Gatsby in Aiken: More about history than fiction

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News 12 at 6 o'clock / Friday, May 10, 2013

The Willcox

AIKEN, S.C. -- The Roaring '20s comes roaring back to the big screen with Friday's premiere of "The Great Gatsby." The movie is also putting an Aiken family and a local hotel back in the spotlight.

For Tommy Hitchcock and the Willcox Inn, the story is more about history than it is fiction. It was a time of extravagant parties, famous families and polo.

"The Great Gatsby" may be set in New York, but there's also a Southern connection. Aiken was known as "The Winter Colony" for wealthy families, who came here to party and to play.

In the Roaring '20s, The Willcox saw it all.

Aiken Historian Elliott Levy knows the story well. He's head of the Aiken County Museum.

"Aiken was called The Newport of the South," Levy said. "It was where the rich and powerful people came. Within a 20-mile radius of where we are right now, you had 90 percent of the power in the United States."

And as Geoff Ellis explains, The Willcox was at the center of it all.

"And it really turned into such a wonderful place where people could congregate, you know, sit around the piano and have those wonderful parties that F. Scott Fitzgerald talked about," Ellis said. "It all happened here, which is really incredible."

Ellis co-owns The Willcox with his wife, Shannon. The hotel itself dates back to 1898 and owes a debt to a well known local family -- the Hitchcocks.

"Tommy Hitchcock, who was one of the best polo players in the world, and his mother actually helped finance this building and helped finance The Willcox," Ellis said.

And there's another Gatsby connection you need to know about Hitchcock. He really did head to France to become the youngest Allied pilot in World War I and really was a world class polo player. Hitchcock became the inspiration for the fictional Tom Buchanan.

Ellis says there is a big difference in the two men.

"But he actually identified he character in the book as a villain. That was more F. Scott Fitzgerald putting that in the character. I really wanted to make that distinction because Tommy Hitchcock was such a great Southern gentleman."

Levy agrees that Fitzgerald took some liberties in transforming Hitchcock into Buchanan.

"And he knows how to treat his friends and he knows how to treat his business associates and his social contacts. He is not a bad, evil person," Levy said.

At one point in the film, one of the characters tries to tell Jay Gatsby that you can't repeat the past. His simple answer is this: "Why of course you can ..."

And so, with all of its connections, The Willcox is getting ready to repeat the past and throw another party.

"And we're doing a Great Gatsby theme, so we will have the 1920s jazz going, everybody will be in costume," Ellis said.

In other words, just like old times.

"The Great Gatsby" is in theaters everywhere on Friday. The party at the Willcox in Aiken is on Monday, and $5 per person goes to their favorite charity, The Children's Place.

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