F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s beautiful, gin-filled summer in Connecticut

The Fitzgeralds in front of their Westport house.
The Fitzgeralds in front of their Westport house.

For six months in 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda lived in a rented house at 244 Compo Road South in Westport, Conn., as he wrote his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned. The house is now a private home.

What the "Wakeman Cottage" the Fitzgeralds rented looks like today.
What the “Wakeman Cottage” the Fitzgeralds rented looks like today.

Fitzgerald was 23 at the time, fresh off the success of his debut novel, This Side of Paradise. He and Zelda were newlyweds and known–not always in a good way–for their love of liquor and parties.

At Compo Beach.
At Compo Beach.

Westport, a beacon for artists of all kinds in the 1920s, was a perfect place for the couple. “Summers at Westport, Connecticut, exceeded the riotousness of New York,” said Westport resident and painter Guy Pene du Bois in his 1940 autobiography Artists Say The Silliest Things. “There, gin and orange juice ruled the days and nights. Talk was an extravaganza. Work was an effort made between parties.” And gin was one of the Fitzgeralds’ favorite. In Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, biographer James Mellow describes their “mad rides along Post Road with abrupt stops at roadhouses to replenish the supply of gin.”

The gin rickey was often their drink of choice. Perhaps a great way to celebrate the lives of this legendary literary couple would be to mix a pitcher and bring it to Westport’s Compo Beach at sunset, followed by a stroll down Compo Road South to see the house that ended up being immortalized in The Beautiful and Damned:

The gray house had been there when women who kept cats were probably witches. … Since those days the house had been bolstered up in a feeble corner, considerably repartitioned and newly plastered inside, amplified by kitchen and added to by a side-porch but, save for where some jovial oaf had roofed the new kitchen with red tin, Colonial it defiantly remained.

FScotthouse_CocktailSome believe Westport also was the actual inspiration for The Great Gatsby, rather than parts of Long Island. Articles in the WestportNow and The New York Times’ Connecticut section explore this possibility, plus include quotes from those who remember the Fitzgeralds during their time in Connecticut. But if gin is still on your mind, hold off on the Gatsby exploration until after you spend a few minutes enjoying this great Open Culture post about Fitzgerald conjugating the verb “to cocktail.” You may want to have a gin rickey in hand.

Celebrate William Styron’s birthday by adding to your #TBR list

William Styron GraveWilliam Styron Grave2Today would have been writer William Styron’s 90th birthday. The author of Sophie’s Choice, The Long March, Set This House on Fire and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner, among other works, was born June 11, 1925 in Newport News, Va. Styron died on Nov. 21, 2006, at age 81 and was buried here, at the West Chop Cemetery in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.

As he wrote about in several forms, Styron struggled with severe depression and the urge to commit suicide, which he described most vividly in his memoir Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness. His first novel, Lie Down in Darkness, also tackles the subject, telling the story of a woman struggling against insanity and the desire to kill herself. This YouTube video from Open Road Media features Styron reading a short excerpt from the work:

The quote on Styron’s grave comes from the end of Darkness Visible: “And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.” It is a translation of the final line of Dante’s Inferno, Canto XXXIV, line 139: E quindi uscimmo a rivider le stelle.

In 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Styron’s youngest daughter, Alexandra, at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival. There, she read and signed copies of Reading My Father, a powerful and mesmerizing memoir about her father who, as she candidly describes, was a drinker, a carouser and “a high priest at the altar of fiction.” Styron helped define the concept of the “Big Male Writer.” But he was also a loving father and a husband–a complex, compelling man who Alexandra was able to better understand through the writing of this book, and that she so generously shares with us. It’s a fabulous, insightful and inspiring read.

One of the official blurbs for the book says:

Alexandra offers a vivid look at the experiences that shaped William Styron’s life and his novels: the death of his mother; his precocious success with Lie Down in Darkness; his military service and his early loves. From Europe, where he helped found the Paris Review and met his wife, Rose, to New England where he would live out his storied career, William Styron is vivid in all his epic, tragic complexity in Reading My Father.

I loved Reading My Father and believe a most appropriate way to celebrate Styron’s life and birthday would be to add it, or one of his books, to your summer reading list. I’m adding Sophie’s Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner to mine.

– Cindy Wolfe Boynton

thə-ROH or THUR-oh? He’s one of the greatest writers of all time, so shouldn’t we know?

Henry_David_Thoreau_-_Dunshee_ambrotpe_1861You probably pronounce Henry David Thoreau’s last name thə-ROH, placing an accent on the second syllable. But in honor of today being the 153rd anniversary of his death on May 6, 1862, we should consider pronouncing it THUR-oh, like “thorough,” which in all likelihood was what Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his other 19th century New England writing pals called him.

Thoreau birthplace
Thoreau’s birthplace in Concord, Mass.

Perhaps best known for his book Walden, a reflection on nature and simple living, Thoreau was an author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister and activist whose essay “Civil Disobedience” is an argument for acting up against an unjust state. See actor Mark Ruffalo read an excerpt of it on YouTube.

Thoreau was just 44 when he died. After contracting tuberculosis, he suffered with respiratory problems for several years, eventually becoming bedridden. It’s reported his last words were “Now comes good sailing,” followed by “moose” and “Indian.” He’s buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Mass.

Thoreau graveFor a complete and thoughtful bio, check out The Thoreau Society’s “Life and Legacy” page.

These WWII YA books may be sexist, but their message for unity is one today’s America needs

WW2_booksLike John Boyne’s unforgettable The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the young adult version of Laura Hillenbrand’s inspiring Unbroken, the majority of YA books published today about World War II focus on its horrors. Not so during the war itself, when publishers like Whitman (popular from the early 1900s to the mid-1970s) sought out books written to heighten support for the United States entering the war and muster participation in homefront efforts. Printed on the dust cover of Norma Kent of the WACS, as example, was this call to action:

For Victory—
SAVE COOKING FATS AND GREASE!
Grease makes bullets and shells and bombs
for our soldiers. You can help them win!

Norma Kent of the WACS was one of Whitman’s most popular titles featuring a female protagonist determined to do whatever it takes to help Allied troops defeat Germany and Japan. Set in New England, it tells the exciting story of Norma, a Nancy Drew-like character who tracks down spies and shadowy villains intent on destroying America.

Roy Snell, a WWI veteran and graduate of Wheaton College in Massachusetts, wrote Norma Kent along with two other titles in Whitman’s Fighters for Freedom series: Sparky Ames and Mary Mason of the Ferry Command and Sally Scott of the WAVES. In Sparky Ames, Mary is a pilot and member of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron who, among other adventures, rescues Sparky after his plane is shot down by enemy fire over Brazil. In Sally Scott, Sally breaks regulations by bringing a new kind of radio capable of picking up “secret frequencies” onto an aircraft carrier. Invented by her neighbor, the device causes more trouble than good for Sally–until, that is, her commanding officers learn they can use it to track enemy submarines and save American ships and sailors.

Sally Placed the Black Box on the Study Table
Sally Placed the Black Box on the Study Table

Sally Scott opens with a fellow Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service unit member discovering her secret:

It was mid-afternoon of a cloudy day in early autumn. Sally Scott glided to the one wide window in her room and pulled down the shade. Then, with movements that somehow suggested deep secrecy, she took an oblong, black box, not unlike an overnight bag, from the closet. After placing this with some care on her study table, she pressed a button, and caught the broad side of the box, that, falling away, revealed a neat row of buttons and switches. Above these was an inch-wide opening where a number of spots shone dimly.

After a glance over her shoulder, Sally shook her head, tossing her reddish-brown hair about, fixed her eyes on this strange box and then with her long, slender, nervous fingers threw on a switch, another, and yet another in quick succession. Settling back in her chair, she watched the spots above the switches turn into tiny, gleaming, red lamps that gave off an eerie light.

“Red for blood, black for death,” someone had said to her. She shuddered at the thought.

From the box came a low, humming sound. She turned a switch. The hum increased. She turned it again and once more the hum rose in intensity. This time, however, it was different. Suddenly the hum was broken by a low, indistinct hut—hut—gr—gr—gr—hut—hut—hut.

“Oh!” The girl’s lips parted as a look of surprise and almost of triumph spread over her face.

And then, suddenly, she started to leap from her chair. A key had rattled in the door.

Before she could decide what she should do, the door swung open and someone snapped on a light.

Thanks to the wonderful Project Gutenberg, you can read Sally Scott of the WAVES, Norma Kent of the WACS and Sparky Ames and Mary Mason of the Ferry Command for free and in their entirety. Today’s readers will likely find the books to be sexist, perpetuating gender stereotypes and limiting what women can do.

Indeed, they are sexist. But they’re also great fun, as well as provide an insightful look into the beliefs and mindset of 1943 America. Their message about the need for national unity is also one today’s America needs to hear.

Making The Shining: A short film made by Stanley Kubrick’s daughter

The original cover of The Shining. Published in 1977, it was King's third published novel and first hardcover bestseller. The setting and characters were based on personal experiences, including King's visit to The Stanley Hotel in Colorado and his recovery from alcoholism.
The original cover of The Shining. Published in 1977, it was King’s third published novel and first hardcover bestseller. The setting and characters were based on personal experiences, including King’s visit to The Stanley Hotel in Colorado and his recovery from alcoholism.

What’s the scariest book you ever read? Mine is Maine resident Stephen King’s The Shining, which I read for the first time just a couple of years ago. Even at 40-something years old, I had to put it down several times, especially when I was reading in bed, at night, when everyone else in the house was asleep, and an unexplainable creek or groan occurred.

More than once, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the end. I was that creeped-out and uncomfortable. But watching Stanley Kubrick’s film of The Shining? Not the same experience at all. Of course, the movie is scary and horrifying. But it’s also enjoyably magnificent, thanks in large part to Kubrick’s vision and the terrific acting, especially by Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall.

Poking around Open Culture the other day, I found a neat 30-minute documentary called Making The Shining, which was shot by Kubrick’s then-17-year-old daughter Vivian and aired on the BBC.

One of the many highlights of the film: Nicholson brushing his teeth after a smelly lunch–talking about how he wants to be considerate to his fellow actors–and then immediately lighting up a cigarette. He struts across the set and is clearly the production’s star, leaving Duvall to feel very left out. When she collapses from the stress of filming and her personal life, it’s sad but not that much of a surprise. She talks very candidly about it.

Vivian with The Shining cast and crew on set.
Vivian with The Shining cast and crew on set.

Poem in a Virtual Pocket: Long Island Sound

Anchor Beach and Charles Island: two locations on Long Island Sound in Milford, Conn.
Anchor Beach and Charles Island: two locations on Long Island Sound in Milford, Conn.

EmmaLazarus-1_3If I was able to get my act together this morning (which I was not), I would have made copies of “Long Island Sound” by New York writer Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) and properly celebrated “Poem in Your Pocket Day” by sharing it at all the places I went.

But alas, this did not happen. And the day is now almost over, even though it feels like it’s just begun! So I’ll pretend this blog is my pocket, and that we’re meeting somewhere along Long Island Sound.

My house on a hill in Connecticut looks out over the Sound, which technically is a 21-mile tidal estuary of the Atlantic Ocean, located between the southern Connecticut and northern Long Island, NY, shores. I’ve been lucky enough to live near it my whole life.

– Cindy Wolfe Boynton

Long Island Sound
By Emma Lazarus
I see it as it looked one afternoon
In August,—by a fresh soft breeze o’erblown.
The swiftness of the tide, the light thereon,
A far-off sail, white as a crescent moon.
The shining waters with pale currents strewn,
The quiet fishing-smacks, the Eastern cove,
The semi-circle of its dark, green grove.
The luminous grasses, and the merry sun
In the grave sky; the sparkle far and wide,
Laughter of unseen children, cheerful chirp
Of crickets, and low lisp of rippling tide,
Light summer clouds fantastical as sleep
Changing unnoted while I gazed thereon.
All these fair sounds and sights I made my own.

Scissors, please. These Spinster-inspired paper dolls are a must!

Spinster Paper DollsBy Cindy Wolfe Boynton
What’s very possibly one of the best things, in my whole life, that I’ve ever stumbled across? These super-awesome literary spinster paper dolls, which were created to go along with the release of journalist Kate Bolick‘s memoir Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own.

Adding to my excitement is that like Bolick herself (who grew up in Newburyport, Mass.), four of the five literary goddesses turned paper play-things have ties to New England. In Spinster, Bolick weaves their lives and choices into her own, showing us the unconventional ideas and lifestyles of:

  • Journalist Neith Boyce, who lived in Massachusetts and is buried in New Hampshire
  • Social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman, author of the must-read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” who was born in Hartford, Conn.
  • Poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, who was born in Rockland, Maine
  • Novelist Edith Wharton, who lived in Massachusetts

Irish writer and essayist Maeve Brennan is also featured.

Download printable versions of the paper dolls here, which are part of a “Spinster Kit” that also includes recipes for each of these writers’ favorite cocktails, a list of their works you should read, and a Spinster discussion guide.

SpinsterIn Spinster, which grew out a 2011 cover story Bolick wrote for the Atlantic, Bolick explores not just modern notions of romance, family, career and success, but why she, and more than 100 million other American women, remains unmarried. She uses her personal experiences as a starting point to delve into the history of the idea of spinsterhood, examine her own intellectual and sexual coming of age, and discover why so many fear the life she has come to relish.

Neith Boyce, Maeve Brennan, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton each helped shape Bolick, influencing both her personal and career choices and, ultimately, this book.

Kate Bolick will be one of my guests on the May 11, 2015 Literary New England Radio Show. We’ll also be giving away copies of Spinster, so save the date!

You may also want to mark Friday, May 15, on your calendar. From 5-7 pm, Bolick will be at Edith Wharton’s home The Mount in Lenox, Mass, to give a free reading and signing. Entitled “Kate Bolick’s Awakening at The Mount: A Reading and Reception to Celebrate Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own,” the event will feature hors d’oeuvres, cocktails and, says The Mount website, “conversation about what it means to live independently.” Bolick will also read from Spinster and then sign copies.

If you go, please send photos! I’m so incredibly bummed not to be able to attend.