I see in retrospect that, by the end of the year, Fitzgerald had summoned up enough self-discipline to emerge from his wasted summer into one of his mature periods as a writer. He wrote a story, “Image on the Heart,” that balanced an old score with Zelda, and he wrote “The Crack-Up,” a series of three confessional articles that marked the end of his old self and the dawn of the new. His vitality and amazing resilience had pulled him up from the depths.
The story, which has not been reprinted—though it deserves to be—was published in McCall’s, April 1936. It closed an episode in his emotional life that had tormented him for a decade: Zelda’s brief affair with a French aviator, the one she described in Save Me the Waltz. Fitzgerald had committed himself to her with a romantic love akin to adoration. In the light of that love her infidelity had seemed to him incredible and even ridiculous; it had shattered his sense of trust and identity.
His writer’s instinct functioned with a sense of moral balance both in his work and in his personal life. Thus, in Tender Is the Night, Fitzgerald gives Nicole the right to have an affair with Tommy Bar-ban to balance her husband’s affair with Rosemary. In his own life Fitzgerald required such a liaison in order to compensate for Zelda’s adultery. He had to balance their position in order to strengthen his shaken ego and pride as a man.
Zelda’s hold on his romantic imagination made it hard for him to find a satisfactory partner for such a compensatory act. Desperately he tried to find such a partner before and after her breakdown. Love was a rare emotion for him, and the sexual act without at least an illusion of love seemed to him a mere compulsion, an ugly thing. His own “Rosemary” was the first woman to reawaken love in him, for a time, and the only one to make him forget Zelda. Rosemary, despite her shortcomings, had given him a renewed feeling of youth, energy, confidence, and hope in the future. Whether or not the love she aroused in him was an illusion, the affair served its purpose. No relationship other than that with Zelda had plunged him into such despair after it ended. Rosemary played an important role in liberating him from emotions of the past so that he might function as his new self.
Briefly summarized, “Image on the Heart” is the story of an American girl in France who, like Zelda, falls in love with a French aviator. The romance takes place a week before she is to marry an American there. She gives up her aviator and marries the American as planned, but her husband will always wonder about her and the marriage can never be what it might have been. The parallel is unmistakable, for Zelda, too, gave up her aviator and went on living with Fitzgerald, but their relationship was never again to be the same. The story has the same nostalgic overtone as the closing paragraph of “Winter Dreams,” in which the hero says to himself those words that Fitzgerald had repeated to me: “Long ago, there was something in me, but now that thing is gone. Now that thing is gone, that thing is gone. I cannot cry. I cannot care. That thing will come back no more.”
The “Crack-Up” articles go beyond the scope of his earlier “Sleeping and Waking” and mark the birth of a new writer in Fitzgerald. He is once again his own protagonist, but writes of himself with wry humor and more detachment than before. There is indeed a residue of bitterness, self-reproach, and bravado masquerading as studied indifference, so that he is not always able to maintain objectivity, but he is well on his way to achieving it.
The first of the articles (Esquire, February 1936) describes the self-confidence of the old Fitzgerald, to whom “Life was something you dominated if you were any good. Life yielded easily to intelligence and effort,” and he was sure he had plenty of both. But he was living too hard, and one day, at the age of thirty-nine, he “sat in the office of a great doctor and listened to a grave sentence.” It didn’t overwhelm him; he simply went to a little town, slept or dozed twenty hours a day, and tried not to think. Then suddenly, surprisingly, he got better—“And cracked like an old plate as soon as I heard the news.” The savor went out of his life and he felt a loss of vitality. “Of all natural forces,” he says, “vitality is the incommunicable one.”
The second article (March 1936) is the further history of a cracked plate. “Sometimes [it] has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the ice box under left-overs.” Fitzgerald tells us that he went into a period of silence during which he was impelled to think. “God, was it difficult!” he says. “The moving about of great secret trunks.” He decided that he had allowed other men to act as his conscience and that “there was not an ’I’ any more—not a basis on which I could organize my self-respect—save my limitless capacity for toil that it seemed I possessed no more.”
Such hope as remained is set forth in the third article (April 1936). Those who survive, he says, make a “clean break . . . something you cannot come back from . . . because it makes the past cease to exist.” For Fitzgerald this meant that he had shucked off “the old dream of being an entire man in the Goethe-Byron-Shaw tradition, with an opulent American touch, a sort of combination of J. P. Morgan, Top-ham Beauclerk and St. Francis of Assisi.” “I have now become a writer only,” he says. What he does not say in the article, but what it implies in terms of his life, is that his new writing is to come from the matured memory of a deep experience; from digging within himself.
By the time the “Crack-Up” articles appeared, I had sold the Asheville bookshop and moved to New York. Hallie Flanagan, who knew my Contempo work, had asked me to edit a Federal Theatre Magazine, then being planned as a house organ for the national project. After a year I switched to the publicity department and served an apprenticeship as a Broadway press agent. Though I was never to see Fitzgerald again, I have thought of him through the years as a friend and as the most positive influence in my efforts to become a writer worthy of receiving his advice. But I was rarely able to collect my pay as a publicist without hearing him say with scorn, “A glorified pimp on the expense account!”
Fitzgerald was back in Asheville that spring. He moved Zelda into Highland Hospital, where she spent most of her time until her death there in a fire (1948). In 1937 he was in Asheville again, before setting out for Hollywood, where his agent had gotten him a film-writing contract. He had failed in Hollywood twice before; his failures had rankled him for almost a decade. He was going back to beat the setup that had conspired against him and to earn money enough to pay his debts. Even if Save Me the Waltz didn’t materialize as a film, he would be working for a major studio.
Before he went, and while working on his first films, Fitzgerald was to suffer two more staggering reverses—both due to his fatal flaw. But he was to conquer it, convinced as he was that he could survive only as a writer. He was no longer a man divided.
The fall day that Fitzgerald left for Baltimore, Lottie picked me up at the symphony office. With the frisky poodles at her feet, she seemed as chic—if not as gay—as her old self, but standing away from them she lost a bit of her insouciance. That morning her high-cheeked, narrow face was lined and more tanned than I could remember; a frown brought out the face of a woman, a smile that of a girl. She was more woman than girl and there was an uneasiness about her that I pretended not to notice.
Lottie had come to talk about Fitzgerald, that was obvious. She had no friends that I knew of, other than Fitzgerald and myself, and he had served as a link to bring us closer. I invited her for coffee, but she preferred to sit in the sun outside the Arcade. Morning was her bedtime; I could tell she hadn’t slept. Whatever was troubling her, I knew it involved him. This was the last time I saw her; I don’t know where she went, but it couldn’t have been Baltimore.
“He talked about reforming—not me, but himself,” she said with the pretense of a laugh. “He’s too old for such tricks as three-day bats. He can’t take it any more. He said he had aimed to drink himself to death, but thought it cowardly, and decided not to—out of pride. Now a new life is waiting for him in Baltimore with his family. No more drinking and women, the two things that get him into trouble. It’ll be a big change for him. Work only from now on. Think he can make it?”
“If he wants to,” I said with a shrug. “He said he once gave up alcohol for a year. About women I don’t know.”
“He claims he’s reached the point where he can take ’em or leave ’em.” She paused a moment to watch her dogs lolling in the grass. “While in the hospital he thought about a lot of things. He said that a love affair seemed to free him from his wife. And he thought he could enjoy sex now—thanks to me—without thinking it was a forbidden pleasure.”
“You’ve done him a good service.”
“But he’s still clumsy and shy about it even if he’s learning to take his time. How screwed up can a writer be and make sense in his books?”
“The more screwed up some of them are, the more profound and brilliant they sound.”
Fitzgerald told her that he was retiring to a quiet existence of work and of being a father. There would be regular meals, a writing schedule, time for play with his daughter, and long walks. The exercise would help him to sleep again without drugs; he felt these were weakening his heart, but he had to have them. The simple life excluded excitement on the outside, so he could sink deeper into his inner world.
“I’ll write about you, but not as you are,” Fitzgerald said to her. “I’ll use bits of you, combine them with fragments of others, and come up with a character you won’t recognize. I may use your temperament, your casual mood, or the feeling you leave with me. That lingers long after impressions have faded with your story.”
Speaking of Zelda to Lottie, Fitzgerald once more said that he was partly responsible for her breakdown. He spoke of her, though, not with his old sense of guilt, but with an understanding that went beyond merely seeing her in a new light. Zelda was painting again, he said—odd, distorted shapes in vivid colors, all a residue of the chaos that had driven her to the ballet. Yes, he should have been more considerate of her, not chided her, not said bitter things which estranged them and forced her to take refuge in the sole company of her teacher. He was drinking heavily at the time—a time when he should have used his head instead of losing it.
“Now she reads the Bible, hanging on to every word as though seeking spiritual guidance. When I look at her, it’s like seeing an apparition—the ghost of someone I once loved,” he said to Lottie with detachment. “We belong to different worlds, and though we share memories of golden days we speak a different language. When I heard she was doomed, I saw myself doomed with her. But I must go on writing—the one thing I can do better than most of my contemporaries.”
Lottie said he rambled on as though he expected not to see her again. Though he didn’t moralize about her profession, he repeated that it gave him an uncomfortable feeling to think about it. He mentioned a novel and a short story in which the heroines were saved by holy men—only for the holy men to be destroyed by lusts of the flesh that the women had awakened in them. The novel was Anatole France’s Thais, about a courtesan and a high priest in old Alexandria; the story was Somerset Maugham’s “Miss Sadie Thompson,” made into the play and film, Rain, in which an American missionary confronts a prostitute in the lush South Seas.
“I don’t think I care to read them,” she said with a genuine lack of interest. “They sound silly and those writers couldn’t have known a thing about such girls. It’s like this Lawrence. Reading his Lady Chat, he sounds like a schoolboy waking up to sex as not being sinful.”
“You told him this?”
“Yes, but he wanted me to read Sons and Lovers or The Rainbow. Now I’m getting a kick out of John Reed. None of this nonsense in his book about love, sin, and men destroying themselves saving lost women. I hardly read before and I might stop—if that’s all it’s about.”
Lottie rose and went to her poodles. They danced around her and she petted them a moment. When she came back with them she gazed at the far-off mountains. I got up and looked at them too. Then she spoke in a low, harsh voice. Her face was deep in a frown and I saw more lines than before. Her fingers clutched at a beaded necklace.
“He said something last night I didn’t like. It was about him and you.” She paused. “Well, I let him have it. I couldn’t help myself. I’ll never see him again. Maybe you won’t either. No regrets for me. I hope you’ll have none.”
She gave me a sharp look. I was silent.
“It’s not about your being a radical. He said he was one himself. But things radicals preach that he doesn’t like.” She went on slowly. “He said you were bound to meet, but didn’t have to be friends. And that he had never forgotten or forgiven an injury. When I got the drift of what he meant, that finished us right then and there.”
She was again silent. “He brought up the race thing and all that goes with it. Sounded sore as hell about it and you—you being stubborn while he was trying to talk sense to you. He said some of his Red friends had sold you a bill of goods. The stuff they’re selling Negroes to join them and fight for their rights. A gimmick to make converts. A con game to boost membership and have them join in those marches. And another cause to scream about when asking freedom for the downtrodden masses.”
Lottie spoke with emotion, but she remained calm, and with a note of sarcasm in her voice as though mimicking Fitzgerald.
“He talked like a dyed-in-the-wool Southerner, thinking I was on his side. He was mistaken. Not that I’m a Red or whatever—I never bothered to vote for any Tom, Dick, or Harry running for the White House. He didn’t either, he said. But about Negroes and the ways of white folks, I happen to know plenty.”
She deliberately gave the last sentence the rhythm and inflection of Southern speech—she must have been a good actress. But the revelation in her choice of words and expressions, a characteristic phrasing, escaped me then.
“When he got to yelping about radicals wanting to mix up the races, I reminded him that whites had been doing that for hundreds of years. He explained things were different and we knew better now. When I asked him what he meant, he said our race was superior and we shouldn’t weaken it by mixing. The hemming and hawing was over. He was no more the famous writer to me, a man I’d slept with and liked, but a pasty-faced white kid named Jasper who used to yell, ’Mama!’ every time he laid eyes on me.”
Lottie paused and sat on the bench, and then went on with an odd smile. “You’d think he might’ve caught on to what I was—the way I’m sure you have by now. But I had to spell it out for him. I asked if he’d ever gone to bed with a colored girl. He gave me the damnedest look, like I accused him of sleeping with his sister. Before he could answer, I told him that he had. Yes, not once or twice, but a dozen times. He lost his tongue at that. So I told him if it gave him any consolation, I was three-quarters his color. When he got over that shock, he walked away like I had leprosy and told me to put on my clothes.”
She continued, “He was stewing and dying for a drink. He looked for a bottle, tore up the place, slamming doors and drawers, and smashed the last empty on the floor. Then he picked up the phone and called room service for a drink. He caught my eye and canceled it. While I slipped on my skirt and blouse, he lit a cigarette with shaky hands. He took a couple of drags, and then let his face drop in his hands like he was about to bawl. He mumbled something like this over and over: ’Oh, God, what’s happened to me? What’s happened to me?’
“I laughed and told him he had nothing to worry about. Whatever it was it happened for the best. In my years down South, I knew a white boy wasn’t a man till he smoked, got stinko under the kitchen table, and had himself a nigger gal in the barn. Well, he finally made it in real style, and he could now call himself a man.”
It was the one time, I believe, when the occasion presented itself, that Fitzgerald didn’t say he was “mature at last.” Instead he told her with an ironic laugh, “God, that wop bastard must be laughing up his sleeve.”
“I told him you didn’t know what I was—so he wouldn’t take it out on you.” She paused. “Now he tried to apologize, saying he liked me and was always courteous to colored people. I asked him who he had known and where. It turned out he only knew maids, bellhops, pullman porters, and people like that. But not a single one out of service. Well, I told him, he had met one now. Me. He might never put me in a book, but he’d never forget me, if he lived to be a hundred.”
Lottie ended with a twisted smile. That was her triumph. But the experience had hurt, I could see. Not learning again what she already knew too well, but getting it from a man she had cared for.
“Color’s a blind spot with him,” I said gently. “And that goes for Jews, Italians, and other foreigners. His first books are full of nasty cracks. But he told me he had changed. Now that he’s free of his wife, it might happen sooner. She was from Alabama.”
She rose with a sigh. “You think so?”
“Didn’t you tell him he’d never forget you, if he lived to be a hundred?”
Lottie looked at me with vacant eyes, as though surrounded by a vast emptiness. She raised a gloved hand to say good-by and walked off with her poodles prancing ahead of her. Though a bit reserved, she was once more the actress playing her casual ladylike role. As I stopped at the Arcade entrance for a last look, I saw her chatting with an elegant man who had taken off his hat to her. No doubt they were chatting about Juliet and Romeo.