The Great Gatsby is an intriguing character not because he is exceptional but because he is strangely familiar. His story mirrors that of a number of business leaders, keen to abandon old identities in favour of new ones, with complex and sometimes tragic consequences. His familiarity also emerges from our own tendency – like Nick Carraway (the story’s narrator) – to be drawn to characters like him, and for this reason the Gatsby persona is a fascinating one. The eponymous hero of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, whose fifth film version is currently doing a roaring trade across the world, is, in short, a figure we are curiously conversant with.
In this story, Gatsby’s past is quite the contrary of his new identity: reared in difficult poverty-stricken circumstances, he is desperate to escape his background and runs away to make his fortune in the shady, criminal world of illegal bootlegging. Then, especially keen to impress his former love Daisy, he creates a new identity and presents himself as a wealthy, Oxford-educated socialite who is also mysterious and elusive, and a thrower of fabulous and opulent parties for the rich and famous. Gatsby is an archetypical tragic hero because, together with a considerable dose of bad luck, his flaws and the deceitful aspects of his character contribute to his problems and untimely death.
This is an enduring theme because – like Fitzgerald’s narrator Carraway – we are often enraptured and fascinated by the idea of abandoning old identities in favour of new ones, and, in varying degrees and at different stages, we all do this at some point in our lives.
The inclination for business magnates to jettison old identities is a theme that my co-author Gianpiero Petriglieri and I explored in a paper we published last year. In our paper we develop the concept of ‘the unwanted self’, focusing on the post-war Gucci family that, like Gatsby, is the story of the abandoning of old identities and the creation of problematic new ones. This led to the ruin of the family.
In some ways the Gucci debacle is more tragic than that of Gatsby: while the Gatsby plot centres on the problematic identity of one person, the Gucci story is about the identity flaws in two entire generations of a family, leading to the clan’s self-destruction. But it is also more tragic in another way: not only did Gucci family members create glorious new identities for themselves, but they detested other family members whom they regarded as having the hated characteristics they were so keen to deny in themselves.
At the focal point of the story was Aldo Gucci, who developed the business into the global brand we know it today. Aldo developed an aristocratic persona: he was known as L’Imperatore (the Emperor) with the Gucci’s known to have ‘blue blood’ and constituting the ‘Tuscan Royal Family’; he also developed a highly ‘moral’ persona. Neither of these identities had much basis in reality: Aldo was born into considerable poverty because his father – the founder of the Gucci business – had struggled in the early days of the company, at one stage going bankrupt and having to be bailed out by his son-in-law; and there was not much that was ethical about Aldo, who was involved in tax evasion and fraud.
With friends such as the Kennedys, film stars and royalty around the world, as well as enormous wealth, Aldo was able to construct his glamorous new identity. At the same time, everything he hated – and was trying to reject in himself – he found present in other members of the family in the business. His son Paolo was a particular focus of attention, with Aldo firing (and then re-hiring) Paolo many times, claiming his business ventures were illegal, and referring to him as ‘crazy’ and a ‘son of a bitch’.
After Gatsby and Gucci, this enduring theme was played out again in the lead-up to the global financial crisis. Indeed, certain of the actors involved in the global financial crisis had so much wealth that ‘getting richer’ was much more a symbolic act intended to improve a self-image and create a new identity than it was about having money that would actively be used.
Joseph Cassano – ‘patient zero’ of the credit crisis – was one such person. The Brooklyn-born son of a New York policeman, Cassano worked his way up the ranks until he became head of AIG Financial Products in London, and based his home and work in London’s exclusive Mayfair and Kensington districts where he led a life of enormous wealth and splendour: over the duration of his career, his personal pay and bonuses reached close on a third of a billion dollars. At the same time, the staggering losses of the London-based AIG group that he led brought the company to the brink of disaster in 2008, averted only by an $85 billion bailout. The modern business world – especially during boom years – would therefore seem sometimes to promote the radical forsaking and rejecting of parts of ourselves, and this carries serious risks. It is for this reason that Gatsby’s popularity is on the rise again.
Submitted by Mark Stein