Friday, 27 April 2012
Jay Gatsby - mystery man, surrounded by wild Roaring Twenties party animals who arrive in lines of expensive cars to gatecrash the lavish bashes at his seaside mansion near New York - was almost certainly based on bootlegger and former Great War hero Max Von Gerlach, an acquaintance of F Scott Fitzgerald's. Gatsby's adored love, Daisy Buchanan, was based on Ginevra King, a beautiful but rather empty Illinois teenager the young Fitzgerald (above) fell for with a big bang during the Christmas of 1914.
Gatsby is a composite, as are all Fitzgerald's characters, and there's a certain amount of Scottie himself in Jay - the outsider desperate to be an insider, the naif who thinks he's a sophisticate. His profession is a whispered-about mystery throughout the book - is he a bootlegger, involved with the Mob or the Jewish gangs, as suggested by his mentor who reveals to the seedy narrator Nick Carraway that Gatsby has 'gonnections'?
Gerlach was a reputed bootlegger, one of the roiling mass of friends and semi-friends surrounding the Fitzgeralds in the grande monde and demi-monde of 1920s American high society and its outreaches in Paris and the South of France. He was rumoured to be a bootlegger, and a surviving note from him in July 1923 survives in the Fitzgeralds' scrapbook: "En route from the coast - Here for a few days on business - How are you and the family, old sport? Gerlach" - 'old sport' is Gatsby's great catchphrase.
Gerlach, it is said, was a mechanic when he went to war, and a society man when he came back. Things went wrong for him and he shot himself in the head; it was this that blinded him; in the 1950s, he was blind and living permanently in pyjamas in a New York hotel.
All this has been discovered by Charleston, South Carolina detective Howard Comen, who has been years on Gerlach's trail.
Another plausible candidate for at least part of Gatsby's personality is the Fitzgeralds' actual next-door neighbour in Great Neck, Long Island in 1922 and 1923, the stockbroker Edward Fuller. Damon Runyon's joking use of 'broker' for someone who's broke is accurate for Fuller, who declared himself bankrupt owing $6 million - imagine that in today's money. Fuller was buddied up with the racketeer Arnold Rothstein, the model for the sinister yet fatherly Meyer Wolfsheim who takes Gatsby under his wing in the novel.
In one turning point in the novel, Gatsby talks to Carraway, reveals his love for Daisy, and his belief that they are a fated couple, he can win her from her thuggish ex-football-star husband. But Carraway himself is no clean-cut hero; when we meet him he is trying to slither out of a commitment to one woman to pursue - or rather, be pursued by - another, the equally slithery golfer Jordan Baker.
In a writhingly embarrassing confession, Gatsby tells the sneery yet somehow human Carraway about himself: he's from 'the Midwest' (from San Francisco! - to Americans, the 'Midwest' is actually the central northern states of their union), he has attended Oxford (transparently untrue), he has been a hero in the war, his heroism recognised by many nations, 'even Montenegro - little Montenegro down on the Adriatic Sea!' - and he produces a medal, engraved on the back. The war heroism, it seems, is true; not that it helps poor Gatsby's future. He confesses his love, and asks Carraway to help him win Daisy - bring them together.
No better man. Carraway is soon involved in a louche facilitation. Daisy is immediately taken with the new Gatsby, adoringly watching him tumble his priceless couture shirts - symbols of the wealth he thinks will win her - through the sparkling air of his hard-won mansion.
Carraway, always the hurler on the ditch, watches the courtship, and also observes Daisy's husband Tom's brutal courtship of a working-class woman, another imprisoned wife, who believes Tom is about to leave Daisy for her, even as he breaks her nose with one swift gesture after she mocks Daisy's name.
The end comes with a crack when Tom realises, to his utter astonishment, that Daisy is in love with Gatsby. I'll leave off the spoiler, for those who are still reading.
And Gatsby's profession? In the end, it turns out to be the ultimate symbol of the Roaring Twenties before the crash, and of Celtic Tiger Ireland for that matter: he's running fiddles with bonds. Carraway, too, is in the bond business, so when he picks up the phone in Gatsby's deserted castle in the end and hears: "Young Parke's in trouble... they picked him up when he handed the bonds over the counter. They got a circular from New York giving 'em the numbers just five minutes before. What d'you know about that, hey? You never can tell in these hick towns -- " - when he hears that, Carraway knows what the story is.
In the end, despite grubbying his life for the love of the worthless, disloyal Daisy, Gatsby is a true knight, chevalier sans peur et sans reproche.
The seediness, the mistresses, the tearing-away of the glamour that shone from the high life of the Twenties, meant that the book would sink like a stone on publication, only to be recognised years later for the masterpiece it was. Only Fitzgerald could take a wealthy young crim and make a true hero of him.