“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
(from “The Great Gatsby,” by F. Scott Fitzgerald)
“The Great Gatsby,” the 1925 American novel of the 20th century, is back. This time it arrives in 21st century 3-D. Premiering May 10th nationwide, Baz Luhrmann’s remake of The Great Gatsby is getting a contemporary treatment, with performances by Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, and with music by Jay-Z, Beyonce, Jack White and others. The 1974 film version was far from perfect, but how could one not like a movie that used Rosecliff, one of Newport’s many Cliff Walk “cottages,” as Jay Gatsby’s home? What better place to choose to film than Newport — home of the International Tennis Hall of Fame? I’ve not heard great things about the new remake and I haven’t seen it yet myself, but I do offer a few thoughts on “The Great Gatsby”‘s connection to tennis — the game that skyrocketed in popularity during the “Gatsby” era.
Seeing beyond what promises to be layer upon layer of cinematic glitz, are moments when “Gatsby” uses tennis to make the “jazz age” (a term coined by Fitzgerald himself) story come to swinging life…
First of all, there is the always-out-of-reach Daisy Buchanan, who just might be the ultimate Grand Slam. For one player, she’s Wimbledon. For another, she’s Roland Garros. For far too many, she’s the ever-elusive number one ranking. She’s unattainable, no matter how hard one tries.
Next, there’s Daisy’s friend, Jordan Baker, the cynical woman with whom Nick Carraway becomes romantically involved. Representing the “new woman” of the ‘20s, she’s a competitive golfer (and a tennis player). She’s a beauty, but dishonest and self-centered who cheats in order to win. If she were a player, she’d probably despise the Hawkeye line-calling system.
Then there’s Mr. Klipspringer, the superficial freeloader who seems to live at Gatsby’s mansion. He constantly takes advantage of his host’s money, and when things go awry, he disappears. At a dramatic moment in the story, he reappears, but not for the reason that would be prudent, but to inappropriately ask about a pair of tennis shoes (of all things) that he might have left behind. He’s a bit reminiscent of a player who completely rides on the coattails of a more talented doubles partner.
But most of all, there’s Jay Gatsby and “the look.” When you’re impressed with the film’s period visuals, the classic summer-in-the-Hamptons style, you can thank tennis. “The Great Gatsby” took place in a time of easy money and the hard sell. It was a complicated time when societal manners shifted and America’s sense of individualism grew deep roots. What is one of the lessons learned in The Great Gatsby? Lots of money can’t necessarily buy you class. It comes not from the latest fashion one wears on the court, but from how one plays the game.
Wearing white, of course.
Dollars may be green, but F. Scott Fitzgerald painted a portrait of the rich where everything else seemed to be white: the mansions, the rooms inside the mansions, the sheets and drapery in those rooms. Daisy’s car was white (at least the car she had before she was married), as was her “white neck,” “white girlhood” and her “white palace.” But whiteness does not symbolize Daisy’s innocence. She’s hardly an innocent; by the end of the novel, she’s predominantly selfish and destructive. By then, white becomes bloodless… the color of false purity over goodness. This is an off-white daisy.
So it must be all about the popularity of 1920s tennis. F. Scott Fitzgerald was right: The rich were different. The rich in England and America had adopted summer white as their leisurewear of choice. Since white clothing dirties so easily, it simply wasn’t practical for the new factory worker class (not to mention the domestic servant class). The only people suited to wear white with any frequency were those who didn’t participate in some sort of manual labor. In other words — those who had the free time to use popular phrases of the day like, “Tennis, anyone?” The rich were different and they made sure that everyone noticed by wearing white as often as possible. In the early 20th century, the first competitive tennis tournaments called for new outfits that were more practical than the layered, restrictive fashions of the 19th century court action. Enter “tennis whites”!
Tennis slowly democratized over the 20th century and since the middle class loves to imitate the rich, they began to wear tennis whites too. Eventually tennis whites became the norm, then the rule: Wimbledon mandated all-white outfits for players in 1890. Tennis whites were required at most country clubs, where tennis tournaments took place and where it was required dress. Nowadays, Wimbledon is the last of the grand slams to be held at a private club, therefore it is the only one left with the white dress code.
What about today? Is Jay Gatsby – once the embodiment of America in all its chaotic glory – still relevant? Is America still the same concoction of equal parts cynicism and idealism? I sense the cynicism, but where is the idealism? Can we find it in the crowds at the US Open? And what of Gatsby — the man willing to do anything to gain the social position he thought necessary to win the affection of his unattainable object of desire? Are we willing to overlook the host’s flaws merely in hopes that our name will be on his guest list? Do today’s young players recognize themselves in Gatsby’s drive for self-improvement, his devotion to self-discipline?
Most importantly — is there a young tennis player ready to emulate Nick Carraway, and not Gatsby? Easy-going Nick Carraway… newly arrived from the Midwest, who has the secretive Jay Gatsby as his next door neighbor. Nick may not be the title character, but he is the narrator; his thoughts tell the story. For Nick, the Midwest seemed pedestrian compared to the excitement of the ritzy East, but in the end, the East is merely a glittering surface lacking the Midwest’s moral center. American tennis needs a guy with a golden forehand and the charisma of Jay Gatsby, but with the mental game and trustworthiness of Nick Carraway. And since both Nick and Gatsby are from the Midwest — chances are that next American tennis star is a Midwesterner too, right?
Eventually, American tennis will return to its former competitive glory. Eternal optimists, American tennis fans still believe in the “green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us,” as the end of the novel reads.
“It eluded us then, but that’s no matter – tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms further… And one fine morning –“
In the end, what does Gatsby’s failure say about American aspiration? F. Scott Fitzgerald questions the idea of an America in which all things are possible if one simply tries hard enough, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to tennis. In tennis, effort, when focused and refined, translates to success.
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Somewhere out there are young players trying to free themselves of the pull of the sport’s glorious past in hopes that they will push forward and write their own story of achieved dreams. Somewhere there’s a young player making the necessary effort and getting ready to take American tennis into its past glory days.
Now that’d be great.