Adam Douglas, Senior Specialist in Literature at Peter Harrington presents a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and explains the creation of its iconic dust jacket.
Read our author’s page for F. Scott Fitzgerald.
This is the first edition of The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This dust jacket is possibly the most remarkable thing about the book and it’s been called one of the most iconic book jacket designs in 20th century American literature.
To understand about why it’s so startling a jacket for publication date, which is April 1925, we might look at some earlier examples. This is a book published 30 years earlier – The Ebb-Tide by Robert Louis Stevenson and Lloyd Osbourne. You can see the publisher has advertised a list of other books on the front. The idea behind this was that the jacket was temporary and would be thrown away when the buyer bought the book. The jacket was simply there to protect the book while it was being browsed in the book shop.
If you look inside the jacket, you see that the designer lavished more care and attention on the front of the book than the jacket itself.
And even F. Scott Fitzgerald’s earlier works had been published with simpler jackets, like this one for The Beautiful and Damned. You can see that the illustration on the front cover is very much like the illustration from a magazine at the time. There is not very much colour, just the orange disc to bring the book to life a little bit.
But for The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald had decided that he wanted to create something more artistic.
The jacket itself does not represent literally the events of the novel; it’s rather a symbolic evocation of the events. The most noticeable features are the two eyes of a woman staring over the Coney Island scene beneath.
Fitzgerald was in the middle of writing The Great Gatsby when he was first shown the dust jacket art. He was in America at the time and his publisher shown him the early drafts of the jacket. Fitzgerald then moved to Italy and the South of France in order to finish the book, and he wrote back to his publisher saying: “For Christ’s sake don’t give anyone that jacket you’re saving for me. I’ve written it into the book.”
This is a unique occurrence, as far as anybody can tell, where the actual design of the dust jacket influenced the writing of the novel. The two eyes of the cover are echoed in the book by the two eyes of the oculist watching down from the billboard over the inhabitants of the book. Obviously the character is different on the jacket, it’s a female face, but it’s also reminiscent of Daisy’s face that haunts Gatsby in his quest to win her back.
The jacket is also very finely detailed in a way that Fitzgerald’s earlier jackets hadn’t been. It’s possible, for example, to read into the irises of the girl’s eyes on the cover two reclining nudes just inside the eyes. There is also a contrast with the lights of the Coney Island scene at the bottom, representing the excitement of that era but it’s also the danger; it’s hard to tell if there’s an explosion happening. And that also echoes the car crash in the novel.
One of the falling lights in the sky could be sodium glare or it could be a tear falling from one the eye, so it’s a very evocative and symbolic jacket, which is unusual for this time. It’s not actually an especially rare book – they were over 18,000 copies printed of the first edition. But what is rare is the survival of the dust jacket.
One of the main reason for this being that the jacket itself is printed just very slightly too tall for the book, so it always has a tendency to chip at the edges. The paper gets brittle and chips away, which argues against its survival.
The other interesting thing about the jacket, one thing that collectors have to be wary of, is that there was a printing mistake at the back of the jacket; the name Jay Gatsby was printed with a lower case “j”, so every copy of the first issue jacket was corrected by hand and the capital letter “J” was written in over the lower case. This shows this is a first issue jacket.
We don’t know very much about the artist who produced this jacket. We know that he was Francis Cugat and that he was born in Spain. His family emigrated to Cuba and then came to America that way. His brother Javier Cugat was a Cuban band leader in America. But Francis Cugat did no more jackets; this is the only dust jacket that has been identified as his work. He worked on one Hollywood film for Douglas Fairbanks, the Gaucho, the following year in 1926. Apart from that he only exhibited once in New York and died in relative obscurity in the early 1980s.
So this is an enigmatic jacket and an enigmatic jacket artist. The jacket itself adds considerable value to surviving copies of The Great Gatsby.
The probable order of these sketches was that the first one here is a railway scene. Although it resembles Spain more than Long Island, this is actually the Long Island Rail Road. You also get here the first conception of the faces, the eyes in the clouds in the sky watching the action.
It then seems that Cugat went through various sketches, developing the idea of the eyes. Here he has a single eye and a profile as if he was trying to do something in the style of Picasso. There is also a very rudimentary sketch of the cityscape meant to be Long Island.
They are also various attempts to capture eyes in the sky here and then below a fairground, which then develops into a more realised design with the eyes almost as they are on the book, with the turning shape of the carnival wheel. But at the bottom the cityscape is actually Manhattan, which makes it quite urban and not in suiting to the book.
This design here which is a study for a nocturnal carnival, sees Cugat trying out the colour which will end up in the final jacket. The dense night blue gives the jacket a party atmosphere but also a sense of unease.
It’s probably the most outstanding example of a dust jacket adding huge value to the copy. We have this book priced at £120,000; without its jacket I expect the book to be priced at around £5,000.
It’s often said that The Great Gatsby dust jacket is the most expensive single piece of paper in 20th century book collecting.