Fitzgerald seriously tried to discipline himself and stay on the wagon. But there was a story to finish and he couldn’t do it on beer; his creative imagination had been conditioned to stronger stuff. A drink of gin could turn the trick. After some deliberation, he took it and the story was quickly dispatched. It gave him such a boost that he took another and then another.
I saw him the day that he received a wire from Rosemary’s doctor with the news that she had been committed to a mental hospital. He was drinking but seemed calm and in control, proud that he could stop at the limit he had set for himself. I noticed that he wasn’t upset by the news about Rosemary; at an earlier time this might have plunged him into a fit of depression. He seemed to take it as an expected event, after his experience with Zelda.
“Women. Nature built them to perform the most menial and difficult tasks.” He spoke with a light sneer on his stern, thin lips, and with an overconfident air. “They bear children, put up with years of boredom, and send men to an early grave. But nature played them a dirty trick. She endowed them with a weak nervous system. Their bodies can take it, but their nerves break, and they collapse, while men go on plodding to pay the bills. I’m very impatient with sick people —except Zelda. She’s my invalid.”
Fitzgerald had received two letters from Rosemary before she went to the hospital. One informed him that her sister had had a breakdown. The other letter was pitiful; she wouldn’t accept the fact that their affair was something to be listed among “items to be forgotten.” Probably he should have answered and encouraged her to accept her former life. Though grateful to Rosemary for the liberating effect of her love, he said that she was a distant memory.
“I was mistaken about her, as I’ve been about other women,” he added with the same detachment. “I thought she was strong and could take this kind of experience without breaking—even if I was her first. She had all the confidence of beauty, youth, wealth, but was weak. I hate weakness and particularly the show of it. I despise it in myself and I have on occasion shown surprising strength. It’s as if I were under hypnosis. I come up with the strength of a weak man. That keeps me going, along with fear and necessity.”
Strength and vitality were qualities he sought in his friends. He once said that he kept seeing me because I possessed them; and yet he seemed irritated by my show of radicalism, my taste for the sort of writing he scorned as barnyard stuff, and my active interest in Negro rights. This might not have annoyed him so much if I had been a bit of a drinker or a less independent and more pliable friend, one to echo his opinions on literature and politics. No doubt my attitude was partly responsible for the gulf that had recently become evident in our friendship.
As the distance grew wider between us, I learned from Lottie that she and Fitzgerald were seeing each other more and more. By habit and profession she was a night owl. Free at the oddest hours, she became a convenient companion for his sleepless nights when no one else was available and she happened to call him. Their friendship was sealed when she went to see him—out of pity or worry—because she couldn’t get him off her mind. She had found him sober and most gracious; he apologized like a boy, begging forgiveness for having slapped her, and he convinced her of his sincerity.
He always found women more manageable, sympathetic, and appealing to his nature than men, and he made no secret of preferring their company. He could tell them his troubles and weep on their shoulders; they showed him tenderness and warmth. He could speak of his duty toward Zelda and his daughter; they respected his strong family sentiment and sense of duty. He could explain the sexual ideas of Freud and Lawrence or the philosophies of Marx and Spengler, and they were impressed as though he were a brilliant young college professor. If he felt the sudden urge for sex, he often found them ready to oblige.
For a man whose morale was at an all-time low, he was fortunate in being a celebrated writer—even if he was in eclipse—pursued by attractive young women. He had kept away from prostitutes for moral reasons, and fears of disease, and this was possibly the only time in his life that he had contact with a professional. Lottie asked for nothing, accepted trifles, and didn’t complicate his life. Their relationship proved more satisfactory and safer, he said, than casual affairs he had had in the past.
For the rest of the year in Asheville, I was to see less of Fitzgerald and more of Lottie—because of him. He was out of town days and a week at a time, and so was she; but I had no reason to think they went off together or met somewhere and, if they did, not even she told me. Now when I saw Fitzgerald he barely mentioned her, and when I saw Lottie she was always eager to talk about him.
It was sometime in August that I noticed the change Lottie had undergone since meeting Fitzgerald, particularly when she spoke about him. She wasn’t the actress, cool and flippant, but more like a young woman who had discovered feelings and emotions and was enjoying them. Also there was a note of shyness about her that I hadn’t expected to see in a woman of her worldly experience.
She gave me that impression late one evening in the bookshop. I was typing a book column when I heard a tapping on the glass, as I had the night I met Fitzgerald. At first I barely recognized her; she wore a dark gown with gold trimmings and an orange chiffon scarf wrapped loosely about her head and shoulders. I opened the door with surprise and she swept in like a young woman on her way to a dance.
“Hi,” she said, a bit breathless.
“Hi—” It was all I could say.
“Juliet and Romeo are at the Chateau and a gent’s sending his car for me.” She noticed my surprise at seeing her dressed up at such an hour. “You’re working. I’ll only be here a bit.”
“I’m glad to see you, Lottie,” I said, switching on another light so I could see her better. There was something fresh and lovely about her, and she bore little resemblance to the woman I knew who peddled her body. “You look great.”
“So you like this?” she said with a frown and went through the motions of unrolling the frothy material off her head. “It’s his idea. This gent’s taking me to a country club and will pass me off as an old sweetheart.”
“You don’t look that old.” I laughed.
“To hell with him,” she said, tossing the scarf on a chair. Her face took on a grave look and her eyes met mine. “But turn out that light. I’ve got to tell you about your friend.”
She said that Fitzgerald was her first affair since she gave up the theater. She found him to be fun and exciting, charming and lovable when sober, nasty and abusive when drunk. But she excused him as she might have excused a spoilt youngster, saying that she enjoyed catering to his whims and minor vanities. Then she launched into what she had learned of his inadequacy as a lover.
“The boys called him a sissy when he went to school dressed up like Little Lord Fauntleroy,” she said with a swishy gesture. “He liked to dress up, but had to prove he was a real boy. So he went in for football and fights in a big way. Losing seemed to spur him on. He tried at prep school and college too. There he switched to the theater. He had a picture taken when he was playing a pretty showgirl in a musical. It was in a New York paper. A burlesque house offered him a job as a female impersonator. Maybe Minsky’s. His good looks sometimes were embarrassing. His pet hate is fairies—and for good reason.”
He had told her of the time when Zelda said that he was a fairy so forcefully that he almost believed it. Of course, Lottie said, his inability to satisfy her had much to do with it. At the time, he and Zelda were trying to have another baby. His failure bothered him; he told Lottie he had tried with other women who wanted a child by him, and met with no better luck. That summer he saw a specialist, who decided that his rundown physical state, aggravated by poor nutrition, insomnia, sleeping pills, too much drinking, and too many problems, had contributed to his inadequacy and weakened his reproductive capacity so that he might never again become a father.
Most of his adult life he had tried to prove that he was a man, Fitzgerald told her. Though he didn’t possess masculine appeal, he had good looks, intelligence, and understood the nature of women. Now he wanted to please them—if he could overcome the harm his wife had done in berating him for his size and for being “a lousy lover.” Late one night he confided to Lottie that he believed the real reason for his hasty climax was fear and guilt, both going back to his boyish years of masturbating, a time when he thought sex was dirty and sinful.
“Your friend was a virgin when he met his wife—he’s not sure about her and was faithful to her until that affair with the French aviator. That—” she hesitated a moment—“almost wrecked him. He needs alcohol to give him confidence and get over his fears. It makes him sexy and nasty at times. He wants to prove he’s a man but he’s overdone it. There have been fifty or sixty women, so he says, and one night when he couldn’t sleep he made a list. He said he graded them for looks, age, profession, social position, shape of breasts and feet, and whether single, married, or divorced.
“But he’s not one to kid himself, thinking he’s a Casanova with all those conquests. He knows it’s because of his fame, talent, and good looks and not for any sexual prowess. These adoring females are chasing the famous writer. He calls himself a sort of ’homme fatal.’ ” Lottie paused. In the semidarkness I saw an aged, concerned look on her face. “I’ve thought about him a lot. I’m doing what I can to help him over his worst fault as a lover. But his biggest problem’s to prove to himself he’s a man. And I hope I can convince him about—”
“Lottie—” I said after a short silence. I wondered whether she had become seriously interested in him. She struck me for the first time as a woman of feeling and understanding. I wanted to warn her not to get involved, and then I decided she was smart enough to know men and what she wanted.
Lottie went on to tell me that he had mentioned a feminine trait in his make-up which seemed to invite women to pursue him. This was the reverse of the accepted custom of men pursuing women; and he explained that it showed he was the weaker and more passive partner while the woman was the stronger and more active one. This had been the situation of his gentle father and dominant mother, and it might have been partly responsible for his own compliant role in relationships—a role he shared with some of his male characters.
“That romantic sap Gatsby,” she added, as though it had just occurred to her. Now she smiled, rose, and paced the shop, saying that Fitzgerald had decided to do something about her lack of literary knowledge. He had spent a night lecturing her on the English poets. Keats was his favorite, and he recited two of his odes to her. She didn’t understand them, though they sounded tender and romantic— the way he sounded to her.
“He said it was a shame I didn’t know any of the beautiful poems in our language and it’d please him to help me make their acquaintance. He said I mustn’t think I was stupid because I couldn’t understand them. There’s one he said he’s read a hundred times. You believe it?”
I nodded. “The ’Ode to a Nightingale.’ ”
“That’s it,” she said, stopping before me. “But I haven’t figured out where the nightingale comes in.”
It seemed that his interest in her went further than improving her education. He had also touched on her profession. She was bright and lovely, he said, and it sickened him to think she was selling her body.
“It’s degrading,” he said to her. “Can’t you take up nursing, be a waitress, a cashier?”
She then spoke of his interest in an English writer named Lawrence, whose books he had told her to read. “Do you have any?” she asked.
I took four books from the shelves and placed them before her.
“But you might find them too long and dull,” I said. “Why not try Hemingway?”
“Hemingway? That friend his wife accused him about?” she asked and put down the books. “What kind does he write?”
“Love, drinking, bull fighting, and hunting. Tough talk and lots of action. He-man stuff.”
“Try this—if you want Lawrence,” I said and handed her the pirated (and expurgated) edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover from behind the desk.
“What’s it about?”
“Is that all writers think about?”