Tag Archives: Abe Fortas

Hail To The Chiefs!

No, not the ones from Kansas City.

I’m talking about our nation’s presidents. You know, the guys — and yeah, they’re all men — who we celebrate today in the usual manner: with special sales, no mail delivery, and absolutely no thought given to Zachary Taylor, Benjamin Harrison or Gerald Ford, let alone actual presidents like Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and (the big one) William Howard Taft.

Westport — a national leader in areas like hedge funds, education and nannies — would seem to be a natural for presidents too.

We’re not.

Besides passing through on the railroad or highway, our town has few connections with our commanders-in-chief.

George Washington, of course, slept here — he slept everywhere. In 1780 he is said to have discussed war strategy with the Marquis de Lafayette and Comte de  Rochambeau at the Disbrow Tavern (where Christ & Holy Trinity Church is today). He returned twice in 1789 as president, coming and going on an inspection tour of the Northeast. He spent 1 night at the Marvin Tavern — located on the Post Road, opposite King’s Highway South — but did not have a bang-up time. In his diary, he called it “not a good house.”


This may be the only time Millard Fillmore appears in my blog. Or any blog.

Millard Fillmore was a guest at Richard Winslow’s “Compo House” mansion on the North Compo/Post Road corner (it later became a sanitarium, then was torn down before tear-downs became fashionable). But that was here 6 years after he left office.

Abraham Lincoln supposedly stayed at Hockanum, Morris Ketchum’s Cross Highway estate near Roseville Road, during his presidency. Woody Klein‘s history of Westport says only that Salmon P. Chase — Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury — was a frequent guest. Hockanum still stands; there is a “Lincoln bedroom” upstairs, and the deed states that no changes can be made to that room.

Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke on the steps of the YMCA’s Bedford Building during his re-election campaign of 1936. He was the 1st sitting president to definitively visit since George Washington. In addition, FDR’s grandson David lived here for several years in the 1990s. And FDR’s wife, Eleanor, often visited Lillian Wald’s South Compo “Pond House.” I know, I’m stretching here…

Hey hey, LBJ…

Lyndon Johnson was friendly with Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas — so friendly that that helped scuttle Fortas’ nomination to be Chief Justice in 1968. Fortas had a summer home on Minuteman Hill, and some beach residents say that Johnson was an occasional guest.

Bill Clinton trolled here for money, before and during his presidency. As president he attended fundraisers at the Inn at National Hall, and a private home on Saugatuck Avenue. Both were low-key affairs, if you don’t count the 25-car motorcades, sharpshooters on top of buildings and helicopters whirling overhead.

And, of course, in 2012 Barack Obama flew in for a fundraiser at the Beachside Avenue home of not-yet-disgraced movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. I’m sure the former president would like a do-over on that one.

The presidential motorcade at Harvey Weinstein’s Beachsdie Avenue house, in 2012. (Photo/White House pool, courtesy of WestportNow)

Westport has had better luck with presidential candidates. Like Bill (and Hillary) Clinton, in recent years many made their way here — more for fund-raising than actual vote-seeking. Who knows?  Soon, Amy Klobuchar or Elizabeth Warren — or one of the guys — may come to town.

Though I’m guessing — for different reasons — we’ll see neither #45, nor Mike Bloomberg.

Antonin Scalia: The Westport Connections

The sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia yesterday rocked America’s judicial and political worlds.

As discussion pivoted to the appointment of his successor, historical precedents emerged. The New York Times reports:

With Democrats and independents who caucus with them holding 46 seats in the Senate, Mr. Obama already faces a challenge getting to the simple majority needed to confirm a nominee and would face an even steeper climb to rally the 60 votes needed if Republican opponents mount a filibuster to his choice.

Filibusters of Supreme Court nominations are rare, but the Senate blocked the confirmation of Abe Fortas to chief justice in 1968, leaving the seat to be filled by his successor, President Richard M. Nixon.

Fortas’ name has become a footnote in history. But Westporters remember him well.

For years, he owned a 19th-century farmhouse on Minute Man Hill.

Abe Fortas

Abe Fortas

Adam Stolpen — an attorney and longtime area resident — recalls that nearly every summer day,  Fortas and his wife walked to Compo Beach. They’d drink martinis, swim in the Sound, and get burgers and dogs from Chubby Lane’s concession stand.

Sometimes they were alone.  Often, they brought high-powered Washington guests. Justice William O. Douglas and his wife visited; so did Isaac Stern. Lyndon Johnson came too, Stolpen says, though not while president.

On July 5, 1968 — well into an election year, when the associate justice had just been nominated by President Johnson to be elevated to chief justice — Time magazine opened its profile on him this way:

“Will you trust my judgment, Mr. Fortas?”, asked the salesman at Welch’s Hardware Store in Westport, Conn. Dubiously, the Chief Justice-designate of the U.S. fingered the new, chemically treated dustcloth, examining it carefully by sight and feel. Finally, aware perhaps that this was a matter beyond his competence, he concurred with the clerk’s opinion.

Tramping around the narrow streets of Westport, accompanied by TIME Washington Bureau Chief John Steele, Fortas was enjoying the scruffy anonymity of any other summer refugee from the city. In baggy grey pants, a flame-red cardigan sweater, scuffed brown shoes (one with a tongue missing) and…

Fortas’ nomination was already in trouble though, for ethical reasons. He had accepted $15,000, for 9 speaking engagements at American University. The money came from business interests.

LBJ aide Joseph Califano wrote later that the president said, “We won’t withdraw the nomination. I won’t do that to Abe.”

Califano added:

Though we couldn’t get the 2/3 vote needed to shut off debate, Johnson said we could get a majority, and that would be a majority for Fortas. “With a majority on the floor for Abe, he’ll be able to stay on the Court with his head up. We have to do that for him.” Fortas also wanted the majority vote.

Joseph Califano

Joseph Califano

It didn’t work.

On October 1 — just a month before the election — a slim 45–43 majority of senators voted to end the filibuster. Later that day — reading the handwriting on the wall — Fortas asked Johnson to withdraw his nomination.

And why is that Joseph Califano quote so important for “06880”readers?

Nearly 50 years later, he too is a Westport resident.