This Side of Malibu
by Taylor Dwight


The whole thing started with a dress shirt. I was very proud of this shirt because Peter Arno had decorated the front of it, and I particularly admired the ingenuity with which he had utilized the crack down the middle and the place for the studs. I found it invaluable for fancy dress balls. I first met Scott Fitzgerald at one of these functions and he took to my shirt immediately. He asked me to give it to him. I refused. He considered this to be an unreasonable attitude. I pointed out the advantages of the shirt—that whereas the conventional pirate or pierrot costume necessitated a certain amount of concentrated and, to my mind, entirely wasted effort, all I had to do was change my shirt. Scott replied that it was precisely this feature which appealed to him. It was a stand-off. The hour was late and the gin synthetic. I remember very little more of the conversation, but we parted with no hard feelings on either side, and I managed to get home with my shirt still on my back.

This was our first encounter, and I remember how charmed I was with the simplicity and directness of a grown man who simply asked for something when he wanted it,

I next saw him at the opening of the Swedish Ballet. Although Scott had already had some experience of Paris at this period, and the avant-garde movement, I had not; and the grotesquerie of the settings and costumes, together with the dissonance of the music, came to me as a surprise. I will not say that I disliked it, but it left me puzzled. I realize now that I didn't know exactly what I did feel. I found myself sitting next to Scott who was with a party of eight or ten people, including his wife Zelda. Suddenly a male dancer appeared on the stage who, as far as I could determine, was completely naked save for a coating of bright yellow grease which looked like butter. He proceeded to do a pas de deux with the leading ballerina and I took exception to this. Much to my surprise, so did Scott. We expressed our disapproval with cat-calls until suppressed by those around us.

“It's the butter,” I whispered. “I was always taught that there is a place for everything—and everything in its place.”

“It's probably the very best butter,” said Scott, and this immediate and apt quotation from The Mad Tea Party made us friends at once.

The evening wore on. I remember dimly something about an ostrich and the Eiffel Tower and a photographer. I left the ballet before it was concluded and, with a whispered farewell to Scott, went home.

I used to work a great deal at night in those days and was anxious to get on with some project I had in mind. I hadn't been home twenty minutes before the doorbell rang and I found Scott standing at the portal.

“I couldn't stick it either,” he said. “May I come in and have a drink?”

I was living in my mother's home at the time, which had a sort of baronial grandeur about it, and we descended the staircase into the living room where a large fire was burning in the hearth. We discussed the avant-garde movement in general and the Swedish Ballet in particular. I felt then that Scott didn't know anything more about it than I did, but his affection for Gertrude Stein and his desire to be “in on things” made him follow the crowd. But he was too American in his very bones to ever really be anything else, and I think it is this indigenous, localized quality in his work which has aroused the curiosity of our young people today.

A few moments later the rest of the party poured in. I was quite unprepared for this invasion. Scott himself had never been to the house before and I hadn't the slightest idea that he even knew where I lived. Yet these impromptu midnight raids on each other's domiciles were characteristic of the twenties and I should not have been surprised. I got out more liquor, turned on the phonograph and prepared to let things take care of themselves.

I was not prepared for Zelda, however. Suddenly she stood up in the center of the big living room and started to remove her clothes. I was somewhat startled, and asked Scott what it was all about.

“She always does that,” he replied. He put down his glass and went over to her. “Come on, darling,” he said. “Why don't you go upstairs and take a bath?”

This suggestion alarmed me even further. I expected my parents home at any moment and I didn't know quite what their reaction would be at finding a strange woman in the bathtub.

“I don't think that would be a very good idea,” I said. “You see, my parents—”

The others just stood around and grinned. Theywere all good friends of Scott and Zelda's and evidently had gone through this sort of thing before.

“Then let's go home and take a bath,” said Scott. “We'll just ride out to Great Neck and take a bath there.”

Docile as a child, Zelda got her cloak and they all trooped up the stairs again. Scott guided her gently to the door, then turned and whispered to me.

“She'll be all right when she gets home,” he said. “We've got a long way to go.”

I have thought of this remark many times since.

 

In the fall of 1931 I went to Hollywood to write for motion pictures. M.G.M. had offered me a three-month contract to see what I could do. The romantic “lost lady” type of story was then very much in vogue, and I was set to work writing on one of these, under the supervision of Irving Thalberg.

For some reason the walls of my office were composed almost entirely of glass. I felt like the proverbial goldfish, and on those occasions when visitors were taken on a tour of the studios I would sometimes be pointed out as an example of a real live writer discovered at his desk. After a few days of this I turned the desk so that it was facing the one solid wall of the cubicle, and presented my back to the windows, as I have seen the orangutan do when out of sorts.

One day I became aware that a very special pair of eyes were burning a hole in the back of my coat, somewhere between the shoulder blades. Turning from my desk I discovered Scott peering in at me through the window. On his face was that twisted little half-smile which was so characteristic of him, and which always reminded me of a little boy who wanted to play but wasn't quite sure of his welcome. I was overjoyed at seeing him again. In the interval life had become quite grim for both of us, and he was a symbol of happier and more careless times.

He came in and sat down. We talked of New York and the people we knew. He explained to me that this visit to Hollywood was strictly business, because he needed the money badly. The cost of maintaining Zelda, who was now in a sanitarium, and the education of his daughter required all the financial ingenuity and sacrifice he could bring to bear. He announced proudly that he had sworn off drinking, and one look at his clear eyes and his still-boyish face convinced me that this was true.

Some weeks went by. Scott was very anxious to learn the trade and, although a neophyte myself, I helped him in any way I could. I remember he was always worried about camera angles, but I pointed out that it was his dialogue and characterization that they were after, and if he could manage to get his story down he could be sure that they would photograph it.

One day we received an invitation to attend a swell soiree given by Irving Thalberg at the beach. I was amazed at this invitation as I had done nothing particularly outstanding in pictures and was, in fact, considerably worried about where I stood. The explanation, of course, when it came, was absurdly simple. The party was being given in honor of Freddy Lonsdale whom I had known in New York, and it was at his request that I had been invited. Scott, on the other hand, had been invited because he was Scott Fitzgerald, and that, I think, should be sufficient reason for anybody. Nevertheless, he was as pleased and astonished as I and, as we were the only writers invited, we planned to motor down together for mutual protection.

When the great day arrived I called for him in my car, and after half an hour's drive, we found ourselves standing in front of one of those huge white doors which guard the portals of those curious monoliths along the sand. One pressed a button, I remember, and then there was a tremendous answering rattle from an electrical device that released the latch. After entering this door one was confronted by a long walk across a patio to the doors of the house itself. I have become more familiar with these devices since, and I imagine their purpose is to keep out unwelcome visitors, but never in my living memory have I known an instance of anyone pressing these outside bells without receiving a prompt release of the latch; from which I can only conclude that the butlers in charge of these devices are either too lazy to walk across the patio to see who the visitor may be or they have come to the conclusion that all visitors are welcome.

We were shown into a huge living room, and I could see at once that we had landed on our feet. Everybody who was anybody in the picture colony was there. Scott had been fretting about what he should wear, and I had assured him that anything would do. With a Hollywood party this is usually a safe assumption.

Miss Shearer came forward to greet us, and then we were conducted over to Lonsdale who was draped like a melancholy pointer on the arm of his chair. I had determined to stick close to Scott to see that he did not drink. I did not intend to be officious or obtrusive about it, but I had had some experience with alcoholics, and I knew that the nervous pressure of a social occasion can sometimes be alleviated by having a friend close at hand who knows one's problems and can step in at the right moment. I also knew that there had been some trepidation about hiring Scott in the first place because of his failing, and this was certainly not the time or place to give way to it. There was too much at stake.

Silver trays laden with cold, dew-speckled Martinis passed continuously beneath our noses. I would shake my head virtuously, and Scott would Follow suit. But the room was restless and exciting, with all the glamour and babble of a fair. And what a fair! Pretty faces which had gazed down at one with bland enticement from a thousand billboards had now become animate at one's ear. It was heady music and hard to keep a resolution. I got involved in some conversation on my left, and when I turned again, Scott was gone.

I started searching for him in and out the crowd, but without success. I ran into Bob Montgomery, who had just entered from the patio. He was in white riding breeches and black boots. I asked him whether he had seen Scott Fitzgerald and he said no—that he was anxious to meet him. At this moment I felt something jog at my elbow, and turning discovered Scott, He was peering at Montgomery as a man might gaze at a penguin in the zoo.

“Scott,” I said, “I'd like you to meet Bob Montgomery.”

He didn't answer for a moment but continued to stare at the actor, who was standing in all the grandeur of his polo outfit.

“Why didn't you bring your horse in?” he said slowly, and there was not a vestige of humor in his face when he said it.

In the brief time that he had been out of my sight he could not have been able to consume more than one or two drinks at the outside, yet here he was as drunk as a man who had been swilling for half the night. My heart sank. Montgomery murmured something and passed on his way.

 

What made Scott decide to sing I will never know. Perhaps some lonely feeling that he was not appreciated here—that his writing was far away in his study, whereas this was an extroverted company, used to attracting attention in extroverted ways. Whatever the reason, the decision was disastrous.

He suddenly announced, in a loud, clear voice, that he wanted to sing. A curious silence fell upon the room. Miss Shearer asked him, in the kindliest manner possible, just what it was he wished to sing. He said he wished to sing about a dog. Ramon Navarro was selected to vamp an accompaniment, and Miss Shearer's maid was sent upstairs to fetch her dog. The others gathered in a half-circle near the piano but not too near, their faces devoid of expression, like people gathered at the scene of an accident.

It was the kind of song which might have seemed amusing if one were very drunk and still in one's freshman year at college. The dog, as if touched by some deep feeling of empathy, lay patiently in the crook of his arm, gazing back at the circle of unfriendly faces. As nearly as I can recollect the words at this late date, they were roughly as follows:

In Spain, they have the donkey
In Australia, the kangaroo,
In Africa, they have the zebra
In Switzerland, the zoo.
But in America we have the dog—
And he's a man's best friend.

This was all right as a starter, and a smile of tolerant amusement started to appear on the faces of the company, who had anticipated a complete fiasco and now thought they began to see some daylight. Unfortunately, the second verse was very much like the first— being nothing more than a simple inventory of the animals of the world, together with the places in which they are found, ending with the same catchline:

But in America we have the dog—
And he's a man's best friend.

I had begun to fear that this actually was the punch line for which everyone had been waiting, and not having achieved its laugh in the first verse, was unlikely to do so in the second, and certainly not in the third. The song was so inadequate to the occasion, or, indeed, to any occasion that I could chink of, that the company stood frozen in their places, wondering how to extricate themselves from an unbearable situation. Scott seemed to sense by this time that he was not a success and small beads of perspiration appeared on his forehead. But he was no more able to break the tension than the others and he plunged into the fourth verse of this interminable song like a desperate man plunging into the rapids.

I became aware of a low hissing sound, somewhat like steam escaping slowly from a radiator, and looking around the circle for its source discovered that it was emanating from Jack Gilbert and Lupe Velez, who were standing together with arms linked and staring at Scott with that incomparable air of superiority which only recently reformed characters seem able to achieve. There was no malice in their faces, but no fun either—it was a complete rejection—and by the most liberal members of the herd.

I will never completely forget the horror of that precise moment. A peculiar characteristic of picture society is that it actually has no social leadership. Nobody sets the pattern of conduct, because this would seem to pre-empt the right to do so; and the desire to appear democratic and hail-fellow-well-met far transcends the human impulse to assume personal responsibility in a difficult situation.

I could see the little figure of Thalberg standing in a doorway at the far end of the room, with his hands plunged deep into his trouser pockets, his shoulders hunched slightly in that characteristic posture of his which seemed to be both a withdrawal and a rejection at the same time. There was a slight, not unkind smile on his lips as he looked down toward the group at the piano. But he did not move.

Shearer herself was still smiling encouragement at Scott, but there was no longer any conviction in it— only the dog seemed content as it lay in his arm. The scene had taken on the quality of a nightmare where everyone seemed doomed to remain frozen in his place forever. By a great effort of will I was able to step forward and lay my hand upon his arm.

“Come on, Scott,” I said. “We're going home.”

 

The following morning at the studio I was sitting in my glass cubicle endeavoring to work myself up into the proper Michael Arlen mood, when I again became aware that I was being watched. I turned to see Scott lounging against the lintel of the doorway, with his hands in his pockets, and regarding me with that faded half-smile on his face which must have devastated a thousand women.

“Nice party,” he said.

I nodded. There was a pause.

“How was I?”

“Not so good,” I said.

The smile vanished and his face suddenly became that of an old man. It was as if the muscles had been held together by hope and my reply had cut the string. He looked down at the floor, but without changing his position.

“This job means a lot to me,” he said. “I hope I didn't make too much of a jackass of myself.”

As Mr. Arlen would say, I replied this-and-that, and he said thus-and-so. He again told me the cost of maintaining Zelda in the sanitarium, and how much he wanted to see that his daughter had a good education and was brought up properly. He told me how hard he had fought the drinking—and how successful he had been.

“I don't know why I chose yesterday of all days to go off,” he said ruefully. “I always do that—at just the wrong time.”

He reflected.

“I've been under quite a strain.”

We decided to have lunch together in the commissary. An unusual aspect of this luncheon, and one which must have added considerably to Scott's distraught frame of mind, was that a picture was being made at the studio entitled Freaks, and many of these unfortunate people shared the commissary with their more fortunate fellow showmen. Scott and I had no sooner seated ourselves than Che Hilton sisters, a pair of Siamese twins joined at the waist, entered and took a single chair at the same table. One of them picked up the menu and, without even looking at the other, asked, “What are yon going to have?” Scott turned pea-green and, putting his hand to his mouth, rushed for the great outdoors. Then he proceeded on to his office to do his morning's work.

I turned back to my desk and tried to pick up where I had left off. But Mr. Arlen seemed long ago and far away. There seemed no romance in vice any more. I was sick of my heroine and her eternal self-sacrifice. Suddenly the door burst open and Scott was standing in the doorway with a telegram in his hand. His face was transfigured. He was as young as the minute again, like the night we first met and argued over the Peter Arno shirt.

“Listen to this,” he said, and proceeded to read the telegram aloud. It was from Norma Shearer and, to the best of my recollection, was worded as follows:

DEAR SCOTT: I THINK YOU WERE THE NICEST PERSON AT MY PARTY.

After all these years, it still seems to me one of the most gracious gestures on the part of a hostess that I have ever encountered. He was fired the following Saturday.

 

Fitzgerald returned to New York and I continued on about my chores. I left M.G.M. at the conclusionof my assignment and went to work elsewhere. One loses all track of time in Hollywood, as if one were on a desert island, and it is very difficult to keep up one's contacts with the outer world. I had forgotten all about Scott and the Thalberg party when one day, about a year later, I received a telegram from an old friend of mine in New York:

WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU UP TO OUT THERE? HAVE YOU SEEN A STORY CALLED “CRAZY SUNDAY” IN THE CURRENT MERCURY?

I hied myself to the nearest newsstand and bought the magazine. The story was by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It was about two writers who had been asked to a big party at the beach house of a famous motion picture producer. One of them gets drunk and makes a jackass of himself by singing an unsolicited song. In a carefully delineated passage at the beginning of the story, giving a description of his appearance, and an oblique reference to his famous mother, there is no mistaking the fact that this unfortunate drunk is supposed to be me! Scott is the Good Samaritan who takes him home. The truth is turned topsy-turvy, as in Alice Through the Loo king-Glass. To make matters worse, once Scott has convinced himself that I am Joel Coles, rather than he, the story opens up into a veritable flower of fantasy, in which the unruly guest has an affair with his hostess, and the motion picture tycoon is killed in an airplane accident while they are in bed together. Just as Jupiter is said to have taken on a variety of disguises—Amphitryon, a bull, a swan, even a shower of gold coins— in order to gain access to a woman, so did Scott project himself into the skin of others in an attempt to enjoy himself without the concomitant of guilt. But even these daydreams usually ended in disaster. In Tender Is the Night, which Scott considered his best novel, Dick Diver reflects that he might be able to find happiness if he could ever overcome his tendency to take on the personality of those he cares for. But he is not able to do so. And neither was Scott, He was alone whichever way he turned.

It is a long time since we first met at the New Yorker ball. Much has been written about him, but he remains a lonely enigma. He reminds me of Barrie's island that “liked to be liked.” And I sometimes wish I had given him my shirt.


Published in the book Joy Ride by Taylor Dwight. NY: 1959.


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