Of all the things which have been said and written about my father since he died nearly twenty years ago, I think he would be most flattered by the following entry in Number 7 of the “Fitzgerald Newsletter,” a publication edited by Matthew Bruccoli and printed by the University of Virginia Press.
“The FN,” says the Fitzgerald Newsletter, “has long regarded with distaste the liberties taken with the author's wife. It is clearly impudent for writers who never knew her to refer to Mrs. Fitzgerald as 'Zelda'—just plain 'Zelda.' It does not seem to us that this is a mark of affection. Rather it appears to carry a sanctimonious snicker … the same familiarities have long been taken with Fitzgerald, of course, but we were startled when he turned up as 'Scott' in a Ph.D. dissertation which presumably had been approved by a board of scholars.”
I cite this as an example of what the daughter of a cult is up against when she thinks of writing about her father—even the daughterly prerogative of registering occasional indignation has been pre-empted by others. Over the past ten years since the “revival” began, he's had his admirers, detractors, protectors, disciples, imitators, and sociological and economic dissectors (see “F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Communist Society,” or “The Meaning of the Work of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Relation to Psychoanalytic Principles”). Everybody, as Dorothy Parker said in her Esquire review of Beloved Infidel, has dug up the bones of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and some, to use her own delicate phrase, have even gnawed on them. What am I to add, who can scarcely distinguish any longer between the real and the unreal, what I've read or heard somewhere and what I actually remember—and without even one of Proust's famous madeleines to bring the past tumbling back with vivid images and sharp impressions?
I recall mostly that my father was always sitting at his desk in a bathrobe and slippers, writing, or reading Keats or Shelley—although there was often a faint aroma of gin in the air to dispel too romantic a picture. And there is just one clear recollection that I know is mine and which I bring up because there are so many occasions when I'mreminded of it. It's the trick of how to remember the kings of England.
“Daddy, you're crazy,” I told him when he insisted on sitting me down one night, lecturing me on the virtues of having a trained mind, and making me memorize the pyramid he'd devised.
“This will be the most useful thing you ever learned,” he said sternly. 'This and Jiu-jitsu, which I plan to have you learn someday so you can defend yourself under any circumstances. Now say after me in a sort of sing-song, because that's the only way to learn it:
“Now the next lines you'll never forget as long as you live because they form a pattern:
“Then,” he said, “you simply memorize half a dozen key dates, like 1066 and 1215 and 1620, and associate them in your mind with that particular king. After that, you always have a frame of reference to start with.”
He struggled for years with a similar trick for remembering the American presidents, but never was able to invent the perfect formula. It wasn't just kings and presidents, but ancestors, that we were forced to hear about (though I was an only child, there were always other children like Andrew Turnbull, our neighbor, or my childhood friend Peaches Finney, to share these horrors). On the wall of his writing-room as far back as I can remember hung one of those striped charts of the history of man in snake-like parallels.
“Do you children have any idea,” he would ask, “what your great-great-grandfather did?”
The answer was an awe-stricken “no,” of course.
“He raised potatoes in Ireland,” he would say triumphantly, having looked it all up ahead of time, or, “He was a hired soldier in Germany. Now—do you know what your great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather probably did?”
Again an anxious silence.
“He lived in a cave, probably. He lived by spearing fish, and he probably carried a big club.” I realize now what the objective was— to give the young and foolish a sense of history, which he had himself in such abundance. Malcolm Cowley has made this point before, in his New Yorker review of Edmund Wilson's labor of love, The Crack-Up—but I think it's important because it accounts for so much of the special, unique flavor of his writing, and even to some extent for the miseries he suffered in his later years. (He was like a surgeon performing an operation upon himself, hurting terribly but watching the process with a fascinated detachment. He was a historian by nature, and the era which he recorded happened to be the Jazz Age, but in my opinion he was not “the historian of the Jazz Age,” in the sense that it was his identification with the Jazz Age which gave him his extraordinary popularity in the twenties and early thirties and again today. To me this volume, appropriately named Six Tales of the Jazz Age and Other Stories, serves to reinforce this point.
It combines stories from Tales of the Jazz Age, published in 1922 following his second novel, The Beautiful and Damned, with stories from his third collection, All the Sad Young Men, which followed his third novel, The Great Gatsby. During these same years he also wrote other stories, which are not reprinted here because Malcolm Cowley has included them in his earlier collection: some of the best known are “May Day” and “The Diamond As Big As the Ritz,” which were in the original Tales of the Jazz Age, and “The Rich Boy” and “Winter Dreams,” which were included in All the Sad Young Men. A few short pieces in the original collections have been left out, for the very reason that they are “pieces” rather than stories proper.
Except for these few omissions, the “tales” in this volume represent the best of my father's short stories—in his own unusually accurate judgment of these matters—between the years of 1920, when he turned 24, and 1924, when he hit the ripe old age of 28. He actually wrote at least twice this number of stories, but they were uncollected and could now only be found in the back files of such magazines as Redbook or Cosmopolitan. In his ledger—he documented his life with lists and scrapbooks and photographs in a remarkably careful way for a man so restlessly romantic, but there, no doubt, was the historian again—he listed most of these as “Stripped and Permanently Buried,” which meant that he had plucked the best thoughts for deep-freezing in his notebooks, and discarded the carcasses as unworthy of preservation for posterity.
The earliest stories, like “The Camel's Back,” brought $500 from The Saturday Evening Post—and it is a tangible measure of my father's remarkable and rapid success that for one of the last ones in this volume, “The Adjuster,” he was paid $2,000 by Redbook. I bring up these vulgar material matters because I am always impressed by the amount of work my father turned out in his brief lifetime. During these years, he consistently made somewhere between $20,000 and $25,000 dollars a year—and a typical year's output would include half a dozen or more short stories, at least half a novel, a movie scenario or two, four or five articles, several book reviews, and possibly part of a play.
This is hardly relevant, but while I was preparing myself to write this introduction by going through mountains of old clippings and letters, I came across his actual list of how he spent that money, painstakingly printed in his own hand, complete with characteristic misspellings. This is for the year 1923, the same year in which he wrote many of the stories in this volume.
The struggling young author of today may marvel at such riches, but I wonder even more at such productivity, considering the amount of income and the gusto with which it was put into circulation. Judging by my own experience, I've often wondered how there was a moment left for the bathtub gin and the splashing in the Plaza fountain. Somehow, there must have been 48 hours a day in that Golden Era, so that against the thought that it was wasteful that he died so young I have always been able to comfortingly weigh the fact that he packed at least two lives into those 44 years.
Even more puzzling to me—and I assume to all readers who were born too late to remember the Jazz Age—is how my father came to be a symbol of it at all (except much later, in retrospect, when his life seemed to parallel it so closely that he became woven into the legend of the era). After you've read the stories, perhaps you'll ask yourself, as I did, “Well, it's absorbing writing, but what's jazzy about it?” The people seem so innocent, somehow, so earnest and well-meaning, that it's hard to detect the abandoned strains of “Charleston” in the background—only the faint strumming of a latter-day “Shine On, Shine On, Harvest Moon,” or “By the Sea, By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea.” As one friend whose opinion I asked remarked, “Why, if you didn't know who wrote these Stories, you'd guess it was O.Henry!”
If you search closely, you may discover two flappers between thesecovers: the girl who washes her shoes in gasoline in “The Jelly-Bean,” and the one who dances on top of the table at Pulpat's restaurant in “O Russet Witch!” As a matter of fact, the one who dances on top of the table turns out to be a professional dancer, and rightfully belongs less to the flapper family than to the turn-of-the-century soubrettes of Paris. That leaves only Miss Nancy Lamar, the gasoline girl, who's just one step more sophisticated than Mary Pick-ford in The New York Hat.
And another thing which may surprise some youthful readers of this collection is the fact that nobody in it kisses anybody else unless they're related by marriage or parenthood—again with the single exception of the gasoline girl, who rewards Jim with a brush of her irresistible lips for his success at shooting craps. The book is totally devoid of sex as we have come to take it for granted in modern writing. One exasperated wife in “Gretchen's Forty Winks” appears on the verge of going into New York to the theater with another man, but her husband promptly puts a sleeping powder into her coffee and that disposes of the matter summarily. Where, oh where, is this wild and brassy Jazz Age?
I must confess both a special affection for this book of stories and a special prejudice against it. To start with the prejudice, it implies in no uncertain terms that people of my own general age are very old parties indeed. I refer you to the following paragraph in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”:
“At that time Hildegarde was a woman of thirty-five, with a son, Roscoe, fourteen years old. In the early days of their marriage Benjamin had worshipped her. But, as the years passed, her honey-colored hair became an unexciting brown, the blue enamel of her eyes assumed the aspect of cheap crockery—moreover, and most of all, she had become too settled in her ways, too placid, too content, too anemic in her excitements, and too sober in her taste. As a bride it had been she who had 'dragged' Benjamin to dances and dinners— now conditions were reversed. She went out socially with him, but without enthusiasm, devoured already by that eternal inertia which comes to live with each one of us one day and stays with us to the end.”
My husband doesn't mind that part so much—what he takes exception to is another excerpt, this one from “O Russet Witch!”:
“At forty, then, Merlin was no different from himself at thirty-five;a larger paunch, a gray twinkling near his ears, a more certain lack of vivacity in his walk.”
I've always wondered why a well-organized group of his readers didn't have my father tarred and feathered for his blatant impertinence. But perhaps this is the one detectible Jazz Age note after all: you had to be young, apparently, during the Jazz Age, or life might as well not have been gone on with at all.
No—those who are looking in the attic for the silver flask and the raccoon coat won't find them here, though they may find many other quaint and delightful things to catch their interest. I have a special fondness for these stories not just because they're fun to read, but because they prove something—that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a good deal more than a wild young man with talent, who came to symbolize a disheveled era to the point where fact and legend were indistinguishable.
Maxwell Perkins, then an editor at Scribners, said it best in a letter to my mother not long after my father died:
“In a way Scott got caught in the public mind in the age that he gave a name to, and there are many things that he wrote that should not belong to any particular time, but to all time … he transcended what he called the Jazz Age, and many people did not realize this because of the very success with which he wrote of it.”