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Tuesday, February 19 Living

The magazine publisher who shaped CT’s image in the middle of the 20th century

There’s a deeply ingrained image of Connecticut that has just a few core characteristics. It’s a place of small towns, a Colonial heritage, prosperous suburbs, great schools and Yankee innovation and ingenuity. Connecticut, according to this image, is a place of respite, where the rich, powerful and famous have getaway homes. It’s a place that’s pro-business. It’s fiercely local, with 169 defiantly independent towns crowded into a tiny state.

That Connecticut, the place of waspy businessmen and elite universities, shoreline homes and stone walls around rolling fields, is part fact and part manufactured self-imagery. The attributes always existed. But a remarkable confluence of events in the mid-20th Century brought them to a new prominence, as one remarkable magazine publisher sought to package them and sell an image, both for his own financial advancement and for the state’s.

In 1938, the Merritt Parkway opened, making Connecticut accessible to commuters, and powering real estate and business growth as the state sought to attract affluent newcomers. New Haven was celebrating its 300th anniversary, and the state had just finished its own tercentenary in 1935.

These dates bookended a period of reflection — a reevaluation of the past combined with planning for the future, to some extent inventing both. A historic hurricane hit in September 1938, devastating eastern Connecticut, the oldest section of the state with the most direct Colonial roots. There was an election that November that upended the political status quo. The New Deal Democrat Wilbur Cross was replaced as governor by Raymond Baldwin, and the archetype of New England Republicanism was ushered in: low taxes, balanced budgets, pro-business, all while accepting certain progressive reforms.

With that election, the political center of gravity shifted from the Eastern part of the state to Fairfield County, particularly to Greenwich, with its connections to Washington, D.C., and the power centers of New York finance and media.

Connecticut Circle magazine launched that same year, created by Harry Franklin Morse, a New London shipwright, born in Brooklyn and raised in Maine, but a Yankee entrepreneur with a canny eye for opportunity. Connecticut Circle was a regional magazine, modeled on the magazines of a much-better known peer, Henry Luce, who introduced a repositioned Life Magazine to the country in 1936. (Connecticut Circle is the predecessor to Connecticut Magazine, sold after a 33-year run and renamed in 1971. Today, Connecticut Magazine is owned by Hearst Connecticut Media Group, which also published this article.)

The magazine was there to serendipitously chronicle Connecticut in a seminal pivot, and that’s what appealed to the Yale history professor Jay Gitlin, editor of the new book, “Country Acres and Cul-de-Sacs: Connecticut Circle Magazine Reimagines the Nutmeg State, 1938-1952.” It was published in November by the Acorn Club, an organization of Connecticut historians.

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The book organizes and interprets articles from Connecticut Circle. Gitlin and a team of contributors put the articles in the context of the historical patterns that were driving change. It’s a rich primary-source record of an under-studied period in the state’s history.

“How did we get here — it wasn’t just the Civil War,” Gitlin asks. “It was also the work of an incredibly crafty businessman and marketer named Harry Morse. He had a vision of what he wanted to create. It was at some level a consciously-shaped image of Connecticut. It’s a past we invented. It’s a history of history making.”

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The book, with 301 pages, including an extended introduction by Gitlin, is divided into 13 sections. It offers an in-depth look at Morse’s Connecticut, framed with section introductions. It’s mostly verbatim reprints of articles, images, ads and covers from the magazine. The purpose is to capture the moment, and it’s effective. There’s Katherine Hepburn, the Connecticut native and movie star, who appeared on the cover several times. There’s Igor Sikorsky, the aviation pioneer. There’s a profile of the governor’s foot guard, and an illustrated spread on the state’s turkey farms. There are schools (including a 1938 article about what would become UConn, with an aerial photo of Storrs). Colonial homes and churches are featured and interpreted, as is the hurricane and the story of the construction of the Merritt Parkway.

Through it all, there’s the lure of the state — beaches, boating, country lanes, and scenic waterfalls. “Morse is the one who refines the sales pitch,” Gitlin says. “His message is we can keep the past, but we can also head into the future by selling this as our birthright: ‘You, too, can be a Yankee.’”

What doesn’t appear much in the book — because it wasn’t in the magazine — are the cities, with their factories and multifamily housing. You don’t see today’s familiar Connecticut ethnic mix, which admittedly was nascent, at best, in 1940. People of color are scarce. (One enigmatic ad from Pratt & Whitney features Mark Twain sitting with an unidentified African American man.)

In 1935, Gitlin says, the state created a Publicity Commission.

“Tell the rest of the nation about Connecticut,” Gov. Cross instructed the five-man panel. “Tell about our natural beauties, tell about our accessible location, tell about our government, and our reasonable taxes. Invite those who are seeking an ideal place for a year-round home — or for a vacation — to come to Connecticut.”

And that’s when it all came together for Gitlin. “This is not just a magazine, this is a prospectus,” he says. “Then it made sense.”

Tony Silber is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.

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