Citizen Kane’s Xanadu fell into disrepair before it was ever finished. Hogwarts is now a tourist trap in Florida. Even Eloise’s quarters at the Plaza Hotel have recently been relocated to Brooklyn. Of all the fictionalized places to live, there are few that have remained dignified in their power of fantasy for as long as Jay Gatsby’s mansion. Its opulence, raucous throw-downs, and deep metaphors have rendered it one of the sexiest houses ever conjured and the everlasting cathedral of the Jazz Age. Right down to Gatsby’s then-state-of-the-art juicer, Fitzgerald spared no corner from lavishness, and to the scrupulous who may think it all too over the top to ever have existed, guess what—it did. But existed in what sense? What was Fitzgerald’s muse for such a palace? If there is a real Gatsby mansion, where? Take me, let’s go.
Let’s also go ahead and dispel another common perception: Gatsby’s house was not ostentatious. Judgment is in the eye of the beholder, and the eyes that would have beheld Gatsby’s mansion would have belonged to the nation’s most elite subset, whose homes were equally elaborate, if not more so. Between the Civil War and World War II, an estimated 975 estates were built between Manhattan and Montauk, though this number wavers depending on the historian. Approximately one-half remain, so no one can be sure. The stretch of land was a new frontier: undeveloped farmland begging to be converted into polo fields, golf courses, country clubs and gardens—an idyllic playground in which the wealthy could recess when they weren’t holed up in skyscrapers and amassing millions.
The most desirable portion of this stretch was the North Shore, the northern coast of Long Island that borders Long Island Sound, which was nicknamed the Gold Coast (for obvious reasons) and was the de facto location of Fitzgerald’s East and West Eggs. Fitzgerald approximates Gatsby’s property at 40 acres; many estates in the area were hundreds of acres. Gatsby’s mansion was modeled after a Hôtel de Ville in Normandy; some estates literally were châteaux, taken apart on one side of the Atlantic and pieced back together on the other. Play the name game with any of America’s great families—Vanderbilt, Astor, Guggenheim—and chances are they had a Gold Coast residency and perhaps still do.
Back to the Eggs, lest they get scrambled. East and West Egg are Cow Neck and Great Neck, respectively, two peninsulas of Nassau County that border Manhasset Bay. Cruising through this body of water is a lesson in all of the things you should and shouldn’t do, should you ever design a dwelling the size of the White House. They line the water one after another—more shoulds to the east, shouldn’ts to the west—until, like open gates, the land on either side culminates in final, identical tips, marking the end of the bay and the beginning of the Sound. The point to the right is Sands Point East Egg—a village at the end of Cow Neck. This is where Fitzgerald placed Daisy Buchanan's residence with the infamous green light.* To the left: Great Neck—West Egg—Kings Point. Gatsby.
Fitzgerald describes the points as being similar enough to confuse the gulls flying above. At water level, too, they look the same, with each plot of land cascading gently downward into stockpiles of rocks. The difference is at a societal level. Great Neck has a greater number of ethnicities and newly built homes. Manhasset is only slightly wealthier, but it is much more traditional in the privatized way that often accompanies circles with longstanding histories and inheritances; according to the 2010 census, nearly half of its homes were built before 1939. Both are home to the 1 percent, but Manhasset has been so longer.
Fitzgerald moved to Great Neck with his wife, Zelda, in the fall of 1922. Although the “less fashionable” of the two municipalities, it still abounded in the societal glitter he had long craved, not unlike the young Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald wrote by day and partied alongside Hollywood heroes, Broadway stars, and the “staid nobility of the countryside” (as he wrote in Chapter 3) by night. He drafted three chapters of Gatsby during the year-and-a-half he spent in Great Neck. But too much of his time and income went toward partying, and in 1924, he and Zelda took off for the French Riviera, where the peace, quiet, and exchange rate worked in their favor. There in France, he wrote the remaining six chapters in approximately six months. Sure, he was less distracted, but he also had a wealth of wealth-flooded experiences on which to draw, residences included. Matthew J. Bruccoli, the ostensible expert-in-chief on all things Fitzgerald, found that the word house is the most used noun in the novel—it appears 95 times.
If you Google “Gatsby house,” the first wave of links is to articles about Land’s End, a house once owned by Fitzgerald’s acquaintance, a newspaper magnate named Herbert Bayard Swope. Its bulldozing in 2011 earned many a headline, as it is said to have inspired the Buchanans’ Georgian mansion. But—sorry, New York Times, et al. —this was probably not the case. Sprawling and alabaster, it lacked the Buchanans’ “cheerful red-and-white” color scheme; on the far side of Sands Point, it was hidden from Kings Point’s view; and Swope didn’t buy the home until after the novel was published, so there is no evidence Fitzgerald ever went. However, a background check on Swope turns up definitive links not to Daisy but to Gatsby.
To give him some credit, Fitzgerald didn’t spend all of his nights going to parties. Some nights, he just watched them. His best friend in town, fellow writer (and drinker) Ring Lardner, lived next door to Swope’s first house, a large gothic-inspired home that Lardner described as hosting a “constant stream of parties.” For reasons unknown, 15 years after writing Gatsby, Fitzgerald scrawled his real-life sources for each of the chapters in the back of his copy of André Malraux’s Man’s Hope. For Chapter 3, the entirety of which is devoted to describing Nick’s first Gatsby party, what name should appear but the “Swopes.” Architecturally, there is nothing château-esque that aligns. But as a Dionysian headquarters, evidently it was wildly inspirational.
Speaking of parties, the most lavish of the Roaring ‘20s was held in 1924 at Harbor Hill, the home of Clarence H. Mackay. Well, home is a relative word. A popular architect of the time, Thomas Hastings, liked to preach that houses are half pudding and half sauce, i.e. half about the abode itself and half about all the accompanying accessories. Mackay really liked sauce. To name a sampling of all that his grounds included, there were two farms, a blacksmith, an auto repair shop, guesthouses, Turkish baths, shooting galleries, and a casino (because, when you have 648 acres to fill, why not?). As for the house itself, it was modeled primarily after the French Château de Maisons-Laffitte but also drew upon a couple of Hôtels de Ville. His pudding, that is, was the same as Gatsby’s—just a larger serving.
Fitzgerald and Zelda attended a party at Harbor Hill in 1923, but they were already in France by the time of the big blowout the following year. Held in honor of the Prince of Wales, the party featured two orchestras, fountains spouting perfume-infused water, and flower arrangements that magically floated in the middle of 300-pound blocks of ice. Rumor has it that the estate was so bright that it could be seen from Connecticut, which probably had something to do with the giant American flag made of light bulbs waving above the roof. Whether Fitzgerald was given the full detailed recap isn’t clear, as most of his published correspondences circa this time are with his editor, Maxwell Perkins, about matters pertaining to the novel. However, nearing the time of publication, Fitzgerald, who despised the title The Great Gatsby and toiled for months to think of something else, wrote to Perkins that he had finally found one: Under the Red, White, and Blue. Unfortunately, it was too late to change. Regardless, revelers reveling under the red, white, and blue in Mackay’s North Shore château seems awfully coincidental, unless Fitzgerald was in touch with his times to a psychic degree.