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Confronting the good and the bad of Connecticut's complicated identity

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Good and Bad Final 3

Many autumns ago, residents of Chester gathered at the old Meeting House to resume what once had been a yearly ritual. By then I was in the midst of my 30-year residency in that little Connecticut River town. So I looked forward to the screening of the movie It Happened to Jane, filmed there in the summer of 1958. 

Odd, I thought, how this star turn for Doris Day and Jack Lemmon had become central to Chester’s identity. In one sense, it was easy to see why. As the audience watched, I heard sighs and gasps of recognition. Several middle-aged town natives were seeing themselves on screen, as children; they had been cast by director Richard Quine as extras.

The audience once again embraced the central love story featuring the owner of a restaurant supply business (Day) and her lawyer (Lemmon), even as her livelihood is threatened by “the meanest man in the world” (Ernie Kovacs). And they chuckled at the comic relief.

In a scene filmed in the very building in which we sat, the mayor fielded complaints at a town meeting about his alleged abuse of power. That is, the parking meter in front of Hizzoner’s general store was the only meter in town that was perpetually broken; hence, his customers could park there for free, a clear example to the voting public of two-bit corruption.

The screening that day had been introduced by the actor Max Showalter, who had come to Chester to play a lawyer in the movie and enjoyed his stay so much he returned later to buy a house on Gilbert Hill Road. There, he lived out the rest of his life, even as he commuted to play Grandpa Fred in 16 Candles, and a traveling salesman in the film version of The Music Man.

I had a good time at the Meeting House watching that day, but I couldn’t get out of my head Hollywood’s manipulations. In the film, Chester isn’t portrayed as Chester. It is instead a stand-in for Cape Ann, a small town in Maine. This act of poetic license is also a manifestation of the ghostly identity of our state, at least in terms of how people around the country think of it.

That ghostly sense is part of what drove me, over many decades as an editor, columnist and author, to fill in what is missing from the common perception. In a sense, Chester was a perfect place from which to do this. Even its semi-official town slogan spoke to the problem. Thus, drivers across our state still see bumper stickers that carry it: “Chester, CT: We Know Where It Is.”

Chester, though, has much to recommend it. Its cozy downtown was never upended by federal urban renewal money, so it looks much the same architecturally as it did long ago. All businesses are locally owned, and no chain doughnut shop has ever opened.

It has been home to such accomplished citizens as Constance Baker Motley, a pioneering lawyer and judge in the civil rights struggle; the visual artists Richard Ziemann and Sol LeWitt, whose work appears in far-flung parts of the globe; the founding director of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, Ted Chapin; longtime 60 Minutes correspondent Morley Safer; food gurus Priscilla Martel and Charles Van Over, and the graphic design firm Cummings & Good. (Peter Good created the still-in-vogue Hartford Whalers logo.)

And yet, in a sense, Chester became for me a symbol of all 169 towns in our state. There is much hidden from view, much that shouldn’t be hidden, and much that, understandably, like the small-town mayor who refuses to fix his parking meter, remained necessary to uncover.

Here is the pertinent question for me, at the time still a working journalist: Could one be both a booster of our state and still give proper attention to its malevolence? That is, the dark sides represented in many of the columns I wrote for this very magazine, or The New York Times and the Hartford Courant, and that is represented in later work, in my books.

The corruption of Joe Ganim and John Rowland; the deadly home invasion in Cheshire; the pits of poverty and hopelessness perpetuated in cities in which racism remains rampant, and where mothers fear a knock on the door and the delivery of soul-killing news about their sons. This is Connecticut much more than the excesses along the Gold Coast. And yet if our state has any national identity, it is just that. Ah, Greenwich and Westport, isn’t that where captains of industry drive their Lamborghinis? It’s surely where hotel magnate Leona Helmsley declared, “Only the little people pay taxes.” It’s where public beaches were off limits to many who naively believed Long Island Sound is not owned by the rich.

But there is so much more to this state, so much complexity, inspirational triumph, comfort and reassurance. If Bethel’s P.T. Barnum turned “a sucker born every minute” into enormous personal gain, we also witnessed innovations meant to benefit society. Innovators became iconic names: Eli Whitney, Charles Goodyear, Samuel Colt and H. Joseph Gerber, “the Thomas Edison of manufacturing.”

It’s true that when I first came to live here in 1981 from anything-goes Miami, I misunderstood the society in which these accomplishments occurred. I had not studied the Connecticut statute that covers “Protocols for Newcomers Who Yearn to be Accepted by Native Residents.” As a result, back then I made the error of shouting out “Good morning” to my next-door neighbor in West Hartford as she emerged from her front door. She was so affrighted by this assault on her personal space that she ran to her car and sped off in a huff.

Yet even that element faded away, as has, in so many cases, that facade of New England coldness. I have seen it over and over in the kindnesses and generosity that demonstrate the very best of the human possibilities.

Out of adversity, miraculous enterprises were born here. Save the Children of Fairfield was one. Another: lawyer Martha Stone’s Hartford-based Center for Children’s Advocacy, representing our most vulnerable population. And Jackie McLean (the late world-renowned alto sax king) and his wife Dollie, opening the Artists Collective of Hartford in 1972, giving thousands of children pride in their African American heritage and the tools and confidence to succeed.

Yet even then, as it always seems, there is a dark side to success. One of the longtime and treasured teachers at the Collective, Jimmy Greene, a saxophone protégé of Jackie McLean, moved to Newtown with his wife, the flautist Nelba Marquez. On that horrific day in 2012, their 6-year-old girl, Ana Grace, was one of the 20 first-graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School killed by a madman with an assault rifle.

So, to answer the question. Can a writer be both an unabashed admirer of a place and at the same time shed light on its most unspeakable acts?

In this regard, I yearned to follow in footsteps of other writers around the land who believed showing the good and the bad in defining the sense of place is an act of devotion. I am channeling Wally Lamb, whose grittier portraits show, through novels such as This Much I Know Is True, the heartbreak and struggle for better life in the eastern half of the state, much less known to those who think of Connecticut in stereotypical fashion.

But also local activists and experts such as the historian William Hosley, who has long argued, alongside the Connecticut Humanities Council, that there is so much about our state that is overlooked, and that can enrich our quality of life.

Indeed, the heritage of Connecticut, what is known and what remains a mystery, has always spoken to me from the day long ago I visited, along with longtime state archaeologist Nick Bellantoni, a dig in Westbrook where evidence was unearthed of a Native American village thought to date back thousands of years.

My own less arduous digging also took me to more recent eras, such as the Gilded Age, articulated by the state’s most famous writer. Like Hollywood itself, Mark Twain had the power to distract with poetic license. Samuel Clemens had a way with words. He noted that the president’s house at Trinity College features “a Queen Anne front and a Queen Anne behind.” And in commenting on the spanking-new (at the time) state Capitol, and the reports of political corruption, “I think I can say, and say with pride, that we have legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.”

Over the last six years or so, my wife, the poet Suzanne Levine, has seen the state through different historical and present-day lenses. We bought the first floor of a three-family house in New Haven built early in the 20th century, and lately turned into a condo.

The decision to do this — move from our idyllic home in the woods of Chester, so private no walls hid the outdoor shower, to city noises and vulnerabilities — has paid dividends. For it is here, in front of our house on Orange Street where the human parade passes each day, and where abundant cultural opportunities offer the chance for residents, no matter their age, to learn and grow. Even so, I remind myself that our house is only a short walk from where the body of Yale senior Suzanne Jovin was found in December 1998. She had been stabbed to death by an assailant. The case remains unsolved, another symbol of the inevitable mix of good and evil in city life.

Over the last few summers, I have taught at Yale’s annual writing workshop. Most often, at the start, a campus police officer points out the safety precautions provided at the school. Even though since 1998, tens of thousands of undergrads, graduate students and postdocs, have, without harm, found wisdom and inspiration on the old campus, there is always the knowledge that one savage incident is possible. Each student decides that an excellent education is worth the risk, which statistically is minuscule but also real.

Back in Chester, over 30 years, I never locked the doors to our house, even during our trips abroad. For one thing, I couldn’t find the key to the lock. For another, if there were two burglaries in town it was labeled a once-in-a-decade crime wave.

A full life inevitably requires risk. Hence, the perpetual sprinkling of the cliché “seize the day.” During it, we may focus on our vexing issues — certainly at my age, and the fact that I store a personal pharmacy in my bathroom, this is always tempting — or we can savor what we have, and have enjoyed, and will yet enjoy, during our years in this great state.

I’ll close with a scene of unfriendly weather in 1992. This was the first summer of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington. (I was one of the founders, along with the first director, the poet Rennie McQuilkin, and the director of the museum at the time, Sarah Lytle.)

During its nearly 30 seasons so far, the festival has drawn the nation’s greatest poets, including Billy Collins, Donald Hall, Joy Harjo, Grace Paley, James Merrill and Natasha Trethewey. But it was that first summer when the magic, literally, became apparent.

The readings were always planned for the garden, where so many people showed up that The New York Times, in reporting on the phenomenon, included these words in its headline: “Poetry Traffic Jams.”

But the weather on that night had turned horrific, and the brave souls who showed up had to squeeze into the old barn. The heat and humidity were oppressive, so the museum staff opened the back door to let air in. The opening was just behind the podium.

Sue Ellen Thompson was the featured poet that night. She did her best to distract the crowd from the storm. But there was one thing she couldn’t control. While reading a poem she’d written about her parents, and just as she recited the line, “I never saw my father naked,” a lightning bolt struck the ground 15 feet behind her.

Some shaken observers considered this an act of God. Perhaps, as if the Almighty was saying, “Connecticut, USA. I Know Where It Is.”


Notable Notes

In 2002, when I began to write a monthly column for this magazine (“Lary Bloom’s Notebook”), I was inspired by the work of Connecticut native Dominick Dunne’s Vanity Fair column. His work tended toward the sensational, and indeed my first piece was about a capital murder case, tried in New London. But in time, my columns sought instead to provide a sense of place for a state that doesn’t get its due as a center of culture, history and ingenuity. 

The pieces I’ve chosen here, which were published between 2005 and 2013, are among my favorites, as they try to define the unique character of Connecticut.

“The Colors of Home” (January 2005)

A city in Italy becomes the center for the display of the influence of Connecticut’s worldwide cultural influence, even if some of these prominent people are largely ignored within the state. This is a who’s who of our state’s great artists, choreographers, musicians and writers, and led, for me, to a 10-year effort to produce a biography of one of them, the conceptual artist Sol LeWitt.

“Of God and Illness” (April 2011)

This column inspired Clare Robert, of Orange and a minister in the United Church of Christ, to write a memoir, published in 2021, titled You Will Be Happy Again, about her son, who contracted brain cancer at the age of 8, and lived for another 16 years as Clare took on medical professionals and questions about God.

“Ladies Underhanded Skillet Toss” (November 2011)

Country fairs help define Connecticut, and one of the most innovative is in Haddam Neck. Each year it hosts the Ladies Underhanded Skillet Toss, which somehow has escaped the notice of ESPN. In this piece, Patrice Nelson, of Chester, defends her title against those intent on pulling off an upset, including the fierce competitor who comes dressed for battle, wearing pearls, high heels and an apron.

“Forty Years Waiting” (August 2006)

Doris Maitland goes to the nation’s capital as part of her journey to discover the ultimate fate of her brother, missing for decades from the Vietnam War. And U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, who promises to meet her there, is a no show.

“Say ‘Ah’: The Interview” (April 2013)

In my final column for the magazine, I sit in on a candidate interview conducted by the dean of admissions of the new Quinnipiac University medical school, and reveal how digital addiction dooms a can’t-miss applicant.

Correction: This article was updated on Sept. 2, 2021, to correct the location where Yale student Suzanne Jovin's body was found in December 1998. It was found at Edgehill and East Rock roads near Edgerton Park in New Haven, not in East Rock Park as originally stated.

Lary Bloom’s books include Sol LeWitt: A Life of Ideas, Letters From Nuremberg (with Senator Chris Dodd), The Test of Our Times (with Tom Ridge), The Writer Within, and Lary Bloom’s Connecticut Notebook. He was the founding editor of the Hartford Courant’s Northeast magazine, and his columns have appeared in The New York Times and Connecticut Magazine. He teaches in the annual Yale Writers’ Workshop, and is a developmental editor for authors.

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