In November 1921 the Fitzgeralds moved from their water-damaged summer home in Dellwood to a late-Victorian house at 626 Goodrich Avenue, three blocks south of Summit Avenue, in St. Paul. While awaiting the appearance of his new novel, Fitzgerald worked on his play, The Vegetable. The winter was long, cold and melancholy. Sobered by the repressive atmosphere and by the responsibility of caring for a new baby, Zelda was not in the mood for parties and discouraged visitors. Both she and Scott found provincial life very boring. In early March 1922 they made a brief visit to New York for the publication of Scott's novel.
The Beautiful and Damned was gratefully dedicated to three early mentors-Shane Leslie, George Jean Nathan and Maxwell Perkins-"in appreciation of much literary help and encouragement." The book covers the same prewar to postwar period (approximately 1910 to 1920) as This Side of Paradise, and also describes the personal history and genteel Romanticism of a wealthy and attractive young man. But while the earlier novel is witty, flippant and lighthearted, the later is ponderous and tragic, twice as long, less "literary" and more static. Its title suggests the protagonists' movement from the pampered life of the beautiful to the suffering of the damned.
The damnation (such as it is) is mainly caused by alcohol. Toward the end of the book the broken, debt-ridden hero, Anthony Patch, "awoke in the morning so nervous that Gloria [his wife] could feel him trembling in the bed before he could muster enough vitality to stumble into the pantry for a drink. He was intolerable now except under the influence of liquor, and as he seemed to decay and coarsen under her eyes, Gloria's soul and body shrank away from him." Anthony's drunken decline and unhappy marriage reflect Fitzgerald's personal problems and anticipate those of Dick Diver in Tender Is the Night.
Money plays as dominant a role in this novel as it does in the Naturalistic works of Dreiser and Norris, whom Fitzgerald greatly admired. Anthony's relentless pursuit of money is very different from Amory Blaine's long denunciation of capitalism in This Side of Paradise. The middle name of the cynical, decadent and potentially wealthy hero, Anthony Comstock Patch, ironically alludes both to Anthony Comstock, a fierce contemporary crusader against vice, and to the Comstock Lode, the most valuable silver deposit in America, found near Virginia City, Nevada, in 1859. Anthony is born into a wealthy family, graduates from Harvard and lives on the expectation of a multi-million-dollar fortune. He is ruined, however, by having sufficient income so that he does not have to work, but not quite enough to maintain his luxurious way of life. The word "clean" recurs throughout the novel to describe beautiful or elegant women and mornings of hard work. But at the very end of the book, when the Patches are corrupted by inheriting thirty million dollars, Anthony overhears a fellow passenger describing the luxuriously dressed Gloria as "unclean."
Wealth-or the promise of wealth-turns Anthony into a facile mediocrity. He believes nothing is worth doing and refuses to work, dabbles with a medieval essay and rejects his grandfather's offer to make him a war correspondent. As friends succeed in their own careers, Anthony dissipates himself in wild and finally repulsive parties during which "people broke things; people became sick in Gloria's bathroom; people spilled wine; people made unbelievable messes of the kitchenette." When his rich, priggish grandfather sees Anthony at one of these parties, he is horrified at his deterioration and disinherits him. After failing as a salesman, Anthony becomes seedy and unhealthy, and-like Gordon Sterrett in "May Day"-is cruelly rejected when he tries to borrow money from his old friend Maury Noble.
Before his precipitous decline, Anthony courts and marries the beautiful, vain, selfish and stupid Gloria Gilbert, who "took all the things of life to choose from and apportion, as though she were continually picking out presents for herself from an inexhaustible counter."1 She hates staying home in the evening, always eclipses other women at parties and wants to marry a lover rather than a husband. Her marriage to Anthony is predictably wrecked by boredom and wastefulness, futile fighting and joyless parties.
Gloria's unhappy marriage makes her responsive to Joseph Bloeckman, the vice president of a film company, who does business with her father and who rises in the course of the novel as the more genteel characters decline. Like Samuel Goldwyn, Louis Mayer and most other movie executives of Fitzgerald's time, Bloeckman was a Jewish immigrant who started life in the humblest circumstances. After managing a side-show and owning a vaudeville house, he entered the film industry, in which his ambition, money and knowledge of show business propelled him to the top. When first introduced in the novel, he is insensitive, ingratiating and self-assured-and hopelessly in love with the wealthy and stylish Gloria.
Later in the novel, as Anthony becomes bored and Gloria disillusioned, Bloeckman reappears-now "infinitesimally improved, of subtler intonation, of more convincing ease"-and tempts her with a screen test. At the end of the long novel, the impoverished and humiliated Anthony has been rejected by all his friends. In a desperate attempt at blackmail, he impulsively phones Bloeckman (now called Joseph Black), who has usurped Anthony's rightful place in society and tried to steal his wife. He finds Bloeckman in a nightclub and falsely accuses him of keeping Gloria out of the movies. When Anthony calls him a "Goddamn Jew," Bloeckman beats him up and has him thrown into the gutter.
The Beautiful and Damned, like most of Fitzgerald's fiction, is extremely autobiographical. The Fitzgeralds' house in Westport, their servant Tana (who also appears in Save Me the Waltz) provided by the "Japanese Reliable Employment Agency," their extravagance, quarrels and drinking all appear in the novel. The long-awaited fortune is based on the sudden wealth acquired after the publication of This Side of Paradise, Gloria's movie test on an offer made to Scott and Zelda to star in the film version of that novel, Bloeckman's courtship of Gloria on Nathan's of Zelda, the laconic discussion about whether or not the pregnant Gloria should have a child ("If you have it I'll probably be glad. If you don't-well, that's all right too") on Zelda's decision to have her first abortion. Anthony has the same name as Zelda's father; and Gloria seems to have all Zelda's worst features without any of her redeeming qualities. As Scott later told their daughter: "Gloria was a much more trivial and vulgar person than your mother. I can't really say there was any resemblance except in the beauty and certain terms of expression she used, and also I naturally used many circumstantial events of our early married life… We had a much better time than Anthony and Gloria had."2
The novel powerfully expresses Fitzgerald's fear of failure, sense of lost happiness and feeling of imminent collapse. Anthony's friend Richard Caramel, who publishes a decent novel and then becomes a contemptible example of a commercial and Hollywood hack, prefigures Fitzgerald's career as a compromised writer. Fitzgerald clearly saw Zelda's threat to his future as a writer, but could neither change his domestic life nor stop writing about it. Confused at times between his imaginative and his real existence, he behaved like his own fictional characters and would eventually be overcome by the very doom he had foreshadowed in The Beautiful and Damned.
The reviewers were kind to the novel and felt it represented a considerable improvement on This Side of Paradise. The liveliest notice, "Friend Husband's Latest" in the New York Tribune of April 2, 1922, was written by Zelda. In her first published work, she wittily urged readers to buy the book because Scott needed a winter overcoat and she craved an expensive cloth-of-gold dress and platinum ring with a complete circlet. She revealed, for the first time, that Scott-with her permission-had absorbed bits of her writing into his novel: "On one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald-I believe that is how he spells his name-seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home." Two years later, after Zelda had published two articles, an interviewer in the Smart Set emphasized her idiosyncratic style and exaggerated his use of her material: "Mrs. Fitzgerald writes also. She has a queer, decadent style, luminous in its imagination, and very often Scott incorporates whole chapters of his wife's writing into his own books. He steals all her ideas for short stories and writes them as his own." Critics realized, early in Fitzgerald's career, that his novels ruthlessly exposed their emotional conflicts and made Zelda a participant in his fiction as well as a partner in his marriage.
Writing more seriously about The Beautiful and Damned in the Nation, Carl Van Doren concluded that "its excellence lies in the rendering not of the ordinary moral universe but of that detached, largely invented region where glittering youth plays at wit and love." In the Smart Set, the normally acerbic H. L. Mencken provided loyal praise: "Fitzgerald discharges his unaccustomed and difficult business with ingenuity and dignity… If the result is not a complete success, it is nevertheless near enough to success to be worthy of respect. There is fine observation in it, and much penetrating detail, and the writing is solid and sound… [With this novel] Fitzgerald ceases to be a Wunderkind and begins to come into his maturity."
Eager as always for honest criticism that would help him as a writer, Scott was particularly interested in the responses of Bishop and Wilson. In the New York Herald, Bishop emphasized the art and the vitality of the novel: "the book represents both in plan and execution an advance on This Side of Paradise. If, stylistically speaking, it is not so well written, neither is it so carelessly written… Fitzgerald is at the moment of announcing the meaninglessness of life [one of the themes of the novel] magnificently alive."3
In 1921 Fitzgerald had solicited Wilson's comments on the typescript of the novel, just as he had done with the typescript of This Side of Paradise in 1919. Wilson, who would eventually supplant Mencken as the most influential critic in America, must have been pleased by his brief but flattering appearance in The Beautiful and Damned as Eugene Bronson, "whose articles in The New Democracy [The New Republic] were stamping him as a man with ideas transcending both vulgar timeliness and popular hysteria." In February 1921 Wilson had told a friend that he was impressed by Fitzgerald's ability to describe the seeds of destruction in his own marriage: "I am editing [not merely reading] the ms of Fitz's new novel, and, though I thought it was rather silly at first, I find it developing a genuine emotional power which he has scarcely displayed before… It is all about him and Zelda." Wilson also reported that alcohol had aged Fitzgerald's handsome profile at the same time that experience had tempered his mind: "He looks like John Barrymore on the brink of the grave … but also, somehow, more intelligent than he used to."4
Wilson served as both private editor and public critic. He showed Fitzgerald his rather cruel composite review of the first two novels (to be published in the Bookman of March 1922) when it was still in typescript. Appreciating the serious analysis, Fitzgerald modestly accepted his comments on the unconvincing characters, the "lack of discipline and poverty of aesthetic ideas," and even told George Jean Nathan that he had enjoyed reading Wilson's criticism. Though he asked Wilson to delete references to his drinking and his criticism of the war, which would have offended Zelda's parents and hurt his reputation, he told him: "It is, of course, the only intelligible and intelligent thing of any length which has been written about me and my stuff-and like everything you write it seems to me pretty generally true. I am guilty of its every stricture and I take an extraordinary delight in its considered approbation. I don't see how I could possibly be offended at anything in it"-though Wilson clearly felt he well might be. Less confident and resilient authors might have been discouraged by the review, but Fitzgerald, mining the scrap of praise, was particularly pleased by Wilson's conclusion that "The Beautiful and Damned, imperfect though it is, makes an advance over This Side of Paradise: the style is more nearly mature and the subject more solidly unified, and there are scenes that are more convincing than any in his previous fiction."
The financial success matched the critical approval of the novel. It sold fifty thousand copies in the first few months and Fitzgerald earned another $2,500 by selling the film rights to Warner Brothers. But he was extremely unhappy when he saw the film in 1922 and told Oscar Kalman: "it's by far the worst movie I've ever seen in my life-cheap, vulgar, ill-constructed and shoddy. We were utterly ashamed of it."5
After a few months in St. Paul, the Fitzgeralds moved out to the lake for the summer season of 1922 and stayed at the White Bear Yacht Club, which relieved Zelda of her tedious household duties. Following the pattern established in 1920 by the publication of a novel and then a volume of stories, Fitzgerald capitalized on the success of The Beautiful and Damned by publishing his second collection of stories, Tales of the Jazz Age, in September 1922. In a letter to Max Perkins, written two months before publication, Fitzgerald used a culinary metaphor to comment on the disparate elements in the book: "I don't suppose such an assorted bill-of-fare as these eleven stories, novelettes, plays & 1 burlesque has ever been served up in one book before in the history of publishing."
In fact, he had had a difficult time finding sufficient material to round out his menu. He threw into the stew every story he had written since Flappers and Philosophers, except two extremely trivial pieces, and included three early works-"The Camel's Back," "Porcelain and Pink" and "Mr. Icky"-which he had excluded from his previous collection. The most innovative aspect of the book was the introduction to each story in the table of contents. Fitzgerald revealed that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (which echoes the title of several Sherlock Holmes stories) "was inspired by a remark of Mark Twain's to the effect that it was a pity that the best part of life came at the beginning and the worst part at the end." In this fantasy, the hero is born an old man of seventy, gets progressively younger instead of older and finally becomes an infant. Fitzgerald also boasted that in January 1920 he had rapidly dashed off "The Camel's Back": "it was written during one day in the city of New Orleans, with the express purpose of buying a platinum and diamond wristwatch which cost six hundred dollars. I began it at seven in the morning and finished it at two o'clock the same night."6
Fitzgerald's note seems to confirm the idea expressed in Zelda's review that his writing had to be justified, even validated, by rapid composition and bountiful payment. It promoted an image of a hasty, superficially brilliant and calculating artist who controls the form as he dominates the commercial market. His self-created image of the story writer is very different from the author of the novels. The real Fitzgerald used the intimate details of his life in his work, struggled to find a form that would express his ideas and would spend years perfecting his novels.
Later on, Fitzgerald took a more serious view of Tales of the Jazz Age, which included two of his best stories: "May Day" and "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz." In his essay "Early Success" he emphasized the tragic aspect of his work and compared his doomed characters to those of a far more pessimistic English novelist. There was "a touch of disaster in them-the lovely young creatures in my novels went to ruin, the diamond mountains of my short stories blew up, my millionaires were as beautiful and damned as Thomas Hardy's peasants." In his Notebooks of the 1930s, he stressed his devotion to his craft, and his emotional and artistic exhaustion, punning on the double meaning of "price"-both the payment he received for the stories and the personal cost of writing them: "I have asked a lot of my emotions-one hundred and twenty stories. The price was high, right up with Kipling, because there was one little drop of something, not blood, not a tear, not my seed, but me more intimately than these, in every story, it was the extra I had. Now it is gone."7
Though it is impossible to reconcile this Romantic view of the artist, wringing his works out of his heart, with the many formulaic pieces he turned out, his best stories express the same themes as the novels. Though not as intimately self-revealing as in The Beautiful and Damned, in "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" (1922) Fitzgerald does something more interesting: he deliberately imitates and parodies Edgar Poe's most famous story, "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839).
Distancing himself from his youthful hero's obsession with the rich and disillusion with money, Fitzgerald cast his fable in the form of a fantasy-an extremely odd mixture of fairy tale, social satire, conventional romance and gothic horror. Poe characteristically emphasizes the decay and horror, Fitzgerald the glamour and luxury of the house; Poe's heroine is diseased and moribund, Fitzgerald's "the incarnation of physical perfection"; Poe has a tragic, Fitzgerald an ambiguously happy ending, but the numerous parallels, once perceived, are as clever and amusing as they are unmistakable.
Fitzgerald echoes the name of Poe's Usher by calling his hero Unger. In both stories a young man, Poe's narrator and Fitzgerald's naive schoolboy, is invited to visit an "intimate" boyhood friend. The neurasthenic Roderick Usher comes from an ancient family, and Percy Washington boasts to the provincial Unger that his father is the richest man in the world. Both visitors represent a conventional ordinariness, a certain norm of behavior that helps to define the bizarre nature of the events they observe.
The narrator in Poe and the naive hero in Fitzgerald see their friends as part of a doomed family in a cursed house. Both mansions have intricate subterranean passages and are remote, isolated and unreal. Situated near a tarn, or lake, the monstrous houses contain an oppressive secret, and reflect the fearful mood of their inhabitants. Poe rolls out his familiar rhetoric and creaky gothic paraphernalia when describing the gloomy landscape and the decrepit building, with its barely perceptible fissure zigzagging down the facade from the roof to the watery foundation:
[I looked] upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain-upon the bleak walls-upon the vacant eye-like windows-upon a few rank sedges-and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees-with an utter depression of soul.
Fitzgerald adjusts his Babylonian fairyland style to match the pathological menace and corrupt attraction evoked by Poe:
The Montana sunset lay between two mountains like a gigantic bruise from which dark arteries spread themselves over a poisoned sky… After half an hour, the twilight had coagulated into dark.
Poe's hothouse rhetoric: "What was it-I paused to think-what was it that so unnerved me in the contemplation of the House of Usher?" is echoed in John Unger's troubled questions when he first arrives at the mountain house: "What desperate transaction lay hidden here? What moral expedient of a bizarre Croesus? What terrible and golden mystery?" Poe mentions the sentience of vegetable matter-the proliferating fungi that overspread and the decayed trees that surround the house-which reflects the doom of the family. Fitzgerald imitates the idea of the house as prison by describing an old family trapped, stupefied and corrupted by its selfish accumulation of useless wealth and by the enormous diamond that cannot be sold lest it destroy the economic foundations of the world.
Roderick Usher's dissipated artistic endeavors-his dreary dirges, phantasmagoric paintings and morbid poetry-are parodied in Fitzgerald by a kidnapped "landscape gardener, an architect, a designer of stage settings, and a French decadent poet" who fail to create as expected, go mad and are confined to a mental asylum. Only a crude "moving picture fella" from Hollywood succeeds in designing the lavish reception rooms and luxurious baths.
Both visitors briefly glimpse their host's sister as she passes through the house. Madeline Usher is cursed by the secret sexual guilt she shares with her brother. Kismine Washington (Unger's girlfriend and kismet, or fate) is cursed by the murder of the friends who had visited her in the past, could not be permitted to betray the secret wealth to the outside world, and were sacrificed after they had provided distraction and pleasure for the family.
Fitzgerald echoes the premature entombment of Madeline in one of the numerous vaults beneath the House of Usher in Braddock Washington's incarceration of the captured aviators in a deep, Poe-like pit, covered by an iron grating. Both young men are suddenly awakened in the middle of the night by a strange, frightening noise. Poe's familiar physiological description of fear when Usher realizes he has entombed the living Madeline:
there came a strong shudder over his whole person; a sickly smile quivered about his lips; and I saw that he spoke in a low, hurried, and gibbering manner,
is equaled by Fitzgerald's fantastic simile when Unger perceives that the Washingtons have murdered their guests:
Stunned with the horror of this revelation, John sat there open-mouthed, feeling the nerves of his body twitter like so many sparrows perched upon his spinal column.
In Poe, Usher throws back the ebony jaws of the huge antique panels to reveal his vengeful, blood-stained sister. In Fitzgerald, the ebony panel of one wall slides aside to reveal a uniformed manservant who assists Unger with his bath. Madeline murders her brother; Percy Washington's grandfather was also compelled to murder his brother, who had the unfortunate Poe-and-Fitzgerald-like habit "of drinking himself into an indiscreet stupor." At the end of both stories the evil houses are completely destroyed, but the visitors manage to escape.
If the Ushers' sin is incest (a dominant theme in Tender Is the Night), the Washingtons' is greed; and both sins lead to the final destruction of their family, dynasty and class. Building on Poe's story, Fitzgerald shows his hero moving from sheer enjoyment of the overwhelming luxury to an awareness of evil in the House of Washington and to a condemnation of its perverse corruption. Fitzgerald indicates, by the name of the family, that his purpose is allegorical and satirical. The House of Washington represents a vulgar, greedy America where everything-freedom, human values, art and culture-is sacrificed to gross wealth.
In "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" Fitzgerald adds some witty remarks ("There go fifty thousand dollars' worth of slaves at prewar prices," cries Kismine, when the servants' quarters are destroyed by an aerial bombardment. "So few Americans have any respect for property") and he invents a brilliant scene in which Kismine's father, like Satan tempting Christ, offers a futile bribe to God. Unlike her father, Kismine has so slight a respect for property that she innocently carries away rhinestones instead of diamonds, and leaves herself and Unger penniless but virtuous at the end of the story. Fitzgerald's tale is a caustic warning about the American Dream. It reveals the illusory power of great wealth and the impossibility of being both rich and happy.
Fitzgerald's story, like Poe's, ends on a disillusioned and despairing note. John Unger realizes that without the diamonds to sustain him he will not be able to love Kismine for more than a few years. In "The Crack-Up" Fitzgerald returned to the bitter conclusion and the dominant symbol of his early Poesque story in order to illustrate the difference between authentic and meretricious experience: "In thirty-nine years an observant eye has learned to detect where the milk is watered and the sugar is sanded, the rhinestone passed for diamond and the stucco for stone."8
When the Minnesota summer had ended and they had been asked to leave the White Bear Yacht Club, the Fitzgeralds became utterly weary of wholesome provincial life and unable to face another dreary season of arctic winds and ice floes. In mid-October 1922 they eagerly returned to the Plaza Hotel, the center of their legendary life in New York. They soon found a comfortable place to rent at 6 Gateway Drive in Great Neck, an affluent town on the north shore of Long Island, about an hour from Manhattan. Alluding to Sinclair Lewis' bestselling satire on the American businessman, Zelda called it our "nifty little Babbitt-house."
In the early 1920s, before the film industry moved to Hollywood, many millionaires and celebrities from show business-Sam Goldwyn, Eddie Cantor, Ed Wynn, the actress Mae Murray and the songwriter Gene Buck as well as General John Pershing and Herbert Swope, the editor of the New York World, whose lavish parties inspired Jay Gatsby's-lived in Great Neck. At one party that October, Fitzgerald proudly told his cousin Cecilia Taylor, he met the English novelist Hugh Walpole, the columnist Franklin P. Adams, the Irish tenor John McCormack, the composers Rudolf Friml and Deems Taylor. His neighbors also included the popular actor Ernest Truex, who would star in Fitzgerald's play The Vegetable, and the sportswriter Ring Lardner, who became Scott's close friend.
Born in Niles, Michigan, in 1885, Lardner had been a journalist in Chicago and New York. He had written baseball stories in You Know Me, Al (1916), and had also published books of verse, satirical stories and a comic novel. "A tall sallow mournful man with a high-arched nose … dark hollow eyes and hollow cheeks," Lardner had a long, somber face that resembled Buster Keaton's. His son recalled that Ring, a puritan in his attitudes, found Zelda quite different from anyone he had ever known. He was impressed by her unconstrained speech and behavior, intrigued by her startling eyes and her pure complexion. Ring flattered Zelda with witty poems just as Nathan had done with seductive letters. But the courtly tributes of the married Lardner, unlike those of the bachelor Nathan, seemed harmless. Zelda found Ring less interesting than Nathan and, in a letter to Xandra Kalman, dismissed him as "a typical newspaper man whom I don't find very amusing." She probably thought Ring was a bad influence on her husband.
Ring found Scott a stimulating and responsive friend as well as a great admirer of his work. They shared a Midwestern background, an interest in sports, a dedication to the craft of writing and an addiction to drink. But they were affected very differently by alcohol. While Ring remained solemn and dignified, Scott became aggressive and vulgar. An alcoholic who could hold his drink, Ring became a model for the kind of drinker Scott would have liked to be. But he was also the mirror image of the doomed drinker that Scott feared he might become. The two congenial neighbors would stay up all night, talking and drinking gin, until Ring staggered to his feet and announced: "Well, I guess the children have left for school by this time-I might as well go home."9 His son recalled that his father would often arrive home in a taxi as he was leaving for school and would have to be helped into the house.
In May 1923 Scott heard that Joseph Conrad, on a visit to America, was staying at the estate of his publisher, Frank Doubleday, in nearby Oyster Bay. Scott, who had kept a vigil outside Anatole France's house in 1921, now got drunk with Ring and, in a typically high-spirited but childish episode, danced on Doubleday's lawn in order to pay homage to the great novelist. But they were apprehended by a vigilant caretaker and thrown off the grounds for trespassing before they could gate-crash the house and attract Conrad's attention. Too timid to arrange a serious conversation, Scott did not seem to realize that a drunken dance was not the best way to impress the formal old sea captain, who always insisted on correct behavior.
Fascinated by the Fitzgeralds' personalities, Ring portrayed them in his work. In What of It? (1925) he said: "Mr. Fitzgerald is a novelist and Mrs. Fitzgerald is a novelty." In his burlesque of a popular fairy tale, he portrayed Scott as Prince Charming and colloquially wrote: "Her name was Zelda but they called her Cinderella on account of how the ashes and clinkers clung to her when she got up noons." And, exaggerating Scott's precocious literary debut, Ring remarked: "Mr. Fitzgerald sprung into fame with his novel This Side of Paradise which he turned out when only three years old and wrote the entire book with one hand. Mr. Fitzgerald never shaves while at work on his novels and looks very funny along towards the last five or six chapters."10
During the Christmas season of 1923 the two friends exchanged witty poems that expressed their mutual affection. Parodying the spirit of Christmas giving, Ring wrote:
We combed Fifth Avenue this last month
A hundred times if we combed it onth,
In search of something we thought would do
To give a person as nice as you.
We had no trouble selecting gifts
For the Ogden Armours and Louie Swifts,
The Otto Kahns and the George F. Bakers,
The Munns and the Rodman Wanamakers.
It's a simple matter to pick things out
For people one isn't wild about,
But you, you wonderful pal and friend, you!
We couldn't find anything fit to send you.
Parodying Ring's parody, Scott revealed their similarity of style and taste. Shifting the venue to the distinctly less elegant Third Avenue, he varied Ring's catalogue of millionaires (including the transportation executive Teddy Shonts) and imitated his "down-hoem" diction:
You combed Third Avenue last year
For some small gift that was not too dear
-Like a candy cane or a worn out truss-
To give to a loving friend like us
You'd found gold eggs for such wealthy hicks
As the Edsel Fords and the Pittsburgh Fricks
The Andy Mellons, the Teddy Shonts
The Coleman T. and Pierre du Ponts
But not one gift to brighten our hoem
-So I'm sending you back your Goddamn poem.
After the Fitzgeralds had settled on the Riviera in May 1924, Ring sent Zelda a mock-serious love poem in which he tried to steal her away from her unworthy husband and lure her back to Prohibition-damned America:
So, dearie, when your tender heart
Of all his coarseness tires,
Just cable me and I will start
Immediately for Hyeres.
To hell with Scott Fitzgerald then!
To hell with Scott, his daughter!
It's you and I back home again,
To Great Neck where the men are men
And booze is 1/2 water.11
Scott, who kept a careful record of his publications and was eager for literary fame, was shocked by Ring's indifference to-even scorn for-his own work. Ring Lardner, Jr., reporting a characteristic incident, wrote that "getting into a taxi with a friend, Ring dropped a manuscript and the pages scattered in the street. The friend gathered what he could, but there were two pages missing. 'Makes no difference, it's for Cosmopolitan,' Ring said." In 1923 Fitzgerald collected a dozen of Ring's best stories by photographing old issues of magazines in the public library and persuaded Max Perkins to publish them under the catchy but misleading title, How to Write Short Stories (1924). Ring's parodic introduction to his stories in this volume was influenced by Scott's flippant introduction in Tales of the Jazz Age (1922). Scott's patronage helped arouse interest in the book, which first attracted serious critical attention to Ring's sardonic humor.
Ernest Hemingway had once admired and imitated Lardner. But he was unimpressed by this volume and jealous of Scott's admiration for Ring's work. In April 1926, just after Scott had dedicated All the Sad Young Men "To Ring and Ellis Lardner," Hemingway rather harshly wrote: "Your friend Ring is hampered by lack of intelligence, lack of any aesthetic appreciation, terrible repressions and bitterness." But Scott reaffirmed his admiration and tried to explain the reasons for this bitterness in one of his finest and most revealing essays-the obituary memoir of Ring Lardner in 1933.
Scott idealized his old friend as "Proud, shy, solemn, shrewd, polite, brave, kind, merciful, honorable," and added that these qualities aroused people's affection as well as their awe. He poignantly recalled his last visit to Ring, when alcohol had undermined his health and made him seem like a memento mori: "it was terribly sad to see that six feet three inches of kindness stretched out ineffectual in the hospital room. His fingers trembled with a match, the tight skin on his handsome skull was marked as a mask of misery and nervous pain," and he seemed pursued by impenetrable despair. In a self-reflective passage, Scott wrote that Ring "had, long before his death, ceased to find amusement in dissipation." Thinking of Ring's minatory example and of his own sell-out to Hollywood and the Post, Scott declared: "whatever Ring's achievement was, it fell short of the achievement he was capable of, and this because of a cynical attitude toward his work."12
Scott paid his final tribute to Ring by portraying him as the alcoholic composer Abe North in Tender Is the Night (1934). "His voice was slow and shy," Scott wrote, "he had one of the saddest faces [she] had ever seen, the high cheekbones of an Indian, a long upper lip, and enormous deep-set dark golden eyes." Though physically and intellectually impressive, Abe is also weak, self-indulgent and bitter. His friends are aware of his talent, but frightened by his urge to self-destruction: "All of them were conscious of the solemn dignity that flowed from him, of his achievement, fragmentary, suggestive and surpassed. But they were frightened at his survivant will, once a will to live, now become a will to die."13
Fitzgerald's move from St. Paul to New York placed him in the center of literary life, enabling him to keep in touch with old friends and meet a number of new writers: John Dos Passos, P. G. Wodehouse, Van Wyck Brooks, Carl Van Vechten, Theodore Dreiser and Rebecca West. The nearsighted and introspective Dos Passos was the grandson of an immigrant cobbler from Portuguese Madeira and the illegitimate son of a successful New York lawyer. Born in Chicago in 1896, he had been educated in Europe and at the Choate School. After graduating from Harvard, he drove ambulances during the war in France and Italy. He had traveled widely in Spain and the Middle East; and his war novel, Three Soldiers (1921), had been favorably reviewed by Fitzgerald in the St. Paul Daily News.
Dos Passos first met Scott and Zelda at the Plaza Hotel in October 1922. They introduced him to Sherwood Anderson, gave him cocktails and champagne, and then asked the shy writer embarrassing questions about his sex life. Anderson left after a lunch of lobster croquettes, and Dos Passos drove out to Great Neck in their chauffeured red touring car to help them search for a house. They had plenty of time to talk that day and Dos Passos found Fitzgerald interesting, despite his intellectual limitations: "When he talked about writing his mind, which seemed to me full of preposterous notions about most things, became clear and hard as a diamond. He didn't look at landscape, he had no taste for food or wine or painting, little ear for music except for the most rudimentary popular songs, but about writing he was a born professional."
After searching in vain for a suitable house, they visited Ring Lardner, who was completely drunk. On the way back to the city, they stopped at an amusement park. Dos Passos and Zelda rode together on a Ferris wheel, and an alarming gulf opened between them when he realized that she was emotionally disturbed: "I had come up against that basic fissure in her mental processes that was to have such tragic consequences. Though she was so very lovely, I had come upon something that frightened and repelled me, even physically." Zelda sulked and Scott drank during the rest of the trip, and Dos Passos was glad to part with them in front of the Plaza.
Though most writers emphasized Fitzgerald's drunkenness and bizarre behavior, the English humorist P. G. Wodehouse found Scott sober and charming, though rather seedy, when he ran into him at the village train station. As Wodehouse wrote to a friend: "I have also met Scott Fitzgerald. In fact I met him again this morning. He was off to New York with Truex, who is doing his play The Vegetable. I believe these stories you hear about his drinking are exaggerated. He seems quite normal, and a very nice chap indeed. You would like him. The thing is he goes to New York with a scrubby chin, looking foul. I suppose he gets a shave when he arrives, but it doesn't show him at his best in Great Neck. I would like to see more of him."14
In contrast to Wodehouse, the wealthy, Harvard-educated critic and biographer Van Wyck Brooks remarked on Fitzgerald's unconventional behavior and conspicuous extravagance. After arriving late for a Manhattan dinner party in 1923, the Fitzgeralds promptly fell asleep at the table. Scott went to lie down more comfortably in the living room, but woke up suddenly to take command of the festivities and "telephone an order for two cases of champagne, together with a fleet of taxis to take us to a night club."
The following year, Edmund Wilson used Brooks in his dialogue, "Imaginary Conversations: Mr. Van Wyck Brooks and Mr. Scott Fitzgerald," to contrast the two men. Continuing his critical debate with Fitzgerald, Wilson attributed his own ideas to the thorough, learned and scholarly Brooks, who "knows far more about American literature than anybody else in the world," and gave Brooks all the best lines. In this conversation, Brooks, the mouthpiece for Wilson, freely censured Fitzgerald for haste, superficiality and commercialism; for writing too much and too fast; and for allowing himself to be corrupted by high-paying magazines like the Post. This influential and frequently reprinted essay contained some useful admonitions, and portrayed Fitzgerald as foolish, shallow and outclassed by the heavyweight critic.
The sophisticated aesthete and novelist Carl Van Vechten first met Fitzgerald at a New York party in 1923, saw him socially in Hollywood and Delaware, and photographed him in 1937. Like Dos Passos and Brooks, Van Vechten usually saw Scott when he was getting drunk and quarreling with Zelda. He closely observed the Fitzgeralds, who were trying to live up to their dashing reputation, and portrayed them as David and Rilda Westlake in his novel Parties (1930). In this work Rilda influences most of David's behavior. He does everything either to please or to annoy her, and they torture each other because they love each other. But, Rilda complains, with considerable insight: "Our damned faithfulness, as you call it, our clean 'fidelity,' doesn't get us very far. We follow each other around in circles, loving and hating and wounding. We're both so sadistic. It's really too bad one of us isn't a masochist."15
Van Vechten was present-along with Mencken, Sherwood Anderson, Burton Rascoe and the novelist Llewelyn Powys-at a deadly party given by Theodore Dreiser. The dour novelist had no idea how to entertain his guests, lined them up in straight-backed chairs, did not introduce them to one another and failed to provide any drink. At this point Fitzgerald staggered in drunk, clutching a bottle of excellent champagne. In an attempt to enliven the proceedings, he generously declared: "Mr. Dreiser, I get a great kick out of your books," and handed over the precious bottle. Instead of offering it to his thirsty guests, Dreiser carefully placed it in the icebox, and the party sank back into its torpor.
Another social mishap occurred just after Fitzgerald told Thomas Boyd, early in 1924, that the young English novelist "Rebecca West and a rather (not too) literary crowd are coming out Sunday for a rather formal party and Zelda's scared." Fitzgerald told Rebecca West, the guest of honor, that someone would pick her up and drive her from Manhattan out to Great Neck. Due to a typical misunderstanding, she was not picked up. Since she did not know Fitzgerald's address, she spent the entire evening waiting for his call in her hotel room. Insulted by her failure to appear, Fitzgerald made fun of her at dinner. When they were finally reconciled on the French Riviera in the summer of 1925 Zelda, always uncomfortable with intellectuals, cattily said that West looked "like an advertisement for cauliflower ears and [was] entirely surrounded by fairies-male."16
Apart from Lardner, Fitzgerald's most important friend during the Great Neck years was the patrician war hero and polo star, Tommy Hitchcock, whom he often saw playing in championship matches at the Meadow Brook Club on Long Island. Born into a wealthy, upper-class family in 1900, Tommy attended the Fay School and St. Paul's. During the war, while still in his teens, he joined the legendary Lafayette Corps of flyers. Shot down and wounded in German territory, he escaped to Switzerland by jumping off a moving train. His bravery earned him the Croix de Guerre with three palms.
After the war Tommy attended Harvard and (like Jay Gatsby) spent a term or two at Oxford. He married a steel heiress, became a successful investment banker with Lehman Brothers and dominated the international polo scene as a ten-goal player from 1919 to 1939. Tommy's biographer writes that "he was deficient in the graces, as 'country' aristocrats often are, sloppy in dress and awkward in manner; but he possessed in full measure the virtues valued by his class: modesty, loyalty, and magnanimity… [Scott's Princeton friend] David Bruce, who shared an apartment with Hitchcock during World War II, went so far as to call him the only 'perfect' man he'd ever met."17
Fitzgerald idolized Tommy, who had many of the qualities he himself desired. Tommy had the great wealth, social class and fine breeding of Gerald Murphy (whom Scott would meet in 1925) combined with the good looks, athletic ability and heroic war record of Ernest Hemingway. In April 1929 Scott told Perkins that a French book was about to appear that would describe Tommy's daring escape from the German train. In his Notebooks, Scott contrasted two of his personal heroes and suggested how they would become models for the fictional characters in Tender Is the Night: "Difference in conversation between Gerald Murphy and Tommy Hitchcock. Tommy doesn't answer foolish questions or trivial questions [from Fitzgerald]… Trace a character who once was like Gerald and who now tends toward Tommy Hitchcock's impatience with fools." Toward the end of his life, Scott used Tommy's career to inspire his daughter to take her college studies more seriously: "Tommy Hitchcock, who came back from England in 1919 already a newspaper hero in his escapes from Germany and the greatest polo player in the world-went up to Harvard in the same year to become a freshman-because he had the humility to ask himself 'Do I know anything?' That combination is what forever will put him in my pantheon of heroes."
Tommy Hitchcock inspired Scott's portrait of both Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby and Tommy Barban in Tender Is the Night. Hitchcock was an exceptionally powerful man with wide shoulders and big arms. Sensing in the urbane, charming and greatly admired Tommy a ruthlessness, even brutality, which had enabled him to become "the greatest polo player in the world," Scott attributed these qualities to his fictional characters. Like Tommy Hitchcock, Tom Buchanan came from an enormously wealthy family, was a nationally known sports figure and was seen "wherever people played polo and were rich together." Buchanan's clothes could not "hide the enormous power of that body-he seemed to fill those glistening boots until he strained the top lacing, and you could see a great pack of muscle shifting when his shoulder moved under his thin coat. It was a body capable of enormous leverage-a cruel body."
In Tender Is the Night, as in The Great Gatsby, the rather delicate Fitzgerald stresses Tommy's physical power. He writes of the tough soldier of fortune, Tommy Barban: "He was tall and his body was hard but overspare save for the bunched force gathered in his shoulders and upper arms."18 Like Hitchcock, Barban has the Harvard manner and intimidates men with his overwhelming courage.
Fitzgerald had always been keenly interested in the theater. He had written and acted in four plays in St. Paul, had written the lyrics for three Triangle Club musicals at Princeton, and had included theatrical scenes and dramatic dialogue in his first two novels. All this potentially valuable experience led directly to the failure of The Vegetable. Like Henry James and Joseph Conrad, Fitzgerald was a fine novelist but an unsuccessful dramatist. His failure in the theater foreshadowed his consistently unhappy experiences as a Hollywood screenwriter.
The Vegetable, or From President to Postman was inspired by the pervasive stupidity, gross cronyism and rampant corruption-in the Veterans Bureau, the Departments of Justice and the Interior-during the administration of the philistine president, Warren Harding, in the early 1920s. While working on the play in March 1922 Fitzgerald, who had advocated Socialism in This Side of Paradise and portrayed the Socialists sympathetically in "May Day," seemed to be wavering in his egalitarian beliefs. In a letter to Perkins, he expressed fear of the masses and denounced mob rule: "freedom has produced the greatest tyranny under the sun. I'm still a socialist but sometimes I dread that things will grow worse and worse the more the people nominally rule."
The odd and unappealing title of the play came from Mencken's satiric essay "On Being an American," which attacked the Babbitt-like conformity of America: "Here is a country in which it is an axiom that a businessman shall be a member of the Chamber of Commerce, an admirer of [the steel magnate] Charles M. Schwab, a reader of the Saturday Evening Post, a golfer-in brief, a vegetable." The fantastic and satiric plot reverses the log cabin to White House myth. In the first act, on the eve of Warren Harding's nomination, Jerry Frost, an unhappily married railroad clerk who aspires to be a postman, gets drunk and is surprised to discover that he has become the Republican candidate for president. In the dream sequence of the second act, Frost suddenly finds himself and his small-town family in the White House. But his tenure of office is a predictable series of disasters. He suffers threats of impeachment from Idaho senators, incitements to war from a belligerent general, bankruptcy of the Treasury by his Bible-thumping father and self-righteous lectures from the Supreme Court. In the final act Frost wakes up to find it has all been a dream. He finds his true calling as a postman and sorts out the problems of his marriage. An unintentionally funny line occurs at the end of the play when Charlotte, his once estranged but now reconciled wife, tells Frost, who has been absent for some time: "I'll be waiting. [Quickly.] … Stop by a store and get some rubbers."19
Edmund Wilson, who had admired Fitzgerald's fantasy and humor when they collaborated on an undergraduate musical comedy, showed real enthusiasm when he read The Vegetable in typescript. In a critical misjudgment, he told Fitzgerald that the play was "one of the best things you ever wrote" and "the best American comedy ever written." Inflating the merits of Fitzgerald's worst full-length work and encouraging the weakest aspect of his talent, he urged Fitzgerald "to go on writing plays." Wilson, then married to the actress Mary Blair, also tried to place the play in New York. In gratitude for his support, Fitzgerald dedicated the work to his childhood friend Katherine Tighe and to "Edmund Wilson, Jr. / Who deleted many absurdities / From my first two novels I recommend / The absurdities set down here." When the play was published in April 1923, Wilson opposed the generally negative response, stuck to his earlier judgment and called it "a fantastic and satiric comedy carried off with exhilarating humor… I do not know of any dialogue by an American which is lighter, more graceful or more witty."
After the publication of the play had attracted some backers, Fitzgerald persuaded his Great Neck neighbor Ernest Truex to take the role of Jerry Frost. A well-known actor, six years older than Scott, Truex had been on stage from early childhood. He played the impish hero with Mary Pickford in silent films and later became a typically hen-pecked husband in the talkies.
The Vegetable opened on November 10, 1923, at Nixon's Apollo Theater, not far from Princeton, in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Zelda told Xandra Kalman that "the first act went fine but Ernest says he has never had an experience on stage like the second. I heard one woman hit the roof when the bible was mentioned. They seemed to think it was sacrilegious or something. People were so obviously bored!" Shocked and disappointed by the hostile reception, Fitzgerald agreed with Zelda's account and described the event with a pun on his hero's name: "It was a colossal frost. People left their seats and walked out, people rustled their programs and talked audibly in bored impatient whispers. After the second act I wanted to stop the show and say it was all a mistake but the actors struggled heroically on."20 Though he desperately tried to repair the defects, the tryout closed after only one week.
When a director expressed interest in reviving the play in 1936, Fitzgerald frankly mentioned its flaws and warned him away from it: "It reads well, but there is some difference between the first and second acts that is so disparate that every time a Little Theatre has produced it (and many of them have tried it), it has been a failure in a big way." The drama critic Martin Esslin, who had a higher opinion of the play than Fitzgerald, thought the experimental second act "must be regarded as an early example of the Theatre of the Absurd, at least in the middle part, which gives a grotesque nonsense version of life at the White House." But he agreed with the author that its "attempt to leave the naturalistic convention fails by remaining firmly anchored within it" during the first and third acts.21
The failure of The Vegetable, Fitzgerald's first professional setback, made him realize that he could no longer count on the success of every book, or continue to drink and spend without suffering the consequences. In a confessional letter to Perkins he criticized his dependence on Zelda and his lack of self-confidence, and accused himself of "Laziness; Referring everything to Zelda-a terrible habit, nothing ought to be referred to anybody till it's finished; Word consciousness-self doubt." He suddenly "realized how much I've-well, almost deteriorated in the three years since I've finished The Beautiful and Damned," and vowed to change his habits and become more serious: "If I'd spent this time reading or travelling or doing anything-even staying healthy-it'd be different but I spent it uselessly, neither in study nor in contemplation but only in drinking and raising hell generally." On one chaotic occasion, for example, the drunken Scott had suddenly stood up at his dinner party, torn the cloth off the table and stormed out of the room amid the clatter of broken glass. Zelda, maintaining her sang-froid, turned to her guests and politely asked: "Shall we have our coffee in the next room?"
Fitzgerald was unable to control his enormous expenses and live on the extraordinarily high income of $36,000 a year-about twenty times more than the average American earned. Perkins (like Mencken) blamed Zelda and wrote: "Scott was extravagant, but not like her; money went through her fingers like water; she wanted everything; she kept him writing for the magazines." Fitzgerald had counted on The Vegetable to bring in a small fortune. When it failed, he was forced to go on the wagon and write himself out of debt. Working in a large, bare, badly heated room over the garage on Gateway Drive, he took two days to turn out a seven-thousand-word story that paid the rent and the most pressing bills. He then worked "twelve hours a day for five weeks to rise from abject poverty back into the middle class."22 By March 1924 he had earned $16,500 from magazine stories, paid off his debt to Harold Ober and financed a trip to Europe. The Riviera would provide a stimulating change, cost less than Great Neck and be more conducive to work. Though he had told Wilson that "France made me sick," he sailed there in early May to write The Great Gatsby.
1. Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned, pp. 423, 296, 62.
2. Ibid., pp. 212, 204; Fitzgerald, Correspondence, p. 600. Scott took Zelda's advice about concluding the novel with Anthony's last speech on the ship, which echoes the title of D. H. Lawrence's volume of poems Look! We Have Come Through! (1917) and unconvincingly affirms: "It was a hard fight, but I didn't give up and I came through!"
3. Zelda Fitzgerald, "Friend Husband's Latest," Collected Writings, p. 388; Fitzgerald, In His Own Time, p. 419; Bryer, Critical Reception, pp. 92, 107, 74.
4. Fitzgerald, The Beautiful and Damned, p. 285; Wilson, Letters on Literature and Politics, pp. 56, 78-79.
5. Fitzgerald, Letters, p. 350; Wilson, "The Literary Spotlight," p. 22; Fitzgerald, Correspondence, p. 119.
6. Fitzgerald, Correspondence, p. 111; Fitzgerald, Tales of the Jazz Age, pp. ix, vii.
7. Fitzgerald, "Early Success," Crack-Up, p. 87; Fitzgerald, Notebooks, p. 131.
8. Edgar Allan Poe, Selected Writings, ed. Edward Davidson (Boston, 1956), p. 95; Fitzgerald, Short Stories, pp. 185-186, 188, 212, 204, 209; Fitzgerald, Crack-Up, p. 82. For more on Poe and Fitzgerald, see Appendix I.
9. John Dos Passos, The Best Times (New York, 1966), p. 129; Interview with Ring Lardner, Jr., New York, March 14, 1992; Lane Yorke, "Zelda: A Worksheet," Paris Review, 89 (Fall 1983), 219; Fitzgerald, "Ring," Crack-Up, p. 35.
10. Ring Lardner, What Of It? (New York, 1925), pp. 18, 59, 118.
11. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Romantic Egoists, pp. 157, 115.
12. Ring Lardner, Jr., The Lardners (New York, 1976), pp. 164-165; Ernest Hemingway, Selected Letters, 1917-1961, ed. Carlos Baker (New York, 1981), p. 200; Fitzgerald, "Ring," Crack-Up, pp. 38, 34, 39, 36.
13. Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night, pp. 9, 82-83.
14. Dos Passos, Best Times, pp. 129-130; P. G. Wodehouse, Yours Plum: The Letters of P. G. Wodehouse, ed. Frances Donaldson (London, 1990), pp. 28-29.
15. Van Wyck Brooks, Days of the Phoenix (New York, 1957), p. 109; Edmund Wilson, "Imaginary Conversations: Mr. Van Wyck Brooks and Mr. Scott Fitzgerald," New Republic, 38 (April 30, 1924), 249; Carl Van Vechten, Parties (New York, 1930), p. 78.
16. W. A. Swanberg, Dreiser (New York, 1965), p. 272; Fitzgerald, Correspondence, p. 138; Quoted in Mellow, Invented Lives, p. 272.
17. Nelson Aldrich, Jr., Old Money (New York, 1988), p. 182. See also Nelson Aldrich, Jr., Tommy Hitchcock: An American Hero (privately printed, 1984). In World War II Tommy became a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and air attache at the American Embassy in London. He was head of a fighter squadron in Texas, helped develop the Mustang plane and died in a test flight in April 1944. He was posthumously decorated with the Legion of Merit, the Bronze Star and the Distinguished Flying Cross.
18. Fitzgerald, Notebooks, p. 327; Fitzgerald, Letters, p. 64; Fitzgerald, Great Gatsby, pp. 6-7; Fitzgerald, Tender Is the Night, p. 18.
19. Dear Scott/Dear Max, p. 57; Quoted in William Goldhurst, F. Scott Fitzgerald and His Contemporaries (New York, 1963), p. 88; F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Vegetable (1923; New York, 1976), p. 143.
20. Wilson, Letters on Literature and Politics, p. 84; Wilson, "A Selection of Bric-a-Brac," Vanity Fair, 20 (June 1923), 18; Quoted in Bruccoli, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, pp. 187, 189; Fitzgerald, "How to Live on $36,000 a Year," Afternoon of an Author, pp. 93-94.
21. Fitzgerald, Correspondence, p. 456; Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (New York, 1961), p. 288.
22. Dear Scott/Dear Max, pp. 69-70; Quoted in Mizener, Far Side of Paradise, p. 134; Fitzgerald, "How to Live on $36,000 a Year," Afternoon of an Author, p. 95.
Next: chapter 6.
Published as Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers (NY. Harper-Collins, 1994).