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Gatsby’s Jew

How will Baz Luhrmann’s film portray Meyer Wolfsheim, a 2-D figment in a 3-D extravaganza?

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Left to right: Amitabh Bachchan as Meyer Wolfshiem, Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway, and Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama The Great Gatbsy, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. (Warner Bros. Pictures)
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Boardwalk Empire Blues

The reason I don’t like the HBO drama? I want it to be a show about Jewish gangsters.

Are you tired of hearing about The Great Gatsby yet? I kind of am! In its latest iteration, it’s a movie by a filmmaker I don’t like, based on a book that I have never—bear with me—been totally crazy about, set in a era that has always seemed, in the collective subconscious at least, more a flashy theme for a supermodel’s birthday party than one with any meaningful historical context or populated by living, breathing human beings.

And yet, I’m still going to see it, and not just because I recently realized that my deep emotional attachment to Leonardo DiCaprio remains the longest—if most one-sided—romantic relationship of my life. And I’m going to see it in 3-D. Not for the usual, joked-about reasons—Jay Gatsby flinging his many colored shirts right into the audience, the eerily protuberant eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg popping straight off the screen and directly into your soul—but because I can’t resist the most delicious irony this spring since the Met Ball went punk.

Here’s what I mean: The Great Gatsby may be the Great Work of American Literature (and the only one I read in full when it was assigned in high school), but its characterizations are notoriously, and arguably purposefully, two dimensional. As my colleague Kathryn Schulz at New York magazine pointed out in a scathing critique of Gatsby’s so-called “greatness,” the Buchanans, the Wilsons, and the rest essentially function in the narrative as “types, walking through the pages of the book like kids in a school play who wear sashes telling the audience what they represent.” And no character is quite so much a “type” as Meyer Wolfsheim, the repellent Jewish gangster whose barest presence is meant to send a shudder down the spines of right-minded gentiles everywhere.

With his dark complexion, mangled English, copious nose hairs, and cufflinks fashioned from human molars (a cannibalistic touch worthy of a dandyish Bond villain at his most feral), Wolfsheim is even less substantial than the other attractive ciphers labeled Old Money or Class Anxiety; it’s not so much that he doesn’t seem like a realistic human being than that he scarcely seems like a human being at all. Tom Buchanan may be a bloviating idiot, but when he goes off on his tangent about the “Nordic race” being subsumed by sinister foreign interlopers, one can’t escape the sense that on this point, at least, the author at least in part agrees with him.

So, it’ll be interesting to see how Baz Luhrmann’s film deals with a personage that by modern standards seems so inherently problematic. Will he turn Wolfsheim into a kind of Roaring Twenties Shylock, assigning him sympathetic traits and hidden depths his creator (unlike Shakespeare) may not have intended? Wallow gleefully in the comedic offensiveness of it all, like a gaudy, Art Deco Borat? Perhaps the peculiar casting in the role of Amitabh Bachchan, the Bollywood legend and pivotal Slumdog Millionaire plot point, is instructive; in a curling mustache and Colonel Sanders beard, bejeweled rings twinkling on every finger, Bachchan’s Wolfsheim seems not so much recognizably Jewish as unplaceably exotic, an Orientalist construct so vague as to offend no one (or everyone, depending on how you look at it). We’ll see if the molars come leaping off the screen, ready to sink themselves into your neck, Twilight-style.

Those who crave some specificity and nuance—and if you do, what the hell are you doing watching a Baz Luhrmann movie?—would do well to cue up the HBO Go and check out Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance as gangster Arnold Rothstein, the real-life man who “fixed the 1919 World Series.” Handsome, soft-spoken, inconspicuously dressed, bloodthirsty but logical, ruthless but oddly fair, Stuhlbarg’s Rothstein is everything his fictional counterpart is not. He’s also a distinctly modern creation.

But more enlightening might be some period-accurate anti-Semitism. For that, I’d suggest cracking open Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, published in 1926, one year after The Great Gatsby. Neurotic, whiny, entitled, simultaneously pathetically self-loathing and intensely superior (and of course, possessed of a seemingly infinite supply of money, none of which he has earned himself through anything like real work), Hemingway’s Robert Cohn is the archetypal nebbish, tolerated by his “friends” when they find it convenient, despised by them when they do not. Hemingway never let Cohn (or the reader) forget that he is a Jew and therefore inherently unlikable.

Yet Hemingway, unlike Fitzgerald, is willing to entertain the notion that the internalization of another’s hostility might go a long way toward accounting for some of Cohn’s less-appealing traits. How can you keep from being defensive, when you’re constantly under attack? How can you not be insecure, when nobody likes you? Why wouldn’t you be disloyal and self-interested, when no one’s looking out for you but you? Hemingway’s Cohn might be a period-specific lazily reflexive anti-Semitic stereotype. But unlike Fitzgerald’s period-specific, lazily reflexive Wolfsheim, he’s also a human being.


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Jacob Arnon says:

“Hemingway’s Cohn might be a period-specific
lazily reflexive anti-Semitic stereotype. But unlike Fitzgerald’s
period-specific, lazily reflexive Wolfsheim, he’s also a human being.”

I agree, I didn’t care for the portrayal of either character.

Still, there is more of Cohn in “The Sun also Rises” but in Gatsby Wolfsheim presentation if I remember correctly is limited to single scene. Fitzgerald was a kind of ‘white gloves” antisemites which is practiced by the upper classes. (They never get “their hands dirty” by dealing directly with Jews.)

Yael L. Berman says:

“So, it’ll be interesting to see how Baz Luhrmann’s film deals with a personage that by modern standards seems so inherently problematic.”

I don´t think it will be problematic at all, since now anti-semitism has become fashionable again.

    frankgado says:

    In Europe, I would sadly agree, that’s true. But is that so in America? Not in the realm of my experience. Quite the contrary.

      Playahaters_Ball says:

      Go to a college campus some time.

        frankgado says:

        I taught for 33 years at Union College in Schenectady, and if there was any anti-semitism among students in that period, I never detected it.

        I am now living close to Dartmouth and speak to students and a fair number of faculty. Although I feel alienated from my alma mater and discouraged by the course of their choices, I can’t say that anti-semitism is present., at any level.

        Maybe the anti-semitism you have registered is a phenomenon of urban universities or of large public universities. I just don’t deal much in that world

Yael L. Berman says:

By the way, thanks for the heads up. I won´t be seeing this movie.

Boychic says:

Sorry, but you are looking at the wrong end of the telescopic. Gatsby is
a classic to be judged by literary durability which apparently has
escaped you. It has survived for nearly one hundred years because of the
elegance of FitzGerald’s prose and its true explorations of the human
heart, unrequited love and empty aspirations of American success. I’m
sure I’ll be appalled by this new rendition, but it will not tarnish
FitzGerald’s literary achievement while you’re written absurdity will be
forgotten by this time tomorrow.

    frankgado says:

    Boychic, you are being too hard on Rachel. Like so many of the Jewish females I’ve known, she has a weakness for Italian guys. I’ve been a grateful beneficiary. So she’ll see the film–and continue to misunderstand the book.

    I probably will wait for the film to be available on Netflix, and then dislike what I see no less than I found the Redford version (how are you on prototypical WASP types, Rach?) ridiculous.

    I taught both TGG and The Sun Also Rises for more than a third of a century (not that that, in itself, makes me more perspicuous a critic), and to me it is obvious that Hemingway’s anti-semitism is pernicious. I don’t have any evidence that FSF was an anti-semite–and from what I know of him as a human being, I would guess that it isn’t to be found–but EH really was that, in addition to being misogynous, petty, vindictive, etc. I once spoke with someone who was in the room with EH when one of his sons brought home a Jewish girl. As reported to me, EH took his son aside (though not entirely out of his date’s hearing) and laid into him. “You fuck Jewish girls, you don’t marry them,” I was told he barked. (Of course, too many well-meaning Jewish parents would share his attitude on the second part of his statement.)

    I grew up among Jews, and I have met a fair number of men who fit the Wolfsheim template. So what? Is Wolfsheim contemptible? I think not. For the most part, I didn’t dislike the Wolfsheims I knew; I understood them. As for FSF’s view, remember that MW is at Gatsby’s funeral. James Gatz, become Jay Gatsby,and MW are really doubles, and his loyalty to his friend is a highly laudable, genuinely human act in a society of shimmering, brittle and false values. Nick can try to retreat to his “American” mid-west, but that world is dying–and Fitzgerald knew it. (So did Glenway Wescott, as shown in his wonderful The Grandmothers).

    One more thing, Boychic: Doesn’t Daisy requite Gatsby’s love (to the extent to which the Daisys are capable)?

      frankgado says:


      Writing hastily, I wrote a misleading sentence, and I wish to clarify what I meant to say. Let the world know that I, personally, have not benefited from Rachel’s weakness for Italian guys. The intended antecedent was “many of the Jewish females I have known.”

      I should also have mentioned that I am aware that Hemingway himself married a Jew. That doesn’t absolve him of the indictment.

      Royq: Whether or not the film portrayed Cohn sympathetically is not the issue. Clearly, the novel does not. But we shouldn’t be at the point where an unsympathetic portrayal of a Jewish character reveals an anti-semite. It is the author’s own values in that portrayal that matter. And in that rather silly, puffed-up novel of a wounded adolescent mentality, Cohn reflects poorly on both Jake and Hemingway,

      Henry James, alas, was an anti-semite, but that doesn’t tarnish his books (although I have to admit, I have not read even half of The Master.

        dizzyizzy says:

        If frankgado is referring to Martha Gellhorn, her mother was of WASP lineage and a leading Progressive, and her father, a doctor, was a non-observant Jew. In the HBO travesty of the Hemingway-Gellhorn marriage, Pauline Hemingway is obviously an antisemite when faced with her “Jewish” rival. The only interesting thing I can add is that Gellhorn supported Israel, perhaps after seeing Dachau, and her UK biographer, Caroline Moorehead, threw a fit over Gellhorn’s un-PC “blind spot”. For Gellhorn was quite acceptable to the British Left as an expatriate and fellow traveler, but not as a frequent seven-times visitor to the proscribed Jewish State. (Gellhorn’s papers at Boston U. are restricted, so I have limited ability to continue this line of argument.) I wrote about Moorehead’s book here: “Gellhorn’s ‘blind spot’ on Israel.”

          frankgado says:

          Thanks, Izzy, for adding to what I knew about Gellhorn. There was a time in my life when I devoured all I could find about Hemingway,; it was one of my callow judgments I began to question as I approached 30. I shall forever cringe at the memory of my saying to Charlie Fenton that Hemingway would still be considered a great writer when Faulkner was forgotten. That was in 1960. Oh my! How could I have been so stupid, so wrong? And I said it in public.

          Royq says:

          Hemingway acknowledged, while drunk, Faulkner’s superiority, if I recall the anecdote. Sure, there are real life Wolfscheims. I think the problem is more in the nature of the character standing in for the entire group, without any foils to offset his egregious qualities. That said, if you’re Jewish, you come to grips early on with the fact that a lot of artists and thinkers you admire may not have had the most charitable sentiments about your ethnicity.

          frankgado says:

          Don’t remember the anecdote.If you have time, and with Tablet’s forbearance, could you remind me.

          Funny, I have Jewish friends who love Wagner. For me, the music is too tightly bound with the soil that would nourish Nazism.

          If FSF had Wolfschiem as standing in for all Jews, or even for all that is said to be negative about Jews, I would agree with your implication that he was anti-semitic, but I don’t believe he is used that way.The figure of the Jew represents the outsider within. Isn’t that what Gatsby is, and wants to become?

          Almost two decades ago, I vowed to begin my memoirs and actually started writing. My first section, or introduction, was a scene in my high school homeroom. The teacher had completely lost control, and so the students began organizing the chaos. A group at the back of the room found a reason for cohesion in their ethnicity. They started trading what tortured Italian phrases they knew. Even Wally Stein, the class bookie,joined in, using a real or fictive Italian grandmother as his ante. In fact, these passwords were southern dialect, not Italian, and at that, their users didn’t know what they meant. So helpful me turned around and, as a born teacher, explained. But, instead of opening to allow me entry, the circle closed in deterrmined exclusion. Ernie DiBlasis was the only one to find words: “You’re not Italian!” Not Italian? What the hell was I, then? “You’re a Jew!” There is a very high probability that the first Gado in Italy was a converso fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, but I’m sure Ernie didn’t know that. What he meant was that I was an outsider, marked by the values prized by our Jewish classmates. I wasn’t “Italian” because I read and, in the face of teacher hostility, got good grades.

          IfI ever press on in the writing of those memoirs, I think I’ll keep that scene.

          Royq says:

          Frank—will definitely look for it. Look forward to more of your commentary on Tablet.

    hypnosifl says:

    I’m with you on the quality of the prose and the social commentary, but “true explorations of the human heart”? I think it’s definitely true that the characters in Gatsby are basically “types” who are not given a lot of psychological depth, although I don’t think psychological depth is actually an absolute requirement for great fiction.

      Boychic says:

      I just saw the movie. It is a far cry from the book, full of computerized mayhem and, in my opinion, greatly miscast and not as memorable as the Redford or the Ladd portrayals. It is a lavish spectacle, a bit hollow, although near the end the essential conflct gets finally to the heart of the story., albiet a not clumsily. The movie in the mind that the book conjures is far better than any of the film renditions. As for the comparison with Mein Kampf and The Protocols of Zion, they are manifestation of the durability of anti-semitism and have nothing to with with art.

      Boychic says:

      I just saw the movie. It is a far cry from the book, full of computerized mayhem and, in my opinion, greatly miscast and not as memorable as the Redford or the Ladd portrayals. It is a lavish spectacle, a bit hollow, although near the end the essential conflct gets finally to the heart of the story., albiet a not clumsily. The movie in the mind that the book conjures is far better than any of the film renditions. As for the comparison with Mein Kampf and The Protocols of Zion, they are manifestation of the durability of anti-semitism and have nothing to with with art.

    Lowell Blackman says:

    Durability? The sole criterion? Mein Kampf has been around for nearly 90 years and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion more than 100.

dizzyizzy says:

The author could have mentioned Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth along with the references to Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Such anti-Jew depictions were typical of the time. What is ignored is that we don’t teach our kids about modernism, anti-Americanism, and antisemitism, “isms” that are related. I tried to compile all the streams feeding into antisemitism here: Index to blogs on antisemitism. It has an explanatory paragraph about modernity too, not just a list of links. “Modernism” was pre-soaked in primitivism and a rejection of “jewified” modernity.

    Lowell Blackman says:

    Feminist star Willa Cather’s “The Professor’s House” gives us Marcellus, an antisemitic depiction if ever American literature portrayed one. He
    has no appreciation for history and for the non-monetary value of things, no feeling for the sublime. Greedy, ruthless, and dishonest, whatever he touches he taints and sullies. Read “The Education of Henry Adams”, also a child of the era, whose descriptions of Jews and anything Jewish, would likely turn a reader’s stomach to fear and loathing – and physical disgust – which it was most likely meant to do. To Adams, Jews were the destroyers of Western Civilization and the Virgin Mary, and most specifically
    set out to destroy his Norman civilization and heritage. Were T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound any different than Fitzgerald and Hemingway – or
    Thomas Wolfe? Both James Schroeter in “Willa Cather and the Professor’s House”, a Yale Review piece from 1965 and Carol Kessner in “More Devils than Hell Can Hold” explore the issue with remarkable insight. And let us also remember that other sons of the times
    were those who created and then joined the foreign service – the Christian gentlemen’s club – and shaped America’s view of the world for the next three decades – Loy Henderson, Breckinridge Long, John J. McCloy, Dean Acheson, George Kennan – all of whom shared negative, highly distasteful attitudes towards the Jews.

Royq says:

Interesting; Fitzgerald once remarked that, as an author, if you start with a person, you end up with a type, but that if you start with a type, you end up with nothing. I’ve never really understood his cult, or Hemingway’s. An interesting comparison might be the film version of The Sun Also Rises, an engrossing film that really captures the flavor of Spain, right down to the Marques de Riscal, and which handles Cohn in what I thought was a sympathetic way. Unbelievable cast; Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn, Mel Ferrer.

Jay Gertzman says:

You think Fitzgerald “agrees” with Tom Buchannan about the “Nordic
Race” –or the “passing of the great race” article that Tom parrots? Maybe you think Philip Roth agrees with the brother of the narrator in Operation Shylock, who makes the case that Israel should give no ground to the Arabs because a nation state is the only instrument that gives (has given!) the long-persecuted Jews a chance for spiritual and moral survival? I expected something different from a Jewish novelist herself.

Gatesby is a modernist epic, although certainly not in the sense that, say, Ulysses is. Gatesby is about the American Dream. The power of its last sentences work only in that context. Fitzgerald surveys the kinds of people who have made that Dream work, for themselves of course. Wolfsheim is overtly shameful. Daisy, whose voice “sounds like money,” is equally so, once you understand how her
need for it is principal to her “careless” state of mind. Tom’s power makes him
even worse. These are major, “well bred”characters, and, contrasted to Wolfsheim, Jordan the cheating golfer, or Myrtle’s murderous husband, worse criminals, in part because they are so dismissive of a parvenu Jew. I think Fitzgerald is saying that beyond every American fortune is a crime (and that was before our oil-driven wars of occupation!). The Dream is already “behind
us.” An epic writer is in fact a visionary.

Clay Mansell says:

I wouldn’t say Hemingway or Fitzgerald are anti-semites. I would argue that their portrayal of Jews are some of the most accurate I’ve read in most literature. You have the out of place, constantly picked on, but kept around Jew in ‘The sun also rises’ and then the Jewish Gangster in ‘Gatsby’. They never said anything directly anti-semetic. The whole nordic race thing with Tom Buchannan had to deal with Eugenics which was a very popular idea in the early 20th century.

No definitive proof that Rothstein fixed the World Series which makes Fitzgerald’s charge even more twisted… is a Jew accused of subverting America’s values, undermining America’s very own national game.

    Son_of_J says:

    Please. Whether or not Rothstein fixed the World Series, all of popular culture basically acknowledges that he did so. Fitzgerald implying that he did, in a work of fiction that uses a fictional character as the fixer, is neither twisted, nor anti-semitic, nor anything else nefarious.

Come on, guys, let’s get real here. Meyer Wolfsheim should have been a great character, one of the most fun portrayals in the whole since he makes one big appearance, and then another, much smaller appearance at the end. By rights, Meyer W. should have been a tasty role. A 1920s Jewish gangster with barely a hint of refinement, Geeze Louise! that ought to be a Jewell. Instead we get some bearded indian that is less Jewish than my Irish uncles. It was a lousy movie, but aside from him, at least all the casting was totally perfect.

Rob Lawson says:

Rachel may be an example of why Fitzgerald felt The Great Gatsby was not the great success that he had hoped for: the book did not appeal to enough women because of the lack of an admirable female character.

On the other hand, perhaps Rachel doesn’t know literature from kitty litter.


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Gatsby’s Jew

How will Baz Luhrmann’s film portray Meyer Wolfsheim, a 2-D figment in a 3-D extravaganza?

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