Mayhem And The Invention of
The Great Gatsby
By Dale King and Julia Herbert
American Literature Professor Sarah Churchwell eschews the “myths” surrounding Fitzgerald’s apocryphal hero
Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mullligan and Tobey Maguire swooned moviegoers back to the glamorous jazz age of the roaring 20s in the 2013 remake of The Great Gatsby. The movie also reopened the proverbial can of worms among literary critics who believed there was more to the author’s characters than merely fictional words on paper.
In the waning moments of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, the title character – an enigmatic billionaire whose life was filled with Jazz Age parties, bootlegged liquor, mysterious phone calls from mysterious characters, love, lost love and ill-begotten friendships – is shot to death.
The man behind the revolver is not a wealthy person, a friend, an investor or an upwardly mobile status seeker in 1922 America. Rather, he is a cuckolded husband, George Wilson, operator of a gasoline station in the ash-piled perimeter between Manhattan and Long Island, a pained man bent on snatching revenge for the bloody hit-and-run death of his wife.
As is the case with many accidents, coincidences, cases of mistaken identity and wrong-headed wrath that happen in real life, the gunman killed the wrong person.
Jay Gatsby’s body sank slowly in a red-stained cloud at the pool of his palatial home in West Egg, Long Island. But the misunderstood character would not rest in peace. Hundreds of articles and books and at least two major films would continue to dissect the life and death of this iconic figure for another 90 years.
Equally bent on eschewing the “myths” surrounding Fitzgerald’s apocryphal hero is Sarah Churchwell, an author and professor of American literature at the University of East Anglia, United Kingdom. “Because we love this story so much, it is full of myths,” Churchwell said during a U.S. tour (specifically at the Palm Beach Preservation Foundation) to promote her book, Careless People. Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby.
“The stories about The Great Gatsby, in my mind, are not always accurate,” she said. “And the stories about the world it discusses are inaccurate.” For her book, one she calls “a biography of a novel,” Churchwell spent four years poring over newspaper clippings, letters, telegrams and other documents to locate the true, unfettered Gatsby.
Reflections of Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda
One revelation was that the novel’s lead character is a lot like F. Scott Fitzgerald himself, a man who enjoyed the luxuries of life, often drank himself into oblivion and lamented losing valuable writing time to alcohol binges. Gatsby, though, was not a partier, but a voyeuristic recluse, remaining separate from the crowd, getting his kick vicariously.
His wife, Zelda, whose idiosyncrasies and lifestyle often turned up in Fitzgerald’s characters, was a devilish flirt who enjoyed bootlegged hooch, “enchanted objects” and fun nights. Churchwell admits that “Daisy has certain aspects of Zelda. She uses some of her lines.”
But Daisy also sported the characteristics of Genevra King, Fitzgerald’s first love. “He gave Daisy some of Genevra’s backstory, status and magical appeal for Jay Gatsby.”
Throughout her book, Churchwell offers watertight evidence that Gatsby was born in Fitzgerald’s mind from an amalgam of real-life events and personalities Fitz and Zelda encountered along the way.
She explained that the novel incorporates hints and chunks of juicy, contemporary goings-on. “This was why people didn’t get it when the novel first came out,” she said. “They thought it was trivial, trashy and tabloidy because it was so closely tied to current events.”
The Connection to Murder
And while those “current events” were part of the Fitzgeralds’ ethos, they mean little to us today because nearly a century has passed. Churchwell said a horrific 1922 double murder of an adulterous couple in New Brunswick, N.J. and the botched investigation that followed played a significant role in the novel. Fitz and Zelda were voracious newspaper readers – The New York Times being their favorite – and were obviously aware of the crime.
The killings involved an Episcopal sexton, Edward Hall, and a choir singer from his church, Eleanor Mills. Both were shot in the head. In Gatsby, Fitzgerald writes about another adulterous couple, Myrtle Wilson and Daisy’s husband, Tom. Myrtle is killed by a “yellow car” driven by an enraged Daisy, but it was wrongly thought that Gatsby was behind the wheel. In a scene steeped in mystery, George Wilson talks to Tom Buchanan – who appears to put the blame on Gatsby. With his gun in a paper bag, George walks to Gatsby’s mansion and kills him.
The Hall-Mills murder, which made scandalous national news for months, is just a shadowy memory today. So is the hit-and-run fatality on Long Island’s Jericho Pike which may have re-emerged in Myrtle Wilson’s death scene.
Surprisingly, said Churchwell, many “modern” words entered the lexicon in the early 1920s. Among them were tear-jerker, atom bomb, supersonic, junkie, off-the-rack, food chain, upgrade and subprime.
The word “party,” used as a verb, also showed up for the first time in 1922, said Churchwell. “[Poet] e. e. cummings wrote it in a letter. This was the earliest recorded instance of that usage, which is very apt for the year that Gatsby is set.”
Even the term “careless people,” the title of Churchwell’s book, is a lift from Gatsby. Nick Carraway tells Jordan Baker, after Gatsby’s death: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money…. and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
And at Gatsby’s funeral, a harsh, final truth emerges. Only Nick, Gatsby’s father and a friend called Owl-Eyes, were there. Amazed that none of the many revelers at Gatsby’s parties attended, Owl-Eyes chokes back tears. “Why, my God, they used to go there by the hundreds.” He wipes his eyes, looks at the grave and utters, “The poor son-of-a-bitch.”