Journalist Carried a Torch for Lighthouse Keeper

by Bob Stepno

Woodcut of Ida Lewis, lightkeeper and rescuer

“The Woman on Lime Rock”

No, this isn’t  about Pulitzer’s World campaigning to build a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. It’s about a reporter for the competing New York Herald who, at least according to this radio drama, fell in love with a lady who was outstanding in another harbor.

The woman is the real subject of the drama — lightkeeper Ida Lewis of Newport, R.I., “The Woman on Lime Rock” of the episode’s title. In fact, “Lime Rock” itself was officially renamed “Ida Lewis Rock” in 1924.  Today, it is home to a yacht club, also named after the turn-of-the-century heroine. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

The “Cavalcade of America” broadcast from January 1947 begins:

“It’s late afternoon in the year 1911 in a hotel room in Newport, R.I., Will Carver, an elderly journalist, stands at the window looking across the harbor at Lime Rock Lighthouse…”

Carver, of the New York Herald,  narrates the story, dramatized in flashbacks as he dictates Ida’s obituary. The actor is Les Tremayne, one of the best-known voices in radio. Actress Shirley Booth plays Ida, rowing through storm-tossed waters, tending the harbor beacon lit and keeping the fog horn sounding for 54 years — all compressed into a 25 minute program.

When I have a chance I’ll check the archives to see if there actually was a published obit under Carver’s byline. (My available online archives don’t include the Herald.) In the drama, Carver admits that Ida was his childhood sweetheart, and that he first proposed to her when she was 15. But she wanted to be a school teacher, and was just starting on that path when her father’s illness left her in charge of tending the oil-lamp harbor beacon.

When Carver comes to interview her at the lighthouse years later — after she’s a national celebrity — her crippled father mentions that stories of her heroism have brought hundreds of letters proposing marriage. “Know about them? I wrote them,” Carver replies. The journalist, in this portrayal, does nothing more heroic than being a life-long friend, with a self-deprecating sense of humor. Good for him.

“Ida Lewis, Heroine, Dead at Newport”; Providence Evening Tribune, Oct. 25, 1911, page 4

Ida Lewis really was a hero and subject of numerous news stories in national newspapers and magazines. From the age of 18 she made headlines for her rescue work. Eventually, she received gold and silver medals, and President Grant paid her a visit. Ambrose Everett Burnside, a Civil War general who became Rhode Island’s governor, may have lost at Fredericksburg, but he won the battle to get Ida named the official keeper in the U.S. Lighthouse Service, one of the predecessors of the U.S. Coast Guard. (She and her mother already had been tending the light for years.)

At her death, obituaries said that she had saved the lives of 18 people, including soldiers and sailors making their way across the harbor in small boats or on weak ice.

As is the case with Hollywood’s film docu-dramas, the radio stories on “Cavalcade of America” aren’t marvels of historic detail. They prefer to tell simple half-hour-long stories of Americans demonstrating noble virtues. In this case, Ida’s mother and brother are left out of the story, her brief marriage to a Connecticut man is omitted, and the Rhode Island general’s name is shifted to a more familiar one of the same era, “General Sheridan.”

While the lingering affections of the romantic newsman provide a useful narrative frame for the story, perhaps his presence also reminded Cavalcade listeners of newspaper reporters as observers and storytellers, and hinted that they — like lighthouse keepers — sometimes made sacrifices for their careers.

“That’s how it was with Ida Lewis and me. I brought her news of the world she’d left behind so long ago, and we talked and laughed together. I never noticed it happening, but somehow we’d both grown old…”

The star of this “Cavalcade of America” episode, Shirley Booth, was an accomplished actress, and had a few journalist roles in her career, even if they weren’t her most celebrated. A few years after this broadcast won a Tony and an Oscar in “Come Back Little Sheba.” On television, she won Emmy awards for her 1960s series, “Hazel.” Her Broadway career, however, gave her opportunities to be a news  photographer in “The Philadelphia Story” (1939), a writer in “My Sister Eileen” (1940), and a columnist in “Hollywood Pinafore” (1945).

About Bob Stepno

mild-mannered reporter who fell deeper into computers and the Web during three trips through graduate school in the 1980s and 1990s, then began teaching journalism, media studies and Web production, most recently as a faculty member at Radford University.
This entry was posted in 1940s, 19th century, reporters, true stories. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Journalist Carried a Torch for Lighthouse Keeper

  1. Joe Houlihan says:

    Great story Bob. I sail my boat by the Ida Lewis Lighthouse frequently.

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