Ellery and the Journalists
Ellery Thompson possessed an unusual combination of qualities that attracted journalists throughout his life. Aspects of that appeal come through in his books, articles, and unpublished reminiscences, but it is hard to define. He is a mix of the homespun and the sophisticated; tough fisherman but also an artist capturing a seascape in oils; rebellious teenager rejecting school (though very good at writing), later achieving fame as an author and boat designer; the amorous young man whose romance was ultimately "with the sea," as a journalist once wrote.
That he was never at a loss for words may have been a by-product of the disparate elements within him jockeying to find expression, which together formed the opinionated personal style that was good copy for the inquisitive journalist.
The New Yorker was not the only magazine taking up the subject of Ellery Thompson in 1947. The now-forgotten Liberty, a cross between Life and the Saturday Evening Post, ran a four-page story, "Dragger-Artist," told in the captions of twelve photographs. The lead photo shows 48-year old Ellery on his back playing the trumpet in the Crystal Avenue house in New London, one of his paintings on the wall above. In others he's painting on a dock, buying art supplies in New London, aboard his boat, and at the dinner table with his mother and two Yale scientists.
The March 1965 issue of Soundings, a new boating magazine, published "Fifty Years a Draggerman," by Richard Woodley, who had visited Ellery in his West Main Street rooms.
"[He] sat on a bed in the cluttered room, his...arthritic frame hunched forward as the heat from an oil heater wafted over us. His manuscript for a new book was spread between us, and a nearly finished oil painting was propped on a chair...
"Six or seven years ago, when his health got bad, he moved off his dragger Eleanor and into his hideaway on the second floor of an old building on Mystic's Main Street." His name was on a metal plate by the door where he had scrawled 'Studio and Shop Lab, No Visitors. No Social Life Here. By Appointment Only.'
"[It] was the Eleanor, built in 1927, which became Ellery's 'perfect lady.' With her he dragged the bottom off Watch Hill and Point Judith, up around Martha's Vineyard, often using the peaceful port of Edgartown.
"Eventually he berthed the Eleanor at [Stonington] and lived, wrote and painted aboard. But his eyes still felt the sun and the fumes of a half century of fishing, so he came ashore for good.
"Miss it? Oh my no. I'm living the whole thing over again all the time with my painting and writing and talking to tourists."
Ellery's hometown newspaper, New London's Day, reported on him many times over the years. Staff writer Mary Maynard published a tribute on December 5, 1968, ten years after Ellery had given up fishing. Headlined "The Sea Has Always Come First in His Life -- He Has No Regrets," Maynard alludes to the difficulties any journalist faced with Ellery: "Cap'n Thompson has an almost inexhaustible supply of stories about the people, places and the ever-changing sea where he made a living. 'Enough to keep me talking and writing continuously' he said, with a twinkle in his eye."
"When I was 15 my teachers at Bulkeley School agreed with me that my father could teach me more than they could. So I quit," he said simply.
"Later I learned the value of education -- you can't do anything without an education. I had to get mine when I was 30 -- and studying on your own at that age is difficult, even with editors and Yale professors as willing tutors.
"Fishing was my life for over 40 years," said Thompson, the sea-worn wrinkles prominent on his face. "I caught over 15 million pounds of fish in 5,000 trips -- without any electronic navigational or fish-finding gear.
"I designed [the Eleanor] myself...How did I learn designing? I watched the naval architect when he transferred my flat profile drawings of my first two boats into blueprints. ...I knew just what features I wanted in the Eleanor from my experiences on the other vessels."
Ellery's temporary sojourn in Florida was bookended by two articles in The Hartford Times by John Cleary. "Cap'n Setting Sails for a New Life" (January 9, 1972) begins with a shock: "Cap'n Ellery F. Thompson of Mystic destroyed more than $1000 worth of his paintings in his West Main Street rooms a few days ago." Cleary explained that Ellery had to vacate those rooms and, having little money, would soon board a train for Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to live with his sister.
The first article includes this amusing account of his contacts with college students: "The Eleanor used to be chartered by parties of girls from Connecticut College for a day's outing. They always had a chaperone -- and you couldn't tell her from the girls, all of 'em in middy blouses and knickers. They thought it was daring to smoke a cigaret."
Like the other journalists who dug a bit more deeply, Cleary came to admire this gentle soul who got by on so little:
"That little [Social Security] pension is all life has left him of material things, that and some canvases he has neither the strength nor the money to crate and store. His other assets are invisible: friendships, memories, and a spirit that obviously finds fun in everything."
Cleary's second article, a "profile" in The Hartford Times Sunday Magazine of March 23, 1975, announces that Ellery is back in Mystic again, "happily painting and writing and spinning yarns with friends who drop into his cluttered quarters at 55 Water Street." As usual, the article consists to a large extent of reminiscences -- the lively rum-running era, fishermen acting as U-Boat lookouts during World War II, the documentary made about him and the Stonington fleet, and more.
It should be noted here that after leaving fishing behind Ellery himself became something of a journalist, as well as an artist, writing a column "Born to Fish" for the Mystic Compass, contributing articles to local historical society newsletters and to such magazines as The Sextant and Fisherman's Gazette. He mentions an article for Yankee, but doesn't say if he finished it. And he loved to write letters to newspaper editors.
An article in The Day (April 8, 1978) by Steven Slosberg about Mystic's Fort Rachel neighborhood focused inevitably on its best known resident living in a run-down house he moved to after returning from Florida. The piece was actually about the general dereliction of Fort Rachel: houses undergoing "demolition by neglect," as the late Irene Purcell of Noank put it, with marine wreckage strung along its waterfront.
Ellery was happy to live with his clutter in a messy backwater, but his happiness "was not shared by all the residents and property owners around him. There are those who long to have the place cleaned up and restored," wrote Slosberg. The owner of Fort Rachel Marina hoped the redevelopment taking place in the center of town, such as Factory Square and Steamboat Wharf, would spread to what some called this "no man's land."
Below: In the 1980s and 90s the Fort Rachel neighborhood was gradually transformed with restoration and new construction into today's attractive residential and small-business enclave: the award-winning Capt. Daniel Packer Inn occupies the captain's large 18th century house, the marina and other small enterprises appear to be thriving, and Ellery's house is long gone.
Below: This battered photostat of Morgan McGinley's Day column of January 26, 1976, "Memories of an old salt," is from Ellery's scrapbook at the Frank L. McGuire Library. His familiar signature appears above "Magic Magnetic," the scrapbook brand. Its sorry state may be traced to Ellery's haphazard way of handling things around the house. This likely was a reaction to decades of keeping things shipshape on boats, where space was not only at a premium but in motion: equipment had to be secured, both on deck and in the cramped cabin.
McGinley's article, like others before and after, frames the story of Ellery Thompson in the chronology of his life, fleshed out with the vivid recollections he was adept at spinning in new ways.
"I was a privileged boy because I was known as Capt. Frank's boy," Thompson said. "I had an open door at 15 into any of those swinging-door saloons in New London. And there were sportin' girls in the bars in those days.
"He took his lumps, as everyone else in the fishing industry did, when the 1938 hurricane struck. It was tough getting started again, but he did it. It wasn't until 1958 that he'd decided he'd had enough.
"My boat was wearing out and I was wearing out, and I couldn't compete with the new boats out of Stonington," he said, "so I came ashore."
In 1979, twenty-five miles up the Connecticut River from Long Island Sound at Middletown, a writer for the local paper found 80-year old Ellery "doing all right." David Peck had written about Ellery 20 years before, finding him "very good feature material indeed," later running into him at Mystic Seaport "where his story-telling talents were being put to good use as a shipkeeper and yarn-spinner on the L. A. Dunton, a Grand Banks fishing schooner."
Discovering that Ellery was still active and "doing a lot of talking," Peck tracked him down at Fort Rachel in 1979, writing and painting in "a cluttered room in the shack by the river."
"Ellery has always been very thin and wiry -- probably never weighed more than 130 pounds. They say he was quite tall in his youth, but for years he has been quite bent over as a result of an accident at sea, he told me, and perhaps some arthritis as well. But that doesn't keep him from getting around pretty well."
Perhaps Ellery's last appearance in a newspaper or magazine was on the occasion of his 85th birthday when The Westerly Sun published Steve Szydlowski's photograph of him with Capt. Alfred Lawrence on April 2, 1984 -- talking, of course.
Later that year Ellery fell ill and was taken to New London's Lawrence & Memorial Hospital. His doctor insisted that he could no longer live alone, and his niece and closest friends reluctantly agreed. From November, 1984, to his death in 1986 he was well cared for at a nursing home in Colchester, Connecticut, receiving visitors and telling his life story to the nurses.