Max von Gerlach aka Max Stork – The Original Great Gatsby?

“He started as one man I knew and then changed into myself.” That’s how the author described his most famous creation, Jay Gatsby. And on the evidence currently available there’s no reason to doubt him. Discoveries made by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Horst Kruse suggest that the ‘one man’ he knew was Max Gerlach, whose mannerisms, claims and nostalgic affectations he used for the skeleton of his hero. In the end, Gatsby may bear only the most superficial likeness to Gatsby but a series of new, exciting finds shows that he has his own no-less remarkable story to tell.

In F. Scott Fitzgerald at Work: The Making of ‘The Great Gatsby’, Horst Kruse, Professor Emeritus of English and American Literature at the University of Münster, puts together a very persuasive argument that the character of Jay Gatsby is based, at least in part, on a handsome gentleman bootlegger who went by the name Max von Gerlach, a shady acquaintance of Fitzgerald who the author had become acquainted with in Great Neck. Max certainly might account for the character’s ‘racier’ side  — the elegant young roughneck with the preposterous English mannerisms whose links to organised crime make him the subject of a bristling spark-house of rumours and innuendo — but he’s not the only source for Gatsby by any means.

The situation that we are faced with looks a little like this; on the one hand we have the munificent host or ‘party Gatsby’ based partly around Theodore Dreiser’s literary portrait of the disgraced ‘Skyrocket millionaire’ Joseph G. Robin (and perhaps even a bit of Scott’s old friend, Shane Leslie, the dreamer of Old England weaving against the “shadowed tapestries of the past”), and on the other we have the dubious hoodlum dandy inspired by Max von Gerlach —the Mr Hyde to Robin’s Dr Jekyll. Fitzgerald biographer Matthew Bruccoli took a slightly different view. He believed that Jay Gatsby was not a biological creature, but was created from a variety of sources, not least the author himself. When news first broke about possible leads on Gerlach in the early 2000s, Bruccoli had contributed what was perhaps the wisest of all guesses, that Jay was none other than Scott himself: “all of Fitzgerald’s heroes turn into Fitzgerald before the novel is over.” Scott had admitted as much himself. In a letter he wrote to his friend John Dos Passos, the author had tried to explain why the character of Gatsby was so ‘patchy’ and indistinct: “I never at any one time saw him clear myself—for he started as one man I knew and then changed into myself—the amalgam was never complete in my mind.” Bruccoli’s assessment had been based on something that Scott had said in a letter to John Peale Bishop: Gatsby had “started as one man I knew and then changed into myself.” The “amalgam”, Scott continues, had never been quite complete, and as a result the novel’s hero was “blurred and patchy.”

Just as the author splits the southern bays of Long Island into East Egg and West Egg, he also splits Gatsby into two very distinct people: there’s a ‘good’ Gatsby and there’s a ‘bad’ Gatsby. One of them is noble and giving, and the other is rough, tough and dangerous to know. If you’ve ever see that other fantasy island drama, The Tempest, you might say that he’s part-Caliban, part-Ariel, a spirit trapped in a material world. The idea of a dual personality would be explored more fully in Scott’s last completed novel, Tender is the Night, not only in terms of the actual psychological disturbances that some of its characters suffer but also in the way the book’s hero and heroine, Dick and Nicole Diver are presented in the novel as a ‘split personality’ —  an idea that possibly harked back to Zelda’s own idea that she and Scott were psychic twins. To get a handle on all of this however, there is a little bit of work to do and a few more ciphers to resolve. It’s time to approach the Gatsby novel, not as a dreamy and iconic staple of American literature, but as a puzzle to solve, or a code to crack.

Max von Gerlach as he appears in a Police Surveillance image in 1915

Rum runner or bootlegger?

Professor Kruse is the first to point out that there is no absolutely no evidence to suggest that Gerlach was ever a successful millionaire bootlegger as several biographers have claimed in the past. [1] Instead, Kruse makes a reasonable case for suggesting that Fitzgerald may have drawn his inspiration from some other aspect of Gerlach’s character or adventures, not least his skills as ‘yachtsman’, a common euphemism at the time for rum-runners operating incognito off South Bay and the Long Island Sound. [2] Whilst I haven’t been able to find an exact match for bootleggers of that name, I did come across a story from December 1919. This classic gum-shoe story has William Gerlach and his brother George being busted by agents acting on behalf of the Inland Revenue at Huntingdon Station on Long Island’s North Shore. During the investigation that followed it was learned that William Gerlach kept a hotel on New York Avenue, just a half hour walk from millionaire Otto Kahn’s Gatsby-esque mansion, Oheka Castle. William’s brother George kept another hotel at Oyster Bay. A tap was placed on their phones and a raid was carried out, but compared with the busts of Prohibition chief, Senator William C. McConnell and Secret Service chief, Matthew F. Griffin in Philadelphia two years later, it was comparatively small change. [3] The bootlegging gangs at Oyster Bay hit the headlines again in February 1927 when the schooner the William T. Bell ran aground on the beach at Oak Neck Point during a storm. After being rescued, the crew of the schooner disappeared. Police investigating the abandoned vessel discovered a whisky galore hoard of bootleg liquor with a street value of over half a million dollars. If you were looking for a credible place to set the story of a liquor tycoon, then there was probably no place better suited than Long Island’s swashbuckling North Shore, which in Scott’s imagination at least must have occupied the perilous knife-edge of romance.

That Gerlach and Scott knew each other is not in doubt. We have confirmation of this from Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, and a mysterious postcard that the author appears to have received from Gerlach in the summer of 1923. Over a torn-out newspaper cutting of Scott, his wife and their 18-month old daughter Frances, Gerlach had scrawled, “Enroute from the coast. Here for a few days business. How are you and the family, Old Sport?” [4] The newspaper caption beneath it read ominously, “The Beautiful and Damned”. Scott had arrived on Long Island the previous October and the picture showed a smiling Scott and his wife reclining on the lawn of their home with the sweetly bonneted infant between them.

In spite of the fairly chipper, Gatsby-esque term of endearment Gerlach had tagged on at the end of his message, the final result is, to my mind at least, a little sinister. Scribbling a message onto a sheet of notepaper or a postcard to let him know he was back in town was one thing, but why had Max gone to all that trouble of tearing out an old newspaper-clipping of Scott and his family when any old scrap of paper would have sufficed? What was the meaning in sending the picture? It may be worth pointing out that Gerlach’s arrival coincided with the rolling out of tougher federal measures to crush out the rum running trade on Long Island. Reports in the press reveal that an increasing number of pistol-fights between bootleggers and the sheriff’s office had been breaking out in Suffolk County. On one occasion eight deputies had come under fire from fifty to sixty gunmen overseeing the transport of over 600 cases of liquor to New York.

The gesture is made all the more sinister when you learn that a teenage Max von Gerlach, at that time known as Max Stork, had shot dead his eleven month-old brother when the family was growing up in Yonkers — an event overlooked by Kruse. A local newspaper report told a bizarre and tragic tale; the 15 year old messenger boy had been playing with his stepfather’s revolver when the gun had gone off accidentally at their 144 Herriot Street address. The child had been in its cot asleep. The parents and the two men who had raced to the scene, Doctors Shroonover and Kroner, had failed to report it for two days hoping the baby would survive its initial wounds. It was an extraordinary story. According to reports in the local press, Max’s mother Elizabeth had asked him to fetch some buttons from her sewing box in her bedroom. Max is said to have opened the bureau drawer, spotted the revolver and taken it out. Sitting at his mother’s dressing table, the boy says he looked into the mirror and saw the infant lying in the crib. He turned around and not knowing the pistol was loaded, pointed it at the head of the sleeping child and pulled the trigger. The child was said to have screamed and the boy blacked out. The young Max was arrested and the boy was allowed to go home, pending an inquest. [5]

The curious newsclippoing that Gerlach used to leave a message for Scott in July 1923

Cushman Rice and Russian Intrigue

Interestingly, the 24 East 40th Street apartment that Gerlach was using at the time he left the newspaper clipping with Scott in 1923 was little more than 500 metres from the 80 West 40th Street address used by ‘Party Gatsby’ Joseph G. Robin at the time of the 1910 US census. [6] We know this because Gerlach’s address had been scrawled in pencil over another of the addresses he had used on a Cuba to New York manifest in April 1924. The 42 Broadway address printed in type beneath it is more intriguing still, as the block was home to two major US relief missions at this time: Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration and the affiliated American Committee for Relief of German Children, a splinter organisation operating under the management of Major General Henry T. Allen. Allen had proposed the scheme to Hoover after learning that many of the country’s charities had totally withdrawn from Germany to focus their efforts on Russia. The proposal had been accepted by Hoover who publicly endorsed the appeal and provided starting funds of $50,000. [7]

Major General Henry Tureman Allen had been a military associate of Major Cushman A. Rice, a Spanish and Cuban mercenary who had made something of a small fortune in Cuba before re-enlisting with the American and British Armies during the war. [8] Just a few years earlier, Cushman Rice had been good enough to provide Gerlach with an affidavit in support of a passport application. According to Gatsby specialist, Horst Kruse, the affidavit signed by Cushman in November 1919, confirmed that he had known Gerlach well for some ten years or more and knew him to be a native of the United States. [9] However, whatever Gerlach had told Cushman about the date and location of his birth wasn’t true. Not exactly. According to other documents unearthed by Kruse and private investigator, Howard Comen, Max was born in Germany in the mid-1880s. However, we have no real way of knowing if Major Cushman was aware of this fact or not. Major Henry T. Allen, who also used Gerlach’s 42 Broadway address, was another man that Cushman knew well, this time from his days as a ‘soldier of fortune’. Allen and Rice had both had volunteered to fight in the Spanish-American and Filipino Wars, and both men had similarly triumphed in putting down the Boxer rebellion in China shortly afterward. Like Gerlach, Major Allen was an “impeccable dandy” who had served as attaché in Moscow (1890-95), Berlin (1897-1898) and also as a combat officer in Cuba and the Philippines.[10] Shortly before taking control of the Relief Mission, the Major had been in command of America’s Army of Occupation in Germany. Clinching his appointment in the last few weeks of 1922 had been a report drafted by Hoover showing that over 20, 000, 000 people were now in a state of serious malnourishment and in danger of being starved. The man who had recruited Allen for the job was Irving T. Bush, President of the New York Chamber of Commerce. [11]

This wasn’t the first time Gerlach’s name had cropped up in connection with an American Relief mission. Federal agents running a background check on Gerlach in June 1917 had found that he had managed to procure a passport from Major James A. Ryan, during one particularly drunken evening at the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin in 1914. In the period that the FBI were discussing, Ryan had just been installed as head of transportation at the American Relief Commission then operating out of its Embassy. Ryan, a friend of future President Harding, had, just like Max, interests and connections in Mexico dating back to April 1916 when he had acted as chief of Intelligence during Pershing’s expedition to subdue revolutionary leader, Pancho Villa. Also like Max, Ryan was fluent in Spanish. According to the report, Ryan was residing at the Hotel Kaiserhof in Berlin at the time that that Max secured the passport. A report on Operations of United States Relief Commission in Europe confirms that James A, Ryan was conducting his relief effort from the hotel during this period.

The coincidences may be crude, perhaps, but they are not without merit. In 1914 Gerlach’s first point of contact in Germany was Relief chief, Major James Ryan, and just ten years later we find that he is sharing an address with Major Henry T. Allen’s Hoover-endorsed Relief mission. In addition to this, Major Allen, Major Ryan and Scott’s brother-in-law, Newman Smith had all played prominent roles in the 1916 expedition to Mexico — an expedition that had given rise to a whole new Intelligence department, the MID. By the time that Gerlach was returning from his trip to Cuba in April 1924, his friend Cushman Rice appears to have been back in Havana. A fresh plot to overthrow the country’s Zayas government had just been narrowly averted. The plot, worked out secretly in New York by the newly exiled, General Carlos Garcia-Velez, had been swiftly put down by the government acting on Intelligence picked-up in America. As Gerlach disembarked in New York the General’s brother Mario Garcia-Velez and sugar merchant Carlos Alzugaray of the Patriot and Veterans Association were being arrested and taken into custody. Travel records show that Colonel Rice was making regular trips to and from Cuba during the same 1923-1924 period.

General Pershing and the 1922 New York Prohibition Scandal

According to Professor Horst Kruse, the nephew of expedition leader, General John J. Pershing crops up in a character reference on Gerlach’s 1942 World War II Draft Registration Card. In the field marked ‘person who will always know your address’ Max had entered James Fletcher Pershing Jr, the son of the General’s younger brother. After being discharged from the Motor Supply Depot of the US Army in 1919, the 28 year old quickly moved on from his position as President of the Nonpareil Fuel Corporation to taking up the role of Assistant Prohibition Director of the State of New York. The appointment wasn’t to last. By August 1922 he was out of the job. A Federal investigation had been launched into his immediate superior, Ralph A. Day and it was later reported that Pershing had resigned before he had been forced to quit. According to the Federal authorities, the investigation centred chiefly around the disappearance of 4,900 cases of Auld Scotch whisky and 295 cases of Champagne from the warehouse of the Republic Storage Company on the corner of 12th Avenue and West 45th Street.

Those indicted included six suspended prohibition agents. It was claimed that the Prohibition directors had accepted cash from King of New York bootleggers, Emanuel ‘Mannie’ Kessler, a known associate of gangster Arnold Rothstein. It is believed that each of the men had been involved in a conspiracy to obtain the liquor on forged customs permits. The press reports describe how the liquor would be reappropriated on forged customs permits and Kessler, using trucks organised by Rothstein’s man, Frank Costello, would haul the cases from the Hudson Yard warehouse to Long Island and load them on to boats moored off The Sound ready for distribution along the coast. Pershing Jr, who requested but was refused immunity declined to testify.

In an extraordinary twist, another of the prohibition agents indicted by the court was Special Agent Harry W. Grunewald, the man who had compiled an intelligence report on Max Gerlach for the Bureau of Investigation in June 1917. For former Agent Grunewald, the New York liquor scandal of 1922 was only the first of several run-ins with the Federal authorities. In 1953, he became the subject of a sensational Senate inquiry. It seems that Grunewald, now being dubbed by the press as a ‘mysterious wirepuller in Washington’, had been involved in various illegal tax schemes featuring senior members of both the Republic and Democratic parties. There was another bombshell three years later when a further investigation revealed that Grunewald had been paid $75,000 by the Chinese Government to purchase 100 fighter planes in defiance of government policy.

Since his shameful exit from the prohibition department, Grunewald had become the go-to man for getting dirt on everyone from judges to district attorneys. Politics didn’t even come into it. Just as it was for Rothstein, it was always about the cash. Among his broad and unfussy parade of clients was Union leader, John L. Lewis, a hardened isolationist who broke with Roosevelt on entry into the Second World War, and sprawling media behemoths like the American Broadcasting Company. Another of those that Grunewald had helped over the years was Tommy Corcoran, the war-time advisor to President Roosevelt. If you wanted unsavoury information about your rivals, Grunewald was the man for the job. His ability to ignore all the traditional political and ethical boundaries that narrowed the field of his rivals meant he was always in demand. After several years of inquiries, the ‘influence peddler’ was sentenced to five years in prison for tax fixing. Just two weeks before Gerlach died at Bellevue Hospital in New York, Grunewald, the ‘colourful mystery man’ suffered a fatal stroke in Washington. At the time of his death, he was awaiting a third trial on conspiring to fix income tax lawsuits.

During the course of the Senate Inquiry into Grunewald’s affair in the 1950s, it was learned that ‘The Dutchman’, as he was now being referred to by the press, had been recruited for special assignments early on in his detective career by millionaire anti-Communist, Henry W. Marsh, whose cosy relationship with the British Secret Service resulted in several audacious plots — the most sensational of them being the recruitment of ex-Soviet spy (and probable double agent) Jacob Nosovitzky. The pair’s relationship with the British Secret Service adds an intriguing new dimension to Gatsby’s English affectations and the large number of well dressed Englishmen “dotted about” at Gatsby’s parties. Marsh was a notorious anglophile. In fact his fondness ran so deep that for several months of the year he would lease Warwick Castle from the Earl of Warwick where he would entertain friends like Charles Spencer-Churchill, the 9th Earl of Marlborough and first cousin of Winston Churchill.

In September 1925, Nosovitsky revealed that Marsh, working closely with Scotland Yard and J. Edgar Hoover, had hired him on behalf of a private organisation made-up of capitalist businessmen from around the world. His job, he was told, was to infiltrate the Communist Party of America and sabotage it from within. Accompanying Marsh to the pair’s first meeting at the Hotel Plaza in 1921 was ex-Commissioner Woods, the man who appears to have been personally responsible for recruiting Grunewald’s bootlegging associate — and fellow arms trader — Murray W. Garsson into the ‘special services’ department of the NYPD in the previous decade. Nosovitzky’s name would crop again in 1937 when he was declared the main suspect in the kidnap and murder of old Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr — the two year old son of aviator, and future anti-war activist, Charles Lindbergh. In a worrying twist it transpires that Grunwald’s old bootlegging associate, Murray W. Garsson — the man who was alleged to have brokered the deal between Mannie Kessler and James F. Pershing Jr — had attempted to shift the focus of the Police investigation onto the parents themselves when he volunteered to ‘solve’ the case in March 1932. Garsson, appointed assistant Secretary of Labor by Presdient Herbert Hoover in 1930, would be the subject of a separate Senate inquiry when it was discovered that he had been supplying illegal munitions in Cuba and bribing chief of the Military Affairs Commitee, Andrew J. May for multi-million dollar war contracts at the onset of WWII. Grunewald’s efforts to stamp out anarchism in the USA went all the way back to 1919 when acting as head of a private detective agency, he spearheaded raids on Ludwig Martens’ so-called ‘Soviet Bureau’ on West 40th Street. The work that he did on the investigation led directly to Palmer Raids — the most brutal and comprehensive sweep of anarchists and communist sympathizers to have taken place in the America up to that point in time. The legendary ‘Red Scare’ had been born and Harry Grunewald was leading the charge.

General John J. Pershing himself would be mentioned in several letters written by Scott revealing the names of people who were attending the parties in Great Neck. Newspaper reports published in September 1922 suggest that General Pershing was all set to rent a mansion at Elms Point owned by theatrical producer, Arthur Hammerstein, whose legendary work with his father for Otto Kahn and the Metropolitan and Chicago opera companies would bring him contact with several Gerlach associates. The man handling negotiations for the lease was James F. Pershing Sr. As news broke of Ralph A. Day’s indictment and the demands for Pershing Jr to testify at the trial, the General seems to have changed his mind. Instead of Great Neck he announced plans that he was heading to the infinitely more secluded Naushon Island between Buzzard’s Bay and the Vineyard Sound. Whether he actually went through with this remains unknown although he certainly used the playground island to vocation from time to time.

In her interview with Henry Dan Piper in March 19147, Zelda Fitzgerald is alleged to have said that Max was a ‘nephew of General Pershing or something’. This was patently not the case, but the reason for her confusion might be simple: Zelda had been confused after being introduced to both men at the parties that she and Scott attended in Great Neck, or Max, for whatever reason, was being introduced as the General’s nephew (perhaps as a way of greasing his way into more the more privileged elites). By contrast, the information we have on James is a little less ambiguous than it is on Max.

Colonel Rice, the man who had provided Gerlach with a reference in support of his passport application in 1919 and helped grease his way into the army just two years before, would eventually feature in a book by journalist and traveller, Basil Woon in which the writer would present him as a larger-than-life adventurer, drifting from one crazy scheme to the next with his finger in many pies. The book was published, incidentally by Horace Liveright, a friend of both the author Theodore Dreiser and his sometime legal adviser J.G. Robin. Cushman’s short but memorable entry in Woon’s book reads:

Cushman A. Rice: Son of ex-Governor A. E. Rice of Minnesota

Better known as “Cush” Rice to friends in Central America, Mexico, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, China and elsewhere. Left college in 1896 and almost immediately thereafter appeared as brigadier-general in Guatemalan Army, but when he returned to America for Spanish-American war service they only made him a captain of the Thirty-Fourth U. S. Volunteer Infantry. Had a good record in the Philippines, especially because he bought, owned and operated the first automobile ever seen in the Islands.

Since then has been mixed up in various Central American revolutions, it being said that whenever the munitions business was a little low “Cush” Rice would disappear from New York and soon thereafter the President of some small republic would lose his job. For some years now has “settled down” to leisurely tours of the world. Has cattle ranches in Cuba, homes in Paris and Shanghai and New York, and $6,000,000. Is also a Major of Aviation, U. S. R, and was one of America’s first pilots”. [12]

At this point you’re probably thinking that the recruitment of a dubious playboy bootlegger into an official joint-military relief mission operating from 42 Broadway sounds like the stuff of fantasy, but there’s a little bit more to the story than that. In December 1922, Major Cushman Rice, the man who supported Gerlach’s application for the army and his passport overseas, had been dispatched by American Relief Administration chief, Herbert Hoover to Russia and Ukraine, where he was tasked with overseeing the mass evacuation of refugees amassing around the Turkish borders. Speaking at a Constitution Week address shortly after his return, Major Rice provided an emotional account of the appalling scenes of “tyranny, pestilence and poverty” he had witnessed in Soviet Russia: “I wish I could get every parlour Socialist or person dissatisfied with the present American constitution to Soviet Russia for a few weeks residence … I would guarantee that they have desire to do away with the present American constitution and establish a Soviet Government, a government that is run as tyrannically as any monarchy or oligarchy of the past ages.” Rice then went on to explain how he had visited the Ukrainian city of Odessa where he found that all the freedom, prosperity, beauty and plenty of its wonderful past had simply vanished. In its place he had found poverty of the direst kind with bodies heaped in piles on the street and others left to starve in their homes. [13]

42 Broadway. Max Gerlach’s 1923 business address. Also home to Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration

More Relief Operations. More Coincidences

Extraordinarily, the coincidences didn’t end with Cushman Rice. Among those who had been recruited into the operations of the Relief Administration was Scott’s brother-in-law, Major Newman Smith, a die-hard Alabamian who had married Zelda’s older sister Rosalind Sayre shortly before being deployed to France in October 1917. After serving with distinction in the Machine Guns battalion of the 42nd ‘Rainbow Division’ Newman was promoted to Major. His experience dated back to before the war when Smith had organised a machine gun company back in his hometown when trouble had been brewing in Mexico. The initiative the young man had shown wasn’t overlooked, and in March 1916, Captain Newman and a detachment of the Alabama Old Fourth were dispatched as part of General Pershing’s ‘punitive’ expedition to subdue the revolutionary forces being led by Pancho Villa in and around Nogales and the border town regions. The troops would be joined here by cavalry regiment under the command of 42 Broadway’s, General Henry T. Allen. Allen had previously captained Newman in the 6th Cavalry Regiment during the Moro Rebellion in the Philippines in 1906 to 1907.

A short time later, the 29 year old Captain was re-appointed aide de camp to Herbert Hoover as part of his humanitarian relief operations in Europe. In 1925 a cable sent by Newman Smith to Captain James V. Martin of the A.R.A relief ship, Lake Fray, would find itself at the centre of a Senate investigation into illegal arms activities taking place in the final months of the war. Captain Martin had alleged that in July 1919, as anti-Bolshevik forces made serious advances against the Red Army defending Petrograd, he had received a message from Herbert Hoover’s London and Paris offices instructing him to take the cargo of food intended for millions of famine victims and reload it with trucks and military supplies in support of an imminent attack on Lenin. Martin further alleged that it had all been part of a ‘secret compact’ between Hoover and Winston Churchill to conduct a clandestine war with Russia. A document shown at the 1925 Senate hearings reveals Newman giving Captain Martin specific instructions to change the assignment of this vessel and the cargo it had on board. A few years later, Martin would come to the aid of bootleggers when he announced plans for a ‘floating booze palace’ just outside the three-mile limit of New York. With the backing of several New York financiers, Martin’s Recreation Ticket Corporation planned to serve alcohol on a recreation vessel moored in the farthest extreme of the harbour.

Cable from Major Newman Smith instructing Captain James V. Martin of Lake Fray to change his cargo, dated July 24 1919.

After his discharge in August 1919, Newman found work as chief auditor at the new office opened by the Guaranty Trust Company in Constantinople. In July 1920, whilst temporarily employed at the company’s Belgium office, Newman set sail for Turkey aboard the SS Megali Hellas, his wife following him a few weeks later. The name of the ship, which had changed its name from the SS Byron that year before, couldn’t have been any more apt, meaning ‘Big’ or ‘Great idea’ in Greek and embodied the restoration of a once powerful Christian empire. Arriving on the ship from Greece that same day was a young George Steffanides and his family. The Harvard educated scientist, born on Lesbos, the ‘Island of the Poets’, would recall the family’s 12-day journey to New York in the steerage of the ship in his 1974 autobiography, America, the Land of My Dreams: The Odyssey of a Greek Immigrant. The ship had brought him and 3,000 other hopeful immigrants from Piraneus in Athens, the port used by the mythical ‘Odysseus’ to embark on his own epic journey.

In an interview she gave to the Birmingham Age Herald in June 1921, Newman’s wife Rosalind Sayre provides a moving account of the appalling scenes the couple had witnessed as result of the mass evacuations of Greeks and Russian ‘whites’ to the Turkish borders: “There are Russians by the thousands too: all of Wrangel’s defeated army and the entire population of the Crimea came here, fleeing the Bolshevist and they make a sombre spot on an otherwise gay and carefree place. They are penniless, most of them having come only with the clothes on their backs, and they’re getting food any way they can, selling shoelaces and selling flowers or begging — princes and princesses alike and humble alike.” The Straits (Constantinople, Sykes-Picot) Agreement signed by Britain, France and Tsarist Russia in April 1915 had placed the Near East region at the top of America’s watch-list. The nation’s dream was going global.

Master of Deception, Newman Smith, Scott’s brother-in-law
(1920 passport photo)

The future possibilities of imports and exports to and from the Eastern Mediterranean, the Sea of Marmora, and the Black Sea were being described by analysts as unbelievable in their proportions. Having its most outstanding officers occupy senior commercial and relief positions in the city would have been essential to maintaining some degree of influence, traction and ‘compliance’ in the region. The ‘freedom of the Straits’ was fast becoming a very critical security and economic issue. After some twelve months monitoring the situation, representatives at The Guaranty Trust Company were reporting that after a promising start, financial conditions in the country were in a “chaotic state” . Just six months earlier the company had been reporting that American trade in the region was developing fast and favourably. However, in January 1921, Turkey’s Prime Minister, Kemal Pasha threatened a pact with Soviet Russia that would throw the whole country into turmoil — American and British trade with it. In October that year, Newman and Rosalind Smith were back in Brussels.

Another of the men who appeared on Gerlach’s illustrious list of army referees in August 1918 was Judge Aaron J. Levy, a leading Democrat and hard-working head of the American Jewish Congress, who, like Major Rice, had also just returned from a fact-finding mission to Russia assessing the wretchedly desperate plight of the refugees in the Baltic States, Spain and Germany. As a result, the American Jewish Relief Committee was duly reinvigorated with Levy elected chief officer and the super-lawyer Samuel Untermyer offering the support The Palestine Restoration Fund. [14] A bill demanding the immediate cessation of restrictions on immigration was duly put together by the groups with Dr Stephen Wise and Aaron Levy pressing for urgent readings at the Senate. [15] Of course, there’s no guarantee that Max von Gerlach was employed in any capacity at all by any of the various missions operating out of 42 Broadway. It was large, sprawling building with numerous other companies inhabiting the same one block, but in light of other concerns we’ve looked at — and other concerns I’ll come to soon — it’s still something of a curiosity, especially when viewed against the young drifter’s prior association with Relief leader, Cushman Rice.

At the time that Max enlisted with Ordnance Corps of the US Army in 1918, the handsome thirty-three year old had refused to answer questions relating to his ethnicity and his parents. As a consequence his application form was duly reviewed by the American Protective League, an organization made up largely of volunteers working alongside the Department of Justice whose job it was to identify German sympathizers and subversives attempting to enlist in the US Military. According the research undertaken by Professor Horst Kruse, the review concluded that there “should rest grave suspicion” on bona fides that Max had provided. [16] The man that Gerlach had included in his list of references, George Bauchle, a well-known figure on Broadway, turned out to be an attorney for gangster and Tammany Hall strongman, Arnold Rothstein who is believed to have provided the character inspiration for Gatsby’s shady, Mephistophelean mentor Meyer Wolfshiem.

Peculiarly enough, at the time that Gerlach was completing his application for the US Army, Bauchle and Arnold Rothstein had sent out an invite to Russian trade and banking official, Count Nicholas Iseguine to attend a series of card games, first at the Partridge Club at Hotel Imperial and then at the Olympic Club at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. It was alleged that the Russian officer had arrived in New York as part of an official trade delegation prior to the First Revolution in Russia with plans to raise loans for a series of Russian state banks throughout the United States. [17] The $26,000 losses the envoy would suffer at the hands of Rothstein and Bauchle’s card sharks had dire results. A short-time after the game took place, Count Iseguine was found with gunshot wounds to his chest at his apartment at 9 East Forty Seventh Street in the so-called ‘diamond district’ of Manhattan. Just a few hours earlier the Count had signed a cheque for $26, 400 and handed it over to Rothstein and Bauchle’s gambling associate, John Shaughnessy, President of the club. Admitted to hospital he was duly pressed by police about his injuries. The Russian, who had been seconded to the Russian Supply Committee operating at 120 Broadway some years before, claimed he had gone back to his room and shot himself by accident. [18] The envoy — a State Inspector of the Russian Savings Banks — had arrived in New York as part of a special commission assigned by the former Finance Minister of the old Imperial (Tsarist) Government, Pyotr Bark. After the February Revolution, Prime Minister Kerensky had replaced Bark with Mikhail Tereshchenko.

Having recovered from his injuries, Iseguine would be asked to take the stand at an inquiry into gambling at Rothstein and Bauchle’s Partridge and Olympic clubs that had been set up in some haste by Manhattan District Attorney, Edward Swann in March that year. [19] When later questioned in court, the Count explained how a series of unfortunate circumstances had led to him visiting the gambling club. In Petrograd, Iseguine had always been in the habit of carrying large sums of money around in his pockets and set out to walk one day from his apartment off Fifth Avenue to Washington Square. There was a lot of activity out on the street as the New York Boy Scouts were having their first parade. He had stopped to watch the spectacle and whilst doing so, was relieved of some $1, 700 by light-fingered mid-town pickpockets. His trip to the club had been an attempt to recoup his losses. George Bauchle, one of the several prominent military and legal figures who had provided the necessary bona fides for Gerlach’s army and passport applications, had served alongside Shaughnessy as President of Rothstein’s Club.

When cross-examined in court the Count said he never been introduced to Bauchle despite the fact that Bauchle had appeared at the final game. According to Police, Count Iseguine had lost nine out of every ten games of bridge and whist he had played at the club. The anti-vice squad also revealed how they had found evidence of a spy ring operating at the club and the names of several important individuals had been recovered. When  questioned about the incident, the Count said he had no idea who was in receipt of his money. [20] Before long, Bauchle’s council, the respected former judge, William M.K. Olcott helped get the charges against him and the Partridge Club dropped. Over the years Bauchle’s handling of tricky divorces had endeared him to some of New York’s most powerful families. In January 1920 he and Shane Leslie’s cousin, William Travers Jerome had both been consulted by Mrs Harding Davis, the wife of Theodore Roosevelt’s journalist friend, Richard Harding Davis after his particularly messy affair with Miss Bessie McCoy, the  ‘Yama Yama’ girl of Broadway.[21]

In October 1919, some 12 months after the shooting of Captain Iseguine, the envoy’s immediate superior at the Russian Supply Committee, the long-serving munitions chief, Colonel Oranovsky, died as the result of injuries he had suffered in an accident on the Brooklyn subway. Oranovsky’s recovery was sufficient enough that he was allowed to leave hospital. But just three weeks later, the former chief of the Tsar’s Military Cabinet was found dead at his home in Long Beach, Long Island, an area closely associated with Broadway mobster Arnold Rothstein and his Prohibition triangle, affectionately dubbed ‘Rum Row’ by the New York coast guard. [22] Oranovsky’s death coincided, curiously enough, with an investigation that was being launched into some shady illegal arms deal between Grayson M.P Murphy’s Guaranty Trust and suspected German spy, James Manoil. A year later, Murphy would hit the headlines again. This time he was accused of withholding over $5 million that had been deposited in Murphy’s bank by the Provisional Kerensky Government in Russia in July 1917. [23] Long Island would get its first fictional makeover in 1919 when it became the focus of Harold MacGrath’s baffling spy caper, The Private Wire from Washington in which a team of Secret Service agents stake out a country mansion owned by a millionaire on the Island’s gold coast. In adverts it was described as tangle of intrigue and romance, so ‘deep themed’ that not even the Secret Service could unravel it. Innocent people are suspected of disloyalty to their country, while the guilty ones go free. Even Great Neck gets a mention. [24]

Rothstein and Gerlach. Gatsby and Wolfsheim

The link between Rothstein and Gerlach becomes even more compelling on discovering that the ‘Speakeasy’ being run by Gerlach at 51 West 58th Street was owned by Rothstein. According to a report in Variety Magazine dated July 27 1927, Gerlach was charged alongside Los Angeles publisher Kenneth Ford for aggravated assault on a Police officer and selling bootleg liquor.  According the magazine’s reporter, New York detectives Thomas Weppler and Bill Shelly had walked into the four-storey ‘brown-front studio’ and found a bottle of whisky on the bar. Words were exchanged, a badge was pulled out and Gerlach and his patron, Kenneth Ford attempted to bundle Detective Weppler out of the premises. At this point a violent struggle ensued. The much taller Ford pinned back Weppler’s arms while Gerlach punched him on the jaw. Detective Shelly leapt to Weppler’s defence and wrestled him free. The detectives shouted to waiting officers and a full raid was carried out, the stout wooden doors of the studio crashing in. The bar was just a few hundred feet from the Plaza Hotel and Gerlach’s patrons were said to be “quite exclusive”. The following month Magistragte, Abrhama Rosenbluth awarded Gerlach a $15.00 fine and Max returned to the club. [25] In 1929, bootlegger Sherman Billingsley opened the Stork Club — famously dubbed “New York’s New Yorkiest place on W. 58th” by gossip columnist Walter Winchell — less than fifty feet from Gerlach’s Club. Billingsley claims to have no knowledge of why he chose the name but its tempting to think that Max Stork may have featured somewhere in the mobster’s decision.

With so many gaps and contradictions in Gerlach’s life it’s a little difficult to know what to make of him. In the mid-1950s Gerlach made efforts to contact Scott’s first biographer, Arthur Mizener. He was eager to tell his side of the story: how he had befriended Scott and how he may have inadvertently influenced the creation of Jay Gatsby. Mizener was less than enthusiastic, ignoring the first of his calls to his office and then exchanging a series of rather lukewarm letters with him in the early 1950s. It wasn’t Mizener’s fault. The idea that Scott had based such an ethereal romantic prototype as Jay Gatsby on any one person had always seemed slightly implausible, and the one person who had been in any kind of position to provide evidence was now dead. Within months of talking to Dan Piper about Gerlach (who he misspelled ‘Guerlach’) Zelda Fitzgerald was killed in an accident as she awaited electroshock therapy at a sanatorium in North Carolina. A fire had erupted in the kitchen and spread quickly through the rest of the building. Zelda and several other women had been on the top floor. To help them sleep, the women had taken sedatives. They never stood a chance. Anything that Gerlach had to say about his relationship would be impossible to corroborate, a thankless enough distraction at the best of times, and far worse for someone working on the first serious biography of the author’s life. Fair’s fair. The whole thing was likely to have been a wild goose chase. [26] With hindsight however, it may be possible to take a fresh look. Professor’s Kruse’s work on Gerlach has made it possible to explore new routes, and as with any cold case review, the best place to start would be with the figures that we know a little bit more about, people whose lives, or more specifically, people’s whose criminal activities, may have criss-crossed with those of Gerlach. And the person I am thinking of is Arnold Rothstein, the legendary New York gangster who gave rise to Meyer Wolfshiem, the man who really created Gatsby.

Part II continued here

Part III … (Max marries into the mob, Scott’s meeting with gangster Arnold Rothstein, Edward M. Fuller, Arnold Rothstein and the 1919 World Series)


Chapters from Becoming Gatsby: How the High Priest of the Jazz Age Wrote the Gospel of the American Dream. Some items of interest have previously been shared with author Horst Kruse in a series of private emails between March 2021 and August 2022.

F. Scott Fitzgerald at Work: The Making of The Great Gatsby (Paperback)

[1] F. Scott Fitzgerald at Work: The Making of The Great Gatsby, Horst H. Kruse, University of Alabama Press, 2014, p.24

[2] Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, Matthew J. Bruccoli, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981, p.183

[3] ‘Contraband Liquor Seize’, Riverhead County Review, December 19, 1919, p.2

[4] F. Scott Fitzgerald at Work: The Making of The Great Gatsby, Horst H. Kruse, University of Alabama Press, 2014, p.17; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: a Literary Reference, Matthew J. Bruccoli, Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2002, pp.21-22. The picture that accompanies the text appears to have been owned by ‘Fotograms News Photo Service Inc’ (381 Fourth Avenue, New York), an agency supplying press images for titles like the Washington Times, New York Tribune, New York Herald and Boston Post, during the period 1920-1925. Matthew J. Brucolli initially worked with Private Investigator Howard G. Comen in solving the mystery.

[5] ‘Shot Baby Brother, Max Stork, 13, Arrested on Homicide Charge (Yonkers)’, Boston Sunday Globe 28 January 1900, p.4;Washington Times, January 29, 1901, p.6. The 1900 US Census has him down as Max Stock born Germany, 1885, living at 144 Herriot Street. He is living with his mother Elizabeth (37), brothers Bruno (16) and Alfred (5).

[6] F. Scott Fitzgerald at Work: The Making of the Great Gatsby, Horst H. Kruse, University of Alabama Press, 2014, p.23. Professor Kruse discovered this address on the manifest of the ship, SS Esperanza during a trip Gerlach made from Cuba to New York City on April 7, 1924. Kruse speculates that this may be his residential address and that the other address he lists, 42 Broadway may be his business address.  It’s not clear whether Gerlach mailed the cutting to Scott or just popped it through the letterbox of his house. It was kept in Scott’s scrapbook.

[7] ‘American Relief in Volga District extends’, New York Herald, January 01, 1922, p.2; The Life of Herbert Hoover: Imperfect Visionary, 1918–1928, Kendrick A. Clements, Palgrave MacMillan, 2010, p.457; ‘Food From American Kin’, Bismarck Tribune, March 24, 1924, p.11; An American Epic, Herbert Hoover, Regnery, 1961, p.335

[8] When it’s Cocktail Time in Cuba, Basil Woon, Horace Liveright, p.181, p.241; ‘Soldier of Fortune and Expert Engineer, Warren Evening Times, July 12, 1918, p.3

[9] F. Scott Fitzgerald at Work: The Making of The Great Gatsby, Horst H. Kruse, University of Alabama Press, 2014, pp.32-38

[10] Squandered Victory: The American First Army at St. Mihiel, James H. Hallas, Praeger Publishers, 1995,  p.69

[11] ‘Bush Aids Relief Drive’, New York Times, 23 December 1923, p.2

[12] When it’s Cocktail Time in Cuba, Basil Woon, Horace Liveright, p.181

[13] ‘Col Rice says one trip to Soviet Russia would cure radicals and socialists’, The Bismarck Tribune, September 21, 1923, p.6

[14] It will be recalled that Untermyer had worked on the Carnegie Trust Company investigation and that Robin was by this time occupying an office at 50 Union Square, New York (Germania Life Insurance Company Building). The building also played host to the Palestine Restoration Fund (Keren Hayseod) where Untermyer was President.

[15] Chicago Sentinel, October 14 1921, p.4

[16] F. Scott Fitzgerald at Work: The Making of The Great Gatsby, Horst H. Kruse, University of Alabama Press, 2014, p.32

[17] ‘Came with Plan for Russian Banks in the United States’, Washington Post, January 17, 1918, p.1

[18] Cards cost Russian $24,000 in a night

[19] ‘Lost money gambling’, Bisbee Daily Review, March 7, 1918, p.2

[20] ‘Gambling Raiders Find Spy Evidence’, New York Sun, March 18, 1918, p.14; ‘Russian Count who Attempted Suicide’, New York Tribune, March 7, 1918, p.14

[21] ‘David, if divorced, may wed Yama Yama Girl’, Boston Post, January 21, 1910, p.2

[22] Philadelphia Inquirer, 03 October 1918. p2. Colonel Oranovsky had arrived in New York in June 1917 just as Kerensky’s provisional government began to make good on the trading opportunities discussed by former American Secretary of State, Elihu Root (one time legal partner of Robin and Dreiser’s friend, Arthur Carter Hume) and Minister-Chairman Kerensky in Petrograd that summer. Oranovsky’s colleagues at the Russian Supply Committee in New York included Professor Yury Lomonosov (Ministry of Railways) and Professor Nikolai Borodin (Ministry of Agriculture).

[23] Boston Post, January 8, 1919, p.6

[24] ‘Book Reviews’, New York Times, Supplement, March 30, 1919, p.

[25] ‘Speakeasy Battle’, Variety, 27 July 1927, Vol 88 Iss 2, p.56; ‘Fighting Fines’, Variety, August 3, 1927, Vol 88 Iss 3, p.32

[26] Although there’s no current evidence the two were related, it’s interesting to note that Max’s namesake in Berlin, Max von Gerlach and his son Hellmut von Gerlach, both sat on the board of Andrew Carnegie’s International Peace Bureau.

© Written and researched by Alan Sargeant, 2022.

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