Documentary focuses on Scott & Zelda's Westport legacy
Updated 10:52 am, Friday, May 29, 2015
No doubt 1920 was proving to be a remarkable year for the young F. Scott Fitzgerald. His first novel, "This Side of Paradise," was published and it became an instant success. Shortly after that, he married Zelda Sayre, but only after convincing her that he had the money needed to support her.
The couple soon made their way to a house at 244 Compo Road South, where they lived from May until early October, according to Westport resident Robert Steven Williams, who, along with his business partner, Deej Webb, is producing a documentary about Fitzgerald.
"It was like an extended honeymoon here for them," said Williams, a novelist who also has a communications company. "They also did some serious partying."
Williams said the house has more than historic value. "It's the place where the seeds to other works by Fitzgerald were planted," he said. This includes "The Beautiful and Damned," which was published in 1922, he said, adding Fitzgerald "came up with the idea for the novel and did a solid draft of it" while living here.
But there's more.
Williams believes there is also a strong Westport connection to Fitzgerald's greatest work, "The Great Gatsby," published in 1925.
That was something he and Webb began exploring while producing their documentary, "Boats Against the Current."
The idea for the documentary was hatched after Williams hosted a literary roundtable in February 2013 at the Westport Historical Society that included Webb, who was doing a talk focused on a 1996 New Yorker article by Westport writer Barbara Solomon, that he said connected the "Gatsby dots to Westport."
He said that people came up after the event saying they had no idea about "all of this great literary stuff in Westport." So Williams said he contacted Webb, a historian and educator, and said, "We need to make this film so the town doesn't forget Scott and Zelda lived here." He said it was Solomon's story that inspired them to explore the connection.
At the time, he said, they thought it would be a "simple 15-minute video." But, he added, the deeper they dug into the matter, the more they began to realize how significant the time was that the couple spent in town and the fact that the scholarly community had overlooked it.
The documentary explores why some believe Westport, its residents and locations were the source of much of what Fitzgerald was inspired by in writing "Gatsby," one of the greatest novels in American literature, Williams said.
The documentary, he added, primarily focuses on the time the couple spent in town, but a good portion is focused on the time leading up to it, as well as through the publication of "Gatsby" in 1925, he explained.
"At the same time, we track the status of the home today and Westport's awareness of Fitzgerald's time here," he said, adding there's "a wonderful segment in the film where Deej and I interview people on Main Street to find out if people knew they lived here."
He noted that the title of the documentary, "Boats Against the Current," a line from "The Great Gatsby," was chosen because Westport was being overlooked by the scholarly community. "Deej and I feel like we're going against the current, as was Jay Gatsby trying to outpace the moneyed elite of that era," he said. "We also feel that the town has grown increasingly disconnected from its past, as have many towns across America, and trying to get people to pay attention to such things when so many other things are going on in their lives is not easy."
The Westport days
Williams said the area of Compo Road South was far different when the Fitzgeralds summered there in 1920. "It was only their house and the house next door," a mansion on a 175-acre estate owned by a "mysterious millionaire," he said. That mansion today is the Longshore Inn.
Williams points out that Jay Gatsby could have been modeled on that millionaire -- Frederick Lewis -- who apparently gave some lavish parties, like those in the novel.
It was also noted in the Solomon article that the road signs in Westport for Easton and Weston could likely be the "East Egg" and "West Egg," also mentioned in the novel.
But, he noted, Fitzgerald scholars haven't embraced that concept, with most believing that the author's time in Great Neck on Long Island, from 1922-24, is where the concept for the novel took root.
Williams also believes that the Compo Road South house inspired Zelda Fitzgerald's novel, "Save Me the Waltz." "She wrote it 10 years" after they lived in the house, he said, adding that it was as if she were still living there.
"Their time there had seminal moments and that's why Westport is important," he said. "It's the Fitzgeralds at their happiest."
He said their film, narrated by Westport actor Keir Dullea, will be shown at 7 p.m. June 8 at the Fairfield Theatre Company -- even though the documentary, filmed over the past two-plus years, is 85 percent complete.
Another topic at the screening will be that the house is up for sale and is "unprotected" from potential demolition, he said.
The two-story, five-bedroom house, built in 1758, was assessed at $1.59 million and appraised at $2.28 million in 2013, according to records filed in the town assessor's office. Sale of the house -- for $2,599,000 -- is pending, according to information on a real estate website.
Williams said the pending sale will have no bearing on the screening. "If there is a sale, we will attempt to befriend the new owners and get them to take the appropriate action to ensure the protection of the house," Williams said. "We will assume that they have as much an appreciation of the house as we do, and would not assume otherwise, unless given reason."
Williams added documentary makers have committed to giving the Westport Historical Society the Fairfield County premiere as a fundraiser. "And we are allowing them to show the film at their Wheeler House location as part of the visitor experience," he said.
At the screening, there will be a film crew on hand, he said. They hope to have those in the audience speak out in favor of or against landmarking the house as a way to protect it.
Tickets for the "sneak-peek" viewing, which cost $10, can be obtained by calling the Fairfield Theatre Company box office at 203-259-1036 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. The FTC is at 70 Sanford St. in Fairfield.