Note: The Great Gatsby, directed by Baz Lurhmann, opened in theaters on May 10, 2013. The post below dates from the summer of 2009.
The New York zeitgeist this summer seems interested in revisiting F. Scott Fitzgerald's acclaimed masterpiece, The Great Gatsby, first published in April 1925. Director Baz Lurhmann has bought the rights to make a new film version, the radio program Studio 360 featured an in-depth look at the acclaimed novel, and even the Mannahatta/Manhattan exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, the one that investigates the island's verdant Eden, prominently features a quote from the book on the wall. One reason for the resurgent interest is Fitzgerald's vivid portrait of New York culture during the Jazz Age, a time that invites a comparison with the city's most recent boom years and its subsequent loss of relative affluence. Beyond this interpretation and the literary ones mentioned by your high school English teacher, the book makes a good summer beach novel, with its breezy Long Island setting, reckless drivers, and endless cocktails. So much for Prohibition.
When he's not pulled into Jay Gatsby's magnetic vortex, Nick Carraway, the book's narrator - a budding 29-year-old bond trader (surely he would be a hedge funds guy in a contemporary remake) and a Yale man, spends most of his summer of 1922 working in the city. Toward the end of Chapter 3, he explains, "Most of the time I worked. In the early morning the sun threw my shadow westward as I hurried down the white chasms of lower New York to the Probity Trust." Much like the author Fitzgerald, Nick is the kind of walker-voyeur type who watches the world with dispassion but with a keen sense of observation. He spends lunch with coworkers dining "in dark, crowded restaurants on little pig sausages and mashed potatoes and coffee."
Nick's description of his evening routine is brief, but his words are geographically specific enough to follow in a real life New York context:
"I took dinner usually at the Yale Club—for some reason it was the gloomiest event of my day—and then I went up-stairs to the library and studied investments and securities for a conscientious hour. There were generally a few rioters around, but they never came into the library, so it was a good place to work. After that, if the night was mellow, I strolled down Madison Avenue past the old Murray Hill Hotel, and over 33rd Street to the Pennsylvania Station."
On a recent summer evening much like the narrator describes, I traced Nick's walk from the Yale Club to Pennsylvania Station. Circumstances of weather and the long days of summer sunsets over the Hudson do not change, but the built environment has changed greatly from 1922 to 2009. The specters of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building, two towers constructed in the years following the novel's publication, followed me on my walk, as if they were looking over my shoulder. And while I tried to erase these immense stalkers from my virtual sight in order to imagine Nick's walk, I also faced the challenge of adding to my imagination two monumental buildings that he saw and that are no longer there - the Murray Hill Hotel, a grand rococo hotel dating from 1884, and Pennsylvania Station, the glorious Beaux-Arts monument from 1910 by McKim, Mead and White.
The reserved and handsome Yale Club still stands, just west of Grand Central Terminal at 44th and Vanderbilt. Arriving for the walk via the 6 train, I quickly fell into the mood of the Jazz Age upon seeing professionals of our era sipping, as advertised, "Cocktails from another era" at The Campbell Apartment. At the Yale Club, a light was on upstairs, as if Nick was still there studying his investments, and a short time after an alum emerged from the gilded-hued revolving door of the Vanderbilt street entrance. I walked the block west to Madison and proceeded south, noticing that the land slightly declined with these blocks. Those familiar with the novel will be amused by the presence of so many optical shops along the way. Shades of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg!
View From The Great Gatsby: Nick Carraway's Walk in a larger map
The Murray Hill Hotel, the 600-room hotel that once stood at 112 Park Avenue at East 40th Street, was modern for its time and popular with the city's elite at the turn of the century. The wealthy residents of Murray Hill convened in the lobby to smoke cigars and drink coffee. One notable habitué was J.P. Morgan, the powerful financier, who died in 1913. Walking south on Madison, Nick would have strolled past Morgan's home and library at the southeast corner of 36th Street. With just the mention of Murray Hill, Jazz Age readers of The Great Gatsby would have understood Fitzgerald's implicit reference to the world of the old rich. Jay Gatsby, by way of contrast, was nouveau riche.
Turning on 33rd St. and walking west gradually opens a sportier and a shadier world - Jack Dempsey's Pub, followed by peep shows and a neon sign advertising "Live Girls." The route opens onto the crossroads of Herald Square to the north and Greeley Square to the south. A statue there of Horace Greeley, editor of The New York Tribune, invites another literary connection to Fitzgerald's novel. Greeley's most famous dictum, "Go west, young man!" echoes the novel's western-versus eastern moral and cultural themes.
Reaching 7th Avenue, Nick would have passed on his left The Hotel Pennsylvania, a great columned hotel built in 1919 by the Pennsylvania Railroad and designed by McKim, Mead & White. Like the demolished Penn Station across the street, one that gave way to the eyesore known as Madison Square Garden, this structure, too, faces an uncertain future. Leave Nick here to catch his train, and walk one more block west to 8th Avenue to see the enormous Corinthian colonnade of the James A. Farley Building. New York's main post office, another monument by McKim, Mead & White, was built in 1912 and when opened in 1914 was known as the Pennsylvania Terminal. Plans are on the drawing board to convert this space into a new entrance for a renovated train station, but the complexities and debate over the Garden's future has left development of this area of the city in limbo. While we continue to debate the uses of real estate, Nick Carraway has probably slipped off to West Egg. Who knows? He may have already gone home to the Midwest by now.
• See images of Penn Station, a glorious Beaux-Arts monument from 1910 by McKim, Mead and White, on this page at NYC-Architecture. Read about Penn Station's destruction as featured on an episode of Mad Men in this post on WOTBA.
• Read about walks near Penn Station in the post, From Penn Station to New York Landmarks: Measuring Distance and Time in Manhattan.
Images in slideshow by Walking Off the Big Apple from Monday, July 6, approx. 8:20 p.m. - 8:45 p.m.