Would F. Scott Fitzgerald understand the McDonnells, who longed to be beautiful, and now look to be damned?
Fitzgerald was the son of an unsuccessful salesman from Minnesota (with ties to Francis Scott Key through his mother's family), a great writer who longed to be Gerald Murphy, heir to the Mark Cross fortune, who with his wife, Sara, held court on the Riviera in the 1920s in what would look today like a Ralph Lauren fantasy, with sherry served in the late morning under umbrellas on the summery beaches of Cannes.
A great literary talent with an unreliable income, Fitzgerald wanted to live Murphy’s life of ease, leisure, and elegance, whereas Bob McDonnell, a political talent big enough to make him a possible presidential contender, wanted — if not the life of Jonnie Williams (his very rich benefactor) — at least his lifestyle, a fantasy world of the very best brands worn in the best places, while doing the most fun sort of things.
The difference is that Fitzgerald and Murphy were friends while McDonnell and Williams are business acquaintances, and Fitzgerald and Murphy could not exchange favors. The similarity is in the attraction of the struggling children of the middle class to the good life as lived on the highest of levels. They invested these things with too much importance, which they learned only when it was too late.
In his perceptive book Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks writes of status-income disequilibrium as being what happens when middle-class strivers, whose profession and income tend to be uncertain, become famous enough to mix with other celebrities, who may be much more well-off than are they.
Periodically, people who make less than $175,000 a year (the governor’s salary) mingle with those who make $1.75 million, the latter of whom go home in chauffeured cars to spacious and fully-staffed mansions, while the former drive themselves back in not-too-new cars to their cluttered and much smaller houses, where they remember the bathroom needs cleaning. (Or, like McDonnell, the state owns the cars and the mansions, while his own credit cards are maxed out.) Their friends’ wives shop in boutiques and know the designers, while their wives paw through the sales racks at Nordstrom.
It all seems unfair, and it possibly is, especially as they are better known and what they do certainly looks more important. Politicians, who deal every day with big donors, are still more susceptible, and unlike novelists, can do people favors. And that’s where the problems begin.
In Tender Is The Night, his 1934 masterpiece, Fitzgerald describes a shopping spree on the part of the very rich Nicole Diver (based on Sara Murphy), who buys in a very short time a large range of items, all superfluous and expensive, as the author seems dazzled by her careless ability to spend so much money so fast.
One gets the same feeling from the long list of things returned by the McDonnells — an endless procession of glittery objects for which no one had any real need. In the end, it took less than $150,000 in watches and dresses, golf shirts and shoes, golf clubs and outings, to create the illusion of glamor and affluence for which McDonnell gave up his past and his future, his good name and his prospects, and a plausible chance to be president.
It's a sad tale that calls for a really great writer. It's too bad that Fitzgerald is dead.Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."