What is it about “The Great Gatsby”? The dark star of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unquiet masterpiece draws writers, critics and filmmakers into its force field, drives them a little mad, and hurls them back into the darkness. The book and its author add up to a mystery whose fascination never fades.
The trashy side of “Gatsby,” amply represented by Baz Luhrmann’s movie, remains seductive. The plot, ripped from the pages of a tabloid and crossed with a romantic novelette, has the potency of cheap music. Fitzgerald himself was one of the first to suffer the curse of celebrity. The superstar author of “This Side of Paradise,” with his “sophomore face and troubadour heart,” was so attractive, according to American journalist H.L. Mencken, that “he might have been called beautiful.” To others, he was a doomed creature of the night. Fitzgerald’s talent, wrote his rival Ernest Hemingway, “was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings. At one time he understood it no more than the butterfly did.”
The mystery deepens with the demented figure of his wife, Zelda. What was her role in this mad caprice, she who danced in the fountain at Union Square, who boiled jewelry in tomato soup, and tantalized her husband’s friends with sexual innuendo, seeming to Hemingway to threaten the ruin of her husband’s genius?
The attraction of “Gatsby” intensifies with the text itself, a glittering diamond of brevity less than 60,000 words long. If it was just a lurid tale, its appeal would have faded long ago. But, as well as being a tragic romance, it’s also a prose-poem, an elegy to its author’s lost love, a hymn to the anxieties of the American dream, and a jazz riff on postwar trauma. Not for nothing did Fitzgerald set it in 1922, the year of T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
Put all these elements together, mix in prohibition, bootlegging and the beginnings of celebrity culture, add a soundtrack from Gershwin, plus the creative ambition of a writer tormented by fame, and you have a literary supernova. “The Great Gatsby,” in short, becomes a tantalizing metaphor for the eternal mystery of art.
Sarah Churchwell has come closer than many to the heart of this mystery. “Careless People” (whose title alludes to Fitzgerald’s description of Tom and Daisy Buchanan) is a literary spree, bursting with recherche detail, high spirits and the desperate frisson of the jazz age. This biography of Fitzgerald’s novel is also a portrait of Scott and Zelda, a couple who, as Dorothy Parker put it, always “looked as if they had just stepped out of the sun.” In the quest for the key to “Gatsby,” it elevates a sensational contemporary murder story, what Churchwell calls “a phantom double,” to the status of prime suspect.
Churchwell shows that the Hall-Mills case, in which a 34-year-old mother-of-two and her married lover, an Episcopal minister, were found shot through the head in a field outside New Brunswick, New Jersey, was a murder whose lurid coverage exploded into print at the very moment Fitzgerald began his protracted struggle with the novel. This crime, she argues, shadows and informs the novel and suggests a hinterland to its composition that is far darker, and stranger, than previously acknowledged.
Well, maybe. Part of literature’s enduring grip is that it’s always a bit of a mystery. The problem with forging a cast-iron relationship between life and art is that it can become absurdly reductive. Eleanor Mills was indeed married to “a pale, nervous little man,” a possible model for Wilson the mechanic in “Gatsby,” but Fitzgerald drew on so much personal material, “plagiarizing his existence” as one friend said, that it’s hard to isolate a single source.
Fitzgerald himself contributes to the confusion as the author of countless contradictory zingers: “Parties are a form of suicide,” he said, but he was an Olympic party animal. Churchwell is good on the role of parties in the making of “Gatsby.” “Gate-crash” is a 1920s term, and so are more than 100 synonyms for “drunk,” ranging from “squiffy” to “stinko.”
This postwar world was “careless” — and crazy. In New York, a new translation of Petronius’ “Satyricon” became all the rage. Trimalchio’s dinner party appealed to Fitzgerald. For a while, his work-in-progress became “Trimalchio in West Egg.” When “The Waste Land” appeared in November 1922 it was prefaced by an epigraph about death from “Satyricon.” Fitzgerald’s artistic soul was at one with Eliot’s. The novelist concluded one riotous night out in the Bellevue morgue, inspecting corpses.
This was more Dostoyevsky than Petronius but, at the same time, he was, writes Churchwell, “still drunk, tearing drunk, roaring drunk.” In the party season of 1922-23, he calculated that he averaged barely 100 words a day, and knew he had to get out. In 1924, he and Zelda moved to the Riviera, where he immersed himself in his novel. She probably had an affair with a French aviator.
By 1925, the book was done. “Like Gatsby, I have only hope,” Fitzgerald told Gertrude Stein, as he waited for the world’s verdict. Now the fate of the novel and the novelist’s own creative rallentando fuse into the “Gatsby” myth.
Hemingway wrote: “I did not know the terrible odds that were against him. We were to find out soon enough.”
The reviews were not as bad as people claim. Eliot, for one, was full of praise, but the novel did not match the expectations inspired by Fitzgerald’s celebrity. Scott and Zelda’s lives began to unravel. She had a breakdown and would end up in an asylum. He went to Hollywood to reverse his fortunes and sold some confessional Esquire pieces, later published as “The Crack-Up.” “My God,” he wrote to Zelda, “I am a forgotten man.”
There was, as he had predicted, no second act in this American life. Fitzgerald died in Los Angeles in 1940, from a heart attack, aged 44. Life and art had become one. His final novel, “The Last Tycoon,” was unfinished. Dorothy Parker came to view his body. “The poor son of a bitch,” she murmured, quoting from “Gatsby.”