I tried to avoid Scott Fitzgerald, although I'd known him and Zelda intimately in New York, Paris, and on the Riviera. When drunk, their behavior could be downright hazardous or, at best, pretty tiresome. Zelda had a habit of stripping in public, which might be described today as “chutzpah,” of which the rule is, “If you've got it, flaunt it.” But to flaunt something you haven't got can be a mistake. Zelda's face could have landed her in the front line of the Ziegfeld Follies, but she should have kept her bosom strictly under wraps.
Zelda's striptease could be compared with Tallulah's, whose figure suffered the identical drawback. But Tallulah flaunted her nudity through a desire to shock, whereas Zelda felt that hers was delectable.
My most horrendous experience with the Fitzgeralds took place one night in Great Neck, Long Island. Scott had picked me up in New York to take me to his country house for dinner. I didn't notice he'd been drinking, but we'd only gone a little way when I realized my error. By a miracle, we arrived at their house without an accident, and, once there, I found to my relief that Zelda was cold sober.
Scott soon disappeared, and then a butler shuffled in and announced dinner. Zelda and I took our places at the table. Presently Scott entered, silent and glowering, and proceeded to turn the latch on the dining-room door. Then, facing Zelda and me he announced: “Now I'm going to kill you two!''
We hadn't time to get up from the table before Scott started pitching things at us from very close range: heavy things; two enormous candelabras with lighted candles, a water carafe, a metal wine cooler and a silver platter with a leg of lamb that the lackadaisical butler had left on the table. Any of those items, properly aimed, actually could have killed one of us. Zelda and I took cover under the heavy oak table.
Then that tall, spindly black butler behaved with more courage than any proper servant might have done. He broke a glass pane in the door, reached through, opened the latch, entered, and grappled with Scott. He managed to hold onto him until Zelda and I could scramble out into the night. We ranacross the road to the Ring Lardner house and alerted Ring. He got us safely inside and then went to look for Scott.
It took Ring nearly an hour to find him. When he did, Scott was kneeling on an unpaved road scooping up dust and cramming it into his mouth. “What are you doing?” asked Ring. And Scott, his throat clogged with mud, gasped, “I'm eating dirt to pay for trying to kill those two lovely girls! Those darling girls who never in their lives harmed anyone. And a swine like me tried to kill them!”
It was all very pleasant to be called “lovely” and “darling” and for Scott to admit swinishness, but Zelda and I had put in a very rugged evening.
By 1931 Scott and I were at work in Culver City; Zelda was down south in an asylum for the insane, where she'd been placed for her own safety. (It was there she ultimately met a horrible death in the fire that destroyed the place.)
Poor Scott had quit drinking and, from being a nuisance when tight, had taken on that apologetic humility that is characteristic of reformed drunks. I would hear a tap on my door in the Thalberg Building and know it was Scott because nobody else ever bothered to knock. Scott would enter a couple of steps, then stop. “You don't really want to see me!” he'd say with an embarrassing meekness. I was sorry for Scott because he seemed so alone. He never mentioned a girl friend who popped up after his death.
After a spell of uninspired conversation, Scott would conclude, “I know you want to get rid of me so I'll go now.” Between being dangerous when drunk and eating humble pie when sober, I preferred Scott dangerous. An alcoholic is much more bearable when he's like my dear friend Brendan Behan, roistering his way through to a tragic end, than for his life to fade out,as Scott's did, in one long, dull apologia.
One afternoon a few months before Scott died, he came to our house and wrote a last apology in an autograph book that's arranged according to birthdates. Scott's was September 24, and he composed the following: