The great harness racehorse Dan Patch had three owners during his 20-year lifetime. His first, a small town merchant from Indiana named Dan Messner, was well known locally. His third owner, a patent medicine manufacturer and marketing genius from Minneapolis named Marion Willis Savage, was known nationally, thanks to relentless advertising and promotion. But little was known about Dan Patch’s second owner, and most of what did become public was untrue.
Manley Edwin Sturges was described at the time and since as an elderly bachelor from Buffalo, a broker and a capitalist. He was not from Buffalo, he wasn’t a bachelor (although his wife was kept well out of sight), and–at fifty–he wasn’t elderly. He wasn’t a broker, but he certainly was a capitalist. He was also known as a professional gambler, which was true, although his profession went well beyond placing bets for himself. Sturges, who purchased Dan Patch for $20,000 in March 1903, was the operator of several lucrative illegal casinos in Manhattan, and it was the money earned there that gave him the bankroll to make his big buy.
Sturges’ purchase of one of the best-known athletes in America was part of an effort at personal reinvention. He was in the process of getting out of the illegal gambling business when he acquired Dan Patch and was probably personally responsible for the inaccurate stories about his background. His real back story has uncanny parallels to that of one of literature’s most famous characters.
F.Scott Fitzgerald’s title character in The Great Gatsby has been the subject of speculation for most of the 87 years since the book was published. Most literary scholars consider Jay Gatsby to be a composite character. But most also think that Fitzgerald used aspects of people he knew or knew about to construct a believable man, a criminal who tried to hide his real profession in order to be accepted by society. Several candidates have emerged over the years, but Manley Sturges, whose background most closely resembles that of Jay Gatsby of all of them, has only now been identified as a possibility. Sturges spent his young adulthood in an area similar to Gatsby’s Little Girl Bay on Lake Superior. He was believed to have contact with a Montana copper baron, like Gatsby’s Dan Cody. He was a partner in a casino with a figure a great deal like Gatsby’s mentor Meyer Wolfsheim a character previously presumed to be modeled on the gangster Arnold Rothstein. Sturges’ partner is a closer fit.
Sturges may have not been previously identified because he was a generation older than Fitzgerald and his criminal activity was gambling rather than bootlegging (liquor was not illegal during the first years of the 20th century). But Sturges and Fitzgerald had several acquaintances in common, one in particular who knew Sturges’ story well and who spent many hours with Fitzgerald during the months that Gatsby was conceived and written. Manley Sturges may be the strongest candidate yet for the title of “The Real Gatsby.”
My book is The Best There Ever Was: Dan Patch and the Dawn of the American Century. Visit danpatchbook.com.
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