the gilded age

The grand old families of Long Island — the Buchanans of ‘East Egg' — and their disdain for the flamboyant nouveau riche of 'West Egg’ are the kingpin of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. As you’ll know if you’ve read the book, or if you see the Baz Luhrmann adaptation — for which he wrote the screenplay in a loft suite at Ace Hotel New York — premiering today, West Egg’s prince of thieves is represented by the Prohibition-era rumrunner with an inferiority complex and a broken heart of gold, Jay Gatsby. Why would generations of Americans below tycoon-status be so drawn to a story in some ways so remote from their own lives, dealing as it does with an obtuse schism between rival factions of the over-privileged? Likely, it’s due to Jay Gatsby’s humble origins, and the shame he felt about them, coupled with his unrequited love — both of which make him universally relatable. He’s a prototype for the conflicted American social climber, most eloquently expressed today in hip hop. We don’t begrudge him his excess because he feels like one of our own. And none of it — the fancy cars, the lavish parties, the jazz orchestras imported from Harlem — can salve the wounded soul of this striver anyway. His hopeless inner struggle humanizes him. Even after the robber barons of the Jazz Age drove the country off a cliff there was still a place in America’s heart for Jay Gatsby.

The Gatsbys and Buchanans of today’s West and East Egg are less nuanced. The rumrunner tycoons are all gone. They’ve been replaced by investment banks that bundle predatory loans and sell them to your grandparents’ pension funds, then short sell against those same loans, to make a killing when families get foreclosed on in Jamaica, Queens or Cleveland, Ohio, and your grandparents lose their life savings. You know the story well — its choose-your-own-misadventure variations are nearly endless.

In our Gilded Age, if you’re more than a few rungs up, there’s little or no social consequence for ethically dubious schemes, as there was for poor Gatsby’s rumrunning. When a Gatsby of 2013 gets busted, he settles for pennies on the dollar and celebrates by treating himself to a Picasso. Our East and West Eggers’ soirées still depend upon the fruits of creative labor. Without artists, the party would be a drag. Even acute protestations end up on the penthouse walls.

As Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby hits screens today, we’ll face an invitation to inquire into how history repeats itself — how are tensions between landed gentry and lottery winners, between philanthropists and studio-squatters, between the desire to be an object of envy and the deep human need to struggle toward our fantasies, ideals and visions — how are these the sheer force by which a developed and developing world orbits? We’re human, imperfect, compassionate, greedy, and full of yearning. It looks good on the big screen — it’s fucking beautiful. Good sugar with a bit of vinegar between the lines of the great American novel.

I hope everyone treats Julian Fellowes the same way he’s treated Lady Edith and Lady Edith fans these past five years. I hope that his new show The Gilded Age fails as much as he’s made Edith fail. I hope the guilds and award giving bodies treat him the way Lady Mary treats Lady Edith. I hope that his artistic karma hits him in real life. The only way I’d wish Fellowes any kind of luck is if Laura Carmichael’s career takes off and she gets award nominations and wins for a few of her future projects, because she sure as hell isn’t going to get them outside of the Ensemble on Downton Abbey. Edith learning of Gregson’s death from her Editor would have been an awards season bait scene, but Laura Carmichael got the short end of the stick like Edith with this Marigold/Edith story line. If Laura Carmichael’s career is hampered or inhibited by Poor Edith and I don’t see more of her outside of Lady Edith type roles after Downton Abbey, then I want Julian Fellowes career to sink like the Titanic. I’ve given up on getting any kind of long lasting payoff with Edith on Downton Abbey. I can only hope that Laura Carmichael isn’t imprisoned by Poor Edith. Because if she’s not able to break it, then I want Julian Fellowes to get all the failures, breaks and treatment that he wrote for Lady Edith.
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A Word With: Julian Fellowes

Q. Are you approaching your NBC drama, “The Gilded Age,” differently for an American audience?

A. I’m going to do the pilot this year. I’ve got a list of potential advisers, and I am a big, big fan of Edith Wharton and Henry James and that period of history after the Civil War — the Vanderbilts and the Whitneys and all of those people. As for adapting what I write for American audiences, American audiences have enjoyed “Downton.” I try and make TV shows that I’m going to want to watch. And when I’m reading it, I’m saying to myself: “Is this boring? Are you still enjoying this scene? Shouldn’t it be over by now?” [laughs] I can’t imagine my departing from that principle very far.

Q. Are you starting to think about how “Downton Abbey” might end?

A. It’s not really my decision. I don’t own “Downton Abbey” now. NBC Universal [which owns Carnival Films] owns “Downton Abbey.” So I could walk away, but I wouldn’t walk away. It’s too much my baby. It won’t go on forever — I’m not a believer in that. But I can’t immediately now tell you where the end will be.

Q. So the idea of continuing with these characters into post-World War II Britain … ?

A. For me, that would be a different series. Maybe people would say, “Oh my God, that’s baby George, grown up!” But I don’t think it would be continuous, with Michelle Dockery with her hair covered with talcum powder.

An American Tail + History

Shostka is located in present day northern Ukraine.  At this time, it is estimated that 1/3 of Europe’s Jewish population lived in Ukraine, which formed a large part of the Pale of Settlement.  This area was a target for pogroms, attacks on Jewish communities such as the one in which Fievel and his family lose their home, and these were particularly rife in 1881-84, around the time the film is set.  Mousekewitz is a play on the Russian Jewish surname Moskowitz.

Like the mice, expecting the streets to be paved with cheese and their cat oppressors to have no place in America, the expectations of the immigrants were similarly high, and they were similarly crushed on arrival.  An Italian saying from the time went,  "I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here, I found out three things: First, the streets weren’t paved with gold; second, they weren’t paved at all: and third, I was expected to pave them.“  The Gilded Age had reinforced the idea of the American Dream as something that was attainable by anyone, with the new money of the industrialists and stories such as those of Horatio Alger being the image of success that was portrayed, while leaving out the harsh reality that many poor workers, including those coming over from Europe to find better lives, faced at the bottom of the pyramid, while the industrialists sat at the top.

Ellis Island is the more famous port for immigration into the USA, but it didn’t open until 1892.  When Fievel’s family arrived, they would have gone through Castle Garden, which stands in Battery Park and is now a national monument.  The boat in the foreground is owned by the Erie Railroad Company, which would recruit workers almost as they disembarked from the ships that had brought them across the Atlantic.  The above screenshot is almost identical to this engraving.

Tanya is given the new name of Tilly when going through immigration, and the myth that names that did not sound "American enough” were changed to something easier for natives to pronounce is a common one.  In fact, the officers worked from the ship’s manifest rather than just asking for a name, and they were required to know at least two languages (for more information, see here).  It is far more likely that immigrants started to use more American sounding versions of their names themselves, to try to blend in and make it easier for them to integrate.


The Statue of Liberty was indeed being constructed at this time, and was dedicated the next year, 1886.  The gold colour of the statue is because it is coated in copper, and was in fact a golden colour when first erected.  It is only over time that Lady Liberty has faded to her current green colour, through oxidisation.

The scene where Fievel presses his nose to the window of the schoolroom is based on the experiences of executive producer Steven Spielberg’s grandfather, who told him that “Jews were only able to listen to school lessons through open windows while sitting outside in the snow”.

This Edison phonograph would have used tinfoil inside the cylinder - it wasn’t until 1886 that wax cylinders were patented by Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter.  The march played is The Stars And Stripes Forever, which was not written until 1897, over 10 years after the film is set!

Hester Street, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, was a centre of Jewish immigrant culture in the late 19th century, and had a 1975 film about the Jewish immigrant experience named after it.  Nowadays the area has been absorbed into Chinatown.

Honest John is typical of the Tammany Hall politicians controlling New York politics in the 1800s, most famously Boss Tweed.  They relied on immigrants as their main electoral base, and as in the scene above, would go to all sorts of lengths to get votes.

I have always seen the climax of the movie, the mice banding together to construct the Giant Mouse of Minsk, as them knowing that the only way to get rid of the cats is to beat them at their own game - by building their own capital. At this time, the laws protecting immigrant workers were few and far between, and banding together as a community and becoming successful competition to their oppressors was really the only way to combat them.