The Family Legacy
Lessons in growing up with superstar parents, finding one’s own identity, and nurturing roots to Westport, Weston & wilton
Growing up with a famous parent (or two) has its challenges, not least of which is finding one’s own space in the spotlight. But there are area residents who have trekked this path and found a way to shine on their own terms. We talked to a few with impressive careers in acting, music, art and entrepreneurship, not only about the lessons they’ve learned from their parents, but also how they (some are parents themselves now) have remained so grounded despite that last name. Not surprisingly, they give a nod to their hometown.
For perspective on succession, legacy and place, Westport Magazine turned to someone with a unique vantage point: Robert Redford, a former resident of the area and a lifelong friend to the Newmans. We told him this issue included an article about growing up here as the offspring of celebrities, and it included one person of special interest to him: Lissy—Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s daughter. Asked what qualities of her parents he himself is most pleased to see passed on, Redford noted:
They are real people. Not swayed by the over blossom hype that has overtaken the mainstream part of our industry. Paul and Joanne have made an enviable commitment to raise their children with strong values. Who they have become in this world is exemplary. I consider the whole family my friends. -Robert Redford, P.S. I miss Westport.
Read on to catch up with Lissy Newman, Chris Brubeck, Kitt Shapiro, Greg Naughton and Keira Naughton—all part of a generation growing beautifully and tending to its deep, healthy roots here.
Growing up newman means mastering the art of giving and staying grounded.
Meet Lissy Newman: daughter of Joanne Woodward and the late Paul Newman, wife, mother of two teenage boys, Westporter, philanthropist and singer. We caught up with this busy woman to ask her about her art (she’s trying to get pieces into Terrain), about her vocals (you can hear her perform regularly at The Dressing Room restaurant in Playhouse Square), and all of her philanthropic endeavors. And, yes, she exudes that signature Newman charm.
You’re devoted to several charitable causes, like Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, Bedford Correctional Facility and Aspetuck Land Trust. Why does each have a place in your heart?
I think my father struggled sometimes with the incredible luck that came his way. Hole in the Wall is only one of the ways that Pop tried to even the playing field. He created an incredibly joyful place for people in difficult circumstances. You can’t believe how not sad that place is! It is a place where having a prosthetic leg doesn’t keep you off the climbing wall or the zip line, and needing tube-feeding at night doesn’t keep you from raising hell all day. I started volunteering at Bedford about fifteen years ago. It is such a bizarre and amazing place. I really feel that it is imperative that we give people opportunities to become better in prison, not worse.
Is the Aspetuck River special for you because you grew up near the thirty-nine acres now dedicated as open space?
We ran around like muddy maniacs, trailed by every dog in the neighborhood. Very Little Rascals. It’s a testament to the gracious nature of the Warburgs and the Poses [to whom the property originally belonged] that we were never arrested and carted away. My little sister ran through one of Mary Warburg’s tea parties wearing nothing but a red ribbon, I think. Thank God she was only three.
What did you like to do when you were growing up here?
In Westport, we all went to Chubby Lane’s for burgers, and Rippe’s farm stands on the Post Road for corn and tomatoes. My father did most of the cooking (and, yes, he did make a mean salad dressing). My mother made French toast every morning before school, and omelets, souffles and artichokes with hollandaise sauce for dinner. It was yummy, but I wonder that we are still alive.
In the winter we took the Flexible Flyer to my grandmother’s house (still standing!) just down the street, and piled three high, with my father piloting, taking aim at her teeny bridge across the Aspetuck.
What was it like growing up the daughter of two famous movie stars?
I always said that as long as I had to have movie stars for parents, I am lucky I got the ones I had. I sometimes think about the unlucky combinations I could have landed. Being raised by artists isn’t necessarily easy, but it isn’t boring either.
Were there times when it was intrusive?
I remember being in a restaurant with my parents and all of my siblings when a woman came up to us and asked my mother if she could kiss my father. My mother said, “No.” Who does things like that?
Why did your parents choose to live in Westport?
I think it was close to work, and work was theater at that point. Westport had an interesting community of artists and intellectuals at the time. Some amazing people lived and worked here.
You sing jazz at The Dressing Room restaurant. What made you pursue this career?
I sang cabaret in New York and around the East Coast twenty-five years ago. Then my friend asked me if I wanted to sing a jingle demo and it ended up on the Super Bowl. Sheer luck! I did a bit more jingle work while my husband was getting his master’s degree in education. I always find it ironic to think of how much one gets paid to sing commercials, while my husband was busting his behind teaching in Bridgeport, doing the most important job there is.
Does your mother ever come to hear you perform?
Yes, she does, and I have to stop her from standing up and shushing people. That’s what mommies do.
I read that your father passed before he got to see you sing there. That must have been a disappointment.
When I started studying opera as a teenager, my dad gave me an incredibly difficult piece to learn. I spent twenty years on it, and though I never had the guts to perform it, I did walk into his house one day and sang it right through. He stood with my mother with tears in his eyes. Yeah, the fact that he never got to hear me at the restaurant he helped create is really sad. I think he would have been proud. I love it there; it feels like home.
Were you ever bitten by the acting bug?
I studied a little bit. I can’t remember lines. That is the thing that always blew me away about my mom, that she could remember all that Tennessee Williams. I am fascinated by actors; I could watch John Malkovich read the ingredients in a can of soda.
What advice do offer someone growing up as the child of someone famous?
Living in the shadow of someone else’s accomplishments makes it difficult to contextualize your own. Receiving credit for being born lucky is ludicrous. Mostly, I just think about trying to earn the luck I have been given which I could never, ever really do.
His version of playing jazz has all the sincerity, wisdom and power of his dad, dave.
When Chris Brubeck was a kid just learning to play trombone, someone told him: “You’ve got the chops.” That someone was Louis Armstrong, “a combination of the Pope and Jackie Robinson and Santa Claus,” recalls a chuckling Brubeck, whose father had taken him backstage to meet Satchmo. The compliment from Armstrong, the first jazz musician to appear on the cover of Time magazine (Chris’s dad, Dave, was the second, in 1954), meant the world to him, says Chris.
Trombone wasn’t even Chris Brubeck’s first instrument; piano was. And his piano teacher was a local man, not the late, great Dave Brubeck, the world-famous pianist and composer whose enduring, immediately recognizable “Take Five” was the breakthrough hit single from 1959’s Time Out, the first jazz album to sell nearly a million copies. Chris explains his dad couldn’t be his private teacher because he was often on tour. Once the family settled into their “Shangri-La,” a home with a pond in north Wilton in the 1960s, his dad got to spend more time with the Brubeck brood: Darius, Michael, Chris, Daniel, Catherine and Matthew. Chris also learned to play bass and guitar, and to sing and compose contemporary music, becoming, as the Chicago Tribune put it, “a twenty-first-century Lenny Bernstein.”
But Chris says he was never pushed to pursue the musical life by his father. “He always made it clear that he wasn’t going to be disappointed if we didn’t want to be musicians. He was also not going to fight us if we really wanted to become musicians…it would have been hypocritical.”
Not only did Chris become a professional musician, but in the ’70s he began touring and recording with his father, a collaboration that would last until Dave Brubeck’s death this past December, just a day before his ninety-second birthday. Chris says just hours after his father’s passing, he received word that their album, Ansel Adams: America, an orchestral accompaniment to Adams’s majestic images of the West, had received a Grammy nomination. Chris has said that moment made him feel as though his dad, who was raised on a ranch in the West, was “winking at him” from the other side.
Chris continues to tour and record with his brother, drummer Dan, in the Brubeck Brothers Quartet. And while their father might have never pushed them, two other Brubecks are musicians as well: Darius plays trumpet and piano, and Matthew, cello. Their mother, Iola Whitlock, to whom Dave Brubeck was married for seventy years, was a collaborator too, writing lyrics, and, for a time, managing her husband.
Chris recalls one of the first times the family played together in public was in Wilton in the 1960s, at a town-sponsored “Us and Them” event, a concert aimed at calming the intergenerational rancor of the times. Chris says for that “weird, special occasion,” even his sister played bass, just for that gig.
In 2009 the Brubeck Brothers played together at the Kennedy Center when their father was honored for his contribution to American culture. Chris has recalled the moment the camera caught his father in disbelief. “Watch,” says Chris, “and you will see the old cowboy mouth the words, ‘Son of a bitch.’” It was perhaps the pinnacle of Dave’s career, being feted by the nation’s first African-American president, decades after he had insisted on playing with a racially mixed band.
Just days after his father’s death, Chris wrote a loving homage on newmusicbox.org, summarizing the advice his father had dispensed over the years, including: “find a great partner to share your life with,” “value what is original about your approach to music” and “stay humble.” Chris also recounts the time a man on a ledge who was threatening to jump was stopped when told, “If you jump, you won’t hear Dave Brubeck’s next album.” That translated to these words of wisdom from his father: “You have no idea what your music means to someone else.”
Honoring the wisdom, dignity and love of mom, eartha.
They’ve been the bane of stars the world over: stage mothers. The frustrated Mama Roses who live vicariously through their children, thrusting them into the spotlight they never sought. For decades, Kitt Shapiro watched from behind the curtain as her famous mother appeared on stage and screen. She is the daughter of the late Eartha Kitt, who was already a huge star when she became a mom. Kitt, a mother and an entrepreneur, recalls a childhood traveling the world. As an adult, she was president of Eartha Kitt Productions and served as her mother’s unofficial manager and assistant. “Nothing got done without my being connected to it,” she says. ‘Be careful,’ she recalls her mother joking, ‘or I’m going to sic my daughter on you.’”
After living in Beverly Hills and London, Eartha settled in Weston and Kitt in Westport more than a decade ago, living just three miles away from each other. And just before her mother died of colon cancer at age eighty-one in 2008, Kitt watched her mother’s performance in The Skin of Our Teeth at the Westport Country Playhouse. “My mother loved the Westport Playhouse,” she says. After the show, she and her mother walked through the theater together and came upon a poster from the 1957 production of Mrs. Patterson, in which Eartha also starred. “That was a really cool thing to come full-circle,” says Kitt, “a pretty neat memory.”
When your mother is the singer who purred her way through the smash hit “Santa Baby” and the actress who portrayed everyone from Helen of Troy on stage to Catwoman on television, would you automatically be drawn to the show business life? Shapiro says at one time, she went on a couple of auditions, but “never had the drive or the hunger to make it big.” And it wasn’t as simple as not wanting to be in her mother’s shadow. “I think there was a part of me that didn’t want to compete directly with my mother,” she explains. “It worked really well with me being the daughter.” She says as a young girl, she was very protective of her mother. She couldn’t imagine “stepping away from that role of taking care of her. And going head-to-head with her in the same industry would have been somehow…disloyal.”
And yet her mother didn’t discourage her from pursuing a career in entertainment. “My mother was my biggest fan,” says Kitt. “No matter what I did, she thought I was fabulous at it. I could have done anything and my mother would have been the cheerleader on the sidelines saying, ‘You’re so great at this.’” Her mother would likely be smiling now, as Kitt sells a new home-décor line, called “Simply Eartha,” which uses images of Eartha to adorn canvasses, coasters and pillows.
Eartha also reveled in the fact that Kitt was blonde and hazel-eyed. Kitt, indulging in egregious self-deprecation, says of her mother, “Having been called ‘yellow gal’ when she was young…she loved that she gave birth to this mutt.…She would say to me, ‘You fill every quota. You are a walking United Nations.’” She adds, “I think that gave her great joy because that was such a ‘screw you’ to society.” Kitt notes that her mother might have phrased that more delicately; she says Eartha “wouldn’t curse, but if she did, it was in French.” That was a function of Eartha’s philosophy on celebrity. She told Kitt that she was being watched more carefully than other people are. “You should always be classy, always be a lady.”
With a face made for a spotlight, professional acting was inevitable.
When you think of an occupation that allows a parent to be a constant, steady presence in their children’s lives, “actor” probably doesn’t spring to mind. But for two-time Tony-winner James Naughton, “one of the mixed blessings of being an actor is you get protracted periods of time when you’re not working…which means you’re able to be around.”
In the 1700s Colonial in Weston where they moved in 1976, Naughton and wife of forty years, Pamela, who died of pancreatic cancer in April, raised their two children, Keira and Greg. Greg says his father “made a lot of choices that put the family first…there were times when he turned down more money because he didn’t want to be away in Los Angeles while we were growing up.” Those decisions allowed his father to be a Little League coach to Greg, who says he still gets Facebook messages from people who remember his dad as having “a knack for taking a team of misfits and making them champions.”
This singer-songwriter of the band called the sweet remains learned about center stage young.
James Naughton apparently also had a knack for inspiring his own children to perform. Greg is a singer-songwriter for The Sweet Remains, the Crosby, Stills & Nash–style band known for its lush three-part harmonies. The band has toured everywhere from Hamburg to Fairfield, most recently performing at Fairfield Theatre Company in May.
Greg says his father played a big role in his career choice because he “was always very happy doing what he was doing, and it was an attractive and appealing world.” His father credits Greg’s and Keira’s career paths to having spent summers at the Berkshire’s Williamstown Theatre Festival, where they “saw the best of the business.”
Indeed Greg has been part of that business, appearing in a number of plays in New York City and once even running a theatre company. It’s an understatement to say his wife is part of the theatre community—she’s Kelli O’Hara, four-time Tony nominee and headliner of shows including Far From Heaven, South Pacific and The Pajama Game.
Kelli and Greg have performed together, even if Greg demurs that she’s “such a legit singer, and I’m very illegit.” Last year, they both appeared at the Westport Country Playhouse along with James Naughton for a script-in-hand reading of The Philadelphia Story.
Also on stage that evening: actress Keira Naughton. She had also appeared at the Playhouse in The Dining Room in May, just after her mother, a social worker whom the family called “The Glue,” had died. Keira says her mother had encouraged her to stay with the show, and she’s glad she did. “It was a blessing to be working with such great people at a great theater close to home,” she says. Home is Brooklyn, where her husband, drummer Ben Forgash, owns a bar in Bedford-Stuyvesant; but it’s also her parents’ house in Weston where they visit, along with “the napless wonder,” her one-year-old son, Charlie, and Greg and Kelli (who are expecting their second child) and their four-year-old son, Owen.
Like her brother, Keira has enjoyed a career in music and on stage, performing in The Rivals, Dance of Death and The Three Sisters on Broadway. As for growing up in Weston as the child of a celebrity, Keira says it wasn’t “weird.”
She muses that her father was perhaps recognized more for his television résumé, Who’s the Boss?, Ally McBeal, and Gossip Girl, than his award-winning turns on Broadway in City of Angels and Chicago. But it was his work in the theater that inspired both her and Greg. It was “a dream” to get to watch rehearsals and be part of a community, says Keira, in which “people are so colorful and funny and smart.”
But the most salient message she observed her father imparting to young actors was to be grounded within that world, to “have a life,” to “have someone to go home to.”