By James Lomuscio
The Westport Historical Society’s opening reception today not only celebrated the town’s time honored role in art and history, but a man who seemed to personify both — illustrator Ed Vebell, 96.
Ed Vebell: “I’m about 97 years old, which is an achievement in itself.” (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
The exhibit titled “The Curious Case of Ed Vebell” that drew more than 100 persons to the WHS celebrates the work and legacy of a local resident who, with an artist’s pen, had a front-row seat in the mid-20th century.
From chronicling World War II in northern Africa for Stars and Stripes to being the sole artist after the war chosen to sketch the Nuremberg trials to a stint as an Olympic fencer to being a key player during Westport’s 1950s heyday as a hot bed of magazine and advertising art, Vebell’s repertoire seems a curious case, indeed.
The title of the exhibit, which runs through April 19 is a play on the name of the short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, a one-time Westport resident. Fitzgerald’s piece is fantasy tale about a man who ages in reverse.
While, Vebell, who addressed the crowd from a wheelchair, has obviously aged, the power of recall from time to time transformed him with a twinkle into that 20-something who, despite being blind in one eye, became the eyes of the world at war.
“I want to thank everybody for honoring me,” he said. “I’m about 97 years old, which is an achievement in itself. “I was just very lucky. I was in the right place at the right time.”
And probably what many would consider the wrong places. From bordellos in Algiers and similar postwar places in Paris, bawdy tales are recounted in his book “An Artist at War,” passages of which were read by his daughter, Andra Vebell.
It was standing room only at the opening of the Westport Historical reception honoring Ed Vebell. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com
But it was not the bravado that had the crowd rapt, but his mastery of art arrayed on the WHS walls, works that chronicled the 1944 Battle of Monte Cassino and Nazi war criminal Hermann Goering on trial in 1945, as well as Nazis Rudolf Hess and Wilhelm Keitel.
There were also myriad other ink on papers of his work. Vebell, who moved to Westport in 1953, had spent decades illustrating for Reader’s Digest, Life and Sports Illustrated.
Over the years he also became an eclectic collector of historic artifacts, uniforms, arms, armor and myriad military items obtained to study for illustrations in historic journals. He hung on to them, overtaking his studio. Vebell has often loaned out his collection for educational purposes.
“He is more than an ordinary man; he’s an extraordinary man,” said Wally Woods, who serves on the WHS advisory council. “Westport is lucky to have him.”
Leonard Everett Fisher, a fellow veteran and friend of Vebell’s for more than 50 years, took the adulation a step further, calling Vebell “one of America’s treasures, a master illustrator, storyteller and collector.”
“It’s been an honor and a privilege to have known you so long,” he said.