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The Great Gruesome Gatsby Connection

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, And The Invention Of The Great Gatsby

By, Sarah Churchwell

"Careless People raises the specter of a 1922 murder"
Review by
Carmela Ciuraru,
Special for USA TODAY p.m. EST March 1, 2014

On Sept. 20. 1922, the front page of every newspaper in New York was splashed with headlines about the gruesome murders of Edward W. Hall, minister of a church in New Brunswick, N.J., and Eleanor Reinhardt Mills, who sang in the church choir.

The New York Times reported that although both were married to other people, Hall and Mills "had long been friendly." Their artfully arranged bodies were discovered beneath a crabapple tree, with love letters scattered around them. No one was ever convicted of the crime.

This shocking event, Sarah Churchwell argues in her new book, Careless People, would inform F. Scott Fitzgerald's third novel, The Great Gatsby, published in 1925. Both Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, followed the scandalous case closely, which would later be described in the press as "the murder of the decade."

Although Gatsby's connection to what became known as the Hall-Mills case has been made previously in scholarly articles and passing references elsewhere, Churchwell explores in depth the thematic links between the plot of the novel and the case itself. The Hall-Mills affair did not directly inspire Gatsby, she notes, but the loose parallels include "mistaken identity, fraudulent pasts, social climbing and class resentment."

Plus, Hall is said to have given Mills a novel that is the same book Nick Carraway reads in Gatsby while Tom Buchanan is with his mistress, Myrtle. (Of course, both the real-life case and the novel share the aspect of infidelity ending in tragedy.)


The book is stuffed with wonderful and quirky cultural nuggets, too: 1922 was the year that the poet E.E. Cummings gave us the first use of "partied" as a verb; Listerine invented a malady called "halitosis" and urged women to use their mouthwash to combat it; the terms "brand name" and "mass market" were used for the first time. And Virginia Woolf jotted down notes for the novel that would become Mrs. Dalloway. It was the year that T.S. Eliot published The Waste Land, James Joyce published Ulysses, and the first English translation of Proust's Swann's Way was released.

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Michael Nystrom's picture

I just have to say, before I turn in...

What a beautiful post. Aesthetically pleasing. All those embedded links, as well as an image, aligned to the left with a nice margin.

Not to mention all the cultural nuggets. I can't believe that people have been 'partying' for nearly 100 years now.

Those were awesome times, kiddo. I always love reading stuff like that.

And now, if you were to write the future history of 2014 (say in 2108), what would that include?

I've been reading about 1913. It wasn't the Belle Epoque for everyone. For most life was a daily grind of just trying to survive. But with the nostalgia of hindsight, the era took on an air of romanticism. I can't help but feel that we're living in a similar time.

We're on the cusp -- of something. The machines are on the march, but they haven't taken over yet. Life seems weird and complicated now, but we ain't seen nothin' yet. I think back to that ELO song...

Remember the good old 1980's / When things were so uncomplicated / I wish I could go back there again / and everything would be the same...

In 2003, I bought a beat up old 1984 Rabbit convertible for $300. Just to have it and drive it around for a few months before I left for my new life in Taiwan. I loved it! As long as it wasn't raining, the top was down. It was cheap enough that if anything went majorly wrong, I could just junk it.

At any rate, what I remember about that car: No cupholders. There was a time when cars came without cupholders. Of course they don't now - they practically come with dining room tables now. But back then, when it was made in 'the good old 1980's' people didn't drink coffee and drive, I guess.

At any rate - thank you for the post, and the book. Looks great. I've got to work on my speed reading skills.


jrd3820's picture

“Youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.” Fitzgerald

1913 looks good. I just love early 20th century anything. It was such a unique time in history. Yes, I think we are also entering another very unique period of history. One could argue that all periods of history are unique and I suppose they are in their own way, but the evolution of humans and technology really started taking off and changing everything about the world we know.

I think we right now, I think we are what will be known as 'the missing link' hundreds of years from now. The step between humans and robots. The in between. Our link might not actually go missing, but it will be the same theory. How did we make the change from human beings to mechanical robots....this is the period where that is taking place. And robots will contemplate the evolution of robots and say...there is no way we could have possibly come from humans, they were animals, we are not, we are too smart, too special to have come from them, but they did come from us. We are making them right now, we are using our bodies to create robots. What do you think about that?

Meh....I could be wrong. It's happened before, it will no doubt happen again.

I wish people dressed like this still.

 photo Normatalmadge_crop_zps4515763e.jpg

Janet Hobhouse wrote a bit about this cultural scene in Everybody who was Anybody. She talks about the Fitzgerald's and Hemingway and of course Stein. The book is mediocre, the writing is mediocre, and since your list seems to be growing as quick as mine, I wouldn't even put it near the top especially considering you are getting the best of The Lost Generation here. I don't think anyone else in the world has the edition of that book that you have. Anyways, even with my reading skills, I can barely keep up with my ever growing list especially since I started browsing the DP bookshelf made by Robot Jon, Jon is already part robot so he does not have to fear the upcoming robot apocalypse which is much more realistic than the zombie apocalypse.

But as you said, it was not all flash and pomp. Early 20th century was a hard time for some. I think it just looks prettier looking back on it. But then I do think there was some extra romanticism to that time because until then technology had moved at a much slower less shocking pace. I mean, humans rode on horses for a long time before they started making automated vehicles, but once that got under way next thing ya know we are flying across oceans, and landing on the moon (maybe landing on the moon?) So the romanticism of that time period comes from an innocence dying. That is when human innocence really started to die.

Huh, I wonder what I will think of this comment when I read it tomorrow. It sounds decent right now, but maybe it is babble.

jrd3820's picture

John Robb!!!!

Glad you're back, the fan club has been asking about you. As your secretary/pr agent/and personal journalist I came up with quite the elaborate story about how you were deep sea diving in the maldives looking for the missing plane.

Hey, Hemingway did some deep sea diving also. I think he would have been fun to hang out with.

I like to keep them guessing now and then. ;)

I'm glad you didn't think to tell the fans that I was deep sea diving in the maldives looking for the way out of a missing plane before the oxygen ran out. I'd hate for them to worry. You're a real pro! Jay Carney could learn a thing or two...

I once served burgers to Mariel Hemingway and Scott Glenn. They stopped in for lunch at a place I worked in Idaho when I was a teen. This is the last place I sprinkled my mother's ashes after she was cremated in 2010...