That Summer, 1922: A Counter Memoir By Thomas Buchanan

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See Part I here, and Part II here

III.

I am not a writer like Carraway, who had achieved a minor literary reputation at college for a series of pompous columns he penned for the Yale News in support of Woodrow Wilson and the League of Nations. But a year before she died, Daisy persuaded me to enroll in a memoir-writing course conducted for adults at a nearby community college. The course was taught once a week by a retired literature professor who had published several writing books, a Dr. Kaye Hunter. I was surprised to discover that I was not the oldest person in the class. We would all read our “works-in-progress” aloud and on a few occasions I read my recollections of New Haven in the days prior to the First World War. I never mentioned Carraway and was vague about other details, and since I have gone by the not uncommon name Thomas Buchanan since Carraway’s memoir was published, no one, not even Dr. Hunter, put two and two together. One gentleman in the class, however, a pulmonary specialist, had been at Cambridge around the same time, played on the football team, and we traded rivalry jokes. He had a few friends at Yale and at one point during a class break said that my name sounded familiar and asked if I had known a Walter Chase who had been at Deerfield with him. “Walter passed away a long time ago. A charming fellow but, well, a serious gambling problem,” he added with a reminiscent sigh. I said I didn’t recall him and changed the topic. I was relieved when he missed the next class and then felt disheartened to learn he had suffered a fatal stroke while driving to his practice, where he still saw patients one day a week.

Chase! Walter Chase! The name propelled me backwards and I envisioned Walter again as I saw him on that September afternoon in 1922 when I invited him to lunch at a well-known speakeasy to ask him frankly what he knew about Jay Gatsby. I suspected that Gatsby, with his ostentatious mansion and pink suits and tasteless parties, was just another “bootlegger,” profiting from Prohibition. I knew, as did everyone, that he was a business associate of the notorious Meyer Wolfsheim, a slippery crook who always cleverly kept himself out of jail. I knew too that Walter spent the month of August in a New Jersey prison and I suspected Wolfsheim may have been involved. I felt sorry I hadn’t paid Walter a visit, nor had I seen him since, and when he entered the restaurant I saw that the experience had taken a tremendous toll.

Walter had been one of my closest friends at New Haven, a burly, jovial sort of fellow who would bet on anything and who later became a sucker for bad business deals, a lethal combination. He would lose money betting then try to recoup his losses through some get-rich-quick investment deal that would only deepen the losses. I had tried on numerous occasions to offer professional advice but my propositions were always too slow for him and I eventually gave up, hoping one day he’d come to his senses. He had already gone through a sizeable inheritance and a marriage and appeared to be living at the Yale Club and always on the prowl for another deal. He looked awful in a suit fitted for a much stockier man and his thin shoulders were slouched like those of the men looking for handouts around Grand Central Station.

To this very day, sixty-four years later, I recall that meeting, though of course the conversation I report is an approximation made to the best of my memory.

“Walter Chase, you old son of a bitch,” I said, getting up from the table and extending my arm. He smiled faintly and took my hand gently, as though it were an effort for him to form a solid grip. He must feel disgraced, I thought, and also disappointed I didn’t come to New Jersey to pay him a visit. I suspect none of his friends did. I ordered highballs, apologized for being busy, suggested we see more of each other, and then got down to business. “About this fellow Jay Gatsby,” I said, “do you know anything?” Walter straightened his tie, lit a cigarette, and looked down at the menu. “He bought a ridiculous palace across the bay from us not long after we moved out this way from Chicago. I think he’s some bootlegger trying to seduce my wife,” I added, “with Nick Carraway’s help—you remember sneaky Carraway?”  Through all of this Walter kept staring at the menu. “And Gatsby’s an associate of Meyer Wolfsheim,” I paused and lowered my voice, “a person you know.”

Walter looked up and we clinked glasses. “To old times, Tom.” He looked around the room, probably hoping Wolfsheim wasn’t lurking about. 

“What’s happening to the world, Tom? Bootleggers, gangsters, jazz, women running around naked. This God-damned railroad strike. You know, I’ve come to think it’s all because of Prohibition.” He took a long drink. “To hell with the politicians.”

I realized he was already a little tight. “Only thing Wilson ever did which I agreed with was to veto it,” I commented. “It was Congress.”

“Did you ever meet this Gatsby, Walter?” 

He looked at me nervously. “I’m not prepared to go into too many details, Tom, but yes, I met him a few times with Wolfsheim last winter. That’s when my troubles began. Then again at one of his parties early in July. He said he wanted me to meet someone big, a tycoon known as “Rot-Gut,” a James B. Ferret…”

“Christ,” I interrupted, “I hope you didn’t do any dealings with him?”  

Walter crushed out a cigarette and immediately lit another. “Tom, I’m in a pretty rough spot. Our style of speculation requires not just know-how but capital. I have the know-how but no ready cash, not yet at least.”

“What happened at the party?” 

He closed his eyes momentarily as if better to recollect the scene. “It seems I was one of the few guests with an invitation. It was a noisy affair and crowded. Plenty of gorgeous women of questionable character. I’ve never seen so much food and liquor in one place. I woke up at 4AM on an enormous white sofa, lying between inebriated twins in identical yellow dresses. On my way back to town I was stopped for speeding and then put under arrest. Gatsby had it set up. I think he was worried I might rat on him. He knows everyone, including the police commissioner. The idea was to put me in jail as a way to scare me. It worked.” 

“Was Wolfsheim there?”

“No, he would never show his kike face out there. But I saw Nick. He was with that golfing friend of yours, Jordan Baker. Now there’s a smart-looking girl.”

“She’s a swell girl, Jordan. Daisy introduced them. He’ll do her wrong, the way he did that poor girl he was engaged to in Chicago. He’s not reliable, Walter. Don’t do any trading with Carraway.”

“I heard about that Chicago affair. Surprised there was no breach-of-promise action. Anyway, I avoided Nick and he didn’t see me. I’m not sure Jordan would recognize me—I haven’t seen her since your wedding.”

“What was your business gonnection with Wolfsheim,” I asked, exaggerating the speech as a joke, hoping to catch him off guard.  

Walter inhaled and held his breath for what seemed like a full minute. I thought he might choke. Then a burst of smoke and “Tom, I wish you wouldn’t ask me that.”

“I’m asking you in complete confidence, Walter. This information is very important to me in a personal way. We go far back. Our fathers were friends. I’m sorry that in the last few years after the marriage I haven’t been in closer touch. I will correct that. Daisy would love to see you—you’ll come out to dinner and stay a few days. I’ll make sure Jordan is there without Carraway. And I will put you in touch with better sources of financial know-how than ‘Rot-Gut.’”

I signaled the waiter and ordered more highballs. Walter remained silent, his eyes darting about the room as I studied the menu. I then added: “Walter, if you could use a little extra cash right now….”

“That’s quite all right,” he replied, holding up his hand, “old sport.

We laughed and he picked up the fresh highball, glanced around the room again, and leaned forward. “Buchanan, you’ve always been a straight-up fellow. I know a lot of people in New Haven hated your guts but whatever it was they said about you they never claimed you were dishonest.” He winked—“Except maybe with the ladies.”

He paused and raised his glass in another toast. “Here’s to integrity. You still have yours, but my reputation is…ruined.”

“People forget fast these days, Walter. It’ll all blow away.”

He didn’t seem convinced. I refused a cigarette and he lit another. “Let me tell you something about this town, Tom. You have suspicions, I know, but you have no idea, none, about the degree of corruption all around us. It’s not just Meyer Wolfsheim or that nobody Gatsby, they’re just a small part of a colossal web of fraud that if the truth were ever exposed would bring down the entire city.”

Walter suddenly stopped, realized something, and lowered his voice to a barely audible whisper. The restaurant was boisterous and as I leaned in towards Walter I felt I was not hearing him so much as reading his lips. “The deal with Wolfsheim involved buying up a lot of side-street drug-stores around here and in Chicago and selling cheap wood-grain alcohol across the counter. This Prohibition is destroying us, I tell you.”

“But the drug-store purchases are legitimate?”

“Seem to be. So long as the police make a buck they’re a going concern. But as Wolfsheim well knows, Chicago is a tough town for New Yorkers to muscle in.”
“Is that what Gatsby is worried you’ll rat on?”

Walter finished his drink with a long swallow, and I called the waiter. Walter slid his menu aside. “I don’t feel much like lunch today, Tom. But I’ll have a refill.” 

“No, it isn’t,” he said, returning to the faint whisper. I leaned farther in. “They’re operating a bucket shop, Tom—using one of Wolfsheim’s Wall Street pals at a brokerage house.” He shook his head, “Sorry, Tom, I can’t say who, where, or how, but you know what I mean. They’re defrauding clients by gambling with their funds.”

“Shoddy furnishings and all the deals are by telephone, like Carraway’s concern?

“That’s it exactly.”

The waiter set down the drinks, but he seemed to linger at the table. Walter stopped talking and didn’t pick up his highball until the waiter drifted away into the crowd. 

“Don’t look so shocked, Tom. What did you expect? This drug-store business is just small change for Wolfsheim, Gatsby and Associates. And I’ll tell you one more thing and then I’m done. If they can pull off what I think they ultimately have in mind, then fixing that World Series a few years ago will look like child’s play. Now I’m done.”

Walter and I finished our drinks and I dropped him off at the Yale Club before returning to my office. We shook hands and he promised to take me up on the invitation. I urged him to do so, but that was the last time I would see him. A few weeks after Myrtle and George Wilson–and the despicable lout responsible for their deaths–were buried, Walter Chase drowned while at an all-night yachting party on Long Island Sound. His body was never recovered. A few witnesses said he got very drunk, fell overboard and disappeared into the dark waters in a matter of seconds.

 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 four here