Category Archives: Looking back

Shirley Jackson’s 18 Indian Hill Road: The Sequel

CJ Hauser’s latest story on the Literary Hub website begins:

My niece is 8 months old. She was born into Shirley Jackson’s old house in Westport, Connecticut, which my sister and brother-in-law bought when they wanted to start a family. Do you know who Shirley Jackson is? I’m sure you do, but if not, what I need you to know is that Shirley Jackson was an author who most famously wrote about two things: 1) children 2) haunted houses.

Jackson was a prolific writer. Her short story “The Lottery” — first published in 1948, about brutal events in a seemingly normal village, and perhaps an inspiration for “The Hunger Games” — is an English course staple. It still spooks me.

Shortly after her story appeared in The New Yorker, Jackson and her husband Stanley Hyman — a famous literary critic — rented 18 Indian Hill, for $175 a month. Jackson described Westport as “a nice fancy rich arty community.” Eventually, Ralph Ellison joined them. Dylan Thomas was a frequent guest, and J.D. Salinger played catch with Jackson’s sons.

18 Indian Hill Road, back in the day.

In 2016 I wrote about that famous house, built in 1901 with a commanding view of Saugatuck. David Loffredo owned it then, and spent nearly 2 decades researching its history. He restored much of the interior as well.

Now he’s sent along the Literary Hub piece. It mentions some of what I wrote about 3 years ago — including the fact that in October 1950, 2 days before his 8th birthday — Jackson’s son Laurence rode his bike out of the driveway, and was hit by a car.

The accident, and the lawsuit that followed, soured Jackson even more on the town she had found “too suburban for her taste, too many picnics and Cub Scout outings, a few too many self-conscious artists around.” She moved to Vermont.

18 Indian Hill, today.

In 2017, Loffredo sold the house. The new owner’s sister is Hauser.

Her Literary Hub piece includes an anecdote about Jackson and Dylan Thomas having sex on the back porch. Today a fake historical placard commemorates the event.

The bulk of the story though is about life in a famous house — specifically, the author’s niece who is growing up there.

The house may or may not be “haunted.”

But it sure has a history with a woman who made her mark writing horror stories.

(Click here to read CJ Hauser’s entire piece.)

“Dr. King, The Rabbi And Me”

A recent “06880” story on the 70th anniversary of Temple Israel sent many longtime and former congregants — here and across the country — on trips down memory lane.

It stirred Carol-Anne Hughes Hossler too.

Now retired after a long career as an elementary school teacher, principal, Indiana University faculty member and coordinator of multicultural education for teachers, she is not a former Westporter. She’s not even Jewish.

Carol-Anne spent 5 years in Weston, before her family moved to California. They attended St. Michael’s Episcopal church in Wilton.

But it was the 1960s — the height of the civil rights movement — and at 13 years old, she was starting to pay attention to the world around her.

In October of 1963, the 5th and 6th grade wing of Weston’s elementary school burned down. Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein offered the use of Temple Israel. Carol-Anne and her sister were among the students who went to school there.

When she learned that Martin Luther King would speak at Temple Israel’s 5th anniversary celebration, she told her parents she wanted to go. They said no; it was wrong to take the seat of a member of that congregation.

“That was the first time I went against my parents,” Carol-Anne recalls. She wrote a script for what she wanted to say, called the temple, and talked to the secretary.

Rabbi Rubenstein called right back. He asked why this was important to her. She told him how the leader of her church youth group had gone to the August March on Washington, and that they’d recently asked some girls from New York City to a youth group party.

He invited her to King’s speech. And — in the parking lot before the service — he met her, and introduced her to King himself.

This newspaper clipping from 1964 shows Rev. Martin Luther King at Temple Israel. He’s flanked by Rabbi Byron T. Rubenstein (left) and congregation president Dan Rodgers.

Carol-Anne still remembers exactly where she and her mother sat in the sanctuary.

For 20 years she considered writing a children’s book about that night, and the events that led up to it.

She thought she remembered what King had said. But she wanted her book to be true. As she researched his speeches, she realized that her recollection of King’s talk was accurate.

She began writing the book a decade ago. Her book is about how a black man and a Christian girl sat in a Jewish synagogue together, as brother and sister. “Why can’t it be like that everywhere?” she wonders.

There’s a subplot about white privilege. In September 1963, a bomb at a Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama killed 4 little girls.

“I looked at my white arm,” Carol-Anne says. “I was aware of my privilege as a white person even then.”

In 1964, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King spoke at the 5th anniversary of the dedication of Temple Israel. He autographed this program.

“Dr. King, The Rabbi and Me” has not yet been published. But — with a renewed focus on white privilege and black-white relations, and a target audience of upper elementary school students — Carol-Anne says the timing is right.

She hopes for a January launch. That’s the month in which Dr. Martin Luther King — who was just 35 years old when he visited Westport — was born.

This coming Martin Luther King Day, he would have been 91.

BONUS FACT: Dr. King was not the only prominent black American to speak at Temple Israel in that era. Andrew Lopez discovered a talk by author James Baldwin in April, 1961. His topic — “The Negro Mood” — was also the subject of a piece he’d written recently for the New York Times Magazine. 

Street Spotlight: Vani Court

This is the 5th story in “06880”‘s series highlighting Westport’s roads.

In 1948 a small road was built as temporary veterans housing. Named Vani Court in honor of Michael Vani — killed in the line of duty during World War II — it was expected that when Westport’s housing supply caught up with postwar demand, the small homes would be torn down.

Though basically just shells — 2 bedrooms, kitchen, living room, with kerosene space heaters, supported by 6 concrete piers, and with topsoil provided in piles for anyone desiring a lawn — they proved popular.

An early renter, in front of a Vani Court home.

A couple of years later, Westport’s Housing Authority reversed course. They offered to sell the homes to tenants.

The 20 homes were quickly snapped up. Three more were soon built.

Vani Court, from 1,000 feet. The Compo Road South entrance is not shown; it would be on the left side. (Aerial photo/Carl Hamann)

The original owners’ names include a who’s who of Westport: Romano, Van Zandt, Benos, Feeney, Bowes, Dorta, Baker, Verina, Giunta.

Nine of the original World War II veterans who lived on Vani Court.

Seven decades later, Vani Court — nestled next to the railroad tracks off South Compo Road, on the right just past the bridge as you head to the beach — remains.

Nearly every home is an original. Only a couple have been torn down. (Longtime residents were nervous when that happened. But, one says, “the newcomers roll with Vani Court.”)

The road is one of Westport’s last old-fashioned true neighborhoods. It’s not just a place where kids ride bikes and play games up and down the cul-de-sac, and wander freely in and out of friends’ homes.

It’s a place where families stay, and put down roots. Children move into parents’ homes, and raise their own children there.

Many residents like their roads. Vani Court residents love theirs. And they are intensely proud of it.

Vani Court, via Google Earth View.

Elaine Daignault grew up in Greens Farms. She and her husband Jesse moved to Vani Court in 1997. Their children grew up there, and — like Elaine — graduated from Staples High School.

Jackson Daignault wrote his college application essay about Vani Court. He said that on the close-knit street he “learned how to comfortably interact with all kinds of people, to observe without judging, and to go with the flow in a community where so many strive to appear perfect.”

Playing basketball in the street, riding out a hurricane with several families in one house, and growing up knowing every neighbor’s name gave him “an understanding I never could have reached living in my own wing of a mansion.”

In fact, Jackson said, “the sound of the commuter train, just steps from my kitchen window, has been the soundtrack that shaped who I am today.”

Kids of all ages play together on Vani Court.

Elaine — who is Westport’s director of human services — appreciates from a mother’s perspective the comfort of knowing neighbors looked out for her kids, just as she did for theirs.

“Anyone who needs helps can knock on any door,” she says — and that goes for any age. “Literally, if someone needs a cup of milk, we’ll bring it over. And if someone takes a tree down, everyone comes over, chops wood and brings it home.”

Jonathan Greenfield lives near — but not on — Vani Court. When his dog Buddy was lost, neighbors rallied around to find him. Here they are together again, on the road.

Vani Court is located a few steps from one of Westport’s true hidden gems: the  Saugatuck River railroad bridge pedestrian walkway. Linking South Compo with the train station, it’s a great amenity for residents who commute — or want to walk to Saugatuck. (It’s also a wonderful place to watch the fireworks.)

Just as great, Elaine says, is that kids can ride their bikes from Vani Court to the beach without ever crossing South Compo.

She is amazed — but not surprised — that families raised several children in the small homes. On the street’s private Facebook group, she sees photos of kids waiting for school buses in the 1950s. The images are similar to those of her own kids — and now, the younger families moving in.

Easter on Vani Court. This photo could have been taken years ago — or this year.

Elaine mentions the Boone family. Jon Boone’s in-laws — the Kappuses — moved to Vani Court decades ago.

Jon — a noted youth coach — bought that house. After he died suddenly last year, neighbors rallied round. They celebrated his life together by erecting a large screen and sitting outside, in the rain, watching football.

Though most owners (and even renters) stay for years, their ties don’t break when they move. The other day, the entire street headed to Fairfield for the birthday party of a 10-year-old girl whose family has relocated.

Over the years, owners have remodeled, renovated — and enlarged — their homes. This one is at the end of the cul-de-sac.

A number of Vani Court residents worked, or still work, for the town. Rick Giunta — whose parents were original owners — is a longtime Parks and Recreation Department employee. His sons work there too.

For a while, 3 generations of Giuntas — Rick’s dad, he and his wife, and their boys — lived together on Vani Court. He calls it “a blessing” to have watched his kids go to the same schools he did, play the same kickball and whiffleball games on the street, and enjoy the comfort and security only an “extended family” like the road could provide.

“It’s the best place in the world,” Rick says.

By The Time We Got To Woodstock …

Sure, the saying goes, if you remember the ’60s, you really weren’t there.

But if you went to Woodstock, you must remember it.

In honor of the 50th anniversary of that memorable concert/party/generational earthquake, “06880” hopes to run a special story.

If you have any connection to Westport (you grew up here, you live here now, you drove through once on I-95) and to Woodstock (you went there, you wanted to go, you were conceived there), please email your memories (and photos) to dwoog@optonline.net.

Lotta freaks! 

Project Concern: 40 Years Later, Memories Live On

Eve Potts is a longtime Westporter. She’s been active in the arts, history, education and much more. Today, she shares a special encounter with “06880” readers.

Those of us who have been in Westport a long time remember vividly when there was a great deal of discussion (not all of it positive) about inviting a group of youngsters from Bridgeport to join classrooms in Westport. The program was known as Project Concern.

Over 40 years have passed since those first eager kids jumped off a bus from Bridgeport and were enrolled in Westport elementary schools. My 2 daughters were in the lower grades at Burr Farms. They were excited to welcome one of the girls, Anjetta Redmond, to stay at our house overnight each Tuesday so she could be part of the special early morning music rehearsals.

Eve Potts painted Anjetta Redmond’s portrait 40 years ago, when she was a guest in their home.

A couple of months ago — after all these years — we had a wonderful reunion with Anjetta Redmond Holloway and her close friend, Lisa Jones Mendenhall, who often joined Anjetta at our house overnight.

The conversation was lively. Besides getting reacquainted and sharing photos of kids, grandkids and husbands, we talked a bit about their Westport experience.

Both talked frankly — and enthusiastically — about what a great experience it had been for them. They were emphatic that coming to Westport, and learning about this other world, had impacted their lives.

We asked how they were treated back in Bridgeport after they enrolled here. They said there was teasing, and some pretty derisive comments from some of their friends.

Both women insisted that they honestly never felt any prejudice from their Westport schoolmates, even as talk of recalling the Westport Board of Education chair swirled and became reality here in Westport.

There was a lot of reminiscing — about funny happenings, and about Lisa’s brother Leonard who had been accepted into the program because an older sister had suggested it would be good for him. Leonard was a favorite at Burr Farms School for his incredible ability to walk on his hands and do other acrobatic feats.

The women mentioned the treats that were available in Westport, like Baskin- Robbins, that weren’t available in Bridgeport. Amy remembered how her Bridgeport friends brought Now & Laters — candy not available in Westport — to school to sell to kids here.

It was a wonderful morning: very loving, very happy, and very nostalgic.

Both Anjetta and Lisa have had very successful careers and marriages. Anjetta has had a long career at People’s Bank, and is a research representative. Lisa, who also worked for years at People’s Bank, is now employed by the Board of Education in Bridgeport. She is involved in discussions about the validity, balance and fairness of magnet school policies.

Here’s what Lisa posted on Facebook when she got home:

OK. So the year is 1971. There’s a program called Project Concern being introduced to inner city communities. Myself, along with my friends Anjetta Holloway and Wanda Thompson-Mosley, to name a few, were allowed the opportunity to attend.

We joined Brownies, then Girl Scouts. We played the flute and clarinets, mastered cartwheels and splits, and went to sleepaway camp. Arthur Treacher’s Fish and Chips was good eating (no Arthur Treacher’s in Bridgeport), and we were completely fascinated with Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors.

Fast forward. It’s 2019 and you receive a friend request from Amy Potts. Hmmm. Amy and Abby from Westport — could it be?  Yes, it was, and this morning after 40-plus years we met for breakfast with Amy, her mom, and her auntie.

What a great time we had reminiscing of how great life was way back then. Life is good. Always cherish each moment.

(For more “06880” stories on Project Concern, click here, here and here.)

Viva Viva’s!

Shortly after Viva Zapata opened, Paul Newman stopped in. He ordered a beer.

“Sorry,” the waiter said. “We don’t have a liquor license.”

The actor pulled out his checkbook. He signed his name, leaving the amount blank.

“Here,” he said. “Get one.”

That’s just one great story from the Mexican restaurant’s history. There are plenty more.

And why not? Viva’s — you don’t need to add the 2nd name — is a Westport icon. It’s been here for 50 years, making it the 2nd oldest restaurant in town. (Westport Pizzeria opened a few months earlier.)

It doesn’t get more classic than this.

Viva’s celebrates half a century serving enchiladas, fajitas and (of course) margaritas on Saturday, July 27. The full day of festivities includes the dedication of a Westport Historical Society plaque at 2 p.m.

That’s right: Viva’s is officially historic. Since 1969 it’s gone from a curiosity (a Mexican restaurant in Westport!), to the go-to place for celebrations (birthdays, reunions, especially the night before Thanksgiving), to a shrine. Countless relationships and marriages began at the bar, tables and patio (some probably ended there too). It’s gotten to the point where parents — and grandparents — share it-happened-at-Viva’s-bar stories.

Though it’s anchored Saugatuck seemingly forever, Viva’s actually started on the Post Road. Duke Merdinger — an actor (and onetime roommate of Dustin Hoffman) — already owned Tortilla Flats in New York. He figured a spot near the Westport Country Playhouse (today, the entrance to Playhouse Square shopping center) was fertile ground for a second restaurant.

Mexican cuisine was new to the area. Merdinger went to an unemployment line, and asked if anyone could cook Mexican food. A woman did; he hired her, and based his recipes on what she liked.

In 1969, Mexican food needed explanations.

The Post Road restaurant burned down soon after it opened. Merdinger moved Viva’s to a private residence on Riverside Avenue. It was built in 1870 by Rufus Wakeman, who ran a mattress and church pew cushion factory across the street (the current site of Parker Mansion).

Viva’s prices have changed. The menu really hasn’t.

In 1981, Norwalk native Bob O’Mahony was a waiter at the Inn at Longshore. The Viva’s crew came most Sundays, for brunch. Someone said they were short-staffed. O’Mahony took on some Viva’s shifts.

Eight years later, Merdinger sold half the business to him. Thirty years on, O’Mahony still owns it. His partners now are his wife Maryellen, her sister Ann Brady, and Ann’s husband Harry. The O’Mahonys’ son Sam, 27, is a bartender.

Bob and Maryellen O’Mahony, outside their restaurant.

The secret to their success, O’Mahony says, is “good food, good service, good atmosphere.”

“And margaritas,” his wife adds. (That’s how the couple met: at the bar, over that signature drink.)

Another secret: Don’t change what works.

A few years after buying Viva’s, the O’Mahonys made some renovations. When they were done, a customer said, “You didn’t do a thing!”

“Thank you,” the owner replied. “That’s what we wanted.”

A familiar scene, for 50 years.

But not changing doesn’t mean nothing happens.

Viva’s was the scene of a movie shoot (“Hello, I Must Be Going”). A few years earlier, a man with a chain saw carved his initials in the bar floor. That made national news.

Another time, a woman went into labor right at her table.

Every St. Patrick’s Day, Viva’s changed its name to Helen McNamara’s Pub. (It’s Merdinger’s mother’s maiden name.) They stopped that tradition because too many people thought the Mexican restaurant was replaced permanently by an Irish pub.

O’Mahony also recalls the night he saw 6 big guys with shirts off, in the patio. One stood on top of a table, screaming, “Who got the money?”

It was Drew Bledsoe. He had just been drafted, and was driving cross-country with his buddies.

He tried to pay his tab with his brand-new New England Patriots gold card. O’Mahony said, “Drew, we don’t take American Express.”

O’Mahony said if he took a picture with the waitress and signed his tab, he’d be good to go.

That photo — of Bledsoe holding up the waitress — and the signed check are still in O’Mahony’s office. “I’ve been a loyal Pats fan ever since,” he says.

The bar has hosted 5 decades’ worth of stories.

Robert Redford, Sigourney Weaver, Michael Bolton and Jose Feliciano are all fans. No one gives them a second look. They’re just part of the Viva’s vibe.

That laid-back atmosphere is what draws people back, year after year, decade after decade.

They know they’ll see the same faces — and not just friends. Many employees have been at Viva’s for a long time. Waiter Dan Dillaway and cooks Emil Rodriguez and Jorge Builles began working when Merdinger owned it.

“All roads lead back to Viva’s,” O’Mahony says proudly. Staff and customers may leave, but often return.

He can’t count the number of former Westporters who make it a point — whenever they’re back home — to show Viva Zapata off to their spouses and children. And now, grandchildren.

¡Felicidades! Viva’s: “06880” raises its margarita glass to you.

(Viva Zapata’s 50th anniversary party is Saturday July 27. Festivities include a DJ, bouncy house, t-shirts, and raffle for prizes like Yankees and Pat Benatar tickets. For more information, click here.)

Nyala: New World Champion

“Nyala” is back in the news. This time, it’s international.

Westporters of a certain age have heard of Nyala Farm. That’s the office complex tucked into rolling hills and meadows between I-95, the Sherwood Island Connector and Greens Farms Road.

It is not a cute, throwback name. Back in the day it was an actual, working dairy farm. In 1910, E.T. Bedford bought 52 acres in Greens Farms.

(Photo courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)

His son, Frederick T. Bedford, named the property in honor of the beautiful nyala (antelope) he’d seen on an African safari.

In 1970 Stauffer Chemical developed their world headquarters there. It was Westport’s first corporate office park. Today, Bridgewater — the world’s largest hedge fund — is a major tenant.

But this morning’s Nyala news is nautical.

Nyala is the name of a racing vessel. Yesterday, it won the 12 Metre World Vintage Division Championship, off Newport, Rhode Island.

The International Twelve Metre Association event drew 21 boats from 6 countries. That’s the largest fleet ever gathered in North America.

Nyala, in action.

The name is no coincidence. The Nyala sailboat was commissioned by F.T. Bedford, president of the Standard Oil Corporation. She was given as a wedding present to his daughter Lucy and her new husband, Briggs Cunningham.

(He is credited with inventing the “Cunningham hole,” still used today to provide luff tension in a mainsail.)

After restoration in 1996, Nyala attended the 2001 Jubilee regatta in Cowes, off the UK. She won the 12-Metre Worlds in Barcelona in 2014.

Nyala had already secured the 2019 championship, before yesterday’s final day of racing.

She didn’t have to sail. But Patrizio Bertelli took her out anyway. Nyala posted her 8th victory in 9 races.

Next up: This weekend’s New York Yacht Club 175th Anniversary Regatta.

Bridgewater may want to send a cheering section.

Pics Of The Day #815

A view from the train, near Saugatuck station.

C.B. Dolge made chemical products. This is an old bottle from Seth Schachter’s collection. The label says it “destroys roaches and bedbugs.” (Photos/Seth Schachter)

Your Informal Family Portrait? It Began In Westport.

Westport is filled with talented family portrait photographers. John Videler, Pamela Einarsen, Suzanne Sheridan, Alison Wachstein — they and many more are admired for their ability to capture fun, intimate moments between parents and siblings, in back yards, woods and beaches.

Their photos are so natural, we don’t think twice about them.

But images like these were not always the norm. Back in the day, family portraits were formal affairs: rigidly staged, elaborately posed, everyone stiffly wearing their Sunday best.

A traditional family portrait.

Someone had to develop the art of informal family photography.

Amazingly, that someone was a Westporter.

Betty and Russell Kuhner — married photographers — moved here in the 1930s, when the town was a true artists’ colony. They leaped into its cultural life.

Specializing in men’s portraits, he photographed many of the actors who appeared at the Westport Country Playhouse.

Betty had grown up with no siblings, raised by an unwelcoming stepmother. She was drawn to families that interacted with each other, with love and spontaneity.

She decided to try something new: photographing families doing just that, in outdoor settings. Worried about the effect this novel concept might have on her husband’s Westport reputation, Betty tested out the concept in Greenwich.

(Photo/Betty Kuhner)

She spent hours searching for the right locations. She backlit them naturally, with sunlight filtering through leaves. She let children climb on trees, and asked their parents to lean casually against the trunks. Her portraits were nature-filled — and natural.

They were also beautiful, and well received. Greenwich clients introduced her to friends in Newport. They led her, in turn, to families in Palm Beach, Southampton, and everywhere else the country club set gathered.

Russell quietly supported his wife’s burgeoning business. He stayed in the background, working in the darkroom printing her images.

Betty’s career thrived, for 5 decades. In the late 1980s she handed her cameras to her daughter Kate. Betty died in 2014, at 98.

After Bedford Elementary, Kate went away to school. Her brothers attended private school too.

Kate and Betty Kuhner in Acapulco, 1972.

All these years later, she is amazed by her mother’s accomplishments.

“I’m blown away by what looks like the simplicity of what she did,” Kate says from West Palm Beach, where she lives. “Of course, it’s not simple at all. Somehow, she got family members to interact, and love each other. And she captured it so well on film.”

Today, the black-and-white “environmental portrait” that Betty pioneered is the revered standard.

(Photo/Betty Kuhner)

Kate notes too that retailers like Ralph Lauren and Abercrombie & Fitch have built ad campaigns — and entire brands — around Betty Kuhner’s way of getting people to look at, smile and play with each other.

Kate — a photographer herself — has long been the keeper of her mother’s archives. In April she published a book. Betty Kuhner: The American Family Portrait includes many examples of groundbreaking photography. It includes famous families she’s worked with — Kennedys, Fords and Pulitzers — and Westport families too.

Some of the family portraits of Bobby and Ted Kennedy’s families have never been seen.

Bobby Kennedy and daughter (Photo/Betty Kuhner)

There are stories and anecdotes about the many families she photographed, of course.

But Betty’s photos form the heart of the book. Just as they form a bright, important chapter in photographic history.

One that started right here, in a darkroom in Westport.

(Photo/Betty Kuhner)

 

Tracking The Trolley

Last night, alert “06880” reader/EMS deputy director Marc Hartog was working another job: traffic agent.

He assisted a construction crew installing water service to a building at the corner of Route 1 and Riverside Avenue.

Digging for the main, they uncovered old trolley tracks in the middle of Post Road West.

(Photo/Marc Hartog)

Treating them like dinosaur relics, the crew worked around the tracks, rather than removing them.

When the service is connected to the main, they’ll back fill and cover them with asphalt.

Once again, an important bit of Westport history will lie forgotten and undisturbed — until another 21st-century project digs deep, again.

(NOTE: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, trolleys rolled up and down the Post Road, connecting towns and cities all along the coast. A spur took riders to Compo Beach. Tracks remained through the 1950s, though service had been discontinued.)