‘The careless people’: The dark, real-life inspiration behind ‘The Great Gatsby’

Last week my wife and I headed up to Lake Huron for a few days, and I finally had the chance to sit down and read a few books cover to cover. I’d been intending to revisit The Great Gatsby, which has been reproaching me from my night table, for some time. When I resurfaced a couple of hours after opening F. Scott Fitzgerald’s masterpiece, I felt a bit breathless. I’d remembered the descriptions of the parties and Gatsby’s vast wealth and Tom’s cruelty. But I’d forgotten just how dark the entire thing was—especially the parties, and especially considering Fitzgerald’s own very premature death.

Fitzgerald describes the buoyant beginnings of these parties perfectly. “The bar is in full swing, and floating rounds of cocktails permeate the garden outside, until the air is alive with chatter and laughter, and casual innuendo and introductions forgotten on the spot, and enthusiastic meetings between women who never knew each other’s names.” The lights and the champagne sparkle, the guffaws bubble up easily, and everything seems, for a brief moment, to be precisely as it should be. “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

Fitzgerald writes like a booze-hound. The drinks make the stars brighter, the guests wittier and more beautiful, the laughter louder and better. The sensations, while being dulled, at first feel more acute. There is a moment—and he describes this in several of his novels—where he can sense the evening peaking, that moment where he is fully convinced that one more cocktail will achieve the pinnacle and all will be perfect. It is at that moment, with that drink, where it all gives way to drunkenness. The booze promises an ecstatic evening, lets him glimpse it, and then snatches it all away. Better luck next time.

The parties at Gatsby’s unfold like all parties do. The inevitable unplanned late-night swims in the pool by the dressed and the undressed, thoroughly convinced of the brilliance of the idea. The loud arguments about nothing by men and women rendered senseless with drink. The aggressiveness of the sauced and self-righteous, the ineffable sadness of others, the pathetic state of them all. The car wrecks on the way out, the relationships souring over the course of the evening, husbands and wives hissing “you promised!” in each other’s ears as their tipsy spouses insist that the party must go on and that they must have another. It is with shame that one recalls nights like this. Fitzgerald’s brilliantly-rendered contempt was for his own lifestyle.

Fitzgerald killed himself with nights like those, and his wife Zelda slowly went mad. Knowing that the great novelist would drink himself to death by the age of 44 gives a tinge of desperation to his descriptions of the parties at Gatsby’s and the nightlife scenes in the aptly and chillingly titled The Beautiful and the Damned. His final novella, Tender is the Night, details the main character’s descent into alcoholism and the wife’s mental collapse and almost precisely mirrors his own life. Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, would perish in a hospital fire at the age of 47 after being in and out of mental institutions for years. They left behind a single daughter, Frances, who went by the nickname Scottie.

One famous passage in The Great Gatsby seems to describe the literary celebrity couple with eerie exactness. “They were the careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” One wonders if Fitzgerald was thinking of the child he and Zelda aborted after their darling Scottie, whom Scott abandoned for drink and Zelda for the madhouse. Scott’s thoughts on Zelda’s illegal abortion in 1922 have not been recorded, but his biographers believe he may have referred to it once, in a scene that was later cut from the first draft of The Beautiful and the Damned. Gloria suspects she is pregnant, and her paramour Anthony urges her to “talk to some woman and find out what’s best to be done. Most of them fix it some way.”

The Great Gatsby is a cautionary tale, and Fitzgerald’s parties are a microcosm of the human experience: Optimism, enthusiasm, anticipation, brief relationships formed and falling away, decline, the loss of dignity, and death. Entire lives are lived in single evenings, and many never escape the cycle. Fitzgerald was one of them. He might not have been Nick, or Gatsby, or Tom. But he was one of those at one of the ceaseless parties, and it killed him in the end. Perhaps he was the owl-eyed drunk in the library, peering with confused intensity at all the books. And perhaps one of the reasons he struggled so mightily in the writing of his nihilistic siren song The Beautiful and the Damned was because he had no way of describing how the characters escape from it all.

When I put The Great Gatsby down, my feeling was of pity—not for the characters, but for the man who breathed his life into them. “There are only the pursued, the pursuing, the busy, and the tired,” Fitzgerald observed, and one gets the sense that he was all four. There is a wistfulness about the way Nick could, after Tom’s mistress is run over and Gatsby is shot and the parties come to a crashing halt, simply leave all of it and go back home.

Home, after all, is not an illusion—not like the illicit and ill-fated romances built on fevered dreams and the mad hope that drunkenness would lead to ecstasy and the unattainable perfect evening. Home is something else. Perhaps Fitzgerald was not able to describe it, and instead gave us the next best thing: A parable that warns us to find it before it is too late.

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