New Gatsby movie: 'Reel-ity' vs. Fitzgerald's Westport reality
Watching the outlandish bacchanals in the new movie version of "The Great Gatsby," brings to mind a line from another book, "The Go-Between" by L.P. Hartley -- "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."
But it's possible you'll find more in common with Jay Gatsby and his creator, F. Scott Fitzgerald, than imagined.
In 1920, Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, spent a summer in a Westport home on Compo Road South, just north of the Longshore Golf Course. The blue, center-hall Colonial is a short walk from Long Island Sound, of which Nick Carraway, the character who narrates Gatsby's story, writes in Chapter One: "The most domesticated body of salt water in the Western Hemisphere."
The book takes place on Long Island's North Shore, at East Egg and West Egg, the fictionalized North Shore locations of Kings Point and Sands Point, respectively, about 14 miles across the water from the foot of Compo Beach.
To be sure, Westport in the 1920s was something of a hick town, remembers longtime resident Alan Raymond, 90, the town historian.
"It was a really small town," he said. "Maybe 3,000 people or so. It was wonderful. We spent our summers here, on Compo Cove."
Still, there were the rumors of clothing-optional parties that lasted until sunrise, according to the Woog's World column in the Westport News.
"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," Dan Woog wrote.
It was a strange amalgam of bootleggers, millionaires, farmers, oystermen and artists.
Gatsby made his fortune on the backs of the bootleggers, and it's no coincidence that in the 1920s, Long Island Sound saw a healthy traffic of speedboating rum-runners who operated in the gloom of night, particularly along its eastern shores.
"It was a time when wise people kept away from the beach after dark. Cases were being dragged ashore and no audience was desired," wrote Jeannette Edwards Rattroy in her 1953 book, "East Hampton History."
As depicted in "Gatsby," all sorts of officials were paid to look the other way, she wrote.
"Some of the representations of class, and old and new money, still resonate with us today," said Cara Erdheim, a professor of English at Sacred Heart University. "Certainly, there's an East Coast elitism that's captured by the novel, certainly part of the whole American Dream idea."
This East Coast elitism is still very much part of the American fabric.
"Here in the East, people talk about where you went to school, but when you go to the Northwest, it's, `What mountain did you climb?' People talk of Gatsby as an American story, but in so many ways, it's very much a regional story," she said.
Erdheim notes that although Gatsby takes place and was published before the Great Depression, one cannot walk away from the novel without the sense that it portends the Wall Street Crash of 1929. As such, it makes for a great foundation of an American Dream story -- a dream that runs off the rails from criminal activity and lies.
"It's the failed American Dream story," she said. "And we're seeing one of themes in the book come alive today -- the very rich, the very poor and an erosion of the middle class."
"Gatsby" is a staple in America's high schools, and not only because it's a landmark book that's relatively short. Kristen Brown, an English teacher at New Canaan High School, sees the connection up close with her students.
"There's so much that they hold onto," said Brown, whose students read "Gatsby" in their junior year.
"Some like the love story in it, but most are really taken up by the theme of the American Dream, and whether it's open to everyone," she said. "They come into the class thinking that if they work hard, that's that, but after reading books like `Gatsby' and `Death of a Salesman,' they realize that achieving that dream is a lot more complicated than they might have thought."
"Gatsby" belongs to the canon of American literature that deals with the American Dream, which includes not only Arthur Miller's "Salesman," but also "The Autobiography of Ben Franklin" and John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath," Erdheim said.
"I like Baz Luhrmann (the director), but this one was too narrated," she said. "The Nick Carraway character played by Toby Maguire would almost narrate the actions of the characters. There was one scene in which he would say, `Gatsby was taken aback by what she said,' and then you saw (Leonardo) DiCaprio taken aback. A little over the top."
The region has another connection with Gatsby that has more to do with leather and steel, as opposed to flesh and blood. It's the yellow 1928 Ascot-bodied, Rolls-Royce Phantom I touring car that was driven by Robert Redford in the 1974 film version of "The Great Gatsby."
That car sold for $185,200 two years ago at the Greenwich Concours d'Elegance, the highly exclusive car show that takes place this weekend in the shorefront Roger Sherman Baldwin Park.
Indeed, the car-collector hobbyists, their knuckles bloodied from stubborn bolts and tinworm-scarred sheet metal, can take some comfort in the book's famous last line: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."
Brown, the English teacher, said the novel deeply affects her students, particularly its prose.
"They just fall in love with his language," Brown said. "They can't get enough of how he words things."