Sound Views

Real & unreal estates
Shoreline homes in Connecticut overlooking Long Island Sound (Patti McConville / Alamy Stock Photo).

A report on the radio informed me that the price of houses across the United States has risen by 15 percent during the pandemic. I was not surprised to learn that in Connecticut’s Fairfield County, where we live, prices have gone up an astonishing 40 percent. We in fact get solicitations from real estate agents, either by phone or in the mail, nearly every week about our 2,000-square-foot home. Since more and more people can work from home, the market is, as they say, red hot. Notes have even been left in our mailbox from eager buyers inquiring whether we might be thinking of selling and, if we are, to please call them. On occasion we have been tempted, but the prospect of sorting out all the “stuff” we’ve accumulated over the past forty years is too daunting. We also seem to lack the entrepreneurial gene.

The wealthy suburban towns in Fairfield County are also famous for “knockdowns.” People with more money than they know what to do with will buy a multi-million-dollar house, only to tear it down and build an even more lavish one on the property. This is especially true for shoreline estates. Someone is in the process of doing precisely this on a choice piece of land adjacent to a small town beach where I go to walk, sit, read, or just gaze at what F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby called “the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western Hemisphere, the great wet barnyard of Long Island Sound.” Fitzgerald lived near a town beach in Westport, Connecticut, before writing The Great Gatsby, and there are those who contend that Westport, not Long Island, provided the inspiration and material for the novel. There is even a plaque acknowledging this pedigree outside the house the Fitzgeralds rented in Westport in 1920.

The beach I visit attracts a somewhat eccentric crowd. There is a group of older men and women who swim in the sound, without wetsuits, well into November, something I admire but find impossible to contemplate. Every half-hour or so, if you are attentive, you can glimpse one of the Bridgeport-to-Port Jefferson ferries making its way across the sound, just a dot of dazzling white on the eastern horizon.

The beach I visit attracts a somewhat eccentric crowd.

A cheerful fellow who evidently lives in his car is often at the beach. The back and front passenger seats of his dilapidated vehicle are piled to the ceiling with his possessions. Homelessness is not just an urban problem. Then there is a steady contingent of fishermen who, once the lifeguards are gone for the season, ignore the “NO FISHING” signs while wading in the nearby stream that empties into the sound. One can often hear them talking about what is “running” that day. Other folks like to walk dogs on the beach or let them go swimming. None of this is unusual, although one day I did witness something one might see in a movie. Looking up from my book, I saw a man leading a very large pig on a leash down the hill overlooking the beach. I have heard that pigs make delightful pets, but I couldn’t imagine how or why anyone would keep a pig of that size as a companion. I’ve searched in vain for a second sighting of the couple.

You can walk a hundred yards down the beach before it narrows and the shoreline disappears. Along the way you step over the remains of piers. These once supported docks belonging to the houses on the bluff above the water. Towns along the Connecticut shore had a reputation for bootlegging during Prohibition, and this beach seems like a good spot for such surreptitious deliveries. A twenty-foot-high concrete retaining wall extends from the beach to the properties perched above the water, mansions with what must be Gatsby-like views of the sound and perhaps the “green lights” of Long Island.

I had long been intrigued by a very large older home adjacent to the beach, one fenced off and guarded by a thick row of evergreens. No one seemed to live there. I had never seen a car on its driveway. Then one day a few months ago, a caravan of dump trucks and forklifts appeared. Within a week the building was torn down and the debris trucked away.

For some reason, I became intensely interested in what the history of the house might have been. I’ve always been keen on old houses, having helped to restore a few back when I could sure-handedly climb a ladder. An internet search turned up some startling results. The house had been nearly 9,000 square feet, and seems to have been built in the early 1900s. The property has 2.38 waterfront acres and was sold for $10 million in 2018. The previous owner was none other than Harvey Weinstein, the notorious movie producer now in prison for sexual assault and rape. In 2012, Weinstein hosted a fundraiser there for President Barack Obama. Preposterous amounts of money are rarely uncontaminated by crime, as The Great Gatsby reminds us.

Given who the house’s last owner was, perhaps it is only fitting that it has been demolished. There are a handful of benches on the beach and on the promontory overlooking the water. Each has a small plaque dedicated “To the Loving Memory” of a man or woman who once cherished the beach and its views. It’s a sure bet that no bench in the future will mark Weinstein’s time overlooking “the most domesticated body of salt water in the Western Hemisphere” from this particular vantage.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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