Forgotten Heroine — The Story of Newport’s Ida Lewis

In the pantheon of great American heroes from the 19th century, the vast majority of them are men. I mean, who can argue with the accomplishments of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark (i.e., Lewis & Clark), Thomas Edison, Frederick Douglass, Sam Houston, and everyone’s favorite, President Abraham Lincoln? However, there is a collective mass amnesia in the American memory of the great women from The Victorian Era. Or should I say The Anthony-Stanton Era?

Well, writer/director/producer Marian Gagnon has done a remarkable to job in trying to rectify that oversight with her new documentary about Newport Rhode Island’s own Idawalley Zorada Lewis (a.k.a., Ida Lewis). The film is called America’s Forgotten Heroine: Ida Lewis, Keeper of the Light from Goodnight Irene Productions and funded by the Rhode Island Council For The Humanities.

Lewis was the first American woman given the honor of Official Lighthouse Keeper at Lime Rock, posthumously changed to Ida Lewis Rock in her honor where the Ida Lewis Yacht Club stands today.

Lewis’ accomplishments are nothing short of an epic tale of bravery, hardiness, grit and humility. She embodies all the noble traits of the aforementioned male American icons in a small, yet indomitable, frame. That’s because aside from her work as the lighthouse keeper for nearly 40 years, she was credited with numerous rescues at sea — her first when she was just 16 years old! She was once lauded as “the bravest woman in America” by such publications as Harper’s Weekly and the New York Tribune, and awarded the highest civilian honor at the time, a Gold Lifesaving Medal.

Her fame reached the highest echelons of American society, earning her visits from President Ulysses S. Grant, Elsie Vanderbilt, General William Tecumseh Sherman, and coincidentally enough, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the remembered American heroines from the 19th century. It’s ironic that Lewis now has been forgotten despite her venerated supporters!

Gagnon does a wonderful job portraying the title character of her documentary through expert commentary from noted authors and historians: Lenore Skomal (author of The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter, The Remarkable True Story of American Heroine Ida Lewis), Jeremy D’Etremont (author of The Lighthouse Handbook New England), and Mike Muessel (Commodore – Ida Lewis Yacht Club 2010-2011); vintage photographs and illustrations; and in Ida Lewis’ own words as portrayed by actress Marilyn Murphy Meardon in period costume.

The film flows smoothly through the phases of Lewis’ life from birth to passing, and truly extols the greatness of her legacy that time has misplaced. The visuals from vintage to modern are crisp and artistic. The music is spot-on with period tunes and more modern strains that complement the visuals beautifully. And the overall cinematography is sublime.

What I really like about this documentary is its unassuming quality, much like Lewis herself. Gagnon does not need to rely on any gimmicks or grandstanding to hold audience members’ interest on the subject matter. The stories of Lewis’ rescues and accomplishments speak for themselves, and the film is a pleasant exploration of a true American heroine.

A fine work worthy of the subject who inspired it!

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