- Connecticut Yankees in the Gold Coast Court
By Richard Webb Jr. Westport, CT: Prospecta Press, 2018, 178 pp.
A high school teacher from Westport, Connecticut, comes across a New Yorker article that argues boldly for Westport’s unlikely importance as an inspiration for The Great Gatsby, and he sets out to make a film about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s five-month honeymoon in Westport in the summer of 1920. To do so, he enlists the aid of a friend, better acquainted than he in the cinematic arts, and the two of them begin filming a documentary on what that summer almost ninety-nine years ago means for Fitzgerald fans and scholars.
Boats Against the Current by Richard Webb Jr. tells that lively story. The documentary, called “Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story,” is still searching for a mass distributor (several rough cuts have been seen in public), but this book traces how Webb, trained in teaching history, and his friend Robert Steven Williams (who wrote the foreword to Boats) went about interviewing Fitzgerald scholars, Connecticut historians, Westport natives, descendants of the Fitzgeralds, and anyone else with insight into their thesis, which might be summarized as “Gatsby was inspired in 1920 when Fitzgerald lived near millionaires on the northern coast of Long Island Sound, rather than exclusively by his nearness to millionaires from 1922–24 when he was living on Long Island itself.” As one of the first academics contacted by Webb and Williams, I can attest to the method they employed in pursuing the truth: “Do you think we’re crazy?” they asked me.
This is the question that Webb and Williams put to many people, and it has a certain charm. Is anyone, with or without psychiatric training, willing to diagnose two total strangers on the spot? Like many of their subjects, I suspect, I thought “Yes” but politely answered, “No, of course not. Please, share your thoughts with me.” The most outspoken person they contacted was Charles Scribner III, the grandson of Fitzgerald’s publisher, who bluntly assessed their work as “poppycock” (63) but later came around to endorsing their belief that Westport’s pivotal role in the formation of Fitzgerald’s body of work has been sadly neglected. [End Page 258]
Westport does not leap to mind when we consider the formative places in Fitzgerald lore—St. Paul, Princeton, Montgomery, Long Island, the Riviera, Maryland, Los Angeles, and dozens of other locales that the peripatetic author and his wife briefly called home come to mind far more readily than Westport does. So in this, Webb and Williams perform a great service in describing the still-standing seaside cottage the Fitzgeralds rented in Connecticut shortly after their marriage in 1920 and in exploring its significance. How could we neglect the celebrated couple’s romantic honeymoon cottage? (“Cottage,” of course, understates the size and substance of this multistory house, which realtors now list for many multiples of both Fitzgeralds’ lifetime earnings.) The Gray House, as it is known, ought to be on any Fitzgeraldian’s list of must-see venues, no less important than still-extant sites like 6 Gateway Drive in Great Neck, room 441 of Asheville’s Grove Park Inn, 919 Felder Avenue in Montgomery (home of the F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum), and Sheilah Graham’s apartment on Hayworth Avenue in West Hollywood. The Beautiful and Damned is, of course, partly set in Westport. (Given the fictional name of “Marietta,” the town is, in all other geographical and biographical respects, unmistakably Westport.) Certain incidents in the novel, such as the heroine’s late-night flight from their cottage for the nearby train station, are paralleled perfectly by real-life incidents. Zelda Fitzgerald’s path from cottage to railroad still stands undisturbed today, and her followers can, with paperback in hand, if they wish, trace the post-spat route she took to the Westport train station. Not too long ago, I and my Pace University colleague Walter Raubicheck (who plays a significant role in the documentary), along with Fitzgerald Society Vice President Kirk Curnutt, joined Webb and...