Saturday, February 11, 2012

Bootleggers, used car dealers and The Great Gatsby – on the trail of Max Gerlach

From Hemmings:
Wilson's garage
The intertwining of the automobile into the story of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby involves more than just props to illustrate the Jazz Age setting: The plot hinges on Myrtle Wilson’s death by automobile, and Fitzgerald even named one of the characters, Jordan Baker, after two American automotive marques. Also, as it turns out, automobiles lie at the heart of one of the book’s largest mysteries.

Literary types and Fitzgerald fanatics have long debated the real-life inspiration for James Gatz/Jay Gatsby. The current reigning theory seems to be that Gatsby wasn’t based on one man in particular, but was drawn from a variety of sources, among them several bootleggers and gangsters. Several researchers, the late Matthew J. Bruccoli among them, have suggested Max Gerlach, who likely inspired Gatsby’s enduring phrase, “old sport,” as one of those models. In the notes to the authorized text of the novel, Bruccoli wrote about Gerlach:
Almost nothing is known about Gerlach, who shot himself in 1939, when he was in the used-car business in Flushing.
Back in 2002, Bruccoli hired Howard Comen, a private investigator, to find out more about Gerlach. From newspaper accounts of Comen’s investigation, we see that Gerlach, who was 55 at the time, survived that suicide attempt and lived until October 1958, when he died in the Mansfield Hotel in New York City. In the 1920s, when Gerlach knew the Fitzgeralds, he operated as a bootlegger and allegedly kept Fitzgerald topped off with booze. Born in Yonkers as Max A. Stark (or possibly Max A. Stork), he claimed direct German ancestry and went by the names of Max Stark Gerlach and Max von Gerlach later in life (his gravestone reads Max Stork Gerlach). But where was his dealership?

The Great Gatsby - the yellow roadster
Newspaper accounts of the suicide attempt reported that Gerlach was despondent about losing his automobile agency, Park Central Motors at 150-10 Northern Boulevard in Flushing. And we did indeed turn up records of a Park Central Motors, though not at that address. How or whether it’s linked to Gerlach remains to be seen.
Dutee Wilcox Flint Lincoln ad
Dutee Wilcox Flint – who has been variously described as the largest Ford dealer in the world, one of the earliest Ford dealers and a close friend of Henry Ford – was a state senator from Rhode Island who, by 1921-1922, advertised that he had 30 Ford, Lincoln and Fordson dealerships across Connecticut and Rhode Island (his obituary claimed only 25). According to a May 6, 1923, article in the New York Times, he incorporated Park Central Motors along along with a couple other “automobile men from Providence” at the above address, Park Avenue at 46th Street.

Flint also lent his name to the Dutee W. Flint Oil Company (bought by Socony in 1929), owned a few radio stations and was an avid yachtsman. But according to the announcement of his death in the April 3, 1961, issue of the Newport (RI) Daily News:
When the famous “Tin Lizzie,” the Model T, was abandoned in 1927, Mr. Flint found himself over-extended with tremendous over-head and no cars to sell. The officials of the Ford Motor Co. did not share Mr. Ford’s affection for Mr. Flint and they forced him to surrender his stock, life insurance and most of his assets to the Ford Company. They also made him dispose of his agencies.
Who Flint sold the dealerships to wasn’t reported, and we have yet to see anything that positively links Flint to Gerlach. Yet we also see Gerlach described as “a wealthy yachtsman,” (a term that Bruccoli notes was often a euphemism for “rumrunner”) and we see that Flint died at his home in New York City, so it’s possible that the two men were at least acquaintances....MORE