The Great Gatsby is the quintessential novel of the Jazz Age, and one of the most beloved American literary productions of all time -- a staple of every high school student's summer reading list.  Reflecting our tortured attitudes toward wealth and status, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel captured the excesses of an era that in many ways evokes our own 1 percent-happy time. On May 10th, a new film version of the book starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Gatsby, Carey Mulligan as Daisy, and Tobey Maguire as Nick will be released. Retail businesses are cashing in by promoting deco-themed jewelry, furniture, and clothes. Brooks Brothers, which designed the men's clothing in the movie, has done a full tilt Gatsy-campaign. Here are a few things you may not know about Fitzgerald’s masterpiece.

1. F. Scott Fitzgerald and his publisher had a hard time settling on a title for his novel. One possibility was, "Under the Red, White, and Blue." Interestingly, Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner,” was an ancestor of Fitzgerald, who is named after him: his full name is Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald.

2. Artist Francis Cugat produced a strange and compelling cover for the book, featuring a pair of floating eyes on a blue background. Fitzgerald was so impressed by it that he added elements to the novel that would fit the image. Ernest Hemingway thought the cover was tacky.

3. The iconic American novel was actually written mostly while Fitzgerald was living in France, where he had moved to get away from distractions in 1924. He later moved back to the United States, where his wife Zelda suffered a mental breakdown. Fitzgerald put off finishing his novel while she received treatment. 

4. The relationship between Gatsby and Daisy was partly based on Fitzgerald’s relationship with Zelda. Like Daisy, Zelda was a southern belle whose status was considered much higher than that of her lover. Fitzgerald was a man who sought the company of people wealthier than himself, and his wanna-be quality is reflected in Gatsby. Zelda originally turned down Fitzgerald’s marriage proposal because the young man didn’t seem particularly promising. They eventually married in 1920 at St Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.

5. The shady character of Meyer Wolfsheim was inspired by Arnold Rothstein, a.k.a. “The Brain,” a famous racketeer who was blamed for the 1919 World Series Scandal. Rothstein was a mob kingpin in New York credited with transforming organized crime from the provenance of street thugs to a streamlined corporate machine.

6. When The Great Gatsby hit the stores, it met with a lukewarm reception. Sales were not robust, but soon theater and movie deals emerged which helped make the project financially successful for Fitzgerald. Unfortunately the book was out of print when he died prematurely in 1941. This year, sales of the book are skyrocketing, according to the New York Times.

7. Fitzgerald actually coined the term “Jazz Age.” He and Zelda became the embodiments of the era’s glamour, throwing decadent parties and shocking the world with their epic fights.  The Fitzgeralds had frequent money problems because of their lavish lifestyle. Sadly, both the Fitzgeralds died young: he of a heart attack at 44; she in a fire at a mental hospital at 48.

8. The Great Gatsby has been adapted to the silver screen several times, first in 1926. The 1974 version, starring Robert Redford as Gatsby, was written by Francis Ford Coppola, who stepped in for Truman Capote when his script failed to win approval. The novel has inspired an opera, a musical, and even a Nintendo game.

 

 

 

Spring has sprung in much of the country, and not a moment too soon (so sorry, midwesterners: hang tight). They say that global warming postponed this year's arrival, and that melting Arctic sea ice may be changing jet stream currents. Thankfully, whatever happened, winter seems to be finally taking a hike. In my neighborhood, cabin-crazed New Yorkers are pouring out of their winter cells, blinking at the sudden blaze of sunshine in a state of half-drunken joy.

Cafe chairs have suddenly appeared on the sidewalks and tourists are eagerly unfurling their maps on every corner. The news is still the news, much of it not good. There are weary battles to be waged, many of them soul-squelching (thanks, Obama, for that grandma-busting budget!). But as the Barlett pear trees burst into clouds of white and the breezes playfully toss their limbs, it's impossible not to feel joy. We humans need renewal, and thankfully, nature is still obliging us once a year. The poet e.e. cummings captured spring most magically to my ears, and not being much of a poet, I defer to him.

O sweet spontaneous
earth how often have
the
doting
          fingers of
purient philosophers pinched
and
poked
thee
,has the naughty thumb
of science prodded
thy
      beauty.    how
often have religions taken
thee upon their scraggy knees
squeezing and
buffeting thee that thou mightest conceive
gods
        (but
true
to the incomparable
couch of death thy
rhythmic
lover
          thou answerest
 
them only with
 
                        spring)

So this is what it's come to. A state known for 300 years of southern-style progressivism has been taken over by wing-nuts who are determined to decimate education, increase income inequality, and basically turn the state into the Mississippi of the Mid-Atlantic. A gerrymandering strategy succeeded in overriding the will of the people in the last election, giving the GOP control of both chambers of the legislature. Appallingly, discount-store mogul Art Pope, a longtime GOP donor and champion of free-market fundamentalism, has been installed in what many see as a de facto governorship. The crazies, naturally, are coming out of the woodwork.

But even Mississipi right-wingers might raise an eyebrow at the latest news out of the Tarheel state from WRAL in Raleigh:

"A bill filed by Republican lawmakers would allow North Carolina to declare an official religion, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Bill of Rights, and seeks to nullify any federal ruling against Christian prayer by public bodies statewide.

The legislation grew out of a dispute between the American Civil Liberties Union and the Rowan County Board of Commissioners. In a federal lawsuit filed last month, the ACLU says the board has opened 97 percent of its meetings since 2007 with explicitly Christian prayers."

States have certainly been down this road before. Massachusetts maintained Congregationalism as the state religion until 1833 and limited the franchise to those who signed on. But the United States of America pretty much left this discrimination behind a couple of centuries ago. Since then, states have distanced themselves from organized religion.

North Carolina's nuttery comes courtesy of two Republican representatives from Rowan County, north of Charlotte. Seven other Republicans are on board. Ironically, their agenda stands in direct contrast to the religious hertiage of the state where Quakers, Methodists, and other "New Light" sects challenged the officially-sanctioned Anglicans, and, later, the Episcopalians, during the colonial and Revolutionary periods. Those early North Carolinians fought, and sometimes died, to protect religious freedom.

The blatantly anti-American NC bill is not going anywhere, but it sounds the alarm that a state known for its forward-looking stance and moderation could become the new poster child for extremism. As a native North Carolinian, I can only home that my fellow Tarheels wake up.

 

 

Australian mining billionaire Gina Rinehart, the richest woman in the world, is a jerk. She’s earned widespread loathing for her fondness of dumping on working people and strategizing how to pay them peanuts. She seems to think that the world consists of herself and unwashed hordes of tippling wastrels who want something for nothing.

However. A recent profile in the New Yorker reveals that virtually every time she is mentioned in the press, Rinehart is described as an “heiress” because she grew up rich and inherited a mining company from her father.  By her account, that company was in the toilet when she got it – riddled with debt and generally a mess. That’s a self-serving story, but it is true that the company has multiplied in value since she took it over.

In any case, William Finnegan, who wrote the New Yorker story, points out that men who inherit fortunes are almost never referred to as “heirs” in the press. You never saw Mitt Romney, for example, described as an “heir,” despite the fact that his father, George Romney, was head of Detroit automaker American Motors Corp. (he was also thrice the governor of Michigan). Romney liked to tell the whopper that he didn’t inherit any money and often got away with it. When pressed on the obvious mendacity of that claim, he would insist that it wasn’t as much as people thought, and anyway he gave it all to charity (right!).  Other gazillionaires have also largely gotten away with the self-made lie. Take Donald Trump, who likes to say that he hoisted himself up by his bootstraps, when in fact he was the Richie Rich son of a real estate tycoon and took over his father’s corporation.

The historical use of the term “heir,” as in the term, “heir apparent,” suggests a line of succession in which the son legitimately claims the power or title of the father. But add the fatal “ess” (as in waitress, hostess, or actress) and you’ve piled on negative associations. In the case of “heiress”, what comes to mind is a jet-setting, credit-card burning Daddy’s girl who could not tie her own shoes without assistance.  Paris Hilton has built a career on exploiting –and often embodying -- that stereotype.

Male heirs still catch way less flack, perhaps because in the back of our minds, there's the lingering association with primogeniture and the notion that men inheriting wealth is somehow the natural order of things, whereas women inheriting money are somehow aberrant and good for little besides propping up the career of a politician.

Gina Rinehart reminds us that women can be corrupted by the power and money they inherit just as thoroughly as men. But even at the top, sexism endures.

A new documentary created by Emmy Award–winning filmmakers Joe and Harry Gantz, creators of HBO’s Taxicab Confessions, shows the plight of families struggling in the aftermath of the worst U.S. recession in 80 years. Since the financial crisis, the wealthy have gotten wealthier, but millions of ordinary people who were hit with job loss, foreclosures, and vanished pensions -- often through no fault of their own – can barely make ends meet.  “American Winter,” scheduled to air on HBO March 18, gives them a face and a voice.

Raising a family under economic duress is a particularly grueling experience. “American Winter” takes us into the lives of eight families in Portland, Oregon who called the city’s 211 crisis hotline during the winter of 2011-12. When the family finances are in precarious balance, any emergency becomes a struggle for survival. When Shannon’s child gets a stomach condition and has to go to the hospital, the single mother is lost in a flurry of medical bills that her insurance won’t cover. Ben, whose job loss led to foreclosure, used to talk about dreams for the future with his wife. Now the dream is making it to tomorrow.

Politicians in Washington sing to the tune of their wealthy doners and focus on deficit hysteria rather than job creation and making sure that social insurance programs like Social Security and Medicare are protected from ill-advised cuts. “American Winter” puts a human face on the abstract numbers that circulate in their plans. The cruel, crass calculations of men like Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles are designed to thrown the burden of a Wall Street-driven crisis on people who simply want to put food on the table for their families and give their children some hope of a decent life. These people are not deadbeats. They hard-working, salt-of-the-earth individuals whose work ethic would put that of many politicians to shame.

Half of all Americans currently live in poverty or near-poverty, according to the most recent census data. They aren’t “those people” anymore. They are middle-class workers dealing with stagnant incomes. They are low-income folks whose paychecks are shrinking. They’re our neighbors, our loved ones, our colleagues. They’re us.

Portland’s City Commissioner Nick Fish (brother of Hamilton Fish, publisher of the Washington Spectator) understands that the problem is not one of individual laziness, as conservatives would have us believe, but of a capitalistic system which has been allowed to become predatory. “If capitalism is not regulated or checked,” explains Fish, “there is a harsh logic and it will always seek out the lowest costs, highest return, which is why we have historically viewed government as a check and a balance on that.”

Instead of checks and balances, we have financial institutions that are bigger and more dangerous than they were before the crisis – ticking time bombs that will one day explode and send millions more into misery if we can’t summon the will to restructure them.

“American Winter” should be required viewing in Washington. For additional information about on the film, click here.

Fame has always been for sale. But the digital world has created new ways to cheat the bitch goddess and catapult yourself ahead of the pack.  

Recently, New Jersey state senator Barbara Buono, who will presumably run against Chris Christie for the governor’s seat, racked up 15,000 Twitter followers in the course of a week. Her campaign claimed it has been the victim of a hoax. Maybe. Or Maybe not.

Having a large number of Twitter followers is a big deal, but the slow and painstaking process of getting them has produced an entire industry of fake fandom. Politicians, celebrities, bloggers, and businesses often pump themselves up in the Twitterverse by purchasing thousands of followers, sometimes for as little as a penny each. Last July, Mitt Romney’s Twitter account magically acquired 100,000 followers over the course of a weekend, leading to suspicions of fakery. The social media management company StatusPeople has created a tool that susses out fake followers. According to the NYT, the tool gauged that 71 percent of Lady Gaga’s followers are fake, along with 70 percent of President Obama’s followers. MTV and BET recently pulled a stunt in which they pretended that hackers had taken over their accounts in order to gain fake Twitter fans.

In the brave new world of publishing, authors are often expected to be editors, marketers, and salespeople. Enter hustlers like Todd Rutherford, who make big bucks selling positive book reviews for self-published books on the Web (20 percent of Amazon’s best-sellers are self-published). Rutherford’s glowing fake consumer reviews sold for  $99 a pop, replete with words like “classic,” and “stunning.” The New York Times shamed Mr. Rutherford, but plenty of others have scrambled to take his place. A quick Google search of the term “buy a book review” turned up several companies willing to sell you reviews for websites like Amazon, along with blurbs and book-jacket endorsement.

Reviews that appear to be written by regular people are now a mainstay of commerce. Back in 2000, I became founding editor of IgoUgo.com, an early social networking site built around travel that solicited first-hand user reviews. Our editorial team could often tell if someone were gaming the system—reviews would lack specificity and contain cliché phrases. But surely not always. The Federal Trade Commission requires disclosure of financially driven endorsements, but Bing Liu, a data-mining expert as the University of Illinois, Chicago, told the NYT that roughly a third of online reviews are fake.

Also for sale online: Yelp reviews: “Make Yelpers love your business!” proclaims one seller, Facebook “likes” and YouTube page views.  Hotels have been known to bribe customers with freebies in exchange for writing positive reviews on sites like Tripadvisor.com.

Worried about your online reputation? No problem. Online companies will “scrub” negative items that pop up in Google searches and manipulate the placement of positive pages.

The downside of these purchases is that if you get caught, your reputation could take a hit. Sleuths can often tell which reviews sound formulaic. Yelp has set up a sting operation to catch fake reviewers, and Twitter has taken action by filing suit against spammers who create fake followers.  Let the buyer beware.

 

 

Those crazy 1 percenters. What will they think of next?

Australian mining mogul Clive Palmer has announced his plans to build Titanic II, an exact replica of the famously jinxed ocean liner, and sail it across the Atlantic. Palmer, who once nuttily accused Greenpeace of being funded by the CIA to take down Australia's coal mining industry, unveiled his blueprints at a news conference in New York on Tuesday. He cited a desire to pay tribute to those who built and backed the original.

So far, 40,000 applicants willing to pay up to a million bucks a head for a first class cabin have scrambled for the chance to participate in the maiden voyage in 2016. A Downton Abbey-style frolic amid Edwardian splendor is not cheap, but here's what you get:  A crew of 900 will cater to 2,435 passengers, and just like the first time, there will be Turkish baths, a grand staircase and a gymnasium. Only this time a helicopter pad and WiFi will be available.

The original Titanic was famously divided into three classes: the poor and immigrants suffered in steerage while the rich disported themselves in first class. Palmer says that travelers will be divided this time, too, and authentic period costumes will be offered for each ticket level.  Palmer, who likes to be called "The Professor", jested that he wanted to travel in steerage because that’s where all the fun would be. “I will be in third class,” said Palmer. “I will enjoy it.”

No actual poor people in steerage, mind you. Just rich people having fun pretending. Whoopie!

Which leaves a burning question in the mind. According to The Guardian, the “jovial and brash mogul…refused to be drawn into predicting that his new boat would be ‘unsinkable’ – and thus avoided repeating an act of hubris that the backers of the first Titanic famously made. “ He said that his boat, which is being assembled in China, is perfectly safe and joked that global warming had reduced the number of icebergs. Palmer warns, though, that “anything can sink if you put a hole in it.” Hmm…

 

 

 

 

This evening in New York City's Union Square, two hundred or so gathered for a macarena flashmob celebrating Eve Ensler's "1 Billion Rising", a V-Day campaign to protest violence against women. Similar events are taking place all over the world, including India, the site of recent vicious attacks. Ensler, author of "Vagina Monologues" has urged people to take time today to express solidarity with their sisters and fight a global culture in which one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime.. As one celebrant from the National Orgazation for Women put it, "women's bodies are targeted for violence, but today I'm using my body just for myself -- to dance."

Women (and some men) of all shapes, colors, and sizes danced in Union Square beneath shiny red balloons, some with jewel-toned Indian scarves billowing behind them in the wind.  After the macarena dance, the crowd snaked up Broadway as a band played "When the Saints Go Marching In", right passed the iconic ABC Home store where bellydancers and others shimmied and spun in the window displays.

In the wake of shocking rapes from India to Steubenville, Ohio, there's a collective feeling that enough is enough. On a day when we think of love, there's no message more powerful than the right of women and girls to be free from violence. A finale celebration at the Hammerstein Ballroom later tonight featuring music and dance will cap today's festivities.

The news this week from Scoutland brings controversy over a proposed end to the ban on gay Americans. But here’s another dirty little secret. The Boy Scouts also officially discriminate against atheists and agnostics. For much of their history, the Girl Scouts did, too, but in 1993, the national organization had the sense to stop this unfair and distinctly un-American practice.

That was too late for me. I was a Brownie in 1978, and wanted to become a Girl Scout. It was not to be.

I had a hard time fitting in as a kid. My Sunday school teacher’s eyes shot daggers at me when, after a lesson on the Virgin Mary, I asked, “Was Joseph a virgin, too?” I just didn’t take to the religion thing. Alongside my Bible, I read Bullfinch’s Mythology, and I much preferred the Greek gods. They fell in love and had adventures and didn’t seem to take themselves so seriously. There was laughter in heaven.  Jesus was sort of okay – I liked some of his sermons. But the Bible seemed filled with harsh desert people (mostly men) morbidly obsessed with death and suffering. What had they to do with me?

When I was eight, I became a Brownie and took much pleasure in my crisp little uniform and close association with mint chocolate cookies. I vaguely recall winding yarn around popsicle sticks and doing things like that to prove my craftiness. Like most Brownies, I yearned to join the green ranks of the Girl Scouts, so I dutifully earned Brownie points in preparation for the big event when I would be pinned by a troop leader and accepted into the upper echelon of girldom.

But something unexpected happened during the Induction Ceremony. The ritual of transition from Brownie to Girl Scout was very sacred and solemn and involved, among other things,  staring into a pool of water. It also required me to pledge an oath to God. (You can check out a video of some little tykes saying it here).

On my honor, I will try:
To serve God and my country,
To help people at all times,
And to live by the Girl Scout Law.

This pledge didn't sit right with me, for the simple reason that as far as I could tell, God didn’t exist. To pledge an oath to him would be lying. I stood frozen when it was time to swear fealty to a non-existent being. Probably I could have gotten away with just mouthing the words, but a feeling in the pit of my stomach told me that was wrong. I sheepishly mumbled my dilemma to the troop leader and she looked at me with the exasperation adults get when confronting a pint-sized pain in the ass. “Well, that’s what it takes to be a Girl Scout.” Confused, ashamed, and a little defiant, I took off my sash and handed it to her.

That was that. I would never have those illustrious Girl Scout badges for basket weaving and what not proudly streaming across my chest. The green uniform would not be mine. Part of me was a little relieved, because I wasn’t the sportiest of children and joining the Scouts meant proving my fitness for things like orienteering and riflery. I still like the cookies, though.

Compared to the Boy Scouts, today’s Girl Scouts are known as the more progressive example of youth programming. According to The Atlantic, the Boy Scouts of America still “expressly prohibits membership (even as Cub Scouts) of atheists and agnostics.”  The Girl Scouts, on the other hand, are now cool with atheism and have shown a fondness for New Agey tenets. They've even drawn the ire of Catholic bishops. I’ll give them points for that.

 

 

 

 

Sociologists have just served up an egalitarian nightmare. Husbands across America are tittering right now over a new report which shows that the more housework men do, the less they get it on with their wives. The study, published in the American Sociological Review, divided tasks into what has traditionally been considered "women's work" and stuff thought of as "men's work." The evidence demonstrated that men who perform traditionally female tasks have sex three times a month comparied to about five times a month for those who don't. The researchers assumed that women were the traditional toilet scrubbers, dish washers, meal preppers, and kiddie caretakers, whereas men were the lawn mowers and the fixers-of-stuff-that-gets-broken.

Like me, your first thought might be: How the hell did they measure this? Over at Boston.com, Deborah Kotz had the same thought and raised questions about two-decades-old data used by the researchers, who hailed from the Juan March Institute in Spain and the University of Washington. The study authors admitted that this was a problem their report.

The researchers also found that in married couples where women did the bulk of "men’s work," there was a little bit less sex, but not a big difference. There wasn't much in the way of explicit conclusions drawn, but the gist is that women are turned off by seeing men do "women's work" while men don't really mind much about seeing a woman mow the lawn.

Personally, I find a man who knows his way around the kitchen to be very sexy, but I also know that divisions of household labor are deeply embedded in culture, even at the level of language. The word "maid" is gendered, and as soon as we imagine a male with official household duties, we're picturing a butler, whose role seems much more elevated. My father was a liberated man in many ways, but he was not going to be seen messing around with pots and pans in the kitchen. I once suggested that he ease his hunger by preparing a sandwich, and he looked at me and said, "I've never prepared a meal for myself, and God willing, I never will." He considered himself a feminist.

I also know that like it or not, there's something deeply ingrained about the connection between libido and certain kinds of traditionally male behavior. I was raised in the South, where dating rituals are a bit more old school, and I found it difficult to adjust to dating in New York City, where men didn't do the things I was used to, like picking up a check on the first few dates or making sure I got home safely. The rational part of my brain could consider all kinds of reasons why my expectations ought to be adjusted, but you couldn't tell it to my libido. Men who didn't do the traditionally male thing just seemed...not hot. Not fair, I know. But my reaction was not exactly in my control.

Marriage does seem to be getting more egalitarian and flexible, but perhaps not as quickly as we think. The institution comes burdened with centuries of baggage in which gender expectations have been linked to sexual behavior. We're only a few decades past the sexual revolution and women's liberation (men's contribution to childcare has doubled since the '60s), and you're not going to unload the baggage of the ages overnight. We're probably at a transition period in which our rational expectations and our libidos haven't gotten quite adjusted to one another. In the mean-time, maybe you want to invest in a self-cleaning toilet.