Monday, March 1, 2021

As we know, the Olympic Games Tokoyo 2020 were postponed for the first time in history, for a reason other than war, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The Opening Ceremony of Tokoyo 2020 is scheduled for July 23, 2021.

Greenwich laid claim to its own Olympian, Helen Meany Gravis, who gold-medaled in diving almost a century ago, at the Olympic Games Amsterdam 1928. Over the course of two Oral History Project interviews by Esther H. Smith in 1982 and 1983, the journey of Helen Meany Gravis was revealed.

Josephine Meany with Helen
The Meanys lived in a house on Steamboat Road, with its own little beach. Helen’s recollections of Greenwich are more of water than of land. “I learned to swim before I could walk,” she recalls. Across the road was the Indian Harbor Yacht Club, where young Helen also swam. Neither of these provided a true learning environment for the future Olympian, but they would suffice. She remembers winning her first meet when she was thirteen. By then, her father, recognizing her potential, had begun taking her to A.A.U. (Amateur Athletic Union) meets.

William Meany, Helen's father

Helen competed in swimming because she had no place to develop technique in diving, her true interest. She learned, however, by practicing off the dock, on top of a coalhouse, at Commodore Benedict’s home, across the inlet from their beach. Her father, more coaxing than coaching, would encourage her to take the plunge from his place in the waters below. She apparently would dive from anything he could find, high diving platforms being in short supply in the area.

Eventually, her father rigged a platform for her on the side of the yacht club. It was a makeshift float with a ten-foot board from which she could dive. Swimming in those waters was later stopped, being deemed too dangerous. Her practice sessions, as she describes them, were nothing short of perilous, with her climbing up to the board at the top, while below the float wobbled unpredictably as boats passed, coming and going out of the harbor, very near her landing mark.

“I guess if he told me to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge,” she says of her father, “I would have done it.” This is how this future Olympic gold medalist in the women’s three-meter springboard diving competition got her start.

Brothers and Sisters (minus one sister). Helen
is sixth from left.

All the Meany children were swimmers. And there were a lot of them, eleven to be exact, counting Helen, the eldest. Ms. Gravis explains that because her father liked to swim so much, it was natural for the children to become swimmers, too. She remembers “having to pick up the little ones as soon as they could walk or they’d just run right to the water and right up to practically over their heads.” She also remembers that if, in the summer, her siblings missed the boat to Island Beach, they would simply dive off the dock at Indian Harbor and swim to the island.

It was all just fun and games until, at a meet in Rye, New York, Helen Meany saw Alice Lord Landon (who later became an Olympic diver) dive from the ten-meter platform. That is when young Helen knew she wanted to be a platform diver. But the path from her childhood water exploits in Greenwich to the Olympics was not an easy one, since there were few or no diving facilities nearby. She remembers commuting from Greenwich to Manhattan Beach, on the far end of Brooklyn, to practice.

Helen Meany with Martha Norelius,
Amsterdam, 1928
Helen Meany
at Manhattan Beach

Later, as a college student at Wellesley, where there was no swimming pool, she had to decide whether to continue her studies or to make the 1924 Olympic team. After having been eliminated in the 1920 games in the first round, Helen chose to try again and left college before graduating. She placed fifth in the ten-meter platform competition in Paris, 1924, and went on to win the gold in Amsterdam in the three-meter event in 1928.

One wonders how she did it, given the amount of training and coaching that goes into competing in today’s games. “I learned most of my dives from a thirty-four-foot platform, and if you don’t hit the water just right, you can get hurt. . . . So, you just have to try it and try to correct it yourself,” she explains. And here’s the amazing thing: “I didn’t have a diving coach,” she adds.

Now there’s a champion for the record books.

Helen Meany Gravis died at her home in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, July 21, 1991, at the age of eighty-six.

Helen Meany Gravis in front of the
former Meany home on Old Church Road,
photographed by Karl Gleeson for the
1982–1983 Oral History Project interview 

This blog, written by OHP volunteer Jean Moore, was derived from the Oral History Project book, “From Greenwich to the Olympics: Helen Meany Gravis.” It is available for purchase at the Greenwich Library Oral History Project office. Visit the OHP web site at

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

To mark the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, August 18, 2020, giving women the right to vote, student writer for the Greenwich Library Oral History Project, Noor Rekhi, a senior at Greenwich Academy, draws from four interviews with Greenwich descendants of suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. John Barney and his sister, Rhoda Barney-Jenkins, were interviewed by volunteer Penny Bott Haughwout in 1974. Catherine Stanton was interviewed by volunteer Donna H.Kavee in 1982, and Coline Jenkins was interviewed by volunteer Patricia Holch in 1997.

This month, the Oral History Project dedicates its blog to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and her descendants.  While Stanton lived in New York State, many of her descendants lived or currently live in Greenwich. Through interviews conducted with John Barney, Rhoda Barney Jenkins, Catherine Stanton, and Coline Jenkins, the Oral History Project has learned more about the Stanton family and their strong ties to the advocacy of feminism.

Although Elizabeth Cady Stanton, born in 1815, did not live to see the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, she was arguably one of the most famous suffragists in American history.  Coline Jenkins recounted her great-great grandmother’s legacy saying, “She and other women rewrote the Declaration of Independence. Their document was named the Declaration of Sentiments and was a list of grievances against the male-dominated society. There was a radical part of her document. The radical part was that women should vote; and she believed that, through the vote, women could gain other rights. She felt these rights were inherent to being a citizen of America, despite the gender of the citizen. She’s a central character in our family.”

Elizabeth Cady Stanton with her son 
Henry Brewster Stanton Jr., circa 1855.
 Photo courtesy: Coline Jenkins

Central character she was. Her descendants have made efforts to preserve her history and carry on her efforts.  Rhoda Barney Jenkins, great granddaughter of Stanton, was herself an advocate for the Equal Rights Amendment and a member of the National Organization for Women. A resident of Greenwich when interviewed in 1974, she shed light on the background of the family going back to Margaret Livingston Cady, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s mother. The daughter of a Revolutionary War colonel, Margaret was born with a fervor to stand up for what was right. Jenkins fondly recounted a family story in which Margaret cleverly managed to ensure that women would have the opportunity to get their votes counted in the election of their new minister. It is highly plausible to suggest that Margaret’s spirit may have been passed on to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who would in turn inspire other generations of Stanton women.

Rhoda Barney Jenkins, accompanied by her grandson, 
Eric Jenkins-Sahlin, voting at Julian Curtiss School, circa 2000.
Photo courtesy: Coline Jenkins

Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s daughter Harriet Stanton Blatch played an active role in the movement her mother ignited. Blatch was a powerful feminist in her own right and was instrumental in organizing the first suffrage parade in New York City. Her work helped lead to the passage of the 19th Amendment. Blatch’s daughter, Greenwich resident Nora Stanton Barney, paved the way for other women as well. She was one of the first female civil engineers in America, graduating from Cornell in 1905, despite the lack of acceptance from her male peers. Even though she was purposely excluded from a class yearbook photo with her fellow engineer graduates, she received her degree and came in second in her class.  At Cornell, she founded the University’s suffrage club. Undoubtedly, Nora Stanton Barney was an impressive figure. She was even invited to the British Parliament’s visitors’ box, although the invitation was retracted when she informed the State Department of her plan to shout, “Votes for Women!” in solidarity with British feminists.

Most recently, Coline Jenkins, Greenwich resident and RTM member, helped preserve Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s legacy and ensure suffragists maintain their place in history. In 1921, a statue of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott, and Susan B. Anthony was relegated to the crypt beneath the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., days after its dedication. It remained there until the 1990s when  a Woman Suffrage Statue committee was formed to return it to its place in the Rotunda, “the centerpiece of American democracy,” as described by Jenkins. Jenkins helped create the documentary An American Revolution: Women Take Their Place about the moving of the statue. Elizabeth Cady Stanton helped secure the right of women to vote and Coline Jenkins helped ensure that her ancestor would still have a voice today.

As we reflect on the anniversary of the 19th Amendment, it is imperative that we recognize Stanton and the generations of women after her who campaigned for women’s rights. When you cast your ballot this November, remember all the people who persevered so that every American woman could vote.

Reflecting on Stanton’s work, Rhoda Barney Jenkins remarked,” I really would have liked to have known Elizabeth Cady Stanton. You know, the more you read of what she’s written, the more you respect how deeply she thought about things and how elegantly she put it, and this tremendous amount of work that she did, too. It’s just incredible.” Although Stanton lived over a century ago, we do get to know her. We know her through the progress she has made for women in our society and through the oral histories preserved for generations to come.

The John Barney, Rhoda Barney-Jenkins, Catherine Stanton, and Coline Jenkins interview Transcripts may be read at Greenwich Library and are available for purchase at the Oral History Project office. The Oral History Project is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the OHP website at  Mary Jacobson, OHP blog editor

Monday, June 22, 2020

Chancy D'Elia: Pre-Feminist Entrepreneur

Olivia Luntz, guest blogger, was a Greenwich High School senior at the time this blog was written in 2017 about Chancy D'Elia. Chancy owned Chancy D’Elia clothing store at 244 Greenwich Avenue, a true landmark, from 1945 until it closed in 2005. Although she faced numerous obstacles, Chancy persevered and became one of the most successful businesswomen in Greenwich. The original Interview of Chancy was conducted in 1975.

Chancy D'Elia
Collection of the 
Oral History Project

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."

Greenwich Time
April 22, 1932
Courtesy of
Greenwich Historical Society
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
Greenwich Time
July 10, 1935
Courtesy of
Greenwich Historical Society
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.
Greenwich Time
December 24, 1935
Courtesy of
Greenwich Historical Society

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.”
Published in Greenwich Time
July 28, 1971

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.”

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 Oral History Project office in Greenwich Library.