Tag Archives: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Finally, Town Honors F. Scott Fitzgerald

On May 14, 1920, a young couple signed a 5-month lease for a modest gray cottage on Compo Road South.

It was not big news. In fact, it took the Westporter-Herald — the local newspaper that chronicled every visitor, gathering and event in town — until the next month to run this small item:

“F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer, has leased the Wakeman Cottage near Compo Beach.”

The iconic shot of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, in front of their Westport home.

But the honeymoon home of Fitzgerald and his new bride Zelda — they’d gotten married on April 3 –had a profound impact on both. It appears in more of their collective works than any other place they lived.

With good reason. The couple drank and partied all summer long.

On May 14, 2019 — 99 years to the day after that now-legendary lease-signing — Westport will officially recognize that event.

The cottage that once abutted larger-than-life multimillionaire Frederick E. Lewis’ property (now Longshore Club Park) still stands. Today it’s a handsome home. First Selectman Jim Marpe will stand there, and declare “Great Gatsby Day” in town.

The official proclamation — a combination of legalese and whimsy — begins:

“Whereas, it was an age of miracles. It was an age of art. It was an age of excess and it was an age of satire….”

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald slept — and partied — here, on South Compo Road.

But that’s not the only Fitzgerald-Westport connection this month.

On Saturday and Sunday, May 18 and 19, the Westport Community Theater presents a costumed stage reading of The Vegetable.

If you haven’t heard of it, don’t worry.

Richard “Deej” Webb — the Westport historian who collaborated with Robert Steven Williams on a film and book that describe the Fitzgeralds’ Westport sojourn, and make the strong case that it heavily influenced The Great Gatsby — calls it “his worst work.”

The Vegetable is Fitzgerald’s only full-length play. It was his lone attempt to establish himself as a successful playwright, and his sole foray into political satire.

The plot involves an accidental president who undergoes impeachment. Coming during the corrupt administration of Warren Harding — who died the year it was published — it was “ahead of its time,” Webb says.

To call it forgotten today is an understatement. According to Webb, it was last performed in the 1990s.

The WCT has modified it a bit. What Webb calls “a racist scene” has been edited out.

That may have been a product of its time. But nearly a century later, impeachment is back in the news.

And — at least in Westport — F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are too.

(The staged reading of The Vegetable is Saturday, May 18 at 8 p.m., and Sunday, May 19 at 2 p.m. For tickets, call 203-226-1983.)

Great Scott! Annual Gatsby Day Is Proposed

On May 14, 1920, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald signed a lease to rent 244 Compo Road South.

Deej Webb — whose film and book about the famous couple’s wild time in Westport has shined a light on both their literary legacy, and our town’s Jazz Age days (naked swims at Compo Beach!) — wants to make May 14 an annual holiday.

It would be called “Great Gatsby Day.”

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Photoshopped in front of their Westport home.

The 1980 Staples High School graduate/history teacher/amateur historian is circulating a petition. Citing Westport’s influence on “The Great Gatsby” (and other Fitzgerald novels), it says:

We want to insure that the town celebrates and treasures its connection with the Fitzgeralds and the book.

Furthermore, in times of rapid change we wish to ensure that this town’s marvelous history is not lost.

Webb envisions events at the Westport Historical Society and Westport Library; a tie-in with the Longshore flapper party; a walking tour of Longshore-influenced scenes from “Gatsby” and “The Beautiful and the Damned,” and more.

He’s open to other ideas from the community too.

Maybe another naked swim at Compo?

(To view — and sign — the petition to make May 14 “Great Gatsby Day in Westport,” click here.)

Friday Flashback #93

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’s this, of the mansion that we now know as the Inn at Longshore and Pearl restaurant:

(Photo/courtesy of Alden Bryan)

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.”

What else stands out? Click “Comments” below.

For Scott And Zelda, Westport Was Far More Than A Summer Fling

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 — when F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived in Westport — F.E. Lewis owned a magnificent next door. His mansion (above) now serves as the Longshore inn, including Pearl restaurant. (Photo/courtesy of Alden Bryan)

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.)

Day Tripper

Yesterday’s New York Times NY/Region section included a “Day Trip” feature to Westport.

Readers in the tri-state area — around the world, really — learned some interesting things about our town.

The itinerary begins at Match Burger Lobster, Staples grad Matt Storch’s new restaurant next to Fleishers Craft Butchery. Who knew that his kitchen crew shucks more than 500 pounds of lobster each week — or that lobster tastes better in winter, because cold water makes it sweeter?

From the restaurant, the story suggests, visitors can walk over the William F. Cribari Bridge. It’s named, the Times says, for “a beloved traffic conductor,” though “beloved traffic cop” is a bit clearer.

Bill Cribari, “beloved traffic conductor.” (Photo montage courtesy of Paul Ehrismann)

“The short span provides vistas of the nautical town and entree to uninterrupted sidewalks through a Gold Coast neighborhood of mansions that are not above running weekend tag sales,” the paper excitedly reports.

The next 3 paragraphs talk about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s 1920 rental on Compo Road South, near the Longshore entrance. Friends said the couple were “reveling nude in the orgies of Westport,” even though Zelda called the town “unendurably dull.” Imagine what they would have done in a livelier place!

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald slept — and partied — here.

“Day Trip” moves on to “secluded Compo Beach.” The Times describes it as “rocky (and) shell-studded….Tranquil and contemplative in winter, the sunsets are gorgeous.”

The final part of a day in Westport, apparently, should be a stop at the Black Duck. The paper calls it a “watering hole,” and singles out this feature: the $11 martini.

The martini “may be the biggest on the Eastern Seaboard, a further way to unwind after a leisurely day. Founded in 1978, too bad it wasn’t around for the Fitzgeralds,” the Times concludes, with both lame humor and a dangling modifier.

The best place for an $11 martini. (Photo/Chou Chou Merrill)

(Hat tip: Peter Perry)

Jim Hammond, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Famous Writers And The Westport History Rabbit Hole

Jim Hammond grew up in Westport. He graduated from Staples High School in 1979, but has not been back for a long time.

Jim Hammond

A few weeks ago, he heard about the controversy surrounding TEAM Westport’s “white privilege” essay contest.

That led him down the “06880” rabbit hole — and a story on fellow Staples alum Deej Webb’s documentary about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in town.

That spurred him to write and post an essay on his philosophy-and-literature website — 2 of his passions, since he was a teenager.

And THAT led him to send these thoughts to “06880”:

Fitzgerald lived on South Compo Road, near what is now Longshore, in the summer of 1920. J. D. Salinger also lived on South Compo, from about 1950 to 1952.

I read a Salinger short story, and asked my mother, Nancy Hammond, about old Westport. She lived there from 1957 to 1997, and was involved in local politics.

When she arrived, Westport was home to the Famous Artists School, which purported to turn people into artists. Prominent artists like Norman Rockwell lent their names to the scam.

Norman Rockwell (center, bow tie), with some of the Famous Artists School’s faculty.

You would send in a sample of your work. They would write back, saying you had great potential, and should enroll in their school. Salesmen combed the country, recruiting gullible students. Ads filled the newspapers, Money rolled in.

It was so profitable that a Famous Writers School was also established in Westport, using the same template. Bennett Cerf of Random House was a founder. Prominent writers like Clifton Fadiman, Bruce Catton and Mignon Eberhart lent their names. By 1969 the stock price had risen from $5 to $40.

The next year, Jessica Mitford published an exposé, called “Let Us Now Appraise Famous Writers,” in the Atlantic Monthly. An investigation was launched, the stock price fell, and in 1972 the Famous Writers School went bankrupt.

JD Salinger

When J.D. Salinger moved to Westport, Famous Artists School had been going for 2 years. It’s likely that he heard about the school. In 1952 he published a short story about an art correspondence school, called “De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period.”

When I was growing up in Westport, the phrase “Famous Artists” rang in my ears. The school rented space from Eddie Nash on Riverside Avenue. Since money was rolling in, they decided to build a new headquarters.

They chose my neighborhood as the site. Specifically, they selected an area we called the Gravel Pit. Now known as Partrick Wetlands, it’s between Partrick Road, Wilton Road, the Merritt Parkway and Newtown Turnpike.

According to rumor — spread by my mother, in countless phone conversations — Famous Artists School planned to build a large office, with a parking lot for 1,000 cars.

My mother banded together with other neighbors, and formed a group called Families for a Residential Westport.

A pond near the Partrick Wetlands. (Photo/Scott Smith)

They referred to their opponents as the Boyd Group (or The Boyds). John Boyd was a prominent Westport lawyer, who favored business and development. One of his allies, Lu Villalon, ran the local newspaper, the Town Crier.

My parents were Republicans. So were the Boyds. The battle over Famous Artists wasn’t a Republican-Democratic battle, or a conservative-liberal one. It was a development battle, similar to those fought in thousands of American towns.

My mother’s group won the battle. Famous Artists never moved to my neighborhood. They built their new headquarters on Wilton Road, along the river.

Cockenoe Island, off Compo Beach. In 1967, it almost became the site of a nuclear power plant.

The next development battle in Westport was over Cockenoe Island, where Northeast Utilities proposed building a power plant. Anti-development forces used the fledgling newspaper, the Westport News, to help rally support. The anti-development forces won, and the paper became the dominant one in town.

A third battle was fought over a dairy farm, Nyala, where Stauffer Chemical proposed building their headquarters. They won that fight.

Fortunately, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s house is still standing. I plan to take a look on my next visit to Westport.

And maybe I’ll visit Partrick Wetlands too.

Zelda!

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald spent just a few months in Westport — way back in 1920.

But it made a lasting impact on their lives.

Now Netflix and Amazon Prime viewers can relive that crazy time through a new series called “Z: The Beginning of Everything.”

Christina Ricci plays Zelda, “the brilliant, beautiful Southern Belle who became the original flapper and icon of the wild, flamboyant Jazz Age.”

In episode 9, “Scott and Zelda work through rising marital tensions at their Westport house.”

Sounds interesting.

Even if it was filmed on Long Island.

Zelda today...

Zelda today…

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, in front of what appears to be their Westport home.

and yesterday, with F. Scott Fitzgerald in front of their Westport home.

(Hat tips: Erica Peale and Jeff Mitchell)

Filmmakers Fight To Save F. Scott’s Home

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.

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.

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.

(For ticket information, click here.)

 

Uber Westport

Since time immemorial — well, at least since F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald summered here, guzzling bootleg gin and carousing in their motorcar up and down South Compo — Westport has had a difficult relationship with drinking and driving.

We don’t condone it, of course — particularly now, in the post-Mad Men era, when we all know its dangers.

But after a night at a party, restaurant or bar, none of us may be in condition to drive. Local taxis have sketchy reputations. And not many parents will call their kids for a ride.

Enter Uber.

Uber logoThe San Francisco-based company connects passengers with drivers of vehicles for hire. Cars are reserved through a cellphone app. Payments are done by credit card, so there’s no need to carry cash.

When you need a car, you click on the app. GPS pinpoints your exact location, and estimates how long before a car gets to you.

You can select car types: a black car or SUV. UberX is the least expensive: usually a Toyota Camry or something similar. You can also rate your driver.

Uber operates in over 70 large cities — and, for the past couple of months, Westport.

A longtime local businessman — who requested anonymity — used it Friday night to return home from a party.

It cost $7 — including tip. (Uber says, however, there is “no need to tip.”)

He told a few friends. The next night, they texted Uber too.

3 screen shots from Uber in San Francisco.

3 screen shots from Uber in San Francisco.

They report that their cars were nice and clean. The drivers were pleasant. It’s a great economic opportunity for them to operate here, the Westport rider says.

“It’s great,” he adds. “You don’t have to worry about having that extra glass of wine. Once the word spreads, our roads will be much safer. And the parties more fun!”

Somewhere in that great speakeasy in the sky, F. Scott and Zelda are smiling.

 

Sam Waterston Channels F. Scott And Zelda

Nearly a century after F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived there, 244 South Compo Road hosted another famous name.

Actor Sam Waterston recently toured the historic home, now owned by Jeannine Flower. He then sat for an interview with Professor Walter Raubichek, a noted Fitzgerald scholar at Pace University.

The walk-through and interview were filmed by Westporters Deej Webb and Robert Steven Williams. They’re working on a project about Fitzgerald’s time in town.

Channeling F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (from left): Professor Walter Raubicheck, Sam Waterston, Robert Steven Williams, Jeannine Flower and Deej Webb.

Channeling F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (from left): Robert Steven Williams, Sam Waterston, Professor Walter Raubicheck, Jeannine Flower and Deej Webb.

The filmmakers believe that Fitzgerald’s 6 months in Westport — May through October, 1920 — were pivotal to his writing.

(It was certainly pivotal to the newly married couple’s relationship. According to Webb and Williams, “their love was still in full bloom.”)

Scott wrote in his essay “100 False Starts” that a writer has 2 or 3 great life experiences, then recycles them over and over.

“We’ve set out to prove that Westport is one of those great experiences,” the filmmakers says. “We’re posing this to the international Fitzgerald community, and getting remarkable responses. That journey is what this film is all about.”

The film will premiere at the Westport Historical Society. No word on whether Sam Waterston will attend.