Visiting the Long Island of the Gatsby Era

Barbara Noe Kennedy

 

I push back the golden curtains of my guest room to peer outside the floor-to-window picture window. Beneath me, the green hills of Oheka Castle roll into the distance, not a neighbor in sight. I spy a bride, dressed in a tailored lacy dress and immaculately arranged roses the color of baby’s cheeks. Her new husband sips a flute of champagne. It’s not too far a stretch to imagine this scene straight out of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classic.

 

Fitzgerald is said to have based his Egg Harbor on the Gold Coast, an exclusive realm on Long Island that still retains effete beauty in its over-the-top gilded mansions, perfectly manicured gardens, and devotion to polo. He lived on Great Neck, after all, between 1922 and 1924 (in a small house, I should add—just as Nick Carraway’s own house was an “eyesore … squeezed between two huge places that rented for twelve or fifteen thousand a season”). I’m determined to soak up every last bit of those gloriously decadent, idealist, excessive Roaring Twenties, and in this corner of the world, that’s easy to do.

 

 

Oheka, to this day, remains the second-largest private home in America (after Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina). Fashioned after Maison Lafayette, the French-style castle is a romantic swirl of sweeping staircases, triangulated roofs, and room after room of European-style elegance. It belonged to German businessman Otto Hermann Kahn, who used it as his summer home, hosting lavish parties with Hollywood celebrities, heads of state, and royalty as guests. And yes, it’s said that Oheka was one of the star inspirations for The Great Gatsby mansion.

 

But this isn’t the only Gatsby-esque mansion around. Back then, Long Island was a lonely stretch of farmland, on which between the Civil War and World War II an estimated 1,200 estates were built by tycoons, oil barons, and global financiers—with names like Woolworth, Astor, Guggenheim, Vanderbilt, Frick, and Marjorie Merriweather Post. To this crowd, extravagance was their middle name. This was the sort of place for rich, bored, and privileged, as Tom and Daisy are introduced in the book: “They had spent a year in France, for no particular reason, and then drifted here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together.” For us, much of those life and times have been preserved and can be visited.

 

 

William K. Vanderbilt II’s Eagle’s Nest estate in Centerport is a prime example. Built by the architects who created Grand Central Terminal, it’s a stunning Spanish Revival abode featuring 24 rooms. Today, it’s a tribute to Jazz Age living, with rooms exactly as William and his wife, Rosamund, left them—filled with priceless art and eclectic artifacts from around the world. There’s also a planetarium with a 60-foot theater.

 

And then there’s Clayton, the Georgian Revival mansion in Roslyn Harbor that Henry Clay Frick bestowed upon his son as a wedding gift in 1919. Today, it’s the Nassau County of Museum Art, showcasing masterpieces within its gilded walls. As you peer at the glorious paintings, be sure to take in the dentil trim and rich wood paneling. The house is surrounded by 145 acres of landscaped grounds that include formal gardens, a wildflower walk, and an all-around aura of Gilded Age richesse.

 

Speaking of outdoor splendor, there’s also Old Westbury Gardens, which has been showcased in many movies, including Love Story, Age of Innocence, and Cruel Intentions. It’s a floral extravaganza with rose gardens, a pond, and walled gardens. But the 70-room English country-style manor, once owned by John S. Philpps, is glorious too, with its English antiques, marble fireplaces, and grand ballroom.

 

And there are so many more Gold Coast mansions that take you back in time, including Coe Hall, where scenes from the Sabrina remake were shot; Glen Cove Mansion, now a hotel; and Chelsea mansion inside the Muttontown Preserve, the scene of some of that era’s most decadent parties.

 

 

But it’s perhaps one unexpected place that truly sets the tone for me. I enter The Jazz Loft in Stony Brook one evening, walking past relics to the Jazz Age in the downstairs museum: brass instruments, hand-written sheet music, an early watercolor of Dizzy Gillepsie. The distant strains of music beckon me, and I follow them, up the boldly painted stairs. The entire second floor is set up as an intimate listening hall, with tables and chairs positioned to view a small stage. A bar crouches in the back corner, where I sidle for a red wine—though in this setting, I should be drinking a Sidecar or Old-Fashioned.

 

The Ken Peplowski Duo—deemed the greatest living jazz clarinetist in the world— is playing a joyful swing, and I sit back and sip my drink and let the sounds of bygone years envelop me. I expect Great Gatsby himself to step into the room. Or at least Scott and Zelda.

 

Author Bio:

Barbara Noe Kennedy worked as an editor at the National Geographic Book Division for more than 20 years. She has written four books, and her writings have also been published in National Geographic, The Daily Telegraph, and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

 

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Barbar Noe Kennedy; VisitlongIsland; Terry Ballard (Flickr); Wikipedia Commons; Google Images
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