At home, Tara, Scarlett O’Hara stood at the top of a tall staircase like a fine porcelain teapot high up out of reach on the top shelf of the china closet. Beneath her at the foot of the stairs stood handsome Rhett Butler. But of course it wasn’t really Tara. It was Belly Acres. And it wasn’t really Scarlett. It was Sheilah— the former chorus girl who wanted to be an actress but who had settled for gossip columnist—playing Vivien Leigh playing Scarlett O’Hara. Nor was it really Rhett. It was Scott—the acting hopeful who had flunked out of the movies in 1927 when his screen test flopped—playing Clark Gable playing Rhett Butler. They were acting out the staircase scene to help Scott with his writing. He had worked on the scene for a week, asking himself, “What would she say to him? What would he say to her?”— until finally he and his helper decided simply to play the scene and find out what got said. Sheilah scampered to the top of their winding staircase and struck a strained pose; Scott took his place at the bottom. Nor was it enough for him to be the leading man and the writer in this production—he made himself the director as well. “Now, slowly,” he told Sheilah, “—keep your eyes on me—”
Slowly, her head and skirts lifted, the mock Scarlett began her descent. From below Scott looked up and smiled that half smile he had learned back in the twenties, back when the public considered him one of the great lovers and Clark Gable was nothing but a heavy playing in road shows.
“Miss O’Hara,” he said.
Scarlett waved an imaginary fan. “Captain Butler, I believe.”
Rhett Butler broke up laughing.
Sheilah’s reserved Scarlett suddenly gave way to a little girl skittering down the stairs and into her captain’s arms. “Am I really such an awful actress?” she asked. “I tried to help.”
Scott didn’t hesitate. “Sheilah,” he said, “it might be better if I work it out on paper.”
The man whom Fitzgerald was trying to “work it out” for was David O. Selznick, L. B. Mayer’s son-in-law. When Selznick had been moved into Thalberg’s old job as head of production at Metro back in 1933, the movie world wisecracked, “The son-in-law also rises.” But Selznick left MGM and his father-in-law’s wing in 1935 to found his own independent company, Selznick International. The next year Kay Brown, his story editor, asked him to read a novel by an unknown Southern writer. When Selznick paid out fifty thousand of his fledgling company’s small cash reserves for the screen rights, he had to listen to a lot of Hollywood pros lecture him about how Civil War stories never made any money.
When MGM fired Fitzgerald, he went directly to Selznick and landed a job on Gone with the Wind. The producer already had a script, but he couldn’t leave it alone. Rewriting would continue right up to the moment a shot was filmed and printed. Scott was given a fat sheaf of papers bound in yellow, and asked to apply his art as if it were a kind of cosmetic—highlighting here, painting over ugly lines there. Not only was he not writing an original—he was required to make his rewriting as unoriginal as possible. As Fitzgerald later told Maxwell Perkins, “In that Gone with the Wind job I was absolutely forbidden to use any words except those of Margaret Mitchell; that is, when new phrases had to be invented, one had to thumb through as if it were Scripture and check out phrases of hers which would cover the situation!”
The man chosen to direct the picture was Scott’s old friend George Cukor. But Selznick had reservations about George, especially about his reputation as a woman’s director. “Look, don’t let Scarlett romp all over Rhett Butler,” Selznick told Fitzgerald one day. “George will try and throw everything to her. You and I have got to watch out for Clark.”
Selznick pushed his writers hard on the Wind, even staying up late with them some nights and working as a combination boss and collaborator. When Fitzgerald finally got a day off, he wrote his daughter:
Day of rest! After a wild all-night working on Gone with the Wind and more to come tomorrow. I read it—it is a good novel—not very original, in fact leaning heavily on The Old Wives’ Tale, Vanity Fair, and all that has been written on the Civil War. There are no new characters, new techniques, new observations—none of the elements that make literature— especially no new examination into human emotions. But on the other hand it is interesting, surprisingly honest, consistent and workmanlike throughout, and I felt no contempt for it but only a certain pity for those who consider it the supreme achievement of the human mind. So much for that—I may be on it two weeks—or two months.
Fitzgerald gave Selznick his first bundle of Gone with the Wind revisions January 11, and more batches followed almost daily. His job encompassed more than reworking the script: he had to be a kind of salesman, making a special pitch for each of his “improvements.” Following Selznick’s orders, Scott was careful to mark all passages which he touched and to justify all his changes in marginal notes. He suggested some alterations for practical reasons which had nothing to do with his over-all motion-picture aesthetic. In one scene, for example, Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) wraps a yellow sash about the waist of Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard). The original script had Ashley say, “It looks like gold.” Scott crossed out the line, reminding Selznick, “This is technicolor.”
Fitzgerald made more telling changes in a scene where Ashley tells Scarlett of the tragic plight of the Southern armies, who have “no arms—no food…” In the margin, Fitzgerald asked sarcastically, “It’s news that the South fought without arms?” He replaced this catalogue list of needed supplies with a moving line about yet another invader from the North, snow. “When our shoes wear out,” Fitzgerald had Ashley say, “—well some of the men are barefooted now and the snow is deep in Virginia.”
Ashley tells Scarlett that he can talk to her honestly of the impending doom awaiting the South as he never could to Melanie or Aunt Pitty. Fitzgerald crossed out the rest of Ashley’s speech where he says that the other Southern women do not have Scarlett’s fiber; that her strength comes from her Irish blood; and that she has the courage to look at life as it really is. In the margin beside the deleted lines, Fitzgerald wrote, “I still think it’s dull and false for one character to describe another.”
Many of Fitzgerald’s changes amounted simply to crossing out script dialogue and restoring dialogue from the novel itself. Beside many of the screenplay’s big speeches Fitzgerald wrote “trite and stagy.” Time and time again he found Margaret Mitchell’s “good dialogue… infinitely more moving” than the more sophisticated made-in-Hollywood lines. The ex-novelist was coming to the aid of his fellow craftsman.
Of all Fitzgerald’s changes, perhaps the most poignant consisted simply of cuts with nothing added. By removing much of the original dialogue, he was attempting to make the drama quieter, more understated. In one scene Scarlett watches as Ashley and his new wife Melanie (Olivia de Havilland) start up to bed. The beautiful, spoiled Scarlett still loves Ashley, of course, and cannot comprehend how he could have chosen his plain cousin over her. The script which was given to Fitzgerald had Melanie and Ashley pause at the head of the stairs and look down at Scarlett; the wife says, “Good night, dear,” and the husband, “Goodnight, Scarlett.” Scott cut the pause and the dialogue, explaining, “I think they have said ’good night’ downstairs. It seems to me stronger in silence.” He knew that there were times when the most moving thing a screenwriter could say was nothing.
These changes and many others Selznick agreed to: Scott left his footprints on The Wind.
Fitzgerald went on to rework the great movie’s colorful ball scene where the belles and heroes of Atlanta are shocked when Rhett Butler buys a dance from Scarlett O’Hara; the midwife scene where with Atlanta in flames Scarlett delivers Melanie’s child, Ashley’s son; and the final flight from Atlanta with Scarlett and Rhett Butler on the front seat of a buckboard fighting their way through mobs of looters as the burning buildings collapse in great avalanches of fire. Perhaps it occurred to Fitzgerald as he rewrote someone else’s script that he was pulling a Joe Mankiewicz, but that was what the movie business could do to you. Besides, for the most part his changes did make the script leaner, less flowery-sentimental.
Having survived work on the movie’s major scenes, Fitzgerald finally lost his job over a minor episode involving a minor character. Aunt Pitty was simply more than he could handle. The trouble began when director George Cukor took out time to teach an important lesson about film-making. Scott described it afterward:
…George comes suddenly into Selznick’s office. He looks worried. He says to Selznick, “Do I understand we start shooting tomorrow?” “Yes,” says David. “But we’re not ready,” says Cukor, adding that he wants new scenes for Scarlett’s arrival at Aunt Pitty’s in Atlanta. “Then well just have to work all night,” Selznick replies. One of the current authors on the picture [Scott] groans and telephones his fiancee [Sheilah] not to expect him for dinner. The conference begins.
“What worries me,” says George, “is the character of Aunt Pitty.”
“What’s the matter with her?” says Selznick.
“She’s supposed to be quaint,” says Cukor, who is the brain behind the camera. “That’s what it says in the book.”
“That’s what it says in the script too,” says Selznick. He opens the script and reads: “Aunt Pitty bustles quaintly across the room.”
“That’s just what I mean,” interrupts Cukor. “How can I photograph that? How do you ’bustle quaintly across the room?’ It may be funny when you read about it, but it won’t look like anything at all.”
They argue about this question for three long hours, and the two writers try desperately to make Aunt Pitty funny and not just say she’s funny. Which are two different things.
By midnight, Cukor and Selznick fire one of the writers. The other writer is sent home and immediately a telegram is dispatched saying that he [Scott] too will not be needed any more.
While Fitzgerald labored over lesser films, Gone with the Wind was completed. The world premiere was held in Atlanta, once again bringing all manner of Yankees to the Southern city burned by Sherman. The chamber of commerce ballyhooed the grand event, and the Grand Theatre built a new false front which made it look like the portico of Twelve Oaks. Clark Gable was there along with his new wife Carole Lombard. When Vivien Leigh got off the plane, she pressed David Selznick’s arm. “Listen,” she said, surprised, “they’re playing the music from the picture.” He laughed and told the young English actress, “That’s Dixie, dear.”
Gone with the Wind was a fair wind to the many who shared in its success. A star was born, Miss Leigh. Selznick became Hollywood’s new wonder boy. In its first four months the picture grossed four million dollars; its first year it took in thirteen and a half million; by 1955 it had brought in fifty million; and in 1967 it was released again, this time on the seventy-millimeter screen and in stereo. But while other sails filled, Fitzgerald’s only fluttered. Another historic production had swept past, leaving him worse off than before.
Nonetheless, a year after Fitzgerald was dropped from the Selznick payroll, he told his agent:
Selznick International—I find this studio the pleasantest studio that I have worked in… but what Dave thinks of me I haven’t any idea. I know that I was on the list of first choice writers on Rebecca, but that may have been Hitchcock’s doing. I think that Dave is probably under the impression that I am a novelist first and can’t get the idea as to what pictures are about. This impression is still from back in 1921 when he wanted me to submit an original idea for Elaine Hammer-stein.
“[After Gone with the Wind] I wanted to quit for a while,” Fitzgerald later wrote, “—health bad and I was depressed about the Metro business. But Swanson argued me into a job with Wanger on Winter Carnival with a rise to $1500. This was a mistake.”
Producer Walter Wanger had hired Fitzgerald to collaborate with a young writer just three years out of Dartmouth named Budd Schulberg. Schulberg had already written a script based on Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival, but neither the producer nor the young writer himself thought that it was any good. When Wanger started looking for someone to help doctor his college comedy, he naturally thought of the author of This Side of Paradise.
“My meeting with Scott Fitzgerald… still holds for me a dreamlike, legendary quality,” Schulberg later wrote in Esquire. “Even while it was happening I felt as if the gods had swooped down and carried me off to serve as a minor player in one of their more extravagant myths.” On the day it occurred, Wanger had called the unsuspecting Schulberg into his office and asked casually how he would like to team with F. Scott Fitzgerald. The younger writer shuddered, then wondered if his boss had noticed. “My God,” he asked, “isn’t Scott Fitzgerald dead?” Wanger answered, “On the contrary, he’s in the next office reading your script.”
When he was introduced to Fitzgerald, Schulberg saw a figure who seemed to have been drawn with white chalk. He recalls:
There were no colors in him. The proud, somewhat too handsome profile of his earlier dust jackets was crumpled. To this day I am unable to say exactly what it was that left me with this lasting impression. The fine forehead, the leading man’s nose, the matinee-idol set of the gentle, quick-to-smile eyes, the good Scotch-Irish cheekbones, the delicate, almost feminine mouth, the tasteful Eastern (in fact, Brooks Bros.) attire—he had lost none of these. But there seemed to be something physically or psychologically broken in him that had pitched him forward from scintillating youth to shaken old age.
Schulberg had happened to reread The Great Gatsby only a few days before, and Tender Is the Night had been a favorite of long standing. He remembers, “Scott was flattered and stimulated and, it seemed to me, pathetically pleased to find any product of the Depression thirties who knew, admired, and could talk his books.”
Fitzgerald, who was afraid that he had lost touch with the young, had once written in his notebook, “Of course these boys are more serious—this is the generation that saw their mothers drunk.” The author who had heralded the speakeasy generation of the twenties was so happy to find a young fan, and Schulberg so pleased to have met a great writer, that they spent days just getting to know one another. Winter Carnival, which Scott was being paid three hundred a day to write, waited in a desk drawer. Besides Fitzgerald’s fiction, they also talked about politics, the cultural ebb and flow of generations, Hollywood and movie making.
Schulberg was impressed by Fitzgerald’s seriousness:
Scott was not a film snob. In fact he plunged into a study of film making that even included a card file of the plot lines of all the pictures he had seen. Although he thought of himself, naturally, as a novelist first and last, he was not, like so many novelists and playwrights I had known, in film work only for the fat Hollywood checks he neeeded to get back to his own line. He liked pictures and felt his talent was particularly well-suited to the medium.
Scott was not too good for film work in general, but when it came to Winter Carnival he was in no hurry to get started. On the one hand he was used to something better—Three Comrades, Infidelity, Madame Curie, or even Gone with the Wind. But on the other hand, since he had had trouble with the big movies he had worked on, now his confidence was crippled and he was not sure if he could handle even a small one.
Schulberg didn’t worry. Why should he, with an Immortal helping him to write his script? He supposed that his collaborator was quietly working out the story and would presently interrupt their sprawling conversation to say, “Here’s what we’re going to do.”
Meanwhile, in the quiet of the Valley nights, Sheilah Graham would hear Scott pacing back and forth, as if by moving the body he might trick the mind into motion too, or at least wear out his insomnia. “I was going to sleep every night with a gradually increasing dose of chloral,” he wrote, “—three teaspoonfuls—and two pills of Nembutal every night and 48 drops of Digitalin to keep the heart working to the next day. Eventually one begins to feel like a character out of The Wizard of Oz. Work becomes meaningless and effort a matter of the medicine closet.” One morning he announced, “My TB’s flared up.” He began to run a low fever and to sweat his bed wet at night. Sheilah would change his sheets two or three times before morning.
The miles he walked within the confines of a single room, and the hours spent with a writing tablet to catch his thoughts as they fell, finally produced something tangible, a ten-page treatment for Winter Carnival. It began:
First, as to the approach: Frankly, I haven’t been able to look at this as a group picture in the sense that Stagecoach was, or Grand Hotel, with its sharp cuts between one melodrama scene and another. A winter carnival simply doesn’t have that tense air of destiny that a journey has. It’s a spread-out and expansive theme in itself. It has no real trajectory like a boat or stagecoach or a train. In the Dartmouth carnival the election of a queen is the committee’s attempt to give it such a climax. So in my opinion this should be more akin to She Loves Me Not—it ought to have something of a plot.
The author had studied his movie classics in the same way he had once studied classic novels.
The story Schulberg had written was about a glamour girl named Jill who takes her baby girl and flees her tyrannical husband, only to be stranded in mid-flight at Dartmouth during Winter Carnival when she gets off the train to stretch, and then stands helplessly by as the locomotive pulls off without her. To make matters worse, if Jill’s husband catches up with her before she makes it across the border into Canada, he will take her child away from her. Even at a snow carnival with the temperature below zero, Hollywood could still make the old pot boil.
To Schulberg’s brew, Fitzgerald wanted to add a villainess, a girl named Florine who in many ways resembled his own daughter Scottie. “She is a freshman at Vassar,” he wrote, “and completely dazzled by New York—so much so that she has neglected her work and is on probation in college, a probation which she has broken to come to Dartmouth Winter Carnival, pretending she has been summoned home by the illness of her father. She is wild and feverish—in 1920, she would have been a flapper. At present she thinks she is ahead of the times, but she is really behind them.”
Scott also invented a “side-kick” for Florine, a girl known simply as the “little “blind date’ girl.” “She never does meet her blind date, but goes without a man through the carnival,” Fitzgerald wrote,“—a staid-faced, unsmiling little girl who might be good for a lot of laughs.”
In an effort to give the story some plot, the aging screenwriter suggested that they pit Jill and Florine against one another in the competition for the title of Carnival Queen. “Later in the day the girls are together in a fraternity house,” he wrote. “There Jill learns that Florine is going to run for Queen and is sure to win. Jill realizes that if Florine wins, it will be in all the newspapers and she will be summarily kicked out of Vassar for breaking probation. Florine knows it too, but like a little fool is going to run. Jill in a friendly way warns her about this… and Florine is snippy, then furious—everything must yield to youth. Out of the way, last year’s girl!”
At the Carnival, Jill becomes re-acquainted with Instructor Stuart, who had been smitten by her four years before when she, then a college girl, visited the Carnival for the first time. But when he meets her this time he tells her that “years ago he knew she would never be the girl in his life because she objected to waxing her own skiis.” Scott was clearly tired of helpless heroines.
As a snowstorm arises—and Fitzgerald was about to learn just how miserable a Dartmouth snowstorm could be—Jill is crowned Queen. But before she can savor her victory beside a warm log fire, she learns that her child, its nurse, and a driver have been lost in the blizzard. When the car is finally located, it turns out to be on the other side of a swollen stream, and of course the bridge has been washed out. Instructor Stuart straps on a St. Bernard pack and prepares to ski jump the stream to rescue the stranded party. “There is suspense, Jill waxes Stuart’s skis, torches blaze in the twilight. Then Climax—he jumps and makes it—torch in air.”
That was all the script they had, ten sketchy pages, when Wanger suggested that Fitzgerald and Schulberg accompany the camera crew which would shoot background footage at that year’s Dartmouth Winter Carnival. Scott protested that he remembered the Carnival well enough from his own college days, but Wanger was going home to his alma mater and he wanted a prize to show off to his old teachers. Unfortunately, Wanger’s trophy had dissipated much of its luster by the time the picture people reached Dartmouth. The dissipation began when B. P. Schulberg arrived at the Los Angeles airport to see his son off on his first big assignment and handed over a present, two bottles of vintage Mumm’s. As soon as Budd and Scott, sitting next to one another in the plane, were in the air, the younger writer suggested a toast. The alcoholic writer said no at first, but was eventually persuaded.
They talked and toasted their way through the night. Fitzgerald seemed to have the same feeling about the twenties which some people have about their old school: he was chauvinistic about the entire decade. He reminisced about the writers of the twenties: “Bunny” Wilson, Ernest Hemingway, Carl Van Vechten, Gertrude Stein. About the athletes of the twenties: Bobby Jones, Red Grange, Babe Ruth, Jack Dempsey. About the movie stars of the twenties: Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Barbara La Marr, Gloria Swanson, Carmel Myers.
The closest they came to working on Winter Carnival was to discuss the picture’s pipe-smoking Ivy League producer. Scott described him as “Ivy on one side, California palm on the other.” The second bottle of champagne followed the first.
They decided to put off working on the script until they got to their hotel in New York; it would be easier to think once they had a room to do it in. But when they had checked into the Hotel Warwick, the four walls didn’t help that much. They piled one dismally unworkable idea on top of another, but no progress was evident. Finally Budd decided to go out and look for some old friends. He asked if Fitzgerald minded. Not at all. Scott would take a long bath to relax and then make some notes on what to do about Winter Carnival.
When the young writer returned to the Warwick, Scott was missing. Instead of his collaborator, he found a note on his bed. “Pal you shouldn’t have left me pal,” it said in letters which seemed to stagger across the page, “because I got lonely pal and went down to the bar pal and started drinking pal, and now you may never find me pal…”
As it turned out, Scott was easy to find. Budd rushed down to the street and then began systematically checking every bar he came to. A few doors from the Warwick, there he was, or at least there was a part of him, the part the alcohol had not dissolved. The younger man brought the older one back to the hotel and put him through the treatment: black coffees, cold showers. Fitzgerald sobered up enough to apologize and then Schulberg apologized, too. They promised each other to work, work, and the rest of the night they tried to. After all, they had a deadline. That morning they were supposed to report to Wanger’s suite and tell him their Carnival story.
The two screenwriters really had not been able to appreciate how tired and even shabby they were until they saw how clean and rested the producer was. Wanger looked at them—an old story—and then decided to make the best of the uneasy situation. He asked about the plane trip—Had they seen anyone they knew? Schulberg answered innocently, “Let’s see, oh, yes, Sheilah Graham was on the plane.” She and Scott had seemed surprised. What a coincidence.
Wanger did what the Hollywood calls a “takem.” Then he said disapprovingly, “Scott, you son of a bitch.”
The story conference went as badly as the preliminaries had. After the disaster was over, Budd found himself apologizing once again.
“Holy God, Scott,” he said, “I’m terribly sorry. I never would have mentioned her if I had…”
“All my fault,” Scott said. “I should have told you. Maybe it’s just as well it’s out in the open with Walter anyway. I don’t know why I feel I have to hide things from him like a schoolboy.”
Scott Fitzgerald, the symbol of the younger generation in the 1920s, boarded a train in New York later that day along with carloads of girls who were seventeen, eighteen, nineteen—occasionally there would be a veteran of twenty or twenty-one. They were all going to the Winter Carnival to see several thousand boys who had been marooned on a lonely New Hampshire campus for too long. When the girls came home, they would make their adventures sound like the blurbs on the back of lurid novels. Like them, Fitzgerald too hoped to come home with a story, but one that could be filmed.
Schulberg called it a “wild, surrealist train ride north to Hanover.” Fitzgerald started telling the students on the train— many of whom did not believe him—who he was and how much money he made. The students in turn mocked the middle-aged man who was obviously too old to be going to house parties.
The train stopped at a small town; the cars had become a trap to the two screenwriters, so they decided to get off, stretch, and have a cup of coffee. They could see the lights of an all-night diner and headed in that direction. Inside the warm shabbiness of the place a radio played tunes dedicated to people who lived nearby, people who would never be more famous than when the disc jockey read their names over the air. The two Hollywood refugees stayed on a little too long listening to the waitress flirt with some truck drivers.
They arrived back at the railroad tracks in time to see the train pulling away without them. The same thing had happened to Jill in Fitzgerald’s Winter Carnival treatment, but it was too late for the screenwriter to remember that he might have known. They floundered about searching for a plan and then located a taxi, an old Model A which had somehow outlived the F. Scott Fitzgerald era and was still running in 1939. The cabbie agreed to drive them to the next town in the hope that they could get there before the train did. It was so cold that the two men found a blanket and pulled it up over their heads to make a tent, then sipped at the applejack the driver had given them as antifreeze. Sometime around four in the morning they finally caught up with the trainload of students and moving-picture people. Their careers were saved.
On the train once again, Scott fought back drink and cold and T.B. to come up with an opening shot for Winter Carnival. He was so excited about his inspiration that he hustled Schulberg down the corridor to Wanger’s Pullman, where at just after five a.m. he hammered at the door until the producer let them in. What the hell did they want? Scott told him. He had a great opening and he had to tell Wanger all about it, cou’n wait, no shir. They would fade in on an Indian school with a roomful of young bucks all being solemnly addressed by a Great White Teacher. CUT TO: outside a pack of young squaws rush toward the school on snowshoes. CUT TO: Indian maidens bursting into schoolroom and waltzing around with the braves, bringing the lessons to a fast halt. FADE OUT. FADE IN ON the girls disembarking from train for Dartmouth’s Winter Carnival. Get it? Fantashtic, baby, jus’ fantashtic. Wanger did not seem to like the opening as much as Scott did. He stared at the author with the unblinking eye of a potato and then went back to bed.
The two writers got no more sleep that night than the night before. They arrived at Dartmouth exhausted, in need of nothing so much as a bed. But there had been a slip-up: the producer had a suite and all of the directors, assistant directors, and cameramen had rooms, but no one had thought to make a reservation for the two men who were supposed to write the picture. Scott insisted on taking the whole thing as a metaphor for Hollywood’s opinion of writers. At last the hotel manager found a place for them—a small room with no furniture except a metal two-decker bed up in the attic. This room was even less help than the one back at the Warwick—in fact, it was a positive hindrance. Schulberg remembers the room as a place where “for two days we fumed, labored, drank, suffered icy research, nerve-wracking deadlines and humiliating public receptions.”
“One of the things that impressed me most in the course of that arctic weekend hell,” says Schulberg, “was the quality of Scott’s creative intelligence and the courage of his humor. He was constantly noticing little things that amazed me—details of academic life as exact as the lexicon of O’Hara… At the very moment when the faculty and student onlookers were laughing at him as a drunk and a clown, his accuracy toward them was muffled but deadly.”
At a party which one of the movie people gave, a group of professors took it upon themselves to criticize the picture Fitzgerald had come east to make. Scott sank into a chair and listened. From time to time, he would wave his hand and complain, “Lotta nonsense.” When he had had enough, he rose and said, “You know, I’d love to be a professor in a university like this with all the security and the smug niceties, instead of having to put up with the things we have to put up with out there in the world. I bid you good night, gentlemen.” When the author left, the professors said wasn’t it too bad about poor Scott.
Schulberg’s “other memories of that nightmare weekend” include:
Scott’s trudging through the deep snow to the ski jump in his baggy suit, his wrinkled overcoat and his battered fedora, a gray, grim joke to the young, hearty Carnival couples in their bright-color ski clothes, and of his zombie walk to the door, saying, “I’m going to Zelda, she needs me, I’m going to Zelda…” This was the first time he had mentioned his wife, whose unfortunate illness had dropped a dark curtain between them. I remember dragging him back from the door and throwing him down on the cot, hard. I remember thinking he had passed out again and beginning to take off his shoes, and his reviving enough to say, “Oh, you must be enjoying yourself, feeling so strong, so young, so damn sure of yourself…” And I remember losing my patience and temper with him at last and running out to a friendly fraternity bar where I tried to drown our common sorrows, until mysteriously, inescapably, he tracked me down and we went out into the Carnival night laughing and improvising scandalous songs like any other two Carnival celebrants.
In their carnival mood the two screenwriters met Walter Wanger by accident in front of the Hanover Inn. Standing up on the steps, like a Puritan minister looking down on his congregation, the producer fired the two writers and told them to get out of town. They caught the Montrealer back to New York and then found that in their condition no New York hotel, not even the shabby ones, would take them in. Once again they had no room. They rode up and down Manhattan in a cab searching fruitlessly until finally Scott whispered “Doctor’s Hospital.” Scott Fitzgerald’s Winter Carnival ended between snowy white hospital sheets.
When he returned to Hollywood, Schulberg was rehired to finish the picture—but not Fitzgerald. “Wanger will never forgive me for this,” Scott told Schulberg at one point. “He sees himself as the intellectual producer and he was going to impress Dartmouth by showing them he used real writers, not vulgar hacks, and here I, his real writer, have disgraced him before the whole college.”
Malcolm Cowley has called Fitzgerald’s Dartmouth Winter Carnival “his biggest, saddest, most desperate spree.” Scott himself said, “In retrospect, going east under those circumstances seems one of the silliest mistakes I ever made.”
“After a month’s rest,” Fitzgerald later recalled, “I took a job with [producer] Jeff Lazarus on Air Raid. We progressed for a month and then the picture was put aside for Honeymoon in Bali and I went to Cuba.” Working on Air Raid, Fitzgerald, like the blacked-out city in his story, was endangered by a bomb. The bomb, of course, was Air Raid itself. It was not really Scott’s fault that the script was terrible. He had inherited the story from Donald Ogden Stewart and much of the credit must go to him. Actually, the picture had never been intended as anything more than an exploitation film. The German Blitzkrieg was under way in Europe and it had occurred to the American movie manufacturers, like the American arms manufacturers, that this war might be a gold mine.
Fitzgerald’s version of the story began in a fashionable boutique where a very smart lady is trying on the latest things in very chic gas masks. The sales girl says that madame is “adorable.” Madame replies through the mask, “Bd—ub—a—db?” The script went downhill from there on.
After Winter Carnival Sheilah never knew when Scott was on gin. When she detected anything on his breath, she would demand, “Are you drinking? I’m sure you’re drinking.”
He: “That’s none of your business.”
She: “I hate you when you drink. You’re not the person I like then. Why do you drink? When I fell in love with you you weren’t drinking. Why are you doing it how?”
He: “I’m not drinking.”
But he was. Going through his bureau drawers, Sheilah found eleven empty gin bottles.
One morning Fitzgerald woke up and found that he could not move his arms. Actually his paralysis had as much to do with his being entangled in his pajamas as with gin, but the doctor decided to frighten his patient: continued drinking, he told the author, might paralyze him forever. Scott said, “I’d just blow my brains out.” The doctor asked the obvious question: Who would hold the gun?
Nonetheless, Scott kept on drinking, and one day Sheilah discovered a gun in his dresser drawer. She lifted it out, but before she could dispose of it, its owner came up. “Give me that gun!” he ordered. When she didn’t, he tackled her, slamming her to the floor.
Miss Graham recalls the scene:
We struggled wildly. Scott was like a madman. He grabbed at the gun, cursing as he pried my fingers loose. I gasped in pain. My fingers had been caught in the trigger guard and he had pulled them away so violently the flesh tore. Blind rage flooded me. With a tremendous effort I jerked the gun away and hurled it at the opposite wall. “Take it!” I screamed. “Shoot yourself, you son of a bitch! See if I care!… You’re not worth saving, you’re not worth anything!” I scrambled to my feet. I screamed at him, “I didn’t pull myself out of the gutter to waste my life on a drunk like you!” I rushed downstairs and into my car and drove home.
At this point, Scott headed for Cuba. He stopped off in Asheville, North Carolina, and took Zelda out of the sanitarium to accompany him, a mad companion for a mad trip. In Havana, Zelda went into a religious stupor, praying endlessly and reading the Bible. To escape her holiness, Scott went one night to a pit where they staged cockfights. But when the fight began, he was horrified. As he later told Sheilah, “One cock was slashing the other to bits and those men were egging them on.” Scott was no Papa Hemingway—he couldn’t stand it. He jumped the guardrail and tried to separate the birds. That was when the spectators came down upon him, dozens of strong young cocks cutting up an old rooster. When the badly beaten Fitzgerald finally crawled back to his hotel, he found Zelda sitting in the dark room, still praying.
By the time he returned to California, Sheilah had forgiven him. Before long she was acting as his nurse.
“I found in the East that I was sicker than I had thought,” Fitzgerald later recorded, “and came back here in May to lie around in bed till my health picked up. I had the refusal during these months of In Name Only, Rebecca, and half a dozen others, but by July, when I wanted to work again, the offers seemed to stop.” In Name Only, starring Carole Lombard, Cary Grant, and Kay Francis, and Rebecca, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, and George Sanders, were both fine films, as it turned out. In fact, Rebecca won the Academy Award and became a classic. Two more big ones had gotten away.
Scott grew more and more dependent on Sheilah, yet could not forget Zelda and what had happened to her. It was sometime during this period that he wrote out a proposal for a motion picture called The Feather Fan. “The real lost generation of girls were those who were young right after the war because they were the ones with infinite belief,” Fitzgerald said in his treatment. “The sanitariums are full of them and many are dead.” But Scott could not interest the studios: his story of a broken flapper went uncourted.
Fitzgerald remained unemployed through an unhappy summer. At the end of July he wrote Zelda, “This last month has been too much of a hell… It was like 1935-1936 when… all my products were dirges and elegies. Sickness and no money are a wretched combination.” A few days later, still sick, he wrote his wife, “I am as annoyed at the unreliability of the human body as you are at the vagaries of the nervous system.”
To pay the doctor, Fitzgerald began once again trying to write magazine stories, but these did not sell immediately. Scott had no savings from his movie work to draw on because he had used his high salaries to repay much of the approximately forty thousand dollars which Harold Ober and Scribner’s had advanced him, a few hundred at a time, over the past decade. And now the author, who never tired of warning his daughter against economic, emotional, and physical bankruptcy, found both his health and his money running out at the same time. He needed to borrow once again and so wired Ober for an advance against the price of his stories when, or rather if, they sold. Ober refused. Fitzgerald fired him as his agent.
“I don’t have to explain,” the author wrote the man who had represented him for almost twenty years, “that even though a man has once saved another from drowning, when he refuses to stretch out his arm a second time the victim has to act quickly and desperately to save himself.” Like most people trying to save themselves in deep water, Fitzgerald did little more than thrash about wildly but unsuccessfully. He attempted to deal with magazine editors directly, but few were interested.
Firing Ober meant firing Swanson too, since they were partners. The writer and his Hollywood agent had already quarreled, and at this point Scott broke off their business connection altogether. To represent him in the movie capital Fitzgerald hired Leland Hayward. His next pay check did not come until September, when he found a job rewriting a picture called Raffles. Not only was Raffles no Rebecca, but this same movie, based on William Hornung’s 1899 novel The Amateur Cracksman, had already been made three times before.
The artist would have to stay home for a while; this time Fitzgerald was going to do the job as a businessman, for the money only—one thousand a week. He looked the part of the businessman, pale hands and pale head poking out of the staid broker’s suit. He even affected a businessman’s prop, a bulging brief case. He would pick up his secretary, Miss Frances Kroll, on the way to work. Sometimes when they reached the small door in the side of what looked like a huge tobacco barn, the red warning light would already be burning. Shooting had already started. They were in a hurry to finish this one because their hero was anxious to go home and defend his country.
Inside, the man with the heavy brief case would see a night club with patrons already drinking at the tables and couples dancing on the dance floor. Here within the perpetual night of the windowless sound stage, night life had already begun at nine o’clock in the morning. It was hardly the kind of office a businessman dreams of, but Scott made the best of it. He would sit somewhere, open his brief case and draw forth his yellow pads, his stubby pencils, and a Coke. Every morning he packed a six-pack of Cokes along with his scripts and other writing material.
“For the benefit of the other people on the set, Fitzgerald used to laugh about it,” Miss Kroll remembers. “He used to say that we should sell the idea of a pack of Cokes in every brief case to the Coca-Cola Company to use as an advertisement.” But actually the Cokes were no laughing matter: they kept him alert—or so he believed. Fitzgerald could no more write without them than he could write without a pencil. And yet after what he called “a great orgy of Coca-Colas,” he would often complain of “little aches around the elbows and shoulders.”
The man cast as the amateur cracksman, the man who was anxious to trade his white tie and silver pistol for a British uniform and a rifle, was David Niven. Opposite him beneath the bobbing microphone was Olivia de Havilland. “David Niven was very charming to Fitzgerald,” Miss Kroll remembers. “They used to huddle on the set and talk when there was a break. Fitzgerald was envious of Niven, but not because he was a star. He was envious because of Niven’s adventure. Niven was going off to war. Ever since he missed World War I, Fitzgerald had been something of a thwarted soldier.”
Some days Samuel Goldwyn, Fitzgerald’s new boss, would be on the set. In a sense, Sam and Scott both owed their starts in show business to the same man, Dustin Farnum. In 1904 Farnum, then a player in the Buffalo Tech Stock Company, had supplied the young Scott Fitzgerald with free tickets to his shows —shows which inspired the eight-year-old Scott to stage his own dramas up in the attic. Nine years later, Farnum met a man named Goldfish who was casting for his first picture, The Squaw Man, and won the title role. The movie made Farnum a movie star and set Goldfish up as an established producer. Changing his name to Goldwyn, the upstart impresario headed the Goldwyn Pictures Corporation until 1922 when he quarreled with his partners and quit with the immortal declaration, “You may include me out.” Later, when the Goldwyn company merged with Metro and Mayer, Sam was also included out of one of the most powerful movie machines in history. In fact, Goldwyn spent his life competing against Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Now Fitzgerald had come over to his side.
They made a strange team, the rough Polish immigrant, Sam, and the Princeton-educated man of letters, Scott. Fitzgerald had always been known for his felicity with words, Goldwyn for the exact opposite. Once while preparing a script for an Eddie Cantor film, he was heard to declare, “Tomorrow we shoot, whether it rains, whether it snows, whether it stinks.”
Joseph Breen had cost Fitzgerald his job writing Infidelity for Metro, but ironically the author had the censor to thank for landing the Raffles job. Goldwyn had submitted his script to the Hays Office and was preparing to start shooting when a letter from Breen informed the producer that Raffles was “unacceptable.” Why? The censor made clear that it was “a violation of the Production Code” to show “a criminal, who is permitted to outsmart the police, and to go off ’scot free.’” Breen left Goldwyn some hope for his picture, however, by suggesting: “This basic difficulty could be easily remedied, if you could insert a line, possibly in the closing scenes of the picture,… which would indicate to the audience that Raffles knows that he cannot escape justice, that the police are waiting for him…” The censor then went on to say that “there should be no scenes at any time, showing ’ladies of the street’”; that the “action of Raffles planting the gun in the pit of Crawshay’s stomach, will be deleted by political censor boards everywhere”; and that the producer should “eliminate the expression… ’Good Lord’” from his script. The censor’s objections and the screenplay were turned over to Fitzgerald.
There were other problems, too. “I came in on a violent quarrel between Goldwyn and Sam Wood,” recalled Fitzgerald, who was caught in the crossfire between the producer and the director. Scott later told his new agent, Hayward, “Sam Wood and I had always gotten along before, but during this week that I worked on Raffles everything got a little strained…”
The picture was to tell the story of a well-known cricket star (David Niven) who is deeply in debt, but who hides behind a tuxedo bought on credit in a desperate struggle to keep up appearances. In choosing Fitzgerald to help tell this story, Goldwyn was almost guilty of typecasting. The very week that Scott took on the Raffles job, he wrote Zelda, “I hocked the car again for $150.00.” When the author reworked the movie’s opening scene, he put that in: he had Raffles hock his roadster, then grow paranoid about it. A certain Lady Melrose innocently calls to see if Raffles would like a car sent round to fetch him for one of her dinner parties. Raffles protests to his valet:
RAFFLES: Wait! I scarcely know the old dear. (Pause.) She couldn’t know my roadster’s in pawn, could she?
VALET: Scarcely. I can hardly believe it myself, sir…
Arriving for the dinner party, Raffles is drawn magnetically to two beauties, a girl named Gwen (Olivia de Havilland) and an emerald necklace entwined about the stout neck of his hostess, Lady Melrose. Gwen has loved Raffles from afar for a long time, and now that she is finally up close, she makes her admiration plain. She asks Raffles to look at her. He does and asks her to part her lips.
RAFFLES: That’s better. You know you’re—you’re a—
GWEN (eagerly): What?
RAFFLES (passionately): You’ve a magnificent dentist.
Gwen is crushed.
(A good writer never wastes anything, not even a visit to the dentist. Fitzgerald told his secretary that back in St. Paul when he was a boy, “All I needed to fix my teeth was a broomstraw,” but recently he had been having some complicated dental work done. Those trips to the drilling chair, Miss Kroll remembers, had given him the idea for the compliment paid to Gwen’s dentist.)
Later that night we see Raffles and Gwen on “A Smart London Street such as Bond Street.” This scene as originally written was one of those which Breen had complained about because the background props were to have included assorted “ladies of the street.” Scott changed these ladies to “hurrying working girl[s]” and evidently warmed Breen’s suspicious heart.
But that was as far as Fitzgerald got. Goldwyn decided that he had done enough and took him off the payroll. In his notebook Scott wrote that he “liked Sam Goldwyn—you always knew where you stood with Goldwyn—nowhere.” Sam himself could not have put it better.
Raffles had turned out to be another disappointment. No one could have turned it into a great picture—it simply had not aimed at greatness. Moreover, as Scott worked on the film it must have occurred to him that this was where he came in. His first play, written at the age of fifteen and starring the boys and girls of St. Paul, had been called The Captured Shadow and had told the story of a gentleman burglar much like Raffles. Now at forty-three he tried to write like a fifteen-year-old once again, but he no longer had the enthusiasm. He was an old man trying to ride a child’s vehicle and kept falling off.
But now at least the low had been reached. The avalanche of bad luck and bad health and bad reputation which had come down on Scott after Winter Carnival was over. The screenwriter was about to write his best screenplay.