In recent weeks, news reports have been awash with the latest cinema version of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby." Reviewers have pondered whether Baz Luhrmann's direction and Leonardo DiCaprio's incarnation of the enigmatic Gatsby are worthy of the 1925 novel now deemed one of American literature's masterworks.
This adoration was not always the case. Twenty years after publication, "Gatsby" was out of print. But one publisher knew its worth: James Laughlin IV, who founded the New Directions imprint in 1936, when he was only 22. He leased the rights and brought out "Gatsby" in his New Classics series in 1945.
Winters in Zellwood
When Laughlin died in 1997, the critic Brendan Gill declared him the greatest publisher America had ever seen. Laughlin had spent part of his childhood at Sydonie, his grandfather's 1904 winter home in Zellwood. (Now the home of Carla and Dick Durante, Sydonie was recently open for tours to benefit the Zellwood Historical Society.)
James IV was able to publish books in which he believed because of the fortune his family had forged in iron and steel in Pittsburgh, Pa. But his memoirs make clear that wealth didn't guarantee a life free from care.
"My mother didn't talk to me a great deal unless she was planning a paddy-whacking for some misdeed," he writes. "I was raised chiefly by nurses and governesses, but at least they gave me a lot of attention."
He also received attention from his grandmother Sidney Page Laughlin, whom he called Danny, and from William Edwards, the Scottish-born estate manager of both Sydonie and the Pirie estate nearby.
"Danny really cared for Edwards, the estate superintendent," Laughlin wrote in his memoir "Byways."
"I loved him too; he was my best friend. ... He treated me as if I were grown-up, even asking my opinion about some of the projects. When a big alligator fell into the well-pit, he brought me to see how the men roped it and got it out; no one wanted to kill it so it was taken over to the Apopka marsh and dumped there."
Tales of Scotland
Young James especially loved Edwards' tales of Scotland. The boy's absorption in such tales fit well with one of his father's fantasies —that the family heritage was Scottish.
"Because most of the Irish in Pittsburgh were workmen or servants, there was a fiction that we were Scots," James IV wrote. "My father ordered a complete Scottish outfit for me ... in which I enjoyed showing off on special occasions."
In fact, the founder of Jones and Laughlin Steel, James H. Laughlin — the father of Sydonie's builder — was born in 1806, in County Down, Ireland.
This hard-working Presbyterian came first to Baltimore and moved in 1829 to Pittsburgh, where he owned a provision store with his brother, Alexander, in the 1830s. Later he became an influential banker before he ventured into the manufacturing of iron and steel.
His great-grandson, the publisher James IV, would later describe his ancestors in a passage of poetry. Heading west from Baltimore, they sold goods to the farmers in Pennsylvania, he wrote.
"God-fearing people, Presbyterians, / Shrewd at deals, saving their money / To make more of it. Their luck was / The Civil War, selling rails / For the Northern armies as they moved / South. In the next generation / They sold pipe for the oil fields / In Texas, structural steel for / Skyscrapers, sheet for Detroit."
With his appreciation of history, it makes sense that James Laughlin IV appreciated "The Great Gatsby." Perhaps, like many of us, he thrilled to its last page and its words about America's past and the dark fields of the republic rolling on under the night. Those fields rolled west, the direction his ancestors had gone.
His publishing success would not have been possible "without the industry of my ancestors," he wrote in 1992 — "I bless them with every breath."