Is Westport the ‘West Egg’ in the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic?
The battle over bragging rights to the primary setting of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” should be heating up this summer.
Many Fitzgerald scholars claim the town of Great Neck on Long Island, N.Y., inspired the fictional setting of West Egg, where the protagonist Nick Carraway first encounters the mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby in the classic novel, but writer Richard Webb Jr. and filmmaker Robert Steven Williams, who both live in Westport, are making a strong case for Westport in a book that will be published June 26 and a documentary to be shown on Connecticut Public Television in the fall.
“Boats Against the Current” (Prospecta Press, $40) is a lavishly illustrated coffee table book subtitled, “The Honeymoon Summer of Scott and Zelda: Westport, Connecticut 1920,” that puts forth a theory that the time the couple spent in a cottage on Compo Road South inspired key elements of the masterpiece that would be published five years later. (The book’s title comes from one of the last lines in “The Great Gatsby.”)
“I think we’ve proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that part of ‘Gatsby’ was inspired by the physical geography of Westport,” Webb says of the proximity of the Fitzgerald honeymoon cottage to the mansion of millionaire businessman Frederick E. Lewis. The set-up was strikingly similar to that of Carraway’s summer rental being in the shadow of the Gatsby estate in the novel.
Lewis threw celebrity-packed parties on his property that were much like the ones Gatsby organized, with guests ranging from magician Harry Houdini, to great stage stars of the day, such as Ina Claire, who was Fitzgerald’s favorite actress.
“The Lewis parties, like the Gatsby parties, were not just social gatherings, they were spectacles,” Webb writes, adding that unlike Gatsby, Lewis was a legitimate businessman.
The Broadway producer David Belasco, a frequent Lewis guest, turns up in a party scene in “The Great Gatsby” in unfictionalized form.
The groundwork for the book and film project was laid by a New Yorker article Barbara Probst Solomon wrote in 1993 that explored the Fitzgeralds’ connection to Westport. Solomon grew up on Westport’s Compo Beach and became fascinated by the way it resembled West Egg. Literary scholars were so committed to the Great Neck connection, however, that Solomon’s article had little lasting impact on the debate.
“When a Great Neck house (purported to be the Gatsby mansion) went on sale, it generated international press,” Webb says. “But over the years, 25 houses there have been sold as ‘the Gatsby house.’ When the Westport (honeymoon cottage) was sold, there was nothing in the press. It’s a giant blind spot.”
In the book, Webb and Williams make their six-year investigation part of the story, as they gathered material and did on-camera interviews with Solomon, various Fitzgerald descendants and Connecticut actor Sam Waterston, who played Nick Carraway in the 1974 film version of “The Great Gatsby,” starring Robert Redford.
“We had to be patient. With something like this, it takes time to earn trust,” Webb says of meeting with Fitzgerald scholars. “Here, Robert and I started showing up at Fitzgerald conferences and they were right to ask: Who are these guys? What’s their angle? It took years, but we were willing to put the time in. And we were always respectful to Scott and Zelda.”
A big part of the fun in reading the book are the digressions, as Webb includes sidebars on people and places encountered during the research.
“The Great Gatsby” wouldn’t be the first time Fitzgerald fictionalized Westport in a novel. The 1922 book “The Beautiful and the Damned,” which the writer was working on during his honeymoon, draws on the town for its Connecticut locations.
Webb hopes that events for the book this summer and the airing of the companion film in the fall, will spur discussion of the Fitzgerald/Westport connection locally and then nationally. Although the house at Compo Beach has always been privately owned — Webb guards the privacy of the current owners in his book — the author would like to see it protected and turned into a Fitzgerald Center at some point. “The people who own the house now love it; they are real caretakers,” Webb says.
The writer also wants to shine a light on Westport’s role in American literary history. In one section of the book, he explores the days when notable authors like Sinclair Lewis bought second homes there, and famous residents included J.D. Salinger, who wrote “The Catcher in the Rye” in Westport, and Sloan Wilson, whose “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit” depicted the town after World War II (key scenes in the 1956 film version were shot there).
As hard as it might be to believe now, Westport was viewed as a bohemian enclave when the Fitzgeralds honeymooned there. It was called “a rural Greenwich Village” and one writer observed that “orgies are as common on Compo Beach as sunsets.”
“And they weren’t talking about skinny-dipping,” the writer says, laughing. “They were real orgies.”
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