By Mike Lauterborn
(Appeared 2/16 in the Westport News)
A WWII mapmaker who made his living illustrating, painting and teaching, Leonard Everett Fisher, 86, has lived a full life dotted with celebrity encounters and secret projects. He recently reflected on his life’s highlights and recalled a few Westport memories from the studio of his Twin Bridge Acres Road home.
“I was born in the Bronx in June 1924, and, at 8 or 9, moved to Sea Gate in Brooklyn, America’s first gated community, where the family had initially summered,” said Fisher.
His father, Benjamin, was a marine designer who worked most of his life for the navy designing submarines at the Lake Torpedo Works in Bridgeport. Simon Lake was the inventor of the even-keel diving submarine. Ben’s initial job was the U.S.S. Arizona, the battleship that was sunk at Pearl Harbor. Though only 20 at the time, he designed small parts like gangways, anchor chains and capstans. He went on to design the hulls of battleships and cruisers in navy yards all over the U.S.
Fisher’s mom, Ray, was a bookkeeper in NYC initially, then a homemaker.
“Our Sea Gate home was right on the water – the confluence of the lower New York bay and the Atlantic Ocean, across from Staten Island and next to Norton’s Point lighthouse,” he said. “Its red glow would shine in our living room and make it look like hell.”
Fisher attended Abraham Lincoln High School and majored in art. He was 16 when he graduated and went to Brooklyn College. In Dec. 1942, at age 18, he was recruited by the army as a mapmaker and, for the next three years, was with a very elite unit that mapped all the WWII invasions – Anzio, southern France, part of Normandy, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the invasion of Japan.
“I was in operations as a young non-com, and very appropriately placed based on my skill set, which included the drafting of maps, knowledge of several languages and a background in geology,” he said. “The work was very top secret and clandestine and my boss was General George Marshall.”
Fisher was discharged in Jan. 1946 and began attending Yale Arts School, pursuing a degree in painting. He got a B.F.A. in 1949, an M.F.A. in 1950 and, incredibly, a Pulitzer Prize in painting that same year, about which he was notified via telegram from then President Eisenhower.
In 1952, at which time he was a dean at a small arts school, he married Margery Meskin and they had three children, raising them initially in New Haven. In 1957, they ultimately landed in Westport at their current home and, over the next 50 years, Fisher illustrated books for young readers, painted and taught.
As a book illustrator, he traveled all over the country lecturing, and illustrated 260 books, 90 of which he also wrote. He also had a number of memorable meetings with heads of state like former President Clinton and other dignitaries.
Fisher said his painting was less public, with sporadic gallery shows.
“It’s been a lucky life. I never had to earn a living in any other way but the arts,” he concluded.
Lost opportunity 1957
“When we first moved to Westport, several things struck us about the area. The first was our immediate property. Behind our acre, there were 165 acres of just forest. There was game in there like wild turkey, grouse and rabbits. A gentleman named Raymond Ely owned the land and asked us if we would like to buy another acre so that no one would build directly behind us. It was pretty cheap, about $6,000, but we figured because it was an incline and rocky, no one would ever build there, so we passed… and they built. Then the whole area went.”
Main Street, late 50’s
“It was a pleasure to walk down the main and visit all the stores, which were individually owned – Greenberg’s Department Store, Welch’s Hardware Store, etc. On the south corner of Main and the Post Road, there was a Chinese restaurant called West Lake. The name reflected an area in China where the owner was born… and he was educated at Harvard. There was also a movie house and, next to it, a stationery shop owned by Max Kaplan which eventually evolved into Max’s Art Supplies, which is a landmark now for most regional artists.”
“Coming from a waterside upbringing, I immediately felt right at home here. I don’t recall that Compo Beach was ever crowded and the Longshore Country Club was private. The latter wasn’t bought by the town until the early 60’s and became a facility that our kids used all the time during the summer, for boating and swimming. I golfed there, too – albeit a short career. The pro was George Buck and I would take my lesson from him before teeing off.”
“There was little traffic in those days, no one creeping up behind you blowing the horn, no cell phones and the largest private car was a station wagon. Newton Turnpike, which runs by our area, was a turnpike with no cars on it. It was more or less a two-lane, paved country back road. Now it’s got bumper-to-bumper traffic.”
“We settled here because of the school system and because it seemed to be a quiet, pretty, comfortable place. I didn’t initially realize it was an arts community with a number of celebrated artists. This fascinated me. I came here as an academic to the heartland of commercial illustration. The arts focus waxed and waned as professionals died off or went west and show biz people started moving in like Paul Newman, Jack Klugman, Robert Redford and Joanne Woodward. Their presence made Westport a destination, more so than the artists, who kept a low profile. This improved real estate values which attracted Wall Streeters, all sorts of entrepreneurs and corporate executives. Now there’s been a revival of the arts here.”
“In the late 80’s, I was president of the Board of Trustees of the Westport Library, which was then establishing its new and current location. Back in 1965, I was also a founding member of the Westport-Weston Arts Council, which later morphed into the Westport Arts Center.”