with more rooms than there are US states; gleaming automobiles tearing along
open country roads; chic and bejewelled ladies sipping champagne and gin
rickeys from crystal glasses while sitting poolside on a hot summer day. These are
the images that come to mind when thinking of F Scott Fitzgerald’s classic
story The Great Gatsby, among the most admired and well-loved books in the
pantheon of American literature.
in 1925, the book chronicles the provincial events of 1922 for a set of Long
Island-living New Yorkers who are as consumed by the past as they are by the
trappings of their wealth. As a salve to their particular sort of ennui, they
surround themselves with carelessly collected riches. While many people today
use the term “Gatsby-esque” to describe a dreamy and fantastical type of
1920s-style aesthetic, Fitzgerald’s tale actually cuts unsparingly like a
surgeon’s scalpel into the centuries-old US obsession with wealth, power,
status and money.
the intervening decades have done much to alter the landscape that Fitzgerald
wrote so lovingly about, there are still many sites that evoke the bygone era
of Long Island’s “Gold Coast” – the nickname for the moneyed north shore of
Long Island that extends east of New York .
set his masterpiece in the fictional bayside villages of West Egg and East Egg,
which seem to geographically correlate to the real-life communities of Great
Neck (West Egg) and Port Washington (East Egg). The towns match the author’s
description of the twin peninsulas as “a pair of enormous eggs” that “jut out
into… the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound” about 20 miles from
there is no true West and East Eggs, there are no authenticated stand-ins for
the mansions of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, the star-crossed lovers at the centre
of the novel. Many thought the recently demolished Land’s End estate
near Port Washington was a model for the “red-and-white Georgian Colonial
mansion” that was home to Buchanan and her hulking husband, Tom, but sadly it
was lost in 2011 to the ever-encroaching development of subdivisions and McMansions.
As for Gatsby’s palace of the damned, no such place exactly exists, although a handful
of sites that evoke the ritzy ambience of the eponymous bootlegger and his gilded
brethren are available to visit.
Long Island high life
One of the finest
and best-preserved Gold Coast mansions open to visitors is the stunningly
beautiful Westbury House at Old
Westbury Gardens. A true Long Island highlight, the 1906 estate was home to
Jay and Margarita Phipps, a wealthy industrialist and his English wife, until
the 1950s. The lush Charles II-style manor is stuffed with European antiques
from the family’s collections and is set on more than 200 acres of manicured
grounds that include ponds, a walled garden, a cottage garden with children’s
playhouses, a primrose path, an area called the “Ghost Walk” and boxwoods
the estate is located in Old Westbury, about 10 miles from Port Washington or
Great Neck, the house provides a fabulous example of the jaw-dropping Gold
Coast decadence that Fitzgerald wrote about.
Film fans may recognise the grounds from movies as varied as Love Story,
North By Northwest, The Age of Innocence and To Wong Fu, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. Well worth a visit, the estate closes after the Christmas
holidays and reopens to the public every April.
maintained but still of considerable interest is Hempstead House
on the Sands Point Preserve near
Port Washington. The massive castle-like structure was the early 20th-century
home of Daniel Guggenheim (brother of the noted modern art enthusiast Solomon R
Guggenheim). Despite its gothic overtones, the manor has soaring views across
the sound to Connecticut, making it highly evocative of a place where Gatsby
might have stared out over the water at the green light of Daisy’s dock. As a
matter of novelistic accuracy, however, this area was more likely a stand-in
for the old-moneyed East Egg in the novel, while the arriviste nouveau riche
estate of Gatsby was probably located across Manhasset Bay in Great Neck (West
vistas at Hempstead House are surrounded by the various trails cutting through its
former grounds, now a 216-acre nature preserve. While the house is unfurnished
and not open to visitors, the preserve, open year round, is an appealing place for
hiking and picnicking.
In the nearby
town of Roslyn is the William
Cullen Bryant Nature Preserve, home to the Nassau County Museum of Art.
Housed in the exquisite Bryce-Frick mansion (built in 1900 by General Lloyd
Bryce and purchased by Childs Frick, son of steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, 19
years later), the charming museum hosts a variety of changing exhibitions featuring
the likes of Catalan painter and sculptor Joan Miro and African-American painter
Jean-Michel Basquiat. The real appeal, though, is the contemporary sculpture
garden that stretches out across the wide lawns, with works by Mark di Suvero,
Alexander Calder, Richard Serra and many more lesser-known, but no less
thrilling artists. Another glorious example of the Gold Coast excess described
in the novel, the house is complemented by the many trails of the preserve leading
to lovely harbour views and the occasional sighting of a red-tailed hawk.
prime site that recalls this glamorous and unique past is the Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport,
Long Island. At the eastern edge of the Gold Coast, about 25 miles from Great
Neck, this 24-room Spanish-style estate was home to William K Vanderbilt II,
great-grandson of the famed railroad industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt. The
Vanderbilts, one of the most prestigious families in America, were the sort of
social barons that Gatsby longed to emulate. The common lineage of Fitzgerald’s
antihero (born in the Midwest to working class parents) is something he could
never overcome and, in some ways it led to the character’s tragic, waterlogged fate. Visitors who take the mansion tour
will learn of the owner’s extravagant 1920s lifestyle, which included decadent
parties attended by the most glamorous socialites of the era.
has been turned into an oddball museum dedicated to Vanderbilt, and a primary
attraction is his collection of native arts and fauna (such as hundreds of
taxidermy birds, including some extinct ones, displayed alongside shrunken
heads and exotic tools). Other notable curiosities include a real Egyptian
mummy and preserved giant lobsters – some weighing as much as 35lb. Everything
inside the Eagle’s Nest mansion, with its spectacular high-perched views of the
sound and Northport harbour, is original from its owner – a fantastic relic of
millionaires with unlimited financial resources from days gone by.
An immersive Gatsby experience
Those with a sea-faring bent might enjoy the Great Gatsby Boat Tour (on
Saturdays mornings from July through September before the weather turns too
chilly). It cuts through the waters of Manhasset Bay between King’s Point near
Great Neck and Sands Point near Port Washington, and glides past the various
historical boathouses and mansions that inspired Fitzgerald, like the
aforementioned Hempstead House as well as several other private homes. While
much of what you see has been built up since Fitzgerald had his characters ran
amok throughout the shore, it is an interesting look at the grandiosity with
which the novel has become synonymous. Today there might be more speedboats
than sailboats, or Range Rovers than Rolls Royces, but the tony, moneyed
communities are much the same as in the 1920s.
fans should also take a trip to 6 Gateway Drive in Great Neck, where Fitzgerald
and his infamous wife Zelda lived from 1922 to 1924 while he worked on the
novel. At the time, the cottage was modest compared to the glitzy mansions of
his wealthy characters and neighbours, but the now extravagant private home has
since been remodelled. Those looking to
visit the author and his wife today will need to head
south to Rockville, Maryland to find
their eternal resting spots.
are all close enough to New York City to be day-tripper friendly. If you are
looking to spend the night in Jazz Age hotel, however, the best option is Oheka Castle. A French chateau-style home and
one of the largest private residences built in the US, it was home to many
swinging nights in the 1920s until its owner’s death in the 1930s. Today it has
32 hotel rooms, fine dining, formal gardens, a spa and golf, and is a gorgeous
place to conjure Gatsby for the night.