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Funeral for a Friend

April 19, 2011

We hid the car in the dunes, behind the construction site that was possibly being watched by mobsters.

“Do you think we’ll get whacked?” I asked the question, half-joking, but half-worried. I don’t think I was actually worried about being killed, just about being arrested. In college, they teach you to fear jail over death.

“No.” Mom was rolling her eyes. She climbed out of the driver’s seat wearing jeans and sneakers: a sign of Serious Business, if you know my mom. “Just stay cool.”

It was a few days before Christmas, and although it was only four in the afternoon, the sun was already setting. We made our way down a narrow path through the dunes, following the sound of breaking waves. I looked over my shoulder, back towards the car (which bore the ever-so-telling bumper sticker of my campus radio station), and when I looked ahead of me again, I saw the ocean. The beach was completely deserted, which is why we’d chosen that day. We’d chosen the time because of the tide.

I followed mom, who knew the way from previous, solo adventures. We were on our way to the Swope House, also known as Lands End, which lives in the pages of The Great Gatsby, disguised as Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s house. Mom had first driven me past the house after I read The Great Gatsby when I was in high school. Since then, I’d driven carloads of friends, their friends, and guys I had crushes on past the house during the informal tours of the north shore I loved to give.

I’d put the top down in my mom’s convertible, and we’d wind past F.W. Woolworth’s haunted mansion in Glen Cove, stop at the water spigot that constantly pumps out the most delicious water in the world in Cold Spring Harbor, cruise past the remnants of famous old mansions and take in the views of the city from Sands Point, and end up on the beach back on the south shore. The Swope House – Daisy’s House, as I thought of it, was always my favorite. I imagined her in there, staring past the green light on her dock as she looked out to sea. Mostly though, I liked to think of Fitzgerald, running around crazy jazz age parties having a drunken blast, and how the area eventually inspired him to write.

I drove by all the time, by myself or with friends. I’d go in the middle of the night or on lazy Saturday afternoons, always taking my time as I found my way along the quiet streets of Sands Point. But today, we were going in.

It was 2006, and we’d started to hear rumblings of a possible demolition. The house was locked up and abandoned, and we desperately wanted to see the inside before it was bulldozed in favor of a bunch of McMansions. The front door – the very one I could see from the main road – was obviously out. But the back entrance opened right onto the beach, and it just happened to be open. The only way to get there without wading up to our waists in freezing water was to go during low tide, climb over a sandy hill, and let ourselves in without drawing attention to ourselves.

Getting in was surprisingly easy. I found myself standing in Daisy’s kitchen, surrounded by peeling wallpaper spotted with tiny flowers. The house was quiet and empty, but it felt full of memory. I looked out all the windows and took in the view from all angles. I walked up and down the carpeted staircase, watching my reflection in the dusty windows and mirrors of the house.

At first, we froze every time we heard sirens or cars driving by in the distance. But then I allowed myself to relax. I thought about all the parties that had gone on there, and about all the famous guests who had walked those hallways, probably having conversations about how awesome the 20s were and how delicious their gin-based cocktails tasted.

Upstairs, I opened all the closets and walked through each of the bedrooms. I entered the pantries, and ran my fingers over the buttons once used to summon maids and butlers. I found a pair of old cream-colored curtains in the closet of the master bedroom and decided to take them with me. I was sitting in one of the bedrooms rummaging through an old file cabinet and pretending I was a flapper when I heard my name.

“There’s a guy in the yard!” Mom hissed. “We have to go!”

I snapped out of my flapper fantasy, and back into my paranoid college student reality – like I did whenever public safety showed up to break up a party on campus.

We’re going to get arrested They’re going to put us in jail and I won’t be able to go back to school and now I’ll never graduate or get a job. Run!

We ran. We ran out the way we came and I cast a quick look back inside as I reached behind me to pull the door closed, bidding the house a hurried goodbye, like I knew I wouldn’t be coming back but didn’t want it to realize. We took off down the beach, and I started shoving the bulky curtains under my winter coat. I looked pregnant, but at least I didn’t look like a curtain-thief. Maybe the police would miss them as they hauled me off to jail, and I could hang them in my cell.

Mom and I didn’t really encounter a problem until we reached the bottom of the hill. The tide had come back in, and a wide, deep pool separated us from safety. I felt like Chris McCandless. Back to the bus! Don’t kill the moose!

Mom jumped. Cold water splashed over the bottoms of her pants. After some coaxing, I did the same. I stood on the other side of the water and looked back up at the house. It was still there, still quiet, the back porch crumbling slightly into the drained pool. Any green-light bearing finger dock had long ago been washed out to sea. It was a dilapidated, empty shell of what it had been, but it was beautiful. To me, it was perfect.

No one chased us or carted off to jail, and I still don’t know who my mom saw walking across the lawn. A concerned neighbor? A pro-bono gardner? A fellow interloper? Nick Carroway? The ghost of F.Scott? Who knows. The house stood for four more years. And yesterday, it was torn down. It was a piece of history that stirred imaginations and inspired creativity, and now it’s gone. All I can say is that I’m so glad I got to see it, fall in love with it, and become a part of it in some small way.

I hope whoever moves into their $3457308589090345 McMansion realizes how much it actually cost some of us. And I hope they throw some badass parties that will do the grounds justice. Here’s the article that accompanies the top photo. I took the bottom photo four years ago, post sneak mission.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2011 8:23 pm

    Hi there and thanks for this post. I am the photographer mentioned in the WSJ article and I am having a good belly laugh reading your story because it is so similar to my own. I do not regret trespassing and the memories from my time in that house will always remain. I hope you enjoyed the photos I did.

    Best,
    Jen Ross

  2. April 20, 2011 8:10 am

    I’m glad you enjoyed it! Your photos are beautiful.

  3. Morgan permalink
    April 20, 2011 5:18 pm

    This is such a wonderful memory Ally.

  4. Chetna Hughes permalink
    April 23, 2011 12:07 am

    Loved your article! A veteran trespasser (usually armed with secateurs in case there are wonderful old flowers blooming) I recognize the feelings you describe. It seems to me that women are more likely to do this than men. I don’t know if that’s true, just women seem to have more for old places, places where lives have been lived & stories told. Anyway it struck a chord. Thank you.

    Chetna Hughes

  5. Anonymous permalink
    May 11, 2011 10:05 pm

    Great post. I have been on this property (ahem, as a fellow trespasser) and really loved reading this. It’s a shame that this place is gone. I think that was the plan all along when it was purchased…

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