Earlier this week, I posted a story about Deej Webb’s great new book about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s memorable 1920 sojourn in Westport. The central thesis is that those 5 months influenced everything else the famous author wrote — including “The Great Gatsby.”
Webb’s “Boats Against the Current” is filled with fascinating photos — notably several of Frederick E. Lewis’ 175-acre property that later became Longshore.
There were references too to Lewis’ lighthouse. It may have inspired some of the scenes in The Great Gatsby.
I’ve posted the photo below before. But I erroneously identified it as showing a big bash at Longshore. In fact — according to Webb — this is “a glittering summer party, complete with band, at the Lewis estate.” It certainly does look Gatsby-esque.
There’s also this fascinating map, drawn in 1921 by noted artist John Held.
Held included the lighthouse (right above the words “Long Island Sound”).
Check out the enormous boat sailing up the Saugatuck River, just south of downtown.
And — if you’re really eagle-eyed — you’ll notice that Held misspelled Bridge Street as “Brigde.”
When Richard “Deej” Webb was 14, he read “The Great Gatsby.”
Through his bedroom window across from the Minute Man monument, he could see the house that — decades earlier — F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald once rented.
In between was Longshore. Deej caddied, biked and ran there. He knew every inch of the property well.
In 1996, when Barbara Probst Solomon wrote a New Yorker story claiming that Westport — not Great Neck, Long Island — was the inspiration for Gatsby’s “West Egg,” Webb was fascinated.
By then he was teaching US history at New Canaan High School. But the 1980 Staples graduate’s heart — and home — remained here.
Webb studied Solomon’s theories. He researched Longshore, and environs. Convinced she was right — and that Westport, in fact, influenced both Fitzgerald and his wife far more than anyone realized — Webb spoke to whomever he could.
Many Fitzgerald scholars and fans were interested. Most Westporters, he says, were not.
In 2013 Webb participated in a Westport Historical Society roundtable examining the town’s literary past. Organizer Robert Steven Williams — a novelist — asked Webb if he’d like to collaborate on a documentary about Fitzgerald’s time here.
The film will be shown on public television this fall. A companion coffee table book — “Boats Against the Current” (taken from a famous “Gatsby” line) — will be published next month.
The book cover shows the iconic photo of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, in front of their South Compo house. The image was Photoshopped — long before that term came into general use.
“Boats” is thoroughly researched, lavishly illustrated, and immensely educational. It should be required reading for every Westporter.
Webb and Williams took Solomon’s original thesis — that Fitzgerald’s home next to the 175-acre estate of reclusive millionaire Frederick E. Lewis (now Longshore) informed not only the author’s physical description of Jay Gatsby’s mansion, but also much of the novel’s emotional power — and expanded it to encompass nearly the entire Fitzgerald ouevre.
In 1920, his first book — “This Side of Paradise” — had just been published. Fitzgerald was making great money. He and Zelda were newly married — and kicked out of New York’s finest hotels, for debauchery.
Westport was their honeymoon. It was also their first home. Here — especially at Lewis’ next-door estate — they enjoyed celebrity-filled orgies. And they skinny-dipped at Compo Beach.
Zelda at Compo Beach — before (or after) skinny-dipping. (Photo courtesy of “Boats Against the Current”)
Their experiences and memories — along with the town’s sights and smells — all became part of “Gatbsy”; of “The Beautiful and the Damned”; even of Zelda’s paintings, Webb says.
In fact, he adds, “Westport shows up in their works more than any other place they lived.”
The back story of Lewis — a descendant of one of the wealthiest families in American history — is particularly fascinating. He’s not a familiar name. But his parties at what later became Longshore — which the Fitzgeralds surely must have attended — were beyond legendary. One even featured Harry Houdini. (Yes, he performed an escape trick right there.)
His and Williams’ painstaking work has been accepted by many Fitzgerald scholars, as well descendants like granddaughter Bobbie Lanahan.
Robert Steven Williams (left) and Richard “Deej” Webb flank the Fritzgeralds’ granddaughter Bobbie Lanahan.
The New York Times recently published a story on Webb and Williams’ project. The international attention was gratifying.
But the duo have a more local concern too.
All around town — including Webb’s boyhood Compo Beach neighborhood — homes are being torn down. Big new houses are replacing older ones with important histories.
Webb and Williams worry the same fate may befall Fitzgerald’s house. And, they fear, few people will care.
The current owners, Webb says, “are fantastic. They’re well aware of the significance, and treat it with great respect.”
But there’s no assurance a future owner will not tear the 1758 structure down.
F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald slept — and partied — here, on South Compo Road.
There is only one museum in the world dedicated to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. It’s in Montgomery, Alabama, where he wrote portions of 2 novels.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful, Webb and Williams ask, if at some point the town could buy the house, and turn it into a “Fitzgerald Center”?
“Sometimes Westport has amnesia about its history,” Webb says. “It’s an incredible past. It’s hard to find an American town that has more. But it’s disappearing in front of our eyes.”
Of course, as a history teacher — and amateur historian – Webb knows the one thing that never changes is change.
When the Fitzgeralds arrived in 1920, he says, “farmers in Westport worried about all the New Yorkers coming in.”
With their lavish parties and skinny-dipping orgies, those newcomers had a new way of doing things.
One hundred years later — thanks to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald — those Westport days live on.
And — thanks to Deej Webb and Robert Steven Williams — they’re memorialized forever.
(To pre-order “Boats Against the Current” on Amazon, click here; through Barnes & Noble, click here.)
In 1920, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald spent a memorable summer in Westport.
It’s taken a lot longer — more than 2 years — for another pair of locals to make a film about the literary-and-fast-living couple.
But the video project began even way before that.
A 1996 New Yorker story by Westport writer Barbara Probst Solomon linked Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby to this town. But the piece was “ignored by Fitzgerald scholars,” says filmmaker Robert Steven Williams. So he and Staples grad/social studies teacher/historian Deej Webb embarked on their own project.
F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, in front of what appears to be their Westport home.
They interviewed more than a dozen academics. They dug into Fitzgerald’s archives at Princeton, and presented at a Fitzgerald Society Conference in Alabama. They even interviewed one of the writer’s granddaughters in Vermont — a woman who rarely speaks to anyone.
“What we uncovered was not only surprising,” Williams says. “It made us realize that the Westport Fitzgerald home was much more than just about Gatsby.”
So when clips of their film — Boats Against the Current — are shown at the Fairfield Theater Company on Monday (June 8, 7:30 p.m.), viewers will learn about much more than F. Scott, Zelda, the Roaring ’20s and Westport.
Williams and Webb draw attention to the fact that the home the Fitzgeralds rented — on Compo Road South, adjacent to the Longshore entrance — is for sale. And unprotected.
According to Williams, that means that “anyone could buy it, and make it tomorrow’s ‘Teardown of the Day.'”
F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald slept — and partied — here.
Williams and Webb will discuss — using over an hour’s worth of clips — why “Westport needs to save this home.” They’ll be joined by Professor Walter Raubicheck (a Fitzgerald scholar from Pace University), and Westport Historical Society executive director Sue Gold.
After all, like Gatsby itself, the Fitzgeralds’ home is a classic.
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