Friday, December 30, 2016

Richard E. Venus: 
Historian and Storyteller
Every era has its grand storyteller, and for the last third of the 20th Century, Ridgefield’s was surely Dick Venus, historian, postmaster, town official, dairyman, and raconteur extraordinaire. 
Venus came to epitomize the way Ridgefield was during most of its 300 years — a small town of mostly kind and gentle people who participated in all aspects of their community, who enjoyed their fellow townspeople, and who loved a good story and knew how to tell it. 
Born in 1915 in a Main Street house still standing at the north edge of Casagmo, Richard Edward Venus was named for Father Richard E. Shortell, the longstanding and popular pastor of St. Mary Church. 
He grew up listening to the many stories of adults, tales told in an era before radio or TV and tales he never forgot. He became a master storyteller, enchanting countless people with his recollections of the days when Ridgefield was dotted with the summer estates of wealthy New Yorkers and of the many fascinating people who worked as their servants, gardeners, and chauffeurs. 
Many of those anecdotes are recorded in his monumental series, Dick’s Dispatch, 366 columns published in The Ridgefield Press between March 1982 and November 1988 (which have been collected, bound and indexed, and which are available at the Ridgefield Library). 
As a boy, he had a large newspaper route to help with the family income. In 1928, only 13, he went to work on Conklin’s Dairy Farm before and after school, and later worked full time. “I always loved horses and drove a team, plowing fields and mowing hay,” he recalled. 
When tractors took over from horses, he moved to the retail part of the milk business. 
Later, he became superintendent for many years at Dr. Royal C. Van Etten’s 87-acre Hillscroft
Farm on St. John’s Road.
In the 1950s, he operated Dic-Rie Dairy (named for Dick and his wife, Marie), delivering milk to many households. 
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy appointed him postmaster of Ridgefield, a job he held for 21 years, longer than any person before or since. He was also the last Ridgefield resident to serve as the local postmaster — every postmaster back to Joshua King in 1789 had lived in town, but none since 1982 has.
“In the post office Dick Venus was always a smiling, friendly fellow, ready to greet and talk to anybody who dropped by,” Press publisher Karl S. Nash once wrote. “He knew everybody in town and, better than that, where they lived. In fact, Dick made it a point of pride never to return a piece of mail as undeliverable just because the addressee had not reported a change of address. The problem
arose most frequently at Christmas time — some years Dick had 5,000 pieces of mail with expired addresses or insufficient ones. He took these home with him and worked on the problem there, and rarely got any thanks for his effort.”
A lifelong Democrat, Venus served three terms as a selectman and ran twice unsuccessfully for first selectman against the popular — and Republican — Leo F. Carroll. In one of those runs, he lost by only 208 votes. He was a longtime friend and supporter of U.S. Senator Thomas Dodd and later his son, Senator Christopher Dodd — Chris Dodd attended Venus’s funeral.
He served on the Historic District Commission, the Zoning Board of Appeals, and was a leader in or member of many community organizations, including Kiwanis and the Boys Club.
In the mid-1980s, the governor appointed Venus as Ridgefield’s first official town historian. He was active in the Ridgefield Archives Committee, later the Ridgefield Historical Society.
And if that wasn’t enough, Venus was a musician. Around the age of 10, he taught himself the harmonica and played it so well that he gave a concert at age 11 on WICC radio in Bridgeport. Starting in 1928, he was a drummer in the Ridgefield Boys Band and later was drummer for his own
Mayflower Swing Band, organized in 1934, which played throughout the area.
A longtime member of the Knights of Columbus, Venus was a devout Catholic. In fact, his belief in his faith’s tenets led him decline to perform a celebrity wedding in his capacity of justice of the peace. It was 1941, and the notorious millionaire and socialite Tommy Manville wanted to marry his fifth wife — Venus turned him down because divorce violated Catholic doctrine. (Manville went on to amass 13 marriages to 11 women before his death in 1967 at the age of 73.)
In 2000, the town renamed the old Ridgefield High School the “Richard E. Venus Municipal Building.”  It was just one of many honors that also included Rotary Citizen of the Year in 1974.
He died in 2006 at the age of 91. A year later, a section of Route 35, West Lane, from the Cass Gilbert Fountain to Olmstead Lane — where he had lived — was named the Richard E. Venus Memorial Highway. 
His wife, Marie Bishop Venus, former chair of the Democratic Town Committee, died in 2011 at the age of 92.
Dick Venus saw the town change a lot from his childhood, but he never stopped loving it and its people. 
“It’s grown too fast,” he said in 2000. “We weren’t prepared for it ... There are a lot of nice people who have moved into Ridgefield, and there are others — it’ll take them a little time to get acclimated. My mother always taught me to tip my hat and smile at people. With some, if you do that, they’ll glare at you like you’re crazy, but they’ll get along. They’ll get the swing of things before they’re through. Most everybody who comes through Ridgefield stays, if they can. Ridgefield is a great town.”

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Mary Fuller Frazier: 
The Heroine of Perrypolis
One of the more peculiar — and at the same time, one of nicer — people to have lived in Ridgefield was Mary Fuller Frazier.  The eccentric heiress arrived in town in 1946 at the age of 81, lived in a small portion of a large house, and then departed for a sanatorium and her death.
While here, however, she made out a will that gave $1.5 million — $15 million in today’s money — to a small, impoverished town in southwestern Pennsylvania where she was born, but which she’d visited only once in 60 years.
And despite being contested by greedy relatives with a champertous lawyer, her bequests helped provide her home town with schools, a library and even street lights.
Mary Fuller was born in 1864 in Perryopolis, Pa., and grew up there. She spent much of her childhood with an uncle, Alfred M. Fuller, a multimillionaire coal and cattle man who was among the first Americans to ship beef to Europe by freezing the meat. After her uncle died in 1917, she inherited some $5 million — nearly $80 million today — from his estate.
She left Perryopolis in 1887 and returned only once in the 61 years that followed. She married and divorced twice, the last time to hotel manager J. Miller Frazier of Philadelphia, and lived most of her life in Pennsylvania. 
However,  court documents say there were “relatively short periods during which she lived in various cities in California, Kentucky, Nevada, Connecticut, New York, and France. She built or purchased a number of homes. She lived in some of these homes; others she abandoned before completion.”
In March 1946, she paid today’s equivalent of a million dollars for a 13.5-acre estate on North Street. There she lived alone with her servants and was known locally as an eccentric. A Pennsylvania court described her “palatial” 12-room house in Ridgefield where “only a few rooms were furnished. Rugs in rolls were in evidence throughout the house and were never finally laid.” Nonetheless, she had her last will drawn up in Ridgefield by Judge Ralph E. Cramp.
By 1948, she was building a new house outside Philadelphia and planned to move there. That January, she put her Ridgefield estate on the market and admitted herself to a New York City sanatorium where, that August, she died. (The house, just south of Pinecrest Drive, was sold in 1949 to Sherwood Summ. It was later owned by Ridgefield builder Tony Czyr, who subdivided the acreage.)
Frazier left an estate worth $2 million ($20 million today), most of which went to Perryopolis, where “I was born and lived, and where my father and mother lived and my grandfather and grandmother lived,” her will said.
Among 18 much smaller grants was one peculiar one: A $100,000 trust fund to provide a watchman and upkeep for the family mausoleum in a Perryopolis cemetery. As a result of the fund, a
guard was hired and lived in a trailer parked in the cemetery near the mausoleum.
The Perryopolis bequest made national headlines, including several stories in The New York Times and a two-page spread in Life magazine — which included a picture of the mausoleum with the guard’s trailer in the background. (Frazier herself was never pictured.)
The bequest also attracted the attention of a Chicago man named Bales, who a Pennsylvania court later described as “a professional heir-hunter” with a criminal record. Bales and an attorney associate named Berg from Chicago approached six alleged relatives of Mrs. Frazier and offered to fight the will and its bequest to Perryopolis — free of charge if they lost, and for 25% of the value of the estate if they won. 
The legal battle took two years. In a lengthy decision in the Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas, a judge ruled the six could not prove a valid relationship to Mary Frazier. He pointed out that none of the six even went to her funeral — they did not “know that she was dead for a few days until we seen it in the paper,” the judge quoted one plaintiff as saying. He then pointed out that “none of these alleged first cousins ever saw or communicated with [Mrs. Frazier] except Emma Mae and the last time Emma Mae communicated with her was before 1900.”
Clearly irked by the case, the judge accused Bales and Berg of champerty  — an illegal agreement in which a person with no previous interest in a lawsuit finances it in order to share the disputed property if the suit succeeds. “The solicitation and champerty in this case are patent,” he said. “We would be derelict in our duty were we to lend the aid of this court to contestants in this litigation, so begun and so fostered.”
Perryopolis is an unusual community of 1,700 people south of Pittsburgh. Most of it was part of  56,000 acres once owned by George Washington. In a 1770 visit, Washington said the place was “as fine a land as I have ever seen, a great deal of rich meadow; it is well watered and has a valuable mill seat.”
He drew up plans for a town, laying out the roads in the design of a wagon wheel — just  as Washington, D.C. would later be laid out. (There is a legend Washington wanted Perryopolis to be the capital of the United States.) After Washington’s death in 1799, his land was sold and when a town was developed, his circular layout was used. But rather than name the place for its former owner and designer, the town fathers chose to commemorate Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous victory over the British on Lake Erie in the War of 1812.
In August 1948, Perryopolitans were in shock at the news of the enormous bequest. Hardly anyone in town had ever even heard of Mary Fuller Frazier. 
“Mining Hamlet That Lacks Lights Inherits Millions in Woman’s Will,” said the two-column headline in The New York Times Aug. 18. The reference to lights was apparently designed to show how poor and backward Perryopolis seemed — indeed, the community had only one streetlight, and lacked many other amenities. 
Frazier somehow knew Perryopolis needed help, and specified that her bequest be used for “public, charitable, literary or educational purposes.” Through her financial advisers, she had indicated “she wanted to provide lighting, a water system, schools, roads, and other things the town needed and that funds be provided for the upkeep of these improvements so there would be no burdens on the taxpayers,” said Howard Adams, the town banker, who had been consulted by her attorneys before the will was drawn up.
Today, largely thanks to Mary Frazier, the community has Frazier High School and Frazier Middle School, as well as the Mary Fuller Frazier Library, plus other facilities and services it might not otherwise have had. 
Ten years after her death, as the new Frazier School District was building its new high school, the Class of 1958 dedicated its yearbook, The Commodore, to this mysterious benefactor.  “It is only through her generosity and loyalty to her hometown, that our new school is becoming a reality,” the class said. “Mrs. Frazier, heiress of a local coal-mining fortune and native of Perryopolis, made possible by her will, our splendid new building and contributed much to other progress in our community. May her qualities be reflected in the character and conduct of the students who will attend the school dedicated to her, the Mary Fuller Frazier High School.” 

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Thomas Walsh: 

Man of Mysteries
“Writing mysteries takes a thief’s mind,” Thomas Walsh told The Ridgefield Press in a 1962 interview. But he also confessed that “the life of a writer isn’t all beer and skittles. 
“One good thing is that you can work wherever you hang your hat,” he said, “but writing is a frightening business. You sit down there with a blank piece of paper and you have to fill it. A doctor or lawyer or insurance man gets out and talks to people, but a writer just sits by himself and writes.” 
Walsh did plenty of writing. He turned out 11 novels including “Nightmare in Manhattan,” which won a 1950 Edgar Award and was made into the film, “Union Station,” starring William Holden and Barry Fitzgerald.
“The Night Watch,” a 1952 book, became the 1954 movie, “Pushover,” starring Fred MacMurray and Kim Novak.
A native of New York City, Thomas F. M. Walsh was born in 1902 and began writing for his high school newspaper. He dropped out of Columbia in his sophomore year and went to work as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.
He started writing short stories to supplement his meagre reporter’s salary and began selling to
major magazines. Saturday Evening Post carried more than 50 of his mysteries, but his work also appeared in Collier’s, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Home Companion, and other periodicals.
Most of his stories featured “hard-shelled, tender-hearted Irish cops.”
All 11 novels were set in New York City. He won the first Inner Sanctum Mystery Award for “The Eye of the Needle,” and his other books included “The Dark Window,” “The Action of the Tiger” and “Dangerous Passenger.” 

With the money he earned from Union Station, he bought a “little house” on eight aces on Casey Lane where he lived from 1949 to 1965. He died in Enfield, Conn., in 1984 at the age of 76.

Monday, December 26, 2016

H. Dunscombe Colt: 
Archaeologist of the Desert
The historic Peter Parley house on High Ridge was home to not only its namesake author and his minister father, but another man who shared with them an interest in history, literature and religion.
H. Dunscombe Colt was an internationally known archaeologist and an expert on Rudyard Kipling. Together with his father he lived in the 1920s, 30s and 40s where S.G. Goodrich (Peter Parley), son of the third minister of the First Congregational Church, grew up. 
Harris Dunscombe Colt II was born in 1901 in New York City, son of Harris Dunscomb and Elizabeth Bowne Colt. (Unlike his father, he ended his middle name with an E.) 
His dad, a Yale-educated lawyer, and his mother,  great-granddaughter of a New York City mayor, came here in the late 1910s and for a while, owned the Bluebird Apartments, located across the street from the West Lane Inn (though they never lived there).
The Peter Parley property was much bigger when they bought it and around 1920, the Colts sold a triangular piece at High Ridge and Shadow Lane to the Hyde sisters from New Jersey, who then built the English-style cottages and cobblestone courtyard, surrounded by high stone walls, that are a landmark at the south end of High Ridge today.
The Colts sent their son to England for his schooling. He studied at St. Paul’s and Oxford University, which he did not complete but at which he became interested in archaeology, the focus of his future career. 
His first dig was in 1922, excavating an ancient Roman site in Kent, England, with a team from London’s Society of Antiquaries. He then worked in Egypt under the noted British Egyptologist, W. M. Flinders Petrie, and took part in excavations on Malta. 
 From 1929 through 1935, he directed digs at Auja el Hafir and other locations in the Negev desert. According to a three-volume report on his archaeological excavations in Palestine published years later by Princeton University Press, the expedition “uncovered the remains of an ancient village in the Negeb. Among the ruins was found a hoard of Greek papyrus documents  dating from A.D. 500 to A.D. 700, which are a welcome addition to the mere handful of such documents found outside of Egypt and are the first to come out of Palestine.”
The excavation found that “the little Palestinian town went in heavily for religious literature but, what is more surprising, that at least some of the people in this Greek-speaking community had copies of Virgil and glossaries to help them read him. Among the finds is a Latin-Greek glossary of the Aeneid, to be dated in the 6th Century, which is by far more extensive than any similar Latin-Greek glossary thus far published.”
Also found were fragments of the Gospel of John. “These show that even at a late date in a comparatively obscure place, an astonishingly pure text of the New Testament was in common use.”
Colt ended his field work around 1940,  “I think a contributory factor may have been a realization that his personality prevented him from having some of the toughness which directing excavations needs,” wrote Crystal-Marie Bennett, a pioneering woman archaeologist and friend of Colt. Bennett said Colt later admitted to her “that the rigours of field archaeology were not for him and that he had preferred to use his talents in other ways to help archaeology.”
To that end he established the Colt Archaeological Institute, which financed archaeological digs but especially focused on publication of archaeological findings.  “To be published by Colt was a sought after honour among archaeologists,” Bennett wrote in a 1974 tribute to her friend.
Colt also inherited a love of collecting from his father, who had assembled an extensive series of engraved, historical views of New York City. For years he worked on updating an encyclopedia of American engravers. The work was done in cooperation with the American Antiquarian Society, of which he was a longtime member.
For much of his life, Colt would spend the warmer half of the year in London and the colder six months in the United States. Here he would usually focus on researching engravers while in London, it would be archaeology and Kipling. Besides Ridgefield, he had homes in New York and Washington.
“Colt may have been shy and diffident, almost retiring, but he was completely cosmopolitan, equally at home on both sides of the Atlantic, with a truly global approach to life and a breadth of vision which brooked no limitations, particularly in archaeology,” Crystal-Marie Bennett wrote.
His first wife, Theresa Strickland Colt, died in 1955. In 1957 he married Armida Maria-Theresa
Bologna Walsh, a native of Trieste, who later donated thousands of items in her husband’s archaeological, engraving and Kipling collections to museums and libraries in the U.S. and Europe. Many ancient pieces were given to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
In 1984 and 1987, she donated 2,500 Kipling items to the Library of Congress which established the H. Dunscombe Colt Kipling Collection.  It includes Kipling first editions, periodicals, books about Kipling, books Kipling owned,  photographs of Kipling and his family, and drawings, manuscripts, letters, and clippings.
Colt died in 1973 in London at the age of 72 and is buried in an old country churchyard in Sussex, overlooking the South Downs in England. 

Armida died in Washington, D.C., in 2011 at the age of 99. According to her obituary, she “loved entertaining both in Georgetown and in London, where she lived part of the year.” 

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Charles Ashbee: 
Ridgefield’s Santa
When Charley Ashbee died in 1962, the front page of the May 31 Ridgefield Press announced:
C.F. Ashbee,
Santa Claus,
Dies at 89
By then Ashbee, a retired insurance executive, had become a local legend.
“Mr. Ashbee spent nearly as much of his long life portraying Santa Claus and delighting the children of this town as he devoted to the insurance business,” the newspaper said in his obituary. “Donning a Santa Claus suit became a habit with Uncle Charley soon after he and Mrs. Ashbee settled here.”
Charles Francis Ashbee had been born in New York City in 1872, and moved to Wilton Road West around 1929. Soon after, he began his Santa services when he pinch-hit for someone who was unable to play the part at a church school party.
He took on other appearances and by the early 1930s had already become a fixture at Christmas celebrations on Main Street and with various organizations.
In the 1940s, Ridgefield Savings Bank (now Fairfield County Bank) had Charley visit each year. He also paid an annual outdoor visit to Ridgefield Hardware, thanks to owner, Ed Rabin. He often arrived in a sleigh driven by Bill Patton, whose farm was on Old South Salem Road. (In 1945, Ashbee kept his feet warm with a pair of German paratrooper boots, brought back from the just-ended war by Ed Rabin’s brother, Sidney.)
Over the more than 30 years he played the role, Ashbee wore out three Santa suits and three sets of wigs and whiskers.
“Charley got to be such an important part of the Christmas season that letters addressed to the man at the North Pole were rerouted to him,” reported Dick Venus, former postmaster who was also the first town historian. “He would never fail to visit the home of the little kid that wrote the letter.”
Venus added that, “in many cases, he was able to locate a toy that a youngster had asked for. When he did, he would take it along with him and leave it with the parents, to be put under the tree. Not only the kids, but grownups as well, thought that he was just the greatest.”
Among Ashbee’s off-season hobbies was autograph collecting, and he had the signatures of every president except George Washington. He also collected signatures of Civil War generals, and had all but J.E.B. Stuart and Stonewall Jackson.
For all the joy he gave children, Ashbee was named Rotary Citizen of the Year in 1960.
A year later, when he was about 88, Ashbee missed his first Christmas as Santa in three decades. He was seriously ill and confined to the Altnacraig nursing home on High Ridge. Scores of the town’s children went to the nursing home to visit him that Christmas season; some knew he was the person who had played Santa in the past while to others, he was just a nice man who needed cheering up.
He died in the spring.
Everett Lounsbury Jr., who developed Ashbee Lane off Route 7 in the 1960s, named the road the year after Charley Ashbee died. Lounsbury was undoubtedly a Santa fan, one of thousands in Ridgefield — like a young Rob Kinnaird who a couple of years ago recalled, “Mr. Ashbee was the Santa at the bank and at St. Stephen’s Christmas Party. The year he died, that Christmas, [St. Stephen’s Rector Aaron] Manderbach announced that Santa couldn’t make it that year, and there was no Santa at the bank.
“We were all okay with it, because Mr. Ashbee was Santa. It didn't seem right to have anyone else.
“I remember the year after, the bank got someone else but, by then, it made no difference to us, because we knew who the real Santa Claus was.”

Friday, December 23, 2016

Joseph Hartmann: 
Artist and Historian on Glass
Joseph Hartmann may have thought himself an artist, but it’s doubtful he considered himself a historian. Yet, the photographs he took of Ridgefield and its people from the 1890s through the 1930s
are a graphic history of the town in one of its most fascinating periods.
Pictures of rich and poor, young and old, luxurious mansions and dusty workshops, are included in the 6,000 negatives he left behind. Almost all the negatives are on glass plates — he worked most of his years with a large-sized camera in the days before “film” was available. For each photograph, a glass negative had to be inserted into the back of the camera. He stuck with glass well into the 1920s, switching to a plastic negative late in his career.
A son of a physician, Josef Hartmann was born in 1867 in a German village not far from Munich, a great artistic center. He studied photography in Italy and was accomplished at his art when he came to the United States with his father in 1888.
Around 1890, he set up a studio in the top floor of the Bedient building at Main Street and Bailey Avenue — it burned down in the great fire of 1895, but he moved into its replacement soon afterwards. Over the years that followed, he took thousands of portraits in that studio. He also photographed weddings, civic and social groups, babies, musicians, insides and outsides of houses, cars, gardens, pets, and even bodies in caskets. 
“His work, characterized by the use of natural light and perfection of pose and detail, clearly
shows the influence of the Munich painting school,” said a 1981 article in Antiques Weekly.
His later work was influenced by Frederic Remington and Frederick Dielman, noted American artists who lived in Ridgefield and were friends of Hartmann. 
“His photographs … are marked by richness and depth of tone, marvelous resolution and perfection of composition,” the article said. 
In 1898, Hartmann married Amalie L. Diedrich (1867-1943), who had been working as a German teacher for the children of the Rufus King family on King Lane. They had three children,
including Elsa Hartmann, who became a longtime teacher at Ridgefield High School.
Hartmann was a longtime member of the choir of St. Stephen’s Church. 
Hartmann, who lived  on Catoonah Street just west of the post office, retired in 1938 due to
declining health, and died in 1942.
For many years after his death, his glass negatives sat in boxes in an unheated barn next to the Hartmann homestead on Catoonah Street, two doors west of the post office (next to the Cumming house that’s about to be torn down). 
In 1950, daughter Elsa donated the collection to The Ridgefield Press, hoping that they would
be cared for and that their images would be published in the newspaper.
“I personally carried the boxes of plates out of the barn cellar and took them by car, first to a garage at my house, then to The Press office,” recalled Press publisher Karl S. Nash in 1990. He did
not point out that the boxes were exceedingly heavy since they were packed tightly with big, glass plates.
For more than a decade, the boxes of negatives remained stored in the newsroom of The Press. Many were turned into prints that appeared in The Ridgefield Press, especially in the long-running
“Old Ridgefield” series that attempted to get many identified. The Press was assisted by The Hartmann Society, formed in the early 1980s by Barbara Wardenburg and others to both preserve and identify the pictures.
The Press in 1990 donated the collection to the Keeler Tavern Museum, which with the help of
the Hartmann Society and others, set about not only getting modern negatives and prints made from each plate, but also figuring out the people and places depicted. Committees of oldtimers worked for years to identify as many pictures as possible.
The museum still holds the collection today.
Many of Hartmann’s pictures were used in the 1999 book, “Images of America: Ridgefield,” produced by the Ridgefield Archives Committee, a sort of successor of the Hartmann Society that has melded into the Ridgefield Historical Society. The book is still in print today.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Kay Young Eason: 
Actress Who Missed the Battle
Kathleen Young Eason, an actress who was a friend of some of England’s greatest theatrical figures, was better known locally as a pillar of her church and garden club. A longtime Ridgefielder,  Eason acted on the British stage, a half dozen movies and later became a costume designer for RKO in Hollywood. She had been married to actors Michael Wilding, Douglass Montgomery, and Myles Eason.
A native of England who was born in 1912, Kay Young began her theatrical career as a student at the Guildhall School of Music where she had hopes of becoming an opera singer. “I was a lyric soprano, but I was very tall and decided I couldn’t be a great, fat opera singer,” she said in an interview in 1989, adding that she was five feet, ten inches tall when she was 13.
While still a student, she auditioned for a part in an opera being produced by Australian actor Cyril Ritchard, who was to later live in Ridgefield and be a major catalyst in her life. She did not win the part — “Cyril looked at me and said, ‘You’d be much too tall, taller than me!’ ” — but was picked as an understudy for a major role.
She then turned to acting and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Her first break was a part in a Beatrice Lillie revue which, despite receiving poor notices, had a long run because of its star.
She was in various productions during the 1930s and early 1940s, performing with such stars as David Niven, Stewart Granger, Jill Esmond, and Sir Laurence Olivier.
In the late 30s, she met Michael Wilding at an audition, and the two were married in 1939. They later divorced, and he married actress Elizabeth Taylor.
It was in the 1930s that Kay Young met Olivier, then a young stage actor, and the two became longtime friends. “I knew Larry through the theater and was in one flop with him,” she said. “He had even then a commanding presence and remarkable voice. And he had a devastating sense of humor.”
When he was making “Henry V,” Olivier invited many of his friends to a 12th Century abbey he and his wife, Vivien Leigh, owned in the country. Only after they had arrived and settled in did he
tell his friends he wanted them to perform in what was to be the famous Battle of Agincourt scene that would be shot there.
“We sat on those bloody great horses which we mounted in the stable and the horses were to back out. Mine wouldn’t back and when Larry say, ‘Where's Kay?’ I said, ‘I'm here in the stable.’ He gave my horse a tremendous whack, it shot out of the stable, and I fell off. Then my horse wouldn’t move. So I was never in the Battle of Agincourt.”
Kay Young did appear in a number of British movies, including Noel Coward’s Academy Award-winning film about World War II, “In Which We Serve.” 
During World War II, she entertained the troops in North Africa, sharing a tent with Vivien Leigh. “We traveled as soldiers, and many an hour I spent under tanks and trucks and I was scared.”
In 1944, she was sitting in front of a fireplace in a London apartment building when it was hit by a German V-2 rocket. “The building collapsed,” she recalled. “All the windows were blown out and I was drawn halfway up the chimney. My arms were burned…”
The same year, she began studying at the London School of  Fashion Design, and started designing for movies. Her work for films brought her to RKO in Hollywood in 1950.
In 1953, a year after her divorce from Wilding, she married actor Douglass Montgomery, whom she had met in London at the end of the war.  Montgomery had become a Hollywood star, but also did   television plays in New York City. She appeared in at least one film, “Woman to Woman,” with him.
She eventually became a successful interior decorator, living in New York. She and her husband decided to move to New England and in 1965, moved to a home on Golf Lane. A year later Montgomery died.
In 1968, she was at a party at the Ridgefield home of Cyril Ritchard (perhaps best known for his portrayal of Captain Hook in the famous 1954 TV production of Peter Pan). There she was introduced to another actor from Australia, Myles Eason, who had met her many years earlier at the Chelsea Arts Ball in London.
“Who is that girl?” Mr. Eason had asked Laurence Olivier at the ball. “I’m going to marry her some day.”
And six months after they were reunited in Ridgefield, the two were married. 
In Ridgefield, Mrs. Eason was active in St. Stephen’s Church. She was a frequent lector and for a long while, was head of the lectors. She also worked each year at the Nutmeg Festival, the church’s fair. Both she and Myles were gardeners; she was a member of the Ridgefield Garden Club and he was an honorary member. For many years, she maintained the plantings in the watering trough triangle at the intersection of West and Olmstead Lanes.

Kay Eason died in 1994 at the age of 81. Myles Eason died in 1977.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Albert Tramer: 
The Last Outpost
From the 1920s until 1962, one of the most popular — and most beautiful — places to dine or spend a weekend in southwestern Connecticut was the Outpost Inn on Danbury Road. Guests seeking an escape in the country included Marilyn Monroe and her then husband, playwright Arthur Miller; Walt Disney and his family; and Broadway star Ethel Merman.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt drove herself over to have lunch there one day.
The Outpost Inn began life in 1928 when Col. Louis D. Conley, who owned nearly 2,000 acres of northeastern Ridgefield and nearby Danbury as part of his Outpost Nurseries, decided to create a
country inn on a piece of his property along Danbury Road just north of the village.
The main inn building was a house built in 1816 by Albin Jennings, a popular Ridgefield carpenter in the early 19th Century. Jennings had waited four years to gain permission from the parents of Polly Dauchy to marry his sweetheart, and once the parents acquiesced, he built this house
for his new bride. It had a number of features that demonstrated his skill as a fine builder, including a spiral staircase near the front entrance.
Over the years, the inn had had several managers or owners. The last owner was Albert Tramer, a Swiss-born and -trained chef who had held positions in some of New York City’s top restaurants, and his wife, Gloria, who helped run the inn.
Born in 1905, Albert D. Tramer came to the United States in 1924. By the late 1930s, he
owned and operated La Petite Swiss, The Swiss Chalet, and the Tramer Restaurant in the city, taking time out during World War II to serve as a Navy chief petty officer in the South Pacific.
In 1953, the Tramers bought what was then called the Hearthstone Outpost Inn. They lived on the inn grounds with their three daughters; he commuted between Outpost and his New York restaurants for a couple of years before deciding to devote his full time to the Ridgefield operation.
Outpost attracted not only celebrities, but local organizations, such as Rotary and the Jaycees,
who would meet there — Rotary was so pleased with the accommodations the Tramers provided that the club gave them a silver bowl in appreciation. Major magazines used its elegant setting and gardens for photo shoots. And townspeople enjoyed not only the food, but Outpost Pond.
“The pond along Route 35 was always open to the townspeople for ice skating during the
winter and was hugely popular,” said Tramer’s daughter, Diane Wilush. “Often Albert would serve hot chocolate to the skaters.”
In 1962, Tramer sold the place to Carl Shapley, son of Harvard astronomer Harlow Shapley
and brother of Nobel economist Lloyd Shapley. Carl operated The Shapley School, a prep school, which soon got into financial troubles and closed in 1967.
Soon after, David Paul — who was building Casagmo at the time — bought the property at a
public auction, and developed Fox Hill, the town’s first condominiums. Plans were to turn the main inn building into a community center, but the building caught fire in 1968 and was eventually razed.
Tramer worked for a while as director of the restaurant at The Westport Inn. He retired and moved to Florida in 1973 where he died in 1994 at the age of 88. Gloria Tramer died 10 years later.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Henry Leir: 
Visionary Philanthropist
A captain of industry whose writing was once likened to Jules Verne’s, Henry Leir is remembered today as a philanthropist who gave away millions in his lifetime and whose foundations still donate large sums to universities, hospitals and other organizations around the world. He and his wife established a retreat house at their Ridgefield estate that annually sponsors and hosts conferences on humanitarian, scientific and health-related subjects.
Born Heinrich Hans Leipziger in 1900 in Prussia, Leir was one of seven children. His father died when he was 11, forcing him to help support the family at an early age. When he was still a teenager, he began working for a German steel company and eventually rose to leadership positions in Magnesit, a German manufacturer of heat-resistant materials.
However, in 1933, as Hitler was becoming chancellor, he and his wife, Erna, fled Germany and settled in the tiny duchy of Luxembourg, where he established his first company. He was always grateful to Luxembourg because the primarily Catholic nation had welcomed the two Jewish refugees.  After world War II, he contributed millions to the rebuilding of the country and its economy.
While in Luxembourg, Leir wrote a utopian science fiction novel, “La Grande Compagnie de Colonisation,” which promoted world peace. The book described a global corporation that sponsored development, training and research to improve international economy and raise standards of living throughout the world. The novel envisioned many things that later became fact: the United Nations, the European Union, the defeat of Nazism, a tunnel under the English Channel, turning deserts into fields in undeveloped countries, and the growth of China, for instance. While the book sold few copies at the time, it was still being studied in the 1990s for its ideas. 
The book was Leir’s only effort at writing. “I had my disappointment with this book and I did not write any more,” he said in a 1996 Ridgefield Press interview.
War was breaking out in Europe in 1938, and the Leirs decided to move to the the United States where he adopted the new name, Henry Leir, and founded Continental Ore Corporation. The company became a major international trader in ores, minerals, alloy, and carbon products, and had offices in Luxembourg, London, Paris, Tokyo, Mexico City and Dusseldorf. 
In 1962, Leir completed a deal that was considered both visionary and huge: A $250-million ($2 billion in 2016 dollars) contract to sell pig iron to Japanese steel manufacturers. He had convinced the Japanese it was in their best interests to use their resources for finishing steel rather than producing pig iron. This would free up resources and eventually help launch the rapid expansion of the Japanese steel industry and fuel the production boom of Japanese goods, especially cars. 
Also in 1962, Leir fought Union Carbide Corporation over its monopoly of the vanadium market in the United States. His antitrust suit resulted in an 8-0 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in his favor. (Leir was represented before the court by Joseph Alioto, a lawyer who became mayor of San Francisco from 1968 to 1976, a period of considerable turmoil.)
Leir sold Continental Ore in 1966 for $40 million in stock ($300-million in 2016), but continued being active in the industry until his death, serving as chairman of S.A. des Minerals, the largest trading firm in Luxembourg — which he had founded more than 60 years earlier. At the age of 98, he would still work at his office in New York City.
In the 1930s, Leir had become close to the leadership of Luxembourg and when he moved to the States, he helped create close relations between the royal court of Luxembourg and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose mother, Sara Delano, traced her ancestry to Luxembourg. In the years after the war, Leir attracted several major American corporations to Luxembourg, including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Goodyear, DuPont, and Monsanto.
After he sold Continental Ore, Leir focused much of his energy on philanthropy, especially on helping hospitals, universities and underprivileged children here and abroad.  To do this he and his wife set up three foundations — The Henry J. and Erna D. Leir Foundation, Inc. of Luxembourg, The Ridgefield Foundation, Inc. and The Leir Foundation, Inc.
“The wealth of the Leirs has been devoted primarily to those charitable purposes having the widest benefit to humankind,” says the New Jersey Institute of Technology, a major recipient of Leir grants. “Following their precedent, Leir chairs have been endowed at universities and hospitals in medical research. The chairs were created for humanitarian studies on relief of poverty, famine, conflict resolution, and international trade and development, along with a chair in foreign languages and cultures.” 
They endowed chairs at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, the Weizmann Institute in Israel and Hebrew University of Jerusalem as well as the Luxembourg program at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.  
 Two of the Leirs’ largest local grants were $500,000 to the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum and $1-million to Ability Beyond, both in 1996 (he had visited Ability Beyond, then called Ability Beyond Disability, at the age of 96 and was impressed with the work it did for the disabled).  
 Around 1952 he and Erna bought a 33-acre estate on Branchville Road that he would later
leave to one of the charitable foundations. Leir was 97 years old when he oversaw the planning and construction of Leir House at the estate, now formally called the Leir Retreat Center. The facility has sponsored or hosted conferences on such subjects as substance abuse, Lyme disease, human rights, assessment and treatment of suicide risk, human-animal interaction,  mental health, training of police detectives, dementia, child abuse, and geriatric orthopedics.
Over the years Henry Leir received many honors around the world. And despite being self-educated, he wound up with four honorary doctorates, including one from Tufts University.
Erna Leir died in 1996 and Henry, two years later at the age of 98.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Jim Lowe: 
The Green Door
Ridgefield once had a Green Doors motel. It also had the man who sang the number-one hit song, “The Green Door.”
That, however, was the only connection between the motel and the song.
Jim Lowe, who sang the “The Green Door,” and was a longtime New York City disk jockey, died Monday, Dec. 12, 2016, at his home in East Hampton, N.Y. He was 93 years old.
A radio personality for more than a half century, Lowe had lived at Twin Ridge in the 1970s
while he was an afternoon disc jockey on WNBC in New York.
Though he sang “The Green Door,” which became a number-one hit in 1956, he admitted in a 1971 Ridgefield Press interview, "I knew I couldn't really sing." So after his brief but successful flirtation with recording, he returned to being a disc jockey, a career he'd begun in 1948 when he graduated from the University of Missouri.
Over the years Lowe worked as a DJ on such radio stations as WCBS, WNBC and, for more than 20 years, on WNEW. Probably his most popular show was “Jim Lowe and Friends,” which lasted until 2004, although he spent many years in the 1960s hosting the popular overnight program, “Milkman’s Matinee,” on WNEW. 
Nicknamed “Mr. Broadway,” he was considered an expert on American popular music of the 20th century, especially the 1940s and 50s.
He was also a composer and wrote  “The Gambler's Guitar,” a 1955 hit sung by Rusty Draper, and “Close the Doors They're Coming in the Windows,” a million-seller country hit. 
He appeared in many commercials during the 1970s and 80s.
A native of Springfield, Mo., Lowe was born on May 7, 1923, the son of a surgeon. He served in the U.S. Army during World War II.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Dr. Newton Shaffer:
Helping the Crippled
On Sept. 2, 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt was visiting Pittsfield, Mass. While traveling through the town, his horse-drawn carriage was struck by a speeding trolley. Roosevelt’s carriage was thrown 40 feet and his Secret Service agent was “ground under the heavy machinery of the car into an unrecognizable mass” — the first Secret Service agent ever to die in the line of duty.
The president was hurled to the ground. The impact broke a bone in his leg and lead to an infection that took more than two months to heal. The injury occasionally flared up during the rest of his life.
The president’s condition that autumn worried Dr. Newton Shaffer, a longtime friend of the Roosevelt family. Shaffer was also one of the country’s first orthopedic surgeons and probably the top man in the field in the late 19th Century.
On Oct. 2, he wrote Roosevelt at the White House:
My dear Mr. President
The time is coming — I hope it may be soon — when [Surgeon General] Dr. [Presley Marion] Rixey will permit you to go out. 
When that time comes, the stairs must be considered, and I have sent you a special chair, made by Sargeant of New York, which will permit you easy transportation up and down stairs. 
It looks quite complicated in its folded condition, but your man will easily unravel the mystery, and as the arms can be placed at any angle, your easy transportation with two steady pairs of hands is assured.
Please accept it with my kind regards and best wishes.”
The president was grateful for the gift, especially from Dr. Shaffer. After all, the president’s father had championed Shaffer 30 years earlier as a pioneer in the field of orthopedic surgery and the president had recently backed the creation of Shaffer’s innovative hospital for crippled children.
The son of a minister, Newton Melman Shaffer was born in Kinderhook, N.Y., in 1846, grew up in the Hudson River Valley and received his medical degree from New York University in 1867. He began his career at the Hospital for the Ruptured and Crippled and started specializing in orthopedic surgery. 
His work there caught the attention of Theodore Roosevelt Sr., father of the future president and a prominent businessman and philanthropist. Known as “Thee,” he had been a founder of the  Orthopaedic Dispensary and Hospital (now part of Columbia University Medical Center). In 1871 he convinced Shaffer to become a surgeon at the hospital and then take over management of it. 
A few years later, Roosevelt Sr. persuaded Shaffer to also serve as the first orthopedic surgeon at St. Luke’s Hospital in New York City. There, he “attained worldwide eminence as a leader in that
important department of science,” said Willis Fletcher Johnson’s 1903 history of New York University.
In the 1880s and 90s, he was also professor of orthopedic surgery at NYU and then joined Cornell Medical School. He was instrumental in founding the American Orthopaedic Association.
Shaffer’s specialty was children, particularly those whose bones had been ravaged by the effects of tuberculosis. “He long contended and has practically demonstrated that many of the cutting operations commonly performed for the relief of the deformed are unnecessary,” Johnson said. 
In 1898, Shaffer had delivered a widely publicized paper on “The Care of Crippled and Deformed Children” in which he described “the large number of these unfortunates who were being only half cared for by the existing medical institutions” of the State of New York, the New England Journal of Medicine reported.
Two years later, with support from the state, Shaffer founded the New York State Hospital for Crippled and Deformed Children, refashioning an estate overlooking the Hudson River. The bill providing funding for the hospital was signed by New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt.
The institution has become today’s Helen Hayes Hospital, the nation’s first free-standing, state-operated hospital dedicated to the treatment of people with physical disabilities. Occupying a 105-acre campus in West Haverstraw, the 155-bed hospital was renamed in 1974 to honor actress Helen Hayes, who spent 49 years on its board of directors and was “a tireless advocate” for the facility.
Around the turn of the 20th Century, Shaffer decided to build a country place in Ridgefield off
the east side of Wilton Road West, a ridge where the British encamped after the Battle of Ridgefield in 1777. The farmland overlooked Long Island Sound where British ships awaited the troops. Fires from the ridge signaled the ships that the soldiers would arrive in Norwalk the next day. Shaffer knew this and called his estate “Beacon Hill Cottage.” The house still stands today, but some of the features including expansive porches and five of the six chimneys were removed by later owners. Much of the estate land is now part of the Soundview Road development.

Over his career, Shaffer also invented many instruments and mechanical devices for use in orthopedic surgery. He continued to oversee his children’s hospital, do research, and write books and papers until his death in 1928 at the age of 82.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Dr. Peter Yanity: 
Making Things Happen
Few people have been more involved in Ridgefield’s public life than Dr. Peter Yanity, who was a community leader for a half century. Today, the gym at the old high school — used both for  athletics and as a voting place — recalls his name and symbolizes his immense involvement in youth sports and local government. 
“We named Yanity Gym after him because of all the efforts and work that heʼs done with kids over the years,” said Parks and Recreation Director Paul Roche. “Pop Warner, Boys & Girls Club, Parks and Recreation, baseball, basketball. He really had the kids in mind throughout his whole life, and really was committed to making things happen for them.”
Peter Vincent Yanity was born in 1927 in Homer City, Pa., and grew up there and in Athens, Ohio. He entered Ohio University, but — still a teenager — dropped out in 1945 to join the Army Air Corps. He hoped to become a pilot, but the training program was full and the war was winding down. So instead, he volunteered to go overseas with the Manhattan Project, to work with the atomic bomb testing on Bikini Atoll. However, his athletic skills won him a different assignment: traveling throughout the Pacific Islands and Japan, playing baseball and football on Army teams.
“He was an outfielder and a pretty good hitter,” said daughter Kathleen Yanity Duffy. “In football he was a lineman.” 
Yanity was good enough that he was invited by the Cleveland Indians to try out for their farm team, but he opted instead for an education, returning to Ohio University, where he played varsity baseball and graduated in 1949.
While at Georgetown School of Dentistry, he met Elizabeth Scileppi from Long Island, a recent graduate of Trinity College in Washington. They were married 10 days after he finished dental school. After a year of his working for the U.S. Public Health Service, they came to Ridgefield in 1955, living at first on New Street. 
Richard E. Venus was one of five milk dealers in town back then.
“We followed the moving vans so that we could be first to their door to get their business,” said Venus recalled. “Little did I know he would turn out to be such a great milk customer.” Beth and Peter Yanity were to have seven children.
In 1960, Yanity moved to a Main Street house just north of Gilbert Street and set up his practice there. “He was a hard worker,” Ms. Duffy said. “Heʼd get in there at 8 in the morning and usually finish at 6. He worked half days on Saturdays for many years.”
There he and Beth raised their six girls and one boy. “He was strong and opinionated and preached that we all do the right thing, but he was also very kind and gentle,” Duffy said. “He was a sweet, gentle guy.
“He was probably the perfect father to be raising women in the 60s and 70s, when there was all the societal tumult and the roles of women were changing. Where some people from his generation might have resisted some of the opportunities that were opening up for women, he just always encouraged us to pursue careers.”
From his first years in town until his last, Yanity participated in countless community programs, an involvement his obituary called “legendary.”
He served 18 years on the Board of Selectmen, followed by 16 years on the Parks and Recreation Commission — 10 as its chairman. 
He was a past president of the Lions Club, a director and past president of the Boys and Girls Club, a director of the Chamber of Commerce, an incorporator and past president of the Community Center, and a pillar of the Republican Party. He belonged to the Friends of the Library, Keeler Tavern, and the Italian-American Mutual Aid Society — his grandfather came from a little town near Salerno, Italy. 
He was also an active member of St. Maryʼs Church for 53 years, serving on its parish council and many committees. He and Beth received the 1993 Fairfield Foundation Award for volunteerism to church and community, presented by Bishop Edward M. Egan on behalf of the Diocese of Bridgeport.
He received many other honors, including the Old Timers Club Civic Award in 1998 — Beth was so honored previously. He and Beth were also the only husband and wife ever independently named Rotary Citizen of the Year — he in 1988, she in 2000. He was the Chamber of Commerce’s Volunteer of the Year in 2006.
“He always instilled in us a great sense of civic responsibility and community service,” daughter Kathleen said. “You gave back to your community because it offered us a great place to live, and the only way a community was successful was when its citizens were engaged and involved — not just in the political arena but in serving the town.”
Of all his many interests, sports may have been closest to his heart.
In the late 1950s, Yanity was a founder of the Pop Warner Football program — the first one in Connecticut — which he then coached many years. He was also Connecticut’s representative to the national Pop Warner organization.
“I grew up with Doc Yanity as my coach,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi. The Ridgefield team on which Marconi played under Yanity was so good, it went to Florida in 1958 to play in the Orange Bowl.
Decades later, Yanity and Marconi would serve together on the Board of Selectmen.
For many years he was an alumni recruiter for Ohio University, attending high school games throughout the state to look for talent. Legendary North Carolina Coach Dean Smith was interested in a couple of players that Yanity landed for Ohio University over the years, and Yanity long suspected that this had led Coach Smithʼs lobbying for an NCAA rule change excluding alumni recruiters.
While his allegiance was to Ohio University, Yanity was also focused on helping young players in general. “If he found a kid who maybe wasnʼt, talent-wise, able to play Division I basketball, he had friends from his high school days or Ohio contacts who were coaches at other schools,”  Kathleen Duffy said. “There are several Connecticut schoolboy players who went out on full
scholarships to Ohio colleges. I think he was quite proud of the fact that there were kids who maybe never thought about going to college and were able to go to college on full scholarship.”
Yanity was also an accomplished golfer and a founding member of the Salem Golf Club in North Salem, N.Y.
He retired from his dental practice in 2005 and from service in town government a year later, but continued to be active in the Chamber of Commerce, the Boys and Girls Club (he was a member of its board for more than 40 years), and the Lions Club.
He died in 2008 at the age of 81. 
If there was one activity Yanity may have loved as much as sports, it was dancing. 
Longtime friend Maureen Kiernan, former town treasurer, said some of her fondest memories of Peter Yanity were of watching him dance with Beth.
“They were such a great couple,” she said. “I loved to see them dance. Oh, Lord, did they love to dance together — never got off the dance floor,” she said.

“He was just such a dear man,” she added. “He was such a gentleman in everything he did.” 

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