- The Man Who Would be Gatsby
Mr. Gatsby: who is he? In The Great Gatsby, he is Jay Gatz, the son of an impoverished German American family, a veteran, an Oxford man, and a mysterious millionaire. In real life, he was Max von Gerlach, claims Horst H. Kruse. And what a case Kruse makes. The primary strength of F. Scott Fitzgerald at Work: The Making of The Great Gatsby is in its presentation of new and illuminating contexts for interpreting The Great Gatsby. Among its four chapters, the first one, which takes up a little more than half of this slim book, is by far the most intriguing. It tracks the life of the German-born immigrant Max von Gerlach, exceptional automobile engineer, veteran of the Great War, and an acquaintance of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. Gerlach’s name first appeared on the map of Fitzgerald scholarship in 1947 when Zelda, in an interview with scholar/biographer Henry Dan Piper, mentioned “von Guerlach” as a neighbor who had been in some “trouble over bootlegging” (8). While speculations have been made about the role he played in the characterization of Gatsby, scholars have never found much of anything about Gerlach’s actual identity (despite, at one [End Page 263] point, employing a private detective). As a result, his name has played only a minor role in the critical discourse surrounding the novel.
Kruse begins his book by unraveling the biographical maze that preceding Fitzgerald scholars have woven around Gerlach’s life. The process is significant because it leads to an important intervention in terms of understanding Fitzgerald’s artistic intentions in The Great Gatsby. But it is also an immensely interesting read because it shows how speculations by scholars over the identity of the real-life counterpart of Gatsby came to mirror the speculations about Gatsby’s identity by the characters in the novel. Kruse reaches back to a specific point in Fitzgerald scholarship, when Gerlach first appeared as a potential source for Gatsby: Arthur Mizener’s The Far Side of Paradise (1951). Mizener learned of Zelda’s remark from Piper, whose own book, F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Critical Portrait, would not appear until 1965. Mizener also knew from Edmund Wilson that Fitzgerald was acquainted with the wealthy bootlegger Max Fleischmann, whose name (minus one concluding n) had appeared in Wilson’s 1924 play The Crime in the Whistler Room. Putting two and two together, Mizener mistakenly equated Gerlach with Fleischmann. Later in F. Scott Fitzgerald and His World (1971), Mizener transformed Gerlach himself into a fashionable Long Island bootlegger. Kruse intervenes here, asserting that there is no evidence that Gerlach was a big-time bootlegger nor was he Fleischmann. He was, in fact, a working-class German immigrant with a successful career as an automobile engineer and salesman. Kruse’s account of Gerlach’s treatment by Fitzgerald scholars reads like a real-life sequel to Nick Carraway’s demythologizing of Gatsby’s past, sorting through conjecture to reach the real man behind the façade—Jay Gatz, the son of a poor German immigrant.
Kruse’s central claim is that the reason Fitzgerald looked to Gerlach as a model for Gatsby was not because of his supposed identity as a wealthy, infamous bootlegger but because of his “quest for identity as an American citizen” (7). Gerlach was suitable as the genesis for Gatsby, Kruse argues, because he epitomized the immigrant experience that the novel attempts to convey through its central character. And this is where the significance of Kruse’s painstaking archival research really intensifies. He scours census data, immigration records, journal articles, and archival material in various libraries in the U.S. and Germany to reconstruct the hitherto lost biography of Max von Gerlach. In addition to the general lack of records and the fact that his family name had changed from Gerlach to Stork due to his mother’s remarriage, the most [End Page 264] important reason for Gerlach’s elusiveness was the antagonism in America, during World War...