“The Last of the Novelists”: F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Last Tycoon
by Matthew J. Bruccoli


3/ Preparation and Composition

Screenwriting never satisfied Fitzgerald—even  at $1250 per week—and in 1938 he began writing Maxwell Perkins about two possible book projects: a “modern novel” and an expansion of the four medieval “Count of Darkness” stories. (An excellent study of possible connections between these two projects is Kermit W. Moyer ’s “F. Scott Fitzgerald ’s Two Unfinished Novels: The Count and the Tycoon in Spenglerian Perspective, ” Contemporary Literature, XV (Spring 1974), 238-56. Professor Moyer argues that both works should be read in light of the impression The Decline of the West made on Fitzgerald, and that Kathleen ’s explanation that she was being educated to read Spengler is a clue to the meaning of the novel.) On 4 January 1939—after he knew that MGM would not renew his contract—Fitzgerald wrote Perkins about his writing plans for 1939: “if periods of three or four months are going to be possible in the next year or so I would much rather do a modern novel. One of those novels that can only be written at the moment and when one is full of the idea… I think it would be a quicker job to write a novel like that between 50 and 60,000 words long than to do a thorough revision job with an addition of 1 5,000 words on ‘Phillipe.’”

In April 1939 Fitzgerald took Zelda on a disastrous trip to Cuba, and ended up drying out in a New York hospital. At this time he discussed his writing plans with Maxwell Perkins, Harold Ober, and Charles Scribner. The earliest clear evidence that Fitzgerald was working on the novel that became The Last Tycoon is in his 22 May 1939 letter to Perkins, five months after the termination of his MGM contract, although the purpose of this letter was to insist that he was not writing a Hollywood novel: “Just had a letter from Charlie Scribner… He seemed under the full conviction that the novel was about Hollywood and I am in terror that this mis-information may have been disseminated to the literary columns. If I ever gave any such impression it is entirely false: I said that the novelwas about some things that had happened to me in the last two years. It is distinctly not about Hollywood (and if it were it is the last impression that I would want to get about.)” The novel was, of course, about Hollywood; but Fitzgerald was concerned that an announcement of his material would make it difficult for him to find movie work. A week later Fitzgerald informed Ober of his plans.

First, I have blocked out my novel completely with a rough sketch of every episode and event and character so that under proper circumstances I could begin writing it tomorrow. It is a short novel about fifty thousand words long and should take me three to four months.

However, for reasons of income tax I feel I should be more secure before I launch into such a venture—but it will divide easily into five thousand word lengths and Collier’s might take a chance on it where the Post would not. They might at least be promised a first look at it when it’s finished—possibly some time late in the Fall.

The idea that Collier’s might be interested in serializing the novel resulted from the circumstance that in May 1939 Fitzgerald had satisfactorily revised an old story, “Thumbs Up,” for Collier’s and had corresponded with Kenneth Littauer, the fiction editor, about a story Sheilah Graham had written.

In July 1939 Ober declined to make an advance against an unsold story, and Fitzgerald broke with him. There is no further correspondence between them about the novel, and Fitzgerald pressed Perkins into service as his New York spokesman in his dealings with Littauer. On 18 July Fitzgerald wrote to Littauer proposing an advance of $750 for first refusal on the novel and some short stories.

I was of course delighted to finish off the Civil War story [ “Thumbs Up”] to your satisfaction at last—I may say to my satisfaction also, because the last version felt right. And after twenty months of moving pictures it was fun to be back at prose writing again. That has been the one bright spot in a situation you may have heard of from Harold Ober: that I have been laid up and writing in bed since the first of May, and I am only just up and dressed.

As I told your Mr. Wilkinson when he telephoned, the first thing I did when I had to quit pictures for awhile was to block out my novel (a short one the size of Gatsby) and made the plan on a basis of 2500 word units. The block-out is to be sure that I can take it up or put it down in as much time as is allowed between picture work and short stories. I will never again sign a long picture contract, no matter what the inducement: most of the profit when one overworks goes to doctors and nurses.

Meanwhile I am finishing a 4500 word piece designed for your pages. It should go off to you airmail Saturday night, because I am going back to the studios for a short repair job Monday.

I would like to send the story directly to you, which amounts to a virtual split with Ober. This is regrettable after twenty years of association but it had better be masked under the anonymity of “one of those things.” Harold is a fine man and has been a fine agent and the fault is mine. Through one illness he backed me with a substantial amount of money (all paid back to him now with Hollywood gold), but he is not prepared to do that again with growing boys to educate—and failing this, I would rather act for a while as my own agent in the short story, just as I always have with Scribner’s. But I much prefer, both for his sake and mine, that my sending you the story direct should be a matter between you and me. For the fact to reach him through your office might lead to an unpleasant rather than a pleasant cleavage of an old relationship. I am writing him later in the week making the formal break on terms that will be understood between us, and I have no doubt that in some ways he will probably welcome it. Relationships have an unfortunate way of wearing out, like most things in this world.

Would you be prepared, in return for an agreement or contract for first look at the novel and at a specified number of short stories in a certain time, to advance me $750., by wire on receipt of this letter—which will be even before the story reaches you Monday? This is a principal factor in the matter at the moment as these three months of illness have got me into a mess with income tax and insurance problems. When you get this will you wire me Yes or No, because if you can’t, I can probably start studio work Friday. This may be against your general principles—from my angle I am offering you rather a lot for no great sum.

P.S. If this meets your favorable consideration the money should bewired to the Bank of America, Culver City. If not would you wire me an answer anyhow because my determination to handle my magazine relationship myself is quite final.

The novel will be just short of 50,000 words.

Littauer’s reply has not been located, but he obviously rejected Fitzgerald’s proposition. (Some of the gaps in the Fitzgerald/Littauer correspondence can be accounted for by telephone calls.) The short story has not been identified, but was probably “Discard,” which Littauer declined on 28 July as “too elliptical or something.” During the summer and fall of 1939 Fitzgerald unsuccessfully submitted other stories to Collier’s, of which only “Three Hours Between Planes” and “Mike Van Dyke’s Christmas Wish” are named; but it seems likely that “Last Kiss” was also submitted. The time when “Last Kiss” was written cannot be determined—ironically, it was finally published by Collier’s in 1949—but it has a significant relationship to the material of the novel. Although the hero is a producer, he is nothing like Stahr; however, the heroine resembles Sheilah Graham and anticipates Kathleen. Like Kathleen and Miss Graham, Sybil Higgins is an English girl with an unusual background—she admits to having been “an old man’s darling.” The mood of “Last Kiss” is tragic, for Sybil is defeated by Hollywood and dies.

In June 1939 Fitzgerald told Zelda that he had “blocked out a novel,” but not until 31 October did he inform Scottie that he was writing a novel, being careful to tell her nothing about the material.

Look! I have begun to write something that is maybe great, and I’m going to be absorbed in it four or six months. It may not make us a cent but it will pay expenses and it is the first labor of love I’ve undertaken since the first part of Infidelity.  .  .  .

Anyhow I am alive again—getting by that October did something—with all its strains and necessities and humiliations and struggles. I don’t drink. I am not a great man, but sometimes I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value has some sort of epic grandeur. Anyhow after hours I nurse myself with delusions of that sort.

And I think when you read this book, which will encompass thetime when you knew me as an adult, you will understand how intensively I knew your world—not extensively because I was so ill and unable to get about.

The first dated synopsis for the novel was sent to Littauer (with copy to Perkins) on 29 September 1939.

This will be difficult for two reasons. First that there is one fact about my novel, which, if it were known, would be immediately and unscrupulously plagiarized by the George Kaufmans, etc., of this world. Second, that I live always in deadly fear that I will take the edge off an idea for myself by summarizing or talking about it in advance. But, with these limitations, here goes:

The novel will be fifty thousand words long. As I will have to write sixty thousand words to make room for cutting I have figured it as a four months job—three months for the writing—one month for revision. The thinking, according to my conscience and the evidence of sixty pages of outline and notes, has already been done. I would infinitely rather do it, now that I am well again, than take hack jobs out here.

The Story occurs during four or five months in the year 1935. It is told by Cecelia, [Fitzgerald consistently spelled this name Cecelia. His form has been retained in this study—except when quoting from Edmund Wilson’s edition of The Last Tycoon, where it was emended to Cecilia. The character was named for Fitzgerald’s cousin, Cecilia Delihant Taylor, whom he addressed as “Cousin Ceci.” It is impossible to determine whether Fitzgerald simply didn’t know the correct spelling for Cecilia, or whether the spelling Cecelia was deliberate. Fitzgerald’s spellings for the names of his characters have been followed in this study. His spelling inconsistencies and idiosyncracies have been preserved when quoting the manuscripts.] the daughter of a producer named Bradogue in Hollywood. Cecelia is a pretty, modern girl neither good nor bad, tremendously human. Her father is also an important character. A shrewd man, a gentile, and a scoundrel of the lowest variety. A self-made man, he has brought up Cecelia to be a princess, sent her East to college, made of her rather a snob, though, in the course of the story, her character evolves away from this, That is, she was twenty when the events that she tells occurred, but she is twenty-five whenshe tells about the events, and of course many of them appear to her in a different light.

Cecelia is the narrator because I think I know exactly how such a person would react to my story. She is of the movies but not in them. She probably was born the day “The Birth of a Nation” was previewed and Rudolf Valentino came to her fifth birthday party. So she is, all at once, intelligent, cynical but understanding and kindly toward the people, great or small, who are of Hollywood.

She focuses our attention upon two principal characters—Milton Stahr (who is Irving Thalberg—and this is my great secret) and Thalia, the girl he loves. Thalberg has always fascinated me. His peculiar charm, his extraordinary good looks, his bountiful success, the tragic end of his great adventure. The events I have built around him are fiction, but all of them are things which might very well have happened, and I am pretty sure that I saw deep enough into the character of the man so that his reactions are authentically what they would have been in life. So much so that he may be recognized—but it will also be recognized that no single fact is actually true. For example, in my story he is unmarried or a widower, leaving out completely any complication with Norma.

In the beginning of the book I want to pour out my whole impression of this man Stahr as he is seen during an airplane trip from New York to the coast—of course, through Cecelia’s eyes. She has been hopelessly in love with him for a long time. She is never going to win anything more from him than an affectionate regard, even that tainted by his dislike of her father (parallel the deadly dislike of each other between Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer). Stahr is over-worked and deathly tired, ruling with a radiance that is almost moribund in its phosphorescence. He has been warned that his health is undermined, but being afraid of nothing the warning is unheeded. He has had everything in life except the privilege of giving himself unselfishly to another human being. This he finds on the night of a semi-serious earthquake (like in 1935) a few days after the opening of the story.

It has been a very full day even for Stahr—the bursted water mains, which cover the whole ground space of the lot to the depth of several feet, seems to release something in him. Called over to the outer lot to supervise the salvation of the electrical plant (for like Thalberg, he has a finger in every pie of the vast bakery) he finds twowomen stranded on the roof of a property farmhouse and goes to their rescue.

Thalia Taylor is a twenty-six year old widow, and my present conception of her should make her the most glamorous and sympathetic of my heroines. Glamorous in a new way because I am in secret agreement with the public in detesting the type of feminine arrogance that has been pushed into prominence in the case of Brenda Frazier, etc. 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 in the Ring” with “a little misfortune.” She and the woman with her (to whom she is serving as companion) have come secretly on the lot through the other woman’s curiosity. They have been caught there when the catastrophe occurred.

Now we have a love affair between Stahr and Thalia, an immediate, dynamic, unusual, physical love affair—and I will write it so that you can publish it. At the same time I will send you a copy of how it will appear in book form somewhat stronger in tone.

This love affair is the meat of the book—though I am going to treat it, remember, as it comes through to Cecelia. That is to say by making Cecelia at the moment of her telling the story, an intelligent and observant woman, I shall grant myself the privilege, as Conrad did, of letting her imagine the actions of the characters. Thus, I hope to get the verisimilitude of a first person narrative, combined with a Godlike knowledge of all events that happen to my characters.

Two events beside the love affair bulk large in the intermediary chapters. There is a definite plot on the part of Bradogue, Cecelia’s father, to get Stahr out of the company. He has even actually and factually considered having him murdered. Bradogue is the monopolist at its worst—Stahr, in spite of the inevitable conservatism of the self-made man, is a paternalistic employer. Success came to him young, at twenty-three, and left certain idealisms of his youth unscarred. Moreover, he is a worker. Figuratively he takes off his coat and pitches in, while Bradogue is not interested in the making of pictures save as it will benefit his bank account.

The second incident is how young Cecelia herself, in her desperate love for Stahr, throws herself at his head. In her reaction at his indifference she gives herself to a man whom she does not love. This episode is not absolutely necessary to the serial. It could be tempered but it might be best to eliminate it altogether.

Back to the main theme, Stahr cannot bring himself to marry Thalia. It simply doesn’t seem part of his life. He doesn’t realize that she has become necessary to him. Previously his name has been associated with this or that well-known actress or society personality and Thalia is poor, unfortunate, and tagged with a middle class exterior which doesn’t fit in with the grandeur Stahr demands of life. When she realizes this she leaves him temporarily, leaves him not because he has no legal intentions toward her but because of the hurt of it, the remainder of a vanity from which she had considered herself free.

Stahr is now plunged directly into the fight to keep control of the company. His health breaks down very suddenly while he is on a trip to New York to see the stockholders. He almost dies in New York and comes back to find that Bradogue has seized upon his absence to take steps which Stahr considers unthinkable. He plunges back into work again to straighten things out.

Now, realizing how much he needs Thalia, things are patched up between them. For a day or two they are ideally happy. They are going to marry, but he must make one more trip East to clinch the victory which he has conciliated in the affairs of the company.

Now occurs the final episode which should give the novel its quality—and its unusualness. Do you remember about 1933 when a transport plane was wrecked on a mountain-side in the Southwest, and a Senator was killed? The thing that struck me about it was that the country people rifled the bodies of the dead. That is just what happens to this plane which is bearing Stahr from Hollywood. The angle is that of three children who, on a Sunday picnic, are the first to discover the wreckage. Among those killed in the accident besides Stahr are two other characters we have met. (I have not been able to go into the minor characters in this short summary.) Of the three children, two boys and a girl, who find the bodies, one boy rifled Stahr’s possessions; another, the body of a ruined ex-producer; and the girl, those of a moving picture actress. The possessions which the children find, symbolically determine their attitude toward their act of theft. The possessions of the moving picture actress tend the younggirl to a selfish possessiveness; those of the unsuccessful producer sway one of the boys toward an irresolute attitude; while the boy who finds Stahr’s briefcase is the one who, after a week, saves and redeems all three by going to a local judge and making full confession.

The story swings once more back to Hollywood for its finale. During the story Thalia has never once been inside a studio. After Stahr’s death as she stands in front of the great plant which he created, she realizes now that she never will. She knows only that he loved her and that he was a great man and that he died for what he believed in.

This is a novel—not even faintly of the propoganda type. Indeed, Thalberg’s opinions were entirely different from mine in many respects that I will not go into. I’ve long chosen him for a hero (this has been in my mind for three years) because he is one of the half-dozen men I have known who were built on the grand scale. That it happens to coincide with a period in which the American Jews are somewhat uncertain in their morale, is for me merely a fortuitous coincidence. The racial angle shall scarcely be touched on at all. Certainly if Ziegfield could be made into an epic figure than what about Thalberg who was literally everything that Ziegfield wasn’t?

There’s nothing that worries me in the novel, nothing that seems uncertain. Unlike Tender is the Night it is not the story of deterioration—it is not depressing and not morbid in spite of the tragic ending. If one book could ever be “like” another I should say it is more “like” The Great Gatsby than any other of my books. But I hope it will be entirely different—I hope it will be something new, arouse new emotions perhaps even a new way of looking at certain phenomena. I have set it safely in a period of five years ago to obtain detachment, but now that Europe is tumbling about our ears this also seems to be for the best. It is an escape into a lavish, romantic past that perhaps will not come again into our time. It is certainly a novel I would like to read. Shall I write it?

The letter sent to Littauer and the copy sent to Perkins have not been located. A four-page carbon copy—with the bottom of page four torn off—is with the notes for The Last Tycoon. Another carbon of page four has Fitzgerald’s note “Orig Sent thru here” after “Shall I write it?” The rest of page four reads:

As I said, I would rather do this for a minimum price than continue this in-and-out business with the moving pictures where the rewards are great, but the satisfaction unsatisfactory and the income tax always mopping one up after the battle.

The minimum I would need to do this with peace of mind would be $15,000., payable $3000. in advance and $3000. on the first of November, the first of December, the first of January and the first of February, on delivery of the last installment. For this I would guarantee to do no other work, specifically pictures, to make any changes in the manuscript (but not to having them made for me) and to begin to deliver the copy the first of November, that is to give you fifteen thousand words by that date.

Unless these advances are compatible with your economy, Kenneth, the deal would be financially impossible for me under the present line up. Four months of sickness completely stripped me and until your telegram came I had counted on a buildup of many months work here before I could consider beginning the novel. Once again a telegram would help tremendously, as I am naturally on my toes and [The rest of the letter is missing.]

Fitzgerald either decided that the $15,000 figure was too low or that he wanted to have Littauer make the opening bid. In any case, Fitzgerald later declined to write the serial for $ 1 5,000.

The 29 September synopsis represents an early form of the story—without the double blackmail and murder plots, or Kathleen’s past as the mistress of a king and her commitment to marry another man. Of particular significance is Fitzgerald’s analysis of the narrator. Although he compares this novel to The Great Gatsby, it is clear—from both the synopsis and the sections he wrote—that Fitzgerald intended a more flexible role for Cecelia than he had permitted Nick Carraway. Nick either witnesses or documents every scene in the novel (except Gatsby’s murder); but Cecelia was to be allowed “to imagine the actions of the characters”—thereby providing the double viewpoint of narrator and omniscient author.

Littauer responded on 10 October, saying that Collier’s could not make an advance without seeing a “substantial sample of the finished product”—15,000 words. If the sample was sufficientlypromising, Collier’s was prepared to advance $5,000, with a second advance of $5,000 for the next 20,000 words— “against a total purchase price which remains to be negotiated.” Littauer suggested that the purchase price be based on the rate of $2,500 per 7,000-8,000-word installment, with a bonus of $5,000. Therefore the talking figure for serial rights to a 50,000-word novel was at least $20,000. But Collier’s was not prepared to consider an advance before seeing a 15,000-word sample, and Fitzgerald needed an advance with which to write the sample. Fitzgerald then wired Perkins to negotiate with Littauer for him. On 16 October 1939 Perkins wrote a memo for Charles Scribner indicating his concern that Fitzgerald would turn to Scribners for backing.

Collier’s are quite keen about Scott’s idea, but they have a natural suspicion of his reliability. They are willing to pay him approximately $30,000 for the serial if they agree to take it after seeing 15,000 words.—And if they do see that number of words, and if they like them, they will advance him two installments of $5,000 each. The trouble is Scott has such extravagant ideas of what he needs that he says he must have $3,000 a month. I am afraid he will now turn to us to help him do the 15,000. I believe he could on this present basis turn to Harold Ober, whose debt he has entirely cleared up, and who has made plenty of money out of his movie contracts, etc. too. Harold refused to lend him any more, thinking it would do him good, and this made Scott mad, and all this new plan is supposed to be a complete secret from Harold.

While these negotiations were going on—by letter, wire, and phone—Fitzgerald sent Littauer a story called “Mike Van Dyke’s Christmas Wish,” which was declined because it was “not a rounded short story.” Fitzgerald changed the character’s name to Pat Hobby, and wrote seventeen sketches about him for Esquire in 1939 and 1940. At $250 each, Pat Hobby helped finance the writing of The Last Tycoon.

The Pat Hobby stories, which appeared in Esquire from January1940  to May 1941 are uneven, and their relationship to The Last Tycoon has been distorted by readers who see them as a quasi-autobiographical account of Fitzgerald in Hollywood. About the onlything that these stories have in common with the novel is the Hollywood setting; the intention, the tone, the themes, are entirely different. Fitzgerald did not write the Pat Hobby series until after he had started work on The Last Tycoon, and he wrote them only for money—using Hobby to finance Stahr. It is obvious that Fitzgerald was careful not to waste any Last Tycoon material on the Hobby stories. One way he was able to keep the two projects distinct while working on both simultaneously was by sharply differentiating his attitude toward the characters. Pat Hobby is contemptible; Monroe Stahr is heroic. Rarely did Fitzgerald allow Hobby to be sympathetic—as in “Two Old Timers” and “A Patriotic Short.” Elsewhere Pat is ignorant, mean, and dishonest. Because critics and students have been conditioned to regard Hollywood as a concentration camp for writers, judgments of the Hobby stories have been influenced by presuppositional responses to Hobby—and Fitzgerald—as victims of Hollywood. But Hobby is only a victim of his own dishonesty and lack of ability.

The Pat Hobby stories were simply an undemanding way to make a little money—$4,250—while Fitzgerald was saving himself for work on The Last Tycoon. It is absurd to regard Pat Hobby as a self-portrait of Fitzgerald. Hobby is an illiterate who never had any talent—a cliche-infested dope—with whom Fitzgerald did not identify. Fitzgerald can be connected to Hobby only by viewing Hobby as Fitzgerald’s self-warning—an exaggerated depiction of what Fitzgerald was afraid of becoming. Even if Fitzgerald identified with Hobby, then he was using Hobby to dissipate resentments that he did not want to intrude into the novel. The only viewpoint that The Last Tycoon and the Hobby stories have in common is contempt for the incompetents.

Fitzgerald fulfilled Perkins’ prophecy on 20 October 1939, asking if Scribners could subvene the writing of “the first ten thousand words:”

I have your telegram but meanwhile I found that Collier’s proposition was less liberal than I had expected. They want to pay $15,000. for the serial. But (without taking such steps as reneging on my income tax, letting go my life insurance for its surrender value, taking Scottie from college and putting Zelda in a public asylum) I couldn’tlast four months on that. Certain debts have been run up so that the larger part of the $15,000. has been, so to speak, spent already. A contraction of my own living expenses to the barest minimum, that is to say a room in a boarding house, abandonment of all medical attention (I still see a doctor once a week) would still leave me at the end not merely penniless but even more in debt than I am now.

On the same day that he wrote to Perkins, Fitzgerald wrote to Littauer reviewing the terms of the proposition:

I was disappointed in our conversation the other day—I am no good on long distance and should have had notes in my hand.

I want to make plain how my proposition differs from yours. First there is the question of the total payment; second, the terms of payment, which would enable me to finish it in these straightened circumstances.

In any case I shall probably attack the novel. I have about decided to make a last liquidation of assets, put my wife in a public place, and my daughter to work and concentrate on it—simply take a furnished room and live on canned goods.

But writing it under such conditions I should want to market it with the chance of getting a higher price for it.

It was to avoid doing all this, that I took you up on the idea of writing it on installments. I too had figured on the same price per installment you had paid for a story, but I had no idea that you would want to pack more into an installment than your five thousand word maximum for a story. So the fifty thousand words at $2500. for each 5000 word installment would have come to $25,000. In addition, I had figured that a consecutive story is easier rather than harder to write than the same number of words divided into short stories because the characters and settings are determined in advance, so my idea had been to ask you $20,000. for the whole job. But $15,000.—that would be much too marginal. It would be better to write the whole thing in poverty and freedom of movement with the finished product. Fifteen thousand would leave me more in debt than I am now.

On the question of the terms of payment, my proposition was to include the exact amount which you offer in your letter only I haddivided it, so that the money would come in batches of $3000. every four weeks, or something like that.

When we had our first phone conversation the fact that I did not have enough to start on, further complicated the matter; I have hoped that perhaps that’s where Scribner’s would come in. A telegram from Max told me he was going to see you again but I’ve heard nothing further.

I hope that this will at least clear up any ambiguity. If the proposition is all off, I am very sorry. I regret now that I did not go on with the novel last April when I had some money, instead of floundering around with a lot of disassociated ideas that were halfheartedly attempted and did not really come to anything. I know you are really interested, thank you for the trouble you have taken.

Like most writers who think of themselves as good businessmen, Fitzgerald was a bad one. He was spoiling a deal over the question of a payment that could not be resolved until he had submitted a sample. Moreover, Perkins was under the impression that Collier’s was prepared to go as high as $30,000. The thing for Fitzgerald to do was submit the sample. It was clear that Littauer favored the project, and he had agreed to “shorter installments.” 13 On 2 November Littauer made a further concession: “We are willing to make you a small advance on the basis of six thousand words of manuscript in hand—provided, of course, that much of the story seems to us promising.”

A key factor in Fitzgerald’s negotiations with Littauer was that he wanted an expression of confidence. Fitzgerald always needed money, but at this stage he was also seeking a sign that Collier’s believed in him. He felt forgotten and worried that his friends had given up on him. Ober’s refusal to advance him money on stories had hurt Fitzgerald, and it was apparent that Scribners was not offering to back the new novel. Perkins clearly understood that Fitzgerald expected Scribners to underwrite the novel, but Perkins did not feel that he could justify committing the firm.

At this time Fitzgerald sent a 6,000-word sample to both Littauer and Perkins. The actual material has not been identified, but it is virtually certain that Fitzgerald sent an early draft of the opening of the novel—the plane trip to California. The first chapter is a superb opening for the novel—introducing Stahr and foreshadowing major themes—but it was not an ideal sample as a sample to submit because much of what Fitzgerald is doing does not become clear until the reader has absorbed more of the novel. Fitzgerald’s case would have been much stronger had he been able to send Littauer the first two chapters, including Stahr’s initial encounter with Kathleen during the studio flood. Littauer responded by wire on 28 November: “FIRST SIX THOUSAND PRETTY CRYPTIC THEREFORE DISAPPOINTING. BUT YOU WARNED US THIS MIGHT BE SO. CAN WE DEFER VERDICT UNTIL FURTHER DEVELOPMENT OF STORY? IF IT HAS TO BE NOW IT HAS TO BE NO. REGARDS”. Fitzgerald immediately reacted telegraphically. To Littauer: “NO HARD FEELINGS THERE HAS NEVER BEEN AN EDITOR WITH PANTS ON SINCE GEORGE LORIMER”—thereby effectively cutting off further negotiations. To Perkins: “PLEASE RUSH THE COPY AIR MAIL TO SATURDAY EVENING POST ATTENTION JOE BRUAN STOP I GUESS THERE ARE NO GREAT MAGAZINES EDITORS LEFT”.

“Joe Bruan” was Joseph Bryan III, an associate editor at the Post. Fitzgerald and Bryan had never met or corresponded when Fitzgerald phoned him to ask if he would read a sample of the novel. Bryan was excited by the chance: he had gone to Princeton largely because of reading Fitzgerald and had lived in Fitzgerald’s room at 15 University Place. Bryan does not know why Fitzgerald decided to call him, but guesses that their mutual friend Donald Ogden Stewart told Fitzgerald about him. (Stewart has no recollection of this.) When he read the material Bryan was deeply disappointed to find that it was too “broad” for the Post. He circulated it to the other editors, but the decision was unanimous: the Post could not publish the novel.

Concerned about the effect Littauer’s decision would have on Fitzgerald, Perkins wired on the 29 November: “A BEAUTIFUL START. STIRRING AND NEW. CAN WIRE YOU TWO HUNDRED FIFTY AND A THOUSAND BY JANUARY.” He was acting in a private capacity, not on behalf of Scribners. Perkins—who was not a rich man—had come into a small inheritanceand was prepared to gamble some of it on Fitzgerald. On the same day Fitzgerald wired Perkins to show the synopsis to agent Leland Hayward, with the idea that Hayward could get a movie studio to underwrite his work on the novel in return for the movie rights—a reversal of Fitzgerald’s earlier anxiety that the movie people might learn about his novel. Hayward told Perkins that he could not handle the property until it was written.

One of the results of Littauer’s decision was that Fitzgerald fell off the wagon temporarily. When Colliers editor Max Wilkinson called on him in December 1939 he found Fitzgerald drunk and abusive. On 7 December, Fitzgerald sent Perkins “a little more, introducing the character of the heroine”—part, at least, of Chapter 2. Fitzgerald made no further attempts to deal with Collier’s; and between the end of 1939 and the fall of 1940 there were no progress reports to Perkins. Nevertheless, Collier’s appears to have retained an interest in the novel after Fitzgerald broke off negotiations, for on 7 December 1940 he wrote Scottie that he had recently seen Littauer in Los Angeles. On 23 February 1940 Fitzgerald submitted a short-short, “Dearly Beloved” to Esquire, which Arnold Gingrich declined. This story marks a stage in the gestation of The Last Tycoon, for it is about a Negro who is interested in the Rosicrucians. Although February was too early for Fitzgerald to be working on episode 14 of the novel—where Stahr and Kathleen meet the Negro gathering grunion—the existence of “Dearly Beloved” in February suggests that Fitzgerald had such a character in mind. In March 1940 Fitzgerald took an assignment to adapt “Babylon Revisited” for independent producer Lester Cowan, for which he earned something between $2300 and $5000.

Frances Kroll Ring, Fitzgerald’s secretary, reports that he was not able to devote full attention to his novel until after he moved to the Laurel Avenue apartment in May / June 1940. “Concerning the constant revisions of the early chapters of the Last Tycoon: Scott made so many starts before he got into working on the book full time, that he necessarily made changes with each new start. In Encino, he worked mostly on notes interrupted by turning out the Pat Hobby stories for bucks. When he moved to Laurel, he began to work on LT again. This time, the interruption was the Babylon Revisited screenplay. He didn’t begin writing the book in a continuous stream until after the screenplay was done.” This chronology indicates that Fitzgerald made rapid progress on the novel, writing much of the seventeen episodes in less than six months.

The first evidence of substantial progress on the novel comes in Perkins’ 19 September 1940 letter to Fitzgerald expressing pleasure in John O’Hara’s report that he had read 25,000 words. A great admirer of Fitzgerald’s work, O’Hara told him, “Scott, don’t take any more movie jobs till you’ve finished this. You work so slowly and this is so good, you’ve got to finish it. It’s real Fitzgerald.” In the fall of 1940 Fitzgerald stayed on the wagon and worked steadily on the novel, interrupting it only to write an adaptation of Emlyn Williams’ The Light of Heart for Twentieth Century-Fox in October. From October 1940 Fitzgerald included progress reports in his weekly letters to Zelda: “I expect to be back on my novel any day and this time to finish a two months’ job” (11 October); “I’m trying desperately to finish my novel by the middle of December and it’s a little like working on “Tender is the Night” at the end—I think of nothing else…My room is covered with charts like it used to be for “Tender is the Night” telling the different movements of the characters and their histories” (19 October); “I am deep in the novel, living in it, and it makes me happy. It is a constructed novel like Gatsby, with passages of poetic prose when it fits the action, but no ruminations or sideshows like Tender. Everything must contribute to the dramatic movement…Two thousand words today and all good” (23 October); “The novel is hard as pulling teeth but that is because it is in its early character-planting phase. I feel people so less intently than I did once that this is harder. It means welding together hundreds of stray impressions and incidents to form the fabric of entire personalities” (2 November); “No news except that the novel progresses and I am angry that this little illness has slowed me up. I’ve had trouble with my heart before but never anything organic. This is not a major attack but seems to have come on gradually and luckily a cardiogram showed it up in time” (6 December); “The novel is about three-quarters through and I think I can go on till January 12 without doing any stories or going back to the studio. I couldn’t go back to the studio anyhow in my present condition as I have to spend most of the time in bed where I write on a wooden desk…”(13 December).

To Edmund Wilson—who would edit the novel for posthumous publication—Fitzgerald reported on 25 November 1940: “I think my novel is good. I’ve written it with difficulty. It is completely upstream in mood and will get a certain amount of abuse but is first hand and I am trying a little harder than I ever have to be exact and honest emotionally. I honestly hoped somebody else would write it but nobody seems to be going to.” The letter has a postscript. “This sounds like such a bitter letter—I’d rewrite it except for a horrible paucity of time. Not even time to be bitter.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack on 21 December 1940, leaving 44,000 words of the latest working draft of the novel.


Next: Chapter 4 The Drafts

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