American Dreamer — Listen now at Who was the Real Jay Gatsby?

It’s 11.30am on Friday, June 23 2023. I’ve been rifling the archives and punching in keywords for the past few hours. Suddenly I’m excited. I’ve found a report in a copy of Variety Magazine dated July 27, 1927. It’s unlikely to have been seen by another pair of eyes for close to a 100 years. I fumble for my mouse and grab a screen-shot. Within minutes I’m sending an email and attachment to ‘Team Gerlach’: “Thought you might be interested in this (‘Variety’ clipping attached).” I went on to explain that this discovery might support what I have been claiming all along, that Max Gerlach, the man that Professor Horst Kruse had down for the real Jay Gatsby, had been an associate of Arnold Rothstein, the gentleman gambler gangster that F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote into his legendary novel as Meyer Wolfshiem —   fixer of the 1919 World Series and the man who ‘made’ Jay Gatsby.

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In the 1930s, Scott would tell a friend at MGM that he had met Rothstein but that he had deliberately omitted most of the criminal details and crime figures he encountered during that time to preserve the “hauntedness” of the book. Although much of it had been drawn from life, Scott had selected episodes that would fit the mood, “always starting from the small focal point that impressed me—my own meeting with Arnold Rothstein.” In the novel, Gatsby is revealed as Rothstein’s protege during a memorable seven-page scene at a speakeasy on 42nd Street.

It was certainly a big IF: but what IF the Nick-Gatsby-Wolfshiem lunch date in the book had been inspired by a real-life Scott-Gerlach-Rothstein meet? It wasn’t unusual for Scott to take meetings and conversations from his own life and splice them into his fiction. So what if it was the real Max Gerlach that had introduced the real F. Scott Fitzgerald to the real Arnold Rothstein?

Later that afternoon, the show’s producer Poppy Damon emailed back: “Wow”. It was amazing. She was just looking over it now.

A few days later, Joe Nocera had made another bombshell discovery. It was an article that Joe discovered from The San Francisco Examiner dated April 1950. The story told how “the eccentric Hallam Keep Williams” had just arrived in Havana with Baron Max von Stork — the protagonist in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Williams told the reporter that he was going to write a book about the baron that would “top” Fitzgerald’s work.

Nick Carraway, Meyer Wolfshiem and Jay Gatsby in the famous lunch scene in the 1974 movie version of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redord.

It was nothing short of extraordinary. A week later and I had unearthed details about the life of Williams — who his mother was, who his father was, his upbringing in Berlin, his early career playing the theatres of Paris with his ukulele, his shared apartment with the legendary journalist, Heywood Broun. Joe would come ‘right back at ya’ with another story. Poppy another. Each of them adding a whole new dimension and a whole new route to explore. When I wasn’t hearing some booming Jazz riff breaking from the speakers I was hearing the wheels of our little Enigma Machine clicking into place.

Poppy Damon and Joe Nocera extended the scope of this series from Blanchard House with some excellent contributions from a panel of Fitzgerald experts including Kirk Curnutt of the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, Ann Margaret Daniel, Sarah Churchwell, Amar Shah, Jay McInerney, Howie Comen and of course, the daddy of them all, the great Horst Kruse, one of the original Gerlach investigators. Because of their efforts, Blanchard House have a brand new story to tell. It’s a thrilling eight-part series that really gets to the heart of what makes Gatsby great.

Hope you get as much of a buzz from listening as I did from contributing.

Who was the real Jay Gatsby? Go to Audible and find out.

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American Dreamer: Who Was Jay Gatsby?
Blanchard House
Narrator: Joe Nocera
Producer and presenter: Poppy Damon

Featured in the Independent newspaper’s top 6 podcasts for April 2024