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F. Scott Fitzgerald country

Smoking in public, a scene on the beach

Smoking in public, a scene on the beach at Southampton in July of 1919, breaks all the popular conventions of the time. Credit: International News Photos

It was, suddenly, the Jazz Age.

It was the beginning of a decade of Prohibition and apparent prosperity: a time of jazz bands and petting parties, high-stepping flappers and college boys with hip flasks.

On Long Island, there were rumrunners and dealers in bathtub gin, gaudy parties on the grounds of fabulous Gold Coast estates, rowdy gatherings in neighborhood speakeasies and big-name entertainers in flashy nightclubs, where ordinary men and women brushed shoulders and clinked glasses with the famous and the notorious. There were also thousands of work-a-day people who went to work-a-day jobs, worried about their children's future and hoped to save up for the latest Ford.

It was the Roaring '20s on Long Island, which became a microcosm of the nation's revolution in manners and morals. F. Scott Fitzgerald had memorialized the era with his 1922 best-seller, "Tales of the Jazz Age," the year before he rented a house in Great Neck and began work on his best-known novel, "The Great Gatsby."

In the wooded villages of the North Shore, the affluent life was celebrated in the mansions of more than 500 estates. Some played host to grandiose dinner-dances where hundreds of guests transformed brightly lighted landscapes into a weekend playland. These scenes of newly won opulence and excess later found their way onto the pages of "Gatsby," a story of the American Dream gone awry.

At the same time, off the shores of Long Island, fleets of rumrunners fought a deadly battle with the Coast Guard and with each other, smuggling ashore the most precious cargo of the decade: illegal alcohol.

And along the byways of the South Shore was a string of roadhouses, nightclubs and speakeasies that turned Merrick Road and Sunrise Highway into what columnists called Glitter Alley and The Great Light Way, a scene to rival Broadway's Great White Way.

Here, shop girls on dates and college boys on vacation danced the Charleston, sharing the scene with an odd mixture of businessmen, show business figures, politicans such as New York City Mayor Jimmy Walker and gangsters such as Jack (Legs) Diamond. All came to imbibe illicit drink, to dance, and to listen to the latest sounds in blues and jazz.

Clubs along Merrick Road, such as the famed Pavillon Royal, which opened in 1924, featured the nation's best-known bands. Legendary entertainers such as Texas ("Hello, suckers") Guinan, Guy Lombardo, Eddie Duchin and Rudy Vallee drew customers from Long Island, New York City and across the nation.

At some clubs, champagne sold for $100 a bottle. On the strip, bandleader Paul Whiteman introduced a singing group called The Rhythm Boys featuring then-unknown Bing Crosby. Other show business favorites included comics Ken Murray and Victor Moore and singer Sophie Tucker, billed as the "Last of the Red Hot Mamas."

"Everyone in show business flocked there," Tucker, who lived in Freeport for a time, had told a local reporter. The small village boasted a famous private club, The Lights Club on Fairview Avenue, organized by George M. Cohan. Entertainment started at midnight and ran until dawn, with Al Jolson, W.C. Fields and Eddie Cantor among the regulars.

Great Neck also boasted its share of celebrities. In 1926, the local weekly engaged in some unabashed name-dropping with a letter from author Gene Buck. The village, he wrote, "has more truly noted people within its domain than any other community of its size in the world." He cited such residents as New York World publisher Herbert Bayward Swope, composer Oscar Hammerstein, and actors Ed Wynn, Frank Craven and Ernest Truex.

In another issue, the Great Neck News noted with pride: "Our Ring Lardner of East Shore Road wrote the scenario for The New Klondike' at the Rivoli next week." Film director Henry King of Elm Point had just made "Stella Dallas," starring Douglas Fairbanks, the paper reported.

Along Suffolk's North Shore, other well-known residents were spotted. Marion Davies had a hideaway in Halesite, courtesy of her patron, publisher William Randolph Hearst, and actresses Lillian and Dorothy Gish could be spotted cycling about town. And gambler Nicky Arnstein, Fanny Brice's husband, allegedly ran a dice game at the Halesite firehouse's annual fund-raiser.

For the ordinary wage-earner, there was the local speakeasy. A large pitcher of beer cost $1.50 at Fred's Roadhouse in Wantagh or Otto's Silver Wave in Freeport, and bathtub rye, a homemade blend of rotgut alcohol, water and flavorings, was on sale at Old John's Shack in the Bellmore woods. On Sunrise Highway, speakeasies served shots of gin for 50 cents, while a motherly looking woman on Old Country Road sold "guaranteed Scotch" from her Garden City home.

A social revolution challenging accepted American traditions was certainly under way, historian Frederick Lewis Allen observed in his account, "Only Yesterday: An Informal History of the 1920s."

In the forefront of this rebellion were the children of ordinary American families. In communities across the country, young women bobbed their hair, painted their faces with rouge, slipped on short sleeveless dresses, rolled down silk stockings below the knee and kicked up their heels on countless dance floors. By 1920, The New York Times reported that "the American woman . . . has lifted her skirts far beyond any modest limitation." Hemlines nine inches above the ground!

The more racy flappers stashed their girdles in the cloakrooms of popular dance places, complaining that men wouldn't dance with corseted women. Even "nice" girls used swear words and slang, smoked in public and, somewhat less openly, kept up with the menfolk drink for drink. And everyone seemed to be dancing: fox-trots at afternoon tea dances, high-kicking Charlestons into the early morning hours.

So it seemed.

But there was also an ambivalence about the changing times and a good deal of moderation. In the villages of Long Island, old values seemed to persist, regardless of pressure from the trendy culture. As recorded in local newspapers in the mid-'20s, day-to-day social life did not seem so different from the prewar era:

Mrs. Dudley B. Fuller Jr. of Franklin Court, for instance, entertained at dinner on Saturday night and took her guests to a theater party at the Community Club, the Hempstead Sentinel reported.

Little Hamilton Bishop was the host at a movie party on Wednesday for 11 of his friends, all members of Hammy's Gang in Garden City. "They all rejoiced at the performance of Charlie Chaplin in The Pilgrim,' " the social column noted. And Miss Janet Addison gave a bridge party on Friday, presenting favors of "artistic guest-room sewing bouquets" to her guests.

For many, doing the Charleston was just a wonderful exercise, not a change of lifestyle or values.

Gladys Barry, for instance, loved to dance. As a teenager in the early 1920s, she still remembers those special Saturday night dates, taking the train from Bay Ridge into Manhattan to Charleston at such hot spots as the Pennsylvania Grill and the Roosevelt Grill. "But I don't think I was conscious of any revolution. At that age you were just living at the moment and having a good time," Barry, who is 89 and lives with her husband in Franklin Square, said in a recent interview.

Everyone was aware of the speakeasies, of course, and like so many, she smoked in public. "My parents didn't object. That's what young people were doing and we just went along with the trend. Life was a lot of fun, but none of us drank. We'd play tennis a lot and we had parties afterward - with soda and peanuts."

Married in 1931, she and her husband moved to Garden City. Prohibition was still on but at her wedding in a private club, "there was all kinds of liquor . . . No one told us it was illegal."

Nassau and Suffolk Counties were still a network of small rural communities. In Nassau, the population had edged just over 126,000 by 1920. Suffolk's population was about 110,000.

Village merchants were pleased about growing retail sales and fretted over downtown traffic problems. People wondered how the local school football team would fare and, like everyone else, they were concerned about "The Problem of the Younger Generation," a frequent topic in the nation's magazines.

In small towns, people worried about all the craziness. Some tried to ban the new dances when they became too suggestive or "promoted carnality," as a few religious leaders warned. The new dancing had become a "syncopated embrace," as a college journal described the trend.

The newly resurrected Ku Klux Klan joined the chorus of critics, taking a law-and-order stance to lure recruits on Long Island. The hate-mongering KKK supported Prohibition and criticized the "loose morals" of the era. In its heyday, historians estimate that membership exceeded 25,000, about one out of every eight Long Island residents.

The mystique of the automobile also provided parents with a new set of anxieties, especially on Long Island, where new roads were in demand and under construction. For young couples, the car provided both transport and an escape from the critical eye of neighbors, relatives and chaperons. If petting and other sexual explorations at parties did not sully men's reputations, the more modern woman concluded, she, too, no longer needed to be preoccupied with her image.

So a decade of stunning change was unfolding - even in small villages where the phenomenon of social revolution was denied, condemned or reinterpreted.

On April 19, 1923, for instance, readers of the Hempstead Sentinel were reassured by the curious lead story on Page One. The headline seemed to promise that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Typical Modern Girls Winners

In Home Baking Contest

"The modern girl is vindicated," the author announced. "In spite of the fact that she may dress differently, have her hair bobbed, dance to jazz time and superficially appear to be indifferent to household activities, under the surface she is as good as was her grandmother and her mother . . . and probably even does things better."

The litmus test, the writer contended, was the annual bread-baking contest at Hempstead High School on a recent Saturday. A panel of judges decided that "the modern girl not only can but did bake many batches of homemade bread and it was the finest lot of bread anyone could wish for."

The winner was Miss Dorothy Davidson, "a thoroughly modern girl" who walked away with the first-prize money - $15 in gold - for the best loaf in town. "She is 17 years old and she is one of the prettiest girls to be found in all of Hempstead," the reporter gushed.

Dorothy was both athletic and theatrical, starring just the week before in the high school production of "Daddy Long Legs." And like so many young people, she loved to dance.

"We are going to let our readers in on a secret," the story went on. "The night before the contest, Miss Davidson was going to a dance. So before she went out, she had to mix the dough for her bread. After getting it all ready to set' overnight, she went out to the dance and didn't get home until - well, it was long after midnight."

The moral of the story?

Miss Davidson was able to arise early enough the next morning to get her bread in the oven in time for the contest. Scott Fitzgerald's women might dance until dawn, the Sentinel seemed to be saying, but Long Island's bright young women still returned dutifully to hearth and home.

Skimming through the national magazines in the '20s, readers might have guessed that the libertines had captured the country. Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of the author, had expressed the view that the modern woman had "the right to experiment with herself as a transient, poignant figure who will be dead tomorrow." But the fatalistic message apparently did not reshape family life in the villages of Long Island.

Olive Darling, in her 80s now and a Suffolk resident, remembers her hometown of Port Jefferson as "just a sleepy little village where everyone knew everyone and everyone's business."

A high school student in the late '20s, she remembers people talking about the changing times. "About Prohibition and the gangsters and Texas Guinan and her speakeasies, about bootleggers killing each other or getting put in jail."

But her girlhood world in Port Jefferson was surrounded by farm country. It was an adventure to get into the family Buick, she recalled, to make the long drive to Patchogue for serious shopping.

Small-town life just seemed to go on as always, she said in a recent interview. "And I loved those times. I loved playing basketball and tennis and I had the most wonderful time in school, dancing in all the musicals, doing the Charleston at the school dances."

Later, her friends would patronize a bootlegger who sold homemade brew from his house near Port Jefferson. But the young people of her community were "not the kind of kids F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about," she said.

The older generation, of course, fretted over magazine articles about all the daring young people. "But compared to kids today, my God!" she exclaimed. "Girls might have gone joy-riding in cars, staying out late with boyfriends . . . But I think every gal in our school was a virgin when they graduated. Oh, there was one girl who got pregnant before graduation. And there was some necking here and there. But I didn't know anyone who drank in high school.

"Everyone smoked cigarettes. That was quite chic then. It was a secret for a while and my parents were not very happy when I told them."

After graduation, she went to college in Virginia - one of the few women in her class to go on with her education - then worked for National Geographic magazine. There, she found that "old fashioned" notions prevailed.

"I was fired from my first job with the magazine - because young ladies were not supposed to get into auto accidents at two o'clock in the morning. We were not supposed to be out at that hour. Can you believe it! But my fellow workers protested and I was rehired. I thought it was hilarious."

She did not marry until she was in her late 20s and returned to Port Jefferson to run a small antique shop, the 1812 House. "Most people got married early but I had things to do. I was a liberated person before anyone knew what the word meant. Not that I was shacking up with anyone, but I was self-supporting. So I married when I was damn good and ready."

Olive Darling was not alone. By 1920, more women than ever before were earning wages outside the home. That year, after a long struggle, women had won the right to vote with the ratification of the 19th Amendment. On Long Island there were ads for jobs for women in small factories, shops and the phone company. New appliances made household chores less exhausting, and in many villages there was a boom in bakeries and delis, offering faster food and freedom from kitchen duties.

Adventure was in the air: On Long Island, Roosevelt Field became the nation's most famous airfield after Charles Lindbergh took off for Paris in 1927. On better roads, summer residents of the Hamptons made the drive from Manhattan in five or six hours. Large movie houses were opening in Great Neck, Hempstead and other villages. And on stage and screen and in modern literature, there was a new frankness in both language and theme, with James Joyce, Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf setting new standards.

Many works reflected postwar feelings of disillusionment and cynicism. Ignoring the national ban on alcohol had become the fashion of the times. But in villages such as Hempstead, many people put the emphasis on good old American commercialism.

A 1923 Hempstead Sentinel editorial observed: "There were probably more than 5,000 people in Hempstead last Saturday night in the business district, both for shopping and pleasure."

A survey counted 78 motor cars parked in the downtown district, not including four horse-drawn vehicles. Several thousand patrons attended shows at the two theaters, while "stores were crowded with shoppers and sidewalks literally flooded with pedestrians." With a population of about 6,300, Hempstead had become "a magnet for shoppers and pleasure-seekers," the editorial pointed out with a hint of self-satisfaction, a quality of small-town life Sinclair Lewis satirized in his 1922 novel, "Babbitt."

On the North Shore, however, the older generation was preoccupied with the "flaming youth" of the era. In 1926, the Great Neck News expressed disdain over "a disgraceful scene of rowdyism in front of the lunch wagon near the railroad station." Two young man were found sprawled near the depot, the News reported, while another drunken pair were in the diner, "using disgraceful language."

Just then, an auto rumbled down Middle Neck Road with another load of drunken young men. "This was nigh on to 3 a.m.," the reporter scolded.

The revelers were fugitives, perhaps, from one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's stories about the carefree generation. In 1920, at age 24, Fitzgerald had become a cultural hero with his first novel, "This Side of Paradise," defining the postwar social revolution. The petting party was an accepted fact of life for the new generation, he wrote, while the mothers of the nation had no idea "how casually their daughters were accustomed to be kissed."

The author's life on Long Island was documented in 1949 in "The Far Side of Paradise," by biographer Arthur Mizener. The Fitzgeralds rented a modest stucco house at 6 Gateway Dr. in Great Neck Estates in 1922, beginning a tireless whirl of party-going while Fitzgerald worked in a room above the garage, rewriting his only play, "The Vegetable," and starting a novel about a man named Gatsby.

Great Neck was transformed in the novel into West Egg, where newly rich Gatsby rented an estate. Across an inlet, Sands Point became East Egg, land of old money and home of his impossible love, Daisy Buchanan, a dream girl modeled after Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda.

Working only casually on "Gatsby," Fitzgerald wrote lighthearted sets of rules for the inevitable weekend house party guests. One guideline noted: Visitors in search of liquor were requested not to break down doors, "even when requested to do so by the host and hostess." Driving a secondhand Rolls-Royce and employing three servants, Scott and Zelda claimed they needed at least $36,000 a year for living expenses.

Fitzgerald went on the wagon in 1923, knocked out a dozen magazine stories to pay his bills and departed for Europe the following summer. In France, Fitzgerald hoped to drink less and write more - and in 1925, "Gatsby" was completed.

His classic work was not designed to tell the full story of Long Island's privileged. In the Hamptons, for instance, many wealthy families lived in a more decorous style, throwing grand but tasteful parties when their daughters were married. Among the most celebrated debutantes of East Hampton and Manhattan were the Bouvier twins, Maude and Michelle.

Maude Bouvier Davis, now 93, sighs when she recalls the Hamptons in the 1920s: "It was Arcadia," she said in a recent interview. Her memory of the Jazz Age is still a vivid picture of a woodland paradise.

In later years, her brother Jack would become even more famous when his daughter, Jacqueline Bouvier, married John F. Kennedy and, in 1961, became the nation's first lady. But Maude and Michelle had brilliant weddings of their own at Lasata, the family's estate on Further Lane in East Hampton.

For Michelle's wedding in the summer of 1926, a flower-decked altar was erected on a terrace and 200 guests were seated on the lawn. Two years later, on a stormy Labor Day, Maude was married to stockbroker John E. Davis in Lasata's spacious living room. The scene is described in a history of the family by Maude's son, John H. Davis, whose work, "Jacqueline Bouvier: An Intimate Memoir," was recently published in paperback.

"Maude remembers that just as she said, I do,' the sun streamed through the great French windows," Davis wrote. Then, the wedding party streamed onto the terrace where a jazz band struck up a Charleston. Bridesmaids and ushers bobbed up and down to the beat, Davis wrote, while Michelle, the matron of honor, led the dancing like a high-stepping Rockette.

In 1923, when the twins were 18, their photos appeared often in the society sections of New York newspapers. "Oh, my," Maude Davis sighed again, "those debutante parties at the Ritz Carlton!" But Maude did not find the Roaring '20s to be an exceptional time: "We were doing all the usual things. We went to boarding school at Miss Porter's. We went to coming-out parties at Sherry's. We did all the things debutantes did."

She was aware, of course, of Prohibition and the young men who carried their whiskey in hip flasks. "Oh, everyone smiled at things like that," she said. "But my twin and I were probably the most stupid innocents in East Hampton. We never drank or smoked. I don't know why . . . We were from an old family in New York. We didn't worry about keeping up with the Joneses. We were the Joneses. But we had a wonderful time, just dancing and singing at parties."

Certainly there were "wild girls" in her set. "They were smoking and drinking and doing all kinds of things, running around without a chaperon." When she and Michelle went to parties, a maid rode in their taxi with their escorts. "My God, you couldn't come home alone with a man at two in the morning!," she said.

"I remember one Princeton house party. My date's roommate escorted a beautiful actress. Later, she and I went back to this very nice house where we were staying. And, my gosh, I was mortified! She got up and went out with another man and didn't come back until 6 in the morning. And her poor date was paying all the expenses."

In East Hampton, they were surrounded by gorgeous houses with immaculate lawns, and miles of corn fields and potato farms. They'd play golf and tennis and swim in the surf off the Maidstone Club, or go horsebackriding, cantering by windmills and saltbox mansions and salt marshes in the distance. And on Saturday nights, there would be dinner-dances at the Maidstone Club in formal dress.

Those were the Roaring '20s as Maude Davis remembers them. But then, the roar became a moan for many Americans. Illusions of unending prosperity slipped away in late October of 1929, when investors began to sell off their stock market holdings. On Oct. 29, stockholders sold off more than 16 million shares, many bought on credit, plunging prices by 40 percent before Thanksgiving Day. With the stock market crash of 1929, the nation's inflated sense of well-being abruptly ended: The Great Depression was just around the corner.


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