Friday, July 7, 2017

Jane Milliken, Activist for Peace

In October 2013, Oral History Project volunteer, Harriet Feldman, interviewed town resident and fellow volunteer, Jane Milliken, who was no ordinary citizen. While the rest of us were tending our gardens, Ms. Milliken, also a gardener, had for much of her life been involved in something larger, nothing short of world peace.
Jane Milliken, Peace Activist, and more...
On June 27, 2017, when Jane Milliken died, the world lost a fervent protector, and we at the Greenwich Oral History Project lost a valued and loved member.

In her interview Ms. Milliken, who came to Greenwich in 1966 from New York City, notes that the Peace Movement, of which she was to become an active member, evolved in Greenwich soon after the end of WWII. The first organization in the area, according to Ms. Milliken, was the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. Its leaders included Norman Cousins and Joan and James Warburg, prominent literary figures and peace activists in Greenwich at the time.

For Ms. Milliken, though, the galvanizing moment came when she read Jonathan Schell’s book, The Fate of the Earth (1982). For her, the book, “spelled out in dramatic terms that we must disarm completely, get rid of the nuclear bomb, because otherwise the Earth would be annihilated…and I vowed at the end of that book to do whatever I could to stop it.”

As she traces the peace movement in Greenwich, Ms. Milliken comments on other noted Greenwich residents who were involved in the quest to stop nuclear proliferation, among them Barbara Tuchman, author and historian. Ms. Milliken recalls a town meeting she and others called “to gather people who were concerned about the nuclear arms race. We had a full turnout,” she notes, continuing: “and it was there that we decided we would form what became known as the Greenwich Campaign for a Nuclear Freeze Now. Everybody insisted that they put in the word “now.” This organization “reached out to those people who didn’t mind marching on streets,” Ms. Milliken says. The point was education: “You need to educate people on all levels and have demonstrations that attract attention.”

Another organization devoted to the same end but through different tactics was The Greenwich Forum on Nuclear Arms Control. They were also committed to education but through lectures, bringing in renowned speakers.

These two organizations, under different names as time went on, proceeded to educate through perilous times in our nation’s history, working in tandem with other grass root organizations nationwide.

In 2013, though, The Greenwich Forum on War and Peace and Greenwich Peace Action closed, giving a scholarship to a student at Greenwich High School, who was very active in peace issues.

In her 2013 interview, Ms. Milliken fears not having made enough progress, noting that perhaps people don’t think as much about nuclear weapons now. “It’s a quiet period,” she says, adding, “except they do think about them at the U.N. and they do think about them if they’re a part of an institute of peace or an organization devoted to that. I could only say I’m humble. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

It is painfully ironic that Ms. Milliken died just days before North Korea launched an ICBM capable of hitting Australia—or Alaska. Perhaps it is time we all begin to read anew the Jonathan Schell book that first propelled her to devote her life to peace. It may no longer be a quiet period with regard to nuclear weapons, but may Jane Milliken rest in peace knowing she and others like her have left us a worthy blueprint for action.
Jane Milliken and daughter, Cordelia Persen

The Greenwich Oral History Project interview, “The Peace Movement in Greenwich,” October 2, 2013, narrated by Jane Milliken, can be read in the Greenwich Library reference area on the first floor or in the Oral History Project office, located on the library’s lower level.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Chancy D’Elia: A Greenwich Businesswoman Who Persevered

Olivia Luntz, guest blogger 
It is with mixed emotions that we at the Greenwich Oral History Project publish the last blog post by guest blogger, Olivia Luntz, graduating Greenwich High School senior. Throughout this year and last, Olivia has handed in impressive work, for which we are most grateful. While we will miss Olivia, we are happy to wish her well as she continues on to college this fall where she will join the freshman class at Amherst College. We have no doubts that she will prove herself to be an estimable asset in no time. Good luck, Olivia!

In keeping with the celebration of the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce’s 150th anniversary, the Greenwich Oral History Project is, from time to time, focusing on Greenwich businesses. In this post we turn to Chancy D’Elia, who ran the Chancy D’Elia clothing store on Greenwich Avenue, a true landmark, from 1932 until it closed in 2005. D’Elia’s accomplishments are especially impressive when one considers that women were rarely involved in business when she first opened her store, and even though she faced obstacles, she did not give up but rather persevered and was able to become one of the most successful businesswomen in Greenwich. The interview, from our archives, was conducted in 1975, when her store was a booming business.

D’Elia was born in 1911 in Greenwich, after her parents immigrated from Italy several years before. D’Elia attended the Havemeyer School and the high school on Mason Street. After high school she enrolled in secretarial school and then went to work as a secretary at the New England Carpet Cleaning Company. After working there for a few years, D’Elia made a dramatic change in her life. “I was just about twenty-one…and the thought came to me that I would like to start a little business, and then my uncle, A. V. Salvatore, who was a furrier and fine tailoring shop on Greenwich Avenue, had also a little store called Snappy Cleaners, and I asked him, one day could I put in a few ready-to-wear things. And he was reluctant, you know, for a while, and then I kept teasing him. He said, ‘All right.’ So I did.”

D’Elia's next step was to acquire clothes for her budding business. She recounts how “On February 13, 1932, I went to New York with my sister with $270 in the bank; we bought a few skirts, dresses, and sweaters. In those days, you know, you could buy your skirt for about $2.50. You could buy a dress for about $3.75, inexpensive clothes.” D’Elia ended up purchasing “a few sweaters, skirts, and about eight or ten dresses” and put all of her clothes in the front section of Snappy Cleaners. D’Elia observes that it only “takes … one person to get you started,” and for her that one person was Hope Tyson, who bought most of the clothes D’Elia had originally picked out for the store. Along with Mrs. Tyson, Mrs. Meany, the wife of golfer Bill Meany, also became a regular customer. D’Elia recounts their first interaction: “She had come into this little Snappy Cleaners dressed with furs from the top of her head down to her feet, and she said, ‘I’m married to Bill,’ and she said, ‘He loves to play golf, and he wants me to play golf.’ She said, ‘So, what do you have for me?’ So she just shed all her clothes right then and there. She put on a skirt and a top, and from then on she was another wonderful customer.”

Along with the luck she had in acquiring such loyal customers, D’Elia also had quite a bit of luck when it came to buying the clothes for her store. She relates how “every time you went into a wholesale house, they would ask again, ‘Are you rated?’ I said, ‘No.’ And it was a strange feeling because you couldn’t buy anything; you had to be rated before they’d sell to you….So I was borrowing from the tailor in the beginning. I was borrowing from the presser, everyone. The things would be coming C.O.D.”. About two years into running her store D'Elia attempted to go to a credit house in New York City to become established, but, she says, “Nothing came of it. I think he must have had a hearty laugh after we left. He just must have torn the application right up.” However, she had a stroke of luck when she went to Boeppler Sportswear’s wholesale house. “He [the owner] said to me, ‘Chancy,’ he said, ‘I’m going to give you credit on your face value.’” Her lucky streak continued at another wholesale house, called Harry Segal. According to D’Elia, “He had beautiful sweaters, and I was able at times to buy some sweaters off price. There were two brothers, Harry and Dave Segal, and they liked us. They knew that we [D'Elia and her sister] were perfectly innocent kids and they wanted to help us, and they started extending credit. They were both extending me credit, so when they asked me about the rating, I would say, ‘Reference would be so-and-so,’ and that way, between the C.O.D.’s and everything else, I was able to get established.”

Thanks to the help she received from businessmen who believed in her, after about four years of operating her store out of Snappy Cleaners, D’Elia had enough money and enough merchandise to move into her own store, which happened to be right next to her uncle’s own furs and tailoring store. She described it as “a perfect move.” After staying in this store for another eight years, the owner of the building informed D’Elia that he needed the building back and that her store would have to more elsewhere. Fortunately, her uncle, A. V. Salvatore, was selling his building next door. “The Salvatore Building was an old, old building. It was the Red Cross Building at the time, about 1890 to early 1990’s….In the meantime, he’s torn this building down and put up a new building, and he said to me at the time, he said, ‘I’m going to sell my building.’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘you are?’ So he said, ‘I want $65,000 for it.’ And I said, ‘Oh, $65,000.’ That was back quite a few years, and I wrote to my husband right away again (who was in the Army Transport Command during World War II)….We naturally negotiated, and we bought the building in January of 1945.” Buying this building was a huge step for D’Elia and her store, and she was thankful she did decide to buy, as her store was able to remain in this same location for the next sixty years.

D’Elia explains that her business occupied a niche market in Greenwich. “We had no competition really here, none.” Although she remembers other clothing stores, such as “Frances Clark, The Shirley Shoppe…[and] Favorite Shoe, Finch’s, Boswell’s,” she asserts that her store was the only one “that was just for Greenwich women.” Her store also went through many evolutions. Of the first location, she recalls, “it was mostly sportswear in the bank building. We more or less catered to the juniors, to high school and college girls.” She adds, “Mothers used to come in with their daughters, get them ready for college, selecting their wardrobes. They had their lists with them, and they start from scratch all the way out.” However, when teen’s styles and buying habits started to change, D’Elia took her business in a new direction. She did not label what her store then carried as “mature” but rather as “ageless.”

She admits she always had good judgment with what to buy and knowing what her customers would want. “Well, usually a buyer had a limit to what, you know, they had the regular form that they go by. You buy so much of this; you buy so much of that. I never had, always, a free hand. I never cared what I spent. I just went in and bought it. We had so many sweaters one time that we supplied practically the whole town.” She continues, “I’m a wild buyer. Always took a chance, never hesitated. Even now, I do that now. I don’t stop. If I think something is good, I’ll go right ahead and buy it.” However, the ever-changing trends in women’s fashion kept D’Elia on her toes. “There have been so many changes,” she says, “from the Chanel look” on. “In fact, one year when the skirts dropped way down—they went to your ankles—that time we had taken a beating, such a beating. We couldn’t sell what we had in stock. I just took the whole mess of them, and I had a nun, a cousin in Italy, and she was with the orphanage, and I packed them all and sent them to her and, of course, I received so many blessings from them.”

Still at the helm when this interview was conducted, D’Elia proudly asserts, “I buy everything that comes in the store. I buy everything, and I go to the New York market in seasons—spring, summer, fall, resort, holiday….For instance, in the wintertime, I go in for about a week to ten days, every day. Then I go in maybe once every month, and then we have many salesmen come in here, many, many salesmen….Sometimes we have them standing out there, four and five deep, all day long….That saves me a trip into New York.” Although by that time, D’Elia acknowledges, there was a lot of competition in Greenwich and the surrounding towns. Even so, she does not believe these stores affected her business, as by now she had customers who had been with her for decades. Along with the success of her business, D’Elia’s reputation as a respected business owner was also confirmed when she was appointed in 1972 as an associate director of the State National Bank, the second oldest bank in America. Noting that she was the only woman on the board, D’Elia describes the position as “quite an honor.”
Site of original Chancy D'Elia store, recently shuttered, making way for yet another retail business.
(Photo courtesy of Leslie Yager, Greenwich Free Press)
Overall, D’Elia stresses throughout her interview, the importance of having a good community that can help lead the way to success. She acknowledges the help of two of her four sisters who were highly involved with her in the store, stating, “but without my sisters, without my girls, without my customers, nothing would have been possible. It would not have been possible. You can’t do a thing alone. Impossible to do it alone.” She also points out the special relationship she had with her customers, “I call them my friends because I just love them. They’ve known me for so long, and there’s such an affection, and they want to be greeted. Put their arms around you, and listen to their little tales and their little problems. You have to listen to them, and there’s always time for it. Once in awhile a customer will come in and say, ‘Oh, I saw you back there, but you were so busy.’ I’m never too busy to say hello and speak to you, never. I find that’s so important really, and I always say to the girls when a person walks in that door, they have chosen this shop to shop in. They deserve every courtesy extended to them, every courtesy. That’s so important to me. I’d turn myself inside out for them.”

One can conclude that D’Elia’s success as a businesswoman, despite her early challenges and obstacles, was due not only to her perseverance and savvy, but also due to her philosophy that “you should work for the fun of it no matter what it is….And the money will come later… .Everything in life is enthusiasm.”

Chancy D’elia’s interview, “Chancy’s Background and Business,” conducted by Nancy Wolcott, July 31, 1975, can be read in the first floor reference area of the library or in the Oral History Project office on the lower level of the library.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Remembering World War I: A Greenwich "Miracle"

Greenwich commemorates WWI. Examiner archives
For the past several years, as Memorial Day drew near, we at the Oral History Project have focused our attention on the veterans of World War II. (“Remembering Our Veterans and Janet Klion’s 21 interviews for the Veterans History Project, May 2016”; “Remembering Those Who Served, May 2015”; “Excerpts from the Oral History Project at Greenwich Library for Greenwich Time, May 24, 2014”)

Colonel Raynal Bolling, WWI, Greenwich Commons 
This year, a project volunteer reminded us of a longtime favorite interview—A Doctor’s Daughter, narrated by Alexandra Clarke Spann (1903-1977). Published as a hardcover “red book” in 1985, the contents draw on four separate interviews, telling the story of what it was like, growing up in Greenwich in the early days of the twentieth century, the daughter of an esteemed Greenwich physician.

There are many interesting and colorful anecdotes presented in the interview but none so engaging as the World War I story Ms. Spann narrates—and that retelling is the incident our volunteer turned to. We went back to the book, and the following is what we found.

Well into the interview Alexandra Clarke Spann is asked about “dramatic incidents” she remembers from her life. She responds:   
“Well I think the most dramatic was during World War I. One of our favorite mail carriers was Johnny Lockhart, whose brother was in a division in Europe that was almost completely annihilated. Johnny got word that his brother had been killed. The town loved Johnny so much, and they knew his brother, so they were planning a memorial service. I was just big enough to carry a small flag over my shoulder in a flag drill, which you don’t hear of anymore. They sang “America,” they prayed, they did all the loving things you’re supposed to, and almost finished—when the doors on the colonnade to Havemeyer School opened, and the captain stepped it.”

Interviewer:  “The captain?”

Spann: “He was a captain in the regiment. Dead silence. You could feel it. It pressed on you. Then all pandemonium let loose. People shouted, stamped, whistled, threw their hats up in the air. Even the flags went up. It was absolutely the most dramatic thing I think I ever lived through.”

Interviewer: “How did you feel?”

Spann: “We all cried.”

Interviewer: “You cried?”

Spann: “Absolutely unashamed, men and women both.”

Interviewer: “Did he know that this was his funeral service?”

Spann: “No, he didn’t. Somebody told him there was a meeting in the Havemeyer Building, to go see what was going on. He just walked in cold.”
Havemyer Building

Interviewer: “That’s a truly dramatic incident.”

Spann: “I think it’s the most dramatic one in my whole life.”

Without further comment or explanation, Ms. Spann goes on to tell about Boss Tweed’s property on Milbank Avenue. But it’s the story of Captain Lockhart’s miraculous return to life that lingers.

This long ago tale about a beloved soldier brought back to a hometown in the midst of honoring him seems worthy of remembering on this holiday meant for reflection.

The red book, A Doctor’s Daughter (1985), narrated by Alexandra Clarke Spann, can be found in the circulating collection on the Oral History Project kiosk on the first floor. Additionally, a copy of the interview can be found in the OHP collection in the local history reference area on the first floor. Library patrons may also read the interview at the OHP office on the lower level of the library.                

Monday, May 1, 2017

In honor of the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce’s 100th anniversary, the Greenwich Library Oral History Project will be sharing blog posts about Greenwich business owners. We begin by focusing on the Marks Brothers Stationery Store and the life of Jennie Marks Levine, who was interviewed by the Greenwich Library’s Oral History Project in 1974. This blog post has been prepared by guest blogger and graduating Greenwich High School senior, Olivia Luntz.

Jennie Marks was born on August 4,1895, in Greenwich after her parents immigrated to America from the town of Goris, on the border of Germany and Russia. Remarkably, her parents and grandparents were able to travel from Hamburg to America in 1875 for the sum of only five dollars per ticket. This was due to a price war among the steamship companies, which made all the difference for the Marks family. Levine confesses that if her family had had to pay any more for their tickets, they probably would not have been able to come to America. Her father and his brothers initially moved to Pemberwick and then to Port Chester, where they started a fruit business together. Around 1904 Levine’s father heard of a newspaper business in Greenwich that was for sale, and he decided to buy it. Originally, the business was intended to be a family one, as Levine’s uncle was also in need of a job, so her father took him on as a partner. “They were only in partnership for three days when my father said, ‘It’s not going to work out.’ In a year’s time they separated. My father bought him out.” However, the business still kept the name, “Marks Brothers.”

Levine stresses that running a newspaper route was far from easy work, especially due to the lack of modern conveniences at the start of the twentieth century. “I remember my father, on a Sunday morning, getting up at two o’clock in the morning, going to the station and getting the papers, bringing them up to the store—we all folded the papers—he delivered in a couple of cars, or a couple of wagons. They delivered papers in Greenwich and came home at twelve o’clock, changed horses, and went out to Round Hill to deliver some more papers, and way up on North Street. Worked from two o’clock in the morning until six o’clock the next night. And that’s the way people worked to make a few dollars. Just to make a living.”

Since her family knew near poverty, barely able to afford their passage to this country, Levine remembers her family’s generosity when other Jewish families—those who came to America in dire circumstances—would show up on their doorstep in need of food and shelter. Eventually, her family and others established a Hebrew Institute where the families could go for help in getting established in their new homeland. In those early days, the Marks home was a refuge for those in need. Levine remembers her mother cooking meals for twenty people at a time, describing their home as “sort of” a headquarters for Jewish people.

In spite of these added responsibilities, her father continued to grow the business, but new technologies that one might expect would help Marks with his grueling work were not always met with open arms. The family was eventually able to buy a car for their business but, as Ms. Levine remarks about her father, “He always used to say that the horse was better than the car. The horse knew when to stop, when we had to deliver a paper, but a car never knew. He often said that, particularly when we had heavy wintry storms. The horse would know where to go. He’d know where the road was even though you couldn’t find it.”

Not only did the Marks family trust their horse more than their new Ford, they often relied on walking. A devout Jewish family, during the High Holy Days and other important holidays, the family walked from their home in Greenwich to Port Chester in order to attend services. Here Levine comments on her “healthy walks”:

...”I remember there are a few holidays that are not so strict, you could buy the tickets ahead of time, and use them, but Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, or anything like that, you walked. There was no question about it. I used to walk from here [Cos Cob] to Greenwich with Harriet when she was a baby. Push her in the baby carriage. Wouldn’t think of riding. But you’re exposed to that, and it just stays, I guess. That’s all.”

Jennie Marks Levine was born and bred to contribute to her faith as well as to the family business. Hard work, then, was not just limited to Levine’s father. Levine herself also worked full time for her family after she finished eighth grade. By that time the business had grown from just being a newspaper route to also including a stationary store on Greenwich Avenue. Levine describes, “I used to open up at six o’clock in the morning, stay there until nine o’clock every night. Got so that when I went up for lunch, I was interrupted so often, they put a telephone in from the store upstairs so I could answer questions.”

Levine further recalls a day that she will never forget, that not only affected the history of the world, but also institutions as small and simple as a local stationary store. “You know, there were two dates that the First World War was over. One was the sixth of November and the other was the eleventh. And the date of the sixth was the false armistice report. The papers came in from New York by train…all around the corner people were waiting for the papers to come in. And they brought the papers in through the back door. I was behind the counter, and they pushed the counter over on top of me. Everybody tried to get the papers. I nearly got killed that day. But the second day, they weren’t excited about. See, the first day, the sixth, they thought was a real armistice, and when the eleventh came nobody was excited.”

In spite of the chaos brought by news of the armistice, Levine describes a very different Greenwich Avenue from the bustling shopping destination we know now. In the previous century, she says, “It was a lovely, quiet street. The only time it was busy was when the wealthy people used to go to the train to New York to go to work, and when they used to come home at night. Otherwise it was quiet. There wasn’t much doing.” She does, however, recall one day in which Greenwich Avenue was filled with people. During World War I, the Twelfth Company was made up of over a hundred enlisted men from Greenwich, and on the day they were reporting for duty, “They had a military band that walked down Greenwich Avenue with flags flying and everybody standing on the street crying and letting them go.”

Levine and her family’s hard work on the newspaper route and in the stationery business paid off when they were able to buy the building that they had been living and working in for the previous ten years. Levine credits her father with being very farsighted. The business also “sent the boys [Levine’s brothers] to school.” She continues, “There was never a question of the boys earning a salary or anything like that. I worked for twenty years, and I didn’t get a nickel. There wasn’t anything I wanted that I couldn’t have, but there was no time to want anything!”

Chamber of Commerce photo of upper Greenwich Avenue
After Levine got married in 1922, her father sold the newspaper route and moved the stationary store to another location he owned higher on the avenue, which was carried on by two of her brothers. Many in Greenwich still remember that store where one could buy stationery, a newspaper, or send a fax. The times may have changed, but the hard work and acumen required to build a successful business are as important today as they were when an immigrant family from Goris built theirs here in Greenwich.

This interview, “Early Life in Greenwich. Establishment of Marks Bros. Stationary Store, and the Jewish Community of Greenwich” (Oral History Project interviewer, Mildred Rosenberg, May 20, 1974), may be read in the library’s reference area on the first floor or in the Oral History Project office on the library’s lower level.