LLR Books

Connecticut NY Times

Writer's Block

Published: November 28, 2004

CONNECTICUT must be a Land of Canaan for writers. No other explanation seems plausible for why people in the literary trade have wandered here in such abundance. Philip Roth has lived in Connecticut for many years; Arthur Miller and William Styron for decades. Frank McCourt moved here a few years ago. And Mark Twain, it almost feels, has never left.
Whatever has attracted them to the state, writers have left their mark on more than just paper. Vestiges of their presences can be found in the bricks and mortar, wood and windows, roofs and shutters of the houses where they lived. Some, like Twain's house and Harriet Beecher Stowe's in Hartford and Eugene O'Neill's childhood home in New London, are well-known tourist attractions. But others are more obscure, still standing and available for a drive-by glance for those who know where to look. F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose life in New York, France and Hollywood is part of his legend, spent time in Connecticut. He and his wife, Zelda, lived, and partied, in a small house in Westport at 244 Compo Road South.
A few towns over, Helen Keller lived for years at Arcan Ridge, a sprawling home at 163 Redding Road in Easton she so loved that when it was destroyed by fire in 1946, she had a replica built (dubbing it "Arcan Ridge 2"). She died in her sleep there on June 1, 1968. The house is now on the market for $1.6 million.
James Thurber, whose works include "My Life and Hard Times" and "My World and Welcome to It," spent years of house-hopping through Fairfield and Litchfield Counties before finding contentment in West Cornwall at Great Hollow Road. The actor Sam Waterston now lives in the house.
Ann Petry, whose 1948 novel "The Street" was one of the best-selling works by a Harlem Renaissance writer, lived most of her adult life in a house on Old Boston Post Road in Old Saybrook. She was born and grew up just down the street, in the building that now houses the James Gallery and Soda Fountain (2 Pennywise Lane), a setting that inspired her books, "Country Place" and "A Drug Store Cat."
Malcolm Cowley, the literary editor of The New Republic and a writer who lived at 2 Church Road in Sherman from 1936 until his death in 1989, so loved the area's rural character that he was chairman of the town zoning board for 20 years.
For half a century, James Laughlin, a writer and publisher, ran his influential imprint, New Directions, partly out of his home at 305 Mountain Road in Norfolk. New Directions was the first to publish some of the past century's most important writers in the United States, including Dylan Thomas, Henry Miller, Albert Camus, Arthur Rimbaud, Hermann Hesse, Franz Kafka, Yukio Mishima and Boris Pasternak, as well as American avant-garde poets like Ezra Pound, Kenneth Patchen and Charles Olson (another longtime state resident).
And what other state can boast that it had a novelist and Thoreau scholar for a lieutenant governor? Odell Shepard was elected to that post in 1940. He kept house in Hartford and Waterford for 50 years. Mr. Shepard, a Trinity College professor, also wrote a Pulitzer-winning biography of another literary lion, the transcendentalist philosopher Bronson Alcott, whose ancestral home was in the Spindle Hill section of Wolcott.

F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald is in a category all his own.
On June 4, 1920, a small item in The Westporter-Herald announced his bigger-than life arrival in Westport: "F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer, has leased the Wakeman Cottage near Compo Beach." Fitzgerald, 23, was the toast of Manhattan for his first novel, "This Side of Paradise," published three months earlier by Charles Scribner's Sons. In April, he had married Zelda Sayre, who was 19, and the couple had planned a long New York City honeymoon. By late May, they'd worn out their welcome at two Manhattan hotels or, as the biographer Andrew Turnbull put it, "After several weeks at the Biltmore, the Fitzgeralds were asked to leave, the continuing hilarity of their presence being considered prejudicial to good order and restful nights."

Zelda and Scott climbed in their 1917 Marmon, drove north on the Boston Post Road and stopped in Westport, where Zelda, a swimming enthusiast, liked the proximity to Long Island Sound, while Scott was enamored of a rental property at 244 Compo Road South. This was no simple "cottage," as the local paper put it, but a substantial two-story Colonial structure built in 1780 by William Gray II, a farmer. It eventually came into the possession of William Wakeman, a descendant of Gray.
While living there, Fitzgerald began writing his second novel, "The Beautiful and Damned," in which he described the house: "The gray house had been there when women who kept cats were probably witches. ... Since those days the house had been bolstered up in a feeble corner, considerably repartitioned and newly plastered inside, amplified by kitchen and added to by a side-porch but, save for where some jovial oaf had roofed the new kitchen with red tin, Colonial it defiantly remained."
The Fitzgeralds maintained their party animal reputations during the six months they lived in Westport, entertaining Manhattan friends like the drama critic George Jean Nathan, the theater producer John Williams and Princeton classmates like Edmund Wilson, who said he found the couple "reveling nude in the orgies of Westport," and Alexander McKaig, who in a diary entry for June 13, 1920, noted, "Visit Fitz at Westport ... Terrible party. Fitz & Zelda fighting like mad."
The tempestuous couple joined the Westport Beach Club and were spotted at "wild beach parties" that took place off Hendricks Point, near Compo Beach, according to the biographer James Mellow. Mr. Mellow wrote that the couple "took mad rides along Post Road with abrupt stops at roadhouses to replenish the supply of gin." In the midst of all this, Zelda's parents visited from Alabama, but the couple's behavior and lifestyle drove the elder Sayres home ahead of schedule.
To honor that intense residency, the house now has a plaque that refers to it as the William Gray/F. Scott Fitzgerald House. Though scholars have said it was Mr. Fitzgerald's time in Great Neck on Long Island (1922-24) that laid the foundation for his 1926 masterpiece, "The Great Gatsby," Barbara Probst Solomon, a novelist who spent her childhood in a house near Compo Beach, made a compelling case for Westport at least planting the Gatsby seed.
In a piece in The New Yorker during the Fitzgerald centennial in 1996, Ms. Solomon suggested that the road signs in Westport for Easton and Weston were echoed in "East Egg" and "West Egg," and that Jay Gatsby himself may have been modeled on a millionaire/eccentric who lived near the Fitzgeralds in 1920 and was renowned for lavish Gatsby-style parties.
The current residents, James and Wendy Agah, were aware of the house's notoriety when they bought it two years ago. As they've settled in, the Agahs have familiarized themselves with the Fitzgeralds' lively Westport past. They're particularly amused by "Invented Lives," Mr. Mellow's biography of the Fitzgeralds, the front cover of which shows the couple in front of the house.
"We leave the book out on a table in the front room," said Ms. Agah, who works for a wine auctioneer in Manhattan. "We joke that at 3 a.m. we hear music drifting through the house and figure it's just the Fitzgeralds throwing another party."
The Agahs are normally unfazed by the inevitable curiosity seekers.
"A woman walked right in the house one day, came up to me and asked, 'When does the tour start?'," Ms. Agah said. "We like the history of the house and the area. We like the attention it gets."