When I was leaving for New York a few months ago I said goodbye to Scott and asked him how his novel was coming. It was the end of the day and he looked weary, for the writing didn’t come so easy any more. It was a page a day now, but a good page, no matter what the fortunately anonymous Times and Tribune reporters and the unfortunately by-lined Westbrook Pegler think. “Oh, slowly,” said Scott. “But I’m having a good time with it. The first draft will be finished by the time you get back. You can read it then, if you’d like.”
That was late in November. Three weeks later I was having a drink at Hanover, New Hampshire, with a Dartmouth professor who suddenly but terribly casually looked up from his glass and said, “Isn’t it too bad about Scott Fitzgerald?” And I thought of the time, exactly two years before, when Scott was talking to me in that same town, up in the attic of the Hanover Inn. We (I shudder even now at the incongruity) were collaborating on a moving picture of college life which we had been imported from Hollywood to write on the spot. Someone had forgotten to make accommodations for us (Scott insisted on treating this as a symbol of the writer’s importance in Hollywood), and the only spaceavailable was a servant’s room under the eaves with a double-deck wire bed. Scott stretched out on his back in the lower, and I in the upper, according to our rank, and we tried to ad-lib a story for the picture which a large and eager camera crew were already on hand to shoot. But the prospect of still another college musical was hardly inspiring, and soon we were comparing the Princeton of his generation with the Dartmouth of mine. I was amazed at the deadly accuracy with which he dissected a campus he had not revisited in years, and in his criticism of an educational system that tends (with certain notable exceptions) to make men conform rather than challenge established ideas I recognized much of the thinking that made This Side of Paradise the first and perhaps the only novel that pierces the thin, polished surface of American college life.
Scott was pleased, almost childishly pleased, that I even remembered the book. He seemed surprised that anyone should still consider The Great Gatsby a great novel. He was grateful to hear that there were some who found the finest writing of his career in his most recent book, Tender Is the Night. He began to talk about himself with frightening detachment. “You know, I used to have a beautiful talent once, Baby. It used to be a wonderful feeling to know it was there, and it isn’t all gone yet. I think I have enough left to stretch out over two more novels. I may have to stretch it a little thin, so maybe they won’t be as good as the best things I’ve done. But they won’t be completely bad either, because nothing I ever write can ever be completely bad.” That’s what I heard when my Dartmouth professor told me that Scott was gone.
Despite the twin ironies that the best book Scott wrote in the twenties had nothing to do with flaming youth, while his most profound (if not his most perfect) work appeared toward the middle of the thirties, my generation thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald as an age rather than as a writer, and when the economic stroke of 1929 began to change the sheiks and flappers into unemployed boys or underpaid girls, we consciously and a little belligerently turned our backs on Fitzgerald. We turned our backs on many things.
Some protested they could not read him. I remember arguing with a well read, intelligent Dartmouth footballer who refused to see anything in Gatsby. Being serious-minded and a little self-righteous, he seemed to be transferring his contempt for the frivolous waste of the twenties to that amazing little book that seems to catch and hold more of the spirit of that time in two hundred pages than do all the almanacs and Mark Sullivans.
Some had never heard of him. Which recalls an anecdote. Scott had a favorite movie star. One day a friend of his met her on the set and thought she might like to know this. “Scott Fitzgerald,” she mused, “I know I’ve heard that name somewhere,” and then she remembered. “Oh, I know—isn’t he a character in a Katherine Brush novel?” Scott liked his posterity as well as the next man, but this struck his sense of comedy, especially, as he pointed out, since Miss Brush liked to consider herself one of his disciples.
Some thought he was dead. One day several years ago my producer called me in, said he was throwing out my script and putting a new writer on with me. When he told me who it was, I was dumbfounded. “F. Scott Fitzgerald,” I said. “I thought he was dead.” “If he is,” cracked the producer, “he must be the first ghost who ever got $1,500 a week.”
I thought he was dead because the era which he had exploited, and which had exploited him, was dead. When I got to know Scott better I discovered that my first reaction had not been entirely true, but neither was it entirely false. When the twenties died, something in Scott died too. But in the way nature compensates a blind man by heightening the sensitivity of his touch, Scott seemed to be developing new values to replace the ones he lost or threw away. Contrary to the critics who have been trying to give him a fast count, Tender Is the Night reveals a deeper understanding of human behavior than anything he had done before. And contrary to the premature mourners who had declared him intellectually dead, Scott seemed to be making a conscious, almost a desperate effort to fill the gap in his social observation that prompted Peter Monro Jack to say that a more incisive understanding of the society and times he described so well might have made him the Proust of his generation.
So Scott ends with another great waste to place beside all his other wastes. And now it seems almost too contrived that Scott should have chosen this year in which to die. For it is altogether fitting that Scott’s career should begin where one world war ends and end where another begins. He spoke for a new generation that was shell-shocked without ever going to the front. He was one of our better historians of the no-man’s-time between wars. He was not meant, temperamentally, to be a cynic, in the same way that beggars who must wander through the cold night were not born to freeze. But Scott made cynicism beautiful, poetic, almost an ideal. There is a line in This Side of Paradise, published in 1921, that becomes the epitaph of a postwar generation already being metamorphosed into a pre-(new) war generation:
“I think the worst thing to contemplate is this—it’s all happened before, how soon will it happen again?”
Published as Fitzgerald in Hollywood by Budd Schulberg (1941, Editorial Publications, Inc). Text scanned from F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Man and His Work, ed. by Alfred Kazin (Cleveland: The World Publishing Company, 1951).