Notable Ridgefield author Deiss ended up an Italian knight

Joseph Jay Deiss

Joseph Jay Deiss

Contributed photo / Hearst Connecticut MEdia

When Jay Deiss lived here in the 1940s, he was itching to write his first book. After years of PR work for the government, and Big Pharma, he sat down and turned out a novel that sold well enough to let him buy an “oysterman’s cottage” on Cape Cod, to which he eventually moved.

Joseph Jay Deiss was born in 1912 on a Idaho ranch, grew up in Texas, and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Texas. He got a job as a reporter in Texas, wound up in Washington working for a New Deal farm agency, and then became a PR writer for Pfizer in New York.

One day in the 1940s, he wrote of himself, “he walked out, headed for the country, and settled down to write the novel which came to be A Washington Story.” The “country” was New Street, where he lived with his wife and two children.

Set during the period of the anti-communist “witch hunts” of the late 1940s, the novel centers around a government worker who suddenly and without any cause is subpoenaed by the House Investigating Committee, which has been told she may be a subversive and which, because she cannot find her birth certificate, questions her citizenship. Her husband walks out, taking their young child, she is hauled off for deportation and is left with no friends or support — until a young attorney comes to her rescue.

Years later, the book appeared on the Moscow City Library’s list of 19 novels described as “the most important literary products of the U.S.A. published after the Second World War.” The list included authors Ray Bradbury, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck.

After a 1957 novel about the ethical drug business, he moved to Italy, became vice director of the American Academy in Rome, and began studying ancient Italian history.

In 1963, he produced a biographical novel about Frederic the Second, a Holy Roman emperor and king of Sicily, and soon turned turned to nonfiction, with books like Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure (1966) and Captains of Fortune, Profiles of Six Italian Condottieri (medieval soldiers of fortune) (1966).

His historical work so impressed the Italian government that in 1971 it knighted him in the Order of the Star of Italian Solidarity, honoring foreigners who’d made an outstanding contribution to the reconstruction of Italy after World War II.

Deiss spent his later years in Florida where he taught at the University of Florida and where he died in 1999, age 84. His love of Italy is reflected in the Joseph Jay Deiss Memorial Scholarship for Summer Study in Italy, awarded annually by the University of Florida.—Jack Sanders