The Wrecking Ball Comes for Daisy Buchanan

nyogatsby house2 The Wrecking Ball Comes for Daisy BuchananOn the farthest edge of Sands Point, L.I., the house known as Lands End stood wind-battered and decrepit, its face scarred from years of relentless salty gusts ripping off the top of Long Island Sound. In its last days it lingered there on the shore, barely past the water, as a colossal relic from the long-gone Gold Coast. They say it was the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan’s house in The Great Gatsby.

Yet if Lands End could be seen today by the eyes of F. Scott Fitzgerald, he would squint in a lack of recognition. Soon he would squint and see nothing at all. Developers have already begun pummeling away at the column-bedecked palace to make space for a five-home subdivision. Goodbye, Gatsby; hello, Seagate at Sands Point.

It’s the climax of years of bitter squabbling and debate, fights that pitted owners past and present at each others’ throats. The commodification of the Jazz Age legacy has been a boon to Great Neck developers for ages, but as Lands End goes, so goes an era of Long Island real estate. It’s the death knell for a rot that began in the 1930s, when Robert Moses’ freeways delivered the shabby masses to what had been a millionaires’ playground. Since then, the dismantling of the zone that inspired East Egg and West Egg has made those who tear down old houses very, very wealthy.

There’s one little thing, though, that’s been swept mostly under the rug during the Lands End saga. The house, it turns out, actually has nothing to do with The Great Gatsby.

There’s no firm evidence Fitzgerald ever visited. Lands End doesn’t match the description of the Buchanan household as described by Nick Carraway. No cheerful red-and-white Georgian mansion. No French windows. No sundial-jumping lawn rolling right off the beach. It’s not, as it’s usually touted, a Stanford White—the architect was shot in the face before the plans for the house were drawn up. When Gatsby’s outstretched arms tried to tickle the fuzzy remnants of a green light, it wasn’t coming from Lands End. The house lies on the other side of the peninsula, making it impossible to see from Gatsby’s presumed abode in Great Neck. And there’s the issue of timing. The book was published before Herbert Bayard Swope—the playboy newspaper editor who turned the property into the site of Gatsbyesque weekend bacchanals with all-night croquet, cocktails and extramarital cavorting—even bought the property.

But the myth still persists and, in a way, it supersedes the truth. There are curious details that some see in the distance and cling to as proof. In dealing with the Fitzgerald legend, those who tried in vain to save the house from the wrecking ball and the lot from its ordained McMansions had to dip into revisionism and blur fact and fiction.

Can’t repeat the past? Why of course you can, old sport.

 

VIRGINIA KRAFT PAYSON SOLD Lands End to Burt Brodsky, the man who arranged for its demolition, in 2005, for $17.5 million. The original asking price was $50 million. Ms. Payson’s rules of negotiation were firm: She did not want the acreage split into new houses.

“They misrepresented themselves,” Ms. Payson told The Observer, reached on her horse-racing ranch in Kentucky. “I would not show it to any developer. He said that his life’s ambition was to live in that manor, but it was very clear at the closing that they had no intention of living in it.”

Ms. Payson, a thoroughbred breeder who runs a training center called Payson Stud, lived in the house for 23 years. She kindled its hearth long after the death of her husband, New York Mets owner Charles Shipman Payson. And since she relinquished ownership of the house to Mr. Brodsky and his son, David, Ms. Payson has become increasingly bitter over their decision to raze it.

Not that anyone’s noticed. In their coverage of the destruction of the house on Hoffstots Lane, the New York Post and Newsday both referred to her as “the late” Ms. Payson.

“I am not only alive and well but angry and disgusted,” she told The Observer. “They are the most awful people I have ever heard of, and that includes terrorists and dictators. They have taken a work of art and permitted it to be totally decimated.”

The plans for the subdivision passed through the planning board with little friction, said Randy Bond, Sands Point village clerk. This may be because the house is in horrid shape. It stood the past few years uninhabited, until it became uninhabitable.

“It was in pristine condition when I left,” Ms. Payson said. “He let it fall apart. He stripped everything out that he could sell, which is sacrilegious. I went by the house perhaps two years after we sold it, and that’s when I realized how he was going to get around the town’s objections. Broken windows, storming in—it’s sinful.”

The loss of a Gold Coast house is tragic to those who cherish local history, but Ms. Payson’s raucous complaints belie the disingenuous retelling of Lands End’s Fitzgerald connection. The supposed tie to The Great Gatsby was referenced repeatedly by Sheldon Good & Co.—who shopped the house for Ms. Payson at its steep price—despite the evidence stacked against such claims. One ad: “F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a masterpiece here.” Another: “The inspiration for Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s home.”

“It is not the house in The Great Gatsby in any way, shape or form,” said Alfred Allen Lewis, who published a biography about Swope. “The house is simply a place he lived in and everyone had a good time, and it has no other significance in the world. Saving this house is a ridiculous thing.”

“There’s always been a great legend about what’s accurate and what may simply be a folklore story,” said Mike Fine, who worked with Sheldon Good on brokering the deal between Ms. Payson and the Brodskys. “We included that information because that’s part of the history of the home. We’re not taking sides on the accuracy, because there are many different theories.”

Ms. Payson doesn’t consider the Fitzgerald narrative of Lands End to be a “theory.” When speaking to The Observer, the facts, or lack thereof, never tempted her to waver.

“Historians have always said that it’s the house in Gatsby, and so do I,” she said. Dissenting opinions, she said, are put forth to “justify all they have done.”

Bert Brodsky’s dissenting opinion is that Ms. Payson is delusional, vain or both.

“The lore is that Gatsby was written about it, that it’s East Egg, that it’s Stanford White—that’s L-O-R-E,” he told The Observer. “She went with the L-O-R-E. It’s exciting to say she lived there! To say, ‘I lived in the same house as Daisy!’”