Travel

'The Great Gatsby' — and Daisy, in particular — have roots in Kentucky

Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan.
Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchanan.

The Great Gatsby is regarded as a great New York novel, portraying the lives of the idle, naughty rich in 1922 in the city and its seaside communities. But it also has a strong tie to Kentucky.

The object of the title character's affection hails from Louisville, and that's where they met.

Daisy Buchanan — the woman whom Jay Gatsby devotes his life to wooing in F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1925 novel and its several film adaptations, including Baz Luhrmann's new version, out Friday — is described as one of the belles of Louisville. That brings several scenes from the story to Kentucky, including Daisy's marriage to oafish Tom Buchanan, which is celebrated in a grand reception in the grand ballroom of the real-life Seelbach Hotel.

Over the years, that has earned the 1905 hotel in downtown Louisville a steady stream of Fitzgerald fans — and a big-name film director.

Seelbach historian Larry Johnson says he got a call one Sunday morning not long ago telling him he needed to get to the hotel because Luhrmann, the Australian director known for Moulin Rouge! and Romeo + Juliet, was there and wanted the Fitzgerald tour.

One aspect of the story that makes people think Gatsby is a somewhat autobiographical character is that Fitzgerald, like Gatsby, was briefly stationed at Camp Taylor, southeast of Louisville, in 1918 during World War I. While there, Fitzgerald frequently visited one of the Seelbach's bars, the Rathskeller.

"He was a second lieutenant, doing some military training, and on occasion, he would come to the Seelbach Hotel, and on several occasions, he would be asked to leave because he was drunk," Johnson says.

He says he and his wife were at the movies not long ago, when a trailer for Gatsby showed. She gasped: One scene looked as if it was straight out of the Rathskeller, even though the movie was shot in Australia.

"They must have taken 100 pictures of the Rathskeller," Johnson says of Luhrmann's visit. The screen version is "a copy of the Rathskeller, with the dome-shaped ceilings and the tile. It's just different colors, and it's a lot brighter than the Rathskeller is."

Johnson says Luhrmann and his crew also photographed the hotel's grand ballroom, the setting for Daisy and Tom's wedding reception.

"I can't wait to see if they portrayed that in any way in the movie," he says. "Like many hotels, our grand ballroom is the highlight of the hotel."

Fitzgerald and Gatsby can definitely be tied to Louisville, but it is less clear whether the character of Daisy was inspired by a real person. Most speculation has the inspiration for Daisy being Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, who hailed from Montgomery, Ala., and some other old flames, but none specifically from Louisville.

A 2011 story in The Courier-Journal of Louisville reported that it is plausible that Fitzgerald and fellow soldiers might have been entertained by wealthy families along the city's Cherokee Road section. Further back, a 1987 article in The Courier-Journal's magazine even identifies a possible residence for Daisy. Johnson, who often gives that story to visitors searching for Gatsby, says the writer, Ira Simmons, hypothesized that Fitzgerald might have fallen in love with a local girl but that her parents blocked the relationship because of Fitzgerald's drunken carousing.

But that is all speculation — which is where Johnson says a lot of the Gatsby connections to Louisville have to be. Still hotel visitors long for specifics, such as where Tom and Daisy's newlywed suite might have been.

The hotel has fun with the link to what is sometimes hailed as the Great American Novel, even hosting Gatsby-themed events. One is coming up June 1 at the hotel's acclaimed restaurant, the Oakroom. It will feature a screening of the 1974 version of Great Gatsby, starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.

"We do get some attention for them," Johnson said. "We also get people wanting to know what room Elvis stayed in."

As with a lot of Gatsby information, he can only guess.


IF YOU GO

'The Great Gatsby' event

What: 1920s-themed dinner and showing of the 1974 Great Gatsby movie.

When: 6 p.m. June 1

Where: Seelbach Hilton Hotel's Oakroom Restaurant, 500 S. Fourth St., Louisville

Tickets: $99. Reservations available at (502) 807-3463 or theoakroom@interstatehotels.com.

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