A day or so after Fitzgerald asked about Lottie, she appeared with her poodles at the symphony office. It was the first time I had seen her dressed in gray. That early afternoon her hair wasn’t perfectly groomed, and her usual gaiety and insouciance were missing. Sitting with her in the Arcade Coffee Shop a few minutes later, I noticed that she was tense as well as tired and preoccupied. I could only speculate on whether her loss of vivacity and good looks was due to her two- or three-week jaunt or to the night she had just spent with Fitzgerald.
As we entered the coffee shop a haughty-faced hostess tried to stop us at the door. No dogs were allowed. Lottie put on as haughty a face and announced to the air that her poodles were people. Flicking the leashes for the dogs to precede her, she marched in grandly. The hostess retreated, although she was still grumbling about Lottie to the cashier when I paid the check. We sat in a far corner, the dogs curled under the table at her feet. Having won her point, Lottie wanted no further word on that score. She was filled with concern, annoyance, and indignation—but over Fitzgerald.
“I thought your friend was cute at first. He still is, in a way, like a spoiled, naive kid,” she said after ordering coffee. “He called while I was at the Chateau. It was urgent life-and-death stuff. I had to see him. I canceled a date and went to the Inn. And you know what it was? Don’t try—you can’t guess. It reminds me of the time he asked me, without batting an eye, to show him a clean bill of health.”
She glanced around the quiet cafe—it was after the noon rush—and lowered her voice. Fitzgerald’s purpose in seeing her was to ask her if she had any connection with a rash on his body. I didn’t betray that I knew anything about it. The idea, she said, that he would think such a thing! Her voice again rose for a moment. It was an insult to her profession, her good health, and all the solid citizens she had been accommodating since the Crash.
“Well, he apologized, but he took off his shirt to show me this thing breaking out on his chest and back. The fool started scratching it. I warned him to stop or he’d spread it. Then he pulled up a trouser leg to show me where it was on his shin. I said it didn’t look like a symptom of what he was afraid of, but that he ought to see a doctor instead of worrying about it and accusing innocent women. He finally agreed. He made me a drink and sat down near me on the couch. I guess he was surprised I didn’t shy away from him. He asked me if I didn’t think it was contagious. What I don’t know, I said, never bothers me. He’d never take such a chance if I had that rash. Anyhow, I made myself comfortable.”
She told me that she had put her legs on the couch and let her pumps fall to the floor. Fitzgerald took her feet in his hands and admired them. They were trim and well shaped, he said, like a dancer’s. Lottie remarked that she hadn’t danced with anybody she liked in years. He caressed her feet, the toes, instep, and heel, and got an odd pleasure out of it. He spoke all the while in a soft, soothing voice, saying she should have gone on the stage.
What he was doing to her had a calming effect on her body and spirit, she said, and before she knew it, Lottie was telling him of her struggle to become an actress. She spoke of her family’s objection, that the stage was the road to sin; of being stranded with a road company at the time of the Crash, and having to get back to New York the best way she could. It was then that she decided to try another profession—other actresses were doing it—because she couldn’t see herself settling down as “one man’s squaw.”
I wondered whether the story was true or she had dreamed it up on the spot to flatter Fitzgerald on his insight. There was the ring of sincerity in her voice and, as I had told him, she had never lied to me. Other than that, it occurred to me that I knew very little about her.
“He proposed that if I liked him, I should dance with him to break the bad luck in my partners. Then he pulled off my silk stockings so I wouldn’t get a run. He was very sweet the way he peeled them off. When he finished he got up, offered me his hand in a gallant way, and whirled me around the room in a slow waltz. There wasn’t any music, but it was playing, I guess, in his head because he didn’t miss a beat.
“After a few more turns he stopped, saying he hoped I meant what I said about his rash not bothering him because …” She hesitated, taking a deep breath, and then shrugged. “Hell, he’s your friend. He wanted me right then and there. He simply had to have me. It seems that the sight of women’s feet has excited him since he first started thinking about sex.
“It was then and there, right on the couch. I remember him telling me he only made love to help him write. No wonder he was so quick. He might know how to write but he sure doesn’t know about this other thing. And he gave me no chance to tell him to take his time, breathe deeply, or think of something else. When it was all over and I mentioned it to him, he started bawling like a sot. I can’t stand crying drunks. But I felt sorry for him. Because of what he told me about his loony wife.
“Listen to this.” Then she paused. “Years ago she told him he could never satisfy her or any other woman because he was built so small. Can you beat that? It really hit him hard. And he believed her because he thought she was smart, and because he knew little about it himself. Then he told me, he’d never had a woman till he fell in love with her.
“He kept crying and talking. What he wanted to know from me, since I had been with many men, was if his wife was right about this. I felt like laughing, but I didn’t. So I told him he was like all the men I knew and he ought to forget what she had said. But he didn’t believe I was telling him the truth. I then told him that making a woman happy was more a matter of pleasing her—of technique—than the size of a certain thing. This loving way came natural to some men, but experience helped, and no two women were pleased in the same way. That’s why I promised to give him a few tips to pleasure them and to control himself. He wanted them then and there. I told him a couple, but there’s no need to draw you a picture. …”
Fitzgerald still wanted to be reassured that she was leveling with him about being like other men. He also asked her to keep seeing him. She said she would and started to leave. He appeared to have calmed down and was ready for sleep, until she reached the door, and he rose to stop her. Looking at her with his tearful, bloodshot eyes, he asked her why his wife would say such a thing if it weren’t true.
She was unbalanced, Lottie told him. He argued that Zelda wasn’t ill at the time and ought to have known what she was talking about. His fixation annoyed Lottie. She bluntly told him that his wife was not only mad but didn’t know as much about men as be thought she did. Fitzgerald clutched her hand, repeating with alcoholic persistence, “Then why did she say it?”
“I told him I’d think about it and let him know when he was sober. He said I didn’t have to think about it and he was sober now and I had to tell him. I couldn’t hold back what I’d been thinking from the moment he told me what she’d said. So I told him his wife had to be nuts to think what she did and a bitch to say it, and that he was a naive, damn fool to believe it all these years. He called me a whore and slapped me. The first time a man had done that—except my father. I walked out. He was sobbing and begging me to come back.”
Then Lottie was silent. She had spoken with more emotion than I had seen her display in all the time I had known her.
“Lottie, I’m sorry I got you into this.”
“It’s not your fault.” She picked up her shoulder bag, ready to leave. “He’s cost me plenty, but that doesn’t matter. He’s got me worrying about him. Something I haven’t done over a man in years. He needs somebody. Do you know his wife?”
“No. She’s in Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. He’s thinking of bringing her here next year.”
“The poor sweet idiot,” Lottie said in an affectionate tone. Now she was noticeably more relaxed. We rose to go. She held the dogs’ leashes firmly. Then she said, “Daisy was merciful. She helped to kill Gatsby. What did his crazy wife want to do—cripple him for life?”
A few days later I saw Fitzgerald. He didn’t mention Lottie, but his thoughts were taken up with the rash. He had decided to have a Wasserman made under an assumed name, but he was anxious nevertheless to have my opinion on it. My protest of complete ignorance about skin eruptions didn’t prevent him from taking me down to the men’s room in the hotel. He took off his jacket, tie and shirt, so as to show me the ugly spots on his body.
A Negro attendant stepped over to offer us soap and a towel. Fitzgerald fixed on him with interest and asked if he thought the condition meant he had caught something. The white-haired, solemn-faced black studied it a moment, and shook his head. He thought that Fitzgerald might have eaten or drunk something that didn’t agree with him.
“Strawberries and suchlike.” He noticed Fitzgerald wavering as he leaned near a urinal. “Could be that fancy new likker. Ain’t good as it was before Prohibition. But it cost a heap more and I hear makes some folks sick.”
“Maybe you’re right, grandpa. Thanks,” Fitzgerald said. He dug in his pocket and handed the attendant a dollar bill, gesturing for him to keep the change.
“Thank you, sir. I hope it ain’t serious.”
The Negro retired to the outer alcove. I went to a urinal. Fitzgerald, at the one beside me, glanced over.
“You Latins!” he said in a playful envious tone.
“Oh?” I remembered with a jolt what Lottie had told me. Moving away, I returned the inquisitive glance, and said, “You Celts!”
“Don’t you think it’s a bit . . . ?”
“Hell no,” I said, forcing a latrine-talk assurance. “I’ve seen some like my thumb.”
“That’s pretty short.”
“It can still do the job.”
“Some women are hard to please.” He flushed the water and went over to the washstand.
“Yes, a few are frigid,” I said, trying to sound casual, but feeling my way carefully. I didn’t want to say anything that might betray Lottie’s confidence. “But a lot more men are clumsy lovers. Fortunately, most women don’t know it yet.”
“Think so?” he asked with a dubious look. “Or they’re only being kind.”
“What about Rosemary?”
“She was madly in love with me.”
“That can make all the difference—according to Van de Velde and a lot of others.”
“Who’s Van de Velde?”
I told him about his book Ideal Marriage, which Fitzgerald was to borrow and in which I later made notes on this episode. Fitzgerald said he was leaving the next day for Charlotte or Spartanburg for the test. If the result was positive, he would wire Rosemary so that she and Ogden could do something about it. As for himself, he was going to dive off a dock or a boat somewhere. This would make it appear that his death was accidental, and Zelda and Scottie could collect his life insurance.
When we walked out of the hotel and strolled toward Grove Arcade, I noticed Lottie walking her poodles in front of the new post-office building. Fitzgerald pretended he didn’t see her. He again took up the thread of our men’s-room discussion.
“Ernest and I once talked about the same thing. He said I was all right too. I didn’t believe him then. I was having my problems with Zelda. Probably I wouldn’t believe him because he thought Zelda was crazy. Now that she’s hopeless, he was right about her, and probably about this other thing too.”
Except for Lottie, I wouldn’t have known the nature of this problem between him and Zelda. Nor did he tell me what Hemingway said about Zelda’s charge; I had to wait decades to find out in A Moveable Feast. When Fitzgerald asked him why Zelda would say there was “something wrong” with him, Hemingway had replied, “To put you out of business. That’s the oldest way of putting people out of business.”
Though Lottie and Hemingway had used different words, the substance was remarkably similar, and I prefer hers: “What did his crazy wife want to do—cripple him for life?”