Days passed before I arranged for Fitzgerald and Lottie to meet. He had spent most of the time in bed at the Oak Hall, a country-style hotel overlooking the main street of Tryon, where he had written what might be a salable story. Writing it had been a mild dissipation; he had kept at it when he should have been resting, but he felt he had to lift himself out of a rut. He was sending it to his agent with the usual plea for an advance on what it might bring.
We were alone in the bookshop. Freshly shaved and trimmed, dressed casually, and carrying a cane for the first time, Scott had the look of a Prince Charming. His manner was sober and calm, with no trace of dissipation or his old gloom. It was an inexplicable change, as though he and not Zelda were the schizophrenic. His attitude toward Lottie also changed; he approached his meeting with her as if she were a society woman he was taking to a ball game.
He returned with the Joyce book, saying it had been his best companion during the week. As he looked over my collection, I told him that Bill Davis had reported favorably on Highland Hospital. It was managed by Dr. Robert Carroll, a highly respected clinician who believed that toxic elements caused by deficiencies from improper diet and other factors could play a vital part in the origin of nervous diseases, and what he had learned he tried to use in their cure.
“Bill warned me against several other private hospitals and so-called retreats. He said patients were starved, tied and beaten, given countless cold showers, and their mouths taped to gag their screams—at fifty to a hundred dollars a week.”
“Murderers and racketeers,” he said angrily. “Are there no laws to protect the mentally ill?”
A blond, doll-like woman walked in from the Arcade, bringing with her the warm lacquer scent of the beauty shop. I took the three books she carried and went to the rental file for her card. While she chose from a shelf bearing such titles as Stolen Rapture, House of Incest, and Forbidden Fruit, Fitzgerald studied a frame near the desk containing letters from Faulkner, Shaw, O’Neill, Dos Passos, Anderson, Pound, Upton Sinclair, Norman Douglas, Sinclair Lewis, Mencken, and George Jean Nathan.
“I have a notion that small bookshops will become as obsolete as silent pictures because of book clubs and department-store competition,” he said after my customer left with three sexy thrillers.
“I don’t intend to make a career of it,” I said.
“What’s this magazine you edited?” he asked, turning back to the frame.
“Contempo. A little review published in Chapel Hill.”
“A student-lit publication?”
I explained that five of us students had started it to stir up a little excitement on the country-clublike campus, but it wasn’t a college publication—though enemies of the university said it was. I opened a drawer, dug out an old promotional sheet with comments by writers, some of whose letters were in the frame, and handed it to him. I told him it had lasted from 1931 through 1933, and that it had lived up to its reputation of being, as Carl Sandburg called it, “a bully, quarrelsome review.” And for all its big names, we didn’t pay for contributions.
“A cuckoo magazine.”
“Cuckoo?” I repeated. “The Little Review, Broom, The Double Dealer, and transition were all little magazines.”
“A writer has to be cuckoo to give his stuff away,” he explained. “Some of them were avant-garde, some were chichi or sheer nonsense.”
“They published the first stuff by Joyce and your friends Hemingway and Stein.”
“Ernest had to slave away at newspaper hacking to write those first stories. I suppose I was rather snooty in the early twenties. And lucky too—got good prices after This Side of Paradise. I couldn’t write them fast enough.” He glanced at the sheet and gave me a dubious look. “Did Joyce really say, ’By way of literary immortality I read Con-tempo,’ or is this a fake? His letter’s not in that frame.”
“Joyce wrote that letter to Milton Abernethy. The two of us ran the magazine after the other three left.” He was silent, and I went on. “One went back to his father’s barbershop in Newark. One is bumming in the South and writing his adventures for The New Republic. And the other went to Moscow with a Russian dictionary and a tractor manual under his arm to become a mechanic and said he was a tennis champ there.”
Fitzgerald nodded and turned a page. “You ran a lot of poets. Jeffers, Crane, Kreymborg, Aiken, Joyce, Williams, Stevens, Pound, Aragon, Rilke, Faulkner, and Essenin, Isadora’s husband. Why not Ernest and your Asheville genius?”
“They never answered us. Nor did you,” I said. “You three Scribners boys shunned us. But we mailed you copies on and off just the same.”
“You remembered I was still in the Big League.”
“You certainly are.”
“Those years I didn’t exist as a serious writer. I was buried in Europe, grinding out Post stories to pay for Zelda’s hospital bills. And trying to make headway with Tender.” He glanced back at the sheet. “Sinclair Lewis: ’You’re not on your way to success until the newspapers call you nuts, cranks and liars.’ Did they?”
“Our Scottsboro number riled Southern editors as far as Montgomery.” I watched his face, as that was Zelda’s hometown and once the capital of the Confederacy. He let it pass. The Scottsboro case was the first nationally publicized—and ultimately successful—challenge to Southern justice as it applied to black people; it involved eight youths condemned to death for the alleged rape of two white female tramps. “Some Carolina editors blistered us with words and called for the governor to take over the magazine, claiming it was a university publication. Actually, they were gunning for Dr. Graham, the university president.”
I was referring to Frank Porter Graham, the liberal, North Carolina-born head of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Dr. Graham had been bucking the power trust and the textile and tobacco barons of the state, trying to get appropriations through the legislature. He had also written a piece for Contempo on how the Depression affected education. The issues were still very close to me and I made what amounted to a speech on them. He appeared amused and interested.
“You sound radical. Maybe a Communist.”
“If that’s all it takes, count me in.”
“I’ve been a radical as long as I can remember,” he said. “A Marxist socialist since I started thinking. Wells and Shaw nudged me along those days. But I’m no joiner.”
“I’m no card carrier either.”
“My friend Bunny Wilson and several others have gone all the way to communism. I got pretty close, but my writer’s instinct held me back. I can’t afford it. It would take time from my writing. It’s all I can manage to save myself and take care of Zelda and Scottie. Do you have a copy of your magazine I can see?”
“Several.” I went back to the desk. “You’ll see it wasn’t all radical protest and social significance. We were literary, but not ivory tower. Contempo was a Depression baby. I took the name from a book of drawings by John Vassos, the illustrator and industrial designer. Now he’s helping big business to glamorize its products.”
I handed him three copies of the tabloid-sized review: the issues devoted to Faulkner, to Bernard Shaw, and the Malcolm Cowley-Gorham Munson controversy. The last concerned the founding of Secession, a little magazine published in France in the early twenties. The Shaw issue featured a letter he had written me about his authorized biographer, Dr. Archibald Henderson, a Chapel Hill math professor. The Faulkner number carried his first poems published in almost a decade, making it a collector’s item at the time. Fitzgerald glanced at the latter and read a poem on the front page. It was about youth.
“All good writers start as poets,” he said. “Rimbaud wrote that poets are both the invalids and prophets of their age.”
“Faulkner’s first book was poetry: The Marble Faun. Privately printed and a rare item today. Most of the edition was junked.”
“My first sale was to Poet Lore. Then a story to Smart Set. I switched to fiction to make the big time.”
“Poetry goes begging. You could’ve sent us a poem.”
“I just had one in The New Yorker—the first I wrote in over ten years.” He was sitting on the edge of the desk, smoking. “I must have tossed out your letter without reading it or it never got to me. Did Contempo pay its way?”
“We managed on milk, a hunk of cheese, and day-old bread—two loaves for the price of one.”
“You and your pretty wife?”
“We were married a few months before the bank holiday. She had a dollar a day to squander on three meals—sometimes we had a dinner guest. Now with my publicity job she has almost twice as-much.”
“What happened to Contempo?”
“The same as to most little magazines. Finances and internal squabbles.”
Lottie arrived at that moment and Fitzgerald jumped off the desk. He appeared charmed by her smart appearance and the vitality she radiated in the small shop. As I introduced them, she smiled and extended her hand. I noticed in her other hand a book—the copy of The Great Gatsby she had picked up the day before.
“Your friend’s cute as a bug, but I hope all writers aren’t so fussy!”
Lottie seemed highly amused. I met her two days later walking her dogs near the Arcade and we sat down on a concrete slab in the shade.
“The interview was in a bar. It was ducky. I ordered a cocktail. He said he was on his best behavior. I suppose it meant he was on the wagon. It turned out to be a wagon of beer. What’s he like when he’s on his worst?”
“Beer is his way of cutting down on hard liquor. I hope he didn’t get stinko.”
“He was navigating under his own steam and talking a blue streak when I poured him into a taxi. I’ve never heard anybody talk so sweet. Or met a man more forlorn and at loose ends. He asked for my phone number and where I lived. I told him with my two poodles, and he called me a mystery woman. I felt sorry for him.”
I gathered that Lottie was reluctant to see the interview end, although Fitzgerald told her that his secretary was waiting for him at the Inn—work that he didn’t think he was up to doing at that point.
“I had a date I couldn’t break or I’d have gone along with him.”
“He asked you?”
“Well, yes and no.” Again her amusement surfaced. “I suppose the real reason I didn’t go was someting he said.”
When he was at Princeton, Fitzgerald told her, he hadn’t chased after waitresses, chippies, dime-store clerks, or gone weekend-whoring with his chums to the big town. Lottie asked what he had done instead, but he didn’t say. He told her that much as he wanted to join them, he had a horror of venereal disease; he might even have taken a chance with one of the working girls, but never with a professional like her—Lottie.
“I had to laugh. I laughed in his face. Then I wised him up plenty about amateurs. That they carry more of those unmentionables than we do. Ordinary girls are careless. We have to stay healthy and keep our looks to stay in business. And I told him I only went out with lawyers, doctors, and men who read The Wall Street Journal. But if he wanted a clean bill of health, I could get him one. And without batting his baby-blue eyes, you know what he said?—’I’d like to see it.’ ”
It was out at last. She added triumphantly, “You could’ve knocked me over with a feather!”
But there was more—something I wouldn’t have expected from Lottie, who called her own shots. She had that very morning taken a complete physical, including a Wasserman.
“And I’m going to show him the report, too!”
I suggested that he might have asked to see it simply out of a writer’s curiosity, because he hoped to do a story about a social aspect of her profession.
“He told me he tried to write about a girl like me in France, but gave up because it had to be treated with kid gloves—at least, by him. I stupidly asked how you became a writer. He said you learn by experience, like everything else, and you never become anything by wishing and praying. He said writing was a miserable and lonesome profession. I had an idea it was glamorous. I’m not so sure now.” She was thoughtful. “He said I was lucky to become a member of the human race at five. He didn’t until he was fifteen and it had cost him plenty. What did he mean?”
It struck me that the tables were turned: Lottie was now going after Fitzgerald’s story.
I again noticed the copy of Gatsby and asked her if she had opened the book.
“I’ve read it all,” she replied very seriously. “Yes, I really did!”