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Westport Library's celebration of 'Gatsby' hits close to home

Published 9:34 am, Sunday, January 6, 2013

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  • The house at 244 Compo Road South was home to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in the summer and fall of 1920. Many believe the house --- also known as the Wakeman Cottage --- was the inspiration for the house of the novel's narrator, Nick Carraway. Photo: Jarret Liotta / Westport News contributed
    The house at 244 Compo Road South was home to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in the summer and fall of 1920. Many believe the house --- also known as the Wakeman Cottage --- was the inspiration for the house of the novel's narrator, Nick Carraway. Photo: Jarret Liotta

 

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In his younger and more vulnerable years, celebrated writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and his new wife, Zelda, brought their unique Jazz Age hijinks to Westport.

For a six-month period beginning in May 1920, the Fitzgeralds -- buoyed by the colossal success of Scott's first novel, "This Side of Paradise" -- rented the house at 244 Compo Road South.

While it's clear that descriptions of Westport serve at the center of Fitzgerald's second novel, "The Beautiful and Damned," many believe his third and best-known novel, "The Great Gatsby," was largely inspired through the couple's experiences in this town.

This year, the WestportREADS community reading project organized by the Westport Public Library has chosen "Gatsby" as its theme book. Appropriately, the latest film adaptation of the novel -- its fifth -- will be released later this year, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tobey Maguire.

Among the Gatsby-themed events and activities planned this month for WestportREADS, Gerald Kuroghlian, who taught English at Staples High School for four decades, will lead a talk at the house where the Fitzgeralds had lived about the influence that Westport had on his work.

"The thing about Fitzgerald is he took his own personal experiences and rendered them into literature," Kuroghlian said. "He didn't waste any experience."

Which is why any local reader of "The Beautiful and Damned" will get a kick out of Anthony and Gloria Patch's journey to "Marietta," Conn., where they rent an antiquated gray cottage not far from the Post Road. Then, during one of the couple's many drunken episodes, Gloria makes her way down the literary equivalent of Ferry Lane East -- a few hundred yards from the Fitzgeralds' South Compo home -- where she ambles across the rickety walkway along the edge of the railroad bridge.

"There's so much of Westport in `Save me the Waltz,' " Kuroghlian said, referring to Zelda's only novel, published in 1932. "She takes the summer (in Westport) verbatim ... except she calls herself Alabama." Zelda wrote, "Outside the window gray roads pulled the Connecticut horizons from before and behind to a momentous crossing. A stone minuteman kept the peace of the indolent fields."

While the story of Jay Gatsby -- the mysterious millionaire whose unrequited love drives him to throw the most magnificent parties in the world -- is set in Long Island, there's a strong possibility that Fitzgerald's inspiration for this story began at what today is known as the Longshore Inn, not far from where the author lived.

"It was a great estate at the time," Kuroghlian said, owned by Frederick Lewis, who threw enormous parties on the property that stretched right up to the Fitzgeralds' lot, just as Gatsby's property ran up to the adjacent cottage of the novel's narrator, Nick Carraway.

"Lewis was fabulously wealthy, and very, very handsome," Kuroghlian said. "The description of the estate in `The Great Gatsby' fits Longshore a lot better that it fits where Fitzgerald lived in Long Island."

Along with the personalities and proximities, during Kuroghlian's talk -- attendance will be determined by a lottery for a lucky 20 people -- he will share some stories involving the Fitzgeralds' famous antics, including the time Zelda drove her car into a fire hydrant on Main Street.

"They were the Kardashians of the time period," he said, explaining that much of their outsized behavior was aimed at generating publicity for the writer's work.

Regardless, Kuroghlian -- a Fitzgerald fan of the first magnitude -- is excited about the event.

"It's a great honor for me because I've been dying to see this house ever since I started teaching Gatsby in 1967," he said.

For a complete list of the WestportREADS events, check: http://www.westportlibrary.org/recommended/westportreads/events