I feel shame-faced about this post because it’s a bit of a cliche to compare real-life people to Gatsby. If anybody, in any way reinvents themselves, especially if they become rich, then snap! The job is done – without the need for much more thought. The latest example I came across was an article about Steve Bannon (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/05/01/how-hollywood-remembers-steve-bannon). They have also done it, amongst others, for Jay-Z but it never proves very much and rarely leaves you knowing more about either the person or the novel. So why am I doing it?
The simple answer is that the comparison came so naturally I could not avoid it. When I was trying to piece together fragments of information about Jay Pomeroy’s seemingly contradictory life I felt there was a central mystery and a haziness as to what could be believed. It is the same for Nick Carroway when Gatsby gives him a version of his life – he is sceptical but doesn’t know how to react.The physical evidence was real: a medal to prove distinguished service in the war and a photograph to show he was at Oxford, but the story of an inheritance and rich parents was a lie. The problem was he had was how to fit things together to see the truth behind the facade. Nick, tough he had first hand evidence, can only do it when it is too late, after the road accident that smashes all of Gatsby’s dreams.
It was that night that he told me the strange story of his youth with Dan Cody – told it to me because ‘Jay Gatsby’ had broken up like glass against Tom’s hard malice, and the long secret extravaganza was played out.”
Truth, lies and myths run through the book so it’s often read for its symbolism alone but it is also rooted in its time and place and is also a description of a society out of control and on one almighty bender. Almost everybody is drunk except the man at the heart; Gatsby is a man who doesn’t drink. In so many ways is he out of place, yet that doesn’t stop everybody else taking advantage of his hospitality without a thought of giving anything in return. But that doesn’t seem to matter to him, he seems happy to facilitate a party rather than being at its centre. With Jay Pomeroy it is probably the reverse. He liked being centre stage and showed no signs of having the iron self discipline. Nevertheless he was also an outsider given to acts of ostentatious generosity in one world, whilst making money in a dubious way from another.
The last bit of speculation is hedged by the word ‘probably’ and highlights my plight in comparing a life, of which I have very partial knowledge, with a character in a novel over whom the author has perfect control. However the delicate perfection of novel’s construction is that it is seen through the eyes of Nick Carraway, a narrator who prides himself on his honesty but who might not be quite as clear eyed as he believes himself to be. In the end is described as ‘careless’ just like the others, so there is a faint question mark left hanging in the air about the account. It is the same for me, only more so, I am not necessarily a reliable narrator even if I pride myself on trying to be honest. I have no access to a complete backstory. In comparison to the novel I have isolated facts and no art. The novel is an integrated whole. I have a narrative with holes.
But lets put the caveats aside and get down to business. Just what are the points of similarity between Gatsby and Pomeroy?
1) The first, and most obvious is the shared name of ‘Jay’ – but it goes deeper than that. Jay Gatsby was born James Gatz but changed his name when he reinvented himself. Jay Pomeroy was born Joseph Pomeranz but changed his name when he was naturalised in 1930. The both wanted to cover up their roots with a more anglophone name and integrate in a different society.
2) They are about the same age. Gatsby is just 5 years older having been born in 1890. But although they are near contemporaries their stories happen at different times of their life. The Great Gatsby is set in 1922, when Gatsby is still young and athletic. I am not sure Jay Pomeroy was ever athletic but that does not matter, his period of flamboyance was in his late 40s, early 50s. He cut a very different figure
3) They were both outsiders trying to break into a world unwilling to be welcoming. The defining characteristic of Gatsby is his love for Daisy and a belief that with his money he can secure their future together, without realising that he is marked down and despised as an outsider who doesn’t know the unspoken codes. (He wears pink suits!) Pomeroy never hid being Russian, but his secret was that he was really a small-time trader and not Billy Big Boots but as an impresario he had grand ambitions. The evidence is that he was never fully accepted but was indulged because he seemed to have the money. Money talks in both stories but doesn’t quite overcome social barriers.
4) At the heart of both stories there is a woman. Gatsby’s love of Daisy is the cause of his actions and his downfall but it is also deepest and truest emotion of all the book’s characters. Pomeroy backed his first opera more or less randomly but through it he met the soprano Daria Bayan who became his mistress and the focus of his subsequent career as an impresario.
5) Most pertinent to this blog they made their money from whisky. Pomeroy hit upon a scheme for selling off the stock held in distillery warehouses without attracting the 100% Excess Profits Tax, and made a killing. Gatsby was a bootlegger and at one stage Nick saw in his eyes a look that might have meant he was also a killer.
6) They both went smash. Gatsby was shot because he was, mistakenly, thought to be the driver in a hit and run accident. Pomeroy was broken against the hard malice of the Inland Revenue and eventually declared bankrupt.
Six points of contact is enough to show the comparison is not too wayward but not for one moment do I think they were alike in the fundamentals of their character, circumstances, capabilities or appearance.
The act of making comparisons sharpens the differences as well as bringing out similarities and allows you to see them both in a slightly different way. This is particularly true for their social nature. Jay Gatsby was a man alone. He escaped from his origins by force of will and self discipline and his dreams and hopes were individualistic. (In this he is often read as an embodiment of the American Dream). He was famous for throwing parties and entertaining but he was strangely remote from his guests as if the parties were a performance and he was the impresario. Although he had many business contacts, apart from the gangster Meyer Wolfshiem, they were all off stage and there were pitifully few mourners at his funeral. He died alone and unfulfilled and that is the sadness of the story. Jay Pomeroy on the other hand became a real life impresario but was in the business we call show. He was obviously social engaged not only with a wife, children, and a mistress but also his theatre company and the Russian community in London. I do not know how many people attended his funeral.
The most profound difference though is that of circumstance. Gatsby is set America, 1922. A land of seemingly endless wealth and potential, where a number of people could make money and spend it with unprecedented abandon. A glamorous time. Gatsby might be a bootlegger but a whole social class has decided that this is an essential service in the face of an oppressive legal restriction. Pomeroy, though, operated in wartime and post war London. A time of destruction, endurance, and rationing, where there was a need for the population to pull together, share the misery to get to the other side. The black market was not accepted in the same way and profiteering was generally reviled. Jay Pomeroy was more of a grey market man, his social position was more ambiguous.
Finally there is the matter of physical courage and appearance. Gatsby was a war hero and in many ways the war was the making of him, whilst Pomeroy failed the medical. Gatsby was elegant and well proportioned, Pomeroy was short and stocky. Gatsby was Robert Redford (even if that 1974 film is very dull), Pomeroy is Edward G Robinson.
P.S. Scott Fitzgerald might be worth a future post because of his clear eyed description of the drinking culture during Prohibition. The history and effects of Prohibition is something well worth returning to.
P.P.S. One of the best books that relates Gatsby, the world he inhabited, and the circumstances of Scott Fitzgerald, is Careless Lives by Sarah Churchwell. I would give it a big thumbs-up.
The Pomeroy Posts:
- An Introduction .
- The Two Jays – how a novel can be used as a lens to compare characters.
- The Years of Obscurity – the first ¾ of his life.
- The Glory Years – His years as an impresario.
- The Whisky Tax Case – the revenge of the Revenue
- Sam and Jay – There were some similarities between Sam Bronfman and Jay
- Chinese Whispers – how the whisky literature has misrepresented Jay Pomeroy
- McBain and Maclean – A source of some misunderstandings
- And Finally – at last
- Kritz not Pomeroy – Mistaken identity?