I reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby recently and was struck by two things. First, the efficacy and pure, unusual beauty of Fitzgerald’s language—just not something you can appreciate in the same way as a teen, even one who loved English lit. Second, the wild wealth depicted by Fitzgerald with everything from desperation and sadness to superficiality and cruelty residing just inches beneath. Between Gatsby’s lavish, champagne-fueled parties and Daisy’s frivolous dresses and social manner, you can’t believe for a moment these people are truly happy.
This was the Lost Generation, not the Gilded Age—an entire world war stood between members of these two distinct chapters of American history (although only a handful of years). Yet Fitzgerald’s observations are neatly analogous to critiques of Gilded Age niceties and sheer opulence covering social ills.
After finishing the book I did what I usually do when I want more, which is to say I watched the movie. I’ve heard Baz Luhrmann will be delivering a remake with Leonard DiCaprio as Gatsby soon. But my option right now is the classic 1974 version, featuring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow delivering lines lifted faithfully from Fitzgerald’s prose.
The first image to fade in during the opening credits—a grand, white, arcaded Italianate house, viewed from the drive across the close-cropped lawn—helped solidify my analogy between the Gilded Age and the world of Gatsby. I immediately recognized the mansion as one of the Newport “cottages,” which were Gilded Age summer homes—each one more aggressively ornate than the last—built by the East Coast’s wealthiest. The mansion was Rosecliff, the Stanford White-designed home of silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs, which is featured in part as Gatsby’s home in the film.
Later, when the rain forces Gatsby’s drunken party guests to dash indoors and continue dancing, the elaborate space they tumble into appears to be Rosecliff’s distinctive ballroom. It is, according to the Preservation Society of Newport County, the largest ballroom in the summer enclave. (I imagined the Preservation Society cringing when the dripping-wet dog races across the parquet floor, but I suppose this is one of the sacrifices one makes for art.) That part is near the end of this video clip.
Another shot just 30 seconds into the film shows the legendary golden ballroom of the Marble House, another Newport mansion, this one designed by famed architect Richard Morris Hunt. I almost didn’t recognize the room, however; rather than gold and gleaming, it is unlit, empty, and dark.
If the term Gilded Age sounds pretty, this was unintended. Mark Twain’s satirical name for the age between the Civil War and World War I pointed to a glittering veneer only as thick as frail gold leaf covering societal corruption and greed. This corruption had its incarnations both systemic and moral. Critics of the conspicuous consumption the period became known for condemned the $11 million ($263.5 million in 2010 dollars) William K. Vanderbilt spent on building Marble House and its gilt ballroom. Despite how impressive their endeavors and how invaluable their contributions to American industry and society, the great entrepreneurs—Morgan, Frick, Carnegie, Field, Pullman—are also referred to as robber barons, people who lusted for wealth and pursued it to the detriment of others. Political lobbying also broke loose during this time and made American citizens feel they had no voice when speaking in the same arena as corporations.
If any of this is sounding familiar, my Gilded Age Google alert comes back every week with editorials railing about how today’s society is repeating the mistakes of the late 19th century. One particularly irate writer in the Concord Monitor said recently that some Americans “are working toward…a new Gilded Age of Victorian aristocracy where workers meant nothing and were nothing more than a commodity for the machinery that produced their wealth.” Even The Economist weighed in on Monday to note that the “share of income going to the top 1% rivaled that of the Gilded Age” before the financial crisis and again in 2010.
It seems the good life is—in some way, during nearly every time period, and by most members of society—both pursued wholeheartedly and viewed as a curse in disguise. That contradiction is why, when someone makes a film about the vacuity of a life filled with money, we’ll always have the grand old mansions to shoot it in.