LLR Books

The Story Behind F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

by Dave Odegard

In the fall of 1922, F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with his notorious better-half Zelda, triumphantly returned to New York to celebrate the publication of his short story collection Tales of the Jazz Age. For the next year and half, the two would be a fixture in the New York literary scene, experiencing and often leading the revelry that would come to define the times – first at the Plaza Hotel and then at a rented house among the then-burgeoning upper-class scene on Long Island. It was a period from which Fitzgerald, who at the time was riding high as the literary voice of his young generation, would draw greatly when writing his most arguably famous book, The Great Gatsby.
At the same time, America’s newspapers (and thus the general public) were obsessed with the brutal double murder in New Brunswick, New Jersey, of Episcopal minister Edward Hall and his married mistress Eleanor Mills. The two were discovered together, both shot, with Mills’ throat slashed. The case would go on to become a media spectacle with theatrical witnesses (including Mills’ own teenage daughter and a local eccentric dubbed “the pig woman”), a bungled investigation, and a mystery for which everyone in America had a theory.
According to writer and literary critic Sarah Churchwell, who teaches American literature at the University of East Anglia, in the United Kingdom, the now nearly forgotten Hall-Mills case played an instrumental part in Fitzgerald’s creation of Gatsby. In her new book, Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of the Great Gatsby, Churchwell examines Fitzgerald’s time in New York, what the influence of the city in 1922-1923 had on him, and how the murder of two lovers in New Jersey helped create one of the great works of American literature.
Word and Film recently got the chance to talk with Churchwell about her book, the deeper connection between the Hall-Mills murders and The Great Gatsby, how Fitzgerald’s most known novel is like a literary masterpiece about the Kardashians, and the various attempts to adapt The Great Gatsby for the screen.

Word & Film: How did Careless People come about?

Sarah Churchwell: I started to get interested in this question of “What did things actually mean in 1922?” as opposed to our myths about The Great Gatsby or our broad sense of what we think the jazz age was like. … So I was just rooting around and then I ran across the Hall-Mills murders and I started reading up on that. And I just thought, “Wait a minute this is just uncanny.” … The more I looked into it, the more I realized the details are echoed in Gatsby and that was where the real genesis of this book came about – the feeling that here’s this year … that Fitzgerald sets Gatsby, then it’s the year that he and Zelda move back to New York and start the parties that inspire Gatsby, then to realize that there’s this murder mystery that has these crazy parallels with the novel – I just thought, “Okay there’s got to be something in this and a way to think about Gatsby in a slightly different way.”

W&F: You explore it thoroughly in your book, but to a lot of people the Hall-Mills case doesn’t at first glance seem to share details with the killings in The Great Gatsby. How do you make the connection?

SC: It’s interesting the way that some people don’t see the Hall-Mills case as paralleling Gatsby very satisfactorily because the details don’t match up, but for me … the underlying themes are there. And so one of the things I was hoping was to suggest that all of the themes from Gatsby were in the air as Fitzgerald was writing. Not necessarily that it was a one-one correspondence with Hall-Mills, but Hall-Mills is representative of the kinds of stories that were around.
It’s not that I think that Fitzgerald was transcribing this case into his novel – that would be foolish – but rather that the case has these echoes of the deep themes of Gatsby. So for example, class resentment and social climbing … that there’s actually a character in both stories who makes up a romantic past and a more aristocratic past. That this story about social climbing and class resentment is specifically about a woman who is seen as using an affair as a way to gain access to a better quality of life.

W&F: It is fascinating, because you’re tracking an idea back from the page through the writer to its inspiration. Does that require you to be like a detective and psychologist rolled into one?

SC: And literary critic. You have to have a feel or some conscious sense of what you think those themes or ideas that are worth tracing are, because I could have spent a lot of time tacking down details that at least to me would have seemed immaterial, so to try to get at things that resonate with readers of Gatsby and try to find echoes of those in the world of 1922 … I thought, “Actually, okay. I want to see how many of these have some kind of exterior life, that are exterior of the novel, that are not just figments of Fitzgerald’s imagination, but are things that he’s reworking from the material around him.”
And …  as I started to see how much of the novel’s material could have looked familiar to people who were reading the papers in 1922 or 1925, when the novel came out, it started to make it clear … why the novel had not done well and why people had dismissed it. Because it was the equivalent of tabloid fiction. They thought it was ephemeral trash.
And so then I could also sort of work backward from what they said about the novel and go, “Okay, well which parts are they responding to that feel too familiar?”

W&F: Do you think that was part of reason the novel was recognized decades later as being such great piece of literature? Because its references were no longer part of the current culture?

SC:  Absolutely. I think the contemporary readers were distracted by the superficial resemblance of the story to superficial details of their own lives, but also to the sense that the characters in the novel were familiar to them and not taken seriously.
Imagine if somebody today wrote a really great work of art, I mean a masterpiece for the ages, about the Kardashians. Nobody would take it seriously! Because the Kardashians are by definition trivial and vulgar subjects. So it just wouldn’t occur to us that this novel was a great work of art.

W&F: Your book really showcases that grittiness of the jazz age, as opposed to just the fun and exciting image that we’re used to. Is that intentional? To kind of pull the veil back and expose the reader to that? 

SC: That’s exactly what I’m trying to do. We now think of Gatsby as our kind of preeminent novel of glamour and romance and it’s this novel of elegiac poetry about hope and about the human condition. It’s not that those things aren’t true. I think it’s only half the story of the novel and we’ve let that half obscure, as the other half of the novel. And so what I wanted to do was reframe the novel so that we would see the darkness of it better … to bring that darkness and that chaos back into the story.

W&F: There have been numerous “Great Gatsby” movies. Have any of them gotten close to what Fitzgerald was aiming for?

SC: None that get close to what Fitzgerald was aiming for … And I think there’s a reason for that, which is that it’s a novel about disillusionment. It’s a novel about disappointment. And particularly, it’s a novel about reality not being able to live up to our dreams and our imaginations. So we read the novel and we all have this wonderful imagined version of what Jay Gatsby is like and what the parties are like and what the house are like. And our imagination doesn’t have to get pinned down to anything as concrete and disappointing as real people and real places. Film by definition has to do just that.
That said, I think there are different films that capture different aspects of it. We don’t know anything about the lost film version [from 1926].

W&F: So that leaves the 1949 version with Alan Ladd.

SC: I think that’s an interesting film because it was made by people who remember the 1920s. So it has that darkness that I tried to get at in my book … and I think that’s quite telling. I think Alan Ladd is a pretty good Gatsby because he gets the gangster side of Gatsby, but it’s a crazy movie in a lot of ways and makes nonsense of what Fitzgerald was doing, not least that Jordan repents and marries Nick … it’s bonkers.

W&F: What about the one from the 1970s?

SC: I go against a lot of popular opinion in really disliking the 1974 Jack Clayton version. I know a lot of people really like it.

W&F: Really? Why?

SC: My problem is that it really centers on Mia Farrow and Robert Redford, Bruce Dern for that matter too. I think they’re all hopelessly miscast. And I adore Robert Redford. And that’s exactly the problem. Robert Redford in 1974 is Robert Redford.

W&F: [Laughing]

SC: He’s perfect. He’s absolutely perfect in every way. Then [Farrow as Daisy] has absolutely no reason to leave him. Who leaves Robert Redford for Bruce Dern?! [Laughing]

W&F: That brings us to the version by Baz Luhrmann from last summer.

SC: I think the Luhrmann is, and I’ve said this before, I think it’s the film that Jay Gatsby would have made of his own story. It’s not the film that Fitzgerald would have made … in that it’s enthralled to the vulgarity. In a sense, I think the Baz Luhrmann is a triumph of Fitzgerald’s prediction. It shows that we have so much enthrall to that kind of material, opulence, and ostentation, that we can’t see the difference between an indictment and a celebration of it.