‘General Pershing’ graces Great Gatsby Inaugural Ball

Though set in the Roaring Twenties, the restless spirit born of World War I reverberates in the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s epic novel: The Great Gatsby.

Narrator Nick Carraway, for example, first recognizes Jay Gatsby as an officer who served in his division during the Great War. And it is revealed by Jordan that Gatsby became obsessed with Daisy Buchanan while she was doing volunteer work with officers who were heading overseas.

Knowing these important connections, Paul Ervin of the Twenties tribute group Dardanella reached out to Chris Isleib of the United States World War I Centennial Commission. The correspondence which followed opened the doors of Dardanella’s Great Gatsby Presidential Inaugural Ball to representatives of the non-profit organization. Much to everyone’s delight, the call was ultimately answered by actor David Shuey who appeared at the ball in the persona of General Pershing.

Actor David Shuey (second from left) in A photo-op with General Pershing at the Great Gatsby Presidential Inaugural Ball. (Anthony C. Hayes)
A photo-op with General Pershing at the Great Gatsby Presidential Inaugural Ball. (Anthony C. Hayes)

The Great Gatsby Presidential Inaugural Ball – a non-partisan Roaring Twenties event – was held last Friday night at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The sold-out event featured period-correct costumes, Prohibition-era cocktails, and Jazz Age dancing with music by three different bands which were spelled throughout the night by classic gramophone recordings.

The year 2017 marks the 100th anniversary of America’s involvement in World War I. April 6th is the actual date, when Congress declared war against Germany and its allies. A new World War I Memorial – which will honor the 4.7 million American men and women who served in the war – is being developed by the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission. The memorial will be located in Pershing Park – a 2-acre site in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, right next door to the White House.

Of the 4.7 million American men and women who served in the war, 2 million Americans were deployed overseas. Some 116,516 of these men and women never made it home. More Americans were lost in World War I than in the Vietnam War and the Korean War combined.

The Baltimore Post-Examiner had interviewed David Shuey by phone back in 2015, for a piece about the World War I Memorial; so catching up with him in person at the Great Gatsby Ball was a timely treat.

“Of course I am General John Pershing – Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces – and I’m delighted to be here at the Gatsby Ball, surrounded by all of these handsome young men who may have been part of the Expeditionary Forces. We’re here to represent the WWI Centennial Commission and enjoy the culture which was the Roaring Twenties”, said Shuey to an enthusiastic crowd.

Almost on cue, three young men approached Shuey and asked for a picture with the famous general.

David Shuey as General Pershing. (Susan Shuey)
David Shuey as General John J. Pershing. (Susan Shuey)

“You know, General Pershing was a veritable rock star in the 1920s. He was one of the most honored and recognizable men in America”, explained Shuey. “We had just saved civilization from the German menace – the doughboys made that happen. Europe was mired in war, and the breakout came when the doughboys arrived and turned the tide. So I’m delighted to be here. I’m delighted to be anywhere at 156 years old.”

Stepping out of character for a moment, Shuey told us that his presence at the Great Gatsby Ball meant being away from his family at a crucial time. Shuey’s 27-year-old son – a naval aviator – is about to deploy to the Middle East aboard the USS George H.W. Bush.

“As a flyer, he’ll be in harm’s way, so of course my wife and I are concerned. We’re trying to spend as much time with him as we can before he deploys.”

Shuey’s very personal aside was interrupted by another group of people seeing a perfect photo opportunity. He was then summoned to the stage to emcee a Mr & Ms Dardanella contest.

As an amateur historian, Shuey peppered the contestants with questions related to the Roaring Twenties. Some did better than others (Yes – The Jazz Singer was the very first talking picture), though a question about “Murderers Row” elicited answers from several quarters about the Saint Valentines Day Massacre – not the 1927 New York Yankees.

Once the party resumed, Shuey continued to pose for pictures and answer questions about General Pershing. He also told eager listeners about the World War I Memorial. For five hours, the atmosphere was nothing short of festive, but in the shadow of a star-spangled light show, Shuey offered one sober observation.

“You know, General Pershing was not in favor of the way The Great War ended. He believed that we needed to push the Germans completely out of France and pursue them deep into their own territory. Pershing said, if we don’t do this now, we’ll be at war with them again in twenty years. He was wrong, as you know because the next war with Germany actually began nineteen years later.”

David Shuey (as General Pershing)with several hopefuls of the Ms. Dardanella contest at the Great Gatsby Presidential Inaugural Ball. (Anthony C. Hayes)
David Shuey with several hopefuls of the Ms. Dardanella contest at the Great Gatsby Presidential Inaugural Ball. (Anthony C. Hayes)