Out of the Woods / 'Gatsby' hit Jazz Age notes in Westport
Updated 3:07 pm, Tuesday, May 7, 2013
"The Great Gatsby," that iconic movie based on the book by F. Scott Fitzgerald, opens this weekend after a circus-like Hollywood build-up that has most of us waiting for the return of a literary genius. At one time, he was the most famous man in town.
It was not that long ago -- on June 4, 1920, to be exact -- when an item appeared in The Westporter which read simply: "F. Scott Fitzgerald, a writer, has leased the Wakeman Cottage near Compo Beach." It was later known as the "Switch House" because it was near where the trolley tracks led to Compo Beach.
Everything Fitzgerald did here showed up in his writing, including his honeymoon with Zelda during the summer months in the Wakeman Cottage, which he describes in his second novel, "The Beautiful and the Damned." The Fitzgeralds, two of the most famous literary figures in the Depression Era, attracted many celebrities to their infamous, wild parties in Westport during Prohibition.
In fact, newspaper critic Edmund Wilson, who attended at least one of those parties, was later quoted as saying that he was "amused that the Fitzgeralds were reveling in the nude in the orgies of Westport."
Barbara Probst Solomon, the former New Yorker feature writer, wrote in an article in September 1996 that Fitzgerald's presence in Westport was "mythic." She called it a "dynamite year" in the town's history. During the Prohibition Era here, she added, Fitzgerald viewed Westport as a cross-cultural fusion of Christians and Jews, a smattering of millionaires with shore estates, the arts community and bootleggers.
During this time in Westport, Solomon observed, "work was an effort made between parties." She pointed out that it was Fitzgerald himself who pinpointed 1920, his Westport year, "as the year of social change in America, and as a moment when he lost his "young self."
Paradoxically, even during most social and gala years in the town's history, Westport faced unprecedented strains during the abyss of the Great Depression; and, it was a time when the town grimly but realistically failed to prepare -- nor did any other city or town in America -- for the desperate years when the nation came to an economic standstill.
Westport would rapidly become known as an art colony that attracted extraordinary talent. But even as the town was becoming a conclave of people in the arts, there were signs that all was not well among the other less-glamorous citizens. The Roaring Twenties could not sustain the careless, fast-spending pace indefinitely.
As early as 1920, paradoxically, a few years after the Board of Finance had been created to serve as a watchdog over the town's tax monies, the Board of Selectmen put men to work to build gravel sidewalks, fix the roads and undertake construction of a sea wall on the town's legally acquired property at Compo Beach. A few men found jobs maintaining the schools.
When Bedford Junior High School opened in 1926, it relieved Staples High School of some 246 pupils. It was, indeed, the best of times and the worst of times -- a wrenching transition between the excesses of wealth, wine and women -- and unprecedented unemployment, which did not spare Westport as it crippled the local economy, as well as the nation's.
Yet, in retrospect, it was also a time when New York City dwellers began the great migration to Westport and when the term "suburbs" was coined. It became an opportunity for new people who would eventually not only restore Westport to its current preeminence, but make it one of the most-admired towns in the nation.
In subsequent decades, of course, Westport has begun to turn into a mini-city, much to the distaste of many longtime residents. There are multiple plans in the works which could change the nature of the town.
But like the infamous battles of the past in regard to making changes here, emotional battles are expected in the near future before Westport settles into its natural self one more time, hopefully preserving the traditions and the "look" of one of the most beautiful places in America.
Woody Klein is a Westport writer. His "Out of the Woods" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.