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Arts and Humanities
Fri May 10, 2013
The Great Louisville Gatsby Mystery: Where Is Daisy's House?
When I moved to Louisville as a freshman English major, one of the first bits of trivia I learned about my new city was that Daisy’s house from “The Great Gatsby” was right down the street.
Daisy Buchanan, the It Girl at the heart of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, was socialite Daisy Fay when poor soldier Jay Gatsby courted her during a brief stint at Louisville’s Camp Taylor, where Gatsby – like the author himself – trained during the first World War.
Fitzgerald describes Gatsby and Daisy sitting on her porch and taking romantic walks in a neighborhood that was likely modeled on World War One-era Cherokee Triangle.
But locals rarely agree on which house served as the model for Daisy’s home, because textual and historic evidence is so thin. There’s the grand Hilliard House on Cherokee near Grinstead – that one gets a lot of votes. And a 1987 Courier-Journal story by Ira Simmons pinpoints 2427 Cherokee Parkway, the old Emma Longest Moore home, as the one.
“When I started teaching high school English, juniors, when I moved to Louisville, one of the texts I had to teach was 'Gatsby.' I quickly realized I was teaching in a city that Daisy Fay grew up in,” says Melissa Chipman, who taught at Louisville’s Collegiate School for six years.
Chipman inherited an address from a predecessor – 1400 Cherokee Road, on the corner of Willow Avenue – a house with a wide, green staircase and a grand porch. (Also, some local notoriety as the reputed former communal residence of a group of members of Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church.)
Chipman and I took a walk down Cherokee Parkway to check out the competition– 2427 Cherokee Parkway.
“It seems so wrong to me,” she says.
She's a believer in 1400 Cherokee – that this solid, wide house would have impressed a young James Gatz and been a fitting home for a wealthy family like Daisy’s. But she knows it’s a gut feeling, not fact.
“I was always careful to say that it was rumored to be the house, because I couldn’t see it in the text, really,” says Chipman.
The lack of textual evidence is a recurring frustration for Daisy House Hunters. In a novel full of rich imagery, Fitzgerald is conspicuously vague on the details of Daisy’s Louisville home. We know more about Gatsby’s shirts than the location of his early romance with Daisy, and when Fitzgerald does describe the house, he swiftly moves from physical detail to figurative language: “of romances that were not musty and laid away already in lavender, but fresh and breathing and redolent of this year’s shining motor-cars and of dances whose flowers were scarcely withered.”
Here’s what we know: it’s a large, expensive home in a neighborhood with sidewalks. It has a porch, a wide lawn, and upstairs bedrooms about which Gatsby dreams. That’s about it.
If Gatsby’s memory couldn’t help, maybe the author’s ledger could. The University of South Carolina archived Fitzgerald’s business accounts and autobiographical notes online, and one document outlines details from every month of the author’s life. Here’s the entry that mentions his time at Camp Taylor:
Camp Taylor on 15th. Tillman, Shean, Clark, Duncan. Louisville. Bishop, Ramsey, Keny Rogers and Paul Boston. Mother in Louisville. Ruth & Shane Leslie in Washington. Hotels jammed
Not much to go on. I went to the University of Louisville’s archives for help from historian Tom Owen, who brought out the city directory from 1918 so we could cross-reference names with occupations and addresses to see if we could find a lead. I found a listing for a fellow Army officer, James Duncan, with a home address on Cherokee Road. I get excited – it’s a breakthrough! – but luckily, a professional is there to bring me back down to earth.
“Could be, could be,” says Owen. “But it’s all pretty speculative.”
And here’s another twist – Chicago’s tony Lake Forest suburb also claims Daisy. (Here's a great essay from The Paris Review on giving Lake Forest a second look.) Fitzgerald romanced beautiful socialite Ginevra King before she broke up with him and married a rich guy – shades of Daisy marrying Tom Buchanan – and King lived in a Lake Forest estate with a wide lawn and a spacious porch, which Fitzgerald definitely visited. King appears in thinly-veiled versions of herself in many of Fitzgerald’s works, including “Winter Dreams” and “This Side of Paradise.”
That’s much more persuasive than our fragmented clues. So why does Louisville cling so tightly to the idea that one of our houses inspired Fitzgerald? Owen has a theory.
“Gatsby was grand, excessive, elegant, life writ large when it comes to the fine things of life,” he says. “And to think that this little piece of that story was rooted in Louisville somehow makes us feel like we’re able to bathe in that elegance somehow.”
Here’s what Fitzgerald definitely wanted us to know about Daisy’s home: it amazed Gatsby. He writes: “(Gatsby) had never been in such a beautiful house before. But what gave it an air of breathless intensity was that Daisy lived there … there was a ripe mystery about it.”
The best myths enjoy a flexibility that allows them to change shape over time. Fitzgerald’s lack of detail allows us to place the house that most sparks our individual romantic notions of an elegant, bygone era into a timeless work of literature about yearning and the American dream. We can walk by that house and imagine Daisy's idling out front in her white roadster and Jordan Baker skipping up the lawn in her new golf cleats. We can see Gatsby in his uniform, hands in pockets, staring wistfully up at the "bought luxury of star-shine" on the porch at night, painfully aware of what he desired but couldn't keep.
Arts and Humanities
Arts and Humanities