My father's letters: Advice without consent
by Scottie Lanahan


In my next incarnation, I may not choose again to be the daughter of a Famous Author. The pay is good, and there are fringe benefits, but the working conditions are too hazardous. People who live entirely by the fertility of their imaginations are fascinating, brilliant, and often charming, but they should be sat next to at dinner parties, not lived with. Imagine depending for your happiness upon a Bernard Shaw or a Somerset Maugham, not to mention such contemporary stars as Norman Mailer! I have the impression that the only people quite as insufferable as writers are painters.

I have much puzzled over the why of this, and have compiled a few tentative answers. First, I suppose it is impossible to form the habit of inventing people, building them up, tearing them down, and moving them around like paper dolls, without doing somewhat the same thing with live ones. Good writers are essentially muckrakers, exposing the scandalous condition of the human soul. It is their job to strip veneers from situations and personalities. The rest of us accept our fellow beings at face value, and swallow what we can't accept. Writers can't: they have to prod, poke, question, test, doubt, and challenge, which requires a constant flow of fresh victims and fresh experience.

Second, there is nothing anybody else can do to help a writer. A company president can take on an executive assistant; a lawyer can hire a clerk; even a housewife can unload up to seventy or eighty per cent of her duties. The poor writer can turn to no one but himself until his work is finished, when he can take it to an editor who will show him how to start all over, by himself.

He can never say, “Here, Mary—you know this subject as well as I do—be a dear and finish this paragraph for me, will you?”

Third, successful writers, like all successful people, are spoiled and indulged by everybody with whom they come in contact. They are, at the same time, spared the rod of discipline imposed by other occupations. A Senator must face the press, greet thousands of constituents, sit through vistaless Saharas of banquets without the oasis of an entertaining word or a glass of wine. An actress must turn up at the theater or the movie set, take care of her looks, memorize her lines. The poor writer is free to do whatever he chooses; if he chooses to get drunk, who can fire him? Between himself and doom stands no one but his creditor.

Revered and pampered, he must sit down at his desk each day alone, without rules or guidelines, exactly as if he had previously accomplished nothing. Small wonder he is not all sweetness and light when he emerges, often unvictoriously, from the battle.

So the fact that my father became a difficult parent does not surprise or offend me. He gave me a golden childhood, which is as much as any of us can ask for. I can remember nothing but happiness and delight in his company until the world began to be too much for him, when I was about eleven years old. But from the time the first of the letters in this collection was written, when I first went off to camp, until he died in 1940, appropriately closing the pre-World War II era as he appropriately timed his whole life to coincide with the nation's, I can remember almost nothing but the troubles which were reflected in our relations—my mother's hopeless illness, his own bad health and lack of money, and, hardest of all I think, his literary eclipse.

During the last five years of my father's life, he couldn't have bought a book of his in any bookstore; he probably couldn't even have asked for one without getting a blank stare from the saleslady. I am not sentimental by nature, but once a few years ago when I walked into the bookshop of a remote town and saw a whole shelf of F. Scott Fitzgerald sitting there as naturally as if it had been the works of Shakespeare, I burst into tears. A sick wife, poverty, bad luck—we all have to contend with some of these things, and Daddy had helped bring on a good bit of it himself. But the writing part wasn't fair; God had played one of those trump cards which can defeat even the most valiant of us.

So much has been said about him that, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, if all the reams of paper about F. Scott Fitzgerald were stretched across the Atlantic, I wouldn't be a bit surprised. Edmund Wilson, Arthur Mizener, Sheilah Graham, Andrew Turnbull, Malcolm Cowley, Vance Bourjaily, Arnold Gingrich, Dan Piper, Matthew Bruccoli, John Kuehl, Glenway Wescott, Morley Callaghan, Burke Wilkinson, not to mention Mr. Hemingway with his piercing jabs at the prone body, or the dozens of others who havewritten Ph.D. theses and articles in magazines large and small, or Budd Schulberg who made a fortune with his photographic description of my father's lowest moment, have all put it far better than I could. The only thing new I can add is a little bit about me.

I was not a perspicacious teenager, and in fact was probably more self-preoccupied than most. But even I dimly perceived, even then, that my father was not only a genius but a great man in his way, despite his partly self-inflicted torments and his gigantic sins. I knew that he was kind, generous, honorable, and loyal, and I admired him and loved him. But self-preservation being the strongest instinct any of us have, especially when we are young, I also knew that there was only one way for me to survive his tragedy, and that was to ignore it. Looking back, I wish I'd been a less exasperating daughter, more thoughtful, more assiduous and more considerate. I hate knowing how much I must have added to his troubles, which is probably why I haven't written about him, in a personal way, long before this.

I was busy surviving, and what I couldn't ignore in the way of objectionable behavior, such as an inkwell flying past my ear, I would put up in the emotional attic as soon as possible. After the ghastly tea-dance, for example, the preparation for which is mentioned in these letters, my friend Peaches Finney and I went back to her house in a state of semi-hysteria. Her parents, who were about the nicest and most considerate people I've ever known, fed us eggs and consolation. Within two hours we were dressed and curled, and deposited by them at the door of the next Christmas party. Meredith Boyce, then the best sixteen-year-old dancer in Baltimore, actually stopped dancing long enough to ask me to sit down.

“How can you seem so cheerful?” he asked. He was a very good friend; in fact I flattered myself that we had a case of puppy love. “After what happened this afternoon?”

“Nothing happened this afternoon,” I said.

“Are you being brave? Smiling through the tears?”

“Not at all. It just never happened, that's all.”

He told me much later that he had been shocked by my detachment that evening. I asked him why.

“Because kids should care more about their parents,” he said. “He was so drunk, and so pitiful, and you acted as if he wasn't there.”

“Meredith, I had to,” I said. “Don't you see that if I'd allowed myself to care, I couldn't have stood it?”

He was unconvinced—he probably still is—and in one way he was right. The trouble with the ostrich approach is that if you use it long enough, it becomes a habit. There are comic-strip jokes about the husband-wife situation in which neither one hears the other until somebody yells “FIRE!” I developed an immunity against my father, so that when he bawled me out for something, I simply didn't hear it.

So these gorgeous letters, these absolute pearls of wisdom and literary style, would arrive at Vassar and I'd simply examine them for checks and news, then stick them in my lower right-hand drawer. I'm proud of myself for saving them; I knew they were great letters, and my motives were certainly not acquisitive, because Daddy was an impecunious and obscure author then, with no prospect in sight of The Great Gatsby being translated into twenty-seven languages. I saved them the way you save War and Peace to read, or Florence to spend some time in later.

But at the time I didn't want to be told what to read, how to read it, what courses to take, whether to try out for the college paper, what girls to room with, what football games to go to, how to feel about the Spanish Civil War, whether or not to drink, whether or not to “throw myself away” (if only Daddy had had a daughter at Vassar now, what glorious prose he could have composed on this subject!), not to write music for our campus productions, not to put a peroxide streak in my hair, not to go to a debutante party in New York, whether or not to try my hand at social work, and so on and on until I half expected, at the age of eighteen, to be lectured to on when to take a bath.

The thing he disapproved of most was a weekend I never took; Andrew Turnbull asked me what I actually did —I think I went down for a surreptitious visit to the Harold Obers in Scarsdale, who were my substitute parents. There must have been twenty telegrams from California before I got back to college Sunday night.

The thing he approved of most was my going to Harvard Summer School, the year he died. It does have an intellectual-sounding ring, and I'm glad I gave him a sense of accomplishment. In all of my some forty years now, I don't think I've ever done anything so utterly, ridiculously frivolous. I met up with a group of charming people who had flunked out of Harvard for one reason or another, and had such a good time I never took the exams. I spent more time in Cambridge night clubs, wasting time, than I've ever had a chance to do before or since. You'll be relieved to hear that Daddy never learned the full extent of what he doubtless would have considered his daughter's slothfulness and wanton preparation for a life of sin.

Malcolm Cowley said in a review in The New York Times once that “Fitzgerald wasn't writing those letters to his daughter at Vassar; he was writing them to himself at Princeton.” This is the point, really. I was an imaginary daughter, as fictional as one of his early heroines. He made me sound far more popular and glamorous than I was— I was actually only vaguely pretty, and only danced with by friends, of which fortunately I had a number—but he wanted me so desperately to be so that in these letters, I sound like my contemporary glamor queen, Brenda Frazier. He also made me sound more wicked and hell-bent on pleasure than I could possibly have been. It's true that I preferred boys, Fred Astaire, and fun to the sheer hard labor of working. I still prefer boys, Fred Astaire, and fun to the sheer hard labor of working. Doesn't almost everybody?

There's a moral to all this, and I'm about to get it off my chest:

To college students (including my own two): “Don't ignore any good advice, unless it comes from your own parents. Somebody else's parents might very well be right.”

To parents (poor struggling creatures): “Don't drop your pearls before swine, at least without making sure the swine are going to put them in the lower right-hand drawer.”

Listen carefully to my father, now. Because what heoffers is good advice, and I'm sure if he hadn't been my own father that I loved and “hated” simultaneously, I would have profited by it and be the best educated, most attractive, most successful, most faultless woman on earth today.

1965. Reprinted as introduction to the book: Letters to his daughter by F. Scott Fitzgerald, edited by Andrew Turnbull.


Note by Andrew Turnbull

It being the essence of a letter that we should have the whole of each, no cuts have been made save in passages that might offend the living, and in most cases it has been sufficient to substitute blanks for names. All omissions of words and sentences have been indicated by four dots since Fitzgerald sometimes used three dots as punctuation. In general his punctuation has been observed, except where it confuses the sense. The use of italics and quotation marks has been standardized, however (titles of books, plays, movies, magazines and newspapers in italics, titles of poems and short stories in quotes). Sometimes his memory of a book or poem title was a little off, but as the titles are easily recognizable, they have been left as he wrote them. Fitzgerald was a lamentable speller. Following his ear, he habitually made such slips as “definate” and “critisism,” and proper names were his downfall. He always reversed the “ei” in “Dreiser,” “Stein,” and “Hergesheimer,” and, despite the hundreds of times he had seen “Hemingway” in print, he wrote it either “Hemmingway” or “Hemminway” and was capable of “Earnest” for “Ernest.” Those who are interested will find copious examples of boners in previous books about him; here it has seemed advisable to correct them.


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