F. Scott Fitzgerald went out to Hollywood in the summer of 1937 with the hope that a new life and new career lay open before him. His old career and life had long since slipped away. Abruptly, when Zelda Fitzgerald suffered her first mental breakdown in 1930, Fitzgerald broke away from the literary circles in which he had lived and worked during the twenties. In Switzerland and Baltimore he made his life among doctors and nurses and a small group of friends. At first he profited from a circumscribed social setting. It provided him energy and time for writing, and withdrawn into this quiet world he succeeded at last in completing Tender Is the Night. But as years went by, as he retreated from Baltimore to the mountain resorts of North Carolina, as the doctors and nurses who peopled his life became his own and not his wife's, Fitzgerald fell into an isolation as morbid and as creatively stultifying as Hawthorne's years of self-seclusion in a garret. He found no way to struggle free from his morass until the Hollywood opportunity lifted him bodily out of it, carried him three thousand miles across the continent into a new job—really his first work on salary since his brief days in advertising— and a new community of artistic endeavor. “There are no second acts in American lives,” Fitzgerald had put in his notebook during the dark days of his crack-up. Arriving in Hollywood, he set out to prove that statement false.
On his way west Fitzgerald thought through his strategy. Twice before he had tested his talent in Hollywood, twice before he had failed. His first effort early in 1927 had come at a critical moment in his career. The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, had been recognized by fellow writers as an important work of art; with All the Sad Young Men in 1926 the reviewers belatedly hailed Fitzgerald as the best of the young American writers. Sales of the dramatic and film rights to Gatsby had freed Fitzgerald from his bondage to The Saturday Evening Post, and he planned to move swiftly ahead on a new novel. But at the height of his success, Fitzgerald faltered. He seemed to have convinced himself that Ernest Hemingway was a superior artist; and living in a community of expatriate writers on the Riviera, he began to lose his conception of his work as well as of his status. The year free from financial pressure was a wasted year. Fitzgerald returned from France directly to Hollywood, where his rank as the leading American writer still went unchallenged. “At that time I had been generally acknowledged for several years as the top American writer,” he recalled for his daughter a decade later, “both seriously, and as far as prices went, popularly. I had been loafing for six months for the first time in my life and was confident to the point of conceit.” In the back of Fitzgerald's mind lay the possibility that screen-writing might supply him with an easy source of income while he devoted his creative energies to his novel. But through overconfidence Fitzgerald muffed his opportunity. The script he wrote was rejected, and financial necessity drove him back to writing stories for the Post.
When he returned a second time from Europe, the new novel hardly nearer to completion than it had been five years earlier, Fitzgerald tried his luck in Hollywood once more. This time, he said, “Far from approaching it too confidently I was far too humble.” He never got a chance to submit a complete script because another man changed it as he wrote. That script too was rejected, and Fitzgerald left, “disillusioned and disgusted.” On his third try he was determined not to make the same mistakes. “I must be very tactful but keep my hand on the wheel from the start—find out the key man among the bosses and the most malleable among the collaborators-then fight the rest tooth and nail until, in fact or in effect, I'm alone on the picture. That's the only way I can do my best work.” All his energy and concentration was mustered for the effort, for this third time he could not afford to fail.
Yet no matter how great his financial need or how desperate the state of his career, there was something equivocal in Fitzgerald's approach to Hollywood in 1937. He could not start anew even if he wanted to. He had not been hired at a thousand a week because of any demonstrated proficiency as a screenwriter, but because of his success as a writer of fiction. At least until he established himself with several screen credits, his leverage lay in his status as a novelist and short-story writer. So long as his period of apprenticeship lasted, Fitzgerald was forced to keep one foot in and one foot outside Hollywood, even if he wanted to plunge in with both; for in a crisis his court of last resort remained his fiction. This form of equivocation would naturally pass away if Fitzgerald succeeded; after a year or two he could become unequivocally a screenwriter, as William Faulkner and Nathanael West had attained professional status as screenwriters, no matter what they did or said as novelists.
But there was another form of equivocation that would not pass away, an equivocation that existed in Fitzgerald's mind. In his crack-up days he may have despaired because movies had superseded fiction as mass entertainment, but he never conceived the possibility that movies might equally with fiction aspire to serious art. For Fitzgerald the novel was still the important form, the serious form, “the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another”; and as he had written one of the greatest novels of his generation, no matter how enthusiastically he might throw himself into a new career in the movies, he could not but feel that the work was only second best. Unlike Faulkner and West he was in too desperate a position to feel either hard-boiled or indifferent. Against his own advice he had let a few conventional book reviewers tamper with his pride, but he was determined not to extend the privilege to anyone in Hollywood.
Even before Fitzgerald began his new career, then, his venture into Hollywood gave him an unexpected chance to settle at last the central issue of the old career. Under the worst of circumstances he was able to make a choice, when under the best of circumstances a decade previously, he could not; and now he chose fiction as an art, rather than fiction as a means to popular success. Of course the decision was threadbare and theoretical. Neither alternative lay open to him: he seemed unable to produce either a work of art or a salable popular story. Nevertheless, the choice itself was of fundamental importance. By stating the old alternatives in a new way, Hollywood made it possible for Fitzgerald to solve the dilemma that had dominated his literary life ever since, with The Great Gatsby, he had proven to himself that he was an artist as well as a commercial story writer. After Gatsby he knew that the fusion of popular success with critical acclaim he had achieved with his first novel had been accidental and spurious, a lucky conjunction of the right book at the right moment to fill the right need. Yet he could not shake off that combination as a desirable and attainable goal, and intermittently thereafter he sought it, with growing vacillation between the poles of art and popularity, with increasing confusion as to his own best aims and procedures. By 1937, with both possibilities seemingly closed off, he saw that his failure was caused not only by his personal mismanagement, but also by an indecisive strategy.
Hemingway was his prime example. Back in 1925 and 1926 Hemingway had been one of the snags on which he was caught, because with Hemingway he could parade neither his commercial success nor his dedication as an artist—Hemingway made him feel inferior in both aspects of his career. Now he discovered that Hemingway, by proclaiming his adherence to the purest standards of artistry even as his writing grew more and more commercial, had achieved the fusion of critical acclaim and popular success that had eluded Fitzgerald since This Side of Paradise. It was the pose that counted, far more than the result, as the whole history of his reputation with the conventional reviewers and the popular press could have told him. But the issue was no longer a living one. So long as Hollywood had taken over the field of popular entertainment that Fitzgerald's sentimental Post stories once had dominated, Fitzgerald's choice was simple: the only way he could conceive of himself as a writer of fiction was to conceive of himself pre-eminently as an artist. The popular pole of his old dilemma thus was subsumed in his screenwriter's job; the artistic pole he retained, intact but for the moment unapproachable. If the old dilemma ever were to reassert itself, it would come as a conflict between the movies and his fiction.
Fitzgerald's first assignment in his new job at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios was a backhanded tribute to his old reputation. He was given the task of final revision on the script of A Yank at Oxford, which was about to go into production as the first M-G-M movie filmed in England under a new commercial arrangement. There was a curious circumstance in the assignment that pointed up from the start the gap between Fitzgerald as a novelist and Fitzgerald as a screenwriter: Fitzgerald himself had never attended Oxford, but in his two important novels his fictional heroes, Jay Gatsby and Dick Diver, had.
The irony was extended with Fitzgerald's second assignment, one in which he came in at the beginning rather than the end. He was put to work preparing a “treatment”—a synopsis or scenario—on Erich Maria Remarque's Three Comrades, a novel set in Germany after the First World War and conveying the atmosphere of social and moral decay. After reading the treatment, the producer, Joseph Mankiewicz, gave the responsibility for writing the script jointly to Fitzgerald and an experienced Hollywood screenwriter, Ted Para-more. Paramore had been a friend of Edmund Wilson's, and Fitzgerald had known him back during the glorious days in New York after This Side of Paradise and Flappers and Philosophers had established Fitzgerald as a popular favorite. He had even called one of the minor characters in The Beautiful and Damned Fred Paramore, but if the portrait was drawn from life it was not meant to be flattering. Now Paramore stepped in and frustrated Fitzgerald's desire to work alone on the script. Fitzgerald acknowledged his own inexperience but obviously it grated on him to have a man he considered a studio hack rework his prose and ideas; he sensed, too, whether rightly or wrongly, that Paramore considered him at best an amateur and at worst a washed-up drunk, and he bridled at it. Conflict rapidly developed. Avoiding a face-to-face confrontation, Fitzgerald wrote Paramore a long letter, climaxed by an appeal which revealed his true feelings of superiority over both his material and his colleagues: “the idea of sitting by while you dredge through the book again as if it were Shakespeare—well, I didn't write four out of four bestsellers or a hundred and fifty top-price stories out of the mind of a temperamental child without taste or judgment.”
The battle between fiction and movies broke out almost at once, then. But it was joined not on the ground of art against entertainment, but on the seemingly lost territory of popular fiction; Fitzgerald's claims to artistry were his ultimate weapon, and using them would have closed off all opportunities for maneuver and reconciliation. Nor was he as sure of himself on that ground as he was in the back files of The Saturday Evening Post. Struggling to keep his mark on Three Comrades, he appealed again and again to his past triumphs as an entertainer. After the collaborators' script was submitted, the producer Mankiewicz extensively rewrote it. Once more Fitzgerald's anger flared. “I guess all these years I've been kidding myself about being a good writer …,” he complained to Mankiewicz. “For nineteen years, with two years out for sickness, I've written best-selling entertainment, and my dialogue is supposedly right up at the top. But I learn from you that it isn't good dialogue and you can take a few hours off and do much better.”
Over Mankiewicz's head Fitzgerald appealed to Eddie Mannix, the studio's general manager, and Sam Katz, the administrative executive. “In writing over a hundred and fifty stories for George Lorimer, the great editor of The Saturday Evening Post, I found he made a sharp distinction between a sordid tragedy and a heroic tragedy—hating the former but accepting the latter as an essential and interesting part of life.“ The tone was loftier but the implication was the same: Fitzgerald knew as much about good entertainment as they did, and because he was older and more experienced, perhaps more. Mankiewicz, Mannix, and Katz may not have known that Fitzgerald was exaggerating his own success—he had published more than sixty stories in the Post, a remarkable total in itself, even if less than half his claim. But they would not have doubted they knew more about movies than he did. Three Comrades was a popular film and the leading actress won an award for her performance. Fitzgerald received a screen credit on the picture, and if he were striving for success as a screenwriter, outwardly he had taken a big step toward his goal. But Fitzgerald did not gladly suffer the indignities he felt Paramore and Mankiewicz had inflicted upon him, and he was already in process of giving up his plans to forge a new career.
Fitzgerald's life and thoughts are more thoroughly recorded for his Hollywood years than for any other period in his career, yet one must feel that his state of mind is more closely veiled in these years than in any others. Living across the continent from his family and friends, he wrote more letters than ever before, and since he was dictating now to a secretary, the carbons have all been preserved. But there were good reasons why he should want to conceal his true feelings as he never had before. He had just gone through a physical and mental decline of serious proportions; he was in debt more than forty thousand dollars. Optimism was his watchword, then; any suggestion of discouragement and discontent could only have raised doubts in the East about his capacity to carry through his work and pay off his debts.
Moreover, the nature of his life in Hollywood reinforced his desire to appear cheerful, bland, and conventional. He knew that he had come out west on probation, and that sobriety and responsibility were basic conditions of his survival in Hollywood. The movie colony itself formed as isolated and inbred a community as a diplomatic enclave in a hostile foreign country. His desire for privacy in so public an atmosphere was intensified by his romance with Sheilah Graham, the Hollywood newspaper columnist. Consciously Fitzgerald did not try to dissimulate to anyone, yet in several ways the life he led took on the character of a double life—in no way more significantly than in his outward life as a screenwriter and his secret life as an artist planning to re-emerge some day as a butterfly from his cocoon.
At some point, not long after he arrived in Hollywood, Fitzgerald determined once more to write fiction. In his letters he was most straightforward in writing to a friend who shared neither his Eastern nor his Hollywood acquaintances. While he was working on Three Comrades he wrote her, “I feel something fermenting in me or the times that I can't express and I don't yet know what lights or how strong will be thrown on it. I don't know, even, whether I shall be the man to do it. Perhaps the talent, too long neglected, has passed its prime.” But what he considered his humiliation on Three Comrades gave new urgency to his own secret plans and hopes. “I am considered a success in Hollywood,” he wrote to his friend again in March 1938, “because something which I did not write is going on under my name, and something which I did write has been quietly buried without any fuss or row—not even a squeak from me. The change from regarding this as a potential art to looking at it as a cynical business has begun.” That same day he told Maxwell Perkins, “I am filling a notebook with stuff that will be of more immediate interest to you, but please don't mention me ever as having any plans.”
M-G-M had renewed Fitzgerald's six-month contract for an additional year with a raise in pay. After Three Comrades Fitzgerald went to work on a script called “Infidelity,” designed as a vehicle for the actress Joan Crawford. Since the film was based on a magazine story rather than a novel, Fitzgerald had far more freedom than he was allowed at any point on Three Comrades, and he approached more closely than ever the situation he had hoped for on his arrival. But because of censorship difficulties the script was put aside. Then the ironies of his new career took another twist. He was put to work on The Women with Donald Ogden Stewart, who had figured even more than Paramore in Fitzgerald's glamorous past. Stewart had written the first parody of Fitzgerald's popular fiction back in 1921. Now he, too, was a successful screenwriter, and Fitzgerald had little more to do on The Women than polish up Stewart's script. Thereafter he wrote a treatment and began a script for Madame Curie, but was dropped from the picture after disagreements on how it should be done. At the end of 1938 his M-G-M contract expired, and it was not renewed. The new career was over, with nothing for the moment more tangible to show than a lot of cancelled debts.
Fitzgerald could not have worked seriously on fiction while he was under contract to M-G-M; the movie work took up too much time and energy. Instead in his free time he carried on a project he had begun in North Carolina during the days of his crack-up, organizing and arranging his notebooks. He put in order his scattered notes and odd bits of manuscript by categories: anecdotes, ideas, moments, and more than a dozen others. In the selection from the notebooks Edmund Wilson printed in The Crack-Up, a large portion of the notes may be identified as passages from published short stories that Fitzgerald “stripped and permanently buried.” A careful collation would probably find in the notebooks some snatch of dialogue or description from every story Fitzgerald chose not to reprint. The notebooks make clear that what Fitzgerald wanted to keep from his buried stories were primarily passages of sentimental romance-descriptions of beautiful heroines and of love-smitten heroes. Another major portion of the notebooks is made up of passages from discarded sections of the early Tender Is the Night manuscript, the story of Francis Melarky to which Fitzgerald gave the working titles Our Type and The World's Fair. It is unlikely that Fitzgerald organized the notebooks as a working device or sourcebook for future fiction; rather, he was emulating The Notebooks of Samuel Butler, a book he had admired from his youth, and may have had in mind their eventual publication.
The original part of Fitzgerald's notebooks lies in his brief section of notes and comments on literature. In the moments when he worked on the notebooks he may have been incapable of writing fiction, but his sense of his art and intellect came through with greater clarity than ever. Through his notebooks he made a private peace with Hemingway: “I talk with the authority of failure—Ernest with the authority of success. We could never sit across the same table again.” Yet even as he referred to his personal failure, Fitzgerald knew that it was part of something greater than himself. “The two basic stories of all times are Cinderella and Jack the Giant Killer” he wrote, “—the charm of women and the courage of men. The Nineteenth Century glorified the merchant's cowardly son. Now a reaction.” The merchant's cowardly son is not a precise description of the convention of the genteel romantic hero, who required, whether in Tom Sawyer or Penrod Schofield or one of Fitzgerald's own heroes, a basic daring and imagination; but it cuts through the surface of the convention and reveals that the bravery and cleverness of the genteel hero belong to a woman's world, a polite society world, rather than to a world of manly courage.
How strongly Fitzgerald joined in the reaction against the merchant's cowardly son he made clear in a sardonic note about Booth Tarkington, who still wrote sentimental genteel stories for the Post with undiminished vigor as he approached three-score and ten. “Tarkington: I have a horror of going into a personal debauch and coming out of it devitalized with no interest except an acute observation of the behavior of colored people, children, and dogs.” Fitzgerald had gone into a personal debauch and come out of it devitalized and written thereafter several stories featuring children and colored people, and even one entirely about dogs. But they were not his only interests, as obviously he felt they were Tarkington's. Why he had come out differently from Tarkington he suggested in a note on D. H. Lawrence, with whom Fitzgerald had come to share an abhorrence of the merchant's cowardly son. “D. H. Lawrence's great effort to synthesize animal and emotional—things he left out. Essential pre-Marxian. Just as I am essentially Marxian.” Fitzgerald was not saying he was a Marxist, only that he had learned—whether from social instinct or personal circumstances or intellectual development—to comprehend social classes and social mores in basically economic terms. His “essentially Marxian” outlook enabled him to understand his own failure in a wider context than the personal, just as he had come to understand the failure of a class and the weakness of its literary genre. “Show me a hero,” Fitzgerald put down in his notebook, “and I will write you a tragedy.” The unequivocal conviction of that sentence amounted, in 1938, almost to a prophecy.
Fitzgerald's plans for a new novel were already taking shape by the spring of 1938. The notebook he mentioned as being of immediate interest to Maxwell Perkins in March could not have been a notebook filled mainly with snatches from Our Type and old Post stories, so it must have been a book of notes for something new. But for more than a year thereafter Fitzgerald could not have advanced with it very far. The burden of his motion-picture work was too great for serious creative effort; and after M-G-M dropped his contract in January 1939, he continued as a screenwriter on a free-lance basis. He worked for several weeks on the script of Gone with the Wind and then signed on as a writer for the movie Winter Carnival. His trip to Dartmouth for the filming turned into a personal disaster that served nearly to wipe out his career as a free-lance screenwriter and plunged him as well into serious illness. He worked briefly on one more movie, Air Raid, and suffered through another bout of illness before he was capable of creative work in midsummer 1939. By then his financial security had been wiped out, and to meet current expenses he had to try once more to write popular stories for the magazines.
But he had come to loathe that work, and he could bring it off no longer. The first story he wrote was turned down by the Post and then by Colliers; it may have been the story about Hollywood, “Discard,” published posthumously by Harper's Bazaar in 1948, among the most inept and formless stories Fitzgerald ever wrote. Collier's did accept from Fitzgerald a Civil War story he had begun back in 1936; when it was printed nearly a year later Fitzgerald confessed to his wife and daughter that “it seemed terrible to me.” But if Fitzgerald had lost his touch as a writer of popular sentimental stories his talent as a short-story writer still had not completely deserted him. For Esquire, which Arnold Gingrich held open as always to him, Fitzgerald wrote two brief stories that were published late in 1939. “Design in Plaster” is a story similar to “Image on the Heart,” about the conduct of a man who is jealous of his woman's interest in a Frenchman; “The Lost Decade” is the story of a man's reactions after returning to the world from a ten-year drunk. Neither is an important story, but together they demonstrate a new hardness and a new worldliness in Fitzgerald's attitude toward his material. His inability to sell his sentimental stories released him from the evasive formulas which he had been able to overcome only in a handful of his popular stories. Thereafter he wrote two retrospective stories—“Three Hours Between Planes” and “News of Paris—Fifteen Years Ago,” both published posthumously—which retained the old quality of romantic emotion, and yet treated the relations between men and women with an honesty, almost a toughness, rarely before attained in his short fiction.
Yet it was hardly Fitzgerald's intention in the summer and fall of 1939 to let his best energies and perspectives, even if he could accommodate them as never before in his short stories, go to waste in the back pages of Esquire. Over the years his market had called for long stories, twice the length or more of what Esquire could use; and among his best short stories, “May Day,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” and “The Rich Boy” are the length of novellas. “News of Paris—Fifteen Years Ago,” because it is an unfinished draft for a story, provides a useful insight into Fitzgerald's tactics as a writer. The relations among the characters are suggested rather than defined; Fitzgerald's prose is as deep and as subtle as it is because the story is a fragment—because the scene is open-ended and sufficient to itself, as in a novel. Had Fitzgerald completed the story it seems likely that in giving it form and focus, a beginning, a climax, and an end, he would have reshaped his material into a tighter, more direct, more logical structure, thus sacrificing some of its depth and subtlety for the requirements of the short form as he had always practiced it. Contrary to the belief of some of Fitzgerald's interpreters that he was essentially a poet writing in alien forms, Fitzgerald rather developed his talent and fulfilled his creative intentions most completely in the novel. “I wish now I'd never relaxed or looked back,” he wrote in 1940 to his daughter,”—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.'“”
But his immediate financial needs still had to be met, and the only avenue open to him remained the short story. Instead of exchanging sentiment for seriousness, though, he had another plan in mind. “It isn't particularly likely that I'll write a great many more stories about young love…,” he explained to Kenneth Littauer, fiction editor of Colliers. “Nevertheless, an overwhelming number of editors continue to associate me with an absorbing interest in young girls—an interest that at my age would probably land me behind the bars.” In describing his new strategy, Fitzgerald's point of reference once more was his genteel predecessor, Booth Tarkington, perhaps because Tarkington continued so consistently as a successful magazine writer. “My hope is that, like Tarkington, if I can no longer write M. Beaucaire and The Gentleman from Indiana, I can make people laugh instead, as he did in Seventeen, which is completely objective and unromantic.” Now that his own daughter was seventeen, Fitzgerald once more could find amusement in Tarkington's oblivious adolescents, as he had in his own collegiate days.
From sentiment Fitzgerald turned, then, to satire. The shift came suddenly in September 1939, when the energy that produced the serious stories “Design in Plaster,” “The Lost Decade,” and “Three Hours Between Planes,” gave out in the middle of an unfinished story. Yet literally he could not subsist unless he wrote and sold something. Hurriedly he wrote a story about a middle-aged failure, a drunk, a Hollywood hack screenwriter who had never made the transition from silent films to talkies. Within a week he had finished another, and ten days after that a third. The Pat Hobby stories so clearly met his need for a new subject, one that could draw on his most recent experience, one with continuity and the limitless possibilities of a series, and most of all one that would bring him immediate cash on acceptance—that he wrote ten in all before the year was out, and a total of seventeen.
But Fitzgerald never allowed himself to believe that in Pat Hobby he had come up with a middle-aged equivalent to Tarkington's genteel adolescents as a subject for satire. When he was half-way through the series he referred to it in a letter to Maxwell Perkins as “unprofitable hacking for Esquire” a comment hardly commensurate with a sincere satiric intention; and the fact that he followed many of the original submissions with revised manuscripts suggests that he was primarily interested in payment on acceptance, and only secondarily on the quality of his prose in print. In any case the Pat Hobby stories hardly meet the requirements of satire: they are infrequently and then only briefly humorous. On the contrary their plots more often turn on pain and violence: a broken leg, a heart attack, even death. By the time he wrote these stories, Fitzgerald had read Nathanael West's novel about Hollywood, The Day of the Locust, where the scene of Harry Greener's death, even against the reader's will, is gruesomely funny. Fitzgerald was not deeply concerned with attaining similar satiric effects. Rather, the Pat Hobby stories served him best—besides their primary purpose as a source of income—as a purgation, a clearing away of the debris of his aborted Hollywood career, a cleansing of whatever bitterness or self-reproach he felt for having tried and failed as a screenwriter. For Fitzgerald planned to put his Hollywood material to far more significant uses, and the Pat Hobby stories fulfilled a valuable enough purpose if they drained off his small vindictiveness and petty piques, leaving his mind clear and objective for the large task at hand, a new novel. Rushed by the possibilities of selling serial rights to the novel—thus relieving himself of the necessity to write more Hobby stories—Fitzgerald began the novel in October 1939, only a few weeks after the Hobby series was launched.
From his first conception of the new novel, Fitzgerald intended to set it in Hollywood. The idea of writing a Hollywood novel, however, may have come to him even before he entered the motion-picture community as a screenwriter. In 1936, when he was laid up with his shoulder injury in North Carolina, he told Maxwell Perkins that he was thinking about another novel; and it may be that the possibility of a Hollywood novel was suggested to him then by the death of Irving Thalberg, the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer, in September 1936.
One can hardly recreate Fitzgerald's frame of mind when he learned of Thalberg's death, but the circumstances were such as to be deeply affecting. Thalberg was two and a half years younger than Fitzgerald. When they first met in 1927—Fitzgerald age thirty, Thalberg twenty-seven—they presented curious parallels and contrasts to each other, contrasts that Fitzgerald, by later evidence, keenly felt. Both men came from distantly immigrant, respectable, middle-class backgrounds. Fitzgerald had been the first significant Irish Catholic American novelist, Thalberg one of many ambitious Jewish business and professional men who found large possibilities in motion pictures—like Joseph Black, born Bloeckman, the movie man Fitzgerald created with curiously mixed disdain and respect in his 1922 novel, The Beautiful and Damned. In 1927 Fitzgerald brought to Hollywood the artistry he had developed and the fame he had earned—and confronted in Thalberg a man who possessed neither artistry nor fame, who was rather a gifted entrepreneur, and a man who preferred anonymity. What Thalberg possessed was power, and with power, responsibility; and it was Thalberg's sense of power that fascinated Fitzgerald. In retrospect he came to feel that Thalberg indeed was an artist in his use and consciousness of power.
Fitzgerald worked on a film for Thalberg in 1932, but under circumstances of collaborative writing that could only make Fitzgerald chafe. In 1934, Fitzgerald believed it was Thalberg who turned down Tender Is the Night for M-G-M—and thus cut off Fitzgerald's only means of escape from the downward spiral into his crack-up. In his mood of melancholy, with his fortieth birthday a few days ahead, Fitzgerald's response to Thalberg's death could only have been complex and intense.
But two full years passed before Fitzgerald began seriously to plan his novel about Hollywood, and by late 1938 his own experience of Hollywood, and the place itself, had changed enormously since Thalberg's death. During his year and a half under contract to M-G-M, Fitzgerald gained the intimate day-to-day knowledge of studio operations he had lacked when he previously knew Thalberg. When Fitzgerald worked for M-G-M, moreover, the studio was entering a period of crisis and change with which Thalberg had nothing to do. During Fitzgerald's tenure there the old order which Thalberg exemplified came under attack from three different sources—from minority stockholders, who accused executives of hoarding profits for themselves through excessively high salaries and bonuses; from unions, seeking to organize the studios; and from the federal government, which filed antitrust suits against film companies that owned studios and theaters together.
Fitzgerald's own experience in Hollywood and the new economic developments of the late thirties formed the background for his Hollywood novel quite as much as his brief encounters with Thalberg or the legend Thalberg left behind him. Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon is no more a portrait of Irving Thalberg than Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night is a portrait of Gerald Murphy or Jay Gatsby a portrait of one or another gangster bootlegger Fitzgerald occasionally glimpsed on Long Island in the early twenties. What shapes the character of Monroe Stahr is not so much the persons, living or dead, on whom he may have been modeled, nor the setting on which Fitzgerald drew for plots and scenes, but rather Fitzgerald's literary motives and artistic skills; for The Last Tycoon, as for all other significant work he produced throughout his career, Fitzgerald was neither biographer nor autobiographer nor social reporter, but in all essential aspects a creative artist. The form and substance for Fitzgerald's portrait of a producer and an enterprise were provided partly by factual models but just as much by his own resources.
As he began to make plans for the novel in mid-1938, Fitzgerald regarded these resources of his with a certain sadness and uncertainty, and yet with urgent determination. By now his past was a remote, almost a historical, experience, and he felt himself a forgotten author, forgotten even by his publishers of twenty years' standing. To his daughter at school in the East, toward whom distance made him feel even more insistent and possessive, he wrote poignant letters warning her against his own mistakes, revealing his innermost feelings about his past. He told her he had made a mistake in marrying her mother. “I was a man divided—she wanted me to work too much for her and not enough for my dreams.” He warned her too about how much she could rely on himself. “You don't realize that what I am doing here is the last tired effort of a man who once did something finer and better.” But despite his sadness and uncertainty, perhaps because of them, he was not yet willing to give up the beliefs he developed and maintained as the bedrock of his literary career. “My generation of radicals and breakers-down,” he told his daughter, “never found anything to take the place of the old virtues of work and courage and the old graces of courtesy and politeness.”
A woman wrote to him about her nervous breakdown, and Fitzgerald answered, “I can only say this: that if you are in any mess caused by conflict between old idealisms, religious or social, and the demands of the immediate present, you will probably have to make a decision between them.” Around the same time, on the inside back cover on his copy of James Joyce's Dubliners, he put down more succinctly than ever before his artistic perspective on the conflict between ideals and realities that formed so central a theme in his fiction. “I am interested in the individual,” he wrote, “only in his relation to society. We have wandered in imaginary loneliness through imaginary woods for a hundred years—Too long.” For himself, the necessity of choice concerned him far less than the nature of the conflict itself. Once more in his art Fitzgerald felt capable with Keats “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts… of remaining content with half knowledge.” In his new novel he meant to dramatize, rather than resolve, the conflict between old idealisms and the demands of the immediate present—dramatize it in his portrait of a Hollywood producer enmeshed in the political and economic struggles of his day: the last tycoon.
In September 1939, encouraged by the interest of Kenneth Littauer at Colliers, Fitzgerald described his plans for the novel in a lengthy letter, and in October he began to write. A few weeks later he was able to show Littauer about six thousand words, in hope of arranging monthly advance payments for serial rights. But Littauer wanted to see more before making a definite decision, and temporarily he said no. The Post also read the manuscript, and was not ready to commit itself either. Presumably the section Fitzgerald gave them comprised the first scenes of the novel, on the transcontinental flight and at the Hermitage in Nashville, scenes which convey Fitzgerald's subject only obliquely, and with which he later grew dissatisfied. Failing to obtain his advance, Fitzgerald fell back on Pat Hobby stories for Esquire to meet expenses through the winter of 1940. In late spring a producer hired him to write a script from his short story, “Babylon Revisited.” That job carried him through the summer, and another movie assignment took up his time through early fall. Between these tasks Fitzgerald moved ahead on the novel.
He was living Hollywood intensely in his art now, and hardly living in the social and professional community of Hollywood at all. As the novel grew in length its daily life came to envelop his own. Released almost from the cares of time, his mind in spare moments slipped into retrospective moods: he thought often of the past. When an aunt died he cast his mind back over his family heritage, pondering the sources of the values he had inherited and put to such important uses in his art. “What a sense of honor and duty,” he wrote of his father's generation, “—almost eighteenth century rather than Victorian. How lost they seemed in the changing world—my father and Aunt Elise struggling to keep their children in the haute bourgeoisie when their likes were sinking into obscure farm life or being lost in the dark boarding houses of Georgetown.” And there was more than simply historical pathos in Fitzgerald's feeling for his father's generation, for he, too, seemed lost in a changing world, struggling to keep his daughter in Vassar College as he faded into obscurity, like a Nathanael West character, in one of Hollywood's pink and mustard Moorish flats. “But to die, so completely and unjustly after having given so much!” he lamented to Maxwell Perkins, not for his physical death but the death of his reputation, the death in life of a writer whom no one any longer reads. “Even now there is little published in American fiction that doesn't slightly bear my stamp—in a small way I was an original.”
In a small way now he worked to regain the distinctive style and form that marked his greatest artistry. For his new novel he took The Great Gatsby as the model. “It is a constructed novel like Gatsby,” he wrote his wife, “with passages of poetic prose when it fits the action, but no ruminations or side-shows like Tender. Everything must contribute to the dramatic movement. … It is a novel à la Flaubert without Ideas' but only people moved singly and in mass through what I hope are authentic moods.” By early December 1940, he had progressed far enough so that he could talk of completing the first draft in one month's time. But he had already suffered his first heart attack, and one month's time was not left to him. On December 20, 1940, he was struck by a second heart attack, and on the following day by a third, and fatal, one. With the last and most ambitious of his novels only half finished, F. Scott Fitzgerald died at the age of forty-four.
Fitzgerald's old friend Edmund Wilson edited the completed portion of The Last Tycoon and published it in 1941 with The Great Gatsby and several of the most important stories. In his notes Wilson made clear that Fitzgerald intended to revise the chapters he had written; and they comprise only a little more than half of Fitzgerald's projected outline for the story. The Last Tycoon remains then only a fragment—a fragment of great interest and of considerable accomplishment, but a fragment nonetheless, and not amenable therefore to criticism or interpretation in the same manner as Fitzgerald's earlier work. The social and economic themes which were to play so important a role had barely been alluded to in the chapters Fitzgerald wrote; nor had he fully resolved the problems of telling his story through the eyes of Cecilia Brady, a movie producer's daughter. For all the incomparable touches that show how well Fitzgerald had recovered his skill as a stylist, inevitably there are frequent inconsistencies and rough spots. With the example of Gatsby guiding him so closely, Fitzgerald surely would have placed great importance on the final polishing of the text. Even Madame Bovary had been brought to life only in Flaubert's last revisions, as Edmund Wilson some years later learned to his surprise. Yet Fitzgerald completed enough of The Last Tycoon, and brought his themes sufficiently to focus, so that his intentions and his means for carrying them through may partly be described.
Fitzgerald's choice of Hollywood as his subject was dictated by far more than his predicament in being linked to it, more even than his interest in the character and genius of Irving Thalberg. He was drawn to write about Hollywood—as in his most idealistic moments he felt himself drawn to work in it—because of his fascination with the public arts, with popular modes of entertainment. Motion pictures now seemed to him the most glittering power among the popular arts. In Monroe Stahr's projection room, “Dreams hung in fragments at the far end of the room, suffered analysis, passed—to be dreamed in crowds, or else discarded” (56). Hollywood was now the spokesman for America's dreams, the motion-picture industry fulfilled the role Fitzgerald himself once aspired to—in a limited way indeed had attained. Hollywood not only spoke for the nation's dreams, it manufactured them—and to Fitzgerald this signified far more than simply the skills and popularity of a single art form. If the movies made the dreams America dreamed, then they were more than just an art form, they were a focal point of national culture, a molder of the nation's destiny.
Fitzgerald's concern with national destiny was revived in 1940 by a gift from Maxwell Perkins, J. F. C. Fuller's book, Decisive Battles: Their Influence Upon History and Civilization. Acknowledging the gift in a letter to Perkins, Fitzgerald recalled his own first encounter with Oswald Spengler's thought—though dating it incorrectly—and once again considered Spengler's ideas and influence. Spengler himself went into The Last Tycoon with one of Fitzgerald's light and ironic touches : Kathleen, the woman Stahr loves, had been educated by a man “who wanted me to read Spengler—everything was for that. All the history and philosophy and harmony was all so I could read Spengler, and then I left him before we got to Spengler.” Stahr asks about Spengler, and she laughs: “I tell you we didn't get to him” (91). But Fitzgerald had not forgotten what he had learned from Spengler, and writing at a time when Spengler's prophecies seemed partly coming true—at a time when German armies were over-running France—he took Spengler's concept of historical destiny more seriously than ever before. In The Last Tycoon he seemed capable of rendering it not through one single personality, as in Tender Is the Night, but over a far wider cultural and social scene.
The themes of national history and national destiny are introduced at the very start of The Last Tycoon. The flight carrying Cecilia Brady and the three movie men across the continent to Hollywood is grounded at Nashville by a storm. The writer Wylie White invites Cecilia on a drive outside the city to Andrew Jackson's homestead, The Hermitage. Manny Schwartz, the former studio executive down on his luck, goes along too. The modern, mechanical atmosphere of planes and airports with which the novel opens gives way suddenly to a pastoral mood—“real cows, with warm, fresh, silky flanks,” mooing in the night (9)—and then as suddenly to a mock pastoral, Cecilia's memory of a flock of sheep on a studio back lot, and a man standing up in a car saying, “swell.” The Hermitage itself seems impenetrable and formless in the night, a great grey hulk, a big white box, unequal to the weight of moral values that it bears. But Manny Schwartz has come to take his own life there, and Cecilia belatedly imagines why. “He had come a long way from some Ghetto to present himself at that raw shrine. Manny Schwartz and Andrew Jackson—it was hard to say them in the same sentence. It was doubtful if he knew who Andrew Jackson was as he wandered around, but perhaps he figured that if people had preserved his house Andrew Jackson must have been someone who was large and merciful, able to understand. At both ends of life man needed nourishment: a breast—a shrine. Something to lay himself beside when no one wanted him further, and shoot a bullet into his head” (13).
Manny Schwartz's act is extreme, yet the need Cecilia envisioned for him, his search for some connection with the past, concerns them all. Hollywood is a new world on the far frontier, a “mining town in lotus land” (11), peopled by immigrants—Irishmen like Cecilia's father and Jews like Schwartz and Marcus and Stahr. Hollywood itself grasps for a large and merciful past with which to associate, a past able to understand it. After the first scene at Nashville, however, the link with the past is pursued by analogy to a presidential figure even more imposing than Jackson and universally significant, Abraham Lincoln.
In the completed portion of The Last Tycoon Lincoln is viewed as a symbol of the past through three separate perspectives, gradually broadening out to a perception of the essential links between the present and the past. First Lincoln is brought down to the entertainment level of the movies, as nature seemed mocked and humiliated in Cecilia's recollection of the sheep on the studio back lot. Stahr explains to the English writer Boxley what a “routine” is. “It means an act… George Jessel talks about 'Lincoln's Gettysburg routine'” (33). On its own terms Hollywood admires Lincoln as a clever entertainer.
The second vision of Lincoln's connection with the present comes from the visiting Danish nobleman Prince Agge. Passing through the studio commissary, Agge observes the extras dressed in the costumes of another century, Hollywood's appropriation of the past for its entertainment purposes.
Then he saw Abraham Lincoln, and his whole feeling suddenly changed. He had been brought up in the dawn of Scandinavian socialism when Nicolay's biography was much read. He had been told Lincoln was a great man whom he should admire, and he hated him instead, because he was forced upon him. But now seeing him sitting here, his legs crossed, his kindly face fixed on a forty-cent dinner, including dessert, his shawl wrapped around him as if to protect himself from the erratic air-cooling—now Prince Agge, who was in America at last, stared as a tourist at the mummy of Lenin in the Kremlin. This, then, was Lincoln. Stahr had walked on far ahead of him, turned waiting for him—but still Agge stared.
This, then, he thought, was what they all meant to be.
Lincoln suddenly raised a triangle of pie and jammed it in his mouth, and, a little frightened, Prince Agge hurried to join Stahr. (48-9)
Rather than reducing the past to its own terms, Hollywood in Prince Agge's eyes seems able to make the past live again, to bring forth the best of the past as a standard for its aspirations. Yet what frightened him was the realization that the true past, the past of human lives and living moments, was dead, no less empty and inanimate than Andrew Jackson's mansion; and when they tried to bring it back to life they created nothing but themselves dressed up in old costumes. A vital link between Hollywood's values and the exemplary qualities of the nation's past could only be forged if Hollywood produced, on its own, a figure who could rise to meet the standards of the past.
Through the subtle eyes of the English writer Boxley, in the third vision, Lincoln's symbolic value and his historical significance were brought to life again in the struggles and aspirations of Monroe Stahr. “He had been reading Lord Charnwood and he recognized that Stahr like Lincoln was a leader carrying on a long war on many fronts; almost single-handed he had moved pictures sharply forward through a decade, to a point where the content of the 'A productions' was wider and richer than that of the stage. Stahr was an artist only, as Mr. Lincoln was a general, perforce and as a layman” (106). Stahr himself, with his efforts and his values, alone makes the connection with the past a meaningful one, alone gives Hollywood its significant link with the national destiny. The gap between Stahr and his environment, between destiny grasped and destiny mocked, is brilliantly conveyed in the scene of Stahr's telephone call from the “President.” Thinking it is President Roosevelt, with whom he has talked before, Stahr is impressed, formal, eager—then crestfallen. For the call in reality is from an agent or publicity man trying to interest Stahr in an orang-outang which resembles President McKinley.
Why is Stahr, though, the significant one among so many others outwardly like him? “He was a rationalist,” Cecilia explains his indifference to Marxism, “who did his own reasoning without benefit of books—and he had just managed to climb out of a thousand years of Jewry into the late eighteenth century. He could not bear to see it melt away—he cherished the parvenu's passionate loyalty to an imaginary past” (118). Yet surely he was neither the only emancipated Jew nor the only parvenu on the studio lot. Earlier, in a lyrical flight of romantic imagination, Cecilia envisions him soaring high on strong wings. “And while he was up there he had looked on all the kingdoms, with the kind of eyes that can stare straight into the sun. Beating his wings tenaciously—finally frantically—and keeping on beating them, he had stayed up there longer than most of us, and then, remembering all he had seen from his great height of how things were, he had settled gradually to earth” (20). But Cecilia's fancy is hardly consistent with her unsentimental honesty and wry sense of ironies; nor does her image of Stahr's foresight explain his particular capacity for leadership, why he was “a marker in industry like Edison and Lumière and Griffith and Chaplin” who “led pictures way up past the range and power of the theatre, reaching a sort of golden age, before the censorship” (28). “ACTION IS CHARACTER,” Fitzgerald reminded himself in capital letters in his notes, and by showing Stahr's qualities of leadership in action Fitzgerald intended to demonstrate rather than simply proclaim his special nature.
Stahr was an artist, Boxley thought, only perforce and as a layman—an artist first in life, as a necessary condition for making his artistry effective among professionals. Significantly Stahr reveals the particular nature of his artistry in the scenes with the skeptical Englishman, who questions the value of movies themselves as an art. In the first scene Boxley comes in angry and disgusted at his collaborators, at the very nature of the form. Stahr begins to talk: “Suppose you're in your office… A pretty stenographer that you've seen before comes into the room and you watch her—idly.” Stahr describes her taking off her gloves, opening her purse and dumping out the contents. He stands up and throws his own keys on the table. The girl, he continues his story, puts her gloves in the stove and is about to light it. The telephone rings. She answers it, speaks, hangs up, goes back to the stove and lights the match. “You glance around very suddenly and see that there's another man in the office, watching every move the girl makes—” (32). Stahr puts his keys away. He has vividly conveyed a sense of dramatic action, and Boxley is won over.
In the second scene with Boxley, Stahr demonstrates his theatrical sense once more. He takes Boxley with him to a stalemated script conference. “He took some change out of his pocket, looked up at the suspended light and tossed up half a dollar, which clanked into the bowl. He looked at the coins in his hands and selected a quarter” (106). For half an hour four or five men pitch coins into the light fixture while Boxley works over the script. Suddenly Boxley speaks up with criticism and new ideas. “Pitching the coins had done it as much as Boxley. Stahr had re-created the proper atmosphere—never consenting to be a driver of the driven, but feeling like and acting like and even sometimes looking like a small boy getting up a show” (107). Action is character and Stahr acts with a subtle sense of dramatic movement, with a capacity for involving others in his schemes, like a small boy getting up a show: Stahr, like Gatsby and Dick Diver, like half a hundred characters in Fitzgerald's short stories, is the willful young man of clever imagination, the genteel romantic hero. But just before the note, “ACTION IS CHARACTER,” Fitzgerald had warned himself, “Don't wake the Tarkington ghosts” (163). Monroe Stahr's character is drawn within the basic framework of genteel romantic heroism, but with Stahr more than with any other of his heroes Fitzgerald thrust away the formulas of Victorian sentiment and conservative evasion, and shaped the character by developed artistic and intellectual conceptions of his own.
As Fitzgerald conceived the character of Monroe Stahr he brought the special nature of his hero to its consummation. His genteel heroes in the past had been creative figures who constructed social settings out of their imaginations—Gatsby's orgiastic parties with their regenerative function, Dick Diver's manners which recognized each person's proud uniqueness, gave each one back his blurred and buried self. Yet in each case the hero regarded his creative role as mere entertainment, a brief expedient as substitute for, or means toward, fulfilling romantic dreams of love. Neither man took up the role, moreover, with a fully conscious commitment: Gatsby assumed it out of a vast romanticism and a grand naïveté, Dick Diver from force of circumstance and personal weakness. Each in his own way was shaped by the ghostly Tarkington qualities Fitzgerald now cautioned himself against, the qualities of the romantic young man convinced that society offered him love and wealth in return for his talents and his good behavior. Both The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night dramatize, in different ways, the tragic or pathetic consequences of this false belief. But not until Monroe Stahr in The Last Tycoon was Fitzgerald capable of creating a genteel romantic hero in complete command and fully committed to his special powers.
In The Last Tycoon the character of Monroe Stahr was not meant to be the sole support for the novel's central themes, but rather the means whereby Fitzgerald drew them together into a unified whole. Stahr is the genteel romantic hero raised to the status of a creative figure by the practical nature of his leadership in the motion-picture industry, an industry dedicated to entertainment on a grander and more ambitious scale than any other, ever, in history. He had begun his rise to power from the base where all Fitzgerald's significant genteel heroes started, the romantic dreams and social aspirations of the middle-class young man on the make; and it is his nature as a genteel romantic hero that gives meaning to Cecilia Brady's observation that “he cherished the parvenu's passionate loyalty to an imaginary past” (118). The past to which Stahr gave his loyalty— the past of Lincoln, the eighteenth-century values of honor and duty—may have been an imaginary past, but how could there be a connection at all with the past, a historical destiny for the nation, without someone to imagine it? When Stahr spoke, he made even so cynical and indifferent a man as Wylie White feel “a great purpose-fulness. The mixture of common sense, wise sensibility, theatrical ingenuity, and a certain half-naïve conception of the common weal which Stahr had just stated aloud, inspired him to do his part, to get his block of stone in place, even if the effort were foredoomed, the result as dull as a pyramid” (43). Common sense, wise sensibility, theatrical ingenuity, and a half-naïve conception of the common weal—in sum, the genteel romantic hero, brought to his full stature at last. “There's always some lousy condition…,” Stahr says to Boxley. “Our condition is that we have to take people's own favorite folklore and dress it up and give it back to them. Anything beyond that is sugar. So won't you give us some sugar, Mr. Boxley?” (105).
Monroe Stahr is the perfect model of F. Scott Fitzgerald's genteel romantic hero, in the perfect position for his talents. If in the uncompleted portion of the novel Stahr was to be defeated by social and economic forces he could not control, it was not to be a sign of weakness in himself, but of his full participation in the movement of national history, his submersion in a social destiny larger than the self. Fitzgerald had come a long way with the stereotyped character he had inherited from the sentimental novels and boys' stories of the Gilded Age. From Amory Blaine forward he had tried to wrest the willful young man of creative imagination away from the conservative role in a stable social setting which genteel literature had established for him, to explore his traits and talents with the styles and techniques of modern literature, to state his plight in relevant post-World War social and economic terms. With The Great Gatsby he re-created the genteel hero as a grand and tragic figure, and wished then to turn to something else. But he had not said his last about the genteel hero, and in Tender Is the Night he extended his themes in a different way. Again he felt he was done with genteel heroism as a subject, and then again he changed his mind.
With The Last Tycoon Fitzgerald returned once more to the tradition in which he had worked throughout his career, reaffirming his connection with the literary past, unifying and confirming his effort to make past themes and values live again by stating them anew. How far he had come from the ghosts of Booth Tarkington and genteel American literature he made clear by his understanding that his father's sense of honor and duty belonged to the eighteenth century rather than the Victorian age, and by associating Monroe Stahr's vision of an imaginary past, his half-naive conception of a common weal, with the eighteenth century, too. In a way Fitzgerald was making articulate for the first time in years his realization, back in the early twenties, of the difference between plutocrats and aristocrats, a distinction of central importance in his career, which cleared away the confusions of The Beautiful and Damned and made possible the subtle renderings of wealth and values in The Great Gatsby.
In his final conception of the genteel romantic hero, Fitzgerald demonstrated with greater clarity and depth than ever before why, in no small way, he was an original. In the genteel American literature of Fitzgerald's youth, the romantic hero devoted his talents to the plutocrats, to the class that ruled because of wealth. Fitzgerald tore this figure down and in his major novels re-created him. His romantic heroes, resembling the genteel, stereotype in all outward aspects, gave their loyalties to an aristocratic sense of virtue that seemed once to have existed in an older America. They were visionaries of a moral order that the American past made available to them, even if an imaginary one; and the tragedy and pathos of their individual lives bound them essentially to the nation's destiny. Show me a hero, Fitzgerald had said, and I will write you a tragedy. Fitzgerald's genteel romantic heroes were real heroes, men with the audacity and imagination and skill to create their visions of felicity in a living social setting; and their defeats were not only tragedies of the self, but tragedies for the society that bore them and yet could not sustain them. Throughout his career Fitzgerald never rested content with his intellect and accomplished artistry, but struggled always in his novels toward a firmer understanding of the moral qualities and values he dramatized in conflict, toward a finer control over his art. In his generation of American novelists F. Scott Fitzgerald filled the role of Laocoön. He was the Last Laocoön; the last until another novelist succeeds him.