Taylor Swift is undoubtedly the biggest star today that owns a home in Westerly but many people don’t realize that one of the biggest movie stars of all time – Douglas Fairbanks Watch Hill – spent his summers growing up in southern Rhode Island.
In Douglas Fairbanks Jr.’s 1988 autobiography Salad Days, he describes his childhood summers spent in Watch Hill and his later life in Hollywood. He writes,
“I still have fleeting recollections of the delicate smell of summer lavender faintly dampened by sea-salt air that breezed in over the grasses, through the trees, and up to my grandmother Munnie’s window as she sat in a small oval morning room… like a tower in a castle.”
The castle he describes is Kenneth Ridge; the Fairbanks’ sprawling cottage built in 1898 on the south side of Ridge Road in Watch Hill. The cottage was built by Daniel J. Sully, a commodities broker, known as the Cotton King. Sully’s daughter Beth married Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in 1907 in the sun parlor of the house. Over the years guests at Kenneth Ridge included Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Enrico Caruso.
Douglas Fairbanks Watch Hill – The beginning
Born in 1909 in New York City, at age four, Fairbanks was learning to swim in the ocean off Watch Hill. At the tender age of six, he was acting in one of his father’s silent films. In those days Fairbanks Sr. was a stage actor and began to make movies. He would become one of the biggest movie stars of all time.
In 1915 the silent movie American Aristocracy starring Fairbanks Sr. was shot entirely in Watch Hill. Many of the scenes in the film were shot at the Ocean House and the historic hotel’s iconic veranda is clearly recognizable.
Fairbanks Jr. writes about his never-ending fascination with the ocean and the lively calliope music of Watch Hill’s Flying Horse Carousel that punctuated the air of the main street of the village.
“There was the movie theatre which showed movies one reel at a time. Mr. Beebe’s popcorn establishment which had an early type of popcorn machine. It had a little dancing clown inside the protective glass, twirling around and stirring up the newly popped fresh corn. It turned and bowed and whistled a brisk tune as the popcorn popped. It was the most fascinating place in Watch Hill.”
Watch Hill memories
Other Watch Hill memories included meeting Caruso and about riding around in the family’s Pierce-Arrow. He describes his job as a soda jerk and pin boy at the village bowling alley. Like many small boys he had a secret gang that played in a cave dug out of a huge sand dune on Napatree Point.
He recounts day-long hikes from Watch Hill to Westerly which he disliked so much that twenty years later, at the beginning of World War II, he joined the Navy instead of the Army so he wouldn’t have to walk.
In 1919 when Fairbanks Jr. was ten years old his parents divorced and the family fortune was in decline. Kenneth Ridge, the family house, was rented out. Mother and son spent the next few summers at the Ocean House.
“That summer when I was ten Babe Ruth set a season record of over fifty home runs. So I set out to beat Ruth’s record. We’d play ball on the great lawn at the Lehme family cottage. We used pillows for bases. I’d go out and practice with a friend. I’d knock the ball around and say, if this had been a game, do you think that would be a home run. He’d say, oh yeah, that would have been a home run. I’d say, fine. That’s number twenty-one. I think I broke Babe Ruth’s record in one afternoon.”
The book tells the story of Fairbank’s Jr.’s life in Hollywood and his rise to stardom in films such as Little Caesar, The Prisoner of Zenda, Gunga Din, The Corsican Brothers, and other epics of the 1930s. There are stories about the author’s famous friends including Laurence Olivier, Edward G. Robinson and Noel Coward.
He also describes his romances with Gertrude Lawrence, Marlene Dietrich and others, as well as a portrait of his first wife, Joan Crawford. The book ends with the author’s enlistment in the U.S. Navy in 1940 at age 30.
He went on to write about the next chapter of his life in A Hell of a War about his WWII experiences as a highly decorated Captain in the U.S. Navy’s Beach Jumpers. He was a real American hero who had an extraordinary life and career. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. passed away in 2000 at the age of ninety in New York City and was entombed with his father at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
Reminiscing on old times
In 1984 Fairbanks Jr. and his second wife, Mary Lee Epling, stopped in Watch Hill for a sentimental visit.
“We looked around the old house which is now a convent. It was sweet, absolutely sweet. The nuns couldn’t have been nicer. I showed them where some secret panels were that they didn’t know existed. I remembered a big rock in the back yard. In my memory, it was an enormous rock that I slid down with great pleasure and a sense of adventure.
I went around to the back of the house to look at it and found it to be just a little outcropping. It was disappointing for a moment. But then, I also had to accept the fact that no matter how large some of those lovely Watch Hill homes are, they always were larger in my mind’s eye. I suppose that’s the way of all life, isn’t it?”
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