Fitzgerald's New World

For him, Hollywood was the club to which he was denied entry

At the end of the 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald's narrator Nick Carraway casts his mind back to imagine an undiscovered New York, the "island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes — a fresh, green breast of the New World". This bit has been excised from the coda of Baz Luhrmann's extravagant new $100 million Gatsby, which recreates the ecstatic, shrilly booming Manhattan of the Flapper Age, and the country estates where those who could afford it passed lavish summer Saturdays.

This was the world that Fitzgerald had, at one time, conquered himself, for he had great early success as a popular novelist, and he and his wife Zelda were a beautiful couple, much in demand at the best parties. But after they'd taken Manhattan, another, still newer New World beckoned: Hollywood. The Fitzgeralds first visited in 1927; Scott, dashing at 30, even went for a screen test for the United Artists. Hopelessly of-the-moment and as commercial-minded as one with his artistic conscience could afford to be, Fitzgerald fully believed that the talkies were to be the art of the future, and he intended to be part of that future.

And in a way, he has been. Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, featuring a superb Leo DiCaprio in the title role and Toby Maguire as Carraway, is not the first screen version of Fitzgerald's slim memory-novel. There is a 1926 Paramount silent, of which nothing exists but a one-minute teaser trailer; a 1949 film with Alan Ladd, little seen; and, most famously, Jack Clayton's lugubrious film of 1974, with Robert Redford in the title role, as stately as Luhrmann's film is hyperventilatingly over-the-top.

By the time of the Clayton film's release, Hollywood had long reclaimed Fitzgerald for itself. Fitzgerald, though, had every reason to consider that he'd been a failure in his last home. He had come west to stay in 1937, with the express purpose of making money for his daughter and Zelda, then confined in an asylum. He died there in 1940, in the home of his lover, the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. The previous evening they'd attended a premiere together, for Fitzgerald was going through the motions, scratching at the gates of the industry to the very end, even as he was filing a series of satirical Hollywood stories to Esquire magazine, his last published work. The star of these stories was Pat Hobby, a broke, washed-up, middle-aged alcoholic screenwriter subsisting on piecemeal work, a holdover from the silent era still trying to hustle work around Tinseltown.

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