Sunday, May 19, 2013

Great Gatsby got his start in Duluth...

By Jim Heffernan
The Great Gatsby movie poster
You’d think it would have been great to be Gatsby – millionaire, big mansion, partying all the time, beautiful women, fast cars, servants galore. But life was not so great for Jay Gatsby as portrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald in his novel “The Great Gatsby”, now once again adapted for the movies and showing everywhere, including Duluth where Gatsby got his start.

How’s that again? The Great Gatsby got his start in Duluth? How come we’ve never heard that before?

Read the book. Once Fitzgerald gets around to telling Gatsby’s backstory, we learn he grew up poor in North Dakota, the son of  “shiftless and unsuccessful farm people.” His name was James Gatz, and at age 17 he fled the Dakota farm for Lake Superior where he “loafed along the beach,” and where he met an eccentric yachtsman, whom he saved from dashing his vessel on the rocky shore.

It was then that young Gatz imagined himself as the man who became Jay Gatsby. The yachtsman took him under his wing and also “took him to Duluth and bought him a blue coat, six pairs of white duck trousers and a yachting cap,” before embarking for “the West Indies and the Barbary Coast,” in Fitzgerald’s words.

Split Rock Light House
Some of this is portrayed in the latest Gatsby movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. One scene shows the rough waters besieging a yacht on Lake Superior, with what looks a lot like Split Rock lighthouse in the background. No Duluth in the movie, though. Only in the book, early in Chapter VI.

Fitzgerald was a native of St. Paul, where he spent is childhood and youth in the early years of the 20th Century. It is conceivable that at some point in his Minnesota years he came to Duluth, as most Twin Cities people eventually do from time to time.

Anyway, he put the Zenith City in his most enduring novel.

Added note (May 20): Thanks to an astute reader of my post on the Perfect Duluth Day blog, there is more information provided about Fitzerald in Duluth in a link on the Duluth Public Library web site. Read it HERE.

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