Was F. Scott Fitzgerald the Gilded Age's Charlie Sheen?

I wrote yesterday's piece about the razing of the once magnificent Long Island home said to inspire the home of Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. No longer magnificent and in a terrible state of disrepair, the home is slated to be razed. The home had been neglected for far too long.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was talented but often drunk and violent. He was a member of an elite social group, but his bad boy persona would eventually change that. He was often in debt and always trying to make ends meet. He wrote about keeping up with the Joneses. He lived trying to keep up with the Joneses. Would he have traded a dilapidated East Egg home for a shinier, bigger one to fit in with the crowd even though he could not afford it? Would he and Zelda drive a super-sized gas-guzzling SUV even though he could not afford it? Would the well publicized alcohol-influenced marital spats have landed him in the slammer? In rehab? I wonder...

I posted the link on Twitter yesterday and the piece sparked a flurry of tweets. In one article a journalist commented that Fitzgerald most likely would not have shed a tear over the destruction of the "East Egg" home. The thought saddened me greatly. As a lover of design and architecture, it upsets me that as a nation we are so easy to knock down the old to make way for the new. We have no respect or appreciation for our past, our beauty our art, our craft. We are big, bold and gaudy. No wonder Europeans have no respect for us. We should learn from them.

While Rome is by no means my favorite city, I remember how taken I was with the fact that the Coliseum stood so proudly amongst the hustling and bustling of the busy city. I could picture Mark Antony, standing there in the middle, shouting out "friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears..." Chariots have made way for hip young Romans dressed in couture riding on Vespas, or buses through the crowded streets. I was impressed with how well the old and the new were married and together filled and inspired the magnificent landscape of that city. I am not saying that Europe is devoid of such hideous modern edifices, but they do co-exist with the grander architecture of the past.

No we as Americans can't seem to make our old and new co-exist. For the most part our country is bespeckled by ugly, non-personal box-like and container-like homes and buildings. This is why my heart screams for joy when I travel to such cities like Chicago, Boston, and my childhood home, New York, and quaint towns like Newport, Nantucket and Marblehead. There are such pockets where we have managed to get it right.

So back to F. Scott Fitzgerald. A common theme in his work was the desire to have more and be more. It seemed also to be a common theme in his life. Even though he lived a lavish life and hobnobbed with the grandest of American Society and traveled from New York to Westport to Newport to Europe, he was not a wealthy man. Not at all. He made little from his books during his lifetime. His books were often met with mixed reviews at best.

Much of his own life influenced his stories and books. His prep school and Princeton years affected him greatly. He dismissed his studies and focussed instead on writing and contributed his works to the Princeton Tiger, the university's humor magazine. Fitzgerald found himself on academic probation and decided to join the army. When stationed in Montgomery, Alabama he met Zelda Zayre whom he would later marry, after This Side of Paradise became a literary sensation.

Fitzgerald who had been making a name for himself as a "bad boy" one notorious summer in Westport, CT, decided to move his family into New York City where he wrote The Beautiful and the Damned about unraveling of Gloria and Anthony Patch.

The partying Fitzgeralds perfectly represented the Jazz Age. The young socialites enjoyed their extravagant lifestyle. Fitzgerald struggled to be taken seriously as a writer but his playboy image seemed to get in the way.

After Fitzgerald finished his play The Vegetable, he thought for sure he was going to strike it rich and he moved his wife and new daughter, Frances Scott (Scottie) to Long Island. But Long Island and the partying (at Lands End?) and their socialite lifestyle had begun, once again, to interfere with his ability to produce. His play had not brought him the riches he expected and he wrote short stories to keep out of debt. At this point both he and Zelda drank much too much and had raging domestic arguments.

Once again the Fitzgeralds moved. This time they settled down in France so that he could focus on his writing.  With Long Island behind them, East Egg and Daisy Buchanan were born. The Great Gatsby was written, revised and published as they headed to Paris.

Fitzgerald would finally see professional success as his novel was met with great acclaim and critical praise. He earned himself a striking advance. Sales of Gatsby proved disappointing but stage and movie rights were sold. Meanwhile, his personal life suffered greatly as his wife had an affair with a French naval officer.

His life continued to crumble from that point on. The couple moved to a Wilmington, Delaware suburb where he tried his hand at screen writing without success. Zelda started to deteriorate physically and mentally. The lavish ways and days of the Jazz Age soon were but memories as the country fell into the Great Depression and he struggled to keep afloat by writing short stories. Zelda would spend the rest of her years in and out of various mental institutions. He finally managed to write and publish Tender is the Night but it was met with mixed reviews at best. After he hit rock bottom, he wrote a series of short stories called The Crack Up. This was not well received at all and even his literary friends, Hemingway and Perkins could not understand why he would expose himself in such a way. While these stories were not well received, they paved the way for a new style of confessional writing.

Fitzgerald died in 1940 at the tender age of 44.  During that year, only 72 books were sold. He made only $13 in royalties. Today, The Great Gatsby, alone, sells nearly 300,000 copies a year.

Farewell Lands End... What would Jay Gatsby think of this?

Lands End in Long Island (not to be confused by the preppy company bearing the same name) is slated to be razed shortly and property to be sub-divided  to make way for several luxury homes.

The grand 25 room Colonial Revival which was built in 1911, is said to have inspired the home of Daisy Buchanan's in East Egg is slated to be razed. Once a glorious mansion, where lavish parties entertained such personalities as Winston Churchill, The Marx Brothers and Ethyl Barrymore. One can still envision F. Scott and Zelda, together on the back deck, drinking in the view of the Long Island Sound... rooms of marble, parquet and wide wood-planked floors, Palladian windows and hand-painted wallpaper... one can still imagine the melodic and joyful sounds of the times.

I understand the costs of maintaining such properties are exorbitant but surely something must be done to protect our history. Beautiful pieces of American Architecture representing our past, our passions and our identities are being razed to make way for new and offensive and most often gaudy homes lacking taste and certainly lacking any of our history.

Why is it that when we travel to other countries their buildings stand for centuries and ours don't? Bigger and newer certainly do not make for better. 

Fitzgerald who wrote so often and so well about the Haves and the Have Nots and those caught in between... Who so eloquently showed us about those trying to keep up with the Joneses as he and Zelda were certainly caught up back then... They were not well to do though they lived a lavish lifestyle traveling from New York to Newport and the South of France with the wealthy socialites of the Gilded Age. 

What would F. Scott think of these homes being demolished? Homes of the Morgans and glass-maker Louis Tiffany? And now the very one that helped shape his most popular book, The Great Gatsby? Would he agree  to this nonsense? Yes, I'll go so far as to call this all nonsense. Long Island's tony Gold Coast has a preservation society and in my humble opinion this group of preservation people, if that's what they would like to call themselves, could indeed save these buildings if they wanted to. Why do I say this with such conviction and speak about this with such passion?

Because I spend a good part of my time in Newport, Rhode Island where my parents, now retired, live full time. Because you won't drive down Bellevue Avenue and see those wonderful homes, also from the Gilded Age in disrepair. Because Newport, playground to the Jazz Age's Rich and Famous, recognizes the importance of preservation for the history of the city, the state and our country. (Although, there was a period in time when Newport did let some of its fine establishments go only to make way for the lovely architecture of the 1970s. Thank goodness the people of Newport have come to their senses!)

These wonderful homes both in Newport and The Gold Coast were built by the same architects. (Stanford White among them) So why on earth is Lands End in such disrepair? The front door is off its hinges, wood floors have been torn up for salvage, windows are missing and the two-story Doric columns are unsteady. I can see Jay and Daisy, F.Scott and Zelda standing in front of the once beautiful home, champagne flutes in hand, with tears streaming from their eyes, rolling down their cheeks...

This tugs at my heart-strings for sure.
I sincerely hope, as a lover of all things antique... as a lover of the Gilded Age and a lover of F. Scott Fitzgerald that the home is spared of a wrecking ball and instead, is slowly, carefully and methodically dismantled so that what remains can be reconditioned, if need be, recycled and resold. Think of it as an organ donation... perhaps the heart and soul of Lands End can live on elsewhere...

Robert Redford as Jay Gatsby in front of Rosecliff Mansion in Newport, RI.
This home stands strong and proud and is open to the public.

For more amazing and haunting pictures of East Egg, Visit Jenn Ross Photography