Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby

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The Rise of Jay Gatsby and the Fall of His Inventor: On Sarah Churchwell’s Careless People

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1. A Portrait of What Was In the Air
Haven’t enough trees been felled, enough ink spilled, enough careers devoted to praising, panning and parsing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest creation?  Surely the answer is yes.  And yet Sarah Churchwell has done something almost unimaginable: She has discovered something new and she has written something fresh and revealing about the most chewed-over piece of fiction in the American canon.

Churchwell’s new book is called Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby. As the subtitle implies, the book is not straight history; rather, it sets out to explore how fiction gets made, what sources novelists plumb, and how the events of an age shape the fiction that springs from it, and vice-versa.  Churchwell tells the story of Gatsby’s creation in tandem with the story of a bizarre double murder that dominated American newspapers beginning in late 1922, lurid tabloid fodder that, in Churchwell’s view, seeped into the bloodstream of Gatsby.  The victims of this unsolved double murder were Edward Hall, an upstanding Episcopal minister in New Brunswick, N.J., and Eleanor Mills, his married lover who sang in the church choir.  They were both shot in the head and their bodies were discovered under a crab apple tree on a local lover’s lane, surrounded by their love letters.

“The Hall-Mills case has, until now, been considered in relation to The Great Gatsby only by a handful of scholars in brief articles, and in a few footnotes,” Churchwell writes, “but it is my contention that this remarkable story amplifies and enriches the context of Gatsby in many more ways than have yet been appreciated.”  She goes on, “Careless People began as a species of biography — the biography of a book — seeking the origins of Gatsby, especially in relation to 1922 and to the role these notorious murders may have played in its inception.  But along the way it became about something more: it also reconstructs a remarkable moment in America’s history, at the dizzying center of which stood Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, trying to navigate their unsteady way through it.”

That remarkable moment was the year 1922, which began with the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and ended with the publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.  That fall, Fitzgerald, a newly minted literary star and media darling, moved with Zelda to Great Neck, N.Y.  It was in that year and in that place that he would set Gatsby, turning Great Neck into West Egg, where the arriviste Jay Gatsby’s “huge incoherent failure of a house” faced across Manhasset Bay toward old-money East Egg, where Tom and Daisy Buchanan lived in carefree splendor, unaware that Daisy — and the green light at the end of their dock — were the magnets that would soon draw Gatsby to his doom.

Churchwell’s book is handsomely illustrated and her research into the existing source material is prodigious — there are 20 pages of end notes and 13 pages of bibliography, including newspaper and magazine articles, the Fitzgeralds’ scrapbooks, essays, letters, scholarly articles, biographies, novels, and other books.  A literary journalist and author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, Churchwell even unearthed a few morsels than no Fitzgerald scholars were aware of — most notably a letter by Fitzgerald about his intentions in Gatsby that was quoted in a lost review of the novel by Burton Rascoe.  Churchwell, clearly thrilled by her spadework, calls Fitzgerald’s letter “a tiny, heart-stopping treasure.”

So Careless People is a portrait of “what was in the air” as Fitzgerald conceived his masterpiece, including the drama in New Brunswick that contained every major element of the novel — “a remarkable tale of murder, adultery, class resentment, mistaken identity and the invention of romantic pasts.”

2. A Killing Regret
Considering what was in the air in the 18 months the Fitzgeralds lived in Great Neck, and in the ensuing months when he finished writing Gatsby in France, it’s not surprising that Careless People is a delightful blaze of a book.  The air was full of music and laughter and parties, illicit booze and ill-gotten money and flashy cars, and characters from the worlds of show business, Wall Street, journalism, literature, and organized crime, all of whom seemed to share Fitzgerald’s mortal terror of “conventionality, dullness, sameness, predictability.”  Such orgies tend to make good copy.

One of the chief virtues of Careless People is the way it leads the reader back to its source material.  Churchwell quotes extensively from The Twenties, Edmund Wilson’s sublime journalistic sketch of the Jazz Age.  Here is an entry from 1924, when Fitzgerald was planning to leave behind the dissolution of Long Island and move to France to complete his novel:
Great Neck, mid-April.  Fitz said he was going abroad because his reputation was diminishing in America, and he wanted to stay away till he had accomplished something important and then come back and have people give him dinners.  There was great talk on (Ring) Lardner’s part of going to the Red Lion or some other roadhouse, but when we did leave — all the liquor now gone — we simply went on to Lardner’s, where we drank Grand Marnier — he insisted on presenting us each with a little bottle — and more Scotch…Zelda had gone to sleep in an armchair and covered herself with a shawl – she was bored by Scott’s chart of the Middle Ages and made herself very disagreeable about it…Then we went back to the Fitzgeralds’. Lardner and I started talking about the oil scandal and Fitz fell asleep in his chair…
Such boozathons were the rule, not the exception, during the Fitzgeralds’ time at Great Neck.  Small wonder that he got little writing done there and yearned to get away.  This passage also hints at the cracks in Scott and Zelda’s marriage, and it presages another of Churchwell’s sources, The Crack-Up, Fitzgerald’s autobiographical writings from the 1930s, collected and edited by Wilson.

That book’s title essay, which appeared as a three-part serial in Esquire magazine in 1936, is a brutally frank account of what it’s like to fall from a dizzy height.  As the echoes of the Jazz Age faded, Fitzgerald likened himself to a cracked plate: “Sometimes, though, the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity.  It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the ice box under left-overs…”  And then there is the harrowing loss of self that accompanies a crack-up: “It was strange to have no self — to be like a little boy left alone in a big house, who knew that now he could do anything he wanted to do, but found that there was nothing that he wanted to do — ”

Sad as this is, it’s not as sad as re-reading The Great Gatsby and coming back into intimate contact with genius at its fragile peak, just before the crash.  The greatness of the book points straight to the true sadness of Fitzgerald, something Churchwell addresses with an admirably cold eye: His failure to live up to his enormous talent.

In addition to being an alcoholic who was devoted to a mad wife, Fitzgerald was lazy, a squanderer, a man who drank until he passed out in hundreds of chairs, then woke up and kept drinking until he was in the grave at the age of 44.  In “The Crack-Up,” he confesses to any writer’s most killing regret: “I had been only a mediocre care-taker of most of things left in my hands, even of my talent.”

In a telling observation about Lardner, his friend and neighbor in Great Neck, Fitzgerald wrote, “Whatever Ring’s achievement was, it fell short of the achievement he was capable of, and this because of a cynical attitude toward his work.”  This is most likely true, and I think it absolves Lardner, much as it absolved Nathanael West, another genius who had no capacity for evaluating the worth of his own work.  That, it seems to me, is a far less grievous sin than the one Fitzgerald and a handful of other American writers have committed — Truman Capote and Jack Kerouac come immediately to mind — the sin of squandering an outlandish gift.

3. A Story of Our Moment
Churchwell’s title is derived from the penultimate page of The Great Gatsby.  Nick Carraway, the novel’s narrator, has just overseen Gatsby’s sparsely attended, rain-drenched, and thoroughly depressing funeral (an end that eerily foreshadows what awaits Fitzgerald).  One day shortly after the funeral, as he’s getting ready to leave haunted New York and return home to the Midwest, Nick spots Tom Buchanan striding purposefully down Fifth Avenue.  They stop to talk, and Nick’s suspicion is confirmed that it was Tom who directed the pistol-wielding cuckold George Wilson to Gatsby’s house, in the mistaken belief that it was Gatsby, not Daisy, who was the hit-and-run driver behind the wheel of the car that killed Wilson’s wife, Myrtle.  Tom neglected to tell Wilson that it was he, not Gatsby, who was having an affair with Myrtle.

“It was all very careless and confused,” Nick muses.  “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money and their vast carelessness, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….”

Sad as it was, re-reading this sharp little gem of a novel was also uplifting, a reminder that Jay Gatsby’s story is timeless.  It is, as Churchwell writes, “so much a story of its moment and yet so much a story of ours.”  In his essay “Echoes of the Jazz Age,” Fitzgerald looked back on the wild party from the vantage of 1931, two years after the crash.  He could have been talking about himself and he could have been talking about our world today when he wrote, “It was borrowed time anyhow — the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand ducs and the casualness of chorus girls.”

The upper 10 percent has become the upper one percent and class resentment grows deeper and more bitter by the day, but otherwise not much has changed.  The Great Gatsby will continue to inspire re-reading, re-thinking, and sad rejoicing.  This is so because Fitzgerald was a genius who understood that we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Image Credit: Bill Morris

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