LOOKING BACK: Legacy of Katharine Ludington, and that of her grand home

Old Lyme’s Katharine Ludington (granddaughter of Phoebe Griffin Noyes), as mild mannered and genteel as anyone, certainly did not fit the bill of dangerous radical. Photos courtesy Jim Lampos and Michaelle Pearson.

Around the bend of Lyme Street, next to Old Lyme’s Congregational Church, is a stately mansion that signals the entry into town, and stands as a symbol of a bygone era.

It was in this house that a liberal suffragist and a future conservative Supreme Court justice partied together in 1916. It was here that a notorious flapper was wed in 1929 and mourned a scant six months later. And, it was on this site that the Sons of Liberty hatched their patriotic plots starting the American Revolution.

The mansion that stands upon this rich historical ground is known as the Ludington House. It was built by wealthy New York businessman Charles Ludington in 1893, upon the site of the former Parsons Tavern which had been owned by his in-laws. The most famous resident of this noteworthy home was Charles’ daughter Katharine.

Artist, suffragist, world peace activist, and co-founder of the League of Women Voters, “Kitty” Ludington was one of Old Lyme’s most prominent residents in her day, and one of the nation’s most respected women.

Today, while her name may still ring a bell, her story has been unjustly forgotten. Still, her deeds continue to influence our lives and political culture, and stand for the best of the American spirit in the early 20th century.

Katharine Ludington was born in New York City on Oct. 16, 1869. The U.S. had torn itself apart in a civil war at the beginning of that decade, and was just beginning the process of re-building “a more perfect union.” Part of that perfection was the cause of suffrage: a movement that sought to give women the right to vote.

The first meeting of Connecticut suffragists was held at Roberts Opera House in Harford, two weeks after Ludington was born. While Katharine was raised into a world of privilege, much was expected of her. From her grandmother Phoebe Griffin Noyes, founder of one the nation’s early art schools, she learned an appreciation of fine art and the value of an education.

Ludington attended Miss Porter’s School in Farmington, and the Art Students League in New York City. She became an accomplished portrait artist, exhibiting in New York, Philadelphia and Old Lyme. Her paintings still hang today in Old Lyme’s Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library.

An event in 1914, however, changed the course of Ludington’s life and propelled her into the national spotlight.

Ludington’s older brother Arthur was a philanthropist, social reformer, and advisor to Woodrow Wilson. Katharine loved and admired her brother, who died tragically in London the day before he was to ship out to the front lines of World War I as a Red Cross volunteer. Ludington’s lifelong friend, future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, thought this tragic event was the turning point in Kitty’s life, prompting her to give up the arts in favor of social activism, as a tribute to her brother and his good works. Ludington gave herself full time to the twin causes of women’s suffrage and world peace.

Ludington became the president of the Connecticut Women’s Suffrage League in 1918 when Katharine Houghton Hepburn resigned to form the Women’s Party. Less radical than the socialist firebrand Hepburn, Ludington used her social connections and the gentle art of persuasion to advance the cause of suffrage.

One of Ludington’s early victories was to convince Republican National Committee chairman Will Hays to issue a statement supporting suffrage in 1919, and to enlist Hays’ support in urging Connecticut’s Republican Gov. Marcus Holcomb to do likewise. Gov. Holcomb was a key figure in the suffrage battle.

By 1920, the federal amendment that granted women the right to vote was passed by Congress, and sent to the states for approval. If women were to vote in the 1920 presidential election, the amendment would have to ratified by September. By March 1920, victory was at hand as 34 of the needed 35 states voted for ratification. It all came down to Connecticut.

Ludington organized rallies, mobilized supporters, wrote letters, and used all available means to convince Holcomb to call a special session of the General Assembly to bring the suffrage amendment to a vote.

All through that summer Holcomb refused, patronizingly stonewalling the effort. In the meantime, women opposed to suffrage, “the anti’s,” wrote letters to the local papers blasting Ludington as a dangerous radical and socialist who threatened the nation’s social order.

Ludington, as mild mannered and genteel as anyone, certainly did not fit the bill of dangerous radical. Still, as the summer wore on, her patience wore thin and her letters and public speeches grew more militant and committed to the suffrage cause.

Connecticut would not ratify the amendment until it was too late. The 35th state to approve was Tennessee, with Connecticut following after the battle was over. Ludington wasted no time being bitter over losing the battle or resting on her laurels after winning the war.

By the time ratification occurred, Ludington had already been planning for the aftermath. What would suffrage mean? More importantly: how can women translate the right to pulling the levers of a voting machine into actually pulling the levers of power?

She knew that this could only come through education: not only in how to cast a ballot, but in how to run a town meeting, what happens behind the scenes, and how the actual nuts and bolts of government fit together and form the machinery of power.

To that end, Ludington proposed an idea that she knew must be launched the minute the vote was secured if the cause of suffrage was to be truly meaningful and empowering. In 1921, Ludington’s idea, the League of Women Voters, was launched.

For the next two decades, the League of Women Voters was Kitty’s central cause. She held a seat on the national board, and served as New England director. Under her leadership, the LWV became a critical instrument in training women in government. It also served as a progressive force in shaping the character of electoral politics.

In 1928, Ludington negotiated with the National Broadcasting Company to establish the principles of evenhanded reporting and objectivity that would form the basis of the Fairness Doctrine and Equal Time Rule that characterized the golden age of American journalism. These rules and guidelines stood until the late 1980s when they were repealed, ushering in our current age of partisan media.

Had her story ended with suffrage and the League of Women Voters, the legacy of Ludington as an important figure in American history would have been secured. But Kitty didn’t stop there.

She dedicated the rest of her life fighting for social justice and world peace, including advocating for the establishment of the United Nations. She was a progressive force, and her life was entwined with historical figures such as New Republic founder Walter Lipmann, dear friend and medical pioneer Dr. Alice Hamilton, and Justice Felix Frankfurter, who all regularly attended her legendary parties.

Then there was 1929’s original girl gone wild — Kitty’s favorite niece, Josephine Noyes Rotch Bigelow.

“Jo-Jo’s” wedding party, held at Kitty’s home, was the social event of that summer. Josephine, who libertine publisher and poet Harry Crosby called his “Fire Princess,” died in a suicide pact with Harry with whom she was having an affair. Her funeral, held in the Ludington House six months after the wedding, signaled the end of that decade that ushered in the era of modernity, under whose sway we are still living.

While Ludington continued a life of social activism and political engagement well into her 70s, in her later years she focused more energy locally and served as president of the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library — a library named after her grandmother and built by her father. She died in 1953, and is buried around the corner from the Ludington House in the Duck River Cemetery. Her influence upon Old Lyme is considerable, and her good works still resonate in our national culture

Editor’s note: Jim Lampos and Michaelle Pearson are authors of “The Remarkable Women of Old Lyme” (The History Press, 2015), available at local bookstores. They will be speaking Saturday, June 27, at the Old Lyme Historical Society, 55 Lyme St. at 1 p.m. and Aug. 24 at the Old Lyme Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library, 2 Library Lane, at 7 p.m., both in Old Lyme.