Last week I went to see The Great Gatsby on the big screen.
This isn’t a film review or a discussion of Baz Luhrmann’s ego because, truth be told, when that hip hop soundtrack was pounding through the cinema, my concentration was elsewhere. I was scanning the party scenes for somebody from the New York social scene of the late 1920s that I might recognize.
Connecting Dublin with those Long Island mansions owned by jaded millionares isn’t as far a leap as you might imagine. A journalist last week claimed that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s model for the reclusive Gatsby was in fact Irish – William Cochran.
I’m not crazy enough to claim to be related to him, but I do know that long before the theatre company ERS or Luhrmann made Fitzgerald’s story their own, Ria Mooney declared that she had been at a party in the home of an infamous Long Island host named Robert Chanler.** She was adamant Mr Chanler was The Great Gatsby.
Robert Chanler was an artist and socialite. In fact, it turns out (thanks Katharine!) that Kay Swift and her wealthy first husband commissioned one of his modern art pieces for their home. Do you remember the room I described with the two grand pianos, decorated entirely in black and white? It also contained this: wonderful piece . (The connections between Kay Swift and these Abbey women continue to startle me in the best possible way.)
A photo of this time shows a beaming Ria beneath the expansive brim of a straw hat, sitting in the back of an open-topped motor car that is about to take off at speed. With Le Gallienne holidaying away from the company with Josie (then in the middle of her divorce) Ria had time on her hands and the heat of a New York summer to enjoy. Rita Romelli had a friend with a car, and some summer outfits that she could share with her intimate friend. Free gin flowed day and night at these gatherings and a bed could always be found somewhere if one needed a few hours rest.
[As I write this, I can’t help thinking about those episodes of Sex and the City where Carrie and her friends ‘summer’ in the Hamptons. What happened on Long Island, stayed on Long Island.]
Ria is vague, or perhaps coy, about who exactly she was socialising with that summer. Little is recounted about life during daylight hours, but the real excitement came with nightfall. Walking through the woods one night around midnight, Ria recalls coming upon a clearing where a picnic meal illuminated by a huge log fire was coming to a close:
They sat in twos, making love between sips, or in groups, having loud and fierce arguments while they drank and nibbled food–and each other. From a large flat rock overhanging the river, naked figures were seen for a moment as they shot through the light in dives that engulfed them in the black waters. Everywhere were the sounds of laughter, arguments, corks popping, bodies splashing into the water, mingling with nature’s medley of night sounds.
It’s a vivid description but it leaves the reader simply curious: Did Ria only observe or was she invited to join a group drinking or arguing? Was Rita with her? Or another ‘girl-friendly’ woman? Was this an all female gathering? How was the scene as dawn rose over the gathering?
In any case, I do think the river clearing is a more dramatic backdrop than Di Caprio’s swimming pool.
This week I’ve been reading the snide comments of Vincent Dowling, an actor under Ria’s directorate at The Abbey during that period. He puts the insults in the words of his fellow company members, saying that the other actors claimed Ria ‘couldn’t direct traffic’ and was probably ‘menopausal.’ He describes her standing at the edge of the stage during rehearsals, beating out a rhythm with her fist that nobody else could hear. She may have beating out her frustration with the institution, desperate to be heard.
[Vincent was in the cast that won an award in Paris for The Plough and the Stars. He omits Ria’s direction of this production, preferring instead to talk at length about his experiences with French prostitutes.]
When Ria returned to New York in the late 1950s, she spent most of her month-long holiday on Long Island.
I can see an older Ria back with her life-long friends in an ageing mansion, getting into bed weary after a long day of sunshine and catching up on news. Her thoughts flutter back to Ireland and the Abbey now and again, although she pushes the worries away. In her nightdress and bare feet, Ria crosses the room and pushes back the curtains, so that she can see the stars. She holds her breath, waiting for something else to fall. Tonight, it doesn’t come and she falls asleep waiting.
At the age of twenty-seven, Ria Mooney spent a night in a luxurious guestroom belonging to a Madame Rubinstein. She slept in a room scented with sandalwood, under a roof that rolled back to expose the nght sky. As she started to drift off to sleep, she found that soft glitter was falling slowly from the stars and melting into the darkness. Despite the struggles behind and the unknown future ahead, Ria reached out in blissful joy and wonder to try to catch fireflies in her small hands.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a great scene.
Gatsby, on the other hand, can stay a recluse if he wants. I’d far rather Ria’s companion would finally come out of hiding.
**This isn’t a typo – but is how Ria herself spelt his name.