Gaston family’s long history in politics is quite a tale

Bill-Gaston-Greenwich-VoicesMy grandfather, William Gaston, a lawyer, playwright and decorated World War I veteran, died in 1970 at his home in New Canaan when I was 12 and I regret I never had the chance to sit down and talk with him about the many theatrical twists and turns of his own life.

Those twists included his high-octane marriages to actresses Kay Francis, Rosamond Pinchot (my grandmother) and opera singer Theodora (“Teddy”) Lynch Getty. Only Teddy, a native of Greenwich who turned 100 last year and whose biography Alone Together, which recounted her 17-year marriage to J. Paul Getty and which I discussed in my Jan. 3 column in the Greenwich Post, survives from that now fading era.

Beyond his tumultuous marriages, one of the intriguing chapters in Grandpa’s life was his rough-and-tumble run in 1948 for Connecticut’s 4th Congressional District (the one quite ably represented today by Jim Himes) as the Democratic candidate against Republican incumbent John Davis Lodge. A biography of Lodge written by Thomas A. DeLong in 1999 and a recent conversation with my uncle shed some interesting light on that race.

Elected to the House in 1946, John Davis Lodge was the grandson of legendary Massachusetts GOP Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, whose claim to fame was his staunch opposition to U.S. participation in the League of Nations. Meanwhile, my great-great grandfather, William Gaston — this William Gaston’s grandfather — had been mayor of Boston and governor of Massachusetts in the 1870’s. Both Lodge and Gaston were graduates of Harvard and Harvard Law School and and served in the U.S. Navy.

The similarities between the two families didn’t end there. John Davis Lodge was an actor turned politician, whose predecessor in Congress was playwright and future diplomat Clare Booth Luce. My grandfather, a labor lawyer, penned a play, Damn the Tears, that appeared on Broadway in 1927, where he and Luce happened, as it were, to cross paths romantically. My grandfather’s late wife, Rosamond Pinchot, a niece of Gifford Pinchot, a U.S. Secretary of the Interior and governor of Pennsylvania, and Lodge’s wife, Francesca Braggiotti, at one time were both actresses and best friends.

Despite these shared family connections, however, the 1948 campaign quickly veered south. Delong wrote “Gaston campaigned with nettling and undignified jingles and euphemisms making fun of his opponent… When John [Davis Lodge] declined to debate on the same platform, Gaston pugilistically pegged him ‘Dodging’ Lodge, the ‘fugitive’ candidate who ran away from face-to-face forums. He dubbed Lodge the ‘flotsam and jetsam candidate who expects to ride in on the Republican tide.’”

Lodge, to his credit, took the high road, and chose not to respond in kind, a winning strategy as it turned out.

My uncle, Thomas Gaston, who lives in Woodbury, recalled them barnstorming the district, Gaston’s car hooked up to a trailer equipped with a loudspeaker. Nine-year old Tom, in a job he probably did not relish, was called upon to sing “Cast your vote for Gaston for he will surely win.”

But Gaston did not win. He lost 55% to 43%, a respectable performance against a well-known incumbent in a (then) solidly Republican district. Lodge, for his part, would serve only one more term. In 1952, he was elected governor of Connecticut and later would be named U.S. ambassador to Spain, Argentina and Switzerland.

In a further historical wrinkle, this Gaston-Lodge congressional rumble in 1948 was chapter two — a “grudge match” my grandfather called it — from a Gaston-Lodge contest waged decades earlier. In 1922, my great-grandfather, Col. William A. Gaston, a Democrat, challenged long-term incumbent Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge for the U.S. Senate seat. In that race, Lodge squeaked through 47.6%-46.8%, a narrow margin of 7,000 votes statewide.

Somewhere buried in my attic I have a crumbling “Gaston for U.S. Senate” campaign political pamphlet — a relic I should probably donate to the Massachusetts Historical Society, or to my son, William (Grey) Gaston should he ever be inspired to run for elected office like his ancestors.

 

Bill Gaston is a member of the Greenwich Democratic Town Committee, but the opinions expressed here are his own.

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