A Not-So-Great Gatsby

Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, convicted yesterday of four fraud counts in federal court, is a modern Jay Gatsby.

Stay with me here. 

While her story is not as tragic as Gatsby’s (no swimming pool involved), she is facing up to 20 years in prison and has made a Gatsby-sized splash in the news. Inspired by David Streitfeld’s essay in the New York Times, I’ve noticed all sorts of ways Elizabeth Holmes and Jay Gatsby are connected. 

Imagine a packed Venn diagram center-circle:

• Both of their businesses were wildly successful while also shrouded in mystery and rumors.

• Gatsby, a bootlegger, lied and told Daisy, his girlfriend, that he owned drug stores. Holmes “bilked” Walgreens, a U.S. drug store chain, for $140 million and was later sued by the company for failing to meet her promises.

• Both Holmes and Gatsby played in the land of new money. I mean, Silicon Valley tech billionaires are pretty much the nouveau riche celebrities of 1920’s West Egg. 

• In their heyday, everyone was talking about Holmes and Gatsby, though few people really knew them.

• Both were young when they reinvented themselves. Gatsby was 17 when he chucked “Jimmy Gatz.” Holmes was 19 when she chucked Stanford to launch her health-tech company.

• Both changed their voices and fashion to create new personas designed to appeal to the wealthy class.

• Both had…um…complicated romantic lives. 

• Both created handwritten self-improvement plans. For example, here is Gatsby’s plan: 

And here is Holmes’ similarly intense plan, entered into evidence during her trial:

Streitfeld writes, “Gatsby was practically Ms. Holmes’ brother…The parallels with Ms. Holmes extended even to Gatsby’s equally loose grasp of spelling. ‘No more smokeing or chewing,’ he admonished himself,” while Holmes’ breakfast, Streitfeld points out, was “bannanna and whey.”

• The downfall of both figures created a media circus.

• In the end, the “fake it ‘til you make it” efforts of both Gatsby and Holmes end in tragedy and hold important lessons for careful observers.

Did you follow the Theranos case? I wonder what Nick Carraway would say about all of this.

Image credits
Painting: Francis Cugat (1925), WikiMedia Commons, public domain
Elizabeth Holmes: Max Morse for TechCrunch, WikiMedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

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