August 15, 2022

A View from My Porch: The ‘Aristocrat of the Silent Screen’, the ‘Bee & Thistle’ … and Other Thoughts

Plans have been announced for the former ‘Bee and Thistle Inn’ to become the new home of the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center. But do you know how this gracious residence ever came to be an inn?  If not, read on …

The recent announcement that the Connecticut Audubon Society had reached an agreement to purchase the Bee & Thistle Inn, and plans to renovate it as the future headquarters for the Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center, piqued my curiosity regarding the Inn’s history.

This essay briefly reviews the life of an individual who was fairly instrumental in its founding, the talented and infamous Elsie Ferguson. Note that I had originally written “notorious,” but I believe only one woman in our recent history is deserving of that descriptor. My goal with this essay is to provide readers with something light, given the dismal news regarding the COVID crisis, but please read to the end as I feel obliged to return to that topic there.

Known as “The Aristocrat of the Silent Screen,” this (Public Domain) photo shows Elsie Ferguson in 1913. Image by Herman Mishkin – The Theatre, Vol. 18, July 1913.

Ms. Ferguson was considered by many as the leading Broadway and silent screen actress for much of the first half of the 20th century. She made her debut as a chorus girl in 1900 at the Madison Square Theatre in the musical comedy “The Belle of New York.”

She then starred, or was a cast member, in a remarkable number of productions on Broadway and in London, becoming known as one of the most beautiful and talented women ever to appear on the American stage. She became “the aristocrat of the silent screen”, partly because so many of her roles were elegant society women, and also for her utterly arrogant attitude. 

During the first world war, several Broadway stars organized a campaign to sell Liberty Bonds, both before performances and at events occurring at important New York City venues. Ms. Ferguson once sold $85,000 in bonds in less than an hour, which is about a million and a half today!

After appearing in “The Merchant of Venice” in 1916, she signed her first movie contract with Paramount Pictures, and in a 1917 release, made her silent screen debut in “Barbary Sheep.” After some 25 films made between 1917 and 1929, she made her first and only “talkie”, “Scarlet Pages”, in 1930. 

She was definitely “divaesque” and working with her was difficult. She actually dabbled in socialism in the 1920s, and once stated in an interview, that “… people are struggling and fretting their lives away over questions of food and education. When a man has accumulated more than, say, a million, the moneys made should revert back to those who have contributed to the amassment.” This was ironic, because she was very well-compensated for her work, and had “amassed” a large fortune.

Her personal life was marked with some turmoil; and she was even involved, albeit on the periphery, in events that triggered the murder of architect Stanford White, an utter scoundrel; the news of those events contributed to the novel and eventual Broadway musical, “Ragtime”.

Connecticut:

In 1934, the then 51-year-old Elsie Ferguson married her fourth husband, the wealthy Irish “sportsman” Victor Egan. They bought a farm in Connecticut that same year. They also maintained a home on the French Riviera, splitting their time between the two. 

The Ferguson Farm:

A “Profile” of Ms. Ferguson, published in 2013 by the Florence Griswold Museum, tracked her life to some “welcome seclusion” on that scenic 100-acre estate in East Lyme, “White Gate Farms.” She told a reporter from “The Milwaukee Journal” that she sold 150 of her farm’s eggs each day to the Government. The reporter described the surroundings as “bucolic and luxurious.” During her tenure at White Gate, she was known only as Mrs. Victor Egan. 

When the World War II theater blackout on Broadway lifted in 1943, she made her final appearance, at the age of 60, in “Outrageous Fortune”, which was written by an East Lyme neighbor, Rose Franken. She told the reporter covering her return to the theater that “once people [in Connecticut] recognized her, she would have to be very careful about how she looked; hair and all that sort of thing.”

Victor Egan died in France in 1956, and ‘Widow Ferguson’ spent her remaining years in Connecticut.

The Bee and Thistle Inn:

Her friend and contemporary, Henrietta Greenleaf Lindsay, a Hartford designer, had opened a shop in Old Lyme, and lived nearby in a large home just north of what is now the Florence Griswold Museum. She was also a widow, and rented a few extra bedrooms to guests. Ms. Ferguson suggested that Ms. Lindsay formalize her guest room business and convert her gracious home wholly to a hotel. 

Ms. Lindsay followed that advice, and opened an Inn to the public. In recognition of her friend’s encouragement, the Ferguson Clan’s crest, which included a bee on a thistle, gave the inn its name.”

Elsie Ferguson died in November, 1961, aged 78, at Lawrence & Memorial Hospital in New London with no surviving heirs. Her will directed that her $1.5 to $2 million estate be divided primarily amongst several animal welfare organizations, including NYC’s Animal Medical Center, Bide-A-Wee Home, the ASPCA, and Orphans of the Storm.

She is interred in Old Lyme’s Duck River Cemetery and her grave marker includes the first few lines of Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty.”

Some Final Thoughts

I began this piece on Nov. 19, when we had just passed the one-quarter million mark of Americans dead from COVID-19; and were looking forward to a very “low-touch” Thanksgiving. 

My next essay, “A Primer on Vaccines and Vaccination,” will be the first, in a series focusing on our response to COVID-19; and each successive column will be a thoughtful analysis of the implications of the data published in LymeLine and other media and as such will be the “color commentary.”

We have a massive public health problem, and it’s worsening daily. As I complete this essay on Monday, Nov. 23, We’ve reached 260,402 dead Americans; and yesterday, there were 142,732 new confirmed cases. The seven-day rolling average of 170,856 new cases per day grew nearly 50 percent from two weeks ago. The prediction of a “dark winter” is playing out.  

We are fortunate, however, because vaccines are approaching distribution; but unfortunately, the still-current president remains unwilling to even acknowledge this crisis and model behaviors in front of his constituency that will assist in curbing the further spread of the disease. 

There’s finally some good news regarding the election. Despite the unrelenting and outrageous interference, the states have all certified the election results, and the recalcitrant GSA Administrator has finally checked her math and enabled the formal transition. So, the President-elect finally really is the President-elect.

John Cleese couldn’t have scripted a more ridiculous theater of the absurd than the “The Bad Loser’s Guide to A Peaceful Transition,” which has been shown nearly constantly in primetime before and since the election. 

I pray that Americans’ trust in the election process has not been irrevocably damaged, and that there has been no damage done to the new administration.

As always, God save the United States of America.

This is the opinion of Thomas D. Gotowka.

Tom Gotowka

About the author: Tom Gotowka’s entire adult career has been in healthcare. He’ will sit on the Navy side at the Army/Navy football game. He always sit on the crimson side at any Harvard/Yale contest. He enjoys reading historic speeches and considers himself a scholar of the period from FDR through JFK.

A child of AM Radio, he probably knows the lyrics of every rock and roll or folk song published since 1960. He hopes these experiences give readers a sense of what he believes “qualify” him to write this column.