After a summer at Dellwood the Fitzgeralds returned to St. Paul October 21, moving into the Commodore Hotel to await the birth of their baby. The delivery occurred October 26 and it was difficult, but Fitzgerald, despite his nervousness, professionally noted Zelda's incoherent maunderings as she came out of the anesthetic; they would be attributed almost verbatim to Daisy in Gatsby. For the time being they were consigned to the Ledger: “Oh God, goofo I'm drunk … Mark Twain … isn't she smart … she has the hiccups … I hope it's beautiful and a fool … a beautiful little fool.”
The baby girl was named Frances Scott and was christened in November, with Father Joe Barron, a McQuillan family familiar whom Fitzgerald had befriended, acting as godfather. This was probably a conciliatory gesture toward Scott's parents, whom he seldom saw and whom he regarded with embarrassment and irritation. Zelda lost no love on Mrs. Fitzgerald; she still had as much trouble communicating with her mother-in-law as she did when answering her first letter. Besides, grandmother was too lacking in common sense to look after the baby. It was Xandra Kalman, the friend of Scott who had found them the Dellwood house and who was the only person in town with whom Zelda was on any sort of terms, who took responsibility for the child, hired a nurse and bought everything needed for the baby. She also rented an apartment for them at 625 Goodrich Avenue, to which they moved after Zelda's convalescence.
To work in peace, Scott rented an office in the city. He had revived a number of boyhood friendships and became friendly with Tom Boyd, the reporter who had interviewed him in Dellwood and who was also co-owner of the Kilmarnock Bookshop. On his way home from the office Fitzgerald would spend hours ensconced in a comfortable chair before a wood fire in the store's back room, leafing through the new books, chatting with Boyd and his wife, Peggy, whose novel had just been published, with Father Barron, a regular at the shop, and such visiting writers as Joseph Hergesheimer, a pop novelist whose sales Scott envied. It was there that he first heard of the Ulysses that had just appeared in Paris and of which he obtained a contraband copy.
Boyd, younger than Fitzgerald, had nevertheless seen active service with the Marines during the Germans' final push in the war; he was writing a novel based on his wartime experiences. He was one of the first to speak enthusiastically of John Dos Passos's novel Three Soldiers, which Fitzgerald had reviewed no less enthusiastically for the St. Paul Daily News soon after his arrival in Dellwood. Fitzgerald encouraged Boyd to write and mentioned him to Perkins, who published the book, Through the Wheat, a year later. Scott reviewed it in the New York Evening Post in May 1923, calling it a better war novel than Dos Passos's and ending the review on an even more eloquent note: “To my mind, this is not only the best combatant story of the Great War, but also the best war book since The Red Badge of Courage.”
Boyd, for his part, did all he could to bolster the success of The Beautiful and Damned. According to Fitzgerald himself, his name was mentioned by Boyd more than forty times in the Daily News. The Kilmarnock Bookshop put in a hefty order for the book and organized a sales campaign that included a promotional film to be shown in all the city's movie theaters.
Fitzgerald, meanwhile, had gone to work on a play in the satiric line inspired by Mencken. In November he described it as a play about politics. Early in January he said it would be finished in three more weeks. Full of optimism, he wrote to Perkins: “I am writing an awfully funny play that's going to make me rich forever. It really is. I'm so damned tired of the feeling that I'm living up to my income.” Only days later, however, he confessed that he was having difficulty wrapping up the third act, although he persisted in thinking that “my play is a gem.”
It was finished in February 1922, but no producer cared for it. All Scott's correspondence with Perkins and Wilson in that late winter and spring revolved around the play.
The winter nevertheless seemed long and the city asleep. Scott and Zelda set about rousing St. Paul from its provincial torpor. At parties Zelda devoted as much zeal to shocking the dancers as Scott had once done by appearing at a dance in drag. Xandra Kalman said “she and Scott were always thinking up perfectly killing things to do. You know, entertaining stunts which were so gay that one wanted to be in on them.” But, she added, Zelda wasted no effort making friends. “She was not at all interested in going out with the girls, and when Scott wanted to remain at home, Zelda stayed with him. Certainly she enjoyed being different… But there weren't many people whom she liked. I won't say she was rude, but she made it quite clear. If she didn't like someone or if she disapproved of them, then she set out to be as impossible as she could be.”
On Friday, January 13, 1922, they and a few friends organized a “bad luck ball” in a room hung with black crepe at the University Club. The idea probably came from The Undertaker's Garland, a funny-macabre book Bishop and Wilson had just jointly written. During the ball copies were distributed of the first and last edition of the St. Paul Dirge, “mortuary edition,” with a headline that occupied the whole of the front page proclaiming that “Cotillon Is Sad Failure”; it dripped subheadings in the vein of “Frightful Orgy at University Club” and “Business Better, Says Bootlegger.”
Not even these sophomoric farces kept the Fitzgeralds occupied. February saw both of them ill and drinking too much. Scott had written to Wilson in November that “Saint Paul is dull as hell” and, in January, that “I'm bored as hell out here.” Zelda sang the same tune in a letter to Fowler: “We are both simply mad to get back to New York… This damned place is 18 below zero.” She was in a situation she had imagined in December 1919 and on which Scott had based “The Ice Palace.” It was that of a Southern girl who follows her fiance to a snowy Northern city (St. Paul) and languishes for the human warmth and sunny days of her little town until the day she comes near death in a labyrinthine ice palace.
A chance to get away from St. Paul came when The Beautiful and Damned went on sale March 3, 1922. They stayed at the Plaza in New York for a disappointing month, through most of which they were drunk. It was so bad that Scott failed even to find the time to talk to Wilson about his play, as he had hoped to do. “I was sorry our meetings in New York were so fragmentary,” he wrote. “My original plan was to contrive to have long discourses with you but that interminable party began and I couldn't seem to be sober enough to be able to tolerate being sober. In fact the whole trip was largely a failure.” He had nevertheless left his script with Wilson, whose affair with Mary Blair had brought him into the theater (he also wrote a play) and who offered to get it read by a company.
Back in St. Paul the Fitzgeralds were absorbed by rehearsals of a musical comedy Scott had written in his spare time for the Junior League. It was called The Flappers of Midnight; Zelda was to play the title role in her own likeness. Scott was resuming the tradition of his college days when he put on an amateur production every summer of which he was author, star and director. This play was a typical Jazz Age commodity, set in a nightclub and displaying the period's types: the flapper, the sheik, the night owl, the vamp, the Prohibition cop, and so on. The cast featured St. Paul's most prominent society girls, including Arditta Ford, the model for the heroine in Fitzgerald's story “The Offshore Pirate.” This, then, was a social event that would confirm the popularity of America's postwar cultural models. The new wave rising from New York had swept over the middle-class bastions of the Middle West; what had been daring in 1919 was accepted in proper provincial households in 1922. The show was given on April 17, after which Fitzgerald began writing a new version of that other play, the one he thought would revolutionize Broadway and make his fortune.
Zelda, meanwhile, sought relief from her boredom by breaking into the newspaper business. The New York Tribune's book critic, Burton Rascoe,suggested that she review The Beautiful. When she did, her lively and wholly personal style of discussing her husband's novel brought her fresh offers. She was asked to state her feelings about the new woman she so authoritatively embodied, the flapper. Zelda performed this task honorably, producing four articles, three of which were published in McCall's and in Metropolitan Magazine. Fitzgerald devoted a special section on his 1922 Ledger page for “Zelda's Earnings,” which came to $815.
“Eulogy on the Flapper,” “The Super-Flapper” and “Where Do Flappers Go?” make up a kind of passionate yet ironic commentary on the character who had made Scott famous and who, in the character of Gloria, had just made her last appearance on the literary scene. The “Eulogy” was illustrated with a picture of its author—the proud, pure profile of a Jazz Age figurehead, her Amazon features accentuated by the puff of short hair at her neck. It was a cameo that might also have illustrated Bishop's comparison of Gloria and her model. The Beautiful's hero, he wrote, “has put away all emotions but one. This last illusion is a Fitzgerald flapper of the most famous type—hair honey-colored and bobbed, mouth rose-colored and profane… Even with his famous flapper, he has yet failed to show that hard intelligence, that intricate emotional equipment upon which her charm depends, so that Gloria, the beautiful and damned lady of his imaginings, remains a little inexplicable, a pretty, vulgar shadow of her prototype.”
In the few articles she published then, Zelda showed how sound this judgment was. Gloria could never have written them. Of them all, it was the book review, the first article published and signed by Zelda Sayre, that best displayed her acid, airy wit. She began it by explaining to the reader her first reason for wanting him to buy the book: she coveted a gold lame dress that a shop on Forty-second Street was offering for a mere $300. Then, if enough people bought the book, she would buy a platinum ring. And if it was a smash success, her husband could replace the old overcoat he'd been wearing for the past three years. After all, hadn't she unwittingly collaborated on the book? It seemed to her, she wrote, “that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters, which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald— I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” She concludes in her own style with a comment on the book's melodramatic end, when a thoroughly crushed Anthony finally inherits his grandfather's fortune. It was not Anthony's fate that interested Zelda, but Gloria's: “The book ends on a tragic note, in fact a note which will fill any woman with horror, or, for that matter, will fill my furrier with horror, for Gloria, with thirty million to spend, buys a sable coat instead of a kolinsky coat. This is a tragedy unequaled in the entire works of Hardy. Then the book closes on a note of tremendous depression and Mr.Fitzgerald's subtle manner of having Gloria's deterioration turn on her taste in coats has scarcely been equaled by Henry James.”
In June they left with the baby and her nurse for White Bear Lake, where they had spent the previous summer. To simplify the housekeeping, they moved into the Yacht Club, where Zelda could swim, play golf and water-ski while Scott again revised his play and gave it a title, Gabriel's Trombone. This was a time of conflicting demands on him. For one thing he was anxious to exploit his literary and paraliterary gifts as much as he could to settle his financial problems, he hoped, once and for all. It was in this spirit that he labored on a musical designed to please Broadway audiences, a show that was in a direct line from the musicals he had written at Princeton. He even considered cashing in on his talent as an actor. Around mid-July, to Perkins's dismay, he seemed ready to accept the producers' offers to him and Zelda to play the leads in a movie version of This Side of Paradise. The project fizzled out, but that Fitzgerald even considered it is significant, despite his assurances to Perkins that it would have been his “first and last appearance positively” on the screen.
At the same time he still dreamed of making, or remaking, a name for himself as a novelist. In May he had mapped out a new novel on which he furnished some details: “Its locale will be the middle west and New York of 1885 I think. It will concern less superlative beauties than I run to usually and will be centered on a smaller period of time. It will have a catholic element.” This was not followed up, but he probably spent part of the early summer working on it. This was probably a first sketch for Gatsby. When he got down to serious work on his third novel, he lifted out a planned prologue describing his hero's childhood and turned it into a short story, “Absolution.” The story shows the characteristics outlined above, is set in late-nineteenth-century Minnesota and has a strong Catholic element, since the whole story revolves on the relationship of young Rudolph Miller (alias Jay Gatz) with the priest Augustus Schwartz.
His return to the scene of his childhood, his talks with Father Barron about religion (the priest, convinced that Scott's faith would revive, told him that his disaffection was good riddance for the Church), all his hometown memories, especially of grandfather McQuillan and the empire builders, may have given Fitzgerald a desire to call up a world wholly different from the St. Paul of The Flappers of Midnight. “Winter Dreams,” the only short story he wrote in 1922 after his novel came out, is about the unhappy love of a poor young man, Dexter Green, for Judy Jones, a St. Paul heiress. Dexter, who starts out in life as a caddie at the Yacht Club on White Bear Lake, gets ahead fast and becomes one of the city's richest men, but he abandons his pursuit of Judy: “The dream was gone… He wanted to care, and he could not care. For he had gone away and he could never goback any more… Even the grief he could have borne was left behind in the country of illusion, of youth, of the richness of life, where his winter dreams had finished.” This is another forerunner of Gatsby.
Wilson had clearly perceived how important the Middle West had become in Fitzgerald's imagination. In preparing an essay on his friend that was to run in The Bookman when The Beautiful appeared, he stressed three major influences that could explain Fitzgerald's work: his Irish Catholic lineage, St. Paul and excessive drinking. Wilson had been strongly influenced by the works of Hippolyte Taine, and he bore down on Taine's theory of the importance of environment. He contrasted Fitzgerald's Middle West of big commercial cities and country clubs with Sinclair Lewis's Middle West of small prairie towns like the one in Main Street.
“What we find in him [Fitzgerald] is much what we find in the more prosperous strata of these cities,” Wilson wrote: “sensitivity and eagerness for life without a sound base of culture and taste; a structure of millionaire residences, brilliant expensive hotels and exhilarating social activities built not on the eighteenth century but simply on the flat Western land. And it seems to me rather a pity that he has not written more of the West: it is perhaps the only milieu that he thoroughly understands. When Fitzgerald approaches the East, he brings to it the standards of the wealthy West—the preoccupation with display, the appetite for visible magnificence and audible jamboree, the vigorous social atmosphere of amiable flappers and youths comparatively untainted as yet by the snobbery of the East… Surely F. Scott Fitzgerald should some day do for Summit Avenue what Lewis has done for Main Street.”
Fitzgerald's special qualities, the critic maintained, owed little to Anglo-Saxon solidity and much to Irish lightness. Still following in Taine's wake, Wilson ventured a few theories on national psychology that may be debatable but that, on a pragmatic level, do fairly precisely define some psychological characteristics peculiar to Fitzgerald: “Like the Irish, Fitzgerald is romantic, but also cynical about romance; he is bitter as well as ecstatic; astringent as well as lyrical. He casts himself in the role of playboy, yet at the playboy he incessantly mocks. He is vain, a little malicious, of quick intelligence and wit, and has an Irish gift for turning language into something iridescent and surprising.” Wilson concludes by citing “a great Irishman,” Bernard Shaw, on the Irish: “'An Irishman's imagination never lets him alone, never convinces him, never satisfies him; but it makes him that he can't face reality nor deal with it nor handle it nor conquer it: he can only sneer at them that do… and imagination's such a torture that he can't bear it without whisky.'”
When Wilson read his first draft of the article to Fitzgerald, the subject conceded the Tightness of its diagnosis. “Needless to say,” he wrote Wilson in January 1922, “I have never read anything with quite the uncanny fascination with which I read your article. It is, of course, the only intelligibleand intelligent thing of any length which has been written about me and my stuff. … I am guilty of every stricture and I take an extraordinary delight in its considered approbation.” Fitzgerald nevertheless feared that the article's emphasis on his drinking would damage his reputation, and he asked Wilson to eliminate it, denying he wrote when he was drunk: “As a matter of fact I have never written a line of any kind while I was under the glow of so much as a single cocktail and tho my parties have been many it's been their spectacularity rather than their frequency which has built up the usual 'dope-fiend' story. Judge and Mrs. Sayre would be crazy! And they never miss The Bookman.” Referring to the three influences listed in the article, he told Wilson he had missed the most important one: “I feel less hesitancy asking you to remove the liquor because your catalogue is not complete anyhow—the most enormous influence on me in the four and a half years since I met her has been the complete, fine and full-hearted selfishness and chill-mindedness of Zelda.”
Fitzgerald spent the final weeks of his stay in St. Paul reading the proofs of the volume of short stories he had entitled Tales of the Jazz Age. He had found it difficult to put together a collection worthy of appearing in book form. Only three stories had been written since the summer of 1920, and he chose to use only one of these, “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” which had been published in The Smart Set; the other two were “The Popular Girl” and “Two for a Cent,” and although he had been well paid for them, he considered them inferior. Most of the collection, then, had been written before he began work on his second novel; and some of these, such as “The Camel's Back,” had already been rejected as unfit for his first volume of stories. To flesh out the new book, Fitzgerald even added “Tarquin of Cheap-side,” first published at Princeton in 1917 and later picked up in The Smart Set. The collection was designed, the author admitted cynically, to please “those who read as they run as they run as they read.” As with The Beautiful, he had stopped worrying about quality; it was sales that concerned him now. But he was airily good-humored about it. Each of the titles in the table of contents was preceded by a winning little commentary, which seemed to warn his readers that this stuff may not be great literature, but it was entertaining.
There is a touch here of the insolence of Zelda's book review. Of “The Camel's Back,” for example, he commented, “I suppose that of all the stories I have ever written, this one cost me the least travail and perhaps gave me the most amusement. … it was written … with the express purpose of buying a platinum and diamond wrist watch which cost six hundred dollars. … I like it least of all the stories in this volume.” Of “Jemina,” written at Princeton and revised for The Smart Set, he remarked: “I have laughed over it a great deal, especially when I first wrote it, but I can laugh over it no longer. It seems to me worth preserving a few years—at leastuntil the ennui of changing fashions suppresses me, my books and it together.”
That last line may be related to his rather surprising dedication of the book, “Quite inappropriately, To My Mother.” Defiance, or pathetic mark of affection? On the gaudy cover of this book dedicated to the unloved Molly Fitzgerald, whom he had hardly seen during the year just spent in St. Paul, writhed dancers as frantic as those in a John Held cartoon. Through her, his mother, Fitzgerald was peering back at his lost childhood with a sense of both regret and guilt at a time when a chapter of his life was ending. This book was a kind of farewell to his pink-and-blue, bittersweet period of tenderness and jubilation. With few exceptions his stories—increasingly devoted to keeping food on the table—would never again show the giddy spontaneity, the burlesque fantasy of his early work. The next book of stories, published after the appearance of Gatsby, would tap the realistic, sociological vein mined in The Beautiful and Damned; the stories would chiefly reflect the Fitzgeralds' marriage problems. This would be the end of the commedia dell'arte period; the book's very title, All the Sad Young Men, would testify to its author's feeling that the ball was over.
That the haughty Wilson had been enchanted by his friend's unfettered inventiveness was clear in his Bookman article in which, tucked in among the critical barbs, is his confession of sheer pleasure at the show: “His characters—and he—are actors in an elfin harlequinade; they are as nimble, as gay and as lovely—and as hardhearted—as fairies: Columbine elopes with Harlequin on a rope ladder dropped from the Ritz and both go morris-dancing amuck on a case of bootleg liquor… Just before the curtain falls, Harlequin puts on false whiskers and pretends to be Bernard Shaw; he gives reporters an elaborate interview on politics, religion and history… Columbine nearly dies laughing; Harlequin sends out for a case of gin.”
The Fitzgeralds left St. Paul at the beginning of September to be in New York when Tales of the Jazz Age appeared. They arrived in the midst of a heat wave that made them long for the cool shade of White Bear Lake. Tuesday, September 6, was one of the hottest days of the year and their suite at the Plaza was suffocating. A few days later, rainstorms flooded the city; an inch and a half of rain fell on September 12 alone. These meteorological details would be gratuitous had they not been converted into drama in the final chapters of Gatsby. The scene at the Plaza in which Daisy rejects Gatsby, who is defeated by the steamy dampness, is described as taking place in September 1922, on “almost the last, certainly the warmest [day] of the summer.” Gatsby is murdered a few days later and he is buried in a downpour six days after his defeat. The coincidence is really too strong to be accidental; this was Fitzgerald's imagination distilling the effective essence from these climatic vagaries. We should not forgetthat like his narrator and witness Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald viewed that summer's events through the moral glass of the Midwest he had just left.
For the Fitzgeralds, however, the fall of 1922 took another turning: the Manhattan of Park Avenue and Broadway rejoiced at their return; they resumed their place among the celebrities vital to maintaining New York's idea of itself. A newspaper clipping from one of their scrapbooks gives an excellent summary of what was expected of them: “We are accustomed enough to this kind of rumor in regard to stage stars, but it is fairly new in relation to authors. The great drinking bouts, the petting may be what the public expects of Fitzgerald, whose books told so much of this kind of life.” Decorator Reginald March gave them a prominent place on the curtain of the Greenwich Village Follies among the artists who had recently become famous; shown aboard a truck rolling to glory were the Princeton trio, Wilson, Bishop and Fitzgerald, and two newcomers, Gilbert Seldes and John Dos Passos. But it was Zelda, diving into the Washington Square fountain, who was the center of attention.
Dos Passos had not forgotten that Fitzgerald had been among the most ardent defenders of Three Soldiers. Wilson introduced him to the Fitzgeralds, and they invited him to lunch at the Plaza. In his Memoirs he recalled the impressions left by that first contact. He was charmed by Zelda's beauty and grace, but struck by a strange gleam in her eyes. When lunch was over, it was suggested that they all go to Long Island, where the Fitzgeralds were about to rent a house. The expedition landed at the home of Ring Lardner, for whom Scott had recently developed a liking, but Lardner was drunk and very sad, and the group went on to spend the evening at Coney Island, which had always fascinated Zelda. Dos Passos found himself alone with her in a Ferris-wheel car. At the top of the circuit she said something that struck him: “I don't remember any more what it was, but I thought to myself, suddenly, this woman is mad. Whatever she had said was so completely off track; it was like peering into a dark abyss-something forbidding between us. She didn't pause as I recall, but went right on. I was stunned. I can honestly say that from that first time I sensed that there was something peculiar about her.”
Dos Passos, a poor dancer, was surprised at how flatly she told him so. She became aggressive in a very personal way, and despite the tone of acid wit the group affected, he found it hard to tolerate her sarcasm. “You see,” he explained, “there was a lot of banter between all of us; it was the period of the great wisecrack. Her humor was good about minor things, but she'd go off into regions that weren't funny anymore.”
Gilbert Seldes, who had made a name for his analyses of the new popular arts—comic strips, musical comedies, movies and jazz—was then the managing editor of The Dial, a magazine that embraced the new literary movements. He met the Fitzgeralds at the end of a party in Townsend Martin'sbachelor apartment. Seldes was tight and he had stretched out on Martin's sumptuous bed when, he later recounted, “suddenly, as though in a dream, the apparition, the double apparition approached me. The two most beautiful people in the world were floating toward me, smiling. It was as if they were angelic visitors. I thought to myself, 'If there is anything I can do to keep them as beautiful as they are, I will do it.'“
This recalls the report of Van Wyck Brooks, whose biography of Mark Twain showing the devastating effect of puritanism on an American artist's development had been praised by Fitzgerald. He was present at a dinner party at which the Fitzgeralds arrived an hour late and promptly dozed off at the table. Scott pulled himself together to explain that they had spent the previous two nights carousing. “Someone gathered Zelda up, with her bright cropped hair and diaphanous gown, and dropped her on a bed in a room near by. There she lay curled and asleep like a silken kitten. Scott slumbered in the living-room, waking up suddenly again to telephone an order for two cases of champagne, together with a fleet of taxis to take us to a night club.” Even before the period's excesses were generally associated with madness and tragedy, Brooks thought that the incident represented the spirit of the twenties. And the Fitzgeralds, he decided, were “so obviously, romantic lovers.”
In early October they took a house in Great Neck, Long Island. It was on the southeastern shore of the peninsula, at the foot of Manhasset Bay, near the town and station of Great Neck. In Gatsby, Great Neck became West Egg, and another peninsula across the bay became East Egg, where Daisy and Tom Buchanan and the old moneyed families lived. This in fact was where the Guggenheims, the Astors, the Van Nostrands and the Pulitzers had their summer homes.
As at Westport, the Fitzgeralds hoped to remain apart from the feverish life of New York, and they had resolved to stay sober. Shane Leslie had introduced Fitzgerald into the great estates on the shores of the strait separating the island from the continent, and Scott was dazzled by them. Since then the area had been taken over by theater people, newspapermen, songwriters and musicians, along with a few rich bootleggers. Among the Fitzgeralds' neighbors were Florenz Ziegfeld, of Follies fame, and his lieutenant, Gene Buck, who lived across the bay in a house with a living room that Ring Lardner said was like the Yale Bowl; George M. Cohan and his partner Sam Harris, who was to stage Fitzgerald's The Vegetable, or, From President to Postman. Lillian Russell lived there too, and so did Ernest Truex, who would play the lead in The Vegetable; caricaturist Rube Goldberg; polo champion Tom Hitchcock; Basil Rathbone; Groucho Marx; and financier Edward Fuller, whom Fitzgerald remembered in mapping out Gatsby's financial frauds.
This was the type of society that flocked to Gatsby's parties and that is so suggestively evoked in the guest list that opens chapter 5 in The GreatGatsby. Compared with the luxurious homes around them, the big house the Fitzgeralds rented for $300 a month at 6 Gateway Drive was a shack. They hired a Swedish couple as servants, and a nurse for Scottie. A police dog named Fritzie brought the number of occupants to seven. As usual when she moved into a new home, Zelda began issuing invitations. This was the college football season, and she wrote to the Kalmans, the only friends she had made in St. Paul: “Are you coming east for the football games? If you are you must come stay with us in our nifty little Babbitt-home at Great Neck. We seem to have achieved a state of comparative organization at last and, having bought loads of very interesting flour sieves and cocktail shakers, are in a position to make a bid for your patronage on your next trip.”
So began a round of parties that sometimes went on for several days. Just as Gatsby's house was a target for gate-crashers, so “it became a habit with many world-weary New Yorkers,” Scott observed, “to pass their weekends at the Fitzgerald house in the country.” He wrote out a series of house rules for importunate guests: “Visitors are requested not to break down doors in search of liquor, even when authorized to do so by the host and hostess… Weekend guests are respectfully notified that the invitation to stay over Monday, issued by the host-hostess during the small hours of Sunday morning, must not be taken seriously.”
In a satire entitled “The Delegate from Great Neck,” in the form of a dialogue between a frivolous Fitzgerald and a sententious Van Wyck Brooks, Wilson lists the visitors to whom Fitzgerald promises to introduce Brooks if he accepts an invitation to Great Neck: Gloria Swanson, Sherwood Anderson, Dos Passos, Marc Connelly, Dorothy Parker, Rube Goldberg and Lardner. The two men's discussion revolves around Brooks's refusal to accept the pretension of Fitzgerald and his friends to having freed American letters from the taboos that paralyzed the creativity of such men as Twain and James. To which Fitzgerald, confessing his ignorance, replies: “The Puritan thing, you mean. I suppose you're probably right. I don't know anything about James myself. I've never read a word of him.” Brooks, who is used here as Wilson's mouthpiece, points out that the work of the young generation of which Fitzgerald claims to be the delegate smacks strongly of journalism; it seems to him that the generation unwittingly reflects the spirit of capitalist ideology, especially in these writers' obedience to the laws of advertising. “Did you realize,” Brooks asserts, “when you used that expression [the man who made America Younger Generation-conscious], that you had dropped into the language of advertising? In describing your literary activities, you could not avoid the jargon of business; and it strikes me that the production of books by the younger generation has become an industry much like another.” To which Fitzgerald can only reply, “I knew that what I said about making America Younger-Generation-conscious sounded like advertising. I was just making fun of theway that the advertising people talk.” All this very neatly summarizes the position of a Fitzgerald who was immersed in the mercenary milieu of show business—which, like him, pleased to think itself distinguished by its irony toward, and satire of, the Zeitgeist of the period.
The ambiguity of Fitzgerald's position is illustrated by his close relationship with Lardner, who was also fascinated by the lights of fame, but repelled by the Great Neck circle that he called a “social sewer.” As soon as he moved to Long Island, Fitzgerald conceived a liking for this man, nine years his senior and a Midwesterner like himself, whose ambition was also to see his work staged on Broadway.
Until then, Lardner had been a sports writer who had used his baseball lore in the Twain-style stories he sold to The Saturday Evening Post. He was also known for his satiric poetry and for his lyrics to a few show tunes. In 1922 the Ziegfeld Follies had presented one of his skits, The Bulls' Pen, but he had about given up hope of writing a play that the great Cohan would produce. Most of his sizable income was earned from journalism. The huge house on East Shore Road, in which he lived with his wife and four sons, may have been the model for Gatsby's. Despite his prosperity, Lardner was a restless, pessimistic man who, even more than Fitzgerald, tried to drown his anxiety in drink. In appearance he was tall, dark, skinny, almost bald, with an aquiline profile and bulging eyes; there was something in his face of the infinite distress one saw in Buster Keaton's features. And, like the Keaton persona, he was fearless, taciturn and hypnotic, the living antithesis of blond, pink Fitzgerald, who was always exclaiming, always bouncing, never at rest.
What attracted Scott to Lardner, he would later recall, were the man's impregnable dignity—he was always impeccably polite, always imperturbable whatever the circumstances—and the crushing contempt he heaped on the society around him, the gloomy ferocity with which he pilloried the absurdities of his time. In the harshness of his invective he resembled Mencken, but he was a somber, lanky Mencken, lacking the older man's plump joviality and gluttonous appetite for life. “The special force of Ring Lardner's work,” wrote critic Clifton Fadiman, “springs from a single fact: he just doesn't like people. Except Swift, no writer has gone further on hatred alone. I believe he hates himself; more certainly he hates his characters; and most clearly of all, his characters hate each other. But of this integral triune repulsion is born his icy satiric power.”
Scott could not help being flattered by his exemption from this universal condemnation; perhaps, too, as unlike each other as they were physically, he was fascinated to find his double in Lardner, a projection of his own death instinct. He could feel only respect and a kind of terror for this man who was slowly and deliberately drinking himself to death and who, stoically compounding with absurdity, wrote song lyrics and doggerel verse while hedreamed of writing the surpassingly, impossibly fine play that would bring him release.
Lardner took so little interest in what he wrote that he never bothered to keep a copy or a clipping of the stories he published, which outraged Fitzgerald, who saved everything. Impressed by some of Lardner's stories, Scott persuaded him to collect and publish them in book form. As he had done for Boyd, he enlisted Perkins in his crusade, dug out other pieces and, with Lardner's very reluctant help, put together a book he called How to Write Short Stories (with Examples). Published by Scribner's, it sold well and was hailed by Mencken as a masterpiece.
When Lardner died ten years later, Fitzgerald wrote a sad, grave tribute, one of his finest pieces. At that point he was in the same situation his friend had been in when they met—alcoholic and despairing and sinking all his hopes in the novel he was then completing. His sense of their brotherhood in disaster had already permeated the early versions of Tender Is the Night, in which Abe North, modeled on Lardner, precedes Dick Diver in failure and degradation.
Yet this hypochondriac, this sad clown, this emaciated wit who seemed to have come straight out of the pages of The Undertaker's Garland, could make others laugh even if he could not laugh himself. Fitzgerald said Lardner's work was “the most uproarious and inspired nonsense since Lewis Carroll.” His black humor and incisive wit delighted the Fitzgeralds, especially Zelda, who had never before been courted with such a mixture of burlesque petulance and touchy gravity. He wrote funny poems to her; at times he shed his moroseness and became sociable in her presence, all without a trace of sentimentality.
Lardner was not averse to playing practical jokes or joining in an occasional escapade. One night in May 1923, learning that Joseph Conrad was visiting his publisher, Nelson Doubleday, at the latter's home on Oyster Bay, not far from Great Neck, Fitzgerald persuaded Lardner to join him on Doubleday's lawn. There they were to do a dance in Conrad's honor in the hope of attracting his attention and showing American writers' esteem for him. This turned out no more successfully than Fitzgerald's tribute to Apollo had a few years earlier: they attracted no one's attention but the caretaker's, who threw them off the place. Scott must have remembered the incident a year later on learning of Conrad's death. Seldes remembered having seen him that day standing motionless on his balcony overlooking the Mediterranean, unable to say anything but, over and over, “Conrad is dead.”
Ring became Scott's confidant, the solitary companion of nightlong discussions that went on until, at daylight, Lardner would stretch to his full height, yawn and say, “Well, I guess the children have left for school by this time. I might as well go home.” But the Fitzgeralds saw crowds of people; the stories are legion about their stay in Great Neck. Like everything touching on the Fitzgerald legend, these tales are to be handled with care, thought of not as objective reports, but as signs of the fascination the couple exerted on those around them. The stories are of documentary value only if we remember that they are not candid snapshots, but scenes reconstituted from memory.
A montage of these shots in eight-millimeter black and white might, for example, show: Fitzgerald, with a bottle of champagne clamped under his arm, escorting screenwriter Anita Loos into the Plaza in search of Zeldaand a friend, only to be chucked out for being too drunk; sharing the warm champagne with the three women in the taxi taking them to Great Neck; interrupting dinner to show out a woman admirer who had forced her way into the house; being so annoyed at a remark by Zelda that he pulls at the tablecloth, sending dishes and glasses crashing to the floor, whereupon the ladies retire to the living room; falling asleep under a tree and waking to join them at tea, whereupon the evening proceeds in the coziest affability.
Fitzgerald giving a dinner in honor of novelist Rebecca West, but forgetting to give her his address. Setting an effigy in her place at table in the form of a pillow painted with a grotesque face and crowned with a feathered hat. Spending the evening insulting the pillow. Rushing to answer the doorbell and being heard loudly declaring, “No, Miss West, you can't come in. We don't want you now.” It was only a deliveryman. In counterpoint, Miss West's impression when she finally met Zelda: “I had been told that she was very beautiful, but when I … saw her I had quite a shock. She was standing with her back to me, and her hair was quite lovely, it glistened like a child's… Then she turned round and she startled me… There was a curious unevenness about [her face], such as one sees in Gericault's pictures of the insane. Her profile seemed on two different planes… There was something very appealing about her. But frightening. Not that one was frightened from one's own point of view, only from hers.”
Fitzgerald, Lardner and Goldberg, all a little drunk, with Goldberg yawning and protesting that it was late, but that he had to find a barber because he had to be presentable for an important dinner. So his two friends accompany him to the barbershop. He falls asleep; when he awakes, he is alone and his hair has been cut in checkerboard fashion.
Fitzgerald dropping to his knees before beautiful actress Laurette Taylor, grasping her hands and, gazing into her deep brown eyes, repeating like an incantation, “My God! You beautiful egg!You beautiful egg!” And she, returning home in distress, sobbing to her husband, “I have just seen the doom of youth. Understand? The doom of youth itself. A walking doom.”
Fitzgerald driving Perkins to Long Island, missing a downhill turn and driving his Rolls-Royce axle-deep into a pond. He and Zelda floundering among the water lilies, trying to push the car out of the water.
Zelda tryingto phone the Kahnans at the Ritz, anxious not to miss themon their way through New York. Scott hears her talking to the operator and reminds her that she had seen them the previous evening and had left their room in a basket of laundry.
Fitzgerald, an admirer of Edith Wharton's novels, interrupting a conference in Mr. Scribner's office to throw himself on one knee at her feet and declaim, like a subtitle in a movie comedy, “Could I let the author of Ethan Frome pass through New York without paying my respects?”
And, in the same tone, but without the subtitle, Fitzgerald attending one of the rare parties given by Theodore Dreiser, to which the veteran of naturalism had invited everyone who was anyone in literature in New York. There are half a dozen contradictory versions of this scene reported by some of those present—Sherwood Anderson, Burton Rascoe and Llewelyn Powys, among others. The only point on which they agree is that Dreiser had provided no refreshment, introduced no one to anyone and remained absolutely silent while his guests, sitting on chairs lined up along the walls, waited for something to happen. Fitzgerald, excited as usual at the idea of meeting a great writer and, as usual, ready to rise to the occasion with a grandiloquent gesture or a rousing declaration, arrives bearing a bottle of excellent champagne. Some of the guests ascribe the expected declaration to him (“I consider H. L. Mencken and Theodore Dreiser the greatest living men in the country today”); others maintain that he was too drunk to get through the door; still others, that he went from chair to chair until he found out which person was Dreiser. In all the versions the bottle is gravely presented to the host, who puts it in his icebox and returns to his seat, allowing the gathering to fall back into its former lethargy. After a seemingly endless wait, despairing of seeing the champagne again, bored with decorating the walls like tapestries, the men of letters leave, one by one.
These short films, a little fuzzy, a little scratched and jumpy, sometimes superimposed, end with the clear, sharp still picture of the couple that appeared on the cover of Hearsts International in May 1923 and was picked up by most American newspapers and magazines. It was, in a way, the official photograph that immortalized their status as movers and shakers in New York's postwar nightlife. He was twenty-six years old, she twenty-three. They were at the peak of their social career; they already had a past and still had a future. They were sure of themselves and, especially in Zelda's case, confident that money would be increasingly easy to come by; Scott still hoped to write a novel that would make him the best writer of his generation.
There they were, suspended for an instant at the crest of the wave, posing for posterity, with Zelda in front standing straight and impassive in her ermine-trimmed dress and pearl necklace, her wavy hair puffed out at the sides, parted in the middle. Her long, almond-shaped eyes and neatly chiseled mouth perfectly fitted her oval face. This was her great-occasions face, her “Elizabeth Arden face,” as she would say. Scott stood slightlybehind her, bending slightly to the left, his cheek lightly brushing her hair and his right hand resting carelessly on two of her fingers. His brushed-back blond hair was also parted. He wore a light-colored striped jacket open over a dark vest and a flowing checked tie. They did not smile; there was just a hint of a faintly ironic pout. They stared into the camera with veiled eyes, Scott's a little dreamy, Zelda's a shade disdainful.
The cover photo of Hearst's International was not designed merely to celebrate the young couple. Fitzgerald had just signed an exclusive contract with the magazine, and the puff was basically aimed at signaling his entry into the Hearst stable with its thirty-two newspapers, nine magazines and nine million readers.
The egocentric, exhibitionistic, megalomaniac Hearst depicted by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane was distinguished from the austere nabobs of the preceding generation—Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford and the rest—by a new attitude toward money that was the trademark of the time. Although he was immensely rich—he battered his way into the newspaper business with the seven and a half million dollars he inherited from his mother—Hearst spent lavishly and was always short of money, sometimes having to dip into his newspapers' tills for ready cash.
He could be wryly aware of his profligacy: to a visitor who remarked that there was money to be made in the movie business, he replied shortly, “Yes, mine!” But this hardly sobered him; biographer W. A. Swanberg estimated Hearst's personal expenses at fifteen million dollars a year. The ostentation of his “follies,” from his patronage of his actress mistress, Marion Davies, to his movie-set California castle, San Simeon, and his extraordinary art collection, may have frustrated the political ambitions he cherished. Doughty trustbuster, fierce foe of the Republican party (he was wrongly accused of collusion in McKinley's assassination), he had also made enemies among the Democrats, especially in New York, where his rows with Al Smith and Tammany Hall had kept him from running for the mayoralty and governership he coveted. He had to settle for powering the election of his own man, John Hylan, mayor of New York from 1917 to 1923.
Hearst's personality and career typify the mentality of the men who held power in postwar America. An era of prosperity, the era of “the seven fat kine,” began in 1923 and ended with the crash of 1929. After a period of inflation and unemployment in 1919, marked by riots and a wave of antisocialist repression (“May Day” exactly catches the climate), the national economy perked up in 1920; there was a brief recession in 1921-22, then it resumed its climb. Industrial production doubled in ten years and averageincome rose by 40 percent. From 1920 to 1929 stock market indices tripled, which meant that Americans were borrowing against the future in the same way that, encouraged by advertising, they were forming the habit of installment buying. So strong were the come-ons that Americans' debts outstripped their earnings. In their constant need of money, though on very different scales, Hearst and Fitzgerald were not isolated examples but reflections of most Americans' state of mind.
People were impatient to live fully in the present, trusting to the future to pay the bills. What was important was to get rich as quickly as possible, wealth being its own justification for the means used to acquire it. Government was not immune to the fever. After his election in 1921, President Warren G. Harding, chosen by the Republican party precisely for his mediocrity, surrounded himself with politicians equally lacking in scope and scruples. This was “the Ohio gang” that was to discredit his administration.
Two examples show the tone of political life under the successor to Woodrow Wilson, who was disavowed for his excessive idealism. Charles Forbes, head of the Veterans Administration, was convicted of signing fraudulent contracts that cost the government some two hundred million dollars. Interior Secretary Albert Fall was also guilty, with the Secretary of the Navy, of secretly leasing drilling rights to private interests in oil fields owned by the navy. All this in return for munificent bribes. The Elk Hill and Teapot Dome scandals, named for the pirated oil fields, were the major contributions to Harding's disgrace. Soon afterward the President died mysteriously while touring the country to appease public wrath.
The same corruption was rife in the big cities. New York had long been in the grip of Tammany Hall's Irish politicians, who controlled the police, largely made up of Irish cops, and turned a profit on the underworld by collecting a tithe on its operations. One example of this, interesting because Fitzgerald used it directly in Gatsby, concerned the then undisputed czar of the underworld, Arnold Rothstein, who appears in Gatsby as Meyer Wolfsheim and who maintained his supremacy until his murder in 1928. He bought Tammany's protection with election campaign contributions that gave him virtually complete freedom to extend his hold over prostitution and gambling.
One of his friends, Herman Rosenthal, was less skillful, or less lucky. He fell out with Lieutenant Charles Becker, in charge of police on New York's East Side, who laid claim to the payments Rosenthal had been making to political boss Tim Sullivan. Threatened by Becker, Rosenthal made the mistake of complaining to New York World reporter Herbert Bayard Swope. He lost no time in breaking the story. On July 13, 1912, the World denounced corruption in the police and Tammany Hall. Two days later Rosenthal was murdered at the door of the Metropole by Becker's killers in circumstances reported to Gatsby by Wolfsheim. Tammany immediatelydisowned Becker; he and his henchmen were arrested, tried and sent to the electric chair.
Rothstein carried on smoothly, functioning as go-between for the underworld and the politicians, and in the years that followed, no major scandal troubled the peace of Tammany Hall. With his political rear covered, Rothstein engineered his biggest coup of all, the Black Sox fix of the 1919 World Series. This was the exploit that showed the narrator of Gatsby how big a man “Wolfsheim” was: “It never occurred to me that one man could start to play with the faith of fifty million people with the single-mindedness of a burglar blowing a safe.”
Even his Black Sox take was small change compared with the huge profits Rothstein was to make from bootlegging. The start of Prohibition in 1920 opened realms of enterprise to him he had never dreamed possible.
Rising out of the moralizing fever that swept America on its entry into the war, the Eighteenth Amendment was accepted without protest at first. It fit the ideal of health, efficiency and productivity that animated the war effort; besides, most of the big brewers at whom the legislation was chiefly aimed were of German origin. By the time the Volstead Act was passed in 1919, America was in a laissez-faire mood and Congress was not anxious to increase the power of the federal government. Only 1,500 ill-paid ($1,000 to $2,000 a year) agents were assigned to enforce Prohibition, with special emphasis on patrolling the roughly 25,000 miles of coastlines and borders across which liquor could be smuggled. Almost at once, bootlegging was organized on a large scale.
Of all the fads that marked the Jazz Age—Mah-Jongg in 1923, the Coue method (“Every day, in every way, I am becoming better and better.”) in the same year, crossword puzzles in 1924—drinking was the most durable and the most pernicious. Spurred by a streak of snobbery, people who had never before touched alcohol made it a duty to lay in a stock of liquors, to offer them to their friends, to patronize their favorite speakeasies, where men and women now guzzled on an equal footing. The bootlegger entered American folklore with as much public complicity as the outlaws of the Old West had enjoyed. The law's absurdity, federal agents' inability to enforce it (in 1925 they managed to intercept only 5 percent of the illegal traffic) fostered a spirit of skepticism and revolt against the law and traditional morality. What had been thought in 1917 to be the best intentions in the world were seen in 1923 as mere hypocrisy. The borderline between what was legal and what was not became more and more blurred. It was a paradox of Prohibition that the effect of this attempt to legislate virtue finally weakened Americans' civic sense.
In the context it is understandable that Fitzgerald, seeking a character that would best represent his era, made Gatsby a hoodlum accepted, if not by the East Egg “aristocracy,” at least by the floating population of WestEgg, the environment in which Fitzgerald circulated. His interest in this type of person was evident, and his neighbor, Swope of the World, must certainly have supplied much of the information he needed when he went seriously to work on his novel. Nathan remembered how insistently Fitzgerald had pressed him for an introduction into a sphere of activity that was still largely unfamiliar to him.
Even after The Great Gatsby was finished and the manuscript sent to Perkins, Fitzgerald continued to study his subject with an eye to correcting the proofs: “… after careful searching of the files … for the Fuller Ma-gee \sic] case,” he wrote Perkins, “and after having had Zelda draw pictures until her fingers ache I know Gatsby better than I know my own child.”
Edward Fuller was a neighbor in Great Neck who had headed a brokerage firm of which William McGee was vice-president. In June 1922 he had filed for bankruptcy with a deficit of six million dollars, and the two men were convicted of having gambled away their customers' money. Unknown a few years earlier, Fuller had mysteriously become a force on Wall Street with the aid of a leading stockbroker, C. A. Stoneham, who had ceded part of his interests to him in 1921. Stoneham lived high and owned a racetrack, a casino and a newspaper; he was also the majority stockholder of the New York Giants baseball team. He raided the Giants' cashbox to try to salvage Fuller's firm, maintaining that he was acting at the behest of Thomas Foley, a former New York City sheriff and a mover in Tammany Hall. Like Gatsby, Fuller had pull on the highest police levels and, like him, had been one of the first residents of Great Neck to own a plane and fly it himself. In the paternal Stoneham's benevolence to Fuller we see a model for millionaire Dan Cody's affection for, and generosity to, Gatsby.
Fuller knew his way around the law and managed through four trials to drown his indictment in the general turmoil of his business affairs. Incriminating papers vanished during the investigation, key witnesses were bought off or kidnapped; when Fuller and his accomplices were finally convicted, it was years before he actually began serving his five-year prison sentence. And he was out of jail a year later.
The case became public two months after the Fitzgeralds moved to Great Neck, and the newspapers covered it assiduously. On the eve of his third trial, Fuller and his accomplices were arrested on a fresh charge of hawking nonexistent stocks by telephone and preparing to form a new firm to issue worthless shares. Again, the prosecution failed to come up with conclusive proof of guilt. The yellow press, led by Hearst's American, took over the case. Fuller openly credited his close contacts with Tammany Hall for his impunity, and the American pressed its own investigation to learn who his protector was. Patient digging through countless files at last led an American reporter to a check for ten thousand dollars issued by the Fuller-McGee company to Foley, a personal enemy of Hearst in New York Democratic circles. This unleashed a violent press campaign; during the thirdtrial in the spring of 1923, the American revealed that Fuller's attorney, William Fallon, had suborned a member of the jury. Fallon was formally charged, whereupon he threatened to reveal details of Hearst's private life, and the case frittered out. Arnold Rothstein, with whom Fuller frequently gambled, was also accused of complicity in the case, but, as usual, he wriggled clear of the legal net.
We could go on cataloging cases of corruption in the period, but we have already seen enough to be sure that the criminal annals of the twenties were amply used in Fitzgerald's new novel, often as mere allusions, since the facts were familiar to his readers. There is no part of Gatsby's career that cannot be linked to one of the cases we have mentioned. The Veterans Administration scam is mirrored in one of Gatsby's guests, P. Jewett, former head of the American Legion. Wolfsheim insisted that his protege join the Legion: “when he told me he was an Oggsford I knew I could use him good. I got him to join up in the American Legion and he used to stand high there.” One critic based his study of the origins of Gatsby's fortune on such clues as “I was in the drug business and then I was in the oil business.” The “drug business” is seen as designating the speakeasies to which Tom refers in the Plaza scene, while the “oil business” was an allusion to the more resounding Teapot Dome scandal. In Gatsby's mysterious phone calls all over the country, in young Parker's arrest when he attempts to sell his spurious stocks, we can read a recall of the Fuller case. And so on.
Hearst's munificence, Rothstein's hidden power, Fuller's audacity all certainly helped highlight Gatsby's portrait and fill in the background of sensational rumors, scandal and violence. But Fitzgerald stopped short of mere anecdote, simply suggesting the atmosphere through composite facts authenticated by occasional specific allusions. A number of details in his manuscript and proof corrections disappeared in the printed book, along with the whole section concerning Gatsby's childhood.
In The Great Gatsby Fitzgerald avoided dealing directly with the picturesque or repugnant ills of his time, reined in the satiric glee with which he had excoriated public life in The Beautiful and Damned and in The Vegetable. For the first time he resisted the temptation to spatter his work with bravura passages or Menckenesque diatribes. He tried to go beyond these surface mannerisms to a profound explanation of why, for Gatsby, for himself, for all America, sudden accession to a way of living that was free of the old material and moral constraints had degenerated into license, disorder and corruption. Why, with the promised land in sight, did the dream become a nightmare? But, paradoxically, through the mist of degradation surrounding himself and his protagonist, he also perceived hope that a sense of purpose, of mission, could survive and be revivified.
The year 1923 was pivotal both to the twenties and to Fitzgerald's career. “The uncertainties of 1919 were over,” he would write. “There seemed little doubt about what was going to happen—America was going on thegreatest, gaudiest spree in history and there was going to be plenty to tell about it. The whole golden boom was in the air—its splendid generosities, its outrageous corruptions in the tortuous death struggle of the old America in Prohibition. All the stories that came into my head had a touch of disaster in them; the lovely young creatures in my novels went to ruin, the diamond mountains of my short stories blew up, my millionaires were as beautiful and damned as Thomas Hardy's peasants.”
Fitzgerald's photo in Hearst's International was far more symbolic of what he had been than of what he was soon to become. The event it marked—his signing of an exclusive contract—was soon forgotten. Unable to supply the stories he had contracted to write (the summer was spent working on his novel), he canceled the contract, returned his $1,500 advance and bought back the two stories he had delivered to the magazine. He had indeed arrived, he had succeeded, he belonged now to New York society; but his success forced him to conform to the role he was expected to play and to keep his winning formula intact in the magazines. “By this time,” he wrote in “My Lost City,” “we 'knew everybody'—which is to say most of those whom Ralph Barton would draw as being in the orchestra on an opening night. But we were no longer important. The flapper, upon whose activities the popularity of my first books was based, had become passe by 1923, anyhow in the East. I decided to crash Broadway with a play, but Broadway sent its scouts to Atlantic City and quashed the idea in advance, so I felt that, for the moment, the city and I had little to offer each other.”
Fitzgerald's play was his swan song to his early manner; its failure wrecked his theatrical ambitions, which, from his boyhood efforts in St. Paul to his Princeton musicals, had seemed to him an alternative to novel writing and a shortcut to glory. With this illusion dissolved, he could devote himself entirely to completing his third novel.
Scribner's had published The Vegetable in April 1923, since no producer had yet seen fit to stage the play. The dedication reads: “to Katherine Tighe and Edmund Wilson Jr., who deleted many absurdities from my first two novels, I recommend the absurdities set down here.” John Held again designed the book jacket, depicting the characters in Fitzgerald's phantasmagoria: Jerry Frost, the vegetable, and his shrewish wife, Charlotte; her sister Doris, a no-holds-barred flapper; Doris's lover, Joseph Fish, the “sheik of Idaho”; an octogenarian father; General Pushing; Judge Fossile; and Mr. Snooks, the bootlegger. This was a distillation of guignol, an absurdist treatment of the American Dream, 1923 version, revised and corrected by Mencken and Lardner.
Begun in November 1921, the play had been reworked several times and refused by such influential men of the theater as Gilbert Miller, Arthur Hopkins and George Selwyn; actor Frank Craven, whom Fitzgerald pictured in the lead, also backed off. But, encouraged by praise from Wilson and Nathan, who read the various versions, the author persevered. Wilson, more respectful of the fantasist and fantastic vein in Fitzgerald, the Evil Eye streak, than he was of his talent as a novelist, for once emerged from his usual reserve: “So far as I am concerned, I think it is one of the best things you ever wrote … no doubt the best American comedy ever written. … I think you have a gift for comic dialogue even though you can never resist a stupid gag, and should go on writing plays.” Nathan, delighted by the sketches he had run in The Smart Set—“The Debutante,” “Mister Icky,” “Porcelain and Pink”—and secure in his reputation as a drama critic, declared in 1921 that Fitzgerald certainly had a gift for playwriting. “I hope,” he wrote, “that young F. Scott Fitzgerald will turn from the one-act form to the three-act form one of these days; I feel that he will confect a genuinely diverting comedy. He has a good sense of character, a sharp eye, a ferocious humor, and an aptitude for setting down adolescent dialogue that Tarkington has rarely matched.” It was this feeling for contemporary life, especially the flapper role, that persuaded producer Sam Harris to stage the play shortly after its publication.
The title The Vegetable was explained in a bogus quotation supposedly taken from a newspaper story: ” 'Any man who doesn't want to get on in the world, to make a million dollars, and maybe even park his toothbrush in the White House, hasn't got as much to him as a good dog has—he's nothing more or less than a vegetable.'—From a current magazine.” This lapidary expression of the American Dream of success echoed a passage in a Mencken essay published in 1922 in the Third Series of Prejudices. It was surely in this that Fitzgerald found the title for the play he had originally planned to call Gabriel's Trombone. “This is a country in which all political thought and activity are concentrated upon the scramble for jobs,” Mencken had written. “… Here is a country in which it is an axiom that a businessman shall be a member of the Chamber of Commerce, an admirer of Charles M. Schwab, a reader of The Saturday Evening Post, a golfer—in brief, a vegetable.”
In the play it is Charlotte, the unhappy vegetable's wife, who nags her husband to climb the ladder to wealth and prominence, although his sole ambition is to be a mailman some day. The first and third acts, realistic in tone and acutely boring, deride the goals and trials of the American lower middle class. True satire emerges in the second act, and it is dramatically effective. Yet this very dramatic impact counteracts Fitzgerald's critical intent because the entire act bathes in an atmosphere of dreamy farce in which his genius for fantasy skillfully exploits characters and situations. Jerry Frost, elected President of the United States, puts his cronies in key posts, more or less as Harding did after his inauguration in 1921. All the political corruption and scandals of the day, beside which Watergate seems merely a peccadillo, are alluded to in the play. But the outlandish plot robsthe work of credibility and significance. Jerry's senile dad, appointed Secretary of the Treasury, cleans out the cashbox and cannot remember if he buried the money or threw it into the ocean; Jerry's bootlegger winds up ambassador to Irish Poland, from which Jerry buys certain islands while General Pushing arranges a declaration of war against it. Etcetera, etcetera. Fitzgerald's sense of absurdity, carred to its logical conclusion, produced scenes as surreal as those in Ubu roi, but it lacks the barbarous grandeur and tightness of plot and characterization that might have made The Vegetable a memorable play.
When rehearsals began in October 1923, Fitzgerald stopped work on his novel and even passed up the Harvard-Princeton game, so absorbed was he in watching his play take shape on the stage. Although sale of the movie rights to This Side of Paradise had brought him $10,000, he was still $3,500 in debt to Scribner's; early in November he was again appealing to Perkins for a loan of $650, which, he said, would spare his having to sell off his furniture. But he was convinced his play would be a hit and would earn him a small fortune. “We knew what colossal sums were earned on play royalties,” he would write, “and just to be sure, we asked several playrights what was the maximum that could be earned on a year's run. I never allowed myself to be rash. I took a sum halfway between the maximum and the minimum, and put that down as what we could fairly count on its earning. I think my figures came to about $100,000.”
The play opened November 20 in Atlantic City before a glittering audience that included Mayor Hylan of New York. Fitzgerald later recalled this long-awaited evening: “It was a colossal frost. People left their seats and walked out, people rustled their programs and talked audibly in bored, impatient whispers. After the second act I wanted to stop the show and say it was all a mistake, but the actors struggled heroically on.”
Now it was time for Fitzgerald to take stock of his finances. Going back to work on the novel was out of the question. As heroically as his actors had struggled with his play, Fitzgerald spent the winter mending his financial fences by writing instantly salable short stories. For four months he quarantined himself in a room over his garage, and with the energy he had expended four years earlier in conquering the magazine market, he manufactured eleven stories and earned $17,000, which wiped out his debts and left him with a substantial sum. He labored like a prisoner digging a tunnel under the wall. For he had decided to end his wandering, to flee the temptations of Great Neck, to leave America in the spring for another go at Europe. It took him nearly a year to recover from the strain of those months of production. Not until October 1924 could he report to Wilson that he was in the clear: “I have got my health back—I no longer cough and itch and roll from one side of the bed to the other all night and have a hollow ache in my stomach after two cups of black coffee. I really workedhard as hell last winter—but it was all trash and it nearly broke my heart as well as my iron constitution.”
It is symptomatic of the Fitzgeralds' situation that many of the stories he wrote that winter deal with marriages threatened by the wife's selfishness. She is forever demanding more than her overworked husband can give; while he, at the brink of a nervous breakdown, exhausts himself to earn more money, she tries to flirt her way—dangerously—out of boredom. This was a way for Scott to clarify his relations with Zelda while contributing to the sociology of the middle class. But it was also a technique of self-examination, a review of a destructive way of living. In his Ledger, as we have seen, he had answered one of the questions hanging over him: where did the money come from? Now its corollary pressed for a reply: where did the money go? During this period he wrote the apparently comic essay published by the Post in April 1924, “How to Live on $36,000 a Year”; it might have been subtitled “The Balmy Bookkeeping of Francis Scott Fitzgerald.” For the first time he pondered the paradox that the more he earned, the deeper into debt he sank.
He began by recounting a typical situation, one that would occur again later: “After we had been married for three months I found to my horror that I didn't have a dollar in the world, and the weekly hotel bill for two hundred dollars would be due next day.” A sudden surge of anxiety was quickly squelched. “I knew there was nothing to worry about. I was now a successful author, and when successful authors ran out of money all they had to do was to sign cheques. I wasn't poor—they couldn't fool me. Poverty meant being depressed and living in a small, remote room and eating at a rotisserie on the corner, while I—why, it was impossible that I should be poor. I was living at the best hotel in New York!”
The move to Great Neck is described, along with his determination to budget carefully so as to end the year with money in the bank “to buy safety and security for our old age.” He adds up the servants' wages; his wife buys a notebook in which she will record all the household expenses so as to keep track of them and trim them if need be. The trouble is, they live in one of those small towns near New York “which are built especially for those who have made money suddenly but have never had money before.” The couple is caught in a kind of gold rush by tradesmen who are also newly disembarked and who turn Great Neck into one of the world's most expensive towns.
Knot by knot he unravels the snarled skein of causes and effects that make the couple victims of an order of things over which they have no control. Humbly, candidly, he exhibits his bills, makes inventories, compares his profits and losses, calculates average monthly household budgets, estimates extraordinary expenses, all in minute detail, omitting neither “barber and hairdresser: $25” nor “charity and loans: $15,” adding and re-addingand finding that some $1,000 a month, $12,000 a year, mysteriously disappears. At that moment a neighbor rings their doorbell.
“'Good heavens!' I announced. 'We have just lost $12,000!'
'Burglars?' he inquired.
'Ghosts,' answered my wife.”
Thirty-six thousand phantom dollars have thus been frittered away, leaving no trace but debts. But the author's wife is resourceful. ” 'The only thing you can do,' she said finally, 'is to write a magazine article and call it How to Live on $36,000 a year.'
“ 'What a silly suggestion!' I replied coldly.”
Writing this article just before leaving Long Island was a way for Fitzgerald to confess, to examine his conscience, to beat his breast. A public confession, recited to a jazz rhythm. But there is a shadow of alarm behind this comic pirouetting; from under the careless tone and the wry moralizing peer real anxiety and an ill-disguised sense of guilt. The blurred face of the penitentiary vaguely seen behind the confessional grille looks strangely like grandfather McQuillan. Scott must show his figures, must bare his scandalous prodigality, shine a bright light on his bad management. Here the parable of the talents takes on its full meaning: how has he multiplied his gifts? How has he profited from his patrimony, from the talent that distinguished him among men? Fitzgerald tried to answer these theological questions with the resources of his time, in terms of household budgets. This was a way for him to evade the real problem, to shift responsibility from morality to the marketplace, to insinuate an anonymous and urbane jury of his contemporaries into the implacable tribunal of his conscience. He knew he had already won plenary indulgence; his graceful style and sincere tone would have seen to that. But he also knew that he would lose on appeal: his pseudo confession was merely one more attempt to delay the moment of true absolution—the absolution he would earn by realizing his potentialities, achieving the edifice he knew he had to build outside his century and its temptations.
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography by Andre LeVot (French: Paris: Julliard, 1979; English: Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983 - translated by William Byron).