Meet your neighbor... illustrator and Olympian Ed Vebell
WESTPORT — Ed Vebell is the most interesting man in Westport.
A quick scan of his office, on the second floor of his Compo Beach home, seems enough to validate that statement. On the same wall as his large “artist’s” windows, which were the sole reason he purchased the home, sight unseen, are two overflowing bookshelves. They are separated by a large desk, on top of which a computer and a mountain of excess loose papers, photographs and old illustrations are enshrined in the light from the panes on a recent sunny Monday.
Vebell bought his home in 1953 for $29,000 and lived there with his wife, Elsa Cerra and three daughters. At that time, it was the only house built on what was farmland and the Long Island Sound was easily visible from more than one spot on his property.
He came to the Westport plot by way of a New York City penthouse apartment and, before that, Europe during World War II.
“I looked all over New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania,” said Vebell, of his search for a home containing an artist’s studio with large windows allowing in plenty of natural light to eliminate shadows while drawing. “I lucked out.”
Vebell is perhaps best known professionally for his work as an illustrator, which has been featured in publications like Reader’s Digest and Sports Illustrated.
Drafted in 1942, Vebell left his hometown Chicago for Algiers, Algeria, where he was initially conscripted as an aircraft gunner. While visiting an art gallery near where he was stationed, Vebell, who had been drawing since he was 6, was referred to the offices of the military publication Stars and Stripes. After showing a book of his sketches, Vebell was offered a job.
“I got out of all of my daily work,” Vebell recalled. “If you’re not specialized, you’re cleaning pots and latrines and things like that. All of a sudden that’s all gone and I’m on the staff of Stars and Stripes.”
2-4 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 28
Westport Historical Society
25 Avery Place, Westport
Vebell worked in northern African for a year, learning both French and Arabic and interviewing “colorful” people for the publication, including the dancer Josephine Baker and then-French President Charles de Gaulle, with whom he sat on a balcony as the general gave a speech. After a year, he was moved to the front lines, where he documented the violence of war alongside American soldiers.
“Now I was going out in the field and picking up stories all by myself. They would drop me off at the front and say, ‘We’ll pick you up in three or four days.’ I had no place to sleep. I had to scrounge for food,” Vebell remembered. “As an artist, you have to stand there quietly and draw — What a wonderful target you make. You’re close to the front there and they can pick you off. I was very lucky all through the war. I should’ve died I don’t know how many times.”
On his last assignment for Stars and Stripes, Vebell illustrated the proceedings of the Nuremberg trials, where he sketched Nazi Party leaders including, Hermann Goring, Rudolf Hess and Wilhelm Keitel.
“Goring looked like he was still in charge, he looked very haughty. Hess was next to him, he had his nose in a book, pretending he was reading, and Keitel was next to him,” the 96-year-old remembered.
Starting this Sunday, these stories and other oddities and eccentricities of Vebell’s life will be on display at the Westport Historical Society. The exhibition, “The Curious Case of Ed Vebell,” which will include illustrations, items and stories collected over the course of nearly a decade, runs through April 16.
Among the items on display at the historical society are fencing equipment.
In addition to his work in illustrating, Vebell was also a competitive weightlifter and competed in the individual and team epee events at the 1952 Summer Olympics. His skill he attributes, at least in part, to his training in France with European masters in the 1940s when Paris was under siege.
“I paid my teacher with a can of foie gras,” recalled Vebell, who said meat was scarce in Paris at that time. “People don’t realize that France was dark. They call Paris ‘the City of Light’ — there was no light during the war. I used to walk the streets of Paris. Not a single light would be on, all the houses were dark, street lights were turned off. Occasionally you would hear a boum musette, an accordion, and it would be somebody in a bar. You could hear the faint sounds that somebody is alive.”
Vebell would eventually leave Paris, returning to the United States in 1949, but he never stopped amassing hard-to-believe stories.
To this day, Vebell likes to look back on the many near life-ending experiences — detailed in his recently released memoir “An Artist at War” — that he walked away from unscathed.
In addition to risking his life on the front lines of World War II, he was lost at sea for 11 days, dropped several hundred feet from the top of the Alps in a jeep, was a passenger in a two-seat plane that crash-landed in the Appalachian Mountains and he’s been stabbed twice while fencing.
“But nobody’s shot me so far — that’s good.”