My first copy of The Great Gatsby cost me $2. It was the year 1953, the cover was dark blue with city lights in the background, and a pair of mournful green eyes looking at nothing in particular. I had just finished Tender Is the Night, so I took Gatsby home in exhilaration, not unlike going home with the girl of your dreams — well, almost. I was not to be disappointed. Although I never related to Gatsby the way I did to Dick Diver — Jay reminded me of a couple of men I had met in my 15 years of life, whereas Dick was someone tragic whom I aspired to — it was the most glamorous of novels. It was lyrical as well as brutal, and like all Scott’s novels magical, mystical and full of romance. Here’s the narrator Nick Carraway: ‘There was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life…It was an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and it is not likely I shall ever find again.’
The story of Jay Gatsby, who came so mysteriously to West Egg, of his sumptuous entertainments and of his obsessive love for Daisy Buchanan is well known. Three films have been made, among which the second, with Alan Ladd playing Gatsby, is by far the best. The last and most expensive one had a ludicrous Robert Redford trying to play a cool Jay, and an ever so flighty Mia Farrow as Daisy. During the planning of the movie, the producer Robert Evans had told me that they were trying to get Truman Capote to write the screenplay. I knew Evans from way back, when his name was Shapiro. He is still with us and he’s OK, but very Hollywood. (His late brother Charles was a friend.) I had heard rumours about Capote’s drug-taking and inability to deliver and said so. ‘Well, who do you think we should get, you?’ said Evans dismissively.
Francis Ford Coppola wrote it and very surprisingly for such a good writer messed it up. Looking cool and calling everyone a sport was not what Gatsby was about, and nor was the hero symbolised by having a hell of a lot of new shirts and beautiful clothes. That was Shapiro’s view, or rather Evans’s. Many have called The Great Gatsby the best American novel ever written. Something to do with the way it’s structured. I don’t know how one measures such things, but good books to me are like beautiful women: you can’t compare them. I loved Gatsby and have read it two or three times. Tender I have read more than five times. (A Moveable Feast almost annually.) When people ask me why I refuse to expand my horizons, I answer the same way Paul Newman once did about women: ‘Why eat hamburgers out when you have steak at home.’
Fitzgerald obviously based all his heroines on Zelda, this apparition who was the love of his life as well as his ruin. Here’s Ring Lardner, a great writer of the Twenties, sending Zelda a rhyme he wrote while sitting across from her at a dinner table. ‘Of all the girls for whom I care, /And there are quite a number, /None can compare with Zelda Sayre, /Now wedded to a plumber.’ Scott laughed when he saw the note but didn’t like it a bit. Some plumber. The reason I bring all this up is that The Great Gatsby is back on Broadway — actually, it debuts at the Public Theatre this month. Not a single word from the novel has been changed, and all 49,000 words are included. They are read out by the main characters exactly the way they appeared in the novel. There are no flapper gowns, no long cigarette-holders, no bobbed hair. The play starts like the book: ‘In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.’ It’s called Gatz, Gatsby’s original name in the novel. This is not the first time the novel has been staged. Back in 1926 it ran for four months on Broadway, directed by George Cukor, with very good notices. Fitzgerald needed the money and it came in handy, despite some infelicities, such as murdering Gatsby in his library and without Nick Carraway’s disillusionment at the lack of mourners at Gatsby’s funeral.
Never mind. Hollywood types see Fitzgerald’s gem as emerald lawns, silk shirts, golden sunlight and great mansions by the sea. That’s what drew me in at the start. I had been on the Riviera aged 14, had read Tender Is the Night, and then came upon the American Riviera in West Egg. I was shut away in boarding school, but lived at the Sherry Netherlands on 5th Avenue across from the Plaza Hotel when home from school. I could imagine Daisy and Jordan and Jay across the street from me better than anyone. And still can. Writing, you see, does not exist without a consenting reader. And no two readers are alike. I knew Jay better than anyone, except that I knew Dick Diver better.
It all seems so long ago now. When I first read about Fitzgerald’s tragic life, his work had just begun to be appreciated again. He reached superstardom during the Sixties and Seventies and is still selling well. He died broke and forgotten before he was 45. Zelda died in a fire while institutionalised.