The exuberant, drunken newlywed days of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, hold a clue to the true origins of his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, according to this debut illustrated literary/historical study.
Fitzgerald’s celebrated tale of thwarted love among Jazz Age millionaires has long been thought to have been based on the wealthy New York resort town of Great Neck, Long Island, where Scott and Zelda lived from 1922 to ’24. Webb and Robert Steven Williams, defending a theory put forward by journalist Barbara Probst Solomon, made a documentary arguing that the novel was actually inspired by people and places in Westport, Connecticut, where the couple lived for five months in the summer and fall of 1920. Much of this lavish book consists of Webb’s evidence for replacing Great Neck with Westport, an affluent magnet for writers and artists, as the incubator of Fitzgerald’s imagination. Webb identifies Frederick E. Lewis, a handsome plutocrat who gave crazy parties at his Westport estate—Houdini came to one shindig and performed an underwater escape—as a likely model for Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby. Right across the water was another manse that fits the description of Gatsby paramour Daisy Buchanan’s abode, complete with a green light on a big dock similar to the one the writer used as a metaphor for the tragic will-o’-the-wisp of the American dream.
Drawing on Fitzgerald’s novels, letter, and diaries, along with period newspaper articles, large maps, and aerial photographs, Webb makes a genial, meandering case for Westport as Gatsbyville. Along the way, he digs up details of Lewis and his cars, yachts, and airplanes; delves into other colorful locals; and recounts his and Williams’ wavering progress at winning over scholars. Fitzgerald fanatics should find this information intriguing. More absorbing for casual readers is Webb’s portrait of Fitzgerald and Zelda’s marriage. Young, good-looking, and fashionable—Fitzgerald’s hit debut novel, This Side of Paradise, had just made them famous—they were the celebrity embodiments of the Roaring ’20s. At Westport, they drank hard—Fitzgerald’s “daily intake could top” a quart of gin and 30 beers—and partied harder, with Zelda notorious for her sloshed witticisms and whimsical arsons. Webb traces this trajectory through its inevitable decline into fights; money pressures; infidelity; literary disappointments and mutual recriminations; Fitzgerald’s plunge into lethal alcoholism; and Zelda’s descent into schizophrenia. Readers are reminded that the real-life Gatsby was Fitzgerald himself, pursuing the flapper wild child who always slipped his grasp. Webb’s sketch of their saga is workmanlike and lucid. Though disorganized, with digressions and repetitions, the account has some nice literary turns. (“I became so immersed in the world of the Fitzgerald parties, the hedonism of the Roaring Twenties, and reading about the oceans of gin Scott Fitzgerald imbibed, that at one point I thought I actually smelled gin in the room.”) There is much poignancy in the photos of Fitzgerald and Zelda in Westport, lounging on the lawn or the beach, relaxed and eager for the future, enjoying a season of happiness before it all went to hell.
A hit-or-miss, coffee-table grab bag of biography, theorizing, and vibrant images that evoke the glamour and pathos of the Fitzgerald marriage.