Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Robert Vaughn:  
More Than A Solo
Not many Hollywood stars could be properly addressed as “Dr.” But Robert Vaughn, the actor and one-time political activist, was also a scholar whose Ph.D. thesis was so good, it became a book.
When “Only Victims: A Study of Show Business Blacklisting,”  was published in 1972, Kirkus Reviews called it “the most complete and intelligent treatment of the virulent practice of blacklisting now available.”
Nearly a half century later, it is still in print and regularly assigned to law students. 
To most people, of course,  Robert Vaughn was Napoleon Solo of the TV series, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.,” or the cowardly fop in “The Magnificent Seven” or the heavy drinking friend in “The Young Philadelphians.” Over his long career, he was in more than 100 movies, starred in several TV series, appeared as a guest star hundreds of times in countless television programs, and performed on the stage.
Born in New York in 1932, Robert Francis Vaughn was the son of a radio-actor father and a stage-actress mother. He majored in journalism at the University of Minnesota where, in 1951, he won an acting contest, and decided to move to Los Angeles to pursue that career.
He made his TV debut in 1955 in the series, “Medic,” and his first starring role on the big screen was in Roger Corman’s “Teenage Caveman” in 1958. But it was his Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for “The Young Philadephians” that really launched his career.
However, acting wasn’t his only interest, and he became active in the Democratic Party in California, eventually heading the Democratic State Central Committee’s speakers bureau.
Vaughn campaigned for John F. Kennedy (who was assassinated on Vaughn’s 31st birthday). He later became a friend of Robert Kennedy and his family, and seriously considered running for office himself until Bobby Kennedy was also killed.
“I lost heart for the battle,” he said later.
He did not lose interest in activism, however. A former Army infantry drill sergeant, Vaughn was the first major member of the film industry to speak out against the Vietnam War. He endured considerable criticism for his opinions, especially early on, but before he was finished, he had delivered more than 1,000 anti-war speeches. 
He never really lost an interest in politics, either. Though already famous as an actor (he was Photoplay’s Actor of the Year in 1965), he assumed the role of journalist in covering the 1972 Democratic National Convention for radio KABC in Los Angeles. In the 1990s, Vaughn was doing stints in New York City as a radio talk show host where he showed a keen ability at debating politics.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Vaughn won an Emmy in 1977 for his portrayal of a shifty H.R. Haldeman-type character in “Washington: Behind Closed Doors,” a fictionalized mini-series about the Nixon administration.
He and his wife, Linda, a former actress who has been an activist against child abuse, moved to the historic Sunset Hall mansion on Old West Mountain Road in 1982. In the mid-1990s, they sold the place and moved to a new home on Salem View Drive in Ridgebury where he worked on his autobiography, “A Fortunate Life,”  published in 2008, while continuing to appear on TV and in films. 
Vaughn would often be seen around town, doing his own shopping at Ridgefield Hardware or Stop & Shop, having a bite to eat at Nina’s, or attending his son’s Little League games. He drove several classic cars, including a silver Rolls Royce and a red Lincoln Continental.
He made his last film appearance in “Gold Star,” about a daughter’s leaving her life in the city to care for her dying father, portrayed by Vaughn. He delivered a mostly silent performance — he himself was dying of leukemia. Said a Hollywood Reporter reviewer: “It’s Vaughn, still looking dashing despite his obvious frailty, who gives the film its emotional core. In the deeply moving final scene, in which Carmine and Vicki sit quietly together on a beach, his plaintive eyes speak far more powerfully than any amount of dialogue.”
“Gold Star” was released Nov. 10, 2017, just one year after Vaughn had died at the age of 83.
Vaughn’s friendship with Bobby Kennedy led to a strange case of coincidence. On June 6, 1968, the day Robert Kennedy died, Vaughn appeared on the Dick Cavett Show to talk about Kennedy. Vaughn was clearly shaken as he discussed his friend with the popular TV interviewer.
Fourteen years later, Vaughn bought Sunset Hall.
Fifty years later, Cavett bought the same house.
Probably neither man had even heard of Ridgefield, much less Sunset Hall, when the 1968 interview took place.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Good Times In the Old Times
Few today remember the Mary Rebekah Lodge, the female version of the Pilgrim Lodge of Odd Fellows. A sorority of community-minded women. the Rebekahs sponsored special events like card parties, plays and rummage sales to raise money for local organizations, such as the Red Cross and Girl Scouts, as well as old folks homes for their own members.
Officially, the Daughters of Rebekah, as the national organization is called, aimed to “live peaceably, do good unto all, as we have opportunity, and especially to obey the Golden Rule: Whatsoever ye would that others should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” 
Mary Rebekah Lodge was established here in 1905 as Rebekah Lodge No. 51, but since so many of the members were named Mary, they decided to personalize the lodge’s name.
Although they had many social events throughout the year, the Halloween Masquerade was the big annual shindig for the Rebekahs. 
What’s interesting about this piece of ephemera, which may have been an admission ticket, is that it includes an old-fashioned dance card on the back. There, partners could sign up to dance with a fair damsel, in this case, by the type of dance available.
How many know what a “lancers” or a “Paul Jones” is? Or a “schottische” for that matter.  It’d be tough to find a place to dance those today — except maybe the lancers.
The Rebekah masquerades took place in the Masonic Hall, still standing just south of the town hall, until the 1920s when the Odd Fellows built their own hall on Main Street — now occupied by the Toy Chest. In 1956 they sold that place and moved to an old carriage house on King Lane.
The Rebekahs disappeared in Ridgefield about 25 years ago  because of dwindling membership. The Odd Fellows, founded here in 1847, lasted till about 2006 when they sold Pilgrim Hall on King Lane to the Methodist Church, which has turned part of the building into a chapel.

Monday, September 17, 2018

West Lane Inn, ca. 1912
First off, let’s clear up possible confusion. Today’s West Lane Inn is not yesterday’s West Lane Inn. The original hostelry of that name, shown here, is right across the road from today’s inn and looks much the same today as it does in these two postcard views — with one big exception: The main staircase is now in the center of the porch instead of at the northeastern corner, as shown here. 
After its stint as an inn, the building was converted to apartments and was known as the Bluebird Apartments for many years — most of that time, it was owned by the Bacchiochi family. Today, it is still an apartment building. 
Why do we have two essentially identical pictures here? Well, in fact, they are the same picture by an unknown photographer (possibly Joseph Hartmann). But they are different in two ways (aside from the coloration).
Can you spot the differences? 
[Look and compare before reading further!] 
If you look at the top of the stairway on the monochrome picture, you will see an urn planter with a large arrangement of flowers and perhaps ferns. If you look at the color picture, only the base of the urn is there; the pot and flowers have vanished from the image. Also, some kind of overhead fixture, maybe a light, was removed at the same time.
Why black out the planter? It may have been a mistake on the part of the company that produced the color card, the German printer Newvochrome. However, it may also have been deliberate, either because the postcard publisher found the planter awkward where it was shown or because coloring it would have been too difficult. Cards like this were based on black-and-white pictures that were hand-colored for the lithographic engraving process.
Or it may be that the inn had stopped placing the planter there and asked that it be removed from the postcard.
The other difference between the two cards was in how the photo technicians treated the trees. On the color card some of the leafing was removed to show more of the blue sky, possibly to give a brighter aspect to the picture.
The color card was definitely in existence in 1913 because there is a dated message on the back with that year. When the monochrome version was produced is unknown. It may have been manufactured during World War I when access to German printing had ceased.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Catoonah Street Triangle
As work continues on remodeling the front terrace of the Town Hall, we thought it would be fun to see what the view from there more than a century earlier looked like.
This picture, probably taken around 1900 and looking northwesterly, shows the intersection of Main Street (foreground) and Catoonah Street, running off to the left. The Town Hall would be at the  right, beyond the lens of the camera.
The remarkable feature of this picture is its clear depiction of a triangle that had existed at Main and Catoonah before the age of the automobile. Soon after this shot was taken, a watering trough was erected in the triangle and thereafter, the triangle began to disappear. At some point it was completely removed, along with the trough, apparently to deal with increasing traffic from the proliferating horseless carriages. 
Often in the case of main highways, triangles don’t fit in with officialdom’s idea of an ideal intersection. Main Street once had at least two other triangles that have vanished: At the intersection of Gilbert Street, and at the intersection of Branchville Road (Route 102). It is quite likely that the junction of Main Street and Danbury Road was also once a triangle.
The only Main Street triangles left are at West Lane and at the very southern end, where the road splits into Wilton Roads East and West. And the state has repeatedly tried to do away with the triangle holding the Cass Gilbert Fountain at West Lane.
This picture is from the cover of a 1924 brochure for a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the first Jesse Lee Methodist Episcopal Church building in Ridgefield. That structure is not the one shown here, but a smaller building that stood at the intersection of North Salem Road and North Street — now the Lounsbury section of the Ridgefield Cemetery (No images of that first church exist.
The Methodist church shown here was built in 1841 and expanded somewhat over the years. In the mid-20th Century, it grew too small and the parking too limited so the congregation decided to build a new church a quarter mile to the south. This building was razed in 1964 and replaced by the brick stores-and-offices building there today.
The rectory, however, was not torn down. Visible just beyond the church, but half hidden by the trees, it became a three-story collection of shops and offices at 409 Main Street that is still used today (long called the Hackert and Monti building for post-Methodist owners).

Monday, September 10, 2018

Cass Gilbert: 
A Most Remarkable Architect
In New York, his Woolworth Building — once the tallest building in the world — still graces the Manhattan skyline.  
In Washington, his Supreme Court building stands strong, despite battles over whom it houses. 
In Ridgefield, while it has too often fallen to the failings of drivers, his fountain has greeted visitors for more than a century.
Cass Gilbert, who bought the Keeler Tavern as his country home and gave us our fountain, was one of the most acclaimed architects of the 20th Century. He designed dozens of important buildings including the U.S. Custom House in New York, the state capitols of Minnesota, Arkansas
and West Virginia, the main libraries of St. Louis and Detroit, and parts of the campuses of the Universities of Texas and Minnesota.
A native of Zanesville, Ohio, Gilbert was born in 1859, and named for Lewis Cass, a U.S. senator from Michigan who served in the cabinets of Presidents Jackson and Buchanan, and was a distant relative of his surveyor father. 
Gilbert quit studies at Macalester College and at the age of 17 went to work for an architect in St. Paul, Minn., then spent 1878 studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After some time in Europe, he joined the prestigious New York firm of McKim, Mead, and White — White being the famous Stanford White, shot and killed by a jealous husband in 1906. 
By 1882 Gilbert had set up his own architectural business in St. Paul, Minn., with James Knox Taylor, a fellow student from MIT. They turned out many local houses, churches and commercial buildings as well as the Minnesota State Capitol. 
In 1880, while still in New York, he met his future wife, Julia Finch, a finishing school student. She was 18; he, 21. But it was not until 1886 when Julia was vacationing at Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota that they again met and struck up what became a serious relationship. He was living in St. Paul with his mother and she in Milwaukee with her parents, and most of their courting took place via the U.S. mail. They were married in 1887.
In 1899, Gilbert won a competition to design the U.S. Custom House in lower Manhattan — with a little help from his by-now former partner, James Taylor, who had become a federal Treasury Department design official; Taylor cast the deciding vote in Gilbert’s favor. Virtually an unknown on the national scene, Gilbert won out over many well-known firms and soon gained a wider reputation and many jobs in New York City, to which he moved in 1900. 
Among his New York City projects over the years were a tall neo-Gothic building at 90 West Street (heavily damaged on 9/11); the U.S. Courthouse at Foley Square; the New York Life Building; and many train stations on the Harlem branch of what is now Metro North.
In 1913, his most famous project, the Woolworth Building, opened in Manhattan. At 790 feet, it was the tallest building in the world at the time. One contemporary observer — a minister — called it Gilbert’s “Cathedral of Commerce.” 
With many more words and much more poetry, Paul Goldberger, the architectural critic of The New York Times, described it in 1981 as “one of the great icons of 20th Century architecture. It has a mix of delicacy and strength that is almost Mozartian, a sense of light, graceful detail applied to a firm and self-assured structure that no later building has ever quite equalled….It was pure, graceful composition — the serene ordering of well-proportioned parts.”
Although the Woolworth Building was one of Gilbert’s most famous accomplishments, he was not the first choice to design it. Frank W. Woolworth, owner of the huge chain of “dime stores,” first approached McKim, Mead, and White, where Gilbert had earlier worked. Among the staff architects there was Harris Hunnewell Murdock of Spring Valley Road in Ridgefield. Murdock later revealed that Woolworth had called on the telephone to ask the firm about designing his new headquarters.  After Woolworth hung up, one of the firm’s partners told his secretary to give a polite brush-off to the “five-and-dime man.”
While some of his buildings were among the tallest of their time, Gilbert grew pessimistic about the future of skyscrapers, revealing in 1931 that he was uncertain that form of architecture was “here to stay,” The Ridgefield Press reported at the time. In fact, he didn’t seem happy about the tall, light-hogging buildings he’d done.
 “When I see the long shadows cast even at noon on a winter’s day,” he said, “I sometimes
wonder if the light and air their occupants enjoy compensate for the sunlight their neighbors lose.”
Among Gilbert’s less lofty Connecticut projects were the New Haven train station, New Haven (Ives Memorial) Library and the Waterbury City Hall. 
And, of course, a little fountain in Ridgefield.
Cass and Julia Gilbert came to Ridgefield in 1907, buying what had been the Ressiguie's Hotel, earlier known as the Keeler Tavern. (The Press in 1907 indicated Julia was a descendant of Timothy Keeler, the 18th Century innkeeper, but we have been unable to find evidence of that.)
The Gilberts called their home the Cannonball House because of the cannonball — actually, a defused grenade — lodged in one of the beams on the north side of the building; it was fired from a British cannon during the Battle of Ridgefield in 1777 and can be seen by visitors today.
Gilbert immediately set about enlarging the building by adding a wing to the rear that included a dining room and then-modern kitchen, with additional rooms upstairs. Around 1915, he built the formal, brick-walled gardens and Garden House, now used for many weddings and special events. But he avoided changing the lines and historic features of the old tavern building itself.
His best known work in Ridgefield, however, is the fountain that he donated to the community in 1916 at the intersection of Main Street and West Lane. When it was installed, the
intersection looked much different from today’s heavily trafficked junction — it was a simple triangle that included a tree, and the fountain itself was much lower, with its base almost flush with the ground. The fountain was made of Italian marble — the same material used on his U.S. Supreme Court building.
The fountain was not only a welcoming symbol for people arriving from the west or south, it had a practical purpose. The lower, ground-level bowl served as a watering trough for horses that had just made long climbs to reach Ridgefield; the fountain is some 800 feet above sea level.
After being hit by many automobiles over the ensuing century, including a Hummer driven by a drunk in 2003 that shattered much of the structure, the fountain has been raised a couple feet and surrounded by planters designed to absorb the shock of a crash. A truck that hit the fountain in 2018 did hardly any damage, thanks to these precautions. 
The landmark has also survived numerous attempts by the State of Connecticut to move it elsewhere so that a more traffic-friendly intersection could be created. Ridgefielders, of course, have fought each and every move-the-fountain proposal, refusing to sacrifice a landmark that sits in a prominent location at the main southern entrances to the village.
Cass Gilbert died in 1934 while on one of his frequent trips to England. There he was held in
such high esteem that he had been elected to the Royal Academy of Arts, the only American since John Singer Sargent, the painter, to be so honored. (Gilbert had earlier been president of the National Academy of Design for eight years and was appointed to the Council of Fine Arts by Presidents Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson.) 
The London Times wrote after he died, “The list of his most important buildings would only be long enough to prove him the most remarkable architect of his generation in America.”
Since his death, more than a dozen books have been written about Cass Gilbert and his work. 
Only a year after he died, his architect son Cass Gilbert Jr. of Wilton (he designed what’s now the Ridgefield Playhouse) created a brick building at 152 Main Street as a museum to hold his father’s sketches, drawings, paintings, and papers. Located just north of the Gilberts’ Keeler Tavern home and part of the original Keeler Tavern lot, the Cass Gilbert Memorial was dedicated in October 1937 in a ceremony at which Gov. Wilbur Cross spoke.
“I am have known him, for he was one of the highest ranking architects of the country,” Governor Cross said. “He was a man who could see beauty in the tall building. You cannot prize too highly Cass Gilbert.”
However, the memorial building turned out to be too small to house the large collection of Gilbert material, which was eventually turned over to the Smithsonian Institution, Library of Congress, Minnesota Historical Society, and other archives. The memorial building was sold as a residence and eventually became the home and dental offices of Dr. Robert Mead.
Quite appropriately, Bob Mead turned into an expert at repairing Cass Gilbert’s auto-
damaged fountain, and often was called upon to do so — using, also appropriately enough, dental epoxy. Dr. Mead even had copies of the fountain’s spouting turtles made so they could be replaced after periodically being stolen by vandals.
Dr. Mead died in 2015 and a year later, his family sold the homestead to the Keeler Tavern Museum, which now uses the building for its offices. Thus, two properties that were one in the 1700s and 1800s were back together again.
Cass Gilbert and many members of his family are buried in a large plot at Fairlawn Cemetery. Oddly enough, only a few dozen feet away is the grave of Ralph Thomas Walker (1889–1973),  designer of dozens of famous skyscrapers whom The New York Times called the “architect of the century.”
Thus, in a small rural cemetery on North Salem Road, containing about 625 graves,  the remains of two of the 20th Century’s greatest city architects rest in peace, each beneath relatively modest stones.

Monday, September 03, 2018

Dr. Maurice Enright: 
A Better Doctor Than Writer
Ridgefield has figured into the subject or the setting of dozens of books over the last two centuries. Many are well-done, be they history or fiction, but one book stands out as just plain awful. Its author was a beloved physician.
Maurice Enright was born in Ridgefield in 1862, son of Irish immigrant farming parents who lived on Ramapoo Road opposite Casey Lane. James and Jane Enright must have been an inspiring mother and father, for many of their children became successful in the worlds of business and health.
One daughter, Helen, became a leading nurse in New York City and, late in her career, became the first nurse ever employed by what’s now the Ridgefield Visiting Nurse Association.
Maurice Enright grew up in town, attending its one-room schoolhouses, and was then tutored in classical studies by Father Thaddeus P. Walsh, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish. That education was enough to gain him admission to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New York, the first medical school in the United States and now part of Columbia University.
Dr. Enright established a practice in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he also served on the staffs of St. Catharine’s Hospital and the Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged. He was a sanitary inspector for the Brooklyn Board of Health for eight years.
“Dr. Enright is progressive as a physician and as a citizen, and takes a deep interest in everything that pertains to the growth and welfare of Brooklyn, giving his support to every movement which in his judgment is calculated to advance the interests of its people,” said the “A History of Long Island” by Peter Ross, published in 1902.
On his death in 1926, The New York Times called him “a well-known Brooklyn physician and author.”
He was certainly well-known as a doctor in Brooklyn, but one might question his fame as an author.
His only known book was a novel, “The Ridgefield Tavern: A Romance of Sarah Bishop (Hermitess),” published in 1908 in both hardcover and paperback editions.
Set in the late 1700s the novel describes Sarah Bishop as the daughter of the keeper of the local inn which Enright calls the Ridgefield Tavern but illustrates it with a picture of Keeler Tavern. (History — or perhaps legend — says the real hermitess Sarah Bishop was a farmer’s daughter from
Long Island who was ravaged by a British soldier during the Revolution. She had no early connection with Ridgefield or the tavern before she began her many years of living in a small cave on West Mountain.)
In Dr. Enright’s story Sarah falls in love with an American patriot. He is wounded in battle and Sarah marries him on his deathbed — she is a widow 36 hours after she becomes a bride. After his death she retires to a cave on West Mountain for the rest of her life.
“The Ridgefield Tavern” was apparently not well-received by critics. The only review we could find devoted two sentences to it, and they were devastating: “In ‘The Ridgefield Tavern,’” wrote The New York Sun on June 27, 1908, “Dr. Maurice Enright betrays only elementary perceptions of the art of fiction. The bits of historical information included in his story are interesting; the rest of it is well nigh unreadable.”
That’s pretty rough. But then, the novel offers such lively action passages as: “When the colonel was wounded he was partly facing his men and the bullet passing obliquely through the soft parts of his back, shattered the dorsal vertebrae and either a fragment of bone or the bullet is pressing upon the spinal marrow, causing paralysis below that point.”
As for romantic writing: “That there was a mutual attraction between them could be observed by the lingering gaze of the Colonel in letting his eyes rest for a moment longer than usual in evident admiration, while a slight suffusion mounting from cheek to forehead, and a dropping of eyelids, a slight embarrassment indicating that deeper feeling which follows attraction.”
If you don’t mind Dr. Enright’s style, print-on-demand copies of his book are available on Amazon for from $10 to $50. An original hardbound is being advertised for $975!  

Friday, August 31, 2018

Leopold and Sady Weiss:
Why Houdini Wasn’t Happy
For decades stories have circulated about Houdini’s visits to his brother in Ridgefield. Some reports have gone so far as to maintain the world-famous magician practiced his underwater escape tricks in a pool at the grand Sunset Hall estate on Old West Mountain Road.
However, there is evidence Houdini wouldn’t have set foot in that house, which belonged not to his brother, but to his hated sister-in-law.
The brother was Dr. Leopold Weiss, a pioneer in the field of medical radiology. The sister-in-law was Leopold’s wife, Sadie — later Sady, a Manhattan fashion executive who owned Sunset Hall for six years.
Born in 1877 in Appleton, Wisc., Leopold David Weiss was the youngest of six children of Rabbi Mayer Weisz and his wife, Cecilia, natives of Budapest. One of the five Weisz brothers, Ehrich, went by the name of Harry Houdini. 
Dr. Weiss, who was called Leo, became what some reports say was the first radiologist in New York City. He started his practice from Houdini’s brownstone in Harlem shortly after the turn of the 20th Century. 
The Weiss family members were close and often gathered together. But in 1917, the family was in turmoil.
Sadie Glanz Weiss had divorced her husband, Nathan Weiss — brother of Leopold and brother of Houdini — and 10 days later, she married Leopold.
Houdini was heartbroken as well as furious over what he considered scandalous mistreatment of Nathan.
“The precise details of the family drama are not entirely known, but Houdini's displeasure
took many forms, including cutting Leo’s head out of family portraits and forbidding his burial in the Weiss family plot,” said John Cox, a longtime student of Houdini.
Accounts do not specifically mention Leo’s being disinherited, but do say that Houdini’s will specified that none of his estate should “ever directly or indirectly go to Sadie Glantz Weiss, the divorced wife of my brother Joseph Nathan Weiss, and the present wife of my brother, Dr. Leopold Nathan Weiss.”
Sadie Weiss, who by 1928 was spelling her name Sady, was a New York City fashion designer and executive. The daughter of Hungarian parents, she was born in New York and married Nathan Weiss in 1899 when she was about 22 years old.
In 1912, she and her sister, Anna Bruck, established the Bruck-Weiss Millinery, which by 1918 was “the largest exclusive millinery shop to be found on either side of the Atlantic,” according to a contemporary trade publication.  The firm owned a 10-story building just off Fifth Avenue, and occupied most of the floors, selling not only hats, but other articles of clothing for wealthy women.
“The interiors are finished in old ivory, after the period of Louis XVI, with reproductions of needlework tapestry, and festooned crystal chandeliers of the same period,” the “Illustrated Milliner” reported. “Rich Chinese rugs ornament the beautiful parquet floors, while the curtains are of extraordinarily fine Belgium laces…”
Sady, who was referred to in the press as “Madame Weiss,” believed women should have a clothing philosophy. “Until a woman has a well-established idea in her mind of just what clothes she can wear, she is unsettled, drifting,” she said in a 1928 interview published in newspapers across the country. “A clothes philosophy is almost as important in a woman’s life as a career.”
In November 1924, Sady Weiss bought the Ridgefield mansion of James Stokes, a place today called Sunset Hall. A Manhattan banker who was a pillar of the YMCA movement, Stokes had built the huge, 10-bedroom house on Old West Mountain Road in 1912 and died six years later. Sady Weiss purchased the place from a niece who had inherited it. Houdini’s brother Leopold was not mentioned in the deed or in any deeds involving the property.
Sady Weiss held on to the house until 1931, when she sold it to Ruth Cutten. 
Meanwhile, the same year Sady bought Sunset Hall, Houdini wrote his will, excluding her
and perhaps Leopold from any inheritance.
On Oct. 31, 1926, Houdini died of peritonitis from a burst appendix.
Thus, there were less than two years when Houdini could have visited Sunset Hall — between December 1924 and his death on Halloween, 1926.
For all this period, he is known to have hated Sady Weiss and was reported to be estranged from his brother as well.
Why then would he have visited Sunset Hall — Sady’s house?
Houdini scholar Cox has also found evidence that Leopold may not have thought much of his brother Houdini. An interview with a woman who knew Leopold’s office nurse revealed that Dr. Weiss did not speak well of his brother. She reported Leopold had said Houdini “was an embarrassment to the family because he was a magician.” 
Cox wondered about this. “Possibly Leo felt entertainment was a lowly profession compared to his own,” he wrote. “Or maybe the hard feelings between the brothers went both ways. But it’s fascinating to hear what Leo had to say because, until now, we’ve only heard Houdini’s side of the feud.” 
Compounding the mystery of whether or why Houdini would visit Ridgefield is the account of Richard E. Venus, former Ridgefield town historian. In a Dick’s Dispatch column in The Ridgefield Press in 1987, Venus wrote that Houdini and his wife, Bess, “spent many weekends at his brother’s Ridgefield home. I recall seeing him as he stopped in the local stores on a Saturday morning. On one occasion, I sold Houdini a Ridgefield Press.”
Adding still more to the mystery is the fact that Sady and Leopold themselves were not on the best of terms during the 1920s, according to testimony during their 1932 divorce proceedings.
The divorce battle was ugly. Leopold, who brought the suit against Sady, charged that she would spend weekends at Sunset Hall and another country home she had in Ossining with either of two boyfriends 20 years younger than her. Sady’s butler told Leopold he often served Sady and her lover breakfast in bed. One boyfriend was named “Locke Lorraine,” according to the suit.
Leopold also:
  • Maintained that he gave Sady the money to establish Bruck-Weiss, and that in return she agreed to pay him $8,000 a year for life, but did so for only three years.
  • Claimed he was broke now and wanted not only the promised payments, but also half of the $115,000 she got from selling Sunset Hall. (That selling price equals about $2.1 million in today’s dollars).
Sady in response charged that:
  • Leopold “persuaded her to get a divorce” from Nathan Weiss, and then turned around and refused to marry her unless she gave him $100,000 and half her interest in Bruck-Weiss.
  • Soon after they were married, he started abusing her and threatened to ruin her clothing business. “To keep the peace she agreed to give him $8,000 a year for life and did pay him that for three years,” said a newspaper report of the divorce proceedings.
  • Leopold finally walked out on her in 1930, despite the fact that throughout their marriage, she had supported him with her money.
After their divorce — whose settlement is unknown — Sady lived on West 59th Street in Manhattan until her death in 1935 at the age of 54.
Leopold continued his radiology practice until 1949 when he retired because of increasing blindness — due, it’s been suggested, to his exposure to x-rays. He eventually began running low on money and on Oct. 5, 1962, Dr. Weiss jumped off the roof of his apartment building, killing himself. He was 70 years old. 
“Leo left all his worldly goods to his long-time, former nurse, Marguerite Elliott,” John Cox reported. “But Marguerite’s husband forbad her from accepting, so all that was left of the last living Weiss sibling was thrown out.”
 Even though Houdini had supposedly banned him from the family plot in Machpelah Cemetery in Queens 38 years earlier, Leopold was buried there. 
 The whereabouts of Sady’s remains are unknown.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

John Morganti: 
A Solid Foundation
Giovanni Silvio Morganti was a teenager from Italy who spoke hardly a word of English when he arrived in America. Yet John Morganti, as he came to be known, fathered a multimillion dollar company and a family that have both been major forces in the shaping of Ridgefield in the 20th Century.
However, three times over the years he came close to dying — from disease, from war and from a fire. He survived to be 78.
Born in 1887 in Tomba, Italy, John Morganti got off the boat from Genoa on the morning of
April 17, 1903, with about $50 in his pocket. He was only 15 years old. He took a train from New York to Ridgefield and that afternoon, was hard at work on building the new sewer lines in the village. 
After some jobs in New Haven and then two years laboring at the Ridgefield Electric Company’s powerhouse alongside the old railroad tracks on Ivy Hill Road, Morganti worked for local contractors on building houses, including some of the High Ridge mansions – Altnacraig among them. Intent on becoming an American citizen, he studied English by attending night classes at the old Center School on Bailey Avenue.
In 1907, he decided to return to Italy to visit his parents for Christmas, only to be pressed into service by the Italian army and sent to Italian Somaliland in east Africa to help build a railroad. There, he contracted malaria and was sent back to Italy, spending 83 days in a hospital. 
Two years after his impressment into the Italian Army, Morganti decided it was time to go “home.” With the help of three friends, two of them Ridgefielders, he snuck across the Italian border into France and eventually returned to America in February 1910. He became a U.S. citizen in 1917.
In 1916, he started his own contracting firm. A year later he already had six workers and over the subsequent decades, employed dozens of Ridgefielders. 
Though he was reluctant to remain in the Italian Army,  Morganti had no qualms about joining the United States forces in World War I. He served in the Marne and Argonne campaigns in France with the 77th Infantry, fought in a half dozen major battles, and was wounded in the forehead.
After the war, he return to run his contracting company. “From its beginning through the 1940’s, Morganti grew from stonewall and small masonry projects into road building, bridge construction, high-end residential, shopping centers and commercial buildings,” Morganti Inc. says today on its website. A company motto is “Constructing solid foundations that last a lifetime.”
John Morganti and Sons also built and/or paved many of the roads in Ridgefield, and did some small-scale subdivisions. But large industrial and public buildings became the specialty of what became Morganti Inc.
The firm grew to the point where, in the 1970s, it was among the 400 largest construction companies in the nation. Among Morganti’s projects in town were East Ridge Middle School, Ridgebury School, Yankee Ridge shopping center on Main Street, Ridgefield Commerce Park on Danbury, and 901 Ethan Allen Highway (former Benrus Center, now the Pond’s Edge medical offices). Morganti built Wilton High School, much of Danbury Hospital, and in the last half of the
20th Century, many other schools, hospitals, and public buildings  throughout the eastern United States, and in the Middle East. 
John Morganti remained active in his company until the early 1960s when his son, Paul J. Morganti, took over as president. Paul Morganti was also well known in town, serving in the 1950s and early 60s as a selectman, and then again in the 1990s in the same position. John’s other sons, John, Joseph, and Robert, were also executives in the company and well-known in the community.
In 1988, his company was sold to Consolidated Contractors Company of Athens, Greece, which retained the Morganti Inc. name but moved its offices to Danbury. Other Morganti offices are now in Florida, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas, Abu-Dhabi, Dubai, Egypt, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, and — appropriately enough — Italy.
John Morganti and his wife, the former Elizabeth Eramo, marked their 47th wedding anniversary in January 1965, three months before his death. He died on April 17, just 62 years and two days after he arrived in Ridgefield, an eager teenager from a far-away land.
In the early days of their marriage, John and Elizabeth lived in a three-story building on Bailey Avenue, just east of the Ridgefield Press. The Italian cooperative store occupied the first floor, along with Travostino’s bakery, while several families — including the Morgantis — lived upstairs. 
“We had nice, large rooms in the Cooperative building and there was electricity,” Elizabeth Morganti told Aldo Biagiotti, author of “Impact: The Historical Account of the Italian Immigrants of Ridgefield, Connecticut.”
“There was a bathroom along the hallway. We paid $12 a month rent. Once a month on a Sunday morning, Sam Denton knocked at the door to collect the rent.”
On the night of April 22, 1922, John and Elizabeth were awakened to the cries of “Fire! Get out!” It was Antonio Travostino, who had arisen early to start up his ovens and who had discovered the building was on fire.
“My husband and I ... rushed out onto the sidewalk,” Elizabeth said. “The only thing I had on was my nightgown. We lost everything, as did all the others, and I do mean everything.”
The building burned for three days. “You know, the firemen did not have enough water to fight the fire,” she said. “Some of the roofs of houses way over on Governor Street burned as a result of the fire.”
However, she added, “if it were not for Travostino, we would have all burned to death. Although we and the other families lost everything, we were lucky. We got out of the fire with our lives.”

Friday, August 24, 2018

The Tragic Story
 of Agnes Birdseye
Someone strolling along the western edge of the Branchville Cemetery would come upon the gravestones of the Birdseye family. They might smile at the name and say, “Frozen food!”
But no, these are different Birdseyes. And the gravestone of the first Birdseye who was buried there — a woman who shot her lover and killed herself — is mysteriously missing.
Agnes Elizabeth Birdseye was born in 1900 in New York City, a daughter of middle-class parents. Her father, Lewis, was an accountant who became secretary to the head of the New York Police Department and later was a superintendent of hospitals in the city.
In the 1910s, the Birdseyes bought a summer home at 70 Peaceable Street in Georgetown, a short distance east of the Branchville train station. They became members of the Georgetown Congregational Church and as a teenager, Agnes sang in its choir.
It appears that Mrs. Lewis and her children were living on Peaceable Street full-time by 1920 and Elizabeth, Agnes’s younger sister, graduated from the Gilbert and Bennett School (now a cultural center) in 1923.
Agnes Birdseye’s strange story began a year later when the 24-year-old nurse went to work for Dr. Milton Thomashefsky, an ear, nose and throat specialist with a practice near Prospect Park in Brooklyn. A Columbia graduate, Thomashefsky was described in newspaper accounts as “dashing” and a “Don Juan,” the bachelor son of Yiddish theater celebrities Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky.
It appears a romance eventually blossomed, at least in Agnes’s mind. Friends said she called the doctor “Mickey” and he called her “Boo Boo.” They went out to dinner together, to parties, and the theater.
But according to Thomashefsky’s later testimony, there had never been any more to their relationship than friendship. He “conceded her infatuation for him, but added he had always told her it was hopeless,” he is quoted in a Brooklyn newspaper as telling investigators.
However the doctor may have felt, it seemed clear Agnes was in love with him. And when one day in the early August of 1931, she discovered a letter from another woman in one of his coat pockets, she reportedly became enraged with jealousy.
The letter was from Norma Jean Bernstein, a 24-year-old camp counselor whom the doctor had met upstate the previous summer and with whom he became friends.  “Dear, darling Mickey,” the letter began; it ended, “Oh, did I remember to tell you, dear, darling Mickey, that I miss you so much?”
Dr. Thomashefsky later  maintained that this relationship was also only friendship, not a romance.
On Monday, Aug. 10, Birdseye snuck into Thomashefsky’s apartment while he slept and chloroformed him. Then, according to one account, she “performed a mutilating operation on him.” Other reports say only that she cut him three times with a knife.
She also left a note, saying “Harry, we have settled our account with you. A.C.” Police theorized  that since the doctor had a brother named Harry, the note was meant to suggest the stabbing was a case of mistaken identity, diverting any suspicions that she was the culprit.
It didn’t work. On Wednesday, Aug. 12, at his office,  Thomashefsky confronted Birdseye about the attack.
“She confessed to cutting me and went down on her knees to beg forgiveness,” the doctor later told investigators. “I refused to forgive her and told her I was through with her.”
Just then, the doorbell rang. As Thomashefsky turned and went to answer it, Birdseye ran to her nearby desk, grabbed a revolver from a drawer and fired a single shot at his back. The bullet smashed his spine.
She then shot herself in the abdomen and the head. She died instantly from the head wound.
Thomashefsky lay on the floor a short distance from her body and, he said later, became suicidal himself.
“I knew I had been shot in the spine,” he told Brooklyn District Attorney William F.X. Geoghan. “I knew I was paralyzed.”
“I crawled to where the revolver was and broke it open to see how many bullets were left. I wanted to finish the job.” 
He found only three shells and all had been fired.
Thomashefsky then called Birdseye’s father, Lewis. “I told him to come right over, that something terrible had happened,” he said.
Meanwhile, Philip Pines, who had been knocking at the locked office door to meet the doctor for a dinner engagement, heard the shots. Pines had been acting as a bodyguard for the Thomashefsky since Monday’s knife attack.
With the help of building staff, Pines broke into the office, found the two gunshot victims, and called for help.
Thomashefsky was taken to the Jewish Hospital of Brooklyn — the institution where Agnes’s father was superintendent. 
After investigating the scene and interviewing the doctor, police reported they believed the case was one of “attempted murder and suicide.”
Lewis Birdseye refused to believe her daughter could have committed the crime and killed herself. 
“Agnes did not do this,” he told the Associated Press. “I’ll get to the bottom of it despite Dr. Thomashefsky’s story.”
He theorized that a third party had shot the two. “In support of his theory [he] pointed out that several chairs had been overturned as though in a struggle,” The New York Times reported. “The authorities tried vainly to convince him of the correctness of their theory.”
There were other puzzling details and reports. Engagement and wedding rings were found in Birdseye’s purse, but authorities never explained how they may have been related to the shootings. There were reports that Birdseye and Thomashefsky had quarreled, and that Agnes had a black eye.
Dr. Thomashefsky underwent months of treatments before being sent home from the hospital. Confined to a wheelchair, he never practiced again, and instead lived with his mother in an apartment at the Half Moon Hotel in Coney Island, where he died five years after the shooting. His death at age 39 was reported to have been due to complications from the gunshot injury.
He is said to have spent his last years writing plays and movie scripts. None was ever produced.
“Titian-haired Agnes Birdseye” was buried Saturday, Aug. 15, “in the little cemetery in Branchville,” the Norwalk Hour said. “Few spectators gathered to watch the final services for the young girl who was formerly a member of the choir of the Georgetown Congregational Church.”
Agnes Birdseye’s gravestone, giving only her name and the years of her birth and death, was
standing on Nov. 18, 1934, when a state official did a survey of all the monuments in Branchville Cemetery. 
It has since vanished. Instead, there are monuments for her parents, Lewis, who died in 1942, and Florence, 1949, along with her brother, Lewis Jr., who died in 1958. 
Also buried in the Birdseye plot is Dr. Archibald Abernethy, a native of Canada, who was a physician at the Norwich State Tuberculosis Sanitarium. Around 1930, he married Agnes’s sister, Elizabeth, probably a nurse at the same facility, and died two years later — less than a year after Agnes’s death. (His wife is not in Branchville, however; she later married Peter Thornton and moved to Florida where she died in 1980.)
What happened to the gravestone of Agnes Birdseye? Perhaps it was removed by members of the family who grew to be embarrassed by her tragic end. More likely the family removed it because they didn’t want sensation-seeking members of the public ghoulishly gawking at her gravesite.
However, it may even have been stolen by a souvenir seeker after the story resurfaced in newspapers across the country in 1936 when Milton Thomashefsky died.
A year after his daughter’s tragic death, and perhaps as a result of it, Lewis Birdseye left the world of hospital administration to become a social worker with the St. John’s Guild, a charitable organization sponsored by the Episcopal Church that focused on helping underprivileged children. 
He became widely known among the poor in New York City when he managed the guild’s Floating Hospital, a ship that mixed recreation with medical assistance. Thousands of city children in the summer took trips on the vessel, getting exposure to fresh air and the sea, and in the process receivings checkups and screenings from physicians and nurses on board. At the same time staff members would instruct parents in good child-rearing practices.
The Floating Hospital is still in operation today.