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The Good Old Days in Darien -- An era of plenty for literary arts

Published 1:02 am, Thursday, April 15, 2010
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This is National Library Week (April 11 to 17), calling to mind a decade, the frenzied `50s, that was literally one for the books in Darien.

Although supporting documentation is lacking, it's a safe bet that at least three Darien residents were instrumental in establishing this week of national appreciation for public library service way back in 1958.

Who would have recognized the values of libraries more quickly and more completely than Harold McGraw, Jr., of the book publishing firm (McGraw-Hill) that bore his family's name; John Oldrin, president of the Darien Library and Elinor Hughes, local librarian?

All three had played key roles also in the development of the Darien Library from a Post Road storefront near Mansfield Avenue to a converted house on Leroy Avenue and then to a home of its own, also on Leroy, and eventually to the magnificent new building on the corner of Hecker Avenue and the Post Road, once the site of the Palumbo brothers' Twin Terrace Restaurant and then a gas station.

Along the way, leaders like that trio developed a unique private/public sponsorship and cost-sharing operation that has been copied since by libraries in many other communities. More than just a repository for books, the library also had become a prime resource for scholarly research and a center for films, lectures and records.

The Darien atmosphere always was conducive to a literary center of this eminence. Many residents were professional writers and artists and, of course, the per capita circulation of library books here always has been ranked among the highest in Connecticut communities.

It was a time when Darien was still nursing its image, badly bruised as it was by Laura Hobson's 1949 book, "Gentlemen's Agreement," which accused Darien of rampant anti-Semitism and racism. She may have had a point. There were few, if any, Jewish families in town then and all through the decade there was only one black kid, Scipio Tucker, on the high school sports teams. Nevertheless, it hurt and the pain was experienced anew when the book was made into a movie starring June Havoc, who died just last month in Stamford at the age of 97.

Another book translated neatly into a hit Broadway musical. The title was "Seven and a Half Cents" and it was written by Richard Bissell, who lived in Rowayton but commuted daily out of the Darien train station. The musical, "Pajama Game," starred a long-legged, red-headed dancer named Gwen Verdon, who was a regular visitor in Darien during the fifties when her son was enrolled in Cherry Lawn School (now a town park) on Brookside Road.

Perhaps the most prolific of all our authors was Louise Hall Tharp, a historical biographer who wrote 17 books. In recognition of her work, she was awarded and honorary doctorate by Northeastern University.

Mrs. Tharp was a long-time resident of Darien and her first book was "Tory Hole," a story about British troops who took refuge in a cave in Tokeneke during the American Revolution. She wrote the story, historical fiction, for her sons and the book turned out to be a hit with young history students everywhere.

Mrs. Tharp's son, Marshall Tharp, reminded us recently that she had earmarked all royalties from that book, still being sold, for the Darien Community Association in which she had been very active. Marshall Tharp, who lived here from 1932 to 1992, now divides his time between Maine and Florida.

Among our prominent writers also was Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of Charles A., the famous aviator. The Lindberghs lived on Contentment Island and their children went to local schools. One son, Land, was student manager of the track team at Darien High.

Mrs. Milton Glick also was a prolific novelist and she was a key figure in establishing the "sister town" relationship between Darien and Mercara, India, a place she had visited and written about. In that friendship exchange, the children of Mercara once sent a baby elephant, "Shakuntala," as a gift to the children of Darien. "Shakuntala" was housed at Old MacDonald's Farm, a petting zoo and restaurant Mark Isselee ran on the Post Road during the fifties, until she outgrew her quarters and was shipped to the Beardsley Park Zoo in Bridgeport.

Most controversial of all probably was Erskine Caldwell, billed as a master of "rural ribaldry." Among this books were "God's Little Acre" and "Tobacco Road," chock-full of passages that at the time were regarded as salacious enough to make censors break out in a cold sweat.

He and his wife, Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White, lived on Point O' Woods Road and she collaborated with him on four of his books.

Our town in those days also had a wealth of cartoonists who illustrated books. In his daily comic strip, Walt Kelly introduced "Pogo," the curious little opossum. It was that swamp critter who coined a phrase that is still a pertinent part of the American lexicon: "We have met the enemy and he is us."

Mischa Richter, whose studio was in the old Review building at the corner of West Avenue and the Post Road, did weekly cartoons for New Yorker magazine and George Shellhase, working at his home in Noroton Heights, did watercolors of almost everything, usually for nationally circulated commercial advertisements.

Perhaps the most widely read Darienite was Dr. Stanley High, a leader in the Noroton Presbyterian Church. Dr. High was roving editor of the Readers' Digest, then probably the most widely circulated magazine in the world, and his reports were datelined in cities all over the globe.

Long before Woodward and Bernstein shed some light on the Nixonian Watergate machinations, Darien's Allen Keller was a highly regarded investigative reporter for the New York World-Telegram and Sun, now defunct. He also wrote a couple of novels. Incidentally, Dick Sylvia, who was an assistant chief in the Noroton Fire Department back then, was a copy editor on the World-Telegram.

Noteworthy, too, was the work of Else Bostelmann, a frail little old German lady, whose botanical illustrations and accompanying Bible-related text proved popular in several newspapers, including the Review.

And local sports fans will remember Coles Phinizy of Tokeneke, not only for his unusual name but for the fact that he wrote a feature article in the very first issue of Sports Illustrated in 1954. He wrote about "spelunking," the adventurous exploration of caves and although the topic was not particularly germane locally, the appearance of a local writer's byline prompted readers here to subscribe.

Prominent in the magazine world also was Andrew Heiskell, publisher of Life. He lived here with his wife, actress Madeleine Carroll.

Obviously, the written word was held in high regard in Darien during the 1950s. Perhaps that's what led Mrs. Gordon (Betty) Lamont to launch the Darien Book Aid Plan, an organization that is still shipping American magazines and books to countries all over the world in an effort to inform them about the way of life in the United States. It began as a sort of "Voice of America" in print during the tense days of the Soviet Union's Iron Curtain.

It might also have encouraged entrepreneurs to open two book stores in town, though there were fewer than 12,000 people here in the decade of the fifties. One, "Burch Books," was established by Gladys Burch in the former Review building, a big white wooden structure at the corner of West Avenue and the Post Road. The other, "The Book Shelf," was opened by Elizabeth Ziegler Lucas in what is now the Goodwives Shopping Center (named for the river than runs through it) off Old Kings Highway North.

Ed Chrostowski was editor of The Darien Review during the fifties. He can be reached at skicrow@att.net.