Category Archives: History

Holiday House Tour Is Truly Historic

They said it couldn’t be done: Set up a Holiday House Tour of only historic houses in Westport.

Ed Gerber did it.

For this year’s 31st annual event, the Westport Historical Society past president identified 7 great homes. Then he got the owners to open them for 5 hours on Sunday, December 10 (11 a.m. to 4 p.m.), so that history (and real estate) buffs could tour them.

(Gerber also makes sure they’re decorated festively. Holiday decor is a big draw each year.)

Six were built before 1850. Five of the homes are historic landmarks. The one that is not technically historic — unless you think, at 51 years old, it qualifies — is a saltbox reproduction done so well, you’d think it’s stood since Revolutionary times.

This saltbox was built in 1966. It sure doesn’t look that young.

One of the homes is Gerber’s own — a beauty on Cross Highway we all admire often. What, you thought the co-chair of a Westport Historical Society fundraiser would live in a modern McMansion?

Ed Gerber’s historic home.

Homes on the tour include:

  • “Duck Haven,” a  house and cottage on the Saugatuck River adjacent to the historic low-tide crossing point
  • A 1760s saltbox remodeled 15o years later — in 1910! — in Colonial Revival style
  • An early Colonial updated in the 1880s in the fashionable Italianate style, whose owners uncovered an original back staircase
  • The “David Judah House,” circa 1760, whose current owner meticulously preserved every nail, piece of timber and window
  • Westport’s 2nd-oldest school building, now a handsome home
  • That reproduction saltbox, built in 1966 and looking very historic
  • An adaptive reuse of an old barn into a residence.

A former barn, now a residence.

Gerber says, “Whenever you research historic houses, you find interesting links.” This time, he learned that 4 of the 7 residences were once owned by noted artists: John Held, master Jazz Age illustrator; painter Caroline Bean; landscape master Ossip Linde, and George Hand Wright, often called “the dean of Westport artists.”

Speaking of links, how about this: Miggs Burroughs — heir to that arts colony legacy pioneered by Wright — photographed all 7 doorways on this year’s Holiday House Tour.

He combined them all in a poster and logo, for “Holiday Doors of Westport.”

Be sure to register now, so you can see what’s behind those historic doors.

(The Westport Historical Society’s Holiday House Tour is Sunday, December 10, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tickets are $50 for members and $60 for non-members in advance; $70 on the day of the tour. For more information, or to purchase tickets, click here; go to the WHS at 25 Avery Place, or call 203-222-1424.)

(Photo collage/Miggs Burroughs)

Opening The Door For Veterans, On Their Special Day

Today is Veterans Day. There’s no better time to hear Dylan Mace’s story.

The Staples High School junior is a varsity hockey player. He’s also an active member of Operation Care Package, a school club that assembles and sends books, magazines, food and more to American troops serving in places like Afghanistan.

Dylan got involved as a freshman. His grandfather served in Special Forces during the Korean War. Before he died, he passed along his pride in the military to Dylan.

Dylan Mace

This year, as he tried to find another way to help out, Dylan learned about Westport’s VFW Post 399. Speaking with commander Bernie Rombout, he learned the Riverside Avenue building lacked a handicap-accessible bathroom.

“That appalled me,” Dylan says. “These are brave men and women who serve. They could lose limbs. They should be able to use the bathroom at the VFW!”

Dylan learned the cost of design and renovation for such a bathroom: $10,000.

Immediately, he created a GoFundMe page to help.

Dylan will also be at the downtown Starbucks this weekend, soliciting donations.

In many ways, today is a normal Saturday in Westport. But it’s also an important national holiday.

Dylan Mace has provided a meaningful way for us to honor it. Just click here to help.

(Hat tip: Vicky Capozzi)

Jake And Mike Koskoff’s “Marshall”

Thurgood Marshall’s life is well known: respected attorney, NAACP stalwart, 1st African American Supreme Court justice.

Less noted was his role in a 1940 case. Greenwich socialite Eleanor Strubing told a harrowing tale of being raped by her black chauffeur, Joseph Spell.

Thurgood Marshall, as a young man.

Only 32 years old, Marshall had already argued before the Supreme Court. The  NAACP sent him to help. The case was a defining moment for the young attorney — who, prevented from arguing before the bench, had to find other ways to influence his white co-counsel and jury.

It took place in Bridgeport. And — thanks to a pair of Westporters — it’s now the subject of a movie earning notice across the country.

“Marshall” was written by longtime local attorney Mike Koskoff and his son Jake, a 1992 Staples High School graduate now living, and screenwriting, in Los Angeles.

It’s not easy to write (and sell) a courtroom film these days — especially a period piece, with an African-American protagonist. Even if he’s played by Chadwick Boseman.

But Thurgood Marshall was “a legal genius,” Jake Koskoff says. The story is compelling, and father and son gave the script everything they had.

The response has been “wonderful,” says Jake. Since its world premiere at Howard University last month, and its American release a couple of weeks ago, reviews have been strong. Critics say it’s “gripping.”

Rolling Stone called it an “electrifying glimpse of a great man in the making.” Rotten Tomatoes’s positive rating was 83%. The Los Angeles Times and RogerEbert.com were particularly praiseworthy.

“Bloggers have been inspired to write about the film,” Jake notes. “And they don’t have to.”

Michael and Jake Koskoff.

He and his father are gratified to hear that some moviegoers have been inspired to donate to the NAACP and ACLU. “Marshall” inspired others to consider applying to law school

Thurgood Marshall’s son John said the film brought his father “back to life.” The justice’s former clerks praised it for getting Marshall’s story “right.” Former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor met Mike Koskoff at a screening, and told him she loved it.

On a personal level, working with his father — “as an adult” — is an added bonus for Jake.

“It’s difficult to write with anyone. And the father-son relationship can be fraught,” he says. “But it worked out well.”

Bonnie Adler Faces The Holocaust

Bonnie Adler is a Westport-based freelance writer. The other day, she posted a compelling story on CNN Travel. 

It’s an intensely personal reminder that the past is closer than we think. Bonnie begins:

Long before I could speak of it, I knew my mother had blue numbers on the soft skin of her inside forearm. My father had a similar stamp, as did my aunt and uncle. I understood they were very happy in our small family circle, but once upon a time, in a past I did not comprehend, they were not.

They spared us their separate tragic stories for as long as they could, but my sisters and I eventually came to know the bare-bones facts they shared: Parents dead, siblings lost, my father’s brother missing, never found.

Bonnie Adler (right) and her mother.Bon

I am no different than many children of Holocaust survivors. We share a common denominator. We are mostly recipients of overwhelming love born out of loss and survival guilt. And we share a responsibility to remember and honor those we love and the memory of those they lost.

So when an email came, with information that for the first time there was to be an official ceremony acknowledging the 75th anniversary of the liquidation of the ghetto in the city of Radom, Poland, my two sisters and I were gripped by a primal reaction.

Bonnie’s trip to Poland was harrowing, exhausting and inspiring. Click here to read the entire story.

Joe Valiante’s Badge, George Bush’s Library

Joe Valiante spent 35 years with the Westport Fire Department. He fought some of the town’s toughest fires, and rose through the ranks to become assistant chief.

When he was not working, the 1961 Staples High School graduate rode with New York City’s Rescue 1. Based on 43rd Street near the Intrepid, the elite company faces situations seldom seen in Westport.

But nothing could have prepared them for September 11, 2001.

The next day, Valiante rode with them to the still-smoldering World Trade Center. For a week he worked the bucket brigade, hauling material from the site.

Joe Valiante (center, in white) working at Ground Zero.

Valiante was there 4 days later, when President Bush addressed the volunteers through a bullhorn.

Valiante was back a year later too, on the 1st anniversary of 9/11. In fact, he was in the honor guard (with fellow local firefighter Todd Denke). After the ceremony, Bush stopped to chat.

Joe Valiante and George W. Bush, on the 1st anniversary of 9/11. Just before the photographer took this photo, a Secret Service agent diverted the president’s attention.

Valiante then gave the president his Westport assistant fire chief badge.

The next year, Valiante retired. From time to time, he wondered what became of his gift.

Joe Valiante’s Westport Fire Department badge.

Last January, Valiante took his grandson to Trump Tower. They watched a parade of famous people — Ben Carson, Kellyanne Conway, Senator Joe Manchin and others — head through the lobby to meet the president-elect.

Fox News correspondent John Roberts was there as well. Valiante asked if he knew what happens to the gifts people give to presidents. Roberts told him to contact the George W. Bush Presidential Library, at Southern Methodist University.

Valiante emailed the curator. Then he forgot about it.

A month ago, a library official got back to Valiante. She knew exactly where his Westport badge was.

It’s in the permanent collection.

Joe Valiante has not been down to Dallas to see it. But he doesn’t have to.

Just knowing it’s there makes him proud.

The front page of the New York Post on September 12, 2002. Joe Valiante (white hat) is in the lower right corner.

 

The Little Red Gingerbread On Long Lots Road

It’s one of the most recognizable houses in Westport: the red “gingerbread” house at 55 Long Lots Road, just east of Hall-Brooke.

For the first time in 60 years, it’s on the market.

As befits a home built more than 150 years ago, it’s got a back story.

Plus a bit of mystery.

According to Tad Shull — a current co-owner and musician/writer in New York, who spent his childhood there — it was constructed as a caretaker’s cottage or gatehouse, elsewhere on Long Lots.

It was moved to its present site in the 1870s by William Burr, who inherited it from his father. Additions were built in the 1920s and ’60s. From the street, it still looks much like the original.

55 Long Lots Road. The entrance to Hall-Brooke is on the left.

It may (or may not) have served as a 1-room schoolhouse. But it has a definite connection to education: Burr Farms School opened in 1958 a few yards away. (It was demolished in the 1980s; all that remains are athletic fields.)

The most intriguing tale is this: Shull’s parents bought the house in 1957 from Elaine Barrie — the 4th (and last) wife of John Barrymore.

Shull had heard that the actor used the house as a “love nest.” It’s uncertain whether Barrymore lived there; Barrie bought it after he died in 1942.

Shull also heard rumors that Barrymore had an affair there with a married woman,  Blanche Oelrichs, who published poetry under the name Michael Strange. Shull found a book of her poems — with her handwritten annotations — on his mother’s bookshelf last fall.

More lore: Stevan Dohanos’ famous “Thanksgiving” painting may have used the red Long Lots house as its model/inspiration. (“06880” posted that possibility last year; click here, then scroll down for several comments confirming it.)

Stevan Dohanos’ “Thanksgiving” painting. Recognize this house?

And, Shull adds, he heard from Tony Slez — who once owned a gas station at the foot of Long Lots, where Westport Wash & Wax now stands — that his Polish relatives worked as onion pickers on the road.

Shull says that as a youngster he was teased for living “next door to a mental institution.”

But he calls his boyhood “a paradise. There were plenty of kids around. We had a pond with frogs. It was a great place.”

His family hopes that whoever buys the house will preserve it. And — even if only part of its history is true — the red gingerbread that everyone passes on Long Lots has quite a past.

Photo Challenge #145

Unlike Sam Cooke (and Herman’s Hermits), “06880” readers do know much about history.

Last week’s photo challenge showed part of a historic marker (click here to view). Very quickly, you guys (and gals) identified the location as the small Machamux park, nestled near I-95 off Greens Farms Road between Beachside Avenue and the train station.

You chimed in with other information: “Machamux” means “beautiful land” in Pequot. The plaque is on a boulder that’s the site of the very first Greens Farms meetinghouse.

But no one commented on the name of the young sachem on the plaque: “Chickens.” (Maybe people were too scared…?)

Congratulations to Fred Cantor, Joyce Barnhart, Seth Schachter, Robert Mitchell, Wendy Cusick, Jacques Voris, Amy Schneider, Seth Goltzer, W. Tucker Clark and Jacque O’Brien. You know your onions — er,  your Westport history.

But do you know where in Westport this is?

If you do, click “Comments” below.

The Little Rock 9: 60 Years Later

Steve Parrish has lived in Westport for 27 years. Now retired, he and his wife Diane raised 2 Staples High School graduates, Amanda and Clay.

Steve Parrish

In September 2007, Steve was invited to the 50th anniversary commemoration of the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock. Before he left, he was surprised to learn that some Westporters did not know the story of the Little Rock 9.

His visit to Arkansas was very moving. When he returned to Westport, he wrote about it. Today — on the 60th anniversary of that desegregation day — he shares his thoughts with “06880” readers.

September 25, 2007. I am standing near the steps of Central High School in Little Rock with Tina Walls, my friend and colleague of almost 20 years. There are hundreds of other people on the grounds. Many are smiling and laughing. Most of them are black.

September 25, 1957. Central High School in Little Rock. Hundreds of people were there. None were smiling, and almost all were white. The crowd was there to prevent 9 African American students — 6 girls and 3 boys—from entering.

The 1957 school year was supposed to begin on September 4, But when it became known that a group of black students planned to attend, “citizens councils” were formed.

These groups demonstrated, and threatened to physically block any African American student from entering Central High. When the identities of the black students became known, their families were harassed. They received death threats.

The Little Rock 9, with leader Daisy Bates.

On September 23, the 9 black students were slipped into school through a side door. When members of the mob learned what happened, they threatened to storm the building.

The next day, President Eisenhower ordered members the 101st Airborne Division of the US Army to Little Rock. On September 25 — carrying bayonet rifles — they escorted the 9 black students into Central High School.

Adults taunted teenagers trying to go to school.

The Little Rock 9 are together again today, September 25, 2007, at Central High School. It is the 50th anniversary of the desegregation. They are on a stage built at the foot of the same steps they climbed half a century ago.

Carlotta Walls LaNier was only 14 years old that day the 101st Airborne escorted her into Central High School. Her mother Juanita also is here today. She looks beautiful, elegant and proud.

The commemoration program begins. There are speeches by the mayor, the president of the Board of Education and the governor. But it is The Little Rock 9 everyone wants to hear.

I’m not sure what I expect them to say, but I am struck by what they don’t say. They are not bitter. They are not angry.

Elizabeth Eckford tells the crowd that she has forgiven, that she doesn’t need an apology to forgive and move on. Gloria Karlmark speaks about faith, caring and sharing. She describdes the story of the Good Samaritan. Melba Beals quotes Gandhi, and says that we must be the peace we wish to see in the world.

The Little Rock 9 at Central High School — 50 years later.

When it is Carlotta’s turn, she talks about the importance of her family to her journey. She speaks of hope, and the promise of freedom for everyone. She says that The Little Rock 9 did not set out to change the world (although they did). They “just” wanted what they believed the Constitution gave them: the right to an education.

As Carlotta speaks, I look at her sister Tina and mother Juanita. I try to imagine what it must have been like for them. I try to put myself in Juanita’s position.

Could I have put my daughter in that car with the soldiers on September 25, 1957, not knowing what would happen? Could I have persevered through the profane phone calls, the death threats, the assaults on my child?

Now it is time for the keynote address. Bill Clinton — former Governor of Arkansas, former President of the United States — talks about the courage of the Little Rock 9 and their families. He says we should be grateful for what they did.

After speaking at the 50th anniversary commemoration, former President Bill Clinton gets a hug from a current Central High School student.

President Clinton tells us that is easy to have an opinion. It is easy to say, “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone did something to change things.”

But, he continues, “these 9 people didn’t just have an opinion. They didn’t just say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if someone did something to change things.’ These 9 people and their families stepped up and said, ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me.’ ”

I look at Tina. She is crying. I look at Juanita. She is smiling — half proudly and half sadly, it seems to me.

I look at Carlotta up on that stage. Her hands cover her mouth as she tries to maintain her composure.

Carlotta Walls LaNier: recently, and in 1957.

Then it is over. The 50th anniversary commemoration ceremony concludes. The Little Rock 9 pose for more photographs, perhaps their last ever as a group.

The crowd begins to leave. Tina and I still stand in front of the stage.

I am overwhelmed. I’m not sure what to say or what to do.

And then Tina takes me by the arm. She, Juanita and Carlotta escort me up the steps and through the front door of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Central High School, 60 years ago. Despite decades of progress, race remains a deeply divisive issue in America today.

Ken Burns’ Vietnam: The Westport Connections

Ken Burns’ epic, 10-part PBS series “The Vietnam War” shines a spotlight on one of the most consequential, divisive and controversial events in American history.

Like all of Burns’ masterful works it combines visual images, music and 1st-person accounts, plus the insights of experts with a wide array of perspectives.

One of those contributors has Westport roots.

Marc Selverstone

Marc Selverstone adds his wisdom, as chair of the Presidential Recordings Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The project produces scholarly transcripts of secret White House tapes, from Franklin Roosevelt to Richard Nixon.

The 1980 Staples High School graduate — who earned a master’s in international affairs from Columbia University, and a Ph.D. in history from Ohio University — also serves as an associate professor at UVa.

His contribution began 6 years ago, with a call from co-producer Sarah Botstein. Selverstone sorted through “countless” Vietnam-related transcripts, and forwarded them on. It was an arduous — but crucial — process.

The next phase of collaboration began in the fall of 2015. Selverstone and Ken Hughes — the Miller Center’s Nixon expert — spent 4 days watching the entire series at WNET in New York, with Burns and the full Florentine Films team.

Also in attendance were key figures who appear in the film: Tim O’Brien, Les Gelb, Hal Kushner and many more.

“To hear their stories on film, then speak to them — because they’re sitting right next to you — was a profound and immersive experience,” Selverstone says. “It offered access to the war, and its era, that’s hard to come by.”

Born in 1962, he remembers the assassinations 6 years later of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. He recalls too the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium protest — he was there with his father, then-Staples guidance counselor Bob Selverstone — but as an adult he’s studied Vietnam as a scholar.

“I did not have a lot of contact with people who shared so much of themselves, and the way they’d been affected by the war,” he notes.

Though the film was nearly finished, Selverstone offered feedback. He was impressed that Burns’ team was “really concerned about getting it ‘right.'”

Selverstone then worked closely with co-producer Lynn Novick on post-production, and on an Atlantic story she and Burns published last week called “How Americans Lost Faith in the Presidency.”

Now, Selverstone is writing a chapter on President Kennedy, for the upcoming “Cambridge History of the Vietnam War.” He met with Burns, Novick and the 15 other scholars involved in that book, prior to a public presentation for 1,000 people at Dartmouth College.

Selverstone has been involved in a few recent events surrounding the film too. Last week he was at the Kennedy Center with John McCain, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel.

He’ll be at a special screening of the final episode in Washington on September 28. The next day he’s a panelist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In November he’ll join Novick for a Q-and-A at the Virginia Film Festival.

Meanwhile, Selverstone is busy building the Miller Center’s pages to provide more content to visitors to the PBS “Vietnam” website.

Selverstone is glad for the buzz around the film. “I hope it provides an opportunity for the country to think about its past, about those who suffered and sacrificed, and about us as a collective,” he says.

“Ken talks about how frequently we focus on the ‘pluribus’ at the expense of the ‘unum.’ If these 2 weeks and their extension into the fall allow us to take comfort through a moment of national uplift — to watch this film together, as a people, and celebrate those who endured — then it might have a tonic effect on a country sorely in need of one.”

Burns’ film has another Westport connection. Christian Appy — who graduated from Staples 8 years before Selverstone, and is now a University of Massachusetts history professor and Vietnam expert — is writing 7 articles about the film for the Organization of American Historians.

Christian Appy, and his book.

Appy — the author of “American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity” — says that Burns’ film will reach more people than any book ever written about the war. It could rival audiences for films like “Apocalypse Now” and “Platoon.”

Thus, Appy says, it is critical that “history teachers of all kinds — not just Vietnam War specialists — give this documentary serious attention.”

Of course, he and Marc Selverstone already have.

Fran Southworth: Why I Stood On The Bridge

Fran Southworth has lived in Westport for 29 years. She is part of Indivisible Connecticut 4, and the Facebook Love in Action group.

Last night — saddened and horrified by the events in Charlottesville — she felt compelled to act. Fran writes:

Seeing the images of the University of Virginia students made me think about my own kids when they were in college, and the horror if they had been confronted with such hatred, intolerance and racism. Because of the hateful slogans chanted by the white supremacists, and the physical actions that caused at least 1 death and many injuries, I felt the need to unify as a community. We needed to come together to voice our opposition to hate, and teach our children and grandchildren that what they are witnessing now is not what America is all about.

So I decided to do a pop-up peaceful gathering on our bridge in Westport. I thought I might  be standing there alone with my sign: “Normalize Love Not Hate! Honk if You Agree.”

Getting Darcy Hicks involved was a sure way to gather people.

This morning Melissa Kane contacted me. We chatted about our similar family history. She spread the word as well.

Then a new activist friend, Juliana Hess, told her group. We were off and running.

Juliana wrote beautifully that people in Europe would never have sat back and done nothing if they knew what was coming. My Jewish grandparents ran for their lives from Russia. They and others told me stories of friends and relatives who ran. Many were killed in the Holocaust. Others survived. All taught me: “Never Again.”

Never again — yet Charlottesville just happened. I feel very deeply the pain, destruction and horror it has caused. I also say: “Never Again.”

Fran Southworth (center), flanked by Myra Garvett and Darcy Hicks, on the Ruth Steinkraus Cohen Bridge earlier today.

I also want to speak out for my close friend and singing partner, an African American woman. Because of the history of slavery and racism in America, blacks have always struggled here. But things are worsening, with white supremacists set loose by the tacit acceptance of our administration toward violence and intolerance.

My friend explained to me that they don’t want to have a separate “Black Lives Matter” presence. Unfortunately they have to.

We have to stop these white supremacists in their tracks. We must make it very clear that they — and their hate and intolerance — have no place in our communities. White supremacists, neo-Nazis and anti-Semites are the antitheses of our American values.

The president said there are many sides to this. There are no other sides to hatred and bigotry. I watched David Duke, a former KKK leader, say that President Trump told them they will take back our country.

No! We will take back our country. We will continue to live up to the American ideals of tolerance and inclusion of all people.

We need to let our politicians know that this is a very important issue for all of us. It’s not about anyone’s political party or agenda. It’s about human decency, compassion and respect.