Jay Gatsby is no Otto Kahn - Neither is Taylor Swift

Make-Believe Films and Videos Get Close to Reality

Combined image, Black and White photo of Otto Kahn (1867-1934) and Oheka Castle
Otto Kahn (1867-1934) and Oheka Castle. B/W Kahn photo Image Number LC-DIG-hec-44246 courtesy Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. and Oheka © Jackie Craven

Otto Kahn's 1919 country home on Long Island has become iconic. Popular singer Taylor Swift filmed much of her 2014 music video for Blank Space at Kahn's Oheka Castle. And every time another film version of the classic American novel The Great Gatsby gets produced, we're brought back to the Gilded Age.  Jay Gatsby, the title character of F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, remains tragic and fictional—unlike the era's real-life Otto Hermann Kahn (1867-1934).

Gatsby is no Kahn:

Like the Gatsby character, Kahn hosted lavish summer parties and grand balls at his Long Island mansion, but that may be where similarities end. Kahn was the real deal—a smart investment banker of legitimate wealth, a philanthropist, a patron of the arts, a family man. He was known as a modern Lorenzo de' Medici for his support of individual artists. Otto and Addie Kahn lived in New York City with other millionaires of the 1920s, in a mansion on the corner of 5th Avenue and 91st Street. They also had a few winter homes in Palm Beach, Florida. The German-born financier built the "Gold Coast" mansion OHEKA Castle as a family getaway on Long Island. Otto Hermann Kahn named his château after himself but modeled it after the great castles of France, including the grand stairway of the Chateau Fountainbleu. Oheka is still America's largest residence after the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina.

Jay Gatsby, on the other hand, was not a banker but a bootlegger selling illegal alcohol during Prohibition. He was not a learned man nor a man of culture, yet he displayed the spoils of great wealth with his 1920s lavish lifestyle. Author Kevin Roose painstakingly calculated the finances of the fictional Gatsby and came to this conclusion: "At the time when The Great Gatsby took place, Jay Gatsby was probably either living paycheck-to-paycheck or digging himself into debt." Jay Gatsby was no Otto Kahn.

Swift Doesn't Really Live There:

What if you learned that Taylor Swift was going to film her next music video in YOUR house? What does your home symbolize or represent?

Taylor Swift went for the real thing to film the video for "Blank Space." She rides a white horse on the Gateway path of Oheka. She sings as she descends the Grand Stairway, the same stairs used by Otto Kahn and his family. Swift throws flaming clothes off the rear balcony that overlooks the Olmsted-designed gardens. The grounds and mansion you see in Swift's 2014 video are Oheka in Huntington, New York. But, unlike Otto Kahn, Taylor Swift never lived there. It's not her house. Taylor Swift is no Otto Kahn.

Architecture That Inspires:

Oheka Castle is an inspiration even today. It is a venue for weddings and lavish fundraisers—just like in the days of Otto Kahn and Jay Gatsby. But the Gatsby movies were never filmed at Oheka—the 1974 version was filmed in Newport, Rhode Island and in 2013 filmmakers chose venues in Australia. Mansions like Oheka inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald as he began his famous novel, but books, like movies, are fiction—not the real thing.

Architecture like Oheka can become representational. Otto Kahn, along with the Vanderbilts and the Astors and the Carnegies, were real people, with real wealth, who made real architecture.

Oheka is now symbolic of that time.

Otto Kahn himself has become a symbol and turned into a fictional character. Do you think you've seen Kahn's face before? He may have made it to the cover of Time magazine in 1925, but Otoo Kahn's image is widely known as the cartoon millionaire in the game Monopoly.

Learn More:

  • Otto Kahn: Art, Money, and Modern Time by Theresa M. Collins, The University of North Carolina Press, 2002
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  • Otto the Magnificent: The Life of Otto Kahn by John Kobler, Scribner, 1989
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  • The Many Lives of Otto Kahn by Mary Jane Matz, Pendragon Press, 1984 and Literary Licensing, LLC, 2012
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  • High Finance by Otto Kahn
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  • Behind Every Great Fortune by Frank Amoroso, 2014
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Sources: Was the Great Gatsby Broke? by Kevin Roose, nymag.com, May 8, 2013; Where Is Jay Gatsby’s Mansion? by Gabrielle Lipton, Slate.com, May 6 2013 [accessed January 1, 2015]