OYSTER BAY, N.Y. – Looking for inspiration, author F. Scott Fitzgerald turned to Long Island's glamorous Gold Coast. So did composer George Gershwin.
On the northern shore of Long Island, millionaires built manor houses as big as hotels – and much more luxurious. They needed room for all their guests, who could party for days. Hundreds of manicured acres surrounded each seaside estate to discourage interlopers (and neighbors) from crashing the gates.
It's the fantastical setting of novels such as "The Great Gatsby" as well as Broadway musicals including the current Gershwin-based hit, "Nice Work If You Can Get It."
But the true history of these Gold Coast homes exceeds any fiction.
Under the towering rose arbors at the famous Coe Hall mansion or in its opulent main room, you may still hear the clink of glasses. Playboys, flappers and rumrunners would feel right at home.
And in some of these grand houses, the party never really stopped. Prohibition? No problem. Their basements were full of booze.
"The Great Gatsby," the new movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio and based on Fitzgerald's seminal masterpiece, showcases once again this lavish lifestyle. Almost a century after the novel's 1922 setting, Gatsby's freewheeling spending seems outrageously over the top.
But during the Roaring '20s, New York's elite really did live – and play – this way. Money was meant to be flaunted with both fists and it flowed as freely as the champagne. These massive homes are testaments of their former owners' extravagance.
Now many Gold Coast mansions are open to the public as parks, museums and, yes, hotels where guests of any economic strata can imagine mingling with Gatsby's ghost – or at least his memory.
About 30 miles east of Manhattan, the Gold Coast mansions represent a who's who of early 20th century American tycoons, including such "old money" names as Vanderbilt, Phipps, Pratt, Frick, Gould, Guggenheim, Post and DuPont.
Cementing their owners' places in society, these 20th century creations were modeled after historic European palaces. For example, banker Otto Hermann Kahn – nearly as wealthy as J.P. Morgan – built Oheka Castle, a 126-room mansion inspired by Napoleon's Chateau Fontainebleau. (True to the Gold Coast's self-aggrandizing tradition, "Oheka" came from Kahn's initials.)
The 443-acre estate featured its own private golf course and airstrip. Along with Broadway's Fanny Brice and opera's Enrico Caruso, Gershwin was among Kahn's frequent guests.
Son of a railroad magnate, Jay Gould built Castlegould at Sands Point. That limestone mansion was modeled after Ireland's Kilkenny Castle, but with its own seaside casino and indoor pool.
Financier John Phipps created Old Westbury Gardens to look like an English manor house. (Best known of the Gold Coast mansions, the 70-room manor has become a popular movie setting, featured in "The Age of Innocence" and "American Gangster.")
With furnishings befitting kings, the houses preserve a sense of what the Gold Coast's golden age was all about: the power of unlimited wealth.
One of the most accessible estates is Coe Hall near Oyster Bay. Now part of a state historic park, it's a 65-room Tudor Revival mansion set in a magnificent 409-acre estate, Planting Fields.
Filled with English antiques, Coe Hall feels more like "Downton Abbey" than upstate New York. But that's the way insurance mogul William Robertson Coe wanted it.
"He played lord of the manor up to the hilt," said docent Rose Bedoian, who has given tours of Coe Hall for more than 20 years. "He hosted fox hunts and huge parties. His daughter married an Italian count in the Great Hall."
Coe married Standard Oil heiress Mai Rogers. Built in 1921 for then $1 million, Coe Hall became their fantasy retreat.
Much of the carved stonework was brought from England. Dating back centuries, the stained-glass windows include panels from the ancestral home of Anne Boleyn, King Henry VIII's second wife.
Many of the rooms have been fully restored with original baronial furnishings, heavy on the oak and crushed red velvet. But there also are touches from the 1920s Gold Coast culture such as displays of art deco cocktail shakers and fringed flapper dresses.
After William Coe's death in 1955, the estate was sold to the state of New York for $1. For several years, Stony Brook University held classes in its rooms.
Now under the management of a nonprofit foundation, the estate welcomes visitors to step back into a earlier era. Families can picnic near the Italian fountains and stroll rose-shaded paths.
With gardens preserved much as they were when originally landscaped, the Planting Fields arboretum ranks among the Northeast's best public gardens.
Last year, Hurricane Sandy knocked down several old trees. But the heart of the formal gardens – Planting Fields' large collections of camellias, rhodo-dendrons and old garden roses – remains intact.
During Prohibition, which started in 1920, Coe Hall's basement was stocked – legally – with hundreds of cases of champagne, wine and hard liquor, as the mansion was the hub of lavish parties and a little more sober Gold Coast social life. Any liquor "for personal consumption" remained legal, so the Coes spent the equivalent of $440,000 in today's dollars to stock their cellar with whiskey, brandy and plenty of wine before it was outlawed.
Coe Hall still hosts parties, weddings and other social events as well as a popular summer concert series. Filled with fresh bubbles, today's clinking champagne glasses echo sounds of Gold Coast's glory days.
If only Gatsby could drop by for a toast.
LONG ISLAND'S GOLD COAST
Several mansions that evoke "The Great Gatsby" era remain on Long Island's Gold Coast, about 30 miles east of Manhattan.
More than a dozen of these palatial homes are open to the public for tours.
For a full list and hours, go to www.discoverlongisland.com.
Planting Fields and Coe Hall: Near Oyster Bay, this 409-acre estate is a state historic park operated by a nonprofit foundation.
With miles of paths and spectacular settings, the Planting Fields arboretum features massive displays of rhododendrons, roses, camellias and other flowering shrubs, many dating back to the original formal landscape.
Coe Hall, a 65-room Tudor Revival mansion, sits in the midst of this lush landscape.
Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic park is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, April through mid-November.
Admission is $8 per car.
Coe Hall is open for self-guided tours 11:30 a.m.-3:30 p.m. daily April through Sept. 30, plus weekends in October. Admission: $3.50; children under age 12 admitted free.
Info: The arboretum and Coe Hall are at 1395 Planting Fields Road, Oyster Bay, N.Y. 11771; www.plantingfields.org, (516) 922-9200.
Nearby attractions: Oyster Bay also is home to President Theodore Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill estate, which is closed for renovations.
Dining: Oyster Bay features several restaurants in its quaint downtown. Some indeed serve great oysters. A local favorite: Canterbury Ales Oyster Bar and Grill, 46 Audrey Ave., Oyster Bay., N.Y.; (516) 922-3614.
Call The Bee's Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. On Twitter, @debarrington.