If you live in a northern town or city, you will see few private swimming pools. Private pools are for people in Hollywood, we used to think.
That may have changed in our backwater in the last fifteen or twenty years. According to several websites, the accuracy of which I don’t vouch for, there are 10.4 million private pools in the U.S., and 40 percent are in California and Florida.
Private pools have not caught on in flyover country, even with global warming. But my friend Cassandra has gone insane about her neighbors’ swimming pool, on the patio of which she expects Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin to break out singing and dancing. She claims that the young pool owners are “tacky nouveau riche riffraff.”
I did guffaw at her nouveau idiom. Indeed, I haven’t heard the phrase nouveau riche since I taught at a fancy private school. The more sophisticated, experienced teachers criticized the students’ parents’ nouveau riche life-style, of which I was oblivious. And that was the first time I heard the phrase outside of a Henry James novel.
But the nouveau riche – whoever they may be – have occupied our backwater. According to my friend, the neighbors’ pool parties are so Dionysian that Jay Gatsby’s wild parties seem tame. They play their music so loudly that the foundations of all the houses in the neighborhood shake. For fun my friend looks up city ordinances about pools. And I must say, the pool parties are obnoxious.
My experience with pool parties is strictly cinematic and literary. I vaguely remember pool party scenes in movies set in Hollywood. I can’t remember the names of any of these films, so perhaps I read these scenes in some novel. Anyway, glamorous aspiring actors and actresses drink cocktails and mingle charmingly with the well-known guests, hoping to meet the pool owner – a director or producer.
And so I began to wonder: What happens at pool parties in literature? Well, mostly drinking. In John Cheever’s well-known short story, “The Swimmer,” which was made into an excellent film with Burt Lancaster in 1968, Neddy Merrill attends a pool party. After drinking a lot of gin, he begins a journey swimming through all the neighborhood pools, planning eventually to circle back home. Along the way he crashes pool parties and meets interesting, difficult people.
Vivid and suburban, Cheever’s writing hooks you from the first sentence. (You can read the whole story at the Library of America website.)
It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, “I drank too much last night.” You might have heard it whispered by the parishioners leaving church, heard it from the lips of the priest himself, struggling with his cassock in the vestiarium, heard it from the golf links and the tennis courts, heard it from the wildlife preserve where the Audubon group was suffering from a terrible hangover. “I drank too much,” said Donald Westerhazy. “We all drank too much,” said Lucinda Merrill. “It must have been the wine,” said Helen Westerhazy. “I drank too much of that claret.”
This was at the edge of the Westerhazy’s pool. … The sun was hot. Neddy Merrill sat by the green water, one hand in it, one around a glass of gin.
In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic, The Great Gatsby, which was adapted as a movie in 2013, starring Leonard DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan, the pool is part of lonely nouveau riche Gatsby’s ostentatious life-style. He entertains people he barely knows at his wild parties. He himself rarely uses the pool. There is eventually a shooting of a swimmer in the pool.
In Chapter 3, the narrator, Nick Carraway, observes Gatsby’s parties from his nearby house; finally he is invited to a party. Here is the exquisite first paragraph of this chapter, which does not feature the pool but gives you a sense of Fitzgerald’s exquisite style.
There was music from my neighbor’s house through the summer nights. In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars. At high tide in the afternoon I watched his guests diving from the tower of his raft, or taking the sun on the hot sand of his beach while his two motorboats slit the waters of the Sound, drawing aquaplanes over cataracts of foam. On weekends his Rolls-Royce became an omnibus, bearing parties to and from the city between nine in the morning and long past midnight, while his station wagon scampered like a brisk yellow bug to meet all trains. And on Mondays eight servants, including an extra gardener, toiled all day with mops and scrubbing-brushes and hammers and garden-shears, repairing the ravages of the night before.
Is it time to reread Gatsby? I had forgotten how remarkable Fitzgerald is.
What are your favorite pool parties in literature or the movies? Inquiring minds want to know.
6 thoughts on “Charm and Nuisance: The Trouble with Pool Parties”
I’ve never been to a pool party. I would have forgotten the one in Great Gatsby you mention and have read Cheever and didn’t remember them. In my obscenely rich neighbors’ houses (or so they would have others believe) there are private pools. Last night I heard a lot of noise and aggressive voices in some sport. It’s called having a good time. Spare me is my response.
It’s so hard to have a good time! Gatsby wasn’t enjoying himself much, though perhaps in Anthony Powell’s novels the witty, complicated characters enjoy hard-partying (except when some cruel woman dumps sugar on Widmerpool’s head).
There are no pool parties in Anthony Powell’s novels though. My favourite cinematic pool party is in The Limey, where Terence Stamp’s vengeance-seeking criminal gatecrashes a pool party and throws a man to his (unnoticed) death.
I haven’t read it yet, but an early version of The Great Gatsby, called Trimalchio, was published a few years ago.
I have never heard of The Limey: any movie with Terence Stamp and Peter Fonda sounds good to me, despite the harrowing pool party scene. I did read Trimalchio, which I thought very good, though didn’t compare it to Gatsby. Even unedited Fitzgerald is brilliant.
Cut to the opening scene of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, in which William Holden is seen floating face down in a California pool (channeling his inner Gatsby)? A victim of Hollywood. Pool noir?
Yes, pool noir! I LOVE your phrase. I have never seen Sunset Boulevard, and now I must.