A not so distant mirror

The 1920s were the Dickensian “best of times and the worst of times,” Westport historian Richard “Deej” Webb Jr. says.

It was the age of the Harlem Renaissance, a cultural flowering of New York’s black community, centered in Harlem. And, he adds, it was the age that saw the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and its hate crimes against blacks, Roman Catholics and Jews.

It was an epoch in which immigrants continued to flock to the country and make significant contributions. It was the epoch in which the anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were unfairly convicted in a fatal armed robbery and executed because of their Italian ancestry.

It was a season of women’s liberation, with the passage of the 19th Amendment that gave them the vote, the increase of women in the workforce and the rise of the independent flapper. It was a season in which women were still judged by traditional standards of femininity and decorum and were reminded that socioeconomic equality was a long way off.

It was the spring of youth, beauty and energy as seen in flapper fashions, jazz, talkies, sporting events and the booze of the speakeasies, made illegal by Prohibition. (See Page 86). It was the winter of hedonism and debt as hotels, oil companies and other businesses issued credit cards to be used at their establishments for the first time, giving birth, Webb says, to a debtor nation, which would foreshadow the stock market’s collapse at the decade’s end.

Perhaps most of all, it was an age of invention, or at least the mass production and marketing of prior inventions. Radio programming; phonographs; talking motion pictures; acrobatic and long-distance flying known as “barnstorming,” automobiles on highways and byways; soaring skyscrapers like the Chrysler Building; and experiments with something called “television.” Each of these had a voice in the Roaring Twenties.

“The 1920s is the decade we would recognize as we recognize today,” says Webb, author of “Boats Against the Current: The Honeymoon Summer of Scott and Zelda” (Prospecta Press), about the influence that F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s five-month stay in Westport in 1920 had on his writing “The Great Gatsby.” (A documentary on the subject will be out next year.) “Future historians will see it akin to the Renaissance. It’s all just been engineering since then.”

In WAG country, the technological, industrial and cultural sophistication of the ’20s saw the increasing suburbanization of Westchester and Fairfield counties. The  1920s was a “boom time” for suburbanization in Westchester, with industrial growth as well in the southern part of the county and Peekskill, fueled by a strong working-class of Irish, Italians and Central European immigrants, says Field Horne, author of “Westchester County: A History” (Westchester County Historical Society, 2018). 

Meanwhile, Fairfield — whose industry included the production of mattresses, Ford carburetors, coffin tacks and cotton cord and twine — was seeing an influx of artists who had been priced out of New York City. “At the time, it was cheaper to buy in Connecticut than rent in New York City,” Webb says.

Race played a factor in the suburban flight. Some of those heading to Connecticut wanted to escape the Eastern European Jews who immigrated to New York City, Webb says. (Westport would become the first place in Fairfield to sell property to Jews.) In the meantime, African-Americans who were part of the Great Migration northward and westward that had begun in 1916 settled in urban “colored” communities in Westchester, Horne says. The one suburban exception was Runyon Heights in Yonkers, created by developer Hudson P. Rose.

In the ’20s, politics played out differently in the two counties. Webb describes it as a “laconic” affair in Fairfield, which does not have a county government. Connecticut was one of only two states that did not ratify Prohibition, which began on Jan. 17, 1920. (The other was Rhode Island.) Both had the largest Italian-
American communities in the United States, Webb says, which were big wine producers. 

Westchester, which has a county government, was run not by a county executive back then but by a boss — Boss William L. Ward, a Republican from what is now Rye Brook who had total control of the county from 1910 to 1933, Horne says. Ward ran on an
anti-graft platform. On his watch, social programs were expanded for orphans and the aged, and major public works like the Bronx River, Hutchinson River and Saw Mill River parkways were underway.

The ’20s in Westchester was also a period in which schools were centralized within municipalities and interest in historical preservation was piqued — particularly in the Revolutionary War-era Hammond House in Valhalla and the post-Revolutionary neighborhood of Sparta in Ossining — in part due to the 150th anniversary of the American Revolution in 1926. 

With their still bucolic beauty, Westchester and Fairfield were playgrounds for the rich and the modest of means alike in the ’20s. 

“Nineteen-twenty was the first year people traveled more by road than by water,” Webb says. In their Fords, Chryslers and Packards, they took to the road to watch the Babe Ruth- and Lou Gehrig-led New York Yankees, who were developing into such a powerhouse team that in the late ’20s, they would earn the nickname “Murderers’ Row,” with the ’27 Yanks considered by some to be the best team to date. A year later, Art
Deco-flavored Playland Amusement Park would open in Rye on the site of some ramshackle resorts.

There were swanky hotels for the rich to relax in, too, Horne says — the Hotel Gramatan in Bronxville, where a business arcade is all that remains of a time when financier Joseph P. Kennedy dallied with screen siren Gloria Swanson and movie goddess Greta Garbo was let alone; the Gedney Farm Hotel in White Plains, destroyed by fire on Sept. 21, 1924; and the Westchester Biltmore, now the Westchester Country Club. Those with smaller pocketbooks could enjoy cottages in small lake colonies in Cortlandt, Lewisboro, Somers and Yorktown, he adds. 

In 1920 Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald would bypass all this for a house on Compo Beach Road in Westport that was adjacent to Longshore, the 175-acre estate of Tarrytown-born tycoon Frederick E. Lewis II. It was Lewis whom historian Webb and others believe was Fitzgerald’s model for Jay Gatsby, particularly as Zelda enjoyed getting kicked out of his lavish, star-studded parties and skinny dipping on his private beach.

“Jane Austen said ‘everything happens at parties,’” Webb notes. And the ’20s was one long party, the summer before the dark. “People,” he adds, “can’t get enough of it.”

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