Radical Modern: F. Scott Fitzgerald and New York

Previously published in the Summer 2008 edition of the Nashwaak Review.

It would be a mistake to assume that what a novel’s characters hold dear is also true of its author.  Reading The Great Gatsby you might think F. Scott Fitzgerald had a consistently high regard for New York.  This seems true of Gatsby’s protagonist, Nick Carraway, who believed ‘anything can happen’ in its ‘enchanted metropolitan twilight.’  To Carraway, the city held the ‘first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.’

Yet in Gatsby’s precursor, The Beautiful and Damned, a cynical, world-weary Anthony Patch proclaims New York ‘chaotic’, ‘unintelligible’ and a ‘mountebank.’  Wall Street was ‘the crass, the banal…where the great kings kept their money for their wars.’  Whatever Fitzgerald’s feelings about New York, clearly they weren’t one-sided.

As a 23-year old unpublished writer arriving in February 1919, Fitzgerald may have been seduced by the city’s glamour and vigor, and the illusions of promise it held for a young man like him.  At the time, he lived in a single room at 200 Claremont Ave while working for the Barron Collier advertising agency writing slogans for streetcar ads.  Promises were probably all he could afford.

Yet two years later, he’d become an overnight success and was living the wild, extravagant existence that would contribute as much to his fame as to his early demise.  Although Fitzgerald couldn’t have known what was in store for him, Patch’s tale of dissolution and psychic disintegration now seems highly prescient.

Fitzgerald lived a relatively short time in the city he portrayed so strikingly.  His stay at 6 Gateway Drive on Long Island (the main setting of Gatsby) was limited to a year-and-a-half.  And, contrary to what might be expected, he didn’t write his most famous book there.  He wrote it during a trip to France in the summer of 1924, revising it in Rome in October.

What Fitzgerald did in New York was live the material he used in his books.  In April 1920, he and Zelda Sayre were married in the rectory at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and honeymooned at the Biltmore Hotel after being thrown out of the Plaza.  Fitzgerald inverted this true-life episode for a fictional bookend near the end of Beautiful.  On a sidewalk outside the Biltmore, the once-promising Anthony Patch—drunk, dissolute and no longer in love with his wife—finally sees the level to which he’s fallen.

From October 1920 through April 1921, the Fitzgeralds lived at 38 West 59th Street.  Yet it wasn’t until they left New York for Connecticut that Fitzgerald actually sat down to write his second novel.  While he needed New York for inspiration, he needed to leave to write about it.

With the publication of The Beautiful and Damned in1922, Fitzgerald once again had a success on his hands.  His second novel sold 50,000 copies on its release.  Just two years earlier, This Side of Paradise had sold 40,000.  Though his greatest writing was still to come, Fitzgerald would never again achieve this level of commercial literary success in his lifetime.

The Fitzgeralds moved back to New York in October 1922 and lived at the Long Island address at Great Neck (Carraway’s ‘less fashionable’ West Egg) until April 1924.  Their fame grew—they’d both become celebrities by then—and their parties were considered ‘legendary’.  Fitzgerald’s drinking binges were said to border on violence.  It was here that Gatsby was conceived, though once again Fitzgerald had to leave the city to write about it.

One of the striking qualities of Gatsby, more than 80 years on, is its contemporary feel.  Though he’s not viewed as a cultural philosopher now, Fitzgerald was ahead of his time as a thinker.  His first break-through success, This Side of Paradise, was crammed with ‘modern’ ideas that were considered startling, even shocking: Marxism, atheism, and oblique references to texts by Carpenter and Whitman, writers later seen as being at the vanguard of theories on sexuality.  In Beautiful, Anthony tells his young bride, Gloria, “You’ve got a mind like me, not strongly gendered in either way.”  No matter how you look at it, that was a radical statement for a young author in 1920.

In its way too, New York has always been a city of the ‘modern’—the place where much of 20th century culture is said to have begun, or at least been shaped.  For Fitzgerald, like Nick Carraway, New York was literally the city where ‘anything can happen.’ It offered a wealth of material for his writer’s imagination.  This undoubtedly is what appealed most to him about New York.

Apart from the mansions on Long Island, two other locations are significant in Gatsby: the Valley of Ashes, where Myrtle Wilson lives with her mechanic husband, and the Manhattan ‘love-nest’ apartment at 158th street, where Tom Buchanan takes Nick and Myrtle, and which Nick describes as a ‘long white cake of apartment-houses.’

The Valley of Ashes is now the site of Shea Stadium in Queens.  The 158th Street address is harder to pinpoint.  The street is short by Manhattan standards—a quick look up and down its few blocks fails to reveal anything cake-like, or even white, for that matter.  Carraway says they cut ‘over the Park toward the West Hundreds’, where the cab stopped at 158th Street. On the corner of St. Nicholas, precisely at 158th, stands a stylish row of townhouses that, when viewed at the right angle, might be said to resemble a cake.  Could this be the famous building Fitzgerald describes in Gatsby?

It’s conceivable the building never existed outside of Fitzgerald’s imagination.  There is, however, a small clue that suggests it did.  Just up the street is a smaller building with the word ‘POLO’ carved over its doorway. Considering that Fitzgerald claimed to have modeled Tom Buchanan after a real-life polo player, it may have been this lintel that triggered his imagination.

The Great Gatsby was published in April 1925 at $2 a copy.  The book received mixed reviews: a reviewer for the New York World dismissed it as a ‘dud’, while critic HL Mencken called it ‘trivial’ but ‘beautiful’. British writer LP Hartley, in the Saturday Review, dubbed it ‘a piece of mere naughtiness’, while poet William Rose Benét, in the Saturday Review of Literature, called it ‘admirable.’ Only Benét seems to have understood Fitzgerald’s true intentions, describing it as ‘disillusioned’ and ‘mature’. This is another way in which Fitzgerald was ahead of his time—novels of disillusionment hadn’t yet come into fashion.

At the time, Gatsby managed to sell fewer than 25,000 copies.  A second printing of 3,000 was made optimistically in August that year, though much of it remained in the Scribner warehouse when Fitzgerald died in 1940.  Since then, the book has sold in the millions and is considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever written.

It’s not simply ironic, then, but tragic, that Fitzgerald later claimed he’d been a failure.  Even Hemingway said he never thought much of The Great Gatsby, though he wrote Fitzgerald to say he liked Tender is the Night.  This may have been professional jealousy.  Tender is clearly an inferior book and Hemingway would have recognized that.  He also later lied and downplayed Fitzgerald’s contributions to The Sun Also Rises, the book that made Hemingway famous.

Silent film star Lillian Gish said of the Fitzgeralds that, “They didn’t make the ’20s, they were the ’20s.”  Unfortunately for both Scott and Zelda, whose mental breakdown in 1930 was the first of many that would shadow her for the rest of her life, when the era they defined came to an end, so did their easy success.  Both New York and the Roaring Twenties were behind them.  They never returned to live in the city where for them it all began.


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