Peter Leavitt, a 35-year resident of Woodstock CT, was born on January 22, 1913 in Constantinople, Turkey. He was the son of Arthur Howland Leavitt of Spencer MA and Englishwoman Elsie Baker. The Baker family members were prominent textile merchants in Constantinople and Arthur, who spoke many languages fluently, was in the Foreign Service stationed at the US embassy as a courier and translator. Peter is shown below at the age of five or six with sister, Ruth, younger brother John, and mother Elsie. In the second picture, a slightly older Peter is sitting on a launch at a dock on the Bosphorus between European and Asian Turkey in the early 1920s.
Because of the turbulent times in Europe with the outbreak of WWI (Turkey was on the other side), Peter was sent to England to live with the Bakers at the age of one and a half. When the USA entered WWI in March 1917, the Leavitt family had to leave Constantinople, allowing Peter to be reunited with his parents near London and then during their stay near Paris. In 1919 Peter and the family returned to now Istanbul on a boat that crossed the Mediterranean from Gibraltar. Peter’s childhood in Turkey ended around the age of eleven and a half in the summer of 1924 when he returned to England to attend Heathfield Boys School through 1926 at age 13. During these later years he would visit his Auntie Dolly Baker who worked at the girls’ school attached to Downe House (Darwin’s House) about 16 miles from the center of London. No doubt, his young life in England separated from his parents was very difficult for Peter.
In early 1927 the Leavitt family took a boat to Providence RI from Portugal and settled in Spencer MA, Authur’s home town. After about six months, the family moved to Westchester County NY and rented a house from Leland Magill at Milton Gardens in Rye NY. Leland was the father of Peter’s future wife, June. Eventually Peter was enrolled at Blair Academy in northern New Jersey where he finished high school. He enrolled at Amherst College in the early 1930s at the depth of the Great Depression, but left college after completing one full year and a few months. The picture on the left (above) was likely taken at Milton Gardens in 1928 when Peter was about 15 years old; the picture on the right was taken in northern Washington DC, in the mid-1930s after Arthur had taken a position with the National Archives.
Peter’s professional life began with a brief job at NBC in Manhattan. Then, he sold himself to F. Schumacher’s, a formidable home furnishing business that specialized in fine fabrics and wallpaper. He worked at Schumacher’s for the next 25 years. One of his tasks at Schumacher’s was to help Frank Lloyd Wright furnish the Guggenheim Museum.
Much of Peter’s early life was a mystery to his children as this was rarely discussed by Peter or his immediate family. Peter kept a file of letters from his close friend, Boyce Aiken, written in the 1930s and early 1940s which tell us a little about Peter as a young man in his 20s and 30s. Both Peter and Boyce were aspiring writers in the 30s although it became obvious in reading Boyce’s letters that Peter had decided to stay with Schumacher’s to gain his financial independence. Peter was initially stationed in Detroit and toured the Midwest to sell fine fabrics for drapes and upholstering furniture. Apparently he was successful and was invited to the home office in mid-town Manhattan in the late 30s where he became involved in purchasing materials from designers and mills. He commuted to mid-town Manhattan for more than 30 years after eventually settling in Rowayton CT.
In April of 1940 Peter travelled down to DC to visit his family and sought out the “cute little girl” June from Milton Gardens, whose family had moved to McLean VA. June, who was more than seven years younger at 19, was taken by surprise when Peter proposed to her; and as we all know, she said “yes”. Their McLean wedding was in August 1940 and the ceremony was well attended by many close friends from Milton Gardens. New York friend, Henry Maury – a future Rowaytonite and father of Brooke, Martha and Kirby – was Peter’s best man after Boyce, who was living in Taos NM, turned him down.
Peter and June took their honeymoon at Niagara Falls and then moved into the “boathouse” on Casmar’s Pond at the northeast corner of Rowayton CT. This shack was on property owned by the family of Boyce’s wife, Stella, also a good friend of Peter’s preceding the wedding. The scenes above are Peter and June at the boathouse in the late spring of 1941.
After a year at the boathouse, Peter and June rented an apartment on 18th Street at the edge Greenwich Village for about two years. While living there they became good friends with Margaret DeSilver and Carlo Tresca. On one occasion June traveled to the Midwest with them (a file of letters from Margaret confirms this friendship). Margaret’s former husband (deceased) had founded the American Civil Liberties Union which Margaret continued to sponsor and Carlo was an Italian leftist noted for his opposition to Mussolini. One morning as Peter walked to work at Schumacher’s from Greenwich Village, he came upon a curbside crime scene that turned out to be where Carlo had just been assassinated.
In 1943 Peter and June moved to Darien CT to share a house with physician Alan and wife, Scud Frazer. This is when their first child, Christopher (John), and the Frazer’s daughter, Gail, were born. A year later, Peter and June purchased a house on Harstrom Place in Rowayton CT and Rowayton was where Peter and June lived for the next 36 years owning homes in the 40s and 50s on Bryan Road and then in the 60s and 70s on the water on Bluff Avenue.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s while continuing to work at Schumacher’s, Peter became involved in local politics. He represented the 6th district (Rowayton) on the Norwalk City School Board. He was also elected as an independent candidate to the Norwalk City Council representing the 6th district. At the same time he chaired the Independent Party which elected Irving Freese as Mayor of Norwalk for eight years (1947-1955). In the early 1950s Peter was approached by the FBI and asked to attend meetings of the local Communist Party in the Harbor View section of South Norwalk. A true politician at the time, Peter willingly attended and left no secret to the comrades about his being contacted by the FBI which no doubt won him some votes for this honesty.
The picture on the right shows Peter in the late 1960s with father, Arthur, and brother, John, on the Bluff house terrace in Rowayton.
In 1960 Peter left politics and Schumacher’s to form a partnership with Henning Watterston, a designer of Jacquard fabrics. Together they founded the Leavitt, Watterston Corporation based in Woodstock Valley CT on Barber Road in a restored 18-century house on 164 acres. The house on Barber Road in the early 1960s is shown as it looked before and after. The business designed and sold fine fabrics for mills surrounding the quiet corner of CT and Italian mills to companies like Schumacher’s, one of Peter’s best customers. A studio was added attached to the back of the house where the design work was done.
This is where Peter and June lived for most of the final 35 years of their lives. During many of those years, Peter donated his time on almost a daily basis, with Jill and Alex Walsh at Majilly in Woodstock, at the University of Connecticut library in the Art Department, and at Wonderland Books in Putnam CT. Peter and June also busied themselves in retirement with impressive dedication to literary pursuits, painting, pottery, and sculpting.
In the fall of 1981, eldest son John (Christopher) delivered his green 1975 Jeep to “the farm” before moving to California. Peter used this vehicle to tour the fields, collect firewood, and provide joyrides for grand children. In 2002, the Jeep was given to Howard, a mechanic at Bowen’s Garage in Eastford. The repaired 35-year old Jeep can often be seen in Bowen’s parking lot these days. Speaking of the Bowens’, matriarch Gertrude Bowen was Arthur’s (Peter’s father) half sister, also from Spencer MA.
Peter passed away naturally in North Woodstock at the home of John and Becki Leavitt on December 28, 2010 following the death of his wife Junie by three months and two days.
In addition to John, Peter is survived by three sons, Peter and David, who live near Boone NC, and Andrew who lives in Gaithersburg MD with their respective families, and daughter, Phoebe, of Kennebunkport ME, eleven grandchildren, and seven great grandchildren.