By Allie Catalano
Monica Randall is a bestselling author and historian from Long island, New York. I attended her craft talk “Controversial Ladies of Long Island” at the Port Jefferson Free Library. In honor of Women’s History month, I wanted to learn more about her and the fascinating subject of historical women figures.
The Port Jefferson Free Library is a decent sized building in the middle of Port Jefferson township perched on a hill. Entering the building, I found that the talk was to be held in one of the library’s many meeting rooms in the basement. I headed down the stairs to find the room and saw about 10 people already in attendance.
Throughout the presentation, Ms. Randall used an old slide projector to show photos, which oddly fit her discussion topic well. She began by telling everyone how her interaction with history was unique. Her mother was a governess to the rich, and when she was young, she was often bought along to help in interesting places. She even discussed how later in life she and her sister went into some of the old mansions that had been abandoned and were able to take things that had been left behind.
This story introduced her first historic woman—one of the houses Randall had visited belonged to her—the women’s name was Winifred Bird. She came to Long Island in 1914 as a young adult to pursue an acting career. She took singing and acting lessons and met a man named Wallace Farnsworth. They became involved quickly and were soon married. He was extremely wealthy, and they purchased a mansion in Oyster Bay on Long Island. The mansion was beautiful—and huge. All the windows were Tiffany glass and gold furnishings could be found throughout the house. The fact that Randall had seen this firsthand with her sister somehow made the story that much more incredible. The old slide projector displayed the photos she took of that mansion as she spoke about a time the Ringling Brothers Circus’ performed in the house. They had a good marriage and the house reflected their opulence.
Unfortunately, Wallace died in a plane crash causing Winifred to have a nervous breakdown and abandon everything in the house. These items went untouched long after Winifred left them behind in a fog of grief. Randall told us how in that time period women were not supposed to be left alone; it was frowned upon to be a women on your own.
Monica Randall has three books published and next she described one of the other mansions featured in her book “Winfield”. The featured woman in this novel, Katherine Duer, came from old money and lived a life of wealth. She met her husband, Clarence Mackay, on a steamship. They married and had one of the largest mansions in Roslyn, New York. The mansion had over 100 rooms and was worth over a million dollars. What made the house even more famous was a large party that they held in 1924. They dumped gallons of Chanel perfume into the fountains, film stars were hired to entertain, and Enrico Caruso sang. Since it was the height of prohibition, gangsters were enlisted to provide over $150,000 worth of booze. Over 2,000 guests attended including, author, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife. This is supposedly where the inspiration for “The Great Gatsby” came from. The party favors were just as extravagant as the refreshments and decoration; the women were gifted Tiffany jewelry and the men received gold cigarette lighters.
Due to Randall’s extensive knowledge of the area she was hired to help with the filming of “The Great Gatsby” in 1974. She was unable to secure a location for them but she did complete extensive research to prepare for the film. She found out that Zelda, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, often wrote a lot of the things he took credit for. Apparently, he eventually drove her crazy enough that he put her in an insane asylum.
Overall, it was a great experience to hear Monica Randall. Her life experience was rich in a different kind of history and one of value to hear. Randall’s original photos on the slide projector were refreshing to see in an age where almost anything can be recalled on a screen in a matter of seconds. I was grateful that I got the opportunity to hear about the “Controversial Ladies of Long Island, in honor of women’s history month, from one who had been there herself.