Gregory Hesselberg, 91, died peacefully at his home in Rockport, Mass., Nov. 16, 2017.
He was born in Detroit, Mich., Jan. 28, 1926, the son of actor, Melvyn Douglas, (nee Hesselberg) the suave leading man who made Garbo "laugh" in the 1939 MGM comedy “Ninotchka,” and other screwball comedies. His mother was Rosalind Hightower, a commercial artist and columnist, from Louisiana. Gregory’s grandfather was a pianist and composer, Edouard Gregory Hesselberg, who emigrated to America from Riga, Latvia.
Gregory spent his boyhood years in rural Georgia, but later moved to Hollywood to live with his father. He recalls his southern accent raising a few eyebrows at the proper Chadwick School he attended in Los Angles, but his wit and charm eventually won over his West Coast classmates. His stepmother was Helen Gahagan Douglas, the actress turned politician who became the first Democratic woman elected to Congress from California. At their house on Senalda Road, dinner guests included such luminaries as Thomas Mann and director Ernst Lubitsch, and the experience gave Gregory a lifelong interest in show business and the movies. He was proud of his daughter, the actress Illeana Douglas, who carried on the Hollywood tradition.
He served in the Merchant Marine during World War II, from 1944 to 1945, attaining the rank of junior engineer. After the war, he attended the University of California at Berkley, graduating with a degree in physics. He also studied in Copenhagen at the Technical University of Denmark.
Returning to the United States, he got a job at the New York City textile company, Cohn-Hall-Marx, and later worked in lighting design, also in the city. But he wanted his family to grow up in the country, so he moved to Connecticut: first to Deep River and later Haddam, where he bought an old farm property just back from the Connecticut River. Recalling his rural roots in Georgia, he started an organic farm, with horses, goats, and chickens, something of a novelty in 1970s Haddam. He helped start the Haddam Recreation program with his wife Joan Hesselberg, and was one of the planners of the nature trail behind Haddam Elementary School. He also organized Connecticut’s first Earth Day celebration April 22, 1970.
In the 1960s, Gregory became program director at the fledgling Connecticut Commission on the Arts, helping transition a small arts office to an important state agency. It was at the commission that he undertook an extensive survey of Connecticut vernacular architecture, which culminated in the exhibit, “300 Years of Connecticut Architecture,” at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in 1971.
He always said it was his father's role in the M-G-M- movie, “Captain’s Courageous,” filmed in Gloucester, that drew him to the famous fishing port. He settled in neighboring Rockport, where he enjoyed swimming, sailing, or just sitting on the rocks watching seagulls, whose antics always delighted him. He had a deep love of reading, and his passion for books, filling every inch of his Rockport cape, earned him the nickname The Book Guy. He also wrote poetry and was a talented musician. More than anything, though, he loved people, and during his last years looked forward to talks with his friends over coffee at Dunkin Donuts in Rockport.
Gregory was predeceased by his son, Stefan G. Hesselberg, and a half-brother, Peter Douglas. He is survived by his son, Erik Hesselberg of Haddam, Connecticut, his daughter, Illeana (Hesselberg) Douglas of Los Angeles, Calif.; and his granddaughter, Gabrielle Hesselberg of Worcester, Mass.; grandson, Tristan Hesselberg of Haddam. He is also survived by his half-sister, Mary Helen Douglas of Fairlee, Vt.
A memorial service will be held at a date to be announced. Arrangements by the Greely Funeral Home, 212 Washington Street, Gloucester. For online condolences, please visit www.greelyfunerahome.com.
Published on  November 25, 2017