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


The day before Ogden’s arrival in Asheville, Fitzgerald came out of the affair as he might on sobering up after a long drunk. He told Rosemary he had had enough of her; he ignored her tears and was deaf to her reproaches. Though he felt a touch of guilt, his conscience was largely clear; he had warned her that the affair could be no more than an interlude. To prolong it was to waste time and energy he needed for his writing.

It turned out that he didn’t give her up for long.

Though he enjoyed the attention of women, he was at the moment fed up with their company and the emotional upheavals that went with it. Rosemary wanted to leave her husband and start a new life with him. Her sister was a neurotic who hated them both and was on the verge of a breakdown. Nora Flynn, for all her loving concern, kept after him to try Christian Science for his drinking. Only his Dollar Woman was considerate enough to let him alone.

It was one of the times when he preferred his “own lousy company” or that of another man, as I recall him saying when he dropped in for a book. His mood wasn’t talkative but subdued and somewhat depressed; he was nervous and, although liquor was on his breath, he was sober and calm. He stepped over to my collection and reached for Mosquitoes, saying he wanted to compare Faulkner’s treatment of his friend Sherwood Anderson to Hemingway’s cruel satire in The Torrents of Spring. Faulkner had inscribed the flyleaf in his tiny hand.

“This his handwriting?” he asked. “It’s minute and stunted.”

“A sharp contrast to your quick, expansive, and formless—”

“Scrawl,” he interjected.

“Yes,” I said with a smile. “It certainly shows the extreme differences in your styles, characters, and temperaments.” He appearedinterested in the remark, and I went on. “The inscription is that Joyce poem you like. He wrote it down with the words, ’To Tony who can’t remember.’ His own memory slipped three times. For Joyce’s loveward, he has ’moonward’; for loveblown, ’lovelorn’; and for the phrase prairie grasses sighing, ’wind in the grass sighing.’”

“Improving on Joyce?”

“He’d had a spot too many of Carolina corn that night or his handwriting would have been jewel-like. He laughed at critics who said he was influenced by Joyce’s stream of consciousness or Dostoevski’s morbidity, and boasted in his wry way of not having read either.”

“Most critics are jackasses,” he said. “That goes for college professors who pick over the bones of writers and come up with startling discoveries about trifles. I’ve heard Faulkner consumes a lot of booze. Do you know if it’s true?”

“He tipples while working, but holds it with dignity.”

“A talent I don’t have.”

It seemed he wanted to know about Faulkner’s drinking habits so he wouldn’t feel too bad about his own. If he himself had to drink, probably Faulkner’s image was a good one.

“At least he gets good booze. There’s a funny Hollywood story about him, but I never heard he engaged in any public shenanigans like me or Ernest.”

“When did you meet Faulkner?”

“During the hullabaloo over Sanctuary.”

Another prodding from Fitzgerald and I told him about the slight, soft-spoken, graying Southern gentleman who paid us a week’s visit at Chapel Hill. Bill arrived with Milt Abernethy, who had been in New York; Milt confided that Hal had gotten him to take Bill South for fear that another publisher might take the writer away from him. Bill brought along a light valise and a zipper bag containing the almost completed manuscript of Light in August. He had been in New York autographing a limited edition of Idyll in the Desert, and seemed unmoved by the success of Sanctuary.

Faulkner stayed with us at the Tankersley Building in Shirley Carter’s room; Shirley was one of our editors and a poet friend of Sherwood Anderson. He had decorated the room with a Dore-like nightmare in charcoal during a mad weekend’s inspiration while we cheered him on; he had crisscrossed the walls with life-sized drawings of muscular figures in heroic combat. Bill was unaware of the pictorial tumult around him. He slept and rested, drank fruit jars of moonshine we got from a Negro bootlegger, and talked about his two hobbies, hunting and flying.

After the first couple of days Faulkner asked us where he was, saying he had to see Hal again before going back to Oxford. Whenever we asked him whether he cared for a “jolly spot,” his word for a drink, he would nod his trim head and cheerfully drawl, “I don’t mind if I do.”

We had kept him incommunicado at his request. When he sobered up a bit, he smoothed his ragged thin mustache and announced, “I want out.” A barber was called in to shave him and shape his mustache; we shined his shoes and took his suit to have it pressed. Bill emerged like a little dandy. We took snapshots of him, one with the hint of a smile, for our rogues’ gallery of writers who had visited us.

While I was telling this to Fitzgerald, he stroked his almost invisible little blond mustache.

It was Halloween when Bill emerged, and he asked about local festivities. We said there were none and went on a witch’s ride to Durham seeking excitement. The most we could find was a gang of masked young people; we followed them up an alley to a noisy party. We looked in, decided it wasn’t for us, and went to the Carolina Theater. Katharine Hepburn—Scott’s favorite actress—was starring in a new comedy. Bill scanned the poster and said in his usual quiet way, “Let’s go in.” Inside an usher led us down to the front of the dark auditorium with images flashing on the screen. “Let’s go,” Bill said about fifteen minutes later. “Too much talk. I want to talk.”

We started back for Chapel Hill. The village was dark and tranquil. A lone neon flickered over a cafe; it was Harry’s and we went there for sandwiches and beer. Afterward we met Phillips Russell, the playwright Paul Green’s brother-in-law, who apologized to Faulkner because the university library couldn’t afford any of his books and then invited him to address his writing class. Bill accepted his apology and invitation.

“Form? Form? What form?” Faulkner repeated in that class the next day when asked about his writing, the way he developed his characters, themes, and situations. “You write and you write. If it’s good, it has form. If it’s not, there is no such thing. All the king’s horses can’t make it happen.”

That was the story much as I told it to Fitzgerald.

“Form is literary discipline,” he said, coming out of his silence. “It may come naturally to Faulkner, but it doesn’t mean he can always besure of achieving it that way. It takes planning and clear thinking, a sense of restraint, and a wise selection of material. This is something Wolfe’s work lacks and Flaubert has. Conrad too. Form is what makes the artist and his work a piece of art.”

Fitzgerald signaled for me to go on. I told him that while Bill slept those first days, Milt Abernethy and I had peeked in the bag which contained the manuscript of Light in August. The zipper was broken and the pages were curled up in the bag, loose and unprotected. Bill had smiled when we told him we couldn’t decipher his minute handwriting; he said only Louise Bonino, Harrison Smith’s secretary, could read it, and she typed his manuscripts for the printer. We boldly asked if he would give us a fragment of it for Contempo.

“I’ll have to ask Hal.” He saw our disappointed faces and added, “I have stacks of poems and stories yellowing in my files back home. I’ll send you some when I get back.”

I was to spend that Christmas with my family in Louisiana, so Bill invited me to visit him on the way and pick up the material. When the time came, I spent a week between the Oxford hotel in the courthouse square and Faulkner’s recently purchased old mansion. He had had an eye on the rundown property for years, and was now having it put in shape. His workroom was a shambles; there were gaps in the walls and flooring, the wainscoting was a sorry sight, and chunks of plaster lay in piles near his writing table, his filing cabinet, and his hunting gear.

“I couldn’t give the stuff away when I wrote it,” Bill said as I looked over typed copies of stories and poems which were rust-stained with old paper clips. “Now I get wires asking for them. I read them over to see if they’re still good, have them typed over again, and send them off. I sometimes get a thousand for a story. They aren’t that good but I take the money—to fix up this place. A piece of writing, like any work of art, has its own value aside from the market.”

Fitzgerald was growing restless, but he kept me talking about Faulkner. He said it was like watching a movie; he sometimes went to one to keep from drinking. I told him that Bill wrote at a long, wide table with a jar of moonshine and a jug of fresh well water at his side. He drank while working, pouring water and liquor into a tall glass that stood near his right hand. He wrote on yellow, legal-sized sheets, keeping to the right-hand two-thirds of the paper, his pen moving up and down, evenly and without a pause, while he completely absorbed himself in his imagined world.

On his worktable was a small portable phonograph which he used to wind by hand to play Paul Whiteman’s recording of Rhapsody in Blue. Bill said that listening to the George Gershwin music had heightened the mood he wished to maintain in Sanctuary; it had helped set the jazzlike tone and rhythmic suspense of his Gothic tale. He confided that he had written the book in chronological order, but after finishing it he had shifted chapters in order to create mystery and tension and thus hold his baffled readers. Popeye’s story, originally at the beginning, was placed at the end. It was a trick, he admitted; he tried it to help make the book sell after his five earlier failures.

“I did something of the sort with Gatsby” Fitzgerald said. “I didn’t shift chapters, but took the first one out entirely. It was Gatsby’s background. I published it as a short story two years before Gatsby. Cutting it from the book served in the same way to create mystery, tension, and suspense. I believe that helped to make Gatsby a success.”

Faulkner was living alone in the mansion at the time of my visit, except for an old Negro couple who took care of the place and his needs. He and I dined in a large empty room; man and wife served us, standing stiffly in white at our side like waiters in a small Southern hotel. I made a point of telling Fitzgerald that the trio seemed bound together by the paternalism of the old plantation system; the couple were devoted to Faulkner—his loyal “darkies,” he their beloved master.

Fitzgerald had frowned on my attitude toward Negroes; this remark about the old paternalism brought a sharp rebuke from him. He had objected to my novel with a Negro hero, ignored my resistance to his bias against the hotel doorman talking to Lottie, and barely commented on Contempo’s forthright defense of the Scottsboro boys sentenced to death. He was sensitive to my intent in the Faulkner story and apparently felt the need to challenge me directly.

“Coming from Louisiana, you must know Negroes are happier in the South than in the North,” he said. “They’re appreciated as individuals, although I must admit they’re considered inferior. The North pays lip service to the principle of racial equality and scorns Negroes as individuals. At times you seem to be following the Communist line. I had enough of that in Baltimore. And of Bunny Wilson, who signed that manifesto supporting Foster and Ford, the black man, in the election three years ago.” He suddenly dropped the subject and returned with the greatest interest to Faulkner. “But you haven’t told me about Faulkner’s wife. Did you meet her?”

“Yes,” I said.

Estelle had been Bill’s dream girl, unavailable when he was a struggling young writer, and she then married and went to China with her husband. Bill was a nobody, doing odd jobs of house-painting, clerking in a New York bookstore, and running the campus post office at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. It was rumored that Bill read the mail, not out of personal curiosity but to get material for his tales. When Estelle’s marriage broke up in the Orient, she returned to Oxford, bringing back a small family. Bill had gained a reputation by then, and the slight, fluttery woman who was something of a belle married him.

One night as we sat by the fireplace in the old house, Estelle, who was staying with her mother during the alterations, joined us. She was dressed for a party and had evidently had a few drinks, for she nagged Bill because he wouldn’t learn to dance. “I love to dance,” she kept saying. “Bill likes to tell stories.” She rose and waltzed about the darkened room like an enchanted belle at a ball. Remembering stories of Zelda’s rising and dancing to her own music in empty ballrooms, I watched Fitzgerald at that point. He shut his eyes and put a hand to his face.

I told him that Bill and Estelle seemed to pay little attention to each other, as though they were living in different worlds. After a while, on this evening, she sank into the chair facing us. Bill told a story and quietly smoked his pipe; he appeared to be speaking to me instead of to both of us. Her eyes were on the dancing flames and her thoughts were far from what he was saying. Before he had finished she announced that Bill had received a wire from Hollywood, asking him to name his own terms. She picked at him because he didn’t care to go. He eventually went because he needed the money.

“I later learned we were both in Hollywood at the same time, but we didn’t know it,” Fitzgerald said. “The story goes that he was working on his own stuff.”

One afternoon Bill walked me around the countryside and showed me some of Yoknapatawpha County, of which he was “sole owner and proprietor.” Starting at the courthouse, he said, “Temple Drake testified there. . . . Christmas did his killing in that old house. . . . The bank Byron Snopes robbed. . . . Benbow’s place. . . . Up that road near the river Wash Jones killed Sutpen. . . . The bridge that washed away and made it hard for Anse and his sons to cross with Addie’s body. . . . The barn where Popeye raped Temple with a corncob. …”

A few weeks after I had returned to Chapel Hill, and our all-Faulkner issue was a literary scoop for having published his first verse in eight years, Faulkner wired us about a missing page from the Light in August manuscript. He needed it badly because he couldn’t reconstruct the passage. We didn’t have it, and I never learned whether he found it. But knowing how Bill wrote, with no detailed plan but from direct spontaneous invention, the novel may have been published without that page—its absence thus adding another wrinkle to mystify readers and critics.

What seemed to strike Fitzgerald most about Faulkner were the parallels in their lives. That summer he seemed to be looking for such parallels with others. Neither novelist was a man of action, but they both drank heavily in their personal and professional pursuits, were influenced by the Symbolist poets and the Southern romantic tradition of gentility; they were moralists in their outlook and sentiments; and they had married Southern belles who had rejected them until they showed signs of success.

Zelda and Estelle were products of the upper-class mores of adjoining states, Alabama and Mississippi; a sensible belle was expected to marry the man best equipped to maintain her in style and ladylike comfort. Fitzgerald remarked sadly that this emphasis on money in our culture had profoundly influenced his outlook on life and colored much of his writing.

And he added that, of the two men, he had been the more fortunate—at the beginning. He had won the sought-after girl in the flush of his youth, while Faulkner had to wait a decade for his to come back to him.

Next Chapter 11

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).