As invisible guests at the Gatsby mansion, it is hard not to be impressed by the spacious beauty of the rooms, the celebrity guests at his parties and the utter abandon of gorgeous women.
Intriguing, too, is the host, Jay Gatsby, who does not seem to draw pleasure from the swirling colors, laughter and forced gaiety that surrounds him. What emptiness does he feel that cannot by filled by wealth and fame?
One possession he wants is the beautiful Daisy Buchanan, married to a racist, rich and arrogant Tom Buchanan, a possession Gatsby is destined to lose, along with his life when he is betrayed by Tom.
If you haven’t read the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel or seen the movie starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and Mia Farrow as Daisy, here’s a brief outline of the plot:
Gatsby is a native of South Dakota who, as a World War I officer stationed in the South, meets and falls in love with Daisy. A blank in his resume’ follows, which presumably is filled with the accumulation of drug stores as bootlegging outlets that make him wealthy.
The narrator of the film, Nick, a man of integrity played by Sam Waterston, rents a cottage on the edge of the Gatsby estate and is invited to one of the parties. Gatsby is drawn to Nick by his genuine character and discovers that Daisy is Nick’s cousin.
Nick arranges for Jay and Daisy to meet for tea hosted by Nick, which ignites the old flame between the two.
As a symbol of the working class we meet George Wilson, who lives with his cheaply sexy wife Myrtie, over his garage and filling station. George kowtows to his wealthy customers as if they are sultans. Neither George nor Daisy knows that Myrtie is the abused mistress of Tom Buchanan.
One afternoon, bored with the sameness of the mansion and pool, the Gatsby party — Jay, Tom, Daisy and Nick — drive into Manhattan and rent a suite at the Ritz Carlton.
Over several drinks, Jay confronts Tom asserting his love for Daisy. She flees the emotional crisis recklessly driving Jay’s yellow roadster, which strikes and kills Myrtie who in desperation to get away from her husband ran into the street. Tom later tells George that Jay had driven the car that killed Myrtie.
You can guess how the movie ends.
When the credits roll, the dominant feeling is emptiness. To me, the film is a poster for perhaps the worst decade in American life.
It is a decade whose first three years saw the gross national product jump from $69 billion to $93 billion, a decade of false puritanism in prohibition, which made both elegant and crude criminals rich, a decade in which immigrants poured in from Eastern Europe creating social upheavals in the newly urbanized America, a decade whose wealth did not trickle down to the working classes, a decade which gave rise to a reborn Ku Klux Klan.
Celebrated as “The Roaring Twenties,” it was actually a period whose civil religion was decadent excess, whose priestess was the flapper and whose communion wine was bathtub gin.
To reassert bedrock American morality, the “reform” of prohibition was enacted with its unintended consequence of the creation of criminal empires.
Another enforcer of pure morality was the zealously patriotic, one hundred percent Protestant Ku Klux Klan. The 1920’s Klan was not the bombers and beaters of the 1960’s Klan. It was more a fraternity of the common man.
Most Americans in the South and Midwest viewed the excesses of the super rich with disgust. Many ordinary Americans, especially the working class, enjoyed the camaraderie of fraternal orders such as the Elks and the Klan.
Jazz was not played in their churches and flappers in the pews would be regarded as scandalous. Their values were not represented by the Gatsbys but by Presidents Harding and Coolidge.
A scholar of the Midwestern Klan had this to say: “Indiana’s Klansmen represented a wide cross section of society: they were not disproportionately urban or rural, nor were they significantly more or less likely than other members of society to be from the working class, middle class, or professional ranks.
“Klansmen were Protestants, of course, but they cannot be described exclusively or even predominantly as fundamentalists. In reality, their religious affiliations mirrored the whole of white Protestant society, including those who did not belong to any church.”
It may be jarring to contemporary sensibilities to think the Klan had more in common with ordinary Americans than the Great Gatsby, but I won’t be going to see the latest version. Who wants to recapture that empty feeling?
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.