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


Indeed, the death of his football hero that September deeply affected Fitzgerald, as that of his close friend Ring Lardner had done two years before. These were signs that an era was over and that he was doomed with it. His resolve to start a new life had received a setback when he switched from beer back to gin for the sake of his writing. He was now drinking with no pretense of rationing himself, as though Ted Coy’s inglorious end had dashed all hope of his attempt to rise from the depths.

When I next saw him at the Inn, his face was pallid, his eyes were strained, his hands so shaky he could scarcely light a cigarette without cursing under his breath. There was still a touch of eczema on his body, but he had lost weight now that he was drinking less beer. He greeted me with a frown and seemed annoyed about something. I was sorry I had come out to see him.

“You have kept me waiting.”

“I’m sorry. The bus—”

“I didn’t say you kept me waiting,” he corrected. “I said you have kept me waiting. Any school kid knows the difference.”

“Of course,” I said, more baffled than intimidated.

“Skip it. I suppose it doesn’t matter to a press agent. You fellows speak a jargon of your own.”

He offered me a drink, which I refused, and then quoted a line out of Tender Is the Night: “If you spend your life sparing people’s feelings and feeding their vanities, you get so you can’t distinguish what should be respected in them.”

I thought I got the point, but he went on to explain it in another light.

“The moment you spare people’s feelings, you’re no longer worthy of their friendship. You can’t do ballyhoo without feeding vanity with a ladle. And as for losing that sense of what to respect, you’ve lost contact with the best in them, and you’ve become a fraud.”

I wondered what I had said or done that called for this short lecture. I could only think of a conversation we once had about my learning press-agentry. What he had said about publicity was to remain with me for life; a day rarely passed that I didn’t remember his contempt for the craft and those who practiced it. “A press agent is a hack turned huckster. A front man who serves the vanities of his clients and the vagaries of newspaper people. He can never be himself, only a shadow of those he serves. He’s their whipping boy, a tax deduction, a glorified pimp on their expense accounts.”

Fitzgerald went to the couch and partly stretched out on it. I sat in a chair facing him. He now spoke of his life cycle—drink, sex, work. A cigarette stub was burning out in an ash tray near me. I crushed it. He frowned at me as though I had done something awful.

“You don’t smoke, drink, know a damn about sports, or whore around—and you can’t stand a put-out cigarette. Sometimes I wonder if you’re not a sissy.”

He knew as well as I did that all those things had nothing to do with being a sissy. I said nothing, but I was thinking I shouldn’t have come, even if he had sounded lonely and depressed on the phone. He was now flipping the pages of Robert Forsythe’s Redder Than the Rose, which he had asked me to bring him. It was a collection of pieces, mostly about literary, stage, and screen personalities; many of these first appeared in The New Masses.

“You must know he’s Kyle Crichton of Collier’s,” he said with less annoyance.

“Yes, but I never read him in Collier’s.”

“I haven’t read him in the Masses. I believe he was an assistant editor of Scribner’s Magazine, and he worked as a young man in Pennsylvania mines and mills. No barnyard dude, but a writer who comes to his radicalism honestly. He has the gift of not letting his right hand know what his left is doing. Probably I should’ve used two names—my own for serious writing and another for the cheap stuff.”

“But he gets nothing from the Masses,” I said.

“Of course, he does it for the Cause,” he said with a note of scorn. “You like him, don’t you?”

“He’s a hilarious writer. Takes a swipe at some of your friends. Wilson for saying communism is too good for the communists. Stein, who claims she’s redder than all the reds. Hemingway, Woollcott, Mencken.”

“I want to see what he says about Ernest and Mencken.”

“Page one for Mencken. And you’re in it.”

Fitzgerald slowly opened the book. By that time he had gotten over most of Mencken’s influence. He seemed pleased by the remark. “It is probably accurate to say that he [Mencken] was a case of arrested youth but there is something appealing in the sight of a man of forty-five keeping as much alive as a Princeton junior who has been reared on the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald.” He turned to the Hemingway piece, which began, “Quite the most delicate thing in the world is an author and quite the most delicate of authors is Mr. Hemingway. . . .” After reading a bit, he turned more pages, read more, and was silent.

“Wit is as rare in the radical press as an original idea,” he said with a thoughtful look. “Its writers have more venom than style, no sense of proportion, and are soaked in Party cliches. Another of their gifted writers is Michael Gold. He blasted Thornton Wilder and his cult in The New Republic. You must’ve read it.”

“I missed it,” I said. “Mike visited us in Chapel Hill after Langston Hughes came to read his poetry and shortly before Faulkner showed up. He promised to send me a copy. I never got it.”

“I was surprised to see him in The New Republic. But I shouldn’t have been. Bunny was on it, along with a crowd that reads like your masthead—Waldo Frank, Lewis Mumford, Malcolm Cowley. The review was a Marxist social and economic interpretation of Wilder, and Bunny defended part of it in an editorial. I remember mostly Gold’s rehash of the theme of The Theory of the Leisure Class, which Veblen wrote around 1900.”

The Leisure Class, Fitzgerald said, was one of his favorite books. Veblen foresaw the course that American culture would follow after our period of expansion and prosperity. Spengler would call it a money culture twenty-five years later. So Gold had a point when he spoke of Wilder as the perfect flowering of that new prosperity, and the poet of that recently risen class in America—the genteel bourgeoisie. His novels have what Veblen said the leisure class would need to gratify its desire for good breeding, smartness, mobility, and its love for the artistic and the archaic.

“Of course, it’s only a veneer, but the parvenu class sorely needed such a paint job to cover up its lowly origins, to forget the source of its wealth from cutthroat business and industrialism, to create the illusion of having an aristocratic sensivity, and to give the impression of being worthy of its fortunes. But Wilder is more of a writer than Gold was willing to grant. Bunny says he owes a great debt to Proust and is his American popularizer. I like his Cabala more than The Bridge of San Luis Rey, but I found Woman of Andros as much a mediocrity as Steinbeck’s latest.”

Fitzgerald poured himself another drink from the bottle. With each glass his voice sounded fuzzier. He recalled a psychiatrist in Switzerland who wanted him to undergo therapy to cure his drinking. But he declined, saying he was already too analytical and the psychoanalytical method would destroy the best of his talent, which he believed sprang from his intuition and the deep reservoir of his emotions.

“I know writers who bogged down and never wrote a decent line after analysis. All they could echo was Freud, Jung, and Lawrence— half-baked,” he added as he attempted to light a cigarette. I tried to steady his hand with mine; he pushed it aside with a scornful look. “I couldn’t risk having my unconscious examined. I believe Jung says it can be fatal in some cases. Besides, drinking is one of the three pleasures I have left. Now about this psychiatrist—the hell with him,” he stopped, holding me with a hostile stare, “there’s something more urgent.”

I again thought I shouldn’t have come. His voice sounded thicker and more quarrelsome and he was back in his earlier mood. While he had been thinking of Veblen, Wilder, Gold, Crichton, and his friend Bunny, I had felt at ease. Now I could see he was heading for another outburst. He was silent a moment as he rubbed his hands and blindly stared at them.

“I told you—you have kept me waiting,” he said without looking at me. “Probably you don’t know it. When I want something, I want it now. I must know something. No more stalling. The truth—all of it—the worst as you see it. The worst and I are a grand old couple. What’s going to happen to me?”

He flung his expressive hands before me and opened shaky palms. I slowly took them. I had avoided reading them for fear of saying something that might annoy or upset him. Now I had to read them or he might become still more hostile.

Considering the mood he was in, I couldn’t tell him the worst. I can’t recall what or how much I told him. I edited my remarks, as I had sometimes done in reading other hands, when I feared that their owners were too emotional or impressionable. Yet I remember his hands as the most perfect example of the Intuitive type. Their shape and markings are fixed in my memory, much as are some of his words and gestures. There are people who look upon palmistry with more or less justified skepticism, but it does offer clues to character. Fitzgerald, Zelda, Isadora, and a host of others believed in it firmly.

Fitzgerald had large, agile hands with soft, refined skin almost like a young woman’s. His fingers were short compared with the long palm, which was covered by many fine, flamelike lines, grilles, and forks. The top phalanges were firm and the mounts robust and full. His lines of Mercury and Apollo were prominent, crossed by a partially balanced Girdle of Venus. The Life line was average and durable, extending into the Jupiter finger; the Heart line broad and fringed, while the Head line was comparatively short, and they were joined by the Croix Mystique.

Those were the main features I remember and they indicated what we already know—a highly creative temperament and personality. He possessed contradictory traits which at times kept him from producing his best work or maintaining a single balanced character. The signs indicated that his imagination, energy, and stubborn determination were gifts from his mother rather than from his father, who endowed him with his weakness, a kind of gentility, and a sense of failure.

He was a feeling rather than a thinking man, with deep stores of emotional energy. His basic conflict seemed to rise from an overactive conscious self at war with a highly developed unconscious. The outer events of his life—wild and extravagant as they seemed—were insignificant compared with the ferment of his inner self that found expression in his writing. With his inability to bring both into balance, he was bound to be an extremist and to waste energy, all of which motivated his lifelong preoccupation with emotional bankruptcy.

His Mount of Venus suggested warmth, generosity, and deep affection; that he was more aesthetic than physical, responding to sexuality through momentary passion and lust, but more satisfactorily through his imagination. His Luna bulged with romance, idealism, and beauty; he was more fanciful than realistic, more poet than novelist. The lines of Apollo and Mercury pointed up his intuition and brilliance, which were strengthened by small markings. While there were three or four relationship lines, one towered above the others.

Shy and deeply introverted, Fitzgerald needed a stimulant to free him from his inhibitions, and at such times he could turn into a brash and uncontrollable extrovert. Despite his self-involvement, he had the curiosity and humanity to seek out people—to charm, amuse, and stimulate. But socializing took its toll by inciting him at times to commit senseless and outrageous acts—an involuntary reaction for having forced himself into the acceptable form of behavior.

For all his outward success, Fitzgerald lacked a sense of genuine security. He was never quite sure of himself, he never could believe he was a top writer. He might boast at times that he was, but he swung from heights of self-confidence to depths of suicidal despair, with periods of calm in between to guide and sustain him. He had the signs of a hypersensitive temperament with a highly overdeveloped sense of inferiority.

Though he was a man divided, Fitzgerald was still able to function as a writer driven by ambition, fear, and necessity. He had more control over his talent than over his emotions, his energy, or his money. He was both observer and participator, analytical, with a mania for artistic perfection. He had markings of fame and fortune, but also a temperament which doomed him to see himself as a failure. He was what might be called a natural schizo—an artist at war with himself and the world around him.

“What about my lousy lungs?” he asked, as I summed up the reading on an optimistic note.

“They’re not as lousy as you think,” I said and traced his Life line with my thumbnail.

“How long?”

“You’ve been floundering on an island,” I said, ignoring his question, “but there’s a—”

“Damn it, I asked you, how long have I got?”

“Mark Twain and Sarah Bernhardt had your type of hand and they—”

“I’m no gilly!” He glared and jerked his hand from my grasp. “I told you not to spare me. I have hunches. I know the worst. I can take it too. Keep your press-agent lies!”

He rose, erect and furious, and stalked away as if he had caught me cheating. I was stunned by his sudden rage. I got up and went to the door. I turned to say good-by, but his back was to me. I left the place very much distressed, thinking I might never see him again.

Yes, I had spared him. His Life line was an average one, with signs of a deteriorating heart. His heart was a good one, but it had been weakened by his incurable habits and impossible life style. He had spoken of the human constitution as an amazing machine, which went out of commission when the heart had run its race. I expected his to run its race for another ten years, not to falter as soon as it did in fact—five years later.

Why didn’t I tell him what I saw—as a warning?

It is a question I asked myself for years. Then I decided that there was no warning him. Fitzgerald’s course was that of a man committed. He wouldn’t have listened any more than Archy, my friend the Human Fly, would have listened to the gypsy. I remembered what Fitzgerald had said when he heard that story: “He never could have scaled that pole again. That would have been a more tragic end for him than crashing in his act.”

Next Chapter 25

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).