Otto Hermann Kahn sculpted the highest hill on Long Island's Gold Coast one horse-drawn wagon full of dirt at time just so that he could perch a massive mansion on top. Oheka Castle, which takes its sobriquet from the first letters of its founder's three names, still stands two miles from the Long Island Sound, still presides over magnificent gardens, and still hosts the literary speculators who've been arriving at the gates since the 1920s to investigate the possibility that Kahn's famous parties inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald to write 'The Great Gatsby.'
"We don't have all the guest lists," says Nancy Melius, whose father Gary spent $40 million restoring the ruined Huntington, N.Y. property he fell for in 1983 into the belle époque hotel it is today. "But these walls can talk."
Otto Kahn, whose white mustache cane and regal wardrobe inspired the Monopoly character "Rich Uncle Pennybags," certainly wasn't as dashing as Jay Gatsby – Leonardo DiCaprio's Gatsby anyway – but he was just as ambitious. The German-born British banker arrived in New York at age 26 and quickly set about making himself the center of the then prestigious Long Island social circuit. Oheka's 73-foot-long ballroom, dripping with crystal chandeliers, is a monument to Kahn's outgoing nature, as is the secret passageway that winds from behind an innocent looking bookcase into a private room where he was said to have bedded starlets during parties attended by comedian Charlie Chaplin and composer Alberto Toscanini. In fact, the key difference between Oheka and Jay Gatsby's manse seems to be that the former was purpose built for a social butterfly while the latter was a cathedral to loneliness.
Just 23 acres of the 443 acres Kahn bought for $11 million in 1914 remain part of the Oheka estate – but what a 23. The Melius family painstakingly re-created the lavish embellishment of the Gilded Era, sourcing tile for the roof from the same quarry in Vermont as Kahn and remaking elaborate wrought iron railings. The 32 guest rooms are each garnished with elaborate moldings, plump couches, and romantic paintings. The Gatsby suites have massive bathrooms intended for multiple occupants. Because of its resilient grandeur, the castle is now mainly used for weddings and banquets. Visitors on the daily tours through the grounds are more likely to know that they were featured on the USA Network show 'Royal Pains' than that they were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the man who planned Central Park, or that they might have been the fertile soil from which the great American novel bloomed.
The Melius family is hoping that the renewed interest in Gatsby stemming from the release of Baz Luhrmann's new blockbuster might reinvigorate researchers poring through the 459 boxes of Otto Kahn's document's stored in Princeton's Firestone Library. The great hope is that a guest list including Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald might someday come to light, delighting hoteliers and scholars alike. But one doesn't associate 'The Great Gatsby' with happy endings and Oheka's walls, hung as they are with art and colorful paper, do speak for themselves. The hotel doesn't have to have informed an inspired book to be an inspiration for future visitors.
More information: Take a tour of Oheka Castle, plus two other historic homes as part of the two-night Gold Coast Mansion Gatsby Package ($895) or attend the castle's annual costumes-encouraged Garden Party on June 12.