Great House Therapy: Jay Gatsby’s Desperately Sad McMansion of Unfulfilled Dreams -The Toast

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Previously in this series: Great House Therapy: Elizabeth & Darcy’s Neither Formal Nor Falsely Adorned Pad of Privilege

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Name: Jay Gatsby (not his real name), former bootlegger turned fantasist turned dead man floating in a pool
Location: West Egg, New York; less fashionable than East Egg, though this is a mostly superficial tag to express the bizarre and not a little sinister contrast between them
Size: Perfect for huge parties on summer nights
Years lived in: Not long enough to really matter; owned but mortgaged to the hilt

When Jay Gatsby was house-hunting, he tried to imagine the area as an old island that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes, but he didn’t really know much about the Dutch. A recent New York transplant from God-knows-where, he needed the perfect house to approach a new phase in his life.

What he found was a one-billion-square-foot man cave with Marie Antoinette music-rooms, Restoration salons, gold bathrooms, and a charming coastal location. This not insignificant real estate investment was motivated by his desire to be close to Daisy, the love interest of his youth and wife of sadistic Yale graduate and noted racist Tom Buchanan. It was important for him to have an excellent vantage point on the Buchanans’ cheerful red-and-white Georgian Colonial on the other side of the bay.

He also wanted a house where he could entertain – just in case Daisy decided to leave her gilded cage and show up at one of his lavish and emotionally bankrupt events. The mansion’s cavernous marble foyer proved an excellent space for welcoming anonymous revelers, and the open-plan kitchen was ideal for a catering staff charged with preparing two dinners per guest. Sometimes his guests got into fights with one another and drove drunk, but that was all just part of the fun of the Roaring Twenties.

Gatsby’s friend and neighbor Nick Carraway, who comes from a family of prominent, well-to-do people in a Middle Western city, was kind enough to give us a sense of the doomed protagonist’s domestic world.

A chat with Nick (otherwise known as “old sport”):

Gatsby’s style: I’d say that his style was nouveau riche crossed with a sense of futility in an increasingly alienated and materialistic world. Like a bottle of champagne left open in the sun for several days. He liked having at least one chandelier in every room, and he was fond of marble lions. He was also a big fan of lawns, like Tom and Daisy’s, which started at the beach and ran towards the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walls and burning gardens and drifting up the side of the house in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run, but I was always like: Christ, you guys are wasting so much water with your stupid lawn.

His Inspiration: First and foremost, the Bellagio in Las Vegas. He thought that place was super-classy. But he was also inspired by an abiding and fruitless nostalgia for something that never really existed. The house was his way of being near Daisy, my selfish and vain cousin and cipher extraordinaire. She laughs a lot because she’s horribly sad. And she got pissed at me for missing her wedding because I wasn’t back from the war. I mean, honestly. At any rate, it’s hard to say what kind of color palette results from the disappointment of youthful love. He did try to incorporate silver wherever he could. Maybe it reminded him of money, which is very important in this book.

Important Influences: In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice: decorate your home to reflect your personality. This was hard with Gatsby, as he didn’t really know what his personality was, but he read Town & Country to get a sense of what a proper society house looks like. He also flipped through Kinfolk once and insisted that his bartenders serve cocktails in mason jars for a little while after that. And he was influenced by the death-bound stare of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg, which you’ll remember as one of the ways that you learned about symbols in eighth grade.

Favorite Element: His blue lawn. He liked to stand out there and look at Daisy’s dock. He was obsessed with that dock. He went on and on about how he believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us, and how it eluded us then, but that’s no matter – to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further…and one fine morning…but I was just like, is green really the best color choice for the light? I would have gone in another direction. Maybe a nice, bright yellow.

What Friends Say: What, the people at his gleaming, dazzling parties? Please. They just came to drink his booze and vomit in the shrubs trimmed in the shape of dollar signs and swans. We all know that Gatsby had no friends, except maybe me, and I’m just an ambivalent mediating figure between the reader and the narrative. I don’t even get drunk all that often.

Biggest Embarrassment: The location. You have to travel through a place called the Valley of Ashes to get to the house. I mean, come on. You’d have thought that such a heavy-handed metaphor would have turned him off to the whole enterprise, but no.

Proudest DIY: I would say himself: the man was kind of a DIY project. He had a Pinterest board that helped him to figure out what to wear and how to act and how to throw a party and everything. Otherwise, I really did encourage him to take up a hobby to fill the empty hours of his existence: maybe spend some time working on the house, beefing up the sparse ivy or putting in a raised flower bed and planting some leafy greens – but that proved unsuccessful. I thought we might reclaim some lumber from a barn and build a new frame for his waterbed, but he just wanted to stand out on his lawn and stare off across the water.

Biggest Indulgence: His narcissism. Oh, you mean in terms of décor? – He liked French doors. He thought they seemed very French. And the pool, although he might not have liked it so much had he known it would be the site of a melodramatic murder-suicide.

Biggest Challenge: He struggled with clutter. Had his life not been cut tragically short, I would have told him to read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, which you may have heard of if you’re alive on the planet. His issue with clutter manifested itself in several ways, but he had a particular issue with clothes. He had all these shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel – shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue and, well – you get the idea. They represented the gaping void at the heart of consumer culture, as you’ll also remember from eighth grade.

Best Advice: I don’t really have any advice. I’m kind of a mess myself.

Susan Harlan is an English professor at Wake Forest University, where she specializes in Shakespeare. Her essays have appeared in venues such as The Guardian US, The Morning News, Roads & Kingdoms, Nowhere, The Awl, Public Books, and Curbed.

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