A Literary Friendship
by Matthew J. Bruccoli

A literary movement has been defined as two writers living in the same city who hate each other. Between October 1922 and April 1924, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ring Lardner were both in Great Neck, and loved each other. They founded no literary movement, but their friendship enriched American literature.

It was an improbable friendship. Lardner was 37, a reserved man from whom, Fitzgerald said “an enormous dignity flowed”—a classic case of the sad wit. Fitzgerald was 26, ebullient and unpredictable. The only things they had in common were genius and alcohol. Another factor that promoted their friendship was the compatibility of their wives. Zelda Fitzgerald—who had special standards for people—did not always approve of Scott's friends, but she and the Lardner's got on splendidly. Ring conducted an elaborate mock courtship of Zelda.

Here is a poem he sent Zelda.

The Fitzgerald-Lardner friendship produced one of the great anecdotes on American literary history, which characterizes the friendship. When Joseph Conrad made his only visit to America in May 1923, he remained in seclusion at the Doubleday estate in Oyster Bay. Fitzgerald and Lardner felt compelled to pay tribute to Conrad, and—almost certainly inspired by alcohol—decided to perform a dance for Conrad on the Doubleday lawn. Their idea was that Conrad would be so impressed by this compliment that he would want to see them. The predictable outcome was the Fitzgerald and Lardner were thrown off the property without meeting Conrad. Of all the might-have-beens in literary history, this aborted encounter is one of the saddest. It would be pleasing to think that Conrad might have joined the dance, although he was suffering from gout.

The friendship was not just a drinking companionship, for there were serious literary consequences. When Fitzgerald admired a writer, his reflex action was to bring him into the publishing stable of Charles Scriber's Sons.

At the time of their Great Neck association, Ring Lardner was probably America's most widely read humorist; his audience was the newspaper and magazine readership of his columns and stories. Lardner had published 12 books, mostly with Bobbs-Merrill of Indianapolis, but none had been a success—not even the classic “You Know Me, Al.” Moreover, except for the Jack Keefe baseball letters, his stories had never been collected. As was customary for Fitzgerald, he acted generously when confronted by genius,. He devised a plan whereby Scribners would publish a volume of Lardner's stories; introduced Lardner to his editor, Maxwell Perkins helped pick the stories (Fitzgerald was appalled to discover that Lardner had not kept copies), and named the volume “How to Write Short Stories.”

Documentary evidence for Fitzgerald's efforts on behalf of Lardner is provided by the Chatham Hotel menu, on the back of which Fitzgerald made notes for possible contents (the note on “Good for the soul” is in Maxwell Perkins' hand, he offcorse dined with Fitzgerald).

Published in 1924, “How to Write Short Stories” went through six printings that year and helped to bring Lardner serious critical attention. It was followed by seven more Lardner books published by Scribners.

Lardner baby-sat Fitzgerald through the disastrous opening and closing of Fitzgerald's play, “The Vegetable,” at Atlantic City in 1923. One account is that on the opening night both men left the theater after the second act and headed for the nearest speakeasy. Another is that they stayed in the theater but joined the booing.

In the spring of 1924, Fitzgerald decided it was impossible for his to do serious work at Great Neck because of the social distractions and financial drains there. Typically, he wrote an article for The Saturday Evening Post about life in Great Neck entitled “How to Live on $36,000 a Year” when his income in 1924 was $20,000. The Fitzgeralds went to the Rivera in search of economy and tranquility—which eluded them. Lardner wrote a farewell poem “To Z.S.F.,” which follow:

In the summer of 1924 Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby,” in which he include Lardner as the character Owl Eyes, who speaks Gatsby's obituary: “The poor son of a bitch.”

The Lardners visited the Fitzgeralds at St. Raphael in September 1924, and Lardner wrote a magazine article about the trip in which he commented: “Mr. Fitzgerald is a novelist and Mrs. Fitzgerald is a novelty.”

When “The Great Gatsby” was in proof, Lardner acted as volunteer proofreader, informing Fitzgerald: “On pages 31 and 46 you spoke of the newsstand on the lower level, and the cold waiting room on the lower level of the {Pennsylvania Station. There ain't any lower level at that station and I suggested substitute terms for same. On page 82, you had the guy driving his car under the elevated at Astoria, which isn't Astoria, but Long Island City.”

”On page 118 you had a tide in Lake Superior and on page 209 you had the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Station. These things are trivial, but some of the critics pick on trivial errors for lack of anything else to pick on.”

After the Riviera visit in 1924, Fitzgerald and Lardner rarely saw each other again. Only two later meetings can be documented, but there were probably more. The absence of reunions between Lardner and Fitzgerald indicates no estrangement. During much, of 1924-1930 Fitzgerald was in Europe, and thereafter was swamped with personal and career problems. Nevertheless, they continued to exchange warm letters; and Lardner kept Fitzgerald informed on the latest activities of Great Neck resident Gene Buck the songwriter, whose behavior they found vastly diverting. Buck's Great Neck home provided the setting for Lardner's story, “The Love Nest.”

“On the Fourth of July, Ed Wynn gave a fireworks party at his new estate in the Grenwolde division. After the children had been sent home, everybody got pie-eyed and I never enjoyed a night so much. All the Great Neck professionals did their stuff, the former chorus girls danced, Blanche Ring kissed me and sang, etc, The part lasted through the next day and wound up next evening at Tom Melghan's, when the principal entertainment was provided by Lila Lee and another dame, who did some very funny imitations (really funny) in the moonlight on the tennis court. We would ask them to imitate Houdini, or Leon Errol, or Well Rogers, or Elsie Janis; the imitations were all the same, consisting of an atheistic dance which ended with an unaesthetic fall onto the tennis court.”

Fitzgerald dedicated his 1926 volume “All the Sad Young Men” to “Ring and Ellis Lardner.” Lardner did not reciprocate, since he never dedicated his books. But in the introduction to his 1926 collection, “The Love Nest,” Lardner included this piece of affectionate nonsense:

“It was in the middle of this work that the rivalry between Lardner, Scott Fitzgerald, and Opie Reade for the love of Lily Langtry reached its height. During a dinner party at which the then raging beauty and her raging suitors were all present, the toastmaster. Gerald Chapman, asked Miss Langtry to rise and drink to ‘her favorite.’ The muscles of Fitzgerald and Reade were taut; Lardner's were very flabby.

“After a pause that seemed to endure all night but really lasted only half that long. Miss Langtry got up, raised her glass and said: ‘I drink to Red Grange. Heston may have been his superior on defense and Coy, Thorpe, Echersall and Mahan more versatile, but as a common carrier I take off my hat to the Wheaton ice monger.’

“Miss Langtry was deeply interested in college athletics and it was she who christened a certain New Jersey town Rahway because it was en route to Rutgers, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania.

“Her response to the toastmaster's request affected he three swains variously. Reade arose and told the story of the two half-breeds, Seminole and Deminole. Lardner and Fitzgerald took up rotation pool, and weighed themselves once a week. Every so often they became maudin, or better still, inaudible.”

Probably in 1927 the following exchange of Christmas greetings occurred.

From the Lardners:

To the Lardners:

Lardner remained on Fitzgerald mind during the years after “The Great Gatsby” while Fitzgerald was trying to complete the novel that became “Tender Is the Night.” In the early stages of composition Fitzgerald introduced the character Abe North, gifted musician who is destroyed by drink and loss of belief in his work Abe North looks like Lardner and has Lardner's wit. In these years Fitzgerald spoke of Lardner as “my alcoholic”—meaning that Lardner had become for him a symbolic figure, providing warning and a cause for regret.

When Lardner died in 1933 at the age of 48, Fitzgerald wrote an elegy “Ring,” for The New Republic:

“At no time did I feel that I had known him enough, or that anyone knew him—it was not the feeling that there was more stuff in him and that it should come out, it was rather a qualitative difference, it was rather as though, due to some inadequacy in oneself, one had not penetrated to something unsolved, new and unsaid. That is why one wishes that Ring had written down a larger proportion of what was in his mind and heart. It would have saved him longer for us, and that is itself would be something. But I would like to know what it was, and now I will go on wishing—what did Ring want, how did he want things to be, how did he think things were?

“A great and good American is dead. Let us not obscure him by flowers but walk up and look at that fine medallion, all abraded by sorrows that perhaps we are not equipped to understand. Ring made no enemies, because he was kind, and to many millions he gave release and delight.”

When he read those words, John O'Hara wrote to Fitzgerald: “Lardner must that as reverently as I can mean that as reverently as I can mean anything. ‘A Catholic who takes mean anything.’” A Catholic who takes Communion on nine successive First Fridays of the month is promised the opportunity to enter eternity in a state of grace. Lardner was not a Catholic—as O'Hara knew—but that does not prevent one from hoping that Ring Lardner and F. Scott Fitzgerald are together in a celestial Great Neck where the booze is not ¾ water. And maybe Joseph Conrad is dancing with them.

Published in New York Times newspaper (November 7, 1976).