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


15

Still, Fitzgerald must have heard what I said about interviewing Fielding Burke, and must have remembered, too, that he had mentioned his “generations” idea as a possible story for my newspaper. He phoned in the end of August and apologized for not having done something about it sooner, considering that the interview might bring me a little cash. He blamed it not on a bad memory or his lack of concern for my fortunes, but on his poor physical condition and the disturbing nature of the Rosemary affair.

The affair was over, he assured me, but he and Rosemary were now caught up in its aftereffects. She kept writing him pitiful love letters which were more upsetting than flattering to him. He wrote her that she was better off with her husband, but found he couldn’t dissuade her from believing that the separation was temporary. Rosemary again tried to take her life. This time, however, he conceded that her attempts would all be failures. Instead of worrying about her, he mourned his loss of her on lonely nights when too much beer led to a crying jag.

His soft voice brightened when he asked whether Lottie was in town—and had I seen her? It was why he had dropped by the bookshop; it had slipped his mind after joining the discussion with my friends. I hadn’t seen her for about a week, and that meant she was out of town. He asked if I believed her claim that she had read Gatsby three times. I said that she had never lied to me. He then invited me to his suite—by that time he was back at Grove Park Inn—for lunch and the interview.

When I stepped off the elevator I found him watting at his door to greet me. This struck me as a bit odd; he had never done it before. He was dressed in fashionable sports clothes and the room was tidy, withan air of formality about him and his quarters. His manner was courteous, cordial instead of friendly, and with almost none of the old intimacy. Though under control, he appeared to be keyed up like an actor about to make his entrance on opening night. Puzzled by the change, I dropped my habitual informality and turned into a reporter. He was quick to notice this and spoke without meeting my eyes, so that he seemed all the more distant.

“This is probably my first interview in eight years,” he said, indicating a chair for me to sit in. “As you may know, I took an awful licking from some writers. This could be the real reason why I didn’t have you sooner for it.”

“Yes, I—” I didn’t finish the sentence as I sat down to face him. I wanted to say that he didn’t have to fear me, he could be more relaxed about it. After all, I was a friend and on his side.

There must have been a cache of beer bottles in his bedroom. He disappeared there for a moment and emerged with a foaming glass. He asked me if I would join him and wasn’t surprised when I said I would have some with lunch. That reminded him to call for a menu; he picked up the phone, spoke to room service, and lit a cigarette.

With the cigarette in one hand and the glass in the other, taking slow, thoughtful steps, Fitzgerald paced the big light-filled room. He drank and smoked, gestured with the graceful movements of a dancer, and held forth on his favorite subject—writers. He spoke with a swagger of confidence and ease, as if his ideas flowed from an inexhaustible fountain. When he noticed me scribbling on an envelope, he stopped abruptly.

“Don’t quote me directly,” he said in a formal tone that he maintained through most of the visit. “I write better than I talk.”

I slipped the envelope and the pencil into my pocket. Perhaps he was being modest, but that August day I took him at his word, and for some reason I began to feel in awe of him as I had never felt before—and had never felt of, Faulkner, Anderson, Dreiser, Lewis, or any of the other writers I had met or interviewed.

The glass empty, he vanished into the other room, refilled it, and came back to hold forth on Nietzsche, Henri Bergson, Thorstein Veblen, and Henry George, with a reference here and there to Marx and Spengler. Then he settled down to the novelists again, those of his era, and acknowledged their influence on him, if not always praising their work. It seemed, at times, that he was trying out ideas he might later use in print.

He kept on drinking. His actor’s voice rose abruptly and soundedscornful as he launched into comments on the then fashionable, but to him shoddy stuff—proletarian literature. He was combative about it and sure of himself, saying that it was contrived, derivative of European masters, insincere and unimaginative, and a waste of material.

He stopped when the waiter brought the menus. Handing one of them to me, he told the smiling Negro to bring him his usual light lunch. After the waiter left, Fitzgerald said the Negro was a musician, and then dashed back into the other room for a quick refill. I noticed his first trips, but lost count after seven or eight.

“We Americans are wasting our literary resources as fast as everything else,” he said. He lit another cigarette and told me of an article he had written on the subject some years ago for The Bookman. In that piece he had placed most of the blame on Sherwood Anderson. While others called Anderson an inarticulate writer bursting with ideas, Fitzgerald said he was one of our finest prose stylists with no ideas at all. “Anderson’s crime was influencing some young writers to turn out mediocre, half-baked books, without the style or feeling to give them depth and life.”

He sat down for a moment on the couch facing me and spoke of writers he still admired: Flaubert, Anatole France, Dickens, Thackeray, Shaw, and Conrad—all masters of their craft. Americans who had left their mark on him included Frank Norris, Mark Twain, Henry James, Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, and Mencken. Some helped to shape his iconoclastic thinking, others his skeptical and pessimistic outlook.

After another quick refill he bounced back, paced before me, and spoke about his contemporaries. Three had figured prominently in his life and work. First there was John Peale Bishop, whom he had met as a freshman at Princeton. Bishop introduced him to the Elizabethans and the English Romantic poets, Keats among them. These led Fitzgerald to the French Symbolists, who were to stimulate the poetic imagery of his work.

“It was probably the poet in us,” he said, “that held us together despite our personal differences.”

Then he spoke of the second, Edmund Wilson, whom he described as an intellect “packed with cerebral energy.” He said that Wilson tried writing novels, but his mind was of the analytic, critical kind. When they met at Princeton, Fitzgerald claimed that he was more of a rebel than Wilson was, though Wilson had since turned to economics and political history. In his recent book, The American Jitters, he had written about the collapse of capitalism.

“Our depression has led Bunny into the communist camp. He’s now in the Soviet Union and seems favorably impressed. For a long time I’ve thought of Bunny as my intellectual conscience.” (When I asked Wilson some years later what Fitzgerald could have meant by this, he replied in part, “I think that my role as his intellectual conscience has consisted mainly in lending and suggesting books to him to read from time to time.”)

Fitzgerald emptied his glass and went to open another bottle. When he came back, he spoke about the third—Ernest Hemingway. I later learned that they had met in Paris in 1925, shortly after Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby; it was a time for him of “a thousand parties and no work.” Hemingway, three years his junior, had abandoned journalism to make it as a writer. His stories were appearing in little magazines and limited avant-garde editions while Fitzgerald’s were earning him thousands in The Saturday Evening Post.

“It was a frightful inducement to write for money and I had good reason.” He stopped to open the door for the waiter. “I thought you were my secretary,” he said. “She should be here in a minute.”

While the waiter set up a table, Fitzgerald turned back to me. “She’s bringing a snapshot she took of me in front of her garage. The only photo I have. I hope it will do.”

“Something candid to go with the interview.”

“It’s candid, and I’m standing on my own two feet,” he said, without smiling at his own joke. He returned to his earlier subject when the waiter left us, saying he had buried his dream of becoming “the best damned writer” because of necessity and his facility for cheapness. “But they were honest stories, even if they had the look of formula magazine stuff.”

He said he did all he could to help Hemingway because of his unqualified respect for Hemingway’s talent as a dedicated writer. In that Bookman piece he mentioned, Fitzgerald had spoken of his friend as the new hope of American letters. He had steered him to Max Perkins at Scribners, knowing he would be in good hands. Admiring him as a friend and artist, he considered Hemingway his “artistic conscience.” But Hemingway’s success with The Sun Also Rises and A Farewell to Arms had brought a change in their friendship, he remarked in a personal aside. He admitted Hemingway was a genius, but said that he himself was “a plodder” in his serious work; and though he sounded as anxious to maintain his top position as Hemingway had no doubt been anxious to replace him, Fitzgerald reminded me that he had been silent as a serious writer during the nine years between The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night.

“You have to be careful whom you do favors for,” he said, going for another glass of beer. The buzzer sounded, he went to open the door. “Come in, dear. I thought it was the waiter with our lunch. I take it you’ve eaten.”

“Yes, I have.”

I rose to greet his ladylike secretary, whom I remembered as his Dollar Woman. She sat near me and, for the moment, refused a drink. Fitzgerald went on speaking about Hemingway, saying he had remained loyal and devoted to him, though Ernest had criticized him personally and professionally. It seemed to me that Fitzgerald worshiped Hemingway for qualities he lacked in himself and had endowed him with, as one does with a hero or beloved woman.

He was getting another beer when the waiter rolled in our lunch on a dolly. I sat before a roast-beef sandwich and a salad; Fitzgerald his usual bowl of soup with crackers. His Dollar Woman sat off to the side; she had come to take dictation from him and also to bring me the photo. While Fitzgerald nibbled the crackers and sipped a few spoonsful of soup, he spoke of the six generations that had appeared since World War I. I jotted down a key word here and there, mostly listened, and barely touched my food for fear of missing something he was saying.

“Yes, we were brought up that way,” his Dollar Woman interrupted, as he described her prewar generation.

Sharply turning on her, he said, “Don’t interrupt me or try to put words in my mouth. I’ve given them a lot of thought. Part of your great charm is your silence.”

She sat back and wasn’t heard from again while I was there. When he finished, she handed me the snapshot, and I left the Inn dazed by the three-hour monologue. I had sat there like a statue and not asked a single question. My head was full of ideas and impressions, but I didn’t have more than fifty key words on the envelope. They were ample. Two days later I wrote the piece; it appeared in the Raleigh News and Observer, September 1, 1935. Here is a summary:

Fitzgerald’s six generations are Pre-War, War, Post-War, Boom, Shock, and Hard Times. He made a point of saying that the first three centered around the war and its effects, the others around the booming twenties and the Depression of the thirties; and he mentioned a book that best typified each generation and its era.

He said that the Pre-War generation was strongly attached to the Victorian tradition and, that, although it fancied itself modern, it was inhibited and basically moralistic in ideas and behavior. The novel he chose to best describe it was H. G. Wells’s Ann Veronica.

Of the War generation, he declared that plenty had been said about it, but that the best was Hemingway’s remark, “The words duty, honor, and courage lost all reality, and only things seemed to have any dignity . . . names of places, mountains, and rivers.” A Farewell to Arms was his choice for the lost generation book. (The exact words in the novel are “Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage . . . were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, and the names of rivers.”)

The Post-War generation was a disrupted one, weak and inclined to seek guidance from the older groups. He found no vitality in this generation and said it was best described by such novels as Percy Marks’s The Plastic Age and Flaming Youth, which Samuel Hopkins Adams wrote under the name of Warner Fabian.

The Boom generation was “brassy, metallic, and its ethics were unsympathetic. The best quality was a scorn of weakness, its worst a sort of inhumanity.” It was conditioned by parental optimism that boomed, “Maybe in five years I’ll own the company!” Peter Arno’s Hullabaloo was the book for this generation.

Fitzgerald said that the Shock generation was similar to that of the war and the generation that grew up under defeat in the South after the Civil War: “The blow gave it dignity.” It was prematurely old, daring, and unhappy, but he said it would prove itself more worthy of respect than the two preceding generations. Faulkner’s Pylon was his choice as a morbid representation of the Shock era.

The youngest generation was that of Hard Times. He thought the less that parents tried to influence their children, the more effective they could be in making them believe in a few old truths such as honor, duty, courage, honesty. In his opinion, the novel that best captured the Depression generation had yet to be written.

I later learned that he had told his Dollar Woman I would receive fifty dollars for this story. Probably he was trying to impress her or boost his own morale in those troubled days when he was getting two hundred dollars instead of four thousand for his stories. I never told him, but I confided to her that I was paid at space rates—ten cents an inch—and got the grand sum of three dollars for the interview. Or, at least, that is what she wrote in her diary, which appeared in Esquire.

Reading the interview some twenty years later, I felt that it wasbare and dull. That day’s enchantment eluded me. None of his glowing words had gotten into it. Perhaps it was his warning me not to quote him—it froze up my memory. Yet his performance before me as a member of the press still remains fixed in my mind as the one-man show of an Olympian. And, to this day, I think that effect was what he wanted to produce.


Next Chapter 16

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