Jamie Lafferty swallows his envy to tour the mansions that hosted the legendary parties of The Great Gatsby era.
It's best to start with the truth: no one can say for certain which specific Long Island properties inspired the lavish mansions described in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1922 masterpiece, The Great Gatsby. The author died at just 44, before the book was regarded as one of the great American novels, and it seems people cared little about his sources at the time. Posthumously that changed, of course, but with the author in the boneyard, people have been left guessing ever since.
However, with the release of Baz Luhrmann's new $120 million film adaptation of the Gatsby story, the sprawling mansions have once again captured the public imagination - and many of them are keen to be credited as Fitzgerald's inspiration. At the start of last century, tycoons, barons and crooks indulged in a vast game of one-upmanship in the construction of huge homes around the North Shore in the west of Long Island. At the peak of this activity, there were 650 of these mega-houses dotted around what became known as the Gold Coast.
Their owners earned their fortunes in oil, rail, steel and other forms of villainy; America was in a ludicrous, unsustainable boom and construction was uninhibited by budgetary constraints. Big names of the era such as Morgan, Hearst and Pratt had properties on Long Island. (Like Jay Gatsby, infamous bootlegger and gangster Al Capone also bought a lavish mansion, currently back on the market for $8.8 million, but he chose to build it 2000 kilometres south in Palm Beach, Florida.)
A century ago, the Gatsby-esque mansions seemed far enough away from New York City to grant their owners serenity from the tired, huddled masses of the metropolis. But the Big Apple is a ravenous beast, which has long swallowed those neighbourhoods, and so the money has moved 100 kilometres east, as far as it possibly can on Long Island, to the Hamptons.
Where Fitzgerald wrote of moral-lite booze traffickers and pompous inheritors of old money, today there are investment bankers and hedge fund managers.
As I drive around the region, I can't help speculate on who might own these modern-day mansions. In Southampton, chain stores are thin on the ground, replaced with artisan silversmiths, a tennis shop and several boutiques. It's not ordinary America: petrol prices are inflated; words such as "wholemeal" and "organic" appear on menus; sometimes "cheese" does not. If that weren't enough, when I stop in at the altogether excellent Golden Pear cafe (branches of which can be found throughout the Hamptons) I overhear an actor discuss his new role in The Big Bang Theory. It all seems normal here, but it's the gargantuan houses that make it seem otherworldly. By the time I move on to East Hampton, tree surgeons and swimming pool constructors are found on the edge of town where the Walmart should be. On Main Street, the Sotheby's real estate office casually advertises a mansion at $69 million. According to Forbes, the nearby Sagaponack zip code is the third-most expensive for real estate in the entire country.
Fantasising about the exploits of these millionaire and billionaire homeowners is something of an old sport, old sport, but it's a pretty irresistible one.
Driving along streets such as Meadow Lane in Southampton and Ocean Road in East Hampton is an exercise in self-flagellation and jealousy but, for me, grudging admiration too. Each property seems more amazing than the next - acres and acres of land, views of the Atlantic, woods, helipads, tennis courts; architecture based on English country manors, French chateaus and gargantuan Spanish haciendas ... But it's the mansions that I can't see from the gates that really leave me guessing. All the excess and lunacy from Gatsby's era has been replicated out here and, most amazingly of all, it seems to have largely survived the global financial crisis.
Looking at these properties, and the amount of new construction going on in the Hamptons, I found myself wondering: why didn't more owners buy up the historic properties closer to New York? The sad fact is that even if these new-money types wanted to buy one of the stately properties from Fitzgerald's time, there simply aren't enough of them left. Of the 650 Gilded Era homes just 150 survive today, the rest having been abandoned or demolished decades ago.
Even Beacon Towers, generally agreed upon as the house that most likely gave birth to Gatsby's mansion, did not survive the cull. Built by the eccentric socialite Alva Belmont from 1917-18, she kept it in her portfolio for less than a decade before selling it to media tycoon and real-life Citizen Kane figure William Randolph Hearst. He sold it again in 1942, and by the end of the war it had been abandoned and demolished completely.
The sinking of the Titanic had shaken the moneyed classes; the First World War turned the planet on its head; and by the time the Great Depression arrived at the end of 1929, it was merely a killing blow following a long decline. One interpretation of the Great Gatsby novel - and a theme almost completely overlooked by Luhrmann - is that it's really about this decay and atrophy, not hedonism and affluence.
The surviving properties have been forced to find their way in the modern world by repurposing themselves. Some, such as Oheka Castle (the property filmed as Citizen Kane's Xanadu) have naturally evolved into hotels. Others, such as Old Westbury Gardens, have become museums to themselves. There's no evidence Fitzgerald used it as a source for Tom Buchanan's sprawling mansion across the bay from Gatsby, but set designer Catherine Martin has said definitively that Old Westbury Gardens is the basis for the villain's property in the new film.
A three-storey Charles II-style mansion, it's a grand place to visit, especially when the 80-hectare grounds are in riotous bloom. Inside, the house documents the lives of its deceased former owners, the Phipps family, who found their fortune in steel. These days they're represented by eerie mannequins, dressed in the old clothes of the dead. While it may be a touch Downton Shabby on the inside, its exterior is beautiful, sturdy and endlessly photogenic. The day I visit vast marquees are being set up for what will doubtless be a spectacular wedding, but in and around the lobby there's only one name on their lips: Gatsby. The film has just gone on general release (it opened in Australia on Thursday) and it seems entirely appropriate that the fictional bon viveur is still generating gossip in a property such as this, almost 90 years after he was born.
Old Westbury Gardens, like many of the Gatsby-era mansions and those now found out in the Hamptons, was designed by essentially copying European designs. Many of the best architects and designers of the day were poached from Britain and France, while tycoons would send acquisition teams to buy up entire museums of antiques and trinkets with which to furnish their stately homes. North from Old Westbury, in Glen Cove, the former properties of the Pratt family are exercises in architectural variety. Having made vast fortunes through an oil alliance with the Rockefellers, the Pratt family bought 1100 acres in Long Island, filling them with five mansions. Remarkably, considering the widespread eradication of other historic properties, they all survive today.
The Braes, the largest of all the properties, has become the Webb Institute of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering (it also doubled as Wayne Manor in a couple of Batman films); Poplar Hill has become an expensive nursing home; Welwyn has become the Nassau County Museum of Art. Perhaps most interestingly of all, Killenworth was bought by the Russian government and has been used as a retreat for the Russian delegation to the UN for decades. During the Cold War it was spied upon relentlessly by the US government.
And then there's the gorgeous Glen Cove Mansion and Conference Centre, formerly the Manor House, home of the Pratt heirs. Today it attracts hundreds of business travellers a week; dozens of rooms having been added to the back in an ugly 1960s extension. But, lamentable though that may be, the extra footfall has allowed the main house to survive and thrive.
Ken Ellens is the mansion's spokesman, but also an enthusiast for all of the lore of the era. He realises the futility of trying to second-guess Fitzgerald but believes his depictions of lavish parties and moral turpitude would have been accurate: "Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda weren't wealthy themselves, but they were artistes, and the wealthy loved to invite artistes from the city because they provided entertainment - they were terribly interesting people."
The Fitzgeralds would have become quite familiar with, if not infatuated by, this lavish lifestyle. Nick Carraway, narrator of The Great Gatsby, often describes life in "one of the strangest communities in North America" with open contempt. In spite of his reservations, Fitzgerald couldn't resist the glamour of such events, but as a dedicated alcoholic for most of his life, perhaps it wasn't the company of the wealthy he found irresistible.
Though he has criticisms of the latest interpretation of the novel, Ellens believes that the extravagant party scenes may not be as apocryphal as you might expect. "These houses were built to impress, built to entertain." He insists there's an important distinction to be made - these giant, impractical properties weren't homes in which there were occasionally parties, they were summer homes specifically designed for that purpose. And despite the boom period coinciding with American Prohibition, the majority of the homes were sodden with booze.
Today that kind of excess is reserved for the Hamptons but, thanks to the new film, the old houses of the Gold Coast are more popular than they have been in a generation. "We've had people from all over the world recently, it's been incredible," Ellens says. "There's so much with global travel and the internet that distracts you these days that it takes a movie - a showman like Baz Luhrmann - to really refocus people."
Jamie Lafferty travelled with the assistance of The Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau and Sports Commission.
FIVE PLACES TO PARTY LIKE IT'S 1922
Southampton Social Club Assuming it's not reserved for private parties, visit Southampton Social Club, which is more than just a watering hole for supremely rich people. Yes, they will be there but, as well as being a trendy bar, the Social Club doubles as a high-end restaurant and live music venue. See southamptonsocialclub.com.
The Elm Too exclusive to have a website, The Elm in Southampton will likely be more difficult to get into than one of the high-walled mansions nearby. This is exactly the kind of sleek, exclusive nightspot mere mortals can only fantasise about entering. Frequented by models, film stars and superstar DJs, it's the epitome of Hamptons excess.
Ruschmeyer's In Hamptons terms, Montauk may be something of an ugly sister, but that doesn't mean it's been abandoned by the glitterati. Ruschmeyer's is a converted family motel that has been reborn as a boutique hotel, restaurant and club complex. Alongside 19 cabin-style rooms, there's a casual smoothie bar, an outdoor beer garden in the former motel pool area, and the Electric Eel nightclub. See kingandgrove.com/Montauk-Hotels/Ruschmeyers.
SL East If you fancy getting up close and sweaty with the young nouveau riche, SL East in East Hampton is a super-chic club that's packed through summer. Combining "Manhattan nightlife with Hamptons style", it has a slew of guest performers appearing throughout the summer. Check the website for the latest bookings. See emmgrp.com/nightlife/sl-east.
South Pointe If the idea of hanging around with the likes of Paris Hilton appeals to you, perhaps South Pointe, also in Southampton, is the place for you. There's a Gatsby-era vibe to the decor, but the music pumping through the venue is more in keeping with Baz Luhrmann's extravaganza. See southpointeny.com.
Getting there Qantas has a fare to New York's JFK Airport for about $1730 low-season return from Sydney including tax. It is a 21-hour journey including transit time in Los Angeles. Melbourne passengers pay about the same. Phone 13 13 13; see qantas.com.au.
Getting around Dollar (dollar.com) has a large fleet of cars at JFK airport, less than an hour from Gatsby's Gold Coast. A sat-nav makes getting around the area much easier, especially when contending with legions of commuters. For a list of suggested mansions and their addresses, see discoverlongisland.com/explore/gold.
Staying There The Southampton Inn is a great jumping-off point to explore how the nauseatingly rich live. Doubles start from $149 in low season. Breakfast not included. Book well ahead for weekend stays. See southamptoninn.com.
Glen Cove Mansion is about where Tom Buchanan's place would have been (had The Great Gatsby been real), facing west across Long Island Sound towards New York City. Doubles start from $161. Breakfast not included. See glencovemansion.com.
See + do Other Gold Coast historic mansions open to the public include:
Oheka Castle, 135 West Gate Drive, Huntington. Phone +1 631 659 1400; see oheka.com.
Old Westbury Gardens, 71 Old Westbury Road, Old Westbury. Phone +1 516 333 0048; see oldwestburygardens.org.
Vanderbilt Museum, 180 Little Neck Road, Centerport. Phone +1 631 854 5579; see vanderbiltmuseum.org.
Mill Neck Manor, 40 Frost Mill Road, Mill Neck. Phone +1 516 628 4243; see millneckmanorhouse.org.
More information discoverlongisland.com