Scott knocked while Zelda waited, ladylike, by his side. Carmel Myers, the star, opened the door and welcomed the Fitzgeralds to the party and to Hollywood. Miss Myers led the famous author and his legendary wife into the living room where stars, producers, directors, and even a few screenwriters waited. Graciously, she guided the newcomers from celebrity to celebrity the way Jay Gatsby guided Tom and Daisy when they came to his party.
The Fitzgeralds had earned their invitation several years before in Rome where they met Carmel Myers on the set of Ben Hur and watched as cameras recorded her diminutive beauty against a backdrop of “bigger and grander papier-mache arenas than the real ones.” On Miss Myers’ bookshelf stood a copy of The Great Gatsby, a souvenir of those days in Rome; it was inscribed, “For Carmel Myers from her Corrupter F. Scott Fitzgerald. ’Don’t cry, little girl, maybe some day someone will come along who’ll make you a dishonest woman.’” The Fitzgeralds had shown the star a good time in Europe and now she wanted them to have a good time in California. She got what she wanted. No one enjoyed her party more than Scott and Zelda, although a good many guests, most of them women, enjoyed it considerably less.
Like two children being shown off by their parents, Scott and Zelda dutifully said how-do-you-do to all of the people to whom they were introduced, then disappeared to carry on with their games. They had heard a lot about this new Babylon, this Hollywood, but it wasn’t living up to its reputation—the Fitzgeralds planned to change that. They found the cloak room, filled their arms with ladies’ purses and headed for the kitchen.
Miss Myers was one of the first to smell something burning. She joined in the rush to the kitchen to look for the fire. There the hostess and her guests discovered Scott and Zelda, weak with laughter. On the stove stood a giant pot and inside were all the purses, boiling merrily in tomato sauce.
The year was 1927. Fitzgerald had been threatening to come to Hollywood ever since 1925 when he published a book which failed to make him much money. There were those in Hollywood who came to wish that the book had done better.
In 1925 Charlie Chaplin appeared on the screen in The Gold Rush; Rene Clair completed his fine picture Imaginary Voyage; Sergei M. Eisenstein, the Russian master of montage, won worldwide recognition with his classic Potemkin (which Fitzgerald saw and admired); and Fitzgerald himself published The Great Gatsby. In writing his novel, the author drew upon material he had gathered while living in Great Neck, Long Island—a town which he shared with the great Florenz Ziegfeld. Lillian Russell also lived there as did George M. Cohan and many other show people, since the town was only half an hour by Long Island Railroad Express from Broadway. These people had lost little time in making their mark on the village they adopted. Many of their mansions, great white elephants like Gatsby’s own, would have been more at home on the Great White Way than they were stuck out on pastoral Long Island. Gene Buck’s garish castle was one of these. Buck, Ziegfeld’s chief assistant, had had his house decorated by the Follies’ stage manager, and Ring Lardner said that the living room looked like “the Yale Bowl—with lamps.”
In the novel, Gatsby is not legitimately a member of the show-business community in which he lives. He is not a legitimate anything: he is a bootlegger (or so we suspect). Yet he is an actor all the same. “If personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures,” Fitzgerald wrote, “then there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promise of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” The pose, the act, the personality—they all cohere in the author’s mind.
And if Gatsby is something of an actor, he is also something of an inspired Ziegfeld (after all they were neighbors) and P. T. Barnum. In fact, the shadow of show business hovers over all the spectacular parties which Gatsby throws: we come to see them as a sort of Gatsby’s Follies. He produces them like a show, not for himself, but for an audience—an audience of one and her name is Daisy Buchanan. The house, the lavish entertainments—they are only the props for the great love story which he hopes to stage.
When Daisy and her husband Tom Buchanan finally do attend one of Gatsby’s parties, their host points out a “scarcely human orchid of a woman,” a motion-picture star. “The man bending over her,” Gatsby tells Daisy, “is her director.” Jay has just shown the girl he loves an emblem of what he hopes he and she may become. She is his star, his green light, and he knows that she is a woman who needs a director, one like himself. But Daisy does not see the similarity and admires only the girl, who is in a sense her own reflection. The show has been wasted on her. “She was appalled by West Egg, this unprecedented ’place’ that Broadway had begotten upon a Long Island fishing village…” And because she disapproves, the follies close—to be replaced by a tragedy.
Gatsby was followed in February 1926 by the customary collection of stories, this one called All the Sad Young Men. In “Rags Martin-Jones and the Pr-nce of W-les,” one of the stories in this volume, Gatsby’s follies are transformed into John Chestnut’s. Heroine Rags has always wanted to meet the Prince of Wales, so, like Toby in “The Offshore Pirate,” hero John goes out and hires some actors, one to play the Prince, the rest to make up his entourage. When the party is over and Rags knows that she has been tricked, John tells her what Gatsby might have told Daisy, “Don’t you see? I made up the whole thing for you.” The evening has given Rags the “second greatest thrill of her life” and she falls in love with the man who staged it for her.
“The Adjuster,” tells the story of a spoiled young wife whose husband falls desperately ill and needs her to nurse him. The doctor tells her:
“We make an agreement with children that they can sit in the audience without helping to make the play… but if they still sit in the audience after they’re grown, somebody’s got to work double time for them, so that they can enjoy the light and glitter of the world… It’s your turn to be the center, to give others what was given to you for so long… The light and glitter of the world is in your hands. ”
The Great Gatsby was adapted for the stage by Owen Davis. When the play opened on Broadway in February 1926, Percy Hammond wrote, “The speech of the characters is retained in much of its clear-cut veracity, and the ’atmosphere’ of Long Island’s more rakish sectors is pretty well served… The Great Gatsby in the theater is at least half as satisfactory an entertainment as it is in the book.” The old Triangle Club veteran finally had his Broadway hit, even if it had come to him secondhand. Not long after, the movies bought Gatsby. The profits from stage and screen production totaled somewhere between thirty-three thousand and thirty-eight thousand dollars for the author. Fitzgerald was living his own themes—show business and money were coming together in support of the author’s romantic approach to life. Living in France, he never saw Gatsby on stage, but that summer the author made the rounds of the Paris night spots with James Rennie, the actor who played Jay on Broadway.
Fitzgerald was well versed in night spots by then and must have been a good guide. In fact, through most of 1926 he had done little more than “sit in the audience” watching the workaday world “work double time” for his pleasure. His entire production for the year amounted to only “Your Way and Mine,” “The Dance,” and “How to Waste Material.” Then at the end of the year he stirred. If the “light and glitter of the world” were in his hands, then the biggest show in town was the movies. In Arthur Mizener’s words, movies “offered Fitzgerald what always drew him, a Diamond-as-Big-as-the-Ritz scale of operation, a world ’bigger and grander’ than the ordinary world.” Besides, by the end of 1926, Fitzgerald already needed more money if, like Gatsby, he was to keep up his efforts to live like the very rich. To finance his dreams, Jay had turned to bootlegging; Scott himself chose pictures. He had written Maxwell Perkins in April 1925 that if Gatsby “will support me with no more intervals of trash I’ll go on as a novelist. If not, I’m going to quit, come home, go to Hollywood and learn the movie business.”
Scott received the telegram which allowed him to carry out his threat on the last day of the year 1926. The message came from John W. Considine, a director at First National Pictures, and said:
AM STILL INTERESTED IN GETTING FINE MODERN COLLEGE STORY FOR CONSTANCE TALMADGE AND WOULD LIKE TO HAVE YOU WORK ON STORY WITH ME IN LOS ANGELES STOP IN ORDER TO FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF WITH SCREEN PERSONALITY OF MISS TALMADGE WOULD LIKE YOU TO SEE FOLLOWING PICTURES QUOTE HER NIGHT OF ROMANCE UNQUOTE QUOTE SISTER FROM PARIS UNQUOTE QUOTE DUCHESS OF BUFFALO UNQUOTE… FAMILIAR WITH YOUR CAREER AND WORK IN FACT BELIEVE I WAS AT YALE WHILE YOU WERE AT PRINCETON THEREFORE IT OUGHT TO BE EASY FOR US TO UNDERSTAND ONE ANOTHER AND WORK WELL TOGETHER.
So it was that the author of This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby began the new year, 1927, with a new job. He was off to the studios, the back lots and false fronts of the movie world.
At first Fitzgerald was so secretive about his trip to Hollywood that one might have thought him a novelist spy on his way to steal the movies’ formula for mass entertainment. Perhaps he even thought of himself as an enemy agent: he had an idea for a novel which he wanted to write about Hollywood types, but to bring it off he would need to know more about movieland. On January 4, 1927, just before he left the East, he wired Perkins: GOING TO THE COAST FOR THREE WEEKS CONFIDENTIAL ADDRESS FIRST NATIONAL PICTURES HOLLYWOOD HAPPY NEW YEAR.
Fitzgerald, fresh from ancient Europe and centuries-old New York, was impressed by Los Angeles; the city seemed to have just come from its wrappings. He and Zelda would walk or motor through Beverly Hills and carefully inspect the show-business colony which looked like a bigger and gaudier Great Neck. The author would later describe this star-encrusted community in “Magnetism,” a story based on his 1927 trip to Hollywood:
The pleasant, ostentatious boulevard was lined at prosperous intervals with New England Colonial houses—without ship models in the hall. When the inhabitants moved out here the ship models had at last been given to the children. The next street was a complete exhibit of the Spanish-bungalow phase of West Coast architecture; while two streets over, the cylindrical windows and round towers of 1897—melancholy antiques which sheltered swamis, yogis, fortune tellers, dressmakers, dancing teachers, art academies and chiropractors—looked down upon brisk buses and trolley cars. A little walk around the block could, if you were feeling old that day, be a discouraging affair… Everything in the vicinity—even the March sunlight—was new, fresh, hopeful and thin, as you would expect in a city that had tripled its population in fifteen years.
The Fitzgeralds moved into the fashionable Ambassador Hotel, where they shared a four-apartment bungalow with John Barrymore, author Carl Van Vechten, and their old friend Carmel Myers.
The confidential nature of Fitzgerald’s visit to Hollywood was dealt a damaging blow when the author finally reported for work. He drove out a winding concrete road and discovered in the emptiness of the hills a group of buildings—a barnlike edifice, offices all in a row, a commissary, and half a dozen bungalows. That was the studio, and a big welcome awaited the big-name author there. First National (later Warner Brothers) did not plan to make a secret of the fact that they had F. Scott Fitzgerald working for them. Zelda later recalled:
We paid homage to the pale aloof concision of Diana Manners’ primitive beauty, and dined at Pickfair to marvel at Mary Pickford’s dynamic subjugation of life. A thoughtful limousine carried us for California hours to be properly moved by the fragility of Lillian Gish, too aspiring for life, clinging vine-like to occultisms.
And there were parties to which the party couple of the decade were invited. Parties like those described in “Magnetism,” where
the guests were largely of the old crowd. People who had been in the early Griffith pictures, even though they were scarcely thirty, were considered to be the old crowd; they were different from those coming along now, and they were conscious of it. They had a dignity and straightforwardness about them from the fact that they had worked in pictures before pictures were bathed in a golden haze of success. They were still rather humble before their amazing triumph, and thus, unlike the new generation who took it all for granted, they were constantly in touch with reality.
Sometimes, however, Fitzgerald himself seemed to catch the disease of those who took success for granted. The movies and wealth were locked up in the same purse in his imagination, the one implying the other, and so one night Scott made the Hollywood skies literally rain down money in silver puddles. “Scott asked the clerk of the Ambassador Hotel for one hundred dollars in coins,” remembers H. N. Swanson, who would act as the writers’ Hollywood agent a decade later. “Then he started throwing handfuls of silver up against the hotel windows, shouting, ’It’s money, it’s money, it’s money! It’s free!’”
Soon the Fitzgeralds were not only no longer secretive—at some parties they even, in the words of one columnist, made themselves “conspicuous by [their] presence.” The night the columnist had in mind was the one when Scott and Zelda boiled the ladies’ purses. Later that same night, the couple retreated to the parking lot of the Ambassador, their spirits still high. With them were Reginald Simpson and James Montgomery Flagg, a man who looked something like Uncle Sam in the I WANT YOU poster. The resemblance may not have been accidental. Flagg, an illustrator, drew the wizened gent for what he used to refer to as the most famous poster in the world. Zelda was serenading the long-faced old man, singing a ballad about a maison de joie. When they grew restless, Scott gave the hotel clerk a fifty-dollar bribe to cash a check; then they hired a car. At four o’clock in the morning, the quartet started off in search of writer John Monk Saunders. Zelda said that he was too successful with women and that they should do something about it. She had some drastic measures in mind.
In his autobiography Flagg remembered the rest of the evening this way:
At last we stopped at the foot of a tall hill and Reg and I decided to let the Fitzgeralds get out and climb up to see if it really happened to be the right place. We thought we’d prefer having the pants bitten off the Fitzgeralds by a possible bulldog. They found Saunders in and called down to us. It was okay and we climbed up through the Jap garden to the house where Saunders was in his pajamas and a Sulka dressing robe and sandals; smiling imperturbably and getting drinks as if nothing surprised him. He turned on his phonograph and we set about chatting, with the exception of Mrs. F., who in prowling around found a pair of editor’s shears and then sat down next to Saunders on a lounge, pulled open his robe and took a deep inhalation, then called:
“Scott, come here. John smells lovely!”
Scott went over and sat on the other side of Saunders and they buried their noses in his manly chest. They sighed luxuriously. Nothing fazed Saunders. Then Mrs. F. remembered the shears and began gently urging her host to let her perform a quick operation on him, explaining with quiet eloquence that his earthly troubles would be over if he would submit.
Saunders “firmly but politely” declined emasculation.
On the way back to the Ambassador, Fitzgerald turned around from time to time to peer at Flagg in the back seat. Disgusted, Scott would say, “God! But you look old!”
When the illustrator finally extricated himself safely from the Fitzgeralds’ lives, he vowed not to get to know them better. “If I had ever seen them again,” Flagg wrote, “it would have been too soon… These charming young people.”
But if Fitzgerald made some enemies on his first tour in Hollywood, he also made some friends. As he later wrote his daughter, “Hollywood made a big fuss over us and the ladies all looked very beautiful to a man of thirty.” To one of his cousins, Scott wrote, “This is a tragic city of beautiful girls— the girls who mop the floor are beautiful, the waitresses, the shop ladies.”
One of the ladies who looked the most beautiful was a young actress named Lois Moran. Miss Moran wanted Fitzgerald to be her leading man in a film and he seems to have wanted the same thing, so she arranged a screen test for him just as Rosemary Hoyt would later arrange one for Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night. Dick, profiting from his creator’s hindsight, is allowed to take a superior attitude, but Fitzgerald himself went before the cameras. The studio, however, decided not to make him a star. The old dream of the drama of love and show-business drama actually coalescing into one and the same thing had to be put off once again. But like all things which might have been, it was easily imagined: so Fitzgerald wrote in “Magnetism” about an actor much like himself who plays opposite a young actress much like Miss Moran.
He gave the actress the name Helen Avery and described her as “a dark, pretty girl with a figure that would be full-blown sooner than she wished. She was just eighteen.” The actor, age thirty, is called George Hanaford, and we are told that “he had determined, when he saw Helen Avery’s first release, that she should play opposite him.”
He hadn’t said a word to Helen Avery that Kay [his wife] could have objected to, but something had begun between them on the second day of this picture that Kay had felt in the air… He had felt that they both tolerated something, that each knew half of some secret about people and life, and that if they rushed toward each other there would be a romantic communion of almost unbelievable intensity. It was this element of promise and possibility that had haunted him for a fortnight and was now dying away.
But even as the feeling died, Fitzgerald’s hero was still absorbed by the memory of it.
There was in his mind, first, a horror that anyone should come between him and Kay, and second, a regret that he no longer carried that possibility in the forefront of his mind. It had given him a tremendous pleasure, like the things that had happened to him during his first big success, before he was so “made” that there was scarcely anything better ahead; it was something to take out and look at—a new and still mysterious joy.
Sometimes Fitzgerald was a little overly secretive about his screenplay. One morning Carl Van Vechten saw him walking up and down in front of his bungalow, trying to compose in his head.
“Scott, come here!” Van Vechten called, meaning to be friendly.
“I can’t,” Fitzgerald shouted back, “I’ve got scarlet fever.”
Why was the project so secret? Appropriately, it did have to do with a small, bomb-shaped object which could have been dangerous. That is, it had to do with a stick of magic lipstick, one guaranteed to draw men, guaranteed to make a girl magnetic. In “Magnetism,” the story about Hollywood which Fitzgerald later wrote, George Hanaford discovers that to possess a magnetic personality is to be faced with special, ironic responsibilities. Later, some of this same magnetism—along with much of the prose in the story—would be carried over into Tender Is the Night, where Dick Diver’s charm would draw many into his circle. But that was literature. Lipstick was only a movie and Fitzgerald was not yet ready to take movies seriously, so the magnetism here is simply exploited as a gimmick, a magician’s trick.
Nineteen twenty-seven was the year of the spectacular: Metro’s Ben Hur and Cecil B. De Mille’s The King of Kings were drawing big audiences all across the country and Carl Dreyer was just completing The Passion of Joan of Arc. It was also the year of sound! The Jazz Singer would have its premier in October and revolutionize the industry. But for Fitzgerald it was the year of Lipstick. He was still thinking like a latter-day Georges Melies, the French magician who created film sleight of hand with his Little Red Ridinghood and A Trip to the Moon in 1901 and 1902.
First National paid Fitzgerald thirty-five hundred dollars down on Lipstick; another twelve thousand five hundred was to follow if the studio accepted the finished script. The man who was to pass on the script was John Considine, who had a bad reputation among writers, “He was a college graduate,” says Edwin Knopf, “but that doesn’t mean too much.” Frances and Albert Hackett remember Considine this way: “He was our first producer—he didn’t know anything. Oh that dreadful man! For Scott to be linked with him… ! He read with a blue pencil in his hand ready to mark up the script. One day he was reading one of our scripts and he crossed out a line. ’That’s not necessary,’ he said. We said, ’Wait until you read the next page.’ He had no conception of setting something up on one page that wouldn’t be developed until a page or two later.” Nor was the producer a particularly keen judge of new talent, according to the Hacketts. “We suggested Fred Astaire to him,” they recall. “We had worked with Fred in New York. When Considine saw Fred’s test, he thought that Fred was the most awful thing that he had ever seen.”
In short, Fitzgerald already had problems even before he started writing. After he started, he had even more.
The picture was to star Constance Talmadge, a film flapper whom Fitzgerald admired. In Tender Is the Night the director Earl Brady would tell Rosemary, “Rather make a picture with you than any girl since Connie Talmadge was a kid. ”
The screenplay which Fitzgerald wrote for Miss Talmadge was essentially a Cinderella story, but heroine Dolly Carroll is more than a prisoner of circumstance, figuratively chained to the fireplace—she is really in jail. She has no stepsisters, but she does have pictures of debutantes and movie stars pinned up around her cell to make her feel like a nobody. The captions beneath the pictures read: “Miss Mimi Haughton Presented to Society at Dinner Dance at the Plaza”: “Flapper Army Besieges Mayor for Mother’s Relief”: “’Necking Parties on Wane’ Say Club Women.” Fitzgerald wrote, “These are life to her—the world outside.” But for Dolly, as for many others less literally imprisoned by American society, pictures in a newspaper seem to be about as close as she will ever get to the Roaring Twenties or the American Dream.
Then one day a group of visitors from an unnamed university (one much like Princeton) come to see Dolly and all the other specimens locked behind Hamlin Prison’s bars. Among them is Ben Manny, who is described as
what used to be known as a “superior person”—that is he is sure of himself, he knows that his position in this world is based on solid rock of confidence and plenty and this has given him an air of “Who are you, anyhow?” toward those whose breeding he suspects… In a way he is like this university—a symbol of its type.
When Ben sees Dolly, he grumbles to his instructor, “Bunch of degenerates, Professor.” When Dolly sees Ben, she falls in love. As Ben leaves the prison, Dolly goes up and stares into the newsprint eyes of one of the debutantes gracing her cell wall. “You wait,” she promises Mimi Haughton’s picture. “I’ll catch up with you.”
The rest of the script details Dolly’s race to overtake the privileged class. She is freed from prison, inherits money, and is given a stick of magnetic lipstick—the latter evidently proving that magic is the great leveler in society. Dolly even gets an invitation to the university prom, but it comes not from Ben but from his professor.
Fitzgerald’s best comic scene takes place at a faculty banquet to which this academician drags Dolly. All of the deans, professors, assistant professors, and instructors are shrouded in black robes and mortarboards. It is the kind of banquet where the dinner music should be “Pomp and Circumstance”—except for one thing: someone has stolen all of the silverware, and the distinguished pedagogues are reduced to eating with “half-pint spoons of tin or wood, toasting forks with two prongs, carving knives, pancake turners, cleavers, even an egg beater.” The novelist of manners had produced a convincing slapstick of manners which depended for its effect on the decorum expected of university professors who even as they dine throw “horrified glances at one another.”
In Lipstick Fitzgerald set out to show that the universities have a lot in common with prisons, and that debutantes and undergraduates could be as dishonest as thieves. The final scenes leading up to the climactic larceny take place at the prom itself where Dolly, wearing the magic lipstick, attracts dance partners the way an heiress attracts proposals. Among her admirers is the same haughty Ben Manny who called Dolly a “degenerate” when he saw her in prison. Ben’s date is Mimi Haughton, the newspaper debutante, who soon grows criminally jealous of the magnetic ex-con. The plot develops as many twists and turns as the university’s Wedding Stair, with chases, locked doors, and, in the end, theft: Mimi steals Dolly’s lipstick, but it is all to no avail and she almost winds up in jail herself. The girl with the prison record wins Ben; the debutante with the pedigree comes up empty-handed.
Fitzgerald came up empty-handed, too: he never got the twelve thousand five hundred which was to be paid on acceptance of his script. In the year of the spectacular, Lipstick must have seemed too rickety a vehicle to enter against Ben Hur’s chariots at the box office. In April, long after Scott had left Hollywood, he received a wire from Considine:
DEAR SCOTT VERY SORRY TO HAVE NEGLECTED YOU SO LONG STOP WE HAVE DECIDED NOT TO PRODUCE PICTURE BASED ON YOUR STORY STOP EVERYONE THINKS THE BEGINNING OB PREMISE CONTAINS EXCEPTIONALLY FINE MATERIAL BUT THAT REST OF STORY IS WEAK STOP… SUGGEST YOU SUBMIT STORY TO B P SCHULBERG ASSOCIATE PRODUCER FAMOUS PLAYERS LASKY CORPORATION LOS ANGELES AND ASK HIM TO CONSIDER SAME FOR BEBE DANIELS STOP BELIEVE IT INADVISABLE FOR YOU TO MENTION MY NAME IN THIS CONNECTION STOP.
The author later explained his Hollywood failure this way:
At that time I had been generally acknowledged for several years as the top American writer both seriously and, as far as prices went, popularly. I… was confident to the point of conceit… I honestly believed that with no effort on my part I was a sort of magician with words—an odd delusion on my part when I had worked so desperately hard to develop a hard, colorful prose style.
And there perhaps lies Lipstick’s comic flaw—not in the conceit but in the belief that a “hard, colorful prose style” had anything to do with writing a good silent picture. For what Fitzgerald wrote for the studio was not so much a scenario as a short story. It begins:
School was over. The happy children, their books swinging carelessly at a strap’s end, tripped out into the Spring fields— Wait a minute, that’s the wrong story.
It was the wrong story—yes, also the wrong medium. We can almost hear the Hollywood pro saying How do you photograph that? In fact, from beginning to end we find ideas and emotions which could never be photographed. For instance, at one point we are told that Dolly is “so lonesome that she [tries] to look as if she hopes no one will speak to her.” If an actress followed these instructions, however, we would probably take her act at face value and miss the loneliness behind the mask.
But if much of Lipstick is inept and some of it simply old-fashioned, there are at the same time flashes of prophecy. For one thing, Fitzgerald’s prom scenes were far ahead of their time. “Looked at from above,” he wrote, “the prom resolved itself into a central circle of closely packed stags around which hub revolved the varicolored wheel of dancers.” Three years later Busby Berkeley came to Hollywood to make Whoopee with an idea much like Fitzgerald’s: since he saw no reason why screen dance numbers should be mere reprints of stage numbers, he put a camera up in the flies, shot straight down on the dancers, and with this trick made his fortune.
Fitzgerald’s choice of heroine in Lipstick also affords a glimpse of things to come. When the author first arrived in Hollywood, a reporter asked him how the flappers of the screen differed from the ones he had popularized in his fiction. Fitzgerald said that he would rather talk about Tom Mix. Evidently he was tired of his name being associated with wild debutantes. In Lipstick, therefore, he showed the flapper fallen from innocence and comically involved in a life of crime, purse snatching, and husband snaring. With the elevation of a girl like Dolly Carroll to heroine we are already pointed in the direction of Kathleen, heroine of The Last Tycoon. In his notes for that last unfinished novel, Fitzgerald says of his heroine what he might well have said of Dolly: “People simply do not sympathize deeply with those who have had all the breaks, and I am going to dower this girl, like Rosalba in Thackeray’s Rose and the Ring, with ’a little misfortune.’”
Fitzgerald went away without the big money, but perhaps one afternoon spent in the MGM commissary made the whole adventure worthwhile. It was there that the author who wrote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy,” got acquainted with Irving Thalberg. Thalberg, who was head of production at Metro, was then dating the girl who was to have starred in Lipstick, Constance Talmadge. Since both men were in a sense courting her—the one professionally, the other romantically— they were thrown together. One day they met over lunch in Metro’s Lion’s Den. It was the first time Fitzgerald had ever been alone with Hollywood’s wonder boy and he listened closely to what the other man said. Years later he would recall the conversation as follows:
… he said, “Scottie, supposing there’s got to be a road through a mountain—a railroad, and two or three surveyors and people come to you and you believe some of them and some of them you don’t believe, but all in all, there seem to be half a dozen possible roads through those mountains, each one of which, so far as you can determine, is as good as the other. Now suppose you happen to be the top man, there’s a point where you don’t exercise the faculty of judgment in the ordinary way, but simply the faculty of arbitrary decision. You say, ’Well, I think we will put the road there,’ and you trace it with your finger and you know in your secret heart, and no one else knows that you have no reason for putting the road there rather than in several other different courses, but you’re the only person that knows that you don’t know why you’re doing it and you’ve got to stick to that and you’ve got to pretend that you know and that you did it for specific reasons, even though you’re utterly assailed by doubts at the time as to the wisdom of your decision, because all these other possible decisions keep echoing in your ear. But when you’re planning a new enterprise on a grand scale, the people under you mustn’t ever know or guess that you’re in any doubt, because they’ve all got to have something to look up to and they mustn’t ever dream that you’re in doubt about any decision. Those things keep occurring.”
At that point, some other people came into the commissary and sat down, and the first thing I knew there was a group of four and the intimacy of the conversation was broken, but I was very much impressed by the shrewdness of what he had said—something more than shrewdness—by the largeness of what he thought and how he reached it at the age of twenty-six, which he was then.
Thalberg had already been running a major studio for six years.
In 1927 the Fitzgeralds’ road lay east through the mountains to Wilmington, Delaware, and a house called Ellerslie. As their last Hollywood gesture, they stacked all the furniture in the center of their Ambassador Hotel room, and at the top of this impromptu altar they placed all their unpaid bills. Then they left and Scott pronounced the movie capital a town of “almost hysterical egotism and excitability hidden under an extremely thin veil of elaborate good-fellowship.” Lois Moran wired them: BOOTLEGGERS GONE OUT OF BUSINESS COTTON CLUB CLOSED ALL FLAGS AT HALF MAST… BOTTLES OF LOVE TO YOU BOTH.
But four years later Scott Fitzgerald was back on the Hollywood road once again. This time when he arrived, his boss was the young man who had talked to him about roads in the commissary that day. Thalberg himself handed the author his new assignment: make Jean Harlow a star.
Published as Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald In Hollywood by John Aaron Latham (New York: Viking P, 1971).