The Lost Summer: a personal memoir of F. Scott Fitzgerald
by Tony Buttitta


This book is for MONICA who inspired it MALCOLM COWLEY who discovered it BRYAN FORBES who revived it and MELINA for her faith

Foreword

To chance upon a little-known book and to be able to pluck it from obscurity, is to me akin to the joy an archaeologist must feel when he unlocks the secrets of a tomb. From early childhood when I cycled once a day to forage for books in West Ham Public Library, or else haunted a Dickensian second-hand bookshop for halfpenny bargains, the printed word has always obsessed me. Perhaps because I have been fortunate enough to make a living as a writer, the biographies, autobiographies and journals of other writers hold a particular fascination: possibly it stems from a need to be assured that we all share the same common nightmares—that wrestling with the blank sheet of paper when the sap of creation does not flow; the conviction that at any given moment it will dry up for ever. Writing is one of the loneliest of the arts; unlike the actor we have no immediate audience and must wait many long months, even years on occasion, for the splatter of applause to reach our ears, if indeed we are not damned by total neglect.

So, many years ago, when I was filming in Hollywood, I chanced upon a slim volume by an author hitherto unknown to me. The title was After the Good Gay Times (alas, today, open to false interpretation). The jacket blurb informed me it was written by a one-time bookseller named Tony Buttitta and that it was concerned with a little-known episode in the tragic life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. As with so many other struggling writers of my generation, to me Fitzgerald epitomised the glory and the injustice of a writer’s lot, for the young are always attracted to heroic failures. I read Tony Buttitta’s memoir at a single sitting and immediately attempted to secure the film rights, for the story he told with such sympathy and candour suggested a screenplay to me.

For reasons that time has obscured, nothing came of my attempts to obtain the rights. It could be that I found no takers amongst the illiterates who then controlled the major studios, for few of them betrayed any evidence that they were capable of comprehending anything in print other than a contract criminally weighted in their favour.

Although I kept a copy of the book on my shelves and from time to time took it down to reread, another decade passed before I finally made contact with the author. It so happened that, out of the blue, he wrote me a generous fan letter concerning a novel I had written, and when replying I enquired as to the fate of his own book. He wrote back that the only American edition had long been out of print. In the interim, of course, a veritable Scott Fitzgerald cottage industry had sprung up. At his death, Fitzgerald was a spent force, virtually written off by publishers and public alike. The dapper, ambitious young man with the soft, almost feminine, features had disintegrated into the middle-aged alcoholic. The early vision of paradise had never been regained and he died struggling to record a world that had rejected him, for his last efforts were directed at charting a Hollywood indifferent to his unique talents. Despite passages of great beauty and perception, the unfinished The Last Tycoon is the work of an outsider, the perennial romantic staring through the window at a party he was not invited to.

Now his reputation rests securely on The Great Gatsby, and a dozen of the best short stories in the language. Yet there is a blanket of sadness that covers his posthumous fame as surely as the alcoholic fog that obscured so much of his life. Like a swarm of hungry bees the biographers have descended on his meagre store of nectar and plundered it. His life has been laid bare as few writers’ before: we now know every intimate and frequently sordid detail of his rise and fall—he lies before us like a ruined city where any scavenger may wander. Every year new volumes appear, many merely rehashing old myths, adding little to our understanding of the writer but concentrating on the ashes of the man. Recently he received the final accolade of our impoverished age, the television mini-series. Of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.

He first wrote from the desperation of love, for he wished to lay a tribute at the feet of the girl of his dreams: lacking money and position, it was the only gift he had to offer in order to win her hand, and from the very beginning he committed himself to the production of masterpieces. In the event he produced, in Edmund Wilson’s words, “one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published,” and married the girl. Together, they first enraptured and then destroyed each other, becoming in the process the chief exponents of what was called The Jazz Age. Life, for a time, was an almost continuous party. They were the principal guests, playing their roles with a theatrical innocence, cherishing the promises that life held out in seemingly inexhaustible quantities. They even made preparations for when the party would end: Fitzgerald set a deadline of age thirty for his own suicide, periodically advancing the date to fifty—a year he failed to reach.

To me the beauty of Tony Buttitta’s memoir, which I am privileged to introduce to a wider audience under a less ambiguous title, is that he illuminates some of the dark corners of Fitzgerald’s tortured life—his remembrance of things past reads like a novel that his principal character might well have written. It is a book about love and loyalty wrapped around a man who was ultimately denied both; a man who constantly sought the bluebird of happiness, and brought about his self-destruction in the quest.

It is always dangerous to make claims in advance, but I would be less than honest if I did not admit that my deep affection and admiration for Mr. Buttita’s compelling book leads me to believe it is worthy of revival. It is a modest work, written by a true writer, without affectation and pretensions, and to my mind it answers many of the questions that Fitzgerald’s more vaunted biographers left unsolved. In the first place it has not been cobbled together, second-hand, from press-cuttings but forged from a personal relationship. Therein lies its uniqueness.

Mr. Buttitta describes the sad happenings of that lost summer in Asheville with the skill of a born storyteller, and I find it curious that this watershed episode in Fitzgerald’s life is barely touched upon in the major biographies, and virtually ignored in most of the other accounts. Fitzgerald took the young bookseller completely into his confidence, baring his soul to a listener who fortunately also had the ability to record their relationship with compassion and a total lack of censure. During those dog days in Asheville, Fitzgerald embarked with an owl and a pussycat on his own turbulent sea. The two women who form the core of this story—one a whore, the other an impressionable, neurotic young girl—gave him a degree of human love, and the author, as Fitzgerald’s Boswell, gave him friendship. So for a few brief months these widely diverse lives touched, and then passed on.

To my mind this little-known book reveals more of Fitzgerald than many of the weighty tomes that regularly arrive on our shelves and merely regurgitate familiar material. What Mr. Buttitta encapsulates better than most are the authentic reasons behind the triumph and the tragedy of Fitzgerald’s life. The truth was that although he tried hard to die, he tried harder still to succeed. The sad irony is that it was only after death that his true worth was discovered. It is an all too-familiar epitaph for the artist in our midst whom we so shamefully neglect. I often remind myself, as I read the auction reports of yet another record being established, that Van Gogh never sold a single painting in his own lifetime.

It is my hope that Mr. Buttitta, now aged seventy-nine, will yet enjoy a just measure of reflected glory.

Bryan Forbes, 1987

Preface

The basic source material for this memoir is notes I jotted down at the time on the flyleaves of about sixty books, many of which are still in my library. They comprise a kind of log, but serve the same purpose as a diary. Mostly in Fitzgerald’s words, the notes are a record of visits, events, incidents, encounters, phone calls that took place between Fitzgerald, myself, and a few others. These notes have been supplemented by articles and reviews I wrote then and later, by letters, and by the Con-tempo file (1931-1033), which Fitzgerald often looked at when he dropped by the Intimate Bookshop in the George Vanderbilt Hotel.

In spite of the years that have passed, I had no difficulty reproducing his monologues from notes I had scribbled in the books. As a reporter I rarely had taken more than a few lead words; they enabled me to quote dialogue and conversations verbatim in stories and interviews. That Asheville summer had remained in my visual and verbal memory as a key period of my life in the thirties. On reading the notes I drifted back and became completely immersed in the events. Fitzgerald’s vital personality, his bold and spirited voice, his words and sweeping gestures, along with the memories, thoughts, and emotions they evoked—all this came back as if I were watching an old movie; as if he had reappeared and was in my presence. It was then that I realized what Proust meant when he said, “In reminiscence my experiences do not fade, they grow more vivid, more beautiful or more ugly, but above all, more significant.”

Among the sixty volumes in which I jotted the notes are Living Authors, The American Caravan, The Story of San Michele, Nijinsky, New Russia’s Primer, Ten Days That Shook the World, Tridon’s Psychoanalysis, Cheiro’s Language of the Hand, Isadora Duncan’s My Life, Henderson’s Bernard Shaw: Playboy and Prophet, Van de Veide’s Ideal Marriage, Forsythe’s Redder than the Rose, and books by Louis Adamic, Sherwood Anderson, Peter Arno, John Peale Bishop, Thomas Boyd, Fielding Burke, James Branch Cabell, Erskine Caldwell, E. E. Cummings, John Dos Passos, Theodore Dreiser, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ben Hecht, Joseph Hergesheimer, Langston Hughes, James Joyce, Rockwell Kent, Ring Lardner, Frieda Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, Percy Marks, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck, Carl Van Vechten, Thornton Wilder, Edmund Wilson, and Thomas Wolfe. Those are the authors I was then reading.

In the account of some events in this memoir, there are a few discrepancies to be noted with the accounts of others. This is particularly true with regard to the “Rosemary” affair. The young woman involved was disguised as “Gloria Dart” in a diary kept by Mrs. Laura Guthrie Hearne, Fitzgerald’s part-time secretary that summer. A portion of Mrs. Hearne’s diary appeared in Esquire (December 1964). I was mentioned a few times in that portion, but my name was purposely misspelled by editor Arnold Gingrich as another form of disguise.

Mrs. Hearne’s account, which I take to be accurate, doesn’t agree at all points with what Fitzgerald told me. He always spoke to me of the young woman as “Rosemary.” I never met her, though I learned by accident that he wasn’t using her right name (which I also learned). He wasn’t merely protecting her, for he felt that she resembled the young actress Rosemary in Tender Is the Night. With his novelist’s passion for making copy out of all experience, Fitzgerald hadn’t lied to me about certain events, but had used his poetic imagination and his sense of the dramatic to embroider the details, oh, just a little and to make the story, as he felt, more true than life. So far as possible I have told that story in his own words.

That summer in Asheville everything had crashed about him. He was a physical, emotional, and financial bankrupt. He smoked and drank steadily, but ate very little; he took pills to sleep a few hours, and he could scarcely write what he thought was a decent line. He was a stranger in Asheville and suffered from loneliness in spite of his saying that a writer must have solitude to practice his craft. His visits to our bookshop kept him from feeling completely out of touch with the world of books and writers, and I think they cheered him during some of his loneliest times. When he talked to me I often had the impression that he was not speaking of himself, but of someone else, and that I served him not only as a companion but also as a sounding board for his ideas. But he listened, too; he was interested in learning from me how a young writer survived during the Depression. He also had a passion for teaching. Eleven years older than I was, he seemed eager to guide me into writing honest fiction rather than to see me become a press agent or take to thinking in terms of proletarian platitudes.

Trying to guide me was an expression of his faith in youthful talent, its spirit and ideals. Fitzgerald honestly believed that it was impossible to write without hope and that the young possessed hope in abundance. Having experienced “the intensity of art,” he felt that nothing else that happened to him could ever mean so much as the sense of being completely absorbed in the creative process. Once he showed me a clipping in which Rockwell Kent, the artist, author, and outspoken radical, was quoted as saying, “I think that the ideals of youth are fine, clear and unencumbered, and that the real art of living consists in keeping alive the conscience and sense of values that we once had when we were young.” Fitzgerald practiced that real art not only in his work but also to some extent in his life, disorderly as it was. He kept alive to the end the conscience and values of his youth.

Acknowledgments

I owe a great debt to Mrs. Laura Guthrie Hearne, with whom I have been corresponding and sharing memories of Fitzgerald for more than a decade, and to Lottie, whose name I have changed; to the late William C. Weber of Scribners and Harrison Smith of The Saturday Review of Literature; and to Dr. William H. Davis, now practicing in southern California. I am indebted to Malcolm Cowley for his critical and factual assistance in preparing this manuscript for publication; to Professor Matthew J. Bruccoli, editor of the Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual, for critical and factual suggestions; to Mrs. Ellen Prescott Davidson for editorial and helpful advice during its preparation; and to Monica Hannasch for her suggestions and encouragement while writing the book.

Biographies and studies of Fitzgerald and other books which proved invaluable for background material include works by Arthur Mizener, H. D. Piper, Robert Sklar, and the late Andrew Turnbull, besides The Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, Exile’s Return by Malcolm Cowley, The Great Tradition by Granville Hicks, The Hollow Men by Michael Gold, The Decline of the West by Oswald Spengler, The American Jitters by Edmund Wilson, The Creative Process edited by Brewster Ghiselin, The Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, and The Crack-up, the Fitzgerald collection edited by Edmund Wilson. The Fitzgerald letters, edited by Turnbull, were helpful in rounding out episodes and evoking Fitzgerald’s speech, which often sounded as though he were dictating to a secretary.

I am grateful to the following for additional information, assistance, and encouragement: Millen Brand, Milena and V. J. Buttitta, Carvel Collins, Jonathan Daniels, Charles W. Dibbell, Lawrence Gellert, Arnold Gingrich, Paul Green, Granville Hicks, William Hogan, Hobe Morrison, Anna and Peter Neagoe, Luther Nichols, Eleanor Pink-ham, Frances Steloff, Ruth and John Vassos, Frances Winwar, Ken Wong, and Alan D. Williams of The Viking Press.


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