Search This Blog

Sunday, March 03, 2013

The Curious Story of Lewis Fish

From the Depths of the Vault Dept.: Not to inflict too much of my juvenalia, but here’s a piece I co-wrote with friends and placed in our town newspaper, the Ridgefield (Conn.) Press. As noted here, we styled ourselves as the Pickwick Club in high school, creating a series of parallel characters who ostensibly lived in fin-de-siècle Ridgefield and eschewed the companionship of women (we didn’t date much). The article is filled with in-jokes, some of which are so obscure that I can’t even recall the antecedents. But I’m pleased with the accompanying photo, which we worked together to style and which I snapped. My character, named George Gordon (you easily can reckon why), wasn’t in the old club at whatever moment we were capturing, so you’re spared my visage.


WHEN THE PICKWICK CLUB was founded in Ridgefield in 1895, it was intended as a vehicle for Milo Wumbek of South Salem Road and Reddingite Jack O’Diamonds to protest their unfair treatment at the hands of a fickle young woman. What might have been an effective organization never appreciably materialized, however, because too many members tended to forget themselves when faced with temptation.

The Ridgefield, Conn., Pickwick Club, c. 1920
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Of the 19 men who joined during the Club’s 78 years, apparently only Wumbek and four others remained true to the cause and shunned the society of women. It is not certain how obsessive this was with them; the Club’s charter was very specific about forbidding “only the extended and emotionally compelling liaison” with women, recognizing, in another clause, “the unhealthy effect of extreme separation.” In spite of such leniency, 14 avowed bachelors were delinquent enough to warrant Club action. Of those 14, the story of Lewis Fish is perhaps most remarkable.

Men of the Fish family seemed uniquely susceptible to the charms of the young ladies. Charter member Moisha Fish must have misunderstood the Club’s purpose, for he had been married for six years when he joined at age 29. His son, Roderick, married the attractive and sought-after Maude Meddowes in 1911, the same year of Roderick’s admittance to (and expulsion from) the Club (his descendants note that he felt shame, and bitterness toward the Pickwicks, which was the principal cause for his relocation to Wichita. Kansas, soon afterward).

Lewis, Roderick’s oldest son, aspired to become a doctor and enrolled at Yale University to matriculate in a pre-medical program. He began classes in September, 1931, living with his uncle, Dr. Ralph Goldstone, an adjunct professor at Yale, and his family on Sandford Town Road in Redding. Dr. Goldstone had been helpful in gaining Lewis admission to Yale, and he offered room and board for the young man at a nominal 10 dollars per month. Lewis’s aunt, Kitty, and her sister, Lewis’s mother, were the daughters of “Mad” Mack Meddowes, a recluse from the Newtown area, who was a shopkeeper and inventor until he took his own life in 1895.

Inevitably, Fish met the Pickwicks. An entry in the diary of Milo Wumbek, dated November 1, reads in part:

“Hallowe’en Pickwick meeting notable in arrival of Lewis Fish . . . Members were incredulous that a Fish could be so audacious . . . he is a smart dresser, wears a nice hat, smokes a right pipe, speaks a good line . . . due consideration for admission should be given.”

He was voted in at the Christmas meeting and must have become a model member, for the diary gives no indication of infringements, something Wumbek was very keen on recording.

It is surprising that Fish, a Yale undergraduate living the lifestyle befitting a man of that
age in that position, did not bring the Pickwickian wrath upon him through his school social life. His widow remembers him as a dashing, gregarious sort who kept late hours and gambled a great deal, yet he somehow managed to remain aloof enough to escape any emotional commitments, a fact which renders his downfall all the more ironic.

Although Fish may (as speculation has had it) have been satisfying Dr. Goldstone’s desire for “the son he didn’t have,” there was, in fact, a Goldstone daughter. Ann was 13 when Fish moved in, and a photograph taken one year earlier reveals a coyly-posed nymphet with long, probably light brown hair and a full, dimpled face, wearing a formal, high-necked dress. Lewis’s letters to his parents written during his first three years at the Goldstone house yield little in the way of information about her. A few trivial incidents are noted, pointing to a sibling camaraderie and some chaperoning when the girl turned 16. However, in a letter dated May 4, 1934, he wrote:

“There is some serious attention being paid little Ann, who confides in me that she does not know what is to be done. She visits my room frequently to pour out her heart, and I am touched, although I do not feel able to help her much. She is very conscious now in he way she dresses, and I am not surprised to hear that she is turning the heads of her coevals . . . She has lately been asked to accompany a young man into New Haven for a show, and I suppose I shall have to go along, to my cultural edification and the young man’s frustration.”

Six months later he wrote:

“ . . . you ask me how Ann is, and the news should surprise you. She has a kind of ‘understanding’ with one John Dreisen, the son of a Stamford Victrola merchant. She tells me that she is unsure how the ‘understanding’ came about, and fears that she must have ‘forgotten herself,’ something I tend to doubt. Nevertheless, the poor thing is in a quandary, and refuses to leave my side.”

His next letter, three weeks later, informed that:

“ . . . Master Dreisen (the fellow can hardly be more than Ann’s age) has presented to her a ring which must have cost quite a few Victrolae (sic). The doctor seems in favor of the match, and Aunt Kit cries most of the time, so I suppose it will be settled. Ann herself is, as usual, confused.”

What happened next is best left in Fish’s own words, from February 2, 1935:

“How should one react to a girl who is in tears? Ann visited me last night, upset at the callow Dreisen, whom she wishes would leave her alone. What he had done to her I could not tell, but she interrupted my reading and clung to me, weeping. I embraced her, trying to offer commiseration, and she quieted down, and then looked at my face as if, as somebody put it, she would draw it. Then she kissed me. Then her father walked in . . .

“Our interview was conducted in his study, and he concluded that I must marry her or fail my courses, which he obviously has the influence to bring about.”

A Pickwick meeting held on St. Valentine’s day concerned the Lewis Fish issue, with results noted by Wumbek as:

“ . . . disbelief that Fish allowed himself to be maneuvered into that position. The Fish has little choice. We will release him as honorably as possible, and formally decline to attend his wedding.”

They were married a year later and moved to Boston, where Fish entered the Harvard Medical School. Dr. Goldstone received a full professorship at Yale, and he and his wife moved to New Haven after selling their house in Redding to violinist Jascha Heifetz, who lived there for nine years.

Lewis died in his sleep in 1965 after a long and successful practice in Wichita, where his widow still resides.

Moisha II, his brother, joined the Pickwick Club in 1942 and remained a member for 18 years, possibly inspired by his brother’s misfortune. He did marry late in 1960, at age 43, for reasons which are still unclear.

The surviving Fish family is reticent to discuss the Pickwick Club and its relationship with it, although the 16-year-old Moisha III has expressed an interest in re-forming the Club, which is a highly unlikely prospect.


(This is the fourth in a series of articles about the now-defunct Pickwick Club, from Lawrence’s forthcoming book, The Pickwick Years.)

Ridgefield Press, Feb. 18, 1976

No comments: