In May 1922, F Scott Fitzgerald, aged 27, was a brilliant young writer on the turn. He had blazed into fame with his debut novel two years earlier and was close to being a burnt-out case.
If fame is a mask that eats into the face then Fitzgerald was quite repulsive to himself as the Jazz Age reached its height. He’d drunk too much champagne and told too many lies, ruining both his constitution and his innocence, and before he wrote The Great Gatsby, he thought life was a joke at his own expense.
At the height of his fame, Fitzgerald made and spent over $400,000. “He sallied forth onto the streets of New York,” writes Scott Donaldson, his latest biographer, “with $20, $50, $100 bills poking out of his vest and coat pockets. For the benefit of grateful bellhops, he kept a plate of money on a table in his hotel room. At restaurants, he sometimes tipped more than the bill. In France, his pockets were always full of ‘damp little wads of hundred-franc notes that he dribbled out behind him the way some women do Kleenex.’”
More than one witness at the time said he was headed for catastrophe, and they were right. But not before Fitzgerald turned his interest in money into the greatest American novel of the 20th century.
The book appears so inevitable now, so complete, but there was a time when he felt it was beyond his grasp. Anybody who writes novels knows that period of secret vertigo, when your book seems a long way down and your head spins and your heart races just to think of it. But the year before Fitzgerald began The Great Gatsby he believed he had dried up. “I doubt I'll ever write anything again worth putting in print,” he said.
In June 1922, he was at White Bear Lake, Minnesota, when he began in earnest to plan the novel. He initially thought it would be set in the Midwest in 1885 and would be short on what he called “superlative beauties’ but would have a Catholic element. That was soon dropped when the world of rich phonies engulfed his imagination.
He was living by then on Long Island among the swells. Samuel Goldwyn and Ring Lardner were neighbours; the silent screen star Mae Murray and celebrated war hero General Pershing could be found in the area of Great Neck walking their dogs. “They have no mock-modesty,” he wrote, “and all perform their various stunts upon the faintest request so it’s like a sustained concert.”
There is no birthing plan for masterpieces. A genius book arrives not like a lottery win, out of good fortune and the weird mechanics of chance, but out of a brilliant collision between a writer’s talent and the period in which he or she happens to be writing. Living on Long Island Sound, no matter how messily, Fitzgerald still had the creative readies, and when he looked around him at these rich people in their vast carelessness on the brink of the Depression, when he looked inside himself and saw a people-pleasing drunk in the era of Prohibition, he realised a perfect storm had arrived on the coast of his abilities.
He knew, in imaginative terms, that there was a deep connection between his own ferment and the ferment of his times, and a book began to emerge that couldn’t have been written by any other person in any other time. That, I believe, is what we mean by a literary masterpiece.
Fitzgerald started the book at Great Neck. He was in a state while writing it, both knowing how good it could be and worrying he might flunk it. “I feel I have an enormous power in me now,” he wrote in one of his letters, “more than I’ve ever had in a way but it works so fitfully and with so many bogeys because I’ve talked so much and not lived enough within myself to develop the necessary self reliance… I don’t know anyone who has used up so much personal experience as I have at 27… So in my new novel I’m thrown directly on purely creative work — not trashy imaginings as in my stories but the sustained imagination of a sincere and yet radiant world. So I tread slowly and carefully and at times in considerable distress.”
For Fitzgerald, writing, like living, could be a delirious sickness, and the boozing threatened to tear down everything about him. The writer Anita Loos, author of Gentleman Prefer Blondes, once had to hide under a table at Great Neck to get away from his rage. Mortal with drink, he threw “two enormous candelabras with lighted candles,” she said, “a water carafe, a metal wine cooler and a silver platter.”
Fitzgerald ditched a lot of the early Gatsby manuscript he produced over that first summer and over the following year and by April 1924 he had “a new angle”. He and his famously erratic wife Zelda moved to the French Riviera, where, despite drink, quarrels, and other distractions, the work took on fresh momentum.
Every itch and pulse of his idealism went into the book; he knew he could make something new, something pure. “I hope I don’t see a soul for six months,” he wrote. “My novel grows more and more extraordinary; I feel absolutely self-sufficient and I have a perfect hollow craving for loneliness.”
The name Gatsby he might have stolen from the Gadsby that appears in the work of Mark Twain, but it seems more likely, given his immensely echoing style, that Fitzgerald formed the name from the slang term for pistol, Gat. The house — that unforgettable house, with its lawn and blue gardens, where “men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and champagne and the stars” — was thought to be modelled on the luxurious home of Herbert Bayard Swope, editor of the New York World.
Gatsby, the enigmatic bootlegger and new-monied dreamer, began as a version of several shady Twenties businessmen but ended up taking a great deal from Fitzgerald himself. The author later acknowledged that all his characters, the women as well as the men, were little Fitzgeralds. Someone once said that all good novelists are hermaphroditic: Fitzgerald would’ve agreed. He said that there could never be a good biography of a novelist because a novelist, if he’s any good, is too many people.
“Well, I shall write a novel better than any novel ever written in America and become par excellence the best second-rater in the world,” he said.
In November 1924, he finished the novel in a flurry of revisions, but he still wasn’t happy with the title. It was called Trimalchio in West Egg. (Trimalchio, mentioned in the novel, is the party-giving rich character in Satyricon by Petronius.) But Fitzgerald had alternative titles, each of which was worse than the other: On the Road to West Egg, Gold-Hatted Gatsby, The High-Bouncing Lover, Gatsby, Trimalchio.
For Fitzgerald, writing a novel was like trying to grab the breeze or steal a halo: every beautiful attempt was bound to be laced with impossibility. He wrote about failure and he lived with it, too. “That’s the whole burden of this novel,” he wrote to an old Princeton classmate, “the loss of those illusions that give such colour to the world so that you don’t care whether things are true or false as long as they partake of the magical glory.”
The story is told by Nick Carraway, one of life’s undecided bit-part players, a model narrator, a Yale man and former soldier who moves to a house on Long Island next door to a mysterious millionaire called Jay Gatsby. Carraway is a bondsman, impressionable, likable and lightly romantic, and his second cousin Daisy lives on the other side of the Sound with her husband Tom, a rich, two-timing Ivy Leaguer with a heavy dose of brutality.
Dressed in white flannels, Nick goes to one of Gatsby’s extraordinary parties on that extraordinary lawn. Although he is distant and somewhat untouchable, Gatsby befriends Nick and soon drafts him into his plan to win the heart of Daisy. We find that his whole existence, the house, the money, the shirts, and the giant parties, too, are all an attempt to gain the love of the rich girl who once rejected him. I won’t say more.
It all unwinds in ways that read as if the tragic muse had got drunk on Château d'Yquem and sung a sublime and moving aria from the ornate balcony of a priceless house.
Writing the book — or writing the book and boozing and trying to live with Zelda — blew Fitzgerald’s lamps. He was never the same man again and the novel’s poor sales only fuelled his native feeling that failure was his destiny. Not long ago, I was in Paris and I went one evening to 14 rue de Tilsitt, just off the Champs-Élysées, where the beautiful orange sky above the buildings gave me that feeling (common to Paris) that life might be as good as it’s going to get.
Fitzgerald came to live in the rue du Tilsitt when he finished Gatsby. He was out getting drunk one night with the boys from the Paris bureau of an American newspaper, and he returned here, totally sozzled, to find Zelda addressing him from the balcony at number 14. “You’re drunk again, you bastard,” she shouted.
“Not at all, darling,” he replied, staggering up to push at the same door I was looking at. “I’m as sober as a polar bear.”
How do you film the romanticism that lives inside the prose of some writers? How do you adapt such fineness into visible cues, speeches, routines, and actions? The answer, in relation to Scott Fitzgerald’s best-known novel, is that it probably can’t be done, any more than Joyce’s most famous book can be filmed.
There has been four attempts at The Great Gatsby, each worse than the last, and the only hope for Baz Luhrmann’s new effort is that it supplants the book’s tender mystique with a rowdy energy all of its own. Watching the early versions, the one starring Alan Ladd, or the Seventies one directed by Jack Clayton and starring Robert Redford, you come away with a sense that Fitzgerald’s perfect sentences just get in the way of what film-makers can actually do.
Sure, Fitzgerald wrote in pictures, but it’s not the pictures we remember, it’s not the images or even the plot of The Great Gatsby that sticks in the mind. It is something beyond paraphrase, call it sublime grace, call it existence music, but however we describe it the thing that matters is like the beat of a hummingbird’s wings, so delicate and so rapid that a camera struggles to catch it.
And that might serve as a description of Scott Fitzgerald’s talent overall. Nothing became it like its fracturing. At the height of his trouble, not long before his final slide into death at the age of 44, he wrote a series of articles for Esquire that will mean something to every man setting his feet for the first time on the terrain beyond his youth.
“Those indiscreet Esquire articles,” as he later called them, alarmed people with how personal they were, speaking up about the psychic trials of his generation, and perhaps ours.
“I felt like the beady-eyed men I used to see on the commuting train from Great Neck 15 years back,” he wrote. “Men who didn’t care whether the world tumbled into chaos tomorrow if it spared their houses.”
In the midst of financial and emotional crisis, Fitzgerald had taken that same look into his own clear Irish eyes. “My own happiness in the past often approached such an ecstasy that I could not share it even with the person dearest to me but had to walk it away in the quiet streets… and I think that my happiness, or talent for self-delusion or what you will, was an exception. It was not the natural thing but the unnatural — unnatural as the Boom; and my recent experience parallels the wave of despair that swept the nation when the Boom was over.”
The Esquire essays are little masterpieces of self-awareness, and the book they became, The Crack-Up, could still serve as a guide to what can happen to intelligent men at a certain time in their lives, when all the fancy watches have been bought and set, when love is hard, when the good suits are in the closet but life isn’t what you ordered, and when all around you the dream of progress is mired in lies.
The season of Fitzgerald is upon us. It has been coming for a few years now: I thought of him the first time I heard the people using the phrase “the financial crisis”. Any of us who spent the Eighties and Nineties watching the growth of money, the rise in champagne sales and the explosion of spite, then the rapid uncoiling of the boys in red braces, knew that the man who wrote The Great Gatsby and The Crack might come to serve as a patron saint of our credit-crunching era.
In the last year, Gatsby has been the subject of a stage play, Gatz, where the whole text is read aloud in a modern office. New editions of the book are being prepared as we speak, Northern Ballet has just put flappers in pumps and floaty skirts, the timely pas de deux of Gatsby and Daisy performed under a green light. Baz Lurhmann chose his moment well, and let us remember, amid the glories of costume and excess, choreography and stardom, the fragile excellence of Scott Fitzgerald’s message to the world of grown-ups.
He wrote it years after he and Zelda and Scottie, their daughter, left the apartment in the rue de Tilsitt, that place he came to after finishing the great American novel. The words sang out to me the other day as I looked up at the windows and felt the chill of the present day. “We were going to the Old World to find a new rhythm for our lives,” he wrote, “with a true conviction that we had left our old selves behind forever.”
For men in the grasp of their youth, and for men on the cusp of their changing lives, the current season might distill that most Fitgeraldian of essences — hope. It is there in the last lines of his great novel.
“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.”
We are all Scott Fitzgerald’s children now.
The Great Gatsby is out May 16