By Elizabeth J. Normen
One upside to Connecticut’s proximity to New York City is that so many of our nation’s most creative people have wandered over the border to find refuge and inspiration among our rolling hills and fertile valleys and along our rocky shoreline. Our state can claim a number of bold-faced names as homegrown, too. In this issue—our 50th!, we focus on famous artists and entertainers who—by virtue of their having been born here or having done some of their best work here—we can claim as Connecticut celebrities.
Interestingly, two A-list actors of their respective eras were born in the same neighborhood—albeit nearly 60 years apart. In this issue’s twin photo essays we feature William Gillette, who popularized and made his fortune playing Sherlock Holmes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and Katharine Hepburn, who needs no introduction. Both were born in Hartford’s Nook Farm neighborhood, and both later found respite along the bucolic Connecticut River.
Artists and writers who found inspiration in the Connecticut landscape are being documented and celebrated in the Connecticut Trust for Historic Preservation’s Creative Places: Modern Arts and Letters in Twentieth-century Connecticut project. Kristen Nietering and Charlotte Hitchcock’s story in this issue highlights a selection of them and the locations in the state that inspired important moments in our nation’s modern art and literary history. Susan Braeuer Dam’s piece about Alexander Calder does that, too. After moving from Paris to Roxbury in the early 1930s, Calder not only settled down and began a family but began making the mobiles and monumental outdoor sculptures for which he is perhaps best known today.
And then there’s the sculptor Gutzon Borglum of Mount Rushmore fame. Who knew this man of the West had even a glancing connection to Connecticut? Like Calder and others, he purchased property in Connecticut and built a studio, as Mary Donohue tells us in her story on page 40. But in Borglum’s case, his most important work took him elsewhere—most famously to the Black Hills of South Dakota. Still, an unusual Borglum fountain in Bridgeport and a collection of small sculptures at the Stamford Museum and Nature Center including studies of President Abraham Lincoln that informed his monumental work at Mount Rushmore document his short time here.
In addition to Gillette and Hepburn, from the entertainment world we feature the homegrown Westport Country Playhouse and its important role in American theater and Hartford-born Marietta Canty, who acted in 50 films and Broadway plays alongside such major stars as Marlene Dietrich and Elizabeth Taylor.
One of Connecticut’s earliest native sons who rose to true international celebrity was Charles Stratton—better known as General Tom Thumb. Born in Bridgeport in 1838, Stratton began performing with P.T. Barnum a month shy of his fifth birthday. Within a few years he was world famous, and his career lasted until his death in 1883. Read more about him in Eric Lehman’s story on page 22.
Together these stories, along with those we’ve published that explore innovations in industry and commerce, suggest that there is something about Connecticut that fosters and nurtures creativity. That’s a history and tradition to celebrate in our 50th issue.
We whole-heartedly thank our 2014 Friends of Connecticut Explored who made contributions above and beyond their membership/subscriptions last year. We’ve listed donors of $100 or more who made gifts through December 31, 2014 on page 57. Our Friends are our greatest boosters!
Elizabeth J. Normen