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The Champagne and The Stars

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.
Until now.
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.
Sound familiar?
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: info@againstgrain.com.

How F. Scott Fitzgerald Found Eternal Peace in Rockville

Few associate the “Great Gatsby” author with this area, but he had deep roots here.

By Matt Blitz

Right off of Rockville Pike, a half-mile walk from a Red Line Metro stop, one of America’s greatest writers lies in eternal rest.
But while The Great Gatsby is still required reading in many local school districts, some area residents may be surprised to learn its author is buried, along with his famed wife Zelda, in a small Catholic cemetery in suburban Maryland.
F. Scott Fitzgerald helped define the 1920s and America’s Jazz Age and is thus more commonly associated with New York City, Paris, and Long Island, where his character Jay Gatsby lived. But Fitzgerald’s family had roots in the DC area. His grandparents lived right outside of modern-day Rockville, where they owned the small “Glenmary” farm. Fitzgerald’s father, Edward, was born on that small farm in 1853. Fitzgerald would later reminisce about the stories his father would tell him about helping Confederate spies during the Civil War. Edward moved west to Saint Paul, Minnesota, in the 1870s, but returned home when he was buried in his family’s plot in a Catholic cemetery in Rockville.
Soon after arriving in Saint Paul, Edward met Mary “Mollie” McQuillan, and they married. In 1896, Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born. Naming him as such wasn’t simply a show of respect to the man who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but also a way to honor a family member. Francis Scott Key was actually F. Scott Fitzgerald’s distant cousin, though Fitzgerald always referred to him as his “great-great uncle.”
Fitzgerald married Zelda Sayer in 1920, the same year that his first novel, This Side of Paradise, was published. The earnings from that and his side gig writing short stories for magazines supplemented the opulent New York lifestyle that the young couple had adopted. While The Great Gatsby is considered today to be Fitzgerald’s opus, when it was published in 1925, it was lightly regarded and actually underperformed commercial expectations. It was only later that the novel that epitomized the Roaring 20s and cast a harsh light on the American Dream would get its due.
As the 1920s came to a close, so did the happy life of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Zelda began to show signs of significant mental illness in the late 1920s and for the rest of her life, she would be in and out of hospitals. Always a hard partier, Fitzgerald became dependent on alcohol and suffered through bouts of depression. Although still married to Zelda, Fitzgerald had numerous affairs and romances as she suffered through mental illness. After Gatsby, he would only write one more completed novel—1934’s Tender is the Night. In 1937, he moved to Hollywood to try to make it as a screenwriter, thinking of himself as a sell-out and failure.
On December 21, 1940, Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham found F. Scott Fitzgerald dead in their shared apartment. He had suffered a fatal heart attack at 44. While he had left no real instructions on where to be buried, he did note in his will that he wished to have “the cheapest funeral” possible.
Three thousand miles away, Zelda was living at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, a sanatorium for the rich and famous attempting to recover from their ills. Despite the married couple’s troubles and, by that point, infrequent communication, she knew that Fitzgerald wished to be buried in his family plot in the Catholic cemetery in Rockville. So, she instructed those in care of his body to send him back east. There was one problem with that, though: Fitzgerald’s tenuous relationship to the Catholic faith.
When Fitzgerald arrived to the cemetery, the church that owned the cemetery at the time refused his burial. According to witnesses, it was because he had not fulfilled his “Easter duties” and was “unfit to be buried alongside good Catholics in consecrated ground.” Fitzgerald’s hard-living reputation had followed him to his grave. Instead, Zelda paid for him to be buried a mile down the road in Rockville Cemetery. In 1948, Zelda joined him when she died tragically in a fire at Highland. She was buried on top of him because Zelda had only bought one space. That’s where they sat for 27 years.
In 1975, members of the Rockville Women’s Club noticed the Fitzgeralds’ grave was crumbling and deteriorating. Talking with family members revealed that the Fitzgeralds should have been buried down the road. The case was taken to the Archbishop of Washington, William Baum, who immediately gave his blessing to allow the Fitzgerald’s to be reburied at St. Mary’s Church Cemetery. In a statement, he said that Fitzgerald was “an artist who was able with lucidity and poetic imagination to portray the struggle between grace and death ... His characters are involved in this great drama, seeking God and seeking grace.”
Today, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald lie together in eternal peace at the now-called St.Mary’s Church Historic Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland. Written on their gravestone is the last line from The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Matt Blitz is the head of the Obscura Society D.C., the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura. He writes about discovering the world’s mysteries for Smithsonian Magazine, Atlas Obscura and Washingtonian.

Property where Zelda Fitzgerald died sells for $1.25M

Caitlin Byrd

ASHEVILLE – The historic site where America's Jazz Age darling, Zelda Fitzgerald, died in a tragic fire has sold for $1.25 million.
The four-story building at 75 Zillicoa St. was once Highland Hospital, the psychiatric facility where author F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife and eight other women died in a fire on the night of March 10, 1948.
Now it will become a place to help adolescent men who are struggling with substance abuse.
Richard Whitney, CEO of Whitney Commercial Real Estate, brokered the deal. Whitney said the property was originally put on the market for $2.1 million.
"It was on the market for 595 days," Whitney said of the property in Asheville's historic Montford neighborhood. "It used to be Highland Hospital, a place where folks came to get better. It's interesting how it all comes full circle, isn't it?"
The historic property will soon become the home of Montford Hall, a 28-bed, long-term residential substance abuse treatment program for boys ages 14-17.
Alex Kirby, the founder and executive director of Montford Hall, said the nonprofit organization had been looking for the right place for this program for nearly five years.
"With many programs, these kids are invariably dropped in the middle of nowhere, hours and hours away from anything," Kirby said.
"We made a conscious decision to put a treatment program somewhere that looked someplace like where a kid might live, but where they can also learn sobriety skills and be well-equipped to face the world because they will be confronted by it."
The Glass Foundation, a private family foundation in Asheville, purchased the building for Montford Hall.
Montford Hall will be sandwiched between Genova Diagnostics, which used to operate at 75 Zillicoa St. before moving down the street to 63 Zillicoa St., and CooperRiis Healing Community, which helps people with mental illness or emotional distress build the skills they need to become independent and find fulfillment in life.
"This property wasn't available when we started looking for properties. We looked at 182 Cumberland, which used to be a halfway house, but it just didn't work out. We also looked at 49 Zillicoa St., two doors up, but that was just not going to work," said Kirby, who is also a clinical psychologist. "The Glass Foundation has really stepped up to help us out. They're just the most amazing people to help us do this."
When it opens in October, Montford Hall will be the only program east of the Rockies to provide long-term residential substance abuse treatment for teenage boys, Kirby said.
"We are not rehab. These boys will come here to get stabilized after they go somewhere for 30, 60 or 90 days to get treatment. But rehab does not refer to continuum of care, and that's where we are different," Kirby said, noting teenagers in the program stay for periods longer than 180 days. "It takes a long time to get into trouble and it takes a long time to get out of trouble."
Montford Hall will take residence of the building beginning this month, and is already looking at an Oct. 15 opening date. But there is still work to be done.
"The building does not have a kitchen, and it only has one shower so we want to do some improvements there and also make sure we have addressed any fire safety issues," Kirby said. "We're looking at about $400,000 in renovations inside."
Kirby envisions a dining hall on the bottom floor, offices on the main floor and a school on the second floor. The third floor will be where the young men will sleep and the fourth floor will serve as a large room for music and recreational activities.
In total, the building is 16,363 square feet and sits on less than an acre.
Kirby said plans for Montford Hall have been approved by the city, but they are still waiting for their permits to be issued.
Patti Glazer will be the project architect, and the general contractor will be RPF Construction.
But aside from a few improvements, like replacing some rotting wood, the exterior of the building will not be touched.
"We're talking about putting together a new website, and a big part of that will be telling the story of this building and its rich history," Kirby said.
The plaque on the property that honors the life of Zelda Fitzgerald will stay.

By Fitzgerald


Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby is not the first movie to insult F. Scott Fitzgerald
Revisiting Frank Borzage's Three Comrades, the only film on which F. Scott Fitzgerald received screenwriting credit

If nothing else, the recent release of Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby adaptation provides a good excuse to revisit the sole film on which F. Scott Fitzgerald received screenwriting credit, the 1938 melodrama Three Comrades. The movies are similar insofar that neither one really respects Fitzgerald’s writing—the author was reportedly unhappy with Comrades because relatively little of his work made it into the completed film. Since it takes place in Germany, an executive at MGM submitted the script (cowritten by Fitzgerald and Edward E. Paramore Jr. from Erich Maria Remarque’s novel) to the German ambassador for approval—the studio wanted to make sure that nothing in it would offend the tastes of the Nazi Party, who had been threatening to ban American films if they contained anything perceived as anti-German. (At this point the United States were still officially neutral in regards to Germany; furthermore most Hollywood studios were financially unstable throughout the Great Depression and were afraid to lose German ticket sales.) The ambassador proposed numerous changes to the screenplay, all of which were put into effect.
It’s hard to say how Fitzgerald-esque Three Comrades would have been if this act of appeasement hadn’t taken place, given the other dominant personalities involved: director Frank Borzage, producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and MGM itself, which had the most recognizable house style of the major studios. (Dave Kehr, in his Reader capsule review, was not receptive to the MGM touch.) Yet one can hear Fitzgerald’s voice in some of the dialogue, particularly in the movie’s effervescent first half. The story takes place shortly after World War I, centering on three inseparable war buddies who open a garage together. Their friendship, we quickly realize, gives them a go-getting spirit and makes them unafraid of starting a business during an economic depression. “We’re going to be very rich,” says the most cynical of the friends, in a short speech that Fitzgerald must have written. “Germany’s going to need expert mechanics in the years to come. There’ll be all sorts of things to repair: souls, consciences, broken hearts by the thousands …”

Fitzgerald’s eloquent prose fits rather nicely with Borzage’s graceful visuals. What might have sounded self-consciously florid in the hands of another director feels musical under his direction.

F. Scott Fitzgerald Conjugated The Word "Cocktail," And You're Welcome For Your New Favorite Words


F. Scott Fitzgerald gave us a lot over the course of his life and even beyond, including great literature (obviously), fabulous heroines we seek to emulate, a realistic portrayal of mental illness, and, indirectly, another chance to get a look at Leonardo DiCaprio’s crying face. One of the celebrated author’s lesser known contributions, however, is his advocacy for the importance of a very special verb — one that you need to start using immediately, if you haven’t already. It’s so simple that I’m still wondering why I didn’t think to use it sooner: to cocktail. Genius.
Fitzgerald recognized how essential this use of the word was, which frankly, isn’t surprising, considering how near and dear to him the topic of alcohol was. In a letter to Blanche Knopf, the wife of publisher Alfred A. Knopf, the Great Gatsby author gave the noun-turned-verb its due by conjugating it out for her.
“As ‘cocktail,’ so I gather, has become a verb, it ought to be conjugated at least once,” he wrote. He proceeded to list all of its forms, and lucky for us, it’s not an irregular verb with tricky conjugations. Nonetheless, Fitzgerald gets really deep into the grammar of it. Gold star if you can rattle off all of these verb forms off the top of your head.
Present: I cocktail, thou/you cocktail, it cocktails, we cocktail, you cocktail, they cocktail.
Imperfect: I was cocktailing.
Perfect/past definite: I cocktailed.
Past perfect: I have cocktailed.
Conditional: I might have cocktailed.
Pluperfect: I had cocktailed.
Subjunctive: I would have cocktailed.
Voluntary subjunctive: I should have cocktailed.
Preterite: I did cocktail.
Imperative: Cocktail!
Interrogative: Cocktailest thou?
Subjunctive conditional: I would have had to have cocktailed.
Conditional subjunctive: I ought have had to have cocktailed.
Participle: Cocktailing
If I’d have had to have conjugated these verbs without Fitzgerald’s help, I would have had to have cocktailed. And now that I’m done, I will cocktail.

F. Scott Fitzgerald slept here: Summit Ave. row house on the market

By Andy Rathbun
St. Paul home where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived for a time during his younger and more vulnerable years is now up for sale.

The three-story row house at 593 Summit Ave., where Fitzgerald lived with his family for a couple of stretches beginning in 1914, was listed for sale Tuesday. With 3,441 square feet, four bedrooms and three baths, the brownstone will get the buyer a piece of literary history.
While not as closely associated with Fitzgerald as 599 Summit Ave., another of the eight row houses that make up what's known as Summit Terrace, the home is where Fitzgerald wrote "The Spire and the Gargoyle," a short story he called "the beginning of mature writing," according to "F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota: His Homes and Haunts" by John J. Koblas.
Fitzgerald first lived in the home when he returned from his schooling at Princeton University for Christmas vacation in 1914, according to Koblas. He lived on the third floor and later returned to the house for a period while battling an illness.
Fitzgerald would go on to finish his first novel, "This Side of Paradise," while living at 599 Summit.
The current owner of 593 Summit has lived there for 34 years and is moving to northern Minnesota, said real estate agent Sarah Kinney.
"He has restored it to its original beauty," Kinney said. "It really is an unusual row house, even for St. Paul, and we're lucky that it's still in overall excellent condition."
Kinney noted that the house, which was built in 1889 and is listed for $665,000, is a single-family attached home and not a condominium.
The listing can be found at bit.ly/1dm3E1v.

Andy Rathbun can be reached at 651-228-2121. Follow him at twitter.com/andyrathbun.