05/01/2013 06:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What's as Compelling as The Great Gatsby in 3D? The Story of F. Scott Fitzgerald in the South of France


The budget was $105 million, and as the May 10 opening of Baz Lurhmann's 3D adaptation of The Great Gatsby approaches, it feels like another $105 million is being spent to promote it. F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel sold few copies in 1925; now The Great Gatsby tops the Amazon bestseller list, with 125,000 copies already sold this year and the publisher pumping out 350,000 more paperbacks with Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover. Tiffany, Prada and Brooks Brothers -- all have The Gatsby product, their legendary names fitting snugly into the promotion.

Gatsby is everywhere -- but is this Gatsby? No one I know has seen the film, but I do have access to an expert on the novel, its author and his social circle: Amanda Vaill, author of Everybody Was So Young, a biography of Gerald and Sara Murphy. Like Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the Murphys were a Golden Couple, the personification of the '20s: young, beautiful, gifted. Unlike the Fitzgeralds, they were rich. Their home in the South of France was a magnet for the Fitzgeralds, Ernest Hemingway, Cole Porter, Stravinsky, Picasso (who was in love with Sara) and Cocteau -- though they were stars on their own, they all orbited the Murphys.

We'd call them pretentious, but in their time... in the morning, Gerald would rake the sand outside his home in Antibes, creating something never seen before -- a beach! (For this, he is said to have invented the idea of the Riviera as a summer destination.) Sara would join him and, on a blanket, read or write. She wore a white linen dress or bathing suit. And, always, a long strand of pearls, which she looped around her back so she wouldn't mar her tan (and, she said, because the sun was good for them). "There was a shine to life wherever they were," Archibald MacLeish said.

Everybody Was So Young was published in 1999. The Murphys' lives fill 512 pages, and, for once, I had no desire to read fewer. Ms. Vaill not only knows everything about these fascinating people, she understands them as completely as Fitzgerald understood Gatsby -- reading her book, I saw the movie.

Because the Fitzgeralds lived near the Murphys while Scott was finishing "Gatsby," I badgered Ms. Vaill to give us the real-life context that Lurhmann's super-charged film will not.

JK: Scott and Zelda became particular friends of the Murphys. ''We four communicate by our presence rather than by any means,'' Gerald told them. ''Currents race between us regardless.'' When did they meet? What made them friends?

AV: The Fitzgeralds got to know Gerald Murphy's sister Esther (a fascinating and eccentric figure in her own right) on Long Island in the early '20s. When they went to Paris, where the Murphys were then living, Esther effected a long-distance introduction. What she saw in them as the basis for a friendship is both puzzling and revealing: Gerald was a fastidious, outwardly gregarious and inwardly aloof closeted gay man, Scott a handsome, socially awkward drunk. Zelda was the daughter of well-off Montgomery judge and the "prettiest girl in Alabama and Georgia" (boasted Scott to a friend), Sara was the daughter of a millionaire and had been the toast of New York, London, Paris, and the Viceroy's Ball in New Delhi. But Esther seems to have perceived the vulnerability (and maybe some kind of sexual ambivalence) the two men shared, and the sublimated artistic impulses that Sara (a talented watercolorist who had studied with Walter Sickert and William Merritt Chase) and Zelda had in common.

And when they got together, sparks flew. The Murphys loved meeting exciting, talented people, and the Fitzgeralds were just enough younger than they to make them feel protective of them, as well.

JK: When the Fitzgeralds visited the Murphys in France, what was the scene?
AV: In Paris the Murphys were the bridge between the European avant-garde, including Cocteau, Picasso, Satie, and Tristan Tsara (among others) and the American seekers of the Lost Generation. This was a different world for the Fitzgeralds -- different from the post-collegiate hi-jinks they'd gotten into in New York, and the bathtub-gin-soaked parties on the North Shore that Fitzgerald portrayed in Gatsby. In the South of France, at the Murphys' Villa America, the Fitzgeralds came into contact with the Murphy philosophy of life as art: of a kind of purposeful, conscious ordering of experience, and a disciplined approach to creativity, that were far away from the lives they had lived in the States. Gerald painted every morning before the family adjourned to the beach; he and Sara worked on their picnics and dinner parties as if they were one of Gerald's canvases: and I think that consciously or unconsciously Fitzgerald envied that kind of discipline and kept aspiring to it, successfully or unsuccessfully.

JK: Fitzgerald finished writing Gatsby in Valescure, not far from the Murphys' villa in Antibes. Could you describe the setting -- and its influence on the book?

AV: Gatsby has an extraordinary perspective on its subject: the voice of Nick Carraway belongs to someone with humane and sympathetic distance from Gatsby and Daisy and Tom, and even from the Nick of the narrative. I don't know if Fitzgerald could have achieved that if he'd been in the middle of the Long Island milieu he was writing about, or even in America, that "fresh, green breast of the New World." Instead he was in a villa of his own, across the hills from the Murphys, where the landscape looks like a Van Gogh painting and where the rhythms of life are comfortable and calm and conducive to work. And he was watching Sara arrange her exquisite entertainments and Gerald paint his precisionist canvases, in which ordinary objects are deconstructed and reassembled and depicted in their smallest details, and I think some of this rubbed off on him.

JK: Gerald and Scott seemed to have a complicated, combative relationship. Here's Gerald on Scott: ''He really had the most appalling sense of humor, sophomoric and -- well, trashy.'' Scott, meanwhile, often made Gerald the butt of his drunken venom. Scott based Dick Diver, the hero of Tender Is the Night, on Gerald, but he also mocked him: "You go to all that trouble with buckles and straps ... because you're a masochist." Yet never once did Scott grudge Fitzgerald affection, praise, financial and moral support. It was Gerald who bailed Fitzgerald out in 1939 and kept his daughter in Vassar; he and Sara were among the few to show up at Fitzgerald's funeral the following year. Scott looks to me like an unreliable friend, fostering -- as did Hemingway -- the image of Gerald as a spoiled dilettante. Was it typical of Fitzgerald to bite the hand? Or was Gerald a spoiled dilettante?

AV: Scott's mockery of Gerald came, I think, out of envy for Gerald's poise and his savoir-faire, and possibly from an unacknowledged, maybe unacknowledgeable attraction to him. The hero of the first draft of "Tender is the Night" is named Francis (Fitzgerald's first name) Melarkey ("foolish talk, intended to deceive," according to Webster's) and is in love with the woman who is a stand-in for Sara Murphy. Fitzgerald found himself unable to move that plot forward. He was only able to finish the novel when he changed Francis into a woman, Rosemary Hoyt (Hoyt was a family name of Sara's) who is in love with Dick Diver, the Gerald stand-in. Think about that for a minute.

I think the reason Gerald stood by him was that he understood that Scott's digs weren't meant to hurt, and that despite the drunken excesses and the bad behavior he dearly loved both Gerald and Sara. "As a friend you have never failed me," Scott wrote to Gerald near the end of his life --- how many friends of yours or mine will say that to us?

If you want to talk about biting the hand, and never saying sorry, look at Hemingway. Gerald paid his kid's doctor bills; lent him money and a studio to live in when he was homeless after separating from Hadley, his first wife; let Hemingway read him and Sara all of "Torrents of Spring" in one evening; and Hemingway repaid him (and Sara) with a slimy portrait in "A Moveable Feast" and said that he "always felt about Gerald the way people who don't like cats feel about cats." That's ingratitude.

JK: Gerald was, at least in a non-sexual way, gay. Masculinity was a big issue for Scott. A source of conflict -- or alliance?

AV: I'm not sure that one can say masculinity was "a big issue" for Fitzgerald -- unless you take Hemingway's sniggering portrait of him in A Moveable Feast as accurate, which I don't believe you can. Fitzgerald was, had been, a pretty boy. He'd played girls in the Triangle Show at Princeton. But he had also played football, and was always having crushes on girls --- or, as Sara Murphy said, "trying to kiss you in taxis and things like that." Nonetheless he was far less sensitive about appearing masculine, being a man's man, than (say) Hemingway. He was also fascinated, sometimes in a kind of prurient sophomoric way, by homosexual behavior. "What do you people do, anyway?" he asked one of the Murphys' gay houseguests once -- admittedly, when he was drunk. This appalled Gerald, more for its rudeness, its lack of respect for privacy, than for anything else. But he appears to have opened up to Scott in a way he did to few others; he seems to have come out to him at one point, in about 1930, when they were both in despair -- Scott over Zelda's madness and Gerald because his son was battling tuberculosis in a Swiss sanitarium -- something I don't think he would have done if he hadn't felt that at some level Scott would understand.

JK: Jay-Z and Beyoncé and Kanye West did the music for this movie. What was the music that would have been heard at Gatsby's parties -- and the Murphys'?

AV: The Murphys were great music lovers, and very Out There for their time. On a Murphy playlist: Stravinsky and Bricktop, Louis Armstrong (they called their yacht Weatherbird and sealed a recording of the song into the keel) and George Antheil, Cole Porter (Gerald made a ballet to a Porter score) and Debussy, Fats Waller and African American spirituals. Gerald, in fact, was a consultant on the first ever American movie musical, just after sound was introduced: "Hallelujah!," directed by King Vidor for MGM. Honestly, I think Gerald would have scored this movie as well or better than Luhrmann did.

JK: Let's look at the preview for the 3D Gatsby.

Baz Lurhmann's Gatsby is a study in primary colors, ideal for 3D. It's loud, bold, bright. But is it Gatsby?

AV: Adapting a truly realized novel to the screen is always tricky. You can't and don't want to be literal: the screen is its own medium, and for the work to live there it must be transformed in some way. But on the other hand, the adapter or transformer must trust the underlying work, must believe that it has value in itself. That it doesn't need to be gussied up, or adulterated. What I worry about when I see the Luhrmann trailer is whether the razzle-dazzle will overwhelm and obliterate the truth and beauty of the book: a book that is so modern, so immediate, so UN-in-need-of-razzle-dazzle. Anyone who saw the stage play Gatz -- a reading of every word of the text of the novel that somehow morphed into a dramatization of it -- knows what magic happened on stage at New York's Public Theatre for the months of its run.

But, but: Jay Gatsby's own failure was to elide the dream of an "orgastic future," the vision of the green light on Daisy's dock, with a phantasmagoria of success -- the house! the shirts! the car! -- and think they were the same thing. If Luhrmann can draw out the distinction, then he will have made his own magic.

Cross-posted from