In my senior year at Brown I was in love with Bess Gunther, who was in love with the ghost of F. Scott Fitzgerald. When I say she loved F. Scott, or Scotti, as she referred to him anytime she wasn't allowing the full breadth of his name to languish on her tongue, I mean she was infatuated with the essence of him, with the stylish, casual contempt of the commonplace that was flaunted by the people he drank with as well as the characters he invented. And the distance of time and circumstance between Bess and these shadowy, extravagant figures seemed to cast a perspective over her that was as pink and orange as a watercolor rendering of the autumn skies over Newport.
Bess had fallen for Scotti a few years before my eyes first came across her as she was yielding to gravity down College Hill in Providence. The vision of hundreds of blond curls, springing upon shoulders that were rounded with a tempting vulnerability, caused me to halt and openly indulge myself. In those moments of gazing at her—of feasting upon her, I resolved to break into her life, somehow, and embarked on this ambitious endeavor immediately by pursuing her along a sidewalk alive with crisp, fragrant, red and gold leaves.
Carrying a slim paperback in her glazed hand, she virtually danced toward a row of the vine-embraced brick houses that had soaked up the concentration and tears of so many undergraduates, as each new wave of young minds swept over the provincial city for its tour of duty. Just as she stretched her lean, perfectly carved limbs up three brick steps into the courtyard, I stumbled out of her afterglow and said something to her—I'm still not quite sure what. But it brought a smile to her lips. The haunting had begun.
The paperback she'd been clutching turned out to be Tender is the Night, and in the cool, bright days which ensued—actually they didn't ensue so much as jounce by, for hanging out with Bess was rather like driving over a hardscrabble road in a Jeep—I learned that she had been introduced to Scotti, so to speak, through an accidental yet, as she seemed to imply, providential encounter with that very book at Danbury High School in Connecticut. "Someone left it in the girl's lounge," she told me, "and I opened it quite by chance to that glorious description of the French Riviera. Pretty soon I walked off with someone else's book. I stayed up all night reading it."
"I never finished getting through Dick and Nicole's complicated entanglements," I confessed.
Bess seemed not impressed so much as flattered that I remembered the names of the characters, as if they had been created by her husband, now long deceased. "They might have been able to survive all of it," she said, "if only they hadn't limited their dreams." The earnestness of her voice seemed to suggest that the failure of these fictional characters to achieve a measure of emotional grace had somehow narrowed the parameters of love for those of us who were living creatures.
Amused—and delighted—by her inclination toward romantic excess, I didn't specifically register her expression at the time; it was some weeks later, when my mind cast up that long pull in her eyes and mouth—faintly suggestive of a religious fanatic, that I began to wonder. Probably a distorted view of my own maturity (she was a sophomore and I was just months away from graduation and, soon after that, law school) prevented me from seeing very much beyond her surface initially. Hers happened to be a very fine surface indeed, as smooth to the fingertips as her silvery satin blouse—another concession to Fitzgerald's time; nor were the gentle slopes of her body much help to me in seeing her more clearly. By the time we had begun studying for exams together, a college euphemism for going to bed together, I began to see that even her emphasis on literature at Brown was motivated to a considerable extent by this attachment to the memory of F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Bess was one of those young women—only a few exist in every age, I'm convinced—who have grace designed into their bones, so that every gesture, every turn of the head is worthy of attention. In this regard she was an original, apparently unaware that her most careless toss of the hand brought pleasure to the eye. Men young and old would stop on the street, just as I had, simply to watch her go by. Verbally, however, she was something of a fraud, breathing (more than saying) lines that I strongly suspected had been stolen from Fitzgerald, but which I couldn't prove without considerable effort.
On a shopping stroll along Thayer Street, where pricey fineries glittered behind broad glass windows, Bess declared with a flick of her lashes, "Rich girls can't live on air!" I glanced at her soft face, wondering which of the irreverent fireflies from the writer's imagination had uttered those words. Had they been shouted at a wild, ex-patriate party in Paris, or murmured in a dimly lighted, cellar speakeasy in New York? And had they been directed at someone as devoted as I was to Bess?
What confounded me most about Bess Gunther's perspective was that her situation was rather like my own—just about in the middle of the middle class pile, a long way from being rich. Which is perhaps why the romanticizing of eastern wealth in his fiction played such a vital role in her idolization of Fitzgerald's world. What she did not seem to understand, and which I did not figure out until considerably later, was that Fitzgerald was actually being critical of the role these values played in bringing down the American Dream.
In the onyx glimmering of her quick eyes (the blackest eyes I shall ever behold, I realized one day in the cafeteria), I shut out the clatter of trays, the chatter of the proud, shy, intelligent, passionate student body around us. "I'm glad you came to Brown," I said, yet another of my unwholesome attempts to express how important she was to me without, at the same time, revealing any deep feelings—any weakness, for the expression of such sentiments out loud had long been out of style.
"I only came to Brown," she explained, "because I couldn't get into Princeton." Instantly it came to me that Princeton had been Fitzgerald's alma mater, and the thought flashed through my mind that perhaps she'd taken up with me because I too had a Fitzgerald connection—the writer and I both hailed from Minnesota. I quickly rejected this idea, telling myself she'd been kidding about Princeton. Only I wasn't really sure. All I knew with some certainty was that she really had read The Great Gatsby ten times, for she'd confessed to me that whenever she found herself sailing off into “bleak coves,” her words for depression, she weathered the emotional waves by rereading one of Scotti's books.
Bess had been in therapy in her junior and senior years in high school. In a year and a half the therapist had Bess talking to her father again—at least over the phone, more or less forgiving him for having left her mother, sisters and herself for another, younger woman. So it wasn't Bess's head that worried me. Not right away. It was this congested, lumpy sensation that over the weeks hardened into a belief: No matter where we went or what we did together, my behavior and my taste and, especially vulnerable, my attire—the torn jeans and ratty sneakers in particular seemed to distress her—were being compared to Fitzgerald's or, even more unfairly, to that of his characters.
I did not confront Bess with these feelings. For one thing, I doubted she was particularly aware of her attitude in this regard and, in that sense, was blameless. For another, I would've felt ridiculous making such a claim. Just how do you go about telling the person you love that Dick Diver and Jay Gatsby and Monroe Stahr—mere names printed on a page—are coming between you? And then, of course, there was the active possibility that my own pathetic exposure of heart had made me overly sensitive, that her flirtation with a ghost was larger in the closet of my mind than it was out in the moonlight.
Of one thing I was convinced: F. Scott Fitzgerald had established a very high romantic threshold in Bess and, like it or not, I had to deal with it if I wanted to get closer to her emotionally. Preferring to please rather than challenge the tender, fragile girl—she was more girl than woman, and though I didn't admit it, I was more boy than man—I expended a great measure of my imagination and energy and finances for the semester trying to establish a firm place for myself within the circle of this specialized sensibility of hers. I brought her roses; I took her out for champagne and eggs benedict at midnight; I gave her gifts of silk scarves and drops of gold for her ears; I dragged her to a cellar jazz club; I drank more than I could hold on several occasions and one night—for this I'll never forgive her, tap-danced on a table in a pub in downtown Providence and was thrown out by the bartender. Sidewalks are hard.
Just how absurd my crusade had become didn't hit me until one gray, frosty morning in late October, when I woke up in my apartment. Somehow the room did not seem familiar, as though I'd opened my eyes in a strange bed after a long night of drinking. Feeling vaguely dissatisfied with myself, I went into the cramped square bathroom, greased my hair heavily with Vaseline and combed it straight back. The sight of me oozing like a sweaty marathon dancer, attempting, I realized, to look like the picture of Fitzgerald on the back of his collected stories, suddenly made me grab hold of my own identity. "My name is James Powell!" I declared to the mirror. "James Powell. And don't you forget it!" I was not upset with Bess, which would've been healthy; nor with myself, which would've been even healthier. I was upset with Scotti.
The principal result of becoming annoyed with F. Scott Fitzgerald was to make him less of a ghost, more of an actuality, for both of us. This compounded Bess's hang-up, as I had begun to think of it, and made me rather more vicious than a loved one, or a ghost, deserved from me. "Hasn't it ever occurred to you, Bess, how crazy it is to be swooning over a sentimental writer who drank himself to death more than half a century ago?"
"He's not sentimental, he's poetic,” she stated firmly, her use of the present tense not escaping my attention. “But you wouldn't understand the difference."
"I understand that you're carrying this Fitzgerald thing too far."
This was a serious escalation—both because of my outburst and her response. It was appalling enough for a college senior to be labeled jealous when there was a rival flexing his wit over your heart's choice at the student union, or when sliding his arm about her waist at your own party. But when you're accused of being jealous of a ghost—even a somewhat accomplished, rather handsome ghost, one that had given up its body (I felt compelled to look up the date) in December of 1940, it works on your mind the way taking a battery of college entrance exams does. You become overwrought, desperate, slightly mad, and I was overcome by a powerful need to gather evidence to discredit him.
Since Scotti wasn't actually around to sweep Bess off to the Riviera, the only reasonable basis by which she could be caught up in his mystique had to be what the man had written, and what had been written about him. And so I asked myself: Just how significant were his literary contributions? Between classes I began spending time in the library and even purchased a few of his books to review "the body of his work," as they say in the English Department. Along with critical evaluations of his literary legacy. On evenings Bess and I did not spend together, I would read late into the night, neglecting required studies in order to build my case against him. My list included his first and last novels, This Side of Paradise and The Last Tycoon, the frequently anthologized stories such as "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz," "Babylon Revisited," and "The Rich Boy," as well as a batch of the romantic tales (I paid especially close attention to these) that he hammered out for The Saturday Evening Post to pay for his ever-mounting liquor bills.
Early one morning, past 2 AM, half-dozing through the story "More than Just a House," I stumbled upon a character whose name was Bess Gunther. A chill sliced down my back, instantly making me wide awake. I stared at the name printed on the page, horrified by the possibility that Bess had borrowed her name from his work, just as she had put his words into her mouth. As I sat there trying to make sense of it all, I heard a dull thud in the far corner and I spun around, looking over the bombsite that was my room—clothing slung over the armchair, assorted educational debris stacked on the dusty rug, empty Coke and beer cans on the window sill, the bed that had remained unmade for an entire semester. I noticed that a bookend had slid off a shelf, along with a couple of books. Among them was an ancient hard-bound copy of All the Sad Young Men, an early gathering of Fitzgerald's stories, and it had fallen open face down. Pushing my chair away from my desk I went over and picked it up, and was confronted by the last pages of "Winter Dreams." The first line of a paragraph near the end read: "The dream was gone."
Tom Tolnay is the former editor of Back Stage newspaper, former director of the Small Press Book Fair in NYC, and is the founder of Birch Brook Press, an independent publisher of literary books which casts metal type and prints letterpress editions in the Catskill Mountains.
Published in http://www.literal-latte.com (2005).