It’s long been held that F. Scott Fitzgerald wove his great American novel from his experiences living in Great Neck near the lavish mansions of Long Island’s North Shore. Generations of readers have understood that when Jay Gatsby gazes across the water at the green light, he’s staring across Manhasset Bay to Sands Point.
But two men in Connecticut are challenging that view. In a new documentary, they argue that Fitzgerald draws his inspiration for “The Great Gatsby” from across the Sound in Connecticut.
For years, Robert Steven Williams and Richard Webb Jr. have been fighting to have the purported role of Westport, Connecticut, in the novel recognized. They lay out their claim in “Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story,” a documentary to be released in the fall, and in Webb’s companion book, “Boats Against the Current: The Honeymoon Summer of Scott and Zelda.”
“What we’ve been saying all along is that Westport just needs its due,” Williams said. “The scholars completely overlooked it.”
As Williams and Webb note, the Fitzgeralds spent five months in the summer of 1920 living in Westport, in a rented house near the coast.
The home is similar to the one inhabited by “Gatsby” narrator Nick Carraway in the book, the documentarians contend. Unlike the house at 6 Gateway Dr. in Great Neck, where the couple lived from 1922 to 1924, their house in Westport would have had an unobstructed view of the Sound. And it sat next to the estate of Frederick E. Lewis, a mysterious millionaire who was known for throwing extravagant parties and who the pair believe served as Fitzgerald’s blueprint for Gatsby.
“Gatsby was probably a beachy blend of Great Neck and Westport,” Webb writes in his book. “We both like to think a little more Westport than Great Neck.”
Maureen Corrigan, an English professor at Georgetown University who wrote the book “So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came to Be and Why It Endures,” said Williams and Webb make some good points.
She was particularly intrigued by their look into Matthew Bruccoli, a Fitzgerald scholar who, Webb writes, actively suppressed the Westport theory when it first cropped up in the mid-1990s.
“It’s just interesting to me how one scholar had so much sway. He sort of squashed the theory of Westport,” Corrigan said. “I think they’ve done a real service in reviving this.”
Still, Corrigan and others note that there was a multimillionaire, Herbert Bayard Swope, who was also renowned for raucous parties in the area that may have served as an inspiration for Fitzgerald. After “The Great Gatsby” was published, Swope bought and lived in a 25-room, 20,000-square-foot estate in Sands Point that Fitzgerald was said to have admired from across Manhasset Bay.
It’s also pretty clear that as the characters drive to and from Manhattan, they pass through Queens, suggesting they’re traveling from Long Island, Corrigan said.
But the landscape of “Gatsby” is probably a composite of many places, including the North Shore and Westport as well as Fitzgerald’s hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, Corrigan said.
“He would have had a lot of those landscapes conflated — landscapes of reaching for something that’s beyond your grasp,” she said. “It’s not like it cancels out Long Island’s claim to being the site of Gatsby.”
Some on Long Island have capitalized on this. A real estate developer built a Gatsby Lane in Kings Point and Eleanor Cox-Nihill still leads monthly “Great Gatsby”-themed boat tours along the bay.
Alice Kasten, president of the Great Neck Historical Society, said some in the community are not happy about the Connecticut claims.
“I’ve mentioned these guys to the historical society before and they just reject it out of hand,” said Kasten, who gave Williams and Webb a short tour of Great Neck for the movie. “They don’t want to read it or see it. It’s obviously because the community doesn’t want it taken away.”
But Kasten, herself, has been convinced.
“They’ve done a tremendous amount of research,” she said. “The truth is probably somewhere between the two communities.”
Clarification: This article has been updated to note that Swope did not live in Sands Point until after “The Great Gatsby” was published.