With America at war, patriotic fever ran high on the Princeton campus. Playing fields became drill grounds where students and professors learned the rudiments of weaponry and military discipline. But Fitzgerald was one of those who kept their heads, refusing to be carried away by martial propaganda. He did think of enlisting, as an officer, but this mainly because he saw in the war another possible chance to fulfill the old dream he had not been able to realize at school or on the football field. He was unencumbered with excess patriotic baggage when he reported at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for three months' basic training, so he could maintain a detached, aristocratic attitude toward the war. He ordered a well-cut uniform from Brooks Brothers and, before joining his unit, admonished his mother against displays of sentiment. In all ways he conformed to the proud code Fay urged on him in a letter written on December 12, 1917: “You went to war as a gentleman should, just as you went to school and college, because it was the thing to do. It's better to leave the blustering and tremulo-heroism to the middle classes; they do it so much better.”
Before leaving Princeton, he had shown an enthusiastic Fay and a more reserved Gauss a first draft of a novel that already had the basic characteristics of This Side of Paradise, blending his autobiographical notes and some of the poems and stories written for the Lit into a more or less fictionalized account of his life at Princeton.
Convinced he was going to be killed in the war, he was anxious to make fullest use of his winter months in the Kansas snow to rewrite the book: “I had only three months to live—in those days all infantry officers thought they had only three months to live—and I had left no mark on the world.” He wanted to leave a piece of work behind him, a kind of testament of his generation, he wrote to Wilson, in what he felt was the only meaningful form in which to show it. He fought against time—or, rather, time and space no longer existed for him. He was completely absorbed in creation, and the rest—the training, the hiking—was as unsubstantial as a dream. Pulling his old Newman-Princeton trick when he was bored in class, he scribbled during training lectures, hiding his notes behind his military manual. Caught at it, he was left with only his weekends in which to write in thenoise and smoke of the officers' club. Luckily, two of his barracks mates were Harvard men who were also interested in literature; one of them edited a poetry magazine and the other was adapting War and Peace for the stage. When his basic training ended in February, Fitzgerald used his furlough to go to Princeton and complete the last of the twenty-three chapters of The Romantic Egotist.
Of this long narrative—120,000 words, according to Fitzgerald—only the first five chapters remain, the heavily corrected chapters he sent to his friend Donahoe, which were never returned to him (Donahoe kept them and later donated them to the Princeton library). But we can get an idea of what it was about from the author's letters to his friends. It was a first-person story by a narrator named Stephen Palms, or Delius—evidence that Fitzgerald remembered A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He never cited Joyce among his sources, however, seeing his own work rather as “a prose, modernistic Childe Harold” than the tale of an upbringing like that of Stephen Dedalus in Clongowes Wood. Nevertheless, aside from the love stories—probably the ones used for stories published in the Lit and transposed with only minor changes to the final, published version—the manuscript includes “three psychic adventures including an encounter with the devil in a harlot's apartment”; their supernatural content recalls some of Dedalus' mystical perceptions. A single, ambiguous reference to Joyce's novel is found in This Side of Paradise: “He read enormously. He was puzzled and depressed by The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”
With Fay in Europe, his friend Shane Leslie functioned as Fitzgerald's guide. Leslie would have liked to see him stick to poetry, and at first he opposed the plan to write a novel. But he soon changed his mind when he saw the carbons of the chapters Fitzgerald sent him as fast as they came out of the typewriter. “I like the idea of your book,” he wrote his protege on January 1, 1918. “Conceit is the soul or germ of literature and of course 'egotism' is the long sought synonym for 'style.' … Put your utmost into your writing while the furor of youth, its cynicism and indignation, is upon you.”
Encouraged, Fitzgerald went to Washington to hand the poet the completed manuscript he had just revised at Princeton. Leslie corrected the spelling and syntax and sent it to his publisher, Charles Scribner. Despite a shrewd letter of recommendation that pictured Fitzgerald as a kind of Rupert Brooke in prose who, like his elder, was doomed to vanish soon (“though Fitzgerald is still alive it has a literary value. Of course when he is killed it will also have a commercial value.”), the manuscript was returned to its author in August. He made the changes recommended by Scribner readers and submitted it again. In October came the final rejection. Only one of the editors, Maxwell Perkins, tried in vain to defend it.
Meanwhile, his furlough over, Fitzgerald was assigned to Fort Taylor, Kentucky, near Louisville, where he was reunited with Bishop, who hadbeen there for several months and whose Green Fruit had just appeared. Bishop was about to ship out for France, and he would fight in the war's final battles. The two talked about Princeton, where Biggs alone of their group remained to carry on their tradition; about Wilson, who was already with an ambulance unit in France, but whose war experience would be confined to the boredom of garrison towns. They explored the streets of Louisville together; Fitzgerald associated the city's beauty with that of its girls and was charmed by it. There he had his introduction to the South, and it was in Louisville that he would place Jay Gatsby's meeting with Daisy Fay.
After a month in Kentucky, Fitzgerald's unit was transferred to Camp Gordon, Georgia; then, two months later, to Camp Sheridan, Alabama, in the heart of the Deep South. The camp was just outside Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy. Both these camps, and the lazy life in the towns around them, would be described in The Beautiful and Damned. After his stimulating winter months in Fort Leavenworth, Alabama's subtropical summer dulled his energy and ambition; he succumbed to the languor of this new land where the climate brought out new facets of his personality.
His assignment to a staff company gave him the right to wear boots and spurs, a privilege he was the only officer in camp to claim. Military life and the authority it gave him fostered autocratic tendencies in him that could be alarming. On one occasion, for example, he forced a conscientious objector at revolver point to go through the regular training course. Another time he almost caused a rebellion in the ranks by making his men double the length of a hike as punishment for their complaints about the food. And he brought so much pressure to bear on them during a Liberty Bond drive that they each—in violation of military regulations—subscribed two months' pay.
Fitzgerald's irresponsibility was legendary in the camp. Given command of a mortar company, he mistakenly directed the unit's fire—the ammunition, it's true, was blank—on another unit on the firing range. He came off better, however, when a ferry sank during an amphibious landing exercise across the nearby Tallapoosa River, organizing the rescue operation and managing to save most of the men from drowning. “I Didn't Get Over,” a story he wrote in 1936, describes the incident and ties it in with the mortar-practice fumble. There is a veiled feeling of guilt in the story: the narrator, theoretically impartial, nonetheless defends Lieutenant Danzer, who redeems himself on the river. The sinking is blamed on Captain Hibbing, whose headstrong zeal has already caused the mortar incident and who takes his vindictiveness out on Danzer. At the end of the story the narrator is revealed as Hibbing himself. The perspective allowed the author to be simultaneously witness, defendant and judge of his own mistakes. Years later, in The Beautiful and Damned, he would take a strongly hostile attitude toward the army, denouncing the absurdity of its system and the stupidity of its regular officers, “men with the mentality and aspirations of schoolboys.” The least inhuman among them, Lieutenant Kretching, turns out to be a heel who makes off with the unit's cash box. Camp life is described from the viewpoint of a private victimized by the lack of understanding in his superiors—in whom, with his habitual honesty, Fitzgerald condemns his own blindness.
It was at a country club dance in Montgomery that he met Zelda Sayre. He had gone through several affairs that summer. A girl named May Steiner, in particular, was so important to him that he kept a photo of her draped in an American flag. She may have been the model for tiny, touching Dorothy Raycroft in The Beautiful and Damned.
In June he learned that Ginevra was to be married in September to an Army Air Service officer. The past was decidedly dead. Yet, for the first time since his idyll with Ginevra ended, the word “love” reappeared in his Ledger. On the same line was written a name: Zelda. In a July entry the name is coupled with the news of Ginevra's engagement. It crops up again after the second mention of May Steiner: “May and I on the verandah.” Both names return in August, but this time Zelda's is mentioned first, after notice that Fitzgerald had begun revising the second version of The Romantic Egotist: “Revising novel. Zelda and May.” And the entries for September begin, “Fell in love on the seventh.” This would seem to invalidate the romantic tale of love at first sight recounted by their biographers; two months apparently went by before Scott and Zelda decided they were in love. The young officer had certainly been attracted at once by the golden-haired girl he met at the club on a Saturday evening in July. She had just finished high school, where she shone in her dancing classes. In a show that evening she had performed her favorite number, “The Dance of the Hours.” He asked to be introduced to her, and they went on seeing each other.
Zelda Sayre, born July 24, 1900, was just eighteen then. She was the youngest of the five Sayre children—her three sisters, Marjorie, Rosalind and Clothilde, all much older than she, and a brother, Anthony Jr. Her mother, Minnie Sayre, was nearly forty when Zelda was born, and her father, Judge Anthony D. Sayre, was forty-two; the child was and remained her parents' pet. Minnie had once hoped to be an opera singer in Philadelphia, but her father, a former United States senator from Kentucky, vetoed the plan. Although she was resigned to sacrificing her dream, Minnie's romantic streak and her lively imagination remained intact; her poems were even printed occasionally in the local newspaper. She was sufficiently impressed by her reading to name her youngest daughter Zelda, after a Gypsy queen in a novel.
Zelda's father, a justice of the Alabama Supreme Court for over twenty years, also came from a distinguished family. His uncle, John Tyler Morgan, was a United States senator for three decades. The novel Zelda wrote in 1932, a few months after Judge Sayre's death, showed how important her father was in her life, not directly, but through the unshakable dignity and Olympian assurance he always incarnated for her. His was the only authority for which she had any respect, even if she did make a game of disobeying his orders, of defying him and pitting her will against his. It is significant that in her novel she always refers to her heroine's father as the Judge. Throughout her life Zelda would regret the lost orderliness, the reassuring stability her father's authority provided.
When Fitzgerald met her, she was already famous in Montgomery for her wild escapades and her contempt for convention. Other girls her age admired and envied her, voting her the prettiest girl in her class at Lanier High School. But she had long since grown bored with them. Zelda craved action, the clash of rivalries, the heat of competition. She could not be satisfied to remain within the bounds convention set around proper young ladies. She had the nonchalant charm, the love of finery and conquest, the ready retort and provocative mockery typical of the belle we meet in so many novels about the South. She had, moreover, a strong sense of the consideration due her and a belief that this ought to take the form of dashing action as well as romantic speeches.
Her resemblance to fictional Southern heroines, stoutly encamped in their tradition and propriety, ends here, however. Zelda did not belong to the world of the great plantations, but to a middle class that was solid, respected, but not notably wealthy. Her notion of honor owed nothing to the chivalric code of the Southern aristocracy. The responsibility she felt was to herself alone, and she could not tolerate curbs on her expression of her zest for life. Not for her the classic Southern belle's passivity. She hated boredom; good manners left her indifferent and so did the conventions, and she flouted both without remorse or reservation. And she got away with this blithe disdain because of her graceful naturalness and poise and a dignity born of her deep conviction that her way of doing things was always the right way.
Toward men she was as demanding as she was generous, refusing to be just another pretty pushover. Zelda was determined to live dangerously. Bold and energetic, she looked for boldness and energy in the friends she chose. Nothing annoyed her so much as conformity and pale reasonableness. She piqued her admirers' pride, expected the impossible of them, was a constant challenge to them. If she rode behind on a motorcycle, she insisted that the driver take risks he would never take alone. A fearless diver, she expected her friends to match her daring. She smoked in public when this was still scandalous, and she drank as hard as boys her age did. Wherever she went, Zelda Sayre disconcerted, stimulated, excited or shocked people.
She had a cat's fluid and dangerous grace. Beauty she had, but it wasmore in manner than in feature. What was charming about her gray-blue eyes was the bold, mocking, provocative look in them. Well-boned face, thin, bird-of-prey nose, a mass of golden hair and a supple, boyish body: Diana the Huntress.
By the time the United States entered the war, Zelda had already run through all the possibilities available at parties in Montgomery and dances at Alabama State University in Montgomery and at nearby Auburn University. When the aviators took over Camp Taylor and an Ohio regiment moved into Camp Sheridan, she was seventeen and delighted with this new contingent of males. She shone at parties given for officers who vied for her attention and for invitations to the Sayre home on Pleasant Avenue. Pilots flew stunts over the house until their commander forbade flights over the neighborhood.
Zelda plunged into a round of flirtations and intrigues, avowals of love and moonlit walks, old waltzes and the latest hit tunes. In “The Last of the Belles,” Fitzgerald perfectly caught this frothy summer-festival atmosphere, a sort of Departure for Cythera, in which a foreboding of death intensified the pursuit of love, a whirl of loving, cruel and witty belles and beaux incognito in their dress uniforms, moving with the dark grace of men marked for battle. People ignored the fact that these young Northern soldiers were yesterday's enemies, entertaining them as doomed men just as, over half a century earlier, they had given at least one splendid ball for Confederate officers about to leave for the massacre. In this frantic festival atmosphere, prejudice, social barriers, all the customary restraints disappeared. People tried to fulfill the promise of a lifetime in a single summer.
The game had already been going on for a year when a young staff officer, slim and proud in his Brooks Brothers uniform, blond and handsome as a summer deity and stepping lightly, as though on winged feet, approached Zelda at the country club. He was twenty-two, she eighteen, and the love born that evening was to become legendary in American literary lore. Time slowed for them and stopped; by the end of that summer they would bring a burning love story to life. The memory of those two late-summer months in 1918 would become the heart of Fitzgerald's writing, inspiring stories in which every heroine would have Zelda's audacity and vivacity and verve and Zelda's smile. “The most important year of life,” he wrote in his Ledger. “Every emotion and any life work decided. Miserable and ecstatic, but a great success.” At a time and place in which passions were brief and unions fleeting—among their friends, Wilson and Hemingway would each marry four times—Scott and Zelda would give the world of the Roaring Twenties, despite their incessant quarreling, a lesson in anachronistic constancy, of a love that was forever threatened, forever reborn.
Each of them confusedly hoped that through marriage they could escape their surroundings and enter a social sphere they liked to think was free ofprovincial, middle-class contingencies, a lavish and liberal world. This was the sense of Fitzgerald's boyish fixation on Ginevra King, the love of a relatively poor young man for a richer girl through which we glimpse his fascination with the opulent society in which she lived.
To Zelda, too, marriage implied escape to an elegant life in the big northern cities and a blossoming forth of her personality in worldly, luxurious surroundings. Scott fully approved of her dream; in such stories as “The Ice Palace,” “The Jelly Bean” and “The Sensible Thing” (it was Zelda who had the ideas for the first two), he endorsed the motivations that make their heroines refuse to marry men they love but who could not open to them the doors to a more glamorous life. Yet Scott, dreaming, like Gatsby, of a king's daughter, fell in love with a shepherdess, and Zelda, awaiting the marvelous prince who would take her out of her ordinary world, gave herself to an impecunious cavalier who could build castles only in the air.
Having recognized themselves in each other, they abandoned their illusions. Each had seen the other's eagerness to live life fully, to reject any impediment to unfettered development. Who better than Zelda could understand Scott's inordinate ambition to cash in richly on a romantic life-style? Who more indulgently than Scott could ignore Zelda's frivolity and her apparent flaws and see only her basic nature, her intense feeling for life, her perfect freedom of spirit and her disdain for whatever is not felt and experienced acutely? Each was reflected in the other's impulses, anticipated the other's thoughts, encouraged the other's most secret potentials, confirmed the other's intuitions, rivaled the other's boldness in their parallel conquest of their inner freedom. Zelda confessed her most sordid adventures, gave him her diary to read, as he gave her his novel. Even more than lovers, they were accomplices, twins going hand in hand to confront the world around them.
For the moment their love seemed a gift from the gods, made more precious and poignant still by their certainty that it was doomed. During that first phase they lived in the present, with no plans, no future. Scott pressed her for a firm commitment, but she backed away, making herself more precious by absence, indifference, responsiveness to his rivals. For she had not dismissed her other admirers, and she made sure that Scott knew it when she encouraged them. Clusters of students from Auburn surrounded her; five members of the football team even formed a new fraternity, Zeta Sigma; according to a newspaper clipping in Zelda's scrapbook, they were “noted for their almost rabid devotion to the principles of their fraternity.” The rival of whom Scott was proudest and most jealous was Francis Stubbs, a football hero of the kind he had admired at Princeton, adored by the crowds, proud and nonchalant, as befitted an Auburn star.
Zelda, sure of herself and of Scott, played off his jealousy against her desire. He was invited to dinner by her parents, spent long evenings with her on the Sayres' clematis-shaded porch talking endlessly of love throughthe hot evenings, analyzing their feelings, tripping all the levers of charm and enticement. Later he would remember that after their hours of communion, she liked to tease him, calling him “an educational feature; an overture to romance which no young lady should be without.”
One incident provides a rousing illustration of her irresistible need to push those she most loved to the limits of their patience. The first time Scott was invited to dinner at the Sayres', Zelda's teasing so enraged her father that he grabbed a carving knife—so, at least, the story goes—and chased her around the table. Just a little lesson in natural history that Scott may not have taken sufficiently to heart.
On October 26 Scott left Montgomery with his unit for Long Island to sail to France. He had just learned of his novel's final rejection, and the girl he loved and who loved him was left behind, but he was ready for battle, ready to die like a gentleman. He had lived fully, had known fierce love. Like Alan Seeger and Rupert Brooke, he had a presentiment of death.
But fate denied him the romantic apotheosis of a glorious end: while his regiment waited to embark for Europe, the armistice was signed. A crushing disappointment: the war had passed him by. He would have to learn to live again. As in March 1916, when all his hopes were frustrated and the tension that had carried him so far had suddenly broken, Scott went to pieces. He let everything go, deserted his post and, for what he later felt were a few despairing, abject days, lived through a nightmare haunted by boozing and whoring. His regiment, meanwhile, was ordered back to Camp Sheridan for demobilization. He just managed to catch up with it in Washington, where his buddies found him at the station, with a bottle in his hand, sitting between two prostitutes. He said he had requisitioned a locomotive by pretending he had a message to deliver to the White House. Despite the escapade, in early December he was appointed aide to General J. A. Ryan, in charge of relations with civil authorities.
Scott no sooner returned to Montgomery than he quarreled with Zelda. “My affair still drifts,” he wrote in a December 4 letter to old friend Ruth Sturtevant. “But my mind is firmly made up that I will not, shall not, can not, should not, must not marry—still she is remarkable.” When they made up, the intoxication of a present without tomorrows gave way to a sober awareness that the tomorrows were all-important, since he was still rich in nothing but plans and promises. Nor did his aura of heroic martyrdom blind Zelda to what she owed herself as well as Scott. She was extremely cautious about sharing her life with him—and he was the first to approve of her realism. “She was wise enough,” he later noted, “to be rather reluctant.”
He was discharged from the army on February 14. When he left Montgomery a few days later, he knew Zelda had been invited by Stubbs to spend the following week in Auburn. But Scott was confident. He was sureas soon as he arrived in New York that he would succeed, and he was wildly elated. Reinforced by his love, he would conquer the world for her. His first telegram to Montgomery sounded like a victory communique: “DARLING HEART AMBITION ENTHUSIASM AND CONFIDENCE I DECLARE EVERYTHING GLORIOUS THIS WORLD IS A GAME AND WHILE I FEEL SURE OF YOUR LOVE EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE I AM IN THE LAND OF AMBITION AND SUCCESS AND MY ONLY HOPE AND FAITH IS THAT MY DARLING HEART WILL BE WITH ME SOON.”
Reality, heightened by the abrupt halt in the American war effort and equally hasty demobilization, soon dented his fine enthusiasm. The unprecedented prosperity of the previous four years collapsed in a few weeks when the government canceled most of its military contracts. A grim recession following hard on the boom threatened not only the war industries but the structure of a whole production system that had grown too fast. Two million discharged soldiers were looking for jobs in a recession-lamed economy. Without contacts, with nothing to recommend him but his manner, his army rank and his undistinguished record at Princeton, where his only “diplomas” had been his musical comedies, Fitzgerald made the sterile rounds of the newspaper city rooms looking for a job as a reporter. When seven papers declined his services—he had hoped, he wrote, “to trail murderers by day and do short stories by night”—he began to lose some of the self-assurance that had borne him through college and the army: “All the confidence I had garnered at Princeton and in a haughty career as the army's worst aide-de-camp melted gradually away. Lost and forgotten, I walked quickly from certain places—from the pawn shop where one left the field glasses, from prosperous friends whom one met wearing the suit from before the war, from busy, cheerful offices that were saving the jobs for their own boys from the war.”
He was discovering the other side of the coin of which, in his cloistered life at Princeton and in the training camps, he had seen only the shining face. There was, he found, a sordid city hidden behind the white skyscrapers and twinkling lights of the radiant New York he knew as a teenager.
He had not stopped writing, however. From April to June, again putting his novel aside, he wrote nineteen short stories that were inexorably rejected by the magazines to which he sent them; rejection slips, 122 of them, were pinned in a frieze around the wall of his room. He met Paul Dickey, the Princeton composer, and suggested that they collaborate on a musical, but Dickey was a businessman now. Scott tried everything: “I wrote movies. I wrote song lyrics. I wrote complicated advertising schemes. I wrote poems. I wrote sketches. I wrote jokes. Near the end of June I sold one story for thirty dollars.” But the story, “Babes in the Wood,” was one that had been published in Princeton two years earlier.
Fitzgerald's panic, his horror of the poverty stalking him, of being lost in the crowd, are recalled in a story called “Dalrymple Goes Wrong” and inThe Great Gatsby. Through Jay Gatsby and Bryan Dalrymple he described the bitterness of ex-soldiers thrust jobless into civilian life with no way to survive except crime. One of them turns burglar, the other hires out to the gangster Wolsheim; both, in short, use the honors they won in battle to serve crooked politicians.
Fitzgerald had to make do with a ninety-dollar-a-month job writing billboard advertising slogans for the Barron Collier Advertising Agency. He rented a cheap room at 200 Claremont Avenue, in New York's Morningside Heights district, and began the gray existence of the office workers he would write about so compassionately in Gatsby. The young Princeton dandy was now so broke that he had to paper the insides of his shoes against the holes in the soles. He learned about the subway at rush hours, the endless, insipid days at the office, about lonely meals hastily gobbled. For the first time in his life he was poor, and he simply could not get going again on his novel. A certain reluctance appeared in the letters he received from Montgomery. Fitzgerald's bitterness was only intensified by the fact that he continued to see some of his richer friends—Porter Gillespie, for example, with whom he spent a tumultuous night at a ball in Delmonico's that he would re-create in some detail in “May Day.”
For four months he lived a miserable life, disappointed in love, doubting his talent, struggling desperately to resolve the dilemma that paralyzed him: winning fame as a writer without losing the job that gave him a chance, however slight, to persuade Zelda to join him in New York. It was a painful time, but profitable; it considerably broadened his knowledge of other people and of himself.
On his arrival in New York he had told his parents that he wished to marry Zelda and had asked his mother to write to her. This mark of interest pleased Zelda, but the letter she wrote him in response to it alarmed him: “I am acquiring myriad wrinkles pondering over a reply to your Mother's note—I'm so dreadfully afraid of appearing fresh or presuming or casual-Most of my correspondents have always been boys, so I am at a loss—now in my hour of need—I really believe this is my first letter to a lady…” He, meanwhile, wrote to Mrs. Sayre although, on Zelda's advice, he held off writing to the judge.
When Zelda received a discouraged letter from Scott, she tried to reassure him: “Please, please don't be so depressed—We'll be married soon, and then these lonesome nights will be over forever. … I love your sad tenderness—when I've hurt you—That's one of the reasons I could never be sorry for our quarrels… Scott, there's nothing in all the world I want but you—and your precious love—All the material things are nothing. I'd just hate to live a sordid, colorless existence—because you'd soon love me less—and less—and I'd do anything—anything—to keep your heart for my own… Why don't you feel that I'm waiting—I'll come to you, Lover,when you're ready—Don't—don't ever think of all the things you can't give me…”
Moved by her letter, appeased and reassured, Fitzgerald asked his mother to send him her own engagement ring, which he mailed to Zelda at the end of March. With it went a letter for her to give to Judge Sayre. Fearing her father's reaction, she did not show it to him (“He's so blind, it'll probably be a terrible shock to him”). But she was delighted with the ring and wore it to a dance at the country club. “You can't imagine,” she wrote to her fiance, “what havoc the ring wrought—A whole dance was completely upset last night…” Because he wanted to know how she spent her time, she described in detail such enterprises as her partnership with another girl: “… we're 'best friends' to more college boys than Solomon had wives. … I have always been inclined toward masculinity. It's such a cheery atmosphere boys radiate—And we do such unique things—” Fitzgerald, champing at the bit, asked Zelda's sister Clothilde, who was living in New York, to help him find an apartment.
On April 15 he took a few days of vacation to go to Montgomery—the first act in a comedy of errors. He thought he would take her back to New York with him, but he returned alone. A note in his Ledger reads: “Failure. I used to wonder why they locked princesses in towers.” Back in New York, he unburdened himself in a letter to Ruth Sturtevant in Washington, ignoring the fact that he had once assured her he would never marry Zelda.
Zelda, however, was comforted by Scott's visit. “I'm so glad you came,” she wrote him, “like Summer, just when I needed you most—and took me, back with you. Waiting doesn't seem so hard now.” Nevertheless, she was soon up to her old tricks. She sent Scott a stern note her mother had written after finding a wine spot on her dress: “Zelda: If you have added whiskey to your tobacco you can subtract your Mother. … If you prefer the habits of a prostitute don't try to mix them with gentility. Oil and water do not mix.”
Act Two: On May 15 Fitzgerald was back in Montgomery and again he left without furthering his plans. And Zelda had had enough of the stream of letters, questions, sentimentality: “I'm so damned tired of being told that you 'used to wonder why they kept princesses in towers'—you've written that, verbatim, in your last six letters! It's dreadfully hard to write so very much—and so many of your letters sound forced—I know you love me, Darling, and I love you more than anything in the world, but if its going to be so much longer, we just can't keep up this frantic writing.”
At the end of May, with Scott's third visit, Act Three put an end to four months of steady correspondence. The South bathed in its sensuous springtime; dance followed dance at the colleges, and Zelda was spending more time in Auburn than in Montgomery. She dallied with a young man from Georgia Tech who was in Montgomery for a golf tournament. Nothingwas withheld from Scott; she told him she was planning to spend a long weekend with the young man in Atlanta. But when she returned home, she realized she had gone too far with the Georgian. She had accepted his fraternity pin; in those days, being pinned had a perfectly clear and binding meaning. Zelda sent it back with an affectionate note—which she slipped (inadvertently, she said) into an envelope addressed to Scott.
Furious, despairing, he sent her a letter asking her never to write to him again; this was followed by a telegram announcing his imminent arrival. He demanded that she marry him at once. She refused. Tears, scenes, pleas; Zelda wept in his arms, but she would not give in. She returned his ring and he took the first train north. Fitzgerald would relive those hours in his story “The Sensible Thing,” which, he told Maxwell Perkins in a letter on June 1, 1935, was the “story about Zelda and me, all true.” In the story's version, “He seized her in his arms and tried literally to kiss her into marrying him at once. When this failed, he broke into a long monologue of self-pity, and ceased only when he saw that he was making himself despicable in her sight. He threatened to leave when he had no intention of leaving, and refused to go when she told him that, after all, it was best that he should.”
On his return to New York, Fitzgerald quit his job and went on a three-week binge that ended only with the beginning of Prohibition on July 1. He decided to leave the city and go to his parents' house in St. Paul. There he would try to take his last chance: to rewrite the novel he had put aside nine months before.
On the train he read Hugh Walpole's latest novel, Fortitude, which gave him new hope. He thought that “'if this fellow can get away with it as an author I can too.' His books seemed to me as bad as possible. The principal thing he did was to make unessentials seem important, but was one of the near best-sellers. After that I dug in and wrote my first book.”
In the second version of The Romantic Egotist he had specifically taken Compton Mackenzie and H. G. Wells as his models, aestheticism and spontaneity as his principles and, as his subject, the thinly disguised events of his boyhood and adolescence. A diffuse prologue announced these rules with slightly smug impertinence: “I am informed that the time has come for a long, rambling picaresque novel. I shall ramble and be picaresque. I shall be intellectual and echo H. G. Wells, and improper like Compton Mackenzie. My form will be very original for it will mingle verse and prose and not be vers libre.” This was the version, a first-person narration by Stephen Palms, that Leslie warmly praised, but that Donahoe and Bishop, who had read part or all of it, disliked. In the light of their criticism, Fitzgerald found his own way, abandoning the confessional recital for a truly novelistic form.
Donahoe had been especially critical of Fitzgerald's self-satisfied and tedious cataloging of his juvenile romances. These were presumably takenfrom his diaries, especially the Thoughtbook he kept when he was fourteen. Fitzgerald took the reproach to heart and combined several of these affairs into a single episode—Amory's romance with Myra St. Claire, which ended with a disastrous first kiss—that captured their spirit effectively and economically. Instead of an aimless, static catalog, we get an alert and meaningful scene that advances the action and marks an important stage in the character's development.
Bishop's criticism centered on the book's very structure and its overall conception. He thought the long first-person monologue slowed the dramatic action by so leveling a string of episodes that none of them stood out particularly. “I have a theory novels should be written in scenes,” Fitzgerald had once informed Bishop citing Dostoevski and Anatole France as examples. That the lessons his friends taught were absorbed is clear in the final version. Discarding his prologue and his statement of intent, Fitzgerald moved straight into the heart of his story with hilarious portraits of his protagonist's parents. He eliminated a number of minor biographical details. Most important, he adopted a strictly objective point of view by shifting from a first-person narration to a series of scenes in which his hero, Amory Blaine, is seen from outside with a critical detachment that is colored at times with humor, at others with irony. Fitzgerald was no longer content simply to mention events; he makes us see and hear them. He had acquired a sense of dramatic action, of stage direction, making good use of his theatrical experience; his instinctive feeling for dialogue does wonders in the love scenes. He fragmented his book, stressing this fragmentation with subtitles mostly borrowed from Shaw's “Prefaces.” This gives This Side of Paradise the appearance of a mosaic into which were set older pieces already published in the Nassau Lit, poems and bits from his friends' letters, especially four of Fay's letters. His description of the priest's funeral was inspired by a letter Leslie wrote on that occasion. Finally, a letter from Zelda gave him a page at the end of the novel, in which he describes an old Confederate cemetery.
His manuscript, then, was thoroughly revised and radically shortened; its original title, The Romantic Egotist, was now the title of the first part of This Side of Paradise. A second part, “The Education of a Personage,” contains most of the things that had happened since Scribner's final rejection of the manuscript and his meeting Zelda a year earlier—or, if not the events themselves, their reverberations on the author's sensitivity. There are allusions to most of Fitzgerald's tribulations after his discharge from the army, his discovery of New York's seamy side, his break with Zelda, his three-week bender.
All the material in “The Education of a Personage” was new except for the first and third chapters, the third had been written a year before, as can be seen from an August 1918 letter in which Fay expressed his surprise to find that the Eleanor episode was based on an incident from the priest's youth: “I seemed to go back twenty-five years. … I never realized that I told you so much about her… How you got it in I don't know… Really the whole thing is most startling.” Only the heroine's name is changed, and she reads Brooke instead of Swinburne. The episode is so frantic, especially Eleanor's attempt at suicide by riding her horse off a cliff, that unless the author altered the story, Fay had let his imagination run away with him. A girl Fitzgerald met during his stay with the Bishops in Charles Town in July 1917 alleged that the chapter had been taken from. her life. “J. B. told me that Scott had said I was his model for Eleanor in the section called 'Young Irony,'” she would write. “I saw a vague resemblance to myself in the description of Eleanor's 'green eyes and nondescript hair,' and there were A's-E's horseback rides through mountain paths together, and the rural setting which was so obviously inspired by the country around Charles Town.” On the eve of his departure Fitzgerald gave her a sonnet dedicated “to Fluff Beckwith, the only begetter of this sonnet.” That “only” was obviously suspect, but it was not until after his death that, to her surprise, she saw the poem published with the title For Cecilia.
Fitzgerald's first chapter in the section, “The Debutante,” picks up the title and setting of a story inspired by his break with Ginevra King and published in January 1917. The situation is the same, but the narrative was much changed and Zelda is the model for the version in the novel; even her style is caught in a passage taken from one of her letters. The breaking off of Amory's engagement (he is too poor for the girl) to Rosalind, who is too aware of her needs to accept him as a husband, poignantly evokes the last meeting of Zelda and Scott in Montgomery. His two defeats in love, though two years apart, were blended in a common experience that would remain at the core of Fitzgerald's sensibility. This is the only episode from his recent past to be treated so intensely and in such detail in the novel. Few direct autobiographical allusions are found to his four months in New York, except for Amory's job with an ad agency and his unhappiness at being a poor man lost in the crowd. This slice of Fitzgerald's life would not be exploited until later, in such stories as “May Day,” just as his army experience remained buried until he wrote his second book, The Beautiful and Damned.
What happened next reads like a fairy tale. His manuscript, sent to Scribner September 3 under its new title, This Side of Paradise, was accepted on September 16. Fitzgerald, who had hired on as a member of a railroad labor gang, immediately quit the job. So much for his experience of proletarian life in New York and St. Paul.
In his reply to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner's, he urged that the book be issued soon, before the end of the year if possible; he hoped to get married on his royalties. And he announced that he had started work on a new book, The Demon Lover, which would take him about a year to complete. When he was told a few days later that the novel would not appearbefore spring and that he had better be under no illusions about how much he might earn from it, Fitzgerald turned to a source of more immediate income, the short-story market. He wrote new ones. He returned to old ones that had been widely rejected and, in the light of his new experience, revised their structures, altered details, changed their titles and resubmitted them. Some were accepted by the same people who had previously turned them down. That fall and winter, before This Side of Paradise came out, he sold fifteen stories and began seriously to think of himself as a writer: “While I waited for the novel to appear, the metamorphosis of amateur into professional began to take place—a sort of stitching together of your whole life into a pattern of work, so that the end of one job is automatically the beginning of another.”
That he was starting to reap the fruit of his perseverance reinforced his feeling of professionalism. In October The Smart Set sent him a check for $215 in payment for six stories. In November came another for $300 for two stories bought by Scribner's Magazine. With the money he could return to Montgomery and try to patch things up with Zelda. When he had written to her a month earlier to tell her that his novel had been accepted and that he wanted to see her, she had answered eagerly. “I'm mighty glad you're coming,” she wrote him. “I've been wanting to see you (which you probably knew) but I couldn't ask you… It's fine and I'm tickled to death.”
He took with him a copy of his manuscript and the bottle of gin Zelda had asked for. A letter she wrote after his visit showed how well the reunion had gone: “I am very proud of you—I hate to say this, but I don't think I had much confidence in you at first… , It's so nice to know that you really can do things. … I believe if I had deliberately decided on a sweetheart, he'd have been you—” By the time they separated, they had agreed to marry after the book came out.
Back in New York he learned that The Saturday Evening Post, one of the hardest of the mass-circulation magazines to crack, had bought his story “Head and Shoulders” for $400. This breakthrough he owed to Harold Ober, who worked for the Paul Reynolds literary agency, recommended to Fitzgerald by St. Paul novelist Grace Flandrau. After payment of the agent's fee, Fitzgerald's work earned a net total of $879 in the last three months of 1919. Every time he sold a story, he wired Montgomery; four pages of Zelda's scrapbook are filled with these victory bulletins. There was no more doubting now: he could live by writing.
Fitzgerald invited some Princeton friends to help him celebrate. They found him in his room at the Knickerbocker Hotel, already a little drunk and surrounded by valets helping him get ready for the party; twenty- and fifty-dollar bills were crammed partway into his pockets with enough left showing to let everyone see he was rich. He insisted on escorting everyone to the man he called “his” bootlegger, who would supply each of them with a bottle of illegal whiskey, courtesy of F. Scott Fitzgerald. When he left the hotel, he forgot to turn off the taps in the bathtub and the room was flooded. This was how he celebrated his entry on a literary career, naively, arrogantly, ostentatiously, as though, like a vindictive child, to efface the humiliation he had suffered. Three months earlier this twenty-four-year-old man could not have bought a pal a Coca-Cola; now, with money that seemed to have fallen from heaven, he was as disoriented and scatterbrained as a shoe clerk who suddenly comes into a fortune. His crude drinking aside, this Princetonian behaved as foolishly as H. G. Wells's newly rich Kipps.
Fitzgerald wrote to Perkins that when he returned to St. Paul, he was in a state of nervous exhaustion from boozing. This did not prevent him from churning out a story in one eleven-hour stretch and then spending nine hours more correcting and recopying it; he began writing it at eight o'clock one morning and mailed it at five o'clock the following morning. Five hundred dollars. In four hours he revised two others that had been rejected the previous spring; a week later Reynolds sold them to the Post for $1,000. By mid-January Fitzgerald felt prosperous enough to rest up in New Orleans. He may have been worried about his health, too. He had caught a chill in New York that left him with a persistent cough, and he told Perkins he was afraid he had tuberculosis. He nevertheless went South with the plan for his new novel, and he asked his editor what the deadline would be for fall publication. For the first time he wondered if he could finish it without interruption; the problem would recur often. “Do you think a book on the type of my first one would have any chance of being accepted for serial publication in any magazine?” he asked. “I want to start [the novel], but I don't want to get broke in the middle and start in and have to write short stories again because I don't enjoy it and just do it for money.” He also wondered about the possibility of publishing a collection of his stories in book form.
New Orleans is not far from Montgomery and he went there twice, picking up again with Zelda. On his second visit they informed the Sayres of their engagement. Although her parents were Episcopalians, they did not object to their daughter's marrying a Catholic; Mrs. Sayre wrote as much to Fitzgerald. “A good Catholic,” she assured him, “is as good as any other man and that is good enough. It will take more than the Pope to make Zelda good: you will have to call on God Almighty direct.”
Film rights to “Head and Shoulders” were sold for $2,500, and Fitzgerald spent the money on a platinum-and-diamond wristwatch for Zelda; it was one of the luxury items in the Fifth Avenue shopwindow described in “May Day.” But he did not like New Orleans, where he lived in a boardinghouse on Prytonia Street. He could not get his creative juices flowing, and after a month in the South he put his novel aside and went back to New York. On February 11 he moved into the Allerton Hotel on 39thStreet and began work on two stories, “The Jelly Bean,” based on his impressions of Alabama, and “May Day.” The latter work, probably distilled from the manuscript of his aborted novel, was completed in the Cottage Club at Princeton, where he went in March to await Zelda. They still had not set a wedding date. On the day Fitzgerald received the first copy off the press of This Side of Paradise, he ran across Lawton Campbell, a Princetonian from Montgomery, and asked him for news of Zelda. “I phoned her long distance last night,” Scott told Campbell. “She's still on the fence and I may have to go to Montgomery to get her but I believe this will do the trick.” He was right: the wedding was officially announced for March 20 and Zelda went to New York with her sister Marjorie.
Her other two sisters, Clothilde and Rosalind, and their husbands attended the wedding, but neither the elder Sayres nor the Fitzgeralds turned up. Only one friend of Scott's was invited: Ludlow Fowler, who acted as best man. The marriage took place at around noon on Easter Saturday, April 3, in the rectory of St. Patrick's Cathedral. After concluding the ceremony, the officiating priest, prompted by the same ecumenical spirit that had moved Mrs. Sayre, told them, “You be a good Episcopalian, Zelda, and Scott, you be a good Catholic, and you'll get along fine.”
Nancy Milford, in her biography of Zelda, portrays her heroine this way: “Zelda wore a suit of midnight blue with a matching hat trimmed with leather ribbons and buckles; she carried a bouquet of orchids and small white flowers. It was a brilliantly sunny day and when they stepped outside the cathedral Zelda looked for all the world like a young goddess of spring, with Scott at her side as consort.” To complete the picture, we have the impression Scott had made a few days earlier on a writer to whom he delivered a copy of his book: “He looked exactly like an Archangel, and he had the strange aloofness and evasiveness you associate with Archangels. He was beautiful and a little eerie.” Later on, Zelda would recall her first meeting with Scott in similar terms: “There seemed to be some heavenly support beneath his shoulder blades that lifted his feet from the ground in ecstatic suspension, as if he secretly enjoyed the ability to fly but was walking as a compromise to convention.”
The goddess and the archangel. This was more than the priest could have imagined, but it was how, in this century's springtime, Zelda and Scott entered this side of paradise.
In six months Fitzgerald had reversed a seemingly desperate position, situating himself as a writer whose stories appeared in such high-voltage literary magazines as The Smart Set and Scribner's Magazine as well as the mass-audience Saturday Evening Post. His book was selling extraordinarily well for a first novel, far better than his publisher had hoped, exceeding even his own expectations in its first week out. “I told the Scribner Company that I didn't expect my novel to sell more than twenty thousand copies and when the laughter died away I was told that a sale of five thousand was excellent for a first novel,” he later wrote. “I think it was a week after publication that it passed the twenty thousand mark, but I took myself so seriously that I didn't even think it was funny.” The book sold 40,000 copies in its first year, a genuine success, though not to be compared with Sinclair Lewis's best-seller Main Street, published the same year, which sold 180,000 copies in its first six months. Fitzgerald's earnings—and, remember, he wrote for a living—were relatively disappointing. “The book didn't make me as rich as I thought it would nor as you would suspect from the vogue and the way it was talked about,” he commented some years later. In 1920 his novel brought him just over $6,000, a third of that year's income. It earned a little less the following year, and from then on the royalties from it declined steadily; four years after its publication, 50,000 copies of This Side of Paradise had been sold, bringing its author a total of under $12,000. Now he faced a choice: to write for the big weeklies, which would be far more lucrative, or devote himself to his art, obey his deepest impulse, and live in comparative poverty. The dilemma had already arisen in 1920, when he had to interrupt work on his new novel for lack of cash. He had accordingly dismembered his early chapters and turned them into stories he tried to sell to The Smart Set. “May Day” is probably one of these; its style is much more polished than that of the usual run of Fitzgerald's magazine pieces. But it was too realistic, too gloomy to qualify for the popular magazines. So the choice was not only between novels and short stories but also between the kinds of stories magazine editors would buy and those he enjoyed writing. Because of Zelda's demands, his own taste for high living and his private certainty that he could bet and win on both wheels, he increasinglyspent more than he earned. He was almost constantly in debt. This forced him to write stories he was the first to despise. A trivial piece like “The Camel's Pack,” written in one twenty-four-hour go, was sold to the Post for $500, but the magazine turned down the immensely superior “May Day,” which finally brought Fitzgerald a mere $200. Banking on his talent and his facility, he earned more in 1920 than he could have hoped for ($18,850) and ended the year over $1,200 in the red. His bank turned down his application for a loan. He was incapable of writing the commercial novel expected of him and for which he had been paid a substantial advance. In a letter to Perkins he confessed, “I've made half a dozen starts yesterday and today and I'll go mad if I have to do another Debutante, which is what they want.” The letter ended with a plea for a further advance of $1,600 on the novel to come. This was the start of a process that would be repeated as long as he lived.
As a writer, Fitzgerald had to live by the pendulum because as soon as he stopped grinding out pulp for the big magazines and turned to serious writing, he found himself on the brink of financial disaster. His independence was measured by the number of stories he had to produce each year. But his dependence increased with his needs, which grew grander by the year; the temptation to take the easy way was reinforced by the rapidly rising fees he commanded, especially from the Post. His first story for the magazine had brought him $400; two years later, thanks to Ober's efforts, Fitzgerald was getting $1,500 for a story, and this went up to $2,000 in 1925, to $3,000 in 1927, to $4,000 in 1929, a rate that was maintained into 1932, in the trough of the Depression. And it was all in constant dollars because the cost of living remained practically stationary throughout the twenties.
The Post was his first source of big money; it ran six of his stories in 1920. Then Ober began playing publications against each other, establishing a precedent by offering a story to several magazines at once. Such organs as Metropolitan Magazine, Collier's, Hearst's International were constantly outbidding each other in the hope of bringing Fitzgerald into their permanent stables. His name, however, was to become a fixture in the Post, to which he sold his whole story output after 1927. The relationship, clearly, had nothing to do with literature. It was basically the result of editor-in-chief George H. Lorimer's drive to make the Post America's leading weekly magazine.
Lorimer was fifty-one when he bought his first Fitzgerald story, and he had been running the Post for twenty years; even before the war he had doubled the magazine's circulation to two million. The Port's nearest rival was Edward Bok's Ladies' Home Journal, the world's most widely read magazine, which, like the Post, belonged to Philadelphia's Curtis Publications.
At Bok's retirement in 1919 the two magazines had sharply different readerships. The Journal was addressed chiefly to a decidedly conventionalfamily clientele still living by Victorian standards. Bok's skill lay in choosing and eliciting the kind of editorial matter that would sell the wares advertised in the magazine, a brilliance that boosted the Journal's advertising revenue to $12 million a year. The Post appealed mainly to men: financial, economic and sports sections, action stories by such illustrious contributors as Rudyard Kipling, Jack London and Stephen Crane. When Bok left, Lorimer adopted his policies and set out to win his market.
The Ladies' Home Journal had not kept pace with the rapid changes in manners that shook postwar America. Its notion of the family rested on generations-old values and prejudices. The new fashions, new products, especially cosmetics, were echoed only faintly in its pages. Lorimer was shrewd enough to see the importance of the changes that would create a new generation of consumers with needs totally different from their elders'. Wartime prosperity had given these young people a buying power that only older people had wielded in the past. Lorimer's whole effort was now concentrated on capturing this new advertising market. So the Post adapted its editorial policy to the new demands being heard on every side. This in turn converted the magazine into a major influence on a whole generation of new readers, intensifying and spreading the changes in habits, contributing mightily to the new atmosphere in the postwar United States. Historian Elizabeth Stevenson, a specialist in the period, stresses the Post's influence and, through it, that of advertising in general. “It has become a commonplace notion,” she wrote, “that an uncritical, ambitious, rising culture becomes itself through imitating the life of advertisements. In the Twenties in such a typical magazine as The Saturday Evening Post, one can see it begin to happen… This was probably the first time that on a giant scale a society developed a set of manners, a provision of wants and needs, and a faith from the selling and buying of goods.”
In the same month in which Bok resigned, Lorimer received a Fitzgerald manuscript that expressed the new spirit; it was exactly the kind of story to attract young readers whose reading matter until then could have been written by their grandparents. Jazz and dancing vibrated in its pages. The story was written in the language the new generation was speaking; its characters paraded the clothes young people were wearing or longed to wear, the hairdos and makeup they dreamed of wearing, the romantic situations that matched their imaginings. To the magazine flocked advertisers who were finding few other mass-circulation outlets in which to vaunt products specially conceived for a clientele that had been born with the century. Within months advertising volume grew, and its message came increasingly in tune with the manners and demands depicted in Fitzgerald's stories. In May 1920, for example, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” appeared and scandalized parents who were indignant at the thought that their daughters might wear their hair short; only two years earlier this had still been a signof dangerously subversive ideas. In November 1918 the manager of the Palm Garden in New York rented the place to a lady of fashion who wanted to stage a political rally. The participants turned out to be pro-Bolshevik, and the meeting broke up in a riot. The manager admitted that if he had noticed the woman's short haircut, he would never have rented the hall to her. Letters of protest cascaded down upon Lorimer, but he stood his ground, convinced that he was moving with history. The cover girl in the November issue wore her hair in a boyish bob. Cosmetics ads had already run in the previous issue, and the new dances had made their appearance.
Lorimer was taking risks, but he knew precisely how far he could go; he perceived that borderline of controlled audacity that could attract new readers without alienating old ones. His strategy was based on respect for the American Way of Life. To encourage individual initiative in the young, in businessmen and admen was at once honorable, moral and profitable. But his approach cried “No!” to subversion. The American dream could not accommodate license or pessimism. Love that did not aspire to marriage, stories with unhappy endings had no place in the Post. “May Day” and “The Jelly Bean,” chaste as they are, were deemed undesirable. The stories Lorimer wanted had to be light, witty, modish enough to please teenagers, but moral enough to appease parents—the tone of the day's hit musical comedies. This was exactly what Fitzgerald's first stories offered. In him The Saturday Evening Post found a writer who could help make it America's leading magazine. In 1925 it had nearly three million readers, and every issue earned $5 million from its advertising.
As his story price rose, however, Fitzgerald knew that the stories' quality suffered from the constraints imposed on him. He complained to Ober, who could not get a fifth of the price for so excellent a story as “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” that he could for the trashy “The Popular Girl,” which the Post bought. But, he concluded, “by God and Lorimer, I'm going to make a fortune yet.” Alluding to “The Popular Girl,” published in 1922, he remarked to his agent that he was now merely reworking the subjects of his early stories, but that they had lost their old vitality. It was all coming down to a question of skill: “I've learned the tricks better and am technically more proficient.”
Lorimer asked nothing more of him. To the editor Fitzgerald was simply a well-paid professional like his other advertising men. And if he insisted on writing subversive stories, there were plenty of others like him who had also learned the tricks, who were equally good technicians and were ready to replace him without missing a step. He was preferred because his name was a kind of trademark, a label of quality on his products. But lesser brands also sold well.
Similarly, one of the reasons for the success of This Side of Paradise was that, for the first time, a talented novelist had dared to describe the real morals of the new middle-class generation instead of the fictitious versionbequeathed by literary tradition. All the piously preserved Victorian illusions about pure and modest girls carefully reared to be good wives and mothers were shattered by the eruption on the literary scene of young bacchantes who smoked, drank, used makeup and danced, no longer to the music of romantic violins but to the cacophony of barbarous saxophones. The old model of elegant, vaporously—curvaceous young womanhood had been captured by Charles Dana Gibson, whose Gibson Girl, born the same year as Fitzgerald, remained the popular ideal until the war; now she was rapidly vanishing behind the image of the flapper portrayed by John Held, Jr., whose caricatures celebrated the new woman: boyish, flat-chested, flat-hipped, her hair cut short under a cloche hat, her arms and knees bare, a cigarette held in one hand, a glass in the other.
Manners that were at first limited to a wealthy and self-indulgent class— the one Fitzgerald wrote about—were propagated throughout the country by the press, radio (the first public broadcast took place in November 1920) and the movies (in 1920 Fitzgerald sold the film rights to four of his stories). Rapid development of the automobile, especially the cheaper, mass-produced Model T Ford, enabled young people to escape family supervision and neighborhood gossip. The growing vogue for sedans encouraged petting in cars, a typically American sport that moved one judge in a small Midwestern city to deplore the automobile as a “house of prostitution on wheels.”
This revolution in manners brought about corresponding changes in industry. Beauty products were booming, but other lines were reeling. Cotton fabrics, for example, were out, rayon and silk were in; rayon production rose from eight million pounds in 1920 to fifty-three million pounds five years later, and by 1926 only 33 percent of women's clothes were made of cotton. Makers of slips and corsets were becalmed. From 1913 to 1928 the annual yardage of fabrics needed to clothe a woman dropped from eighteen to six and one-half. Skirt lengths became a thermometer showing the symbolic degree of a modern woman's liberation. In 1919 a hem could be no more than eight inches from the ground, which supposedly represented 10 percent of a woman's height. By 1920 the figure was 20 percent. In 1923, under the influence of French fashions marketed by American manufacturers but accepted only reluctantly by American women, it dropped to 10 percent again, but it climbed back up to more than 20 percent in 1925 and was finally stabilized at around 25 percent—above the knee—until 1929. As skirts and hair shortened, women stripped off layer after layer of the clothing that had enshrouded them. Flesh-colored silk stockings (even working-class schoolgirls were soon refusing to wear the traditional cotton stockings) showed off their legs, emphasizing the trend toward lightness and exposure.
All these changes converged. They aimed at the destruction of a quasi-oriental notion of Woman, the violin-shaped woman, full-breasted, wasp-waisted, lavishly hipped, a pizzicato creature, languorous and swooning,reclusive, idle, living only for the moment when marriage and maternity at last brought out her true self. Now she was being replaced by the clarinet woman: youthful, strident and boyish, a little piping, a little acid, unmysterious and disillusioned; she vied with and matched men in sports, at work, in love, expecting nothing from them but confirmation of her independence. In love duets it was she who chose the key and sounded the A. The new woman rejected boredom and monotony. She wanted to be entertained, and her partner had to turn wizard, change the humdrum into something magical, transform life itself.
Zelda is surely recognizable in this composite portrait, she being both inspiration for this new feminine image and inspired by it in building her own personality. And the readers of This Side of Paradise and the Post stories, those who made them successful, also saw themselves, saw the kind of people they wanted to become, in the female characters drawn from Zelda. In his first stories, from “The Offshore Pirate” to “Rags Martin-Jones,” wildly exuberant stories written, we sense, with the jubilation, the joy of invention, Fitzgerald turned his young swains into impresarios, stage directors, organizers of impromptu celebrations to amaze and charm their girls. Jaded and indifferent, the girls seem to say, “Amuse me! Surprise me!” They have turned themselves into spectators of some frenetic comic opera that must prove its worth through movement, that works only if it sweeps its audiences up in its dynamism and jollity. Convince, amuse, bewitch: the very image of the role the author must play to the Post, to its readers and to Zelda. A mass-media Scheherazade, he indeed had to surprise and amuse—to sell ads, sell his stories, sell himself, too, on the idea of writing them when the game began to pall.
And then it was his turn to judge. In Fitzgeraldian society the women are the great predators, consumers on a dizzying shopping spree through his stories. It's as though, in keeping with Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class, they had to keep buying to demonstrate their husbands' social status; this was their function, as earning money was a man's. Freely accepted at marriage, this function became a burden after a few years: “We make an agreement with children that they can sit in the audience without helping to make the play … but if they still sit in the audience after they're grown, somebody's got to work double time for them, so that they can enjoy the light and glitter of the world.” At the end of the twenties, in a story entitled “The Swimmers,” whose accomplished heroine is a worthy sister to Rosalind and Gloria, Fitzgerald summed up his conclusions concerning the American woman's unquestionable supremacy in the battle of the sexes: “In her grace, at once exquisite and hardy, she was that perfect type of American girl that makes one wonder if the male is not being sacrificed to it, much as, in the last century, the lower strata in England were sacrificed to produce the governing class.”
This was his judgment of a model he did not invent, but which he helpedcreate and which, as a good adman, he sold by the millions. Pygmalion is subjugated and dispossessed by the statue he carves—this is also the subject of the story in which the protagonists are named Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
In 1920 the chrysalis became a butterfly. Zelda was out of her usual element—where violin-women still maintained prewar traditions and fashions—and, despite her quickness, her frills and flounces jarred a bit on New York elegance. Scott contacted Marie Hersey, his old friend from St. Paul, who had gone to Vassar and knew New York well. He asked her to steer Zelda through the chic shops and tactfully persuade her to change her wardrobe. The first thing bought was a Patou suit, which, feeling strange, she charged to Scott for the first time. Thirteen years later she came across the suit, badly moth-eaten, in a trunk; Scott noted that “we are glad—oh, so relieved, to find it devastated at last.”
Her apprenticeship was brief; she did not have to put up for long with another woman's advice. Soon she had shed her provincial excesses and set out to conquer New York with nothing but her velvety Southern accent, the dissonances in her line of chatter and a coarse, roughneck bluntness. Other guides were more willingly accepted because she met them by chance and because they did not try to proselytize her; they were young writers introduced by Scott; by poking fun at her, having fun with her and, finally, being made fun of by her, they gave her the big-city gloss she lacked.
Within a few months she and Scott were thought to embody the spirit of New York. Not Edith Wharton's aristocratic New York, nor the poor man's New York of Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser, but a brand-new, luxurious, postwar New York, its face changed by a building boom, peopled by a new generation come from all over the country with money and ambition but without preconceived notions, showing the cultural tint daubed on them by the universities. This was the New York of the great eastward rush so shrewdly analyzed by Nick Carraway in the opening pages of Gatsby, a city of big hotels and small cliques, Successville, whether on Wall Street or Broadway or in Greenwich Village. Scott later recalled it in his essay “My Lost City”: “Then, for just a moment, the 'younger generation' idea became a fusion of many elements in New York life …. For just a moment, before it was demonstrated that I was unable to play the role, I, who knew less of New York than any reporter of six months' standing … was pushed into the position not only of spokesman for the time but of the typical product of that same moment. I, or rather it was 'we' now, did not know exactly what New York expected of us and found it rather confusing… Actually our 'contacts' included half a dozen unmarried college friends and a few new literary acquaintances… Finding no nucleus to which we could cling, we became a small nucleusourselves and gradually we fitted our disruptive personalities into the contemporary scene of New York.”
The newlyweds spent their honeymoon at the Biltmore Hotel, which was favored by Princetonians. Old college chums soon began dropping into room 2109. These included Fowler, their best man, as well as Lawton Campbell, the Montgomeryite who was a friend to both Scott and Zelda. There was also Alexander McKaig, former editor of the Daily Princetonian, who was now living with his mother and working in advertising. A short, baby-faced man with curly hair parted in the middle, McKaig liked to rub shoulders with his more gifted friends in the hope of someday making a name for himself in literature. The diary he kept at that period provides valuable glimpses of the Fitzgeralds, to whom he paid assiduous court. His first entry concerning them, written a few days after their marriage, is hardly flattering to Zelda and not at all optimistic about the couple's future. “Called on Scott Fitz and his bride,” he noted. “Latter temperamental small-town Southern belle. Chews gum. Shows knees. I don't think marriage can succeed. Both drinking heavily. Think they will be divorced in three years. Scott write something big—then die in a garret at thirty-two.”
Edmund Wilson, meanwhile, had fallen in love with Edna St. Vincent Millay. He shared an apartment with three friends, and one of them was terribly shocked the day he saw her emerge naked from their bathroom. Wilson left this minicommune and moved in with Ted Paramore, an ex-Princetonian Don Juan; the layout of his huge apartment allowed each man to receive his mistress in private. Soon after his return from France in the summer of 1919, young Wilson had gone to work for the literary review Vanity Fair. When his friends Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley quit the magazine and he became its managing editor, he hired John Bishop, who was also back in New York. Both were soon interested in Edna Millay, who contributed an occasional poem to the magazine. Bishop sometimes stayed in the opulent bachelor apartment of another college friend, Townsend Martin, a globe-trotter who was well established in international society. The place suited John's aesthetic tastes; he liked to receive friends there swathed in one of Martin's damask dressing gowns against a backdrop of Japanese screens and a canopied Renaissance bed. He blossomed in its atmosphere of Regency libertinism.
When Wilson and Bishop called on Fitzgerald and saw Zelda for the first time, she was lying languidly—and very prettily, Wilson reported—on a divan. They were served fashionable orange blossom cocktails and promised to come again.
Marriage had not instantly squelched Zelda's flirtatiousness. She immediately made plays for the most attractive of the bachelors, Bishop, the mysterious sensualist, and Martin, the elegant man of the world. When she subsided in their arms and offered her lips to be kissed, Fitzgerald, magnanimously, made no objection. They had not been at the wedding, hevolunteered, and they at least had as much right as the others to a share of the kissing. But, Wilson observed, “when Zelda rushed into John's room just as he was going to bed and insisted that she was going to spend the night there, and when she cornered Townsend in the bathroom and demanded that he should give her a bath, he began to become a little worried and even huffy.” She told Bishop: “John, I like you better than anybody in the world: I never feel safe with you! I only like men who kiss as a means to an end. I never know how to treat the other kind.”
Wilson, who doted on racy details (in his memoirs he gave a full account of Paramore's technique of seduction) and loved nonsense, was delighted by the things Zelda said. For example, he cited her explanation of how her confidences to Bishop, McKaig and Martin differed: “When I'm with John, I say, ‘Well, John, you and I are the only real artists,’ and when I'm with Alex, I say, ‘You and I are the only ones who understand the common man,’ and when I'm with Townsend, I say: ‘Well, Townsend, you and I are the only ones who are really interested in ourselves,’ but when I'm alone, I say: ‘Well, Fitz, you're the only one!’“
Wilson was too infatuated with Edna Millay to flirt with Zelda. McKaig had this to say about that affair: “Bunny evidently much in love with her. Not much chance to get impression from her myself, though I think from her verse she must be a genius. Modern Sappho. Eighteen love affairs and now Bunny is thinking of marrying her.” Bunny nonetheless tolerated her cuddling with Bishop. Here is how he describes their farewell evening before his departure for France on a story assignment for Vanity Fair: “After dinner, sitting on her daybed, John and I held Edna in our arms—according to an arrangement insisted upon by herself—I her lower half and John her upper—with a polite exchange of pleasantries as to which had the better share. She referred to us, I was told, as 'the choir boys of hell' and complained that our both being in love with her had not even broken up our friendship.”
Millay—we remember her image of Fitzgerald as a diamond in a stupid old woman's hands—was nevertheless the only member of the group to recognize a “Byronic trait” in Scott, doubtless a temperamental affinity in the woman four years his senior who had championed nonconformism in Greenwich Village. She was, after all, famous for a quatrain that summed up her approach to life:
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But, ah, my joes, and, oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light.
Another person who respected Fitzgerald's talent, if not Fitzgerald himself, was Edna's lover, Wilson. McKaig noted this in his diary; the entry forAugust 31, 1920, tells of “discussing with John the fact that of entire group of eight or ten only one man believes in another—Wilson in him.”
Three weeks after they were married, Scott proposed that Zelda get to know Princeton. But it was Princeton that got to know Zelda. She somersaulted down sacrosanct Prospect Avenue and had her omelet flamed in brandy at the Cottage Club. Scott introduced her to his friends as his mistress; the joke fell flat and Fitzgerald got drunk, started a fight and wound up with two black eyes.
On May 1 he went back to the college with Wilson and Bishop for a Lit dinner. Intent on celebrating the rites of spring and of Literature, they came equipped with props borrowed from a theater: lyre, gilded wings, laurel wreaths. They went looking for Gauss and crowned him on the central green after a long verse speech improvised by Fitzgerald. Then, while his two friends went to their clubs, Scott, tootling on a shepherd's pipe, danced his way toward the Cottage, a wreath askew on his brow, wings fixed to his shoulders, looking “like a tarnished Apollo with the two black eyes,” Wilson wrote in a poem he sent to Millay. “…But looking like Apollo just the same, with the sun in his pale yellow hair.” When the slightly sozzled Apollo entered the Cottage Club, its president barred the way and informed him that the members, outraged by his conduct the previous week, had decided, in agreement with university authorities, to expel him. When Fitzgerald tried to defend his actions, he was seized by the shoulders and tossed out through a rear window. Furious and humiliated, he marched to the railroad station without seeing Wilson and Bishop and took the seven o'clock train to New York; he was not to set foot in Princeton again for seven years.
Gauss was shocked by what had happened; after all, those who clamored for Fitzgerald's expulsion had also been drinking that day. Nearly ten years later, when he too was having his troubles at Princeton, the teacher recalled the incident with a kind of wry nostalgia: “I remember with a good deal of feeling how a number of years ago a number of respectable evangelists in the cause of letters came down to Princeton crowned with laurels to reestablish the cult of Apollo and what a scandal this was to bluenosed respectability. Yet the aim was a worthy one.”
What shocked Princeton delighted the New York gossip writers. Anecdotes galore detailed how Fitzgerald, that “disruptive little nucleus” launched into orbit in the big town's nightlife, had very quickly acquired the notoriety generally reserved up to then for publicity-hungry actors. Scott, they reported, undressed in the theater while attending a musical; Zelda dived fully dressed into the Pulitzer fountain, naked into the one on Union Square, and danced on a cabaret table; Scott blanked out on a drunken brawl and came to the next morning to see a headline reporting that “Fitzgerald Knocks Officer This Side of Paradise.” The couple's firstmeeting with Dorothy Parker was typical. She had already met Scott the previous fall, and he had told her “he was going to marry the most beautiful girl in Alabama and Georgia!” But even Mrs. Parker was surprised to see Zelda riding down Fifth Avenue astride the hood of a taxi with Scott sitting on the roof. She decided they had a childish need to shock people, but that they had to be forgiven for their natural grace. “They did both look as though they had just stepped out of the sun,” she said; “their youth was striking. Everyone wanted to meet him.” Mrs. Parker thought Zelda attractive when she was caught up in her own whirlwind of words and gestures, but that her face at rest was ordinary: “I never thought she was beautiful. She was very blond with a candy box face and little bow mouth, very much on a small scale and there was something petulant about her. If she didn't like something she sulked; I didn't find that an attractive trait.”
Asked to leave the Biltmore, where they upset a clientele unaccustomed to seeing a man walk the halls on his hands, they moved to the Commodore; there too they caused talk when they bought their first car. “A man sold us a broken Marmon,” Scott recalled, “and a wild burst of friends spent half an hour revolving in the revolving door.”
Still, the city's pleasures no longer satisfied Zelda's vitality. She was used to an outdoor life; she loved to swim and dive, and Scott thought it was time to get back to work in a quiet country retreat. Always helpful, Ruth Sturtevant organized a stay for them on the shores of Lake Champlain. On the way there, however, they heard that the water in the lake was icy and impossible to swim in. They veered off toward the coast and in Westport, Connecticut, found a rustic cottage near a beach. Charmed by it, they immediately signed a five-month lease, unpacked their bags and hired a very small Japanese houseboy. That was on May 14. Unfortunately, Westport was an easy train ride from New York, and the temptation to invite friends down for weekends was hard to resist. Fowler, for example, soon received a letter from Zelda informing him that “we have a house with a room for you and a ruined automobile because I drove it over a fire-plug and completely deintestined it… and much health and fresh-air which is all very nice and picturesque, although I'm still partial to Coney Island.”
A month later, bored with rural tranquillity, they plunged back into an interminable round of parties that lasted for days and left them exhausted, disgusted with themselves and quarreling. McKaig wrote in his diary on June 13, 1920: “Visit Fitz at Westport… Terrible party. Fitz and Zelda fighting like mad. Say themselves marriage can't succeed.”
That summer Zelda added a prize catch to her bag of admirers: theater critic George Jean Nathan, coeditor with H. L. Mencken of The Smart Set. Dark and suave, with burning, cynical eyes, he was some fifteen years older than Scott, who admired his urbanity and wit. Nathan at once paid ardent court to Zelda, who responded in her usual lively manner, under Scott'sapproving eye if we are to believe Nathan's testimony. “While Zelda and I were accustomed to engage publicly in obviously exaggerated endearing terms,” he later wrote, “which Scott appreciated and which were in the accepted vein of Dixie chivalry, our close friendship was never interrupted.”
On the evening of July 4 Zelda thought the party was going cold and turned in a fire alarm, bringing three fire trucks and the fire chief's wrath down upon them. When he asked where the fire was, Zelda pounded her breast melodramatically and replied, “Here!” They were summoned to court a week later, but the case was dismissed for lack of evidence. Scott grandly offered to pay the cost of the trucks' run.
When visitors grew scarce, the Fitzgeralds went to New York. Nathan described these forays: “When in his cups, it was his drollery to descend upon my working quarters in company with his friends Edmund (Bunny) Wilson, … Donald Ogden Stewart, Ed Paramore and Edna St. Vincent Millay, all in a more or less exalted state, and to occupy his talents in applying matches to the rubber bindings on the pillows on my sofa. Their howls of glee when the rubber started to stench up the place could be heard a block away and were matched by my less gleeful ones.”
One morning when the revelry continued into the dawn, Nathan hid in the cottage cellar in hopes of finding a little peace. He came across Zelda's diary. Struck by its psychological and literary quality, he offered to publish it in his magazine. Scott refused to allow it, saying he had already been inspired by it and planned to use it again in his stories and in his next novel. An exchange of letters soon became a Nathan-Zelda duet. A few lines from it give the tone. At one point, having annoyed her by informing Scott about one of his warmer notes, he wrote: “Dear misguided woman: Like so many uncommonly beautiful creatures, you reveal a streak of obtuseness. The calling of a husband's attention to a love letter addressed to his wife is but a part of a highly righteous technique. … It completely disarms suspicion.”
Mencken sometimes accompanied Nathan to Westport. Both had a taste for crude humor and they liked to pretend that they had a kind of Laurel and Hardy friendship. Mencken, the fat, grumpy one, acted as the persecutor, a role he assumed naturally in American letters. In Westport the pair picked on Tana, the houseboy, insisting that his real name was Tannenbaum and that he was a German spy. They pestered him with letters written in an undecipherable pseudo-oriental script, and even with German newspapers, Mencken sent Tana a postcard asking him to make sure the foundations of Fitzgerald's house were firm enough to support the weight of a two-ton cannon. “Let me know,” he then wrote to Nathan, “if Fitzgerald is killed when the Westport American Legion raids his house.”
Most of that summer's events, the visits, benders, quarrels, would filter into the novel Fitzgerald had in progress. He considered making Nathan its protagonist, but his marital problems soon became the book's subject. Hediscussed it with Nathan, to whom he had spoken of his earlier plan. The critic's recollection points up how impossible it was for Fitzgerald to develop any characters but Zelda and himself. “He came to me somewhat apologetically,” the critic wrote, “and explained that he had tried, but could not lionize me in his novel. He said that he found himself unable to write a heroic character other than himself and that he had to be the hero of any novel he undertook. So I duly discovered that what he started as heroic me resulted in a wholly minor and subsidiary character not distinguished for any perceptible favorable attribute.”
The analysis was confirmed by a note in McKaig's diary: “Fitz made another true remark about himself—draw brilliant picture of Nathan sitting in chair but how Nathan thinks he cannot depict—cannot depict how anyone thinks except himself and possibly Zelda. Find that after he has written about a character for a while it becomes just himself again.”
Relations between Fitzgerald and Nathan had nevertheless cooled during the summer. Zelda showered marks of affection on the critic that, for all their burlesque quality, probably denoted a real attraction, and this contributed to the two men's estrangement. Scott realized that he could not completely trust Zelda, and this made him touchier about her flirtatiousness with other men. His irritation is visible in his novel in Anthony's dismay at the growing intimacy between Gloria and Bloekman, a rich and elegant Jew whose meteoric rise in the motion picture industry provides a counterpoint to Anthony's failure. Perhaps Nathan, after supplying some of Anthony's physical traits, then suggested a rivalry in which he figured as the tempter offering Gloria everything her weak husband could not give her. And this came at a time when Fitzgerald himself despaired of doing right by his second novel.
He and Zelda decided that a change would clarify the situation, and in mid-July they left Westport for Montgomery. The story of their odyssey was published in Motor magazine, illustrated with their own photos showing them in twin, white-knickered suits registering the various states of perplexity into which their 1917 Marmon's whims plunged them. After many trials—breakdowns, flat tires, flooded roads, inhospitable hotelkeepers —they did reach the end of their 1,100-mile journey to the city where they first met. Their sentimental pilgrimage had drawn them together and they could now review how far they had come together since the summer of 1918.
For Zelda, especially, this was a return to the land of insouciance and happy love affairs. Scott noted that “in every town which we passed” after crossing the Alabama state line, “Zelda would declare enthusiastically that she knew dozens of boys who lived there if she could just remember their names.” Auburn and the university there: “Here Zelda had known the greatest gaiety of her youth.” Then Montgomery: “Suddenly Zelda was crying, crying because things were the same and yet were not the same. It was for her faithlessness that she wept and for the faithlessness of time.” The Marmon, faithful despite the abuse it had suffered, finally refused to go any farther; it expired near the Sayre doorstep and was sold for junk. After two weeks of rest and family life, the Fitzgeralds took the train back to New York, feeling relieved.
The trip did have one beneficial effect: Fitzgerald returned resolved to set seriously to work on his novel. He really had to do it, because before leaving he had signed a contract with Metropolitan Magazine for serialized publication of the book, and he had told Ober he would give him the manuscript in October. That meant he had barely three months in which to deliver a book he had not written and for which he was to collect $7,000. He had already described his project to Charles Scribner: “My new novel called 'The Flight of the Rocket' concerns the life of Anthony Patch between his twenty-fifth and thirty-third years (1913-1921). He is one of the many with the tastes and weaknesses of an artist but with no actual creative inspiration. How he and his beautiful young wife are wrecked on the shoals of dissipation is told in the story. This sounds sordid but it's really a most sensational book and I hope won't disappoint the critics who liked my first one. I hope it'll be in your hands by November 1st.” Fitzgerald overestimated his capacity for work and concentration. The manuscript, renamed The Beautiful and Damned, would not be delivered to the publisher until late April, eight months later.
The Sayres returned their visit in August, but Zelda was already feeling febrile at the idea of being alone while Scott worked. Again she called on Fowler for help. “Please come out to see us,” she wrote him. “Scott's hot in the midst of a new novel and Westport is unendurably dull but you and I might be able to amuse ourselves… Mamma and Daddy are here this week and I can't tell you how glad I was to see them—however I feel very festive and I guess it's hardly conventional or according to Hoyle to take one's family on a celebration of the kind I feel in dire need of.” These were the conditions in which Fitzgerald tried, despite constant interruption by his recriminatory wife, to get on with his work. One day in mid-September, with things at their lowest ebb, a drunken Zelda decided to leave Scott. The incident provided material for a chapter in The Beautiful and Damned, the details of which were corroborated by an entry in McKaig's diary. She fled to the railroad station, pursued by Scott, who just managed to leap aboard her train. But he had left home without money or identification, and the conductor had wanted to put him off until he realized that this was a lovers' quarrel and let Fitzgerald stay aboard. “Fitz should let Zelda go & not run after her,” McKaig reflected on September 15. “Like all husbands he is afraid of what she may do in a moment of caprice.” Not surprisingly, the diarist would note twelve days later that the “new novel sounds awful—no seriousness of approach. Zelda interrupts him all the time-diverts in both senses.” And on October 12: “Usual problem there. Whatshall Zelda do? I think she might do a little housework—apartment looks like a pig sty. If she's there Fitz can't work—she bothers him—if she's not there he can't work—worried what she might do.”
So ended the first summer of their life together. They rented a small apartment at 38 West Fifty-ninth Street, near Central Park and the Plaza Hotel, which served as a kind of annex for them and sent in their meals. McKaig's complaint about the disorderliness of the place was confirmed by Lawton Campbell, who was invited to lunch and found them in the bedroom; a breakfast tray perched on the unmade bed and vestiges of the previous evening were everywhere: half-empty glasses, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette butts and manuscript pages scattered around the room.
Zelda sometimes visited Campbell, occasionally escorted by McKaig. “She would stretch out on the long sofa in my living room,” Campbell reported, “with her eyes to the ceiling and recount some fabulous experience of the night before or dream up some strange exploit that she thought would be a 'cute idea.' … If her remarks were occasionally non sequitur one didn't notice it at the time. She passed very quickly from one topic to another and you didn't question her. It wouldn't occur to you to stop her and ask what she meant.”
While his friends attended to Zelda, Fitzgerald made great strides on his book, sometimes writing as much as 15,000 words in three days. On October 17 McKaig remarked that Fitzgerald had not had a drink in eight days. But he had not written a single short story all summer, either, and the couple's bank balance was beginning to shrink. Money vanished mysteriously. Back in June Scott had noticed that Zelda had hidden $500. In November a note in the Ledger mentioned that she had done it again, but this time with $100 belonging to Dorothy Parker. The $500 advance he got from Scribner's for a volume of short stories, Flappers and Philosophers, which appeared in August 1920, barely kept them going. This was the moment Zelda chose to open her campaign to persuade Scott to buy her a $700 squirrel coat. In a November 7 letter to Perkins, he asked for immediate payment of his outstanding royalties on This Side of Paradise, which were not due until January, explaining that he did not want to interrupt his work and, besides, “my family seems to need a fur coat.” The fur coat episode was used in The Beautiful and Damned to point up the growing lack of understanding between Gloria and Anthony: “Throughout the previous winter one small matter had been a subtle and omnipresent irritant—the question of Gloria's gray fur coat. At that time women enveloped in long squirrel wraps could be seen every few yards along Fifth Avenue. The women were converted to the shape of tops. They seemed porcine and obscene; they resembled kept women in the concealing richness, the feminine animality of the garment. Yet—Gloria wanted a gray squirrel coat.”
In November Zelda and Scott took another apartment at 381 East Fifty-ninth Street. They had picked up again with Nathan, who sometimes wentwith them to theatrical first nights. Meanwhile, McKaig had fallen hopelessly in love with Zelda; his old antipathy toward the capricious little hick he had met seven months earlier had now vanished. “I spent the evening shaving Zelda's neck to make her bobbed hair look better,” he told his diary on November 27. “She is lovely—wonderful hair—eyes and mouth.” But he would not betray Scott. When she asked him to kiss her in a taxi taking them back to the Fitzgeralds' on the evening of December 4, he couldn't do it: “I couldn't forget Scott—he's so damn pitiful.” But he became their closest friend at the time when Fitzgerald quarreled with Townsend Martin and stopped seeing him.
Appearances notwithstanding, the couple felt lonely in New York, and when most of the little group's bachelor members went off to spend Christmas with their families, they found themselves alone, feeling that “we had not one friend in the city, nor one house we could go to. … later I realized that behind much of the entertainment that the city poured forth into the nation there were only a lot of rather lost and lonely people. The world of the picture actors was like our own in that it was in New York and not of it. It had little sense of itself and no center: when I first met Dorothy Gish I had the feeling that we were both standing on the North Pole and it was snowing.”
Their isolation, so painful to Zelda, was complicated by fresh financial difficulties. At the end of December Fitzgerald asked Perkins for a $1,600 advance on his novel, which he thought he could finish in two weeks. We know what his promises were worth; Metropolitan Magazine had already been waiting for the book since October. This time, however, he kept his word—within two weeks: the book was completed late in January, after six months' work. But the work had been interrupted so often, had been so rushed, especially at the beginning, that he had to put in three more months' work on it before he could release it to Metropolitan. The novel was to appear in serial form before publication by Scribner's.
In mid-February Zelda discovered she was pregnant. A month later she went to Montgomery to see her parents before the European tour she and Scott had promised themselves when the book was finished. He negotiated a $3,400 loan to pay for the trip, joined her three days later and spent much of his time in the South revising the book's last chapter, which he did not like. Zelda prattled with her old friends and took part in a show they had mounted for the annual Les Mysterieuses ball. Lawton Campbell also happened to be visiting his family then and attended the ball. It was a lesson in how lively an image of Zelda remained in Montgomeryites' memories.
Zelda was one of a group dancing masked in a Hawaiian pageant. The audience, Campbell later wrote in his unpublished memoirs of the Fitzgeralds, “began to notice that one masker was doing her dance more daring than the others… Finally the dancer in question turned her back to the audience, lifted her grass skirt over her head for a quick view of her pantied posterior and gave it an extra wiggle for good measure. A murmur went over the auditorium in a wave of excitement and everybody was whispering 'That's Zelda!' It was Zelda and no mistake! She wanted it known beyond a doubt and she was happy with the recognition.”
Campbell saw his friends again at the end of April, a few days before they sailed for England, in a speakeasy called the Jungle Club. Scott had drunk too much and was having a row with the bouncer, who was trying to dissuade him from going back to the bar. Campbell stepped in and persuaded Scott to join him at his table. Then Zelda appeared, complaining that her husband had left her alone. She refused to listen to Campbell's explanation, took Scott by the arm and steered him toward the bar, announcing that no mere bouncer was going to keep him from going where he wanted to go. The bouncer let Zelda by, but tried to stop Scott from entering the bar. Fitzgerald loosed a few feeble punches at him, whereupon the man lost his patience and gave him a shove that sent him crashing into a table.
Campbell ran to him, picked him up and pleaded with him to leave. Zelda had disappeared, and Campbell was going to put Scott into a taxi and then look for her. At that moment she dashed out onto the sidewalk and yelled, “Scott, you're not going to let that so-and-so get away with that.” He waded stoically back into the fight and received one of the severest beatings of his life.
The following day, when Campbell went to inquire after him, he found Scott in bed with his head bandaged, one eye blackened, his body covered with cuts and bruises and absolutely no memory of what had happened. He did have the presence of mind to add spice to the drama by pretending to his visitor that they were supposed to leave for Europe that day and that Zelda had gone to postpone their departure.
On Tuesday, May 3, they boarded the Aquitania, which deposited them seven days later on a quay at Southampton. They went to London, where they stayed at the Cecil. The British edition of This Side of Paradise was soon to appear, and Perkins had given Fitzgerald letters of introduction to a number of writers, including John Galsworthy, whose books were published in the United States by Scribner's. Shane Leslie happened to be in London and, knowing Scott's interest in Mackenzie's novel Sinister Street, took the Fitzgeralds on a tour of the slums described at the end of the book. The tourists rigged themselves out in caps and work clothes to explore the dock area where, they fancied, there were no taxis and no police, and where Jack the Ripper had made his reputation. Zelda was tickled to be disguised as a man and exposed to a doubtless imaginary danger. Galsworthy received them in his Hampstead home in company with several playwrights and novelists and was slightly embarrassed by Fitzgerald's excessive deference: the American insisted that, along with Anatole France and Joseph Conrad, Galsworthy was the writer he admired most.
Scott refurbished his wardrobe, they visited Oxford, danced at the Savoy and dined with Lady Randolph Churchill and her son Winston, a memorable evening that Scott would recall twenty years later in a letter to Zelda. Ten days after their arrival, they left for Italy via a brief and disappointing stay in Paris. First Venice, “in a gondola feeling like a soft Italian song,” then Florence in early June, and finally Rome, in a flea-infested Grand Hotel, and the inevitable visit to the Vatican, where grandmother McQuillan had gone so often. Fitzgerald did not mention in his Ledger the papal audience arranged for him by the bishop of St. Paul, merely noting two impressions: “the woman weeping in Vatican” and “the loot of twenty centuries.”
On June 22 they were back in Paris for a deeply disappointing week. Because neither of them knew French, the only person they spoke to was Edna Millay, there on an assignment for Vanity Fair. With her they searched for Wilson, who had arrived in Paris two days before they had without giving them his address; he was at the Hotel Mont-Thabor, only a few minutes' walk from their hotel. Anatole France had just received theNobel Prize, and they stationed themselves before his house, the Villa Said, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the great man. An evening at the Folies-Bergire, a day at Versailles and Malmaison, the purchase of a poorly tanned sheepskin that stank up their room in the Hotel de Saint-James et d'Albany, and a reprimand from the management because Zelda blocked the elevator door at their floor—these were the paltry memories of their first contact with a city to which they would return in good times and bad.
They were at Claridge's in London on June 20, and they visited Cambridge, which, with Oxford, gave them their only lasting impression of their trip, probably because of the universities' evocation of Sinister Street, which had so inspired Fitzgerald in his description of Princeton in This Side of Paradise. They had considered staying in Europe until the autumn, had even told Wilson they would remain in Italy for a year. But they were weary of traveling, Zelda's pregnancy tired her and Scott was disappointed by the unfavorable reception given This Side of Paradise in Britain; they cut short their stay and sailed July 9 aboard the Celtic, two months after their arrival in Europe. New York and the Biltmore were welcomed with relief.
From London Fitzgerald had written a long letter to Wilson in which he frankly voiced his disappointment: “God damn the continent of Europe. It is of merely antiquarian interest… The negroid streak creeps northward to defile the Nordic race. Already the Italians have the souls of blackamoors. Raise the bars of immigration and permit only Scandinavians, Teutons, Anglo-Saxons and Celts to enter. France made me sick. Its silly pose as the thing the world has to save. I think it's a shame that England and America didn't let Germany conquer Europe. It's the only thing that would have saved the fleet of tottering old wrecks. My reactions were all philistine, anti-socialistic, provincial and racially snobbish. I believe at last in the white man's burden. We are as far above the modern Frenchman as he is above the Negro. Even in art! Italy has no one. When Anatole France dies French literature will be a silly jealous rehashing of technical quarrels. They're thru and done. You may have spoken in jest about New York as the capital of culture, but in 25 years it will be just as London is now. Culture follows money and all the refinements of aestheticism can't stave off its change of seat (Christ! what a metaphor). We will be the Romans in the next generations as the English are now.”
This fit of chauvinism obviously denotes deep frustration. Fitzgerald, a constant center of attention in New York's yellow press, celebrated in literary circles, had been whittled to the ungrateful status of an actor without an audience. Or, if there was an audience, its reactions were unpredictable, different from those his effects were aimed at producing. From Princeton to the Jungle Club, even if an incident ended badly, there was a community of feeling, a common logic that allowed one to achieve effects that were expected, perhaps even sought. We feel a sort of vague longing for the intense relationship of a victim to his executioner in this enigmatic little note on a street scene in Venice: “Man kicked in stomach because he wasn't a Roman.”
A whole cause-and-effect relationship is missing here. A spectator who wishes he were an actor feels excluded from a symbolic occurrence. What at the Jungle Club had been a cultural commonplace (“Man beaten up because he tried to drink too much”) here becomes an act of barbarism. During his second stay in Italy five years later, some obscure compulsion would push Fitzgerald into a situation that would end with his being beaten up by a clutch of taxi drivers.
After his few contacts had been made, he also suffered from the humiliation of being just another sheeplike tourist driven from monument to monument without ever meeting anyone. Finally, there was the disappointment of finding that the brilliant young novelist who had just written the key book to the new America was accorded only polite disdain by British critics. Fitzgerald noted their lack of enthusiasm in his letter to Wilson: “Of 20 reviews about half are mildly favorable, a quarter of them imply that I've read 'Sinister Street once too often!'” For the first time as a published author, he felt dull, provincial, shut out of a system of behavior whose meaning he did not understand. He was anxious to rid himself of these feelings of inferiority, to reassure himself, and in his distress he stooped to racist arguments of the vilest kind.
In a reply sent July 5, Wilson showed he had perceptively diagnosed the wound that was festering in Fitzgerald's vanity. He began by describing how happy he was to be in Paris, which he artfully compared with his happiness in Princeton. “Paris,” he wrote, “seems to me an ideal place to live: it combines all the attractions and conveniences of a large city with all the freedom, beauty and regard for the arts and pleasures of a place like Princeton. I find myself more contented and at ease here than anywhere else I know.” He went on to discuss the relativity of fame in American cultural life, alleging that “it is too easy to be a highbrow or an artist in America these days” and warning artists against “the ease with which a traditionless and half-educated public … can be impressed, delighted and satisfied; the Messrs. Mencken, Nathan, Dreiser, Anderson, Lewis, Dell, Lippmann, Rosenfeld, Fitzgerald, etc., etc… owe a good deal of eminence to the flatness of the surrounding country!” Wilson explained what had led him to rub against a richer and less razzle-dazzle culture, to measure his illusory superiority by the yardstick of an ancient tradition. His reasons reversed all his friend's arguments: “In America I feel so superior and culturally sophisticated in comparison to most of the rest of the intellectual and artistic life of the country that … I am obliged to save my soul by emigrating to a country which humiliates me intellectually and artistically by surrounding me with the solid perfection of a standard arrived at by way of Racine (etc.).” Fitzgerald, he advised, should profit from his example: “Settle down and learn French and apply a little French leisure and measure to that restless and jumpy nervous system. It would be a service to American letters; your novels would never be the same afterwards.”
The reasons for Wilson's travels were not quite so loftily disinterested as he pretended they were. In fact, he wanted to see Edna once more. She was broke, but thoroughly at ease in the Left Bank avant-garde, close to Sylvia Beach and on terms of the greatest intimacy with a British newspaper correspondent. Wilson's knowledge of French enabled him to appreciate the subtleties in Yvette Guilbert's songs as well as the epigrams of Jean Cocteau, with whom he lunched. Edna wanted to go to the Riviera with him, but his passion for her had cooled. He knew that she would ditch him without a second thought if she met someone who pleased her more. Besides, while she was away he had taken up with an actress with the Provincetown Players named Mary Blair, who was supposed to join him later in Europe. So he lent Edna some money and went south alone. In Cannes he happened across the girl who had initiated him in the subtleties of the French language while he was an ambulance driver in Vittel. Her name was Ninette and her quick impulsiveness enchanted him again this time. In his Memoirs he quoted in French her retort when he remarked that her nose was cold: “Comme les petits chiens qui se portent bien. Il me faut deux ans pour digerer les baisers. Apres, je vais recommencer'.” Happy Bunny! Despite his difficulty in communicating with the French, he was as comfortable or more so in France as in the streets of New York. It was his love of books that had opened human nature to him.
The rest of his trip—interrupted in Florence when his money was stolen —showed the same curiosity, the same sympathy for alien cultures, qualities of which Fitzgerald had no trace. One sentence in Wilson's July letter neatly analyzed his friend's antipathy to Europe: “The lower animals frequently die when transplanted; Fitzgerald denounces European civilization and returns at once to God's country.”
The lesson took. Back in New York, after rereading his manuscript in his room at the Biltmore, Fitzgerald knew he would have to rewrite it. He and Zelda decided to flee the temptations of the great city and settle in peaceful Montgomery while waiting for the baby to be bom. They looked for a house there, but Zelda, then in her sixth month of pregnancy, could not stand the damp heat of an Alabama summer. After a week there they agreed that the child would be born in Scott's native city of St. Paul, where the more invigorating climate would better suit both of them. Off they went, and after two weeks in which they traveled more miles than separate America from Europe, they finally came to a halt in a rented house in Dell-wood, on the shore of White Bear Lake, in the outskirts of St. Paul.
When Metropolitan Magazine began serializing The Beautiful and Damned in its September 1921 issue, Fitzgerald noticed that the text hadbeen radically changed by the deep cuts the magazine's editors had made. It was not that the magazine had been shocked by the realism of some of the book's scenes; the idea was simply to keep the story moving, with everything else considered superfluous. There was nothing the author could do about this because the contract he had signed under pressure of financial need had authorized such cuts. With the excised material vanished all the pictures of manners, all the meaningful episodes for which the badly strung plot was merely a support. The book, which aimed to portray an atmosphere of revelry and dissipation, was reduced to mere anecdote. Its satiric thrust and its power of evocation were weakened, and its technical flaws stood out all too clearly. A quarter of the book was dropped from the six installments that ran from September through February.
It was a bitter lesson for Fitzgerald, who wasted no time in warning his friends against judging the book on the basis of this truncated version. Yet, despite his determination to rework the novel before its publication, he was having trouble reviving the creative surge that had swept him along earlier in the year. Three months of ceaseless travel had blunted his faculties. The only intellectual effort he had made in Europe had been the writing of a movie script he intended to sell on his return. In a new climate and a new setting, he despaired of regaining the previous winter's work pace.
As soon as he arrived in Dellwood, he communicated his gloom to Perkins. “I'm having a hell of a time because I've loafed for 5 months and I want to get to work,” he wrote in a letter on August 25, 1921. “Loafing puts me in this particularly obnoxious and abominable gloom. My third novel, if I ever write another, will I am sure be black as death with gloom. I should like to sit down with 1/2dozen chosen companions and drink myself to death, but I am sick alike of life, liquor and literature. If it wasn't for Zelda I think I'd disappear out of sight for three years. Ship as a sailor or something and get hard—I'm sick of the flabby semi-intellectual softness in which I flounder with my generation.”
The obvious flaws in his novel further blackened his mood. This Side of Paradise had been written over three years and rewritten three times; The Beautiful and Damned, twice as long as its predecessor, had been hurriedly written in six months. The opening, especially, suffered from the emotionalism of the Fitzgeralds' previous summer in Westport. Three months had been set aside for revision, but this was not enough time to improve it as much as he had hoped. Only the euphoria of knowing that the book was nearly finished and the prospect of a trip to Europe could have so blinded Fitzgerald to the weakness of parts of his novel. Then his European experience had dispelled his optimism and his arrogance, and Wilson's letter had forced him back to reexamine his ideas. So, reluctantly, he went to work to revise a manuscript in which he no longer believed. He informed Wilson in November that he had “almost completely rewritten” his book. In fact, comparison of the Metropolitan Magazine version with the one Scribner'spublished shows that most of his work went into the first part of the book; changes were fewer and farther between in the second part and there were none at all in Book III, which was, it's true, the most polished.
Book III, depicting Anthony's months in an army camp, his discharge and his attempts to find a job in postwar New York, is certainly the novel's most endearing and most successful section. It functions as a follow-up to the closing chapters of This Side of Paradise, in which the author's military and advertising experience had not been used. The picturesque bender scenes sketched in at the end of the first novel are exhaustively examined here. Did Fitzgerald use passages from his aborted novels of the autumn and winter of 1919, as he had already done with “May Day,” the atmosphere and style of which prefigure the last quarter of The Beautiful and Damned? Some of the titles he had proposed to Perkins do seem to cover the same ground. The Demon Lover (September 1919) and The Darling Heart (January 1920), both of which are about a girl's seduction (they may even be two versions of the same story) could very well be the sources for Anthony's affair with Dot. And The Drunkard's Holiday (December 1919) could be an early version of the scenes of Anthony's degradation. A fourth project, The Diary of a Literary Failure (October 1919), was to include a fifty-page episode entitled “The Diary of a Popular Girl,” based on Zelda's diary, which Nathan had thought fit to publish; this closely matches the passages describing Anthony's fruitless efforts to make a name for himself in literature. And there are the passages directly inspired by Zelda's letters, which are attributed to Gloria. The Diary would also explain the presence in the novel of Richard Caramel, the successful hack writer and author of … The Demon Lover; Caramel is Fitzgerald's caricature of himself as a writer whose talent wanes as he prospers.
Such borrowings would help us understand the inconsistencies of tone and atmosphere that make The Beautiful a bastard work from which a number of episodes, brilliant as they are—the love story of Anthony and Dot, for example—could have been eliminated without harming the whole. As in his first book, Fitzgerald had resorted to dishing up his leftovers. His idea of a novel resembled that of H. G. Wells, for whom the sole criterion was effectiveness. Wells considered that if a book delights and instructs, the novelist has done his job; to him a novel's form was open, functional, able to accommodate all the author sought to express. In his famous dispute with James, which grew up around 1914, he stubbornly defended his notion of a catchall novel based on a principle of saturation. James, on the other hand, preached selection aimed at forging a minutely dovetailed work in which each part must contribute to the effectiveness of the whole.
Fitzgerald was not yet artistically mature enough to conceive of a novel as anything but a series of incidents, of episodes juxtaposed without artfully machined interlocking. Not until The Great Gatsby would the stern Jamesian aesthetic prevail over the pleasant indiscipline of the Wellsian journalistic novel.
What is striking about The Beautiful, aside from its lack of structure, is its lack of unity. Two subjects and two approaches coexist in it without always meeting. First there is a sprightly comedy of manners, in a Wildean vein, that picks up the rollicking spirit of This Side of Paradise and of the short stories and allows room for social satire and contemporary caricatures. It is also a roman a clef that recalls the transparent portraits of the first novel. Nathan, Wilson, Fowler, Paramore and others were immediately recognized by those who knew them. Fitzgerald appears in the parodic character of Caramel and in some of Anthony's characteristics (although, as we have seen, Nathan was the model for Anthony's physical appearance). There is even a lot of Zelda in Gloria. When W. E. Hill, who had designed the book jacket for This Side of Paradise, prepared a cover for the new book, he naturally drew the fictional couple as looking like Zelda and Scott. This annoyed Fitzgerald, not only because the illustrator had forgotten that Anthony was six feet tall and dark, but also because, he complained, the portrait made him look like “a sort of debauched edition of me” and his slightly short legs showed up all too clearly.
“I wish 'The Beautiful and Damned' had been a maturely written book because it was all true,” he wrote in a later moment of depression. This was modified by another observation in a letter to his daughter: “Gloria was a much more trivial and vulgar person than your mother. I can't really say there was any resemblance except in the beauty and certain terms or expressions she used, and also I naturally used many circumstantial events of our early married life. However, the emphases were different. We had a much better time than Anthony and Gloria did.”
Parallel with—or consecutive to—this sometimes comic, sometimes lyric portrayal of contemporary life and love as Fitzgerald lived or observed them runs a second subject, a conjugal tragedy. It scarcely appears until the middle of the book, and when it does, the tone changes completely and Zola replaces Wilde. One is suddenly immersed in the style and atmosphere of the naturalists' dramas of misunderstanding and drunkenness. The dandy of the earlier chapters becomes a derelict whose ineluctable degradation recalls that of Hurstwood in Dreiser's Sister Carrie. From this point on, the very concept of the character of Anthony no less irresistibly evokes the protagonist of naturalist Frank Norris's novel Vandover and the Brute. Oddly, Fitzgerald turned to realism just when he stopped drawing for inspiration on the reality he knew. Literary models replaced direct observation, bringing with them their burden of pessimism.
This is no literarily natural psychological shift, but a radical change of perspective. All the characters of naturalistic novels are here, along with thequasi-scientific approach that gives fiction a documentary, even didactic, tone. Man is pictured as an animal driven by his lowest instincts, which are determined by his environment. There is a predilection for sordid surroundings and debauchery, an affinity for the declining curve and a fascination with degradation, decrepitude and death. By recklessly violating probability, Fitzgerald succeeded in transforming Anthony from a brilliant aesthete into a drunken tramp in an advanced stage of decay. (Hurstwood, whom Fitzgerald considered one of the most successful characters in contemporary fiction, gasses himself in a tenement; Vandover ends up running around on all fours, naked and howling like a wolf.)
The influences are evident and, as we shall see, Fitzgerald freely owned to them. But does a wish to conform to admired models in itself justify such a change in style and substance? Why this sudden eruption of unrelieved misery, of pessimism at its blackest, that forced Fitzgerald to abandon his own register, to renounce the light and witty tone that prevailed in the first part of the book? What he was doing, in a paradoxical way, was using the aesthetics of naturalism, founded on clinical observation of reality, to depict a purely imaginary situation. A second paradox: materialism in society is assigned the same task here as mystical spiritualism was given in This Side of Paradise: to make tangible and objective the tenacious obsessions that lodge in experience like a worm in a fruit. Fitzgerald extrapolated reality to disclose a hideous future in which the worst fears of the present are fulfilled. In the earlier book it was sexual obsession and its concomitants, sin and damnation, that caused the demon's three appearances. The sexual threat was exorcised in The Beautiful and Damned, but the reality of married life is portrayed in it as being equally threatening and destructive. Pathological anguish no longer takes the form of devastating damnation, but of erosion, of a more insidious corruption of body and mind. And alcoholism objectifies this resignation and degradation.
Fitzgerald appears to have made conscious, organized use of naturalistic techniques to achieve psychological, not literary, ends. All the theatrical melodrama inherent in these techniques was perfectly suited to his purpose. With bold strokes it blackens the warped, pathetic image the author tried to project, had to project on his future to protect his present. We know this effort at exorcism did not accomplish much for Fitzgerald's moral well-being; the least that can be said is that it was no more successful artistically. There is a kind of continuity between the two nominals in the title of The Beautiful and Damned: the beautiful grow ugly, the happy become unhappy, the elect are damned. But the hidden springs of these changes are never uncovered. The antithetical terms are never joined in a revealing dialectic; the two panels of the diptych remain irreconcilable: two ways of living, two styles, two techniques that were never meant to cohabit.
Nevertheless, this incursion into a hitherto unexplored realm, unfortunate as it may have been for the novel's design and structure, had a positive result, if only a contrario: it forced Fitzgerald to acknowledge his limitations and the nature of his own genius. At least it was symptomatic of a desire for expansion and renewal through which Fitzgerald tried to escape the role into which he was being forced as the new generation's chorister, as advance man for the flapper. As far as this went, his readers' demands were as precise and as narrow as Lorimer's. Fortunately, just when he was feeling locked into the stereotypes that had made him famous, new standards and new demands offered new openings to his longing for approbation. The instrument of this liberation was Henry Louis Mencken, of whom Fitzgerald said in 1921 that he would rather have him like a book of his than anyone else in America.
The program Fitzgerald tried to carry out in The Beautiful and Damned in direct opposition to the forced optimism required by the Post is explicitly outlined by Mencken in an essay called “The National Letters.” In it he laments that the typical hero of American novels was not “a man of delicate organization in revolt against the inexplicable tragedy of existence, but a man of low sensibilities and elemental desires yielding himself gladly to his environment, and so achieving what, under a third-rate civilization, passes for success.” A true hero, he said, is not a man who bows to social pressure and succeeds, but one who resists and fails. “Character in decay,” he confidently concluded, “is thus the theme of the great bulk of superior fiction.” This was the viewpoint Fitzgerald adopted in writing “May Day,” which Mencken published in July 1920, and in The Beautiful and Damned. This was the direction in which, confusedly, he would have wished to move after completing his first novel had the Port's attraction been weaker. In December 1919 he had asked Ober about the possibility of finding other outlets for his work that were more in sympathy with what he wanted to write: “Is there any market at all for the cynical or pessimistic story except Smart Set or does realism bar a story from any well-paying magazine no matter how cleverly it is done?”
Coeditor with Nathan of The Smart Set since 1914, Mencken had made the magazine into the organ of nonconformism in the United States, a sort of anti-Saturday Evening Post that set itself the task of denouncing the stupidity, ignorance, pretentiousness and hypocrisy of the powers that be, whether in government, the press, religion or literature. His favorite whipping boy was the average American, representative of the smug and ignorant “booboisie” that Sinclair Lewis would immortalize in Babbitt in 1922. Especially marked for scorn were the bigots and fanatics who, he charged, had turned the South into a “Sahara of Bozarts.” The Smart Set was open to anything that might broaden its readers' horizons, and it called on the period's most stimulating writers, from W. B. Yeats to Dashiell Hammett, from D. H. Lawrence to Eugene O'Neill.
Mencken had another forum in the Baltimore Sun, and he used it as a pulpit from which, in his role of prophet of a new age, he crushed the squalid ignoramus under the weight of his sarcasm. A master of invective, crusaderagainst cant, contemner of the American Way of Life, he had become the mentor of the country's young intellectuals, earning the loyalty and respect of minds as dissimilar as Wilson's and Fitzgerald's. Of German ancestry, violently opposed to the Great War, he had promoted Nietzsche as early as 1908 and took pleasure in contrasting German culture with what he insisted was the vast lack of culture reigning in the United States. An American intellectual, he fumed, was like a man surrounded by animals in a zoo.
The extent of his influence can be gauged from an exchange of letters between Fitzgerald and Wilson in the early summer of 1921. Fitzgerald unquestioningly adopted Mencken's views on Nordic superiority while Wilson echoed the master's contempt for American culture, although he was independent enough to prefer Racine to Nietzsche as his model. Both men were obsessed with Mencken then. In March Fitzgerald had reviewed his latest book for The Bookman, and Wilson had contributed an essay about him to the June New Republic, which earned Mencken's praise. Fitzgerald's letter to his friend from London began with an allusion to this mark of favor: “Of course I'm wild with jealousy! Do you think you can indecently parade this obscene success before my envious disposition with equanimity?” It went on to allude to Mencken's popularity in Britain, where The Times had just published a dithyrambic article about one of his books. And the great man reappears indirectly in the letter's last paragraph: “We sail for America on the 9th and thence to the 'Sahara of Bozart' (Montgomery) for life.”
Fitzgerald's review of Mencken's collection of essays, Prejudices: Second Series (which included “The National Letters”), was headed “The Baltimore Anti-Christ” and was so solemn it might have been an account of the destruction wrought by a horseman of the Apocalypse: “Will he find new gods to dethrone, some eternal 'yokelry' still callous enough to pose as intelligentzia before the Menckenian pen fingers [it] ? … Granted that, solidly, book by book, he has built up a literary reputation most to be envied by any American, granted also that he has done more for the national letters than any man alive, one is yet inclined to regret a success so complete.”
Mencken's name first appears in This Side of Paradise linked with the works of three naturalistic novelists, Frank Norris, Harold Frederic and Theodore Dreiser, whom Mencken had revealed to Amory: “He was … rather surprised by the discovery through a critic named Mencken of several excellent novels: Vandover and the Brute, The Damnation of Theron Ware and Jennie Gerhardt.” Significantly, he contrasted these titles with the constellation of British authors he had until then used as models: “Mackenzie, Chesterton, Galsworthy, Bennett had sunk in his appreciation from sagacious, life-saturated geniuses to merely diverting contemporaries.” This is still nothing more than a list of titles aimed, as is frequently done in novels, to identify the hero as a with-it intellectual. Mencken was hardly more than a name to Fitzgerald then, one of the editors of TheSmart Set who had published his first short story in September 1919. “It was not until after I had got the proofs of my book back from the publisher that I learned of Mencken,” the author told St. Paul reporter Thomas Boyd in an interview in Dellwood in the summer of 1921. “I happened across The Smart Set one day and thought: 'Here's a man whose name I ought to know. I guess I'll stick it in the proof sheets.'“
Mencken's influence, added to that of the naturalists, stimulated Fitzgerald's consciousness of the problems of his time. It dominates the part of The Beautiful and Damned that deals with the contemporary scene. Later he would write that the Jazz Age “was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess and it was an age of satire.” But he seemed chiefly inspired by the excess and the miracles in writing his first novel and his short stories. He did indeed reproduce the verve of Wells in Kipps and Tono-Bungay when he described the follies of his day, but he lacked the conviction, the contempt, the sovereign insolence that are the mark of the true satirist and are brought to their peak of intensity in Mencken's essays. It was Mencken's influence, combined with that of Wells, that gave Fitzgerald a firmer voice, that spurred him to widen his field of observation and perceive more clearly the possibilities postwar America offered to a novelist with his talent. It enabled him to judge the weaknesses of his earlier models, the decadent British poets and such sentimental novelists as Mackenzie and Tarkington, and to adopt more robust ones. At this point Mencken became his mentor, a function he retained for the next three years. “The sage of Baltimore,” sixteen years older than Sigourney Fay, now succeeded the priest as Fitzgerald's spiritual father, persuading him to write “significantly” about contemporary problems.
The Beautiful and Damned attests to the breadth of Mencken's influence; few American institutions or activities escape attack in the book in varying degrees of sarcasm and virulence. The army and advertising are ridiculed and so are Wall Street, religion, puritanism, American justice and literature, sometimes giving Fitzgerald an opening for a well-minted aphorism or a boldly drawn scene. Pure Menckenian outrage rings, for example, in Anthony's picture of American politics: “He tried to imagine himself in Congress rooting around in the litter of that incredible pigsty with the narrow and porcine brows he saw pictured sometimes in the rotogravure sections of the Sunday newspapers, those glorified proletarians babbling blandly to the nation the ideas of high school seniors! Little men with copybook ambitions who by mediocrity had thought to emerge from mediocrity into the lustreless and unromantic heaven of a government by the people.”
Generally speaking, such bravura passages are not integrated into the novel's action and could have been omitted, as they were in the Metropolitan version, without noticeably affecting the overall impression the book makes. Satire and the romantic imagination clearly walk divergent ways, and Fitzgerald's indictments do not always coincide with the objectshe sought to lambaste. His invective does not suggest a liberated indignation, a free-ranging rancor, as Mencken's usually does; Fitzgerald seems merely to be playing scales, reciting without conviction a lesson he has not quite learned.
His style here is, finally, that of a writer more concerned with the problems of his art than with an impromptu mobilization of a journalist's or satirist's creative faculties. In The Beautiful he was seeking new registers on which to deploy and diversify his talent. The novel can be seen as a test-bed on which, while perfecting his old manner, he acquainted himself with new styles. From his life and times he mined pretexts for testing, experimenting with types of material, styles, tones whose effectiveness he had measured in the work of other writers.
But he had to recognize the incompatibility of his approach to novel writing with Menckenian satire. He would turn next to the theater and would increasingly try to purge his fiction of the heterogeneous elements that burdened his second novel. Essays would be his chosen form for voicing his didactic opinions; in the following three years he would publish ten such articles in various magazines. His mistakes in The Beautiful, then, were tonic because they forced him to think about what a novel specifically is and to envisage a type of fiction as removed from polemics as from social realism. Conrad's example, especially, would gradually lead him to abandon the three determining influences that had turned The Beautiful and Damned into a hybrid compounded of Wells, the naturalists and H. L. Mencken.
Conscious of his failure, recognizing the uselessness of trying to patch up a botched job, Fitzgerald nevertheless continued to look after his interests. As a former advertising man, he had closely followed Scribner's efforts to promote his first book, and they had not satisfied him. Chagrined by the failure of Paradise in Britain, he complained to Perkins about it on his return to Montgomery. Fitzgerald had just learned that Floyd Dell's novel Mooncalf, published around the same time as Paradise and which he considered greatly inferior to his own book, was still being pushed by Knopf while Scribner's had practically stopped promoting Paradise. Fitzgerald protested that his book had sold on its reputation without the proper support of Scribner's marketing service. No advertising at all had been done in Montgomery itself—yet fifty copies were sold there—or in St. Paul, where the campaign consisted of three advertisements and where the local papers had been far more effective in publicizing the native son. The book had been a best-seller in Chicago for eighteen weeks, although only a dozen newspaper ads had appeared there. Whereas the sales of Mooncalf had been swollen in all three cities by a promotion drive that went on for months. As a result, Dell's novel, which had enjoyed neither the critical success nor the vogue of This Side of Paradise, had been a much bigger seller and was stilldoing well. It was not just the quantity of advertising that Fitzgerald criticized, but its quality, which the author ascribed to a lack of imagination on the part of those responsible. He particularly accused them of failing to exploit the praise of such famous writers as Mencken and Sinclair Lewis. Hadn't Lewis declared in the Tribune that “in Scott Fitzgerald we have an author who will be the equal of any young European”?
The analysis was professional and backed by accurate figures, and Perkins was impressed by it. He promised that the complaints would be borne in mind in conducting the advertising campaign for Fitzgerald's next novel, but that the author would be asked to take a hand in it, especially in writing the copy for newspaper ads. Proofs of the book began arriving in October, Zelda was approaching her term and requests for advances on the book became more pressing. It is true that Fitzgerald hoped the advertising would sell 60,000 copies of his new book, 20,000 more than Paradise.
Most of his correspondence with Perkins in the first quarter of 1922 bore on the best tactics to attract readers. Fitzgerald paid attention to the smallest details, kept a close eye on the advertising copy, calculated the effect of reviews on sales, grumbled about the cover design (Zelda proposed another showing a naked woman kneeling in a champagne glass, but it was rejected), kept track of orders from St. Paul bookstores. When the novel went on sale March 3, he must have been just as nervous as Richard Caramel, the fashionable writer in his book: “The author, indeed, spent his days in a state of pleasant madness. The book was in his conversation three-fourths of the time—he wanted to know if one had heard 'the latest'; he would go into a store and in a loud voice order books to be charged to him, in order to catch a chance morsel of recognition from clerk or customer. He knew to a town in what sections of the country it was selling best; he knew exactly what he cleared on each edition, and when he met anyone who had not read it, or, as it happened only too often, had not heard of it, he succumbed to moody depression.”
Like his personage, Fitzgerald kept a febrile finger on market fluctuations. He reckoned that to reimburse Scribner's for the $5,643 he had received in advances, he would have to sell exactly 18,810 copies. Six weeks after publication sales had reached 33,000, and Perkins warned him that the book was unlikely to be a big success. In the first full year 43,000 copies were sold, about the same number as This Side of Paradise.
We recall that after completing his first novel, Fitzgerald realized that he had imperceptibly progressed from amateur to professional. But until the publication of his second book, he had left his financial interests in the hands of Perkins and Ober, simply delivering his work and asking them to fatten his bank balance in return. Now the Fitzgeralds were spending heedlessly, debts were mounting and the writer found he was not working to earn his living, but to repay his loans. This was when he began to take apersonal interest in the publishing industry's advertising and sales methods so as to earn as much as possible from his work. This was also the point at which he began to ask himself seriously where the money was coming from; only a bit later would he wonder about its important corollary: where was it going?
To find an answer, he resolved to begin, like any shopkeeper, keeping exact accounts of his output and his income. He accordingly bought a large ledger from a St. Paul stationer, Brown, Blodget & Sperry, a boxed volume nine and a half by fifteen inches, containing 200 numbered pages. This Ledger he would keep until the end of his life, recording his income, if not his outlay. He reserved the first fifty pages as a catalog of his fiction, writing across two pages, a total of nineteen inches, which he divided into sixteen columns. Each story was listed with the date on which it was written, the names of magazines and dates of publication, first in the United States, then in Britain. Similar records were kept for his novels and volumes of short stories, his theater and movie scenarios, translations and reprints in anthologies. The last column detailed each story's ultimate fate, whether it was judged worthy to appear in a collection (publication of each novel would be followed by a volume of short stories) or too weak to be picked up. In the latter case there were two further possibilities: if the piece was irrecuperable, it was “definitely buried”; if parts of it could be reused, it was “junked”—phrases and paragraphs were salvaged from it and filed in notebooks for possible inclusion in a future novel. Eight double pages were devoted to this history of the approximately 130 works published between 1918 and 1937.
A second section of the Ledger, beginning with page 51, was devoted to the purely financial aspect of this huge output. Income for each year was itemized down to the smallest payment and totaled at the foot of the page. Included were royalties on full texts and adaptations, fees for each item published in periodicals and his advances on royalties. This accounting, like the rest, ended in 1937, when Fitzgerald went to Hollywood and, he thought, gave up the writer's trade.
Finally, a third section complements the first, listing his published nonfiction pieces, mainly poems and articles. The volume is a mine of valuable information, a kind of autobibliography that provides an accurate chart of the author's production rhythm and his popularity in terms, for example, of printings, reprintings and prices paid by magazines.
What gives the Ledger its inestimable value and makes it unique of its kind, at least in American literature, is another kind of accounting that fills thirty-eight pages beginning on page 151. In this section, too, each year gets a separate page, but the material is autobiographical. Experiences, events, encounters, places visited follow the resume of professional accomplishments. This is not, strictly speaking, a diary but a kind of aide-memoire, very selective, written in a telegraphic style, which month aftermonth records the events Fitzgerald did not want to forget. It is here that he summed up the meaningful experiences in his boyhood notebooks (notations from the Thoughtbook are found in a sort of dehydrated form). And it was from here that he resurrected memories his imagination brought to life as fictional material. For example, the brief entry in which he records having once lied in confession could provide a subtitle for his story “Absolution.” Throughout his life Fitzgerald referred to his Ledger; witness a penciled note at the foot of page 162: “Red underlines on this page indicates possible use (1940).”
The last page, on which he broke off in March 1936 but in which the names of the months until September are entered in the left-hand margin, seems to indicate that he prepared a monthly calendar he filled in later. Scraps found among his papers show that he made notes for his Ledger that he did not always use, as we see from notes dated 1934, 1935 and 1936, in which the wording and even the contents are very different from the Ledger entries for the corresponding dates. Some entries are very brief—only half a line, for example, for April 1922: “Coached Junior League play” and, for the following month, “Parties with the Herseys. Bought car.”
Even the longest entries seldom exceed half a dozen lines. The style is lapidary, impersonal; Fitzgerald alludes to himself in the third person. Beginning with his fourteenth year, there is an annual summary. For 1922, the author's twenty-fifth year—for the monthly pages begin in September, his birth month—the summary reads: “A bad year. No work. Slow deteriorating depression with outbreak around the corner.”
Two types of notations, then: a kind of datebook in which the author records his encounters with life, mostly the names of women, men, cities, countries, hermetic names bursting with events and feelings experienced, so that verbs and complements are often useless; and the other filled with the traces left by the huge body of work he turned out, work published and money earned, almost incidentally to the events, one might think in leafing through the Ledger, so fleeting are the writer's allusions to his work. Two concurrent, opposed areas, their contradiction reflected in the spareness of the writing. Fitzgerald's continuing need to write is expressed in the Ledger chiefly by the dry arithmetic and the severely ordered columns of the tables. In tension with these are the evidences of chance, the new names sounding like calls wresting the man from his work and finally subsiding on half-empty pages on which, in the space allotted to each month, there is only silence. Two orders shared the man as they shared the Ledger's pages: the permanent and the ephemeral, the spirit of meditation and the spirit of dispersion and—let us say so frankly because they are the real subjects—the sacred and the profane.
But, for Fitzgerald, sacred and profane were deeply marked by the Protestant ethic of success, embedded in the American mythology that contrasted a twin heritage: that of the Northern Puritan building his NewJerusalem, and the Southern cavalier's, whose kingdom was on earth. In the Ledger we first meet the thrifty Puritan who stores his harvest and thinks to prove his membership in the Elect with the marks of his success. Only-later comes the libertine cavalier who squanders his heritage and, knowing he is damned, perseveres in his folly. It is all summed up, perhaps, in Fitzgerald's provocative epigram in The Beautiful and Damned: “The victor belongs to the spoils.”
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography by Andre LeVot (French: Paris: Julliard, 1979; English: Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983 - translated by William Byron).