I am a gravely misunderstood man and have been for a very long time, thanks to a perennial bestseller written by a Manhattan bond salesman turned procurer, one Nicholas Carraway, the author of a deceptive and biased memoir that thinly disguises itself as a pseudonymous novel.
“A sly seed,” is how I first referred to him among my circle when we were at school in New Haven, Class of 1915. He was an insidious character, though with some touch of brilliance that enabled him to disarm even discerning people, usually catching them off-guard, and to insinuate his way into their lives and affairs. Although he liked to claim that we belonged to the same senior social club, no one for a moment considered us part of the same social set.
It was Wednesday, June 7th, a warm breezy evening in 1922 when Carraway dropped by to visit my wife Daisy (who was also his second cousin) and me for drinks and dinner. After graduation, Carraway went off to serve in the War to End All Wars and to Help Save the World for Democracy. I had not seen him since he visited us in Chicago for a few days right after he returned from Europe. He wore his uniform then and I could tell it made an impression on Daisy, though I noticed no decorations. He didn’t speak much about the war, which as a staunch isolationist I opposed. I would become a dedicated supporter of Mr. Republican, Ohio’s great Robert Taft (Yale ’10), who even John F. Kennedy admired for his principles and courage.
I formed the distinct impression that Carraway had seen little combat despite his claim that he was with a machine gun battalion in France. I don’t believe he saw as much action as another of our classmates in the society and a teammate of mine, Archie MacLeish, who rose to be an artillery captain and then, mainly through his left-wing connections, would become Librarian of Congress. Many years later, Daisy and I took in the opening of his play J.B. on Broadway and we exchanged greetings at intermission. I didn’t care for the drama but Daisy thought it was enthralling.
I met Carraway that evening on the front porch. Daisy was inside chatting with her old Louisville friend, the golfer, Jordan Baker. I had just returned from a few practice chukkers at the Meadow Brook Club and was still in riding gear. I had played poorly, the mounts were sluggish, and I’m afraid I was in an irritable mood when Carraway puttered up the drive in a beat-up and dusty 1915 Dodge Model 30. As he got out, I noticed he appeared painfully thin and it looked like he had lost a little hair. Back at New Haven he was always the least imposing member of our class, which I think helped account for his success at securing the confidences of others.
Carraway’s inclusion in our group came about largely through what I considered social blackmail. A good friend of mine in a drunken fit of intimacy happened to tell Carraway one night a shocking story that I believe he stupidly made up simply as a boast. He had never mentioned this story to me until after it was too late. It involved a beautiful Mulatto girl who worked as a housekeeper for his parents in their Madison Avenue penthouse. He claimed he had sexual relations with her over the course of a summer and just as school was to begin she announced she was pregnant. He drove her to a Harlem doctor he learned about from a hotel doorman, handed her two-hundred dollars, said that he loved her but had to return to Hotchkiss, and left her there.
The girl never went through with the procedure and tearfully informed his parents about her situation. She was alone, her folks lived in Georgia, and her only northern relation was a deaf rheumatic aunt. My friend’s parents, the story went, were touched by the girl’s predicament and offered her five thousand dollars to cover all expenses and to return to her family. She accepted the money and was never seen again. They nearly pulled him out of Hotchkiss but in the end relented and as a punishment for his foolish behavior forbade him the use of the Pierce Arrow for the fall term. This story may or may not be true, but Carraway with subtle threats leveraged this uninspired confidence into a social advantage.
I don’t know how Carraway, who had just come East from Minnesota, found a position with the obscure and soon to be discredited down-town brokerage house ironically called Probity Trust but I do have my suspicions about how he came to live next door to the ostentatious fraud who called himself Jay Gatsby, a name now nauseatingly associated with the American Dream. A young colleague at the firm had somehow found a beat-up bungalow near the Sound and suggested that he and Carraway share it. Then suddenly Probity Trust dispatches this “roommate” to Washington and Carraway moves in all by himself—no rent sharer needed any longer—and very conveniently right next door to Gatsby, practically on his front lawn. The whole maneuver seems to have been engineered by Gatsby from the start, although I doubt Carraway was ever aware of it. Gatsby had many shady contacts and it wouldn’t surprise me if one of them operated at Probity Trust.
The dinner that first evening did not go well. Daisy quickly took Carraway into her confidence and told him I had a “woman.” This disclosure was prompted by an unwanted phone call from the very “woman,” a Myrtle Wilson, the voluptuous wife of a garage mechanic who lived along the main road to Manhattan. In those days Daisy was not able to satisfy my desires—she had lost weight after our daughter Pammy was born and seemed quite content to retain the unappealing boyish figure that had become fashionable among smart women. In contrast, Myrtle appeared to be a female of the last century. At dinner, Carraway, Daisy, and Jordan seemed to gang up on me, ridiculing the opinions contained in an influential anti-immigration book I had just read by a prominent Harvard professor and eminent Unitarian. When I saw how easily Carraway played into this game, I had a momentary flash that the sudden entrance into my life of this old classmate and now new neighbor did not bode well.
Robert Atwan is the founder and series editor of The Best American Essays. He lives in New York City and was always intrigued by what Fitzgerald wrote about Tom Buchanan: “I suppose he’s the best character I’ve ever done.”
See part two here.