In “Boats Against the Current: The Honeymoon Summer of Scott and Zelda,” Richard Webb details F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in Westport, CT, and advances the theory that the inspiration for The Great Gatsby was not Great Neck, Long Island, but rather Westport. A companion documentary film is being produced by Robert Steven Williams, who provided this take on the book and his account of the dual projects.
The challenge of making a documentary with the author of Boats Against the Current was trying to rein in Richard “Deej” Webb’s rational exuberance for the subject. We’d spent five years researching the Fitzgeralds’ time in Westport, CT, and had amassed hundreds of hours of footage and thousands of photos, many never seen publicly. We’d interviewed over a dozen scholars and experts. I simply couldn’t include everything in a 60- or 90-minute film.
Deej would not be deterred. While I sat in the editing suite working on the film, he diligently put together the companion piece. The result is an exquisite coffee table-styled book. To say it’s a companion to anything does it an injustice. It stands tall on its own merits. It’s a beautiful piece of art, a perfect complement to a book picked up at MOMA.
But Boats Against the Current is not just a pretty object; open it and you are instantly taken back to a time when buildings were built with style and books were reproduced with panache. The photographic reproductions are stunning, the presentation and accompanying narrative just enough to inform and entertain, yet with sufficient bibliographic documentation to demonstrate the effort was rigorously researched and accurately presented.
Boats Against the Current provides an abundance of riches including vintage articles, photographs, and descriptions that bring to life that moment the Fitzgeralds were in Westport. Not only do we get a glimpse into what Scott and Zelda experienced that honeymoon summer, we also get the context: Westport, a compelling character in its own right, a vibrant coastal town overflowing with illicit booze, wealth, and creativity—all from a populace keen on skinny-dipping in the Long Island Sound. Edmund Wilson, editor and lifelong friend of Scott’s, wrote, “They reveled in the orgies of Westport.”
Webb grew up a short bike ride away from where the Fitzgeralds had lived. Enthralled by their presence, even at such a young age, a 1996 New Yorker article by Barbara Probst Solomon took that interest to a whole new level. Deej was soon giving talks throughout the county about the Fitzgeralds’ time, building upon Barbara’s thesis that the seeds of The Great Gatsby were in Westport.
Scott and Zelda lived next to a 175-acre estate owned by the mystery millionaire Frederick E. Lewis. Known for throwing lavish parties, Lewis was enigmatic. His sweeping estate dwarfed the Fitzgerald cottage situated a stone’s throw from the Gatsbyesque posterns guarding his grounds’ entrance. Those very posterns, referenced in Gatsby, now fronted Westport’s municipal golf course, anchored by the Longshore Inn, a hotel and restaurant.
As a companion to the film Gatsby in Connecticut: The Untold Story, the book provides the opportunity to savor a single image at will. The full pages of Zelda’s scrapbook are striking; each featured a snapshot of the Fitzgeralds’ time here, worthy of more than just a glance.
The never-before-seen collection of Lewis’s estate at the very time the Fitzgeralds lived next door define the silver opulence befit of Gatsby himself. We’d spent several years tracking down a descendant. We finally found one, a grandson, an elderly man living in northern Vermont. You can’t imagine how we felt when Alden Bryan pulled out the first of several astonishingly well-preserved albums, chockablock with images of his grandfather’s estate.
That reminds me of the last thing you need to know about Boats Against the Current — its joy.
The book brims with the joy that comes from two guys acting like literary detectives, Inspectors Clouseau and Poirot. I’ll leave it to you to figure out which of us is which; but in the end, “together” we cracked the case. Discover what really happened that honeymoon summer Scott and Zelda spent in Westport.
Boats Against the Current is now available for purchase.
For more information on Robert Steven Williams, visit robertstevenwilliams.com