Boats Against the Current, documentary about Westport inspiring The Great Gatsby, sells out Fairfield Theatre Company
By Dan Hajducky
It has always been believed that F. Scott Fitzgerald drew on his time spent living in Great Neck, Long Island, and hanging out in Little Neck, Queens, when writing his masterpiece The Great Gatsby. A number of fantastic nonfiction books—namely Maureen Corrigan’s So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures and Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby—devote time to the subject, but never mention Scott and wife Zelda’s six-month honeymoon in 1920, after This Side of Paradise was published, spent living in Westport having an influence on the tour de force. In fact, few scholars and Fitzgerald aficionados do.
The documentary Boats Against the Current—by local author Robert Steven Williams and local historian/New Canaan High School history department head Richard “Deej” Webb—was recently pre-screened at the Fairfield Theatre Company to a sold-out crowd. Williams and Webb delighted in hearing that their documentary was so anticipated that FTC staff had to turn customers away. And for good reason, noting the revelatory nature of the film.
“We were thrilled at the turnout,” says Williams. “The event was about presenting our findings and getting a reaction from the town so that we could get it all on film as part of the narrative.”
In 1996, Westporter Barbara Probst Solomon wrote a New Yorker article linking The Great Gatsby to Westport; unfortunately, the piece was largely dismissed by Fitzgerald scholars. But it hit home with Westporter Mr. Webb, who began giving talks around town inspired by Barbara’s article, and Mr. Williams, who attributes the piece as a main inspiration for the documentary’s undertaking.
After years of research, they found that the “grey house,” the aforementioned Fitzgerald House on 244 Compo Road South, and surrounding area comes up more in Scott’s writing (namely The Beautiful and Damned) and Zelda’s than any other place they lived. In fact, the structure of Nick Carraway’s, Daisy’s and Gatsby’s house in The Great Gatsby can’t have been inspired entirely by Long Island…the house that the Fitzgeralds lived in there isn’t near the water.
However, Westport’s structure makes sense. In sight of the Compo Road house was an 175-acre estate owned by reclusive railroad millionaire Frederick E. Lewis, who was renowned for his behemoth summer bashes by the water. Additionally, directly across The Sound from the estate (the mansion of which is now the Inn at Longshore) is a lengthy dock, which once had a lighthouse within spitting distance.
As Webb and Williams started to report their findings to Fitzgerald scholars—including Pace University’s Walter Raubicheck, who attended the screening and was part of a panel discussion—they started convincing them that Westport played a bigger part in The Great Gatsby’s conception than was previously thought.
Boats Against the Current is so convincing that Great Neck Historical Society president Alice Kasten, who was invited to the premiere by Williams and Webb, stood up and said, “We concede!” Even better, Scott and Zelda’s granddaughter, Vermont artist Eleanor “Bobbie” Lanahan, who appears in the film, said that she feels she’ll learn more about her grandparents from watching Boats Against the Current than she currently knows.
The film also happens to be narrated by Westport’s own 2001: A Space Odyssey actor Keir Dullea and features Law and Order’s Sam Waterston (a long-time Connecticut resident), who played Nick Carraway in the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby.
A more pressing matter has arisen, though, that Williams and Webb hope the film will help publicize: the Fitzgerald Home, which had been on the market for years, was recently sold for $2.59 million. The house is not landmarked, meaning it can be torn down any day like Ray Bradbury’s Los Angeles home was earlier this year. Though the wife of the new Compo Road home owner is reported to be a Fitzgerald fan, that doesn’t ease the minds of Webb and Williams, who ideally would like the home to be an international F. Scott Fitzgerald museum, or provide writer-in-residence opportunities.
Williams’ and Webb’s work, with the stamp of Barbara Probst Solomon herself, has people in the literature world rethinking Fitzgerald’s history already. Let’s hope their voices are heard loud enough to preserve the Compo Road house, in a town that inspired The Great American Novel.
“We’re giving the narrative time to unfold,” adds Williams. “But at some point soon, we’re going to have to wrap things up. In the meantime, our cameras are rolling.”
For questions regarding the documentary, or how you can get involved, head to Against The Grain Communications (againstgrain.com) or contact them via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.