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Woog's World / "Ed Vebell draws on life experiences"

Published 1:03 am, Friday, May 28, 2010
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Ed Vebell partied with Edith Piaf. He fenced in the Olympics. He sketched Herman Goering at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials.

Ed Vebell has done all that -- and more -- in a 70-year career as an illustrator. A Westporter since 1953, his works are now on display at the Senior Center -- and at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

This Memorial Day weekend is a perfect time to honor one of the last of Westport's famous artists. At 89 years young he is still as active, artistic and passionate as ever.

A Chicago native, Vebell earned scholarships to three art schools. He attended all of them -- moving each morning, afternoon and evening "with a paint pot in my hands."

In 1942 Vebell did what many 18-year-olds were doing: joined the Army. "I shot a gun once, and they sent me overseas," he recalls. The Army is known for turning engineers into potato peelers -- and vice versa -- but someone recognized Vebell's talent. He was made an artist on the daily newspaper, Stars and Stripes.

Actually, he was the artist. Working alongside cartoonist, Bill Mauldin -- the future Pulitzer Prize winner -- Vebell illustrated dispatches from the German and Russian fronts. "Whatever I read about, I made up an illustration for it," he explains.

His three-and-a-half years on Stars and Stripes changed his life, Vebell says. "It was so exciting. I loved being in a different culture. There were young, talented editors from all over the U.S. I was fortunate to be among them." He learned to speak French, Italian and Arabic.

He was sent to the front at Cassino, Italy. "Standing and drawing, I made a pretty good target," he says. "The photographers could just take their picture, and duck." His art school training -- he had learned to freeze a frame in his mind, then draw it from memory -- served him well.

Finally, the Army gave Vebell another artist to help. Sent to Anzio soon after, the young soldier was killed on the beachhead.

Vebell covered the invasion of southern France. In Marseille he met Piaf, Yves Montand and Josephine Baker. He also spent time with young women from the Folies Bergère.

Vebell traveled with the French army over the Alps to Paris. After the war he went to Nuremberg. Those drawings now hang in the Holocaust Museum.

He stayed in Europe until 1947. "Everyone else wanted to leave," he says. "I didn't. I might have been the last soldier home."

Through the war, he trained as a fencer. In 1952 he made the Olympic team. He reached the semifinals -- the farthest any American got in Helsinki. A detached retina derailed his hopes for Melbourne four years later. He was all set for Rome in 1960 -- but the night before the final competition, his wife gave birth. Exhausted, he performed poorly, and was left off the squad.

All the while, Vebell was building a successful career as an illustrator. He received a stream of assignments from publications like Time, Life and Reader's Digest. Sports Illustrated hired him to produce instructional manuals with athletes like Jack Nicklaus and Arthur Ashe. He drew book covers, and historical tableaux for MBI.

Vebell paid just $225 a month for a gorgeous penthouse on New York's West End Avenue and 83rd Street. But he needed a studio, and when he a saw a Society of Illustrators ad for Austin Briggs' Westport home -- with studio -- he bought it, sight unseen. The price was $29,000.

When Vebell arrived on Quentin Road for the first time, he asked, "What's that blue in the distance?"

"Long Island Sound," he was told.

Vebell is still there. His daughter Andra, son-in-law Larry Hoy and grandchildren live next door.

Though too busy to join Westport's Famous Artists School, Vebell was very much a part of the town's artistic scene. There were regular -- and legendary -- artists' parties, and Vebell was in charge of drawing the risqué scenes.

He laments the loss of that time. "Unless you inherited a place or bought long ago, artists can't afford Westport anymore," he says.

"And the illustrating industry is dead. The last remnants were paperback books, and they're down about 90 percent now."

He is intrigued that of all the book covers he drew, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Series remains most popular today. The covers have attained cult status among collectors from around the world -- but Vebell barely remembers them.

By contrast, he'll never forget his war drawings. A small sample is on display this month at the Senior Center, in honor of Memorial Day.

One of his favorites is there. At Cassino in 1944, Vebell watched in wonder as Germans radioed for a truce. Germans and Americans met; they collected their dead, traded cigarettes and chocolates for schnapps, and wondered why they were shooting each other. "That was a little bit of history," he says. "No one knows it happened -- except me. I was there."

Another Senior Center illustration shows Algerian troops on horseback, dragging dinner on a leash: a lamb.

"Every day was exciting," Vebell says. "My job was to find an interesting story or person, and report it in pictures and sketches."

Those illustrations now sit by the thousands on the floor of his beachside studio. They share space with his fencing world championship medal, hundreds of books, and dozens of uniforms, swords and helmets.

"You know, I've got Buffalo Bill Cody's hat," he says casually. "It's over there, in a bathtub."

The only thing Ed Vebell has more of than artwork and memorabilia is stories. And, like his lifetime of work, all are amazing.

Dan Woog is a Westport writer. His blog is www.danwoog06880.com; his e-mail is dwoog@optonline.net.