I didn’t see or hear from him for about ten days. He telephoned me one morning to say that he was back in town, after an unexpected trip North; that everything had happened while he was away, and that he was feeling the worse for it. He invited me over to his new hotel, the Battery Park, told me his room number, and warned me that he was registered as Anthony Blaine. The name was a combination of Anthony Patch and Amory Blaine, heroes of his two early novels and fictional portraits of himself. At the moment, he was more like the doomed Patch than the eager and effervescent Blaine.
Compared with Grove Park Inn, the hotel was of the commercial kind like one of the Statler or Hilton chain. He had a rather small room with English fox-hunt prints on the walls and appeared out of place in it. The setting seemed to emphasize his pallor and low spirits; he was drinking and his hands trembled, while his mind raced on turbulently. He spoke with an increasing intensity and in an apocalyptic vein, mingling references to worldwide disaster and his personal fate as though one grew out of the other.
“I have a hunch—a sixth sense—about the way things are going in this mutable world,” I recall his saying, in the manner of a trained actor. “You might call me a barometer. Our civilization is doomed. It may not survive another decade or two. The war brought on the newly rich and an extravagant era of excesses and middle-class vulgarities, probably the most vulgar of all the gilded ages.
“The Boom spawned the Bust, bringing in its wake misery, economic chaos, and a plague on everything spiritual. I see no future in either prayer or science—where is the spirit in science? God knows there’s no future in capitalism’s rotten profit system, and I have no faith in the future of my kind in the supposedly classless society. We’re finished, done for, doomed.”
Although I realized he meant everything he was saying, there was a double edge to it. This was more than Weltschmerz. I waited and he got to the point. It was over with Rosemary—it was finished for good this time. But he was overcome by a sense of loss, shame, and self-hatred for having let her go. She had loved him and risked everything, while he had simply drifted along with her. Yes, she had ruined it all with that call, yet he had let her go and left her to pick up the pieces of a shattered marriage.
He mourned her and was filled with remorse. Well, he was a coward, he told me. Which was to say, there were things in himself and situations he couldn’t cope with. It was nothing new, though; he had behaved that way on other important occasions in his life. He had learned to live with this incapacity, as he called it. He had tried to balance it with certain willful acts—acts that proved more foolhardy than courageous. But the world was full of cowards, he said, without trying to console himself. History was run on that basis. That, and stupidity.
He was pacing from one window to the other in the small room, his speech and movements flowing in a rhythm that came from long practice at dictating to secretaries. He paused before one of the lifeless foxhunt prints, staring at it without seeing it, and turned back to me.
“Doom. One final smash. No tears. We must not try to stop it. This is the natural law. Birth, flowering, and decline. The curve of personal and world history.” As he spoke he gave his wrist a deft turn, drawing a curve with his lighted cigarette. “This is history. Historical perspective. The rise and fall of leaders, world powers, cultures, and civilizations. We Americans can control the destiny of the world, yet we are helpless. We have no workable economic plan or mature culture to save us from destruction.”
He brooded a moment and returned to Rosemary. While he was away, Fitzgerald said, he had kept in touch with his secretary; she had told him of Rosemary’s desperate calls along the way to Memphis. She kept saying she loved him, and then dashed off passionate letters to him. The morning Scott got back he received one saying she had tried to kill herself with an overdose of pills soon after reaching home. Fortunately she was rushed to the hospital and saved.
There was no way to reach her except through her doctor and Fitzgerald couldn’t be sure she would get a message from him. He had sent her a tender wire, speaking of his love for her and how much she had meant to him. That was followed by a letter in a more restrained tone, reminding her of their duty to those whom they loved prior to their meeting. Also that his present situation was hopeless. So hopeless that he was unworthy of her love and youth, and that he could serve no purpose whatsoever in her life.
There was a short silence while Fitzgerald went to the highboy for another drink. As the time passed, his manner had undergone a change. His gestures became jerky. His bright eyes dulled and looked incipiently menacing, his voice coarsened. Although he gradually lost his actor’s poise and delivery, his thoughts were as volatile as ever. He veered away abruptly from the subject of Rosemary, pacing the small room and expounding his ideas with an urgency that seemed to be insisting on his fundamental worth, as though he were digging back, so to speak, to permanent values.
Oswald Spengler and Karl Marx were the only modern thinkers who had any meaning today, he declared. Marx had helped to form his own class-consciousness and influenced some of his best writing, while Spengler’s Decline of the West, stressing upper-class attitudes and the power of money in contemporary culture, had deepened his romantic skepticism. He had started reading Spengler in 1927, and he called Decline his “bed book.”
“I’m still under its spell,” he said. “Probably I shall never get over it.”
He remembered being interviewed by a New York reporter some years before who couldn’t believe that the spokesman and legendary figure of the irresponsibly gay Jazz Age had turned pessimist in so short a time. Fitzgerald snorted. He had given the fellow a piece of his mind, pointing out that his early novels were steeped in skepticism and open to despair—the touchstone of youth, quick to an affinity with Dostoevski (as shortly a generation saw itself in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men”).
“It wasn’t Spengler who introduced me to this outlook, but Mencken in his early essays. They had a hell of an impact on me. Some of his ideas found their way into The Beautiful and Damned. But it’s Spengler’s skepticism that sticks with me as the logical philosophical position of our time. A philosopher who stands on the shoulders of Nietzsche—whose ideas I first met in Mencken—and Nietzsche on the shoulders of Goethe. Goethe—”
Suddenly he crossed the room toward me, pulling a letter from his pocket. He fumbled with it, unfolding it, saying something about the comment I had made on the difference between his handwriting and Faulkner’s. I understood immediately that the letter was from Rosemary. He spoke of her attempted suicide, and he speculated on the possibility that she might try again and succeed. He seemed to be asking me, without putting it into words, to examine her handwriting.
I took the letter and studied the formation of the letters. The handwriting showed signs of being erratic and somewhat unbalanced, but it was on the whole, I thought, too vital and earthbound to indicate self-destruction.
“How do you know?” he asked hoarsely. He sat down close to me and gazed at me with troubled eyes. “I thought so myself, but I can’t be sure. Are you?”
“I don’t know enough to be that sure,” I answered. “I know more about hands. I’m learning handwriting. They’re related but hands tell us more.”
Fitzgerald was studying his own hands. They were pale as usual and shaky; he tried to control them and cursed under his breath. I turned to the letter for another look. On the last page I noticed a name that wasn’t Rosemary’s. Fitzgerald was talking about palmistry, that he believed in it, how his Dollar Woman had given him an intelligent reading, and that he never tired of having his hands read. They were open before me—an invitation.
But I was interested in the signature on the letter. I pointed to the name and looked at him with a puzzled smile. He grimaced and snatched it from me, rose, and went to the highboy. He told me to forget what I saw, made himself another drink, and was silent for a long moment.
He had called her Rosemary, he finally said, not to protect her, but because her youthful spirit and beauty had reminded him of the character in Tender Is the Night and the young Hollywood actress he had used as the model for the fictional Rosemary. But that wasn’t all. He pointed out that her given name was similar to that of a principal character in another of his novels; the two women had nothing in common, reinforcing his disinclination to call “Rosemary” by her own name.
“Do you by any chance know this young woman?” “No.”
“Good.” He was silent again. “It probably appealed to my writer’s instinct to name her after one of my characters. The one she most resembled,” he said with a lordly gesture. “Although most of what I’ve told you is fact, I did take liberties. The sort I take when I turn a personal experience into fiction. I was telling you what I may some day get a chapter out of. Or a story. I didn’t intend to deceive you. There’s a decided kinship between fiction and reality as a situation takes shape in the writing. …”
Fitzgerald was now drunk. He wavered and slumped in a chair before me and rubbed his trembling, well-shaped hands. I glanced from him to the small room and asked him why he was there instead of at the Inn. He said he couldn’t go there, at least not for a day or two. It was a question of money and too many memories. Moreover, he needed to pull himself together, wherever he was, before he could do any writing.
“My heart’s dead, now that she’s gone. She saved me for a while. I found something of my youth with her, and some of my old vitality. There seemed to be a future for me. At times I knew it was only a mirage, but there were moments when it was radiantly real. Now that’s all behind me. Youth, vitality, and something of a future. I’ve been in the dumps before; it’s a hard uphill road. But depression becomes deeper as the years pass and the uphill pull gets harder. Probably I’m getting ready for the end.”
He was quiet for a long time; I said nothing. I remember my saying nothing because of the hateful look he suddenly gave me.
“Christ, how can you stand me!”
I sat back. My silence and apparent indifference seemed to increase his hostility toward me. In fact, I didn’t know how to handle this situation any more than those in life from which he had begged off.
He grimaced, looking sideways at me, then rose unsteadily and lunged toward the highboy. A bottle fell to the carpeted floor, a glass crashed at his feet. I jumped up and started toward him; he motioned me away. I stood there, weary and uncomfortable, quite aware that he was on his way to a violent drunk.
It was something I didn’t care to stick around for. I moved toward the door again. Now he came after me. He took me by the arm and forced me back into the chair. Then he sat down stiffly opposite me and thrust forward his trembling big hands.
“Go on, you bastard!” he said in his meanest tone. “Tell me the worst!”
For that time I managed to change the subject.