A recent issue of the New Yorker offers looks backward.
There’s a tribute to founder Harold Ross, followed by many old stories and cartoons.
Karl Decker — the longtime, legendary and now retired Staples High School English instructor — is a devoted New Yorker fan. The magazine sent him scurrying to his cellar, where he keeps his back copies.
All the way back to the 1930s.
Karl Decker, with his 1934 New Yorker.
He picked one — June 23, 1934 — and settled down to read.
There was a long article about Franklin Roosevelt; a cartoon by Peter Arno — and 500 words of “precious whimsy” by Parke Cummings.
In the summer of 1960, Karl and Parke — a famous author and humorist — worked together at Famous Writers School.
Al Dorne — one of the founders of the Famous Writers, Artists and Photographer Schools — was always looking for ideas to add to those 3 “schools” (all correspondence-based, and headquartered on Wilton Road).
An advertisement from the 1950s.
Parke and Karl had already submitted proposals for a Famous Sculptors School (which required a railroad spur, to ship in granite) and Famous Dancers School (huge pads on which students would ink their bare feet, then step out the moves on big rolls of paper).
Their latest idea: Famous Weavers School. The preface read: “The School will provide each student with 4 English Shropshire sheep, a shepherdess, and …”
Dorne told them he’d have to consult with Ed Mitchell before they went any further.
“Inexplicably, our workloads increased markedly after that,” Karl reports.
First it was world headquarters for the Famous Artists School. Joined later by Famous Writers and Famous Photographers Schools, it made Westport known all over the globe — on matchbox covers and magazine ads — as the place to send your artwork, writing and photos to become, well, famous.
Later it served as world headquarters for Save the Children.
Today, alert “06880” reader (and locally famous photographer) Chip Stephens was across the Saugatuck River, when the 60-year-old Wilton Road building was demolished.
The long view …
The site is being developed by David Waldman into a retail, restaurant and residential complex.
That led him down the “06880” rabbit hole — and a story on fellow Staples alum Deej Webb’s documentary about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in town.
That spurred him to write and post an essay on his philosophy-and-literature website — 2 of his passions, since he was a teenager.
And THAT led him to send these thoughts to “06880”:
Fitzgerald lived on South Compo Road, near what is now Longshore, in the summer of 1920. J. D. Salinger also lived on South Compo, from about 1950 to 1952.
I read a Salinger short story, and asked my mother, Nancy Hammond, about old Westport. She lived there from 1957 to 1997, and was involved in local politics.
When she arrived, Westport was home to the Famous Artists School, which purported to turn people into artists. Prominent artists like Norman Rockwell lent their names to the scam.
Norman Rockwell (center, bow tie), with some of the Famous Artists School’s faculty.
You would send in a sample of your work. They would write back, saying you had great potential, and should enroll in their school. Salesmen combed the country, recruiting gullible students. Ads filled the newspapers, Money rolled in.
It was so profitable that a Famous Writers School was also established in Westport, using the same template. Bennett Cerf of Random House was a founder. Prominent writers like Clifton Fadiman, Bruce Catton and Mignon Eberhart lent their names. By 1969 the stock price had risen from $5 to $40.
The next year, Jessica Mitford published an exposé, called “Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers,” in the Atlantic Monthly. An investigation was launched, the stock price fell, and in 1972 the Famous Writers School went bankrupt.
When J.D. Salinger moved to Westport, Famous Artists School had been going for 2 years. It’s likely that he heard about the school. In 1952 he published a short story about an art correspondence school, called “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.”
When I was growing up in Westport, the phrase “Famous Artists” rang in my ears. The school rented space from Eddie Nash on Riverside Avenue. Since money was rolling in, they decided to build a new headquarters.
They chose my neighborhood as the site. Specifically, they selected an area we called the Gravel Pit. Now known as Partrick Wetlands, it’s between Partrick Road, Wilton Road, the Merritt Parkway and Newtown Turnpike.
According to rumor — spread by my mother, in countless phone conversations — Famous Artists School planned to build a large office, with a parking lot for 1,000 cars.
My mother banded together with other neighbors, and formed a group called Families for a Residential Westport.
A pond near the Partrick Wetlands. (Photo/Scott Smith)
They referred to their opponents as the Boyd Group (or The Boyds). John Boyd was a prominent Westport lawyer, who favored business and development. One of his allies, Lu Villalon, ran the local newspaper, the Town Crier.
My parents were Republicans. So were the Boyds. The battle over Famous Artists wasn’t a Republican-Democratic battle, or a conservative-liberal one. It was a development battle, similar to those fought in thousands of American towns.
My mother’s group won the battle. Famous Artists never moved to my neighborhood. They built their new headquarters on Wilton Road, along the river.
Cockenoe Island, off Compo Beach. In 1967, it almost became the site of a nuclear power plant.
The next development battle in Westport was over Cockenoe Island, where Northeast Utilities proposed building a power plant. Anti-development forces used the fledgling newspaper, the Westport News, to help rally support. The anti-development forces won, and the paper became the dominant one in town.
A third battle was fought over a dairy farm, Nyala, where Stauffer Chemical proposed building their headquarters. They won that fight.
Fortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s house is still standing. I plan to take a look on my next visit to Westport.
Staples High School English instructor Karl Decker retired in 1999. Generations of students had been inspired by his stories. A recent “06880” post about Max Shulman inspired Decker to add his own memories of the famed humor writer and Westport resident. Karl recalls:
It was my 1961 summer job after my first year teaching at Staples. I was a “famous” reader of student assignments at the Famous Writers School in Westport. How I got the job I happen to forget, but there I was in a row of offices overlooking the inspiring Saugatuck River along with Mignon Eberhardt (mystery writer), Phil Reavis (Yachting Magazine), and next door to me Westport’s frisky humorist Parke Cummings.
Al Dorne, Famous Schools founder (and illustrator), called a meeting of us all to think up some creative ideas for other schools that could become Famous too. Al Dorne sat at the head of the big table. There was Gordon Carroll (sometime editor at Reader’s Digest), Lloyd Fangel (I think he had a daughter at Staples), Mignon, Phil and some I did not know. One other man who seemed in a rather sullen mood sat off to one side. Bennett Cerf had called to say he’d be late.
Random House founder Bennett Cerf, in a famous ad for his famous school.
With very straight faces, Parke and I had just submitted our proposal for the Famous Sculptors School. Everyone nodded politely as we described it.
Finally Mr. Dorne said, “This is the kind of creative thinking I like to see around here. The only thing that bothers me about this plan is that we’d have to build a railroad siding from the mainline so the students could send in their granite homework on flatbed cars.”
Parke and I expressed our thanks and said we are working now on a Famous Dancers School. Our plan for mail-in lessons was outrageous, but that’s for another time.
At some point however, I think it was Lloyd Fangel who saw the sullen fellow and said, “Max, you don’t look too happy today. Something wrong?” And then I realized this was Max Shulman.
Max replied, “Yes. My wife threw away my writing pants. Said they were disreputable, dirty, tattered. I don’t think I’ll ever write again.”
The meeting ended. Parke and I took our sandwiches to eat on the banks of the Saugatuck River, and work on our proposal for the Famous Symphony Conductors School.
Recently, in my other life as a “Woog’s World” columnist, I made a snarky reference to Famous Artists School.
Specifically, I called it — and its kinfolk, the Famous Writers and Famous Photographers School — “a Westport institution that crashed nearly as rapidly as it grew.”
A few days later I got an email from a Magdalen Livesey. Though her name sounds like the creation of one of the only people ever to flunk a Famous Writers course, I opened it.
Magdalen Livesey wrote: “Although your article didn’t say it in so many words…it left the impression that Famous Schools has been moribund for quite some time.”
She was happy to inform me that “Famous Schools” are alive and well.
A meeting of Famous Artists' artists, circa 1954. Clockwise from lower left: Ernest Fiene, Doris Lee, Ben Stahl, Stuart Davis, Adolf Dehn, Arnold Blanch and Will Barnet. (Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Archives of American Art)
They were acquired by Cortina Learning International in 1981, she said. In 1990 the offices moved from Riverside Avenue to Newtown Turnpike, and in 1995 to Wilton. That’s the current location, with a warehouse and shipping facility in Danbury.
Famous Artists School currently has students in “many different countries around the world, as well as in the States,” Magdalen continued. Since 1967 they’ve had “a very active licensee” in Japan — Kodansha Famous Schools — with 15,000 students.
The present Famous Artists Courses include “the classic textbooks,” along with complete-at-home assignments that are sent in for “critiquing and evaluation by artist-instructors who work in their own studios.” Coming soon: a revised, updated downloadable version.
In 1993, Magdalen said, a 45th anniversary exhibition was held at the Westport Arts Center. Stevan Dohanos — the last surviving member of the original 12 apostles founding “Famous Artists” — was still active then.
“We actually had quite widespread publicity for that event,” Magdalen added, “including a featured article in the Westport News. Perhaps you are too young to have been aware of it.
Perhaps not. A more likely answer: Who remembers 1993?
But Famous Schools is not resting on its 45th-anniversary-17-years-ago laurels. Their next project: rejuvenating Famous Writers School, “which is still active but on a more limited basis.”
Magdalen’s email came at an appropriate time. It’s Easter Week. Her name conjures up Mary Magdalene.
And her tale about Famous Schools is an important reminder that — when you least expect it — someone, or something, can rise from the dead.
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