When I was in college, I dated a man named David Whiting—an odd duck who seemed to live in an F. Scott Fitzgerald fantasy world. A couple of years later, he was found dead in actress Sarah Miles’ motel room during the filming of a Burt Reynolds movie.
His death sparked a huge scandal, because Ms. Miles was married, and tabloids even accused Burt Reynolds of murder. Friends suspected suicide or an overdose. But the forensic evidence wasn’t conclusive. The coroner finally ruled it an accident.
But I knew things about David most people didn’t—he once said I was the only person who really knew him—and I’m pretty sure I know what happened that night.
For decades, I’d mulled over the story, unsure of how to tell it. But when I was in England promoting my first novel, Food of Love, I came across Sarah Miles’ autobiography in a used bookstore, read the chapters about David, and the seeds of a novel began to grow.
David had been a true “ladies’ man”: he had no male friends and collected gorgeous, wealthy girlfriends the way Carrie Bradshaw collected Manolos. He wasn’t wildly handsome, and his phoniness bordered on the comical, but somehow he always ended up with some supermodel or movie star on his arm.
He made it clear to me from the beginning that I wasn’t A-list enough for girlfriend material. We didn’t have the term “friends with benefits” in those days, but that would have described our relationship. I dated him mostly because I found him hilarious. Every date was a piece of performance art.
Because I wasn’t emotionally into him, I found his fabulist lies and way of sneaking into my room and rearranging things or leaving odd tokens was funny. I hadn’t yet seen the classic film “Gaslight” and wasn’t aware how terrifying “gaslighting” can be.
It wasn’t until I read Sarah Miles’ book that I realized how David hooked his prey. He made himself indispensable—taking care of everything from getting the best table at trendy restaurants to financial, career and even medical advice.
Then he would start “gaslighting” making, the women believe they were crazy or incompetent and unable to function without him. When they’d try to break away, he’d use the secret weapon of most abusers: self-pity. He’d even threaten suicide. (Which is why his death is still often called a suicide, although he only had trace amounts of drugs in his system.)
The characters in The Gatsby Game are totally fictional, and I’m not sure what Ms. Miles would make of the character of Delia Kent, the movie star who befriends—then is almost destroyed by—the Fitzgerald-obsessed con man I call Alistair Milborne. I added a smart-mouthed nanny who first falls for Alistair, then hates him, and finally forgives. I call her “Nicky Conway” as an homage to Nick Carroway, the detached narrator of Fitzgerald’s classic novel, The Great Gatsby—Alistair’s obsession.
Although it’s Alistair’s story, it’s also Nicky’s—the story of a woman who fights to make her own way in the world and ultimately triumphs, finding real love along the way.
Anne R. Allen is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and spent twenty-five years in the theater–acting and directing–before taking up fiction writing. She is the former artistic director of the Patio Playhouse in Escondido, CA and now lives on the Central Coast of California. She has a popular blog she shares with NYT bestselling author Ruth Harris.