The Lost Summer: a personal memoir of F. Scott Fitzgerald
by Tony Buttitta


Fitzgerald’s writing mood carried him through the new story and into another that seemed to take off from it. An earlier story—the one he had written in Tryon—and been rejected by The Saturday Evening Post and was now being considered by a magazine paying a fraction of the price he usually commanded. Yet except for his mounting debts, everything seemed to be going his way for the moment.

He had told me two things were helpful in his writing: a drink to sharpen his mind and senses, and the stimulation of love-making to put his creative imagination into high gear. (Love-making for this purpose, instead of for the sheer pleasure of it, may have caused part of his sexual troubles, as Lottie was to tell me later.) These had become a need that he tried to satisfy before putting pencil to paper.

“Maybe you think I’m oversexed. I am and was long before I knew it. But I’m not the only artist who works that way. There’s Picasso. I hear he needs his wine, his woman, and friends to give him the drive to tackle one of his compositions.”

Fitzgerald decided to accept Rosemary as a gift from the gods, regardless of the consequences, for the sake of his writing. His work was the only thing he now enjoyed, so he said; idleness put him in a scrappy and depressed mood. As for drinking in this situation, it served to block his Puritan conscience. This may sound quaint today, but the sexual strictures of that heritage weighed heavily on earlier generations. In Scott there was a specifically Catholic cast to that conscience; he even told me he had considered the priesthood. His sensuality had frightened him since his early teens and he tried to ignore or curb it, imbued as he was with the concept of the flesh as sinful and evil.

But there were rewards beyond the sexual in his relations with Rosemary. She seemed to give him, he said, a return of his youth, with a promise of a renewed life. It was something he needed but thought he had lost with Zelda and would never recapture. And though grateful for her gift, there were moments when he saw Rosemary for what she was: an ordinary young woman of the leisure class, with the insensitivity peculiar to her kind, limited in mental scope and having no dazzling inner light or sense of wonder, only the possessive urgency of her passion.

Fitzgerald spoke of being oversexed and of his relations with Rosemary after perusing Andre Tridon’s Psychoanalysis, an early popular Freudian study. We left the shop and went to a restaurant in Pack Square where he often drank more than he ate. It was midafternoon; he appeared sober though he had consumed several beers and ales. I left him there and put in an appearance at the symphony office. That night I jotted down his comments on the flyleaf of the Tridon book.

When I saw him again I was on my way to rehearsal. He decided to go with me, even if he didn’t care for music and knew nothing about it. He wanted to meet my boss and publicity instructor, Lamar Stringfield, conductor of the North Carolina Symphony and composer of From the Southern Mountains, for which he had been awarded a Pulitzer Prize. The work was based on tunes of the Carolina mountain folk; its most popular section was the finale, “Cripple Creek,” a rollicking jig, which Lamar used as an encore at all his concerts.

I hesitated to take Fitzgerald along, fearing that my amiable mentor might invite him to sample his choice Carolina corn or rye, which he got from its law-defying makers. Lamar liked to say that the mist over the Blue Ridge Mountains was nothing more than blue smoke rising from moonshiners’ stills. That day Fitzgerald was on the wagon; if they started tippling and he fell off it, I would be to blame. He noticed my reluctance.

“I’m a solitary toper,” he assured me.

I changed the subject and began telling him that Lamar had an instinct for publicity—at least for himself—and his suggestions rarely missed. I also mentioned that Lamar was a baseball fan. This pleased Scott. He was one himself, although his favorite sport was football. Inadvertently I got back on the subject of drinking by saying that Lamar had fallen off the podium twice that season before audiences of hundreds.

“I’ve done about everything but that—unless my memory fails me,” he said. “You make Lamar sound worth meeting.”

Fitzgerald asked how I had become involved with another drinkingman. It was because the orchestra was to summer in Asheville, I said, and I wanted to come there because of Wolfe. That April I had interviewed Stringfield in Durham for the United Press. When I went to see him in his hotel suite, he was scoring a new work, Moods of a Moonshiner, at a drawing board while the radio churned out loud hillbilly music. He looked up at me from under his green eyeshade and said, “This is how a genius works.”

“Lamar was dead serious when he said this,” I told Fitzgerald. “He liked my story and asked me to be his press agent. I didn’t know what that meant then. That didn’t stop Lamar. He said he’d teach me.”

“Your switch from journalism to ballyhoo must have been tough,” he said.

“Yes.” Then I went on to tell him that my present assignment was to publicize a children’s concert. The price of admission was a penny postcard. As a picture stunt I thought of a boy and girl presenting either the mayor or a music-club official with a blowup of the card as an admission ticket to the concert. But Lamar had a better idea: a moppet with him and Tina, his black scotty. He said he preferred being photographed with them to posing beside politicians or musical dowagers.

“Kids and animals are page-one pets,” he said. And as I told this to Fitzgerald, I added, “Lamar’s a publicity hound, but he knows his stuff.”

America had amused itself not long before with stories and pictures of flagpole sitters and marathon dancers. That carnival was over, and newspapers were now featuring panaceas to beat the Depression: NRA, WPA, FDR’s fireside chats, Upton Sinclair’s barter cooperatives, and Huey Long’s Share the Wealth scheme. Everybody was talking about such books as Life Begins at Forty, Wake Up and Live, and How to Make Friends and Influence People. But children and animals always made news, and Lamar wasn’t above using them to promote himself along with symphonic music.

In time I originated a story, I told Fitzgerald. I thought it out as I watched his dog Tina react to the instruments tuning up at rehearsal. The violins made her growl, trumpets perked up her ears, and her master’s flute started her rolling on her back for play. When the story appeared as a United Press item, he avoided me. I had made the unpardonable mistake of putting her name—not his—in the first paragraph. Those days I was ignorant about billing, chronic fever of the entertainment world.

“Like that dog I want to howl when I hear certain notes.”

“You had a dog story in Esquire recently, ’Shaggy’s Morning.’ ”

“It was god-awful.” Then he fell silent for a moment. “I knew a writer with your composer’s special talent,” he said at last. “He harassed his editor and publisher with ideas and gimmicks to promote his novels. He wrote his own advertising copy, jacket blurbs, and publicity notes, selected quotes from critics and friends, raised bloody murder over colors and photographs of himself, and wasted time dreaming up tie-ins. He was stung by the same ballyhoo bug to exploit himself as your composer.”

“I hope he got better results.”

“It probably helped to make him the only best-seller who didn’t sell any more.” He studied me as though I should recognize the writer he referred to. “There was a cheap side to his talent. Sometimes it got the better of him. He had the gall to advertise his first novel in the last chapter of his second—”

“That was you.”

I suddenly remembered the successful young novelist in The Beautiful and Damned who said that everywhere he went some silly girl would ask him if he had read This Side of Paradise.

“I once had your composer’s egotism of a maniac. I now see it an expression of youthful exuberance. Of course, I would have done better if I could have advertised my second in my first. The first was my biggest seller, and with hardly any advertising from Scribners. I was sore at the time and crabbed like hell because a mediocre novel like Floyd Dell’s Moon Calf was being touted by its publisher with big ads. Nevertheless I found my public of flappers and college youths, but they have dwindled through the years from a hundred thousand to less than five thousand for Taps. I once was a kind of oracle to them.”

Fitzgerald said that he wrote the bulk of his first two novels in St. Paul, and though hailed by the local press as the city’s first major author, he still resented Minnesota’s giving its main attention to Sinclair Lewis. Both he and Lewis had been concerned with the rags-to-riches American success story, he said; Lewis satirized the new wealthy middle class and added a word to the dictionary: babbitt, while he himself tended to dig into the lonely and tragic void behind the pretentious facade.

“My first novel had wide appeal. It pleased young and old, conservatives, liberals, rebels, even the radical press. In the closing chapter my hero becomes a spokesman for socialism as a way that should be tried to get the most out of the best men in finance and the professions. The second book didn’t have as many friends. It was self-conscious and smart. My aim was to attack the middle class like Flaubert with Menckenian wit and savagery: its money values, beliefs, religion—I almost lost a great friend because of my attack on religion.”

He then asked if I had stopped saying my beads for the salvation of my soul in a Roman Catholic heaven as he, Joyce, Dreiser, and other writers had done. I replied that I had been on the way out of the church when some hypocrites and a nudge from Mencken had made it impossible for me ever to fall on my knees again. He asked whether I had replaced religion with anything. I answered that I had simply got rid of excess baggage.

“You’re luckier than I. Or we potato-famine Irish take things a lot harder than you volatile and violent Latins. After I dropped away from the church, I kept saying I wanted to become a priest. Probably it was because I fancied myself the wickedest youth in the world, and I must say I enjoyed the idea of renunciation, too. It happened twice while I was at Princeton—when my first love refused me, and later while visiting my friend John Bishop, who introduced me to the pleasures of English poetry. And again later, in a Southern army camp when I got word that Monsignor Fay, the best friend of my youth—the Monsignor Darcy of Paradise—died in the flu epidemic.

“Probably I was kidding myself or play-acting, out of my sense of loss and shock. I got over the idea of wanting to become a priest and the gap with religion widened. Some of my friends have said that when I stopped going to Mass I started drinking. Even if that were true, it would be only part true. About that time I was digging into Marxism, socialism and communism. I have since discovered that that can be a religion too. At least it is for some of my friends who are now hot on the subject. You said you weren’t a card-carrying radical. But I wonder if you aren’t the kind of renegade who has replaced the Apostle’s Creed with the Communist Manifesto.”

It was too late to answer him. We had arrived at the side entrance of the high-school building, set off by tall pines and magnolias. I opened the heavy door and led him into the empty auditorium. The orchestra was onstage; the men had their sleeves rolled up and Lamar was conducting from a raised platform, his white shirttails out and swinging with his baton. We took a seat at the back and watched his gyrations instead of listening to the music.

“Vitality to match his egotism,” was Fitzgerald’s sole comment.

In a few minutes Lamar slammed his stick and gave the men a break. He hopped off the stage and came toward us with a cordial smile forming under his dark mustache. His dark hair and eyes couldhave placed him as a Latin, though his family was English and one of the first in Carolina.

“It’s an honor to have you, Mr. Fitzgerald,” he said when I introduced them. “I’m giving this concert at Grove Park Inn Friday. I hope you and your friends will be my guests.”

“Thank you.”

“Mozart opens the program,” he said, gesturing with a long cigarette holder. “I’m featuring the Beethoven First and Stravinsky’s Firebird. I don’t know your musical taste but I believe there’s something for everybody in this concert.”

“Call me a lowbrow,” Fitzgerald said. “Kern, Herbert, Romberg, Friml, Youmans, Porter, Gershwin, Rodgers and Hart.”

“Of course, Mr. Fitzgerald!” Lamar said, with a smile of recognition. “Fox trots, waltzes, and jazz. You’re the father of the Jazz Age!”

He expected Fitzgerald to acknowledge it but there was a short silence.

“I want you to know, Mr. Fitzgerald, that serious composers are with it,” he went on. “Jazz has invaded the concert halls and is holding its own. Milhaud, Ravel, Stravinsky, and Martinu have composed jazz works. I’d like to play a Show Boat medley to show you that your taste isn’t as lowbrow as you think.”

“That’s nice of you.”

“I’ve been one of your most devoted readers in The Saturday Evening Post. For a while I wondered if you weren’t its number-one pet or you owned a piece of it.” He laughed and winked at me as if to show me how he sold himself. But I was pleased to see he wasn’t doing too well with Fitzgerald. “Perhaps we can have a drink. None of those dainty cocktails, but straight from a jug of mountain dew.”

“Most kind of you. I’m on the wagon.”

“Too bad—this stuff’s worth falling off for. But I wouldn’t come between you and your noble resolutions.”

Lamar drew me aside for a whispered conference about our visitor. I was eager to leave at that point, divided as I was between loyalty to my friend and the somewhat elastic duties of my job. Then I led Fitzgerald out of the building.

“Stick around,” Fitzgerald said dryly. “He’ll make a press agent out of you yet.”

“He just asked me to send out a release on your meeting and play up the jazz angle. I stalled him by saying it should wait until you came to the concert.”

“I’ll go if you want me to.”

“No, thanks. I won’t give him the chance to expect first billing over you, even if he has won a Pulitzer Prize.”

“Maybe you’d better tell him I once turned down the Literary Guild.”

That summer Fitzgerald showed no further interest in Lamar and his ideas to ballyhoo himself.

Next Chapter 9

Published as The Lost Summer: A Personal Memoir Of F.Scott Fitzgerald by Tony Buttitta (N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1987, 177 p.). This is the revised edition of After The Good Gay Times: Asheville—Summer Of '35—A Season With F. Scott Fitzgerald by Tony Buttitta (New York: Viking, 1974).