The Great Gatsby: A Conversation with Catherine Martin

On the eve of The Great Gatsby world premiere in New York City, F. Scott Fitzgerald scholar and fashion historian, Dr. Deirdre Clemente, was invited to the launch of the Plaza Hotel’s ‘Fitzgerald Suite’. Present was Oscar-winning costume designer Catherine Martin who has lavishly and intelligently festooned a room that offers its nightly dweller a chance to soak up all things Scott, Zelda and Gatsby. Of course they talked costume, and Clothes on Film have the exclusive.

Deirdre Clemente: Your work on the film translated into unique partnerships. Everyone is talking about Brooks Brothers and Prada, but tell me a little bit about the work you did at The Plaza. An entire suite dedicated to Fitzgerald and The Great Gatsby, which of course has that amazing scene at the hotel.

Catherine Martin: The Plaza suite straddles fact and fiction. We have an entire wall of images of the Fitzgeralds, who were frequent guests of the hotel.

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DC: I believe they lived around the corner at one point at 38 West 59th Street so they could be closer to the hotel.

CM: Yes. They were big Plaza people. We included many images of them. I think one of my favourites is his cancelled passport photo, which shows him and Zelda and Scottie. I kind of love that. As for the “fiction” part of the suite, we made a section of the room as a “hall of champions” for Tom Buchanan with all of his sporting memorabilia. We invented many things, such as a trophy for him being an inter-collegiate tennis champion. I think he played every single sport in our version.

DC: He was a captain of the Asshole Team.

CM: (Laughs). Yes. And of course, the suite has many books, Fitzgerald’s own and some we used for inspiration for the film. There is a section I call the Fitzgerald reading nook, with two shelves of his collected works. It was really important to Baz and I that Fitzgerld’s work be in the suite. And we’re in the process of getting a facsimile of Baz’s copy of the book with all his annotations in it. So that will eventually be here.

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DC: So, you’ve provided in the suite many of the things that inspired you and Baz, as you did your research.

CM: We’ve got a whole bunch of books on Long Island and Long Island mansions. Of course, we have things that deal with the period or people that were important in the period. Images from the film itself. We have an image of Plaza suite as we envisioned it in the film, with views out to the park, 5th Avenue and 59th Street. And you’ll see there’s a digital view that we made of the Plaza in the period. Lots of energy went into making it just right. And we have an image from the Museum of the City of New York and the actual view of the Plaza from 1922. We worked with actual images in recreating the city views.

DC: So very technically advanced stuff. How does technology play into your version of the 1920s?

CM: Because we are really coming out of the First World War, I think the 20’s are really made by this clash of man and machines. It’s important to know where these characters have come from.

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DC: Are non-readers going to be bored in the suite?

CM: We have a ton of DVDs. There is fantastic series on New York, Ken Burns. Cosmopolis is particularly about the 20’s. There’s the old version of The Great Gatsby and an incredible documentary on Prohibition that gives you a real insight into the period. And Tiffany & Co. made us Jay Gatsby’s monogram in the movie, and so they’ve made playing cards for the film.

We’ll have movie memorabilia set in boxes. This is a facsimile of the invitation card, ‘Dear Mr Carraway, The pleasure would be entirely mine if you could attend my little party. Yours Sincerely, Jay Gatsby’. There are love letters from Jay to Daisy, an invitation to go to the military dance. Just like little stuff like that.

And then games. Restoration Hardware has done a whole range of vintage games. So we’ve included Monopoly which was of course a game you could play at that time. Hopefully you won’t be playing too much Monopoly. We have a bottle of Lieber Gustav, which is reportedly a fragrance that Zelda picked for F. Scott Fitzgerald in Antibes. And don’t worry. You’ll be able to make yourself a Gatsby inspired cocktail.

DC: A Gin Rickey, extra ice?

CM: Extra gin. And the room service menu will be 20’s inspired.

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DC: Tell me a little about the amazing portraits of the cast you have around the suite?

CM: These images of our cast are all done by a fantastic photographer, an old friend called Douglas Kirkland, who shot everyone from Marilyn Monroe to that famous shot of Ann Margaret on the bike with her legs out in the Wonder Woman outfit. So we’ve basically included the images of all the cast that play in the Plaza suite.

DC: So it’s a mix of history and your own interpretation of the 20’s?

CM: Yes, it’s an experiential thing. It kind of jockeys fact and fiction. You’re meant to be able to have an adult-themed experience – for the want of a better word – where you’re able to come and enter my imagined version of a weekend with Scott and Zelda.

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DC: No one’s passed out on the ground. You pay extra for that.

CM: Strictly speaking, of course, it’s my fantasy. There was a lot of discussion of how we approach this. Do you literally recreate the suite? But that penultimate scene of the book is not particularly pleasant. It’s an emotionally charged, aggressive scene where you have Gatsby and you have Tom Buchanan fighting. And so I thought it was very important to make an experience that would be a pleasant one – particularly if you’re spending money on it.

You want to understand the history, and the connection that Fitzgerald had to the Plaza. You want to understand the depth of feeling we have for his work and also how it connects to the movie. It’s more of a broadly eclectic experiential thing, than just something trying to be strictly textbook. It’s not meant to be an intellectual treatise, it’s meant to be a moment of happy ephemera that you enjoy. And hopefully you get to read some of these fantastic short stories, at least.

DC: Would you say that’s a similar approach you took to costumes in the film, this idea of, ‘it’s not an exact representation as much as our interpretation of the historical time’?

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CM: I think that our approach was very much about making sure that a modern audience could understand who and what everybody was, and what was happening in the story. That was the fundamental thing. Baz (Luhrmann, director) very much said, ‘I don’t want to end with a nostalgic New York that ends up being this sepia world that distances everybody from the story. I want you to feel as if you were F. Scott Fitzgerald or Zelda or the characters in the book in the 1920s. A new, exhilarating, modern and absolutely the most titillating, scintillating and visceral experience you could have – and not ‘polite’.’

He also said that because the book was published in ‘25, it’s set in the summer of ’22 and it kind of foreshadows the crash. We used the whole decade as an influence. So whether it’s Daisy’s costumes that are much closer to the early ’20s, or whether its Jordan’s costumes that are much more related to the late ‘20s, you see the different characterisations of the women. Daisy is much more aligned to the late 19th century in terms of what is expected of her as a woman. Jordan is a self-determining person, who is a professional, who earns her own money. They are two different women completely.

Carey Mulligan does the most incredible job of Daisy. She is incredible. And you really fall in love with her. You really understand who she is and where she comes from. It’s incredibly poignant when she says to Nick Carraway about when her daughter was born, “the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.” And you realise in that instance that she isn’t a fool but she’s only been bred since birth for one thing, which is to be a charming, vivacious trophy wife. She’s achieved that goal at 18 or 17 and a half. And it’s downhill from there. Is that all there is? Ultimately.

She says in that whole speech to Nick, ‘I’ve seen everything, I’ve done everything and it’s all terrible’. I think she (Carey) is incredible in it.

DC: Do you think your Daisy is more endearing that Fitzgerald’s version?

CM: I think she is what you make of her in Fitzgerald’s version. It’s whatever your interpretation of it is.

By Deirdre Clemente & Aisling O’Connor

With thanks to Catherine Martin.

© 2013 – 2014, Contributor.