Book Bag: ‘The Real Gatsby; George Gordon Moore’ by Mickey Rathbun; ‘The Book Eaters’ by Carolina Hotchandani

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 03-01-2024 11:52 AM

Modified: 03-01-2024 12:17 PM


The Real Gatsby: George Gordon Moore
By Mickey Rathbun
White River Press

 

Just who was the inspiration for the character of the Great Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s iconic novel of the same name?

Scholars and literary detectives have tried for decades to suss out the origins of the mysterious Jay Gatsby, the nouveau riche millionaire who hosts wild Jazz-Age parties at his opulent Long Island mansion and has long been a symbol of the questionable promise of the “American Dream.”

In her new book, Amherst writer Mickey Rathbun profiles one man who could have been Fitzgerald’s model for the character: her maternal grandfather, a larger-than-life figure from the early 20th century who made and lost a fortune and then spent years trying to recapture his former glory.

“The Real Gatsby: George Gordon Moore,” published by White River Press of Amherst, might not offer conclusive evidence that Moore was Fitzgerald’s inspiration for Gatsby, though Rathbun makes some compelling arguments that the two men likely knew each other and even socialized.

For instance, the self-made Moore lived in a Long Island mansion during the early 1920s, and one of his best friends then as well as his business associate was Tommy Hitchcock, a famous polo player and prominent figure in the Long Island money set. Fitzgerald idolized Hitchcock, Rathbun notes, and based another character from “The Great Gatsby” on him.

But aside from outlining the parallels between Moore and Gatsby, Rathbun’s book presents both an absorbing study of Moore’s life and times as well as a multi-generational memoir, as the author examines how her grandfather’s rise and fall shaped her mother’s life and in turn the lives of Rathbun and her brother and sister — not necessarily for the better, she notes.

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“My mother wasn’t an orphan, but she might as well have been,” she writes. “Her parents were distant and preoccupied.” Rathbun notes that her mother had a serious drinking problem, was sometimes consumed with rage, and was emotionally distant herself, leaving her and and her siblings coping largely on their own.

“We did our best to forget the unpleasantness and move on,” adds Rathbun, who writes a garden column for the Gazette. “It was safer to let that sleeping dog lie.”

Moore may not have been a great parent himself, and, as Rathbun notes, there was also evidence he was ethically challenged, making some of his fortune — in railroads, oil, coal, timber and other fields — by playing fast and loose with investors’ money. He faced a number of court judgments in his day for financial chicanery.

But he also had a fascinating ability to show up, Zelig-like, alongside famous people of his era, and he exuded what Rathbun calls a “romantic readiness” for life, “an insatiable hunger for the next big chance.”

Born in 1876 to poor Irish immigrants in southern Ontario, the ambitious Moore attended high school in Michigan, was a practicing lawyer at age 21, and by 1906 was a partner in a Michigan railroad company worth $161 million in today’s currency, Rathbun writes.

From there his wealth expanded to include various homes, a stable of race horses, a rambling hunting lodge in North Carolina, and a sprawling ranch in California, where he threw enormous, boozy parties — during Prohibition, no less — for well-heeled guests.

And even before he was hobnobbing with polo players — he took up polo playing himself in his 40s — and rich socialites on Long Island, Moore somehow ingratiated himself with British aristocrats in pre-WWI England, as he sought investors for new business schemes.

When WWI broke out, he used his friendship with Sir John French, commander in chief of British Army forces in France, to spend time in French’s headquarters, where he helped play a role in pushing the British government to improve production of munitions for outgunned English soldiers. Moore also met and dined with Winston Churchill, then the civilian head of Britain’s navy, and he spent time with members of British Prime Minister H.H. Asquith’s family.

Some eyebrows were raised about this rich American hanging around British Army and political bigwigs; one journalist suggested Moore was a German spy, while a rumor went round that he was a “bastard son” of British royalty.

“Like Gatsby, Moore was a tantalizing enigma,” writes Rathbun. “No one knew much about his past, and he seemed to like it that way … [he] enjoyed the speculation about his past and the mystery of his money; it heightened his allure.”

Almost all that money disappeared during the Great Depression, and Moore’s second wife divorced him, with Rathbun’s mother going to live with Moore’s ex-wife and spending limited time afterward with her father. Recalling her grandfather’s Christmas visits to her family’s home when she was a child, Rathbun sketches a much-diminished figure who dribbled soup down his chin and shirtfront; Moore was then in his 80s and 90s.

“Old age had not been kind to him. His eyes were milky blue and his ears were as long as a bloodhound’s … His clothes — a threadbare suit, a double-breasted polo coat, and a brown fedora — were not suitable for our harsh East Coast winters.”

But researching and writing her book, Rathbun notes, gave her a deeper appreciation for her grandfather’s life and times, as well as his legacy, both good and bad.

“‘The Great Gatsby’ was the key that opened the door to my grandfather’s paradoxes,” she writes. “The novel helped me appreciate the enthusiastic confidence that enthused his life, despite his failures and shortcomings.”

Mickey Rathbun will discuss “The Real Gatsby” March 5 at 7 p.m. at the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley. She’ll be joined by writer, journalist and former Mount Holyoke College professor Martha Ackmann.

 

In other book news: Perugia Press, the Florence publisher that releases one poetry collection by a new woman writer each year, will host a reading and conversation March 8 in Northampton to mark Women’s History Month and the publication of this year’s winning title, “The Book Eaters” by Carolina Hotchandani.

The reading, which begins at 7 p.m. at the Northampton Center for the Arts at 33 Hawley, includes Hotchandani, Valley poet Gail Thomas, and writers and Perugia board members Jen Jabaily-Blackburn and Arya Samuelson; the evening’s theme is “Subverting the Motherhood Ideal.”

Hotchandani, who lives and teaches in Omaha, Nebraska, is a Latinx/South Asian poet who was born in Brazil, raised in various parts of the United States, and holds degrees from Brown, Texas State, and Northwestern universities.

One critic calls Hotchandani’s collection “simply a gorgeous book of poems,” with work that examines a wide range of subjects: diaspora, cancer, new motherhood, language, the natural world, and a father’s aphasia.

As the opening lines of “Agreeable Subjects” puts it, “When a past father of mine makes an appearance / in my current father’s sentences, / I welcome him and pay attention to the language / comprising this person.”

The Perugia Press reading is free.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.