The Greater Gatsby

Rather than listen to the critics who think they know what The Great Gatsby is supposed to be about, I saw for myself Baz Luhrman’s interpretation and I must say: I was blown away. Not only is it true to the book, it breathes new life into the story and relates it squarely to the excesses of today.

Isla Fisher, who played Mary Jane in the Scooby Doo movie, is well cast here as Myrtle. The scene orchestrated by Myrtle wherein Nick learns to party makes splendid use of Fitzgerald’s words describing mind alteration:

I was within and without. Simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.

This sounds to me a lot more like getting high than being drunk. In fact, it rather sounds like Jack London’s description of smoking hashish.

Remember, Gatsby is set in the 20s, when pot was still legal and sold in pharmacies, as cigarettes or tinctures. A musician in Lehrman’s Gatsby is unmistakably modeled on Cab Calloway, who’s “Are You Hip to the Jive?” was the “Are You Experienced?” of his day. (Calloway recorded “Minnie the Moocher” and “Reefer Man”.)

Everyone from Stephen Colbert to the BBC World Service book club missed the core of the novel: Gatsby is an American hero because he makes his money by illegal means, which necessarily involves thuggery. When this was mentioned on the BBC, it merely drew the usual mock astonishment and chuckles from the esteemed panel.

So I guess I’ll have to be the one to tell you the news: The Great Gatsby is the first modern novel about a drug dealer.

To hammer home the point, one of Gatsby’s associates, Meyer Wolfsfheim, is modeled on Arnold Rothstein, the first international drug smuggler and gambler who famously fixed the 1919 World Series.

Gatsby is said to own a chain of drug stores at which anything, including bootleg liquor, can be bought. He speaks of “a little business on the side … a rather confidential sort of thing” and offers Nick a piece of the action in exchange for setting up a meeting with Daisy.

After Gatsby sends a servant to mow Nick’s lawn in anticipation of the meeting, Nick tells him, “The grass is fine.”

“What grass?” asks Gatsby, before adding, “Oh, the grass in the yard.”

Where else would grass be?

Grass is again strangely mentioned in Fitzgerald’s last novel, The Last Tycoon. In it, movie producer Monroe Stahr takes love interest Kathleen to his house, where he has had a strip of grass brought in from the prop department. Kathleen laughs and asks, “Isn’t that real grass?” Stahr replies, “Oh yes—it’s grass.”

When Stahr goes to Kathleen’s door, she says, “I’m sorry I can’t ask you in. Shall I get my reefer and sit outside?” (A reefer is also the name of a sailor’s coat.) Stahr first sees Kathleen floating on the head of Siva, when a flood dislodges it from a movie set. To this day, worshippers in India drink bhang (a drink made with cannabis) to celebrate Siva’s birthday.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was named for his relative Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics to “The Star Spangled Banner,” and his family was considered keepers of American virtue.

The protagonist of his novel The Beautiful and Damned has this exchange with a friend:

“Did they ban cigarettes? I see the hand of my holy grandfather.”
“He’s a reformer or something, isn’t he?”
“I blush for him.”

Anthony Patch, who stands in for Fitzgerald in the story, is the grandson of Adam J. Patch, a reformer in the mold of Anthony Comstock (for whom Patch is named). In 1873 Comstock created the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, an institution dedicated to supervising the morality of the public.

Patch speaks disdainfully of the “shocked and alarmful eyes” of “chroniclers of the mad pace of America,” and describes visiting a speakeasy, saying, “But the excursions of Harlem onto Broadway, the devilries of the dull and the revelries of the respectable are a matter of esoteric knowledge only to the participants themselves.”

Why does no one ask the obvious questions: where does the name “Gatsby” come from? His real name is “Gatz” which is the next down the alphabet from “Fitz” in “Fitzgerald.” Like Gatsby, Fitzgerald lost his desired debutante when Zelda broke their engagement to be married. In reality or fantasy, did Scott win Zelda back by becoming a rich grass dealer? Was Fitzgerald critical of reformers because he was himself a rebel? Are moralists missing something in life? Oh yes, and why is Gatsby’s first name “Jay” and why was the light he sought green in color?

A final note: the theatre where I’d hoped to see Gatsby in 3D, the Grand Lake in Oakland, isn’t showing it in 3D, but rather had Iron Man 3 with Robert Downey Jr in 3D. Downey is now a good little Hollywood boy playing in nice, violent films with big box office and (snore) sequel potential. I’d much rather have seen him as Gatsby.

Ellen Komp is a regular contributor to Cannabis Culture. She manages the website and blogs at Tokin Woman.