Remarkable how two words, scribbled nearly a century ago about a 16-year-old Lake Forest debutante, can evoke a whole country, its hypocrisies and promises, its aspirations and crushing realities.
Last week, the University of South Carolina posted online a digital version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's handwritten ledger, billing it as "one of the richest primary source documents in existence of any literary author," a rare and personal accounting of an American legend's everyday — every day — comings and goings, acquaintances, meals, disappointments, debts, paychecks. Decades of what constituted Fitzgerald's famously untidy, yearning life. And yet, to understand Fitzgerald — should you find yourself curious, on the eve of director Baz Luhrmann's new adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" which opens Friday — you need only read the author's jottings for January 1915:
As in Ginevra King, the Chicago-bred lost love of Fitzgerald's life and the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan, the lost love of Jay Gatsby's. She was partly who Fitzgerald had in mind when he wrote in "Gatsby" of "careless" people of privilege who "smashed up things … then retreated back into their money." That epochal line was personal: After years of courting, King spurned Fitzgerald, a poor college student at the time, and married into a wealthy Chicago family.
She came to embody "not only his condemnation of the rich but his ambivalence, his fascination with wealth and his sense of inferiority around it," said James L.W. West III, who teaches Fitzgerald at Pennsylvania State University and wrote "The Perfect Hour," a 2005 history of Fitzgerald and King's romance.
So naturally there are several mentions of King and Lake Forest in Fitzgerald's ledger, and always similarly abrupt, the trajectory of their romance playing out like a series of Post-it notes: "Nobody home and midnight frolic with Ginevra" (June 1915), "Lake Forest … Petting party. Ginevra" (August 1916), "Final break with Ginevra" (January 1917) and, in June 1917, a palpable groan: "Ginevra engaged?"
But nothing as heartbreaking as the promise in: "Met Ginevra."
"Actually, that line about 'retreating back into their money' is pretty much the essence of ('The Great Gatsby')," said Craig Pearce, who co-wrote the screenplay for the new movie. "It's ultimately what Fitzgerald was communicating and why Ginevra King is very much present in everything about 'The Great Gatsby': Just as Gatsby was rejected (by Daisy) and poor, Fitzgerald was rejected and poor, then re-created himself."
Indeed, as trivial as a young love may seem, if you read that first meeting of Fitzgerald and King as the bud of what bloomed into "The Great Gatsby" (and many Fitzgerald scholars consider their relationship its origin) — and you consider how seminal the reading of "Gatsby" has been to generations of high school students — it's hard to downplay the ramifications of what Fitzgerald scribbled in that ledger. On how we regard wealth, morality, celebrity, civic responsibility, Wall Street, even the America Dream, and whether we believe we can be whatever we want to be.
Last winter, for instance, when I read that Leonardo DiCaprio, who is playing the charismatic Gatsby in the film, casually mentioned to an interviewer that he was retiring from acting (he has since clarified and said he's just taking a long break), my thoughts immediately flew to Fitzgerald. Because, periodically, the rich, famous and young — David Bowie and Elton John in the '70s, Steven Soderbergh and Jay-Z in the past decade — announce they are finished, done, through, retiring prematurely.
We roll our eyes.
But when a rich, famous and 38-year-old actor (playing Jay Gatsby, no less) says this, it tends to underline that we are at a moment in our financial history when fewer people are able to retire at all. I tend to think of the casually callous who can afford to trample over feelings, then retreat into their money.
Or am I reading too far in?
"You're not, actually," said Jackson Bryer, president of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society and editor of Library of America's Fitzgerald collection. "Because by casting maybe the most popular movie star of his generation as Gatsby — as Hollywood once did with Robert Redford — (Luhrmann is) giving the character a glamour and romanticism that goes even beyond the serious intentions of the story itself. Never before has the gap between the rich and not-so-rich been what it is, and DiCaprio is part of that class that can retreat and choose to stay insulated from the problems of the world. So when millions can't retire now and DiCaprio says that, it is irritating, because, at least for a moment, he feels more like a Tom Buchanan than Gatsby."
Buchanan, you might recall from English class, is Daisy's brusque, shallow husband, the product of wealthy Chicago lineage, prone to drifting "here and there unrestfully wherever people played polo and were rich together," Fitzgerald wrote in the book. Tom was gaudy, moving east with Daisy to 1920s Long Island, "in a fashion that rather took your breath away: for instance he'd brought down a string of polo ponies from Lake Forest."
But even in those few words, you sense both disdain and awe in Nick Carraway, the book's narrator and Fitzgerald's stand-in. The author grew up modestly in Minnesota, his family's home set against "backyards of the wealthiest families of St. Paul," Bryer said. "His mother's family made some money in the grocery business, so he went to school with the children of the wealthy, played with them, but he was always aware he wasn't of them." Fitzgerald was 19 and enrolled at Princeton University when he met Ginevra in St. Paul, Minn. She was visiting a friend from boarding school. Afterward, Fitzgerald and King wrote each other compulsively.
And then, as Fitzgerald noted in his ledger, during a trip to Lake Forest someone reminded him:
"Poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls."
That line, which worked its way into several movies of "Gatsby" (including the new one), is not in Fitzgerald's novel. But then, Fitzgerald so perfectly internalized the social lessons of Lake Forest, amplified and ripened their resonance, it sounds as if it is. Almost 90 years after the book's first publication, it still gets a lot right about money, class resentment, self-promotion and greed; Gatsby's fervent reinvention, as a kind of an American birthright, a theme at the heart of the novel, remains as applicable to Don Draper in "Mad Men" as it does to Jay-Z, who started life as Shawn Carter (and contributed to the soundtrack of the new "Gatsby" film).
"It's also incredible when you remind yourself that Fitzgerald wrote 'Gatsby' before the 1920s stock market crash," Pearce said. "It was a world of unsustainable greed and a lack of morality, and he could just sense something was wrong about the times — the kind of sense that predated the recent global financial crisis."
The first time we see Daisy in the new film, she looks angelic, curled around a couch, curtains flapping in the ocean breeze. She asks Nick, "Do they miss me in Chicago?" She's not interested in the answer (in the novel, Nick jokes, "There's a persistent wail all night along the North Shore"), but then, neither are we: Daisy is played by Carey Mulligan, who is all pixie with none of the twee; her hair is fantastic, a mellow helmet of gold fixed to her head; her face is precisely as Fitzgerald described Daisy's: "sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth." It's a dazzling, elegant facade.
And ultimately, her laconic affectlessness is meant to disgust: Daisy's grace is as deep as her integrity.
But what Fitzgerald couldn't predict is that, decades later, the hollow amorality of the rich — as seen nightly on the E! network, as promised in director Sofia Coppola's upcoming "The Bling Ring," the true story of teenagers who broke into the homes of the idle rich and famous (Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, etc.), and as underscored by Luhrmann's not particularly austere new 3-D spectacle — can seem like a pretty nice option when you're worried about your pension being slashed and you've been looking for a new job for four years.
Shallowness — regardless of financial situation — has become enviable, an aspirational lifestyle.
Said writer Teddy Wayne — whose new novel, "The Love Song of Jonny Valentine," has drawn frequent comparisons (thematically) with "Gatsby" and tells the story of a Justin Bieber-like singer slowly awakening to the superficiality of his surroundings — "to complain about the wealthy being powerful, venal and shallow is, in 2013, shooting fish in a barrel." Indeed, "Jonny Valentine" sets out to implicate the public alongside the wealthy and powerful. Besides, said John Collins, artistic director of the New York-based Elevator Repair Service theater company, which famously staged eight-hour readings of "The Great Gatsby" (including a 2008 production at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art): "I think that the wealth in 'Gatsby' is a red herring. Fitzgerald was certainly preoccupied with money. But really, he was mostly writing about identity. Remember, at the end, Nick is on the shore, imagining Long Island before the mansions, actively peeling away the layers of status."
Wondering if people are who they seem, as Fitzgerald likely wondered about King years after their romance ended. He retyped their letters and referred to her words for writing inspiration; decades later, when they met again, he delivered an unprintable verbal insult. He was not fair with King, according to West, though King was "always gentle" with Fitzgerald, and not ostentatious, "not Daisy." Janis Hack, executive director of the Lake Forest-Lake Bluff Historical Society, told me that King is remembered on the North Shore as a literary footnote and debutante, "not for what she represented to anyone." After all, who nurses a grudge over a slight from a 16-year-old girl well into his 30s? For most of his life? On the other hand, considering the masterpiece that sprung from that slight, be thankful for grudges. For what it's worth, Fitzgerald died at 44, penniless. And King died at 82, quite rich.