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


Fitzgerald went out of the state for the test. I saw him the afternoon he came downtown to telephone the doctor’s office for the report. Anxious to remain incognito, he wouldn’t call from the Inn. He received the news with a sense of defeat, as though his worst fears had been confirmed. I had seen that look before during the summer and did not jump to conclusions; still, remembering his talk of drowning himself if the test turned out positive, I was concerned about him.

“The report was negative, wasn’t it?” I asked hopefully.

He nodded but said nothing for a bit.

“That makes it worse. I was all keyed up for action, not sticking around. It means I’ll have to face the whole damn mess all over again.” He began pacing the floor of the bookshop as he spoke, Hamlet to the life, weary and intense, and I thought it was a good performance. “A new life must begin for me out of this stinking wreckage, or it’s down the drain. I’ve made these resolves before and disappointed some of my oldest friends. I can’t go on drifting, wasting emotion and talent.

“There’s no ducking it. We all have a fatal flaw. I know mine, and I’m meant to resolve it myself. That is my fate. Someone said it was in my hand. Probably my Dollar Woman.” He held up a hand and looked at his palm. “If that’s it, I have two choices. There are always two choices and they’re often both lousy. I’ll either pull out of this or go under. No half way this time. I must find a way back, as a writer, or head straight for the nearest exit and say good-by. I know my duty—to myself and those close to me. But I can’t go at it blindly. I have to follow my fate with my eyes wide open.”

Suddenly he glanced with disgust at his slightly protruding belly. He slapped it a couple of times and cursed himself.

“God, I’m swelling up like a beer barrel. There has to be a change. A drastic change.”

His restlessness had brought him several times to my desk, where he fingered a book as he spoke. Some issues of Contempo lay there. He picked one up and said that its type face was the same as that in which Scribners set his books. He went on to say that he had asked Max Perkins to keep his books uniform in dark-green cloth binding, gold lettering, and other typographical details.

From my collection I took down the copy of Taps at Reveille that he had autographed and looked at a page. It was Caslon, like Contempo, and in the same type size, too. I set the book and magazine side by side for us to examine. This coincidence seemed to give him a friendlier feeling toward Contempo and set it apart from his general condemnation of avant-garde publications as “cuckoo magazines.”

He was curious to know the role played by Gorham Munson, the critic, in relation to Contempo. Munson’s name was on the masthead along those of Dos Passos, Anderson, Dreiser, Joyce, Lewis, Pound, Cowley, Mumford, Caldwell, and others. I replied that Munson had helped to direct our policy more toward newer and experimental writers than toward established ones.

“You were lucky to have such a man to guide you,” Fitzgerald said. “When The Bookman was still alive, Munson wrote an article for it, I’d say about 1932, on the postwar novel and novelists. He said I was the only important writer in the twenties whose novels weren’t botched by naturalism and that if the younger writers had followed my lead the direction of the postwar novel might have been toward poetic fiction. It didn’t go that way, of course”—he shrugged—“I was silent for too long after Gatsby, and then Ernest’s vogue succeeded mine.”

While he spoke I opened Taps at Reveille at page 384, where Fitzgerald had made a notation the night we met. I had discovered it later and wanted him to explain it. He had crossed out a description of Paris at twilight in the story “Babylon Revisited” and written in the margin, “Used in Tender.” When I showed it to him, he made an annoyed gesture. The proofreader had made a mistake. Fitzgerald had deleted this paragraph in the final proofs of the book, after carefully rewriting it and marking the revision for insertion in its place.

“But some bonehead put in the rewrite without killing that paragraph,” he explained. “So you have them both, one after the other. The first was something I had used with slight variation in Tender.

He took the book and turned the pages.

“I asked Max to make sure it would be corrected in future printings—if there were any. But it will probably stay as it is. Here’s another boner that nobody caught, and I didn’t notice until it was too late.”

(He was right about future printings of “Babylon Revisited.” I recently checked the last printing and nothing had been done about deleting that paragraph.)

Fitzgerald pointed to a page in “A Nice Quiet Place,” in which the heroine, Josephine, is called Rosemary. This happened, he explained, because he was working on Tender at the same time and had blindly put down the wrong name. He turned once more to “Babylon Revisited” and showed me another sentence that he had used almost verbatim in the novel. Probably there were other boners, he said; he had been under a cloud of despair at the time, and didn’t remember what he had taken out of the novel and what he had left in it.

“Call it self-plagiarism, which isn’t as bad as plagiarizing one’s contemporaries,” he said. “Someday a professor is going to write an article about these mistakes and some heavyweight critic will praise him for his diligent research. After Paradise was published, I said that an author ought to write for the youth of his own time, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of later years. I was twenty-four and in the limelight. Showing off before my betters was irresistible.”

While he was there that afternoon, I had an unexpected visit from Louis Adamic, author of the best-seller A Native’s Return and one of Contempo’s first contributing editors. The tall, nervous, slightly stuttering Yugoslav-born writer echoed Fitzgerald’s admiration for Mencken, who had printed their first work. Then Adamic announced that he had come South to have a look at Black Mountain College.

Fitzgerald remembered that my friend Bill Buttrick had spoken of the college. Before meeting Bill, I had written a news story on Black Mountain’s experimental and community-life approach to education. I had heard of it from William Wunsch, a North Carolinian, who had been Wolfe’s early roommate at Chapel Hill. (Wunsch was my botany teacher at the Monroe City High School in the early twenties.) From Louisiana he had gone to Florida, where he was drama coach at Rollins College, perhaps the first such experimental college in the South.

When Professor John A. Rice left Rollins in the heat of a dispute over policy, Wunsch resigned and joined him in planning the new venture at Black Mountain in 1933. It was Wunsch who suggested the site, which was used in summer by the Blue Ridge Assembly of the Protestant Church. Centered around a group of buildings was white-columned Robert E. Lee Hall, with its huge lobby and a sweeping view of the valley and the mountain peaks. It was the place where the Southern Writers Conference was to be held that summer.

Adamic told us that he had been sent by his friend Henry Allen Moe, secretary of the Guggenheim Foundation, who was also a friend of Professor Rice and Black Mountain College. He was to do an article for Harper’s on the college’s advanced ideas of stressing community life and individual creativity, and on its staff, particularly Josef Albers of the Bauhaus Institute, leading exponent of modern functional design. Hitler had closed the Bauhaus in 1933 and driven most of its artists and architects—Albers, Klee, Gropius, Feininger, Kandinsky, et cetera—out of Germany.

Fitzgerald wanted to know about Black Mountain as a possible college for his daughter, in the event that he moved Zelda to Asheville. But he said that Scottie would need a planned curriculum and a more disciplined setup if she were to get something out of college. (Though he brought Zelda to Highland Hospital the following year, Scottie eventually went to Vassar.) Still, he was intrigued by Black Mountain, particularly since one was free to pursue one’s own creative interests there without being hampered by too many community obligations.

(Although Black Mountain shut down in 1956, it proved to be a forerunner of much that is now regarded as modern in the arts, education, and way of life. It is credited with having helped to shape such diverse talents as those of Eric Bentley, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Buckminster Fuller, Paul Goodman, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Rauschenberg, all of whom were in residence there either as students or as members of the staff.)

After Fitzgerald left us to meet his secretary and get some work done, Adamic said that he was surprised to find him in such a sober condition.

“He’s on the wagon,” I said. “No hard stuff. Only beer.”

“He looks fine,” Adamic said. “I heard he was here for the cure because he’d been drinking himself blind.”

“I’ve only seen him on a bat or two.”

“Have you seen much of him?”

“Off and on, most of the summer.”

“Then I don’t feel bad about my other little mission. When a friend at Scribners heard I was coming down here, he asked me to look him up and report how I found him. I’ll tell the friend to stop worrying.”

Next Chapter 21

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).