New London had it good there for a while.
Each September, for three years running a little more than a decade ago, the Boats, Books & Brushes Festival at City Pier behind Union Station attracted both national names among writers and throngs of dedicated readers and fans of literary personalities roaming the harborside event.
Nothing captured the moment and the momentum for this eternally beleaguered city better than the early afternoon, a Saturday as I recall, when a train eased into Union Station carrying Rachael Ray, then the Food Network’s personification of bubble and squeak. Crowds of disciples lined the tracks in anticipation cheered and applauded as she arrived.
At its gaudiest, the festival boasted appearances by some of the best as well as the celebrated: Peter Benchley, who summered with his family in Stonington and wrote the shark sensation “Jaws,” regaled festival folks from aboard that great white among vessels, the Coast Guard Barque Eagle.
The writer I’d come to hear, and was privileged to introduce, Rick Bragg, the barrel-chested and mightily gifted journalist and wordsmith, held forth, in his Alabama drawl, inside a festival tent overflowing with admirers. Behind him, in New London harbor, waves rippled and breezes teased both tarps and sail.
Bragg won the 1996 Pulitzer for feature writing and is best known for his memoir “All Over but the Shoutin.’” During that September weekend in 2003, others making appearances included Frank Deford, Tom Brokaw, Jacques Pepin, Luanne Rice, Dominick Dunne, Carol Higgins Clark, Tony Horwitz and the children’s favorite, Avi.
It was heady and it was wonderful and New London, true to its pathology, could not stand success. By 2006, after a three-year run, the festival that offered so much in showcasing the city was essentially dead, beaten into obliteration by political bickering and personality feuds among the promoters.
Still, New London soldiered on, buoyed by the annual summer Sailfest with its masses, its honky-tonk, its signature redolence of fried dough and spectacle of fireworks; the venerable midwinter Hygienic Art Show; the Amherst Early Music Festival at Connecticut College; and a melange of fair weather fests dedicated to indie music, grinder cookoffs and assorted art, food and boat arrays along the harbor. But, for me, none achieve the splendid cachet, the moment in the sun, of the Book, Boats & Brushes Festival.
Even a kind of post-mortem for the festival turned into an ignominious sideshow of scandal and domestic horror. The husband and wife promotional team — Richard Shenkman and Nancy Tyler — that, as Prime Media, worked to make the OpSail 2000 Festival such a success for the city, and performed similar magic with the initial Boats, Books & Brushes, became the subject of national news stories. In 2009, Shenkman kidnapped Tyler, then his ex-wife, at gunpoint and held her hostage in the South Windsor home they once shared. Tyler finally escaped after 13 hours, and Shenkman set the house on fire. During his trial he threatened to kill Tyler and declared he’d ordered a hit on her. In 2011, he was found guilty of kidnapping and nine other charges. He was sentenced to 70 years in prison.
I have my own Richard Shenkman story.
Several months before OpSail 2000, the city’s grand Tall Ships parade, I spoke by phone with a woman named Mary Tierney who lived in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She’d read a blurb in an Omaha newspaper about OpSail and was determined to visit New London. Her late husband, Jerome, was stationed in the Coast Guard in the 1950s and helped operate the New London Ledge Light, the three-story red brick lighthouse that sits in the harbor.
She told me that her husband wanted to take her to New London when he retired, but he died at age 56 and never had the chance. After the Coast Guard, she told me, he returned to Council Bluffs and worked for the Rock Island and then the Union Pacific railroads, dispatching and tracking freight trains. Once she’d read about OpSail, Mary Tierney, then in her mid-60s, made plans to come East for the tall ships festival with her three daughters and, if they could get away, her two sons.
We talked about what her husband remembered of his time in New London, and she told me about life in the Midwest.
Somehow the subject of Omaha beef came up and I mentioned I’d never eaten one of those heralded steaks from the heartland. She promised to bring me a few steaks when she came that summer.
And she did. However, in all the festival hubbub, she was unable to personally deliver the steaks to me, so she left the package with festival organizers with instructions that it go to me at the newspaper.
Apparently, the steaks fell into the hands of Shenkman and his wife. I was later told they ate them.
One for the books, indeed.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.