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


26

The following day Fitzgerald disappeared from the Inn. He didn’t want anybody to know where he had gone and left instructions with the switchboard to refer all calls to his secretary. I phoned Laura a couple of times, but was unable to reach her. At last it was Lottie who phoned to tell me what had happened; she had found out from a bellhop who was on duty when Fitzgerald’s doctor arrived. The doctor would take no nonsense and ordered him immediately into Memorial Mission Hospital.

Most of the time he was there I was out of town with the orchestra. I didn’t see Fitzgerald until he came by the shop in October to announce that he was leaving for Baltimore. He planned to set up housekeeping for his daughter, who was going to school there, and to find an apartment where Zelda could visit them from the hospital. It was a move he looked forward to, as he hoped to make up for his “wasted summer”—he called it that with more sadness than irony.

Fitzgerald seemed to possess his old vitality and friendliness; hat-less, well-groomed, and dressed in his light clothes, he was once more the college athlete or stage juvenile. There was about him the quality of a phoenix rising from its ashes. It was due to his incredible resilience, combined with a few days’ rest in the hospital, where he had the benefit of sleep, solid food, no alcohol, and the attention of smiling young nurses.

“You look fine,” I said in the spirit of our old intimacy.

“My doctor didn’t think so. He was for keeping me there another few days. I told him I couldn’t spare the time, and walked out,” he said, as though pleased with himself for having disobeyed orders. “I had a close call. It was pleurisy that went into walking pneumonia because of my spotted lungs.”

He went on to speak of his wasted summer, which he hoped to turn into a productive fall and winter. Lying in that hospital bed, he had reviewed his periods of activity and waste, his bouts with horror, and his perpetual resolve to stop drifting and squandering his resources. Every time he hit bottom he seemed to come to terms with himself and face the problem of his life with a strong determination to dominate it. He realized there was no one more destructive than a man who was his own worst enemy.

“Writing is the only thing I can do well. I was afraid I had lost my talent or run out of material. I haven’t. I find I’m not as badly off as I had thought all summer,” he said with a calm assurance that struck me as genuine. “Not that I have found a new source so much as an approach or way to dig deeper into my life and experiences. There is so much I can still do with them. I started writing something of the sort last year—without being conscious of it—in an article about my insomnia.”

He was referring to “Sleeping and Waking,” which I had read in Esquire. He wrote it in Baltimore after the disappointment over the failure of Tender Is the Night. “Waste and horror—what I might have been and done that is lost, spent, dissipated, unrecapturable. I could have acted thus, refrained from this, been bold when I was timid, cautious where I was rash. I need not have hurt her like that. . . nor broken myself trying to break what was unbreakable.

“The horror has come now like a storm—what if this night prefigures the night after death—what if all thereafter was an eternal quivering on the edge of an abyss, with everything base and vicious in oneself urging one forward and the baseness and viciousness of the world just ahead. No choice, no road, no hope—only the endless repetition of the sordid and semitragic. Or to stand forever, perhaps, on the threshold of life unable to pass or return to it. I am a ghost as the clock strikes four.”

While lying in his hospital bed, he had thought of something else— something he could do that would please Zelda and help pay her expenses. For some time he had thought that a film could be made of Save Me the Waltz. Though it was a bad novel and he was glad that it had been forgotten, he thought it would make an excellent ballet film. Of course he would write the screen treatment and add what material he found necessary to translate the story to the visual medium.

“Do you have a biography of Pavlova?” he asked, looking over the shelves. “I need a little episode from her life.”

“No,” I said, going to another shelf. “We have plenty on the ballet, but Nijinsky is the only biography.”

“Maybe it will do.”

When he took the book from me Fitzgerald noticed a big brown volume on the same shelf. Its title on the spine was in five vertical red letters; he couldn’t miss it. His eyes narrowed as he glanced at me, then he turned back to the Nijinsky book.

“Of course I can’t use Zelda’s tragic end in my treatment,” he said in an off-hand professional tone. “It must have a happy ending or an equivalent—to make up for her failure as a dancer. A compensatory love story to balance her loss. I see two courses open to me: to make her a popular dancer in a musical or, because of her dedication to ballet, a dancer of supporting roles in companies here and abroad.

“If I don’t write the script, some Hollywood hack will do what has been done and is expected of him—a reasonable facsimile of movies dealing with the dance and theater,” he said, glancing back at the large red letters. “I have lived too close to the subject of Zelda’s world of idiotic perfection to let anyone make a hash of her book. I want to do something authentic and worthy of her—with a feeling of invention on my part.”

Fitzgerald added that he had talked to Dr. Robert S. Carroll of Highland Hospital about Zelda and, if he returned to Asheville the following year, he would put her in his hands. He was impressed by the doctor and thought Zelda would be happier in the Carolina mountains, in a hotel-like atmosphere, than she would be in a clinic in the heart of Baltimore. She would be treated more like a guest in a supervised retreat than a patient in a mental institution.

While he told me this Fitzgerald reached for the brown book; it was so heavy he had to use both hands to lift it off the shelf. The volume was bound in thick cloth and on its back was printed a hand-drawn map of Africa. It was Nancy Cunard’s Negro anthology, which she had inscribed to me on the flyleaf and sent as thanks for my piece on Negro folklore. The book was published in England; the only copies to reach the States were those sent to its contributors—about fifty of them. I later learned that most of the printing was destroyed in a fire of mysterious origin; according to another story, it was lost in a World War II bombing.

“We met Nancy in Paris.”

“And Lady Cunard?”

“Yes. She shared our dislike for her daughter. Negro writers and artists were flocking around Nancy as though she was their great white hope. The last time she was in New York, I heard she had a jazz musician. She didn’t know he had a wife and some pickaninnies tucked away in a Harlem tenement.” He paused as though expecting me to take issue with him. He was being purposely ugly. I was silent. “You probably don’t mind.”

“That’s taste, not radicalism,” I said, sensing his baiting mood. “Even you’ll agree.”

“At times,” he said with a distant look in his eye, “you don’t sound as if you ever lived in the Deep South.”

“I reckon that’s because the Civil War was over long before my folks got here to take sides,” I replied, trying to reach him with what I thought was humor. “So we never shared that feeling of First Family Southerners.”

“Mixing means nothing to you.”

“My folks came from Sicily—the mixing bowl of the Mediterranean,” I said lightly. His remark had been a statement, not a question, yet I had the uneasy feeling that he was heading for a showdown on the most sensitive issue that had arisen between us. Powerless before the challenge, I forced a smile and added, “That ought to make us one-hundred-per-cent hybrid.”

He shot me a disdainful look, sat on the desk, and opened the book. After flipping a few pages he ran across my article, “Negro Folklore in North Carolina.” He read the opening line and turned to the back of the volume. It was the illustrated section, containing photographs of African art, sculpture, ceremonial masks, and other folk objects of primitive and highly developed cultures.

Fitzgerald kept turning the glossy pages. Nothing seemed to interest him. Then he slowed down as he glanced at a section of Negro entertainers—Josephine Baker, Bill Robinson, Paul Robeson. He took his time looking over poetry by Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Countee Cullen, Jean Toomer, and Negro songs of protest collected in the Deep South by Lawrence Gellert.

“It sounds like the name of that chap on the Tryon paper who reminded me of Carl Sandburg,” he said, as he read one of the songs.

I didn’t know Gellert at the time, though I knew his brother Hugo from drawings in the radical press. He now turned the pages with interest; he stopped on noticing the name Contempo in the title of an article. It was illustrated by a photograph of Langston Hughes, his male secretary, Milton Abernethy, and me before the Chapel Hill post office. We had it taken on Federal property where all Americans could stand together despite the possibility of arousing local prejudice.

He studied the picture and then read the article, which was based on a long letter I had written to Nancy about Hughes’s reception after he was invited by the playwright Paul Green and a student committee to read his poetry in Memorial Hall. He arrived during the furore over the Contempo issue on the Scottsboro Case, which had featured on the front page Hughes’s article about Southern millowners and white prostitutes and his inflammatory poem “Christ in Alabama.” There were also pieces by Theodore Dreiser, Lincoln Steffens, and John Dos Passos pleading for the eight black boys condemned to death in an Alabama prison.

We had tried to put Hughes and his companion in the Carolina Inn, where visiting artists and professors were lodged. The management politely said nothing was available, so we arranged for them to stay with a Negro minister. But we succeeded in having them dine with us at a popular restaurant on the main drag—because of their light coloring. The blow came when Hughes was forbidden to read in the Hall; there was a campus demonstration for freedom of speech and he was permitted to read elsewhere. Then local patriots got after us for having brought Negroes to dine in a lily-white cafe.

“Did your communist friends put you up to this?”

“It was our own idea—like asking members of the Scottsboro Defense Committee for articles.”

“Dos was in on it?”

“Along with Dreiser, Steffens, Professor Boas, and Burton Rascoe,” I answered, letting myself go. “Dreiser also had his own committee for the relief of the Harlan, Kentucky, striking miners. And we wrote to everybody but Rascoe.”

“Rascoe—an inimical bastard.” He eyes seemed to smolder, not at me this time. “A stinking parlor pink who will jump off the radical bandwagon when the wind changes. The sort of fellow traveler who kisses the asses of his social peers and beats his chest with such gibberish as Negro rights and equality.”

“It’s not gibberish,” I said firmly, before realizing I had uttered the words so forcefully.

“Probably not to you,” he said, directing his smoldering look at me. “It’s the thing they were yapping about most that made me pull out of the League against This and That. And it’s time you came to your senses before going the way of all our Tom Boyds. You seem to have some of his vitality and stubbornness, if not his talent, so I doubt if this will seep through that skull of yours.”

“Thanks,” I remember saying, more angry than hurt. “I know you hate Rascoe’s guts. Perhaps for good reason. Didn’t he pan Gatsby and praise the barnyard boys?”

The question caught him off guard. His face flushed. Then something that must have rankled him for weeks came to mind, and he flung it at me.

“You said you put me in the Big League! But you never mentioned me! In your tribute to Faulkner, you praised him as our top writer— above Dreiser, Anderson, Ernest, and Dos. You left me out, like all the others!”

“Maybe because you didn’t answer us.”

“You said Ernest didn’t either.”

“True,” I said lamely, and then I remembered. “In that tribute we left out Wolfe too—and he’s a Chapel Hill legend.”

“You’re slippery as an eel,” he said a bit more calmly. “You’ll make a top press agent and you know what I think of them.”

“Yes, a glorified pimp on the expense account.”

Fitzgerald nodded with a pleased look on his face. That was his line, all right. He stalked out of the shop, forgetting to take the Nijinsky book with him. (It wasn’t the copy in which I wrote notes of our earlier chat and, later, about this visit too.)

After he left I went back to the desk, unsettled by this whole exchange. I reached for the Cunard anthology to put it away; its weight reminded me of something that might have amused Fitzgerald. In the worst days of the Depression, I used the heavy volume as an overnight presser—to put a crease back into my only pair of pants.


Next Chapter 27

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