Shortly after our meeting, Fitzgerald told me he had an idea that might make an article for one of the newspapers I wrote for. It was an assessment of the social changes that had taken place in the generations since World War I. He had tried writing it as a magazine piece and given up. I had thought of asking him for an interview, but hesitated because of his past experiences with newsmen. His horror of interviews was known to me; reporters and columnists, annoyed by his early cocky manner and remarks, rarely missed the chance to slap him down—and he knew they had the last word.
When I saw him again he failed to mention the story, and I didn’t refer to it. He had dropped by the bookshop and found Remy, whom he had not met before. I was at the symphony office in Grove Arcade. When he learned that Remy was an artist, he became enthusiastic, telling her that art was Zelda’s lifelong passion, although she had been sidetracked by writing and ballet, but that she was now back at her easel. The year before there had been an exhibition of her paintings in New York; it had stirred more attention than he had with his last book.
I was typing a publicity release when he walked in the bare office on the ground floor of the Arcade. A book was under his arm; I recognized it by the cover drawing—Ben Hecht’s 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. He waited outside while I finished, pacing the wide, deserted corridors that echoed with every step he took. He was surprised to see only a half-dozen tenants in the building; most of the shops and offices were vacant or hadn’t been completed for occupancy. The Arcade was a white elephant and it was typical of the time; the symphony had been donated space there as a cultural organization to help give the impression that prosperity was just around the corner.
The massive edifice squatted on a bulldozed hill. I made a point of telling Fitzgerald that Wolfe had lamented that the hill had lost its graceful contours in the name of progress. The Arcade was one of the two Boom structures—the other being Grove Park Inn—which were built as memorials by E. W. Grove, the patent medicine Chill Tonic King. It had been started on a grander scale than Old Gant in Hendersonville; construction had halted at the fourth floor, making it the worst local calamity of the Crash, except for a couple of sensational suicides. The Crash struck Asheville early, with the collapse of Luke Lea’s banking empire, before it reached the proportions of a national catastrophe.
I told Fitzgerald of a land transaction that had become a political scandal, but an amusing one. A short time before land speculation went into a tailspin, a politician bought a plot on the outskirts of Asheville for about five thousands dollars. During the Boom, the property changed hands a dozen times, while its price doubled and tripled with every sale. Its last purchaser was the city; it was to be used as a new cemetery for the fast-growing little metropolis. The first burial was a fiasco—the plot was solid rock. At the time it was referred to as “Mayor Green’s Graveyard.”
“You didn’t tell me your wife was such a pretty brunette. I’d say she looks like Merle Oberon or Hedy Lamarr,” Fitzgerald said as we strolled out of the square-block building into the open spaces that faced the Battery Park Hotel.
“She knows about books and writers. Paints too. You’re a lucky feller.” He sized me up as though wondering what such a talented beauty saw in one of my short stature and Mediterranean cast— although he was supposed to admire dark hair and eyes over his own light coloring. “She wants to do a silhouette. I told her I’d be glad to pose.”
“Sure you want to bother?”
“I’ve posed before. It’s no bother. Where did she get such a pretty French name?”
“She’s Irish-French from New Orleans.”
That day Fitzgerald was off everything except black coffee and cigarettes. He lit one as we walked to the Battery Park coffee shop and when we sat down he ordered three cups of black coffee. I now noticed that he was edgy and restless; he sighed, fingered the book, and flitted from one thought to another. I wondered why he had come to see me.
“You’re probably thinking, what am I doing at Grove Park Inn with the national debt on my back? I’m the American success story. I was born a poor boy and made it in the rich man’s world. I’m still a peasant deep down, but I have acquired extravagant tastes. I’ve been corrupted. I’m hopelessly committed to living beyond my means. A kind of compulsion.”
“Of course,” I mumbled, and sipped my coffee.
“I’m thinking of Highland Hospital for Zelda. It’s a couple of miles from the Inn. Know it?”
“I’ll have my friend Bill Davis check it.”
“Who’s Bill Davis?”
“A med student at Chapel Hill.”
“I told you I don’t want you to go spreading that I’m here,” he said sharply. “Not even as far as Chapel Hill.”
“Bill lives here. He’s on vacation. His father’s in advertising.”
The last remark would have been better left unsaid. There was no one like an advertising man to spread news. But it seemed I had reminded him of something and he quickly took it up.
“Advertising—our last frontier. A racket like writing for pictures. I tried it for six months. Big business corrals writers and artists in elegant stables called agencies to glamorize liver pills, deodorants, purgatives, depilatories, and halitosis. They grab the best space to show off their nauseating products and make outlandish promises to a gullible public. Stories and articles are sandwiched between the ads, kicked column by column, page by page, toward the back. You’re learning publicity. If you have the knack, your future’s in advertising. Read by the millions. The writing of our time.”
He then asked if I was serious about writing.
“I think so.”
“Then remember that it settles for nothing less than the best. There’s no reason for wanting to write unless you’re ready to deliver your guts. And you must do it now—while you have youth and vitality. Are you sure?” As I didn’t reply, he went on. “Publicity and advertising are sure-fire, like my slick stories. But if you have to write, you know what I am saying. Otherwise you can do better—a hell of a lot better—with this dubious stuff.
“A writer must reflect his world, interpret life, dig out the bare truth. He must have talent and conscience. If he has talent and no conscience, he’s a journalist and writes that kind of book. If he has neither, he’s a hack. He becomes an advertising man or a press agent. A glorified pimp on the expense account. A serious writer needs a viewpoint of his own—not that of his employer. In a word—character. A rare commodity. Today young people think they can write because they have a story to tell. But it takes more. One also needs a colorful style, besides a point of view. I worked hard to polish my style. Writing itself came easy. Words too. Have you tried poetry?”
“A blues, jazzy kind.”
“Makes no difference so long as it comes like a dream from your subconscious. The closing paragraph of one of my best stories is such a song.” He paused and spoke in a deep voice I hadn’t heard before— the actor’s voice. “Long ago, long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.”
I repeated the refrain and said, “That’s a perfect blues.”
“It’s sentimental. Yes. There was a time when every word struck deep.” His voice thickened, he turned his face away. “That something was the love I first brought to Zelda. She refused it. I couldn’t afford her. When she said yes, I loved her, but not with that love. It was gone and never came back.”
His nostalgic refrain reminded me of a Joyce poem that Faulkner had recited one night after having taken a drop too many of Carolina corn. It was “Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba,” from his collection Pomes Penyeach. I remembered only its refrain and that was enough. I thought it might bolster Fitzgerald’s morale to learn that Joyce had also indulged in a sentimental moment.
I told him about the poem and then recited the lines: “No more will the wild wind that passes / Return, no more return.” It delighted him; he repeated the lines in the same voice he had spoken his own. He excitedly asked whether I had the poem and he could borrow it. I told him it was in my collection and he could have it.
It occurred to me, as he went on, that he hadn’t yet said why he had come. The monologue that follows I have reconstructed as faithfully as I could from notes I made on the flyleaves of Eric Dorn and 1001 Afternoons in Chicago. The warm, confident tone of his voice still sounds in my ears after all these years.
“My Dollar Woman finds you unusual—Napoleon line, vitality, intuition, and all. I want to see some of your writing. I wasn’t trying to discourage you. I’m a man of many moods. I’ve thought of chucking it all myself—for the fast buck. I have a cheap streak and could have done it. But I’m too much of a moralist to be satisfied by merely entertaining. I’m so desperate now I would try it—except I’ve used up everything. I was no seaman like Conrad or London, no doctor like Maugham or Chekhov, no reporter like Ben Hecht or John Reed. I never did anything but live the life I wrote about. Some thought it was gay. I made it seem that way, which is despair turned inside out. Call it a law of style.
“Even if I weren’t used up, I don’t have to tell you that the trend has changed. This rash of bogus novels about peasants, Holy Roller preachers, millhands, union organizers, strikes—that’s the thing. It’s due to the Depression. We have lost confidence in our senseless laissez-faire economic system. Though I’ve read Marx, Engels, and company, the workers’ world is outside my experience. I was stuck with my own crashes and tried to salvage what I could for my writing. But those bonehead critics have jumped on the proletarian bandwagon. They pile praise on the barnyard boys and dismissed my last two books as trivial and passe.”
“You know, fashions in novels change, like everything—if not as often—but you’re not passe,” I said, wondering if that was what he was getting at. “You’re writing about an era that you named and know more about than any other American writer. It’s your world as Yoknapatawpha is Faulkner’s. You’re both literary historians. Most of this other stuff’s topical journalism. It’ll soon be kicking around musty second-hand bookstores.”
But he needed more than assurance, Fitzgerald said, slamming the book on the table. It was a new source of material. He had taken the book from the shop, hoping to find the germ of an idea to stir his tired imagination. Hecht had been a young poet and budding writer with Eric Dorn; since exiling himself in Hollywood, as Fitzgerald had done in Europe, Hecht had gone the way of princely extravagances and had come down to the standard product, except for the arty films he was making with their mutual friend Charlie MacArthur. But Hecht, as a newspaperman who worked on a Chicago journal with MacArthur, Carl Sandburg, and Sherwood Anderson, had gathered enough material to last a lifetime.
“It’s too late to be a newspaperman, but I was on the tail of an idea last week when I walked into the office of the Tryon weekly. There was a tall, pleasant chap with a young Sandburg face who seemed to be running the works. I pumped him about it and said nothing would please me more than to settle down on such a paper. He knew who I was—we had chatted over coffee at Misseldine’s. He gave me a disdainful look as if I were another dude who belonged to the Flynn’s flower-and-dog-show crowd.
“At first I resented the look. Then I thought he was probably right. I saw myself, like the rest of my kind, as a soft, flabby, spoiled creature who had never done a day’s physical labor. Once I tried, and years ago I thought of going to sea for a couple of years—to make a man of myself. But it’s too late for that now. I can’t get away from myself or my duty.” He held me with his eyes. “I think you might help me.”
“Probably nothing will come of it, but it’s worth a try. From what you told me about your Lottie, the way she operates, her society extras, the poodle pimps, and the men she entertains at the Inn and other places—there might be a story for me. I want to meet her and one of her bored beauties.”
“Okay, but I can’t promise the beauties.”
“Leave that to me. When?”
“Tomorrow—if I see her.”
He nodded. “Call me. I’d like to see her in a not-too-conspicuous spot.”
“Leave that to me—the Intimate Bookshop.”
“Is that what you call your little bordello?”
“It’s on the window.”
“A most appropiate name—for the occasion.”
An exit speech, and I was about to rise, but he now spoke about his Memphis beauty. Her name was Rosemary. She had read Tender Is the Night when it first came out, and had identified with the character of the young actress, Rosemary Hoyt, who falls in love with Dr. Diver and later has a brief affair with him. Fitzgerald had smiled when she told him this, and said there might be hundreds of Rosemarys who felt the same way. She asked how many had actually met him—as she and he had, by chance.
“I told her none. It was all she needed to seize on our meeting as the hand of fate. I tried to convince her that it was a coincidence. I couldn’t. I tried and couldn’t. I can’t explain it. The more I thought about it, the less sure I was myself. Years ago I wrote a short story with a character in it named Lois Moran. Later in Hollywood I met a young actress by that name. I was quite taken by her—her beauty and vitality. Zelda noticed it. Lois Moran was the living model for Rosemary Hoyt.”
I murmured something, to show that I was listening. But I was truly engrossed.
“Rosemary gave me her key. It’s in my pocket.” He made a helpless gesture. “She could be another Madame Bovary with the same wild expectations. I have so little left to give, let alone passion. That takesas much out of me as pain and misery. I keep stalling, hoping for I don’t know what, but I’m afraid I want her too. The way I haven’t . . . since Zelda became my invalid.
“I met her sister Myra. Smaller, epicene, inhibited. She has internal trouble and seems the nervous-breakdown type. She got her brother-in-law to let Rosemary come along to Asheville and spend part of the summer with her. I think Myra resents me already— caught wind of this thing with Rosemary. She’s envious of her. She could wire that fine husband in Memphis. All I need is a messy triangle.”
Sober, his eyes shone with a cold blue clarity; he wasn’t so much talking to me as he was following interior paths.
“I think about Zelda. Those days when I was in love with a dazzling light—I thought she was a goddess. Triumphant, proud, fearless. Going at top speed in the gayest worlds we could find. She reached and took all the things life put before her until she collapsed and could reach no more. Now she’s a pathetic figure who reads her Bible. Broken, humiliated, her radiant eyes with no luster, her fiery hair a frazzled mop. Sometimes her old spirit hovers about her, sometimes it’s on leave. I hold back my tears or she’ll write Scottie to look after me.”
There were no tears when he rose. We walked out of the hotel into the late afternoon sun. I invited him to come along to rehearsal if he was in a mood for Bach or Beethoven.
“I don’t care for music. I’ll drop off Hecht and pick up Joyce,” he said, gesturing with the book. We shook hands. His palm was moist and shaky. “About Lottie, don’t make it tomorrow. I may run over to the Flynns’ for a day or two. I was to see Rosemary tonight. Feeling as I do—” He smiled unhappily, leaving another question. He started to go, hesitated. “The damnable thing is that I know this all sounds like a drowning sailor reaching for a floating oar.”