Scott Fitzgeraldwould have flunked all the tests in the Sunday supplements. He could not quit drinking—or rather, like Mark Twain with cigars, he quit a hundred times. He could not drink without getting drunk. He did terrible things while in his cups, then tried to apologize or rationalize his behavior away the next day.
His daughter Scottie, who saw him during some of the worst times, once proposed two tests for alcoholism. (1) Does liquor have a strongly deleterious effect on one’s life? (2) Does one undergo a change of personality when drinking? Her father qualified on both counts, she believes. “He was a totally different person when drunk: not just gay or tiddly, but mean.” After a few drinks, Fitzgerald fastidiously blew his breath into his hands to see if it was offensive. After a few more, he went out of his way to offend.
Fitzgerald had plenty of company in his addiction to alcohol. During the 1920s a revolution in morals was in the air, and it became almost obligatory for members of the younger generation to defy prohibition. Fitzgerald signed a petition against the eighteenth amendment, along with hundreds of other artists. Liquor obviously had its appeal for many of them, especially for the writers. In the twentieth century, as Alfred Kazin has observed, booze “has come to seem a natural accompaniment of the literary life… The list of American literary drunks is very long.” Dr. Donald Goodwin, who has made a study of the matter, suggests several reasons why:
Writing is a form of exhibitionism; alcohol lowers inhibitions and brings out exhibitionism in many people. Writing requires an interest in people; alcohol increases sociability and makes people more interesting. Writing involves fantasy; alcohol promotes fantasy. Writing requires self-confidence; alcohol bolsters confidence. Writing is lonely work; alcohol assuages loneliness. Writing requires intense concentration; alcohol relaxes.
Still, this does not explain the extraordinarily high incidence of alcoholism among American writers. Of the seven American Nobel prize winners, Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, and William Faulkner were alcoholics, and two others, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, drank a great deal more than was good for them.
Kazin thinks the American writer carries a special burden in “the drive for success of every kind, the hunger for prestige, fame, and money.” It has not been enough, in a culture that measures achievement with dollar signs, simply to fulfill one’s artistic promise. Fitzgerald himself provides a classic example, caught as he was between a naive ambition to become “the greatest writer who ever lived” and a practical and often contradictory goal of making as much money as possible. Then, too, American culture has usually regarded writers as different and therefore suspect, and as if in resentment at the difference, has come to expect their self-destruction. Drink provides one of the most convenient ways to destroy oneself, and one of the most public. College campuses around the country anticipate the annual visit of the drunken poet who brags like Dylan Thomas of downing eighteen whiskeys before collapsing into a coma or who blacks out at his reading as John Berryman did. Nor is this a new phenomenon. Charles H. Foster was given the task, as a promising Amherst undergraduate in the late 1930s, of introducing Edna St. Vincent Millay. At reading time she had disappeared, but Foster found the obviously inebriated Millay in the men’s room and escorted her on stage, where she announced, weaving perceptibly, that “some poems are standing-up poems, and some are sitting-down poems. Tonight I shall read some of the sitting-down ones. “ And settled unsteadily into a chair for the balance of the reading. Almost everyone who has attended poetry readings could tell a similar story. Perhaps, as writer Lewis Hyde suggested in his article on Berryman’s alcoholism, “it would be nice if it were a little harder for the poet to come to town drunk and have everyone think it’s great fun.”
Donald Hall, writing in the same vein, acknowledges that writers like all human beings must suffer, but argues that they need not commit fast or slow suicide to prove it. “In our culture,” he points out, “an artist’s self-destructiveness is counted admirable, praiseworthy, a guarantee of sincerity. There seems to be an assumption, widely held and all but declared, that it is natural to want to destroy yourself… that if we did what we really wanted… we would be drunk all the time or addicted to heroin or at least suicidal.” Such ideas are actively pernicious, encouraging young writers to drink themselves into insensibility or cirrhosis in imitation of the Thomases and Berrymans and O’Neills and Fitzgeralds while the “consumers of vicarious death” in the audience sit on the sidelines and applaud. This is all wrong, Hall insists. “The poet who survives is the poet to celebrate.”
Whatever the public’s expectations, not all American writers become drunks. If Fitzgerald did, like Miniver Cheevy he had his reasons—too many reasons. Alcoholism seems to run in families, and his father drank. He was Irish, and the Irish drink. He was romantic, and liquor provided a glow that satisfied his yearnings. “There was a kindliness about intoxication—there was that indescribable gloss and glamor it gave, like the memories of ephemeral and faded evenings.” When life was drab, the rhythm of the weekend, with its “planned gaieties,” offered a welcome substitute. He was beset with guilt—guilt at misuse of his talent, guilt at possible complicity in Zelda’s illness, guilt about other women, guilt about the drinking itself—and drank to assuage it. He felt insecure about the worth of his work, and drinking brought relief from his doubts. Evil luck dogged his path, and he drank to put the bad breaks out of his mind. When sober he repressed hostile feelings that drinking allowed him to release. Besides, he could almost literally escape himself by ingesting enough alcohol. In his notebooks Fitzgerald copied out this fragment from Karl Billinger’s The Human Mind:
Seeking desperately for some personality to replace his own, -which he has temporarily lost, he [the alcoholic] may adopt a field of reference totally foreign to his own persona—the mild-tempered fellow who imagines himself a gangster, etc.—and support this role with such factual lying and ready invention that the layman is more than half ready to believe him.
Drunk, Fitzgerald was a terror. Yet always just below the surface lay an accusing voice that said “Christ, how can you stand me?” or “I’m really no good” to anyone who would listen. Like almost all alcoholics, Fitzgerald was suffused with self-hatred. Unlike most of them, he did not usually project that hatred onto other people. “When drunk,” he once said, “I make them all pay and pay and pay.” But the one who paid most of all was himself.
There was nothing particularly remarkable about Fitzgerald’s youthful experiments with liquor, aside from his meticulous recording of them. After some fairly innocent tippling on drugstore sherry in September 1911, when he was not quite fifteen, he went off to school and further drinking adventures. He took his first whiskey in March 1913 and in April got drunk on “four defiant Canadian Club whiskeys at the Susquehana in Hackensack.” As a Princeton freshman that fall he drank Great Western champagne at the Trent House in Trenton and groggily returned to campus. From there through the 1920s he went on to sample practically every form of alcoholic beverage from absinthe to home brew, from Canadian ale with Ring Lardner to Gerald Murphy’s grenadine cocktails, “the one flaw to make everything perfect in the world’s most perfect house.” All of this he recalled in surprising and telling detail for “A Short Autobiography (with Acknowledgments to Nathan),” a New Yorker piece in the May 25, 1929 issue, which ended with his ironic remark that it seemed “all liquor has been drunk and all it can do for one has been experienced, and yet—’Garcon, un Chablis-Mouton 1902, et pour commencer, une petite carafe de vin rose. C’est ca—merci.’” Never again would Fitzgerald admit his involvement with liquor so publicly or treat the issue so lightly.
In the beginning booze was something to boast about. Reeling about on the streetcar amused his boyhood companions and provided him with an acceptable way of showing off. “Pardon me if my hand is shaky,” he wrote a girl friend from Princeton, “but I just had a quart of sauterne and 3 Bronxes.” With Max Perkins, he struck a world-weary pose. “I should like to sit down with 1/2 dozen chosen companions and drink myself to death but I am sick alike of life, liquor and literature,” he wrote Perkins in August 1921. With Ring Lardner, another alcoholic, he kidded around. “Looked up Capri in the encyclopedia and learned the water supply for drinking was unsatisfactory,” Lardner wrote the touring Fitzgerald from Great Neck. “Hope to God this is not ruining your stay.” With strangers, Fitzgerald adopted shock tactics. “Don’t you know I am one of the most notorious drinkers of the younger generation?” he’d ask, or introduce himself as “F. Scott Fitzgerald, the well-known alcoholic.”
Brag though he might, Fitzgerald did not want anyone else commenting on his drinking in print. When Edmund Wilson proposed to do so in his March 1922 Bookman article, Scott asked him to omit his comments on “the liquor thing.’ The legend about his liquoring was “terribly widespread,” he objected, and Wilson’s comments would hurt him with “relatives and respectable friends,” with moralistic critics, “and, what is much more important, financially.” Wilson complied, but eventually Fitzgerald’s drinking— the liquor itself and the debilitating effect it had—took its toll, and not solely on his earnings as a writer.
During his early drinking days, Fitzgerald had a very low tolerance for alcohol. In the mid-1920s he “would pass out cold at the number of drinks that would just make you feel good,” Ernest Hemingway recalled, adding that “he enjoyed passing out because it made him the center of attention.” Hemingway’s comments were uncharitable, but others confirm his view of Fitzgerald’s capacity during those days. He “simply couldn’t drink,’ Louis Bromfield commented. “One cocktail and he was off. It seemed to affect him as much as five or six drinks affected Hemingway or myself.” Then he would become “very disagreeable and rude and quarrelsome, as if all his resentments were released at once.” Carl Van Vechten also agreed. “He was a very bad drinker, and he used to get drunk on very little, and then be almost impossible. ’
There are those who believe, Edmund Wilson and John Dos Passos among them, that Fitzgerald was by no means always so drunk as he seemed, and that he used liquor as an excuse for behaving outrageously. In any event, his tolerance had vastly increased by the mid-1980s, when he regularly consumed thirty bottles of beer and/or a quart of gin a day. John Biggs remembers meeting Fitzgerald after his doctor had told him he’d die if he didn’t stop drinking. The doctor allowed him a gill of gin a day. Sitting on the lawn under the trees at Biggs’s house, Fitzgerald drank a whole bottle, carefully measuring it out a gill at a time. Still later, he took pains to conceal the evidence of his alcoholism. One of the first duties assigned to Frances Kroll, his secretary in Los Angeles in 1939 and 1940, was to gather empty gin bottles in a gunny sack and drop them over the side of a canyon.
The furtive drinker of the Hollywood years had come a long way from the first year of his marriage, when he and Zelda exhibited themselves for the applause or head-shaking of the New York public. From the start there was something almost desperate in their antics. As James Thurber has observed, they “did not know how to invite gaiety. They twisted its arm, got it down, and sat on its chest. ’ Nor did the Fitzgeralds invariably enjoy themselves. Max Eastman, who knew them on the Riviera in 1925, detected no trace of conviviality in their drinking. They drank automatically, it seemed to him. Liquor took them out of themselves and the dull quotidian round into a more colorful if more destructive world. Drinking made things happen. And for a long while it did not seem to matter what those things cost.
The principal cost was in fractured relationships. As time wore on, their alcoholic playfulness turned destructive. “If you want to get your furniture antiqued up,” a friend remarked, “you want to get the Fitzgeralds in—they’ll antique it up in a single night. ’ Scott did most of the antiquing. Zelda’s tendency when drinking was toward suicide—threatening to drive the car off a cliff, parking on the railroad tracks—while Scott indulged in various forms of outrageous behavior. In July 1923, feeling like it, he drove his car into a lake. He also developed the habit of throwing things when drunk. Anita Loos recalls one evening in Great Neck when he bombarded her and Zelda at close range with “two enormous candelabras with lighted candles, a water carafe, a metal wine cooler and a silver platter.” The two women took refuge under the oak table.
This sort of mad drunkenness reached its nadir during the time the Fitzgeralds spent in France during the middle and late 1920s. Significantly, the major victims were the elegant and socially confident Gerald and Sara Murphy. One evening at Juan-les-Pins, Dos Passos remembered, Scott crawled under the doormat at the entrance to the Casino and stayed there until Sara coaxed him out like a cat from under a bed. On another occasion he deliberately kicked over a tray of nuts and candies offered for sale by a female street vendor, then offered her a roll of bills to pay for the damage. He also continued to throw things. During a caviar and champagne party given by the Murphys, he started lobbing ashtrays at adjacent tables. At one of their dinner parties he threw a fig and hit the Princesse de Caraman-Chinay between her shoulder blades. She ignored it, but when Archibald MacLeish remonstrated with Fitzgerald, Scott slugged him. Later he began tossing exquisite gold-flecked Venetian wineglasses over the wall, smashing three before the Murphys exiled him for three weeks.
This destructive pattern was often accompanied, when Fitzgerald was drinking, by a series of insistent and intimate questions. The gambit, as Dos Passos commented, “was to put you in the wrong. You were backward in your ideas. You were inhibited about sex.” These things might have been true, but Dos Passos was damned if he thought they were anyone’s business but his own. Fitzgerald would ask whether couples had slept together before marriage and seek details of their current sex life. Few friendships survived this sort of interrogation. The Murphys, who knew how charming Fitzgerald could be sober and who genuinely admired his work, were more tolerant than most, but eventually Sara sent Scott a scathing letter. “We consider ourselves your friends,” she wrote, but Fitzgerald had been treating them instead “as objects for observation” and could hardly expect them to accept “a Continual feeling of analysis & sub-analysis, & criticism—on the whole unfriendly.” Scott ought to know that he couldn’t have “Theories about friends.” He’d have to change if they were to remain friends, Sara implied. He didn’t.
Following his drunken excesses, Fitzgerald would usually be overcome with remorse. On the morning after, he was perfectly capable of being shocked by his own behavior the night before.“Did I say that?” he’d ask. “Did I do that? My God!” There would follow a torrent of apologies, and a gentle reminder that he could, sometimes, be almost human. This tack did not satisfy everyone. “Between being dangerous when drunk and eating humble pie when sober,” Anita Loos remarked, “I preferred Scott dangerous.”
By the late 1920s Zelda had stopped drinking with him. Her immersion in the world of ballet had something to do with this, but even before she began to dance seriously—homeward bound from Europe in December 1926—she warned Ludlow Fowler (who’d been best man at the Fitzgeralds’ wedding) not to drink like Scott if he wanted his own marriage to be any good. When they returned to Europe again, first in the summer of 1928 and again in 1929, the drinking and the marriage slipped out of control.
Fitzgerald’s private ledger provides a shorthand guide to that time. “Carried home from Ritz,” notes the ledger entry for June 1928, and then, later that summer, “Drinking and general unpleasantness … first trip jail… dive in Lido… second trip jail.” In 1929 the story was much the same: “Being drunk and snubbed… Fairies, breakdown… Rows and indifference… The Murphy yatch [sic] and a last row.” Zelda fleshed out this sparse account in a long letter written after her collapse. In 1928: “You didn’t work and were dragged home at night by taxi-drivers when you came home at all,” she told her husband. “You got up for lunch. You made no advances toward me and complained that I was unresponsive. You were literally eternally drunk the whole summer.” In 1929: “You disgraced yourself at the [Philip] Barrys’ party, on the yacht at Monte Carlo, at the casino with Gerald and Dotty. Many nights you didn’t come home. You came into my room once the whole summer.”
Not only did Fitzgerald’s marriage fall into disrepair with his drinking, he also “wrecked” himself “with dozens of people. “ One reason was his propensity to get into quarrels or actual fights when drinking. On one well-documented occasion, in Rome in 1924, he took a swing at a policeman in the course of an argument over taxi fare (the incident, thinly disguised, is described in Tender Is the Night) and was severely beaten and jailed. Despite that humiliation Fitzgerald went on to a series of brawls. To the end of his life hebecame belligerent when drinking, a man “In the dark time of drink who raged,/Who struck to hurt,” as a poem of his phrased it. According to Hemingway, when the two of them went out together Scott would insult someone and Ernest “would have to square it to keep him from being beaten up.” Scott “could never fight a lick on the best day he ever lived” yet “he got so he liked to hit people” and he would have to take over, Ernest said. Hemingway decided that Fitzgerald liked being humiliated. Surely he invited punishment.
He especially liked baiting Southerners. In June 1923 Fitzgerald got into a fight with a Texan visiting in Great Neck who insisted, as Ring Lardner put it, “that there weren’t no real decent fellas nowheres but in the south.” In the early 1930s he walked up to a stranger in the Norfolk, Virginia, railway station and made derogatory remarks about the size of his stomach. During the summer of 1935 in Asheville, he conducted a mock court case in which he, as prosecutor, tried half a dozen men for the crime of being Southerners. That time bravado carried the day and no one beat him up, despite his insulting remarks. But there were other times when he managed to provoke fights, extending well into his last years in Hollywood, and usually he lost. Sheilah Graham reports one memorable incident when Scott began making audibly flattering remarks about the girl sitting in front of him in an airport limousine. “Such lovely hair, such poise,” he said, and so forth. The girl self-consciously glanced at her escort at first, then as the flattery continued turned to smile at Scott. At this he said, “You silly bitch.” The man with her “turned to face Scott, white with anger,” but the limousine reached the airport and nothing further ensued.
All the warning signs of alcoholism loomed in Fitzgerald’s path: a ruined marriage, broken friendships, fistfights, brushes with the law. But like other alcoholics he refused to recognize these signs for what they were and made excuses for himself instead. To conceal his addiction from others, he drank water-white gin by the tumblerful. To conceal it from himself, he rationalized his actions away.
When Zelda was first hospitalized in 1930, the issue of her husband’s drinking came to a head. In his letter “written with Zelda gone to the Clinique,” Fitzgerald acknowledged his “insane indulgence in drink” but linked that indulgence to her “almost megalomaniacal selfishness” and suggested that the heavy drinking had begun when Zelda was ill during 1925 and 1926. “I had to get drunk before I could leave you sick and not care,” he explained. To Dr. Oscar L. Forel, Zelda’s psychiatrist, he also claimed that Zelda had led him to drink, but not because of her illness. “During the first seven years of our marriage,” he wrote Dr. Forel, “it was she who wanted to drink” while he worked. When they went to Europe in 1924, it was “upon her urging” that he began to look forward to wine at dinner. (She drank it at lunch, he didn’t, he said.) He’d inaugurated “the ballet idea” in 1927 “to stop her idle drinking,” Fitzgerald went on. But now he’d found that a moderate amount of wine at each meal “made all the difference” in how he felt. The dark circles under his eyes disappeared, the coffee didn’t beat in his head at night, he looked forward to dinner instead of dreading his wife’s “long monologues about ballet steps, alternating with a glazed eye toward any civilized conversation whatsoever.” Forel would understand why he could not promise to stop drinking entirely. The fact that he had abused liquor was “something to be paid for with suffering and death but not renunciation… [He could not] consider one pint of wine at the day’s end as anything but one of the rights of man.” Besides, wouldn’t giving up alcohol prove to Zelda’s relatives and friends that his drinking had caused her “calamity”? Any human value he possessed would disappear if he condemned himself to a lifelong asceticism to which he was “not adapted either by habit, temperament or the circumstances of my metier.”
This letter to Forel, a classic litany of rationalizations, minimized Fitzgerald’s drinking problems and made a number of contradictory assertions. Zelda was the drinker, not him, or at least she had been at first. He drank very little himself, only a pint of wine with dinner. But he wasn’t about to give that up, because it would make him unhealthy, constitute an admission of complicity in Zelda’s illness, and even deprive him of any value he possessed as a human being.
Forel undoubtedly diagnosed Fitzgerald’s self-justification, just as Dr. Adolf Meyer did when in the course of treating Zelda in Baltimore two years later he referred to Scott as “a potential butunwilling patient” also. Fitzgerald immediately bridled at the suggestion. He was not to be confused with the local Hunt-Club alcoholic, since he had his drinking well in hand. Besides, Dr. Meyer ought to be able to discriminate “between an overextended, imaginative, functioning man using alcohol as a stimulus or a temporary aisment and a schizophrene.” The doctor shouldn’t believe everything Zelda told him.
From his editor and agent, who knew that Fitzgerald was not functioning as well as he once had, Scott asked for mercy. “The assumption that all my troubles are due to drink is a little too easy,” he wrote Ober in a December 1934 “apologia pro sua vita.” As alternate causes he mentioned “all the horrors in Montgomery” in the winter of 1930 and 1931, particularly the recurrence of Zelda’s illness, and his own submersion in Tender Is the Night following a realization that his “literary reputation, except with the Post readers, was at its very lowest ebb.” He’d struggled to finish the book, but the effort left him totally exhausted with “no time or space for recuperation.” His holiday in Bermuda was ruined when he came down with pleurisy. Zelda had collapsed again shortly thereafter. Finally he shifted his tone in an incomplete sentence that broke off the letter: “Of course any apologia is necessarily a whine to some extent, a man digs his own grave and should, presumably, lie on it and I know that the fault for this goes back to those years, which were really years of self-in-…”
Self-indulgence, yes, but as he’d appealed to Perkins the previous month, “without drink I do not know whether I could have survived this time.” Liquor offered him surcease from sorrow, helped him put Zelda’s tragedy out of his mind, kept up his morale: so he wrote in correspondence during 1935 and 1936, while his own drinking drove him to degradation and drying-out trips to hospitals.
James Thurber, another drinking writer, probably understood Fitzgerald’s problem as well as anyone. He recognized the process of self-justification that provided Scott with multiple reasons for drinking: “Zelda’s tragedy, his constant financial worries, his conviction that he was a failure, his disillusionment about the Kingdom of the Very Rich, and his sorrow over the swift passing of youth and romantic love.” But all these excuses put together, Thurberconcluded, did not commit Fitzgerald to alcoholism so powerfully as the idea that “his creative vitality demanded stimulation”—that he had to drink in order to write.
To begin with, Fitzgerald disputed this notion. Told that Bret Harte had written a 6,000-word story between midnight and 5 a.m. while fueled by whiskey, the twenty-five-year-old author of This Side of Paradise couldn’t imagine how. “To me,” he said, “narcotics are deadening to work.” Coffee might help, but not whiskey. He’d written Paradise on Coca-Cola. But by 1928, when he and Zelda were living at Ellerslie, Scott had begun relying on liquor as an aid to work. Then he conveniently began finding lots of forerunners, in addition to Harte. “Can you name a single American artist except James & Whistler (who lived in England) who didn’t die of drink?” he challenged a correspondent. Alcohol, he decided, was the writer’s vice, and like the others he needed it to do his work. “Drink heightens feeling,” he told Laura Guthrie. “When I drink, it heightens my emotions and I put it in a story…. My stories written when sober are stupid… all reasoned out, not felt.” In this vein he liked to compare himself to General Grant and recall Lincoln’s famous remark about finding out what kind of whiskey Grant drank so he could send some of it to his less successful generals. At the same time he realized that liquor did not always contribute to art, that while drinking might heighten the emotions, it also befuddled one’s powers of organization and interfered with revision. “A short story can be written on a bottle, but for a novel you need the mental speed that enables you to keep the whole pattern in your head.” He would give anything, he said, if he “hadn’t had to write Part III of Tender Is the Night entirely on stimulant.”
Realizing this, and knowing with part of his mind that booze was ruining him as a man as well as an artist, Fitzgerald was constantly going on the wagon and telling people about it. In time it may have come to seem to him that making the declaration was equivalent to actually quitting. He was “on the absolute wagon and working on the novel, the whole novel and nothing but the novel,” he wrote Perkins from Paris in July 1928, a few days after being carried home from the Ritz and a few days prior to his first trip to jail that summer. More than anyone else Perkins heard Fitzgerald’s claims:
“I haven’t had a drink for almost six weeks and haven’t had the faintest temptation as yet.’ “Except for a three day break last week (Xmas) I have been on the absolute wagon since the end of October. Feel simply grand.” Like Ring Lardner before him, he began setting specific dates for abstinence. “Am going on the water wagon from the first of February to the first of April,” he wrote Perkins early in 1933. In May 1935 he told Arnold Gingrich that he’d noticed his prose getting “rather watery” and decided to “quit drinking for a few years.” But he did not resolve to stop drinking altogether. Always at the end of a rainbow period of sobriety lay the crock of liquor. And with that golden end in sight, he could hardly be expected to stick to a specific time schedule. He could always stop drinking when there was something to be done, he insisted, and took another drink.
One theory holds that the alcoholic cannot successfully stop drinking until brought to the very brink of self-destruction. Fitzgerald reached this point at the end of 1936. He was doing less and less writing, and what he produced wasn’t selling to the Saturday Evening Post or anyone else. He’d worn out his welcome with most of the people he knew in Baltimore. (“Paul and I stopped at his house to take him to Pimlico [one day],” Fluff Beckwith MacKie reported, “and he fell the length of the steps to the bottom—drunk.”) He’d been hospitalized several times to dry out. At home he had to hire nurses to keep him from the bottle. He’d made at least two attempts at suicide. But the final degradation came at the tea dance he gave for Scottie in December 1936.
Fitzgerald’s letters to his daughter are peppered with reminders that she was not herself a rich girl. At times Scottie probably needed such reminders, since her father saw to it that she was surrounded, in school and college, by the daughters of extremely wealthy families. He was proud of Scottie—of her charm and wit and popularity—and obviously wanted her to have the kind of social success he’d been denied as a boy. Thus he was delighted to send her, with the help of a partial scholarship, to Ethel Walker’s school in Connecticut. During his first fall visit there he promised to give her a party at Christmastime in Baltimore. After consultation with Margaret Turnbull and others, he decided that a tea dance Wouldbe more appropriate and less expensive than an evening affair.
Zelda, institutionalized at Highland Hospital near Asheville, would not attend. It was to be a father-and-daughter venture. The cards, he wrote Scottie, should read something like
Miss Frances Scott Fitzgerald
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Four to six
To amuse his fifteen-year-old, he told her he was “determined to have a hurdy-gurdy for the orchestra—you know, an Italian with a monkey.” That would be good enough for the children, while the adults would dance to a swing band in an adjoining room. Jesting aside, he obviously wanted to do the right thing for Scottie.
When the day of the dance arrived, he did the worst thing imaginable. He became conspicuously tipsy and insisted on weaving around the dance floor with some of Scottie’s young friends, to their general amusement and her acute embarrassment. She had seen him drunk often enough. Once he had slapped her for supposedly interrupting his writing. Another time he sailed an inkwell past her ear. But never before had he so publicly and socially disgraced himself and his daughter. To her credit Scottie carried on bravely, attending another party that evening as if nothing had happened. Both father and daughter knew better. At the new year Fitzgerald once more resolved to stop drinking. This time he did not schedule an end for his trip on the wagon.
Through the winter and spring of 1937, he stuck to his new regimen, aided by the friendship and understanding of Nora and Lefty Flynn in Tryon, North Carolina. Then Ober secured him a contract with MGM in Hollywood, and at mid-summer Fitzgerald reported that “everyone is very nice to me, surprised and rather relieved that I don’t drink. I am happier than I’ve been for several years.” In October he wrote the Finneys in Baltimore (who had supplied Scottie with “eggs and consolation” after the tea dancedebacle) that he thought he was through drinking for good. He wasn’t, quite, and suffered some horrendous relapses during the next two years. But he stayed dry for all of 1940, the last year left to him, drinking gallons of Coke and taking sedatives to calm his nerves and enable him to sleep.
It was characteristic of Fitzgerald that even while rationalizing the disasters of drink, he simultaneously realized the toll that alcohol was exacting. As he told St. Paulite Clifton Read in the winter of 1926, he and Zelda had gone to the Pyrenees to cut back on their drinking, but it hadn’t worked. “Wherever you go, you take yourselves and your faults with you. In the mountains or in the city, you make the same things happen.” Those things, he knew, were ruining him socially:
Just when somebody’s taken him up and is making a big fuss over him he pours the soup down his hostess’ back, kisses the serving maid and passes out in the dog kennel. But he’s done it too often. He’s run through about everybody, until there’s no one left.
He wrote in his notebooks with cynical self-awareness that when sober he wouldn’t be able to stand the people he’d like when drunk, and that when “anyone announces to you how little they drink, you can be sure it’s a regime they just started.”
As her doctors made clear, the reckless round of parties had a devastating effect on Zelda. In a 1932 letter, Fitzgerald chided a friend for trying to restore the alcoholic haze of the past:
You annoyed me… by insisting on a world which we will willingly let die, in which Zelda can’t live, which damn near ruined us both, which neither you nor any of our more gifted friends are yet sure of surviving; you insisted on its value, as if you were in some way holding a battle front and challenged us to join you. If you could have seen Zelda, as the most typical end-product of that battle during any day from the spring of ’31 to the spring of ’32 you would have felt about as much enthusiasm for the battle as a doctor at the end of the day in a dressing station behind a blood battle.
Perhaps in another year Zelda would be well; in the meantime, “she must live in a state of teutonic morality.”
Liquor could not only wound but kill. The prognosis was particularly dark for those who started drinking early. “Drunk at 20, wrecked at 30, dead at 40,” a notebook entry reads. “Drunk at 21, human at 31, mellow at 41, dead at 51.” He and Zelda both thought that people should start at the North Pole and gradually work south and that they should first “drink at 35 and progress to a champagne-pink three score and ten.” Parties, he once remarked, were “a form of suicide.” By the 1930s he was carrying around with him a collection of photographs showing the grisly effects of liquor on various human organs. He knew that booze would eventually kill him and with black humor joked about the idea of drinking himself to death. “Then I was drunk for many years,’ he wrote in his notebooks, “and then I died.”
Even more than in his notebook entries, Fitzgerald revealed his attitudes toward drinking in his fiction. From the beginning it was a subject he liked to write about. There are drunks or drinking bouts in all his novels, just as there had been one in A Regular Fix, the first of the Elizabethan dramatic club plays he wrote and participated in as a St. Paul teen-ager. Amory Blaine of This Side of Paradise goes on a binge after Rosalind Connage throws him over. Anthony Patch of The Beautiful and Damned is “wrecked on the shoals of dissipation.” The Great Gatsby (1925) displays a curious ambivalence about drinking. Gatsby’s parties attract some of Long Island and New York City’s more conspicuous and unsavory freeloaders. Rather shockingly—or at least Fitzgerald seems to have found it shocking—women get so tight at these parties that they have to be dunked to sober up or to be “lifted, kicking, into the night” by their escorts. Yet the tone remains more humorous than judgmental in the wonderfully comic scene where Owl Eyes and the “pale dangling individual” manage to sever a wheel from their new coupe.
By the end of the decade, however, liquor was no longer a laughing matter in Fitzgerald’s fiction. Whatever he might say in private conversation or correspondence, he confronted his demon openly in his stories and novels, with all the rationalizations strippedaway. Several of the stories trace the downfall of potentially likable and worthwhile characters, defeated by the bottle. Producer Bill McChesney loses wife and career to liquor and social pretentiousness in “Two Wrongs” (1930). It becomes clear to Michael Curly, in “The Bridal Party” (1930), that expatriates in Paris were “too weary to be exhilarated by any ordinary stimulant,” even though they downed cocktails like Americans, wine like Frenchmen, beer like Germans, and whiskey-and-soda like the English. The liquor produced no gaiety, merely a temporary amnesia.
One of the points made by “Babylon Revisited” (1931), the best of Fitzgerald’s drinking stories, is that such amnesia does not last. No matter how he squandered time and money in order not to remember, Charlie Wales cannot forget what his drinking has caused: “his child taken from his control, his wife escaped to a grave in Vermont.” He has apparently solved his drinking problem, but Wales is not permitted to recover his daughter Honoria—not until he has paid a still longer and more bitter penance for the wild days and nights of the boom in Paris. The story is obviously autobiographical. Scottie was not taken from him after Zelda’s breakdown, but there were those—Zelda’s sister Rosalind, for example—who thought that she should have been.
Similar autobiographical patterns emerge in the depiction of such characters as Joel Coles, the screenwriter in “Crazy Sunday” (1932) who disgraces himself at a producer’s party, and Dr. Forrest Janney in “Family in the Wind” (1932), whose hands shake so badly that he cannot operate safely. And nothing struck so close to home as the case of Doctor Richard Diver in Tender Is the Night (1934).
Just as “Absolution” and “Winter Dreams” served as preliminary studies for The Great Gatsby, such stories as “One Trip Abroad” (1930) and “A New Leaf” (1931) prepared for Tender Is the Night. Nelson and Nicole Kelly of “One Trip Abroad” do not begin as excessive drinkers. But life in Europe makes them restless, neither has a strong commitment to a profession, and the evenings are long, so they drink a lot of wine at dinner. Eventually, they start spending their time at “several famous bars, all the night clubs except one or two that were highly decorous, all the early-morningclubs of every description, and all summer resorts that made whoopee for its own sake—whoopee triumphant and unrestrained— the main attraction of the season.” They try to slow down, unsuccessfully. Finally, like handsome Dick Ragland of “A New Leaf,” Nelson finds he cannot face people socially without the stimulus of liquor. “I found that with a few drinks,” Ragland explains, “I got expansive and somehow had the ability to please people, and the idea turned my head. Then I began to take a whole lot of drinks to keep going and have everybody think I was wonderful.” Then he would get plastered and quarrel with his friends and insult the new bunch of drinking companions that replaced them.
Ragland’s situation parallels that of Dick Diver. Both are successful with women. Both possess a charm that liquor seems to heighten. Both become victims of alcohol. Dick Diver loses his ambition and his energy and his wife in his slow downward journey. Dick Ragland’s death is more immediate. He drowns himself at sea, realizing that he can never change. “What makes you think that people change their courses?” the narrator asks.
Actually, Ragland’s sudden demise resembles Abe North’s more than Dick Diver’s. North, a prominent figure in the first section of Tender Is the Night, has quit trying to fight his addiction. While “walking in a slow dream,” he inspires “a curious respect … rather like the respect of simple races for the insane. Respect rather than fear. There is something awe-inspring in one who has lost all inhibitions, who will do anything.” But no one wants him around in his terrifying stupor, not even his friend Diver. When Dick sends him away, Abe reproaches him with a garbled version of one of Fitzgerald’s own justifications: “remember what George the third said, that if Grant was drunk he wished he would bite those other generals.” Then he takes ship for New York, where he’s beaten to death in a speakeasy and crawls home to the Racquet Club to die.
In the novel Abe North’s grisly end foreshadows Diver’s more gradual deterioration. What both were courting, what Bill McChesney and Dick Ragland were courting, what the drunks in “An Alcoholic Case” (1937) and “A Lost Decade” (1939) were courting, what Fitzgerald himself was courting, was self-destruction. “Nowyou are drunk at last,” John Peale Bishop wrote in his memorial poem for his old Princeton friend,
And that disgrace
You sought in oblivious dives you have
At last, in the dissolution of the grave.
158 two tests: SD, interview with SFS, 21 May 1978.
158 “American literary drunks”: Alfred Kazin, “’The Giant Killer’: Drink & the American Writer,” Commentary, 61 (March 1976), 44.
159 “Writing … relaxes”: Dr. Donald Goodwin, “The Alcoholism of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 212 (6 April 1970), quoted by Ralph Tyler, “The Muse in the Bottle,” Bookviews (September 1978), pp. 14-19.
159 “drive for success”: Kazin, Commentary, p. 50.
159 Millay … “sitting-down”: Charles Foster told this anecdote sometime during 1963-66.
159-60 “drunk…great fun”: Lewis Hyde, “Alcohol and Poetry: John Berryman and the Booze Talking,” American Poetry Review, quoted by Tyler, Bookviews, p. 18.
160 suicide … “celebrate”: Donald Hall, Remembering Poets: Reminiscences and Opinions (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), pp. 28-29.
160 “kindliness… gaieties”: FSF, The Beautiful and Damned (New York: Scribner’s, 1922), p. 417, FSF, Notebooks, p. 35.
160 beset with guilt: SD, interview with SFS, 21 May 1978.
160-61 copied out… fragment: AM, Notes.
161 “pay and pay and pay”: FSF, Notes, Firestone.
161 meticulous recording…: Mizener, p. 20; FSF, Ledger, pp. 167-68; FSF, “A Short Autobiography (With Acknowledgments to Nathan),” The New Yorker (25 May 1929), pp. 22-23.
161-62 boast about…“most notorious”: Goodwin, JAMA, p. 87; FSF to MP, 25 August 1921, Letters, p. 148; Ring Lardner to FSF, 25 March 1922, Firestone; John Chapin Mosher, “That Sad Young Man,” Miscellany, p. 443.
162 omit… “liquor thing”: FSF to EW, January 1922, Letters, p. 330.
162 “pass out cold…”: Ernest Hemingway to Harvey Breit, 18 August 1954, Selected Letters 1917-1961, ed. Carlos Baker (New York: Scribner’s, 1981), p. 834.
162 “One cocktail… off: AM, Notes.
162 “very bad drinker”: “The Reminiscences of Carl Van Vechten,” Oral History Office, Columbia University, 1960.
162 Wilson.. .Dos Passos: EW, “The Twenties,” The New Yorker (28 April 1975), p. 52.
163 beer…gin: Guthrie, p. 56; Marie Shank to AM, 26 October 1949.
163 gill at a time: AM, Notes.
163 bottles… canyon: Frances Ring, “My Boss, Scott Fitzgerald,” Los Angeles Magazine, 7 (January 1964), 34-35.
163 “twisted its arm”: James Thurber, “Scott in Thorns,” Credos and Curios (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), pp. 157-60.
163 no trace of conviviality: Max Eastman, Love and Revolution—My Journey through an Epoch (New York: Random House, 1964), p. 465.
163 “furniture antiqued…”: Kazin, Commentary, p. 45.
163 car into a lake: FSF, Ledger, p. 177.
163 “candelabras…”: Anita Loos, Cast of Thousands (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1977), p. 128.
164 cat from… bed: John Dos Passos to AM, 30 April 1950.
164 tray of nuts …: Turnbull, p. 165.
164 ashtrays … wineglasses: Calvin Tomkins, “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” The New Yorker (28 July 1962), pp. 60-61; Turnbull, p. 167.
164 The gambit…: John Dos Passos, The Best Times (New York: New American Library, 1966), p. 128.
164 Sara … scathing …: Sara Murphy to FSF, June 1926, Correspondence, pp. 196-97.
164-65 overcome … remorse …: AM, interview with Mr. and Mrs. C. O. Kalman, 13 December 1947; Loos, Cast, p. 129.
165 warned Ludlow …: Turnbull, p. 168.
165 ledger… shorthand…: FSF, Ledger, pp. 182-83.
165 Zelda… account…: ZF to FSF, late summer/early fall 1930, Correspondence, p. 248.
165 “wrecked” himself: FSF, Ledger, p. 182.
166 “In the dark time …”: FSF, poem fragment, Firestone: apparently these lines were deleted from “Lamp in a Window.”
166 insult… humiliated: Ernest Hemingway to Harvey Breit, 18 August 1954, Selected Letters, p. 835.
166 “no real… fellas …”: Ring Lardner to Francis R. Kitchell, 15 June 1923, reprinted in Benjamin Lease, “An Evening at the Scott Fitzgeralds’: An Unpublished Letter of Ring Lardner,” English Language Notes (September 1970), pp. 40-42.
166 Norfolk … stomach: Joseph A. Howell, Jr., to AM, 12 January 1949.
166 crime … Southerners: Guthrie, p. 118.
166 flattering … girl. Infidel, p. 209.
166-67 “had to get drunk …”: FSF to ZF, summer (?) 1930, Correspondence, p. 239.
167 “she who wanted… drink”: FSF to Dr. Oscar Forel, summer (?) 1930, Correspondence, pp. 242-43.
167-68 “potential… patient”: Dr. Adolf Meyer to FSF, 18 April 1933, Firestone.
168 discriminate .. .“schizophrene”: FSF to Dr. Adolf Meyer, spring 1933, Correspondence, pp. 309-11.
168 Ober… “apologia”: FSF to Harold Ober, 8 December 1934, As Ever, Scott Fitz------, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Jennifer M. Atkinson (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972), pp. 209-10.
168 “without drink … survived”: FSF to MP, 8 November 1934, Scott/Max, p. 210.
168 Zelda’s tragedy … morale: FSF to Margaret Turnbull, June 1935, and FSF to C. O. Kalman, 10 October 1936, Utters, pp. 429, 544-45.
168-69 Thurber… reasons: Thurber, “Scott in Thorns,” pp. 157-58.
169 narcotics… deadening: Thomas Boyd, “Literary Libels (One): F. Scott Fitzgerald,” St. Paul Daily News, 5 March 1922.
169 Ellerslie … liquor… work: Milford, p. 141.
169 “single American artist…”: FSF to Marya Mannes, 21 October 1925, in Matthew J. Bruccoli, F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Descriptive Bibliography (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972), p. 265.
169 writer’s vice … “heightens feeling…”: Goodwin, JAMA, p. 88; Turnbull, p. 259.
169 compare … Grant: See, for example, FSF to Rosalind Sayre Smith, 19 July 1934, Correspondence, p. 374.
169 “A short story … stimulant”: FSF to MP, 11 March 1935, Letters, pp. 259-60.
169-70 wagon… telling people: FSF to MP, c. 1 July 1928, 11 March 1935, 19 January 1933, Letters, pp. 210, 260, 230; FSF to Arnold Gingrich, 8 May 1935, Letters, p. 523.
170 “Pimlico … drunk”: Elizabeth Beckwith MacKie, “Fitzgerald Notes,” Firestone.
170-71 tea dance… embarrassment: FSF to SF, 12 December 1936, Letters, pp. 13-14; Turnbull, p. 283.
171 slapped… inkwell: Guthrie, p. 97; SD, interview with SFS, 21 May 1978.
171 resolved to stop drinking: FSF to Beatrice Dance, early 1937, Correspondence, p. 471.
171 “Everyone… nice”: FSF to MP, before 19 July 1937, Letters, p. 274.
172 “Wherever you go…”: Clifton R. Read to Ann Schilling, 12 February 1970, St. Paul Academy.
172 “Just when somebody’s …”: FSF, Notebooks, p. 148.
172 stand… people … “regime”: FSF, Notebooks, pp. 222, 53.
172-73 “You annoyed me …”: FSF to “Dick” (Myers?), 29 September 1932, Firestone.
173 “Drunk at 20…”: FSF, Crack-Up, p. 196.
173 North Vole…: FSF to Margaret Turnbull, spring 1937, Letters, p. 443.
173 “Parties … suicide”: AM, Notes.
173 grisly… organs: Goodwin, JAMA, p. 88; Margaret C. L. Gildea to Andrew Turnbull, 16 December 1958.
173 “Then … drunk … died’: FSF, Notes, Firestone.
176 Bishop … memorial poem: John Peale Bishop, “The Hours,” New Republic (3 March 1941), p. 313.