With ahandsome contract from MGM in his pocket, Fitzgerald arrived in Hollywood in June 1937 determined to recoup his fortunes and straighten out his life. It was an unlikely place, this city of gilt and make-believe, for a man in his forties to achieve maturity, but that is what he managed to accomplish during the three and a half years left to him. He could not have made it without the love of an unusual woman.
Fitzgerald met Sheilah Graham less than a fortnight after coming to Hollywood at a party celebrating her engagement to the Marquess of Donegall. He saw her again a week later, at the Screen Writers Guild dance. On July 24 they had dinner together for the first time. Within a month they were lovers. Her engagement was called off, and, though they kept separate residences for propriety’s sake, they began to spend their evenings together. The arrangement lasted until Fitzgerald’s death.
In her blonde beauty, Sheilah resembled Zelda—that was what first attracted Scott—but she came from a totally different world. What’s more, she pretended to a status in that world she did not have. According to her story, she had been born to an upper-class English family, but had become a showgirl and a journalist because she found society boring. Not entirely persuaded, Fitzgerald kept prying for details. Eventually she told him the truth. Her name was Lily Sheil. She’d been born in London’s East End slums and raised in an orphanage. She’d been married before, to a much olderman who urged her to go on the stage and did not object when wealthy men took her out, since it provided them both with an entree to the upper strata of society. Attractive and bright, Sheilah was soon moving in those circles; she was even presented at court. With her marriage failing, she came to America and landed a job writing a syndicated column on Hollywood for the North American Newspaper Alliance. She was twenty-eight, made $160 a week on her column, and only dimly understood what she was getting into as Fitzgerald’s companion.
Sheilah was the only woman of humble beginnings he’d ever loved. At times, Fitzgerald was the tenderest of suitors, sending flowers and notes of endearment. He also played the role of knight-errant, defending his lady against real and imaginary enemies. In October, a pretentious British producer wrote Sheilah a nasty letter, accusing “Miss Mussolini Graham” of bad manners and poor sportsmanship in breaking a dinner date and not responding to his phone calls. “It is a matter of complete indifference whether I meet you or not,” he added, but she might at least have communicated with him. Delighted at the opportunity, Fitzgerald answered the letter. When “a girl neglects two dozen phone calls,” he pointed out, it was fair to assume that she wasn’t interested. Perhaps the producer should try other phone numbers. In any event he could “always take refuge behind that splendid, that truly magnificent indifference.”
Sheilah was less pleased on two other occasions when Scott attempted to support her career with his fists. Late in 1937 she signed to do a weekly radio show in Hollywood. The first broadcast went badly, and the sponsor thought an actress should be hired to read the copy. Sheilah disagreed and flew to Chicago in an attempt to make the broadcast herself. Scott went along and, under the influence of liquor, threatened to punch the executive who was stalling Sheilah, and made such a nuisance of himself at airtime that he had to be escorted from the studio. Two years later, when an editorial in the Hollywood Reporter accused Sheilah of being disloyal to the industry in the remarks she was making on a speaking tour, Scott rode to her defense once again. Though John O’Hara insisted it was a bad idea to hit a newspaper man and refused to go along, Fitzgerald presented himself at the paper and demandedto see the publisher. The publisher, wisely, did not emerge from his office. When Fitzgerald’s indignation—and, probably, his alcoholic ardor—cooled, he left without forcing a confrontation.
With most of the women he’d known and admired—Ginevra, Zelda, Nora Flynn, Sara Murphy—Fitzgerald had felt himself a social inferior. With Sheilah it was different, yet she was not “poor Sheilah” in need of a champion at all, but a practical and—in Hollywood—powerful woman who could take care of herself very well. Her independence, like her background, fascinated Fitzgerald. When she first told him her story, he asked how many affairs she had had. Sheilah didn’t know what to say. She was twenty-eight; she’d been on the stage. Finally she decided that “eight was a nice round figure.” Eight affairs, she told him, and “he was really quite shocked,” she recalls, and then intrigued, and then extremely jealous. In the course of her work she routinely met and talked to the leading actors and directors and producers in Hollywood. Some of them, finding her attractive, flirted or made passes at her. When this happened—when John Boles or Randolph Scott or Errol Flynn indicated their interest in her—Fitzgerald became furious and resorted to an old method to punish her. He got drunk.
Usually the punishment ran to a pattern. First Scott would abuse Sheilah verbally. A breakup would follow, and then he would apologize profusely. It was entirely his fault. He’d behaved terribly. She was right to send him away. It would be better if he were dead, and perhaps that could be arranged. Confronted by such elaborate signals (she knew he kept a pistol around the house), Sheilah would take him back. She didn’t know what else to do; she had no experience in dealing with alcoholics. Besides, she loved him, despite the awful things he said and did in his drunken rages.
The insults he directed at her often focused on sex. Even in his poem “Beloved Infidel,’ Fitzgerald celebrates Sheilah’s beauty in the context of her dubious past. “That sudden smile across a room / Was certainly not learned from me,” the poem begins. Each of its seven stanzas ends with the same two words: “other men,” as in “lips once soft for other men,” “the things you learned from other men,” and “the tale you told to other men.” It made for a curiously ambiguous love poem. Fitzgerald was grateful for whatever and whomever had made her what she was—“How can I hate himwhen/He did his share to fashion you?” he wrote—and still deeply troubled about her past. In this poem, as in less subtle ways, he touched his wound of jealousy and reminded her of the life she was trying to put behind her.
At the end of a Sunday afternoon party he and Sheilah gave, Scott drunkenly ordered everyone home and told the last guests— screenwriter Nunnally Johnson and his wife—that he knew they’d never come back, since he was living with his “paramour.” It was a curiously stilted and old-fashioned word; on the back of his framed picture of her, he was more explicit: “Portrait of a Prostitute,” he wrote. These devastating accusations have been interpreted as examples of Fitzgerald’s puritanical streak, but he was also concerned about the impropriety of their relationship. He sometimes spoke to Sheilah of divorcing Zelda and marrying her. On one occasion, he went so far as to seek reassurance about this plan from Nora Flynn. Go ahead, she advised him. Nora was sure he was doing the right thing. The time had come for him to have a life of his own, and she had “a strange feeling” that Sheilah was the right person for him. He’d be of more use to Scottie if he were happy and “living, so to speak, again.” But the mores of the times, his guilt feelings, and his sense of propriety all conspired against divorcing the woman who had once meant everything to him.
Meanwhile, Zelda was kept in the dark. Once or twice a year Scott would fly back East and they would take a vacation together. These reunions rarely worked out well. In April 1939 they went to Cuba where Scott got drunk and was beaten up while trying to stop a cockfight. Back in New York the drinking continued until he was taken to the alcoholic ward at Bellevue, and then to Doctors Hospital. Zelda returned to her Asheville sanitarium alone, and covered for him with the doctors there. “You are the finest, loveliest, tenderest, most beautiful person I have ever known,” he wrote her in May. The way he had behaved would try anyone “beyond endurance.” But they never saw each other again, and in their weekly correspondence Zelda seemed aware that some things were being kept from her. “What is your actual address?” she asked. “S’pose I wanted to phone you—or do something unprecedented like that?”
At the end of November 1939, his relationship with Sheilahunderwent its most severe crisis. Collier’s had decided not to serialize the novel about Hollywood he had just begun. Furious and frustrated, he fell off the wagon precipitously. In the scene that followed, he struck Sheilah and danced around the room shouting “Lily Sheil! Lily Sheil!” She tried to end the relationship permanently, but Fitzgerald would not go quietly. Instead, he sent threatening notes to her, “Get out of town, Lily Sheil, or you will be dead in 24 hours,” and a meddling telegram to her boss at the North American Newspaper Alliance, “SHEILAH GRAHAM TODAY BANNED BY EVERY STUDIO STOP SHE IS RUINING NANA IN HOLLYWOOD STOP SUGGEST YOU SEND HER BACK TO ENGLAND WHERE SHE BELONGS STOP DO YOU KNOW HER REAL NAME IS LILY SHEIL?” Eventually she forgave him in response to flowers and apologies and letters like this one:
I want to die, Sheilah, and in my own way. I used to have my daughter and my poor lost Zelda. Now for over two years your image is everywhere. Let me remember you up to the end which is very close. You are the finest. You are something all by yourself. You are too much something for a tubercular neurotic who can only be jealous and mean and perverse…. It’s not long now. I wish I could have left you more of myself. You can have the first chapter of the novel and the plan. I have no money but it might be worth something…. I love you utterly and completely.
He’d had his last binge, Fitzgerald promised her. This time he was going to stop drinking for good. This time he meant it.
Sheilah came back for the year that was left to them. During this period they often went to films, but never to nightclubs and rarely to parties. Sheilah sent her legman to cover Hollywood get-togethers in order to stay home. Except when he was drinking— about five months out of their three and a half years with each other, she estimates—they had good times together. In Ping-Pong matches he’d strike the ball, pirouette, and try to hit it again. They acted out roles in films he was working on, once collapsing in laughter as he played a comic Rhett Butler to her Scarlet O’Hara. And during that last year especially, they conducted their “Collegeof One,” with Fitzgerald the professor to an apt and eager classroom of one. Earlier Sheilah had found him a series of houses in Malibu and Encino to indulge his lifelong habit of moving frequently from place to place and to provide him with a quiet atmosphere, but now he was settled in a Hollywood apartment a 1403 North Laurel, a block from her own, The rent was only $110 a month. It was, he observed, the least expensive place he could live in without looking poor. There they held their evening seminars on the curriculum he devised: a mixture of the classics and modern books and poems, interspersed with art and music, politics and history. She made oral or written reports on the books she read, and was not always the reverent pupil. Her reaction to This Side of Paradise, for example, was “Well, it isn’t Dickens.” But that hurt Fitzgerald and she was immediately contrite. She had always been a quick study, but it was one thing to acquire the accent and manners of the British upper classes and quite another to tackle Proust and Mann, Dostoyevsky and Flaubert, Keats and Shakespeare, Beethoven and Leonardo. No other man had treated her mind with such respect, and for that she was deeply grateful. To please her instructor she memorized and recited the assigned poems, or listened to recordings, hard, and sang him the melodies at night.
There can be no question of Sheilah’s devotion to Fitzgerald. Married or not, she wanted to have his child, but the idea frightened him, and though they took no precautions, nothing came to pass. Years later, when she met Rebecca West—who had borne a child by her lover H. G. Wells—Sheilah thought, she was luckier than me. In October 1939 she added a codicil to her will leaving all of her estate in the United States to him, and after he died she designated Scottie as beneficiary. Repeatedly she tried to soften the sometimes cruel letters that Fitzgerald sent his daughter at boarding school and Vassar. “What are you trying to do?” she asked him. “Help her or alienate her forever?” It was a question she must often have put to herself too, for his behavior when drunk seemed designed to destroy their relationship. “Why did he want to torture me?” she wonders, at the same time realizing that it was himself he was tormenting when he turned on those who loved him.
Alert and engaging in her seventies, Sheilah continues to be disturbed by biographical accounts that characterize her as takingcare of Fitzgerald or functioning as his mistress. When he was drying out, Fitzgerald hired nurses to keep him under control, but Sheilah did not serve as his nurse, or as his housekeeper, or even, very often, as his cook. Usually they ate dinner out, since she worked all day long; sometimes he cooked crab soup or prepared a batch of fudge to reduce his craving for alcohol. What she did provide was common sense. Having emerged from poverty herself, she encouraged him to cut back on his reckless spending. He gave her presents, but mostly she paid her own way. The very word “mistress” conjures up for her penny-dreadful images of kept women lounging in sumptuous apartments. Obviously, it was not that way at all. “You were not Scott’s mistress,” Edmund Wilson told her after Fitzgerald’s death. “You were his second wife.”
But what was her particular appeal for him, besides her physical beauty? “You’re a Fitzgerald hero, not a Fitzgerald heroine,” Wilson also told her. In fact, Sheilah represented in some ways a female Gatsby, an outsider who had risen to a position of prominence (when Fitzgerald met her she was engaged to a marquess, and her column carried such authority in Hollywood that photographers used to take her picture and ignore her literary companion). As a young man who had strived for acceptance by the rich and powerful of St. Paul and Lake Forest and Princeton, he well understood her instinct to abandon the identity of Lily Sheil and adopt a more glamorous role.
Still more than Gatsby, however, Sheilah resembled a younger version of Fitzgerald’s mother. Like the McQuillans, Sheilah had come from a poor if respectable background to earn a place in society. But as with Sheilah that place was not enough for Mollie Fitzgerald; instead she attempted to obliterate the humble origins and reach the very top by way of her talented son. That position was denied him, painfully. Fitzgerald inherited from his mother the vitality that made his career possible, but he also inherited from her his debilitating sense of social inferiority. Perhaps most of all, Sheilah and Mollie were alike in loving Fitzgerald enough to overlook his failings. According to Sheilah, “he despised his mother,” yet he seems to have been searching all his life for some woman who, like his mother, would forgive him anything and attribute whatever outrages he committed to a temporary spell asa “bad brownie.” Sheilah did not forgive him for what he did when drunk, she insists, but she did take him back. And unlike the dowdy and saturnine Mollie Fitzgerald, she was both pretty and educable. At last Fitzgerald found a beautiful woman who loved him, no matter what. He needed all her support, and more, as he made his assault on Hollywood.
He arrived there in 1937 in dire financial straits. His earnings, which had averaged nearly $35,000 from 1929 to 1931, dwindled to a mere $10,000 in 1936. The Saturday Evening Post, his primary source of income for years, was no longer buying his fiction. Meanwhile, his expenses had risen drastically through Zelda’s institutional care and Scottie’s private schooling. Desperate, Fitzgerald signed over portions of his life insurance benefits to Ober and to Scribner’s. He pawned the silver. He even considered selling the books in his library, but they would only bring in about $300 and he needed much more than that. C.O. Kalman in St. Paul helped meet the need, loaning him $6,000 in October 1936 and another $1,500 in December. Fitzgerald repaid him by June 1937 out of the $20,000 he inherited from his mother’s estate, but he was a long way from solvent. He still owed well over $20,000 to Scribner’s and Ober and Perkins and Highland Hospital when he went to work for MGM.
The contract Ober had negotiated called for $1,000 a week until the end of 1937, with an option to renew for a year at $1,250 a week. Fitzgerald kept only $400 a week of the $1,000 salary, using the rest to pay off his agent and publisher and taxes. Out of the $400 he paid Zelda’s bills at Highland and Scottie’s at Miss Walker’s, as well as his own life insurance. By the end of 1938, after MGM exercised its option, he managed to catch up on nearly all his debts. But during those first eighteen months on the job, he’d accumulated only one screen credit, and it surprised no one when the studio let him go.
On his brief visits to Hollywood in 1927 and 1931, Fitzgerald had thought he could sweep in and bewitch the film capital with his rhetorical legerdemain. When he didn’t, it hardly mattered. But in 1937 he needed the money badly and set out to learn the craft. Budd Schulberg, the son of a film producer, was struck by Fitzgerald’s dedication. He’d seen other well-known writers, like John O’Hara and Dorothy Parker, take their huge weekly checks and run. But Fitzgerald worked hard, taking notes on everything he saw and heard and spending long hours in the screening room. At the end of a day on the lot he could barely lift his chin off his chest. Yet he felt a certain excitement at first, as a July 1937 letter to his agent’s wife, Anne Ober, indicated:
I have seen Hollywood—talked with Taylor, dined with March, danced with Ginger Rogers (this will burn Scottie up but it’s true), been in Rosalind Russel’s dressing room, wisecracked with Montgomery, drunk (gingerale) with Zukor and Lasky, lunched alone with Maureen O’Sullivan, watched Crawford act and lost my heart to a beautiful half-caste Chinese girl whose name I’ve forgotten. So far I’ve bought my own breakfasts.
Now the glamorous part was over, he went on. “From now on I go nowhere and see no one because the work is hard as hell, at least for me and I’ve lost ten pounds.” Hollywood, he knew, represented a last chance to redeem his career and for a while he was optimistic about his progress. “I like the work which is… most often like fitting together a very interesting picture puzzle,” he commented in October 1937. “I think I’m going to be good at it.”
Before long, however, he ran afoul of the Hollywood system of multiple composition. One writer—or often, one team of writers— would turn out a screenplay, another individual or group would rewrite it, and a third or fourth would add or subtract from the earlier versions. For Three Comrades, the prize-winning film that earned Fitzgerald his only screen credit, producer Joe Mankiewicz did the final polishing over Scott’s vigorous objections. Mankiewicz had removed “all shadows & rythm,” he felt. Fitzgerald summed up Hollywood policy toward writers in these terms: “We brought you here for your individuality but while you’re here we insist that you do everything to conceal it.” Subsequent assignments at MGM did not change his opinion, as he was put on a couple of projects that never reached the screen and pulled off others that did, notably The Women. Fitzgerald was working on a film about Madame Curie when the studio decided not to renew his contract in December 1938. “METRO NOT RENEWING TO MY GREAT PLEASURE BUT WILL FINISH CURIE THERES LOTS OF OTHER WORK OFFERED STOP HOWEVER PLEASE SAY NOTHING WHATEVER TO PERKINS OR TO SCOTTIE WHO WOULD NOT UNDERSTAND,” he wired Ober. “Baby am I glad to get out!” he added in a letter. “I’ve hated the place ever since Monkeybitch rewrote 3 Comrades!”
Fitzgerald’s exhilaration was at least part bravado, for as a freelancer he could not count on regular paychecks. Early in 1939 Walter Wanger hired him to work on Winter Carnival with Budd Schulberg. Later in the year, he spent a month on Air Raid and a week on Raffles and for the year earned more than $21,000. He could not make ends meet, however, and in July he applied to Ober for an advance against future earnings. This time, the agent refused. It was true that Fitzgerald had repaid his former debt, Ober admitted, but he had mounting family expenses of his own and could not take the risk. The decision was undoubtedly influenced by word of Scott’s highly public benders in February and April. Both hurt and defiant, Fitzgerald traced his difficulty instead to the difference between the America of 1939 and that of 1929. “I am amazed by the fact that there seems to be no credit abroad— one can no longer borrow on one’s capabilities or one’s past record as a money-maker.” He fired Ober, and tried, with little success, to negotiate with magazines on his own. He also switched Hollywood agents twice in the course of several months. The financial strain showed in his correspondence. He complained to doctors and nurses about their bills. He bargained down the rent on his guest house in Encino. He stalled the insurance company, and told the tax collector he’d have to wait. He would not, however, compromise on Zelda’s care or Scottie’s schooling. Scottie could have attended public school. Zelda could have been institutionalized in a state hospital. But he wanted Scottie to attend the best possible school and he refused to suffer the indignity of placing his wife in a public asylum for the mentally infirm.
Out of this crisis that reached its nadir with his failure to sell Collier’s the serial rights to his novel-in-prospect—out of the entire disillusioning Hollywood experience—he developed a new and effective approach to his profession. “I expect to dip in and out of the pictures for the rest of my natural life,” he wrote Scottie in the winter of 1939, although “it is a business of telling stories fit forchildren and this is only interesting up to a point.” The money he made from films would go to finance the serious writing that he’d been placed on the earth to do. And even though Hollywood itself was a dump, a “hideous place… full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement,” it generated the material for the first of those books. “My great dreams about this place are shattered,” he wrote the Murphys in the spring of 1940, “and I have written half a novel and a score of satiric pieces that are appearing in the current Esquires about it.” The satiric pieces focused on Pat Hobby, hack screenwriter; the novel on Monroe Stahr, producer and last tycoon.
Three years of observation and reflection went into The Last Tycoon, the novel he left half-completed at his death. Fitzgerald pumped Schulberg, a Hollywood insider by birth, for information about the place. Daily, Sheilah brought home bits of news and rumor and gossip she’d acquired for her column. On the job he learned about the system and came to know some of the major filmmakers. For background, character sketches, fragments of dialogue, and descriptions he had more than two hundred pages of notes to draw on. From the beginning of his career Fitzgerald kept notebooks; the notes became more copious, and more necessary, as he grew older. “Put it down,” he insisted to Sheilah. “Make notes, always make notes.” Then the notes had to be shaped into a plan; he devised at least five outlines to guide his progress on Tycoon. He was determined that the book should be “a constructed novel like Gatsby, with passages of poetic prose when it fits the action, but no ruminations or sideshows like Tender. Everything must contribute to the dramatic movement.”
He set himself a difficult goal and began to fulfill it with the help of funds earned for an adaptation of “Babylon Revisited” in the spring of 1940, and for a Twentieth Century-Fox screenplay in the early autumn. These bonanzas, together with the $250 apiece he received for the Pat Hobby stories in Esquire, bought him time to work on the novel. Whether it would eventually have rivaled Gatsby cannot be determined, since Fitzgerald had only traversed about half the ground he meant to cover, and had not smoothed out even that half. The Last Tycoon as published consists of fragments stitched together by Edmund Wilson: a number of chapters in nearly finished form and a plan for the rest of the novel. Certain sections of the book, notably the chapters on the producer’s day, are as good as anything he’d ever written. The part about Stahr, as even Hemingway acknowledged, was first-rate. “You can recognize Irving Thalberg, his charm and skill, and grasp of business, and the sentence of death over him.”
At the same time, Hemingway felt that the love affair did not quite ring true: “In the things between men and women, the old magic was gone.” The problem lay in Fitzgerald’s dwindling capacity to feel. He had always written about his own emotional experience, if not always about the actual details of what had happened to him. In correspondence he advocated the virtues of composite characterization, but he himself was usually part of the composite. “My characters are all Scott Fitzgerald,” he remarked in 1935. “Even the feminine characters are feminine Scott Fitzgeralds”—if not self-portraits, then portraits of close relations. “Books are like brothers,” he wrote in his notebooks. “I am an only child, Gatsby my imaginary eldest brother, Amory my younger, Anthony my worry, Dick my comparatively good brother but all of them far from home. When I have the courage to put the old white light on the home of my heart, then—”
Then he was at his best. He borrowed story ideas from Zelda, and during the 1930s issued at least four brief contracts—promising to pay 10 percent, or 7 1/2 percent, or $75 out of whatever he might earn—to people who supplied him with anecdotes he might turn into fiction. But such stories had to fit into his emotional range. He was not interested in anyone’s “tales of being robbed by Brazilian pirates in a swaying straw hut on the edge of a smoking volcano in the Andes, with his fiancee bound and gagged on the roof.” Such adventures lay beyond his ken. “I must start out with an emotion—one that’s close to me and that I can understand.”
This approach demanded a substantial personal investment and Fitzgerald repeatedly resorted to a financial metaphor in describing the artistic process. The “price for doing professional work,” he insisted in a November 1938 letter to an aspiring writer, was extremely high. “You’ve got to sell your heart, your strongest reactions,” not minor feelings that you could talk about at the dinner table, and that was particularly true of the beginner. As for the mature writer, Fitzgerald feared he’d spent so much of his emotional capital that his account had run dry. Writing Tycoon was “hard as pulling teeth,” he complained to Zelda. “I feel people so much less intently than I did once.” It showed in the part of the novel he was able to complete before his death. The golden girl had disappeared, and with her much of the emotional power of Gatsby and Tender.
Yet in important ways Tycoon represented a very real advance for its author. For the first time he shone his light on an entire industry, an industry that mirrored American civilization. While looking at motion pictures so closely he was also exploring facets of his nation’s history. Both Gatsby and Tender had made connections between the time present of the plot and the time past of the United States. In Tycoon this historical emphasis—exemplified in repeated references to Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Jackson—became far more pervasive. Moreover, the novel-in-progress promised to be Fitzgerald’s most politically sophisticated book through its examination of the de-personalization of business, of the growth of Communist-led labor unions, and of the class struggle. Influenced by his own study of Marxism, Fitzgerald intended to “analyze the class interests” of each of the characters in Tycoon, he told Budd Schulberg.
Above all, The Last Tycoon demonstrated what writer Nancy Hale has called Fitzgerald’s “astonishing capacity to change and develop.” His last novel, he wrote Zelda the month before he died, was “nothing like anything else” he’d ever done. And the changes, as Hale remarked, were “all in the direction of truth and away from illusion.” In his young manhood Fitzgerald valued the capacity to dream above almost everything else. The middle-aged author, recognizing the dangers in harboring false views of the world, gave up the dreams in order to confront reality without a scrim. It was true of his work and true of the man himself. “I have made two rules in attempting to be both an intellectual and a man of honor simultaneously—” he confided to his notebooks, “that I do not tell lies that will be of value to myself, and secondly, I do not lie to myself.”
Moreover, in Tycoon Fitzgerald established what John Dos Passos called “that unshakable moral attitude… that is the basic essential of any powerful work of the imagination.” Throughout his life Fitzgerald was driven by a strong sense of right and wrong. Katharine Tighe, one of his oldest friends in St. Paul, always thought of him “as someone intrinsically and deeply good.” When he engaged in what she called “divergences from norm,” he tended to excoriate himself for them. As critic and editor Ernest Boyd put it in his 1924 sketch of Fitzgerald, his “confessions, if he ever writes any… will be permeated by the conviction of sin, which is so much happier than the conviction that the way to Utopia is paved with adultery.” His early fiction is full of the horrors of evil. The devil confronts Amory, the would-be fornicator, in This Side of Paradise, and in a still earlier story, “Sentiment—and the Use of Rouge,” a young Englishman returns from World War I to find moral standards in disrepair. “Damned muddle—” he reflects confusedly, everything a muddle, everybody offside, and the referee gotten rid of—everybody trying to say that if the referee were there he’d have been on their side. He was going to go and find that old referee—
Fitzgerald attacked the hypocrisy and stupidity of the older generation but not its basic values. Charlie Wales, the reformed playboy in “Babylon Revisited,” wishes he could “jump back a whole generation and trust in character again as the eternally valuable element.” So did Fitzgerald, for all around him he saw people who “had no principles,” who were “never sure as their fathers or grandfathers had been.”
In his college days he had displayed considerable talent at writing musical comedies. And he might have “gone along with that gang” (Rodgers and Hart, Cole Porter), he wrote his daughter in November 1939, “but I guess I am too much a moralist at heart and want to preach at people in some acceptable form, rather than to entertain them.” One of the persons he was preaching to—the most attentive member of the congregation—was himself. “Again and again in my books,” he wrote O’Hara in July 1936, “I have tried to imagize my regret that I have never been as good as I intended to be.” His fiction served as a sort of confessional to replace the one he’d left behind with the Catholicism of his youth. Yet the greatest good of all, in his implicit code, derived from the Protestant ethic: the imperative of work.
Only Fitzgerald’s least attractive protagonist, the indolent, procrastinating Anthony Patch of The Beautiful and Damned, dares challenge the primacy of work. “I want to know just why it’s impossible for an American to be gracefully idle,’ he remarks, and then idles his way into alcoholism and decrepitude. In a newspaper interview published in the same year as the novel, Fitzgerald made it clear that Anthony did not speak for him. Rich young men “brought up to be absolutely helpless” could only learn to survive through work, he said. “Work is the one salvation for all of us—even if we must work to forget there’s nothing worth while to work for, even if the work we turn out—books, for example—doesn’t satisfy us. The young man must work. His wife must work—” One of the things he admired about Sheilah was that she was gainfully employed. Her occupation as gossip columnist was not an especially dignified one, but she did work, as Lois Moran had worked as an actress, and as Zelda Fitzgerald—partly in response to her husband’s praise of Lois Moran—tried to do as dancer, writer, and artist.
Fitzgerald did not always follow his own advice, of course. Early in his career he tended to write in spurts, and to play the rest of the time. But then he castigated himself for his lack of production, as in an April 1924 letter to Perkins:
It is only in the last four months that I’ve realized how much I’ve—well, almost deterioriated in the three years since I finished the Beautiful and Damned. The last four months of course I’ve worked but in the two years—over two years—before that, I produced exactly one play, half a dozen short stories and three or four articles—an average of about one hundred words a day. If I’d spent this time reading or travelling or doing anything— even staying healthy—it’d be different but I spent it uselessly, neither in study nor in contemplation but only in drinking and raising hell generally.
Ten years later, after an even more fallow period, he drafted an (unpublished) preface to Tender Is the Night. “This is the first novelthe writer has published in nine years,” he began, and went on to observe that during that time there had been scarcely a week when someone didn’t ask him how the novel was going and when it would be published. At first he’d told them what he thought was the truth: “this fall,” “next spring,” “next year.” But as time wore on, Fitzgerald admitted, “I lied and lied, announced that I had given it up or that it was now a million words long and would eventually be published in five volumes.” On this subject his conscience was active, as Tender itself confirmed: it tells the story of a man who is ruined when he gives up his work for a career of pleasing others. In the correspondence of his last years he warned Scottie against succumbing to the same fate.
While at Princeton, he told her, he’d made the mistake of equating work with “something unpleasant, something to be avoided, something to be postponed.” The solution was to start with the hardest things first. “Please work—” he pleaded, “work with your best hours.” It was a lesson her mother had resisted to her cost. “She realized too late that work was dignity, and the only dignity, and tried to atone for it by working herself, but it was too late and she broke and is broken forever.” Moreover, he urged Scottie to avoid Zelda’s mistake of refusing to take responsibility for her actions. “All I believe in in life,” he also wrote Scottie, “is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not doing your duty, which are doubly costly.”
It followed that those granted a talent had an obligation to exercise it as well and as often as possible. When Fitzgerald didn’t write, or wrote stories he called “trash,” he expected punishment— and even tried to administer it himself. His two documented attempts at suicide, in the fall of 1936, came at the end of a long alcoholic period in which he’d let his talent, and hence his self-image, erode. “Even at killing myself I’m a failure,” he told Baltimore newspaperman Louis Azrael. He also lamented his reputation as a basically frivolous writer. “I am the W. J. Locke of America,” he wrote to author Herbert Agar, needing to be told that it was not true, that his work far surpassed that of Locke, the British author of gaily romantic early-1900 novels. During the worst moments of his Hollywood years, Sheilah Graham recalled, he even demanded reassurance from strangers. “I’m F. Scott Fitzgerald,the very well-known writer,” he’d brashly announce, and hope for a glimmer of recognition. But that nonsense stopped with his last bender.
After December 1939 Sheilah never saw him take another drink. One by one his personal demons were exorcised along with the liquor. In the spring, Zelda was provisionally released from Highland Hospital and sent home to Montgomery to live with her mother. Scottie started getting better grades at Vassar. Most important, he began to think well of himself. If he hadn’t succeeded in Hollywood, perhaps it was because it demanded a kind of talent he did not possess, or no longer possessed. It was not, he knew, for lack of effort. Besides, he had earned enough money there to pay off his debts and return, with firm resolve, to novel writing. Similarly, if the old ecstasy was gone from his romance with Sheilah, so was the compulsion to command women’s admiration.
“He was a charmer,” as his secretary, Frances Kroll, recalls, but Sheilah was his lady then and he was not in condition to have numerous affairs. There may have been one such affair, with a nurse in 1939. Sheilah recalls stopping at Fitzgerald’s house in Encino and meeting a nurse who gave off a suspiciously proprietary air. This did not bother Sheilah very much. “When he was drunk,” she said, “he would have had an affair with a tree.’ And when the drinking stopped, so did the womanizing. In his last months he lived happily and simply with Sheilah, drinking Cokes instead of gin and pursuing his craft. Growing up was “a terribly hard thing to do,” he observed in his notes. “It is so much easier to skip it and go from one childhood to another.” At the end he was growing up fast.
To guide the process he adopted what he called, in an October 1940 letter to Scottie, “the wise and tragic sense of life… the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not ’happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.” In that letter, as in many others he sent his daughter during the last two years of his life, he was sending messages to himself. Don’t play, work. Don’t entertain, enlighten. Above all, don’t please others, please yourself. “My God, Andrew!” he had thundered at young Turnbull, “Popularity isn’t worth a damn and respect is worth everything andwhat do you care about happiness—and who ever does except the perpetual children of the world?”
At last he took these messages to heart and guided his life by them. He contemplated the future with ambition. On a handwritten sheet, he projected a 17-volume “Works of F. Scott Fitzgerald” that would include three new novels (one of them, based on his “Count of Darkness” stories, to be issued in two volumes), three additional books of stories, one volume of plays and poetry, and one of essays. Then—after the fashion of Henry James and his New York edition—he proposed spending the five years from 1955 to 1960 on a 12-volume revised edition. Eye cocked on posterity, he spelled out his goals. “I want to write scenes that are frightening and inimitable. I don’t want to be as intelligible to my contemporaries as Ernest who as Gertrude Stein said, is bound for the Museums. I am sure I am far enough ahead to have some small immortality if I can keep well.”
He decided, in short, to become “a writer only”: the career he had promised to embark on five years earlier in “The Crack-Up” essays. Writing provided him with a vocation and constituted “the only dignity,” as he’d told Scottie. It did not matter what others thought of him. The one good and valid and lasting way of pleasing them—and the only way he could please himself—was to develop the gift for darkening paper that had come down to him through whatever mysterious agency. Even in fragmentary form, The Last Tycoon testifies that Fitzgerald’s ability had not deserted him. As James Thurber commented in 1951, Fitzgerald had once “thought of his talent as something that could be lost, like his watch, or mislaid, like his hat, or slowly depleted, like his bank account, but in his last year there it still was, perhaps surer and more mature than it had ever been.” Living in the book as he had once with Gatsby, he sensed that creative surge returning.
Unfortunately, the years of dissipation had done their damage. His long-latent tuberculosis became active. Finding it difficult to sleep, he took seconal, nembutal, and barbitol to cure his insomnia, and benzedrine to get going in the morning. His nerves were on edge; the clatter of a neighbor’s dog on the tin roof was driving him “gradually mad,” he complained in July 1940. Very little time remained before the two heart attacks that were to kill him, buthe continued his work on Tycoon, writing during his “best hours.” Finally, a kind of peace settled over him. He died December 21 as content with himself as he’d ever been.
An early version of Fitzgerald’s will called for a funeral “in accordance with my station.” Toward the end he crossed that out and wrote “the cheapest possible funeral” instead. Appearances didn’t matter. Besides, he didn’t want to saddle his survivors with unnecessary expenses. He left $600 in an envelope for burial expenses, and the much borrowed-against insurance policy for Scottie and Zelda. John Biggs, his executor, thought there must be more money hidden away in a secret bank account or concealed in the kitchen furniture, but a search revealed nothing. Fitzgerald’s only real legacy was his fiction. It has been enough.
198 Fitzgerald… Graham … lovers: Infidel, pp. 172-82. 198-99 Lily Sheil… Alliance: Infidel, pp. 185-86, 190-95.
199 flowers … notes: Infidel, pp. 188, 221.
199 producer wrote … Fitzgerald answered…: Sheilah Graham, The Rest of the Story (New York: Coward-McCann, 1964), pp. 240-41.
199 nuisance … at airtime …: Infidel, pp. 203-205.
199-200 editorial… confrontation: Infidel, pp. 293-94.
200 “nice round figure”: SD, interview with Sheilah Graham, 7 March 1983.
200-201 poem … jealousy: The poem is quoted in full in Infidel, pp. 194-95.
201 “paramour”: Infidel, p. 275.
201 reassurance … Nora …: Nora Flynn to FSF, n.d., Firestone.
201 “finest, loveliest…”: FSF to ZF, 6 May 1939, Letters, p. 105.
201 “actual address”: ZF to FSF, 1939 (?), Firestone.
202 struck … shouting …: Turnbull, pp. 304-305.
202 “I want to die …”: FSF to Sheilah Graham, 2 December 1939, Correspondence, p. 564.
202 Ping-Pong ... comic Rhett…: SD, interview with Sheilah Graham, March 1983.
202-203 “College of One”: Sheilah Graham, College of One (New York: Viking, 1967).
203 rent… without looking poor: Grandeur, p. 486.
203 reaction to This Side… : SD, interview with Sheilah Graham, 7 March 1983.
203 child… Rebecca West: SD, interview with Sheilah Graham, 7 March 1983.
203 soften… letters: SD, interview with Sheilah Graham, 7 March 1983.
203 “Why … torture me?”: SD, interview with Sheilah Graham, 7 March 1983.
204 “not Scott’s mistress … hero”: SD, interview with Sheilah Graham, 7 March 1983.
205 earnings … dwindled: FSF, Ledger, pp. 65-77.
205-206 Schulberg … struck: SD, interview with Budd Schulberg, 27 December 1978.
206 “I have seen …”: FSF to Anne Ober, 26 July 1937, Letters, pp. 552-53.
206 “I like the work ...”: FSF to Allein Owens, 8 October 1937, Letters, p. 557.
206 “We brought you here ...”: FSF to MP, 25 February 1939, Letters, p. 284.
206-207 “metro … Comrades!”: Telegram, FSF to Harold Ober, 26 December 1938, and letters, FSF to Harold Ober, received 29 December 1938, As Ever, Scott Fitz------, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli and Jennifer M. Atkinson (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972), pp. 379-80.
207 “I am amazed...”: FSF to Dr. R. Burke Suitt, 16 August 1939, Correspondence, p. 542.
207-208 “1 expect to dip...”: FSF to SF, winter 1939, Letters, p. 48.
208 “hideous place…”: FSF to Alice Richardson, Letters, p. 603.
208 “My great dreams …”: FSF to Gerald and Sara Murphy, spring 1940, Letters, p. 429.
208 two hundred pages: Matthew J. Bruccoli, “The Last of the Novelists”: F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Last Tycoon (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1977), p. 129.
208 “Make notes…”: Infidel, p. 315.
208 “constructed novel…”: FSF to ZF, 23 October 1940, Letters, p. 128.
209 part about Stahr…“oldmagic”…: Ernest Hemingway to MP, 15 November 1941, Selected Letters 1917-1961, ed. Carlos Baker (New York: Scribner’s, 1981), pp. 527-28.
209 composite characterization: FSF to Ernest Hemingway, 1 June 1934, Letters, pp. 308-309.
209 “feminine … Fitzgeralds ...”: Guthrie, p. 93.
209 “Books … brothers …”: FSF, Crack-Up, p. 176.
209 story ideas … contracts …: Turnbull, p. 115; Julian Street to FSF, n.d., Firestone; Julian van Cortland to FSF, 25 April 1932, Firestone; contract signed by Dick York and FSF, 28 April 1936, Firestone; FSF to Marguerite Kennedy, 29 July 1939, Firestone.
209 “start out… emotion”: FSF, “One Hundred False Starts,” Afternoon, p. 132.
209 “price … sell your heart…”: FSF to Frances Turnbull, 9 November 1938, Letters, pp. 577-78.
210 “hard as pulling teeth …”: FSF to ZF, 2 November 1940, Letters, p. 129.
210 politically sophisticated…: For a thorough discussion of FSF’s political beliefs, see SD, “The Political Development of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Prospects VI (New York: Burt Franklin, 1981), pp. 313-55.
210 “class interests”: AM, interview with Budd Schulberg, 7 August 1947.
210 “astonishing capacity …”: Nancy Hale, The Realities of Fiction (Boston: Little, Brown, 1962), pp. 203-209.
210 “two rules …”: FSF, Crack-Up, p. 197.
210-11 “unshakable moral attitude …”: John Dos Passos, “A Note on F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Crack-Up, p. 339.
211 “intrinsically … good”: Katherine Tighe Fessenden to HDP, 30 April 1947.
211 “confessions … adultery”: Ernest Boyd, “F. Scott Fitzgerald,” Portraits: Real and Imaginary (London: Jonathan Cape, 1924), p. 221.
211 “had no principles …”: FSF, Notebooks, p. 259.
211 “moralist at heart...”: FSF to SF, 4 November 1939, Letters, p. 63.
211 “Again and again …”: FSF to John O’Hara, 25 July 1936, Letters, p. 539.
212 Rich … “brought up … helpless …”: Marguerite Mooers Marshall, interview with FSF, Miscellany, p. 257.
212 “It is only… raising hell”: FSF to MP, c. 10 April 1924, Scott/Max, p. 69.
212-13 (unpublished) preface…: FSF, “A Preface,” 1935, Firestone.
213 “something unpleasant… doubly costly”: FSF to SF, 18 April 1938, May 1938, and 7 July 1938, Letters, pp. 28-29, 31, 32.
213 “Even at killing myself…”: “Marked for Glory,” Newsletter, p. 148.
213 “W. J. Locke …”: Herbert Agar, memoir of FSF, Newberry library.
213-14 “I’m F. Scott…”: Infidel, p. 202.
214 “a charmer…”: SD, telephone interview with Frances Kroll Ring, 13 March 1983.
214 affair.. .“tree”: SD, interview with Sheilah Graham, 7 March 1983.
214 Growing up … “terribly hard”…: FSF, Notes, Firestone.
214 “wise and tragic …”: FSF to SF, 5 October 1940, Letters, p. 96.
214-15 “My God, Andrew…”: Turnbull, p. 219; FSF to Andrew Turnbull, 8 August 1933, Letters, pp. 504-505.
215 17-volume…: FSF, Notes, Firestone.
215 “I want to write …”: FSF, Notes, Firestone.
215 “a writer only …”: FSF, Crack-Up, p. 83.
215 “talent… mislaid…”: James Thurber, “Scott in Thorns,” Credos & Curios (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), p. 160.
216 “cheapest… funeral”: Lee Reese, The House on Rodney Square (Wilmington, Del.: The News Journal Company, 1977), p. 177: interview with John Biggs.
216 $600 …envelope …: SD, interview with Sheilah Graham, 7 March 1983.
216 money … search: Reese, The House on Rodney Square, p. 177.