During the infamous Savings & Loan crisis in Texas, the Governor appointed me to the Texas State Depository Board, along with the State Treasurer, the State Controller, and the State Banking Commissioner. During that service, I saw all manner of financial crimes; some clever and some stupid.
A few years ago, I wrote a novel about a Ponzi scheme, which surprisingly earned several awards. It explained the mechanics of Ponzi schemes, which are always doomed to fail, which makes the criminals extremely stupid to even try the impossible.
So, it was with some annoyance that I watched the latest movie version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic book The Great Gatsby. The movie made clear something nefarious supported the lavish lifestyle and parties of Jay Gatsby. There were veiled references and insults, along with some shady characters. But, I could not put my finger on what exactly what was the crime.
It was time to re-read the classic book, and I did. Remembering this story took place during the Prohibition Era, it seems young Gatsby aligned himself with a seedy mob boss, who put up the money for Gatsby to buy a string of drug stores that sold prescription bottles and “Carter’s Little Liver Pills” full of moonshine. During that time, he also realized that financial crime was easier in small towns than large cities.
Eventually, he graduated to more sophisticated crimes. During the time of the book, I think his mob friends were counterfeiting “bearer bonds.” I have only seen a bearer bond once in my lifetime, but they were commonplace during the Gatsby period. With a bearer bond, one only had to walk into the local bank with the bond, and the bank would pay the bearer or whomever presented the bond. Again, Gatsby’s plan was to stick with banks in small towns. As the movie ends, it appears some of his cronies got greedy and tried to cash their bearer bonds in big city banks, who were too wise and experienced to fall for the scheme.
While most critics see this classic story as a social commentary on the upper crust of society “who retreats into their vast wealth” whenever they damage regular people. It is a world where “rich girls don’t marry poor boys,” as we were told twice by Gatsby’s love interest, Daisy. Originally, I saw a Pygmalion-quality to the story, whereby a young barbarian from North Dakota learns urbane manners but still never “fits” into the upper crust. Now, I see it as a sad story about a pathetic student of the superficial, who is so obsessed with one woman that he cannot see the rest of his shallow world crumbling.
Next weekend, we will attend a “Great Gatsby Party.” I’ll be wearing a tuxedo, and my wife will be wearing a flapper dress with long necklaces. We will raise money for charity and re-live the famous parties at the imaginary Gatsby mansion.
In the book, Gatsby famously insists we really can re-create the past. I think that is wrong, but, of course, we will make a humorous attempt next weekend. However, I will not forget that Gatsby was just a cheap criminal with expensive tastes and no understanding of society in general nor women in particular.