Volume 74, Number 12 | July 21 - 27, 2004

Gumshoe’s ‘Gatsby’ hunt gets old

By Lincoln Anderson

Villager file photo by Charlotte O’Donnell
Private investigator Howard Comen two years ago outside 14 Jones St., where Max von Gerlach shot himself in 1939.
The South Carolina sleuth who was hunting in Greenwich Village for clues about the real-life inspiration of the titular character of “The Great Gatsby” said last week his investigation is on hold for the foreseeable future.

The New York Times serialized “The Great Gatsby” last week as “The Great Summer Read.” Howard Comen of the Comen Detective Agency in Charleston said he was unaware of that, but that his Gatsby investigation is currently inactive for lack of funds.

In June 2002 Comen came to Greenwich Village to investigate whether a Max von Gerlach, who shot himself at his girlfriend Elizabeth Mayer’s house at 14 Jones St. in a failed suicide attempt in 1939, was the basis for Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel of the roaring ’20s. By now, it’s established that von Gerlach, a veteran who owned a Queens car dealership, was probably the model for Gatsby, but Comen said there are still many more questions to unravel.

“It’s become a very strange story,” he said, noting how von Gerlach at one point gave his address as 42 Broadway, the building next to 26-32 Broadway, owned by the Rockefellers, at the time the most expensive real estate in the world. Herbert Hoover, who went on to become president and who tried to corner the Cuban sugar market, also had an office in 42 Broadway. Coincidentally, von Gerlach also spent time in Cuba, where he was involved in auto events.

“The Gerlach castle is still there in Austria,” Comen noted. “And what was he doing at 42 Broadway if he was a low-level mechanic?”

Apparently blinded from the suicide attempt, von Gerlach died in his 70s at the Mansfield Hotel in Midtown in 1954. Comen recalled of his investigation in the Village how there was always a police car on Jones St., because Mayor Bloomberg’s daughter lives on the block.

Unfortunately for him, comments Comen made in an article in the The New York Times City Section derailed his investigation. In the article, he referred to Professor Matthew Bruccoli, the U.S.’s foremost Fitzgerald scholar and the person who initiated and funded the investigation, as an “old guy,” which didn’t exactly sit well with the scholar.

“I said, ‘Here’s this old guy asking me for help on the investigation,’ ” Comen recalled. “He wouldn’t correspond with me after that. He had even asked me to come in and talk to his class — not after this.”

Most of what Comen uncovered was also reported by Herbert Kruse, the top European “Gatsby” scholar, in Hofstra’s “The F. Scott Fitzgerald Review.”

Noted Comen of Kruse, “He is also an old person — I hate to say that again.”

Lincoln Anderson

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