“Hollywood is a Jewish holiday, a gentiles tragedy,” Fitzgerald observed. But in 1937 it was his last hope. When he went to work for M-G-M, he was more than $22,000 in debt: $12,511.69 to Ober; $1,150 to Perkins; and at least another $9,000 to Scribners in loans and advances. The value of his life insurance policy had been reduced to $30,000. He was behind in the payments to Highland Hospital, where the annual charges for Zelda were $6,780 in 1938. His claim that he owed $40,000 when he went to California may have been close to the truth. He instructed Ober to divide his $1,000 weekly paychecks as follows:
Out of his $400 a week allowance Fitzgerald paid for Zelda’s treatment and Scottie’s tuition, as well as his living expenses. He optimistically calculated that he would’be able to discharge his debts in a year.Although he paid off Ober and Perkins at the end of 1938, he still owed Scribners more than $5,000 at his death.
Fitzgerald went west with high resolves and renewed ambition. Despite his two previous failures in Hollywood, he believed that this time he could launch a new career at forty. On the train he wrote to Scottie, reviewing his movie record and sharing his plan for coping with collaborators:
I feel a certain excitement. The third Hollywood venture. Two failures behind me though one no fault of mine. The first one was just ten years ago. At that time I had been generally acknowledged for several years as the top American writer both seriously and, as far as prices went, popularly. I had been loafing for six months for the first time in my life and was confident to the point of conciet. Hollywood made a big fuss over us and the ladies all looked very beautiful to a man of thirty. I honestly believed that with no effort on my part I was a sort of magician with words—an odd delusion on my part when I had worked so desperately hard to develop a hard, colorful prose style.
Total result—a great time + no work. I was to be paid only a small amount unless they made my picture—they didn’t.
The second time I went was five years ago. Life had gotten in some hard socks and while all was serene on top, with your mother apparently recovered in Montgomery, I was jittery underneath and beginning to drink more than I ought to. Far from approaching it too confidently I was far too humble. I ran afoul of a bastard named de Sano, since a suicide, and let myself be gyped out of command. I wrote the picture + he changed as I wrote. I tried to get at Thalberg but was erroneously warned against it as “bad taste.” Result—a bad script. I left with the money, for this was a contract for weekly payments, but disillusioned and disgusted, vowing never to go back, tho they said it wasn’t my fault + asked me to stay. I wanted to get East when the contract expired to see how your mother was. This was later interpreted as “running out on them” + held against me.
(The train has left El Paso since I began this letter—hence the writing— Rocky Mountain writing.)
I want to profit by these two experiences—I must be very tactful but keep my hand on the wheel from the start—find out the key man among the bosses + the most malleable among the collaborators—then fight the rest tooth + nail until, in fact or in effect, I’m alone on the picture. That’s the only way I can do my best work. Given a break I can make them double this contract in less than two years.
He probably reported at M-G-M on Saturday, 10 July 1937; his first full working week started on Monday the twelfth. Ober had arrangedfor him to take a small apartment at the Garden of Allah, a raffish hotel at 8152 Sunset Boulevard favored by writers, where he shared a unit with screenwriter Edwin Justus Mayer. The rent was $400 a month. He acquired a 1934 Ford coupe to commute to the M-G-M lot in Culver City.
Fitzgerald had old friends among the Hollywood writers’ colony, and he was pleased when the movie people made a fuss over him. Robert Benchley and Dorothy Parker were hospitable, but these two drinkers were surprised to find that he was on the wagon and diffident to the point of humility. His embarrassment about his position in Hollywood was intensified by Hemingway’s arrival as a conquering hero to raise money for the Spanish loyalists. Fitzgerald was among the guests when Hemingway showed The Spanish Earth at the home of Fredric March on 12 July. After the showing, he offered to drive Lillian Hellman to Dorothy Parker’s house, where the party was continuing, but he was intimidated by Hemingway and did not want to join the party. Hell man persuaded him to go in with her and left him in the kitchen talking with Dashiell Hammett and Dorothy Parker. This was the last time Fitzgerald saw Hemingway, and there is no record that they talked. The next day he sent Hemingway a wire: THE PICTURE WAS BEYOND PRAISE AND SO WAS YOUR ATTITUDE = SCOTT. Fitzgerald understood that their close friendship was over, admitting: “I talk with the authority of failure—Ernest with the authority of success. We could never sit across thetable again.”
Fitzgerald was able to send Anne Ober an exuberant report on his first week in Hollywood:
This letter is long overdue. Suffice to summarize: I have seen Hollywood—talked with Taylor, dined with March, danced with Ginger Rogers (this will burn Scottie up but its true) been in Rosalind Russel’s dressing room, wise-cracked with Montgomery, drunk (gingerale) with Zukor and Lasky, lunched alone with Maureen OSullivan, watched Crawford act and lost my heart to a beautiful half caste Chinese girl whos name I’ve forgotten. So far Ive bought my own breakfasts.
And this is to say Im through. From now on I go nowhere and see no one because the work is hard as hell, at least for me and I’ve lost ten pounds. So farewell Miriam Hopkins who leans so close when she talks, so long Claudette Clobert as yet unencountered, mysterious Garbo, glamourous Dietrich, exotic Shirley Temple—you will never know me. Except Miriam who promised to call up but hasn’t. There is nothing left girls but to believe in reincarnation and carry on.
Though Fitzgerald was returning to work he had no heart for, he was at the best studio in Hollywood. (Fitzgerald did not become a mere Hollywood hack writer and never worked on a B picture. With one exception, his salary was at least $1,000 a week, which placed him among the highest-paid movie writers. (In the Forties, William Faulkner worked at Warner Bros. for $300 a week.) Fitzgerald’s notes for The Last Tycoon include a Hollywood pay scale: “Junior writers $300; Minor poets—$500 a week; Broken novelists—$850-1000; One play dramatists—$1500; Sucks— $2000.—Wits—$2500.”) Irving Thalberg had died in 1936; but M-G-M retained the Thalberg style in its expensive, well-produced movies. M-G-M had the largest stable of stars and paid top salaries to writers. On 21 August, Fitzgerald signed the twenty-page M-G-M contract which stipulated: “During the time the author is laid off pursuant to the provisions of this paragraph, the author shall have the right to write and/or work upon three (3) stories for the Saturday Evening Post, one (1) story for Collier’s Magazine, three (3) short articles for Esquire Magazine and/or may complete the writing of that certain play tentatively entitled ’Institutional Humanitarianism,’ heretofore commenced by the author, and the producer shall have no right or interest in such material.” This play, which was to have a prison setting, did not advance beyond the planning stage.
Fitzgerald was assigned an office on the third floor of the writers’ building on the M-G-M lot. He was expected to report between 9 and 10 a.m., and the studio day ended at 6 p.m.; Saturday was a half day. He got through the studio day with Cokes—as many as a dozen a day—and arranged the empties around the walls of his office until they formed a complete perimeter. If he had to be on the sound stages when shooting was in progress, he carried Cokes in his briefcase. Coca-Cola provided a stimulant and satisfied his craving for sweets when he was on the wagon; it probably also served to meet his need to have a glass in his hand. The studio work schedule was hard on him because he slept badly and was often tired during the day. Before going to bed, he took three teaspoons of chloral and two Nembutals to help him sleep. In the morning he took Benzedrine to get him started. After his heart trouble began, forty-eight drops of Digitalin were added to his nightly medication.
Determined to build a new career in Hollywood, Fitzgerald took notes on old movies and tried to learn the language of camera technique, even though he was told that it was unnecessary for a screenwriter to know these things—the director and the cameraman wouldtake care of them. At the studio he was almost painfully humble with people who had known him in the old days. He would drop in at Anita Loos’s office and apologize for bothering her. A character in Christopher Isherwood’s Prater Violet describes Hollywood writers as feeling like married men meeting in a whorehouse, and Fitzgerald, too, seemed embarrassed by his situation. He did not mind the writing part of the job, but the waiting and the long story conferences wore him down.
At M-G-M, Fitzgerald became friendly with Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich Hackett, who wrote the Thin Man movies. He seemed shy and miserable in the commissary and rarely joined the writers’ table, which included Dorothy Parker, Ogden Nash, George Oppenheimer, S. J. Perelman, and the Hacketts. Occasionally he lunched at another table with Anita Loos, gagman Robert Hopkins, writers John Meehan and Howard Emmett Rogers, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, and sometimes Aldous Huxley. Wit was the chief qualification for a seat at these tables, but Fitzgerald was conspicuously quiet. On the wagon, he experienced that sense of alienation heavy drinkers have after they stop. He was a displaced person in Hollywood. As late as 1940 he wrote to a friend in the East, “Isn’t Hollywood a dump—in the human sense of the word. A hideous town, pointed up by the insulting gardens of its rich, full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement.” He felt forgotten and out of touch with the world, as documented in a postcard he wrote to himself: “Dear Scott—How are you? Have been meaning to come in and see you. I have living at The Garden of Allah Yours Scott Fitzgerald.”
Among Fitzgerald’s earliest correspondence from Hollywood is a letter urging Thomas Wolfe to curb his compulsion to put all of his material into his books: “The novel of selected incidents has this to be said: that the great writer like Flaubert has consciously left out the stuff that Bill or Joe (in this case, Zola) will come along and say presently. He will say only the things that he alone sees. So Madame Bovary becomes eternal while Zola already rocks with age…” This letter may have been prompted by Fitzgerald’s desire to believe that although he had sold himself to the movies, he was still part of Perkins’s literary family. Wolfe replied on the 26 July, remarking, “I’ll be damned if I’ll believe anyone lives in a place called ’The Garden of Allah.’” Since he had not invited Fitzgerald’s advice, Wolfe’s long response expressed impatience with what had become a familiar complaint against his work: “Well, don’t forget, Scott, that a great writer isnot only a leaver-outer but also a putter-inner, and that Shakespeare and Cervantes and Dostoievsky were great putter-inners—greater putter-inners, in fact, than taker-outers—and will be remembered for what they put in—remembered, I venture to say, as long as Monsieur Flaubert will be remembered for what he left out.”
Because he was regarded as an expert on collegiate matters, Fitzgerald’s first M-G-M assignment was to polish the screenplay for A Yank at Oxford. The project involved one of the intricate script collaborations that Fitzgerald hated. The original story had been supplied by John Monk Saunders, and the first screenplay by Frank Wead was turned over to Fitzgerald for dialogue polishing. It was then rewritten by Malcolm Stewart Boyland and Walter Ferris, whose work was then doctored by George Oppenheimer.
English novelist Anthony Powell had come to Hollywood hoping to obtain work on A Yank at Oxford. When he learned that Fitzgerald was assigned to this movie, he arranged to meet him for lunch at the M-G-M commissary on 20 July. Powell was impressed by Fitzgerald’s “odd sort of unassuming dignity.” Their conversation about English university slang for the movie turned into a discussion of the cultural flow into America, which Fitzgerald diagrammed. Powell was struck by Fitzgerald’s pedagogical manner: “He loved instructing. There was a schoolmasterish streak, if at the same time an attractive one; an enthusiasm, simplicity of exposition, that might have offered a career as a teacher or university don.”
Fitzgerald’s participation was not substantial enough to earn him a screen credit—the gauge by which a writer’s success was measured. When the movie was released, Fitzgerald wrote Mrs. Sayre: “Very few lines of mine are left in ’A Yank at Oxford.’ I only worked on it for eight days, but the sequence in which Taylor and Maureen O’sullivan go out in the punt in the morning, while the choir boys are singing on Magdalene Tower, is mine, and one line very typically so—where Taylor says, ’Don’t rub the sleep out of your eyes. It’s beautiful sleep.’ I thought that line had my trade mark on it.”
On 14 July,Robert Benchley—one of the most popular figures in Hollywood—gave a party at the Garden of Allah to celebrate the engagement of Sheilah Graham and the Marquess of Donegall, who had come from England to propose. She was a twenty-eight-year-old English Hollywood columnist. Fitzgerald dropped in at the party and left early without speaking to her, but he had noticed her extraordinary resemblance to the young Zelda. He later wrote his first impression of Sheilah into The Last Tycoon: “Smiling faintly at him from not four feet away was the face of his dead wife, identical even to the expression. Across the four feet of moonlight, the eyes he knew looked back at him, a curl blew a little on a familiar forehead; the smile lingered, changed a little according to pattern; the lips parted—the same. An awful fear went over him, and he wanted to cry aloud.” Benchley phoned Fitzgerald to rejoin the party after Sheilah and her fiance had left, and Fitzgerald asked who was still there. When Benchley told him that a blond actress named Tala Birell was there, Fitzgerald returned, thinking she was Sheilah. (He had incorrectly remembered that the girl who interested him had been wearing a silver belt—a detail that went into The Last Tycoon for Monroe Stahr’s meeting with Kathleen Moore.)
After Donegall returned to England, Fitzgerald saw Sheilah Graham again at the Screen Writers Guild dinner dance on 22 July in the Fiesta Room of the Ambassador Hotel, where he was Dorothy Parker’s guest. His first words to her were “I like you.” “I like you, too,” she replied, and asked him to dance with her; but the party ended before they danced or spoke again. The following Saturday, 24 July, Eddie Mayer invited Sheilah to have dinner with him and Fitzgerald. She alreadyhad a date with her legman, Jonah Ruddy, who was therefore included in the invitation. The group went to the Clover Club, a nightclub and gambling house, where Fitzgerald and Sheilah spent most of the evening dancing.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was only a name to Sheilah. She knew that hewas an author but did not know what he had written, and she had no knowledge of his past. He impressed her as charming and witty, and she was flattered by the close attention he paid her. Sheilah noticed that his friends treated him respectfully, yet she was puzzled by incongruities in his behavior—for example, that he dressed warmly in the Los Angeles summer and was nervous in auto traffic.
Fitzgerald phoned to cancel their next dinner date because Helen Hayes was bringing Scottie to California for a visit, but Sheilah said she’d like to meet his daughter. They went to the Trocadero with Scottie and some young people; Sheilah was dismayed to see the ebullient Fitzgerald of the Clover Club turn into a strict father as he corrected Scottie all evening. After Scottie was dropped off, Sheilah felt so sorry for Fitzgerald in his parental anxiety that she invited him into her house on King’s Road in the Hollywood Hills (This account is based on Sheilah Graham’s recollections in Beloved Infidel, College of One, and The Real F. Scott Fitzgerald, which telescope time. Her reports place the Screen Writers Guild dinner (which she also refers to as an Anti-Nazi League dinner) at the Cocoanut Grove a few days after 14 July, whereas it was held at the Ambassador on the twenty-second. Scottie and Helen Hayes departed by train from New York on 3 August, so the dinner at the Trocadero could not have been before 6 August). Presumably their intimacy began that night.
Scottie enjoyed her first visit to California, despite her father’s tendency to lecture her. He arranged for her to meet her idol, Fred Astaire, and other stars. (Her meeting with Astaire was reported in Sheilah’s column.) Since Scottie stayed with Helen Hayes and Charles Mac-Arthur, Fitzgerald was spared the strain of having a teenager on the premises. During her visit he insisted that she take tap-dancing lessons.
If Sheilah knew little about Fitzgerald, all he knew about her was the autobiography she had invented: that she belonged to an upper-class English family and had become a chorus girl as a lark before turning to journalism. The truth, which she concealed, was that she had been born Lily Sheil in an East End London slum and was raised in an orphanage. She had married an older, Micawber-like gentleman named Graham who improved her manners and speech. Always short of money, he urged her to go on the stage and even encouraged her to date other men. As she began to move in London society without her husband, she worried that her lack of proper background would be exposed and tried to educate herself. After her marriage broke up, she decided to try her hand at journalism in America and by 1937 waswriting a syndicated Hollywood column for the North American Newspaper Alliance. Hollywood was full of gossip columnists, and Sheilah Graham never achieved the power of Louella Parsons or Hedda Hopper; nor was she influential enough to advance Fitzgerald’s movie career. In 1937 she earned $160 a week for five daily “Hollywood Today” columns and a Saturday feature article.
Subjected to Fitzgerald’s endless curiosity about her background, Sheilah tearfully told him the truth. Instead of being appalled as she had feared, he was fascinated by her efforts to rise and immediately volunteered to guide her education. He was, however, shocked when she admitted to having slept with eight men. In the early months of their relationship he was still on the wagon, and she had no idea that he was an alcoholic—or what his drinking behavior was like.
After his stint on A Yank at Oxford Fitzgerald received the important assignment to write the screenplay for Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Three Comrades for Joseph Mankiewicz, one of the studio’s top producers. It was a major movie, with four stars, to be directed by Frank Borzage. Mankiewicz was one of Hollywood’s most literate producers and had been a successful screenwriter. His career later reached a peak when he wrote and directed A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and All About Eve (1950). Fitzgerald was mistakenly assigned the office already occupied by Waldo Salt, who was also writing for Mankiewicz, and was profusely apologetic because he thought the younger writer’s feelings were hurt by being moved out. After the mix-up was settled, Fitzgerald complimented Salt on Shopworn Angel and talked with him about the movies. Salt was impressed by Fitzgerald’s seriousness about screenwriting.
At first Fitzgerald worked alone, and he wanted to keep it that way. By 4 September, before flying east to see Zelda, he had submitted about two-thirds of the screenplay to Mankiewicz, along with a letter requesting that he be allowed to finish without a collaborator. Mankiewicz wired that the screenplay was “simply swell” and assured Fitzgerald that he could continue alone. Fitzgerald spent a week with Zelda and Scottie in Charleston, South Carolina. The visit was tranquil, but he made no plans for bringing his wife to California. It was understood that they would live apart at least as long as she required treatment. He sent her weekly affectionate letters and saw to it that she was not denied any reasonable pleasures at Highland. His letters closed “With dearest love”; hers were signed “Devotedly.”
When he returned to Hollywood to resume work on Three Comrades, Fitzgerald was assigned E. E. Paramore as a collaborator. Best known for “The Ballad of Yukon Jake,” a popular parody of the Robert W. Service poems, Ted Paramore was an experienced—if undistinguished—screenwriter. Fitzgerald had known Paramore, a friend of Edmund Wilson’s in 1920, and had caricatured him in The Beautiful and Damned as Fred E. Paramore. Predictably, he began feuding with Paramore over who was in charge of the screenplay. He regarded Paramore as a hack who had been teamed with him to help with construction problems; but Paramore considered himself an equal partner.
At this stage of his screenwriting Fitzgerald still wrote novelistically and needed the help of an experienced Hollywood hand. His first screenplay for Three Comrades began with historical background on postwar Germany, including a graph showing German inflation. One sequence became something of a Hollywood legend. For the scene in which Erich (Robert Taylor) telephones Pat (Margaret Sullavan) for a date, Fitzgerald conceived a switchboard operated by St. Peter, an angel, and a satyr.
In October he fell off the wagon. A good deal is known about his drinking in California from Sheilah Graham’s accounts in her books of reminiscence. She first saw what alcohol did to him when she was late phoning him after dining with writer Arthur Kober; Fitzgerald retaliated by getting drunk. Her discovery of his alcoholism was particularly upsetting because of her childhood memories of drunken men in London’s East End. Having climbed a long way on ambition and determination, she was concerned about damaging her career by becoming involved with a drunk. At this point she had committed herself to Fitzgerald by breaking her engagement to the Marquess of Donegall.
When Ginevra King, now divorced, wired Fitzgerald that she was visiting Santa Barbara, Fitzgerald saw her for the first time in nineteen years and drank too much in an attempt to rise to the occasion. He found her still charming and phoned her for the next few days, but they did not see each other again. Sheilah became the woman in his life, and they settled down to a domestic routine while maintaining separate residences. His football interests revived in California, and he regularly took her to the college games in Los Angeles. He was a fan of UCLA’s legendary black halfback, Kenny Washington, and gave his maid tickets to see Washington play.
Despite their antipathy, Fitzgerald and Paramore submitted six drafts of their screenplay. The final version, dated 1 February 1938,was then thoroughly revised by Mankiewicz. Fitzgerald felt betrayed, writing in his copy of the shooting script: “37 pages mine about ⅓, but all shadows + rythm removed.” He protested to Mankiewicz on 20 January 1938 in an emotional letter that may not have been sent:
To say I’m disillusioned is putting it mildly. I had an entirely different conception of you. For nineteen years, with two years out for sickness, I’ve written best selling entertainment, and my dialogue is supposedly right up at the top. But I learn from the script that you’ve suddenly decided that it isn’t good dialogue and you can take a few hours off and do much better.
You are simply tired of the best scenes because you’ve read them too much and, having dropped the pilot, you’re having the aforesaid pleasure of a child with a box of chalk. I know you are or have been a good writer, but this is a job you will be ashamed of before it’s over. The little fluttering life of what’s left of my lines and situations won’t save the picture.
My only hope is that you will have a moment of clear thinking. That you’ll ask some intelligent and disinterested person to look at the two scripts. Some honest thinking would be much more valuable to the enterprise right now than an effort to convince people you’ve improved it. I am utterly miserable at seeing months of work and thought negated in one hasty week. I hope you’re big enough to take this letter as it’s meant—a desperate plea to restore the dialogue to its former quality—to put back the flower cart, the piano-moving, the balcony, the manicure girl—all those touches that were both natural and new. Oh, Joe, can’t producers ever be wrong? I’m a good writer—honest. I thought you were going to play fair. Joan Crawford might as well play the part now, for the thing is as groggy with sentimentality as “The Bride Wore Red,” but the true emotion is gone.
Mankiewicz has defended himself against the charge of having tampered with a great writer’s prose by insisting that Fitzgerald “really wrote very bad spoken dialogue” and that the cast—particularly Margaret Sullavan—had complained about their lines. [Fitzgerald’s original screenplay—without the revisions of Paramore and Mankiewicz—has been published as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Screenplay for Erich Maria Remarque’s Three Comrades (Carbondale & Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978)].
Three Comrades ran into further trouble after it was made. The German consul protested against its obvious anti-Nazi stance; and Joseph Breen, the movie industry censor, recommended that theGermans be appeased by making the villains communists. Mankiewicz refused to consider this change, for which Fitzgerald congratulated him by hugging him in the M-G-M commissary. Then when the movie was previewed for the exhibitors, they objected to the unhappy ending with the death of Pat. Her death was retained in the released movie, but Fitzgerald wanted a stronger ending with the two surviving comrades returning to fight against the Nazis, instead of leaving for South America. He wrote another angry letter (on which he noted “Unsent— needless to say”) to M-G-M executives Eddie Mannix and Sam Katz: “In writing over a hundred and fifty stories for George Lorimer, the great editor of the Saturday Evening Post I found he made a sharp distinction between a sordid tragedy and a heroic tragedy—hating the former but accepting the latter as an essential and interesting part of life.” Fitzgerald was slow to accept the condition that his Hollywood bosses did not care about his literary reputation. He was being well paid to give them what they wanted.
The reception of Three Comrades, featuring Robert Taylor, Margaret Sullavan, Franchot Tone, and Robert Young, countered Fitzgerald’s dire predictions. It was a box-office hit and ranked as one of the ten best movies of 1938. Margaret Sullavan received an Academy Award nomination and won both the New York Critics Award and the British National Award for best actress of the year. Three Comrades brought Fitzgerald his only screen credit, which he shared with Paramore. Despite his difficulties with Paramore and Mankiewicz, his work won him a renewal of his contract at the end of 1937. For the next year his salary was raised to $1,250 per week.
Sheilah had agreedto do a weekly radio talk on the movies—which Fitzgerald helped her write—but the first broadcast was a failure because she had trouble controlling her voice. The sponsor decided to have someone read the scripts for her, but Sheilah thought her problem was caused by the wait in the California studio while the network stations were connected across the country. She was sure she would be able to control her voice if the delay were removed and asked for the chance to do a broadcast from Chicago. Fitzgerald, who had been drinking, went with her—fortifying himself with gin at the airport. When Sheilah saw how drunk he was on the plane, she told him to get off at Albuquerque and return to California. He disembarked but reboarded the plane with a new supply of gin. Although Sheilah did not know it, he was AWOL from M-G-M. In Chicago he created a nuisance by directing Sheilah in the radio studio and punching the sponsor, after which he was ejected. When Sheilah returned to their hotel, she found Arnold Gingrich—whom Fitzgerald had summoned from the Esquire Chicago office—trying to sober him up by spoonfeeding him. Fitzgerald had turned it into a game by spitting out the food and trying to bite Gingrich’s hand. At the airport the airline refused to board Fitzgerald because he was obviously drunk. Sheilah rode in a taxi with him for five or six hours until he looked sober. In California, Fitzgerald arranged for a drying-out process which required day and night nurses and intravenous treatment. The next week Sheilah went alone to Chicago, planning to go on to New York. Fitzgerald warned her that he would not be in California when she came back from the East, so she gave up the idea and returned from Chicago.
In January 1938 Fitzgerald went to visit Zelda and took her toFlorida and Montgomery. The trip went without problems. He stayed sober, but the strain of taking care of Zelda tired him. After Three Comrades he was transferred to Hunt Stromberg’s production unit and given what was supposed to be the choice assignment of working alone on a movie for Joan Crawford. M-G-M had acquired “Infidelity,” a short story by Ursula Parrott, which was scrapped. Fitzgerald’s job was to write what was virtually an original screenplay dealing with marital infidelity. When he told Joan Crawford that he was working on her next movie, she supposedly replied, “Write hard, Mr. Fitzgerald. Write hard.” He studied her movies and made notes on her acting, because the role had to be tailored to her abilities. He found this requirement difficult, explaining to Gerald Murphy in March 1938: “She can’t change her emotions in the middle of a scene without going through a sort of Jeckyll and Hyde contortion of the face, so that when one wants to indicate that she is going from joy to sorrow, one must cut away and then cut back. Also, you can never give her such a stage direction as ’telling a lie,’ because if you did she would practically give a representation of Benedict Arnold selling West Point to the British.” The problem that seems to have been ignored at the inception of the project was that in 1938 a movie about marital infidelity could not be made in Hollywood. The subject was taboo. No matter how the adultery was treated, there would have to be some kind of obligatory happy reconciliation reaffirming the sanctity of matrimony.
Fitzgerald approached the assignment with enthusiasm, hoping to bring off a sophisticated drama that would solve the problems of the material and satisfy both Joseph Breen and Louis B. Mayer. He was happy to be unencumbered with collaborators and enjoyed working with Stromberg, whom he described as “a sort of one-finger Thalberg, without Thalberg’s scope, but with his intense power of work and his absorption in his job.” Known on the M-G-M lot as a writer’s producer, Stromberg had a strong story sense but did not rewrite dialogue. He respected Fitzgerald and tried to make things agreeable for him.
Fitzgerald worked on “Infidelity” from February to May 1938, writing a 104-page screenplay that lacks an ending (The unfinished screenplay was published in the December 1973 issue of Esquire). The story Fitzgerald invented treats Nicolas and Althea Gilbert, a wealthy couple who are deeply in love. When Althea goes to Europe to look after her sick mother, Nicolas inexplicably has a one-night affair with a formersweetheart. Althea returns unexpectedly and finds them breakfasting in the Gilbert home under circumstances that make it obvious Nicolas has been unfaithful. The Gilberts continue to live together with no hope of reconciliation until Althea enters into a platonic attachment with a former suitor. Fitzgerald’s screenplay breaks off when Althea has rejected her suitor’s proposal and is being comforted by an attractive doctor. There was no way to resolve this situation in an M-G-M movie. At one point someone suggested outsmarting the censors by changing the title to “Fidelity.” Fitzgerald was deeply disappointed when Stromberg gave up on the project; he had hoped his screenplay would establish him as a top movie writer.
During Scottie’s 1938 spring vacation Fitzgerald flew east and took his wife and daughter on a disastrous trip to Virginia Beach and Norfolk, Virginia. After two days of arguing with Zelda, he got drunk and she persuaded people in their hotel that he was a dangerous madman. Fitzgerald and Zelda disagreed about the conditions of her release from Highland. He insisted that any such trial be carefully controlled and under hospital supervision; but she wanted to travel, with a companion of her own choosing. When he returned to California, Fitzgerald wrote her a strong letter about her delusions and his finances, ending with a tender postscript: “Oh, Zelda, this was to have been such a cold letter, but I dont feel that way about you. Once we were one person and always it will be a little that way.”
In April 1938 Sheilah found a house for him at 114 Malibu Beach for $300 a month because she wanted to get him away from the Garden of Allah, a noisy gathering place for the gregarious, to a restful location. Convinced that it would aggravate his tuberculosis, Fitzgerald never swam there. Sheilah spent weekends at Malibu, where their pleasures included ping-pong and reading. Fitzgerald also liked to make fudge to satisfy his craving for sweets—a common condition in dried-out alcoholics. Their quiet ocean-front life was a far cry from the Riviera years when the Fitzgeralds partied every night. After “Infidelity” was canceled, Sheilah suggested that they give a party at Malibu to exorcise the disappointment. Fitzgerald was the life of the party—on gin. He took writer Nunnally Johnson aside for a drunken fatherly talk to persuade him to leave Hollywood immediately before it ruined him. Johnson had been a Post writer and was doing well in Hollywood. He liked movie work and went on to become one of Hollywood’s most successful writer-producers. He failed to react properly to his host’s advice, and Fitzgerald wanted to fight him. As Johnson and his wifewere leaving, Fitzgerald shouted at them that he knew they’d never visit him again because he was living with his “paramour.” Charles Marquis Warren, Fitzgerald’s Baltimore protege, attended this party and lived at the beach house for a short time in 1938. Warren’s account of his Malibu stay, included in Aaron Latham’s Crazy Sundays, claims that Ernest Hemingway was a fellow house guest and was receiving an allowance from Fitzgerald while writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. This account is a fabrication. Hemingway did not visit Fitzgerald at Malibu. The only time they saw each other in California was in June 1937 when Hemingway came to raise money for the Spanish Loyalists.
Fitzgerald’s feelings about his liaison with Sheilah were ambivalent. After his death she discovered that he had written “Portrait of a Prostitute” on the back of his framed photo of her. (The comment was almost certainly made after one of his drunken quarrels with Sheilah.) When Helen Hayes was appearing in a play in Los Angeles, Fitzgerald took Sheilah backstage, but the next day he sent the actress flowers with a note apologizing for introducing Sheilah to her. He needed Sheilah and loved her; yet his puritan streak disapproved of their arrangement, which was circumspect by Hollywood standards. Indeed,Sheilah has insisted that she was not really Fitzgerald’s mistress because he never supported her. Though they maintained separate residences, Fitzgerald did not try to keep their relationship a secret. Certainly Scottie knew about it, and her father warned her not to mention Sheilah to Zelda or the Sayres. Scottie liked Sheilah, who went to considerable trouble making her California visits pleasant. Fitzgerald introduced Sheilah to the Murphys, Ober, Perkins, and Wilson when they went east.
In “For Sheilah, a Beloved Infidel” Fitzgerald expressed gratitude to her earlier lovers for having made her more desirable. Still, the fifty-six-line poem reveals his uneasiness about her amatory history:
That sudden smile across a room
Was certainly not learned from me
That first faint quiver of a bloom
The eyes initial extacy
Whoever taught you how to page
Your lover so sweetly—now as then
I thank him for my heritage
The eyes made bright by other men.
But when I join the other ghosts
Who lay beside your flashing fire
I must believe I’ll drink their toasts
To one who was a sweet desire
And sweet fulfillment—all they found
Was worth remembering. And then
He’ll hear us as the wine goes round
—A greeting from us other men
Fitzgerald worried about his responsibilities to Scottie as he tried to supervise her social life and education at a distance of 3,000 miles. His greatest anxiety was that, like the heroine of his Josephine stories, she would become emotionally bankrupt before she was twenty. Feeling that he had to compensate for the lack of close parental guidance by being strict, he bombarded her with admonishing letters. He was particularly troubled by her casual attitude toward school work and demanded that she be a good student—perhaps by way of penance for his own academic sins. Scottie was very bright; but she, like him, was too preoccupied with her surroundings to be a scholar. It troubled Fitzgerald that his daughter showed talent for writing and was repeating his involvement in school theatricals. He wanted her to study science and mathematics, warning her that parties and boys were threats to her development as a serious woman. When she was away from school on vacations, he pestered the Obers with telegrams and phone calls about her activities until Harold Ober told him—as forcefully as his gentlemanly nature would allow—to stop annoying them at home.
In 1938 Scottie graduated from Ethel Walker and applied to Vassar, a decision Fitzgerald approved of because of Vassar’s academic reputation. He did not attend her graduation from Walker’s but arranged for Zelda to go with her sister Rosalind. While remaining at school after graduation to study for college entrance exams, Scottie and a classmate broke bounds and thumbed their way to Yale for dinner with the girl’s fiance. They were found out and sent home. Fitzgerald was furious, feeling that she had lost her chance for Vassar. He was greatly relieved when she was accepted after he wrote a pleading letter to the dean of admissions. In June he got drunk when Scottie went to Baltimore—where she had friends and which she regarded as her hometown—without his permission. That summer he gave her a trip to France chaperoned by his old friend Alice Lee Myers, because he wanted her to see Europe again before the war he anticipated changed it. She came to California twice in the summer of 1938, before and after the trip to Europe. In July he wrote her a long letter sent to Paris in which he drew warnings from his and Zelda’s mistakes:
When I was your age I lived with a great dream. The dream grew and I learned how to speak of it and make people listen. Then the dream divided one day when I decided to marry your mother after all, even though I knew she was spoiled and meant no good to me. I was sorry immediately I had married her but, being patient in those days, made the best of it and got to love her in another way. You came along and for a long time we made quite a lot of happiness out of our lives. But I was a man divided—she wanted me to work too much for her and not enough for my dream. She realized too late that work was dignity and the only dignity and tried to atone for it by working herself but it was too late and she broke and is broken forever.
It was too late also for me to recoup the damage—I had spent most of my resources, spiritual and material, on her, but I struggled on for five years till my health collapsed, and all I cared about was drink and forgetting.
The mistake I made was in marrying her. We belonged to different worlds—she might have been happy with a kind simple man in a southern garden. She didn’t have the strength for the big stage—sometimes she pretended, and pretended beautifully, but she didn’t have it. She was softwhen she should have been hard, and hard when she should have been yielding. She never knew how to use her energy—she’s passed that failing on to you.
For a long time I hated her mother for giving her nothing in the line of good habit—nothing but “getting by” and conceit. I never wanted to see again in this world women who were brought up as idlers. And one of my chief desires in life was to keep you from being that kind of person, one who brings ruin to themselves and others. When you began to show disturbing signs at about fourteen, I comforted myself with the idea that you were too precocious socially and a strict school would fix things. But sometimes I think that idlers seem to be a special class for whom nothing can be planned, plead as one will with them—their only contribution to the human family is to warm a seat at the common table.
My reforming days are over, and if you are that way I don’t want to change you. But I don’t want to be upset by idlers inside my family or out. I want my energies and my earnings for people who talk my language.
I have begun to fear that you don’t. You don’t realize that what I am doing here is the last tired effort of a man who once did something finer and better. There is not enough energy, or call it money, to carry anyone who is dead weight and I am angry and resentful in my soul when I feel that I am doing this.
After “Infidelity” Fitzgerald worked briefly on a resuscitated Thalberg project, “Marie Antoinette,” with producer Sidney Franklin. When the project was tabled, he was given another excellent assignment under Stromberg to write the screenplay for Claire Booth Luce’s hit play The Women. Sober again, he worked on The Women from May to October 1938. The play was a melodrama with comedy, and Fitzgerald’s dialogue was not regarded as bitchy enough. Since the cast included Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard, and Rosalind Russell, he had the difficulty of providing them with equally good lines. Fitzgerald’s job was complicated by Stromberg’s health problems, for the producer was suffering from a back injury that required pain-killing drugs and was unable to give adequate attention to The Women. Toward the end of the assignment, Fitzgerald was teamed with Donald Ogden Stewart, who had become one of the highest-paid screenwriters; though he privately ridiculed Stewart’s conversion to the left with its attendant guilt feelings, Fitzgerald offered suggestions for a speech Stewart was writing in reply to an attack on the Anti-Nazi League by Congressman Martin Dies. When it was decided that the screenplay required a woman’s hand, Fitzgerald and Stewart were replaced by Jane Murfin and Anita Loos. Fitzgerald felt under pressurebecause his option was coming up for renewal. By the terms of his contract M-G-M would have to either raise him to $1,500 a week for another year or dismiss him. He received one screen credit in eighteen months and was taken off two important screenplays—not an impressive record.
Although work byFitzgerald appeared in Esquire and other magazines through 1937, it had all been written before he went to Hollywood. During his first eighteen months as a screenwriter he wrote nothing for publication. But he never stopped thinking of himself as a fiction writer, even when movie work left him without energy for his own writing. He made notes on Hollywood and probably began planning a Hollywood novel in 1938. Concerned that he was forgotten as a novelist, Fitzgerald showed his excitement in March 1938 when Perkins mentioned the “secret hope” of publishing This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, and Tender Is the Night as an omnibus volume—“after a big success with a new novel.” (It appears that Perkins hoped that The Modern Library, not Scribners, would publish the omnibus.) When Scribners reported in April that This Side of Paradise was out of print, Fitzgerald tried to persuade Perkins to undertake the omnibus as soon as possible. Perkins informed him that the project was “hopeless” at present and suggested he complete the Count of Darkness series instead. Fitzgerald replied that he would rather write a new short novel. He asked Perkins to investigate the possibility of a 25¢ reprint of This Side of Paradise by Mercury Books, but Mercury declined it. Fitzgerald believed that an edition of the novel with a glossary or with the names changed “For those under Thirty Six” might find a new readership.
On her return from France in August 1938, Scottie went to California with her Baltimore friend Peaches Finney. The short visit was difficult because her father berated her for past lapses and planned her Vassar life. Fitzgerald was opposed to Scottie’s decision to room with Dorothy Burns, a beautiful girl from the Walker School to whom he had taken an odd dislike; but Scottie refused to change her roommate. Suspicious that parties would distract her from scholarship, Fitzgerald even forbade her to read the Baltimore newspapers while she was at Vassar. When his criticisms of Scottie became opprobrious, Peaches told him off. A letter of advice followed Scottie to Poughkeepsie on 19 September:
A chalk line is absolutely specified for you at present… beside the “cleverness” which you are vaguely supposed to have “inherited”, people will be quick to deck you out with my sins. If I hear of you taking a drink before you’re twenty, I shall feel entitled to begin my last and greatest non-stop binge, and the world also will have an interest in the matter of your behavior. It would like to be able to say, and would say on the slightest provocation: “There she goes—just like her papa and mama.” Need I say that you can take this fact as a curse—or you can make of it a great advantage?
Remember that you’re there for four years. It is a residential college and the butterfly will be resented. You should never boast to a soul that you’re going to the Bachelors’ Cotillion. I can’t tell you how important this is. For one hour of vainglory you will create a different attitude about yourself. Nothing is as obnoxious as other people’s luck. And while I’m on this: You will notice that there is a strongly organized left-wing movement there. I do not particularly want you to think about politics, but I do not want you to set yourself against this movement. I am known as a left-wing sympathizer and would be proud if you were. In any case, I should feel outraged if you identified yourself with Nazism or Red-baiting in any form. Some of those radical girls may not look like much now but in your lifetime they are liable to be high in the councils of the nation.
Here is something you can watch happen during your college course. Always at the beginning of the first term, about half a dozen leaders arise. Of these at least two get so intoxicated with themselves that they don’t last the first year, two survive as leaders and two are phonies who are found out within a year—and therefore discredited and rated even lower than before, with the resentment people feel for anyone who has fooled them.
Everything you are and do from fifteen to eighteen is what you are and will do through life. Two years are gone and half the indicators already point down—two years are left and you’ve got to pursue desperately the ones that point up!
When Scottie entered Vassar, Fitzgerald sent her a framed statement by Edison—“There is no expedient to which a man will not go to avoid the real labor of thinking.” He continued his epistolary lectures, which she preserved even though she took most of the advice lightly.
Malibu was damp in the winter, and Fitzgerald left in November 1938 to take a house on the “Belly Acres” estate of actor Edward Everett Horton in Encino. The rent was $200 a month, and the housekeeper received $60 a month. For $130 a month Fitzgerald hired a secretary, Frances Kroll, who became devoted to him. Fitzgerald probably had begun preparing the curriculum for Sheilah’s “College of One” at Malibu, and it was in full operation at Encino. He outlined a two-year course of study restricted to the arts and humanities, since he was not prepared to tutor Sheilah in the sciences. His first plan was built around H. G. Wells’s Outline of History and integrated sections of Wells with works of literature.
Fitzgerald’s participation required more than providing reading lists; he reread the assignments and supplied Sheilah with background information and mnemonic aids, including a rhymed chronicle of French history with this quatrain:
Catherine de Medici
In fifteen hundred seventy-three
With her sons (two lousy snots)
Massacred the Hugenots
Each required reading was discussed in a tutorial session, according to the Princeton preceptorial method. Although the program was heavy on literature and history, there were units for religion, politics, music, and art. Upon completing the two-year schedule, Sheilah would be ready to read Spengler’s Decline of the West with Fitzgerald.
Most private educational projects fail for lack of supervision, but Sheilah received the equivalent of a college education in the areas Fitzgerald chose to survey. His inattentive years at Princeton had left gaps in his own education, and in the fields of music and art he was as much co-pupil as teacher. Nevertheless, the program worked because he was an enthusiastic tutor with a student who was eager to learn. The “College of One” consumed a good deal of his time, but he enjoyed it. He had always tried to improve proteges, and Sheilah provided the perfect outlet for his Pygmalion compulsion.
Scottie did not entirely escape her father’s pedagogy, and he sent her reading lists and quizzes at Vassar. With his curious bookkeeping system he made her an allowance of $13.85 a week; she extracted the checks and put the rest in a drawer marked “Daddy’s letters,” determined to go through college without her father looking over hershoulder. She respected his intelligence and admired his writing style, but in the abstract only. “In the particular, he gave me claustrophobia,” she says in retrospect. “Always picking, analyzing, probing … children need to make their own mistakes, not the ones selected for them.” Scottie admits that “I knew even then that his letters were masterpieces. I wish I had shown him more appreciation, but of course I had no idea that he was going to die so soon.”
Since his own college years had been among the most stimulating times of his life, Fitzgerald wanted to participate in his daughter’s. Surprisingly, though, he seems to have visited her at Vassar only once. He tried to supervise her courses and friendships, convinced that she was not taking advantage of her exposure to education. When Scottie used up her allotment of four overnight leaves during her first term, he wrote an angry letter to her adviser, who replied: “I can’t see how any eighteen-year-old-girl could have behaved badly enough to merit so much parental misgiving and dispair—such dark bodings for the future.”
But his letters to Scottie were not unrelieved expressions of a strict father’s disappointment in a frivolous daughter. Often he was sharing his hard-bought wisdom and reflecting upon his own experiences.
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.
Once one is caught up into the material world not one person in ten thousand finds the time to form literary taste, to examine the validity of philosophic concepts for himself or to form what, for lack of a better phrase, I might call the wise and tragic sense of life.
By this I mean the thing that lies behind all great careers, from Shakespeare’s to Abraham Lincoln’s, and as far back as there are books to read—the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not “happiness and pleasure” but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle. Having learned this in theory from the lives and conclusions of great men, you can get a hell of a lot more enjoyment out of whatever bright things come your way.
Frances Goodrich Hackett had gone to Vassar, so Fitzgerald occasionally tried out on her his letters to Scottie. Since the thing Fitzgerald knew best was writing, his comments on literature run through the letters, offering the lessons of one who had mastered his craft.
A good style simply doesn’t form unless you absorb half a dozen top flight authors every year. Or rather it forms but instead of being a subconscious amalgam of all that you have admired, it is simply a reflection of the last writer you have read, a watered-down journalese.
Anybody that can’t read modern English prose by themselves is subnormal—and you know it. The chief fault in your style is its lack of distinction—something which is inclined to grow with the years. You had distinction once—there’s some in your diary—and the only way to increase it is to cultivate your own garden. And the only thing that will help you is poetry which is the most concentrated form of style.
Example: You read Melantha which is practically poetry and sold a New Yorker story—you read ordinary novels and sink back to a Kitty-Foyle-Diary level of average performance. The only sensible course for you at this moment is the one on English Poetry - Blake to Keats. (English 241). I don’t care how clever the other professor is, one can’t raise a discussion of modern prose to anything above tea-table level. I’ll tell you everything she knows about it in three hours and guarantee that what each of us tells you will be largely wrong, for it will be almost entirely conditioned by our responses to the subject matter. It is a course for Clubwomen who want to continue on from Rebecca and Scarlett O’Hara.
All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.
When he was in a cheerful mood, his wit enlivened his letters to Scottie. In his note about her charge account at Peck & Peck, he wrote: “Have paid Peck + Peck + Peck + Peck + Peck.”
Fitzgerald encouraged Sheilah’s ambitions to write fiction and began a collaboration with her on “Dame Rumor,” a play about a Hollywood gossip columnist. In February 1938 he had Ober draw up a contract for the play, but the project did not develop beyond the first act. He did not assist Sheilah with her column. The only item he is known to have supplied was a sneer at Constance Bennett in retaliation for insulting Sheilah: “Poor Connie—faded flapper of 1919, and now symbolically cast as a ghost in her last production!”
Fitzgerald’s last job at M-G-M was the important assignment to write Madame Curie, a movie that was planned for Greta Garbo. A treatment had been prepared by Aldous Huxley, but Fitzgerald and Huxley did not collaborate. Working on Madame Curie from November 1938 to January 1939, Fitzgerald submitted a seventy-four-page screenplay on 3 January that took the Curies up to their decision to marry—with her work on radium still to come—when work on the movie was suspended. Fitzgerald felt the movie was shelved because he and producer Sidney Franklin were “bucking Bernie Hyman’s preconception of the thing as a love story.” Fitzgerald commented on Hyman, an executive producer: “Bernie Hyman like Zero—looks like nothing, acts like nothing—add him to anything and he decreases it.” (In 1943 Madame Curie was made with Greer Garson from a screenplay by Paul Osborn and Paul H. Rameau.) During his work on Madame Curie Fitzgerald was informed that the second option on his M-G-M contract would not be picked up. He admitted to Perkins, “I just couldn’t make the grade as a hack—that, like everything else requires a certain practised excellence—”
During the last three weeks of his M-G-M contract, which expired on 27 January 1939, Fitzgerald was loaned to David O. Selznick on 6 January to revise the screenplay for Gone with the Wind. The author of The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night was required to use only dialogue that came from Margaret Mitchell’s novel. His assignment was to polish Oliver H. P. Garrett’s revision of Sidney Howard’s screenplay. He worked on the sequences from the bazaar through the burning of Atlanta, rewriting the scenes for Rhett’s gift of the bonnet to Scarlett and for Ashley’s leave. Fitzgerald’s copy of the screenplay is annotated with his comments justifying his cuts and dialogue changes. His most frequent notes are “Cut” and “Book restored.” During the bazaar sequence Fitzgerald observed: “We’re running ’the Cause’ into the ground. Mitchell satirizes but does not burlesque.” He deleted Scarlett’s statement to Ashley that the sash she made for him looks like gold, and noted “This is technicolor.” [The Fitzgerald Papers at Princeton have pp. 50-111 of his copy of the screenplay. Because the marginal annotations are typed, it is impossible to be certain that the notes are all Fitzgerald’s; there are no alterations in his hand]. Fitzgerald liked working for Selznick, but he was not kept on Gone with the Wind because relays of writers, totaling sixteen, were being brought in. According to Sheilah’s lecture on Hollywood, which Fitzgerald helped her write, he was dismissed after he was unable to find a way to make Aunt Pitty quaint enough for the cameras.
Fitzgerald continued to submit ideas for original screenplays to M-G-M producers, hoping to be hired to develop them. Almost inevitably he proposed a musical based on the Basil stories for Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland, and Freddie Bartholomew. Another proposed musical resulted from Fitzgerald’s longstanding conviction that Hollywood had ignored the movies as movie material: “Babes in Wonderland” was to deal with a group of hopeful actors and actresses hiding out in a studio. Probably in 1939 Fitzgerald wrote a treatment for a third movie story, “The Feather Fan,” which is reminiscent of his early fiction. Set in 1919, the story deals with a Vassar girl named Genevra who discovers a feather fan that will grant her wishes. As she uses up her wishes, the fan diminishes in size and her health deteriorates:
Then comes her fruitless and dramatic fight against death almost like that of the girl in “Dark Victory” though of course different and her death which symbolizes something that seems to me to have happened to women of that very generation of the twenties who thought that the world owed them happiness and pleasure if only they had the courage enough. The sanitariums are full of them and many are dead. I could name many names and after those wild five years from 1919-24 women changed a little in America and settled back to something more stable. The real lost generation of girls were those who were young right after the war because they were the ones with infinite belief.
During his eighteen months on the M-G-M payroll Fitzgerald was paid some $85,000. (His 1938 salary was $58,783.10, on which he paid federal and state taxes of $2,942.36.) This was more money than he had ever earned before; but when his paychecks stopped he had saved only a couple of thousand dollars, most of which was earmarked for taxes. Fitzgerald did not live extravagantly in California. He did not give Sheilah expensive presents, except for a fox jacket, but they ate at good restaurants and took trips to Santa Barbara and La Jolla. There wasn’t much left from his salary after paying debt installments and maintaining Zelda and Scottie; and his own medical expenses were high. He had no other income from writing while he was at M-G-M.
The popular image of Fitzgerald as a broken-down, forgotten failure in Hollywood is a distortion as well as a simplification. His life there had a quiet order when he was not drinking. He knew that the movie work was unworthy of his genius and resented the power exercised over him by lesser men; but he earned an excellent salary at M-G-M and was proud that he was discharging his obligations. Though he and Sheilah avoided large cocktail parties, they had many friends and went to dinners at the Hacketts’ and to Sunday afternoon teas at screenwriter Charles Brackett’s. Fitzgerald was in top form at one party for Thomas Mann, speaking brilliantly about Mann’s work. They enjoyed small parties with S. J. Perelman and his brother-in-law Nathanael West, where verbal play and charades were the entertainment. Fitzgerald was impressed by West, who uncomplainingly wrote junk movies to finance his unpopular novels (When West’s novel The Day of the Locust (1939) was published, Fitzgerald provided an endorsement calling attention to “the uncanny almost medieval feeling of some of his Hollywood background”; but this statement was not used on the dust jacket until 1950). As Sheilah became more deeply involved in the “College of One,” she sent her legman to coverpublicity events while she stayed home with Fitzgerald. When their studies reached music and art, they attended concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and visited museums.
Most of Fitzgerald’s writer friends were active liberals, and his own political enthusiasms revived as he developed an interest in the Screen Writers Guild. An ardent anti-Nazi, he was excited by the outbreak of World War II—which he had been predicting—and followed the war news closely.
Fitzgerald regretted that his books were not being read, but he was planning a comeback. Despite the money worries after he left M-G-M, and the constant health problems, his three and a half years with Sheilah were mainly happy and often hopeful. He was sober most of the time in Hollywood. (Sheilah Graham estimates that he was drinking during nine of the forty-two months they were together.) The excitements, aspirations, and expectations of the Twenties could not be revived; life would never again seem infinitely promising. Yet Fitzgerald’s Hollywood exile was not a tragic period.
Zelda presumably never learned about Fitzgerald’s relationship with Sheilah, although she almost certainly suspected that he had someone in California. Fitzgerald was concerned that any definite knowledge about Sheilah might cause Zelda’s complete collapse. Sheilah did not try to push him into divorcing Zelda, but she felt that Fitzgerald would marry her if she insisted. She accepted the situation but shocked him by suggesting they have a child. A possible clue to Zelda’s jealous recognition that her husband had found another heroine is provided by her response to Kathleen in The Last Tycoon when the unfinished novel was published posthumously in 1941: “I confess that I didnt like the heroine, she seeming the sort of person who knows too well how to capitalize the unwelcome advances of the ice-man and who smells a little of the rubber-shields in her dress. However, I see how Stahr might have found her redolent of the intimacies of forgotten homely glamours, and his imagination have endowed her with the magical properties of his early authorities.”
Since no otherstudio offered him a contract, Fitzgerald became a free-lancer. Early in 1939 his Hollywood agent Swanson found him an assignment on Winter Carnival, which Walter Wanger was producing for United Artists. The salary was $1,250 a week. Again, to his dismay, he was being employed as a collegiate expert. His collaborator was Budd Schulberg, a recent Dartmouth graduate who had written a treatment that Fitzgerald was expected to improve. Schul-berg’s story was built around a young woman who is fleeing with her child to Canada and is stuck at the Dartmouth winter carnival; if her husband catches up with her before she crosses the border, she will lose her child.
Schulberg was a great admirer of Fitzgerald’s fiction, though he had been under the impression that Fitzgerald was dead. In his awe he was happy to defer to Fitzgerald, and their collaboration was comfortable—so comfortable that instead of working they talked about books and the new college generation. The son of B. P. Schulberg, former head of production at Paramount, Budd Schulberg was a mine of inside information for the Hollywood novel Fitzgerald was planning. By the time the camera crew was ready to go to Dartmouth for location shooting, the writers had only a ten-page treatment and Wanger decided they should go to Dartmouth to get fresh ideas. Fitzgerald tried to get out of it, suspecting that Wanger wanted to return to his alma mater and show off the famous writer he had working for him, but Wanger insisted. B. P. Schulberg provided his son with two bottles of champagne for the flight; unaware that Fitzgerald was an alcoholic, Budd persuaded him to share them. Schulberg noticed that Sheilah Graham was on the plane, but he did not yet know about her relationship with Fitzgerald. She would stay in New York while Fitzgerald was at Dartmouth and return to California with him.
The champagne triggered a Fitzgerald bender. The writers were supposed to work on the plane and in New York before taking the train to Dartmouth; but they talked about everything except the screenplay, and Fitzgerald headed for a bar after they arrived in New York. Schulberg sobered him up and got him on the date train full of girls going to Dartmouth. Fitzgerald probably obtained alcohol on the train, for he began boasting to the girls about how famous he was. When the train stopped at a New England station, the writers got off for coffee and were left behind. They hired a car to take them to the next station, and the driver provided them with applejack against the cold. They managed to get back on their train, but Fitzgerald was never sober during his three days at Dartmouth, 10-12 February, and had caught a bad cold. He wandered around Hanover like a sorry wraith. When The Dartmouth interviewed Fitzgerald and Wanger, Fitzgerald could only mumble a few words. Wanger fired both writers and ordered them out of town. Back in New York, Schulberg and Sheilah got Fitzgerald into Doctors Hospital. His admission record shows that he had a fever of 103.8 and a mild to moderate upper respiratory infection; he was described as confused, excitable, and restless, with difficulty in coordinating his speech. At Doctors Hospital, Dr. Richard Hoffman, a psychiatrist who had met Fitzgerald in Paris, tried to assuage his anxiety that he had used up his talent. “This is not your death,” Hoffman told him, “it is the death of your youth. This is a transitional period, not an end. You will lie fallow for a while, then you will go on.” After three days in the hospital and a week in a hotel, Fitzgerald returned to California with Sheilah.
Budd Schulberg was rehired by Wanger in California, and Winter Carnival was made into an undistinguished movie starring Ann Sheridan. In 1950 Schulberg published The Disenchanted, a novel largely based on his Dartmouth experiences with Fitzgerald. The Disenchanted has been read as a biographical treatment of Fitzgerald, despite Schulberg’s insistence that Manley Halliday is a combination of several Hollywood writers—one of whom was Fitzgerald.
Without the discipline of reporting every day to the studio, Fitzgerald drank steadily at Encino, and his secretary Frances Kroll had as one of her assignments the removal of empty gin bottles from the premises. In March 1939 he worked for a month with Donald Ogden Stewart on “Air Raid” for Madeleine Carroll at Paramount, but themovie was not made. Fitzgerald informed Scottie that although he planned to continue writing movies, he would avoid steady employment at a studio: “But I’m convinced that maybe they’re not going to make me Czar of the Industry right away, as I thought 10 months ago. It’s all right, baby—life has humbled me—Czar or not, we’ll survive. I am even willing to compromise for Assistant Czar! … It is the greatest of all human mediums of communication and it is a pity that the censorship had to come along + do this, but there we are. Only I will never again sign a contract which binds me to tell none other than children’s stories for a year and a half!”
During 1939 Sheilah Graham had to cope with Fitzgerald’s violent behavior when he was drunk. In April they fought while she tried to take a revolver away from him, and Sheilah told him, “Shoot yourself, you son-of-a-bitch! … I didn’t pull myself out of the gutter to waste my life on a drunk like you!” At this time Fitzgerald gave her a check for $2,000, as though to pay her off. The next day he went to Asheville and took Zelda to Cuba, where he continued drinking. In Havana, Zelda remained in the hotel praying while Fitzgerald wandered around the city; trying to stop a cockfight, he was beaten by the spectators. Zelda managed to get him back to New York, where he registered at the Algonquin. When she went to see her sister Tilde Palmer in Larchmont, he continued his bender until he was hospitalized. Although he later told Sheilah that he walked out of Bellevue Hospital’s alcoholic ward and signed himself into Doctors Hospital, Fitzgerald was assisted by John Palmer and Frank Case, owner of the Algonquin. He was in the hospital 24-27 April and left against the advice of the doctors. A sputum test there revealed that his tuberculosis was active. Zelda returned to Highland by herself and covered for him with her doctors. It was the last time Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were together. He wrote Zelda in May: “You are the finest, loveliest, tenderest, most beautiful person I have ever known, but even that is an understatement because the length that you went to there at the end would have tried anybody beyond endurance.”
Perkins and Ober had seen Fitzgerald during both New York benders, and Ober doubted that he would ever again be able to control his drinking. A fight with a cabdriver who took him to the Ober house in Scarsdale resulted in a black eye for Fitzgerald. After the Cuba trip he told Scribners that he was planning a Hollywood novel. When Charles Scribner, Jr., sent him an encouraging letter, Fitzgerald wrote Perkins denying that he was considering such a work and asking thatthe news not be circulated. He was planning a novel about the movie industry, but he was concerned that the studios would not hire him if they knew he was writing it.
Fitzgerald and Sheilah were again reconciled, and he returned to short stories after Swanson placed him on the list of unavailable script writers. During his period of recuperation he was considered for Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. In May 1939 he informed Ober that he had “blocked out” a 50,000-word novel to be written in three or four months, which probably meant only that he had a plot in mind. He asked Ober to report on the current short-story market, particularly at The Saturday Evening Post. His first work of fiction in 1939 was the rewrite of “Thumbs Up,” the Civil War story that he had owed Collier’s since 1937. After rejecting at least two revisions, Kenneth Littauer accepted the version called “The End of Hate” in June 1939 and paid the $1,000 balance due. During the spring and summer of 1939 Fitzgerald wrote “Design in Plaster,” “Mike Van Dyke’s Christmas Wish” (which became “Pat Hobby’s Christmas Wish”), “Three Hours Between Planes,” and possibly “Last Kiss” and “Director’s Special”—all of which were declined by Collier’s, where Fitzgerald was hoping to develop a connection through Littauer.
The story that took the most work was “The Women in the House” (retitled “Temperature”), written in June and intended for The Saturday Evening Post. Ober did not offer it to the Post because its 14,000-word length made it impossible for that magazine, but he met Fitzgerald’s request for a $500 advance. Correctly anticipating that Fitzgerald was about to resume borrowing against unsold or unwritten stories, Ober wrote him a firm letter explaining that his family obligations prevented him from making further advances or loans; but Ober did not mail the letter, probably because he realized it would do no good. After Fitzgerald cut “Temperature” to 8,000 words, Ober reluctantly submitted the story to the Post, which rejected it on 18 July as too long and too slight. “Temperature” is a gimmick story about a medical mix-up which occurs when a healthy young man gets the wrong electrocardiogram and is led to believe he has a serious heart condition. The women are his fiancee, his secretary, and a comic nurse. The characters are familiar magazine types, and the plot is predictable.
Fitzgerald’s ability to write fresh, well-constructed commercial stories was irrecoverable. He tried to explain this loss to himself in his Notebooks: “I have asked a lot of my emotions—one hundred and twenty stories, The price was high, right up with Kipling, because therewas one little drop of something not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had. Now it has gone and I am just like you now.” On or about 3 July, Ober refused Fitzgerald’s request for another advance, and Fitzgerald appealed to Perkins: HAVE BEEN WRITING IN BED WITH TUBERCULOSIS UNDER DOCTORS NURSES CARE SIS ARRIVING WEST. OBER HAS DECIDED NOT TO BACK ME THOUGH I PAID BACK EVERY PENNY AND EIGHT THOUSAND COMMISSION. AM GOING TO WORK THURSDAY IN STUDIO AT FIFTEEN HUNDRED CAN YOU LEND ME SIX HUNDRED FOR ONE WEEK BY WIRE TO BANK AMERICAN CULVERCITY. SCOTTIE HOSPITAL WITH APPENDIX AND AM ABSOLUTELY WITHOUT FUNDS. PLEASE DO NOT ASK OBERS COOPERATION. Perkins came through. The job was for one week at Universal, where Fitzgerald prepared a treatment called “Open That Door” for Charles Bonner’s novel Bull by the Horns; the movie was not made.
On 13 July Fitzgerald wired Ober: STILL FLABBERGASTED AT YOUR ABRUPT CHANGE IN POLICY AFTER TWENTY YEARS ESPECIALLY WITH STORY IN YOUR HANDS STOP MY COMMERCIAL VALUE CANT HAVE SUNK FROM 60 THOUSAND TO NOTHING BECAUSE OF A SLOW HEALING LUNG CAVITY STOP AFTER 30 PICTURE OFFERS DURING THE MONTHS I WAS IN BED SWANSON NOW PROMISES NOTHING FOR ANOTHER WEEK STOP CANT YOU ARRANGE A FEW HUNDRED ADVANCE FROM A MAGAZINE SO I CAN EAT TODAY AND TOMORROW STOP WONT YOU WIRE SCOTT. Ober refused (Fitzgerald’s wire was received in New York at 3:56 a.m. on 14 July. The preceding request for a loan and Ober’s reply are lost). The well was dry. Apart from the effect of having his dependable source of emergency money cut off after twenty years, Fitzgerald was hurt by the clear signal that Ober had given up on him. He subsequently explained to Perkins, “When Harold withdrew from the questionable honor of being my banker I felt completely numb financially and I suddenly wondered what money was and where it came from. There had always seemed a little more somewhere and now there wasn’t.” Fitzgerald sent Ober two long letters breaking off their business arrangement but inviting him to make some gesture of reconciliation or at least an expression of confidence. On 19 July:
This is not a request for any more backing—there will be no more requests. I am quite sure that you would be as stubborn in any decision that I am through as you were up to 1934 about the value of my stories. Also I am writing this letter with, I hope, no touch of unpleasantness—simply from a feeling that perhaps you share, that I have depended too long on backing and had better find out at the source whether my products are considered deficient and why.
I feel less hesitation in saying this because it is probably what you wanted for some time. You now have plenty of authors who produce correctly and conduct their affairs in a business-like manner. On the contrary, I have a neurosis about anyone’s uncertainty about my ability that has been a principal handicap in the picture business. And secondly, the semi-crippled state into which I seem to get myself sometimes (almost like the hero of my story “Financing Finnegan”) fill me, in the long nights, with a resentment toward the absurd present which is not fair to you or to the past. Everything I have ever done or written is me, and who doesn’t choose to accept the whole cannot but see the wisdom of a parting. One doesn’t change at 42 though one can grow more tired and even more acquiescent—and I am very close to knowing how you feel about it all: I realize there is little place in this tortured world for any exhibition of shattered nerves or anything that illness makes people do.
And on 2 August:
I don’t have to explain 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. For change you did, Harold, and without warning—the custom of lending up to the probable yield of a next short story obtained between us for a dozen years. Certainly you haven’t just discovered that I’m not any of the things a proper business man should be? And it wasn’t even a run around—it was a walk-around that almost made me think the New York telegraph was closed. Finally I had to sell a pair of stories [probably “Design in Plaster” and “The Lost Decade”] to Esquire the longest one of which (2800 words) might have brought twice as much from Liberty.
Whatever I am supposed to guess, your way of doing it and the time you chose, was as dispiriting as could be. I have been all too hauntingly aware during these months of what you did from 1934 to 1937 to keep my head above water after the failure of Tender, Zelda’s third collapse and the long illness. But you have made me sting none the less.
Ober agonized over the decision but maintained his embargo on advances, and Fitzgerald began acting as his own agent. The Obers continued to provide a home for Scottie, with whom they had a loving relationship; and Ober handled the small amount of business for Fitzgerald’s published work. Collier’s declined the stories Fitzgerald submitted during the summer of 1939 although Fitzgerald tried topersuade Littauer that he was opening up a new vein of fiction: “You see I not only announced the birth of my young illusions in ’This Side of Paradise’ but pretty much the death of them in some of my last Post stories like ’Babylon Revisited.’ … Nevertheless, an overwhelming number of editors continue to associate me with an absorbing interest in young girls—an interest that at my age would probably land me behind the bars.”
The July 1939 issue of Mademoiselle carried Scottie’s article “A Short Retort” under the byline Frances Scott Fitzgerald. Her father was angered by Scottie’s evaluation of her self-reliant generation because he saw it as an implied attack on his irresponsibility: “… in the speakeasy era that followed, we were left pretty much to ourselves and allowed to do as we pleased. And so, we ’know the score’.” He asked her to publish her future work under “any name that doesn’t sound like mine.” Probably at this time he wrote “My Generation,” a reply to Scottie’s article that was not published until 1968.
Fitzgerald’s July letters to Scottie were harsh: “You left a most unpleasant impression behind last autumn with many people, and I would much rather not see you at all than see you without loving you. Your home is Vassar.” When Zelda rebuked him for writing this letter, Fitzgerald defended himself by explaining that he was an invalid and dreaded having his tranquillity disturbed.
Scottie’s August 1939 visit to “Belly Acres” went well enough although Fitzgerald was drinking all that summer. She was planning a novel and he reworked the outline for her. Fitzgerald insisted that she take driving lessons—“in case a man you are out with has too much to drink”—and read Keats and Shelley aloud to her. Always a great believer in the benefits of memorizing verse, he assigned her Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and Thomas Gray’s “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes,” of which he relished the final lines:
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize;
Nor all that glisters gold.
Fitzgerald wanted tobegin a novel after his M-G-M contract expired but was undecided whether to salvage the Philippe medieval project, which Perkins encouraged, or to start a short novel about Hollywood. By May 1939 he had settled on the plan of writing the Hollywood novel for serialization in Collier’s—since Kenneth Littauer was the only magazine editor who showed interest in his longer fiction—counting on the payments for each installment to finance his work. On 29 September he sent a synopsis to Littauer and Perkins, hoping for an advance from Collier’s:
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, 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 when she 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 two women 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 thepublic 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 NewYork 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. [On 6 May 1935 a TWA plane crashed at Atlanta, Missouri, killing Senator Bronson M. Cutting. Also aboard the plane were members of a Paramount crew bound for Annapolis. The crash was observed, and the local people aided in rescuing the injured. The wreckage was not plundered.] 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 young girl 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 betouched 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?
A carbon copy of the last page has Fitzgerald’s note “Orig Sent thru here” after “Shall I write it?” The rest of the page 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
As Fitzgerald acknowledged, his character Monroe Stahr was inspired by Irving Thalberg, the boy genius of Hollywood who was head of production at Universal when he was twenty and died in 1936 at thirty-seven. In the draft of the inscription for the copy he planned to give Norma Shearer, Thalberg’s widow, Fitzgerald wrote:
You told me you read little because of your eyes but I think this bookwill interest you—and though the story is purely imaginary perhaps you could see it as an attempt to preserve something of Irving My own impression shortly recorded but very dazzling in its effect on me, inspired the best part of the character of Stahr—though I have put in some things drawn from of other men and, inevitably, much of myself.
I invented a tragic story and Irvings life was, of course, not tragic except his struggle against ill health, because no one has ever written a tragedy about Hollywood (a Star is Born was a pathetic story and often beautiful story but not a tragedy and doomed and heroic things do happen here.
With Old Affection and Gratitude
After Norma Shearer Thalberg read The Last Tycoon she was reported to have said that Monroe Stahr was not at all like her husband. Her comment is not really a criticism of Fitzgerald’s achievement because he had not attempted to write a biographical novel about Irving Thalberg. Stahr is Fitzgerald’s response to the heroic aspects of the Thalberg legend into which he projected himself. Although Fitzgerald was inspired by—and even identified with—the myth-making elements of Thalberg’s career, he did not know him well. They probably had fewer than half a dozen meetings, the most important of which was the 1927 conversation in the M-G-M commissary during which the young producer gave Fitzgerald the short seminar on decision-making that Fitzgerald wrote into the first chapter of The Last Tycoon, when Stahr talks to the uncomprehending pilot. Fitzgerald had worked for Thalberg at M-G-M—but not with him—in 1931, and “Crazy Sunday” was an attempt to build a character only partly on Thalberg. When Thalberg died in 1936 Fitzgerald wrote to Oscar Kalman: “Talbert’s [Fitzgerald’s typist made this error] final collapse is the death of an enemy for me, though I liked the guy enormously. He had an idea that his wife and I were playing around, which was absolute nonsense, but I think even so that he killed the idea of either Hopkins or Frederick Marsh doing ’Tender is the Night’.” Fitzgerald had made a late-night alcoholic phone call to Thalberg in 1934 offering him the movie rights to Tender. Neither Miriam Hopkins nor Fredric March was under contract to M-G-M at this time, and Fitzgerald’s suspicion that Thalberg blocked the movie sale of his novel is unsupported.
Fitzgerald believed that Thalberg, the executive with taste and courage, represented the best of Hollywood. He responded to Thalberg’searly success—always a stimulating concept for Fitzgerald—and to his efforts to raise the level of the movies. Having gone to Hollywood in 1937 with ambitions of winning elevation to producer or even director status, Fitzgerald saw Thalberg as a model for what could be done in the movies. (Ironically, though, Thalberg had been largely responsible for the team system of script writing, which Fitzgerald hated.) Thalberg’s precarious health also helped Fitzgerald to identify with him. In his last months Fitzgerald was a cardiac case writing about a man dying of heart disease.
The elements of Stahr’s emotional situation were drawn from Fitzgerald’s life. Stahr’s dead wife, Minna, was Zelda, and Kathleen Moore, Stahr’s last love, was obviously based on Sheilah Graham. Kathleen looks like Sheilah. Both are British; and they share a history as girls who were educated by older men, although Kathleen’s past is glamorized by making her the former mistress of a deposed king.
The Thalberg/Stahr figure permitted Fitzgerald to use the ideas about the movie industry that he had developed during his Hollywood years and to combine them with the themes that run through all his fiction. The most obvious is the essential Fitzgerald concern with aspiration and the rewards of success. Stahr is the last in Fitzgerald’s long line of inspired poor boys, and the novel is his most mature meditation on the American Dream.
Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel was posthumously published in 1941 as The Last Tycoon, but it is not certain that this was his final title. The only surviving title page among the manuscripts reads “Stahr: A Romance”; there is also Fitzgerald’s note for another working title, “The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western.” Another possible title was “The Last of the Tycoons.” Whether or not Fitzgerald would have called his novel The Last Tycoon, the title bestowed on it by Edmund Wilson evokes the sense of “lastness” that permeates it and informs much of Fitzgerald’s fiction. He saw both his hero and himself as coming at the end of an American historical process and believed there would be no more Stahrs. A self-reliant leader, Stahr is under attack from the forces of both business and labor.
In his notes for the novel Fitzgerald wrote, “I am the last of the novelists for a long time now.” Fitzgerald and Stahr share an allegiance to traditional American values and ideals. Sensing that the politics of the Thirties and the impending world war would terminate the romantic reactions to life that had inspired his fiction, Fitzgeraldsaw himself as the last of a certain kind of novelist writing about the last of the old American heroes. Nurturing a heroic sense of American character, he found his essential American figure in his last novel.
Stahr is a lonely man working himself to death, but he is not an emotional bankrupt. Fitzgerald buttresses him with the language of heroism. Stahr’s grandness of vision is emphasized by the imagery of flight, making him a Daedalian figure and reinforcing his mythic qualities: “He had flown up very high to see, on strong wings, when he was young. And while he was up there he looked on all the kingdoms, with the kind of eyes that can stare straight into the sun. Beating his wings tenaciously—finally frantically—and keeping on beating them, he had stayed up there longer than most of us, and then, remembering all he had seen from his great height of how things were, he had settled gradually to earth.”
Fitzgerald’s achievement in understanding and even identifying with Stahr is remarkable given their utterly different backgrounds: the New York Jew and the Midwestern Irish Catholic; the disciplined executive who consolidated his early achievement and the alcoholic writer who dissipated his success. Yet so thorough was Fitzgerald’s identification with his hero that Stahr stands among the most compelling Jewish characters in American fiction. In its fragmentary form The Last Tycoon remains the best Hollywood novel. Even though he had the advantage of dealing with a myth-making industry, it is nonetheless strikingly ironic that Fitzgerald created one of the few heroic business figures in our literature—perhaps the most admirable one. Better than Howells, Norris, Dreiser, O’Hara, or even Cozzens, Fitzgerald enforces the relationship between character and work. In a note for a projected scene in which Stahr is ordered to quit work by his doctor, Fitzgerald reminded himself: “The idea fills Stahr with a horror that I must write a big scene to bring off. Such a scene as has never been written… the words of the doctor fill Stahr with a horror that I must be able to convey to the laziest reader—the blow to Stahr and the utter unwillingness to admit that at this point, 35 years old, his body should refuse to serve him and carry on these plans which he has built up like a pyramid of fairy skyscrapers in his imagination.”
Littauer refused to make an advance without seeing a substantial sample of the novel and asked for the first 15,000 words. If the opening of the novel was sufficiently impressive, Collier’s would advance Fitzgerald $5,000 with an additional $5,000 for the next 20,000 words against a total price to be negotiated; $20,000 was a talking figure. Fitzgerald was under the impression that Collier’s was prepared to offer $15,000 (the figure he had suggested in the unsent part of his proposal), which he regarded as “much too marginal.” He explained to Perkins: “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’t last 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.” Perkins thought Collier’s might go as high as $30,000. Fitzgerald was spoiling the deal over a matter that could not be settled until after he had submitted a section of his novel.
In September, Fitzgerald picked up a week’s work on Raffles for Sam Goldwyn. The Raffles assignment was supposed to last longer, but Fitzgerald got caught in a disagreement between Goldwyn and director Sam Wood. He expressed in Goldwynese his reaction to working for Goldwyn: “He liked Sam Goldwyn—you always knew where you stood with Goldwyn—nowhere.”
Fitzgerald earned $21,466.67 (including $4,600 from stories) in I939, yet in September he had difficulty paying Scottie’s $615 tuition for her sophomore year at Vassar. He managed to meet the expense with the help of a $360 loan from Gerald Murphy and $250 from the radio rights to Gatsby: YOU CAN REGISTER AT VASSAR STOP IT COST A HEMORRHAGE BUT I RAISED SOME MONEY FROM ESQUIRE AND ARRANGED WITH COMPTROLLER TO PAY OTHER HALF OCTOBER I5TH IF YOU DONT PLAY STRAIGHT THIS WILL BE ALL STOP FORGIVE ME IF UNJUSTLY CYNICAL REMEMBER HARMONY MORE PRACTICAL THAN MUSIC HISTORY ALSO OTHER CHANGE STOP RETURN ME FORMER CHECK AIR MAIL LOVE DADDY. Scottie was accustomed to the telegraphic fluctuations between affluence and dire poverty, and was not distressed.
He tried unsuccessfully to get an advance for the novel from Scribners in October. On 2 November Littauer agreed to decide on the basis of a 6,000-word sample. Late in the month Fitzgerald sent both Collier’s and Perkins the first chapter of the novel—the airplane trip to California which introduces Monroe Stahr. On 28 November Littauer wired: 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. An hour later Fitzgerald replied to Littauer: NO HARD FEELINGS THERE HAS NEVER BEEN AN EDITOR WITH PANTS ON SINCE GEORGE LORIMER.
That afternoon he wired Perkins to offer the serial rights to the Post; but the magazine was not interested because the material seemed too strong for its readership. Realizing how disappointed Fitzgerald would be by Littauer’s rejection, Perkins wired Fitzgerald on the twenty-ninth: “A beautiful start. Stirring and new. Can wire you two hundred fifty and a thousand by January.” Perkins was not acting for Scribners; he was making a personal loan. Fitzgerald also wired Perkins on the twenty-ninth to explore with agent Leland Hayward the scheme of getting a studio to finance the novel in return for the movie rights—a reversal of his earlier position that the novel be kept a secret from Hollywood. Hayward told Perkins that he could do nothing until the novel was written. In December, Fitzgerald sent Perkins some of the second chapter, but there were no further progress reports until the end of 1940. Despite his refusal to make a commitment, Littauer did not abandon interest in the novel. Collier’s editor Max Wilkinson came to see Fitzgerald in December 1939, when Fitzgerald was drunk andabusive. Late in 1940 Littauer discussed the novel with Fitzgerald in California.
Littauer’s refusal to commit Collier’s to the novel triggered an extended Fitzgerald bender in November 1939. His drinking aggravated his tuberculosis, and Fitzgerald reported lung hemorrhages to Zelda. Sheilah was never sure how sober he was during the fall and winter of 1939. One day she arrived at “Belly Acres” to find Fitzgerald giving his clothes away to a couple of bums he had picked up. When she told them to leave, Fitzgerald hit her and threatened to kill her. Sheilah managed to get away by phoning the police. This time she had had enough and was determined to break off with him permanently. Fitzgerald made things worse by sending her threatening notes and stealing the fox jacket he had given her. After Fitzgerald dried out he began a campaign to win her back, which succeeded in January 1940. Thereafter she never saw him take another drink.
Dissatisfied with his Hollywood agent’s handling of his screenwriting career, Fitzgerald switched from Swanson to Leland Hayward and then in February 1940 to the Phil Berg-Bert Allenberg agency; but there were no good job offers. With free time and sobriety he settled down to work on his novel, supporting himself with $250 checks from Esquire. Arnold Gingrich was still prepared to take almost anything Fitzgerald offered, but there were a few rejections because Fitzgerald submitted so much material. “Design in Plaster” appeared in the November 1939 issue, followed by “The Lost Decade” in December. “Design in Plaster,” an unexceptional story about marital infidelity for which Fitzgerald drew upon his 1936 experience in a cast, was selected by Edward J. O’Brien for The Best Short Stories 1940. It did not deserve this recognition, but the inclusion indicated that Fitzgerald was not forgotten as a short-story writer. In January Esquire published “Pat Hobby’s Christmas Wish,” the first of seventeen Hobby stories. From November 1939 to July 1941 (seven months after his death) there was a Fitzgerald story in each issue of Esquire. As his stories accumulated at the magazine, Fitzgerald proposed to Gingrich the idea of publishing some of them under a pseudonym. “I’m awfully tired of being Scott Fitzgerald anyhow, as there doesn’t seem to be so much money in it, and I’d like to find out if people read me just because I am Scott Fitzgerald or, what is more likely, don’t read me for the same reason.” One Esquire story, “On an Ocean Wave,” appeared after Fitzgerald’s death under the byline Paul Elgin in February 1941.
When Zelda suggested that he resume writing for the Post in 1940, Fitzgerald admitted that it was now impossible for him:
As you should know from your own attempts, high priced commercial writing for the magazines is a very definite trick. The rather special things that I brought to it, the intelligence and the good writing and even the radicalism all appealed to old Lorimer who had been a writer himself and liked style. The man who runs the magazine now [Wesley W. Stout] is an up and coming young Republican who gives not a damn about literature and who publishes almost nothing except escape stories about the brave frontiersmen, etc., or fishing, or football captains, nothing that would even faintly shock or disturb the reactionary bourgeois. Well, I simply can’t do it and as I say, I’ve tried not once but twenty times.
As soon as I feel I am writing to a cheap specification my pen freezes and my talent vanishes over the hill and I honestly don’t blame them for not taking the things that I’ve offered to them from time to time in the past three or four years. An explanation of their new attitude is that you no longer have a chance of selling a story with an unhappy ending (in the old days many of mine did have unhappy endings—if you remember).
This explanation is partly a rationalization. While it is true that Stout’s taste differed from Lorimer’s, the basic problem for Fitzgerald was not material but form or construction. As he observed in his Notebooks, “In a short story, you have only so much money to buy just one costume. Not the parts of many. One mistake in the shoes or tie, and you’re gone.” All his published fiction after 1939 was in the short-short-story form, in which he could still develop a mood or portray a character effectively. “The Lost Decade” is brilliantly written, but it is only 1,100 words. A once-famous architect, who had been drunk for ten years, spends an afternoon in New York; now sober, he tries to reassimilate the texture of reality: “I simply want to see how people walk and what their clothes and shoes and hats are made of. And their eyes and hands.” Nothing happens in terms of plot, but the image of a man trying to recover the impressions and rhythms of a decade has haunted readers.
Since his story work during the last year of his life included the Pat Hobby series, Fitzgerald has sometimes been incorrectly identified with this character. Pat Hobby is not a self-portrait of Fitzgerald in Hollywood. An illiterate ex-gag writer, Pat Hobby survives through petty dishonesty. When Frances Kroll’s brother Nathan attempted to dramatize the Hobby stories, Fitzgerald explained that “the series ischaracterized by a really bitter humor and only the explosive situations and the fact that Pat is a figure almost incapable of real tragedy or damage saves it from downright unpleasantness.” Most of the Hobby stories are manipulations of a series character who lurches from disgrace to humiliation; only two, “A Patriotic Short” and “Two Old-Timers,” generate sympathy for Pat. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald put considerable effort into these stories, revising them and juggling the order of publication. Since he wrote them while he was working on The Last Tycoon, he was careful not to use anything that might be novel material. A possible personal link between Fitzgerald and Pat Hobby is that the character’s grotesque adventures in Hollywood provided a kind of therapy for the author and purged the bitterness that might otherwise have found its way into the novel. The most important contribution of the Hobby stories to the novel is that they earned $4,500 worth of writing time. (In 1940 Fitzgerald persuaded Gingrich to raise the price of the Hobby stories to $300.)
Fitzgerald wrote a strong Hollywood story outside of the Hobby series, “Last Kiss,” which was declined by Collier’s and Cosmopolitan and remained unpublished until 1949 (When Collier’s published “Last Kiss” in 1949, it paid $1,800 plus a $1,000 bonus for the best story in the issue). “Last Kiss” shares the novel’s mood of loss, and the heroine—like Kathleen—was drawn from Sheilah Graham. An English actress is befriended by a young producer, but her uncooperative conduct destroys her chances. After her death from pneumonia she comes to him for a goodnight kiss: “Then sleep, he thought, as he turned away—sleep. I couldn’t fix it. I tried to fix it. When you brought your beauty here I didn’t want to throw it away, but I did somehow. There is nothing left for you now but sleep.” Fitzgerald regarded “Last Kiss” as “unpleasant as hell” and stripped it for his Notebooks. Another Hollywood story, “Director’s Special,” was salvaged by Harper’s Bazaar as “Discard” in 1948. “Dearly Beloved,” a brilliantly written sketch, was rejected by Esquire and rescued in 1969. This 850-word piece is the only story in which Fitzgerald seriously treated a black character. The hero, a Pullman porter, has obvious connections with the philosophical black fisherman in The Last Tycoon.
Since Fitzgerald expectedto interrupt the novel for movie work, he needed a detailed plan that would permit him to break off work without losing control of his material. Five outline plans survive, all of which project a Gatsby-length novel of some 50,000 words. In the latest plan the story is divided into nine chapters (Gatsby also had nine chapters) of thirty episodes, with a five-act structure.
It is impossible to gauge the extent to which screenwriting influenced or even damaged Fitzgerald’s structural powers in his fiction. The manuscripts show that he wrote the novel in sequences, like a screenplay; after the first chapter there are no complete chapters—only scenes or episodes that were to be fused into chapters during the rewrites. His material expanded as he wrote. Though he invented no new episodes, the projected episodes required more words than he had allotted. Fitzgerald had too much story for 50,000 words.
The Last Tycoon is thought of as two-thirds finished, but Fitzgerald progressed only a little more than halfway through his outline plan and a great deal of the plot was left undeveloped. At his death he had reached the beginning of Chapter 6 (episode 17) and had written 44,000 words for his latest—but not final—draft. Because little of this material seems expendable, The Last Tycoon might well have been almost twice as long as projected, while still conforming to the nine-chapter plan.
The outlines and notes show that Fitzgerald was planning to develop a blackmail-murder plot in the second half of the novel. Stahr’s partner Brady (Bradogue) will blackmail him by threatening to inform Kathleen’s husband after Kathleen and Stahr resume their affair; andStahr will retaliate with information he has about Brady. After discovering that Brady intends to have him killed, Stahr will arrange for his murder while Stahr is away from Hollywood. On the plane Stahr will reject the plan because it debases him and decide to call off themurder from the next airport. But the plane will crash, killing Stahr [See Bruccoli, “The Last of the Novelists”: F. Scott Fitzgerald and The Last Tycoon, for a study of the manuscripts]. These events are not mentioned in the plot summary Fitzgerald sent Littauer—nor is the complication of Kathleen’s marriage.
Fitzgerald’s early idea for the conclusion was to have the plane wreckage plundered by children whose characters would be shaped by the possessions they take. This ending appears to have been rejected or modified in favor of an account of Stahr’s funeral, employing the final irony that a has-been actor, who is mistakenly asked to be a pallbearer, enjoys a restoration on the basis of his supposed friendship with Stahr.
Fitzgerald did not try to push through to a complete working draft. Instead, he rewrote each episode through several layers. Frances Kroll recalls the writing as a process of accretion:
Fitzgerald’s work patterns on TYCOON started with notes; then the sorting of notes into chapters; then brief biographies of the characters; then chapter outlines and finally roughly written chapters.
He wrote everything out in longhand. He used the morning and some early noon hours for work. He was not much of a sleeper, so during these fitful times, he made notes which would be on my table when I came to work.
He never dictated the novel, but did considerable revision from typescripts. He also switched chapter notes if they didn’t work out in the designated chapters and assigned them to other chapters in the book.
That was basically the pattern without going into too much detail. Of course, all of this was not a continuous process. Work on the chapter notes and outlines were interrupted many times before they were completed and before the actual writing began.
Fitzgerald polished the dialogue endlessly, reading it aloud to improve the speeches. When he felt stuck, he had his secretary read the Bible to him—not for sacred inspiration, but because he admired the rhythms of the King James version.
Revising the typescripts through as many as four or five stages of typing, he accumulated some 1,100 pages of drafts for the seventeen episodes and more than 200 pages of notes and background material. None of the episodes was regarded as final. Even the completed opening chapter was marked “Rewrite from mood. Has become stilted with rewriting Don’t look rewrite from mood.” Fitzgerald was probablynever entirely satisfied with his treatment of Kathleen and reminded himself in a note: “Where will the warmth come from in this. Why does he think she’s warm. Warmer than the voice in Farewell. My girls were all so warm and full of promise. The sea at night. What can I do to make it honest and different?”
Some critics have concluded from the evidence of the manuscripts that Fitzgerald had lost his ability to hold a novel in his head while working on parts of it, and even that he had lost confidence in his capacity to write an extended work of fiction. Nevertheless, the drafts indicate that Fitzgerald was proceeding carefully without concern for a deadline. After the Collier’s serial deal fell through, he wrote to satisfy his own standards. The pressure he felt was to produce a novel that would redeem him from neglect and reestablish him at the top of his profession. Despite all the revisions, he made steady progress in 1940, with time off for Esquire pieces and two movie jobs.
As Fitzgerald noted in his proposal for Collier’s, The Last Tycoon was intended to be “more ’like’ The Great Gatsby than any of my other books.” The resemblance was in form, not in content. The Hollywood novel was planned as a short, dramatic work like Gatsby. As with Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald had to make the romantic figure Monroe Stahr a convincing character. Again he solved the problem by using another character in the novel to certify the action. In The Last Tycoon the narrator is Cecelia Brady [This character was named for Fitzgerald’s cousin Cecilia Delihant Taylor, but he consistently spelled her name “Cecelia” in the manuscripts.], the daughter of Stahr’s treacherous partner. (Fitzgerald told Budd Schulberg that Cecelia was a combination of Scottie and Schulberg [While Fitzgerald was writing The Last Tycoon Schulberg completed his own Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run? Fitzgerald wrote publisher Bennett Cerf an admiring letter about it on 13 December 1940, which was used on the dust jacket]). Fitzgerald had explained the narrative rationale to Littauer: “I hope to get the verisimilitude of a first person narrative, combined with a Godlike knowledge of all events that happen to my characters.” Cecelia’s background qualifies her for this role. As a Hollywood insider she approaches the industry with clear eyes, and she is in love with Stahr. But Cecelia is not as effective a narrator as Nick Carraway in Gatsby because she is required to imagine too much. The scope of Stahr’s activities is too great to be observed by Cecelia, and she does not document all of the narrative. The love scenes between Stahr and Kathleen—which Cecelia cannot witness or really imagine—are narrated by the author. Twice Fitzgerald was compelled to insert clumsy transitions (which may have been intended as notes to himself): “This is Cecelia taking up the narrative in person”; “This is Cecelia taking up the story.” It is possible, of course, that Fitzgerald would have modified the narrative framework. There is a discarded opening in which Cecelia tells the story to a narrator who reports it to the reader—a double-narrator effect.
John O’Hara’s friendship with Fitzgerald was renewed in Hollywood, although they did not spend much time together. O’Hara had never altered his high opinion of Fitzgerald’s work, which was later summed up in a statement to John Steinbeck: “Fitzgerald was a better just plain writer than all of us put together. Just words writing.” O’Hara provides a curious view of the Hollywood sexual stratification: “But Scott had a personal cockiness that in the present fashion would be said to mask his basic insecurity. I don’t believe that theory, at least as it applied to him. He told me about two movie stars that he wanted me to invite to a party Belle and I gave for him, implying that he had laid both of them. Well, he had laid one of them, but not the other, and the one he had laid he had laid in her dressing-room but not at home. He did not have a real affair with her.” This report raises the question whether Fitzgerald was faithful to Sheilah; but there is no other evidence to support O’Hara’s testimony.
When the O’Haras came to lunch at “Belly Acres,” probably late in 1939, Fitzgerald allowed him to read the work-in-progress on his novel.
He was terribly nervous, disappearing for five and ten minutes at a time, once to get a plaid tie to give my wife because she was wearing a Glen plaid suit. Once to get a volume of Thackeray because I’d never read Thackeray, another time to get some tome about Julius Caesar which he assured me was scholarly but readable—but which he knew I would never read. Then we went out and took some pictures, and when we finished that he suddenly said, “Would you like to read what I’ve written, but first promise you won’t tell anyone about it. Don’t tell them anything. Don’t tell them what it’s about, or anything about the people. I’d like it better if you didn’t even tell anyone I’m writing another novel.” So we went back to the house and I read what he had written. He saw that I was comfortable, with pillows, cigarettes, ashtrays, a coke. And sat there tortured, trying to be casual, but unhappy because he did not know that my dead pan was partlydue to my being an extremely slow reader of good writing, and partly because this was such good writing that I was reading. When I had read it I said, “Scott, don’t take any more movie jobs until you’ve finished this. You work so slowly and this is so good, you’ve got to finish it. It’s real Fitzgerald.” Then, of course, he became blasphemous and abusive, and asked me if I wanted to fight. I saw him a few times after that day, and once when I asked him how the book was coming he only said, “You’ve kept your promise? You haven’t spoken to anyone about it?”
Sheilah’s syndicate sent her on a speaking tour in November 1939. Fitzgerald reworked her anecdotal talk, making the serious point that the directors were the most important figures in the moviemaking system. After her Kansas City appearance a front-page editorial by publisher W. R. Wilkerson in the Hollywood Reporter, a movie trade paper, denounced Sheilah for disloyalty to the industry—objecting to her choice of anecdotes about movie stars. Fitzgerald decided to force a retraction and asked O’Hara to accompany him when he went to the paper to beat up Wilkerson. O’Hara tried to talk him out of it, explaining that it was always a bad idea to hit a newspaperman: “If you insist on going, I’ll go with you, but I don’t want you to go and I don’t want to go with you.” “That’s all I wanted to know,” Fitzgerald said. “I thought you were my one real friend in this town. I’ll get Eddie [Mayer]. He’s diabetic and doesn’t get into fights, but he’s a gentleman.” Fitzgerald did not try to enlist Mayer’s support, but went alone to the paper’s office on Sunset Boulevard and demanded to see Wilkerson. A secretary stalled him, and he left after an hour of waiting. O’Hara never heard from Fitzgerald again.
During 1939 and 1940Fitzgerald engaged in a bitter and reproachful correspondence with the Sayres and Zelda over the question of her release from Highland. Mrs. Sayre and Zelda’s sisters wanted her to live in Montgomery. Fitzgerald tried to arrange with Dr. Carroll for Zelda to have three or four months of furlough a year in the company of a nurse; but the Sayres objected to the nurse provision, and in any case he could not afford a full-time nurse after 1938. He insisted that Dr. Carroll was opposed to Zelda’s release and would not take her back at Highland if she left against his advice. Zelda added to the epistolary pressure on Fitzgerald. After he asked her to “leave me in peace with my hemorrhages and my hopes,” Zelda wrote him in the fall of 1939: “… short of your paranoiacal self-defensive reflex I cant see any legitimization of keeping me under hospitalization much longer… There is every reason to believe that I am more able to observe the social dictats than yourself—on the evidence of our ’vacations’ from the hospital—which have been to date a dread affair of doctors and drink and confirmation of the impossibility of any equitable reunion. Although you know this—and that the probabilities are much against our ever having any life to-gether again—you are persistent in not letting me have a chance to exist alone—at least in comfort —in Alabama and make my own orientation. Or even in Ashville. I might be able to get a job…”
Fitzgerald was outraged that she was inclining toward Rosalind Smith’s conviction that he was keeping Zelda confined to absolve himself of the blame for her collapse. He told Zelda that he would accede to her release only if they were divorced, so that he would not be responsible for her. Probably late in 1939, during the period ofheavy drinking that followed the collapse of the Collier’s serial deal, he drafted a nine-page vituperative letter which was not mailed:
That a fifty dollar ticket to Montgomery would in some way purchase your eternal mental health is a proposition I will not debate. I wont even debate it with Dr Carrol—if he says it will, then Godspeed you. I should think that before Christmas—if I can get some peace—you could go south (to Montgomery) for a long trip with supervision. But the other story is too dreary—what would you do—because if you did go on your own I would fold up completely—for paints or amusements or clothes? Scottie would have to work + not be able to send you much for some time. Id lie very quietly in my grave out here but I think the spectre of you walking the streets of Montgomery in rags as the last of the Sayres, followed by curious urchins, would haunt me.
Do you think she [Mrs. Sayre] cares or ever has cared about you or your impersonal interest? Do you think she would ever quarrel with you for your impersonal good? She constructed herself on a heroic romantic model as a girl and you were to be the stuffed dummy—true or false, screwed or chaste, honest or bogus—on which she was to satisfy her egotism. She chose me—and she did—and you submitted at the moment of our marriage when your passion for me was as at as low ebb as mine for you—because she thought romanticly that her projection of herself in you could best be shown thru me. I never wanted the Zelda I married. I didn’t love you again till after you became pregnant. You—thinking I slept with that Bankhead—making all your drunks innocent + mine calculated till even Town Topics protested. I’d been drunk, sure—but find any record of me as a drunk at Princeton—or in the army, except one night when I retired to the locker room. You were the drunk—at seventeen, before I knew you—already notorious.
This is the very questionable element I bought and your mother asks to be given back—for some vague reason known fully in the depths of your family psycholoay. The assumption is that you were a great prize package—by your own admission many years after (and for which I have [never] reproached you) you had been seduced and provincially outcast. I sensed this the night we slept together first for you’re a poor bluffer and I loved you—romantically—like your mother, for your beauty + defiant intelligence; but unlike her I wanted to make it useful. I failed, as she did, but my intentions were a hell of a lot purer and since you could have left me at any time I’d like to discover the faintest basis for your family’s accusation that I drove you crazy. In so far as it was the conscious work of man, that old witch drove you crazy. You were “crazy” in the ordinary sense before Imet you. I rationalized your eccentricities and made a sort of creation of you. But dont fret—if it hadn’t been you perhaps I would have worked with more stable material. My talent and my decline is the norm. Your degeneracy is the deviation
In March 1940 Dr. Carroll informed Fitzgerald that Zelda was to be released from Highland. It is unclear whether Dr. Carroll was reversing himself or whether Fitzgerald had exaggerated the hospital’s position in 1939. Fitzgerald was pleased by this development—happy for Zelda’s sake and relieved to be freed from the burden of the Highland bills, on which he had fallen behind. The only stipulation he made was that there be provision for readmitting Zelda to Highland. Zelda was discharged on 13 April 1940 and went to live with her mother in Montgomery. At Fitzgerald’s insistence Dr. Carroll provided a letter absolving him of responsibility in the event of Zelda’s relapse.
This is to certify that Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald entered Highland Hospital April 8th, 1936, bringing a history of many months of acute disturbance. At the time of her admission she was entirely irresponsible, highly excitable, and had just emerged from a three months period of intense suicidal mania, at which time she was successfully protected at Sheppard Pratt Hospital, Baltimore, Md.
Mr. Fitzgerald made provision for every helpful treatment and through the months Mrs. Fitzgerald has gradually improved to the point that we are now cooperating with the husband in paroling her in the care of her family in Montgomery where she will live in her mother’s home and carry out, we trust, a simple regime of normal living.
Mrs. Fitzgerald’s history shows a definite cyclic tendency and we must look forward with apprehension to her inability to meet emotional situations, to face infections, or to indulge in alcohol, tobacco or drugs without a rapid return to her maniacal irresponsibility. Let it be known that Mrs. Fitzgerald is capable of being absolutely irresponsible and intensely suicidal. Her present condition, however, is one of gentleness, reasonable capacity for cooperation and yet with definitely reduced judgment maturity.
Fitzgerald sent Zelda an allowance of $30 a week but made it clear that he was not prepared to bring her to California.
Brooding about his obscurity and the desertion of his literary friends, Fitzgerald wrote Perkins on 20 May 1940: “Once I believed in friendship, believed that I could (if I didn’t always) make people happy and it was more fun than anything. Now even that seems likea vaudevillian’s cheap dream of heaven, a vast minstrel show in which one is the perpetual Bones.” This rumination was prompted by John Peale Bishop’s 1937 article “The Missing All,” which Fitzgerald read as a charge that he had been a “suck around the rich.” Fitzgerald commented to Wilson, “Maybe it’s conscience—nobody ever sold himself for as little gold as he did.” In a postscript Fitzgerald added, “This sounds like such a bitter letter—I’d rewrite it except for a horrible paucity of time. Not even time to be bitter.”
Again in May 1940 Fitzgerald asked Perkins about the possibility of making his work available for a new reading generation: “Professionally, I know the next move must come from me. Would the 25 cent press keep Gatsby in the public eye—or is the book unpopular. Has it had its chance? Would a popular reissue in that series with a preface not by me but by one of its admirers—I can maybe pick one—make it a favorite with class rooms, profs, lovers of English prose—anybody. But to die, so completely and unjustly after having given so much. Even now there is little published in American fiction that doesn’t slightly have my stamp—in a small way I was an original.”
Fitzgerald was hoping to complete his novel by the end of 1940— with time off for movie jobs. In February he had tried to interest Edwin Knopf at M-G-M in a Civil War movie idea based on his stories “The Night of Chancellorsville” and “The End of Hate.” Probably around this time, he wrote an original movie scenario called “Love Is a Pain,” about an American girl who returns from Europe with a secret weapon hidden in her trunk by foreign agents.
Independent producer Lester Cowan bought the movie rights to “Babylon Revisited” for $1,000 in March and hired Fitzgerald to write the screenplay for $500 a week, which brought him another $5,000. Cowan, who had made My Little Chickadee with W. C. Fields and Mae West, intended to produce “Babylon Revisited” with the Columbia studios. The price for the story was low, and the weekly salary was less than half Fitzgerald’s studio rate; but he was to receive a bonus if the movie was made. Fitzgerald needed the money and enjoyed working on one of his best stories at home without interference. At first he was suspicious of Cowan, but they settled down to a comfortable working relationship because Fitzgerald felt that Cowan respected him. Despite the bargain-rate salary, Fitzgerald put his best efforts into the assignment. When he completed his second draft for “Cosmopolitan,” as the screenplay was titled, in August 1940, he included this “Author’s Note”:
This is an attempt to tell a story from a child’s point of view without sentimentality. Any attempt to heighten the sentiment of the early scenes by putting mawkish speeches into the mouth of characters—in short by doing what is locally known as “milking it,” will damage the force of the piece. Had the present author intended, he could have broken down the sentimental section of the audience at many points, but the price would have been the release of the audience too quickly from tension—and one would wonder at the end where the idea had vanished—or indeed what idea had been purchased. So whoever deals with this script is implored to remember that it is a dramatic piece—not a homey family story. Above all things, Victoria is a child—not Daddy’s little helper who knows all the answers.
Another point: in the ordinary sense, this picture has no more moral than “Rebecca” or “The Shop Around the Corner”—though one can draw from it any moral one wishes about the life of the Wall Street rich of a decade ago. It had better follow the example of “Hamlet,” which has had a hundred morals read into it, all of them different—let it stand on its own bottom.
Finally—the author wishes to acknowledge the valuable help of Lester Cowan in keeping the line straight and giving many valuable suggestions.
The movie was never made from Fitzgerald’s screenplay. Cowan later sold the rights to “Babylon Revisited” to M-G-M for a reported $40,000, and it was made as The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) from a new screenplay by Philip G. Epstein, Julius J. Epstein, and Richard Brooks.
“Cosmopolitan” has the reputation of being Fitzgerald’s best screenplay. It is not a close adaptation of “Babylon Revisited,” for Fitzgerald invented a new plot which greatly enlarged the role of the child, Honoria. (In the screenplay the name of the child was changed to Victoria, in honor of Budd Schulberg’s baby daughter. When Victoria Schulberg was born, Fitzgerald gave her father a telephone lecture on the responsibilities of raising a daughter.) The expansion of the child’s part in the movie may have been required by the decision to seek Shirley Temple for the role; however, it is not clear whether the movie was regarded as a Temple vehicle from its inception. In July, Fitzgerald discussed the screenplay with Shirley Temple and her mother. Cowan and Mrs. Temple were unable to agree on terms, and the project was shelved.
In “Cosmopolitan,” Charles Wales, a brilliant Wall Street speculator, decides to get out of the market in October 1929 because hiswife’s nerves have broken under the strain of his work. He is taking his wife and daughter to Europe for a long vacation. The market crashes while they are aboard ship, and Wales spends a day trying to save a friend’s investments by cable. Feeling that the ticker tape will always dominate their lives, his wife jumps overboard. Wales has a nervous breakdown in Paris and turns Victoria over to his sister-in-law, who hates him. Wales’s crooked partner bribes a French doctor to keep him drugged so that the firm can use Wales’s money. With the help of an American nurse Wales escapes from Paris and goes to Switzerland to seek financial backing. Victoria follows him. Also in Switzerland is a killer hired by Wales’s partner to murder him for the million-dollar insurance policy the firm had taken out on Wales. At the moment when the killer is about to shoot him, the phone rings. The murderer is distracted, and Wales knocks him out. The call, of course, is from Victoria. In the last line of the screenplay Wales says, “Ah, there’s a lot to live for.”
The technical device for the movie was the use of Victoria as a camera eye, shooting as many takes as possible from her point of view and even from her level up at the adults. “Cosmopolitan” has been admired as a job of screenwriting, but it loses most of the values of Fitzgerald’s short story. The scenes of Wales’s rueful return to Paris are gone. Indeed, the idea of Babylon revisited is absent from the screenplay, because the events that cause the death of Wales’s wife and the loss of his child occur before he arrives in Paris. Fitzgerald felt compelled to invent a new plot in order to provide action for the camera. “Cosmopolitan” again demonstrates that he approached movies as a genre that required standards different from those of literature. When he wrote a movie, he tried to think in terms of Hollywood taste—with which he was never comfortable.
At the end of May 1940 Fitzgerald gave up the Encino house to get away from the summer heat of the San Fernando Valley and moved to an apartment at 1403 North Laurel Avenue in Hollywood, a block from Sheilah’s apartment at 1443 North Hayworth Avenue. He described it as the least expensive apartment he could live in without looking poor; the rent was $110 per month.
Scottie attended the Harvard Summer School in 1940. She did not come to California because of the August wedding of her college roommate in Lake Forest, Illinois, which elicited her father’s recollection: “Once I thought that Lake Forest was the most glamorous place in the world. Maybe it was.” The relationship between father anddaughter became slightly more relaxed after her sophomore year. Fitzgerald acknowledged that she had earned more freedom and gradually stopped trying to interpose himself in her Vassar life. Except when she overspent her allowance, his scolding missives were replaced by letters according her partnership in family concerns. When she failed to write, he no longer threatened to dock her allowance; instead, he employed humor: “I remember once a long time ago I had a daughter who used to write me letters but now I don’t know where she is or what she is doing, so I sit here listening to Puccini ’someday she’ll write (Pigliano edda ciano)’.” He continued to offer her advice, drawing lessons from his own self-indulgence as in this June 1940 admission: “What little I’ve accomplished has been by the most laborious and uphill work, and I wish now I’d never relaxed or looked back—but said at the end of The Great Gatsby: I’ve found my line—from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty—without this I am nothing.”
Fitzgerald’s last screenwriting assignment came when Twentieth Century—Fox hired him to prepare a screenplay from The Light of Heart, Emlyn Williams’s play about an alcoholic actor. This job paid $1,000 per week from 26 August to 15 October. He submitted three drafts, but his version was rejected as too gloomy. The assignment was turned over to Nunnally Johnson—whom Fitzgerald had tried to save from Hollywood corruption in 1938. At Fox he was also involved in a story conference for Everything Happens at Night, a Sonja Henie vehicle, and may have worked briefly on “Brooklyn Bridge,” a proposed movie about the building of the bridge.
Trying to finance working time on his novel, he prepared “A Sept 1st Schedule at the end of My 44th Year 1940”:
This memo includes the note that his nightly sleeping medication was one and a half grains of Seconal and one and a half to two and a half grains of Nembutal or one and a half grains of Seconal and five grains of Barbitol.
Through the fall of 1940 Fitzgerald reported on the progress of his novel 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); “It will, at any rate, be nothing like anything else as I’m digging it out of myself like uranium—one ounce to the cubic ton of rejected ideas. It is a novel a la Flaubert without ’ideas’ but only people moved singly and in mass through what I hope are authentic moods” (23 November).
While he was writing The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald assessed the struggle to recoup his standing in American literature: “I want to write scenes that are frightening and inimitable. I don’t want to be as intelligible to my contemporaries as Ernest who as Gertrude Stein said, is bound for the Museums. I am sure that I am far enough ahead to have some small immortality if I can keep well.” At the end of 1940 Fitzgerald was ruefully aware of Hemingway’s great success with For Whom the Bell Tolls, which sold more than 270,000 copies in its first year. The young writer Fitzgerald had encouraged in 1925 was now America’s foremost living literary figure. Hemingway sent him a copy of the novel inscribed “To Scott with affection and esteem Ernest.” Although Fitzgerald regarded For Whom the Bell Tolls as “a thoroughly superficial book which has all the profundity of Rebecca,” he responded with a warmly complimentary letter on 8 November: “Congratulations too on your new book’s great success. I envy you like hell and there is no irony in this. I always liked Dostoiefski with his wide appeal more than any other European—and I envy you the time to do what you want.” Fitzgerald’s remaining time was forty-three days.
At the end of November 1940 Fitzgerald had a heart attack atSchwab’s drugstore on Sunset Boulevard. (Alcoholic cardiomyopathy, or enlargement of the heart chambers, which occurs in chronic alcoholics, may result in heart failure.) He was ordered to rest in bed, where he wrote for a couple of hours a day on a board. Fitzgerald’s North Laurel Avenue apartment was on the top floor—and one of his neighbors disturbed him by exercising her dog on the roof—so he moved to Sheilah’s ground-floor apartment on North Hayworth Avenue to avoid climbing stairs. He felt he was making a good recovery, reporting to Zelda on 13 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… The cardiogram shows that my heart is repairing itself but it will be a gradual process that will take some months. It is odd that the heart is one of the organs that does repair itself.” On 14 December, Fitzgerald made a schedule for completing the working draft by 15 January. By writing 1,750 words per day, he expected to finish the last four chapters in 28,000 words.
Friday, 20 December 1940, Fitzgerald worked on episode 17 of his novel, the meeting between Stahr and the communist labor organizer Brimmer. It gave him trouble, but he told Sheilah he was satisfied when he finished. That night they had dinner at Lyman’s on Hollywood Boulevard and attended the premiere of This Thing Called Love, a comedy with Melvyn Douglas and Rosalind Russell at the Pantages Theatre. While they were leaving the theater, he experienced a dizzy spell and had trouble walking to the car. He declined to see a doctor that night because Dr. Clarence Nelson was coming to examine him the next day.
F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack on 21 December 1940 with 44,000 words of his novel written. His books were not out of print, as has been claimed. Six of his books were in stock at Scribners. His last royalty statement on 1 August 1940 reported sales of forty copies (including seven copies of The Great Gatsby and nine of Tender Is the Night) for a royalty of $ 13.13.
It may be ironically appropriate that Fitzgerald died in obscurity trying to complete a masterpiece, but the manner of his death does not accord with his legend. Thus John O’Hara: “Scott should have been killed in a Bugatti in the south of France, and not to have died of neglect in Hollywood, a prematurely old little man haunting bookstores unrecognized (as he was the last-but-one time I saw him.)”
Harold Ober made notes during the call from Sheilah Graham informing him of Fitzgerald’s death: “S. doesn’t think he would like to be buried in California because he really hated California. She thinks he would like to be buried where his father is buried because he admired him.” The decision to send the body east was made by Zelda in telephone discussions with John Biggs, who had become a federal judge in Wilmington. There was a viewing of the body for Fitzgerald’s California friends in the Wordsworth Room of the Pierce Brothers Mortuary at 720 West Washington Boulevard.
Permission to bury Fitzgerald at St. Mary’s Church in Rockville, Maryland, was denied by an official at the Baltimore Diocese because he had not been a practicing Catholic at his death—not, as has been incorrectly stated, because his books were proscribed by the Church. None of his books was on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Judge Biggs went to Baltimore to appeal to the bishop, who declined to reverse the decision denying Fitzgerald a Catholic burial. Burial was at Rockville Union Cemetery on 27 December, following a service conducted by an Episcopalian minister, Reverend Raymond Black, at the Pumphrey Funeral Home in Bethesda. The funeral was attended by Scottie, the Murphys, Perkinses, Obers, Biggses, and Turnbulls, Cecilia Taylor and her daughters, Ludlow Fowler, Newman Smith, and those of Scottie’s Baltimore friends who had known him— altogether about thirty people. Hemingway was in Cuba, and Perkins wrote him after the funeral, “I thought of telegraphing you, but it didn’t seem as if there were any use in it, and I shrank from doing it.” Sheilah Graham did not attend the funeral in deference topropriety. Zelda did not feel well enough to come north from Montgomery, though she was involved in the arrangements.
Fitzgerald was strapped but not destitute during the last year of his life. His 1940 earnings were $14,570. Apart from personal possessions, $738.16 in the bank, and $486.34 in cash, the bulk of his estate was the reduced $44,225.15 value of his life insurance policy. His 1937 Ford convertible, which he had bought secondhand from S. J. Perelman, was sold for $265. He died owing $4,067.14 to Highland Hospital, $5,456.92 to Scribners, $802.13 to Ober (who waived $2,926 in accumulated interest on loans), and at least $1,500 to Perkins. His copyrights were regarded as virtually worthless, and the royalties from his writings were a trickle. The State of California appraised work-in-progress for The Last Tycoon at $5,000 and all the other manuscripts at $1,000.
In his 1937 will Fitzgerald had appointed John Biggs and Harold Ober his executors, but on 10 November 1940 he crossed out Ober’s name and substituted Maxwell Perkins. He also changed the provision for “a suitable funeral and burial in keeping with my station in life” to “the cheapest funeral and burial.” Since Fitzgerald’s alteration of his will raised legal problems, Ober and Perkins withdrew as executors in favor of Biggs; but both worked closely with Biggs in administering Fitzgerald’s literary affairs. The will set up trusts for Zelda and Scottie from the insurance policy and stipulated that income from his writings also be held in trust for them. For the next seven years Biggs provided for Zelda and Scottie from an inheritance of less than $35,000—supplemented by royalties from posthumously published volumes. An annuity purchased for Zelda paid her $49.16 a month; as a veteran’s widow she qualified for a $35 monthly pension. Scottie was able to finish Vassar with the help of loans from Ober, Perkins, and Murphy, which were repaid.
Maxwell Perkins was determined to salvage The Last Tycoon as a memorial and to earn a little money for the estate. At first he thought about having another writer complete the novel and approached John O’Hara and Budd Schulberg, who declined because they felt no other writer could finish Fitzgerald’s work. He even considered seeking Hemingway’s help, an idea which Zelda opposed: “May I suggest that rather than bringing into play another forceful talent of other inspiration it would be felicitous to enlist a pen such as Gilbert Seldes, whose talent depends on concision of idea and aptitude of word rather than the spiritual or emotional transports of the author.” By the end of January 1941 Perkins informed Zelda: “I don’t think anybody ought to attempt to write an ending, or even could do it.” After conferring with Gilbert Seldes, he decided to publish the novel in its unfinished form. Edmund Wilson, who agreed to donate his editorial services, recommended that The Last Tycoon be published with the “Crack-Up” essays and Pat Hobby stories; but Perkins vetoed the proposal because he felt that “The Crack-Up” had damaged Fitzgerald’s reputation and regarded the Hobby pieces as minor efforts. The volume published on 27 October 1941 presented the edited fragments of The Last Tycoon with The Great Gatsby and five stories “that seem most likely to have permanent interest” (“May Day,” “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” “The Rich Boy,” “Absolution,” and “Crazy Sunday”). Wilson prepared a text of The Last Tycoon for the general reader, assembling the episodes into chapters. The effect of Wilson’s redaction was to present the episodes in much more finished form than in Fitzgerald’s draft. He also provided a summary of the unwritten chapters and a selection of the plans and notes. Wilson’s edition remains the only published text of The Last Tycoon; for forty years it has been read in a form that obscures the work-in-progress quality of what Fitzgerald left.
The first printing was probably less than 5,000 copies; the book sold slowly but steadily—requiring reprintings in 1941, 1945, 1947, 1948—and has never gone out of print. The 1941 reviews were respectful and regretful. Most of the critics agreed with Wilson’s statement that The Last Tycoon is “even in its imperfect state, Fitzgerald’s most mature piece of work”; and the omnibus volume provided reviewers the opportunity to reassess Fitzgerald’s career. J. Donald Adams, who had never been a partisan of his work, wrote the front-page New York Times Book Review article in which he called Fitzgerald’s early death “a heavy loss to American literature” and cautiously ventured that “I think he will be remembered in his generation.” Three months after the volume was published, James Thurber’s review appeared in The New Republic. While approving publication of The Last Tycoon, Thurber warned that it was not to be judged as finished work: “Fitzgerald’s perfection of style and form, as in ’The Great Gatsby,’ has a way of making something that lies between your stomach and your heart quiver a little.” Thurber believed that if Fitzgerald had lived to complete his work, he would have fulfilled his ambitions for the novel: “I know of no one else who could.” In 1945 Dos Passos wrote of The Last Tycoon: “Even in this unfinished state these fragments, I believe, are of sufficient dimensions to raise the level of American fiction to follow in some such way as Marlowe’s blank verse line raised the whole level of Elizabethan verse.”
One of the dissenting opinions from the majority judgment on The Last Tycoon was Hemingway’s. He informed Perkins that the writing is like moldy bacon and that the plan of the novel involves “impossible dramatic tricks.” He compared Fitzgerald to a pitcher with a dead arm, reiterating his claim that Fitzgerald never knew enough about people to write a novel that did not depend on magic.
The Last Tycoon epitomizes Fitzgerald’s career in ways that are almost too neat. His quintessential theme of aspiration and his concomitant quest for heroism found their fullest expression in Monroe Stahr. Whereas The Great Gatsby treats the American Dream almost allegorically, The Last Tycoon shows the fable made actuality. Fitzgerald’s long meditation on the promises of America culminated on the last American frontier, in a boom town built on a lode of illusions and hopes. But in 1935 Stahr is already an anachronism. The old faiths are wavering; the dream is fading. The romantic individualism that Fitzgerald had believed in so devoutly and the sense of life’s infinite possibilities that he had evoked so eloquently were crumbling. In his notes for the novel he wrote: “I look out at it—and I think it is the most beautiful history in the world. It is the history of me and of my people. And if I came here yesterday like Sheilah I should still think so. It is the history of all aspiration—not just the American dream but the human dream and if I came at the end of it that too is a place in the line of the pioneers.” In The Last Tycoon—which Fitzgerald thought of as “A Western”—“the last of the novelists” was writing about the last of the pioneers in the last frontier town. The quondam playboy of American literature died like one of the overworked American leaders he admired, engaged in his final quest for heroism.
Zelda continued to live with her mother at 322 Sayre Street in Montgomery, voluntarily returning to Highland during periods of depression. She painted, worked on an unfinished novel, and took the long walks that were part of her therapy. Her last years were peaceful but also bitterly ironic: the most famous Montgomery belle returned home to live as an impoverished invalid. Old friends were kind to her—with the kindness reserved, especially in the South, for the broken and helpless. She returned to Highland in November 1947. On the night of 10 March 1948 a fire broke out in the building where she wassleeping, and she was one of the nine patients who died. The body that was positively identified as Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was buried with her husband at Rockville Union Cemetery. In 1975 they were reinterred in the Fitzgerald family plot at St. Mary’s Church, Rockville.
During Zelda’s last years there were indications that F. Scott Fitzgerald was not entirely forgotten (In February and March 1941 The New Republic published two groups of tributes under the title “In Memory of F. Scott Fitzgerald,” with contributions by John Peale Bishop, John Dos Passos, John O’Hara, Budd Schulberg, and Glen-way Wescott). Stephen Vincent Benet’s review of The Last Tycoon ended with an accurate forecast: “You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This is not a legend, this is a reputation—and seen in perspective, it may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time.” In 1945 Edmund Wilson edited The Crack-Up, a selection from Fitzgerald’s autobiographical essays, notebooks, and letters, with tributes from other writers. Published by New Directions, it was warmly received and has become a standard volume in the Fitzgerald canon. In his influential review of The Crack-Up Lionel Trilling identified Fitzgerald’s “heroic awareness”: “The root of Fitzgerald’s heroism is to be found, as it sometimes is in tragic heroes, in his power of love.” That year Dorothy Parker edited The Portable F. Scott Fitzgerald in which John O’Hara stated: “All he was was our best novelist, one of our best novella-ists, and one of our finest writers of short stories.” By 1951 what was then called “the Fitzgerald revival” was in full progress, and by 1960 the revival had become a resurrection.
Despite his many moves, Fitzgerald preserved a large archive of his papers. In addition to his scrapbooks, photo albums, and notebooks, he kept the manuscripts, drafts, and proofs of his writings, as well as his correspondence. After her father’s death Scottie declined to sell the legacy, refusing a token offer from the Princeton University Library and feelers from dealers who would have scattered the collection. In 1950 she donated the archive to Princeton. The manuscripts require fifty-seven boxes, forming one of the richest research collections for a major American author. Scottie’s gift has been supplemented by Sheilah Graham’s material and contributions by friends and admirers, and the Charles Scribner’s Sons Archives have since been donated to Princeton. Although the Princeton University Library also houses the papers of Woodrow Wilson, John Foster Dulles, and James Forrestal,the F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers are the most frequently consulted collection at the library. Fitzgerald would have relished the circumstance that the Princeton undergraduate whose poor scholarship deprived him of a diploma now attracts scholars from all over the world to the library of his alma mater.
In the forty years since Fitzgerald’s death Scribners has sold at least eight million copies of his books. Twenty-one new volumes of his writings have been published, along with some fifty biographical and critical books and pamphlets. His work has been translated into thirty-five languages. The Great Gatsby has become a classroom staple and sells some 300,000 copies a year in America.
F. Scott Fitzgerald is now permanently placed with the greatest writers who ever lived, where he wanted to be all along. Where he belongs.
After her husband’s death Zelda Fitzgerald wrote an eight-page tribute, probably intended for The Crack-Up. It closes with this assessment:
Fitzgeralds books were the first of their kind and the most indicative. If his people didn’t have a good time, or things come out well at the end, the scene of their activity was always the arena of some new philosophic offensive, and what they did was allied with many salient projects of the era. The plush hush of the hotel lobby and the gala grandeur of the theatre port-cochiere; fumes of orchidaceous elevators whirring to plaintive deaths the gilded aspirations of a valiant and protesting age, taxis slumberously afloat on deep summer nights—
Such Fitzgerald made into many tragic tales; sagas of people compelling life into some more commensurate and compassionate measure His meter was bitter, and ironic and spectacular and enviting: so was life. There wasnt much other life during those times than to what his pen paid the tribute of poetic tragic glamour and offerred the reconciliation of the familiarities of tragedy.
Rest in Peace.
Published as Some Sort Of Epic Grandeur: The Life Of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Matthew J. Bruccoli (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1991 - second edition; 1981 - first edition).