Sunday, April 19, 2009

This Day in Literary History (Tommy Hitchcock, Hero Pilot/Athlete Who Inspired Fitzgerald Characters, Dies in Plane Crash)

April 19, 1944—Finally unable to escape the risks he had successfully surmounted to date in his life, Tommy Hitchcock, a WWI pilot who went on to revolutionize American polo playing in the 1920s, died in England while testing a plane during World War II.

The only athlete from the Golden Age of Sports who also played at a high level throughout the 1930s, Hitchcock has, unlike contemporaries such as Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, and Bill Tilden, been somewhat forgotten today, except for the literary immortality conferred on him by Long Island friend F. Scott Fitzgerald, who based not one but two characters on him in his most accomplished novels, The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night.

In Tender Is the Night, the aviator Tommy Barban, with whom Nicole Diver has an affair, is a composite of Hitchcock, Edouard Jozan (a young French pilot who had a fling with Zelda Fitzgerald), and, to a lesser extent, even Ernest Hemingway.

Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby is a good deal closer to Hitchcock; both men play polo, come from old money, and convey an impression of physical power held in reserve. 

Yet in real life, Fitzgerald seems to have held considerably more affection for Hitchcock than he did toward Buchanan, who, besides carrying on an affair and going off half-cocked about the latest racist nonsense of the day, is depicted along with wife Daisy, in the novel’s final, memorably scathing judgment, as “careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they made."

This demonstrates one of the novelist’s methods of creating character: while many of his figures are drawn from life, his works are not strictly roman a clefs (literally, “novels with a key”), for the imperatives of plot and theme have transformed them into something more than slightly altered reality.

Had Fitzgerald encountered Hitchcock when he was younger, as he had the Princeton athlete Hobey Baker, he would very likely have somewhat romanticized him in his fiction as much as he did in real life. 

Fitzgerald preferred Hitchcock to Charles Lindbergh as a pilot and, according to Andrew Turnbull’s biography of the writer, also admired the fact that Hitchcock, after returning home as a war hero, chose to enter Harvard as a lowly freshman.

Nevertheless, by the time the novelist met the North Shore athlete-aristocrat, money had begun to take on far more ambiguity than it had in his younger days. 

For all his admiration of Hitchcock and fascination with his class, Fitzgerald was also coming to see the potential for destruction in the mix they represented of money and power.

Hitchcock made such a powerful impression during his life that he inspired film as well as literary characters. 

If you like to watch vintage films on TCM, try to catch a 1928 silent called The Smart Set, starring William Haines. The protagonist of this comedy, Tommy Van Buren, is a rich polo player hailing from Long Island. 

It’s a safe bet that only one out of a thousand people nowadays would know the original inspiration for this movie playboy, but audiences of the Twenties—especially if they followed the sports or society pages—would know exactly who was being lampooned.

If your only impression of this real-life polo player were derived from that film, or even Fitzgerald, you would come away with the impression that Hitchcock was immoral and/or idiotic. In fact, he was as good at his sport as nearly anyone who ever played it, and he was a hero of not one but two wars. 

As one of the “careless people,” Buchanan avoided responsibility; Hitchcock sought it out—and paid for it with his life.

One of his WWII buddies, director William A. Wellman, depicted Hitchcock, among other friends, in one of his final films, Lafayette Escadrille (1958). The role was played by Jody McCrea, the recently deceased son of actor Joel McCrea.

While still only a teenager, Hitchcock tried to leave prep school and fight in the American army. Rebuffed as underage, he used family connections to Theodore Roosevelt and enlisted in the Lafayette Escadrille.

He had better luck than T.R.’s youngest son Quentin, a fellow teenage aviator, in surviving: Shot down over enemy lines, wounded, then held for six months, he managed to jump from a train transporting prisoners to another facility, endured eight days of hunger and cold, and eventually made his way to Switzerland. 

When the war was over, he’d been credited with two “kills,” won the Croix de guerre, and achieved a reputation for fearlessness that would last through the rest of his life.

You can sense that fearlessness in the photo accompanying this blog. Hitchcock, on the left, is displaying his aggressive, go-for-broke style in a polo match. His opponent doesn’t stand a chance.

(One aspect of Hitchcock’s game would not survive today: He’d come at an opponent at a sharp angle, bearing down hard—then pull up short. Nowadays, such a tactic would be deemed intimation, and outlawed.)

Polo skills were as much a family inheritance as the money that allowed Hitchcock to attend St. Paul’s prep school and Harvard. 

I don’t think you’ll find three members of the same family in most athletic hall of fames, yet that was the case in the Museum of Polo and Hall of Fame, where not only Hitchcock but also his father, Tommy Hitchcock Sr. and his mother, Louisa (one of the first American women to play the game) were both admitted.

“Ten-Goal Tommy,” the sportswriters christened the younger Hitchcock, for achieving the highest rating possible in his sport’s handicapping system—18 times in his 22-year career as an active player.

In terms of dominance, he was the Babe Ruth of his sport—and achieved a distinction beyond The Babe: having the sense enough to retire before his skills declined, still at the top of his game.

After such a career of celebrity (enhanced even further by his marriage to a member of the Mellon clan), you couldn’t blame Hitchcock if he found working on Wall Street a bit dull. So he spiced it up in ways that some (like his passengers) might not have wished: he often piloted a seaplane to his job in lower Manhattan with Lehman Brothers, sometimes in frightening weather.

The day after Pearl Harbor, Hitchcock tried to enlist again. Nothing doing, he was told. The first time, nearly a quarter-century before, he was too young; now he was too old.

Yet, like Little Prince author Antoine de-Saint Exupery (whom I discussed last week), Hitchcock a way to contribute: in this case, becoming instrumental, albeit as a largely deskbound major in Air Intelligence, in developing the P-51 B Mustang, a fighter-bomber so effective that, when Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering saw it overhead in the skies over Berlin, he knew “that the jig was up.”

Hitchcock’s desire to get into the nitty-gritty of flight detail—to experience for himself what this plane was like—led to his death. Engineers attached to his group were assigned to figure out why the Mustang wasn’t coming out of bombing dives. 

Hitchcock, testing out his engineers’ theory, crashed near Salisbury, England.

Last year, at a used-book sale, I delayed picking up a copy of a biography of Hitchcock by Nelson W. Aldrich, Tommy Hitchcock: An American Hero. I’m sorry I didn’t buy it when I had the chance: the career of Hitchcock represents a world and a character decidedly foreign to the way we live now.

For those like me who can’t get enough of The Great Gatsby, Hitchcock’s life casts a unique spotlight on how Fitzgerald created a unique blend of character, environment, and theme. The marvel is that Tommy Hitchcock is an even more fascinating personality than Tom Buchanan.

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