Third Act and Epilogue,
by Malcolm Cowley


F. Scott Fitzgerald used to say that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was a second and even a third act in his own After the glitter of his early success (he was a best-selling novelist at twenty-three), after the long disillusionment that was the theme of almost all his stories from The Great Gatsby in 1925 to Tender Is the Night in 1934, there was a crisis, a feeling of complete mental and physical exhaustion. That was the third act and it came near being the end of the play, but before his death in 1940, at the age of forty-four, there was a little-known epilogue in Hollywood that was a drama in itself.

The whole story, and especially the end of it, can be pieced together from The Crack-Up, a volume of Fitzgerald’s literary remains that Edmund Wilson, his friend from Princeton days, has edited with the critical sense one might expect of him and not a little friendly discretion. The volume contains a number of autobiographical pieces, including some very good ones, that Fitzgerald wrote for various magazines; a series of extracts from his literary notebook; sixty-odd letters to his daughter and his close friends, a sampling short enough to make one wish for more; and a brief selection of letters to Fitzgerald and essays and poems about him. The book is obviously not intended for consecutive reading, but it makes excellent reading in snatches; you can open it almost anywhere and find lively writing and painfully honest self-judgment. Moreover, it deals with a novelist whose work and character, for all their shortcomings, have a way of holding our affection, like the life and work of Stephen Crane.

More than any other writer of these times, Fitzgerald had the sense of living in history. He tried hard to catch the color of every passing year: its distinctive slang, its dance steps, its songs (he kept making lists of them in his notebooks), its favorite quarterbacks, and the sort of clothes and emotions its people wore. He felt in the beginning that his own life was not merely typical but representative of a new generation; he could look inside himself and tell quite accurately how others would soon be thinking. Even in his later years he continued to be grateful to the Jazz Age because, he said, writing about himself in the third person, “It bore him up, flattered him, and gave him more money than he had dreamed of, simply for telling people that he felt as they did.” He came to believe that he had helped to fix the patterns followed by people a little younger than himself. Thus, in one of his notebooks, he said of an unnamed relative that she was still a flapper in the nineteen-thirties. “There is no doubt,” he added, “that she originally patterned herself upon certain immature and unfortunate writings of mine, so that I have a special indulgence for-as for one who has lost an arm or leg in one’s service.” He was a little wry about the Fitzgerald characters he kept encountering in life. One anecdote has been printed before, but it is worth repeating as he set it down in a notebook when he was living in Baltimore. It concerns a young man, a stranger, who telephoned Fitzgerald from a distant city, then from a city nearby, then from downtown, to announce his coming. At last the man drove up to the house, Fitzgerald noted, “with a great ripping up of garden borders, a four-ply rip in a new lawn, a watch pointing accurately and unforgivably at 3 A.M. But he was prepared to disarm me with the force of his compliment, the intensity of the impulse that had brought him to my door. ’Here I am at last,’ he said, teetering triumphantly. ’I had to see you. I feel I owe you more than I can say. I feel that you formed my life.’”

Fitzgerald was himself the principal victim of his capacity for creating fictional types. “Sometimes,” he told another visitor late at night. “I don’t know whether I’m real or whether I’m a character in one of my own novels.” His early success had made him feel like the hero of a fairy tale. In 1919 he was working in a New York advertising agency for thirty-five dollars a week. He was engaged, he told his friends in his flamboyant fashion, “to the most beautiful girl in Alabama and Georgia.” He had met her at a dance in Montgomery, when he was serving in the Army as aide-de-camp to General J. A. Ryan. That spring she broke off their engagement because it seemed that they would never have money enough to marry. He gave up his job, stayed drunk for three weeks, and then went home to St. Paul, where he wrote This Side of Paradise. He also sold a few magazine stories and earned, during the year, eight hundred dollars as a writer. In 1920, when his novel was published, he made eighteen thousand dollars, spent all of it, and ended the year in debt. He married the girl and brought her to New York, where they wandered about, he wrote, “like children in a great bright unexplored barn.” A few days later, he was “riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.” And, remembering that he had been penniless and jilted not long before, he also felt that he “would always cherish an abiding distrust, an animosity, toward the leisure class-not the conviction of a revolutionist but the smoldering hatred of a peasant. In the years since then I have never been able to stop wondering where my friends’ money came from, nor to stop thinking that at one time a sort of droit de seigneur might have been exercised to give one of them my girl.”

He cultivated a sort of double vision. He was continually trying to present the glitter of life in the Princeton eating clubs, on the Riviera, on the North Shore of Long Island, and in the Hollywood studios; he surrounded his characters with a mist of admiration and simultaneously he drove the mist away. He always liked to write about “where the milk is watered and the sugar is sanded, the rhinestone passed for diamond and the stucco for stone.” It was as if all his novels described a big dance to which he had taken, as he once wrote, the prettiest girl:

There was an orchestra-Bingo-Bango
Playing for us to dance the tango
And the people all clapped as we arose,
For her sweet face and my new clothes-

and as if at the same time he stood outside the ballroom, a little Midwestern boy with his nose to the glass, wondering how much the tickets cost and who paid for the music. He regarded himself as a pauper living among millionaires, a Celt among Sassenachs, a sullen peasant among the nobility, and he said that his point of vantage “was the dividing line between two generations,” prewar and postwar. It was this habit of keeping a double point of view that distinguished his work. There were popular and serious novelists in his time, but there was something of a gulf between them; Fitzgerald was one of the very few popular writers who were also serious artists. There were realists and romantics; Fitzgerald was among the wildest of the romantics, but he was also among the few Americans who tried, like Stendhal in France, to make the romance real by showing its causes and its consequences. It did not matter too much that the causes were trivial and the consequences often tragic or sordid. “After all,” he wrote in one of his notebooks-or rather he copied into the notebook from a published story that he had decided not to preserve- “any given moment had its value; it can be questioned in the light of after-events, but the moment remains. The young prince in velvet gathered in lovely domesticity around the queen among the hush of rich draperies may presently grow up to be Pedro the Cruel or Charles the Mad, but the moment of beauty was there.”

“I am probably one of the most expert liars in the world,” he said in his notes, “and expect everyone to discount nine-tenths of what I say, but I have made two rules in attempting to be both an intellectual and a man of honor simultaneously-that I do not tell lies that will be of value to myself, and secondly, that I do not lie to myself.” It is a difficult technical problem to tell the truth in fiction; often a writer falls into conventional lies simply because he can’t find the right words or turns of phrase to express what he is trying to say. Fitzgerald, who regarded himself primarily as a craftsman, had both the technique and the need for being honest. He said in a notebook at the time of his own crisis, “I have asked a lot of my emotions-one hundred and twenty stories. The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was one little drop of something-not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had. Now it is gone and I am just like you now.”

His crisis, in 1935 and 1936, was caused by a series of big and little misfortunes: serious illness (a recurrence of tuberculosis, from which he had suffered briefly in college), family troubles, insomnia, gin and water, reduced earning power, debts he couldn’t pay, and, worst of all, a feeling that he had used up and wasted his abilities. His mistake, he wrote, was “an over-extension of the flank, a burning of the candle at both ends; a call upon physical resources that I did not possess, like a man overdrawing at his bank. . . . Every act of life from the morning toothbrush to the friend at dinner had become an effort.” Now that he couldn’t sleep, his days and nights were jumbled together: “In the real dark night of the soul,” he wrote, “it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” There was a moment when he felt suddenly that he had cracked, as an old plate cracks. He tried running away from himself; one day, having left his home in Baltimore, he arrived in a town in North Carolina with seventy cents in his pocket. He lived for two days on tinned meat and soda crackers, washed down with two cans of beer, while he wrote a story to pay his hotel bill; then he went home again to his problems. There was something in his character, a Midwestern toughness or an Irish Puritanism, that would not let him give in; he made the best of whatever was left to him. “Sometimes,” he wrote, “the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or go into the icebox under leftovers.”

“A man does not recover from such jolts,” Fitzgerald said in an article written at the time- “he becomes a different person and, eventually, the new person finds new things to care about.” In the summer of 1937 the new person was strong enough to make a trip to Hollywood; that was the epilogue to the play and on the whole it makes a more heartening story than I had expected to find. Fitzgerald had been given a six months’ contract by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and when the contract expired in January, 1938, it was renewed for a year at an increased salary. He was drinking very little and proved to be a capable screen craftsman, although his best scenarios were not produced in the form in which he wrote them. During his first eighteen months in Hollywood he earned $88,391-the figure comes from his literary agent, Harold Ober-while he lived frugally, paid off his big debts and put his insurance policies in order.

The story is not a simple one of moral redemption and success in a new field. At the beginning of February, 1939, a week after the M-G-M contract ran out, he was sent East by Walter Wanger; with the help of Budd Schulberg he was to write a film about the Dartmouth Winter Carnival. He started drinking on the eastbound plane, got into a violent dispute with Wanger and continued drinking at Dartmouth and in New York; it was his biggest, saddest, most desperate spree. Back in Hollywood he couldn’t find another job and suspected that the producers had put his name on an informal blacklist. He took to his bed; for three months he was under the care of day and night nurses. It was a recurrence of tuberculosis, he told his friends (who suspected a recurrence of alcoholism), and it was complicated by “a nervous breakdown of such severity that for a long time it threatened to paralyze both arms-or to quote the doctor: ’The Good Lord tapped you on the shoulder.’” After a partial recovery in the summer he faced another crisis to which he referred obliquely in his letters; it was “that personally and publicly dreary month of Sept. last [when] about everything went to pieces all at once” -and still it wasn’t the end of the story.

The will to survive wasn’t dead in him and he still had personal and artistic obligations that he was determined to meet, even though he had fewer resources with which to meet them. In the past he had often exaggerated his physical troubles for dramatic effect, but it seems that he wasn’t exaggerating when he said that all through the winter of 1939-40 he suffered from “the awful lapses and sudden reverses and apparent cures and thorough poisoning effect of lung trouble. Suffice to say there were months with a high of 99.8, months at 99.6 and then up and down and a stabilization of 99.2 every afternoon when I could write in bed.” His Hollywood friends report that he was gray-faced and emaciated and seldom left his room, but he was writing again-if only for a few hours each day-and that was the important news. Although seven of his boob were still in print, nobody was reading them and his name was almost forgotten; now he was setting out to regain his place in literature.

His record of production for the last year of his life would have been remarkable for a man in perfect health. He began the year by making plans for a novel and, simultaneously, by writing twenty stories for Esquire, including seventeen in the Pat Hobby series. Most of the Hobby stories weren’t very good by his own standards, but they caught the Hollywood atmosphere and they also made fun of the author’s weaknesses, thereby proving that Fitzgerald hadn’t lost his ironic attitude toward himself or his gift of double vision. Suddenly he resumed his interrupted correspondence with his friends and he sent his daughter an extraordinary series of letters that continued all through the year: perhaps they were too urgent and too full of tired wisdom for a girl in college, but then Fitzgerald was writing them as a sort of personal and literary testament.

In the spring he wrote-and twice rewrote from the beginning-a scenario based on his story, “Babylon Revisited”; it was the best of his scenarios and, according to the producer who ordered it, the best he ever read. Shirley Temple wasn’t available for the part of Honoria and the story has never been filmed. Again Fitzgerald began drinking, but then he sobered up and went to work for a studio in September, earning enough, he thought, to carry him through the writing of The Last Tycoon. Work on it was delayed by a serious heart attack in November, but for most of the month he was writing steadily. He had said in a letter to his daughter, “I wish now I’d never relaxed or looked back-but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: ’I’ve found my line-from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty-without this I am nothing.’” In the year 1940 he had found his line again-and had found something more than that, since he now possessed a deeper sense of the complexities of life than he had when writing Gatsby. He was doing his best work of the year in December and it was some of the best he ever did. He had been sober for a long time and seemed to be less worried about illness, when suddenly, four days before Christmas, there was a second coronary attack and he died-not like a strayed reveler but like a partner of the elder J. P. Morgan, working too hard until his heart gave out.


From The New Yorker, (June 30, 1945)
The end of the article was revised by the author in 1951 to incorporate new material about Fitzgerald’s last years in Hollywood.


MALCOLM COWLEY, the poet and critic, is the author of Blue Juniata, Exile’s Return, The Literary Situation, and other well-known books. He edited the standard collection of Fitzgerald’s short stories. He has written widely about Fitzgerald; the essay in this book appeared in The New Yorker.


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