Entertainment & Arts

How real is The Great Gatsby's playboy island?

Image caption The 1920s were the time of lavish party-giving by the Long Island set as depicted in The Great Gatsby

Reviews for Baz Luhrmann's new version of The Great Gatsby have been mixed. But his adaptation is faithful to the plot of Scott Fitzgerald's novel published in 1925.

The story takes place mainly on Long Island, a playground for America's super-rich 90 years ago. Everything the Hamptons are now, northern Long Island was then.

It's been a cold spring in Port Washington and there have been fewer tourists than usual. It's only in the past couple of weeks that Matt Meyran has begun the annual Great Gatsby boat tours. He's hoping the new movie will bring in the custom.

Port Washington is an attractive town on Long Island's north shore - 45 minutes from New York on the Long Island Railroad. Before World War II it was where flying boats arrived after crossing the Atlantic.

Image caption F Scott Fitzgerald moved to Long Island in 1922 with his wife Zelda

These days the most dramatic form of transport is Meyran's water taxi service, taking commuters and tourists out onto the sparkling waters of Manhasset Bay and Long Island Sound.

Visitors learn about the astounding past wealth of Long Island's Gold Coast, taking in areas such as Sands Point and Glen Cove. The area's wealth exploded in the late 19th Century because of its proximity to New York and the availability of land.

By the time Scott Fitzgerald came to write his book the area contained almost 2,000 mansions, many with large and well-tended estates.

Life on those estates was opulent. The names that dominated the Gold Coast constituted the upper reaches of America's rich list: Guggenheim, Whitney, Vanderbilt.

The families already had magnificent homes in Manhattan. They came to Long Island for the season, or for a summer weekend away from the disease and clamour. They arrived by yacht from lower Manhattan or by chauffeur-driven limousine - or even by private train.

Matt Meyran says there was a small industry in the Port Washington area building and maintaining yachts for the wealthy.

"Long Island Sound and its pleasures were why the Buchanans in the book would have had a home in East Egg (as Fitzgerald calls Sands Point). Gatsby wasn't quite their class."

Artistic licence

Much brain-power has been expended trying to match up real-life Long Island locations with those in Fitzgerald's book.

A couple of years ago there was an outcry when a Colonial Revival house by the shore was demolished to make way for five smaller homes.

Land's End had once belonged to New York journalist (and keen 1920s party-giver) Herbert Bayard Swope. Some claim it inspired Tom and Daisy Buchanan's home in The Great Gatsby.

Image caption Private ownership of the Long Island mansions was mostly killed off by the 1929 crash

In fact there is insufficient evidence to make connections with certainty, according to historian and architect Gary Lawrance.

"It's fun to speculate which was the model for Daisy Buchanan's house or Gatsby's place. But Fitzgerald wasn't writing a travel guide: you have to allow him his creativity.

"In real estate terms, to say a house has a big Gatsby connection is going to be worth something - but a certain amount of hype tends to emerge."

Lawrance has documented most of the great houses of the Gold Coast for his website Mansions of the Gilded Age.

"There are a few hundred left but few still in private hands. If they survived at all, mainly they were bought by colleges or became country clubs.

"Partly what killed them off was the introduction of federal income taxes in 1913 and the sheer difficulty of maintaining staffs. It became too much for all but the richest.

"So even when Fitzgerald wrote Gatsby that world was already on the way out. The '29 crash did for the rest of it."

'Aspiration and failure'

Fitzgerald moved to Long Island in 1922 with his wife Zelda. They lived at 6 Gateway Drive in Great Neck, where he began the book (though mainly it was written in France). In The Great Gatsby he calls the area West Egg.

The house they rented still stands. It's a large two-storey private home but no one would call it a mansion.

Image caption Gatsby's longing for Daisy is symbolic of the pain of aspiration in the US society of that era

The author Judith Goldstein has chronicled the development of Great Neck. "When Fitzgerald went there it was new and convenient to get to from the city.

"It attracted theatre people, journalists and those in what we'd now call the creative industries. It was also an easier place to live if you were Jewish.

"But Fitzgerald was always insecure socially and economically. I'm sure he enjoyed being so near the Gold Coast, a place he could never afford to live.

"The '20s was the great era of party-giving and Fitzgerald could get to the parties in the great houses he relished. So just as Gatsby stares over the water to the green light at the end of the Buchanan dock, pining for Daisy, Fitzgerald must have stared over at 'East Egg' and aspired to its social standing.

"He wanted the ease and privilege of people who lived at, say, Sands Point. But he never acquired it."

The Great Gatsby is based in a very specific geography. But Judith Goldstein says Fitzgerald was really writing about America in its entirety.

"He was concerned with the pain of aspiration and the pain of failure. He envied the life of Gatsby… but in the book Gatsby is longing for Daisy.

"And in real life Daisy Buchanan would probably have aspired to join the really old money of Long Island, who lived further out in the Oyster Bay area. Fitzgerald was writing about a very complex society."

The Great Gatsby opens the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday and is released in UK cinemas on 16 May.

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