Much has already been written about the cottages that sit on the point where Fall Brook meets the lake, a mile south of Mandana on the west side of Skaneateles Lake — a spot that has been variously called Fall Brook Point, Holden’s Point, Godwin’s Point, and today Fallbrook. But when I recently read that author and artist James Thurber had been a guest there, I had to know more about his visit, and about his host, Frank Godwin.
The word “genius” is thrown around a great deal, but when it’s thrown at an artist like Godwin, it sticks. He was a self-taught sketch artist, painter, engraver, sculptor. His artwork graced magazine pages and covers, advertisements, posters, illustrated books, and newspaper comic strips.
Born in 1889, he began to draw at the age of 3. By 1915, he was an established sketch artist for Judge magazine, and by 1920, his pen and brush work could be found in other magazines and in advertisements as well. By 1925, he was doing illustrations and covers for magazines like Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, Colliers and Liberty.
In 1921, he was commissioned to illustrate The Blue Fairy Book by Andrew Lang, and it was one of his most beautiful efforts. He also illustrated editions of The Black Arrow and Robin Hood (1923), Treasure Island (1924), Kidnapped and Robinson Crusoe (1925), King Arthur and His Knights (1927), Swiss Family Robinson (1929) and The Book of Courage (1930).
Not surprisingly, Frank Godwin enjoyed the company of other artists, writers and musicians. When he and his wife, Sylvia, bought the cottages at Fall Brook Point from the Bissell family in 1928, he treated the property like an artists’ colony.
The Godwins’ guests in the summer of 1931 included James Thurber, his wife Althea and their new daughter, Rosie, who came with Richard and Louise Connell, friends from New York. Richard Connell wrote more than 300 short stories and screenplays; he is best remembered for “The Most Dangerous Game,” said to be one of the best short stories ever written.
One of Thurber’s biographers noted:
“They were invited with the Connells to a week-long house party at the old Victorian manse of illustrator Frank Godwin and his wife, Sylvia, in Skaneateles, New York. Louise Connell remembered the Skaneateles house party as days and nights of rare wit, good liquor (smuggled over the Canadian border), and estival [summer] fun. ‘How I wish I had a recording of that table talk,’ she said. ‘Sometimes we sat at breakfast until lunchtime. I don’t know how Sylvia managed to pacify the servants, but she never made us rise from a meal while we were engrossed in conversation. Nobody got really drunk–except the butler, who, once when he was supposed to be serving dinner, was found under a pine tree out cold–although we did drink a lot.
“When we were not at meals, there was swimming, walking in the woods, boating, and fishing. Jim discovered another sport that he enjoyed more. It was goosing earthworms. The Godwins provided us with an electric gadget for catching bait. You stuck its metal spike into the loamy soil, wet the ground well, and turned on the battery. Very soon at least one lively earthworm would scurry to the surface. This pastime so delighted Jim that he caught all the bait the rest of us needed for fishing. He just loved to goose earthworms.”
Sylvia Godwin was a lovely woman. But she was also a wife and mother, and charged with the day-to-day necessities of cottage living, and serving as hostess. In September of 1931, she advertised for help in the Auburn Citizen-Advertiser:
“Girl for general housework. Go with family to Greenwich, Connecticut, in winter, Lake Skaneateles in summer. Opportunity for clean, ambitious girl. Willing to teach one with some knowledge of cooking. Write Mrs. Frank Godwin, Skaneateles, New York.”
In June of 1935, she advertised again:
“Educated girl as nurse for two children, age 5 and 10, in lovely home on Lake Skaneateles for summer, $20 monthly. Write Mrs. Frank Godwin, Skaneateles, N.Y.”
Thurber himself paid tribute to Sylvia’s manifest capabilities in a story called “Suli Suli”:
“I went fishing on Lake Skaneateles with a group of people, including a lovely young woman named Sylvia. On that occasion I actually did hook a fish, even before anybody else had a bite, and I brought it into the rowboat with a great plop. Then, not having had any experience with a caught fish, I didn’t know what to do with it. I had had some vague idea that a fish died quietly and with dignity as soon as it was flopped into a boat, but that, of course, was an erroneous idea. It leaped about strenuously. I got pretty far away from it and stared at it. The young lady named Sylvia finally grabbed it expertly and slapped it into insensibility against the sides and bottom of the boat… A man never completely gets over the chagrin and shock of having a woman handle for him the fish he has caught.”
Thurber was one of many guests, but the local newspapers give us only a hint of who came and went. In 1936, the Godwins hosted Mrs. Salvatore Curioni, a.k.a. Miss Helen Pickens of the Pickens Sisters, a trio of singers who reached national stardom in the 1930s with their own radio show and records.
And they welcomed Mrs. Sigmund Spaeth, a.k.a. Katherine Lane, a music critic married to “The Tune Detective,” a music expert whose commentary enlivened radio, newspapers and magazines of the era. I am sure there were scores of other famous visitors who the newspapers missed.
In the years Frank Godwin summered in Skaneateles, his main endeavor was a comic strip called “Connie,” which first appeared in 1927. Connie started out as a teenager who fended off suitors. But when she learned to fly, “Connie” took off. She flew to Mexico in search of treasure; she discovered lost civilizations in the Andes and Himalayas, and traveled into the future and outer space. Back on earth, in May of 1936, Connie visited Skaneateles and Owasco lakes, delighting readers of the Sunday Syracuse Herald.
In 1937, Sylvia Godwin answered her own “call of adventure” and embarked on a five-month cruise of Central and South America. Upon her return, in July of 1937, she exhibited textiles from Mexico and Guatemala at the Cayuga Museum of History and Art in Auburn, N.Y. At an evening screening, she narrated the color films she had taken on the trip.
For many years, Godwin hand-drew all his Christmas cards, often including pictures of the family pets. They were kept and treasured by those who received them.
In 1938, Godwin began drawing the “Roy Powers, Eagle Scout” strip for the Boy Scouts of America. That winter, while Godwins were living in Havana, their Skaneateles cottage was robbed by a 13-year-old local boy, who was apprehended.
But that was the least of the couple’s worries. In the early 1940s, they parted ways. Local legend has it that Frank Godwin was so upset with losing Sylvia that he simply walked out of the cottage at Fall Brook Point, left everything behind, including half-finished art on his easels, and never returned to Skaneateles.
By 1945, the cottage had passed into the hands of the Gutchess family. Frank Godwin remarried and set up a studio in New Hope, Pennsylvania. In 1948, he began “Rusty Riley,” a newspaper comic strip about a young boy and his horse, set in Kentucky. When Godwin was chided for the lack of realism, he went to Kentucky, met with his critic, and for more than a week he toured the state, taking photos and sketching. He was the kind of man who wanted to get it right.
Nor was Frank Godwin confined in any way to the traditional arts. During World War I, he had designed the first reconnaissance camera for airplanes. As a young man, he built and flew two airplanes, and a boat propelled by an airplane prop. In later years, he built, to scale, a working steam locomotive, casting and machining the parts; it was four feet long.
One of Godwin’s oddest assignments was for the Book-of-the-Month Club, which promoted its selections in newspapers with comic strip versions. In 1945, Godwin did the art for Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, and in 1946, Mary Jane Ward’s The Snake Pit. Not your usual light comic fare.
In fact, there seemed to be nothing he couldn’t do. Frank Godwin died in 1959, at the age of 70, leaving behind an incredible legacy of art, inspiration and good cheer.
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Frank Godwin’s story is just one in the life of this camp. For more history, and summer rental info (!) visit here.
Photo of Sylvia Godwin by Hal Phyfe, New York City, with thanks to Diane Lavarre Godwin and the “Frank Godwin, Artist” page on Facebook, a wonderful resource created by Godwin’s descendants.
The Thurber quote about Sylvia Godwin is from “Suli Suli” published first in The New Yorker magazine and then in a collection entitled Let Your Mind Alone! (1937)
Thurber (1975) by Burton Bernstein, p.198
James Thurber, the gifted humorist, essayist, playwright, and cartoonist who set me off on this search, drew one of my favorites (below) in 1932. I would advise you to read every word Thurber ever wrote.