The new film The Great Gatsby, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s enduring 1925 novel, provides a poignant Friday Funeral Film lesson.
The life and death of F. Scott Fitzgerald draws a strong parallel to that of Jay Gatsby, the namesake of the book’s title. Both rose up in society in the 1920s, partying with crowds of people in the Jazz Age, and both had very few people attend their funerals.
Fitzgerald enjoyed literary and financial success with his first novel, This Side of Paradise, released in 1919. During the 1920s, he and his wife Zelda lived the high life depicted in The Great Gatsby. They took up residences in both New York and Paris.
However, only his first novel sold well enough to support the couple’s opulent lifestyle. He borrowed money frequently from his agent and editor.
F. Scott was an alcoholic throughout his adult years, starting in his college days at Princeton. Zelda suffered from schizophrenia and was often hospitalized. Their only child, daughter Scottie, was born in 1921.
Fitzgerald went to Hollywood in 1937, and made his highest annual income that year – $29,757.87. Most of that income came from sales of short stories. Hollywood was hard on him. He did not make it as a screenwriter.
By 1940, when he died in Hollywood of a heart attack at the age of 44, he was financially destitute, estranged from his insane wife, and a broken man.
Among the attendants at a visitation held at a California funeral home was Dorothy Parker, who reportedly cried and murmured “the poor son-of-a-bitch,” a line from Jay Gatsby’s funeral in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s body was transported to Maryland, where his funeral was attended by twenty or thirty people in Bethesda. Among the attendants were his only child, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith (then age 19), and his editor, Maxwell Perkins.
The Great Gatsby meets his end while floating in his swimming pool. He is shot by a man who thinks Gatsby ran his wife over in the wasteland between Manhattan and the posh palaces out on Long Island. Only a few people attended Gatsby’s funeral. Certainly none of the people who populated his parties came to call.
What can you learn from both men? Perhaps this: the content of your character, and not the canapes at your cocktail parties, is what will draw people to your funeral.
Here’s the trailer for the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. This third film version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic 1925 novel was one of the most hyped movies of the summer of 1974. Robert Redford stars as self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, who uses his vast (and implicitly ill-gotten) fortune to buy his way into Long Island society. Most of all, Gatsby wants to win back the love of socialite Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow), now married to “old money” Tom Buchanan (Bruce Dern). Calmly observing the passing parade is Nick Carraway (Sam Waterston), Gatsby’s best friend, who narrates the film.
Compare that trailer with this one for the 2013 version starring Leonardo diCaprio and Carey Mulligan.
Fitzgerald was originally buried in Rockville Cemetery, an Anglican burial ground established in 1738, because the Roman Catholic Church would not allow his body to be buried in Fitzgerald’s family plot. Zelda died in 1948, in a fire at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina.
Daughter Scottie worked to overturn the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s ruling that Fitzgerald died a non-practicing Catholic, so that he could be buried at the Roman Catholic Saint Mary’s Cemetery where his father’s family was interred; this involved “re-Catholicizing” Fitzgerald after his death. Both of the Fitzgeralds’ remains were moved to the family plot in Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Rockville, Maryland in 1975 – a year after the Robert Redford version of The Great Gatsby was released. (I used to live about a mile from this cemetery!)
Their grave is inscribed with the final sentence of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”