PHOTO: The Ipsy Wispy Institute from Vincent Mendes collection
You don’t hear so much about it in Highlands any more, but in the early and mid 20th century, a fascinating group of writers, science fiction aficionados, creative thinkers and yes, eccentric men, used to gather on a regular basis in a gorgeous old house on Portland Road, trade stories, smoke their pipes and have elaborate dinners and unique weekends. Many of these men were international prize winners, intellectuals in their own fields, and just downright fascinating.
The meeting place was on Portland Rd., the name of the group was the Ipsy Wispy Institute. Names long associated with the “Goat Hill” section of Highlands were part of the institute, names like Laurence Manning and Fletcher Pratt; And there were other locals as well, the Del Reys, George and Dona Smith of Rumson, the Kornbluths of Long Branch, the Budryses and, Fred Pohl, who lived in Middletown. Isaac Asimov visited Ipsy Wispy at least once, as did many other science fiction writers of the day.
Let me tell you about the Ipsy-Wispy Institute, which is the name that Fletcher and Inga Pratt gave to their enormous old house on the water side of Portland Road, just up the road from where some famous actresses who also called Highlands home, lived. The Mannings didn’t live next door when the Institute started; but Manning and Pratt had collaborated on a number of books and when they visited, fell in love with the town and the location on the hill. Pratt pointed out the large expanse of his property and invited the Mannings to subdivide and purchase part of it. Which they did.
Pohl, a highly regarded science fiction writer whose career spanned nearly eight decades, told the story of Fletcher Pratt and Ipsy Wipsy best in his many stories about the English country home where weekend guests were frequent, but had to follow a strict set of rules.
For instance, they would arrive on a Friday evening, these intellectual men of science and fiction and their wives, and have a few drinks before dinner prepared by Fletcher and Inga’s cook, Grace. Then it was off to the billiard room...a room without a billiard table but so named because apparently there had been a time where there was one there.... for a few more cocktails and conversation.
Then everyone retired to their respective rooms in the very large house overlooking the Shrewsbury and started Saturday morning with a sumptuous breakfast buffet that Grace had prepared, regardless of the time each of the guests arose.
Then it was clear the table to enable Fletcher to set up his portable typewriter and perhaps type a few sentences of a proposed story. He’d chat with his guests, occasionally turning back to write more on the typewriter or glancing at the morning paper. Afternoons, there might be sails on the river, walks around the large estate grounds, simple conversation in a quiet room.
Saturday evening dinner was a festive affair and included the Pratt’s ritual with the wine, which was always served with dinner. At the conclusion of the meal, Fletcher would bring out a bottle of port, and as host, sitting at the head of the table, traditionally poured, then passed the bottle, always clockwise, around the table.
The men retired to another room, where they frequently got down on the floor and played war games and sea battles. Pratt, who wrote in numerous genres, was probably best known as a naval historian and scholar who could write with precise accuracy and style as well about a 14th century ruler in Denmark or the Second World War.
Fletcher Pratt, historian, scholar, writer or more than 50 books, eccentric, died in 1956 just short of his 60th birthday. His wife, Inga, no longer could find happiness at Ipsy Wipsy, and sold the house to a dentist... Shortly after the new owner took possession, the house burned down and the property remained vacant for some time.