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'Careless People' tells back story of 'The Great Gatsby'

F. Scott Fitzgerald poses with wife Zelda and

F. Scott Fitzgerald poses with wife Zelda and daughter Scottie as they return to America from a two-year European trip in Dec. 1926. Photo Credit: AP

CARELESS PEOPLE:Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, by Sarah Churchwell. Penguin Press, 400 pp., $29.95

Sarah Churchwell's zesty cocktail of history, biography and literary criticism (with a dash of philosophical musing) so vividly captures the disordered existence of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald during the 18-month sojourn on Long Island that inspired his greatest novel, many readers will close her book astonished that Scott managed to write "The Great Gatsby" at all.

It's even more astonishing to realize that "Gatsby" was published in 1925 to decidedly mixed reviews, many of them dismissing it as a superficial melodrama. Churchwell helps us see how critics could have so spectacularly misjudged Fitzgerald's masterpiece by elucidating its links to various events forgotten today but well known to contemporary readers, including a double murder in New Jersey in September 1922.

Churchwell, an American academic teaching in England, doesn't claim that "Gatsby" was directly inspired by the deaths of Episcopal minister Edward W. Hall and his parishioner-lover, Eleanor Mills. Rather, she contends that the story of the Hall-Mills murders is the novel's "phantom double . . . a nightmare version of grotesque reality, unrelieved by the consolations of art." There are many such murky statements in Churchwell's book, which is stronger on atmosphere than intellectual rigor. But she does a brilliant job of re-creating "the world that prompted F. Scott Fitzgerald to write 'The Great Gatsby,' " a world in which the Hall-Mills case was fodder for the same tabloid press that breathlessly reported the alcohol-fueled antics of Scott, Zelda and Great Neck neighbors like humorist Ring Lardner and newspaper editor Herbert Bayard Swope.

It was indeed a world of "careless people," as Scott famously termed Tom and Daisy Buchanan in "Gatsby," and he and Zelda seemed the most careless of all as they enthusiastically participated in the Jazz Age party culture: Zelda stripped off her clothes in public places; Scott capped all-night revels with a visit to the morgue; shouting matches ended with one or both passed out on their front lawn.

The Fitzgeralds decamped to France in 1924 so Scott could sober up and get down to work, but this period of "drinking and raising hell generally" (his own words) was crucial to the creation of "Gatsby." East and West Egg sprang from the cold eye Scott cast over Long Island's social landscape, where old-money mansions in Sands Point looked haughtily across Manhasset Bay at the nouveau-riche dwellings of Great Neck. Narrator Nick Carraway's allegiance to upstart Gatsby over the entitled Buchanans had its roots in Scott's sardonic awareness that the 19th century robber barons who built Sands Point were just as crooked as the bootleggers and stock riggers of Great Neck. Over and over, Churchwell demonstrates that Fitzgerald, even at his most dissolute, was gathering facts to serve his searching fictional commentary on the American dream and the enduring power of illusion.

What does all this have to do with the Hall-Mills murders? Not much, really. While disapprovingly outlining the lurid tabloid coverage of the case, which was never solved, Churchwell occasionally connects it somehow to "Gatsby." So she compares real-life social-climber Eleanor Mills to the fictional social climber Myrtle Wilson, which is mildly interesting. But it's simply far-fetched and confusing when she follows up the New Jersey prosecutor's surmise that Mills and her lover had been killed "in a case of mistaken identity" by reminding us that in the novel grieving George Wilson kills Gatsby because he mistakenly believes Gatsby was driving the car that struck Myrtle.

Fortunately, Churchwell doesn't obscure her main point, that "the world that furnished 'Gatsby' is far darker -- and stranger -- than perhaps we recognize." While some contemporaries missed seeing that "Gatsby" went far beyond reportage, Churchwell suggests we are now so focused on the novel's universal themes that we scant its firm grounding in a particular time and place.

The Jazz Age's wild excesses had disastrous consequences for Scott and Zelda, but its reckless gaiety was the wellspring of his art. He was "one of the few frivolous people with whom one can be sure of having a serious conversation," remarked a perceptive journalist in 1924; Churchwell understands that the frivolity and seriousness were inextricably intertwined. "Gatsby's great error is his belief in the reality of the mirage," she writes. "Fitzgerald's great gift was his belief in the mirage as mirage." Insights such as this make "Careless People" a book that anyone who cares about "The Great Gatsby" will want to read.

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