A newsletter produced by four children from 1937 to 1942 sheds light on a pivotal time in ChathamBy Debra Lawless
On Aug. 8, 1937, The New York Times published an article about four precocious children who had just begun to publish a biweekly newsletter called The Chatham Chatter.
The story mentioned that Louis B. Gilbert, the eldest grandchild of Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, had taken up a career in journalism.
Gilbert was only 10 years old that summer and his staff was even younger. Gilbert served as editor-in-chief, with his sister, Alice, 9, and brother Frank, 6, serving as associate editors. Alice also typed the Chatter and reviewed books. Frank wrote many of the stories with cousin Walter Raushenbush, 9, who was named “an occasional contributor.” The children printed the Chatters on a hectograph, a sort of early mimeograph machine, and sold local and out-of-town subscriptions. It was a sophisticated undertaking, especially when you consider that the newsletter pulled the children away from their usual summer pursuits of sailing on Stage Harbor, swimming in Oyster Pond River and playing cards.
Over Sunday dinners with their grandparents, Brandeis and his wife, Alice, and the children discussed the news of the day. “The atmosphere really called for an awareness of what was going on,” says Frank Gilbert. “It was a difficult period. The Nazis were on the march.” In The Chatham Chatter, “we tried to cover the terrible situation we were in vis-à-vis Germany,” says his sister, Alice Gilbert Popkin. “We always listened to the radio because it always had international material in it.”
The Chatter’s motto was “Quality Not Quantity,” a line written by the justice himself. In 1924, Brandeis bought a house off Stage Neck Road on 20 acres overlooking the Oyster Pond River. Every summer, the families of the Brandeis’ two daughters met in Chatham. Elizabeth and Paul Raushenbush, professors at the University of Wisconsin, traveled with their son, Walter, and stayed in the Brandeis house. Susan and Jack Gilbert, both attorneys, brought their three children from Manhattan and stayed in their own house on Skunk’s Neck, about a five-minute walk from the Brandeis property.
Brandeis’ house, still owned by the family, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1972. Today, Walter Raushenbush is sitting in the downstairs room around the corner from the dining room where those Depression-era Sunday dinners were held eight decades ago. On the table next to Raushenbush lies a pile of Chatham Chatters, running from 1937 to 1942. The Chatters resurfaced in 2016—the 100th anniversary of Brandeis’ ascent to the Supreme Court—when Frank Gilbert found them in a brown shopping bag stowed in a storage locker in Chevy Chase, Maryland. For Raushenbush and his two living cousins—Louis died in 2002—there might not be anything that can bring back the distinct flavor of those long-ago summers the way the Chatters can. “It is an amazing collection of history as we look at it now,” says Raushenbush.
Brandeis’ home served as a summertime gathering place for luminaries. One of those visitors was his colleague, Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, whom Popkin remembers as “very kind.”
While the children sold Cardozo a Chatter subscription, they drew the line when Cardozo asked to see the “newsroom,” a small room in the Gilbert house. He was, as the family story goes, refused entry on the grounds that the newsroom was too messy. “He turned away after hearing this rebuff and he never saw the offices,” says Frank Gilbert. “It’s embarrassing and amusing to remember how I treated such a distinguished jurist.” In July 1938, Gilbert wrote Cardozo’s obituary, adding that he had had his picture taken with the justice in Chatham.
The children also covered local news, such as fires and car accidents. Louis Gilbert interviewed and endorsed candidates for the Board of Selectmen. The publication covered the murder of an innkeeper, and the death of Dr. Minnie Buck, Chatham’s dentist, who died after a bizarre gas explosion in her cellar. The Chatter editorialized that “unless it can be guaranteed to citizens of this town that such an explosion will not occur again, [that] gas should be cut off from this town.”
The Chatter also welcomed guest columnists, such as the eccentric Chatham painter Harold Dunbar who warned, in 1940, that “this time next year there may be only a lot of cellar holes and charred debris” in town if Hitler decides to bomb Chatham.
The Chatham Chatter continued publication until the summer of 1942. Life was changing. Brandeis had died the previous fall, two months and two days before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. As the war effort geared up, the children, ages 15, 14 (two of the children were the same age) and 11, ceased publication of their remarkable newsletter that for five years had shed light on a pivotal time in Chatham and the world.