup, were all set to march (well, ride). (Photo/courtesy of Steve Axthelm)

The Y's Men usually win the float competition. This year's theme was "Tomb of the Unknowns." (Photo/courtesy of John Brandt)

The Y’s Men usually win the float competition. This year’s theme was “Tomb of the Unknowns.” (Photo/courtesy of John Brandt)

Finally, if you really missed this year’s parade — take a look at this one video. It’s from 2005, courtesy of Doug Harrison.

What’s In A (Westport) Name?

It took nearly 200 years for us to break away from Fairfield, Norwalk and Weston, and become our own town. (As well as decide to call ourselves “Westport,” not “Saugatuck” as we had always been known.)

It took 175 years from that founding — on May 28, 1835 — for the Westport Historical Society to produce a 45-minute show, educating 21st-century residents about our 19th-century past.

And it took 6 years from that day — May 28, 2010 — for the WHS to finish editing a film about the re-enactment.

For a town filled with media folks, the production values are a bit sketchy. But it’s an interesting video nonetheless.

And now — on May 28, 2016 — it’s being released to the public. Enjoy!

Roger Kaufman: Memphis (Rhythm ‘n’) Blues Again

Roger Kaufman is old school.

While his peers listened to the Doors and Janis Joplin, the 1966 Staples High School graduate sang doo wop.

His band — Four on the Floor — moved on to jazz, R&B and folk tunes.

Roger Kaufman

Roger Kaufman

Music changed, but Kaufman didn’t. He formed a group called the Old School Revue. Decades later, they still play all around the area. (Old School Music is also the name of Kaufman’s music event production company.)

His old-school roots extend back to ragtime. Back in the day, Mel Kaufman — Roger’s grandfather — was one of America’s premier ragtime songwriters.

Through that ragtime connection, Roger met John Hasse. He’s curator of American music, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

Hasse needed help filling a hole in the renowned museum’s collection. He asked Kaufman to find people who’d been involved in the 1960s Memphis rhythm ‘n’ blues scene.

Green OnionsThe Stax label — named for its founders, record store owners Jim STeward and Estelle AXton — was a creative, fertile and constantly evolving home for talented musicians. Black and white, they played together — at a time when the country was convulsed by civil rights conflicts, and integrated music sessions were almost unheard of.

Kaufman — who calls Hasse a “brilliant and wonderful ethnomusicologist” — was happy to help.

For the past 2 years, Kaufman traveled in search of Memphis musicians. He found one who now lives in Nashville. His name: Steve Cropper.

No history of Memphis R&B is complete without Steve Cropper. As guitarist for Booker T. & the MGs — Stax’s house band — he backed artists like Otis Redding, Sam & Dave and Carla Thomas. He also produced many of their records.

Later, he earned fame as a Blues Brothers founder. Rolling Stone ranked him 39th on its list of the 100 greatest guitarists of all time.

Steve Cropper and Roger Kaufman

Steve Cropper and Roger Kaufman.

The Smithsonian needs artifacts — letters, photos, Grammy Awards — from the Stax days. Cropper has them.

Now — with Kaufman’s help — he’s donating them to the museum.

At his Nashville home, Cropper showed 3 guitars to Kaufman. One was used on Otis Redding’s “Dock of the Bay” sessions. The others backed Rod Stewart and Tower of Power.

The guitar Steve Cropper played on "Dock of the Bay" is headed to the Smithsonian -- thanks to Roger Kaufman.

The guitar Steve Cropper played on “Dock of the Bay” is headed to the Smithsonian — thanks in part to Roger Kaufman.

Then he pulled out an amp. It was used to record “Green Onions” — the signature song Cropper, just 21 years old, wrote with Booker T.

As they chatted, Cropper talked about his career. He told Kaufman and Hasse how he’d written legendary songs like “Knock on Wood,” “Midnight Hour” and “Dock of the Bay.”

Cropper paved the way for more visits. Soon, Kaufman heads to Macon, Georgia to visit Otis Redding’s widow Zelma. He’ll also talk with Sam Moore, of Sam & Dave.

Kaufman has already met Vaneese Thomas, whose father Rufus wrote and sang “Walking the Dog.” The other day, they had lunch at Longshore.

Roger Kaufman, John Hasse and Steve Cropper form a formidable team. Together, they help — as Kaufman says, quoting Aretha Franklin — Memphis musicians finally get their Smithsonian “propers.”

UPDATE — Rare Footage Of Westport’s 1912 Train Wreck

UPDATE: Katherine Motes Bennewitz sent along these fascinating links to newspaper accounts of the event:  

http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9D0DE4D7113AE633A25755C0A9669D946396D6CF

http://query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=9406E5DE133CE633A25757C0A9669D946396D6CF

————————————————–

There is absolutely no connection with this story to any current event, locally or nationally.

But it’s a fascinating look into Westport’s past nonetheless.

Indefatigable “06880” reader/historian Mary Gai unearthed newsreel footage of the worst train wreck in our history.

On October 3, 1912, the New York, New Haven & Hartford’s “Springfield Express” derailed near Davenport Avenue, just west of the train station.

The engineer failed to slow down. The steam locomotive derailed — followed by a baggage car, mail car, 4 parlor cars, 3 coaches, and a smoking car.

Wood splintered; glass smashed — and soon the air was filled with shrieks and cries.

Seven people died, and 50 were injured.

Here is a short video of the aftermath of that crash:

Remembering Anita Schorr — Holocaust Survivor And Hero

Anita Schorr — a Westporter and Holocaust survivor who inspired thousands of area residents with her true story of horror and hope — died yesterday. With her trademark bravery, she had waged a battle with colon cancer. She was 85.

Anita began speaking out in 1993, following a visit to the newly opened United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Two decades of Westport students have listened, rapt, to this remarkable woman.

Anita Schorr lived through some of history's most horrific times.

Anita Schorr lived through some of history’s most horrific times.

Liz Kaner first met Anita Schorr 17 years ago, on the tennis court. Her tattooed number was visible on her arm.

Recently, Liz drove Anita to an Anti-Defamation League program, to help middle school teachers incorporate the Holocaust into their curriculums. “Although it was the 3rd or 4th time I’d heard her story, I could barely breathe,” Liz says.

“She took us through her plight with countless harrowing twists and turns. She survived. The rest of her family perished.”

Liz adds: “She is the most extraordinary woman I ever met. She leaves a remarkable legacy. Her tale is one of triumph and perseverance, amid unimaginable tragedy and cruelty.”

Several years ago, Liz wrote an article about Anita  for a joint Hadassah-UJA program. In it, Liz described the upheaval of Anita’s idyllic childhood at age 9 — along with the strength that allowed her to survive slave labor, ghetto life, 2 concentration camps, and the loss of her entire family.

Anita Schorr's parents, Stella and Fritz, on their wedding day.

Anita Schorr’s parents, Stella and Fritz, on their wedding day.

She was born Anita Pollak in Brno, Czechoslovakia. Her upper-middle class family was fully assimilated into Czech society. They were active in music and theater, and took ski vacations.

Her parents were Reform Jews who occasionally went to temple, sometimes made Shabbat dinner, and had both Jewish and Christian friends.

In March of 1939, when the Nazis seized the country, the family relocated to a smaller apartment, with her grandmother. In an effort to avoid a fate they feared, Anita’s grandmother and uncle committed suicide.

In 1941 the Pollaks were sent to the Terezin ghetto. Two years later they were transferred to Auschwitz. When the Red Cross visisted, the Pollaks were showcased as the “token family.”

Within a year, Anita’s father was sent to a German slave labor camp. Her mother and younger brother were sent to the gas chamber. Liz wrote that it took Anita “many years to comprehend the wrenching choice her mother made to remain by her young brother’s side to protect him, while urging her daughter to take a different path by claiming to be 18 years old.”

Anita Pollak, age 8, and her brother Michael, 3.

Anita Pollak, age 8, and her brother Michael, 3.

Anita was sent to a slave labor camp in Hamburg. After much terror and suffering, she was moved to the infamous Bergen Belsen. Half of the 60,000 prisoners died of starvation and disease. On April 15, 1945, the camp was liberated by the British.

Anita had never given up hope of seeing her father again. Miraculously, she received word that he was alive, and would meet her in Prague. Though suffering from dysentery, she traveled to meet him. For the rest of her life, the cherry blossoms she saw along the autobahn on that trip would remind her of freedom.

Tragically, her reunion did not occur. Her father was shot 2 days before the Allies arrived.

Students wee rapt when Anita Schorr told her life story.

Students were rapt when Anita Schorr told her life story.

An orphan at 15, Anita planned for her future. She obtained a scholarship to a private school, and earned straight A’s.

Later she trained as one of the first 4 women to join the Haganah (Jewish paramilitary organization that became the core of the Israeli Defense Forces). In 1948 she was sent to the new nation of Israel, where she lived on a kibbutz by the Jordan border.

Anita called that experience “the 12 greatest years of my life. We carried the guilt of surviving. Building a country gave us a reason to live again. Israel built me back into a human being. The kibbutz was a surrogate family.”

A younger Anita Schorr

A younger Anita Schorr

Anita married in Israel. He was a photographer. She worked in air-brush retouching. Eventually she and her husband moved to the US, a country that beckoned them as another “new world.”

Liz writes: “Her one major disappointment with the American way of life was that women had not attained the same high level of achievement as in Israel. Coming to the land of opportunity yet not feeling like an equal was eye-opening.”

Anita moved to Westport in 1985, and has inspired residents here ever since.

When Liz Kaner heard Anita speak recently to teachers at the ADL conference, she took notes. Among Anita’s most important points:

Every one of us has to do something. And yes, one person can make a difference. We need to be heroes again. We are better physically, better equipped with better weapons. Mentally we must feel that every incident is everyone’s responsibility.

Anita Schorr fought against intolerance. She made sure that the Holocaust has not been forgotten.

Now it is our job to never forget Anita Schorr.

(Anita Schorr’s funeral will be held this Sunday, April 10, 11 a.m. at Abraham L. Green & Son in Fairfield. Shiva details have not yet been announced.)

Anita Schorr persevered, and told her story with power. But she had a sense of humor too. After being presented with a small gift after one speaking engagement, she held it up as if it were an Oscar.

Anita Schorr persevered, and told her story with power. But she had a sense of humor too. After being presented with a small gift after one speaking engagement, she held it up as if it were an Oscar.

Two books about Anita Schorr, both by Marion Stahl.

Two books about Anita Schorr, both by Marion Stahl.

 

Miggs Burroughs: Time For Merle Haggard

Most Westporters knew Merle Haggard — if they knew him at all — as the singer-songwriter of the proud-to-be-a-hippie-hater “Okie From Muskogee.”

But Miggs Burroughs knew Haggard — who died Wednesday, on his 79th birthday — in a different way.

More than 40 years ago — in June of 1973 — Time Magazine asked the 27-year-old artist to create the cover for a story on the country music “outlaw hero.”

“I wasn’t a fan at the time,” Miggs recalls.

“I painted it on real barn siding to make it look as haggard as possible. I liked it, they liked it, and proofs were printed.”

The Time cover readers never saw.

The Time cover readers never saw.

But Merle complained, and the editors swapped Miggs’ artwork out for a photographic cover.

He sighs. “Then it was me who looked haggard.”

PS: 14 months later, Miggs painted another Time cover — the one announcing Richard Nixon’s resignation. The disgraced president didn’t like hippies either.

Trey Ellis Tells Tuskegee Airmen’s Tale

Trey Ellis had done a lot of things in his life.

He’s written movies, books and TV shows. He’s been a political pundit, a social critic and a Huffington Post contributor. He’s won a Peabody, been nominated for an Emmy and shortlisted for a PEN Award.

Trey Ellis

Trey Ellis

He teaches at Columbia University, was a non-resident fellow at Harvard, and taught or lectured at Yale, NYU, the University of New Mexico, and in Brazil and France.

But until a decade ago, the Westport resident had never written a play.

That’s when the Lincoln Center Institute commissioned a work by Ellis about the Tuskegee Airmen. He’d already earned honors for a 1995 HBO film on the African American pilots who overcame fierce racism to become one of World War II’s finest US fighter groups. They never lost a bomber.

Ellis and Ricardo Khan turned the movie into an hour-long play, called “Fly.” Originally aimed at students, a longer version was staged a few years later at the Vineyard Theater in Massachusetts, then the Crossroads Theater in New Jersey — one of America’s leading black companies.

It’s since moved on to Ford’s Theatre in Washington — where several of the real Tuskegee Airmen saw it — and the Pasadena Playhouse.

Ellis is very proud of “Fly.” The other day — quoting Martin Luther King — he noted that while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice. However, the playwright added, recent racial strife in America has made stories like the Airmen’s more relevant and important than ever.

Fly - Trey Ellis

Now “Fly” — which the New York Times called “a superior piece of theatrical synergy” — is coming to the New Victory Theater on 42nd Street. It runs March 11-27.

Ellis will be there. So will his family — including his son Chet (the name of one of the show’s main characters), and Chet’s friends.

But there’s one more place Ellis would like to see it produced: the Westport Country Playhouse.

“I go to as many productions there as I can,” the playwright says. “I would love to bring this to my adopted hometown.”