Lottie dropped by one morning to tell me that she was ’worried about his health. Fitzgerald had caught a cold and said it could go into pleurisy because of his scarred lungs. His breathing came hard and he spoke of a fever; she had noticed that his eyes were glassy and his forehead was moist. Despite her pleading there was no getting him into bed or keeping him from the bottle, and he wouldn’t let her call a doctor.
“Call him or go and see him,” she said, concerned. “He needs help.”
“I will, but don’t worry,” I said. “He has a hell of a constitution. One minute he’s at the undertaker’s and the next he’s ready for anything.”
“He looks awful.”
“But did it keep him from talking?” I smiled to cheer her up, for she was truly worried about him.
“No,” she replied in a lighter tone. “He talked about his daughter this time. It was my fault, I suppose, because I asked what he meant by saying that he didn’t become a member of the human race till he was fifteen and that it had cost him plenty. Well, the girl’s thirteen, cocky and boastful like he was then. He said it’s bad enough for a boy, but it can ruin a girl. He showed me a picture of her. She’s pretty. That worries him too. He kept saying, ’Lottie and Scottie.’ ”
“Lottie and Scottie,” I repeated.
“He said pretty girls have a ten-year lead on less fortunate ones. They attract boys easily but can’t hold them—in the long race. He’s trying to tell her it’s the quiet ones, pretty or not, who land the bright young men. She can talk—something he thinks is as dangerous as being pretty. She’ll never make a good listener—what he thinks those boys want. A sensible girl knows when to be silent, when to smile, and when to laugh, but not too loud like her mother. If she has to show she’s clever, they’ll shy away from her. The bright young man wants a companion, not a rival who’s trying to outshine him.
“When he told me she was losing her head over boys, I told him he didn’t have to worry about her. She was doing okay,” Lottie said with a smile. “But he says she’s a softie—the way he was—and he doesn’t want her to get hurt. He wants her to become hard as nails. And he wants to curb her cocky streak without squelching her self-confidence. She’s selfish too, he says. That has to be knocked out of her while she’s young. It was his trouble—the thing that cost him plenty.”
Fitzgerald then explained to her what he had meant, saying that selfish people don’t think there is anybody in the world except themselves. He had been such a boy, and he blamed his mother for spoiling him. Until he left home he didn’t realize there were others to consider. He had found out the hard way—with tears, despair, and loneliness—and he wasn’t sure that he had succeeded in getting over his selfish ways.
When Lottie asked him why he said she had joined the human race at five, he simply replied that it was her self-assurance, her ability to be herself, and her relaxed way with others. She had faced the realities without too much strain on herself. On the other hand, he had joined it so late that it took everything he had to tackle his burdens each morning he woke up. It was a matter of attitude, intensity, and of being oneself without too many illusions.
“You’re hard and brittle like most of your generation,” Fitzgerald said to her. “I thought Rosemary was, too. She turned out not to be. You’re tough and can take it. I tried to be tough. It’s the only way to survive. We must learn to swim—to dominate life—if we’re worth a damn. Or under we go. The way I have and I hate myself for it.”
“You think I dominate life?” she asked him.
“Yes—even if it’s not the sort of life I approve of,” he said to her. “I know it’s silly to try and reform you. But I must confess, I have the passion of a reformer. A schoolmaster, too. Probably I should have taught, but I prefer to choose my pupils and teach them what little I’ve learned that might make life easier, fuller, and more enjoyable for them—if not for myself. I can’t learn it myself. I’m hopeless and blind like an old dog.
“Whether or not you’re happy with your present life, it wasn’t forced on you. You chose it with your eyes wide open. When it becomes intolerable, you’ll give it up and take another road—alone or perhaps with someone you love. A few nights ago I was thinking, I seem to ruin all the women who come into my life. They end up in some disaster. I don’t want that happening to you.
“Fortunately you’re too level-headed and tough for that, but I’m warning you. You’ve been exceedingly kind to me. So kind you could be—if you were soft enough—that proverbial girl with a heart of gold. Only a fool believes that sort ever existed. I could be one who does, but, at the same time, I can scoff at the notion like the rest. I have that much on Gatsby—the fellow you called a romantic—”
“I’m sorry I—”
“You’re young, attractive, and independent. So don’t worry about, or get yourself involved with, a hopeless drinker who doesn’t practice what he preaches and wastes your nights reciting poetry.”
“I love it,” she told him. “I left school to go on the stage.”
“At least it’s better than boring you with my wretched problems and miserable state of health.”
“Let me hear the ’Nightingale’ again.”
Fitzgerald took another drink and recited it for her in a voice deep with emotion. Then he asked her if she had heard of two first-rate books about Russia—Ten Days That Shook the World and New Russia’s Primer. Of course she hadn’t, and he proceeded to tell her about them. Some time earlier he had noticed them in the shop and spoken at length to me about John Reed, the author of the first book.
He told her that the Primer was written by a Russian engineer who had to be a poet to have such a style. It was the story of Russia’s Five Year Plan, for schoolchildren in their early teens. As did no other book he had read, it clarified the difference between America’s planless economy for profit and the Soviet’s planned production for use.
“We’ve learned to produce a surplus, yet the stuff is being dumped, burned, or plowed under as fertilizer. And we have poverty in the midst of plenty,” he said to her. “Russia cannot produce enough for its millions, but has a plan to try and feed all of them. We have learned to produce, the Russians to distribute. Some of the best brains in America are saying, if we could get the two systems together, we might lick the Depression in a year.”
Then he spoke of John Reed, whom he called a young man of action. Fitzgerald said that he too had yearned to be such a man; to toughen himself and overcome his sense of fear. Before telling her about Reed, he mentioned other writers who had led exciting lives and had written about them. Two of them were familiar to her—Hemingway and Jack London—but she hadn’t heard of John Reed or his book about Russia.
“Reed was a Westerner like London. It seems the West produced some of our most talented and rebellious young men,” Fitzgerald said. “He was the son of a federal marshal in Oregon, who prosecuted the lumber trust for destroying virgin forests out there and not replacing them with a single young tree.”
“When I told him I was a Westerner too—southern California—he was pleased,” Lottie said in an aside. “He had thought so, and said he took me for an actress before we met.”
“He did,” I nodded, thinking that Fitzgerald was right after all in his initial observation.
“He kidded me, saying I must’ve started as a Hollywood starlet because they grow on trees out there like oranges.”
Lottie recalled that he had told her John Reed was also of the theater. As a founder of the Provincetown Players, he had acted in a Eugene O’Neill play and had written a play of his own that the Players produced. Before that, when he was at Harvard, he had done the lyrics for the Hasty Pudding show, as Fitzgerald had done others for a Triangle musical at Princeton. Reed was a poet, too, and was to become a famous journalist.
“Oh, he told me a lot about John Reed,” Lottie said. Reed had been in Petrograd during the October Revolution and soon afterward had written Ten Days That Shook the World. Lenin himself had praised the book. It was translated into Russian by Lenin’s wife and was widely used as a text in Russian schools. After spending more than a year in America, where he tried to organize a revolutionary party, Reed had gone back to Russia. He had caught typhus while serving as delegate to a Communist convention on the Caspian Sea and had died two or three weeks later in Moscow. He was given a hero’s funeral and was buried under the Kremlin Wall.
“Reed died at thirty-three—not too young for a man of action, yet not too old,” Scott said to Lottie. “He lived by his convictions. That’s more than I can say for myself—at times. I cannot help but admire him, and I recommend his book to anyone who can read. I’m asking my daughter to read it. Eisenstein made a film of Ten Days. Before it was released here, American Federation of Labor officials were invited to censor it. Ironical. They’re more anti-Soviet than the biggest Hollywood or Wall Street tycoon.”
Lottie asked me if I had the books. I told her we did; she decided to pick up Reed when she dropped off Lady Chatterley’s Lover. She found Chatterley dull, as though Lawrence had just learned about sex, and was forcing herself to finish it. Her parting words concerned Fitzgerald and his political beliefs.
“Is he a communist?”
“I think at times he’d like to believe he’s one because of his friends who are.”
“He doesn’t look the type,” she said with a thoughtful look. “When I was an actress I met all kinds. He’s too clean-cut—with that air of a Prince Charming.”
“That role becomes him,” I said, pleased with her observation. “He seems to believe that a sort of intellectual aristocracy ought to run things—not the people.”
“Isn’t that backward—for these times?”
Her question surprised me. It was the first political opinion I had heard Lottie express.
After she left I phoned Fitzgerald to ask how he felt and whether I could drop in and bring him something from downtown. He coughed and said, yes, by all means, apparently pleased that I had called. But he sounded low in spirits and out of sorts; he was furious with the manager for forbidding the bellhops to bring him anything stronger than beer. When Fitzgerald told him he used alcohol for medicinal purposes, the manager replied that he would furnish it if Fitzgerald’s doctor called to say he should have it.
Fitzgerald asked me to bring him a bottle of gin, saying he needed it to sweat out a cold that had gone down to his chest. I didn’t relish the idea of encouraging another binge, yet there was no way to see him without bringing the bottle. I bought one and took a bus to the Inn. It was a gray, windy day; fall was in the air and I was wearing a light topcoat. I felt self-conscious walking through the lobby with the wrapped bottle under my arm, so I hid it under my coat and strolled to the elevator.
Fitzgerald grabbed the bottle and didn’t thank me. His face was feverish, his voice thick and guttural, and he had a deep chest cough. Lottie was right: he needed medical attention, but that was far from his mind. He opened the bottle, sloshed the gin into a water glass, and drank it down quickly—the way he shoveled down those meals of steak and mashed potatoes that he took at long intervals.
“The son of a bitch! He’ll burn in hell before I show him a doctor’s prescription.” All his anger was directed at the manager; I felt relieved that it was no longer at me. “He said if I didn’t like it, I could leave. I won’t until I’m goddamn ready or I’m thrown out for punching him in the nose.”
Fitzgerald said that he had been sleeping very little and that he was troubled by nightmares and hallucinations. Everything around him had taken on a menacing aspect, as if it were bent on jeering at him, punishing him, and making him aware of his sins. He had the recurring sensation of circling in space, then of finding himself in the jaws of a whirlpool and of being sucked deep into an underwater grave. He would come out of the nightmare in a cold sweat, gasping for air, his heart thumping against his chest.
“Last night I saw myself in a cage like a sad, big-eared baboon,” he said in a voice that sounded strange to me, as though he were still under the spell of the nightmare. “People were throwing peanut shells and banana peelings at me. Then they lighted cigarettes and they told me to dance like a pickaninny. I had to dance to keep from burning my feet, but I couldn’t keep it up. I collapsed in the flames and they kept jeering at me.
“There was something I can’t remember. I must have been on the edge of consciousness when I saw myself again in the cage. The fire was out, I didn’t have a single burn. A dozen people filed past, silent as ghosts, and sat before me like a frozen jury. An officer tapped my shoulder and pointed at someone who turned out to be a judge. He wore a flaming wig and long curls. I couldn’t be sure whether it was a man or a woman. The face was a man’s, the voice a woman’s, and the body was shrouded in a purple robe, like Isadora’s. She asked me by what right I could take love—love that belonged to others—and leave them shattered and ruined for life.
“The cage went up in flames and smoke. Again I had the sensation of circling in space, back in the jaws of the whirlpool, and being sucked into that liquid grave.” He paused and pointed to a letter he had received that morning from Rosemary. “It says her husband had a heart attack. The poor bastard can’t play golf any more. Rosemary and golf were all he lived for, and I robbed him of both. I destroy everybody who comes near me. Women’s nerves break, men’s hearts fail. Can’t one of these nightmares finish me, or am I doomed to this punishment?”
His head sank into his hands and he was silent except for the cough and his deep breathing. Then he spoke of Lottie, saying he had warned her of his destructive effect on women who were close to him. She hadn’t taken it seriously, and he had no idea whether he would see her again. Despite his depressed and chaotic state, he expressed a tender feeling for her, adding that she was one of the few women who hadn’t burdened him with new problems.
“Poor Mencken, he has his troubles too,” Fitzgerald said, pointing to a letter on the table. “He was a confirmed bachelor like Nathan, but a few years ago he married a writer, Sara Haardt was her name, who came from Montgomery, Zelda’s town. She died early this summer. She suffered most of her adult life from respiratory ailments. Worse than I have with my t.b. Zelda and I were fond of her. I called Sara my favorite Venus.
“Last year Mencken knew his time had come. He quit the Mercury and retired to Baltimore to work on his memoirs and dictionaries. He had entertained the nation with satire through the Boom, but the Depression is no laughing matter. He made his exit at the right time. Changing conditions brought it on, but also to be with Sara that last year.”
He said that Mencken declared in his retiring statement that the times needed literary men with a political and economic background. His successor was Henry Hazlitt, a literary critic who had been writing economic pieces for the Nation and The New York Times. Hazlitt had expressed his credo in The Anatomy of Criticism: a great writer is a traditionalist who possesses the courage to experiment, and “the social mind” was the final arbiter of literary values.
The Marxists were seeking the social mind, Fitzgerald said as he poured himself another drink. Hazlitt, more and more conservative, still agreed with their leading critic, Granville Hicks, that a writer’s viewpoint was formed by social events as well as by his economic background, his limitations, and his class prejudices. But Fitzgerald made the point that great writers have always been above personal issues in the same way that they have crossed barriers of geography, nationality, time, and sex. Literature goes beyond the class struggle; it encompasses every aspect of the broadest social mind.
I could see that Fitzgerald was speaking for my benefit as a struggling writer. He had glanced at two articles I had written for Carolina papers, “Proletarian Novel in Modern Literature” and “Rebellion in the South.” The first of these was sprinkled with Marxist cliches and words of praise for writers whom Fitzgerald called mediocrities. It made him so angry that he would not read through to the end. Only one of the names I mentioned seemed to please him: Robert Cantwell, the author of The Land of Plenty. The second article he read, or scanned, with somewhat greater interest. It was the one I had written after my interview with Olive Tilford Dargan. She had spoken at the Southern Writers’ Conference at Black Mountain College, and so had Dr. Joel Spingarn, the critic and humanist, who had sounded the theme of the conference: the rebellion of Southern writers.
“To rebel is the first duty of the Southern writer at this moment when the destiny of mankind is on the industrial battlefield,” Mrs. Dargan said. “The South has always been a land of rebellion. Revolt is in the blood of Southerners, as they have shown from the Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence in 1775 to and beyond the first shots of the War between the States. I believe most of us are ready now, but the question that troubles me is—how far can we go without being lynched?”
Fitzgerald was impressed by what she said about the vitality of the South and its spirit of rebellion. He was also impressed by the list of the books she had published at Scribners, the collections of poetry and plays. He wasn’t so sure that he would like the proletarian novels she wrote as Fielding Burke, though the first of them, Call Home the Heart, had been widely praised. It is the story of a mountain girl in an industrial upheaval that resembled the famous and tragic Gastonia strike.
“I don’t object to that kind of subject matter, but to the manner in which it’s written, usually half-baked and unimaginative, with sensationalism instead of emotional depth and understanding,” Fitzgerald said with a serious tone that alcohol sometimes made him adopt. “I realize that most bourgeois writers produce shoddy stuff and are as class-conditioned as the would-be proletarians who write about American peasants and workers. You might say they all bear the stamp of propaganda—for one class or the other—unless the books are written by poets or artists like Mrs. Dargan, Cantwell, West, or my own friends Ernest, Bunny, and Dos Passos.”
That morning he was eager to make it clear that he wasn’t against proletarians, but against shoddy writing of all kinds. He was born with the instincts and vitality of a rebel, he said, and he felt a closer kinship with radicals than with others. Most of his friends were politically involved; and, despite the fact that he had little time for anything but his writing and no temperament for being an activist, he had written an antiwar satire and done some speech-making in Baltimore earlier against the growing menace to world peace.
“I had communist bull sessions in our house. They annoyed Zelda, who was in and out of the hospital at that time. For two years I was on the verge of joining up, I had a visit from Jay Lovestone, who broke off from mainstream communism because of Stalin’s rift with Trotsky and started his own party. But I had no interest in or patience with ideological schisms. Instead of being drawn closer, I withdrew.
“Yes, I became disgusted with the leadership and squabbles of the two factions, and making those speeches took a lot out of me,” he said, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping his forehead. “I almost went haywire those two years. I believed in the cause of peace and freedom, and the Great Change in our society that my friends were talking about, but I still felt a strong tie to my class. I wasn’t able to reconcile my two loyalties, so I stepped aside and took my place on the sidelines.
“There was only enough energy for writing and personal problems,” he said and went into a coughing fit. His eyes were glassy, his hands shaky, and his voice more guttural. He took a drink and wiped his face again with the handkerchief. “It’s nothing—just a little cold. I have the temperament of a person who gives all or nothing. Besides, I had scoffed at politics like my good friend Mencken, and my political conscience only showed up as an element of irony in my writing. I’ll tell you something. When I planned Tender, I intended Dick to be a communist and to send his children to study in the Soviet Union. My creative instinct took over and he emerged as a living romantic idealist. I am confident he will endure as an individual. Otherwise he would have been a type and, like most types, soon forgotten.
“A writer must find his own grain, way, bent. Like all artists he is by nature and temperament an individual and a rebel. Against society, tradition, restrictions. He aspires to create new and original works. His way is alone. If he succumbs to ideologies, he turns into a mouthpiece. He must hang on to his identity for dear life. In the end he must rely on his own judgment. It’s the only way to survive as a writer and an artist.”
The telephone had rung twice before he stopped. I walked over to the window as he picked it up. He listened, mumbled a few words, and hung up. When I turned to him, he seemed pleased with himself.
“It was the manager’s office,” he said, wiping his forehead again. “He asked his secretary to apologize and say the bellboys would bring me anything I wanted. The punk didn’t have the guts to tell me himself.”
I nodded and prepared to leave, saying that he ought to do something about his cold.
“I’m doing it,” he said, taking another drink.
I let the matter drop and went back to his earlier subject. “What you just said sounds like something a writer friend told me when I was being rushed to join the Party. He advised me against it and warned me to watch out and hang on to my viewpoint.”
“Who was that writer?”
Fitzgerald was indeed surprised. Before I left he asked me to count his pulse while he took his temperature. I remember the count was much higher than normal and the thermometer rose above 102.