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The Great Gatsby

by F. Scott Fitzgerald

-History of Estates on Long Island-

    Although the setting of The Great Gatsby is purely fictional, the beautiful pictures of mansions and lavish wealth that Fitzgerald paints are rooted in fact. Since the late nineteenth century, the land out on Long Island was being used primarily for the extravagant mansions and massive estates of the country’s richest millionaires. Although Tom Buchanan and Jay Gatsby are both as fictional as their homes, they definitely would have fit into the criteria of 1920s millionaires. Their huge homes and rolling, decorated and well-kept lawns described elegantly by Fitzgerald establish these men as the upper crust of society, if not sitting on top of the loaf. However, they are not among the first real-life millionaires to take up residence on Long Island. In fact, there is a long line of famous Americans who had a house on Long Island, some even in the styles found in The Great Gatsby.

    The first estates on Long Island began popping up almost forty years before summer of 1922 and the time period setting of Fitzgerald’s masterwork. These first estates appeared in an area of Long Island known as Wheatley Hills, located on the western half of Long Island. The first man to build and estate in the area was E.D. Morgan, who founded a 325-acre estate in the 1880s. The area out on Long Island was appealing to him and other millionaires of the time period because it was within commuting distance of New York City, but was still open and rural, leaving space for the construction of gigantic millionaire estates. Although estates continued to arise in small numbers on Long Island through the end of the nineteenth century, it was not until the first two decades of the 1900s that Long Island became a congregating spot for the wealthiest members of American society. The migration of these wealthy Americans resulted in an estate boom, as an estimated 600 estates could be found on Long Island by the end of the period. Most exceeded fifty acres of land, including a respectable mansion. However, about twenty-five percent of the estates found on Long Island by 1920 were over 100 acres, with an even larger and more extravagant mansion on the grounds. Fitzgerald describes Gatsby’s estate as having over forty acres of lawn and garden and does not give numbers for the Buchanan’s estate, but the wealthy characters of The Great Gatsby are definitely in the upper reaches of society.

   Some of the most recognizable names of the time period owned estates on Long Island, including Vanderbilt, Chrysler, Woolworth, Phipps, Guggenheim, Marshall Field, and J.P. Morgan. Various styles of manors were also seen on Long Island as architectural design ranged from Georgian, Gothic, Victorian, Roman, English Tudor, French Chateau and Spanish. William K. Vanderbilt II had a particularly unique mansion in the Spanish style located in Eagle’s Nest near Wheatley, while his distinguished family members held numerous estates across the area. While Vanderbilt inherited his money from his rich predecessors, particularly railroad owner Cornelius Vanderbilt. Men such as Marshall Field and J.P. Morgan rose out of middle class life and made massive fortunes. Marshall Field was born on a Massachusetts farm and eventually became the head of the chain of department stores that bear his name. J.P. Morgan was another railroad owner who built his fortune much the same way Cornelius Vanderbilt amassed his great wealth. Although the Buchanans and Gatsby are fictional characters, their fortunes and estates are very similar to their real life counterparts and these numerous Long Island neighbors. Like Vanderbilt II, Tom Buchanan inherited his fortune from the wealth that already existed in his own family and had lived in luxury since he was born. Gatsby has a more traditional rags to riches story, most likely amassing his fortune in the lucrative bootlegging business of the prohibition era. The styles of mansions also match up, as Gatsby possesses a French Chateau modeled after the Hôtel de Ville, or town hall, in Normandy and the Buchanans own a Georgian Colonial.

    There exists no standing equivalent in Long Island upon with Fitzgerald may have based Gatsby’s mansion, but its description in chapter one assures the reader that it is a grand building by period standards. Fitzgerald provides an equally beautiful description of Tom and Daisy’s mansion as well. However, the Buchanan’s house has an even stronger connection to reality, as its elegant description by Fitzgerald closely resembles the modern day Robert R. McCormick Museum. The mansion in which the museum is housed was built in 1896 by C.A. Coolidge and was then known as Red Oak Farm. Coolidge, who also designed the Chicago Art Institute and the Chicago Public Library, built the mansion as a country residence for Joseph Medill, a former Chicago mayor and a celebrated publisher of the Chicago Tribune. Medill was Colonel Robert R. McCormick’s grandfather and turned the estate over to his grandson after his death.

    The factual history behind the fiction of The Great Gatsby is very interesting. Such factual similarities can make Fitzgerald’s famous novel much more realistic for readers who were born more than sixty years after the book was written. The numerous estates that had been created on Long Island by 1920 also help Nick’s description make sense when he comments that he lives on “the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western Hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound.” The “countryside” of Long Island was full of some of the richest people in America, of which Jay Gatsby and Tom Buchanan are included.

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