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"Gatsby In Connecticut" An Interview With Filmmaker Robert Steven Williams

By Gary Wien

originally published: 02/26/2020

"Gatsby In Connecticut" An Interview With Filmmaker Robert Steven Williams

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald has long been recognized as one of the premier American novels of all-time.  It has become synonymous with the lifestyle of the rich and famous and instantly transports readers to Long Island, but what if the setting wasn’t Long Island at all.  What if the real West and East Egg are found on the other side of Long Island Sound in Connecticut?

The film Gatsby In Connecticut: The Untold Story takes a deep dive into this question.  The documentary was completed to coincide with the centennial anniversary of Scott’s first novel (This Side of Paradise), his marriage to Zelda, and his move to Connecticut in 1920. The film will have its New Jersey Premiere at the Garden State Film Festival in Asbury Park on Saturday, March 28 at 3:30pm.

Scholars specializing in the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald have never been able to resolve fundamental questions about The Great Gatsby.  Presuming that Great Neck, Long Island was Fitzgerald’s setting, certain elements of geography, location and personality in the town fail to line up with what is described in the book; however, they do line up with one town that has been overlooked and even dismissed in the halls of academia:  Westport, Connecticut.

Director Robert Steven Williams, who grew up in Cherry Hill, NJ, and historian Richard “Deej” Webb have spent seven years researching the idea that the book was based on Westport. 

Together they have dug into the Princeton University Archives and gone through historical records; they’ve interview more than a dozen Fitzgerald scholars, met with Scott and Zelda’s granddaughter, Bobbie Lanahan, and tracked down a descendant of the original publisher, Charles Scribner III.  



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Their mission was to answer questions like: 

• Who was the mysterious millionaire that inspired the character of Jay Gatsby? 

• What was the real inspiration for Gatsby’s mansion? 

• And why doesn’t the geography of the novel reflect that of Long Island rather than that of Connecticut?

"Gatsby In Connecticut" An Interview With Filmmaker Robert Steven Williams

The film is narrated by Keir Dullea and features Sam Waterston.  The research inspired a companion book by Webb called Boats Against The Current: The Honeymoon Summer of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

New Jersey Stage spoke with Robert Steven Williams to learn more.

 

Why do you think the actual location is important? Is it simply bragging rights for the town itself or a major part of American literature history?

In a nutshell, Scott’s first novel is published March 23, 1920. Three days later it sells out of its first printing. Scott sends a telegram to Zelda in Montgomery, her hometown, telling her that the book sold out in three days, let’s get married. Keep in mind, she’d broken off the engagement, unsure if Scott would earn enough to support them. Four days later they tied the knot. They are instant literary sensations, but then get kicked out of two swanky New York City hotels for drunk and lewd behavior. Four weeks later they tumble toward Westport, spending the next five months there. It’s their first home together. Scott needs to get going on his second novel. She’s learning to be the woman of the house. Heady times for both of them.

Their experiences of 1920 are recycled over and over. It’s a pivotal moment in history too. Big things happened to the Fitzgeralds then, but it converges with big things happening in Westport and the world. When you look at this period through that broader lens, you get a much keener sense of why what happened permeates so much of their work. We spend a decent amount of time providing that context, prohibition, women’s rights, the automobile,  in the film, it’s all happening in 1920.

When did you first hear that the setting may have been Connecticut rather than Long Island?

I moved to Westport from England to help launch a chain of record stores for the EMI Music Group in 1992. For a brief time, the start-up headquarters were in Westport. I quickly learned about the Fitzgeralds from a clerk at a quirky bookstore on Main Street called the Remarkable Book Store. I was immediately captivated, but this was before Barbara Probst Solomon’s article in New Yorker, and to be honest, like most in Westport, I’d missed that article when it came out. 

She was the first to tie Gatsby to Westport, but not only did the Fitzgerald scholarly community ignore Barbara’s work, the town of Westport did too. I wanted to know: was Barbara biased by her love for her hometown, or had there been some sort of academic conspiracy to squelch her ideas? What we discovered was so unexpected, but it took us many years to flush out that narrative. Barbara passed away late last year, but she’d seen an early cut of the film and knew that we’d picked up where she had left off and got her theory across the finish line. 

We spent several afternoons together and always enjoyed our time with her.

 

How did the idea for the film come about?

I put together a literary roundtable at the Westport Historical Society in 2013, to celebrate the town’s literary history. That story would not have been complete without something on the Fitzgeralds. The director of the society connected me to Deej Webb, who gave talks about them, inspired by Barbara’s New Yorker article. She had grown up across the water in Westport from where the Fitzgeralds had lived. The roundtable was a resounding success, but many attendees came up to me afterwards to say that they’d had no idea so many interesting literary figures were tied to Westport. I called Deej the following week and told him that I thought we should make a short film for the Historical Society so that future Westporters didn’t lose touch with their literary past. I told him we could knock it out in about four months. We became close friends even though it took seven years to finish.

What was your first step?

The first step was doing the reading. I’d read the bulk of the fiction already, but it didn’t hurt to reread it. But I must confess I’d never read The Beautiful and Damned or Zelda’s Save Me the Waltz. Our film does a decent job of explaining why both of those were critical to explaining why Westport should have gotten more attention by the scholarly community. There are essays and biographies that were also insightful. Scott’s essays revealed the importance of this period. The biographies were fascinating, but for the most part, skipped Westport. 

From there we hit the Princeton University Archives, but we returned two more times, later in the process. The thrill of holding a postcard or letter written by Scott or Zelda is very special. They’ve done a remarkable job cataloging and preserving the writings, the correspondence, the photographs. There are a few other places which archive Fitzgerald materials, but the bulk of it resides at Princeton. 

Another important source material was the Alexander McKaig diary. McKaig was a Princeton pal of Scott’s and he hung out with Scott and Zelda during those early years of Scott’s marriage. McKaig kept detailed notes throughout that Westport period. Although a handful of passages appear in various Fitzgerald biographies, we wanted to read the entire thing. It took us years to track that down, nobody seemed to know where it was. Once we read it, we knew we had a game-changer. 

 

How much pushback did you encounter along the way from F Scott and book historians, fans, and politicians? I saw former Congressman Steve Israel called you a Connecticut conspiracist.

The initial pushback was not what anyone said, it was more about access. It took several years for the Fitzgerald community to get comfortable with us. We weren’t academics, we didn’t have the so-called credentials. But over time, by putting in the work, doors started to open up. The Fitzgerald Trustees got into a tussle with the leading scholar Mathew Bruccoli (he passed away in 2008). There’s nothing on this anywhere. Matt did not believe Westport had anything to do with Gatsby. It wasn’t until year three that we learned what had happened, which then provided insight into why Barbara’s article was ignored. We reached out to several of Matt’s close academic partners, but they politely declined to participate. There is no doubt that the Fitzgerald world owes much to the remarkable work Matt did on Fitzgerald, but in this one area, he clearly had a blind spot.

One other noteworthy pushback: Charles Scribner III, the grandson of Scott’s publisher posted on Facebook when he heard about our work: Poppycock! My grandfather would be turning over in his grave. We reached out to Charles, got him up to Westport. He couldn’t believe it. He became an executive producer on the film. He was instrumental in getting us an interview with Professor James West, the academic who replace Matt as the world’s leading authority on Scott and Zelda. Until Charles got involved, West had artfully dodged us. 

On Congressman Israel, we wanted to debate him when we appeared in Great Neck to do a presentation last year, but he ignored our requests. I even wrote a public rebuttal in Newsday challenging him, but heard nothing back. We loved the fact he took an interest, but were disappointed that he didn’t take up the challenge. Anything that brings attention to fiction today is so important given how few adults read fiction these days (especially men). 

"Gatsby In Connecticut" An Interview With Filmmaker Robert Steven Williams

What was the first breakthrough moment when you or Richard thought you were on to something?

Being invited to interview Bobbie Lanahan, Scott and Zelda’s granddaughter, was such an honor. We couldn’t believe our good fortune. It was one of our first big breaks. Bobbie was so down to earth and open. She rarely speaks in public about her grandparents and we understood the unique opportunity we had. We took the responsibility of handling this material very seriously and understood that it was a privilege to spend time in Scott and Zelda’s world. It was a helluva lot of fun too!

 

Who else did you talk to? What was the general reaction? Did they see your research and think it was possible or initially dismiss the idea?

Another wonderful interview was with Maureen Corrigan. She’d just written a fascinating book about Gatsby called:  So We Read On. But we couldn’t help but notice that there was only one sentence about Westport. We reached out. She came up to New York and we showed her some cuts of the film, and walked her through our research. She told us that when we had first called, she thought we were nuts. After we walked her through our work, she invited us to present to her fiction classes at Georgetown University—we’ve made several visits over the years. Maureen’s a towering figure in the literary world, many of your readers will recognize the name from her appearances on NPR’s Fresh Air

We also attended an F. Scott Fitzgerald Society conference, comprised mostly of academics, but anyone with a genuine love of Fitzgerald is welcomed. To be honest, I was very nervous, not only were we going to down there to film, but Deej had managed to get us on the program to present the Westport case. Of course, a few snubbed us, but we soon figured out that we could talk Fitzgerald with the best of them. Everyone there has a genuine love of Scott and Zelda, and once they picked up on the fact you do too, it’s all good. 

We’d set up a side room and roped in academics throughout the conference asking them what they knew about Westport. Nobody knew much. Most were mildly amused. We were scheduled to present on the 2nd half of the very last slot of the conference, by then most had packed it in. But we met several who became advisors on the film, Professor Kurt Curnutt, who now runs the Fitzgerald Society, and Professor Walter Raubicheck were extremely helpful, as were others.

In a review about Boats Against The Current the writer says that Webb might believe that it was a combination of Westport and Great Neck. “But even Webb kind of fudges at the end, suggesting that the novel’s setting was probably a ‘beachy blend’ of Great Neck and Westport.”  What is your feeling after the years of research?

Scott clearly set the novel in Long Island, and he certainly didn’t want you to think Westport while reading the novel. And yet, Westport’s importance goes well beyond the geography that so closely resembles Gatsby, but I don’t want to spoil it. Keep in mind, fiction is a mysterious process and a writer draws from all sorts of inspiration. We spent a lot of time exploring what was happening in his real life and what was showing up in his fiction. Westport’s influence on both Scott and Zelda’s art is startling, and no one had pieced that together. In terms of that specific review, I’d agree that Gatsby is a blend of Fitzgerald’s recollections of Westport and Great Neck. Most of Gatsby was written while he was in France. He’d been drinking heavily for years, and one could easily mix up one side of Long Island Sound with the other. In many ways, Westport and Great Neck at that time, were mirror images of one another, both approximately the same distance from Manhattan on a train or car. But when you come to Westport, you will see that the Gatsby landscape is in perfect alignment with the book. 

In terms of who was Jay Gatsby. There are many theories, and no doubt, more will crop up in the future. But only one can serve as the first inspiration. The Fitzgeralds lived next to Frederick E. Lewis in Westport. They had a small cottage that sat adjacent to Lewis’s 175-acre estate that was literally on the Sound. From the Fitzgeralds bedroom you could see a dock and several green lights glittering across the water. Lewis threw some insane parties. There is not a single reference by any scholars on Lewis. No one in Westport knew him either. Not a single trace of his legacy remains, and yet he was Westport’s highest taxpayer in 1920. It took us years to track down a descendant, but once we did, we uncovered a treasure trove of photographs of what the estate looked like at the very time the Fitzgeralds were there. Many of those photos are in the documentary. 



Keir Dullea provides the narration. He actually portrayed F. Scott off Broadway in The Other Side of Paradise back in 1992.

Keir is a national treasure. His body of work is extraordinary, and yes, it was my great fortune to have met him at the gym. Keir was generous enough to donate his time for a voice-over I needed on a fund-raising video for the Paul Newman not-for-profit Safe Water Network. Paul was quite the visionary and realized that water would be one of the world’s most pressing 21st Century problems. Once the Fitzgerald project kicked into gear, I knew Keir would be perfect to narrate the film. And yes, I knew he’d done that play, but I had not seen it. But I’d seen Keir in other plays, as well as his other films. Everyone knows him for 2001, and rightly so, but he’s done so much over his career, and continues to do great work. 

 

The film also features Sam Waterston who has his own F. Scott connection.

Yet another national treasure. Sam is a long time Connecticut resident and of course, he was Nick Carraway in the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, which also starred Robert Redford. We thought it would be great to get Sam involved and we filmed him in the Westport Fitzgerald home, walking around with us and a Fitzgerald scholar. Sam was unaware of the Fitzgeralds in Westport (no surprise there), but he was instantly captivated. Sam is incredibly literate and a keen student and lover of history. He got it and has been a remarkable advocate for the film. We were so blessed to have the opportunity to work with him. His commentary adds tremendous insight, and of course, everyone loves Sam Waterston.

"Gatsby In Connecticut" An Interview With Filmmaker Robert Steven Williams

 

Finally, tell me a little about yourself. You grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. I know you’ve been involved in writing, music, and films.  What was your original dream? 

I look back fondly on my time in South Jersey, but once my parents moved to Florida, I haven’t gone back much, and yet I’m still an avid Philadelphia sports fan. I focused primarily on music when I left home, played in various bands, but didn’t get very far and ended up working in the music business for EMI Music in London. That industry took a downturn after Napster appeared and I quickly pivoted into writing and making short films, mostly for not-for-profits, like that Paul Newman charity I mentioned earlier. That’s what Against the Grain Productions is focused on now. Today everyone talks about narrative and stories, but I realized years ago through writing fiction how important stories are in achieving a not-for-profits’ mission. 

Along the way I picked up an MBA at Harvard Business School, and the combination of fiction, film and business is very helpful because directing a full-length documentary requires so many different skill sets. One day you’re a writer, the next day your editing, then you’re an accountant, cheerleader, salesperson, and sometimes you’re just lugging gear. I love the variety. This morning I was talking to someone who had started a not-for-profit that assists soldiers suffering mental health issues. Suicide is a massive problem for returning service men and women, and this group is doing incredible work. Next month I’m heading to Africa to direct a shoot for that Paul Newman water charity. Film is a powerful medium and there are so many important stories that still need telling. But it’s a hustle, and there’s not a big financial return, but still well worth the pursuit. I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to spend so much time in Scott and Zelda’s world. Hopefully, we captured some of that joy on film. 



Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.



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