Saturday, February 18, 2012

"Fast cars and beautiful women at Nirvana: W. Gould Brokaw, the real Jay Gatsby"

Following up on last weekend's "Bootleggers, used car dealers and The Great Gatsby – on the trail of Max Gerlach" Hemmings looks at another "real" Jay Gatsby.

From Hemmings Motor News:
W. Gould Brokaw at The Wheel Of His Renault Racing Car, 1904
W. Gould Brokaw at the wheel of his Renault racing car, Ormond Beach, 1904.

Dan wrote up a very thoughtful piece last week on the idea that troubled used car dealer and bootlegger Max Gerlach was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s inspiration for the Great Gatsby. It’s a theory that Fitzgerald scholars have floated before, but Dan examined it from the car angle, with access to materials from recently digitized sources that previous investigators didn’t have. His conclusion was that, more likely, Gerlach was associated with the Wilson character, rather than Gatsby.

What Dan didn’t know, though, was that for a couple of years I’ve been tossing around the notion that it was now-forgotten Long Island socialite, playboy and gentleman racer (sound familiar?) William Gould Brokaw who was the inspiration for Gatsby.

Brokaw was the son of hugely successful New York clothier William Vail Brokaw of Brokaw Brothers, and grandson of a railroad tycoon; he inherited a fortune of around $4.5 million and never needed to do anything in particular for work. His circle of friends was the cream of New York society: Astors, Whitneys, Guggenheims, Vanderbilts, Goulds, Morgans, all of them interested in speed, whether horses, greyhounds, yachts or cars. Brokaw was an elder statesman for that set of young millionaires, having been born a decade or more before most, in 1863. In later legal proceedings–of which there were oh so many, he was described as “a rich and fashionable clubman.”


Before the advent of the racing car, Brokaw was focused on yachts and horses, and when he wasn’t at one of a series of Madison Avenue homes, held a very popular steeplechase at his 125-acre Great Neck estate, Nirvana (the former Crabbe estate). He owned a succession of yachts, of which Sybarite and Amorita were serious racing vessels, and won many New York area races. When motorized boats became popular, in 1905 he bought the year-old Challenger, at 150 Hp one of the fastest boats in the world; indeed, he set new world’s records with it that spring.

The first association with a car I’ve been able to find comes from April 1903, when he’s arrested for speeding on 125th street in Manhattan. He was already a big name in New York social circles, but his fame was about to become national, when he became involved with Katherine Poillon.
Later described as “professional vamps,” Katherine and her sister Charlotte made their living by involving wealthy New York gentlemen in love affairs, and either blackmailing, suing or sometimes just beating money out of them. Charlotte, at 200 pounds and about six feet tall, had boxed professionally, and Katherine wasn’t much smaller (they were Amazonian, statuesque and attractive, however). She took the romance tack with with Brokaw, among many others, and in 1902 sued him for, essentially, a broken heart (breach of promise)…and $500,000. This first sensational lawsuit dragged on for four years, and made headlines nationwide numerous times. Impressionable young F. Scott Fitzgerald was spending those years in New York State himself, so up to the age of 12, he had every opportunity to develop a picture of New York Society as epitomized by W. Gould Brokaw.
Mr. W. Gould Brokaw, M. Santos Dumont and Mr. Winthrop Scarritt at Ormond Beach
Mr. W. Gould Brokaw, M. Santos Dumont and Mr. Winthrop Scarritt at Ormond Beach. In 1904, Gould Brokaw ordered the world’s first pleasure airship from aviator Santos Dumont, but I don’t know if it was ever delivered; they were friends for years


Some of the history of the NYC house that W. Gould grew up in:

An Edwardian mother walks her son, in knickers, across the street in front of the Brokaw mansion, while a driver steers from the right side of the car down Fifth Avenue.  Behind the mansion are the twin residences of Howard and Irving Brokaw -- photo Library of Congress

From one of my favorite blogs, A Daytonian in Manhattan:
As the 20th century fades away, we tend to associate the immense mansions that once lined upper Fifth Avenue with legendary names like Vanderbilt, Astor and Carnegie.  But other families, lost to the memories of most, also had incredible wealth and threw up staggering residences.

Among them was Isaac Vail Brokaw.

Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1835, Brokaw was of “Huguenot descent,” according to the 1907 “Who’s Who in New York City and State.” Brokaw went into business with the cloth importing firm of Wilson G. Hunt & Co and later organized a clothing firm with his brother which they called Brokaw Brothers. The "Who’s Who" entry noted that the firm “has long been a leading one in that business.”

Indeed, business was such that by 1887 Brokaw was among the wealthiest men in the city. That year he commissioned architects Rose & Stone to design a grand French chateau on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 79th Street, across from Central Park. Three years after construction began, the great home was completed.
The entrance was clad in Caen stone and embellished with mosaics -- photo
© Dec 2 2008 IEEE
The architects drew their inspiration from the 16th Century Chateau de Chenonceau. Accessed by a heavy stone portico above a wide flight of steps, the limestone hulk had all the trappings necessary for a French fantasy: turrets, gables, balconies and finials. A three-foot stone wall guarded the light moat that surrounded the home.

Inside, the grand entrance hall boasted Caen stone walls, intricate mosaics and stained glass panels. In an early and inventive use of artificial lighting, the stained glass panels were back-lit by a suspended electric globe. Elegant bronze railings swept up the staircases. The library was Elizabethan with dark paneled walls, leaded windows, a delicate plasterwork ceiling and a seven-foot tall safe disguised within the woodwork.

Author Nathan Silver would later say of it, “There was a dignity and rugged solidity in the old castle.”

Brokaw and his wife, the former Elvira Gould, lived in the mansion with their daughter, Elvira, and three sons, George, Howard, and Irving. To help the family get along were a houseman and helper, a butler, two footmen, two cooks, a chamber maid and parlor maid....MORE