Goodbye Gatsby: My Years with Fitzgerald Are Ending

As a Midwestern boy coming of age on Long Island’s East End, I found a kinsman in F. Scott Fitzgerald. We shared a romantic, forlorn sense of our place in country club society: the romantic hope that through what we did we could eventually enter by the front door rather than the back; and the forlorn, inner certainty that we never would.

Our summer place, here in Quiogue on the East End, was a channel between Scott and me. In the 1960s Scott and I often stood on our pillared porch, looking across Quantuck Bay to the green light at the end of the dock opposite, just as Jay Gatsby gazed out on Daisy’s dock on the North Shore. He would repeat his famous line, “The rich—your friends over there in Quogue—they are different from you and me.” I nodded. I knew what he was talking about. We didn’t live in Quogue, we lived in Quiogue, just as Gatsby lived in West Egg, and Daisy in East Egg.

I would never go to Choate. I wouldn’t get an MG when I graduated from high school. And try as I might, I wouldn’t get into Yale.

I only got to enjoy Quiogue and Quogue because of the largesse of others toward Episcopalian ministers. Our house was given to my minister great-grandfather by a grateful parishioner. Our memberships in the Quantuck Beach Club and the Quogue Field Club were donations to my minister grandfather.

My contemporaries used to laugh at Scott’s famous remark about the rich. They’d say quaint little Quiogue was not Southampton, nor Amagansett, nor East Hampton. Scott didn’t agree. At the Quogue Field Club dances, he watched from the veranda, drinking gin and tonics. When the band took a break, I would emerge with my friends to chat about girls or golf. Scott, leaning against a column, would say, “You’re with them but not of them, just like my Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise.”

He was right. I could share the gin and tonics, and dance rhumbas to Lester Lanin’s orchestra, but when I wanted to kiss a young Daisy Buchanan, her mother told her, “He’s from the wrong class, dear.”

More than just the summer milieu made Scott feel at home. Each August he pulled out our guest book and pointed to where Harold Ober, his agent, signed it in 1937. “Ober made good money from me,” Scott said, “He could afford Scarsdale.” My grandparents could too, but only because the Scarsdale church there provided a rectory. Granma and Granpa invited the Obers down to spend weekends here.

Granma disapproved of Scott, though. In the 1930s neither he nor Zelda could provide a home for their daughter, Scottie, and the Obers could. Once, Scott came up to Scarsdale to see her at the Fox Meadow Tennis Club, playing with another girl about eight years old. Suddenly he asked Ober, “Oh my God—is she pregnant?” My grandmother, telling me the story, pointed out that girls of that age have protruding stomachs. “He thought she was pregnant,” Granma would say disgustedly. “What an ass.”

My Aunt Kathleen, who lived in Scarsdale in her later years, kept a collection of Scott’s stories displayed prominently on her coffee table. She connected to him because Scottie and she attended Vassar at the same time. “Poor Scottie,” she used to say. “Married twice, no children.” Scott admitted he wasn’t the greatest father, but insisted, “I am not an ass.”

Another connection. Scott’s friend Budd—Budd Schulberg, famous screenwriter of On the Waterfront—lived near our place in Quiogue. After I bought Schulberg’s novel The Disenchanted, Scott explained, “It’s about Budd and me going to Dartmouth in 1939. What a time we had!” He forgot the novel did not paint a pretty picture of their adventure: Budd and he were hired to write a screenplay for a movie set in the Dartmouth Winter Carnival. On the way to the location, Scott drank constantly, stayed drunk for three days on the set, and got both of them fired.
I was reading it at the dining room table when my Aunt Terry told me Budd lived nearby. Schulberg in Quiogue? I immediately called to request he autograph my copy. It wasn’t easy. After two months of importuning, Schulberg invited me over. He opened the door graciously, welcomed me in and signed the flyleaf. After he died in 2009, his house went to one of the rich: CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, son of Gloria Vanderbilt, shelled out $1.7 million for it.

This summer, I showed Budd’s inscription to Scott again, then I told him we were selling our place. Looking as sad as I feel now, he noted, “You’ll get as much as Budd’s house fetched. I wish you were not leaving. But…I guess you can’t afford to stay.”

He’s right. We—my siblings and I who own this large, old house—can’t keep it up anymore. The $10,000 a year to the Town of Southampton for taxes is too much for us, though my rich friend over on Shelter Island says, “That’s nothing! I pay $23,000 a year.”

After we sell our house, $1.7 million or not, Scott and I will stroll down to the edge of Quantuck Bay one last time. He wants me to bring Budd’s book and Ober’s signature; he has this wistful notion that we’ll remain connected that way.

We look across the water to the green light. He’ll probably quote a line from the end of The Great Gatsby, and laugh: “On the last night, with my trunk packed, I went over to look at that huge incoherent failure of a house once more.”

I’ll protest that our house was not a failure. He’ll shrug. “You still believe in the orgastic future.” I do. It will just happen without him.

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