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Thursday, June 04, 2015

Westport Key to ‘Great Gatsby’?  New Film Says Yes

By James Lomuscio

Two Westport filmmakers say their new documentary on F. Scott Fitzgerald should put to rest doubts that the Westport house he rented with his wife Zelda inspired the author’s iconic novel, “The Great Gatsby.”

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Westport filmmakers Robert Stevens Williams (l) and Richard “Deej” Webb in front of the Fitzgerald House at 244 Compo Road South. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

And novelist Robert Steven Williams and Richard “Deej” Webb hope the film, “Boats Against the Current” to be shown Monday night in Fairfield, will help gain landmark status for the house at 244 Compo Road South. It will be screened at 7:30 p.m.  at the Fairfield Theatre Company, 70 Sanford St.

The house, where the newlyweds lived for several months in 1920, is now under contract.

The role the house and Westport played in Fitzgerald’s writings has been long debated by Gatsby scholars. Many say Long Island’s Gold Coast in the Roaring 20s was the springboard for the time honored literary work. But the filmmakers reject the theory.

“Writers draw inspiration from multiple things and experiences, and we’re convinced that when he sat down to write Gatsby, he was drawing from his experiences here in Westport, as well as other experiences,” said Williams.

The two-story colonial structure circa 1758 was built by William Gray II, a farmer. It eventually came into the possession of William Wakeman, a descendant of Gray, who rented it to the Fitzgeralds

It was the first home of the newlyweds who stayed there from May through September 1920, Williams points out. It also figures into the iconic author’s second novel “Beautiful and the Dammed.” 

“Their time in Westport was their honeymoon; it was the time when they were at their happiest,” he added. fscottfitzgeraldwestport112804260.jpg
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda in front of their Westport house. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Princeton Unversity Library photo

At the time Fitzgerald had just published his first novel, “This Side of Paradise.”

“And they were rock stars because it was an instant success,” Williams said.

But what does that have to do with Gatsby, which many scholars say was inspired by riotous, across-the-water parties on Long Island’s Great Neck and Little Neck in Queens, East Egg and West Egg respectively in the novel?

“Some say it’s wishful thinking; however, we have the evidence to back it up,” says Webb. He says that the names Westport and Easton could have been the inspiration for West Egg and East Egg.

However, some Fitzgerald scholars say East Egg was Sands Point in Great Neck, and West Egg, Kings Point. Webb said he welcomes the push back, and even invited the director of the Great Neck Historical Society to be present at Monday’s screening.

The inspiration for the film was an article by former Westporter Barbara Probst Solomon in the Sept. 9, 1996 issue of The New Yorker during the Fitzgerald centennial.

Titled “Westport Wildlife,” it casts 1920s Westport following the passage of the Volstead Act, the informal name of the National Prohibition Act,  as a haven for hooch coming in from Canada since there was no local police force to thwart bootleggers.

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Former Westporter Barbara Probst Solomon’s 1996 article in The New Yorker inspired the documentary. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) TheNewYorker.com

In a telephone interview from Brooklyn. N.Y., where she now lives, Solomon, 86, recalled sitting in the 1940s at the end of the pier on her parents’ 75-acre estate where Westport’s Saugatuck River meets the Long Island Sound.

Looking across the water, she could see the mansion that is now the Inn at Longshore. And she could also see the gray Colonial house where the Fitzgeralds lived two decades earlier.

“I had a little row boat, and sometimes I would row across,” she said. “I always thought of that house as the Fitzgerald house.”

“Westport was so tiny, barely a town, and it didn’t have any police,” Solomon said about the town in the 1920s. “Bootleggers came down from Canada and landed on Compo Beach.”

Legend has it that Cockenoe Island served as a drop off point for booze, the crumbling foundation on it once a storage area for whiskey crates.

Solomon, an author, essayist and journalist who serves as U.S. cultural correspondent for El País of Madrid, said she decided to write The New Yorker piece since her young adult fascination about the Fitzgeralds still lingered.

She said she spent many hours poring over microfilm of old newspapers, such as the Westporter-Herald, in the Westport Library. 

“I never intended to make this Fitzgerald thing a cause,” she said, noting that she had been spurred on by personal curiosity.   

The film is narrated by Keir Dullea and features appearances by Sam Waterston, who played Nick Carraway in the 1974 “The Great Gatsby” film starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. Fitzgerald’s granddaughter Eleanor Lanahan of Burlington, Vt. is also in the film.

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A Westport Historical Society plaque on the house at 244 Compo Road South identifies it as the Fitzgerald residence in 1920. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Dave Matlow for WestportNow.com

Webb says a report of Zelda running over a fire hydrant on what he believes to be Spicer Road was inspiration for Gatsby’s Daisy Buchanan’s reckless driving that leads to the death of Myrtle Wilson, and eventually Gatsby in a revenge shooting. 

There is also the fact that Frederick E. Lewis, a mystery millionaire, owned a 175-acre estate, its mansion now the Inn at Longshore, visible from the Fitzgerald house, the Caraway home in “The Great Gatsby.”

“If you follow the local notes about him in the Westporter-Herald, they were obsessed with (Lewis),” says Williams. “At his mansion he threw the single biggest party in Connecticut.”

“It was a fundraiser for the World War I effort,” he added.

Williams noted Lewis’ party was packed with Vaudevillians, industrialists, politicians, and celebrities at the time, including Houdini and Babe Ruth, the same way Jay Gatsby filled his mansion with luminaries at his parties.

While Williams and Webb point to parallels, Solomon says she cannot say with exactitude that the pages of Gatsby are recreations of Westport. 

“People have forgotten that those books are fiction, and they did not have to be accurate,” she said.

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The second floor master bedroom of the house at 244 Compo Road South. (CLICK TO ENLARGE) Contributed photo

Jeannine Flower, the home’s owner who had the house on the market for $2.825 million with the Higgins Group—and who recently went to contract for an undisclosed amount—seems confident that the house was the incubator for Gatsby.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch,” she said, citing a Fitzgerald essay Williams found in which the author says writers continue to return to two or three major events in their lives.

Flower, who has owned the house for eight years, said the only reason she and her husband are selling is that her husband’s job is taking them to Paris.

Addressing the concern of Williams and Webb that the house is not landmarked, and as such could be torn down by a new owner, perhaps a newly minted millionaire who wants something bigger, Flower said that is not likely.

She noted that the wife of the prospective new owner is a Fitzgerald fan. 

“And as my broker said, if anyone tried that, the town would be up in arms, and the town would protect it,” she said.

Williams and Webb are less Pollyanna. They point out that science fiction writer Ray Bradbury’s Los Angeles house was razed by its new owner. 

“I would like to see a university like Fairfield University buy it and use it for writers in residence,” Williams said.

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Posted 06/04/15 at 11:11 PM  Permalink



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