The life and times of Ed Vebell

Ed Vebell knew what he wanted to do at a young age but probably didn’t realize how far his talent would take him.

“I still remember lying on the floor in front of a pot-bellied stove at age 6 and announcing to my mom, ‘I’m going to be an artist,’” said Vebell, a Westport resident.

Beginning in his late teens in his native Chicago, Vebell began a long career as a professional artist in the military, journalism and advertising. He took some art classes as a youth but was mostly self-taught.

His skills would take him to World War II battlefields, to the Nuremberg trials, and into the lives of military leaders, sports legends and entertainers. His illustrations appeared regularly in Time, Life, Sports Illustrated, and Reader’s Digest. His art was on everything from Wheaties cereal boxes to U.S. postage stamps.

He also was a world-class fencer, competing in the 1952 Olympics and inducted into the U.S. Fencing Hall of Fame. He traveled extensively in Europe and Africa and learned to speak four languages fluently — including Lithuanian, which was his heritage — as well as some Arabic and Russian.

Vebell’s wide-ranging professional and personal adventures are the subject of an exhibit, “The Curious Case of Ed Vebell,” at the Westport Historical Society through April 16. It showcases his artwork and memorabilia he collected through the years, much of it from World War II, but also Buffalo Bill’s hat and an African lion hunting spear.

The society’s Nicole Carpenter described Vebell as “an extremely interesting and funny man who had a great career. He’s more than a famous wartime sketch artist. He’s an amazing local personality. He met so many kinds of people.” Carpenter said his life story and the exhibit highlight “a deeper message of tolerance and the power of artwork on society.”

Vebell called the show “a culmination” of his achievements and said he’d outlived his counterparts in the many phases of his life.

“I’m the last of the Westport Artists Group, the last World War II artist, the last of all the breeds,” he said.

He recently published a book on his wartime artistic endeavors, An Artist at War: The WWII Memories of Stars and Stripes Artist Ed Vebell.

When drafted into the Army during World War II in 1942, Vebell was trained as an aircraft gunner. But the Army was looking for artists — and he fit the bill. He painted camouflage on planes and soon was illustrating for Stars and Stripes, the military newspaper, which he continued doing until 1947. It brought him acclaim and notoriety.

“I was lucky I had talent,” he said. “I was good at quick-sketch, and it’s what they needed.”

He became the official courtroom artist for the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders. “Goering was the closest one to me. He looked like he was still in charge, wondering, ‘What are they doing to me?’” Vebell said of Nazi military and political leader Hermann Goering, who was convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes and then committed suicide by swallowing cyanide before his execution.

Vebell’s artistic reputation from the war and post-war period in Europe allowed him to get high-profile assignments with U.S. magazines when he returned home. He said he specialized in “macho World War II” images and “pretty girls” as well as sports.

He settled in Westport, a town known for its artists and being close to the media world of New York City. “There were a lot of talented artists here,” Vebell said. “We’d have parties about once a week, meeting in restaurants and bringing our drawings.”

Vebell gave back to the community, speaking to student and adult groups about his art and being a high school fencing instructor.

For 28 years, he completed five drawings a month for Reader’s Digest, then the most circulated magazine in the country. “I was their lead artist,” he said. “I worked very fast.”

His art studio was full of costumes and artifacts — some are in the exhibit but most were eventually sold at auction — that he used to turn around assignments quickly. “They all knew I could deliver quickly, which they treasured,” he said.

He stopped drawing in the 1970s because of hand problems. “I wish I could still do it,” Vebell said.

Perhaps his favorite person of those he met while on assignment was tennis legend Arthur Ashe, an African American sports trailblazer. He also became quite fond of golfer Jack Nicklaus.

Vebell offered advice on how to live a long life: Stay physically fit, mentally active and eat well.

“I was as strong as a horse,” he said of his physical condition when younger. In addition to fencing, he lifted weights, swam, rode horses, and did a little boxing and wrestling.

His lifelong eating habits consisted of having a big breakfast of all fresh fruit in the morning and then nothing until dinner.

Vebell had a lot of girlfriends when younger, he said, but proposed only twice — to his longtime wife, Elsa, now deceased, and to actress and future princess Grace Kelly. He met them both around the same time in Manhattan in the 1950s.

“Both were aristocrats. I had to quickly make up my mind. And,” he said with a wry smile, “I tried hard to do that.”

The Westport Historical Society, 25 Avery Place, is open Monday to Saturday. Learn more at westporthistory.org or call 203-222-1424.

Editor’s note:

Ed Vebell died on Feb. 10 at the age of 96, prior to the publication of this feature.

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