Decoding the great Fitzgerald
Analysis of possible sources and inspirations throws new light on the intricacies of 'Gatsby', writes Theo Tait
by Sarah Churchwell
When F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940, he was, in the words of his biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli, "an unemployed screenwriter", whose fiction was largely ignored, if not entirely forgotten. The Great Gatsby had sold only seven copies in the last year of his life, and his complete works had earned royalties totalling US$13.13.
Not long before his death, Fitzgerald scrawled a list of sources for each of Gatsby's nine chapters, in the back of a book by Andre Malraux. Some of these notes are slightly mysterious: decades of digging by Fitzgerald scholars have not revealed who exactly "Mary" was, or what precisely the phrase "the day in New York" might mean. Others are readily comprehensible, such as "Gt Neck" - Great Neck being the real-life version of West Egg, the location of Gatsby's Long Island mansion and narrator Nick Carraway's rented cottage.
Sarah Churchwell's new book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, uses this list as a starting point in her attempt to "piece together the chaotic and inchoate world behind Gatsby". It's a sprightly, enjoyable and slightly strange book: part "biography" of the novel, part sketch of the roaring 1920s, part brief account of the second half of Fitzgerald's life.
Churchwell is perceptive. Gatsby enthusiasts - and what person with a brain isn't one? - will enjoy her reconstruction of the fragments drawn from life, books and news stories that Fitzgerald combined to make his masterpiece.
Great Neck plays a central part in the story. When Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald moved there in late 1922, it had recently been invaded by newly rich, showbizzy New Yorkers (Gatsby's love, Daisy Buchanan, regards West Egg as an "unprecedented 'place' which Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village"). The old money had their grand summer houses on the other side of Manhasset Bay, at Sands Point - East Egg in the novel, where Tom and Daisy's white palace sits, with its dock and famous green light, shining across the bay.
Zelda later suggested that the main inspiration for Gatsby was a Great Neck neighbour called Max Gerlach, "who was said to be General Pershing's nephew and was in trouble over bootlegging". ("He's a bootlegger," say the flappers on Gatsby's lawn. "One time he killed a man who found out that he was nephew to Von Hindenburg and second cousin to the devil.") It gave me a thrill to see a reproduction of a note that Gerlach left for Fitzgerald: "En route from the coast … how are you and the family, old sport?" "Old sport" is, of course, Gatsby's bogus Oxford catchphrase.
Another note from the list, naming "Goddards, Dwans, Swopes", yields the following Great Neck party people: Allan Dwan, a film director whose shindigs were graced by Gloria Swanson and other stars; and Herbert Bayard Swope, a legendary newsman of the period, who conducted "an almost continuous house party" at his large, ostentatious home across the way from Fitzgerald's pal Ring Lardner.
Many of Fitzgerald's sources from art and life are well-known: his depiction of the valley of ashes, the desolate dust heap between West Egg and New York, owes something to T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land; Gatsby's partner, Meyer Wolfsheim, has long been known to be based on the gangster Arnold Rothstein. But Churchwell has interesting details to add on all these subjects.
Churchwell's story is picturesque, if not wildly original. It is an elaboration of the image of the '20s that Fitzgerald did so much to construct: an era of easy money, fast cars, jazz, illegal booze and wild, promiscuous parties. Prohibition drove the rich and poor alike to speakeasies, where, as The New York Times noted, bootleggers met "our best citizens on equal terms as fellow lawbreakers".
Fitzgerald's ledger entry for July 1923 encapsulates the general mood. "Tootsie arrived. Intermittent work on novel. Constant drinking. Some golf. Baby begins to talk. Party at Allan Dwan's. Gloria Swanson and the movie crowd. Our party for Tootsie. The Perkins arrive. I drive into lake."
The tale of Scott and Zelda is equally picturesque, and equally well-worn. Sometimes Churchwell slips into dodgy Fitzgerald-ese ("his wife, chic, provocative Zelda, was considered a great beauty") and hackneyed jazz-age rap ("Jazz may have put the sin in syncopation, as the Ladies' Home Journal declared in 1921; but it was drinking the 'devil's candy' that made them feel beautiful and damned"). But generally, she tells the story crisply and intelligently, judiciously deploying Fitzgerald's eminently quotable literary remains, and Zelda's, which are often even better.
Their friends could write a bit, too - the likes of Edmund Wilson, John Dos Passos and Dorothy Parker, who said the Fitzgeralds "always looked as if they had just stepped in out of the sun". Fitzgerald's Princeton friend Alec McKaig left this terrifically dismissive take on the Scott and Zelda myth: "Called on Scott Fitz and his bride. Latter temperamental small town, Southern belle. Chews gum - shows knees. I do not think marriage can succeed. Both drinking heavily. Think they will be divorced in three years. Scott [will] write something big - then die in a garret at 32."
By and large, Careless People serves as an entertaining summary of the profuse scholarship on Gatsby, showing how much life, news and reading Fitzgerald had mined to write the book. It was a "beautiful and simple and intricately patterned" novel that he was already planning when he arrived in Great Neck. But Churchwell clearly loses her way in her enthusiasm for the Hall-Mills case, a double murder in New Jersey that took place in September 1922.
Fitzgerald certainly followed the case - everyone did - and Churchwell points out a number of echoes in the story of Tom Buchanan's affair with Myrtle, the garage owner's wife. Both feature a rich man and a poorer woman, and both result in murder. Eleanor Mills, the murder victim, read Simon Called Peter, a scurrilous novel also found in Myrtle's flat; Mills' husband may have partly inspired Myrtle's pale, vapid husband, George. But it is only one possible source among many - and for arguably the least interesting, most tabloidy section of the novel. Yet Churchwell devotes about a fifth of her book to it.
Meanwhile, inspirations that Fitzgerald acknowledged on many occasions, such as Ginevra King, the Chicago rich girl who threw him over for a Tom Buchananesque polo player, are dealt with in no more than a page (along with Zelda, she was the original for Daisy; the Fitzgerald scholar James L.W. West III has written an entire study of their brief romance and the "Ginevra characters" that resulted.) The Hall-Mills sections of Careless People, often written in an overheated, sub-Kate Summerscale style, certainly don't ruin the book. But they form regular, irritating interruptions, like breaks for advertisements in a good film.
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