The wife and I went to see “The Great Gatsby” over this past weekend. This is about the fourth iteration Hollywood has produced of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel. Overall, I would rate the movie, maybe a B-. There was lots of glitter and glitz, as the movie tried to capture the flamboyance of the 1920s. Lots of ostentation, great costuming and hair styling, and great ornate design work in the mansions that housed the over-the-top partying that occurred among the rich and famous of the 1920s. But the movie came up short on substance. Indeed, it seemed to be glorifying the very flamboyant life-style that Scott Fitzgerald was condemning in his novel. Which was the phoniness, boredom, cynicism, and lack of purpose that existed among the upper crust at that time. And likely still does to this day.
The story takes place in one of the great mansions built by one of the ultra rich, (a rather mysterious fellow named Jay Gatsby) in the Hamptons on Long Island. One must have millions piled on top of millions just pay the property taxes levied on one of these properties; and today the Hamptons are still considered one of the top playgrounds of the rich and famous. Back in the 1920s, the rich would throw huge, lavish parties in these mansions to distract themselves from the lack of meaning in their lives. Daisy, who is Gatsby’s love interest, at the outset admits she’s bored and cynical about everything in life. So what better distraction than to throw huge, lavish parties, with bootleg booze flowing like the River Ganges, lots of ear-splitting music, and continually doing the Charleston to wile away the blues. This type of superficiality and shallowness is the essence of Fitzgerald’s condemnation. New money often made in the in the booming stock market or through selling bootleg liquor, vied with old money ( you know, guys like the Rockefellers, Morgans and Carnegies, etc.) to see who could garner the most attention and publicity for living ostentatiously. Today it’s more the style to keep this type of ostentation under wraps. Too many bad guys around that would like to get in on the action.
Scott Fitzgerald’s life is an interesting story in itself. Like many artists, he enjoyed only the very modest of successes during his short lifetime. Being a heavy drinker with health problems, he died of a heart attack at the tender age of 40. “Gatsby’s” success as a great American novel wouldn’t be realized until well after he was gone. In that, he joined a large list of artists, writers and composers who often died penniless, with the greatness of their works not recognized until well after their deaths. Van Gogh is a prime example. In any event, Fitzgerald’s life was often overshadowed by his flamboyant wife Zelda. She came from Southern money, and gave drinking and partying a whole new dimension. The Fitzgeralds were part of the American expatriate group of artists living in Paris during the 1920s. These included Hemingway, of course, as well as Gertrude Stein, Henry Miller, Salvatore Dali, and several others. Besides trying to become famous for their works, the expatriates were known for their heavy drinking and partying. Not as lavish as those parties in the Hamptons, but quite legendary in their own right. And chief among the heavy drinkers was Zelda Fitzgerald . She and Scott had a tempestuous marriage and eventually separated. Zelda was finally diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and spent many years in and out of mental institutions. She also died at a fairly young age, in her 50s, I believe. If you’re interested in capturing the flavor of what life was like among the expatriates, it’s shown in a movie that came out several years ago- Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris.” A really, really good movie compared to this current version of “Gatsby.”
Compared to life today, the 1920s were almost an era of serenity. It was after the conclusion of WWI and America quickly dis-armed and went back to being an isolationist nation. After all, being surrounded by two large oceans would preclude us from getting into any further foreign entanglements, or so the thinking went. About the biggest worry on people’s minds was wether Babe Ruth would break the home run record by hitting 60 homers in one season, which he did in 1927. Both business and the stock market were booming. Prohibition was in effect which made obtaining and drinking bootleg liquor that much more fun. The roadways began to proliferate with that new-fangled invention, the automobile, which was made famous by Henry Ford’s Model T. There was lots of cash to be made in the stock market since everyone knew that stocks could only go one way, and that was up, right? The Government did virtually nothing, but who cared? Everyone was doing so well. Calvin Coolidge was President for 6 years in that decade, and actually cut the Government budget by the time he left office. ( I wrote a previous piece about Silent Cal’s tenure as President if you’re interested in more detail.)
And then one day, this great American dream of peace and prosperity evaporated like the morning mist. The stock market crashed in 1929, and people’s lives, by the tens of millions, were virtually destroyed, almost overnight. People were jumping out of buildings to their death, as mind-numbing poverty slowly oozed over the nation, and covered the landscape. They stopped doing the Charleston in the Hamptons. Even in foreign affairs America’s dreams of being an isolationist nation began to disintegrate, as the twin evils of Hitler’s Nazism in Europe, and Japan’s militarism in the Pacific, marched ahead with unstoppable relentlessness.
Today there are those that would like to to return American society and Government back to those simpler days of the 1920s. When one could make a fast buck in the stock market and live flamboyantly with great ostentation. Who wouldn’t want that. But it’s never going to happen. The Tea Party movement which made such a big splash in 2010 has delusional dreams that somehow the clock can be set backwards. But life now has become so much more complex and complicated, that going back to the days of Silent Cal is a monumental pipe dream. The war against terrorism is an example of today’s complexities. Besides we all know how well life turned out the way it was lived in the 1920s.