Behind the Pages
To celebrate our big anniversary, we invited some of our contributing writers and photographers — and a few staff members — to share their favorite assignments.
Photograph by Fran Collin
Leslie Chess Feller
Over the past ten years, I’ve profiled artists, architects, activists, physicians, beekeepers, horticulturists, designers, Fortune 500 tycoons, people who raise guide dogs for the blind, at-home moms and those on the career fast-track. Every story is different. One I couldn’t forget is Weston’s Ellen Strauss [“The Vanished Friend,” October 2003], who shared the frustrations of her twenty-year crusade to solve what she believes was the grisly murder of her friend Kathie Durst, wife of Bobby Durst, a real estate mogul known for his eccentricities. The body was never found, but Ellen is still on the case.
So, where’s Paul Newman? Whenever I have told a friend that I write for Westport Magazine, he or she would inevitably ask — whether he or she came from Kalamazoo or Karachi — what it was like to hang with Newman. And I’d have to say, “Listen, pal, in Westport it’s simply understood: You leave Paul alone.” I wasn’t so shy about asking his wife, Joanne Woodward [“Bringing Down the Playhouse,” June 2003]. And I was pretty damned thrilled about meeting her. Many a molten summer ago, I’d been stirred heavily by her blend of brains, beauty and passion in Long Hot Summer. I had stared at Three Faces of Eve and had been emotionally taken by Rachel, Rachel. When she breezed into her office at the Westport Playhouse, I leaped to my feet like any Stage Door Johnny. She was all flashing eyes and apple cheeks, and her voice had a lovely lilt from her native Georgia. I, on the other hand, was all … impressed. Then one day, months later, I hear a cheery hello. It’s Joanne, carrying an umbrella to shield her magnolia-blossom self from the sun. And I notice this fellow standing next to her. It’s Newman. I could tap him on the shoulder and bug him for an interview. But this is Westport. And the rule here: You don’t bother Paul.
I love to write. It makes me happy, no matter what I’m writing about — until I decided to do what little I could for the families whose sons and daughters were off fighting in Iraq: I decided to write an article about them [“I’m Fine, I Saw Combat, Send Me Socks,” July 2003]. A mother myself, I thought about how hard it must be to know your child is in constant danger. How do these parents get through the day? I wanted to honor them and the only way I knew how was to write about them, but what I hadn’t expected was the heartbreaking interviewing process. The parents were proud, scared, patient, brave. Braver than I could ever be. I could manage an hour or so watching a mother’s lips tremble or tears form in her eyes, but when a man cried, I was toast. After I took a few hasty notes, I’d stumble out to the car and weep. If my twenty-five-year-old son was in the house when I came home, I’d throw my arms around his waist and press my wet, snotty face into his T-shirt, declaring my limitless love and gratitude for his very existence. The first time he was astonished to suddenly have his arms full of mom, but after awhile, I’d see him watching me through the front window as I tried to gather my wits about me before coming in the house. Sometimes he’d come out and get me. Other times, he would look up, register the red eyes, and say, “Another soldier interview, huh?”It was the hardest article I have ever written, but when it came out, it was a beautiful tribute to the men and women whose lives are forever branded by an insufferable sadness; and I was proud.
Over years in writing for the magazine, I’ve interviewed some remarkable people — Jim Nantz, Nile Rodgers, Christopher Byron — and written about some wonderful houses. But my favorite story is an anecdotal history of the old Shore Road in town, now known as Beachside Avenue [“Street of Dreams,” November 1999], where I once lived and for which I interviewed many longtime residents. It was a chance to work into a single story local people, houses and oral history — the foundation for all my writing.
In these pages I’ve profiled many gifted people who are also first-rate human beings: Frank Deford, the writer David Wiltse, the young scholar Jared Cohen. But it is Martha Stewart whom I recall most fondly — probably because I never met her, having been denied an audience [“What’s the Dirt on Martha?” May 2003]. This left me free to understand her in my own way. During January 2003, as my wife headed off to work, I would lie on the couch with my coffee, watching Martha Stewart on TV. I started out an impartial Marthologist, but I became a fan. I did floor exercises with her, I cooked with her. I don’t admit to glue-gunning any pinecones. And I liked Martha. At least I tried to. She had a pretty smile when she allowed it to rise from her mysterious depths. And there was an artistic thrill in her excellence. Alas, field research confirmed the rumors of her sometimes tyrannical personality. The picture that emerged, finally, was one of bottomless complexity. Many women resented Martha the perfect, Martha the ruthless, Martha the oppressive mother figure. Others saw Martha the billionaire trickster who had set back women’s causes by a generation. Men bashed Martha the alleged castrator and stock-dumper (she was not convicted of this central accusation), and didn’t bother to conceal their glee as the scandal wound toward its absurd conclusion: Martha in a spic-and-span prison cell. I saw, in the end, the Martha who delivered fresh eggs to new neighbors on Turkey Hill, and was rebuffed. I saw sadness. And that made me like her all over again.
One story that stands out was when I interviewed five area foodies for their takes on culinary trends [“Stepping Up to the Plate,” October 2004]. One of them, George Stella, had managed to lose a couple of hundred pounds by following the Atkins diet, and in so doing had been restored not just to good health (he was previously wheelchair bound), but also managed to reclaim his position as a successful chef. He was cooking up a spicy, aromatic stir fry as we were chatting, and as he sauteed the colorful bits of vegetables and meat, he insisted that by following the low-carb diet he could eat something like fifty chicken wings and half a dozen lobsters in one sitting and not gain weight. I went from that heady environment to the garden behind Chef Michel Nischan’s house, where he led me on a tour of the neat rows of beans and lettuces, telling me all the while about his views on sustainable agriculture and the need to go back to our culinary roots. Two sides of the food field from a couple of professionals who love what they do. All in a good day’s work!
I loved a story called “Where the Wild Things Are” [September 2007] about a local organization called Wildlife in Crisis, a Weston-based nonprofit dedicated to wildlife preservation and land conservation. Not only was it interesting to find out just what to do if you find a raccoon in your garbage or an orphaned baby bird on your back porch, but it was heartening to hear how a small band of volunteers is making inroads towards protecting local animal populations from encroaching development. Three major perks to this story: (1) My eight-year-old son, Charlie, a true-nature lover, was finally able to read and enjoy one of my pieces (!); (2) The story won a silver award in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Excellence in Journalism Contest; (3) I learned that, despite his rugged good looks and sonorous, screen-star voice, award-winning actor James Naughton is a surprisingly kind and gentle soul who generously donates his energies to champion this very worthy cause.
The September  cover story [“Where the Wild Things Are”], featuring actor James Naughton and the injured fawn that he had rescued from his backyard and taken to Weston’s Wildlife in Crisis for rehabilitation, certainly ranks amongst one of the most interesting stories. Not only did I have the chance to photograph Jim Naughton, but it also allowed me to discover another gem of a place doing amazing work, with limited recognition, right here in my hometown. Also eye-opening was to learn about Jim’s ongoing commitment to Wildlife in Crisis, far beyond his interest in his injured backyard find.
Once in a while, I am lucky enough to find a place that regardless of the time of day I go there, the time of year or even the weather, it is always beautiful and often magical. The light that falls on Bean Acre Farm in Greenfield Hill, Gerard Pampalone’s spectacular property, makes it just such a place. It is partly because its owner cares for the garden meticulously and passionately … every day. But there is also something unique about the quality and clarity of the light that makes it simply extraordinary. I always look forward to the chance to go back.
One of my favorite photo assignments for Westport Magazine was the Racing Rileys [“The Fast Track,” June 2007]. Exciting! Perhaps if I didn’t become a professional photographer, I would have been a racecar driver.
One of my favorite shots just happened. I was shooting Moshe Aelyon for the cover [“Party Boy,” October 2006], which was all about these bright orange balloons behind him. Then I noticed the light in the bathroom — it was a strange, but really beautiful light — and I asked if he would mind just jumping in there for a quick shot. He was game, and the photo turned out perfect.
One story that was a dream come true is about Chris Franz and Tina Weymouth [“Rock Royalty,” August 2007]. I loved working with writer Christy Colasurdo on it, and I had to control my giddiness about being able to contact the duo. I wasn’t suffering star shock as much as a bad case of pure admiration for their ridiculous, what-do-I-do-with-all-of-this talent. Part of it is knowing that they live in our community, and part of it is having listened to their music through the years. For me, it’s like having the perfect ocean view: it’s perfect yet slightly different every time I check it out.
Fran Collin is a great photographer to work with. I can always count on him to add his creativity, endless passion and energy beyond my vision of how to shoot a story for the magazine. One time, we were photographing a collectible 1963 Lincoln Continental [“Trash or Treasure?” November 2007] in amazing shape — it was is if it were frozen in time. Fran suggested that I get in the car for a quick shot. But just sitting behind the wheel was too straightforward for him. He had another idea. Even before he sent the images for the assigned story, a surprise image of me artfully posing in the car
One of my favorite writing assignments was the story of Westport’s Gault family [“The Gault Family,” September 2000] — five generations of a successful family business that not only grew throughout the decades from grain to trucking to lumber to oil, but also flourished from the hard work, dedication and the mutual respect between fathers and sons. It was extraordinary to discover what doing business with the Westport community was like for these folks so many, many years ago when a man’s word was his bond and when L. H. Gault and Son did not hesitate to deliver coal to a neighbor who was down on his luck, with only a promise that there would be payment in the spring when seasonal work was possible. For me, an inspirational account of real family values.
associate art director
My daughter Kassie was thrilled to take the day off from school and pose with Deirdre Imus [“Clean, Green and Kid-Friendly,” June 2008] and three other happy and healthy children. As a mom, I always want my daughter to have her best manners, especially when it comes to well-known celebrities and adults. But when Deirdre walked into the room we all relaxed — she was so down to earth and engaging with the kids. Kassie did a wonderful sketch of Deirdre’s cleaning products embellished with natural ingredients floating about. She showed it to Deirdre, who smiled brightly and asked Kassie to sign it for her collection. When we go shopping, Kassie now always helps me pick out Deirdre’s products.