As Westport turns its attention to "The Great Gatsby" -- the novel we're all supposed to dive into for this month's annual WestportREADS program -- we gaze back at the summer of 1920. That's when 23-year-old writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and his 19-year-old wife Zelda rented the "Wakeman cottage," just north of what is now the entrance to Longshore.
It seems so long ago -- and, less than a decade before the centennial of that summer rental, it is. But it's also close enough to touch. I heard first-hand tales -- by a Westporter who was there -- of the times the young, lively, already-well-known-and-destined-for-greatness couple drove their automobile madly up and down unpaved South Compo Road.
This woman -- who died very recently -- was there. She knew F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Nothing can make Gatsby come alive more than that.
I thought about that the other day, during one of those all-too-frequent discussions about the ways in which Westport has changed. There were the usual lamentations of all we have lost. The movie theaters (though a new one seems poised to rise, in the heart of downtown). The miniature golf courses (though who really plays anymore?) and permanent skating rink (though there's a fine temporary one every winter at, coincidentally, Longshore). The artists colony we were once known as (and which F. Scott and Zelda helped create).
Whenever folks talk like that, a certain past era is referenced as the golden age. The postwar years, we say, are when things started to boom. Baby boomers added sizzle. The 1960s and '70s -- when Westport was filled with bars, clubs and other entertainment options, plus a very eclectic Main Street, making this a surprisingly hip oasis in a suburban wasteland known for conformity -- are seen as the high water mark in our town's history.
But much of what Westport was -- and, in some ways, still is -- did not burst forth suddenly the moment World War II ended. The seeds had been planted much earlier. And that brief Fitzgerald summer of 1920 was an important genesis for the revolutionary Roaring '20s decade it ushered in.
F. Scott and Zelda reveled "nude in the orgies of Westport," critic Edmund Wilson wrote. Barbara Probst Solomon -- author of a famous New Yorker story on Fitzgerald -- described the town of that day as filled with "farmers, a smattering of millionaires with shore estates, that art community, and bootleggers." It was "a perfect setting for this cross-cultural fusion of Wasps and Jews."
By 1926 -- according to Woody Klein's book on the history of Westport -- the New York Journal American called our town "the cradle of genius." There were "artists, writers, sculptors, editors, and painters. ...The art invasion began about six years ago and came from the Village." By the end of the decade, the number of creative people -- including those involved in movies and music -- had swelled to 600.
Prohibition -- ratified in 1919 -- had little effect on Westport. In fact, artist Robert Lambdin told a local newspaper that there was more drinking here than ever before.
One of the most popular speakeasies (and there were many) was the Miramar nightclub on Hillspoint Road. Later called the Penguin, and now the site of condos just south of the I-95 and railroad bridges near Green's Farms Road, it drew high rollers from the entire New York area.
"Shaped like a boat, with life preservers, portholes, and other boating decor, white tablecloths and a crystal chandelier in the upstairs dining room," its frequent guests included George Raft and James Cagney.
But just as F. Scott Fitzgerald had a serious side, life in Westport was not all flappers and orgies. In the 1920s, E.T. Bedford's substantial gift turned a hotel on the corner of the Post Road and Main Street into the Westport YMCA. Next door, Westport Bank and Trust built a handsome new $100,000 building (today it's Patagonia).
Green's Farms Elementary School opened. So did Bedford Junior High School (now King's Highway Elementary), relieving what had become untenable crowding at Staples High School (an old building on the current site of the Saugatuck Elementary School auditorium).
It must have been an exciting decade. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were not around to see it -- that summer of 1920 was the only time they lived in Westport. But they'd helped usher in the '20s, and the glow from their brief presence here lasted a long time.
This month, as Westport reads "The Great Gatsby" together, we think back to those days. A glamorous young couple rode their auto down unpaved roads, en route to "nude orgies" and speakeasies. Artists flocked here. The town was poised to grow.
It was a very different era. Yet it was close enough that -- as Westport discusses the mythical F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald -- I know someone who watched them live.