A tribute to our founder Jack Moffly

In the summer of 1989, Jack Moffly and four friends sailed the forty-four-foot ketch Athene across the North Atlantic, from Nova Scotia to Ireland—a rough, lonesome expanse of ocean that has swallowed many a boat and spawned many a legend. Indeed, several legends were spawned on that very trip.

Would you believe the great ocean devoured Jack whole? He’d been chatting with architect Bob Hart, the boat’s owner and skipper, as they bobbed on house-sized rollers in ferocious, gale-force winds that sent sea spume blasting across the open cockpit. Neither man saw the rogue wave pounce. “The next thing we knew,” Jack wrote later, “we were enveloped by a ton of green water.”

He might have gone back, in that moment, to the sea from whence we came. But that would have been very bad form. For one thing, his and Donna’s thirtieth wedding anniversary was nigh, and Donna had been snuck aboard for the occasion—in the form of a blow-up doll with a black nightgown and red wig approximating the real Donna’s glorious flame, and a tape recording of Donna’s voice whispering sweet nothings. Now she was waiting patiently in Jack’s bunk for him to stop fooling about in the ocean.

For another thing, he and Donna had just embarked on a bold adventure of another sort: They’d bought the Greenwich Review in 1987 with an eye toward making it the best town magazine in the country. The following year, they would add The Nutmegger and soon combine the two ’zines to create Greenwich—the foundation of a robust little empire (six magazines, plus digital platforms and custom publishing) now known as Moffly Media and headed by their son, Jonathan.  (The transition came in 2007, with Jack’s sage advice to his son: “Don’t screw it up!”)

In short, he had a destiny to fulfill, and now that destiny hung by a tether in the cold Atlantic. Gear bent and gear broke. But the tether held, a wave bore Jack up, and as he swirled into view he nonchalantly asked Bob Hart, himself soaked and teetering on the stern, “Would you mind giving me a hand?”

The intrepidness, the zest for life, the bonhomie, the gentlemanly cool: These are among the many splendid qualities we shall miss about John Wesley Moffly IV. For on the morning of March 11, 2018, after ninety-one magnificent years, he set sail for the farther shore.

Jack was born into a family of industrious, conservatively tempered Philadelphians on August 5, 1926. Chestnut Hill Academy and Andover launched him toward Princeton (World War II intervening: he served in the Army Air Force), where he studied at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and plied the waters of Lake Carnegie as commodore of the Princeton Yacht Club.

“Returning from class one day, I passed my roommate who casually commented, ‘Albert Einstein called and wants you to call him,’” Jack wrote. “I ignored this ludicrous remark coming from someone whose campus nickname was ‘Joker.’” But further questioning disclosed that Einstein, a resident scholar in Princeton, hoped to arrange to sail his dinghy on “zee lake.” So Jack went around to 112 Mercer Street for tea; his first glimpse of the great man was the famous white frizz poking over mounds of books and papers. Was there room for his dinghy in the PYC boathouse, Einstein wondered. It was really more of a shed, Jack told him, but they’d be honored. Did they have a launching ramp? It was really a dock, and a flimsy one at that. What about a limousine service? No, they rode their bikes out to the lake. “Vell, I like to ride my bike,” Einstein replied, “but with zee sails over my shoulder?”

After graduating from Princeton in 1949, Jack went to work for Time Inc. Early on they posted him in Cleveland, selling ad space for House & Home magazine, which Time had created to address the postwar housing boom. One night in 1959, Jack went to a basement party. A twenty-three-year-old redhead—we’ll switch now to her perspective—spied a “baldish” man in conversation and tapped him on the shoulder. “I said, ‘Are you Ed Pendergast?’ He said ‘no,’ and just turned back to who he was talking to. And I thought, Well! Rudest guy I ever met.”

That might have been the end of it. No Donna and Jack, no Jonathan and Audrey, no grandkids, no magazines. But it’s strange what little things fate turns on. Later that evening, Donna found an acquaintance losing her hors d’oeuvres in an upstairs toilet bowl. “You’re in terrible shape,” Donna said. “Who’s your date?” The young woman moaned, “Jack Moffly,” and gave a brief description of the man. “And so I march back down to the basement, go over to the same guy, tap him on the shoulder and go, ‘Are you Jack Moffly?’ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Well,’ I informed him, ‘your date’s throwing up—you’d better take her home.’”

From this unpromising soil, romance blossomed. They were married six months later.

The lean, patrician bearing. The courtly manner. The mellifluous baritone. The traditionalist outlook on the world. And yet: the festive bow ties. The late-staying at parties. The high color in his cheeks, the lively glint in his eye that, even in old age, revealed the eternal boy in him.

“Happy Jack—that was my nickname for him,” says his daughter, Audrey Moffly Klotz. “Don’t you think he was a Happy Jack?” Audrey, a painter and the bohemian of the clan, continues, “Dad and I had such a cool connection. When he found out he had stomach cancer a few years ago, I said, ‘Dad, you can’t die.’ I’ll tell you why. Because he got me—he really got me.” She laughs. “And I’m not the easiest person to get.”

Cynthia Coulson, who knew Jack as a neighbor, friend, sailor and boss—she was a longtime editor at Greenwich—observes that people tend to show their true colors on the water. “Jack was what we call a Corinthian sailor—eminently fair and noble.”

Bill King, an old friend and frequent sailing companion of Jack’s, says, “Neither Moff nor I was a Captain Bligh—and a lot of guys are Captain Blighs once they get on a boat. There’s bad language all over the place. I never heard Jack say a four-letter word, ever. Nor did I ever hear him take the good Lord’s name in vain. He was a pious man and a very, very straight fellow. Good sense of humor, though.”

Jonathan Moffly conjures boyhood memories of duck hunting with Jack among the islands off Riverside. “We’d get up at four in the morning and push off in a metal boat with Charlie, our golden retriever. We’d drop the decoys next to one of the islands, and dawn would come and the birds would start flying, and they’d check out our decoys. Then we’d shoot, and Charlie would run into the icy water and bring ’em back.” He pauses. “Those were really great adventures for me, there in the cold and dark in the middle of the night.”

Jack is best known for his terrestrial accomplishments. As Publisher, he brought in color printing and new magazines, and steered the business through the reefs of the digital age and, with Jonathan ably at the helm, past the icebergs of the Great Recession. Last year the Greenwich Chamber of Commerce awarded Jack the Malcolm S. Pray Excellence in Business Award.

He was a lucid and witty writer. In his account of the North Atlantic voyage, Jack wrote of the solemn departure, “Liz [Hart, Bob’s wife] read a dockside prayer ‘For Persons Going To Sea,’ choked a little when she came to ‘raging sea,’ but managed to hyperventilate and finish.” Of their balky long-range radio: “All that could be coaxed from the radio’s myriad dials and channels was a voice that sounded like Donald Duck speaking in Spanish.” And of their post-storm repair activity—the sewing, the sawing and the chiseling: “It looked for all the world like arts and crafts day at the senior center.”

Crewmate Miles McDonald recalls that Jack managed to secure his favorite bunk, on the right-hand side of the forepeak, which offered maximum warmth and tranquility. As it happened, Jack thought the sea voyage would be an opportune time to quit smoking; but he still had half a pack left, and it would be a pity to waste it. “After dinner, we went up to our bunks to go to bed, and he had to have a cigarette,” Miles says. “So he opens up the hatch—he didn’t want any smoke to come in, because Bob Hart would smell it contaminating his boat—and a large wave crashes in and soaks his cozy little rat’s nest, clothes, sleeping bag, cigarettes, everything.”

Still, it was as close to a civilized shower as any of the men would get in their nineteen days at sea. As they neared Cork, they could smell the fragrant Irish pastures and bogs—whereupon Miles wondered aloud, “If we can smell Ireland from here, do you suppose they can smell us from there?”

But the writing: Jack’s Founder’s Page was a model of well-reasoned argument. Cynthia Coulson says, “He would make sense of the most complex issues, and he would expose phony and wrong-headed ideas, both in Greenwich and in Hartford.” He never used vitriol. Jonathan remembers a local candidate whom Jack privately thought “an imbecile,” yet sketched in the magazine with clever restraint—“but the nuance was there.” State Senator Scott Frantz, who grew up down the street from the Mofflys in Riverside and counted Jack as a lifelong friend, says, “He was very respectful of anyone with a different opinion—a rare quality now. He wrote intelligently and beautifully, and he documented everything he wrote extremely well.”             

Jack read voraciously, especially about history and politics. Atop his nightstand at the time of his death were Ron Chernow’s biography Grant, oddly reflective of our own times, and Luke Harding’s Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House. He was also a careful listener (all who knew him remember the hawkishly attentive eye), unless he forgot to change the batteries in his hearing aid, in which case he was sure to go along with your opinion.

Though a fiscal conservative and lifelong Republican, Jack prized integrity and decency above party creed. Thus he could write in praise of Democratic Senator Chris Murphy—“a talent more important than ever in today’s contentious climate”—and be “appalled by Trump” (as Audrey noted), whose abrasive, anti-intellectual America was not Jack’s America.

Jack brushed past the insults of age as if they were minor irritants. In 2005 he fit in trips to Antarctica and Barbuda before submitting to a long-scheduled angioplasty—which was followed promptly by an emergency triple bypass.

One day in his mid-eighties, Jack went sailing alone aboard his thirty-foot catboat Purple Tiger. The boat was puttering across Captain Harbor on automatic pilot when Jack went on deck and yanked a line that gave way, sending him back against the lifeline—which also gave way—and into the blue-gray chop. Making matters worse, the main sheet caught round his ankle. Consider the irony: a superb sailor on far-flung seas, nearly dragged to death feet-first by his own boat in his own puddle of water. If Jack hadn’t managed to pry off his shoe, Donna says, “It would have been curtains.” Like the Atlantic mishap, this one occurred in early July. “He had a thing for wedding anniversaries,” Miles McDonald observes.

Jack cracked his right hip in 2016 in Barbuda while helping pull a Sunfish into the waters for a race off Coco Point. “He was a real stoic about that,” says Bill King, who was with him. “He knew that if he went over to Antigua, the main island, and went to the emergency room and had an X-ray, they’d tell him, ‘You have a broken hip,’ and he didn’t want to do that. He didn’t want to leave. He wanted to stay and see all his friends.”

He fractured the hip again in 2017, this time in Florida, after rising too quickly from his sunny repose. He spent a couple of weeks rehabbing at Nathaniel Witherell, where, Donna says with a dash of moonlight in her voice, “Every night I smuggled in some shrimp and wine before dinner.”

Then there was the stomach cancer, vanquished with quiet resolve; but these battles had taken their toll. “God took him at the right time, period, end of report,” Donna says. “He’d struggled for so long.”

Audrey, who is open to the mysteries of the universe, says that after her father’s death, she picked up his sailing cap and jacket and detected his scent on them. Later, standing in her Weston living room, Jack’s scent coalesced wondrously beside her. “Dad’s here,” she said to her husband. What was he up to? “I think he was just hanging around to make sure we were all okay before moving on.”

In the final reckoning, Jonathan says, Jack lived exactly the life he was meant to live. “Isn’t it wonderful to take early retirement at age sixty, and end up doing what you love best? Jack never worked harder in his life. But he was out with people, talking about things, challenging them with ideas, having fun. When you enjoy something as much as he did, and as Donna does, it’s not hard work. It’s love. It’s following your passion.”  

Photo Above: All dressed up for the Captain’s Dinner aboard Reindeer, Newbold Smith’s forty-three-foot sloop he was ferrying back to Northeast Harbor after the 1962 Marblehead-Halifax Race. Joanne and Wright Ferguson were part of the crew. In a reflex response to a minor fire in the galley, Wooly Henry threw the oven overboard. It was hard finding a metalsmith to pound out a new one before the owner found out.

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