Tag Archives: Robert Steven Williams

Great Gatsby: Great Neck Fires Back

Westport has laid out a strong case as the setting for “The Great Gastsby.”

Great Neck is firing back.

Westporters know the story: historian Deej Webb and filmmaker Robert Steven Williams say that F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgeralds’ 1920 sojourn here informed not only the author’s physical description of Jay Gatsby’s mansion, but also much of the novel’s emotional power.

They also believe that Westport influenced nearly all of Fitzgerald’s ouevre.

Not so fast, Long Island counters.

“Everyone knows that Great Neck was the setting for ‘The Great Gatsby,’ don’t they?” a flyer from that town’s historical society asks.

And then answers: “Apparently, not everyone!”

“There are those who believe that Fitzgerald was really talking about — of all places — Westport, Connecticut,” the Great Neck Historical Society explains.

After mentioning Webb and Williams’ PBS film and companion book — plus stories in the New York Times, Newsday and more — the GNHS announces that the duo will discuss their findings and answer audience questions at a “special presentation.”

It’s this Sunday (October 21), 1:30 p.m. at the Great Neck Public Library main branch. GNHS president Alice Kasten will “defend” — their word — Great Neck’s “historical and literary honor” (ditto).

She recently took Webb and Williams on a Great Neck tour, “pointing out details to substantiate the long-held belief that Fitzgerald was writing about Great Neck and Port Washington.”

“They even interviewed me for their film,” she says. “I showed them how Fitzgerald had to be writing about our hometown.”

The GNHS calls this a “bound-to-be-controversial program.” It’s free, and open to the public.

Which means Westporters — defending our own honor — can pack the house. Click here for directions!

(Hat tip: Marcia Falk)

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.)

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.)

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Movie

Last spring, Westport Historical Society audiences loved Robert Steven Williams’ video featuring famous writers who lived here.

But Williams’ budget had been “zero.” He knew he could do better.

The segment on F. Scott Fitzgerald was particularly intriguing, for viewers and the filmmaker himself. To move forward, Williams contacted Westport resident Richard “Deej” Webb — an amateur historian and Fitzgerald buff — who offered to help.

The pair raised $20,000 for a film. Shooting began this summer.

Williams and Webb are giving the WHS rights for unlimited use and sale, including the premiere as a fundraiser. Attorney Alan Neigher is donating his time for legal issues, while Keir Dullea will narrate the film for a nominal fee.

Earlier this month, Williams and Webb interviewed Barbara Probst Solomon. In 1996 she wrote a groundbreaking New Yorker story linking Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby and Westport. For Williams, she recalled her childhood in Westport, and provided insights into F. Scott and Zelda’s own summer here in 1920.

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.

That evening, the filmmakers shot the Bridge Street bridge. The scattered lights were described in The Beautiful and Damned, which Fitzgerald wrote while in Westport.

The next day they filmed Main Street without traffic, and Nyala Farms (between Green’s Farms Road and the Sherwood Island connector).

Then came the coup de grace: the Fitzgerald house on South Compo. Built in 1758, and called Wakeman Farm in 1920, it looks much the same today as it did then.

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

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

“I wasn’t expecting Jeannine Flower, one of the owners, to be there,” Williams said on his blog.

“But she not only welcomed us into her home, she took the time to explain what she knew about the house. She was extremely knowledgeable about Scott and Zelda’s time there, and she was passionate and committed.”

Williams and Webb are passionate and committed too. They love this project — though a “black hole” is the unknown cost of securing the rights to photographs, archival footage, and use of lines from Gatsby.

But they’re forging ahead. Meanwhile, Webb is getting preparing to present the film’s thesis in November at a Fitzgerald academic conference in Montgomery, Alabama. That’s where Zelda was born.

Even in 1920, Westport must have seemed like a far different world.

PS: According to Williams, the Fitzgerald home in Westport is up for sale. It can be yours for $2,750,000.