Category Archives: History

Episcopal Church Tackles Legacy Of New England Slave Trade

Nationally, the Episcopal Church has spent years working on racial justice issues.

Locally, Christ and Holy Trinity Church is doing the same.

Recently, parishioners read — and discussed — Debby Irving’s thought-provoking Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race.

“It was a soulful venture,” says Rev. John Betit. “People talked openly and  honestly about their own ignorance and stuggle.”

But, he adds, some congregants felt dissatisfied. They were unsure how to move forward on thorny issues of race.

They — and anyone else in Westport who wants to come — will take a step in that direction this Sunday (March 18, 11 a.m.). CHT will show “Traces of the Trade,” a true story of producer/director Katrina Browne’s ancestors — the largest slave-trading family in American history.

They were Northerners.

The documentary traces Browne and 9 cousins, as they work to understand the legacy of New England’s “hidden enterprise.” Family members are shaken by visits to Ghanaian slave forts and dungeons, and conversations with African Americans.

After the film, Dain Perry — one of Browne’s cousins — will facilitate a conversation about race, reconciliation and healing.

Perry — whose family are longtime Episcopalians — says the church shares responsibility for the slave trade. It condoned slavery, while the leading denomination in early America.

“Systemic racism is so big and hard-wired,” Betit notes. He hopes for a “softening of the ground,” as people “take a deeper look, and broaden their circle of awareness” about issues like slavery.

(The discussion also includes lunch. For more information call 203-227-0827. Click here for the film’s website.)

The 1st World Trade Center Attack: 25 Years Later, A Westporter Remembers

Yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the 1st terrorist attack on US soil. Seven men packed a rental van with over 1,300 pounds of explosives, drove into the World Trade Center parking garage, and ran.

The explosion killed 6 adults and an unborn child. It injured more than 1,000 people, creating a 93-foot hole that leveled the entire garage.

But the goal — to bring down both towers — failed.

One of the victims was John DiGiovanni.  The Long Island resident parked one floor below the van. As he got out of his car, the bomb exploded. John dug himself out of the concrete, rebar and debris. He was rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where he died of internal injuries. He was 45 years old.

John was not married. His closest relatives were the Colabella family.

Yesterday, the Colabellas — longtime Westporters — celebrated John’s life, along with the 6 other families who lost loved ones.

Andrew Colabella — an RTM member from District 4 — says, “Bound by terror, life’s paths crossing one another, some friends and some strangers, our families were brought together to cope and speak, to celebrate and cherish their unique spirits and souls that brought light to our lives, and existence on this earth.”

Andrew Colabella honors his father’s cousin, John DiGiovanni.


Lambdin Mural Hangs In New Home

For nearly 50 years, a spectacular mural hung just inside the main entrance to Saugatuck Elementary School, on Bridge Street.

Created by Westport artist Robert Lambdin as a WPA project, “Pageant of Juvenile Literature” greeted every visitor to the school. (It was also stared at by generations of mischief-makers, as they waited for meetings with the principal.)

Lambdin is well known for other murals, including a pair called “Saugatuck in the 19th Century” (one originally in a Saugatuck bank, now at Town Hall; the other at Westport Bank & Trust, preserved by the current tenant Patagonia), and “Spirit of Adventure,” which hangs over the entrance to the Town Hall auditorium.

But, says town arts curator Kathie Motes Bennewitz, “Pageant” was Lambdin’s masterpiece. Its complexity, and the wide variety of characters he painted, “touch everyone who sees it,” she says. “People just get pulled into it.”

The left side of the 7-foot high, 20-foot high mural depicts an array of classic fictional characters: Minerva, Huck Finn, Alice in Wonderland, Winnie the Pooh, Don Quixote, Robin Hood, Robinson Crusoe.

A closeup of the Robert Lambdin mural… (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Lambdin included himself too — as Long John Silver.

One of his models was Janet Aley, who now — near 90 — still lives in Westport. Another model was Howard Brubaker — great-grandfather of Westporter Brian Crane — who went on to become editor of Colliers.

The right side of the mural portrays great historical figures, like Leif Erikson, Joan of Arc, Pocahontas, George Washington, Clara Barton, Davey Crockett and Abraham Lincoln.

… and the right side.

The middle section shows the history of writing, from ancient Egypt to a quill pen, then a typewriter.

When Saugatuck Elementary School closed in 1984 — due to declining enrollment —  the Bridge Street building was unmaintained. Weather and vandals took their tolls.

In 1992, the town decided to convert the old Saugatuck El to senior housing. The murals were slated for demolition.

But a group of art-lovers — including Mollie Donovan, Eve Potts and Judy Gault Sterling — set out to save the work. Within a month they raised $40,000. That was enough to remove the mural, conserve it, and reinstall it at its new home: The Westport Library.

For nearly 25 years, the Robert Lambdin mural hung above the Westport Library’s Great Hall. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Opened just 6 years earlier, the library was an inspired choice. Hanging above the Great Hall, the mural — with its representations of literature and history — was visible to all.

Plus, back in the day Lambdin had actually been a Westport Library trustee.

More than a quarter century later though, the library is in the midst of its own renovation. A suitable spot could not be found, during or after the project.

Bennewitz and members of the Westport Public Art Collection searched for a large wall, with plenty of foot traffic. They — with architect Scott  Springer — found it, at Staples High School.

Which is how, the other day, the enormous mural was removed from the library, transported, and reassembled near the auditorium lobby. Hung proudly — and even closer to the public than at the library — “Pageant of Juvenile Adventure” will be seen by thousands of students every day, and folks of all ages at plays, concerts and other events.

Moving the mural was no easy task. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

Bennewitz praised many groups, for making the move possible. Town Hall, the Westport Library and Westport school system worked together, coordinating manpower and equipment. Support also came from the Westport Arts Advisory Committee and Friends of WestPAC.

The mural was installed during school vacation. Students have not yet seen it. But everyone who passed by during the installation was impressed.

That includes Staples custodian Jeff Allen. A former Saugatuck El student, he remembers the mural well. He’s proud to see it back up in the school where he now works.

Staples custodian Jeff Allen admires the artwork.

He and many others will be in attendance this Friday (March 2, 2:45 p.m.). A rededication ceremony will include brief speeches, appropriate music (“House at Pooh Corner”) — and students, teachers and others dressed in costumes. (First Selectman Jim Marpe will portray Abraham Lincoln.)

Anyone who remembers the Lambdin mural from its original location at Saugatuck Elementary School is particularly welcome.

Of course, everyone who loves art, literature and history is encouraged to be there too.

BONUS FUN FACT: Robert Lambdin was not the only Westport WPA artist. During the 1930s, 17 local artists produced 34 artworks, and 120 photos.

Robert Lambdin’s “Pageant of Juvenile Adventure,” in its new home.

Joseph Califano Sounds Democracy’s Alarm

Westport is home to far more than our share of famous people. We see them all the time — in restaurants, at the supermarket and CVS. They’re the biggest names in movies, music, finance, TV, fiction and business.

But — with the exception of a few folks like James Comey and Scott Gottlieb — we’re not real big on Washington movers and shakers.

On the other hand, you have to know where to look.

Joseph Califano

In 2007, Joseph Califano moved to town. He’s a legit DC insider. As special assistant to President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s — aka the chief domestic advisor — he played a key role in shaping initiatives like civil rights bills and Medicare through Congress.

As President Carter’s Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, he was involved in important childhood immunization and anti-smoking campaigns.

Califano worked as an attorney for the Washington Post during Watergate, and represented clients as varied as the Black Panthers and Coca Cola.

After leaving Washington, he founded and chaired the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. He has written for The New York TimesWashington PostWall Street JournalReaders Digest, New Republic and Journal of the American Medical Association.

Califano is the real deal.

At age 86, he’s just written his 14th book. Our Damaged Democracy: We the People Must Act is timely and passionate. Looking at our 3 branches of government, Califano reveals the political, cultural, constitutional, technological and institutional changes that have rendered so much it dysfunctional.

He is blunt: We must fix our democracy before it’s too late.

Using anecdotes and examples from every modern president, and the actions of both parties, Califano says we do not need to agree on everything. We must, however, trust each other, in order to bring back systems of government that protect freedom, promote fairness, and work.

Our Damaged Democracy is gaining well-deserved national attention. On Thursday, March 1 (7 p.m., Westport Woman’s Club), we’ve got a chance to hear this remarkable and articulate longtime political insider — our neighbor — as he sounds the alarm.

The talk is sponsored by the Westport Library and League of Women Voters of Westport. It’s free, and open to the public.

And — for anyone who cares about the state of democracy — absolutely worth your time.

Friday Flashback #80

The other day, “06880” celebrated the end of WestportREADS — this year’s book explored World War I — and the 100th anniversary of the “Great War” armistice with a story on military contributions of Westport artists a century ago.

This photo did not make it into the story. But it provides a fascinating peek into a local link between two wars that, today, we think of as completely distinct from each other.

As the caption notes, the photo above shows “soldiers, sailors and veterans from World War I and the Civil War.” They posed together on “Welcome Home Day.”

Three Westport Civil War veterans were there: James H. Sowle, Christopher Tripp and Edwin Davis. Sowle — in the 2nd full row, 2nd from right — presented medals to the newest veterans.

Three things strike me as noteworthy.

First, for a small town, the number of men serving seems remarkable.

Second, though Westport was still a small town in 1918, much had changed in the more than half century since the War Between the States.

Third, 50 years after this photo was taken, American would have fought — and helped win — World War II. We fought to a standstill in Korea. And then got mired in Vietnam.

There would be no more “Welcome Home Day” ceremonies then.

(Hat tip: Kathie Motes Bennewitz)

100 Years After The “Great War,” Remembering Great Artists Who Served

The page has turned on this year’s WestportREADS.  

This year’s program — in which the entire town is encouraged to read the same book, then participate in discussions, lectures, videos and more — focused on “Regeneration.” Pat Barker’s historical fiction features a British officer who refuses to continue serving during the “senseless slaughter” of World War I.

The novel inspired Kathie Motes Bennewitz to do some digging.

The town arts curator knew that when “The Great War” began, Westport was already a thriving arts colony. 

What, she wondered, was the connection between local artists and World War I? Kathie writes:

Over 220 Westport men fought in the US armed forces. Many were “doughboys,” a nickname given to soldiers in the American Expeditionary Forces.

We know from wartime draft records the names of many artists who lived here in 1917, as every man ages 18-45 was required to register. Among the residents were Karl Anderson, Edmund M. Ashe, E. F. Boyd, Robert Leftwitch Dogde, Arthur Dove, Ernest Fuhr, Ossip Linde, Lawrence Mazzanovich, Henry Raleigh, Clive Weed and George Hand Wright.

While Ashe, Mazzanovich and Dodge registered as national guardsmen with the Connecticut Militia, many others were too old to do so. So they used their talents to serve the home front in other ways.

Editorial cartoonist Clive Weed, a summer resident since 1910, made spirited illustrations on wartime events, like this one: “He Might Be YOUR Boy,” for the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

George Hand Wright drew similar illustrations.

Other Westporters — including Ashe, Boyd, Fuhr, Raleigh and Wright — created graphic posters to recruit servicemen and nurses, or urge citizens to purchase Liberty Bonds to finance the war. One example is Ashe’s “Lend the Way They Fight” (below), which shows an American infantryman hurling a hand grenade at German soldiers in a trench on the western front of France.

Hundreds of posters like this were made, raising $21.5 billion for the war effort. Here’s one from Raleigh:

In August 1918 — only months before the war ended — Anderson joined creative and patriotic forces with his Westport neighbors Mazzanovich and Linde to paint a billboard advertising war stamps, in downtown Bridgeport. The trio were filmed in action by the government for a newsreel, which was shown in movie houses nationwide.

When the war ended, younger artists flocked to Westport.

Kerr Eby, James Daugherty, and Ralph Boyer and his future wife Rebecca A. Hunt had each served as camoufleurs. They painted camouflage — a novel and demanding job.

Eby — assigned to the Camouflage Division of the US. Army 40th Engineers, Artillery Brigade in France — had it the hardest. Working on the front, he produced camouflage for artillery and troops. He also made drawings of the horrific images he witnessed on the battlefield.

Boyer and his art school friend Daugherty were both assigned to Baltimore for another important job: to execute “dazzle” painting designed to protect Navy vessels from enemy site and fire.

This new art involved painting abstract murals on ships that would soon be loaded with troops and ammunition. Swinging from a bosun’s seat, the artist la­id the design on the side. A gang of painters followed rapidly behind, cutting in the geometric pattern with precision.

USS Leviathan in “dazzle” camouflage, 1918.

“The result was supposed to confuse and befuddle the German submarine gunner,” Daughtery said. “It could hardly do less.”

Of course, Westport’s most enduring legacy of World War I is the Doughboy statue at Veterans Green, across from Town Hall. Bennewitz explains:

Sculptor J. Clinton Shepherd was another wartime camoufleur. He served in the Illinois National Reserve and Air Corps. When he moved to Westport in 1925, the town had voted to erect a monument to honor its soldiers and nurses, who had returned from the front, and memorialize the 7 who had died.

In 1928 Shepherd received the commission. He sensitively rendered a life-sized soldier “with a pensive expression to memorialize the personal side of that ‘war to end all wars.'”

Dedication of the Doughboy statue in 1930. It was located on the grass median dividing the Post Road, between what is now Torno Lumber and the former Bertucci’s restaurant. This view looks east. The statue was moved in the 1980s to its current location opposite Town Hall (below).

(Photo/Seth Schachter)

Remembering Ed Vebell

Andra Vebell writes:

My father, Ed Vebell, passed away peacefully at home last night. He was 96.

He had had congestive heart failure for some time now, but was bound and determined to make it to the opening of his show at the Westport Historical Society less than 2 weeks ago.

It was uncanny how he made it to that and then allowed himself to go. The show was the perfect sendoff for him, being surrounded by family and friends who were there to honor his lifetime of work.

In addition to Andra, Ed is survived by his daughters Renee Vebell and Victoria Vebell, and 3 grandsons: Jason Cohen, Dylan Hoy and Colin Hoy. 

In June of 2016, I posted this story on Ed. It too serves as a fitting reminder of his life:

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.


The Day Patty Hearst Gave Rodney Dangerfield No Respect

Patty Hearst has been in and out of the media spotlight for decades.

The granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst was kidnapped in 1974 by the very ’70s-ish Symbionese Liberation Army. Within weeks she had joined the SLA, was photographed in front of the SLA flag — and helped rob a bank.

The iconic photo of Patty Hearst, as an SLA member.

After nearly 2 years, Hearst was captured. She served 22 months in prison before her sentence was commuted by President Carter. On President Clinton’s last day in office — acting on her statements that she had been brainwashed, raped and tortured by her captors — he pardoned her.

This Sunday, CNN premieres a 6-part series: “The Radical Story of Patty Hearst.” A weekly podcast — “Patty Has a Gun: The Life and Crimes of Patricia Hearst” — has already begun.

Meanwhile, pressure from Hearst convinced Twentieth Century Fox to cancel a film about her ordeal. She invoked the #MeToo movement, saying the project would re-victimize her.

With the heiress/bank robber/victim back in the news, Westporters of a certain age remember her as a neighbor. She and husband Bernard Shaw — a former member of her security detail, when she was out on bail — lived off Clapboard Hill, in the 1980s. They had 2 children together, along with Shaw’s son from a previous marriage.

Not far away — on Hedley Farms Road — lived another famous Westporter: comedian Rodney Dangerfield.

You’d figure that — besides being a mile apart — their paths would never cross.

You’d figure wrong.

In 1985, artist Miggs Burroughs designed a special flag for the 150th anniversary of Westport’s founding. Dangerfield donated funds to produce 60 full-sized flags. To celebrate — and show some respect for the guy who said he never got any — a celebration was set for Barbara Roth’s Greens Farms home.

Miggs Burroughs, his Westport flag and Rodney Dangerfield, at the 1985 celebration.

A crowd of 100 gathered. Miggs and 1st Selectman Bill Seiden were seated in front.

Dangerfield stood up to speak.

“Obviously impaired, and sweaty and nervous, he was fumbling his way through a short talk while 2 women in the back of the crowd loudly chatted,” Miggs recalls.

The stand-up comic did not use his wit to embarrass them. Instead, Miggs says, he scolded them “without any humor or restraint.” He called them “rude,” shocking the crowd.

Miggs looked at the women — and was mortified to see that one was his wife, Mimi.

She was talking with Patty Hearst.

Mimi — who also remembers the incident well — thinks they were talking about their kids, who were in pre-school at Greens Farms Congregational Church together.

She says that after the presentation, Dangerfield walked over to them. He sputtered more scolding words.

Rodney Dangerfield

Paul McGuirk — a Norwalk Hour photographer who had known Mimi in high school — was there too. He recalls that day too. In fact, he says, Dangerfield was in such a “fuming rage” that Mimi left in tears.

Hearst — having been through much worse — told him to “go f— himself,” McGuirk says.

Miggs — who was giving interviews and “missed the fun” — adds, “My impression of Patty was how petite and very attractive she was in person — especially compared to the larger-than-life and dangerous image portrayed in the media.”

But there’s more to the Patty Hearst/Miggs Burroughs connection. Years earlier, he had been asked to paint “Tania” — her SLA alias — for a New Times magazine cover.

Patty Hearst - New Times cover by Miggs Burroughs

He worked from the photo shown at the top of this story. But Miggs’ editors asked him to “sex it up,” with her hair blowing in the wind and her shirt unbuttoned to the waist as she wielded a machine gun during the bank robbery.

Miggs ran into Hearst and her husband a few times after the Westport 150th-anniversary flag event.

“They were always very friendly and down to earth,” he notes.

“To this day I don’t know if she was aware that I was the one who did that cover of her.

“And I was always reluctant to bring it up.”

BONUS MIGGS BURROUGHS AND PATTY HEARST FEATURE: During one of those casual conversations, Miggs asked Patty to tape a brief endorsement for his “Miggs B on TV” Cablevision show.

She quickly agreed. Here’s the result — filmed in her front yard:

“The Number On Great-Grandpa’s Arm”

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

In recognition, HBO premieres a 19-minute documentary. “The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm” features 90-year-old Jack Feldman, and his 10-year-old great-grandson Elliott. They talk honestly and emotionally about the tattoo on Feldman’s forearm — plus his life in Poland, Auschwitz, and finally America.

The Chicago Tribune calls the film “impeccably crafted (and) warmly poetic.”

Director Amy Schatz says, “I was so moved to see their body language, the way they snuggled up with each other. The way they hold hands and lean on each other, it’s powerful to see that.”

The conversation between the old man and young boy is compelling. But the documentary is made even more powerful by hundreds of animated drawings from Westport filmmaker/painter Jeff Scher.

“The Number on Great-Grandpa’s Arm” premiered last Sunday at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Manhattan. A gallery with 500 of Scher’s paintings from the film will be displayed for 3 months. The artwork then goes on tour nationwide.

Earlier today, HBO also posted a video on the animation process. It includes a very interesting visit to Scher’s Westport studio.

“It’s hard to spend every day drawing a child’s face, marching down a corridor to their doom,” he says.

But he did it. The result is important for everyone — especially today’s kids.

And especially today.

Click below for HBO’s behind-the-scenes video:

Liz Hannah’s USA Today “Post”

Last March, “06880” reported that Liz Hannah’s screenplay about the Pentagon Papers was being made into a major motion picture.

Very major. Steven Spielberg directed “The Post.” Tom Hanks plays Ben Bradlee. Meryl Streep is Katherine Graham.

Hannah is not a boldface name like those three.

At least, not yet.

But good things are happening to the 2003 Staples High School graduate.

Liz Hannah (Photo/Martim Vian for USA Today)

“The Post” was named best film of 2017 by the National Board of Review, and in  the Top 10 by Time and the American Film Institute. It earned 6 Golden Globe nominations, including Best Screenplay. (It didn’t win. But Hannah was there, at a table with Hanks and Streep.)

The writer has gotten some pretty good ink herself.

USA Today headlined its story: “‘The Post’ Writer Liz Hannah Shows What’s Possible When Women Occupy Powerful Roles in Hollywood.”

In it, the Westport native talks about her female mentors, and the inspiration of Katherine Graham herself.

USA Today notes:

A few years into writing pilots that languished in development and feature spec scripts that didn’t sell, a burned-out Hannah made one last-ditch effort before planning to leave the grind of writing to focus on something like teaching. At the encouragement of her husband, Hannah decided it was time to write something about Graham, and focus it on her decision to publish the Pentagon Papers.

Like Graham, “I had been in those rooms where I’m the only woman, and men turn their back on me pretend I’m not there,” Hannah says. The writer’s journey to express her voice, and use “guts (to) ignore the fear and stand on our own two feet,” paralleled her protagonist’s.

Eventually, Hannah’s screenplay reached former Sony Pictures head Amy Pascal. She said:

I would’ve wanted to make this movie no matter who wrote it. But of course working with and supporting women has always been important to me, and I was thrilled to help get it made.

For months, the media has been talking about men — in Hollywood and Washington — taking advantage of women.

Now — with “The Post” — they can talk about the power of women to do great things on their own.

Including Westport’s own Liz Hannah.

(Click here for the full USA Today story. Hat tip: Jeff Kapec)