Ellen Byron

My parents almost bought “The Gatsby House”

When I was nine, my parents decided to move from the NYC boroughs to the ‘burbs for a better school system. This is a migration as common to New York as the wildebeast migration is to the plains of East Africa.

The search began in a Long Island suburb called Great Neck, which was next to our Queens community, Little Neck. I visited a few of the prospects with my parents, but only one is forever emblazoned on my brain – a Mediterranean-style home built in 1918 that sat at the end of a cul de sac. Why it stuck with me has nothing to do with its architectural style or geographic location. It has to do with a remark the real estate agent made: “F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived here. It’s called The Gatsby House.”

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The house is called that because it’s where F. Scott began one of the most famous novels ever written. The Fitzgeralds only rented the home from 1922 to 1924, but that was long enough to get a reputation for hosting parties so wild that the couple drew up a list of half-joking rules like ” “Visitors are requested not to break down doors in search of liquor, even when authorized to do so by the host and hostess.”

I was nine when we viewed The Gatsby House. What did I know about F. Scott Fitzgerald? Not much, I have to assume. Then why are my memories of the house so vivid that when it came up for sale last year – for about $3.9 mil – the place looked exactly the same in photos as it did in my mind’s eye? We’re a family of readers, so maybe my parents talked about the Gatsby connection on the car ride home. And for some reason I’ve never explored, even as a child I was fascinated by the Roaring Twenties.

After much debate, my parents chose not to buy F. Scott’s one-time abode. They’d fallen in love with Westchester County, so we left Long Island for a home in Scarsdale.  But I’ve always wondered, would my life have been different had I been raised in the home where Jay Gatsby and Daisy first came to life? Would the ghosts of nineteen-twenties artists, authors, and bon vivants found their way into my work? Would living there have made me a different writer?

“The Gatsby House” instilled in me a lifelong passion for authors’ homes. nab-cottageYears ago, when I visited the Lake District with my parents, we stayed at Nab Cottage, a B&B that was once the home of  Hartley Coleridge. My mother and I entertained ourselves trying to figure out in which room he and pal Thomas de Quincey hung out doing opium together.

We also walked the Coffin Walk behind the B&B to William Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage in Grasmere.

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The first item on my bucket list is to someday visit Haworth Parsonage and explore the moors my beloved Brontes once trod. And this is coming from a woman who’s never been to Paris.

I don’t know if walking in the footsteps and breathing the air of our literary giants makes me a better writer. But I do know that veneration of those who created some of the world’s greatest literature makes me a better human being.

Readers, have you ever visited the home of an author idol? If not, who’s on your bucket list?

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38 thoughts on “My parents almost bought “The Gatsby House”

  1. Fascinating post! Like you, I enjoy visiting author’s homes. My own favorites are fairly modest compared to the Gatsby House here; I’ve visited both Thomas Wolfe’s house and William Faulkner’s house several times, for example. Thanks for sharing this!

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  2. My first trip to Europe included one of Shakespeare’s houses in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Last fall I spent time at one of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow houses in Portland, ME. A year earlier, it was one of Edith Wharton’s houses in Lenox, MA. But I’m more interested in the settings for books– the moors, the coast, the harbor, the section of a city, an English village– and having some of the food or music experiences. When I read Peter Lovesey today, I remember walking on the crescent streets of Bath, seeing its townhouses and gardens and public buildings. I reread Jamaica Inn after a trip to southwest England, and I could feel the wind and desolation of the moors.

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  3. Ooo, Art, can’t wait to go to both! Do you know the famous Hollywood story about Faulkner? I don’t know if it’s legend or real, but supposedly when he came out to Hollywood to write a screenplay, he asked a bigwig like Louis Mayer if he could work from home. The answer was yes. So Faulkner returned to Mississippi and wrote from there!

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  4. Loved your post, El! I am partial to Louisa May Alcott’s home in MA. Growing up, Robert Penn Warren lived 2 doors down but to my knowledge I never saw him. Oh, and…Chicks writing retreat now sked for Paris!

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  5. When my family went to Europe, we bookended the trip with two literary stops. The first was Corrie ten Boom’s house, made famous in her autobiography The Hiding Place, which is about her family’s experience hiding Jews during World War II. Then we stopped at Chateau Chion (misspelling horribly) in Switzerland, which was used in a Mrs. Pollifax book.

    A wonderful author home visit for me was the home of Julie Campbell in Westerchester County, NY, which she used as Trixie Belden’s house in that series.

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  6. What a wonderful brush with fame, and I love how affected you were by it at the tender age of 9! I’ve been to Paris, but don’t think I’ve been to any famous writers’ houses.Thanks for the post and the pix of all the other famous houses.

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  7. Love this post, Ellen. Would have been thrilled to visit The Gatsby House.

    I’ve visited Mark Twain’s house in Connecticut and Green Gables in Prince Edward Island (not technically LM Montgomery’s home but still exciting).

    And please sign me up for Paris, Lisa!

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  8. I love this post, Ellen! So cool about the Gatsby House! I’ve always loved visiting the houses of literary giants. Shakespeare’s house was great and I also enjoyed Thomas Hardy’s house. I try to breathe in their inspiration, just like when I visited The Elephant House in Edinburgh. Not JKs home, but where she wrote, so it felt right.

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  9. What a cool post. My sister lived in a house Leon Russell rented. People banged on the door asking for him. I visited Louisa May’s house. Frank Lloyd Wright’s.

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    • That’s funny re: Leon Russell. A friend’s sister lived in a house Stevie Nicks rented, and found all these medicine bottle labeled for “Stephanie Nicks” in a medicine cabinet. I wish I’d thought to ask what kind of “medicine” was in them!

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  10. That is so cool, Ellen! Like Nadine and Cynthia, I have visited Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-upon-Avon and (Anne of) Green Gables house in Prince Edward Island. But my most favourite literary heritage house visit was to Castle Howard in North Yorkshire, where Brideshead Revisited was filmed (not where Evelyn Waugh wrote the book). Another fond memory was wandering through the colleges. the Bodleian Library and the River Thames in Oxford, dreaming of Colin Dexter’s Morse.

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  11. Oh Grace, I’ve always wanted to go to Castle Howard. And of course, Highclere’s now on my list. But that doesn’t really count because it’s about Downton Abbey. Not great literature… but great TV!

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  12. The first author house I visited was Dr. Samuel Johnson’s 300-year-old townhouse in London. I’d just taken a course in 18th century lit. Though I much preferred novels by Fielding and Smollett to Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, I really felt the spirit of Dr. Johnson in the house where he wrote a dictionary of the English language over a nine year period. My most recent author house visit was to the Poe house in Baltimore, a tiny townhouse compared to Dr. Johnson’s. Poe’s spirit is definitely there, not far from where he’s buried.

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  13. I visited Hemingway’s Key West home with it’s strange yard of three-toed cat descendants. Also saw the home of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings in Florida.

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  14. Ellyn,
    I went to Great Neck High School. One of my dearest friends—Johanna Hurwitz who writes books for kids— lives there now. She has bamboo growing in her backyard that originally and unfortunately came from the house where F. Scott Fitzgerald lived when he wrote The Great Gatsby. I think a neighbor brought a bit of it to her house and it spread.

    My favorite Wm. Wordsworth house in the Lake District was Rydal Mount. As soon as I stepped foot in Rydal Mount I felt that I could have moved right in.

    We’ve lots to talk about at Malice!!

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  15. Didn’t know there was a Frank Lloyd Wright house in GN. I really wish my parents had bought the Gatsby house. How cool would that have been? Although I do love Westchester more than the Island.

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    • I love Westchester. I used to get there pretty often to visit friends. I used to feel each time that we were on a mini-vacation. As for Long Island, I’ve lived here most of my life.

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  16. I grew up in Acton, MA, a town once part of Concord, so I was fortunate enough to visit all the local authors’ houses–Alcott, Emerson, Margaret Sidney (of Five Little Peppers fame), and Hawthorne. I took swimming lessons in Walden Pond long before I’d heard of Thoreau. Many of those authors are buried in Author’s Ridge of Concord’s Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. It’s definitely part of the culture of the area. Next trip across the pond, though, I want to visit Chawton, former home of Jane Austen.

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  17. Pingback: The dad with the gun. | Chicks on the Case

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