• Rick Epstein

Celebrities Who Trickled Through Frenchtown

The first celebrity through here was probably British Gen. William Howe, commander of the British Army in America, who availed himself of Sherrard's ferry, shortly after capturing Philadelphia in 1777. The ferry was about where the Frenchtown bridge is now, and maybe a little south.

William Jennings Bryan gave two-minute presidential campaign speeches in Frenchtown from the back of a train twice – in 1896 before he lost to William McKinley and in 1908 before he lost to William Howard Taft.

The campaign for the Republican nomination in 1912 brought two heavy hitters to town within a few days of each other. On May 24 President William Howard Taft came north on the railroad making whistle-stop speeches along the way. In Frenchtown he gave a 15-minute talk to more than 1,000 people. He told them he was traveling because Theodore Roosevelt was trying to deprive him of the nomination.

Miss Clara Belle Emory (1864-1936) of Frenchtown presented Taft with a bright-green ornamental four-leaf clover for luck, and he wore it in his lapel all day and into the evening as he campaigned in Phillipsburg, Somerville, New Brunswick, Plainfield and Elizabeth.

On May 27 Col. Theodore Roosevelt rolled in from Phillipsburg and addressed a crowd of almost 4,000 who had been waiting for him for two hours. He only spoke for two minutes and there was no handshaking, and the disappointment was general. Roosevelt promised to continue to fight against special privilege and urged his audience to support legislation that would benefit them.

Other celebrities, including Annie Oakley, Grover Cleveland and authors Liz Gilbert, James Agee and Nathanael West are being addressed in other posts.

Does it count if someone just passes through Frenchtown on a train? In that case, we can count President Rutherford B. Hayes and Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman as flow-thru visitors, according to the Frenchtown Star. In 1902 Adm. George Dewey, who'd won the Battle of Manila Bay, and his wife, rocketed through town on the Pocono Special en route to a mountainous vacation, according to the Milford Leader. In 1915 President Woodrow Wilson passed through en route to his summer home in New Hampshire.

Connie Mack, manager of the Philadelphia Athletics baseball team from 1901 to 1950, came to Frenchtown on Sunday, July 14, 1918. He had motored up from Philadelphia with his friend Charles Rhefuss, whose wife and daughter were boarding for a month with the Apgars at 12 Bridge Street. Willam Apgar and family entertained them at dinner, and the Star praised Mack as “one of the shrewdest men in his profession.”

When Howard Godley owned Harman's Rexall Drug Store in the Odd Fellows building, most likely in the 1940s, famous bandleader Artie Shaw and his soon-to-be-wife, movie star Ava Gardner, strolled into the store. They were weekend residents of Bucks County. “The townspeople were more shocked to see her wearing a loosely cut pair of denim trousers, an early forerunner of jeans, than they were to see them in general!” said Godley's granddaughter Eileen Lewis in 2020. “Supposedly this was talked about nonstop for days.” This story was told to her by a 97-year-old aunt.

The Manhattan-bus stop used to be at the corner of Bridge Street and Trenton Avenue, right in front of the Candy Kitchen. So co-owner Ginny Bournias was often called upon for unofficial taxi service. Clientele bound for Bucks County included singer Robert Goulet; comedian Dodie Goodman, who had a sister in Point Pleasant; actor Helen Hayes and her actor son James MacArthur of “Hawaii 5-0” fame; and talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael, who lived south of Erwinna. Barbara Davis McGavock remembers that in the 1960s idlers would sit on benches nearby, whittling, and waiting to see who would come in on the evening bus.

Actor James Stewart was also seen in Frenchtown. His sister lived in Tinicum Township, Pa., and sometimes he'd accompany her to the Frenchtown Presbyterian Church. Bucks authors Pearl Buck of Hilltown Township and James Michener of Tinicum Township also made appearances in town.

When actor/singer Claiborne Cary owned The National Hotel in 1975-78, her visitors included her show biz friends Phil Donahue, Mary Tyler Moore and Valerie Harper and her actor sister Cloris Leachman.

Rock star Rod Stewart, who was visiting friends across the river, dropped into Frenchtown on the evening of Oct. 22, 1983 to buy film, beer (Foster's) and groceries. At Ed's Deli, in the plaza beside The National, “all of a sudden 20 girls came flying in wanting his autograph,” and he obliged cheerfully, the owner said. Not long afterward, Stewart was sighted at Heinz & Rita's up the hill in Kingwood.

More recently, sightings of Leonardo DiCaprio have been reported, but I haven't pinned anything down yet, and the fact the DiCaprio has been a Frenchtown Facebook gag doesn't help. Anyone who knows something for sure about DiCaprio's visits is invited to email me at RickEpstein@yahoo.com.

From "Rick's Frenchtown Encyclopedia"

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