Gatsby's House0 comments
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 an angsty teen, even one who loved English class. 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 later this year. But my option right now is the classic 1974 version, featuring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow delivering lines taken 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 more aggressively ornate than the last—built by the East Coast’s wealthiest. The mansion above the text Paramount Pictures Presents is in fact Rosecliff, the Stanford White-designed home of silver heiress Theresa Fair Oelrichs.
The opening scenes of The Great Gatsby (1974). Press play to see Rosecliff, which is featured 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.)
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.
—Lindsey Howald Patton
August 15, 2014
Remaining Relevant: A look at Washington’s Fascinating House Museums
Washington's most fascinating house museums allow visitors to relive history. Most historical house museums today have successfully evolved with the times and have made great strides in historical preservation. These museums are thriving, boosted in part by advances in the field, as well as growing appreciation for preservation among the general public.
July 11, 2014
New York's Historic Carnegie Mansion: Renovated and Re-imagined
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum Announces Dec. 12, 2014 Opening of Renovated Carnegie Mansion and Opening Exhibitions. Read more
Book Club: The Picture of Dorian Gray
Saturday, October 11
Discuss Gilded Age fiction, biography, and history with the authors and historians. Join us for a lively discussion of Oscar Wilde’s only published novel. Read more
Gypsy Jazz: Swing Gitan
Friday, October 17
Back by popular demand! Chicago's premiere gypsy-jazz band, Swing Gitan, led by Alfonso Ponticelli returns to the Museum for an evening of foot-tappin' swing played on acoustic instruments in the 1930's-style music of guitarist Django Reinhardt. Read more
Nickerson Lecture: Gardens for a Beautiful America
Thursday, October 30
Gilded Age industrialism brought a new prosperity, but at the price of once pristine forests, rivers, and blue skies, devastated by continental railroad building and factory pollution. This lecture will explore the work of wealthy women and landscape architects to green America. Read more
Tiffany Glass: Painting with Color and Light
Wednesday, November 12
Louis C. Tiffany used colored glass as a painter uses pigments. In this illustrated lecture, Lindsy Parrott, Director/Curator of the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, will explore the history of Tiffany's glass and highlight some of the special types of glass found in his celebrated windows and lamps. Read more
An Intimate Evening with Bach
Thursday November 13
Join us as award-winning and nationally celebrated Colombian-American cellist, Christine Lamprea makes her debut at performing J.S. Bach’s classic, Suite No. 6 together with an inspired medley of 20th-century compositions. Read more
Sounds of the Season
Saturday, November 22
Once again this year, period-dressed carolers treat passersby to their favorite holiday songs from the Museum's front porch. Stop by before making your way to the Magnificent Mile's Lights Festival! Read more
Glitter & Gold Holiday Brunch
Saturday, December 6
Gather with family and friends for our first holiday brunch in the Museum’s historic Ballroom. Read more
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Holiday Cabaret
Friday, December 12 and Saturday, December 13
‘Tis the season to delight in the sensational vocal-stylings of acclaimed artist, David Edelfeldt. Together, he and Chicago’s favorite chanteuse, Becky McKenzie will perform winter and holiday favorites in their popular cabaret-style, while you enjoy drinks and light hors d’oeuvres. Read more
Santa Saturday 2
Saturdays, December 13 and 20
Celebrate the traditions of Gilded Age America that continue to make our winter holidays special! Read more