We were facing each other on a settee in the living room of my Hollywood home on King's Road, north of the Sunset Strip, where I had lived from early 1936. It was now September 1937. My bare feet were in Scott's lap and his were in mine. He told me that by gently bending the toes back, you could stretch the nerve ends and that this was very relaxing. It was a good time for talking, and as I was entranced by whatever Scott said at this early time, I was content to listen to him while I played with his toes and he played with mine.
“As a child I had a mysterious shyness about showing my feet,” Scott mused. He told me how on a trip with his parents to Atlantic City, New Jersey, he had refused to take off his shoes and go into the ocean. He let his parents assume that he was afraid of the water. “In fact, I was longing to take a swim, but was held back by this strange Freudian shyness about my feet.” “Perhaps,” I giggled, “it was jealousy of seeing your father's feet too close to your mother's.” Scott laughed at the idea. All the time I knew him, he always refused to take off his shoes and socks on the beach.
Having myself been raised in an orphanage, I was intrigued by Scott's account of a home where both parents so wholeheartedly devoted themselves to their son. His mother,in particular, had overindulged him, fussing over him when he was ill and making him stay in bed for the slightest sniffle. Scott readily admitted that his mother had spoiled him. Two sisters had died shortly before he was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on September 22, 1896—stricken in an epidemic. Then came Scott, another girl who died, and finally Scott's sister Annabel who only slightly deflected the mother's intense attention from her son. By that time, Mollie Fitzgerald—described to me by a Fitzgerald relative as “the most awkward and the homeliest woman I ever saw”—was so much in love with her beautiful, blond, blue-eyed boy that she could deny him nothing. As far as she was concerned he could do no wrong. “No matter what awful thing I did, I was just a bad brownie,” Scott explained. It is my belief that in all the drunken escapades throughout his life, he maintained the image of himself as the little bad brownie, whose charm could always win a woman's tolerance and forgiveness.
The indulgence of Scott's mother did not, however, endear her to him. In my time with him he considered her a fool—not because she loved him but because she did it with so little style. He was ashamed of her terrible clothes and ghastly manners. Her sleeve cuffs were always dipping into her coffee; her high buttoned shoes—in themselves unfashionable— were unbuttoned at the top to give her swollen ankles relief; and her faux pas in St. Paul were legendary. When she and the wife of a very sick man were riding on the same streetcar, Scott told me, the latter asked her obviously pensive companion, “What are you thinking about?” Mollie Fitzgerald replied, “I'm trying to decide how you'll look in mourning.”
Scott was understandably eager to distance himself from this mother whom other children used to joke about. When she wanted to visit her son at summer camp, he made all sorts of excuses to prevent her coming. One letter from Camp Chatham, Orilla, Ontario, dated July 18, 1907, reads:
I received your latter this morning and though I would very much like to have you up here, I don't think you would much like it as you know no one here except Mrs. Upton and she is busy most of the time. I don't think you would like the accommodations as it is only a small town and no good hotels. There are some very nice boarding houses but about the only fare is lamb and beef. Please send me a dollar because there are a lot of little odds and ends that I need. I will spend it cautiously. [If only he had held to that resolution in later life!] All the other boys have pocket money besides their regular allowance.
Your loving son, Scott Fitzgerald
Scott's future ability to charm and flatter was showing in his use of careful diplomacy to get what he wanted. When he was older, however, he would be less careful about hurting his mother's feelings. One of his anecdotes concerned her bemusement at Disney cartoons. She couldn't understand how birds, animals, and other cartoon characters could move in the Disney films. “How can he make those birds fly?” she demanded of her famous author son. Scott tried to explain, then lost patience. And when his mother complained that he did not love her, he retorted, “No, I don't,” whereupon she wept. When Scott told me of this incident, I lectured him, “There are times when it is better to lie. If you had said 'Yes,' you loved her, it would have pleased her and not harmed you.” His reaction was to look away from me. (I wonder what she would have made of television!)
While Scott could not forgive his mother for being so graceless, after her death in September 1936, when he went to pick up her bits and pieces from the Washington hotel where she had been living her last few years, he felt a rush of sympathy with her life's struggle. In a letter to his sister Annabel, he explains:
Mother and I never had anything in common except a relentless stubborn quality, but when I saw all this it turned me inside out, realizing how unhappy her temperament had made her and how she dung tothe end to all things that would remind her of moments of snatched happiness.
Scott acknowledged that his energy derived from his mother and his McQuillan grandfather, who in 1843 had migrated from Ireland to America, still a boy with his parents, and by the 1860s was making his fortune in the wholesale grocery business. But in reviewing his lineage, Scott preferred to dwell on his gentle, courteous father's descent from an old Maryland family, established in America since the 1600s. He liked having such roots to offset the rootlessness he recognized as the affliction of post-World War I society. And he liked the historical and social connection with Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star Spangled Banner,” whom Scott said was his great-great-grandfather, though in actual fact Key was his great-great-great-uncle.
Scott always liked his father, who, despite his failure in business, maintained a certain moral authority in the family. Scott remembered that it was the cultivated father, and not the energetic mother, who, when discipline had to be applied to him, did the thrashing. The childhood crimes that lingered in Scott's memory most vividly were tormenting two little black companions, tying them up with ropes, and pushing a little Jewish boy around. He explained to me, “We were Catholics. My mother went to mass every day. I'm sure she believed that Christian boys were killed at Easter and the Jews drank the blood. She was a bigot but my father was not.”
The worst beating came after Scott, age six, wandered away from home on the Fourth of July and spent the day with a friend in a pear tree, oblivious that time was passing. The police were called in, the parents were frantic, and Scott watched the fireworks that evening with his pants still down and his behind smarting from the thrashing that had greeted his return. Scott was, himself, to suffer the anxiety of the parent the time he telephoned from California to chat with Scottie at Vassar and discovered that she wasn't there. Scott was terribly disturbed, our weekend was ruined, and of course his daughter was all the time safely, happily with her friend Peaches Finney in Baltimore. Scottie was not physically beaten. Her punishment was worse—a halving of her $30 a month allowance. I received piteous letters from her, imploring me to intercede with her stern parent, which I did.
Scott's own father actually sounded less harsh than Scott could be toward his daughter. Certainly, like all kind parents, Edward Fitzgerald always regretted beating his son. And Scott, who even at an early age could guess at the feelings of others, would comfort his father, asking him to tell again the story of how he had watched the armies of the North and the South during the Civil War fighting and retreating across the “dark fields of the Republic.”
Scott's heritage gave him certain sureties—the sense of belonging to a country and its history, the conviction of being loved. But in the three and a half years that I knew him, I was also to hear of all the important incidents in his life that he had found unsettling. There were those early years of insecurity, of moving to Syracuse and Buffalo and back to St. Paul, due to his father's changing jobs as a salesman in the grocery and cosmetic fields. And he never forgot his terror as a twelve-year-old boy, overhearing that his father had lost his job with Procter & Gamble. “I thought it was the poorhouse for sure,” Scott told me. I understand such fears very well from my own childhood.
“I don't know what would have become of us if my mother had not had her inheritance from her father,” Scott told me. She kept them going, though as Scott with his keen eye for exact social nuance explained to me, “We were comfortable, not rich—always on the lower edge of where the rich lived. I was aware that we were poorer.”
James Hill, the railroad magnate, and his family were wealthy St. Paul neighbors. With money and position they seemed to be made of different doth. They were looked up to—literally, since their home was situated higher up from the Fitzgeralds' at the fashionable end of the street. “As a child, you never know what drives you,” Scott said, “but subconsciously I yearned to be as rich and important as the Hills.”
By consciously placing the Hills above himself, he created his own sense of inferiority that in later years prompted his drunken boasting. I was so startled when in October 1937 I first heard him vaunt to perfect strangers on an airplane who he was and how great he was. I think that Scott's early admiration for the rich and powerful was to color his behavior most of his life. But one must be clear that it was never the possession of money in and of itself that he admired. As he defended his outlook in a letter to Ernest Hemingway, after the latter in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” had ridiculed Fitzgerald's kowtowing to the rich, “Riches have never fascinated me unless combined with the greatest charm or distinction.”
Scott wanted to associate with the best and to be the best as well. If as a child he knew he wasn't rich, he at least could strive to be charming. He was a bright boy, his pretty looks were much admired by ladies of all ages, and he loved to show off. After his father taught him to recite, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” he spouted it everywhere to admiring groups of mostly middle-aged women, often without being asked. “Once I started, I wouldn't stop.” He so enjoyed being praised that if the compliments were not forthcoming, he'd turn cartwheels or make funny faces to obtain them. He yearned for applause, wanting it all the time. It was mother's milk to him. He had to be noticed. But there always seemed to be one boy who could do things better than he could, whom he envied and longed to supplant.
The opportunity to shine without competition came at fourteen when Scott wrote his first play, “The Girl From Lazy J.” The admission money went to a local charity, and there were write-ups in the local newspapers. But it was too much for the ambitious boy and, as he wrote in the Basil stories, he became insufferable, the freshest boy, and was disliked by the girls as well as the boys. He alienated Marie Hersey, with whom he was infatuated. Scott showed me his scrapbooks in which she figured prominently in the early pages. Marie was the model for the pretty, unattainable girl, Ermine Gilberte, or Labouisse Bibble, commonly known as Minnie Bibble, in the Basil stories. Reuben Warner became Hubert Blair—the boy who could do everything better than Scott-Basil.
Already it was an obsession with Scott to have the best girl, the one who was most sought after. He confessed to me that he considered himself a failure unless he got the prettiest, the most desirable girl. But, as when he succeeded with his play, he couldn't control himself once the girl was won. He would strut about, offering unsolicited advice as to how his friends might emulate his success. The other boys would turn against him, and then the girls. He always went too far.
I've since thought that Scott was curiously unsure of his own worth. Though people in St. Paul praised him for his precocity and his good looks, he had no inner sense of confidence. Because, if you need to associate with the prettiest, the loveliest, the richest, it suggests that you feel deficient in yourself and that you hope to shine in the glow of the person you consider superior to yourself.
Such dependence on someone else, however, can be precarious. Scott was inevitably disappointed when the girls failed to live up to his impossibly high ideal. The fear of disillusionment grew to be almost an integral part of his romanticism—a fear that the spell people had for him, that he actually wove around them, would break with too much reality.
A few months after I met him, he had the chance to see Ginevra King, whom he had found so lovely when she was sixteen. Ginevra, long since married to multimillionaire John Pirie of Carson, Pirie, Scott, the great department store in Chicago, wrote to him that she was visiting in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara and would love for them to get together. He was very reluctant to meet her, dreading the prospect of what she would look like and be at thirty-eight. Like Anthony in The Beautiful and Damned, who is afraid to see the older Gloria, Scott feared that he would find Ginevra haggard and decayed.
To risk the encounter with “the first woman I ever loved,” he started drinking again. At least this is what he told Ginevra. Concerning the same drinking bout, his account to me was that it began because of his jealousy over a date I had with Arthur Kober. But however suspect his excuses for the drinking, they indicate how much he cared that the women in his life live up to his expectations and ideals.
Ginevra, incidentally, did not disappoint him. At thirty-eight she was still a beautiful woman. Scott could retain his early dream of her intact. And somehow this made him feel better about himself and his own life. His insecurity still seems strange to me because, as far as I was concerned, he didn't need anyone else's glitter—he was always so complete in his own right.
I remember Scott telling me that the Jesuit priests would say “Give me a boy until he is seven. By then his character will be formed. Nothing afterwards could much change him.” In Scott's case the early influence was his mother and her adulation that created his lifelong craving for a similar response from other people. “I want to be extravagantly admired again,” he writes gaily, but not untruthfully, to John Peale Bishop in 1925. But his doting mother had not prepared him for the harsher judgments of those outside the home. And he suffered from childhood onward when the world was indifferent or hostile to him. His insecurity made him try too hard to be popular.
It was a great shock to Scott, going off in September 1911 to board at the Newman School in New Jersey, that not only did he fail to establish himself as a well-liked boy and a leader, but that he was overwhelmingly unpopular. Some of the Newman boys, he confided to me, actually hated him. Throughout the whole of his first term he was miserable, taking long walks by himself and wondering how he could make his classmates like him. There was football, of course. To be captain of the school's team was to be God. But Scott was short, and after the first try-out in which he strove to look good while at the same time saving his skin, he doubted that the applause would come from the football field. On one occasion when his fright was obvious, he was ostracized as a coward.
But perhaps because of his “relentless stubborn quality,” Scott gave up on neither his popularity nor his football. During his second season he played one magnificent do-or-die game, and he was hailed as a hero. A teammate shouted “Good old Scottie,” and he thought he would burst, he was so proud. “You only had a nickname if you were popular,” he explained to me. In the Basil Lee stories, Basil, when he triumphs for the first time on the football field, is hailed as “Lee-ey.”
Then in 1913 came Princeton, Scott's beloved Princeton. He could barely contain his suffering waiting to know whether he had been accepted by Cottage, one of the top four eating dubs. Later he would be relieved that Vassar did not have clubs and that Scottie would be spared his experience. But, actually, Scott would not have had to worry about her. Scottie has always been a natural person, undaunted by social success or failure. It was Scott who cared so much about the clubs, convinced that you could be scarred for life if you were not accepted by the right one. He felt sorry for the few Jews at Princeton who had no choice of getting into a decent club and who, shunned by the popular men in the university, could find companionship only in huddling together.
This, of course, raises the question of Fitzgerald and anti-Semitism. “Wasn't he anti-Semitic?” a young woman asked me recently at a party in Palm Beach. That she should think so isn't surprising. In his novels, Scott uses Jewish characters to emphasize some of the shoddiest aspects of American life. The portraits of Wolfsheim with his “gonnegtions” in The Great Gatsby and Manny Schwartz with his obsequious misery in The Last Tycoon are not flattering. My feeling is that Scott was somewhat put off by Jews as a group, however much he liked Eddie Mayer and almost canonized Thalberg and had many Jewish friends in Hollywood. But the Jews, for him, were not The Beautiful People. And at Princeton he perceived them as socially disadvantaged whereas he wished to achieve as much social distinction as he could.
Scott was so excited by his acceptance into Cottage that he immediately invited Ginevra King, whom he had met in St. Paul during Christmas—she had been the house guest of Marie Hersey—to attend the sophomore prom. Ginevra, a junior at Westover, was a striking brunette, the unattainable dream girl of Scott's future fiction. College boys of Yale, Harvard, and Princeton fought for her favor, and Scott was not surprised when she refused his invitation on the plea that her mother was unable to chaperone her. How quaint that seems today. But they met again during her vacation from school, and Scott was madly in love with her, or at least convinced that he was. In love and in anguish.
He was always jealous, and he suffered when Ginevra wrote him long accounts of the parties she had been to. It would be worse when he fell in love with Zelda Sayre. Ginevra, Scott felt in retrospect, was aware that she was teasing him. Zelda applied the torture seemingly unaware of or indifferent to the misery she was causing. But this was in the future.
Despite his setbacks in love, Princeton was paradise for the handsome young man from the Midwest, who always seemed on the point of bursting with excitement at his new discoveries of people and ideas. He could never have enough discussion of the poets and authors who interested him—Keats, Marlowe, Conrad, Swinburne. After he discovered Swinburne, he walked around the campus for days declaiming “The Hounds of Spring.” He himself had been writing prolifically most of his life—poems, stories, plays, outlines of plots. And since the success of his second youthful play “The Captured Shadow,” he had determined to be a famous writer.
The desk drawer in his room at Princeton was jammed with mystery and detective stories, full of heroic deeds, and of course in his imagination he was always the hero. Then when the Nassau Lit published his one-act play Shadow Laurels and his story “The Ordeal,” he felt he had arrived. There were no heights to which he could not aspire. The world would soon know of him. He was burning with ego, energy, and, in turn, depression and tremendous confidence. Compton Mackenzie's Youth's Encounter gave him the idea of writing a novel about Princeton, a project which would develop into This Side of Paradise.
I believe that Princeton, more than any other time or place, incarnated his youth for Scott with all its hope and promise. For the remainder of his life he clung to his memories of the eating clubs, the football games, the proms, because he had experienced them with so much intensity. Also Princeton saw the expansion of his literary talent and the cultivation of certain lifelong friends. Among these was the editor of the Lit, a blond, stocky intellectual, Edmund “Bunny” Wilson, who lived by his own critical standards and unlike Scott didn't give a damn for popularity. He was what we called in England a “swot”—a “grind” we would say in America. Classmates at Princeton thought him rather conceited. Certainly he had reason to be. Although just a year older than Scott—Bunny died in 1973 at the age of seventy-seven—he was a decade older in critical ability and assurance. Scott with his usual extravagant admiration for what he considered the best, put Wilson on a literary pedestal to which he genuflected all his life.
The friendship of the imaginative writer and the critic—always more literary than personal—climaxed in Edmund Wilson's undertaking after Scott's death to edit The Last Tycoon. At Princeton the two worked together on a play for the Triangle Club, the Princeton drama society which Scott had chosen deliberately as the best outlet for his writing. “My lyrics,” he told me, “were praised in the cities where the shows toured. I was hailed as the new Cole Porter, and I became obnoxious again as I always did when I was successful.” The humility that came with failure made him nicer. Given too much praise, he was off like an erratic sky-rocket.
Scott showed me the photograph of himself dressed as a girl for one Triangle musical, The Evil Eye. His bad grades prevented his appearance in the show. But the publicity photo was printed in The New York Times, and it was later misused by some of his detractors to prove that he was a homosexual or had some tendencies that way. This group included his own wife, Zelda, who accused Scott of being in love with Hemingway, or vice versa—she was rather confused on this point. Scott did make a beautiful girl. He was also a handsome man—Robert Redford at his best looks somewhat like Scott as a young man.
Scott wrote the lyrics for The Evil Eye, and Edmund Wilson, the book. But while Wilson was able to study in addition to the extracurricular activities, Scott neglected his courses and found himself on the edge of flunking out of school. He was saved from this disgrace by an attack of TB, which gave him the excuse to leave of his own volition. “I really had been a delicate child,” he assured me at various times, “which was one reason my mother coddled me and made it difficult for me to cope with later problems.” To the best of my knowledge the touch of TB was genuine, though it was strongly rumored that Fitzgerald had left Princeton because of his bad grades.
Edmund Wilson admitted to me after Scott's death that he had always believed Scott left college under a scholastic cloud. “But,” he added, “I learned recently that he really did have TB.” (I have this letter in Wilson's handwriting.) “That's what Scott said,” I reaffirmed loyally. Scott's last doctor confirmed this to me. I was also aware that Scott would claim a flare-up of his illness to cover the effect of his drinking. In his last thirteen months of sobriety the TB rather mysteriously disappeared.
However convenient his attack in December 1915, Scott was unhappy away from Princeton and for the first time in his life he worked hard at his studies so he could return to the university in September 1916. Nonetheless, his reacceptance meant stepping down a class, and he could no longer serve on the board of the Triangle Club. But although he continued writing lyrics for the productions, he missed out being club president—the honor he had so keenly anticipated—and he was angry and depressed.
Scott still managed to have a reasonably good year—his junior year—at Princeton. In addition to his work for the Triangle Club, he submitted numerous stories and poems to the Lit—he had made up his mind to follow in the footsteps of Keats and Conrad rather than Cole Porter. The prospect, however, of a senior year with his original class of '17 already graduated, did not appeal to him. Leaving Princeton for the last time in October 1917, he reported to officers' training camp at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Thus, while he has been regarded for several decades as one of Princeton's brightest alumni, he did not graduate from the university he loved. It would have pleased him to know that one of his grandsons was a student at Old Nassau.
But just as the presidency of the Triangle Club eluded him, so did the distinction of serving overseas in World War I. “I have never forgiven fate that the war was over before I could get to France,” he complained. “I was actually on the boat, several hours at sea, and we were some way out in the Atlantic when news came of the armistice, and we turned back.” I have since learned that his ship never left New York harbor. As a good writer and storyteller, Scott sometimes dramatized his experiences in order to heighten their effect.
If the actual experience of the war eluded him, in imagination he lived it to a doomed and poignant end. He was sure that he would be killed, but only after he had written poetry of the same sort as Rupert Brooke, one of his heroes. My poetry section of the College of One curriculum included several of Brooke's war poems—“If I should die,” etc. I believe that in Scott's fantasies he heard the whole world applauding as he went gallantly to his death. But in his farewell letters to friends and relatives, some written even before leaving Princeton, he eschewed heroic bombast in favor of a world-weary fatalism. In one epistle to his favorite cousin Cecilia—at seven he had been a ring bearer at her wedding in 1903—he forecasts with a certain perverse enjoyment:
It looks as if the youth of me and my generation ends sometime during this present year, rather summarily. If we ever get back, and I don't particularly care, we'll be rather aged—in the worst way. After all, life hasn't much to offer except youth and I suppose for older people the love of youth in others. I perfectly agree with Rupert Brooke's men of Grantchester “Who when they got to feeling old They up and shot themselves I'm told.” Every man I've met who's been to war—that is this war—seems to have lost youth and faith in man unless they're wine-bibbers of patriotism, which, of course, I think is the biggest rot in the world.
It is illuminating that already at twenty, Scott had the reverence for youth which was to make his own loss of youth so hard for him to come to terms with. It is also interesting that despite his confinement in the war to a spectator's role, he could so aptly sum up his generation's disillusionment. One of Scott's greatest talents as a writer was the ability to capture the mood of his times. The letter to Cousin Ceci is a strange combination of bravado and discernment.
The same can be said of a letter from Scott to his mother, though given his mother's feelings for him it is more cruel. “About the army,” he writes distantly,
please let's not have tragedy or Heroics because they are equally distasteful to me. I went into this perfectly cold-bloodedly and don't sympathize with the “Give my son to country” etc. etc. etc. or “Hero stuff,” because I just went and for purely social reasons. If you want to pray, pray for my soul and not that I won't get killed—the last doesn't seem to matter particularly and if you are a good Catholic the first ought to.
To a profound pessimist about life, being in danger is not depressing. I have never been more cheerful. Please be nice and respect my wishes.
It is Scott's statement here about going to war for purely social reasons that stands out from the pose of carelessness. I sense that he equated the battlefield with the football field or the dance floor as a place to achieve social distinction. He always wanted to participate and excel in the most popular activity. And although he so often failed, at least he could always see the irony of his position and so glean material for fiction.
The army in fact brought Fitzgerald little distinction. “I hated Kansas,” he shuddered at the recollection. “It was freezing and we had to sleep fifteen to a room with all our things huddled at the foot of the beds. Baby, it was hell.” He did as badly as a military officer as he had as a university student, and his unpopularity with his fellow trainees, who resented his Brooks Brothers uniforms and his assumption of superiority, was reminiscent of the Newman School.
But he had been writing his novel on and off since his last year at Princeton. To be a published novelist would be a magnificent recognition. He had something to say that might not be popular with the head men at the university he loved, but he was eager to say it. The book would of course be about himself and his relation to people and events, as every future book and story would be—even The Great Gatsby, which he considered the least autobiographical of his works. But even there, as Scott wrote to John Peale Bishop, another Princeton friend, in August 1925, “Gatsby started as one man I knew and then changed into myself.”
During the dreary months in Kansas, Scott managed to write a hundred and twenty thousand words of his novel about Princeton. He showed the work in progress to Father Fay, his teacher and friend from the Newman days, who thought it was first rate, and to his Princeton poetry mentor, John Bishop, who thought it was mediocre. Undaunted, Scott continued to write at a furious pace.
In March 1918, his novel was finished, and he settled on the title The Romantic Egotist, which his daughter recently borrowed for her photographic biography of her parents written with Professor Matthew Bruccoli and Joan Kerr. Scott sent the completed novel to his British author friend, Shane Leslie, who in turn sent it to Scribners in New York, asking them to hold it, even if they did not wish to publish it. This meant Scott could go to France feeling he was a successful author. As for Scott, he was increasingly impatient with the army routine of drills and marches which he considered an interruption of his life as an author. But as he explained to Bishop, “I did want to go to France, and if I survived it would have meant my next book.”
Preparatory to going overseas, Scott's regiment, now part of the new Ninth Division, was ordered to Camp Sheridan, Alabama, for the final training. He was surprised and amused to find that there was still some resentment in the South against the Yankees. Also he was lonely. Ginevra King had written that she was getting married, and with his book off his hands, he was in a mood for some gaiety. He began attending the Saturday night dances at the country club. And at a dance in July 1918, the twenty-one-year-old Scott Fitzgerald met Zelda Sayre, who was not quite eighteen. The whole course of his future was set at that first meeting.