In 1925, when The Great Gatsby appeared and Fitzgerald was worried about how much money his book would earn, he thought of scriptwriting in Hollywood as a possible alternative to writing novels. “If it will support me with no more intervals of trash I'll go on as a novelist,” he had told Perkins. “If not, I'm going to quit, come home, go to Hollywood and learn the movie business. I can't reduce our scale of living and I can't stand this financial insecurity… Then perhaps at 40 I can start writing again without this constant worry and interruption.”
He had tried Hollywood twice when he was blocked on Tender Is the Night, in January 1927 and again in November 1931, both times on returning from Europe. And both times he had failed. He was hesitant, therefore, about trying again, seeing it as a last resort. In January 1935, in his reply to Harold Ober's suggestion that he go to Hollywood to write the screenplay for the film version of Tender Is the Night, he objected: “I hate the place like poison with a sincere hatred. It will be inconvenient in every way and I should consider it only as an emergency measure.” Yet in August 1936 he regretted that a dislocated shoulder prevented him from accepting a four-week M-G-M contract for $1,500 a week to work on the kind of subjects that had made him famous—a love story about fifteen-year-olds—and of which he was thoroughly sick.
The emergency occurred in 1937. The stream of easy money from The Saturday Evening Post was drying up; the magazine published only two of his stories in 1936, and only one, “Trouble,” the following year, and for that one they paid $2,000, half of what Fitzgerald commanded five years earlier. Written in June 1936, published in March 1937, “Trouble” was the last of sixty-six short stories that, in seventeen years, had brought him nearly $200,000. The other mass-circulation magazines also showed their reluctance to publish hastily written, badly constructed stories that perpetuated an obsolete formula. In 1935 three Fitzgerald stories went begging; two others were bought by Pictorial Review but never printed. Two stories were rejected in 1936 and three in 1937. With rare exceptions only Esquire henceforth accepted his work, but Gingrich insisted on very short stories and paid only $250 each for them. The days when Fitzgerald could coverhis basic overhead by churning out short stories was over; the five items Esquire bought from him in 1937 barely paid for two and a half months of Zelda's stay at Highland. Sales of his books, which had never provided more than a -small supplement to his earnings, had dwindled to almost nothing: 210 copies in 1936, only 173 in 1937. His income in 1936, just over $10,000, was the lowest since 1919, when he broke in as a writer. His debts piled up, especially to Ober, to whom he owed $12,500 when he left for California, and to Perkins and Scribner's for as much more. A $40,000 estate split between Scott and his sister six months after his mother's death in September 1936 enabled him to settle only his most urgent obligations.
This is certainly why he pressed Ober to find him a job in the movies despite the failure of H. N. Swanson, Ober's representative in Hollywood, to do so. Luckily, Edwin Knopf, who headed M-G-M's script department and with whom Swanson was in contact, refused to give up. A friend of Fitzgerald's since the twenties, he finally managed to wangle a contract for him. The two men met in New York at Ober's behest on June 24. A contract concluded after the meeting gave Fitzgerald $1,000 a week for six months and carried an option for a year's renewal at $1,250 a week.
So, on July 7, Fitzgerald went to work for Michael Balcon, who was producing A Yank at Oxford, starring Robert Taylor and Maureen O'Sullivan. He was in for it this time. This was no lightning raid to pick up some quick cash and a little relief from the routine strain, as his previous ventures in Hollywood had been. He was in desperate need and this was a long-term job that wrought a radical change in his life; certainly for six months, probably for eighteen and more, he hoped, he was going to be a hired writer.
In the train carrying him West—its name, the Argonaut, sounded like a call to adventure—Fitzgerald wrote letters to Ober and Scottie that show the position he was in. He asked his agent to manage his money: Ober would receive his whole weekly salary and would remit $400 to him to cover his own expenses plus those of Zelda and Scottie. Of the remaining $600, Ober would receive $100 to cover his commission and $150 more against the money owed him, $50 would go to Perkins and Scribner's, $200 for taxes and $100 would be set aside for vacations, which were unpaid. Fitzgerald hoped that this drastic system, plus whatever he could earn on stories that were still being hawked, would settle his debt to Ober within a year. He would keep his end of the bargain; by the time his contract with M-G-M expired in January 1939, his agent had been paid in full.
The letter to Scottie reveals other, more secret plans. It looks backward over opportunities lost and mistakes made, and forward to at least a term of financial solvency that would enable him to dream, to build a new career. “I feel a certain excitement,” he said. “The third Hollywood venture. Two failures behind me though one no fault of mine. The first one was just ten years ago. At that time I had been generally acknowledged for several years as the top American writer both seriously and, as far as prices went,popularly. … I must be very tactful but keep my hand on the wheel from the start—find out the key man among the bosses and the most malleable among the collaborators” to reach the top of his new trade. And he called wryly on his daughter to back him up: “You can help us all best by keeping out of trouble—it will make a great difference to your important years. Take care of yourself mentally (study when you're fresh), physically (don't pluck your eyebrows), morally (don't get where you have to lie).”
Fitzgerald now was turned entirely to the future, his and Scottie's: the past was no longer to be regretted, but to be learned from. The failed writer was behind him, replaced by a new man. The West, land of adventure and new starts, beckoned. He knew his creative energy was waning, and now he counted mostly on his technical skill and his ability to maneuver. The writer was silent; it was the man of action who was talking now and who was resolved to master a new trade and a new environment with whose ins and outs he was already familiar. Literature was deliberately abandoned as once the dream had been abandoned of becoming a leader of men, a college sports star, a soldier, a worldwide celebrity.
Fitzgerald adopted as fact the idea born of crisis in 1936 that the novel, “the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion. … As long past as 1930, I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures … but there was a rankling indignity, that to me had become almost an obsession, in seeing the power of the written word subordinated to another power, a more glittering, a grosser power.” This time he had made up his mind coldly, a little cynically, aware that he was cashing in not only on his talent but also on his past celebrity.
At the same time the idea of a compensatory activity took shape in his mind that immediately transcended this artistic resignation. Action would supersede the word. The conquest of Hollywood would reactivate an ambition frayed by friction against a difficult and disappointing trade. He would no longer struggle with words, with imponderables, but with the men in Hollywood, with their ridiculous and childish system. He would work with hard facts. What he did not see, or at any rate did not say in his letters, is that where he thought he was breaking with his past, he was in fact returning, as naturally as could be, to his youthful illusions, his old dream of social conquest through action. Literature had helped him overcome his failures, but, having failed in turn in it, he was trying to heal the wound by reviving his teenage ambition.
This was not a sudden about-face dictated by circumstances, a way of conceptualizing a situation he could not alter, but a definite tendency in Fitzgerald that had hardened right after the failure of Tender Is the Night three years before. He had not been able to impose himself on Hollywood in 1927 or in 1931; in 1934 he had projected his dream of a life of triumphant action into fiction. Dick Diver, weak, irresolute, imaginative, had been created in Fitzgerald's image. It was Tommy Barban, the man of action, the mercenary, the barbarian, who took Dick's place with Nicole. Pygmalion's statue turned its back on its creator and gave itself to the strong, unscrupulous man who had boldly seized it. In the next novel Fitzgerald had tackled, Philippe was Diver's antithesis, a Barban resituated in a historical context in which he could exercise his brutality, his need of conquest and domination. His shadowy medieval world recalled pioneer America, where the will to win was also the sole condition of survival and success. Philippe was modeled on Hemingway, but he was also a projection of the heroes of Fitzgerald's childhood—J. J. Hill, grandfather McQuillan (whose Christian name was also Scott's)—each of whom, in his own way, had carved an empire out of a nineteenth-century America governed by the law of survival of the fittest.
So it was in the pioneer spirit that Fitzgerald headed for the city he would describe in The Last Tycoon as “a miners' camp in lotus land,” carried on that excess energy that the novel's hero, Monroe Stahr, remarked in immigrants (“he knew that people from other places spurted a pure rill of new energy for a while”). And, as at every crucial moment in his life, he projected his hopes on an image of a prestigious superman with whom he identified. This time the figure was Irving Thalberg, the brilliant and all-powerful executive producer at Metro, who had died the previous fall at the age of thirty-seven. Under the circumstances Thalberg was a more appropriate and more credible model than Philippe. We will have occasion to come back to this. Meanwhile, it is noteworthy that when Fitzgerald's contract expired and he decided to return to literature, his first thought was to resurrect The Castle. It was not until three months later that, with Perkins's encouragement, he embarked on a novel set in Hollywood, with Thalberg as the model for its hero.
How did Fitzgerald look in 1937, on his way to rebirth and a new career? A photograph taken by Carl Van Vechten a month before Fitzgerald left for Hollywood shows a man unsure of himself, with an uncertain look and a tight smile, uneasy, hands hesitant and awkward in close-up. He had gone to New York to attend the second American Writers' Congress June 4-5, at which his old friend from St. Paul, Donald Ogden Stewart, was presiding. There a Fitzgerald on the skids would see some old friends who were at the top of their literary careers: MacLeish, Wilson, Hemingway, who had brought back a documentary film on the Spanish Civil War and who was also due to go to California a month later. More than the photo, the interpretation of which might be influenced by what we know of the man, Van Vechten's recollection is important in understanding how physically altered Fitzgerald was. Van Vechten had known Scott well, had corresponded with Zelda, shared a hotel bungalow with the couple in Beverly Hills and, ten years before, had spent a weekend at Ellerslie. “I was to have lunch with Edmund Wilson, I think,” Van Vechten recalled. “We were to meet at the Algonquin. As I came into the room my eyes had to readjust to the darkness and I noticed a man with Wilson. I didn't recognize him and went forward to be introduced. It was a terrible moment; Scott had completely changed. He looked pale and haggard. I was awfully embarrassed. You see, I had known Scott for years…”
Another portrait, by Edwin Knopf, after Fitzgerald reached Hollywood, sums up the impression of those who had known him in the old days: “Here came this completely crushed and frightened man—the features were there, the drawing, but not the face. He had almost blue paleness. Not big wrinkles, but little wrinkles all over because he was sick.” A contrasting picture comes from the British novelist Anthony Powell, who met Fitzgerald only once, in 1937: “It may be of interest to record that I immediately recognized [him]. In an inexplicable way he was quite different from anyone else… He was smallish, neat, solidly built. Photographs—seen for the most part years later—do not do justice to him. Possibly he was a man who at once became self-conscious before a camera. Even snapshots tend to give him an air of swagger, a kind of cockiness he did not possess at all. On the contrary, one was immediately aware of an odd sort of unassuming dignity. There was no hint at all of the cantankerousness that undoubtedly lay beneath the surface. His air could be thought a trifle sad, but not in the least broken down, as he has sometimes been described at this period.”
On Ober's advice Fitzgerald moved into a hotel-apartment complex called the Garden of Allah at 8152 Sunset Boulevard, in Beverly Hills, which was made up of a main building and a dozen bungalows of two suites each. The name suggests oriental luxury, and, indeed, until the place was torn down a few years ago, the buildings of ocher-colored adobe set amid palm trees around a central patio and an eccentrically shaped swimming pool did resemble nothing so much as a vacation resort at a North African oasis. This simply obeyed the rule that nothing in Hollywood was what it seemed. In fact, the place owed its name to silent-film star Alla Nazimova, who built it as her home when she was at the height of her fame; the pool, designed in the shape of the Black Sea, was supposed to remind her of her native Yalta. Ruined like many other silent stars by the advent of the talkies, she auctioned off the palace and it was converted into a luxury hotel.
Most of its guests were movie people, including some who were old friends of Fitzgerald's: Dorothy Parker and her husband, Alan Campbell; Marc Connelly, the author of Green Pastures; John O'Hara; Robert Benchley. Here, around a miniature Black Sea, after years in the desert, after the loneliness of Baltimore and Asheville, he was reunited with friends he had known along the shore of the Mediterranean. He was in a small colony of exiles who in many ways recalled the dispossessed Russianaristocrats who had so appealed to Scott's imagination during his first stay on the Riviera. Except that these people had chosen exile, more or less permanently deserting the intellectual East and their literary careers to join, languidly, in the literary folks' new gold rush. We recall Fitzgerald's remark about “a miners' camp in lotus land”; in the same passage from The Last Tycoon is another observation that captures the mixture of ambition and nostalgia, of energy and depression that characterized the colony: “There was lassitude in plenty—California was filling up with weary desperadoes. And there were tense young men and women who lived back East in spirit while they carried on a losing battle against the climate. But it was everyone's secret that sustained effort was difficult here.”
Many accounts remain of the new power relationships of the time, with Fitzgerald's appearing to the men he had known in his great days, but who were now higher on the ladder than he, as a survivor of a bygone time, a shadow so etiolated as to be almost transparent; it seemed hard to connect the prestigious name with the man who now bore it.
Probably the most painful of all these encounters was the one with Hemingway. When they had seen each other at the writers' congress a month earlier, Fitzgerald had been struck by his old friend's prestige and authority when Ernest showed his film, The Spanish Earth (a few days later he functioned as narrator at a showing for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt). On July 10 Hemingway arrived in California to campaign on behalf of the Spanish Republic. Two days later actor Fredric March organized a gala evening in his honor. “Ernest came like a whirlwind,” Fitzgerald reported to Perkins, “put Ernest Lubitsch the great director in his place by refusing to have his picture prettied up and remade a la Hollywood.”
After the film was shown in Hollywood, Scott offered to escort Lillian Hellman to a party Mrs. Parker was giving for Hemingway at the Garden of Allah. Her reaction when she saw Fitzgerald for the first time since the Paris years was by now the usual one: “I was shocked by the change in his face and manner.” She was even more surprised at the way he drove his secondhand car: “We didn't talk; he was occupied with driving at ten or twelve miles an hour down Sunset Boulevard, a dangerous speed in most places, certainly in Beverly Hills. Fitzgerald crouched over the wheel when cars honked at us, we jerked to the right and then to the left, and passing drivers leaned out to shout at us.”
When they reached Mrs. Parker's door, Scott at first refused to enter with his passenger, admitting that he was afraid to face Hemingway without a drink to shore him up. But Miss Hellman took him by the hand and they went into the living room together just as Hemingway hurled a glass into the fireplace. Fitzgerald melted into the crowd and left a few minutes later without having spoken to the guest of honor. By way of apology, he sent Ernest a telegram the next day congratulating him on his film and his glass smashing. Miss Hellman recalls a remark he made some days later toOgden Nash, which showed how overpowered and inhibited he felt in Hemingway's presence. “It's no use writing so long as Ernest is around,” he said.
A little reluctantly, Fitzgerald plunged immediately into Hollywood life. The day after the Hemingway party he had a sort of business lunch alone with Miss O'Sullivan in Malibu. Social obligations dictated most of his partygoing: people who had known him in 1927 and 1932 wanted to see him again and the others wanted to meet him. For a while he was always seen with movie celebrities. But in his account of this social round, no mention is made of what to him was his most important encounter, the one with Sheilah Graham. She was twenty-eight years old then and writing a movie column for the North American Newspaper Alliance; although she did not compete in influence with the queen of the Hollywood columnists, Louella Parsons, her irreverent and candid items on the stars' private and public lives had given her some notoriety and a number of sworn enemies.
After a wretched childhood in an orphanage, she had begun earning her living in music-hall walk-ons; these put her in touch with newspaper people and, from one liaison to another, brought her into the outer circle of the fashionable world. She was drifting, like Dreiser's Sister Carrie and, in a way, like Gatsby on the rise. Like him, she created a persona and a glamorous past and adopted a new name to replace the common one she was born with, Lily Sheil.
Sheilah was a heroine after Fitzgerald's heart. Five years earlier she had left England and, with it, a penniless and complaisant husband twenty-five years her senior, Major John Gilham, whom she had married when she was eighteen. A month before she met Fitzgerald, she had returned to London to divorce the major and had seen her friend the Marquess of Donegall, who had already asked her to marry him. He joined her in Hollywood two weeks later and pressed an engagement ring on her; they agreed to be married on December 31, the day her British divorce was to become final. Sheilah had not rushed into the marriage, but Donegall's years of courtship finally wore down her love of independence. And how could she resist all the aristocratic titles he would bestow on her?
Robert Benchley, whom they had asked to be best man at their wedding, gave an engagement party for them at the Garden of Allah on July 14, 1937, on the eve of Donegall's return to Britain. Fitzgerald was invited to it, of course, but Miss Graham caught only a fleeting glimpse of him. They met again a few days later at a Writers' Guild dinner-dance at the Coconut Grove, at which Mrs. Parker presided. Miss Graham was in Marc Connelly's party of ten; Fitzgerald was at the next table, and she recognized him. At some point during the evening, everyone else was dancing and they were alone at their long tables. He looked at her and smiled. She smiled back, moved by a kind of melancholy grace in him. He leaned forward and, across the length of the two tables, announced with a smile, “I like you”. Flattered, conscious that her beauty was enhanced that evening by a gray evening dress with scarlet velvet trim, she replied, “I like you too.” Her suggestion that they dance erased the sadness from his face, lighting it with boyish excitement. No, he had promised the next dance to Mrs. Parker, but the following one… But the music stopped, the speeches began and, in the confusion of leaving, she lost sight of him.
On the following Sunday both she and Fitzgerald were invited to dine with Edwin Mayer. Scott was conservatively dressed in a salt-and-pepper tweed and a bow tie. Despite the August heat, he wore a charcoal-gray topcoat and had a scarf around his neck. At the bar they met Humphrey Bogart and his wife, and to the actor's surprise, Fitzgerald turned down a drink. During the two men's brief conversation, Miss Graham detected a note of deference in Bogart's remarks. Despite his slightly stiff manner and his silences, Fitzgerald was someone who inspired respect.
He and Sheilah made a dinner date for the following Tuesday, August 10. But that afternoon she received a telegram canceling the appointment: Scottie had just arrived with Helen Hayes, a Fitzgerald family friend. Miss Graham felt oddly disappointed and, suddenly, unwilling to give up seeing him that day. She phoned him, asking him not to call off the dinner; she would be happy to meet Scottie. With some hesitation he agreed and, at the appointed hour, came for her in his car.
The dinner was a strained affair. Scott was tense, morose, touchy and constantly reprimanded his daughter. Everyone was relieved when he finally announced that it was past Scottie's bedtime; he dropped her and Miss Hayes at the Beverly Hotel, where they were staying, and drove Sheilah to her hilltop home at 1530 King Road. Better let her describe her disappointment: “He stood at the door saying good-by… There had been such a magical quality about him the other night and now he was only a faded little man who was a father. He said good night. I did not want him to go. … In the half light as he stood there, his face was beautiful. You could not see the tiredness, the grayness, you saw only his eyes. … I heard myself whisper, 'Please don't go, come in,' and I drew him in and he came in and as he came in he kissed me and suddenly he was not a father any more and it was as though this was as it should be, must be, inevitable and foreordained.”
With the arrival of Scottie and her chaperone, the socializing took on new vigor, in the company of Miss Hayes and her husband, Charlie MacArthur, who had been writing for the screen since 1929. There were dinners in Pasadena with poet Stephen Vincent Benet and playwright Zoe Akins; in Santa Monica with Thalberg's widow, Norma Shearer; with Marion Davies, Hearst's mistress, in fabulous San Simeon, made famous soon after in the movie Citizen Kane. Miss Hayes knew what trouble Scott was having in adapting to his new life. “All in all,” she recalled later, “I think Scott was unhappy there from the start. … He hated the awful discipline of the studio. Pictures took writers right back to the working climate of high school. And he was not in the best shape spiritually; he was afraid that his writing gift was going through a tunnel. His few high spots were our evenings together, especially when we went to the Benets'. At the Benets' he always felt like a first-class passenger again.”
But the critical aspect of his life was unfolding in another sector: his work at the studio. On his arrival in Hollywood he had moved into the office set aside for him in the Thalberg Building at M-G-M's Culver City Studios on Washington Boulevard. This was a fortress policed at every entrance by private security guards. Seen from Washington Boulevard, it was a sort of imperial palace with a colonnaded facade running for hundreds of yards. This was only a facade, however; behind it stood a number of administrative buildings and acres of sets, castles rising beside the streets of Western towns, a patch of English countryside, a corner of a tropical island, a railroad station. The Thalberg was a square, concrete office building that looked like a hospital.
On the top (fourth) floor were the offices of what was ironically called the College of Cardinals—the producers, most of them Jewish, who reigned over this empire. At their head was the trinity from whom all decisions flowed: Louis B. Mayer (God the father), Sam Katz and Eddie Manix. Mayer, who had started out in life as a junk dealer, was a shrewd businessman but an ignoramus in art, and until 1936 he had delegated all his duties as producer to Thalberg. The third floor, where Fitzgerald had his office, was reserved for Metro's writers.
The same pecking order prevailed in the canteen, where a long table against one wall was set aside for the writers, including Albert and Frances Hackett, Mrs. Parker, George Oppenheimer, Nash, S. J. Perelman and Benchley. In the middle of the room sat the producers, the center of attention for directors, actors and writers. One group, which Fitzgerald occasionally joined, had its own preserve and included such scriptwriters and actors as Anita Loos, Aldous Huxley, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable. Fitzgerald did not talk much; morose, absent, wary, he made few friends. Groucho Marx remembered him as “a sick old man—not very funny stuff,” and Miss Loos confirmed that “people treated him like an invalid.”
His first task was disappointing. No cowriter was assigned to him, as he had feared, but he was asked to alter and rewrite a half-finished script. He had been chosen for A Yank at Oxford because of the subject; This Side of Paradise seemed to qualify him automatically to handle the comic doings of a brash young American on a scholarship rebelling against the prejudices of an English university.
A second chore was more promising: to adapt Erich Maria Remarque's Three Comrades to the screen. The 1930 film version of All Quiet on the Western Front had become a classic, and Three Comrades, about the problems of three war veterans and the rise of Nazism, was expected to be equally successful. Was it because Fitzgerald was known as the chronicler of the postwar generation that producer Joseph Mankiewicz gave him the assignment? “I hired Scott because I admired his work,” Mankiewicz said. “More than any other writer, I thought that he could recapture the European flavor and the flavor of the twenties and early thirties that Three Comrades required. I also thought that he would know and understand the girl.” Fitzgerald began work on it August 4, and for a few weeks everything went smoothly. When Miss Hayes suddenly left California in early September, he took a week's leave to accompany Scottie to Asheville before she returned to school in Connecticut. There was a family reunion with Zelda, a brief trip to Charleston. But the visit demoralized him; “Zelda is no better,” he wrote to his friend Beatrice Dance. “… she held up well enough but there is always a gradual slipping. I've become hard there and don't feel the grief I did once—except sometimes at night or when I catch myself in some spiritual betrayal of the past.”
As soon as he reached Asheville, obsessed with the fear that he might be saddled with a cowriter in his absence, he sent Mankiewicz an anxious telegram; the producer wired back that he was not to worry. By September 12 Fitzgerald was back at work, hoping to complete the screenplay on his own. Two weeks later, however, Mankiewicz did give him a cowriter. The insult was complicated by the fact that the man was his old acquaintance Ted Paramore, whom he had satirized in The Beautiful and Damned. What the producer had hoped would be cooperation quickly became open rivalry. Three weeks later, after a stormy row, Fitzgerald sent Paramore a long, firm and dignified letter. The new man seemed to want to take charge of the script and rewrite it in language Fitzgerald thought worthy of a Western. In any case, Paramore's incursion into what Scott thought was his private preserve seems to have shaken him off the wagon. Gone were the days when he refused Bogart's offer of a drink. The relapse is corroborated by the statements of two women from whom he had sought a measure of comfort.
In an October 8 letter to Scottie he said he had just received a wire from Ginevra King, whom he had not seen for twenty-one years and who was passing through Santa Barbara. “She was the first girl I ever loved and I have faithfully avoided seeing her up to this moment to keep that illusion perfect,” he said, “because she ended up by throwing me over with the most supreme boredom and indifference. I don't know whether I should go or not. It would be very, very strange.”
After an exchange of telegrams, it was Ginevra who went to see Scott. They lunched together. In a letter to H. D. Piper she described Fitzgerald's drinking: “He suggested we go to the bar. I settled for a lemonade but he insisted on a series of double Tom Collins. I was heartsick as he had been behaving himself for some months before that. For the next few days I wasbesieged with calls, but as he was in love with someone in Hollywood, I believe, he soon gave up the pursuit.”
His passing fling with Sheilah Graham had become a steady attachment. One September evening, after receiving the poem from which she took the title for her memoirs, Beloved Infidel, she wrote to Donegall, breaking off their engagement. Meanwhile, she had contracted for a series of radio talks about movies that were to be relayed to Chicago from the CBS studios in Hollywood. Her debut in October was a disaster. Her throat knotted, heart pounding, her voice reduced to a shrill piping, she stammered as she read her script. The next day a phone call from Chicago informed her that from then on a professional actress would read her material. Scott strongly urged her to refuse; her beginner's nerves would disappear, he said, and she could not let someone else impersonate her. His insistence was contagious; she opted to go to Chicago and plead her case. Scott offered to go with her to lend moral support. They would take the night plane together the following Sunday.
On Monday morning Sheilah's CBS producer went to the Drake Hotel to see her. He said he did not have the authority to promise that she would be allowed to read her script in person that evening. Scott, who had gotten drunk on the plane and continued drinking at the hotel, surged up out of the chair in which he had been listening to the conversation and demanded an immediate answer, advancing on the producer in what seemed a threatening manner. When the man insisted that the decision was out of his hands, Scott took a punch at him, which the producer ducked. Sheilah separated them and succeeded in ushering her visitor out of the room.
Then things seemed to settle down. Sheilah apologized on the phone and was told she would be given one last chance to deliver her own material. When she walked into the recording studio, Scott was sitting in the first row facing the microphone, smiling conspiratorially and signaling his encouragement. Every time she opened her mouth to speak, he called, “Now Sheilah, don't you be afraid of them. Nothing to be afraid of. Speak slowly and distinctly.” And he began beating time with his finger. Two studio assistants grabbed his elbows and hustled him out. Sheilah, her nerves shattered, had to make several false starts before she could get through the script; the session that was supposed to last a few minutes went on for two hours. But she won her point and it was decided that she would henceforth broadcast directly from Chicago.
Back at the hotel an even wilder spectacle awaited her. Through the connecting door between her room and Scott's she heard a babble of voices. One, which she did not recognize, was scolding, the other, Scott's, protesting. When she walked into Scott's room, he and a stranger were seated face to face and knee to knee across a tray of food, and the stranger was feeding him with a fork. Scott, wearing a coffee-stained napkin around his neck, tried to dodge the fork or bite the man's hand. When he saw Sheilah, the manrose and introduced himself as though what was happening was the most natural thing in the world. His shirtfront was spattered with the coffee Scott had spat out when the man tried to make him swallow it. The stranger was Gingrich, the editor of Esquire, whom Scott had phoned after being ejected from the studio. When Gingrich reached the hotel, Scott had been dead drunk and surrounded by glasses full of gin. The editor knew his man well: “He was a real Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character when he had taken on board large amounts of liquor—a vicious drunk, one of the worst I have ever known. He could hardly talk, slurring all [his] words, trying to tell me about Sheilah, this great new English girl. Scott was rather puritanical. He was the obverse of Ernest in this way. Very, very rarely would he embellish his speech with a lot of he-man obscenities. But when he was drunk he was different, and kept saying, 'I just got to have this cunt!' At this point he hadn't yet.”
Exactly a month had passed since his visit to Zelda, a crucial month in which all his fears about his status at M-G-M had been confirmed; he was thought incapable of writing an acceptable script without help. His impulse to go off to Asheville with Scottie when he knew his position was shaky, his sudden flight to Chicago without warning the men on the fourth floor of the Thalberg Building, his tendency to run away from problems, his aggressiveness, the breakdown of his resolution about drinking, all betrayed his wish to escape the tension of his growing disagreement with Mankiewicz.
On October 6, the day Ginevra King contacted him, he tried to buck himself up, or perhaps to shoo away bad luck, by writing an optimistic letter to Ober. “I finished Three Comrades on my own,” he said. “Mankiewicz was enthusiastic about the first part and will report on the second part tomorrow. We are going over it together which means a rewriting of perhaps three weeks' duration. … I was two months and a week on the script, which is rather more than averagely fast time. If I do three weeks more on it, my work will still have cost them less than a fifth of what the average shooting scripts cost. So I seem to be a good investment—unless something untoward happens.”
The warning that last phrase might have hidden was dodged in the next. There was a risk of outside intervention, he said, of censorship, of pressure from the German consulate because of the film's anti-Nazi theme; “The thing is rather dangerous politically.” The fear was justified. Censor Joseph Breen went so far as to recommend that the film focus not on the rise of Nazism but on the communist threat to a defeated Germany. Scott nevertheless continued his letter on an optimistic note: “aside from that I think nothing stands in the way of its going through and of my getting the credit, which is a big thing out here. You have credits or you don't have credits, and naturally I'm eager to have one in the book.” Still, a certain reservation in the following paragraph watered down the optimism: “I'm happy here, but of course the first excitement has worn off and I fret agood deal with the desire to do work on my own. Perhaps after another adaptation they will let me do an original, which will exercise the intellectual muscles in a more amplified manner.”
Fitzgerald's professional troubles probably overflowed into and aggravated his personal woes. Three women played the key roles in that month of his life: Zelda, whom he had seen in her madness during his visit with Scottie; Ginevra, who had refreshed his memory of the casual way in which she had gotten rid of him; and Sheilah, the “beloved infidel,” who he knew was a flirt and feared was fickle. During one of her stays in Chicago she mentioned in a phone conversation that she wanted to spend a few days in New York. Convinced she was going there to meet a man, he threatened to leave Hollywood, and she renounced the trip. His own eagerness to see Ginevra made him certain that Sheilah also harbored a desire to rejoin an old flame, and he interpreted her perfectly innocent travel plans as a betrayal of him. Besides, despite the tenderness he lavished on Sheilah, despite —perhaps because of—the respect, affection and docility she showed him and that confirmed how genuine their relationship was, the puritanical streak in Fitzgerald doubted her surface generosity, rebelled at a permanent attachment—especially to an adventuress, a Lily Sheil who had come out of the gutters of London. From the beginning of their affair, Miss Hayes had noticed his perhaps unconscious reticence when he and Sheilah were with other people: “Sheilah Graham was good to Scott,” she remarked, “but he wasn't nice enough to her—ever.” She thought Sheilah reflected his inferior position, his loss of status. This was clear in the vulgar way he spoke about her to Gingrich; it came into the open some months later, during another bender, and more tragically two years later, in similar circumstances.
Emotionally and professionally, Fitzgerald was going through a crisis that cast doubt on all the fine resolutions he had adopted aboard the Argonaut. His letter to Paramore, written two weeks after Ginevra's visit, made public a latent conflict that he had until then tried to trick himself into ignoring. But Paramore was seen as merely a straw man for Mankiewicz, the figure of authority and oppression Fitzgerald was really attacking. Here again, the ambiguity of Fitzgerald's motives clouds the situation.
Mankiewicz had literary pretentions and he was not liked by the writers; Oppenheimer voiced the general feeling when he said the producer thought he was Shakespeare. Knopf said of him that “it is both Joe's strength and his weakness that he thought he could rewrite anyone.” A stylist such as Ogden Nash could spend months on a screenplay only to have Mankiewicz completely rework it in twenty-four hours. In the final analysis he was the man who could give a line its final shape with a stroke of a pencil; he considered himself a judge of language from whose decisions there was no appeal, figuring that rank gave him the right to decide how a film's dialogue should sound. And he could intelligently defend the particular nature of movie dialogue as different from the language in novels (and different fromthat used on the stage, we might add, since Mankiewicz lumped them together). “I didn't count on Scott for dialogue,” he declared. “There could be no greater disservice done him than to have actors read his novels aloud as if they were plays… After all, there is a great difference between the dialogue in a novel and in a play. In a novel, the dialogue enters through the mind. The reader endows it with a certain quality. Dialogue spoken from the stage enters through the ear rather than the mind. It has an immediate emotional impact. Scott's dialogue lacked bite, color, rhythm.”
Such beliefs, backed by absolute power of decision, obviously had to generate increasing misunderstanding between him and Fitzgerald, with each man asserting the sureness of his judgment and his talent. When he saw, in January, how sweeping the changes made in his script were, Fitzgerald blew up. He wrote a letter of protest to the producer, cataloging the instances of heavy-handed vulgarity disfiguring the revised script. He too claimed a kind of authority: “For nineteen years … I've written best-selling entertainment, and my dialogue is supposedly right up at the top. But I learn from the script that you've suddenly decided that it isn't good dialogue and you can take a few hours off and do much better.”
Mankiewicz may not have been altogether wrong. Perhaps Fitzgerald had erred in trying to apply to perishable, mass-consumption film scripts the criteria he had established for more durable literature. He wanted to persuade the Mankiewiczes and the Paramores to make the film he would have tried to make had he been running things. But their business was not making works of art; they were there to make money for themselves and their companies. Three Comrades was not a masterpiece, but it was an honorable specimen of what could be expected of M-G-M in those days. When it became a hit film, Fitzgerald felt responsible enough for its success to copy a paragraph from the New York Daily Mirror to send to Ober: “The screenplay of Three Comrades was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald and E. E. Paramore Jr. and there was grapevine news that it was one of the best scripts ever turned in at Metro.” And when the film was released in June, he was rewarded with his first screen credit—shared, it was true, with Paramore. This credit that had cost him so much humiliation and anger was also his last. More of his work had been used in this script than in any other he ever did, even if its rhythm and poetry had been spoiled; about a third of his scenario was used in the final version. And the hard work he put into it, even if it did not fit the notions of the men on the fourth floor about what was to be expected of a scriptwriter, nevertheless won their respect. In January 1938, a month before he completed work on Three Comrades, his contract was renewed for another year at the higher salary he had been promised.
Perhaps to relieve his conscience of the feeling that he had abandoned Zelda, Fitzgerald decided to spend the Christmas holidays of 1938 with her. Their daughter was not with them this time. The private Ethel Walker School in Connecticut, where Scottie was preparing to enter Vassar, was so expensive that Fitzgerald had to watch his pennies. So she was again sent to stay with the Obers and the Finneys, while he took the plane to Asheville, happy at having paid back the approximately one thousand dollars he still owed Perkins and pleased that he could still provide for Zelda's maintenance. He was also glad to be able to enjoy himself away from Hollywood, or so he indicated in a letter to Scottie after his return, when filming began on Three Comrades. “Your mother was better than ever I expected,” he said, “and our trip would have been fun except that I was tired. We went to Miami and Palm Beach, flew to Montgomery, all of which sounds very gay and glamorous but wasn't particularly. I flew back to New York intending to take you out with your friends on Saturday but I discovered you were on bounds. My zero hour was Monday morning in California so there was nothing to do except fly back on Sunday afternoon.”
Zelda had returned to Highland January 1 to attend a New Year's Day costume party. Although he was alone in New York, Fitzgerald declined to go and see Scottie in the visitors' lounge at Ethel Walker School, perhaps as a subtle reproach for her poor conduct that he could get across without having to scold her in writing, as he did in most of his letters in 1938. He did see Perkins briefly, however, in circumstances for which he later felt a need to apologize. “My little binge lasted only three days,” he said in a letter he put off writing for weeks, “and I haven't had a drop since. There was one other in September, likewise three days. Save for that, I haven't had a drop since a year ago last January. Isn't it awful that we reformed alcoholics have to preface everything by explaining exactly how we stand on that question?”
His two relapses had followed his two visits to Zelda in the first six months of his stay in Hollywood. Perhaps to change the unpleasant taste these memories left, he later made a quick trip to New York with Sheilah without telling his daughter. That he wanted his mistress to meet theMurphys, thus, in a sense, formalizing their union, tells us how strongly attached he was to her. He told Nora Flynn about his situation, and she replied in a letter that told him what he wanted to hear: “I am not sure you are doing the right thing—about Zelda—I know you have been, beyond words, wonderful to her—I also know that the time has come for you to have a life of your own—to choose your own life, not for Zelda or Scottie but just for you…. I have a strange feeling that Sheilah Graham is the right person for you—I feel she knows the real you—and that's what counts.”
He went back to work January 31, we learn from a letter to Ober in which Fitzgerald describes a storm that made their return flight as rough as the one depicted in the opening chapter of The Last Tycoon. In mid-February he entered the orbit of Hunt Stromberg, one of Metro's best producers in those days and a favorite of such writers as Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell and the Hacketts.
Stromberg gave Fitzgerald the chance he had hoped for to do an original screenplay, specifying only two things: the title, Infidelity (“kick it around for a while”), and the star, Joan Crawford. The title delighted Fitzgerald; the star did not. He did not think much of her as an actress. “Writing for her is difficult,” he wrote to Murphy. “She can't change her emotions in the middle of a scene without going through a sort of Jeckyll and Hyde contortion of her face…” He nevertheless took the trouble to see all her films, carefully noting when she was at her best and the expressions that showed her off most favorably. She looked better in exteriors than interiors, for example, and laughter was more becoming to her than tears. He had to work in halftones for her, avoiding strong emotions while trying to prevent her from smiling the secret little smile that was forever twisting her face.
The real trouble was not to come from Miss Crawford, however, but from a quarter with even more stereotyped reactions: the censors. Trying to slip a film entitled Infidelity past the Hayes office was not easy. Louis Mayer himself, as conservative about morals as he was in politics, had appointed himself a defender of home and mother; he was touchier about films dealing with extramarital relationships than even the official censor, the Roman Catholic Joe Breen. Official prudishness had reached a stage at which all the possibilities had been codified. For example, Breen had prohibited showing two people on a bed if two of their feet were off the floor, which demonstrates both his prudishness and his lack of imagination. Adultery was taboo and, while “sometimes necessary plot material, must not be explicitly treated, or justified, or presented attractively.”
Compared with the unfettered cynicism of The Redheaded Woman, which had so shocked Thalberg, the disenchanted story of Infidelity, in which a businessman's love affair with his secretary costs him his wife's love, seems conventional enough to us today. Besides, the movie was moreabout fidelity to the man's wife than about his passing unfaithfulness, so the title was shortened to Fidelity to outfox the censors. They were not fooled.
Fitzgerald's ingenious streak produced another idea: since adultery, like crime, could not be allowed to pay, then so be it: after her divorce, the wife would remarry and the same secretary would seduce her second husband, after which the first one would revenge himself and his ex-wife. Stromberg was tired of all the moralizing, however, and simply canceled the film. In a letter to Scottie Fitzgerald told how he felt about it: “We have reached a censorship barrier in Infidelity to our infinite disappointment… Pictures needed cleaning up in 1932-3 (remember I didn't like you to see them?) but because they were suggestive and salacious. Of course the moralists now want to apply that to all strong themes—so the crop of the last two years is feeble and false, unless it deals with children.”
His disappointment at not being able to do the script stemmed not so much from regret for wasting the subject matter, however, as from his enthusiasm at being authorized to deal with it freely. With Mankiewicz's criticism in mind, he felt that for the first time he had entirely conceived a scenario in cinematic terms. He had planned to eliminate almost all dialogue, moving his plot along visually, for the most part, following a general tendency to avoid the verbosity of the first talking pictures. The Infidelity screenplay, free of obedience to a book that obeyed rules proper to a novel, abounds in such devices. The loneliness of the businessman, Nicolas Gilbert, and his despair at the ruin of his marriage are so poignantly rendered that words are superfluous. He returns to the big house on Long Island where he had spent so many happy years, but which has been empty for months. He gives a Gatsbyish party at which he is the only guest, wandering sadly through the empty rooms while an orchestra plays cheerful music out of doors. The camera follows him through the house to the master bedroom, its furniture shrouded in dust covers. The last scene, like a blast on an organ, shows him standing motionless before the huge bed.
Fitzgerald had learned a new, truly cinematic language, simultaneously implicit, suggestive and symbolic. He had set out to be a dialogue writer and had become an accomplished screenwriter, a semiotician without knowing it. But then, hadn't he already used this elliptical artistry instinctively in Gatsby, in reaction against the wordiness of The Beautiful and Damned? Gatsby himself says only a few words in the novel. His attitudes, clothes, possessions, parties speak for him and open him to the interpretation of those around him. Fitzgerald's talent, freed from a tradition that Mankiewicz maintained of talking pictures inspired by the stage, might now have been brought to bear on a subject that interested him. But, once more, Hollywood placed other values above art.
As he had after the ruckus over Three Comrades, he now felt a need to get away from Hollywood, even before the threat hanging over his scriptwas confirmed. And it was on this third visit to Zelda that hard luck again caught up with him.
Two weeks before leaving, he had written to Ober of how relieved he was that he would soon have a vacation. “I suspect that Hunt Stromberg is going to put the pressure on, but he isn't going to succeed,” he wrote. “I worked myself half sick on the last picture and I am going to keep to a safe and sane schedule on this one. Also, I am not going to be kept here [for] Easter. I'm awfully glad now that I wrote the vacations into my contract.” Later in March he flew to meet Scottie in Baltimore; together they took a train to Norfolk, Virginia, where Zelda was to be brought by a nurse. During the trip Scott proudly showed his daughter the almost completed manuscript of Infidelity, 104 pages that ended abruptly with Gilbert's solitary wandering through his empty house. Another twenty pages would have completed the job, but he was never to write them: by the time he returned to Hollywood, the censors had killed the project.
The few days spent at the Cavalier Hotel in Virginia Beach were not happy ones. Fitzgerald got drunk again. Zelda was irritable, quarreling with her tennis and golf instructors, nagging at Scottie and roaming the hotel corridors spreading the rumor that Scott was a dangerous lunatic. So insistent was she, Fitzgerald said in a letter to Zelda's doctor at Highland Hospital, Dr. Robert S. Carroll, that he and Scottie were about the only people on the floor who knew he was not crazy. Before leaving Hollywood, he had expressed to Carroll his vague hope that a miracle might some day make Zelda a free agent again and that she might then be able to live without him. “With my shadow removed,” he said, “perhaps she will find something in life to care for… Certainly the outworn pretense that we can ever come together again is better for being shed. There is simply too much of the past between us. … And if the aforesaid miracle should take place, I might again find a life of my own, as opposed to this casual existence of many rooms and many doors that are not mine. So long as she is helpless, I'd never leave her or ever let her have a sense that she was deserted.” Against all hope he concluded his letter with the wish that there might someday be a divorce by mutual consent. Meanwhile, he was walking through the empty rooms of his life like Gilbert in Infidelity.
He returned to Hollywood drunk, phoned Sheilah from the airport to tell her they were going to be married, that he had requested a divorce. When she saw and spoke to him, she realized that she was once more faced with the violent and despairing alcoholic she had had to deal with in Chicago. And, again, he vanished for a few days into the purgatory of emergency medical treatment before resurfacing to deal with the daily cares awaiting him on the third floor of the Thalberg Building.
After Scott's third unfortunate visit to Zelda, Sheilah worked to cure him, keeping him away from the bars in Beverly Hills and the temptation that was constant in the party atmosphere of the Garden of Allah. Heneeded exercise, she told him, fresh air, relaxation after his long days at the studio. A few days after his return she rented a house at Malibu Beach, number 114, forty-five minutes' drive from the M-G-M lot, where Scott could recover his health and zest for life. It was a white house with green shutters, and a garden reached through a trellised bower. There was plenty of room inside: a big, glassed-in living room, dining room, four bedrooms. A black-skinned cleaning woman named Flora kept the place sparkling clean, and she offered to do the cooking for fifty dollars a month. The rent was a hundred dollars a month below the three hundred he paid at the Garden of Allah.
Scott liked the house. It happened to belong to a friend, Frank Case, the manager of the Algonquin Hotel in New York, who was delighted to rent it to him. A six-month lease was signed April 22. The arrangement was that Sheilah would join him there on her free evenings and at the weekends; if Scott felt like staying in the city, he could sleep in the King's Road house.
The spring and summer he spent in Malibu were not particularly productive for him. He went on working for Stromberg, first for two weeks on a quickly aborted plan (he wrote only five pages) for a film biography of Marie Antoinette, then for five months, until the beginning of October, adapting Clare Boothe Luce's play The Women to the screen.
Added to the irritation of Fitzgerald's ridiculous job were his worries about Scottie's peccadilloes, which his imagination blew up out of proportion to their real gravity. On his return from Virginia he had planned to enroll his daughter in a group tour to Europe, partly so that she could brush up on her French and, also, to keep her busy during the summer, for there was no question of her vacationing in Hollywood without a chaperone. She was to have only a short visit there in early June. By April he was concerned about her lackadaisical way with her schoolwork. “The marks were really so very mediocre that, if I was Vassar, I wouldn't take you unless the school swore that you were a serious character—and the school is not going to swear you are a serious character if you let a prep school dance stand even faintly in the way of your success,” he warned in a letter on April 18.
The growing tension feeding Fitzgerald's obsession reached the breaking point when, on the eve of Scottie's departure for Hollywood, she was expelled from school for playing hooky to hitchhike to Yale. She was then preparing for her Vassar entrance exams and, of course, her expulsion set back her plans for college. Fitzgerald treated the incident as a tragedy and wrote her a long letter, stern and wounding. “My reforming days are over,” he scolded, “and if you are that way I don't want to change you. But I don't want to be upset by idlers inside my family or out. I want my energies and my earnings for people who talk my language. I have begun to fear that you don't. You don't realize that what I am doing here is the last tired effort of a man who once did something finer and better. There is not enough energy, or call it money, to carry anyone who is dead weight and I am angry and resentful in my soul when I feel that I am doing this.”
With this off his chest, Fitzgerald let himself be persuaded by Ober that the girl was only sixteen, after all, that the incident was not important if she was willing to work on her own to prepare for the entrance exams. So she went to Hollywood for a few days, as scheduled. Her stay must have been stormy, but on June 18, shortly after she left, Ann Ober wired Fitzgerald to tell him that Scottie had been accepted by Vassar. His delight was shortlived. A week later she ran away again. Another flurry of telegrams between New York and California, threats to cancel the European trip, finally a letter to Scottie telling her that “what I felt first, anger, then pity, then annoyance has solidified into a sort of disgust.”
In Malibu Fitzgerald avoided social gatherings. Even before he moved there, he and Sheilah had accepted few invitations, and when they did go out, they kept largely to themselves, sitting peacefully on a sofa, taking no part in the conversation, unnoticed, maintaining their intimacy amid the chatter and the wisecracks. Only once did he shed his reserve, when he met Thomas Mann; he spoke brilliantly of Mann's work, holding everyone under his spell. As they left, Mann took him aside and told him that Fitzgerald knew his work better than he did himself. The rest of the time, however, Scott stayed on the sidelines, saying little, observing the other guests, unable to summon any cocktail-party joviality—possibly because he refused to drink.
Even at the beach he seldom ventured out of the house, assiduously avoiding the sun, never going into the ocean. Weakened, easily chilled, sweating at night, he husbanded his strength and nursed his resentments. At the most he would walk along the beach with Sheilah at sunset.
To take his mind off his cares, she invited a few friends to Malibu one summer Sunday, including Eddie Mayer and his young son Paul, screenwriters Nunnally Johnson and Cameron Rogers and their wives, Marion and Buff. Scott had carefully organized the party, anticipating how it would develop, the games that would bring out everyone's best side; the high point was to be a Ping-Pong tournament.
Although he drank only water, Scott was the soul of gaiety; he seemed to have dismissed his troubles with Scottie and M-G-M from his mind. He was too jubilant, perhaps: was that really water he was drinking? Sheilah's fears were confirmed when she saw him suddenly hustle Johnson, who was getting ready to leave, into an adjacent room. She heard the key turn in the lock. Inside, after pocketing the key, he launched into a lecture about Johnson's having allowed Hollywood to corrupt his talent, enjoining him to leave the studios and return to New York. Johnson, who was extremely successful in Hollywood and who would later do the splendid screen adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath, objected that he did not consider himself a writer, that his talent was for writing movie scenarios. He finally realizedthat Scott was looking for a fight and was about to punch him. Luckily, the scene was interrupted by Sheikh and Marion calling and pounding on the door; on the promise that Johnson would leave Hollywood when his contract expired, Fitzgerald consented to open the door and allow him to leave.
As the Johnsons were getting into their car, Scott yelled after them, “You'll never come back here! Never!” Johnson turned toward him. “Of course I will, Scott, I want to see you and Sheilah again.”
“Oh, no you won't,” roared Scott. “Because I'm living with my paramour! That's why you won't!” It was an unusual word to use and it immediately suggested to Johnson that Scott was a Methodist; only a Methodist, he thought, could use so strict and hurtful a word as “paramour.”
In a way, Fitzgerald needed these outbursts, to blow off the steam that built up gradually in him. Once the pressure broke, once the violence ebbed and he had punished himself morally and physically, his destructive impulse gave way to guilt feelings; he felt responsible to Sheilah, whom he made the scapegoat for his frustration at work and the deep dissatisfaction that his relationships with Zelda and Scottie caused him. They were irresponsible. He had given them everything and they had done nothing in return but add to his disarray. They represented idleness, muddle, spoilage, the other side of him that he had left behind when he went to Hollywood. In Sheilah, on the other hand, he had found someone who had never received anything she had not earned by her own effort, who had escaped her sordid beginnings by dint of constant struggle and who fully deserved the standing and financial independence she had won. Yes, she was frivolous and ignorant, but she knew what her weaknesses were and tried to change them. Fitzgerald contrasted her sweet temper and willingness to please with the hangdog arrogance with which his wife and daughter resisted his attempts to educate them. Sheilah admired him as a writer, a cultivated man who enjoyed a luxury she had been denied and which she thought it disgraceful to lack: the luxury of knowledge.
She was exuberant, bright, dynamic, but she detested the idea that she was merely a good-looking woman who was courted for her charm. She felt left out of conversations about literature or history, dreamed of being admitted to the charmed circle to which the passwords were Proust and Mann. Her eagerness to learn was matched by Scott's love of teaching, training, admonishing. It was a vocation balked by Zelda, who had been too proud to owe him anything when it came to culture, and by Scottie, who seemed to be spoiling her chances for a sound education. His work frustrated it too, forcing him to drop unfinished scripts one after the other. In his common enterprise with Sheilah he found the permanence, gratitude and respect denied him elsewhere. Not to mention the profound pleasure of filling a need, of satisfying a willingness to learn. Fitzgerald's need to share what he had learned, which had so struck Mann, had also impressed Anthony Powell, who remarked that “he loved instructing. There was a schoolmasterish streak, if at the same time an attractive one; an enthusiasm, simplicity of exposition, that might have offered a career as a teacher or university don.”
The process that would lead, six months later, to a systematic study program got under way the day Sheilah heard Eddie Mayer mention Swann in Love. But she took fright when she realized that the English translation of Remembrance of Things Past took up seven volumes. Seeing her leaf through Swann in Love aroused Scott's interest, and his pedagogic instinct led him to take the matter in hand. Sheilah was not to be discouraged by the length and complexity of Proust's prose. The best way to take it, he decided, was in small doses. He carefully hid the other volumes to prevent her being intimidated by them. Reading Proust, she learned to read intelligently, to remain quietly seated with a book in her hands and lose herself completely in what she was reading. Scott spurred her interest in the book by explaining the plot's historical context, supplying biographical notes, identifying the models for Charlus and Albertine. Proust's characters became more real than the pale denizens of Beverly Hills. Sheilah caught herself imitating Madame Verdurin's mannerisms, hiding her face in her hands as though she were a prey to unspeakable emotions. Was the woman only pretending to cry and laugh? Sheilah asked Scott. And they tried to mime affliction or hilarity behind their hands.
Sheilah's education continued with the poets. Fitzgerald liked to recite verse to her during their walks. She was struck by the poignant beauty of the last stanza of Ode on a Grecian Urn. Scott had been seduced by Keats's poetry at Princeton; he knew the Ode by heart, and its forms and rhythms echo in all his work. When he and Sheilah returned to the bungalow, they found an anthology, and he gravely read the whole poem to her with the slightly theatrical manner we can still hear in the recording he made not long after. Then he leafed through other books and read her Andrew Mar-veil's To His Coy Mistress, which she found very modern; the feelings of love and lust expressed two and a half centuries ago, she thought, could easily be expressed the same way today. She asked Scott for a reading list, which he enthusiastically supplied.
As with Proust's book, he set up a precise daily program, obtained the necessary books, scribbling explanatory notes in the margins, referring the reader from one work to another for purposes of comparison. Soon Sheilah's course became a ritual; she devoted three hours a day to her reading, and every evening they discussed what she had read that day. To reward him for the infinite trouble he took to prepare her curriculum, she sometimes memorized a poem that she would recite to him during a lesson.
So the summer and early fall of 1938 passed. In September Scottie, back from Europe, came for a brief visit, which resulted in another blow to Sheilah's pride when Fitzgerald asked her to hide her personal effects at 114 Malibu Beach. On October 8 he finished work on the script for The Women and went on vacation. He spent a few days in Asheville, joined Sheilah in New York and went with her to Stamford, Connecticut, on the invitation of Bunny Wilson, who had just married Mary McCarthy. Still awed by his friend's immense erudition, Fitzgerald declared himself still the “ignoramus” he was at Princeton. Now, for a short while, the Malibu teacher once again became an attentive student. When he left, his reading list had been lengthened by the names of a few contemporary poets and that of a novelist, Franz Kafka, of whom he wrote to Perkins a week before his death, declaring that “he will never have a wide public but The Trial and America are two books that writers are never able to forget.”
By the time Fitzgerald returned to California, his Malibu lease had expired; because of the winter cold and dampness invading Malibu, he preferred not to keep the house. So Sheilah went house hunting again and found one in the sunny San Fernando Valley. This new place, at 5521 Amestoy Avenue, put Fitzgerald farther away from the M-G-M studios, but the rent was low, two hundred dollars a month, and the setting pastoral: there was a broad lawn, giant magnolia trees and a rose garden.
Fitzgerald's last assignment from Metro was an adaptation of a life of Marie Curie. His work was not accepted. In his December pay envelope was a notice from the accounting department informing him that his contract had not been renewed. Two months later, in a letter to Perkins, he tried to present his dismissal as a liberation: “I think it would be morally destructive to continue here any longer on the factory worker's basis. Conditions in the industry somehow propose the paradox: 'We brought you for your individuality but while you're here we insist that you do everything to conceal it.'“ Again in April he described the debilitating, Kafkaesque conditions under which scriptwriters worked: “this amazing business has a way of whizzing you along at a terrific speed and then letting you wait in a dispirited, half-cocked mood when you don't feel like undertaking anything else, while it makes up its mind. It is a strange conglomeration of a few excellent over-tired men making the pictures, and as dismal a crowd of fakes and hacks at the bottom as you can imagine.”
In terms of hard work and income, Fitzgerald's eighteen months with M-G-M had nevertheless been profitable. He had never before worked so steadily for so long; he had worked on six scripts totaling 2,400 pages. And he had never been so steadily and well paid: $88,457 in a year and a half. For the first time in his working life he not only did not borrow money, but was also able to pay everything he owed Perkins and Ober; in December 1938 his only creditor was Scribner's, and he was soon able to transfer to his own name the life insurance policy his publisher had been holding as security. Finally, and to him most important, he had been able to keep Zelda in her expensive hospital and send Scottie to college. Oddly, all this wasearned despite his repeated failures as a screenwriter (his sole credit was given him for Three Comrades, a film that he deprecated); in a way, he paid a stiff price for his prosperity.
In keeping with the resolutions announced in “Handle with Care,” Fitzgerald had applied himself to peeling away his illusions and literary ambition, to becoming a professional who wrote only for cash. From January 1938, when Esquire ran the last of his stories (“Financing Finnegan”) to be published before he left for Hollywood, until November 1939, his name was missing from the magazines. “Finnegan,” his farewell to literary exposition of his personal problems, is a slight and sarcastic study of his own career and his financial dealings with Perkins and Ober. Finnegan was his double: he had just broken his shoulder diving into a pool from a high board. “His was indeed a name with ingots in it. His career had started brilliantly and if it had not kept up to its first exalted level, at least it started brilliantly all over again every few years. He was the perennial man of promise in American letters.” Broke, improvident, he promises stories he does not deliver and is forever panhandling from his publisher and his agent. Finally they send him to the North Pole with a party of explorers, after insuring him heavily to cover his debts to them.
Even in 1937 Fitzgerald had been thought of as a survivor whose work belonged in the past. In her memoirs Sheilah told of his excitement on reading in the Los Angeles Times that an adaptation of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” was to be played at the Pasadena Playhouse, which often functioned as a tryout house for Broadway. He decided to see it on opening night and phoned to reserve two seats.
The usually crowded lobby was empty. Was this the wrong date? No, they were told, the play was indeed being given that evening, but on a stage upstairs that was used exclusively by a student company. Gamely they clumped up the stairs to a small, bare room in which a dozen empty benches were lined up. They sat down in the last row. Ten minutes before curtain time a few students arrived, looking quizzically at the two adults in evening clothes.
If anyone showed enthusiasm for this amateur production, it was the sophisticated couple in the rear who had wandered in among these blase, snickering youngsters. Scott went on applauding after the room emptied, and then he went backstage to congratulate the actors. As he left, he tried to make light of it all. “They were all nice kids,” he said to Sheilah. “They seemed a little awkward when I introduced myself. I told them they'd done a good job.” But he could not hide his disappointment for long; on the way home he was silent and scowling. Sheilah thought of the youngsters in the cast: “Of course they were awkward, ran through my mind. They were embarrassed to meet a man they had long thought dead.”
She had never read anything he had written and she wanted to. Pleased at her interest, he offered to buy her a complete set of his books. One eveningthey went to Hollywood's largest bookstore where, to his surprise, he was told that there were no Scott Fitzgerald novels in stock and that hardly anyone ever asked for them. It was not until they tried two more bookstores that they found someone to whom the name seemed to mean something and who offered to order the books. The polite, retiring man who escorted Sheilah to parties and first nights must always have been faced with the same reaction when she introduced him to her friends: startled looks, “a smile of surprise as though they were astonished to find that F. Scott Fitzgerald was still alive.”
Frustrated, humiliated, the writer who had prostituted himself for money now longed to be reborn. In March 1938 he had connected Thalberg's name to a remark, to Perkins, that he was making notes for a new novel. At the end of the year he sent his editor two suggestions for new editions of his work, one for a volume containing three of his novels, the other for a collection of stories, including Philippe. “I am desperately keen on both these schemes,” he wrote. “… I think it is a shame to put it off. It would not sell wildly at first but unless you make some gesture of confidence I see my reputation dying on its feet from lack of nourishment.” Perkins countered with the remark that a new novel would make reissues more attractive: why not try to arrange Philippe in book form during the summer? It was in reply to this that Fitzgerald mentioned his plans for a new novel, which he preferred to Philippe because the historical novel would have required too much revision and research. “Still, if periods of three or four months are going to be possible in the next year or so I would much rather do a modern novel,” he said. “One of those novels that can only be written at the moment when one is full of the idea—as Tender should have been written in its original conception, all laid on the Riviera.” In late May 1939 he was still trying to keep the subject of his new book a secret; he had not explicitly revealed it even to Perkins.
So he did feel some relief at being freed of the discipline imposed on him at M-G-M and at being able to look forward to some real writing. He hoped he could alternate profitable part-time work for the studios with work on his book. Ober was optimistic enough about his finding temporary movie work, but he was also afraid that a new novel meant new debts for Fitzgerald. The agent strongly urged him to accept other offers that would bring him enough cash to enable him to write his book without having to worry about money. And he entreated him to reduce his expenses to a minimum: “I know that it doesn't pay any author to work in Hollywood, unless he can keep his expenses down to where they would be somewhere else and keep a large part of what he makes for the future.”
In fact, the iron rule at Metro had protected Fitzgerald against himself: never had he been seen drunk on the lot. Now that he was on his own again and beset by financial problems, he could not have maintained the appearances he had been held to by his contract. Job offers, therefore, now grewscarce. In January he was still financially solvent; he continued to collect his salary for two weeks into the new year. Then David O. Selznick hired him to work on Gone with the Wind. “Working with Selznick,” Fitzgerald remarked, “is like being raised from the jungle to the court. I like Eddie but I hope I may never see the Metro factory again.” His satisfaction did not last long: he was fired two weeks later. Luckily, Walter Wanger, who was then producing at United Artists, asked him to help a twenty-five-year-old novelist named Budd Schulberg on a scenario in which the action centered on the Dartmouth College Winter Carnival.
Wanger and Schulberg were both Dartmouth alumni. They considered This Side of Paradise the best novel ever written about student life, and Schulberg admired Fitzgerald's work in general. The young novelist, who would later use him as a model for Manley Halliday, the unlucky writer in The Disenchanted, was struck by Fitzgerald's pallor, his spectral look: “There seemed to be no colors in him. The proud, somewhat too-handsome profile of his earlier dust-jackets was crumbled… The fine forehead, the leading man's nose, the matinee-idol set of the gentle, quick-to-smile eyes, the good Scotch-Irish cheekbones, the delicate, almost feminine mouth, the tasteful, Brooks Brothers attire—he had lost none of these. But there seemed to be something physically or psychologically broken in him that had pitched him forward from scintillating youth to shaken old age.”
The only interesting feature of the story they were working on was that it provided a pretext for delving into picturesque festivities on a snow-covered campus. Not very exciting for two talented men; it was a commercial job and they had to obey the rules, and progress on the script was barely perceptible. Worse still, Wanger, who expected to make his film at Dartmouth, suddenly realized how slowly they were going and insisted that both writers accompany him to New Hampshire.
Fitzgerald's discomfort concerning his relationship with Sheilah showed in the fact that, while she traveled in the plane with him as far as New York, he told Schulberg she was just a friend. At Hanover, where the hotels were full because of the carnival, the writers found that no rooms had been reserved for them. They were finally stuck in an icy attic furnished with nothing but a double-decker steel bunk. There they went on talking and drinking in a sort of hallucinatory atmosphere, in a panic because they were stalled on the script.
Scott was drunk all the time. He was seen stumbling through the snow, wrapped in a ragged overcoat, with a stubble of beard on his cheeks. When he was called to order by the asssistant director, he tried to phone Sheilah, declared that he was going to see Zelda and drew indignant comments from the professors at a cocktail party. Finally, after improvising some obscene songs, he staggered off through the dark streets, leaning on Schulberg's arm. He encountered Wanger on the steps of his hotel and was fired on the spot. He and Schulberg left Hanover by train. Fitzgerald had worked only oneweek on Winter Carnival, and a month went by before he found another job, working with Donald Stewart on a Paramount film called Air Raid. He lasted another week in this, then had to quit, possibly because his binge at Dartmouth had weakened his health.
It was five more months before he got another chance to earn money: in the second half of August he put in a week's work for Universal, in September a day for Twentieth Century-Fox and a week for Samuel Goldwyn. Then nothing more for six months.
In The Disenchanted, Schulberg's hero dies during the Dartmouth carnival. He probably had not seen under Fitzgerald's crumbling mask his tenacity, the capacity to suffer and survive like an exhausted long-distance runner. The months that followed the Dartmouth episode confirmed the defeat of the man who had set out to conquer Hollywood, the failure of his struggle against alcoholism (for he had drunk no liquor between the incident at Malibu and his arrival at Dartmouth). But they also witnessed the writer's resurrection, in doubt and pain. His difficulty in reviving his creative energy after years of inertia strained his relations with Sheilah; there were violent rows to which the humiliation she had tolerated the previous summer was merely a prelude.
At the beginning of April Fitzgerald was intent on beginning the modern novel he had mentioned to Perkins. He hired a college graduate named Frances Kroll as his secretary for $150 a month, good pay for a beginner then. But she soon found how big a job she had taken on. She was not just a secretary, but also confidante and factotum, as Isabel Owens and Laura Guthrie Hearne had been; she was called on to shop for her boss, send out his laundry, buy the books and records for Sheikh's education, pay the bills and dispose of empty liquor bottles in a number of places to avoid offending Fitzgerald's neighbors. She was routed out of bed by phone calls in the middle of the night summoning her to go and fetch the Master from wherever he had passed out. Frances performed all these chores with grace and skill; she well deserved the Proustian nickname Francoise, by which Fitzgerald addressed her in his innumerable notes to her.
Like most of the women who knew him, Miss Kroll was conquered by his charm despite his manifest weaknesses. Demanding as he was, she appreciated his wit, his generosity and, especially, the courtliness that made him seem a refugee from another era. “His attitude toward women and his courtly manners were aspects of him that were utterly removed from the twentieth century with which he is so identified,” she later wrote. She noted that he was “a private drinker and rarely belligerent… He was reluctant to acknowledge his alcoholism and in writing to family or friends invariably made references to being bedded, or running temperatures.” And her woman's-eye view of him corrects Schulberg's more rhetorical portrait of him: “He was handsome, but faded, except for the bright blue of his eyes. His clothes had seen better days. He didn't indulge in a wardrobe until just a few months before his death when he bought a Brooks Brothers suit, and was delighted with his purchase as a child with a treat.”
When he hired her, he told her he was writing a novel about Hollywood and made her swear she would not tell anyone about it. And before getting the job, she had to pass another test: “I want you to put your name down, Miss Kroll,” he told her. “Would you get me my notebook in that top bureau drawer?” She opened the drawer and saw a dozen bottles of gin neatly lined up beside the notebook. Fitzgerald, watched her ironically. She closed the drawer without betraying any curiosity or showing the slightest disapproval. She was hired at once.
It was Sheilah who reported the scene. For despite her scoldings and pleading, he now drank openly. Once, when Sheilah found a pile of empty bottles and berated him for drinking in her absence, he went to a closet, retrieved a full fifth from its cache, uncapped it and took a long drink from the bottle.
Resigned, she accepted Scott as he was, settling for a promise that he would give her his car keys and wallet when he was going to get drunk. His daily ration rose to a little over a pint of gin a day. Despite her resolution not to cause any more scenes, Sheilah raged and wept when he was tight and sometimes refused to see him for several days afterward.
After one particularly nasty quarrel, he took a plane to Asheville and, without warning, trundled Zelda off to Cuba, fulfilling a wish she had made in one of her recent letters. The trip was a disaster, with Zelda plunged in a state of religious fervor while Scott toured the bars. At one point he stumbled into a cockfighting arena and, shocked by the fight's cruelty, tried to stop it; indignant spectators beat him up.
From Havana he and Zelda flew to New York, where Zelda, convinced he was not going to sober up, turned him over to her sister Clothilde and her husband and took the train alone to North Carolina. She left him a pathetic note asking him to come and live with her in a small lakeside house near Tryon; in a tactful, Highland Hospital style, she explained that she had abandoned him only because, after their idyllic stay in Cuba, he would have to go to a hospital to have his lungs treated—as he indeed did.
Back in Hollywood after his treatment, Scott sent her a deeply tender letter. In May he seriously considered bringing her to California for a month. But the wretched Cuban trip was their last chance to try to return to the close relationship they had not had for years. A few weeks later he made it up with Sheilah, and his thoughts turned to other things. In fact, the early summer of 1939 was the last time he would ever see his wife and daughter. Only his affectionate, nostalgic letters, made more poignant by distance, preserved feelings that the divergences in their lives threatened to stifle.
In the same period another break with the past, harsher and more final, separated Fitzgerald from Ober. We recall the agent's advice to Fitzgerald when his M-G-M contract expired and money grew tight again. Ober rightly feared that Scott would again be caught up in the infernal cycle of advances and debts. This is just what did happen when Fitzgerald's meager savings disappeared, exhausted partly by the costly medical care he needed after every bender. Late in June 1939 he wired a request for a five-hundred-dollar advance on two inferior stories that were finding no buyers. Ober cabled him the money and wrote him a letter of warning, which he could not bring himself to mail. “I think,” the letter said, “… it would be a great mistake for us to get back into the position we were in. I think it is bad for you and difficult for me. … In any case, I think I ought to let you know that I cannot start loaning you money which means my borrowing money which is expensive and which is a thing I do not like to do.”
Two weeks later Fitzgerald again asked for money. Ober refused. Fitzgerald then sent a long telegram to Perkins asking for a loan of six hundred dollars, mentioning his agent's defection, the deplorable state of his own health since his return from New York and the fact that he was flat broke. Another cable went to Ober on July 13, reproachful and insistent on an advance “so that I can eat today and tomorrow.” This too was refused. On July 18 Fitzgerald wrote a long letter to Ober thanking him for all he had done for him and Scottie in recent years, but firmly announcing that he was terminating the services of the man who had represented him since 1919. Throughout his career Fitzgerald had relied on Ober, and the loss of the sense of security the agent's constant efforts must have given him had to have been a severe blow. “When Harold withdrew from the questionable honor of being my banker,” he later remarked to Perkins, “I felt completely numb financially and I suddenly wondered what money was and where it came from. There had always seemed a little more somewhere and now there wasn't.”
So Fitzgerald entered the summer of 1939 sick, poor and with most of his emotional ties cut. He lived like a hermit in Encino, working in bed while a record-breaking heat wave made the air irrespirable, dictating notes and plans for his novel, writing the first publishable stories he had turned out since his arrival in Hollywood in 1937, “The Lost Decade” and “Design in Plaster.” Beginning in September, he would write two or three short short stories a month for Esquire built around a small-time, alcoholic scriptwriter named Pat Hobby, a weak and contemptible character who lived from hand to mouth and could never land a steady job. Like everything Fitzgerald sold to Esquire, the stories brought in little money—two hundred fifty dollars at first, then three hundred. Little as this was, it did restore his confidence that he could live by writing. And in projecting a ridiculous image of an erratic and irrecoverable alcoholic, he was also trying to propitiate fate, to achievewhat his wretched double could not do, to see himself clearly and laugh at his own degradation and so to overcome it.
Fitzgerald's professional problems now, as during his time with M-G-M, intruded into his relationship with Sheilah. A few days after rejections from both the Post and Collier's, which had once fought for his stories, he picked up two tramps on Ventura Boulevard and took them home to Encino for dinner. When Sheilah got there, she found him drunk, distributing his ties, shirts and Brooks Brothers suits to the filthy, bearded hoboes, with whom Scott seemed perfectly at ease. She told them to return the clothes they were trying on and suggested that it was time they left. Scott demurred: “Why should they go, Sheilah? I told you they're my friends… Don't talk like that to my friends… You go. These are my friends. Old friends.”
She threatened to call the police. This was language the tramps understood. They ostentatiously laid the clothes on a chair and nonchalantly disappeared. Scott did not react immediately. Sheilah heated some soup and served it to him, hoping food would dilute the alcohol. But he just sat in his chair, grumbling helplessly that his friends had been badly treated, that he had never been so insulted in his life. Suddenly he leaped up, rushed to the table, grabbed up the soup plate and hurled it against the wall. Sheilah began cleaning up the mess; as she headed for the kitchen to dispose of the broken crockery, he stepped in front of her and slapped her as hard as he could. Drawn to the noise, a nurse who happened to be in the building came in and tried to calm him. “Oh, you think she needs protecting, eh?” Fitzgerald screamed. “You think she's something worth protecting? … She's right out of the slums of London … her name's not Sheilah Graham, it's Lily Sheil, Lily Sheil!”
When the nurse tried to step between them, he kicked her in the shin. She ran out; Sheilah tried to follow her, but he again blocked the door. “You're not going,” he said. “… I'm going to kill you.” She sat down without showing how frightened she was, knowing that if she lost her head, the situation could become really dangerous. Never taking his eyes from her, Fitzgerald searched for his revolver. But when he went into the kitchen and fumbled through drawers there, she phoned the police and, before he could stop her, gave them the address and asked for help. He let her leave then. All through the night the phone rang in her North Hayworth Avenue apartment. She answered it the first time; it was Scott. After that she let it ring. The next morning at dawn she received a threatening letter from him addressed to Lily Sheil Graham.
A few days later, after withstanding a siege of telephone calls and death threats, she received a contrite letter from him that dimmed the memory of those terrible days: “I'm glad you no longer can think of me with either respect or affection. People are either good for each other or not, and obviously I am horrible to you. I loved you with everything I had, but something was terribly wrong. You don't have to look far for the reason—I was it. Not fit for any human relations. I just loved you—you brought me everything. And it was very fine and chivalrous—and you.”
She tried to drive him out of her mind; she began going out again, rediscovering the pleasure of being courted, happy, she told her friends, because she had “returned to circulation.” But she was not rid of Scott. He paid a visit to her apartment in her absence; a few evenings later, while dressing to go out, she looked in vain for the silver fox jacket he had given her two years before. Obviously, he had taken it. Furious, she reported the theft to her insurance agent, who contacted Fitzgerald. He admitted having taken the fur, but he contended that it was his and that he had merely lent it to Miss Graham. Under threat of arrest, he agreed to return it to her. It would take a few days, however: he had sent it to Scottie as a Christmas present.
This time Sheilah was determined to break off her affair with Scott once and for all, to wipe out all trace of it. She began by tearing out of Scott's books all the title pages on which he had written dedications to her. His theft of the fur jacket, on top of everything else that had happened, seemed the worst thing he had done. “I don't want to see his name again, I don't want to hear his name again, I don't want to be reminded of him,” she declared. “I hated this man. He had betrayed me. He had betrayed my most secret confidences—my name, the orphanage—my background. He had struck me; he had threatened to kill me, he had tried to make me lose my job; and most infuriating of all, he had stolen my precious silver-fox jacket, the first real fur I ever had, so dear to me that I dared not even lean back in it!”
She did not see him again for five weeks. To her relief, she returned to an uneventful life woven of parties, first nights, dinner dances. Her self-confidence returned, and she now joined in conversations with an intellectual maturity that won approval from the men whose culture and talent she respected. She was popular in Hollywood society, and her column, “Hollywood Today,” now syndicated in sixty-five newspapers across the country, had made her influential. From no one, however, did she get the kind of searching and critical attention Scott paid her.
He sent her roses, and she didn't refuse them. Frances went to see her the following day, ostensibly to return a suitcase full of personal items, and said that Scott had stopped drinking and was hard at work on the second chapter of his novel. Sheilah listened coldly. She did not know that this visit was part of Fitzgerald's strategy; when Frances returned to Encino and told him that she had seen the roses on Sheikh's desk, his face brightened and he exclaimed, “I've got her!”
When he called her one Saturday evening and asked to see her the next morning, she did not have the heart to refuse. He took her up into the Hollywood hills overlooking Los Angeles, where they had a long, quiet,friendly talk. He was sure he was going to write a good book. He spoke sensibly about his drinking problem, tracing it to its source and analyzing its effects. The forgetfulness he sought in liquor, he said, was worse than the reality he was trying to forget. He had sworn never to touch the stuff again and he solemnly assured her that he would keep his promise. She could help him regain his balance. He needed her. This was what she wanted to hear, what she wanted to believe.
With lucidity and humility, he also reviewed his position in the film world. He was capable now of being ironic about his illusions, even to Scottie. “I'm convinced,” he told her, “that maybe they're not going to make me Czar of the Industry right away, as I thought 10 months ago. It's all right, baby—life has humbled me—Czar or not, we'll survive. I am even willing to compromise for Assistant Czar!”
Just when he thought he would never work in a studio again, that he was blacklisted, when he tried to exorcise the spectacle of his disgrace by identifying with Pat Hobby, he was given an incredible break. Lester Cowan, an independent producer, had bought the screen rights to “Babylon Revisited.” He offered a pittance, nine hundred dollars, for the rights, but hinted that Fitzgerald would write the screenplay himself. Up to then, except for Infidelity, Scott had always worked on other writers' often inferior products, sometimes having to follow them as faithfully as though they had been Holy Writ. “Do you know,” he wrote to Perkins, “that in the Gone with the Wind job I was absolutely forbidden to use any words except those of Margaret Mitchell; that is, when new phrases had to be invented one had to thumb through as if it were Scripture and check out phrases of hers which would cover the situation?”
Now, he exulted to Zelda, he could “write as I please upon a piece of my own and if I can make a reputation out here (one of those brilliant Hollywood reputations which endure all of two months sometimes) now will be the crucial time.” This, he said, seemed the last life buoy Hollywood was going to throw him.
Fitzgerald completed a first draft of the script, 146 pages long, on May 29, then spent two more months on it. The second version, cut to 130 pages, was ready July 30, under the title Cosmopolitan. In ten weeks of work over a period of four months he had earned $4,500 at the rate of $450 a week, an almost insulting salary in Hollywood. True, he did not have to show up at the studio every day and could work alone in Encino.
With the screenplay ready, the search began for a director and a cast; at one point there was some question of giving the lead to Shirley Temple. Nothing came of it and the film, like so many others, was temporarily shelved. It is to be noted in passing that Cowan later sold the script to M-G-M for $100,000 and that the film, completed in 1954, was released under the title The Last Time I Saw Paris, borrowed from Elliot Paul.
Never mind: for Fitzgerald, who had sold his story to The Saturday Evening Post in 1931 for $4,000, the money Cowan paid him was a godsend that kept him going all spring. In a curious way his screenplay in some ways echoed the novel it had temporarily interrupted. Like Stahr in the book, the movie's Wales is a hardworking captain of industry threatened by his associates. Each is a widower, haunted by his wife's memory, whose zest for life is restored by a poor girl's love. None of this figured in “Babylon Revisited.” The extrapolations simply mirror Fitzgerald's emotional and professional cares in the last years of his life.
His financial situation was less desperate than it had been the year before. Although his income in 1940 would be about what it had been in 1939—some fourteen thousand dollars—his expenses had dropped sharply. Sobriety paid: since his reconciliation with Sheilah, his medical bills had plummeted. Not seeing Zelda may also have helped steady him. After a year's campaigning, she had finally been allowed to leave the hospital. Four years and one week after entering Highland, she rode a bus alone to Montgomery to live with her mother. Fitzgerald hesitated a long time before agreeing to the arrangement, which considerably reduced his expenses; he offered to give her a monthly allowance of $120, half of which would go to Mrs. Sayre for Zelda's maintenance.
His rent went down, too. After his eighteen months in Encino, Sheilah found him an apartment near hers, on the top floor of a three-story building at 1403 North Laurel Canyon, which cost $110 a month, about half what he had been paying until then. He took possession in mid-June, after a two-week visit with Sheilah to the San Francisco World's Fair. This was a new turning in his life, and before leaving for San Francisco, he explained his attitudes in a letter to Perkins. Europe was at war; that very day he had heard a radio report of the fall of Saint-Quentin, northwest of Paris, to the Germans. He thought of France and of Andre Chamson, of the past from which the war had now cut him off so brutally. At the time he was writing a nostalgic essay about his generation, the one formed in the First World War. “I have never loved any men as well as those who felt the first springs when I did,” he wrote, “and saw death ahead, and were reprieved—and who now walk the long stormy summer step in step with me. If my generation was ever lost it certainly found itself. It is staunch by nature, sophisticated by fact—and rather deeply wise. And in this tragic year, so like another year, I keep thinking of a line of Willa Cather's, 'we possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.'“
He was nevertheless obliged to recognize that he had fewer and fewer friends. Only Murphy and Perkins had unreservedly supported him in the previous five years. “It's funny what a friend is,” he remarked in a letter to Perkins. “Ernest's crack in 'The Snows,' poor John Bishop's article in the Virginia Quarterly (a nice return for ten years of trying to set him up in a literary way) and Harold's sudden desertion at the wrong time, have made them something less than friends. Once I believed in friendship, believed Icould (if I didn't always) make people happy and it was more fun than anything. Now even that seems like a vaudevillian's cheap dream of heaven, a vast minstrel show in which one is the perpetual Bones.” For even Bishop, whose literary enterprises Fitzgerald had always backed, seemed to have gone over to the enemy and taken up Hemingway's line. The Virginia Quarterly article referred to in the letter was published in 1938, and Fitzgerald just happened across it two years later; it said he had been expelled from Princeton and, again, that he sought the company of the rich.
His break with the past added importance to Fitzgerald's estimate of his status as a writer. In his letter to Perkins he again paraded his grievances: “I wish I was in print. It will be odd a year or so from now when Scottie assures her friends I was an author and finds that no book is procurable. It is certainly no fault of yours… Professionally, I know, the next move must come from me. Would the 25-cent press keep Gatsby in the public eye—or is the book unpopular? Has it had its chance? … But to die, so completely and unjustly after having given so much! Even now there is little published in American fiction that doesn't slightly bear my stamp—in a small way I was an original.”
Fitzgerald was also concerned about the war in Europe. He followed its progress on maps, argued with Sheilah about Britain's ability to resist the Germans, was delighted at the British evacuation from Dunkerque. He turned back to Spengler, conceding the tightness of his notion of “the world as spoil” and his prophecy of “gang rule,” but he recognized the basic irony of his position: “Poor old Spengler has begotten Nazis that would make him turn over in his grave.”
He questioned Perkins about Hemingway's opinions: “How does Ernest feel about things? Is he angry or has he a philosophic attitude? The Allies are thoroughly licked, that much is certain, and I am sorry for a lot of people. As I wrote Scottie, many of her friends will probably die in the swamps of Bolivia.” The letter alluded to, written on June 7, goes at length into the causes and possible consequences of the war, the sheepish-ness of American communists and, as indicated, the possibility of an invasion of South America.
The decline of the West, France's defeat—all this was still a distant echo of his private battle. In his personal theater of operations the stakes were also high. “I am not a great man,” he told Scottie, “but sometimes I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value has some sort of epic grandeur.” Instead of adopting a heroic posture, he identified himself in his novel with Thalberg, in whom he saw the last of the great individualists, a man who made himself by talent and force of will alone.
The Last Tycoon is written around this exceptional man's tragic struggle and the circumstances specific to the United States in the 1930s. It illustrates Fitzgerald's conviction, one he had held for twenty years, that life is tootough for people. He believed, he told his daughter, “that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not 'happiness and pleasure' but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.”
In September Darryl Zanuck, the boss at Twentieth Century, hired Fitzgerald at a salary that seemed high after the miserable sum Cowan had paid him. The engagement, which brought him over seven thousand dollars, lasted until October 11. His assignment was to adapt Emlyn Williams's The Light of Heart to the screen. Was this an exercise in black humor for Zanuck, who had met Fitzgerald several times in France when the writer was at the top of his fame? The story Fitzgerald was being asked to adapt concerned a has-been, alcoholic actor struggling to support his crippled daughter. Scott was replaced on it by Nunnally Johnson, whom he had once advised to leave Hollywood forever.
In letters following his replacement, he announced to Zelda that he was resuming work on his novel and would try to finish it in two months—mid-December—while living on the money he received from Zanuck. “My room is covered with charts like it used to be for Tender Is the Night, telling the different movements of the characters and their histories. However, this one is to be short, as I originally planned it two years ago, and more on the order of Gatsby.” And, four days later: “I am deep in the novel, living in it, and it makes me happy. It is a constructed novel like Gatsby, with passages of poetic prose when it fits the action, but no ruminations or sideshows like Tender. Everything must contribute to the dramatic movement.” Another note to Zelda late in November affirmed that the novel “will, at any rate, be nothing like anything else as I'm digging it out of myself like uranium—one ounce to the cubic ton of rejected ideas. It is a novel a la Flaubert without 'ideas' but only people moved singly and in mass through what I hope are authentic moods.”
Five days after sending that last letter he was taken ill at Schwab's drugstore. The following morning he consulted his doctor, who told him he had experienced a cardiac spasm and prescribed rest, forbidding him to climb the three flights of stairs to his apartment. Sheilah immediately installed him in a ground-floor room in her apartment on North Hayworth Avenue, and he went on working, sitting up in bed. In a letter to Zelda on December 6 he minimized the incident: “No news except that the novel progresses and I am angry that this little illness has slowed me up. I've had trouble with my heart but never anything organic. This is not a major attack but seems to have come on gradually and luckily a cardiogram showed it up in time… Everything is my novel now—it has become of absorbing interest. I hope I'll be able to finish it by February.”
Most of his time he spent in bed now, writing on a table he had made in Encino during his convalescence. “The cardiogram shows that my heart isrepairing itself but it will be a gradual process that will take some months. It is odd that the heart is one of the organs that does repair itself.”
In the last letter he wrote to his wife, dated December 19, 1940, he regretted not being able to give her even a modest Christmas present. He urged her to say nothing to Scottie, who was expected in California on a year-end visit, about the strain that paying for her studies at Vassar would entail.
Fitzgerald did come out of his isolation occasionally. On Friday the thirteenth he had spent the evening with Nathanael West and his bride, Eileen. He thought West's latest novel, The Day of the Locust, was better than Schulberg's What Makes Sammy Run?, which had also been bought for the movies. Scott and West had become friends, and West had spent a pleasant evening at the Encino house along with the Hacketts and Elliot Paul, in whose honor Scott sang “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”
A week later, on Friday, December 20, he finished the first episode in chapter 6 of Tycoon, in which a drunken Stahr is knocked down by the union leader he had taunted. Fitzgerald's doctor was to come by that evening to take an electrocardiogram. Absorbed in his work, resenting the interruption, Scott asked Sheilah to call the doctor and postpone the visit until the following day. He wanted to go out after dinner to celebrate his completion of a section that had given him a good deal of trouble. Sheilah had invitations to the premiere of a film comedy, This Thing Called Love, starring Melvyn Douglas and Rosalind Russell. As they left the showing, Fitzgerald staggered and leaned on her arm. “I feel awful,” he told her. “Everything started to go as it did in Schwab's. … I suppose people will think I'm drunk.” She walked him slowly out to the car, pretending that they were deep in conversation. He was very pale, but he refused to see a doctor immediately, since he was to be examined the next day in any case. So he drove calmly home, feeling better by the time he got there, took a sleeping pill and fell asleep at once.
In the morning Sheilah brought him his breakfast in bed. He worked a while on his chapter 6, then dressed and helped Sheilah write a letter that had to be done tactfully: she was sending an evening dress she had worn only once, along with the silver fox jacket of dolorous memory, to Scottie for Christmas. Scott told her what to say to avoid wounding his daughter's pride. Then Sheilah made sandwiches and coffee while he read newspaper accounts of the tripartite agreement just signed by Germany, Italy and Japan; now, he thought, the United States will have to get into the war. If his book made money, he would imitate Hemingway and go to Europe as a war correspondent.
Scott settled into his chair by the fireplace and began to read an article on the Princeton football team in an alumni magazine Miss Kroll had brought him. Sheilah curled up on the sofa with a biography of Beethoven. Out ofthe corner of her eye she saw Scott suddenly stand up, reach for the chimney and slide noiselessly to the floor. He lay on his back, his eyes closed, his breathing ragged. Sheilah thought wildly about what to do: open his shirt collar? feed him brandy? His doctor would be here at any moment, she thought, but time passed with no sign of him; no one answered his phone. She called another physician, then ran to fetch the janitor. He bent over Fitzgerald's prostrate form and found no heartbeat. Francis Scott Fitzgerald was exactly forty-four years, two months and twenty-seven days old. His death certificate gave the time of death, as declared by Frances Kroll, as 5:15 p.m. December 21, 1940. Cause of death: coronary occlusion.
Fitzgerald had made a will before going to Hollywood. It began, “Part of my estate is first to provide for a funeral and burial in keeping with my station in life.” Later, probably in 1939, when he was no longer earning a steady income from M-G-M, he had crossed out the word “funeral” with a pencil and written in “the cheapest funeral,” adding, “without undue ostentation or unnecessary expense.” Of the $700 he had in cash when he died, $613 went to the undertaker. Among the other effects he left were a trunk of clothes, a smaller trunk full of souvenirs, a carton of photographs and notebooks, four crates of books, two wooden tables, a lamp, a radio… The life insurance against which he had so often borrowed would provide for Zelda and Scottie.
Fitzgerald's body was laid out in the back room of the William Wordsworth funeral parlor on Washington Avenue. Friends, screenwriters, actors, a few producers paid their respects. One left a macabre description of the made-up face that he said resembled a store dummy “in technicolor”: “not a line showed on his face. His hair was parted slightly to one side. None of it was gray. Until you reached his hands, this looked strictly like an A production in peace and security. Realism began at the extremities. His hands were horribly wrinkled and thin, the only proof left after death that for all the props of youth, he actually had suffered and died an old man.”
Dorothy Parker, who had known Fitzgerald in his wild years and in his anguish, was among those who lingered longest at his bier. Her eyes fixed on his face, she repeated the words that were said over Gatsby's grave: “The poor son-of-a-bitch.” She felt sorry for Sheilah. At a Christmas party she gave, she saw how upset Sheilah was and left her guests to shepherd her to her bedroom and make her lie down. Mrs. Parker stayed with her and wept with her.
Fitzgerald had wanted to be buried beside his Maryland ancestors in tiny St. Mary's Catholic Cemetery in Rockville. His coffin was shipped to Baltimore by train. A few days later Sheilah, to whom Scottie had made it clear that her presence would not be welcome at the funeral, left Hollywood for New York with the idea of returning to Britain. In the train she met SidneyPerelman, who had been with her and Fitzgerald at the Wests' dinner party on Friday the thirteenth. He was escorting the bodies of his sister and brother-in-law—Eileen and Nathanael West—who had been killed in an automobile accident the day after Scott's death.
The bishop of Baltimore refused to allow Fitzgerald to be buried in consecrated ground: Scott's books were considered immoral; besides, he had not received last rites. So the body was buried in the nearby Rockville Union Cemetery; an Episcopalian minister, less doctrinaire than his Catholic colleague, officiated. Some thirty relatives and friends were at the graveside, in the rain, at dusk on December 27. Here again, someone could have quoted one of the few things said at Gatsby's burial: “Blessed are the dead that the rain falls on.”
With Scottie, Ceci and Rosalind, who represented the family—Zelda had not felt up to making the trip—the mourners included two Princeton friends, Fowler and Biggs; the two men who had done the most to further Fitzgerald's career, Perkins and Ober; as well as the Murphys and the Turn-bulls. Wilson could not attend, but he wrote the same day to Zelda: “I have been terribly shocked by Scott's death… Though I hadn't seen much of him of recent years, we had a sort of permanent relationship, due to our having known one another at college and having started writing at the same time. It has brought so many things back—the day when you and he arrived in New York together—and I have been thinking about you a lot these last few days. I know how you must feel, because I feel myself as if I had been suddenly robbed of some part of my personality—since there must have been some aspect of myself that had been developed in relation to him.”
Zelda seemed not to have been as shattered by her husband's death as might have been feared. In fact, as had happened when her father died, it was months before she felt the blow. Then she had to return to Highland for a while. She continued to write and paint, was subject to spells of mysticism, lived apart from the world. When she had first entered Highland Hospital, Fitzgerald had defined their relationship in a letter to Sara Murphy: “In an odd way, perhaps incredible to you, she was always my child (it was not reciprocal as it often is in marriages). My child in a sense that Scottie wasn't, because I've brought Scottie up hard as nails… Outside of the realm of what you called Zelda's 'terribly dangerous secret thoughts' I was her great reality, often the only liaison agent who could make the world tangible to her.” He had finally conceded that she would never again be well. “How strange,” he mused, “to have failed as a social creature—even criminals do not fail that way. They are the law's 'Loyal opposition,' so to speak. But the insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”
Zelda did not attend Scottie's marriage in February 1943 to Lieutenant(j.g.) Samuel J. Lanahan in New York, but she was uprooted by the birth of her first grandchild three years later. She would occasionally leave her mother in Montgomery and spend a few days in New York with Scottie, or in Asheville for treatment.
In November 1947, shortly before her second grandchild was born, she had to return to the hospital. Six months later, on the night of March 10-11, the hospital's main building, in which she and thirty other patients were housed, caught fire. Miss Ella's flaming dress, the fire at La Paix, the tortured figures in Zelda's paintings—all these seemed to prophesy these last moments. Locked in her room on the top floor, she and nine other women died in the flames. Her body was identified through a dental examination.
Scottie buried her beside Scott in the Union Cemetery, on the slope of a tree-shaded hill. Until a few years ago the common grave was marked by a simple headstone that read:
Francis Scott Key
September 24, 1896-December 21, 1940
July 24, 1900-March 10, 1948
In 1975 St. Mary's Cemetery, by then absorbed into the suburbs of Washington near an expressway junction, was officially declared a historic monument. Fitzgerald's wish was then realized: his daughter obtained permission to transfer his and Zelda's remains to this enclave of history where for three centuries his ancestors had blended with the dust of Maryland.
Moved by an ecumenical spirit, the cardinal archbishop of Baltimore received the lost sheep into the bosom of the Church. His message of religious reconciliation also showed shrewd understanding of the quality of Fitzgerald's imagination: “F. Scott Fitzgerald came out of the Maryland Catholic tradition. He was a man touched by the faith of the Catholic Church. There can be perceived in his work a Catholic consciousness of reality. He found in this faith an understanding of the human heart caught in the struggle between grace and death. His characters are involved in this great drama, seeking God and seeking love. As an artist he was able with lucidity and poetic imagination to portray this struggle. He also experienced in his own life the mystery of suffering and, we hope, the power of God's grace.”
For a fairer perspective, we should translate this theological language into terms more accessible to a spirit whose realm was the earth—substitute “seeking holiness,” perhaps, for “seeking God,” or “a state of grace” for “God's grace.” The message of Fitzgerald's life and work would gain in truthfulness, and perhaps in grandeur. For if, as E. M. Cioran maintained, his was “a Pascalian experience without a Pascalian mind,” it was also testimony to the limitations of a man who, after long years of mundane frivolity, struggled and sacrificed without the help of faith to achieve self-renunciation. And who acceded in the process to the supreme dignity of those who acknowledge defeat but go on fighting.
Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography by Andre LeVot (French: Paris: Julliard, 1979; English: Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983 - translated by William Byron).