My Day in the Jazz Age

Sam Shillet journeys back in time on Governor's Island...

Air Conditioning — appreciate it, respect its power, and understand that before it, summers in New York were a sweaty, buttoned-up mess.

You can't see that I've sweated through my shirt here.
You can’t see that I’ve sweated through my shirt here.

On August 14th, I got to experience that pre-air conditioning haze on my venture to the Jazz Age Lawn Party on Governor’s Island. Hosted by musician Michael Arenella and his Dreamland Orchestra, the annual gathering  is the pinnacle of ’20s themed events.

Eager not to spend six hours dressed like a Baz Luhrmann extra, I left for the island in the early afternoon. As the ferry churned out of its moorings, I met my first attendees. For obvious reasonsJazz Age party-goers were not difficult to make out.

It was David and Katie’s first time at the festival, but they were dressed like veterans. They told me about their love for The Great Gatsby (this will be a recurring theme). I chuckled politely to myself about Gatsby being their inspiration, but who am I kidding? As a teenager, I found myself riveted by Fitzgerald’s hedonistic tendencies.

David and Katie aboard the ferry, bright-eyed and blissfully unaware of how miserably hot it would be.
Katie and David aboard the ferry, bright-eyed and blissfully unaware of how miserably hot it would be.

Once the ferry landed, I followed a sea of flappers, gangsters and bootleggers towards the festival grounds. By now, the heat had already begun its 12-round bout with my shirt — early showings were not looking promising. Sweat dripped down the screen of my phone. No reception. I guess it was only fitting. For now, my phone would act only as a useless relic of modern technology, a reminder of the world outside this nostalgia bubble.

On the island, I met another couple, celebrating their anniversary. It was their first time as well, and they told me about their love for the aesthetic of the era, the jazz, and the champagne in particular. The couple seemed to be in a blissful state, a concept that felt utter alien to me as sweat fell from my face.  They said they’d just rather not think about the heat, I did too. But why would they care about the heat, anyway? They were celebrating, I was just trying to not have a stroke.

Tyler and Lexi on their Anniversary.
Tyler and Lexi on their Anniversary.

After a while of tiptoeing through the other carefree couples, trying not to step on their intricate lawn spreads, I met the Aime family. Apparently, they go to the festival every year.

“It’s something different to do,” they said, “The ’20s seemed like a fun era, with the art, fashion and just getting to dress up and bring the kids outside for a fun day.”

A decent amount of children, amidst the champagne and booze, enjoyed themselves by simply playing in the grass and not on their iPhones. (There was even a naked toddler running around the grounds to add to the authenticity of the day. I think that was common practice for the time.) The family seamlessly processed through the festival, interacting with other families and photographers, they were all over. Everyone seemed to feel welcome here.

Why did these people (myself included) feel the need to take a weekend off and do this festival? The nostalgia for a period not known to me or them beyond books and film appeared to be that of a “golden age.” We like to think of ourselves as not being in a “golden age,” the times seem grim, war is plastered all over TV, we know too much about everything. Governor’s Island was an escape.

I reclined to watch the brave, happy souls dance the Charleston. I was alone, a watcher, like Nick Carraway without the disdain. My mental Fitzgerald references were reaching an all-time high, and I didn’t feel guilty for it. Heck, in front of me was a big band orchestra playing “The Sheik of Araby” to a mass of drunken young people. 

The Aime family takes refuge from the heat underneath a parasol in the shade.
The Aime family takes refuge from the heat underneath a parasol in the shade.

As a Midnight in Paris-esque, ’20s-nostalgia seeker myself, I reached out to the vendors to inquire about their motivations, and, hopefully, methods of beating the heat.

“You can indeed beat the heat; linens, cottons, and the right fit all help you feel cool. I’m not wearing my pants, I’m standing in them.” Corey, of The Original Prohibition Clothing Company, explained to me. I peered down at my shirt glued to my chest and wished I had consulted with this man earlier.

Julie and Corey before their array of accessories
Julie and Corey before their array of accessories

Next I met Kevin, a historian who wrote the only documented history of Governor’s Island.

“Nobody’s doing anything on the island. Did you know that these very grounds were used by the army during the First World War? Those are barracks.” He waved to some long-forgotten buildings. “These homes are all deemed unlivable by the city, they were officers’ homes, and there were parties held out here all the time, balls and festivals.”

My mind wandered to the story of how Zelda Sayre met F. Scott Fitzgerald before he went off to fight, which then inspired Jay Gatsby’s backstory. I really needed to pay attention more: These people are extremely dedicated to what they do.  Here is where you can learn more about Kevin’s guide.

Kevin Fitzpatrick and his guide
Kevin Fitzpatrick and his book

It was now 2:30, and I had to make it back to the press area, where there were fans and bottled waters available. (There were fans in the 20’s I think… I digress.) Mid re-hydration I noticed Michael Arenella himself standing near the bar talking to some patrons. Looking quite undaunted by the heat, Mr. Arenella spoke jovially to band members, socialites and whoever else managed to make it to the VIP area.

I approached him and asked for an interview, which he happily accepted. I had an inkling as to why he started the whole party, but I wanted to hear it firsthand from the source.

“It started eleven years ago as an intimate party and evolved. The era resonates with people, it had this allure of optimism, cutting ties with dogma and tradition, along with rejoice. For me, it’s always been a part of me. I always loved the bootleggers, the musicians, and I myself have been playing the horn since the first grade.”

The music, the partying, and the aesthetic seem to have to all come together to be enjoyed properly: you can’t have 20’s jazz without a bowtie, you can’t have a skimmer hat without a St-Germain cocktail, and so on. You get the idea.

Every time I saw a person in shorts or sneakers I cringed…jealously…Mr. Arenella looked quite defiant in the face of near one-hundred-degree weather in his full three-piece suit. I asked him how he beat the heat. His retort made me feel quite silly, “Well the human body has this amazing mechanism called perspiration, and when you sweat it cools your body down. You have to embrace it.” He promptly thanked me and headed back on-stage to conduct his orchestra. His swagger was immense, the pride he had in his show, quite inspiring; he seemed especially proud of all of it.

Michael Arenella himself, backstage
Michael Arenella, the man behind the Lawn Party, backstage

Tipsy millennials processed to the ferry docks as the party started to come to a close . A wave of nostalgia washed over me like a cool breeze.

I never lived in the 1920’s. It was rife with racism, antisemitism, lot’s of “isms,” plus wealth disparity, to name a few of the reasons to feel guilty for embracing a long lost time-period. The idea that a hundred years ago men going off to fight the Kaiser used these very grounds for parties themselves was a bit difficult to comprehend. It’s easy to forget the negatives when celebrating an era.

Everyone at the party seemed to be in a state of blissful euphoria, smiles abound, no election fraud, no Zika. In a hundred years, will young people have 2010s festivals? How will our generation be looked back upon? 

My yearning for years past faded as we pulled into the harbor. “There’s no time like the present!” echoed underneath my straw hat as I read from my tiny glass phone screen that July 2016 was the hottest ever recorded month.

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