The Secret Jewish History of F. Scott Fitzgerald's 'The Great Gatsby'

Meyer Wolfsheim Is Jewish. But What About Gatsby Himself?

Pipe Dreamer: The first film version of ‘Great Gatsby’ featured Neil Hamilton in the role of Nick Carraway. The silent movie was made by the Jewish production team of Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky.
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Pipe Dreamer: The first film version of ‘Great Gatsby’ featured Neil Hamilton in the role of Nick Carraway. The silent movie was made by the Jewish production team of Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky.

By Seth Rogovoy

Published May 09, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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Every generation gets the film version of “The Great Gatsby” it deserves. Ours will be a 3-D “Gatsby” directed by Baz Luhrmann — he of the hyperactive, swooping camera of “Moulin Rouge!” and the highly stylized, gaudy adaptation of “Romeo + Juliet.” But like every previous “Gatsby” adaptation, this one will speak with just the hint of a Jewish accent.

In 1926, just a year after the publication of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, the Jewish-owned Paramount Pictures released a now lost silent film made by the Jewish production team of Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky at the Famous Players Lasky Corporation.

Paramount did it again in 1949, with Alan Ladd in the title role, featuring the ubiquitous Shelley Winters (born Shirley Schrift) in the role of Myrtle Wilson.

The 1974 film version, once again released by Paramount, is generally considered to have been a noble failure. Francis Ford Coppola’s screenplay is loyal to Fitzgerald’s novel, perhaps to a fault. Robert Redford, in the enigmatic title role, is a compelling visual presence, but he and Mia Farrow, who plays his elusive dream girl, Daisy Buchanan, failed to ignite any onscreen sparks.

Incidentally, Farrow’s movie director father, John Farrow, had been slated initially to direct the 1949 version; it was handed over to Elliott Nugent by producer/screenwriter Richard Maibaum of James Bond fame after a disagreement over casting.

Like those before him, Luhrmann needed to decide how to portray the minor but essential character of Meyer Wolfsheim, the Jewish gangster and bootlegger who is Gatsby’s mentor, the Svengali figure responsible for the transformation of the modest Midwestern ex-soldier James Gatz into the wealthy, reclusive socialite Jay Gatsby of West Egg, Long Island, on his way toward trying to win back the heart of his beloved Daisy (played this time by Carey Mulligan).

The 1974 version watered down some of the more vulgar, offensive stereotypical aspects that Fitzgerald gave Wolfsheim. As played by Howard Da Silva (born Howard Silverblatt), Wolfsheim — loosely based on the real-life Arnold Rothstein, who is familiar to viewers of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and is the man generally credited with having fixed the 1919 World Series (a feat Fitzgerald gives to the fictional Wolfsheim) — doesn’t have a thick Yiddish accent that renders the word “connections” as “gonnegtions.”


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