F. Scott Fitzgerald's Inspiration for 'The Great Gatsby'

People and Places He Knew

Still from film adaptation of The Great Gatsby
An unidentified woman wearing a 'flapper'- style skirt dances at a party in a still from the film, 'The Great Gatsby,' directed by Elliott Nugent, 1949. Paramount / Getty Images

The Great Gatsby is a classic American novel written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and published in 1925. Though it sold poorly at first—readers bought only 20,000 copies in 1925—the publisher Modern Library has called it the best American novel of the 20th century. The novel is set in the fictional town of West Egg on Long Island in the early 1920s. Indeed, Fitzgerald was inspired to write the book by the grand parties he attended on prosperous Long Island, where he got a front-row view of the elite, moneyed class of the 1920s, a culture he longed to join but never could.

Decade of Decadence

The Great Gatsby was first, and foremost, a reflection of Fitzgerald's life. He put pieces of himself into two of the book's major characters—Jay Gatsby, the mysterious millionaire and namesake of the novel, and Nick Carraway, the first-person narrator. After World War I, when Fitzgerald's debut novel—This Side of Paradise—became a sensation and he became famous, he found himself among the glitterati that he had always wanted to join. But it was not to last.​

It took Fitzgerald two years to write The Great Gatsby, which was actually a commercial failure during his lifetime; it did not become popular with the public until well after Fitzgerald's death in 1940. Fitzgerald struggled with alcoholism and money troubles for the rest of his life and never did become part of the gilded, moneyed class that he so admired. He and his wife Zelda had moved, in 1922, to Long Island, where there was a clear division between the "new money" and the old guard elite. Their geographic divisions as well as social strata inspired Gatsby's division between the fictional neighborhoods of West Egg and East Egg.

Lost Love

Ginevra King, of Chicago, has long been considered the inspiration for Daisy Buchanan, Gatsby's elusive love interest. Fitzgerald met King in 1915 at a snow-sledding party in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was a student at Princeton at the time but was on a visit to his home in St. Paul. King was visiting a friend in St. Paul at the time. Fitzgerald and King were immediately smitten and carried on an affair for more than two years.

King, who went on to become a well-known debutante and socialite, was part of that elusive moneyed class, and Fitzgerald was just a poor college student. The affair ended, reportedly after King's father told Fitzgerald: "Poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls." This line eventually made its way into The Great Gatsby and was included in several movie adaptations of the novel, including one made in 2013. King's father shared several traits with the closest thing Gatsby has to a villain, Tom Buchanan: both were Yale alumni and outright white supremacists. Tom also shares a few references with William Mitchell, the man who ultimately married Ginevra King: he's from Chicago and has a passion for polo.

Another figure from King's circle reportedly appears in fictionalized form in the novel. Edith Cummings was another wealthy debutante and an amateur golfer who moved in the same social circles. In the novel, the character of Jordan Baker is clearly based on Cummings, with one notable exception: Jordan is suspected of having cheated to win a tournament, while no such accusation was ever launched at Cummings.

World War I

In the novel, Gatsby meets Daisy when he is a young military officer stationed at the army's Camp Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, during World War I. Fitzgerald was actually based at Camp Taylor when he was in the army during World War I, and he makes various references to Louisville in the novel. In real life, Fitzgerald met his future wife, Zelda, when he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry and assigned to Camp Sheridan outside of Montgomery, Alabama, where she was a beautiful debutante. 

Fitzgerald actually used a line Zelda spoke while she was under anesthesia during the birth of their daughter, Patricia, to create a line for Daisy: "That the best thing for a woman to be was a 'beautiful little fool,'" according to Linda Wagner-Martin in her biography, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, who further noted that the author "knew a good line when he heard it."

Other Possible Tie-Ins

Different men have been postulated to have inspired the character of Jay Gatsby, including bootlegger Max Gerlach, an acquaintance of Fitzgerald, though authors typically have characters be a fictionalized amalgam.

In the book Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of ‘The Great Gatsby,’ author Sarah Churchwell theorizes inspiration for the murder in the book from the 1922 double murder of Edward Hall and Eleanor Mills, which happened contemporaneously to when he was starting work on the novel.