When director Baz Luhrmann went on “The Colbert Report” last week to talk about his new adaptation of The Great Gatsby, he mentioned that a “very regal woman” took him by the hands after the movie’s world premiere and told him she’d come all the way from Vermont to see what he’d done with her grandfather’s book.
That woman was Bobbie Lanahan, an artist, animator and filmmaker, and the daughter of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s only child, Scottie.
“I told [Luhrmann] that I really liked it, and he was so bowled over!” Lanahan recalls over lunch at her Burlington home. “Now we’re pen pals. We’re writing every other day.”
Lanahan, who prefers not to reveal her age but coyly admits she’s over 60, is one of two trustees of the Fitzgerald estate, meaning she has a say in who is granted rights to works such as The Great Gatsby and that she has a financial stake in its reproduction and licensing. “We have to make decisions all the time about what’s going to be allowed, and what the terms are,” she says.
Luhrmann reached out to Lanahan about four years ago when he began work on the film. At the time, she says, she wasn’t all that interested in the project and may have given the impression that she didn’t approve. So he never followed up. Since the director made the movie in Australia — one of the few countries where the copyright does not apply — he didn’t need to acquire rights, Lanahan explains.
But Lanahan says over time she became excited about the production, and she wasn’t the only one in her family to feel that way. Her daughter, Blake Hazard of the indie-pop group the Submarines, appears in some of the movie’s party scenes as a dancer.
As Luhrmann noted on “Colbert,” Lanahan is an elegant lady — but she’s also endearingly down to earth. During our lunchtime interview, she inelegantly dumped her to-go container of salad onto a plate and giggled as it spilled all over the table.
Lanahan wasn’t just buttering up Luhrmann, the bombastic director whom she describes as “like a ringmaster”; she really was impressed with the film. After watching the trailer, she thought it would be “a thunderous movie on steroids,” she recalls. “It was going to be blasting music and having car wrecks, and everything was going to be over the top and exaggerated.”
But at the premiere, Lanahan was “surprised the characters were so moving,” she says. “I liked Gatsby very much, and Carey Mulligan was just about right. She was sweet enough that you could see why Gatsby loved her. But she was also pretty hard.”
Lanahan even got on board with the 3-D format, which she says gave the story a surreal, almost fable-like quality. “I think he got it just right,” she says.
As you might imagine, Lanahan has experienced The Great Gatsby in many forms: Garrison Keillor’s all-day reading of the book at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minn.; Gatz, a seven-hour theatrical take on the novel; even a glittering, all-female, Rockettes-style interpretation by Tokyo’s Takarazuka Opera.
As an adult, Lanahan has read her grandfather’s work extensively. But she doesn’t remember much about the first time she cracked the spine of his classic novel. It was in an English course at Sarah Lawrence College. “I know I had to write a paper,” she says.
By then, Lanahan had learned to deflect the questions people often flung at her once they discovered she was related to Fitzgerald, exchanges she says she found “deeply embarrassing.” In college, she says, “I was reading [Gatsby] in self-defense. I needed to catch up. People knew that I knew that I was related to it somehow, and I just needed to know what they were talking about.”
She ended up designing her whole course of study at Sarah Lawrence around F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was the first time she’d really learned about her grandfather, who died in 1940, before she was born.
“My mother didn’t talk about him,” says Lanahan. “She had enough pressure coming from the outside. And she really resented it if we brought it up. It would make her mad and upset, which I understand. We’ve all inherited that. We’re all very shy. We’ll talk to reporters, but we don’t like being grilled by people close to us.”
Lanahan says she can relate to the frustration her mother felt when people came to her seeking access to the literary giant. “My mother didn’t know what people wanted,” she says. “‘What do you want? I’ll give it to you. What is it?’ It’s some inside something. But it’s hard to deliver.”
Still, Lanahan considers herself lucky. “There are so many horrible people we could be related to, and [Fitzgerald’s] a great one,” she says.
With all the renewed interest in Gatsby, Lanahan has been extra busy with the Fitzgerald estate. She’s been blown away by the enormous licensing agreements the new movie has inspired. Tiffany & Co., the Plaza Hotel, Brooks Brothers — they’ve all unveiled Gatsby collections. Tiffany even has its own trailer for the movie, in which the camera lingers over Daisy’s bejeweled hand and zooms in, as Gatsby reaches out to the green light across the bay, on his pinky ring. “Which is, of course, for sale,” says Lanahan.
“I don’t know how [Fitzgerald] would feel about the marketing,” she adds, and notes that her grandfather’s book wasn’t well received until after he died. “He did need to make money. And a lot of his life was often busy with the problems of making money. He didn’t have enough, most of the time.”
Lanahan has poured her creative energy into visual storytelling. She has painted portraits, illustrated children’s books, animated commercials and created films, including The Naked Hitch-Hiker, which won the 2006 Goldstone Award at the Vermont International Film Festival; and an animated documentary about Alcoholics Anonymous called One Alcoholic to Another, which she made with Orly Yadin.
She has also written a book of her own about her mother, called Scottie the Daughter of … The Life of Frances Scott Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith. “But that was a one-time thing,” she says. “I would not venture a novel, let me tell you. I know it’s impossible to get into that arena; he was too good.”