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Excerpt from 'Careless People'

"Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby," by Sarah Churchwell (Penguin Press, January 2014) Credit: Handout

Preface

On Thursday, September 14, 1922, in St. Paul, Minnesota, a popular young writer named F. Scott Fitzgerald and his glamorous wife, Zelda, were finishing their preparations to move to New York. Fitzgerald had wired his agent the day before, promising that a short story he was finishing called "Winter Dreams," which he would later describe as a "sort of 1st draft of the Gatsby idea," would reach the agency's Manhattan office by Monday. A few months earlier, he had told his editor of his dreams for his next novel: "I want to write something new -- something extraordinary and beautiful and simple and intricately patterned." For the last two years, Fitzgerald's writing had been popular, highly paid, and celebrated. But now he wanted to do something different, more ambitious: "the very best I am capable of ... or even as I feel sometimes, something better than I am capable of." It would take him another two years to finish the book he would eventually call "The Great Gatsby."

The same Thursday, a thousand miles to the east, a pretty young woman sat in a hot, cramped upstairs apartment in New Brunswick, New Jersey, reading a novel. At thirty-four she didn't look old enough to have teenage children, or to have been married for seventeen years. She was wearing her favorite dress, dark blue with cheerful red polka dots, and was avoiding the housework, as usual, to finish the book. She always lost herself in romances, but this one was special: it had been given to her by the married man with whom, for three years now, she had been having an increasingly passionate affair. They shared what they read with each other, talked about running away, and poured their feelings into letters that they exchanged when they met. That night, she would wait for her lover at their usual rendezvous near an abandoned farmhouse on the outskirts of town, carrying letters filled with the dreams that had been inspired by the novels she loved.

That moonless night Eleanor Mills and her lover would both be shot through the head; their bodies were discovered together two days later under a crabapple tree, their love letters scattered around the corpses. Eleanor Mills would never read the novel F. Scott Fitzgerald was beginning to plan, but as he made his way across America, Fitzgerald would read about her.

This book is about the world that prompted F. Scott Fitzgerald to write "The Great Gatsby," tracing the relationship between that world and the novel that it inspired, including the largely forgotten story of the brutal slaying of an adulterous couple, a murder mystery that held all of America spellbound at the end of 1922.

Fitzgerald began drafting "The Great Gatsby" during the summer of 1923, while he and Zelda were living in Great Neck, Long Island. He was also revising a play and writing magazine fiction, and he and Zelda were enthusiastically partying, all of which made work on his third novel sporadic. In the spring of 1924 the Fitzgeralds sailed for France, where he began writing in earnest his novel about modern America. He published "The Great Gatsby" a year later, in April 1925. After some hesitation about dates, he had eventually decided to set his story across the summer and into the autumn of 1922.

I started with a simple question: why 1922? A conventional answer has been that Fitzgerald wanted to signal his allegiance to the annus mirabilis of literary modernism, the year that began with the publication of James Joyce's "Ulysses" and ended with the publication of T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land." But while that may be part of the answer, the meanings of 1922 in relation to "The Great Gatsby" are far more expansive than that. It was a remarkable year, both in artistic and historical terms; an astonishing number of landmark events occurred, some (but by no means all) of which this book retraces. In his 1931 essay "Echoes of the Jazz Age," Fitzgerald would "offer in exhibit the year 1922!" for anyone hoping to understand the roaring twenties: "it was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, and it was an age of satire."

As "Gatsby" was inspired by the Fitzgeralds' eighteen months in Great Neck, beginning in late 1922, I tried to find the exact date of their return to New York that autumn, but no biographer or scholar had fixed it. Some said it was mid- or late September, most that it was October. On September 22, 1922, their friend Edmund Wilson wrote a letter saying he'd seen Scott and Zelda the previous night at the Plaza, and they'd been in town for "several days," but that still left us approximating. Eventually I found a telegram from Fitzgerald in the Princeton archives, dated Monday, September 18, 1922, informing his editor, Max Perkins, that they would arrive in New York two days later.

This date might seem insignificant, but it was the day after the story broke of the murders of Eleanor Mills and Edward Hall, as papers across America detailed the lurid events in New Brunswick, a town just up the road from Fitzgerald's alma mater, Princeton University. As the weeks passed, the story grew ever bigger; it would dominate the nation's headlines for the rest of the year.

One of the first histories of the 1920s, written in 1931, declared that the killing of Eleanor Mills and Edward Hall had been "the murder of the decade": "The Hall-Mills case had all the elements needed to satisfy an exacting public taste for the sensational ... It was grisly, it was dramatic (the bodies being laid side by side as if to emphasize an unhallowed union), it involved wealth and respectability, it had just the right amount of sex interest -- and in addition it took place close to the great metropolitan nerve-center of the American press." The author concluded with a description of the case's eccentric details: "It was an illiterate American who did not shortly become acquainted with De Russey's Lane, the crabapple tree, the pig woman and her mule, the precise mental condition of Willie Stevens, and the gossip of the choir members."

The Hall-Mills case has, until now, been considered in relation to "The Great Gatsby" only by a handful of scholars in brief articles, and in a few footnotes, but it is my contention that this remarkable story amplifies and enriches the context of "Gatsby" in many more ways than have yet been appreciated.

 

From "Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of 'The Great Gatsby,' " by Sarah Churchwell. Copyright © 2013 by Sarah Churchwell. Published by The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC.

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