Fighter Pilot, Playhouse Fighter
Fighter Pilot, Playhouse Fighter
A pilot who won the Croix de Guerre for shooting down German fighters in World War I and who was among the earliest to fly commercial airliners may have been largely responsible for the venue that is now the Ridgefield Playhouse.
Born in Brooklyn in 1896, Sereno Thorpe Jacob grew up in Westport. He became a carpenter, but soon ran away from home and joined the Merchant Marine.
Early in World War I, he volunteered as an ambulance driver for the American Field Service in France. While there he became interested in aviation, trained as a pilot, and wound up joining the Lafayette Flying Corps, a group of American volunteer pilots who flew in the French Air Force before the U.S. entered the war.
He piloted Nieuport 27 and SPAD S.XIII fighters against the Germans from October 1916 through January 1918. He earned the Croix de Guerre with Palm for exceptional bravery after a battle in which he and another pilot shot down a German observation balloon and were then attacked by five German planes. “The American aviators succeeded in sending two of the German planes to earth and drove off the three others,” said a contemporary account.
A record of his service in France reported that “most pilots are glad of an occasional rest from flying, but Jacob, according to his comrades, was always ‘gonfle’ [“pumped up”] — three patrols a day were nothing out of the ordinary for him. The habits of the local Boches [Germans] formed a study of never-failing interest; it was his delight to lie in wait for the wary Rumpler [a German plane] which so often made its photographic reconnaissance at noon, heralded by tracery of white shrapnel puffs across the sky. Though he has three official victories to his credit, Jacob had had bad luck in getting confirmation, and among the chalky hills of the Champagne, ... there are without doubt several fast-disappearing heaps of wreckage which are rightfully his.”
Jacob later served briefly in the U.S. Army at the end of the war..
When the conflict was over, Jacob worked for a while for an American automobile company selling Cadillacs in Belgium, but returned to the states in 1921, when he married Marion Couch Wakeman of Westport. Soon after, the couple moved to Ridgefield to a house on the corner of High Ridge and Barry Avenue (behind the big stone wall built by Joe Knoche) that had belonged to Jacob’s grandfather, Sereno Allen. Their arrival was almost legendary.
“My father’s greatest public relations coup was arriving in Ridgefield with his beautiful bride, wearing two raccoon coats, in a Stutz Bearcat,” son Merritt Jacob said. “People were always ready to tell me about their ride in the Stutz — which had an exhaust cutout so that the roar of the engine could be heard miles off.”
For a brief period Jacob flew Ford Trimotors for a regional airline providing service to such cities as Bridgeport, Newark, N.J., Albany, N.Y., and Springfield, Mass., but he left around 1930 when the airline lost its mail contract and went belly-up. Capt. Eddie Rickenbacker, a World War I flying ace who founded Eastern Airlines in 1926, knew him, hired him and Jacob flew Eastern’s Curtiss Condor airliners for seven years.
“He was a very early member of the airline pilots union and wrote a paper defending the union, which did not please Captain Eddie,” said Merritt Jacob. “And so they parted ways.”
Jacob’s new career was very land-based: real estate. He worked with Harold E. Finch, a prominent oldtimer and owner of what became Squash’s New Store and is now Ridgefield Office Supply. However, though he wasn’t flying, he often spoke to clubs and organizations about his years as a pilot, both in World War I and with the airlines. The challenges were many and the instruments few. “Flying blind is like walking a tightrope in a dark closet blindfolded,” he told a First Congregational Church club in 1938 about piloting a plane in overcast weather.
Jacob served three years as chairman of the Board of Assessors and, according to The Press, “devoted his talents to putting that office on a more business-like basis.”
He also served on the building committee that expanded the “old high school” on East Ridge in the late 1930s. Merritt Jacob reports that, “according to my mother, he fought very hard for a separate gym and auditorium — which put Ridgefield way ahead of any of the neighboring towns facilitywise and gave us the auditorium that is still in use” — the Ridgefield Playhouse. “I myself got to see Toscanini conduct in that auditorium. My father could be very forward-looking.”
During World War II, Jacob was chairman of the Ridgefield Defense Council and worked to bring about greater public appreciation of the danger of the war reaching this country. He was not always successful. In March 1942, he asked the town for $25,000 for civilian defense projects; the Town Meeting later authorized $2,500.
He was a member of the Republican Town Committee, the Lions Club, and the American Legion. He also belonged to the Last Man’s Club, a group of World War I veterans who met annually to remember their comrades until the last man died. When Jacob died in 1947 at the age of 51, he was only the second of 31 members to pass away.
Sereno Jacob loved traveling not only on land and in the air, but also on the sea. He was an expert yachtsman, and had owned 40 and 50 foot sailing vessels that took part in many major racing events. But he also loved a good ride in that Stutz.
One day he was parked in front of town hall when Joe Zwierlein happened by. (A local house painter, Zwierlein was well-known in town; he was a volunteer fireman for 60 years and dog warden for 30.)
“My father asked Joe if he wanted to go for a ride,” Merritt Jacob said. “Well, Joe jumped at the chance. After about 30 minutes of driving, Joe asked my father where they were headed, and my father said, ‘Montreal.’”
It took Zwierlein a bit of time to recover from the shock and figure out what he would tell his wife.
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