March 11, 2013

A cover art history of The Great Gatsby


Books with Leonardo DiCaprio on the cover usually take me back to Scholastic book fairs at my elementary school where, in the wake of Titanic, every girl except me lined up to buy titles like Lovin’ Leo, Your Keepsake Scrapbook. Last week Scribner unveiled the latest face of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: a movie tie-in featuring Leo, surrounded by other shiny Hollywood stars, all framed in a cage of deco trappings.

This bright young thing can’t compete with the iconic original—and not just because, as our own Dustin Kurtz pointed out, it features a woefully smug-looking Tobey Maguire. Because Fitzgerald is too dead to love the cover and write it into his novel. Because Ernest Hemingway is too dead to hate it and then eviscerate it in his memoir. That’s why.

In the case of the original, artist Francis Cugat finished his portion of the book long before Fitzgerald did. The author caught a glimpse of those droopy blue eyes and immediately wrote to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, urging, “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that dust jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.”

Introducing a paperback edition of the novel, Charles Scribner III touted, “I do not know of another case in which an author acknowledges so central a debt to an illustrator.”

Some say the cover inspired the billboard character of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, whose eyes “are blue and gigantic—their retinas are one yard high. They look out of no face, but, instead, from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose.” Others see it in the description of Daisy Buchanan as a “girl whose disembodied face floated along the dark cornices and blinding signs.”

While the cover evidently appealed to Fitzgerald, it turned Hemingway off at first sight. In A Moveable Feast, he recalled, “A day or two after the trip Scott brought his book over. It had a garish dust jacket and I remember being embarrassed by the violence, bad taste and slippery look of it. It looked the book jacket for a book of bad science fiction. Scott told me not to be put off by it, that it had to do with a billboard along a highway in Long Island that was important in the story. He said he had liked the jacket and now he didn’t like it. I took it off to read the book.”

Points to the Doctor T.J. Eckleburg crowd.

Over the years, this novel has endured a succession of covers, and Paste Magazine gathered them all in one place. Given that line up I have to concur with Vol. 1 Booklyn editor, Jason Diamond, who summed the situation up in a tweet: “I’m glad ‘The Great Gatsby’ got a new cover. The old one sucked.”



Abigail Grace Murdy is a former Melville House intern.