Gatsby stands the test of time

By Bill Ward

Fourth film proves Fitzgerald's observation of affluent life in 1920s has modern-day parallels, writes Bill Ward.

F. Scott Fitzgerald may be closely associated with the Roaring Twenties but the American Autor's work is proving timeless.

With the fourth film adaptation of The Great Gatsby, the Minneapolis native has come, well, roaring back into our consciousness - that is, if he ever actually left.

Plaques still mark two of his childhood homes in St Paul, nighttime hotspots in the Twin Cities often resemble a scene out of Fitzgerald's flapper-happy, party-hardy heyday, and Gatsby remains an American highschool staple.

That makes sense, according to Fitzgerald chronicler Patrick Coleman. "I was once told by an English teacher that this is the quintessential book to give high school kids," said Coleman, acquisitions librarian at the Minnesota Historical Society, "because everybody in high school is trying to be somebody else, they're trying on this disguise. So [a similarly masquerading Jay Gatsby] naturally resonates with adolescents."

It doesn't hurt, Coleman added, that the novel "is just so beautifully written, those sentences are stunning sometimes, and that's what prompts these revisits to the big screen".

The latest celluloid iteration finds Leonardo DiCaprio succeeding Robert Redford (1974), Alan Ladd (1949) and Warner Baxter (1926) in the title role.

The timing of this release, as well as the 1974 release during the Watergate/Vietnam/oil crisis era, is no coincidence, said Macalester College English professor James Dawes.

"There are two F Scott Fitzgeralds," Dawes said of the author's turbulent career and life.

"One is successful, and one is a failure. When Americans are facing crisis or are afraid of failure, the Fitzgerald who was a failure becomes culturally useful to us. He helps us work through our feelings about failure in a way that allows us to have compassion for ourselves. When things are exuberant and successful, he represents an America that is crass and overdone."

St Paul got glimpses of Fitzgerald in both modes. After World War I he landed in New York to work in advertising. When that ended badly, a humbled Fitzgerald moved into the third floor of his family's home at 599 Summit Ave, where he finished This Side of Paradise.

That debut novel sold out its first printing in three days, rocketing Fitzgerald to immediate fame.

"He was a wild commercial success," said Fitzgerald scholar Patricia Hampl. "No writer can become famous overnight, like a rock star, the way he did any more. I don't think rock stars can."

The book's publication convinced Zelda Sayre that Fitzgerald was worthy of betrothal, and after their wedding they stayed in New York for several months, basking in his newfound celebrity.

The "successful" Fitzgerald and his wife then headed back to St Paul, moving into the Commodore Hotel in a neighbourhood that has changed so little that, as Coleman said, "he would know where he was if he came back today".

The couple caroused at the University Club, the White Bear Yacht Club and the Commodore.

Not long after their daughter, Frances Scott "Scottie" Fitzgerald, was born in St Paul in 1921, the Fitzgeralds embarked for France, where they hobnobbed with other literary luminaries and he wrote his most enduring work, The Great Gatsby.

Although some people regard the lead character as autobiographical, Hampl disagrees.

"Fitzgerald should not be conflated with Gatsby," she said. "The action is in New York and Long Island, but the story is told from a St Paul perspective.

"It's a faux memoir by [narrator Nick Carraway, a St Paul native], who himself has kind of given up an attempt to be a stylish person in New York and come back home, in effect a failure."

Fitzgerald's post-Gatsby career would veer between lofty peaks and deep valleys, with huge pay cheques for short stories in magazines, alcoholism, a lucrative Gatsby silent-film adaptation (now lost) and Zelda's lengthy hospitalisation for a bipolar disorder.

Fitzgerald's last royalty cheque was for US$13.13, Hampl said, and he died in 1940 "a humbled man who saw with clarity how this country savages its darlings".


The Great Gatsby opens in cinemas tomorrow.

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