Category Archives: Looking back

Beatles Came Out And Played With Young Westporter

The Beatles may or may not have visited famed disc jockey Murray the K at his Westport home in the 1960s. No evidence exists that they did, though several folks who grew up here then insist it’s true.

But — 50 years after the release of the ground-breaking “White Album” — one fact is not in dispute: One of the songs was written about a Westporter.

In 1963, 15-year-old Prudence Farrow was living in Los Angeles. Her father — director John Farrow — died suddenly.

So Prudence’s mother, Maureen O’Sullivan — an actress, then starring in a Broadway show — brought Prudence, her older sister Mia and other siblings to New York.

Maureen O’Sullivan and John Farrow with their children in 1950. From left: Mia, Patrick, Maureen, John holding Stephanie, Prudence and Johnny. Michael is in front.

But Maureen thought it would be best for Prudence and the other kids to live outside the city. She rented a house in Westport, with a cook/caretaker.

The 157 Easton Road house was well known: It was owned by Leopold Godowsky Jr. — a concert violinist and photographer who helped develop Kodacolor and Ektachrome — and his wife Frankie Gershwin, George and Ira’s younger sister who was a noted painter and singer.

It was a beautiful house: 7 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms on 2.75 acres, with a boathouse, indoor pool, 2 bars, a wine-tasting room, guest quarters, tennis court, waterfalls, walking paths, and stone bridges. The Aspetuck River flows through the back yard.

There was a lot of room to play. In her memoir, Prudence describes hiking in the woods, canoeing and skating on the pond, and playing with neighborhood kids.

157 Easton Road

But apparently the caretaker did little taking care of her charges. “We briefly saw Sue for a few minutes daily” when she drove them to the bus stop, Prudence writes. But when her brother Johnny got his license — and a Porsche convertible — she rode with him the short distance up North Avenue to Staples.

Prudence calls the school “impersonal and empty.” She told a guidance counselor she was not interested in college, so he put her in classes like “typing, homemaking, art, sewing, home economics and general math.”

However, she adds, “School was irrelevant. I couldn’t figure out the purpose of going. I thought I knew everything.”

She quickly learned Staples’ social structure, which include “creeps” (now called nerds), “High Y’s” (today’s jocks) and “greasers.” She was a “beatnik.”

Prudence writes: “They seemed so much more interesting than the others. They loved good music, art and philosophy, and I learned a lot about these disciplines from them. But overall, they were self-destructive, spoiled, and using way too many drugs.”

Prudence’s house — with the caretaker not taking much care — became the hangout. It was the place to go, on weekends, evenings, even during school. People helped themselves to food and sofas. There was always plenty of alcohol and drugs.

It was in Westport that Prudence was first exposed to Eastern thought. Her friend Tom — “a quiet soul, very sensitive” — inspired her to read Siddhartha. She thought that Buddhist principles encompassed “the most beautiful, simple, universal and most profound philosophy of life.”

She no longer drank, but continued using drugs and taking pills. The parties continued. Finally, in late spring of 1964, the police told her mother that “we could no longer remain in Connecticut unattended.” Maureen took her brood back to New York.

But the actress soon departed on a national tour. Prudence and her siblings were once again left with a caretaker — this time in a Manhattan apartment. She dropped out of a private school, and got even more deeply into drugs.

Finally — after a bad experience with LSD — Prudence found Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and his Rishikesh ashram in the Himalayan foothills. She studied transcendental meditation.

In early 1968, the Beatles were there too. John Lennon and George Harrison were assigned to be her “team buddies.” They too had experimented with acid before learning about TM.

2 images of Prudence Farrow — including in India, with Ringo Starr.

Deep in meditation, Farrow refused to leave her bungalow. The 2 Beatles tried to coax her out.

And while they were at it, Lennon wrote a song. It began:

Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?
Dear Prudence, greet the brand new day
The sun is up, the sky is blue
It’s beautiful and so are you
Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play?

Though Harrison told her about the song, she did not think much of it. And she did not hear it until the “White Album” came out.

When she did, she was “flattered.” She was also glad it was not a negative song about Rishikesh, like Lennon’s “Sexy Sadie” and “Bungalow Bill.”

Prudence had another brush with fame. In 1981 she was near the end of a 3-year affair with New York real estate heir Robert Durst, when suddenly his wife went missing.

Prudence taught TM for several decades. One of her pupils was comedian Andy Kaufman.

She went on to earn a BA, MA and Ph.D. from the University of California, majoring in Asian studies.

She worked in theater and film — including as a production assistant on The Muppets Take Manhattan. 

Using her married name — Prudence Bruns — she has written magazine stories on Asia, world religions and healthy living. She published her memoir (Dear Prudence: The Story Behind the Song) in 2015.

Prudence Bruns today.

And in 2012 she established the non-profit Dear Prudence Foundation. It raised funds for a documentary film about an Indian festival.

There is no record that the Beatles ever visited Westport. And there’s no reason to believe Prudence Farrow ever returned here, after moving in 1964.

But the song imploring her to open up her eyes and smile — well, that’s one more great example of where Westport meets the world.

FUN FACT: Mia Farrow has her own claim to fame: In 1966, when she was 21 and Frank Sinatra was 50, they spent time on his yacht, anchored off Compo Beach. Their marriage lasted 2 years.

(Click here for more information on Prudence Farrow’s memoir, Dear Prudence: The Story Behind The Song. Hat tip: Fred Cantor.)

Hiawatha Lane: 150 Years Of History

This Thursday (April 11, 7 p.m., Town Hall), the Planning & Zoning Commission holds another hearing on the long-running, often-amended, quite-controversial proposal to build a 5-building, 187-unit housing complex on Hiawatha Lane. The application is made as an 8-30g, meaning some of the units will be “affordable,” as defined by state regulations.

But the road — wedged between I-95 Exit 17 and the railroad tracks — has long been where owners and renters find some of Westport’s least expensive prices.

Homes on Hiawatha Lane.

Hiawatha Lane has a very intriguing history. Here’s a look at how the neighborhood developed — and a little-known fact about its deeds.

In the late 1800s, train tracks for the New York, New Haven & Hartford Rail Road tracks sliced through what today would be considered prime property.

Laying those tracks was a back-breaking effort. The physical power was provided by thousands of men, who immigrated to America from all parts of Italy.

When their work was done, some of those laborers settled close to the tracks in Saugatuck. They built a tight-knit community — as well as churches, stores, a vital small business economy, and their own homes. Some still remain.

Families with names like Vento, Stroffolino, Cribari, Nistico, Anastasia, Luciano, Sarno, Caruso, Fabbraio, Pascarella, Penna, Giunta, Valiante — and many more — settled in Saugatuck, and helped it grow.

They built all of Westport, as barbers, stone masons, restaurateurs, store owners, carpenters, police officers, firefighters, town employees, lawyers, teachers, and in many other professions.

In the 1920s — when Italian immigrants made Saugatuck a thriving community — Esposito’s gas station stood on Charles Street. Today it’s Tarry Lodge.

Three and four generations later, many of their namesakes still live in Saugatuck, or elsewhere in town.

In the mid-1950s, another transportation revolution plowed through town: I-95 (known then as the Connecticut Turnpike).

Many of the same families who had forged the railway built the new highway system. It was a source of national pride — but also a massive disruption to the lives of those living in its path.

Churches, stores, meeting places, roads and many homes were demolished.  Westport’s Italian community was bisected. Roads like Indian Hill and Hiawatha Lane were cut in half by the highway. Longtime neighbors were suddenly displaced.

I-95 under construction. The photo — looking east — shows the toll booth near Exit 17, with Hiawatha Lane on the right. The Saugatuck River bridge is in the distance.

But some Westport philanthropists saw what was happening. The area between the rail tracks and I-95 — today known as Hiawatha Lane and Extension, Davenport Avenue and Indian Hill Road — was subdivided into parcels. They were then deeded to many of the displaced Saugatuck families, for as little as $1.

Julia Bradley deeded most of those properties, which still stand today. The Bradley family put a specific restriction on each deed. It stated that each house should remain in perpetuity, as one single-family house on each plot.

Ever since, the neighborhood has remained a unique place, providing affordable, low-cost home ownership.

Of the 187 units proposed by Summit Saugatuck LLC, only 30 percent are deemed “affordable” by state Department of Housing standards. They will be small 1- and 2-bedroom rentals — replacing the homes that are there today.

Sixty years after the turnpike came through, many longtime families and close neighbors who have lived next to it may again be displaced.

[OPINION] Historic Importance Of South Morningside Is Huge

Between the ospreys and education issues, Westporters’ attention has recently been diverted from the long-running saga of Morningside Drive South. But the Historic District Commission meets Tuesday (Town Hall, 7 p.m.) to discuss a planned development there. “06880” reader Aurea de Souza writes:

Before Walter and Naiad Einsel bought their home and studio, 26 Morningside Drive South was the home of  Charles B. Sherwood. Yes, that’s the same Sherwood family remembered today through Sherwood Island State Park, the Sherwood Island Connector, even Sherwood Diner!

Charles B. Sherwood was given 7 acres of land by his father Walter in 1853.  That same year, he built his house. It was sold in 1864 to John B. Elwood, who owned it until 1920. The Einsels bought it in 1965, after vacationing in Westport for 4 years.

In 2005 the Einsels received a Preservation Award for their home. In 2007 their home and property were designated a Local Historic District.

The Einsels’ house on South Morningside Drive.

Anne Hamonet and her husband Alberto bought what used to be the barn of the Sherwood property in 2002. They have since restored it, respecting its historic value. Today their home is a Greens Farms sanctuary, cherished by the neighborhood.

The Hamonets raise chickens that run freely through the property. Anne brings fresh cage-free organic eggs to everyone at our neighborhood meetings. They also keep horses on the property. It’s almost like a movie set.

Because of the Hamonets, we all enjoy rooster and chicken noises, horses that can be seen from the street, and the beautifully restored barn.

This is what their bucolic backyard looks like today, right next to the proposed development.

This is an approximation of what it will be when the southwest block of the 16 3-bedroom, 32.5-foot high condos is built, just 15 feet from their fence.

The historic importance of 20-26 Morningside Drive south is huge for Westport.  It is about to be destroyed by a developer who purchased property in a historic district. He was well aware of the limitations, but is taking advantage of the 8-30g “affordable housing” statute which can take precedence over historic districts and flooding issues.

The homes will be built on top of wetland setbacks on already flood-prone Muddy Brook – which this week caused the collapse of Hillandale Road bridge.

There is also a safety issue. Westport requires a 400-foot distance from a school driveway for any driveway cutout. Plans for this development shows their driveway directly across from Greens Farms Elementary School.

The developer has presented drawings of the individual groups of homes, but at the Architecture Review Board hearing on March 26, failed to present any documentation on how it will look as a whole.

A Greens Farms United member who is an architect put all of their documentation together in a rough section of what it will actually look like (These do not account for any land modifications; it is simply an illustration of what has been made public).

The house in yellow is the current home, which the developer plans to transport to a new location much closer to the road.

Westport currently enjoys a 4-year moratorium on 8-30g developments, having met the state requirements. This proposal was submitted before the moratorium took effect.

Ramblin’ Jack Xerxes

I know a lot about Westport’s musical history.

I was there when the Doors, Cream, Yardbirds and many other bands played at Staples.

I remember when Johnny Winter lived here, and hung out at Players Tavern. And of course, REO Speedwagon wrote “157 Riverside Avenue” about their former home across from what is now Saugatuck Elementary School.

But I had no idea Ramblin’ Jack Elliott spent time here too.

Ramblin’ Jack Elliott

He had a profound influence on generations of musicians. Arlo Guthrie says that because he was young when his father died, he learned Woody’s songs and performing style from Ramblin’ Jack.

Jack’s interpretations of Woody Guthrie’s songs made a great impact on a young Bob Dylan. Jack later appeared in Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review concert tour. He also influenced Phil Ochs.

Peter Barlow not only remembers Ramblin’ Jack’s Westport days — he was an important part of them. Peter writes:

Ramblin’ Jack came a lot to Westport in the late 1940s and early ’50s. He saw his friends Ric von Schmidt, Bill Frey, Bob Keedy, several others I can’t remember, and me. We were all in our late teens.

We knew him as Xerxes. He had no other name and no explanation, though if pressed he was Jack Elliott.

His real name was Elliot Adnapoz. He lived in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. His father was a surgeon. I met his parents there. They were constantly worried about Elliot, and somehow thought I was a good influence (!).

He met my parents too. I brought Xerxes over to my house one evening. He played and sang a song for my father, who was very impressed.

He played guitar and sang incessantly. I never knew there were so many verses to those folk songs.

Xerxes had 2 other interests: rodeo and sailing ships. It was the ships that connected us to each other.

In 1969, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott sailed to Westport with Pete Seeger, on Seeger’s new 106-foot sloop Clearwater. Seeger performed in Westport, though Ramblin’ Jack stayed on board. The morning after the concert, Peter Barlow took this photo — with Ramblin’ Jack on the 20-foot bowsprit — in the pouring rain. (Photo copyright Peter Barlow)

I didn’t see Xerxes for a long time after those years. He became very successful, without compromising or going commercial. He’s still performing concerts.

Although Jack Elliott rambled many places — including Westport — that’s not how he got his name. Apparently, it came from his tendency to tell long, drawn-out stories.

Folk singer Odetta claimed her mother gave him the nickname, saying, “Oh, Jack Elliott, yeah, he can sure ramble on!”

Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page Return To Westport For Levitt Fundraiser

Back in the day, Jimmy Page played at Staples High School. He had just replaced Eric Clapton, when the Yardbirds made their first-ever American appearance in Westport.

Clapton made it to the Staples stage a few months later, playing with Cream. It was one more in the now-legendary late-1960s series of concerts here in town.

Both musicians — now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — are still touring. And they’ll be the latest in the list of special artists (including Willie Nelson, Roberta Flack, John Fogerty and many more) who have played at the Levitt Pavilion’s annual fundraiser. This year’s concert is set for Sunday, June 30.

The Clapton and Page concert — called “Cream of the Yardbirds” — came about because of another collaboration.

Dick Sandhaus and Paul Gambaccini were Staples students who managed to book fantastic acts (also including the Doors and Rascals) for the Staples stage.

Both have gone on to noted careers. Sandhaus produced much larger concerts, and now works in the fields of technology and marketing. Gambaccini became one of England’s most famous music critics and personalities.

Several months ago, they reminisced about their teenage concert-promoting days. Both regretted never seeing Clapton and Page play together at Staples. With their connections, they realized, they could make it happen — over 50 years later.

Now they have.

Tickets are not yet on sale. To be placed on an email list for notification when they do, click here.

Half A Century Young: Stew Leonard’s, And The Miracle Mets

Alert “06880” reader/Terex director of internal communications/ 1970 Staples graduate/longtime New York Mets fan William Adler writes:

1969 was a magic time: Woodstock, and a man on the moon. It was also the summer of the Miracle Mets. New York’s lovable losers went from last to first in a historic season — capped by a seemingly impossible victory over the mighty Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.

Fifty years ago too, Stew Leonard’s store was opening.

At Staples High School, students like my classmate Phil Gambaccini raced home from school to catch portions of the fall classic (World Series games were played during the day back then).

Yesterday, 6 members of that 1969 Mets team signed autographs at Stew Leonard’s. They were celebrating both the 50th anniversary of their world championship, and the store’s 50th.

Phil Gambaccini recently moved back to Westport, after many years abroad. He was at Stew’s yesterday, of course. In the photo below, Ed Kranepool (center) and Art Shamsky autograph a ball for him.

Other Met legends in Norwalk were Ron Swoboda, Cleon Jones, Jim McAndrew and Duffy Dyer.

The line for autographs snaked through the store and into the parking lot, for several hours. Near the end players moved through the line, shaking hands with fans (many as gray as the Mets), and handing out pre-autographed sheets of paper.

Most of the Mets — notably Shamsky, 77 — looked close to playing form, or at least fitter than many fans.

Kranepool has suffered with diabetes for many years, and is searching publicly for a transplant match. When fans asked about his health he quietly said, “Thank you. I just hope I get my kidney.”

To honor the 50th anniversary of the Mets’ championship season, Stew Leonard’s announced that its Wishing Well charity will benefit the Alzheimer’s Association. That’s a tribute to Mets Hall of Famer and ’69 World Series ace Tom Seaver, recently diagnosed with Lyme-related dementia.

Westport’s Cartoon History: What A Laugh

Westport’s heritage as an artists’ colony is no laughing matter.

Except when it is.

In addition to attracting some of the most famous portrait artists and commercial illustrators in the country, Westport was a haven for cartoonists.

“Popeye,” “Little Orphan Annie,” “Superman” — they and many of America’s most famous comic strips and books were drawn right here.

Westporter Curt Swan drew the “Superman” comics for many years. This illustration is part of the Westport Schools Permanent Art Collection.

The mid-20th century was America’s  golden age of cartooning. Now it’s memorialized in a show at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich. “Masterpieces from the Museum of Cartoon Art” — the current exhibition — features more than 100 original works, including strips, newspaper panels, comic books and animation.

There’s an early editorial cartoon by Thomas Nast, a New Yorker gag by Peter Arno, and classic “Peanuts” and “Doonesbury” drawings. Special programs include a panel tribute to “The Golden Age of Cartooning in Connecticut” (Thursday, March 7).

Wherever you turn in the Bruce Museum show, it’s hard to escape Westport.

Curator Brian Walker — former director of the Museum of Cartoon Art, and son of Mort Walker (“Beetle Bailey”) — grew up in Greenwich. But he knows Westport well.

His father was part of a large group of cartoonist friends. Many lived here. This is where their professional meetings (and parties) took place.

Bud Sagendorf (“Popeye”), Curt Swan (“Superman”), Stan Drake (“The Heart of Juliet Jones,” “Blondie”), Mel Casson (“Boomer”), Leonard Starr (“Little Orphan Annie”), John Prentice (“Rip Kirby”), Jack Tippit (“Amy”), Bill Yates (King Features comic strip editor) are just a few of the important Westport cartoon names.

They came here, Brian Walker says, for several reasons.

Westport was close enough to New York City to go in when they had to. But Connecticut had no state income tax.

Cartoonists work alone, in their studios. But they liked having like-minded professionals nearby.

Bud Sagendorf, and his most well-known character.

Max’s Art Supplies on the Post Road welcomed cartoonists. They’d buy pens, pencils and paper — and hang around to talk.

The coffee shop and Mario’s — both directly across from the railroad station — drew them in too. They’d work right up to deadline, head to Saugatuck, hand their work to a courier to be delivered to a New York editor, then sit around and tell stories.

The Connecticut chapter of the National Cartoonists Society — the largest chapter in the country — met for years at Cobb’s Mill Inn and the Red Barn.

In the heyday of Westport’s cartoon era, they had a bowling league. An annual golf tournament too.

Over the years, the world of cartooning changed. Today, it’s all about “animation.”

That’s no joke. But for several decades — not that long ago — Westport was where much of America’s laughter began.

(Click here for more information on the Bruce Museum exhibit, “Masterpieces from the Museum of Cartoon Art.” Click here for more information on Brian Walker’s March 7 panel discussion. 

Happy Birthday, Marian Anderson!

Marian Anderson was born 119 years ago today. The vibrant, ground-breaking contralto is remembered still for historic acts like her 1939 concert at the Lincoln Memorial, and for inspiring young black singers like Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman. Next year, she will appear — along with Eleanor Roosevelt — on the back of the redesigned US $5 bill.

Suzanne Sherman Propp remembers Marian Anderson for another reason. In 1973, Suzanne was a 3rd grader at Bedford Elementary School (now Town Hall). A staff member wrote a play about the famous singer — and cast Suzanne in that role. Then she invited Marian Anderson to come.

It’s an amazing story. And here to tell it is Suzanne Sherman Propp:

The playwright, Realand Uddyback, was a teacher at Bedford Elementary. Art teacher Ed Clarke did the sets, and music teacher Judy Miller Wheeler was the music director.

Besides asking me to play a young Marian Anderson, Mrs. Uddyback cast a black student, Robin Spencer, in the role of Marian’s white teacher.

Kids asked Mrs. Uddyback if they were going to paint my face with black make-up, and Robin’s with white make-up. She adamantly replied, “Of course not! I chose the best actresses to play the roles. The color of their skin does not matter.  That’s the whole point!”

I sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” plus several songs written just for the play. One was “I like vanilla, it’s just like me: Plain when you see it, but, oh what it can be.” I think I still have the script.

Mrs. Uddyback boldly invited Marian Anderson, who was living in Danbury at the time, to see the play. To this day I cannot believe she actually showed up.

Here’s a photo of me, Robin and Marian Anderson. Also in the photo, at top left, is Cindy Gibb. She graduated with me from Staples in 1981, and went on to an acting career in “Fame” and “Search for Tomorrow.” She’s now a vocal coach in Westport.

Today, Suzanne Sherman Propp is a music teacher at Greens Farms Elementary School. Every morning, she posts a very popular “Sing Daily! Song of the Day.”

Today’s is special: A clip of Marian Anderson singing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused permission for her to sing to an integrated audience in their Constitution Hall. Click here to see and hear!

It’s a thoughtful birthday honor for a true American hero. And a very fitting end to Black History Month.

Marian Anderson (2nd from left) applauding Suzanne Sherman Propp’s performance. With her are (from left) her friend Elizabeth Hughes; Ruth Steinkraus Cohen, president of the Westport-Weston Arts Council; Bridgeport schools superintendent Howard Rosenstein, and James Curiale, Bridgeport school aide in charge of Project Concern at Bedford Elementary School.

Westport, Westwood And 1960s Anti-Semitism

Alert “06880” reader, longtime Westporter — and current Californian — Fred Cantor writes:

A new book, Hollywood’s Eve by Lili Anolik, is generating plenty of media attention. It tells the story of Eve Babitz, a writer, artist and real-life Forrest Gump-type: For years, she crossed paths with many prominent Los Angeles personalities.

Critics now hail Babitz for providing a keen insider’s perspective of the LA scene of the 1950s to ’80s. She grew up there, and spent virtually her entire adult life in LA –except for a short time in Italy, and one year in New York City (March 1966 to March ’67).

What does this have to do with Westport?

In Babitz’s first book — Eve’s Hollywood — she describes visiting Westport on a summer weekend, in 1966.

She had an anti-Semitic experience. She then generalizes about it, comparing Westport to Westwood circa 1960 or 1961. (Many of her high school classmates went to UCLA. Eve chose Los Angeles City College.)

Westwood, where UCLA is, is so insanely crappy you could throw up. It’s so WHITE and it’s so clean and it’s so impervious, and the closest I ever got to that feeling of Westwood was when someone took me out of the Lower East Side in New York one horrible summer day to their mother’s house in Westport, Conn., and their mother was so shocked and repelled by me (she could tell I was Jewish, where her son hadn’t noticed) that she ran slides of his ex-girl friend for 45 minutes after dinner. That’s what Westwood is like.

Eve’s observations about LA back in the day might have been spot on. As for her representation of Westport in 1966, and the comparison to Westwood — well, if you lived in Westport the ’60s, you be the judge.

Meatball Shop Update: ImPortant News

Earlier today, “06880” reported that the Meatball Shop will open its 8th restaurant this spring in Westport.

The location has just been confirmed. They’ll be serving ‘balls in what was, most recently, The ‘Port. The family-style restaurant closed last June.

National Hall, when The ‘Port restaurant was there … (Photo/Dave Dellinger)

National Hall has seen a lot, since it was built in the early 1800s. It’s housed the Westporter Herald newspaper, Horace Staples’ bank (and, very briefly, the first classes of his high school).

It was the site of the town meeting hall, and — for many years — Fairfield Furniture.

In the early 1990s, Arthur Tauck saved the historic building from the wrecking ball. (After decades of pigeon droppings, the roof was ready to cave in.)

… and back in the day. (Photo/Peter Barlow)

He and his family converted National Hall into an inn and restaurant of the same name. Several other restaurants later occupied that prime ground floor space.

Now it’s ready for its next phase.

Arlo Guthrie once sang, “You can get anything you want, at Alice’s Restaurant.”

You can only get meatballs (of many kinds, for sure) at the Meatball Shop.

But — with Arezzo, OKO and Bartaco all just steps away, and David Waldman’s new project at the old Save the Children headquarters moving quickly along — the west bank of the Saugatuck River just got a little spicier.

National Hall: The view from Post Road West, even further back in the day.