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Beacon Towers Gates, Sands Point, New York

As I walked down the steps I saw that the evening was not quite over. Fifty feet from the door a dozen headlights illuminated a bizarre and tumultuous scene. In the ditch beside the road, right side up, but violently shorn of one wheel, rested a new coupe which had left Gatsby’s drive not two minutes before. The sharp jut of a wall accounted for the detachment of the wheel, which was now getting considerable attention from half a dozen curious chauffeurs. However, as they had left their cars blocking the road, a harsh, discordant din from those in the rear had been audible for some time, and added to the already violent confusion of the scene.

A man in a long duster had dismounted from the wreck and now stood in the middle of the road, looking from the car to the tire and from the tire to the observers in a pleasant, puzzled way.

“Did you run into the wall?” “Don’t ask me,” said Owl Eyes, washing his hands of the whole matter. “I know very little about driving—next to nothing. It happened, and that’s all I know.”

“Well, if you’re a poor driver you oughtn’t to try driving at night.”

“But I wasn’t even trying,” he explained indignantly, “I wasn’t even trying.”

“You don’t understand,” explained the criminal. “I wasn’t driving. There’s another man in the car.”

The shock that followed this declaration found voice in a sustained “Ah-h-h!” as the door of the coupe swung slowly open. The crowd—it was now a crowd—stepped back involuntarily, and when the door had opened wide there was a ghostly pause. Then, very gradually, part by part, a pale, dangling individual stepped out of the wreck, pawing tentatively at the ground with a large uncertain dancing shoe.

Blinded by the glare of the headlights and confused by the incessant groaning of the horns, the apparition stood swaying for a moment before he perceived the man in the duster.

“Wha’s matter?” he inquired calmly. “Did we run outa gas?”

“Look!”

Half a dozen fingers pointed at the amputated wheel—he stared at it for a moment, and then looked upward as though he suspected that it had dropped from the sky.

“It came off,” some one explained.

A pause. Then, taking a long breath and straightening his shoulders, he remarked in a determined voice:

“Wonder’ff tell me where there’s a gas’line station?”

At least a dozen men, some of them little better off than he was, explained to him that wheel and car were no longer joined by any physical bond.

“Back out,” he suggested after a moment. “Put her in reverse.”

“But the WHEEL’S off!”

“No harm in trying,” he said.

The caterwauling horns had reached a crescendo and I turned away and cut across the lawn toward home.

From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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Beacon Towers Gate House

Sands Point, New York

The house on my right was a colossal affair by any standard—it was a factual imitation of some Hotel de Ville in Normandy, with a tower on one side, spanking new under a thin beard of raw ivy, and a marble swimming pool, and more than forty acres of lawn and garden. it was Gatsby’s mansion. Or, rather, as I didn’t know Mr. Gatsby, it was a mansion inhabited by a gentleman of that name. My own house was an eyesore, but it was a small eyesore, and it had been overlooked, so I had a view of the water, a partial view of my neighbor’s lawn, and the consoling proximity of millionaires—all for eighty dollars a month … There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.

From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Beacon Towers, which sat on the tip of Sands Point is presumed to have been the inspiration for Gatsby’s mansion. It’s known that Fitzgerald attended many parties at Beacon Towers, and there are really no other candidates which match his description.  Some of the greatest scenes in American literature took place on the other side of this wall, in the imagination of F. Scott Fitzgerald.

 

 

The house was build by Alva Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, a character who if possible was even more fascinating that Gatsby. She was born wealthy, and later married into the Vanderbilt family as they were coming into their money. Wanting to buy a season’s pass to the opera, she found herself shunned, coming from new money. Undeterred, she founded her own company and theatre, The Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She shocked society by divorcing her husband for adultery. She then married Oliver Hazard Perry Belmont, and after his death threw herself into the women’s suffrage movement.

 

Beacon Towers was only a summer home to her, and eventually she sold it to William Randolph Hearst, who also used it for a summer home, already owning a castle of his own in California. He sold it in 1942, and in 1945 it was pulled down, leaving only this gate house. The wall surrounding the house in essence blocks off the entire tip of the peninsula. When the locals complained that the wall blocked access to the beach, Mrs. Belmont bought the beach and lighthouse as well. 

 

The 140 room house rose vertically from the beach on Long Island Sound, and from a distance appeared to rise straight up from the water itself. It was part Norman fortress, part Loire Valley Manor House, and stood five stories tall. Battlements and balconies thrust out from the white stucco walls. When Hearst moved in, he painted over the murals of Joan of Arc, opened the windows to let in more light, and removed many of the medieval furnishings, replacing them with oak and marble.

From where Beacon Towers stood, you can imagine Fitzgerald drunk on the beach, looking across the bay at Land’s End, the fictional home of Daisy and Tom Buchanan, the sound of the party coming from behind him and the story of Gatsby coming together in his mind. Today the best you can do is stand outside the gates, wishing to be let in. Gatsby’s hospitality has been replaced north shore snobbery – no trespassing signs abound, and there are no parties, and you are certainly not wanted. The land might belong to the owners, but the memories belong to us all.

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Beacon Towers, demolished 1945, Landscape in 2008,
Sands Point, New York

“That’s my Middle West—not the wheat or the prairies or the lost Swede towns, but the thrilling returning trains of my youth, and the street lamps and sleigh bells in the frosty dark and the shadows of holly wreaths thrown by lighted windows on the snow. I am part of that, a little solemn with the feel of those long winters, a little complacent from growing up in the Carraway house in a city where dwellings are still called through decades by a family’s name. I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all—Tom and Gatsby, Daisy and Jordan and I, were all Westerners, and perhaps we possessed some deficiency in common which made us subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.

Even when the East excited me most, even when I was most keenly aware of its superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio, with their interminable inquisitions which spared only the children and the very old—even then it had always for me a quality of distortion. West Egg, especially, still figures in my more fantastic dreams. I see it as a night scene by El Greco: a hundred houses, at once conventional and grotesque, crouching under a sullen, overhanging sky and a lustreless moon. 

After Gatsby’s death the East was haunted for me like that, distorted beyond my eyes’ power of correction. So when the blue smoke of brittle leaves was in the air and the wind blew the wet laundry stiff on the line I decided to come back home.”

From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

*******

I too am a product of the midwest, and I admit to still finding a sense of wonder in the east. Not so much for what it is, as now it’s more impressive for what it was, rather than what it is. When I found what remains of Beacon Towers, I stopped a couple who lived in the neighborhood, and asked what they knew. The gatehouse they thought was once part of another structure, which they believed was the keeper’s house for the lighthouse on the point. They knew nothing of Gatsby, nor Mrs. Belmont, nor even Mr. Hearst. 

There’s a belief among many out here not that they are superior to those in the midwest, but rather that midwesterners are somehow inferior to those found elsewhere. They are quick to accept those who come from other countries, those who come from the west coast, but those who come from the middle of our country are seen as hicks, from podunk towns with no names and with no culture of our own, and no knowledge of anything other than hunting, farming and conservative Christian religion. 

And yet the chronicler of Long Island’s glory years, Fitzgerald was a midwestern, the same as Gatsby, Daisy and Tom. In our own era, the greatest poet of the sixties, Bob Dylan is another midwesterner, like Fitzgerald and like Gatsby, from Minnesota. “The country I come from is called the Midwest,” he sang. And we can’t wait to get out of there, and we come east, following a beacon, only to find out that this isn’t home either, just another stop on the journey. Here we have a chance to redefine ourselves, or to lose ourselves, whichever the case may be. We chase a dream, and in this fading landscape of Long Island we find inspiration, and we find the reality that even when dreams come true, it’s all temporary. The bloom is off the rose, and the long decline is well begun.edit

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Ghost Home of Daisy Buchanan

Land’s End, Fictional Home of Daisy Buchanan, Sands Point, New York

“Their house was even more elaborate than I expected, a cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial mansion, overlooking the bay. The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens—finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch.”

The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitgerald

It has long been supposed that the house called Land’s End, former home of publisher Herbert Bayard Swope, in Sand’s Point, Long Island was the inspiration for the home of Tom and Daisy Buchanan in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” It’s also believed that the early stages of the book were written both in this house, as well as the one he and Zelda rented in Great Neck. Its certain that Fitzgerald attended many parties here with guests such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Dorothy Parker and Groucho Marx, the culture of which plays a central role in the book, often considered one of the greatest achievements in English literature.

Today, Daisy’s dock with the green light at the end, which Gatsby used to watch from across the bay has long since fallen into Long Island Sound, if indeed it ever existed at all. The vast lawn contains no gardens, no walls and is broken up by a swimming pool and bath house. The house is cut off from it’s neighbors by a bit of sea which reaches inland, and it sits quiet, the sound of parties long extinguished. One of the great columns have come undone and the house and memories are for sale, hopelessly overpriced and a value for the memories that still lounge in the rooms facing the sea.

Currently for sale for $28 million, it would take $1-2 million to replace the countertops in the kitchen, put on a new roof, replace the 1970s carpet and overhaul several of the 14 bathrooms to make it livable. The house has two elevators, 25 rooms, six family sized bedrooms, a three-room master suite with his and hers bathrooms, 10 fireplaces, tennis court and a 75 foot pool, with a cabana house that the roof doubles as a dance floor. Originally an estate of 13 acres, it’s now subdivided for four surrounding mansions, leaving four acres for Land’s End.

And it’s a shame of course. For it wasn’t just the people that inspired the writer. As so often is the case with art, the landscape itself becomes inspiration itself. The land, the sea, the great houses which once dotted the coast all were part of Fitzgerald’s rich tapestry of inspiration. Gatsby’s house across the bay is now just a memory as well, as are many of the castles of the rich from early in the twentieth century. Art and inspiration need space to breathe, and sometimes it seems the very air will be divided in the end.

* * * * * *

“We walked through a high hallway into a bright rosy-colored space, fragilely bound into the house by French windows at either end. The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of the ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea. The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored balloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back in after a short flight around the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young women ballooned slowly to the floor.”

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Sands Point, New York

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us.

It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning—— So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

From The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

There is no dock at Land’s End, the fictional home of Daisy Buchanan, and perhaps there never was. This one is couple hundred yards down the beach, and though not much remains, it’s possible that when Fitzgerald walked this beach it caught his eye and stirred his imagination.

I know how Gatsby felt, drawn east with a dream of love and promise, and I know what the author meant when he wrote that the dream was already behind us before we even reached our destination. It’s the dream that pushes up forward, and too often that’s all there ever is, a dream. The light at the end of the dock brings us out further and further, and when we reach the end we see the light is still further on. Some stand at the edge and let the light fade, others take a leap for one last, desperate grab. But you can’t hold a dream in your hands, and only too late you realize it wasn’t a leap but a fall.

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Great Neck Estates, New York

Wanting to find a sense of normality in life, and also save a few bucks in the process, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda moved from Manhattan to Long Island, taking the house at 6 Gateway Drive in Great Neck Estates, in the fall of 1922. The author and his wife moved in with their dog, added a couple servants and settled into what Zelda called their “nifty little Babbit home.” Hoping to end the life of reckless abandon which they had been living in the city, they posted house rules in the house which read “invitations to stay over Monday, issued by the host and hostess during the small hours of Sunday morning, must not be taken seriously.”

There Fitzgerald managed to do a bit of work, writing a play and several short stories, as well as starting the book that became “The Great Gatsby,” working in the room above the garage. But by the spring of 1924, the Fitzgeralds were gone from Long Island, relocating to France, because of the house in Great Neck Estates had seen too many people, too much fighting and too much drinking.

Fitzgerald died at the age of 44, leaving a handful of works, and helped to usher into being the concept of the artist as celebrity, a trait which America has come to embrace. Unlike today’s celebrities who are scorned for ill behavior, Fitzgerald’s reputation was built in a large part on his vices. Much of his work was written in an alcoholic haze, churning out popular fiction for money, and yet when he died he was nearly penniless. 

Today the house still stands on Gateway Drive, remodeled, but still retaining some of the original character. If the walls could only speak …

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