Before you go out to see Baz Luhrmann’s remake of The Great Gatsby, meet the man behind one of F. Scott Fitzgerald’smost unforgettable characters
hen a Hollywood production company suggested making a movie in which socialite Tommy Hitchcock played himself, the modest and self-effacing Hitchcock must have thought it bizarre. And yet his life was so full of glamour, action and drama that if he hadn’t existed, someone would have made him up. In a certain way, someone did.
Thomas Hitchcock Jr.—aristocrat, war hero and one of the world’s greatest polo players—served as the model for Tom Buchanan, the old-money antagonist to Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s quintessential 1925 novel about love and money. Arriving in theaters on May 10, 2013, the latest film iteration of The Great Gatsby will feature Joel Edgerton as Buchanan opposite Leonardo DiCaprio’s Gatsby in a new cinematic treatment by director Baz Luhrmann.
Hitchcock in his American polo team uniform at the Westchester Cup at the Hurlingham Club in London in 1921
It’s unclear precisely how Fitzgerald met Hitchcock, but it was likely at one of those Long Island parties where much of the novel’s revelries take place. In 1922, Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, moved to Great Neck, Long Island—later immortalized in The Great Gatsby as West Egg—just a few months after Fitzgerald planned the tale of Gatsby. Rich, handsome, athletic, brave and with the quiet self-assurance that comes from these enviable qualities, Hitchcock, who lived in nearby Sands Point (the model for East Egg) across the bay, certainly made an impression on the writer. Fitzgerald was hardly alone. Nelson Aldrich Jr., Hitchcock’s lone biographer, called his subject the “beau ideal” of an East Coast patrician, while one of Hitchcock’s peers laconically dubbed him “perfect.” Countless others simply idolized him.
Born in 1900 and raised in Westbury, New York, Hitchcock was educated at St. Paul’s, a college prep school in Concord, New Hampshire. “By the age of 16, he was that rarity among schoolboys,” writes Aldrich, “someone perfectly at ease in his own skin.” A supreme example of the warrior-aristocrat archetype, Hitchcock took up polo as a boy, but when World War I erupted, he found himself fascinated by an even more dangerous game: that of the fighter pilot.
At the age of 17, as writer Sarah Ballard recounts in a Sports Illustrated story from 1986, “[Hitchcock] wangled his way into the Lafayette Escadrille, a flamboyantly romantic arm of the French Aviation Service made up of American volunteers, young men bedazzled by the possibilities for heroism in the brand-new game of aerial combat.”
After shooting down two planes, including one where he was relieved to see the pilots emerge from the wreckage and wave, Hitchcock was shot down behind enemy lines and taken as a prisoner of war in Germany. For six months, while slowly recuperating from his injuries, he suffered from malnutrition and depression, something he had never known before. He was obsessed with the idea of escape, and his opportunity finally came while he was being transferred to another camp. Hitchcock carefully plucked a map from a sleeping guard, climbed out of a train window and leaped. He then endured eight days of hunger and cold as he walked across 100 miles of open countryside into Switzerland, to safety.
(Left) American author F. Scott Fitzgerald reads a book at his writing desk in 1925; (right) Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, pose together in 1920, the year they were married
Back at home and lauded as a war hero in 1920, Hitchcock enrolled at Harvard University and spent time abroad at Oxford University in England before devoting himself once again to the sport of polo. With his home field at the Meadowbrook Club in Westbury, New York, Hitchcock dominated the sport in his era the same way Bill Tilden did tennis and Bobby Jones did golf. “Dressed for polo in shining boots and white breeches,” writes Ballard, “with a camel-hair coat thrown over his muscular shoulders, Hitchcock appeared clothed where other men looked costumed.”
When Fitzgerald introduced his reader to Buchanan, the character had just dismounted a horse. All of Hitchcock’s physical virtues, however, became vices in the imagination of the author. Buchanan’s body was “cruel,” and his eyes were “arrogant.” Fitzgerald’s use of a good-natured American gentleman to serve as the model for his brutish and careless character likely stemmed from the author’s envious fascination with the rich and his romantic desire for them to be elevated and noble, “different from you and me,” as he put it in one of his short stories.
Some of Buchanan’s competitive arrogance was based in fact, however. Hitchcock might have been a gentleman, but his play on the polo field was so aggressive that a new rule was created banning the “foul of intimidation.” According to Ballard, Hitchcock believed that the man in the number two position, which he himself held, “should be the most active and aggressive man on the side” and “should have his nose in every play and be continually forcing the attack.” Hitchcock played harder and hit the ball farther than his contemporaries, all while displaying an uncanny nose for the ball.
Hitchcock leads the action on a Long Island polo field
etween world wars, polo was in its golden age, and a well-heeled crowd of 45,000 attended the 1930 Westchester Cup. Aldrich sets the scene: “The spectators at a polo match […] combined the glittering tonic of an opening night at the opera with the wholesome fresh-air fun of a Harvard-Yale game.” Hitchcock, who was notoriously private, became an unwitting celebrity and experienced all of fame’s downsides, including gawking stares, autograph hounds and nosy reporters. He eventually married, raised a family and took an investment banking position at Lehman Brothers, to which he commuted from his home in Sands Point by seaplane, taking off and landing in the East River.
At the outbreak of World War II, Hitchcock left Lehman Brothers, desperate to be a fighter pilot once again. However, he was in his 40s and considered to be too old, so he spent the war years primarily at desk jobs in London and Washington, DC. But Hitchcock had one final heroic mission: He was instrumental in the development of the P-51B, the Allies’ most effective fighter plane, known as the Mustang. On April 18, 1944, eager to test the plane’s powerful new Rolls-Royce engine himself, Hitchcock took to the skies and crashed near Salisbury, England, dying at the age of 44.
A fleet of more than 100 P-51B Mustang fighter jets, the development of which was one of Hitchcock’s legacies, in Iwo Jima, Japan, in 1945
Although he’d shied away from publicity, Hitchcock nevertheless attracted it in spades—even today, decades later and from beyond the grave. In March 2013, his son William filed a lawsuit against book dealer James Robert Cahill, alleging that a first-edition copy of The Great Gatsby, inscribed by Fitzgerald and given to his father in 1927, was stolen from his home in 2006 and sold on the black market.
According to a report in The New York Post, Cahill bought the book for $61,000 at an auction and put it up for sale online for $750,000 in 2012. William Hitchcock contacted the dealer, demanding the book’s return, and claimed in his lawsuit that Cahill refused, threatening to deface the book. Hitchcock then contacted the FBI, which, after a 10-month investigation, concluded that the case must be settled in civil court.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, ever fascinated by the clash between old and new money, would surely find the lawsuit quintessentially American, a tragicomic example of life imitating art imitating life.
CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD is a New York–based writer whose work has appeared in The Rake, L’Uomo Vogue, Robb Report and many other publications. He is the founder of Ivy-Style.com and has contributed to Ralph Lauren Magazine since 2006.