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In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his flapper bride, Zelda, shook up a sleepy Connecticut shore town with wild parties

E.L. Hamilton
American author F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896 - 1940) attends a formal event with his wife Zelda (1900 - 1948), circa 1935. (Photo by Pictorial Parade/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Scott Fitzgerald and his young bride, America’s original flapper, Zelda, rented a house in Westport, Connecticut, for just four months shortly after their marriage in 1920. But in that short time, the hedonistic partiers managed to shake up the sleepy community with alcohol and nudity amid the setting for what would become The Great Gatsby.

Scott Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre in Montgomery, Alabama, at a country club dance in 1918. He was a young lieutenant from St. Paul, and a graduate of Princeton. She was the belle of the ball. Zelda smoked and drank and shared the big dreams of her Yankee beau. They married in April 1920, just a few weeks after the publication of his novel This Side of Paradise. High on the success of the novel—its first printing sold out——Scott took suite 2109 in New York’s Biltmore Hotel for their extended honeymoon. It was the early hours of the Roaring Twenties, and their behavior was outrageous in the manner of the era.

F Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda September 1921

F Scott Fitzgerald and wife Zelda September 1921

Scott would do handstands in the Biltmore lobby if he “hadn’t been in the news that week,” according to Fitzgerald’s biographer Andrew Turnbull. Scott and Zelda would sit in a theater “quietly during the funny parts and roaring when the house was still. … They got away with it because of their air of breeding and refinement.” Even so, the Biltmore quickly tired of their antics and asked the newlyweds to leave, the “continuing hilarity of their presence being considered prejudicial to good order and restful nights.” They moved for a short time to another hotel, the Commodore, before deciding to spend the summer in the country, where Zelda could swim while Scott wrote. They rented a gray house at 244 Compo Road South, in Westport, Connecticut.

Upon arrival, Zelda had decided to “change her style and behave like a conventional lady, paying and receiving calls and making polite acknowledgments,” said their friend Edmund Wilson, according to the biography Zelda Fitzgerald: The Tragic, Meticulously Researched Biography of the Jazz Age’s High Priestess, by Sally Cline.

But the sober lifestyle was unsustainable for bubbly Zelda. Soon enough, “revels restarted in their rustic retreat,” Cline wrote. Parties flowed with gin and orange juice. Compo Beach and its pavilions provided the setting and a modicum of privacy. Young men and women ran in and out of the waves in varying states of undress. “The Fitzgeralds and their friends were ‘reveling nude in the orgies of Westport,’ ” wrote Cline. Fitzgerald biographer James Mellow described “wild beach parties” and the writer and his wife as being fond of “mad rides along Post Road with abrupt stops at roadhouses to replenish the supply of gin.”

F Scott Fitzgerald and friends

F Scott Fitzgerald and friends

The locals were not amused. The Fitzgeralds upset the authorities when they reported a false fire alarm. Firemen arrived on the scene, and one asked where the fire was. Zelda “pointed dramatically to her breast and said, ‘Here!’ ” Cline wrote.

Establishing a precedent that followed through the rest of their years together, the newlyweds fought like mad. “They say themselves marriage can’t succeed,” one of their visitors, Alexander McKaig, noted in his diaries in 1920. “Domestic life there was no more orderly than it had been in Manhattan hotels,” as Cline wrote. “Dirty laundry piled up in closets. Neither Zelda nor Scott cooked. A servant was desperately needed.”

For years, many assumed The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald’s best-known novel, was inspired by the couple’s two years in Great Neck on Long Island. But in a 1996 article in the New Yorker, novelist Barbara Probst Solomon, who grew up near Compo Beach, theorized that the character of Jay Gatsby was based on a millionaire who lived in Westport, that Gatsby’s mansion was modeled after the Inn at Longshore and the Longshore Golf Course, and that Compo Beach offered the same views described in the novel.

The Great Gatsby cover 1925

The Great Gatsby cover 1925

“The summer [the Fitzgeralds] lived here was a very formative summer in his life,” a local historian told the Westport Patch in 2010. “He was straight out of the Midwest and had been very poor. If you read Gatsby and walk Longshore, the narrator Nick is right next door to a great mansion. Basically the core of the story, the idea of a young man being the neighbor of a wealthy man, perfectly mirrors the chronology and the geography of the book.”

Related story from us: Jazz Age party queen Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire whilst sedated & locked in a room waiting for her electroshock therapy

The Fitzgeralds rented the cottage at 244 Compo Road South from May to September 1920, before moving back to New York City. A plaque on the side of the house confirms their summer of revelry.