Affluence and Influence Are Always Relative

Curbed.com is a website specializing in interior design, décor, and real estate. You can receive a daily newsletter that typically features an expensive residence with some sort of unusual overall design or notable features or some intriguing aspects to its history.

Yesterday, that daily newsletter featured this Long Island residence:

Fitzgerald Mansion

 

Here is the description that accompanies the photo:

“It’s not East or West Egg, nowhere near the same league as Gatsby’s gilded mansion, but this Mediterranean home in Great Neck can lay claim to something a lot more substantial than the fictional millionaire’s backstory. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald called this stately 7-bed, 7-bath home from the fall of 1922 to April 1924 (Zelda nicknamed it her “”nifty little Babbitt house,” a Sinclair Lewis reference poking fun at the bourgeois). Young and a bit reckless, cash-strapped yet renting a Rolls, the couple caroused as the early short stories that presaged The Great Gatsby sprung forth from a small office above the garage, inspired by the social behaviors and lavishness of Prohibition-era Long Island. Though Fitzgerald, flush from the success of This Side of Paradise, was living beyond his means, the Long Island move was meant as a money saver: their $300-a-month rent (roughly $4,000 today) was a lot cheaper than their previous stay in a Manhattan hotel suite.

This item would probably be of some interest in any year, but it may be of special interest this year, which is the 90th anniversary of the publication of The Great Gatsby.

The irony that strikes me about the description of the residence is that the Fitzgeralds were very affluent compared to most Americans of the era, and yet they were living well beyond their means and, even still, they could not compete with many of those who lived in even posher Long Island communities. Those ironies are, it seems to me, at the crux of Fitzgerald’s lifelong fascination with wealth and social position. Moreover, the disjunction between the seemingly permanent security of great wealth and the sudden generation of wealth through high-risk stock speculation and comparable financial schemes seems central to the “crash” that initiated the Great Depression and a metaphor for the “crack-up,” which is what Fitzgerald called the freefall into which his personal life and his literary reputation entered.

To mark the 90th anniversary of the publication of The Great Gatsby, Business Insider published a list of “11 Things You Probably Don’t Know about The Great Gatsby. The list includes the fact that the novel was both a commercial and a critical disappointment:

“While Fitzgerald hoped his most passioned [sic] work would sell 75,000 copies in 1925, the first printing sold slightly more than 20,0000 — just enough to repay publisher Scribners. . . .

“The first [review] to appear in New York, just two days after publication, was headed ‘F. SCOTT FITZGERALD’S LATEST A DUD’ (the World). The reviewer for the Brooklyn Eagle claimed she could not find ‘one chemical trace of magic, life, irony, romance or mysticism in all of ‘The Great Gatsby‘ and concluded that ‘the boy’ [Fitzgerald] was ‘simply puttering around.'”

Indeed, given the stature of the novel today, it may be equally surprising to many readers that when Fitzgerald died in 1940, none of his novels were still in print.

The posthumous rise in his literary reputation is, however, reflected in some statistics about The Great Gatsby collected by Deidre Donahue for USA Today:

403: Total number of weeks on the New York Times bestseller list

25 million copies: Copies sold worldwide

500,000: Number of copies sold annually

42: Number of translations into different languages

450,000: Copies printed of the blue-jacket trade paperback edition in 2013

415,000: Number of copies in print of the new movie tie-in edition, released April 23, 2013

185,000: Copies of the e-book sold in 2013

The 2013 sales of the novel were, of course, propelled by the release of Baz Luhrmann’s garish and surprisingly unengaging film adaptation, which captured the great excess of the era seemingly at the expense of generating any real connection with the characters. I prefer the 1973 film adaptation—with Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Bruce Dern, and Sam Waterston—but it, too, received very ambivalent reviews. Oddly, some of the critics of that adaptation found the representation of the era more convincing and engaging than the characters, while others asserted just the opposite. I have always thought that Bruce Dern is perfect as Tom Buchanan.

 

2 thoughts on “Affluence and Influence Are Always Relative

  1. I grew up in Great Neck, although in the post-WW2 era after several of the large estates were broken up and relatively upscale ranch-style homes, such as the one I grew up in (across the street from where in the ’30s Groucho Marx once lived) were built in their stead. The curbed.com account is wrong on one important point: Great Neck was indeed Fitzgerald’s model for West Egg. The house — now, according to curbed.com, valued at nearly $4 million — was in Great Neck Estates, however, and not in the town’s poshest segment, Kings Point, home as well to the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. When we read The Great Gatsby in high school (my class is celebrating its 50th reunion next month), we were all, of course, well aware that our town and its neighbor, Sands Point (to nearby Port Washington what Kings Point is to Great Neck) were the models for West and East Egg respectively. Of course, the Great Neck in which I grew up little resembled Fitzgerald’s, as I’m pretty sure the Great Neck of today is no longer the place I knew.

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