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  • Covering a Debt:F. Scott Fitzgerald and Francis Cugat
  • D. Mesher (bio)

The current Scribner Classics paperback edition of The Great Gatsby features on its cover the illustration from the novel's original 1925 dust jacket. In his introduction to that edition, Charles Scribner III comments that "after half a century the highly stylized image once again appears fresh and effective, and in vogue: such are the cycles of taste" (Gatsby xiii). In one way, though, the jacket image points up how tastes have changed: the barely-discernible female nudes in the pupils of Daisy's eyes are reminders of how daring the novel was for its time—too daring, in fact, to be serialized in leading magazines, one of whose editors found Gatsby "too ripe" for its readership, too full of mistresses and adulteries" (Mellow 226). Scribner also makes a rather more significant claim about the cover illustration by Francis Cugat. "The dominant symbol of the novel, the billboard eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, owed its origins to the artist Francis Cugat," declares Scribner. "I do not know of another case in which an author acknowledges so central a debt to an illustrator" (Gatsby xiii ).

If substantiated, Scribner's claim would not only identify an important debt indeed but also would have great bearing on our understanding of the creative process behind The Great Gatsby (the earliest drafts of which do not survive)—both because of the apparent source of this image, and even more because of the relatively late introduction it would suggest for [End Page 235] such a central feature of the novel. Scribner bases his contention on a line from a letter Fitzgerald wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins. According to Scribner, "Hemingway was later to describe it as the ugliest jacket he'd ever seen, but Fitzgerald, writing from France in the summer of 1924, insisted: 'For Christ's sake, don't give anyone that jacket you're saving for me. I've written it into the book ' " (Gatsby xii, Scribner's emphasis).

Scribner is not the first to assess Fitzgerald an artistic debt to Cugat's illustration as a result of that line and may have derived the idea from either of two almost identical annotations published with earlier appearances of the letter in collections of Fitzgerald's correspondence. A footnote for the line in Andrew Turnbull's edition of The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1963) describes the dust jacket as showing "two huge eyes, intended to be those of Daisy Fay, brooding over New York City, and this had been Fitzgerald's inspiration for the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg" (166). John Kuehl and Jackson Bryer, the editors of Dear Scott, Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence (1971), attach a similar note to that line, stating that Cugat's "picture inspired the image of the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg in The Great Gatsby " (Kuehl 76). Admittedly, Kuehl and Bryer seem to be following Turnbull's lead; but the lack of any supporting documentation in either collection for such a claim seems to indicate that, by 1963, the recognition of Cugat's illustration as the inspiration for Eckleburg's billboard had become something of an oral tradition.

Coincidentally, that was a year before the appearance in print of comments about the illustration attributed to Fitzgerald by Ernest Hemingway, in his posthumously published, unreliable memoir of Paris in the twenties, A Moveable Feast (1964). Almost forty years after the event, Hemingway recalled Fitzgerald giving him a copy of The Great Gatsby :

It had a garish dust jacket and I remember being embarrassed by the violence, bad taste and slippery look of it. It looked the book jacket for a book of bad science fiction. Scott told me not to be put off by it, that it had to do with a billboard along a highway in Long Island that was important in the story. He said he had liked the jacket and now he didn't like it. I took it off to read the book.

(Feast 176)

According to Hemingway, then, Fitzgerald certainly associated Cugat's illustration with Eckleburg's eyes. But the terms of that association are vague...


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