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Gatsby's Yalies

With Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby opening today, two of the best known fictional Yalies again come to the fore: the snobbish, racist bully Tom Buchanan, Class of 1915 (played this time by Joel Edgerton), and the sensitive bond trader Nick Carraway (Tobey McGuire), a Yale Daily News alum who was a member of Buchanan's (unnamed) secret society. However our fellow alumni come off in Luhrmann's 3-D spectacular, Princeton man F. Scott Fitzgerald had a particular fondness for using Ivy pedigrees to round out his characters.

In Gatsby itself, Nick tells us not only about Tom but also about Yale at the height of its gridiron power (the Yale Bowl opened in Buchanan's final season) when he calls him “one of the most powerful ends that ever played football at New Haven—a national figure in a way, one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterward savors of anti-climax. . . .  I felt that Tom would drift on forever seeking, a little wistfully, for the dramatic turbulence of some irrecoverable football game.” (The backward-aging Benjamin Button was a football star, too, but for Harvard. He wanted to go to Yale as a young man, but his unusual appearance put off the admissions committee. He got his revenge years later, scoring "seven touchdowns and fourteen field goals" in The Game.)

Fitzgerald's most famous quote about  the Ivies—it's not clear whether it was his opinion or just that of his teenaged protagonist—comes in This Side of Paradise, when young Amory Blaine explains: "I want to go to Princeton. I don't know why, but I think of all Harvard men as sissies, like I used to be, and all Yale men as wearing big blue sweaters and smoking pipes. . . . I think of Princeton as being lazy and good-looking and aristocratic—you know, like a spring day." When the Freshman Class Council used part of that quote—the part about Harvard men being sissies—on a T-shirt in 2009, it caused a campus debate over whether the word "sissy" is a homophobic slur.

The quote I remember most fondly, though, is one that warmed the hearts of us romantics back in the '80s when we went to St. Anthony Hall's Pump and Slipper Ball, a spring formal event that reveled in its traditions. In the short story "May Day," a woman is asked if she had dated one Gordon Sterrett, a Yale graduate. "Yes, I went up with him twice—to the Pump and Slipper and the Junior prom." Never mind that it's one of Fitzgerald's more grim stories; the reference just made us feel all Gatsby-ish—but, you know, in the good way.

For more on fictional Yale grads, by the way, see this article and this quiz.

Filed under Great Gatsby, fictional Yalies
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