Describing New York on his return from Europe the end of 1926, Fitzgerald wrote, “The restlessness … approached hysteria. The parties were bigger…. The pace was faster … the shows were broader, the buildings were higher, the morals were looser, and the liquor was cheaper; but all these benefits did not really minister to much delight. Young people wore out early—they were hard and languid at twenty-one…. Most of my friends drank too much—the more they were in tune to the times the more they drank…. The city was bloated, glutted, stupid with cake and circuses, and a new expression ‘Oh yeah?’ summed up all the enthusiasm evoked by the announcement of the last super-skyscrapers.”
Such sentiments helped drive Fitzgerald back to Europe the spring of 1929, but Americans have a way of leaving their soil only to discover what they love about it. In an otherwise unimportant short story, he presently wrote “Watching the fading city [New York], the fading shore, from the deck of the Majestic, he had a sense of overwhelming gratitude and of gladness that America was there, that under the ugly debris of industry the rich land still pushed up, incorrigibly lavish and fertile, and that in the heart of the leaderless people the old generosities and devotions fought on…. The best of America was the best of the world…. France was a land, England was a people, but America, having about it still that quality of the idea, was harder to utter,—it was the graves at Shiloh and the tired, drawn,nervous faces of its great men, and the country boys dying in the Argonne for a phrase that was empty before their bodies withered. It was a willingness of the heart.”
Landing at Genoa early in March, the Fitzgeralds spent a month on the Riviera before going up to Paris. In July they were back at Cannes, conveniently near the Murphys at Antibes, but that paradise had sadly altered. It was flooded with American tourists, and no one swam any more save for a short hangover dip at noon. Instead people sat around the bar discussing each other.
Scott’s relations with the Murphys had grown a little tense. He was using them in his novel, and when he was with them, he dissected them so publicly and relentlessly that Sara finally wrote him, “You can’t expect anyone to like or stand a Continual feeling of analysis, & sub-analysis & criticism—on the whole unfriendly—such as we have felt for quite awhile. It is definitely in the air,—& quite unpleasant.—It certainly detracts from any gathering,—& Gerald, for one, simply curls up at the edges & becomes someone else in that sort of atmosphere. And last night you even said, ‘that you had never seen Gerald so silly & rude.’ It’s hardly likely that I should explain Gerald,—or Gerald me —to you. If you don’t know what people are like it’s your loss —and if Gerald was ‘rude’ in getting up & leaving a party that had gotten quite bad,—then he was rude to the Hemingways & MacLeishes too. No, it is hardly likely that you would stick at a thing like manners—it is more probably some theory you have,—(it may be something to do with the book),—But you ought to know at your age that you Can’t have Theories about friends. If you Can’t take friends largely, & without suspicion— then they are not friends at all—We cannot—Gerald & I—at our age—& stage in life—be bothered with sophomoric situations—like last night. We are very simply people— (unless we feel ourselves in a collegiate quagmire)—and we are literally & actually fond of you both—(There is no reason for saying this that I know of—unless we meant it.) And so—for God’s sake take it or leave it,—as it is meant,—a straight gesture, without subtitles—”
Yr old & rather irritated friend Sara
What often passed for rudeness in Fitzgerald was this kind of curiosity, this attempt to bring people out. Their revelations, however, were only the starting point from which he was going to make something—compose. He didn’t run home and write it all down like a newspaperman. Rather he courted a mood, a vision, a state of mind and feeling that would enable him to pluck his impressions out of the air, like an artist.
In October the Fitzgeralds returned to Paris and rented an apartment at 10 rue Pergolese, off the Avenue de la Grande Armde. That autumn the stock market crashed, but Fitzgerald had more immediate concerns; his own life seemed to be crashing around him as his drinking, long a problem, got completely out of hand.
Old friends like the Kalmans, visiting Paris that year, found him charming yet insufferable. When the Kalmans arrived at their hotel, Fitzgerald was waiting for them in the lobby. “How did you know we were coming?” they asked. Fitzgerald, out for a stroll, had noticed a truck with four Oshkosh trunks on it and had said to himself, “Only the Kalmans would have four Oshkosh trunks. Then I saw your initials, so I followed the truck. The trunks will be here in a minute.” After this pleasant beginning Fitzgerald came to the Kalmans for cocktails next day and mortified them before their other guests. When Oscar Kalman forbade him to have any more to drink, Fitzgerald stormed out of the apartment, saying he would never speak to them again, but the following noon he was banging on their door and pleading, “Kallie, come down to Prunier’s with me and have some oysters —I know I was perfectly terrible last night.”
He liked a constant flow of people through his life, and a favorite place for attaching them was the Ritz Bar with its predominantly American clientele. One day he was ordering a drink when the head barman came over and said, “Mr. Fitzgerald, it cost me a hundred francs to get that man a new hat.”
“That man whose hat you smashed.”
“Did I smash someone’s hat?”
It developed that Fitzgerald, sitting in the bar the previous evening, had gotten up without provocation and smashed a stranger’s hat as he entered.
“I must tell you,” the barman went on, “that if anything like that happens again we can’t serve you in here.”
“You’re absolutely right.” Fitzgerald concurred.
Drink turned him inside out. Beyond a point he became possessed, like some character in Dostoevski, and yet he seemed marked for alcoholism and his tolerance diminished as the malady increased its hold. Murphy recalled how, in 1926, Fitzgerald would come over to the Villa America with the wonderful aloofness he had when he had been writing. He wrote cold sober in those days; he later said—and there is no reason to doubt it— that he did not deliberately mix liquor with his work until 1928 at Ellerslie. But Murphy also recalled how Fitzgerald, having had two martinis and a little wine with dinner, would ask to lie down. One evening he passed out on their sofa and spent the night there, and the maid, alarmed by his bust-like pallor when she found him next morning, said to Sara, "Madame est sure que Monsieur n’est pas mort?”
Originally Fitzgerald had drunk to enhance life, to heighten its possibilities. After a few cocktails he seemed to be mentally skating, but gradually drink had gained the upper hand, and any attempt to explain his submission should perhaps begin with the fact that he was Irish. That race of word-weavers and fantasts has shown an historic weakness for the bottle. Fitzgerald’s father was known as a man who drank—so also his two McQuillan uncles. In Scott the tendency was aggravated by the contradictions of a high-strung, artistic temperament. With himself in mind, he wrote, “Like so many men who are shy because they cannot fit their world of imagination into reality, or don’t want to, he had learned compensations.” Fitzgerald was shy and a dreamer, yet people meant more to him than anything, and drinking was a bridge. “I found,” says an alcoholic in one of his stories, “that with a few drinks I got expansive and somehow had the ability to please people…. Then I began to take a whole lot of drinks to keep going and have everybody think I was wonderful.”
There were other conflicts. Though a renegade Catholic, he was not unspiritual and part of him hated being at odds with the Church. He loved fame but never quite believed in his own because it had come so suddenly. He wanted to earn fantastic sums, yet had to compromise his talent—selling it piece-meal to the magazines—to earn as much as he did. He once told John Biggs that he drank because he felt he could never be a first-rate writer—he would always be “at the top of the second class.” He suffered from the insecurity of all imaginative creators who can’t be sure they’ll do it again, and drinking brought him release from a tortured sensitivity, from the unrelenting conflict between his poetic vision and the shock of the world. He drank the way Baudelaire describes Poe drinking—not as an epicure “but barbarously, with a speed and dispatch altogether American, as if he were performing a homicidal function, as if he had to kill something inside himself, a worm that would not die.” There was a terrible deliberateness about the way Fitzgerald dosed himself with gin.
In June he had written Perkins that he was working on his novel from a new angle which he thought would solve previous difficulties. Then his references to it trailed off. Instead he filled his letters with descriptions of young writers Scribners might be interested in publishing (Erskine Caldwell, Morley Callaghan), though Perkins kept implying that the manuscript they really wanted to see was his own. Three years had elapsed since his last book, but when his agent suggested he bring out the Basil stories as a collection, Fitzgerald replied, “I could have published four lowsy, half baked books in the last five years & people would have thought I was at least a worthy young man not drinking myself to pieces in the south seas—but I’d be dead as Michael Arlen, Bromfield, Tom Boyd … & the others who think they can trick the world with the hurried and the second rate.”
Since Gatsby Fitzgerald’s standards for his serious work had continued to rise. He was pitting himself now against Hemingway, whose style—with its blocky, workmanlike, brick-and-mortar quality—was utterly different from Fitzgerald’s, yet clearly that of a great artist. “Yes, there’s magic in it,” Fitzgerald had said to Gerald Murphy after reading The Sun Also Rises, while In Our Time had caused him to concede, “Ernest’s book of stories is so much better than mine.” Hemingway had recently published A Farewell to Arms, his long-contemplated masterpiece about the war Fitzgerald hadn’t fought. It would sell 93,000 copies the first year, more than twice the initial sale of any of Fitzgerald’s books, so that popularly as well as artistically he began to feel himself eclipsed.
With success Hemingway’s slight early diffidence was vanishing into the restrained bravado of a champ. Comparing him to Fitzgerald at this time would be like comparing a butterfly and a bull; the butterfly has beautiful colors on its wings, but the bull is there. Hemingway was a force. His personality overpowered you, making you do the things he wanted to do, making you enthusiastic about the things he was enthusiastic about. The world revolved around him, while Fitzgerald—off to one side —was subtler, more insidious, more sympathetic, more like light playing through clouds. Fitzgerald had the dangerous Athenian qualities of facility and grace as against Hemingway’s Spartan virtues of ruggedness and perseverance. Both were accomplished artists, but perhaps the ultimate choice lay between Fitzgerald’s more sensitive penetration of human lives and Hemingway’s harder, more burnished style.
Their friendship had grown a bit prickly since the early days when Fitzgerald had been Hemingway’s promoter. Back in 1925-26 their letters had a carefree, spoofing tone. In an advance description of The Sun Also Rises Hemingway wrote Fitzgerald that though he had tried to imitate The Great Gatsby, he felt he had failed somewhat because of never having been on Long Island. “The hero, like Gatsby, is a Lake Superior Salmon Fisherman. (There are no salmon in Lake Superior.) The action all takes place in Newport, R.I., and the heroine is a girl named Sophie Irene Loeb who kills her mother. The scene in which Sophie gives birth to twins in the death house at Sing Sing where she is waiting to be electrocuted for the murder of the father and sister of her, as then, unborn children I got from Dreiser but practically everything else in the book is either my own or yours. I know you’ll be glad to see it. The Sun Also Rises comes from Sophie’s statement as she is strapped into the chair as the current mounts.”
Here Hemingway was joshing Fitzgerald about his novel in progress, supposedly a study of matricide. But even in those days there was friction, for Fitzgerald’s attentions could be burdensome. Out on the town with his friends, he would suddenly decide he had to talk with Ernest, and his intrusions in the small hours were not always welcomed by Hemingway. During the day, when Hemingway was out, Fitzgerald would stop by his apartment and make trouble with the concierge—so much so that when Fitzgerald returned to Europe in 1929, Hemingway wrote Perkins that he did not want Fitzgerald to know his address. Fitzgerald found it anyway, and they saw a good deal of each other, though in his Ledger Fitzgerald now spoke of Hemingway’s “coldness.”
Part of the trouble was Fitzgerald’s irritability about his work. When Gertrude Stein remarked that Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s “flames” were “not the same,” Fitzgerald took her to mean that she thought Hemingway’s superior, and Hemingway wrote Fitzgerald assuring him she had meant the reverse. Hemingway said he didn’t agree, of course—any comparison between hypothetical “flames” being pure nonsense and any comparison between him and Fitzgerald being nonsense too. They had started along different paths and wouldn’t have met except by accident, and, as writers, had nothing in common except a desireto write well. So why must Fitzgerald make comparisons and talk of superiority? If he had to have feelings of either superiority or inferiority towards Hemingway, well and good, as long as Hemingway did not have to have feelings of either superiority or inferiority towards him. There could be no such thing between serious writers, who were all on the same boat headed towards death. Competition within the boat was as silly as deck sports. The only real competition was the original one of making the boat, but Fitzgerald was getting touchy because he hadn’t finished his novel. Hemingway said he understood, and Fitzgerald could be a lot more touchy and he wouldn’t mind.
Proud and vulnerable himself, Hemingway was patient with Fitzgerald, yet he was nothing if not a competitor. Back in 1925-26 it was already with a touch of irony that he used to speak of Fitzgerald as his “patron.” When Fitzgerald met James Joyce the summer of 1928, he had mentioned to Perkins that Joyce wrote “eleven hours a day to my intermittent 8,” and Perkins quoted the remark to Hemingway, who wrote Fitzgerald that he certainly was a worker! Hemingway said he had never been able to write longer than two hours without getting utterly pooped—any longer and the stuff became tripe—but here was old Fitz, whom he once knew, working eight hours a day. He wondered how it felt. What was the secret of Fitzgerald’s ability to write for eight hours every day? Hemingway looked forward with some eagerness to seeing the product. Would it be like the effusions of that other great worker and fellow Celt—Joyce? Had Fitzgerald gone in for not making sense? Hemingway called Fitzgerald a dirty, lousy liar to say he worked (wrote) eight hours a day.
The spring of 1929 there had been unpleasantness between them because of Hemingway’s boxing match with the Canadian writer, Morley Callaghan. Fitzgerald, as timekeeper, had accidentally let a round go overtime when Hemingway was getting the worst of it. Some months later when Fitzgerald, in a drunken quarrel, said he felt a need to smash Hemingway as a man, Hemingway suggested that Fitzgerald had purposely let the round goon. Fitzgerald was so indignant that Hemingway wrote a long letter exonerating him. Meanwhile the New York Herald Tribune had printed the false report that Callaghan had knocked Hemingway out. Hemingway prevailed on Fitzgerald to wire Callaghan (now in America) that he, Fitzgerald, was awaiting a correction of the story. Callaghan, who hadn’t been responsible for the story in the first place and who had already sent in a correction, was incensed at Fitzgerald until Hemingway wrote him, taking full responsibility for the wire.
More ominous than Fitzgerald’s quarrels with his friends was his unending feud with Zelda. Her mania for the ballet, together with his drinking, had brought them to the edge of indifference. Besides her morning classes—at which she was always the first to appear, usually with a bouquet for the teacher—she took private lessons in the afternoon, dieting all the while in the hope of perfecting a body that had begun too late to cope with the intricacies of entrechat and pas-de-bourree. Her inner torment is described in her novel Save Me the Waltz, where the asceticism of the dance becomes a sort of penance for Alabama Knight. Under its discipline she loses interest in material possessions; she isn’t trying to gain anything but to get rid of some of herself. “It seemed to Alabama that, reaching her goal, she would drive the devils that had driven her,” and the thought of stopping makes her sick and middle-aged. Like Alabama, Zelda had hoped for a part in the Diaghilev troupe, but all she got was an offer to be a shimmy dancer in the Folies Bergeres.
While it wasn’t Scott’s nature to interfere, his skepticism was apparent. “Are you under the illusion that you’ll ever be any good at this stuff?” he would say. “There’s no use killing yourself. I hope you realize that the biggest difference in the world is between the amateur and the professional in the arts.” Meanwhile their home life—what was left of it—became unbearable. They “passed each other in the musty corridors hastily and ate distantly facing each other with the air of enemies awaiting some gesture of hostility.” Their misery was completed by an un housebroken dog named Adage, which the cook spoiled while neglecting Scott and Scottie.
To stem the poisonous drift, Scott took Zelda on a North African tour in February 1930, and according to Bishop, Scott returned “with a good ruddy color, very unlike the winter paleness with which he went away. I take it from his conversation he is in much better shape all around.” But Zelda went back to her ballet with the same fury. During a lunch party in April she was so fearful of missing her lesson that Oscar Kalman got up from the table to accompany her. Though there was plenty of time, Zelda insisted she was going to be late and began changing into her ballet clothes in the taxi. When traffic held them up, she bolted and ran the remaining distance. Kalman phoned Fitzgerald who went to the studio at once, where they convinced him Zelda was ill.
She spent the next ten days in a hospital at Malmaison. “Mrs. Fitzgerald,” said the doctor’s report, “entered April 23, 1930, in a state of acute anxiety, unable to stay put, repeating continually, ‘It’s frightful, it’s horrible, what’s going to become of me, I must work and I no longer can, I must die and yet I have to work. I’ll never be cured, let me go, I have to see “Madame” (the dancing teacher), she has given me the greatest joy in the world, it’s comparable to sunlight falling on a block of crystal, to a symphony of perfumes, to the most perfect strains of the greatest masters of music’
“She was slightly tipsy on her arrival and according to recent reports had drunk a great deal, finding that alcohol stimulated her for her work. Afterwards, the patient experienced several more outbreaks of anxiety similar to the first, especially around nightfall.
“In sum, it is a question of a petite anxieuse worn out by her work in a milieu of professional dancers. Violent reactions, several suicidal attempts never pushed to the limit. Leaves the hospital May 2nd, against the doctor’s advice.”
Zelda went back to her ballet, the strain intensified by a round of parties connected with a friend’s wedding. When she broke down a second time the end of May, her condition was seen to be more serious. After two weeks at the Valmont Clinic in Switzerland, her doctor reported, “At the beginning of her stay Mrs. F. said she hadn’t been sick and had been brought to the sanitarium under duress. Every day she repeated that she wanted to return to Paris to resume the ballet in which she thinks she finds the sole satisfaction of her life.
“From the organic point of view nothing to report, no signs of neurological illness. It became clearer and clearer that a simple rest cure was absolutely insufficient, and that psychiatric treatment by a specialist in a sanitarium was indicated. It was evident that the relations between the patient and the husband had been shaky for some time and that for this reason the patient had tried to create a life of her own through the ballet (since family life and obligations were not sufficient to satisfy her ambition and her artistic leanings).”
For years there had been reason to question Zelda’s sanity, but Fitzgerald refused to face the issue until it was thrust upon him. The spring of 1925 Gerald Murphy had dropped by Fitzgerald’s Paris apartment to find him in a turmoil. “Ernest has just gone home,” he said. Apparently Hemingway had been invited in to meet Zelda, Fitzgerald assuming they would have everything in common and get along beautifully. The rapport had been less than instantaneous—their strong personalities did not blend (Zelda’s word for Hemingway was “bogus”)—and as Hemingway left, he remarked to Fitzgerald in the hall, “But Scott you realize, don’t you, that she’s crazy?” Once, in a flower shop, Zelda had said to Scott quite seriously that the lillies were talking to her, and during their trip to Hollywood in 1927 she had put her dresses in a bathtub and set fire to them. After that, her peculiarities had been somewhat masked by her passion for ballet. But Scott used to wonder about her long silences, during which no one could reach her, and when a friend asked her why she drank, she replied, “Because the world is chaos and when I drink I’m chaotic.” [Rebecca West had an inkling of Zelda’s condition even earlier. Of her acquaintance with Fitzgerald at Great Neck in 1923, Miss West wrote, “I was terrified not exactly of, but for, his wife. I knew Zelda was very clever but from the first moment I saw her I knew she was mad. There was this smooth, shining hair and the carefully chosen wild-twenties dress, which would suggest a conforming personality because it was conformity even then to be a non-conformist. There was this large, craggy face—a handsome face—but when one got the after-image it always showed a desolate country without frontiers. It is not quite easy to get on good terms with a man if you think his wife whom he is very fond of is mad as a hatter. And I remember once Scott Fitzgerald saying something about Zelda having done something odd, and I had to check the words on my lips, ‘But surely you realize she’s insane?’ I haven’t invented this. I think two friends of mine could confirm that I told them my uneasy feeling about her.”]
Zelda’s doctor at Valmont called in the psychotherapist, Oscar Forel, who diagnosed her case as schizophrenia and admitted her to his sanitarium at Prangins, near Geneva. She entered Prangins early in June, and Scott spent the next year drifting from town to town in Switzerland—“a country,” he said, “where very few things begin, but many things end.” Occasionally he went to Paris to be with Scottie and her nurse, but Zelda’s recovery was now a dedication.
There is a touching letter from Fitzgerald to Dr. Forel, written at the time Zelda entered the sanitarium. Fitzgerald accepts the doctor’s proscription against seeing her until her attitude towards him changes, but he wants to know if he can have flowers sent her every other day. He wonders when it will be safe to write her little notes that do not mention her illness or their misunderstandings. He speaks of Scribners’ plan to publish a book of Zelda’s short pieces which, he thinks, will give her a sense of a public and take her mind off ballet.
In July Fitzgerald sent Perkins three stories, subsequently lost, which Zelda had written “in the dark middle of her nervous breakdown. I think you’ll see that apart from the beauty & richness of the writing they have a strange haunting and evocative quality that is absolutely new. I think too that there is a certain unity apparent in them—their actual unity is a fact because each of them is the story of her life when things for a while seemed to have brought her to the edge of madness and dispair. In my opinion they are literature tho I may in this case read so much between the lines that my opinion is valueless.” (Scribners magazine turned them down and the proposed book was abandoned.)
At the doctor’s suggestion Fitzgerald wrote Zelda’s ballet teacher, Egarova, for an estimate of her potentialities. To cure her, it seemed important to make her realize the futility of her ambitions. Egarova’s reply was not as discouraging as Fitzgerald and the doctor might have wished. She said that while Zelda had begun too late to be a star, she had ability and would be capable of handling secondary roles in a big company such as the Mas-sine Ballet in New York.
During June and July, Zelda fluctuated between hysterical madness and a brilliant lucidity. When she tried to run away the doctor confined her, with salutary effect. Scottie came to visit her, but in August her first meeting with Scott had to be postponed when the thought of it caused her to break out with virulent eczema. The meeting took place in September, only to be followed by another attack of eczema, and Scott began to hope that Zelda’s trouble might be physiological. “I can’t help clinging to the idea,” he wrote Forel, “that some essential physical thing like salt or iron or semen or some unguessed at holy water is either missing or is present in too great quantity.”
Probing Zelda’s past, Fitzgerald blamed Mrs. Sayre for the way she had coddled her last and favorite child. She had nursed Zelda until, as Zelda said herself, she “could probably have chewed sticks.” Then Mrs. Sayre had waited on her, stood in for her, defended her against the rest of the family, so that there developed, Fitzgerald said, “the necessity of an arbitrary and unmotivated, often an even undesired self-assertion—the contrast between which, and a rationality acquired from her father was later to drive her mad.” Of course Fitzgerald was conscious of his own role in the tragedy. The doctor had told him he mustn’t drink for a year, as his drinking was one of the things that had haunted Zelda in her delirium. She was given one chance in four of total recovery—two chances of a partial one—but her progress was slow with frequent setbacks, and Fitzgerald began to learn the pathos of an old appeal:
Canst thou not minister to a mind diseas’d,
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow,
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And with some sweet oblivious antidote
Cleanse the stuff’d bosom of that perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart?
Rebecca West caught a glimpse of Fitzgerald about this time —a glimpse which gains significance against the background of his private misfortunes. She and her son were having lunch at Armenonville, “very few people were there and we sat down by the lake. Presently Scott Fitzgerald appeared with a woman from New York whom I knew, called Emily Vanderbilt. She was very handsome, I think she had the most beautifully shaped head and the most cunningly devised hair-cut to show it off that I have ever seen. They sat down at a table still nearer the lake than we were, with their backs to us. She was telling him some long and sad story, and going over and over it. He was leaning towards her, sometimes caressing her hands, showing this wonderful gentleness and charity which I remember as his great characteristic. Finally he stood up and seemed to be saying, ‘You mustn’t go over this any more.’ His eyes fell on us, and he said to her, ‘Emily, look who’s here,’ and they finished their lunch with us. I can’t remember a thing he said, I think we did what is the great resort for people finding themselves in emotional crises near water, we fed some birds with bread. But he was gay and charming, and we all laughed a lot. And then he took her off to her car, her arm in his, jerking her elbow up, telling her to cheer up. I have always remembered this scene with emotion, for later Emily Vanderbilt committed suicide.”
On a trip to Paris the end of June, Fitzgerald had met Thomas Wolfe, Scribners’ latest prodigy. When they lunched together, Fitzgerald immediately liked the gargantuan Southerner with his extravagant gestures, defiant eyes, and pouting lower lip. They parted at ten that night in the Ritz Bar where, according to Wolfe, Fitzgerald was “entirely surrounded by Princeton boys, all nineteen years old, all drunk and all half-raw.” In July they ran into each other in Switzerland, and it appealed to Fitzgerald’s sense of the grotesque when Wolfe, striding along and flailing his great arms as he talked, snapped an overhead wire that extinguished the lights in a neighboring village. By now Wolfe had decided that Fitzgerald was trying to prevent him from working, which was a little like coming between a tiger and his prey. Shortly afterwards, however, Fitzgerald wired Wolfe that he had finished Look Homeward, Angel in twenty consecutive hours and was “enormously moved and grateful.” “You have a great find in him,” Fitzgerald wrote Perkins, “—what he’ll do is incalculable. He has a deeper culture than Ernest [Hemingway] and more vitality, if he is slightly less of a poet that goes with the immense surface he wants to cover. Also he lacks Ernests quality of a stick hardened in the fire—he is more susceptible to the world.”
Fitzgerald seldom wrote his parents, but since Zelda’s breakdown it had been necessary to calm his mother with terse bulletins. Her replies, like everything else about her, annoyed him. When she sent him a moralistic poem, hoping that sorrow might have opened the way for advice, he returned it scornfully, saying the precepts it enjoined were suitable for someone who wanted to be a chief clerk at fifty. But he continued to have a soft spot for his father—that sweet, ineffectual man who had lived in his mother’s shadow, taking immense vicarious pleasure in his success. When Edward Fitzgerald died of heart trouble in January, 1931, Scott went home for the funeral.
At all times a side of him struggled towards gaiety, and his voyage on the S.S. New York was brightened by a small, vivacious blonde named Bert Barr. She was in the party of Herman Cornell, a Texas oil man who had chartered several suites for his family and friends. All they did was sit in their quarters and play bridge, but the second night out they went on deck, clutching their cards, to see the Bremen pass. As the crack new liner coasted by in a blaze of lights, Bert said to Cornell, “Papa, buy me that,” and Fitzgerald, who had met Cornell in the bar, overheard the bon mot.
“Where have you been?” he asked Bert.
“I’ve been working,” she said in an undertone. “I’m a card shark and I’m taking this guy for a ride.”
She held out her cards and told Fitzgerald to pick one, which she had no trouble remembering and identifying. He was fascinated, scenting a ready-made story that didn’t need to be imagined.
“Aren’t you a little young for this?” he said.
“I’ve been doing it since I was four.”
“Have you been winning since you were four?”
He wanted to accompany Bert to her suite, but she said she couldn’t waste time on him since he didn’t play cards. Fitzgerald went anyway and the hoax was maintained. Cornell acted the sucker, exclaiming all through dinner that he could hardly wait to start playing again. Fitzgerald kept protesting, “But it doesn’t make sense—this girl gambling for a living!”, and dancing her apart from the others, he lectured her about it. Next day, when they let him in on the joke, Fitzgerald was so impressed with Bert’s virtuosity that he asked her to be his collaborator. Because of all his worries, he said he was finding it hard to think up comic situations, but if she would feed him the lines, he would write the story.
Fitzgerald stood beside his father’s grave in the Rockville cemetery—then visited the Sayres in Montgomery to talk hopefully of Zelda.
Back in Switzerland he kept turning out short stories to meet the expense of the best psychiatric care available. According to Margaret Eglov, who saw a lot of him that spring, he would write a story in four to six days—incarcerating himself in his hotel room and not drinking. Between times, however, he played with the notion of drinking himself to death, for he had always thought it his destiny to die young. He had a collection of photographs, put out by some temperance society, showing the ill effects of alcohol on the kidneys and other organs, and he would mull over them and joke about them in a lugubrious way.
He took refuge from his melancholy in constant clowning. One day Margaret Eglov’s aunt invited Margaret and Fitzgerald to lunch with her at her Geneva hotel. Also present was an authority on the League of Nations Opium Conference, a Miss LaMotte, who pointed out the American delegate to the conference at another table and said he lacked backbone. They were eating blue trout from the Swiss lakes, and Fitzgerald solemnly beckoned the waiter and asked for an envelope. Inserting the skeleton of his fish, he addressed it to the spineless delegate and told the waiter to deliver it.
As Margaret was studying with the Jung group, she and Fitzgerald often discussed psychiatry, and once he wrote out a dream he had had, so she could decipher it. Interweaving his embarrassment over his mother with Hemingwayesque fantasies of war and violence, the dream began:
“I am in an upstairs appartment where I live with my mother, old, white-haired, clumsy and in mourning, as she is today. On another floor are a group of handsome & rich young men, whom I seem to have known slightly as a child and now want to know better, but they look at me suspiciously. I talk to one who is agreeable and not at all snobbish, but obviously he does not encourage my acquaintance—whether because he considers me poor, unimportant, ill bred, or of ill renown I don’t know, or rather don’t think about—only I scent the polite indifference and even understand it. During this time I discover that there is a dance downstairs to which I am not invited. I feel that if they knew better how important I was, I should be invited.”
Momentarily attention shifts to a magnificent parade going on outside the window—then back to the dance.
“I go downstairs again, wander into the doorway of a sort of ballroom, see caterers at work and then am suddenly shamed by realizing this is the party to which I am not invited. Meeting one of the young men in the hall, I lose all poise and stammer something absurd. I leave the house, but as I leave Mother calls something to me in a too audible voice from an upper story. I don’t know whether I am angry with her for clinging to me, or because I am ashamed of her for not being young and chic, or for disgracing my conventional sense by calling out, or because she might guess I’d been hurt and pity me, which would have been unendurable, or all those things. Anyhow I call back at her some terse and furious reproach.”
The dream now becomes a nightmare. Outside two automobiles collide “with the dark intended tragedy of an execution.” Everything goes in the direction the parade has gone. Fire engines pass with the first one overturned and drawn along on its side, the others running into it and over it. Scottie appears. When she falls down and has a nosebleed, Fitzgerald hurries her to the first aid station. The Italian wounded arrive in a big charabanc, “sitting like tourists—I can’t express the impressive throbbing silence of the arrival, the terrible dignity, this latter perhaps symbolized by the last row of the great car, filled by three or four officers or princes in rich, dark blue dress uniforms and monocles—and also a young woman in a white evening dress, yet somehow consecrated to the whole scene. This, someone told me, was the Princess Carlotta.
“The wounded were lifted on other soldiers’ shoulders like football players, and, smiling defiantly and being shaken hands with, were taken into the hospital. I caught a glimpse of some small tents which covered dead men.
“The room where I was now began to fill up with Italian soldiers in conventional green, who had evidently had a hell of a bitter fight and were still full of nervous energy. I viewed them with a certain reserve. One of them said to me, ‘On the Plain of Orso we killed a hundred Francais—only a few know about it.’ (His attitude seemed much more vivid and personal than any record of war I ever read, as if they had all started off together and then fallen out. Some unguessed at secret hatred.) Then in came a man more savagely wrought up than any and began hating the French aloud and repeating over and over that he was going to kill the next Frenchman he saw.
“A French passer-bye in civilian dress stopped, and with a resentful look made as though to hit him. The Italian turned— for a moment there was a brawling confusion and the two disappeared. A moment later the Italian ran back Into sight panting, and there were voices: ‘He did it—he killed him!’
“Several times previously I hadn’t seen the end of anything because of obstacles in the way—this time I ran around the corner—and there was the Frenchman on the ground with a bayonet in his stomach and the attached rifle wobbling around in the air as he struggled very feebly.
“Here I woke up.”
In May came a voice out of the past, a letter from Shane Leslie in London. “If you could come here and sit with me in the Library and write,” said Leslie, “you would be using more ink than whisky for I live on buttermilk. One has to return to the simplicities of life if one is to continue writing at all after a certain age. I am sorry to learn that poor Zelda was so down in health but I hope she has taken the road to recovery. She was a bright and birdlike thing and I cannot imagine her distraught.”
Zelda, happily, was a good deal better. Her eczema, which Fitzgerald likened to an iron maiden in the anguish it caused her, had disappeared—also her fits of wild, inappropriate laughter. In June he took her on a trip to Annecy in southern France, and Zelda remembered that “it was like the good gone times when we still believed in summer hotels and the philosophies of popular songs…. we danced the Weiner waltz, and just simply swep’ around.” By September she was considered well enough to leave the sanitarium and go back to America. The Fitzgeralds planned to winter in Montgomery while Scott finished his novel, which he had barely looked at for a year and a half.
En route they spent a few days in New York, which seemed a ghost town compared to New York of the boom. Fitzgerald’s barber, who had retired on a half-million bet in the market, was back at work, and the headwaiters again bowed people to their tables when there were people to be bowed. Climbing the Empire State, Fitzgerald could see where the city faded out into the greens and blues of the country beyond. It made him realize that New York wasn’t a universe after all—it had limits —and the great metropolis that had been his symbol of power and success in the twenties came crashing to the ground.
Montgomery was unchanged. “No talk of depression,” Fitzgerald wrote Perkins. “No thought of it. The boom was never here either. Simply life burning sluggishly on. I like it. We have a nice house & a fine Stutz car (cost $400) & I’m going to do lots of work.” But Zelda’s friends were shocked at the change in her. The old vivacity had been replaced by the crumpled, spiritless quality of an invalid, and on the tennis court, when she said she couldn’t hit the ball over there because of all that water and there wasn’t any water, Scott would be very gentle about taking her home. He never carped at her or complained of her condition, but tried to build her up.
The end of October he went to Hollywood for five weeks’ work on MGM’s version of Red-Headed Woman, a novel by his imitator, Katherine Brush. Insisting on a $1200-a-week contract, he got the money he expected but again the job was a failure; this time he blamed it on director Marcel de Sano, who doctored what he wrote into a bad script that producer Irving Thalberg rejected. The story editor who hired Fitzgerald and acted as Thalberg’s liaison man was inclined to blame the nature of the vehicle. The red-headed woman in question had advanced herself by sleeping with every man who crossed her path, and Fitzgerald made the audience laugh at her instead of with her, as Thalberg had hoped. Fitzgerald was perhaps too much of a romantic to sympathize with such a hard-boiled heroine, though later he regretted he hadn’t gone directly to Thalberg (he had been warned against it as bad taste). And so once again he left Hollywood disgusted and disillusioned, vowing never to return.
As an artist he had profited. If only from afar, he had studied Thalberg, the young Napoleon of the films, who would be the model for the hero of The Last Tycoon. Moreover, a party at Thalberg’s had provided the inspiration for a masterly short story, “Crazy Sunday.” After a few drinks—“his blood throbbing with the scarlet corpuscles of exhibitionism,” like Joel Coles in the story—Fitzgerald had asked to do an act. Thalberg’s wife, Norma Shearer, quieted the company and Fitzgerald sang a song about a dog which amused no one. Directly in front of him John Gilbert, the Great Lover of the screen, “glared at him with an eye as keen as the eye of a potato.” In a doorway at the far end of the room stood the small, slight figure of Thalberg, shoulders hunched, hands plunged deep in pockets, a not unkind smile on his lips. Thalberg was tolerant of artists —“once a champion, always a champion,” he used to say—and next day Fitzgerald received a telegram from Norma Shearer: I THOUGHT YOU WERE ONE OF THE MOST AGREEABLE PERSONS AT OUR TEA. But when it came to evaluating Fitzgerald as an employee, his blunder before Hollywood’s elite could hardly have been in his favor. The following week he was dismissed.
“Crazy Sunday” cuts deeper than Fitzgerald’s private humiliation. Already in Miles Caiman, the director, Fitzgerald has hold of his great theme—the tragedy of the artist and idealist caught in a tough materialistic enterprise. “Miles Caiman, tall, nervous, with a desperate humor and the unhappiest eyes Joel ever saw [shades of Ring Lardner], was an artist from the top of his curiously shaped head to his niggerish feet. Upon these last he stood firmly—he had never made a cheap picture though he had sometimes paid heavily for the luxury of making experimental flops.” When Caiman dies in a plane crash, as Fitzgerald intended Monroe Stahr to die at the end of The Last Tycoon, one is made to feel that except for its occasional magician Hollywood is a desert.
During Scott’s absence Zelda had been troubled. “I don’t think I’m jealous,” she told a friend, “but it worries me to have Scott out there with all those beautiful women.” She sent him stories to correct, and he was slow about returning them. One of his first concerns on settling in Montgomery had been to find Zelda a ballet teacher, no expenses spared. Zelda was working up a program which included a Bach fugue with a lot of impossible pizzicato, and when her teacher said it was too difficult, Zelda went home in a rage and phoned next day to say she had broken her ankle. She never returned.
In November Judge Sayre died after a long illness. Though Zelda’s girlhood had been a constant rebellion against his authority, in the end he was precious to her, his hard-bitten integrity seeming almost the equivalent of moral law. She knew that beneath a proud politeness he had never cared for Scott. Once he had said to her, “I think you better divorce him—you can’t make a life with a fella like that.” (For the judge to speak of his son-in-law as a “fella” was in itself a sign of disapproval.) Zelda said he was the sweetest person in the world when sober, to which her father replied, “He’s never sober.”
Before going to Hollywood, Scott had knelt beside the judge’s bed and pleaded, “Tell me you believe in me.” “Scott,” the judge had answered, “I think you will always pay your bills.”
Shortly after Fitzgerald’s return Zelda came down with asthma, and he took her to Florida to recuperate. While there she relapsed into madness. It came as a shock, though Scott was probably exaggerating when he said, “the nine months before [Zelda’s] second breakdown were the happiest of my life, and I think, save for the agonies of her father’s death, the happiest of hers.” What he had known in that precarious interim was not so much happiness as relief at her apparent recovery. On February 12th she entered Phipps Clinic, the psychiatric branch of Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, and Fitzgerald, living on in Montgomery, was back on the treadmill of writing pot-boilers, while trying to be what he called “a nice, thoughtful female mother for Scottie.”
He seldom went out, but once he took his secretary to a dance at the Country Club, and while they were in the bar, a Marine major entered in dress regalia (dark blue uniform with gold epaulets and gold stripes up the side of the pants). He was tall and handsome and well aware of it.
“My God, I’ve got to talk to that man!” Fitzgerald exclaimed.
Introducing himself, he said, “I’ve never seen any one loose on a dance floor in a get-up like this. You’ve got guts even to appear. Who do you think you are—a member of the fife and drum corps?”
His dignity ruffled, the major protested that it was the regulation dress uniform.
“Well, I don’t care,” said Fitzgerald, “—anyone who’s got guts enough to appear in a thing like that I want to know better,” and he ended by inviting the major to lunch.
In retrospect, Fitzgerald was never too clear about his entanglements when drinking. Next day he phoned his secretary to say, “I understand I invited that big fife and drum number to lunch with us. Well, I’m not lunching with him or you either.”
So far the depression hadn’t hurt Fitzgerald’s income. Indeed, Zelda’s illness had stimulated his production, and with his story price at its zenith of $4,000, he earned a record $37,599 in 1931. He was, however, sacrificing quality to quantity to a point where the Post had complained of his recent offerings. Once, when his secretary praised the story she was typing, Fitzgerald said, “Oh, there’s no use lying about it—it’s absolute junk and you know it—it’s nothing, nothing.”
But though he abused his talent, he couldn’t suppress it, and even his watery hack fiction had moments of distinction—an insight here or a descriptive passage there that sang in the memory. As for his superior work, it had new depth and complexity now that life had “gotten in some hard socks,” as he put it. Just as he had written and rewritten the Gatsby theme of lost love in stories which preceded it, so now he was foreshadowing Tender Is the Night in stories poignant with his own disintegration. Like Bill McChesney, the cocky young producer in “Two Wrongs,” whose marriage, health and career are wrecked by dissipation, Fitzgerald had grown “a little tired and unconfident— two qualities he could never for a moment tolerate.” “One Trip Abroad” tells of a couple as full of promise as the young Fitzgeralds who grow hard and destroy each other while drifting around Europe. In “Babylon Revisited,” possibly the most moving story Fitzgerald ever wrote, the widower Charlie Wales, who had gone to pieces during the boom, is trying to reform and regain custody of his child. Like Wales, Fitzgerald would have liked to “jump back a whole generation and trust in character again as the eternally valuable element.” Everything else wore out.
Fortunately, Zelda’s second breakdown seemed less serious than her first. Except at the beginning there had been no hysteria, and her letters to Scottie were gay and spirited. “I am very glad,” she wrote, “that you and Daddy have found something to do in the evenings. Chess is such a good game—do learn to play it well. I have never been able to endow it with much of an existence apart from Alice-in-Wonderland and my pieces usually spend most of the game galloping in wild pandemonium before the onslaughts of Daddy…. You will soon be an accomplished dame-de-compagnie for him and I shall have to sit cutting paper-dolls and doing my chemical experiments while you two amuse yourselves. … I expect you to keep the house supplied with soap, flowers, and tap-dancers during my absence…. Take care of Daddy. See that there’s plenty of spinach and Dinasaurus meat for Sunday. And profit by my absence to be as bad as you can get away with.”
Zelda seemed almost to be enjoying her respite at Phipps, where she found an outlet for her tensions in creative work. She painted, modeled, and sketched, and quickly finished a novel she had begun in Montgomery. It was frankly autobiographical, including an expose of her quarrels with Scott (in the original version the hero’s name was Amory Blaine). Suspecting that Scott might not like it, but also from an old desire to succeed on her own, she sent it to Perkins without Scott’s knowledge. Perkins had begun reading it, with admiration for its beauty and vitality, when a telegram from Fitzgerald told him not to consider it until he had seen the revised version. By now Fitzgerald had read it and he was furious.
Professionally he conceded the book a certain virtuosity. Its lack of continuity didn’t trouble him, for as he wrote the psychiatrist, Zelda wasn’t a natural story teller in the sense he was. “Unless a story comes to her fully developed & crying to be told she’s liable to flounder around rather unsuccessfully among problems of construction. Anyhow the form of so many modern novels is less a progression than a series of impressions, as you know—rather like the slowly-turned pages of an album.”
What Fitzgerald objected to was the poaching on his territory. Zelda had seen the existing 50,000 words of his novel in progress, whose rhythms, materials, even statements and speeches, she had imitated throughout a section of hers. He also considered the book a personal attack on him. “Turning up in a novel signed by my wife,” he said, “as a somewhat anemic portrait painter with a few ideas lifted from Clive Bell, Leger, etc. puts me in an absurd & Zelda in a ridiculous position. This mixture of fact & fiction is calculated to ruin us both, or what is left of us, and I can’t let it stand. Using the name of a character I invented to put intimate facts in the hands of the friends and enemies we have accumulated en route—my God, my books made her a legend and her single intention in this somewhat thin portrait is to make me a non-entity.”
Heretofore Fitzgerald had encouraged Zelda in her writing, but now he wrote the psychiatrist that Zelda was an amateur trying to cash in on her lust for self-expression by publishing a book about his private life, with a casual survey of the material upon which he was currently engaged. His anger cooled when she cut the most invidious parts, and on his advice she worked up other parts so as to give the whole a certain artistic cohesion. But Fitzgerald asked Perkins to be measured in his praise. He said the doctors didn’t want Zelda to feel that acceptance of the book meant immediate fame and money. “I’m afraid,” he wrote, “all our critical tendencies in the last decade got bullish … & probably created a lot of spoiled geniuses who might have been good workmen.” If Zelda was to have a success, she “must associate it with work done in a workmanlike manner for its own sake…. She is not twenty-one and she is not strong, and she must not try to follow the pattern of my trail which is, of course, blazed distinctly on her mind.”
In April, Fitzgerald moved to Baltimore. Zelda was getting along so well at Phipps—especially after Scribners accepted her novel for fall publication—that he decided to live there and let her slip gradually into domestic routine. In May he found a house that suited him on the estate owned by my father, Bayard Turnbull. “We have a soft shady place here,” Zelda wrote Perkins, “that’s like a paintless play-house abandoned when the family grew up. It’s surrounded by apologetic trees and warning meadows and creaking insects and is gutted of its aura by many comfortable bedrooms which do not have to be floated up to on alcoholic inflation past cupolas and cornices as did the ones at ‘Ellerslie.’ “
Settling into the Maryland countryside, Fitzgerald was better armed for accomplishment than he had been for years. The twenties had taught him something of his limitations, and his novel was at last taking shape. The World’s Fair, the manuscript begun after Gatsby, had been conceived as a novel of sensation; vaguely inspired by the Loeb-Leopold case, he had planned to end it in matricide. He had woven in the Murphys and their life on the Riviera, but the story was too brittle for him. Only with Zelda’s breakdown and his own decline had he found a theme worthy of his tragic intent.
And so Fitzgerald entered the sphere of my personal knowledge, and I am able to set down how he affected one family at this turning-point in his life—a time of stock-taking and consolidation, when happiness and success hung in the balance, and he seemed almost pedagogical in his urge to communicate the lessons he had learned.
Published as Scott Fitzgerald by Andrew Turnbull (New York: Scribners, 1962; London: Bodley Head, 1962).