To celebrate the new film of The Great Gatsby, and the fact that the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic has claimed the #1 spot on the Amazon Bestseller list (thanks in part to the Stephen Colbert Book Club), my friend Anne R. Allen is hitting the blog trail talking about The Gatsby Game, her super fabulous mystery based not only on Fitzgerald’s book, but on a real-life Gatsby figure from her past.
Take it away, Anne . . .
We’ve been hearing about the upcoming Leo DiCaprio film of The Great Gatsby for what seems like forever, but finally it’s making its debut this month.
I’m definitely going to see it when it makes its way to the Central Coast of California, since the book inspired my own novel The Gatsby Game. But I’m not sure I’m going to love it. I can’t figure out why the producers decided to make the greatest novel of the Jazz Age into a film with…no jazz.
Apparently it’s going to have a hip-hop soundtrack produced by Jay-Z. All props to Mr. Z, but I’m afraid his music isn’t likely to convey the elegant sophistication of Gatsby’s era.
When I wrote my own book about my Gatsby-obsessed anti-hero, Alistair Milbourne, I often listened to big band jazz to brainstorm plot ideas.
Alistair is a charming, self-destructive loser who tries to live as if he’s a character in an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel. Although the story is set in the 1970s, Alistair inhabits his own private, imaginary Jazz Age.
Alistair was inspired by David Whiting, a man I knew in college—who died mysteriously on the set of the Burt Reynolds movie, the Man Who Loved Cat Dancing. It sparked an international scandal that’s been called one of the “10 Most Notorious Sex Scandals in Hollywood History.”
The mystery of David’s death has never been solved, but I’ve always had a theory of how it might have happened.
The only thing I have from David is a note he left in my college dorm room. It says, “While you were out, you had a visitor…wearing spats, and a straw boater, perhaps, and humming a Cole Porter tune…maybe the ghost of Jay Gatsby?” That note plays an important part in the book’s plot.
I ran across it when I was cleaning out papers a couple of years ago. It brought a vivid memory of David. He was always humming those tunes—so completely anachronistic in the days of psychedelic rock and roll. As I read it, David’s image came to me in perfect clarity—with all his theatrical charm, narcissism, and the tragic pain that always showed just under the surface.
That was when I knew I had to write his story—and listening to Cole Porter helped me keep in touch with the memories—especially the iconic Ella Fitzgerald recording of the Cole Porter songbook from 1956.
The music itself appears in several scenes in my book. When the narrator, Nicky Conway (yeah, a little homage to Fitzgerald’s Nick Carroway there) first meets Alistair, she finds him charming but evasive. He’s constantly bursting into song to avoid conversation. As he drives her away from her Bryn Mawr dorm to who-knows-where, he responds to each of her questions by singing another line from You’re the Top—appearing to compliment her while he’s bullying her into silence.
Later, when she introduces him to her über-wealthy relatives, she finds Alistair romancing her (very married) aunt to the tune of Begin the Beguine. Throughout the story, Nicky is never quite sure how much Beguining Alistair gets up to with her aunt—and/or if some Beguining is going on with her uncle as well.
Alistair often retreats into silliness, using clever puns and wordplay to avoid real communication. I imagine him as one of the “silly gigolos” Cole Porter talks about in Anything Goes. I could also imagine Alistair responding to Nicky’s pleas for more intimacy with the line from It’s Too Darn Hot: “Mr. Pants, for romance, with his cutie pie, is not.”
As I played that 1950s recording, I realized it might have been a favorite of Alistair’s mother, whom I imagined as a kind of high-class hooker. Alistair’s primary relationship is always his love/hate enmeshment with his mother—whom he calls “the Gorgon.”
She made him into her surrogate partner whenever she was between “employers,” which is why he dresses and behaves like a member of her generation instead of his own. The rest of the time, she abandoned him in expensive boarding schools where he rubbed elbows with the children of the glittering ultra-rich that Fitzgerald and Cole Porter wrote about—perhaps triggering Alistair’s compulsive social climbing.
In the end, the Gorgon doesn’t even pay for Alistair’s funeral—as David’s mother did not—and he becomes a tragic figure in spite of the whimsical persona he invented for himself.
The honest, direct perfection of Ella Fitzgerald’s voice combined with Cole Porter’s lyrics convey to me that same tragicomic reality.
Somehow I don’t think songs like Jay Z-‘s “I love girls, girls, girls” will express that same subtle ambiguity.
I totally agree, Anne! I can’t imagine The Great Gatsby without the wonderful music of that era. I have the collection of Ella singing Cole, too, and it’s one of my favorite CDs.
Until the end of May, it will be on sale for 99c for Nook and Kindle!
Anne R. Allen is the author of six comic mysteries and a nonfiction guide for authors co-written with Catherine Ryan Hyde. Anne blogs with NYT bestselling author, Ruth Harris at http://annerallen.blogspot.com. Their blog was named one of Writers Digest’s Best 101 Websites for Writers for 2012.