Saturday, May 8, 2021

 Village Life in Old Greenwich

The roots of Old Greenwich run deep from a tiny and close community at the turn of the twentieth century to the vibrant town center that exists today. In 1989, OHP volunteer Marian Phillips interviewed Daniel Catanzaro, a longtime resident of Old Greenwich who currently resides in Riverside. Our thanks to Elizaveta McCauley, a sophomore at Greenwich High School, for her contributions to this blog.

Daniel Catanzaro was born on October 8, 1926, in Old Greenwich. His parents were Mary Catanzaro, a nurse, and Nicholas Catanzaro, Old Greenwich’s shoemaker and a central figure in the community. Daniel’s recollections take us back to earlier days.

 “My family settled here around 1910. But Dad was commuting here, walking from Stamford to Old Greenwich. At that time the trolley ride was five cents, and it was too expensive. That was a luxury. So, we go back to right around the 1900s, when Old Greenwich was really a great town to live in. Old Greenwich was a crowded little town from, say, June 1 to September 1. Then on September 1 all the summer people moved out.”

 Life in Old Greenwich was nothing short of carefree and merry. The close, friendly bond between neighbors and families was perfect for young Catanzaro, who enjoyed being able to go out and about with his friends at just about any time. “I remember playing basketball any hour of the night down at the Old Greenwich School and then walking home ten, eleven o’clock at night. You’d never meet a soul, and you never had a fear of anyone doing anything to you, because you’d just run into somebody’s house and they’d walk you home. Old Greenwich was the safest place I could ever think of for a youngster to grow up in.”

 Taking care of Binney Park, Catanzaro notes, was a great part of his summer. “That’s where we all got our spending money. We’d go down there and pull weeds out, and that’s why Binney Park always looked so beautiful . . . Ed Sullivan used to ride by when he was a columnist with the New York Daily News, and he’d always write about the beauty of Binney Park.”

 As an older child, Catanzaro picked up and delivered shoes to and from his father. “The Shorehame Club had a lot of prominent people there, show people…I was one of the few that would actually go down there; I used to deliver repaired shoes or pick them up and bring them to my dad. I couldn’t remember many other people going down there. There were a few homes, but not many.”

 Daniel Catanzaro also delivered some items other than shoes. “One of the bad things that happened was during World War II. Lake’s Drug Store handled all the Western Union. Anyone that was killed in the service, the telegram would come into Lake’s and we would have to deliver them. If no one was home, the majority of times we’d bring them back and try and find someone who was associated with the family.”

 Catanzaro shared his memories of certain other deliveries from Lake’s Drug Store after Prohibition ended in 1933. “We had liquor down in the cellar. Sunday was our big day. In those days you packed ice cream in a quart container. Everybody used to fight to work for Lake’s on Sunday because you went to deliver a quart of liquor in a quart ice cream container. Whose ever house you delivered it to, you were always good for a nickel or dime tip, so there was always a waiting line to work in Lake’s on Sunday. You were not allowed, like you’re not now allowed, to sell liquor on Sundays. But our commuters would forget on Saturday. They’d call on Sunday, and we’d deliver it in a quart ice cream container.”

 The closeness of the Old Greenwich community extended to the canine portion of the neighborhood—that is, Sound Beach Fire Department’s beloved firehouse dog, Spot. A proud, dignified-looking Dalmatian, he was a common sight to see around the firehouse. Spot accompanied his fellow firefighters as they responded to fires and he would wear his collar—decorated with the emblem of the Fire Department. Unfortunately, Spot passed away in 1949.

 “When that dog died, it was like the most important person in Old Greenwich passed away.  He was buried in a casket and a full funeral ceremony, right in front of the Old Greenwich firehouse. That’s where Spot was buried. I’ve never forgotten that. There was an awful lot of broken hearts when Spot finally left us. They had a formal funeral for him, and everyone in Old Greenwich had tears coming down their eyes.”

 The Oral History Project interview of Daniel Catanzaro, and the book by the same name, Village Life in Old Greenwich, are available for purchase through the OHP office at the Greenwich Library. The OHP is sponsored by the Friends of the Greenwich Library. Visit the OHP website at glohistory.org. Mary A. Jacobson serves as the OHP blog editor.

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 glohistory.org.


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 glohistory.org.  Mary Jacobson, OHP blog editor