The Four Seasons of Success: Fourth Of a Series, Memories of the post-Carnival period, often thought but never written
This is not going to be an answer to the worn-out question: Is Manley Halliday (in my novel, The Disenchanted) really F. Scott Fitzgerald? Instead, in the interest of literary history, it is time to extract from the alloy composed in the name of Halliday the remembered nugget of truth of the Fitzgerald I knew.
Although I knew F. Scott Fitzgerald for a relatively short time, over the last two years of his life, I felt I knew him well. Our fevered service as collaborating screenwriters on location at Dartmouth College to concoct a movie around the Winter Carnival was an ordeal that could only split us out forever or bring us closer together than a famous forty-two-year-old author and a twenty-live-year-old apprentice ever could have been on such short acquaintance. Our journey, if it achieved nothing more, did accomplish the latter, and since the half-true, half-imagined Disenchanted ended with Halliday's death at the end of the Carnival, while my friendship with Fitzgerald continued through the ensuing twenty-two months of his life, it is my memory of him in the post-Carnival period that I have thought most about, but never have written about in the twenty years he's been gone. I do this now not to blow my own little vicarious horn as a friend of the great or sub-courtier allowed to approach the throne, but because I believe all of these firsthand impressions of Scott Fitzgerald—the black, the white, the grey and the golden—should be preserved.
Among some of his celebrated friends and relatives, there is a wish to draw a discreet curtain over Fitzgerald's memory. “I hope your play is a miserable failure,” Fitzgerald's sister-in-law wrote me on the eve of the Broadway opening of The Disenchanted. And there followed the humanly understandable but professionally unrealistic plea to let sleeping bones rest. Fitzgerald was not worth all this attention, the angry note contended, recalling that the first time he had appeared at the Sayre residence in Montgomery, he had fallen into the hallway dead drunk. Her sister, said the writer of this troubled letter, would have been saved a life of pain and notoriety if she never had seen him again.
While personal feeling as intense as this deserves our compassion, it is futile to deny Fitzgerald’s claim on our attention. The price of his hard-won fame is the need of the scholar and the public to relate his personal history to the body of his work. One of Fitzgerald's most famous friends and contemporaries has called “ghouls and gravediggers” those who, either through firsthand reminiscences or carefully researched biography, have concerned themselves with the life and writings of Scott Fitzgerald. If this be true, then all biographers and authors of telling memoirs are ghouls and gravediggers, from Tacitus and Plutarch to Carl Sandburg and Bruce Cation. If Flaubert or Byron or Poe had friends who loved them, or perhaps hated them, but in any case closely observed them, they had a right, even a responsibility, to share their experiences with posterity. And if Flaubert was a mama’s boy, Byron a rake and Poe an addict and a drunk, who is to say that these facts do not belong in the hero's catalogue along with the demonstrable virtues?
My meeting with Scott Fitzgerald, in the Goldwyn Studio early in 1939, still holds for me a dreamlike, legendary quality. Even while it was happening I felt as if the gods had swooped down and carried me off to serve as a minor player in one of their more extravagant myths. As a recent Dartmouth graduate and fledgling screenwriter, I had been engaged by an older son of Dartmouth, Walter Wanger, to write a screenplay against the background of Winter Carnival. It was before the day when teen-age lovers held stage center, and Mr. Wanger felt that a mature love story (starring Ann Sheridan and Richard Carlson) should be woven prominently into the tapestry. There I had faltered and Mr. Wanger had decided that I needed an older hand with whom to collaborate. Who would this older hand be? “Scott Fitzgerald,” said Mr. Wanger, pretty casually it seemed to me even then.
I’m not sure if my shudder was perceptible. But across the gulf of two decades I can still remember the inner twinge of it. Although Fitzgerald was not one of our Writers' Congress gods of the Thirties, not Steinbeck or Farrell, Malraux or Hemingway, he had become an off-horse favorite of mine. I had savored The Great Gatsby for form and style in college, and I knew the best of the wonderfully evocative short stories, May Day and The Rich Boy and Crazy Sunday. And drawn to its incomparable writing I had read and reread Tender Is the Night. I was something of a literary schizo, a loyal New Masses subscriber and at the same time a literary freewheeler who could admire Faulkner even if he was “reactionary,” or Fitzgerald if he was “decadent.”
When Walter Wanger mentioned Fitzgerald now, I remembered having met him once before, three years earlier, coming out of the Biltmore Theatre, a downtown Los Angeles legitimate house. It had been a surprise to learn he was living in Hollywood. My fleeting image was of a grey ghost with a wan smile. Then, in the excitement of young love, young politics and a youthful enthusiasm for short- story and screen writing, my image of Fitzgerald had faded. That is why, when Mr. Wanger suggested that I might collaborate with him, I exclaimed (for this part of the myth is true), “My God, isn't Scott Fitzgerald dead?” To which Mr. Wanger had answered, “On the contrary, he’s in the next office reading your script.”
Looking back, it is difficult to realize that the Scott Fitzgerald I saw that day was still a young man in his early forties. To my callow eyes of 1939 he looked more like sixty. There is, of course, a patronizingly faulty time-machine in the minds of the young which transforms the most robust of middle-aged men into septuagenarians. But Scott Fitzgerald with his pale and ghostly look made his own contribution to this illusion. There seemed to be no colors in him. The proud, somewhat too handsome profile of his earlier dust-jackets was crumpled. To this day I am unable to say exactly what it was that left me with this lasting impression. 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 Eastern (in fact, Brooks Bros.) 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. Much of what happened to us in the cataclysmic weeks to follow has either been roughly described or folded into other experiences with various other writers in The Disenchanted. So I shall try to telescope those weeks so as to leave room for my memories of him in his post-Carnival final less-than- two-years. My encounter with Sinclair Lewis four years earlier had found him at the height of his fame—if not of his powers—a rich, outwardly self-assured, world-famous figure. Poor Scott’s case was altogether different. He had, in a way, written his own obituary—at least as a public figure—in the pages of this very magazine. His books were out of print, his reputation was out of joint, his financial situation was out of kilter. Lewis, though I was to find some telltale cracks in that richly successful facade, was the very model of a modern major literary celebrity. Scott, alas, was a kind of dilapidated Model A roadster, once as shiny and jazzy as they came, but now neglected and condemned by public apathy to the used-car lots. Red Lewis, for instance, while acknowledging that I was a member of a new generation he ought to “look into,” took it as his due that I was conversant with his work. While his most recent best-seller It Cant Happen Here was still nearest and dearest, he took it for granted that Carol Kenicutt, Martin Arrowsmith and Sam Dodsworth were part of my vocabulary. But if Lewis was still riding the crest of the wave, Scott had been swept deep into the trough. Curiously, I had happened to reread The Great Gatsby only a few days before my unlikely appointment as his collaborator, and the Dick and Nicole Diver of Tender Is the Night were also fresh in my mind. Scott was flattered and stimulated and, it seemed to me, pathetically pleased to find any product of the Depression Thirties who knew, admired and could talk his books.
He struck me not as a totally defeated, but more of a proud and embattled failure, fully, almost vaingloriously aware of his place in American letters and still deeply wounded by the public and critical rejection of Tender Is the Night. Throughout the Twenties he had been the darling of both the litterateurs and the populace; then in ’34, when just about everything was going smash with him, they had rudely deserted him. The shock might have destroyed a lesser talent. Scott was an odd mixture of insufficient stamina and marathon durability, as he was to demonstrate in the punishing months ahead.
For days and days, when we were supposed to be working out a new story line for Winter Carnival (for which we kept trying to whip up some spurious enthusiasm), we talked: about his work, about Hollywood, about politics, about the cultural ebb and flow of succeeding generations, about movie-making. Unlike my Manley Halliday in The Disenchanted, Scott was not a film snob. In fact, he had plunged into a study of film-making that even included a card file of the plot lines of all the pictures he had seen. Although he thought of himself, naturally, as a novelist first and last, he was not, like so many novelists and playwrights I had known, in film work only for the fat Hollywood checks he needed to get back to his own line. He liked pictures and felt his talent was particularly well-suited to the medium. Perhaps it was because he cared that he had suffered so unhappy an experience on Three Soldiers, a script he had been proud of until—he maintained, rightly or wrongly—a prominent writer-producer had rewritten it.
We talked pictures, hut we also talked Hollywood. I was happy to find a subject I knew more about than he did, and he listened as well as he talked. Both of us were intensely interested in the history or development of the despised nickelodeon Cinderella of 1909, now going to the ball in the golden coach of 1939. It was difficult for me to think of Hollywood as Hollywood, I told him, because I grew up on its streets, helped build underground clubhouses in its vacant fields and attended its public schools. It was simply home town. I used to ride my bike up Vine Street when it was still lined with pepper trees, and hike in the Hollywood hills when there was nothing up there but the Hollywoodland sign and the old hermit who lived in a lean-to behind the sign. Scott said he found this fascinating. He wanted to know more about my father, B. P., one of the last of the big-studio bosses in the flamboyant days of Swanson and Dietrich. And what did I think about Thalberg, Mayer and the other tycoons?
Although Scott had been raked severely by the critics for his “escapist attitude,” “his self-deceiving identification with the wastrel rich,” I was surprised to find that he talked more like a confirmed leftist, anti-Stalinist but Marxist-oriented. Here again he was at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sinclair Lewis, who said a loud damn not only to both your houses but to all domiciles housing any one body of political thought. Nobody seemed able to influence Lewis, at least not for long, but Fitzgerald, as far back as his Princeton days, had looked to Edmund Wilson as his mentor or “conscience” in matters artistic; in recent years he had followed that old friend into the alien fields of social consciousness. I have never met Mr. Wilson, but “Bunny,” as Scott called him, was a constant companion and frame of reference in our conversations. There were two terrible gods in Scott’s life, “Bunny,” the god of the mind, and Ernest (alias Papa), the god of the viscera. There was rarely a conversation that did not defer to one or the other.
Another rather surprising thing about Scott was his keen, in fact heatedly partisan interest in contemporary history. Of course, this was early 1939, the heyday of Hitler, and you might say any civilized man would be war- and Nazi-conscious. Still, some of our most distinguished Americans, from Lindbergh to Dreiser, were isolationists, whereas Scott was a confirmed and dedicated internationalist who followed the day-to-day progress and retrogression of the democratic cause and spoke feelingly and knowledgeably about the need for collective security if the Axis was to he denied.
With politics, Hollywood, American writing, Scott’s own work and the plight of illustrious writers trapped in the film industry, at least a dozen of them our mutual friends—you can imagine how much work we accomplished on Winter Carnival in those congenial first few days. Red Lewis and I had talked a full week end away too. But for all his dammit-to-hells and have another drink, Budd, I was always aware of Red’s status. My first day with Scott was much more reserved, due to his Southern-style courtliness and my awestruck inhibitions, but after the first few days of our imprisonment Scott warmed up and I relaxed and soon felt closer to him than I ever had to Lewis. Of course, I was three years older now, had published a dozen short stories in national magazines and was a promising rookie professional writer. But Scott's character was the deciding factor. Scott met you (me) on equal terms. Scott, at the Dartmouth Junto meeting, no matter how provoked, never would have precipitated a scene like the blowup with Lewis. After three or four days I began to think of Scott as a friend. Lewis, on the other hand, had been friendly, a famous writer who was both lonely and being nice to an earnest young man.
Now the storm clouds gathered. Mr. Wanger wanted us to attend the Dartmouth Winter Carnival along with a camera crew that would need our guidance on how to shoot background and color material in the absence of a script. Also it would be an opportunity for Scott to refresh his memory on the facts of life in the Ivy League. In vain did Scott protest that his memory was quite adequate to the subject. And that he did not feel strong enough to make the trip. Our flight was booked. We were on our way. My father came to the airport with two bottles of vintage Mumm’s. As soon as we were airborne I urged Scott to join me in a toast. After some persuading, he did.
We talked our way through the night. Our mood was half holiday, half panic. Scott reminisced about “Bunny,” Hemingway, Ring Lardner, Van Vechten, Gertrude Stein; he defended the aesthetic values of his generation with such conviction that I have advanced his argument ever since; we took turns describing and analyzing our pipe-smoking, “bookish,” ivy-covered employer, Walter Wanger. “Ivy on one side, California palm on the other,” Scott said. We dissected the moguls of M-G-M, Thalberg and Mayer and the gravel- voiced ex-bouncer Eddie Mannix. We devoted half an hour to David O. Selznick. It is a forgotten fact that Scott was one of the writers on Gone with the Wind, along with an incredible list that included Dorothy Parker, John Van Druten, Oliver H. P. Garrett and a dozen others. I told Scott a Selznickism. Since my father had developed him as his assistant at Paramount, David thought it fitting that he should put me on the Selznick International payroll at fifty dollars a week as a “junior writer.” Six months passed; time for the option to skyrocket my weekly salary to a lofty seventy-five dollars. By this time I had written two full screenplays and half a dozen “originals” that had been dropped down a deep well of Selznickian silence. I sent David a note asking him as a personal favor not to pick up my option. At last, after long hours of “standing by,” I was ushered into his spacious Colonial office. David was at the height of his fame and power then, a sort of latter-day Thalberg. My note had bruised his feelings and he grumbled that he was pretty disappointed in me. I grumbled back, with the license of having known him since boyhood, that I was pretty disappointed in him too: all those months of writing scripts for the shelf without so much as a kind word from him! “I realize we’ve carried you on the roster as a writer,” Selznick acknowledged, “but frankly I think you’ve shown damn little initiative. Why, when I was your age and working for your father, I flooded B.P. with memos, memos on casting, on story purchases, on cutting costs, on judicious cuts after previews—all day long I kept feeding him memos. I must’ve written over a thousand. But you—I don’t think you’ve sent me two memos since you’ve been here.”
“Sure, David,” I said, “but the difference is, you were practicing to become a producer. I want to be a writer.”
“Yes, I know,” David Selznick said, his voice dulled with disappointment. “You told me you wanted to be a writer. But I felt if I kept you with me long enough, sooner or later your producers blood would begin to assert itself.”
“Producer’s blood became a favorite family joke,” I told Scott on the plane east. “When we suffered a slight scratch showing a drop or two of blood, my brother, sister and I would always cry out, ‘Producer’s blood!’”
Scott laughed at the story and we swapped anecdotes tinged with malice about producers, a favorite form of release therapy for embattled screenwriters. The second bottle of champagne went the way of the first. The conversational gamut ran from Scott’s desperation plan for revising and reviving Tender Is the Night to his opinion of Earl Browder, from his early championship of Hemingway to his concern for the ruined talent of Herman (Citizen Kane) Mankiewicz, and the lettuce workers of Salinas. We even managed to talk a little about Winter Carnival. When we got to the hotel and had a solid meal, we assured each other, the story line would be less elusive.
In the Hotel Warwick we rested for an hour, wrestled with our story for a jumble of hours, and then, since this was my first trip to New York in three years, or since my undergraduate days, I was eager to look up a few old friends. I asked Scott if he minded. Not at all, he would take a long bath, then make notes on our story alone.
I found my friends and tarried for an extra, convivial hour. It was my second serious mistake of the trip. When I got back to our suite there was no sign of Scott. Then I found a scrawled note on my bed. “Pal you shouldn't have left me pal because I got lonely pal and went down to the bar pal and started drinking pal, and now you may never find me pal…”
In a panic, I ran down to the hotel bar. Yes, the man I was looking for had been there about an hour. He had gone out a short time ago.
I found Scott in another bar a few doors down the block. A frightening change had taken hold of him. We got back to the room. Black coffees. Cold showers. I apologized. Scott apologized. We promised each other to work, work. In an exhausted, distraught state, we tried. All night and into the early morning we tried. Later that morning we were to report to Mr. Wanger in his suite in the Waldorf Towers to tell him our story. The atmosphere was tense. Walter Wanger looked groomed and rested. We had been two days without sleep and even my young, healthy constitution was beginning to run down. We could feel our producer’s eyes regarding us uneasily. By way of easy openers he asked us if we had met anyone we knew on the plane. There was a hole in the conversation and I decided to fill it. “Let’s see, oh, yes, Sheilah Graham was on the plane,” I said. Quite casually—it had seemed to me—we had encountered the handsome, peaches-and-cream-complexioned British Hollywood-gossip writer in the aisle. She and Scott had seemed politely surprised and pleased to discover each other going East on the same plane. Scott had introduced her to me and then we had gone back to our seats. That’s all it was, so far as I knew. But now, when I mentioned the columnist's name, Walter Wanger had fixed Scott with a very strange look. “Scott, you son of a hitch,” he said with a slight, disapproving smile.
On our way out, after a rather disastrous story conference, I turned to my besieged collaborator and said, “Holy God, Scott, I’m terribly sorry. I never would have mentioned her if I had…”
“All my fault,” Scott said. “I should have told you. Maybe it's just as well it’s out in the open with Walter anyway. I don’t know why I feel I have to hide things from him like a schoolboy…”
Incidentally, in the twenty years since this incident, I have never mentioned Miss Graham in print, and in interviews with Fitzgerald biographers as well, I kept my promise to her never to divulge anything of a personal nature I might have known about them. After years of tight-lipped discretion, I felt rather foolish—as well as unfettered—by Sheilah Graham’s true-confession-style Beloved Infidel. Anyway, Miss Graham was part of the actual saga and beautifully devoted to Scott in his last years, even if her ghost-written book lends a two-for-a-penny gloss to an affecting relationship.
Our wild, surrealist train ride north to Hanover, including losing, chasing and regaining the train in the frozen hours between three and five a.m., has been described with fictional elaborations in The Disenchanted. And it was true that the film company had forgotten to make reservations for us at the inn and that we finally found shelter in an attic room devoid of furniture except a metal two-decker bed. Here for two days we fumed, labored, drank, suffered icy research, nerve-wracking deadlines and humiliating public receptions.
One of the things that impressed me most in the course of that arctic week-end hell was the quality of Scott's creative intelligence and the courage of his humor. He was constantly noticing little things that amazed me—details of the academic life as exact as the lexicon of O’Hara. The lids may have drooped, and the hand trembled, but the eye of the novelist never wavered. At the very moment when the faculty and student onlookers were laughing at him as a drunk and a clown, his accuracy toward them was muffled but deadly. And in the middle of all these deteriorating horrors, I remember periods of marvelous semi-hysterical laughter. The way our hyperbolic, semi-literate, Eskimo-befurred production manager would burst into our room with his unique command of Hollywood and Marine-sergeant profanity sent us into fits of laughter in which we would hang onto each other until we ached and cried.
Other memories of that nightmare week end are of Scott's trying to call Sheilah, to tell her the bad news that he had fallen off the wagon after eight heroic months—as if she didn’t know—his trudging through the deep snow to the ski jump in his baggy suit, his wrinkled overcoat and his battered fedora, a grey, grim joke to the young, hearty Carnival couples in their bright-color ski clothes, and of his frightening rise from a pass-out funk on the metal cot in the attic and zombie walk to the door, saving, “I’m going to Zelda, she needs me, I’m going to Zelda…” This was the first time he had mentioned his wife, whose unfortunate illness had dropped a dark, almost impenetrable curtain between them. I remember dragging him back from the door and throwing him down on the cot, hard. I remember his feeling frail and defenseless in my hands. I remember thinking he had passed out again and beginning to take off his shoes, and his reviving enough to say, “Oh, you must be enjoying yourself, feeling so strong, so young, so damn sure of yourself…” And I remember losing my patience and temper with him at last and running out to a friendly fraternity bar where I tried to drown our common sorrows, until mysteriously, inescapably he tracked me down and we went out into the Carnival night laughing and improvising scandalous songs like any other two Carnival celebrants.
A few minutes later we were fired, on the front steps of the Hanover Inn, and unceremoniously deported to New York aboard the Montrealer. That Sunday was a bloody mess. After the porter helped me get Scott off the train, we went back to the Warwick where the desk clerk fixed us with a fishy eye, insisted he had not expected us back and that all the rooms were taken. Again, no room at the inn. For three feverish hours we taxied the nearly deserted streets of East Side Manhattan in search of public hospitality. But such was our physical stale and unkempt appearance that not even the meanest of hotels would have us. Finally, at Scott's whispered suggestion, we fell back on one of his familiar ports in the days of other storms, the Doctor's Hospital. Somewhere along the way Scott had called his daughter at Vassar to meet him in the city. Now he was worried that she should find him in this condition. He asked me to intercept her at the Plaza. I was still new to the crossroads of New York and that afternoon particularly rattled. At any rate I waited for nearly three hours, in vain—at the Savoy Plaza on the opposite corner from Scott's Plaza. As a result I have never met his daughter, from that day to this, and have always felt guilty about that mishap, just as I felt an innocent accessory to the crime in offering Scott champagne and deserting him for those few critical hours on arrival in New York. No one had taken the trouble to spell out for me, until it was too late, the hard fact that Scott was an alcoholic.
He had asked me not to tell Sheilah Graham where he was. I tried to honor this for the better part of a day, but I had to meet her at the hotel she had chosen near the Warwick, and once she knew he had not returned there, she could guess where he was without my having to tell her. She said she would stay on to look after him and that I could fly back to the coast. A week later he was strong enough to make the trip back to Hollywood. So ended what Malcolm Cowley has called “his biggest, saddest, most desperate spree.”
When I got back to Hollywood I was rehired for Winter Carnival, this time with two other, quite different collaborators. Even Scott continued to work on that battered picture in a curious fashion. From time to time he would send me notes, helpful bits I might have forgotten (or failed to notice). “Don’t forget to put in something about those student waiters at the eating clubs who lean over the shoulders of the fellow classmates they’re serving and get into intimate discussions with them about the events of the day, the cute 'babe’ at the ski jump, etc.” Many of these little notes were extremely perceptive and even helpful, though not even Scott’s loyalty to a project that had cruelly defeated him could save our stricken film.
I saw Scott quite often in the months after his recovery, when he was living in Ventura Valley in Edward Everett Horton’s guesthouse. He was not well, he was money-troubled, he was haunted by the illness of his wife, concerned about his daughter’s financial support and intellectual development, and doing his best, which was sometimes his worst, to maintain a tranquil relationship with Miss Graham. What most impressed me about him in this period of sober anxiety was his irrepressibility, his capacity for enthusiasm. Even in the face of misfortune it simply was not in him to be the misanthropic, single-minded hermit-crab who had written, a few years earlier: “… If you were dying of starvation outside my window I would… stick around till somebody raised a nickel to phone for the ambulance, that is if I thought there would lie any copy in it for me.” No, Scott, even after crack-up and pasting together, was still too curious, too world-conscious, too people-enjoying, too much the wide- eyed enchanter from Minnesota ever to put into execution the rigid acerbity he had in desperation proscribed for himself. He must continue to be a writer, he had said, because that was his only way of life, “but I would cease any attempt to be a person—to be kind, just or generous… there was to be no more giving of myself.”
This was the same Scott who three years later was sending me notes of encouragement and guidance on a film job that had humiliated and rejected him; and taking pride in the work of Nathanael West, whose Miss Lonelyhearts he had been among the first to recognize and herald, just as he had embraced the young Hemingway and loaned him money and brought him to Scribner’s and cheered his first success at a time when Scott was rich and famous as well as gifted while Ernest, for all the great gifts that Scott had been quick to perceive, was still struggling and relatively unknown outside the little magazines. There was something naive, forever young about this capacity for wonder, whether it was turned outward or inward.
The Scott Fitzgerald I knew had surprisingly little side. Except for those few unfortunate occasions when he had slipped off the tail gate, and would feel impelled to name-drop that he was F. Scott Fitzgerald, he did not act the famous author. At forty-odd he still carried with him the ebullient twenty-year-old who dreamed of the hit first- novel that would win him fame, fortune and the girl. One day, when a small group of us were gathered at the Horton house, he burst into the general conversation with: “I’ve just finished an awfully good story!” Then he was running up the stairs to fetch it and hurrying back to read it out loud to us. It was one of the Pat Hobby stories for Esquire. At their best they were second-drawer Fitzgerald, with a sharp eye for Hollywood manners and an outrageously downgraded reflection of Scott’s own adventures in that sun-kissed company town. Unfortunately, this piece was third-drawer. But Scott read it with irresistible if somewhat embarrassing relish, and seemed boyishly pleased with our murmured, qualified praise.
Another afternoon I found him out in the sun reading a thick Karl Marx pamphlet, The 14th Brumaire. He was like an eager sociology student bucking for an A in “Bunny” Wilson’s class in social consciousness. ‘I've got to examine all my characters in the light of their class relationships,” Scott decided, an earnest forty- three-year-old sophomore discovering an exciting new course under a favorite professor who was overstimulating him. Scott had an intuitive grasp of American history and its shifting social classes; this was one of the qualities that had set him above his contemporaries as a novelist, and I honestly wondered whether Wilson and Marx could help him improve on it. But that afternoon he was carried away with this new enthusiasm for “class relationships” and nothing could dispel the curiosity and the fervor.
One evening around seven he dashed into my house unexpectedly just as I was leaving (late, as usual) for a dinner party. He was all aglow to discuss Spengler’s The Decline of the West. Had I read it? What did I think about it? Didn't it put Munich and the Czechoslovakian grab in the tragic perspective of moral history? I remember Scott standing there in the entrance hall full of animated talk, making Spengler sound like a new, hot writer who had just zoomed to the top of the best-seller list. I remember fixing my tie 3nd saying, Jesus, Scott, I'd love to talk to you, but I'm already late as hell—walking out on him for some urgent, social engagement I can no longer recall, and feeling guilty about it, even then. There was something pathetic, endearing and enduring about his rushing in to discuss on the run the decline of the western world. He looked old, but in this way at least he wasn't old at all. He was, a good deal of the time, great fun to be with, he listened as well as he talked, he could be terribly funny, terribly serious, and sometimes, happily, both at once. Possibly half a dozen times I had seen him difficult and belligerent, and then he could be maddening, but it would be badly misleading to picture him as staggering through those last Hollywood years. Despite our cross-country debacle and perhaps another brief relapse or two, my most lasting impressions are not of his drinking and falling, but of his thinking and trying.
When I finally extricated myself from the coils of Winter Carnival, in the late Spring of 1939, I went to see Scott, to tell him I was fed up with film writing after our bad, sad experience and was going back to find a house near Dartmouth and try to write a novel. I told him something of my plan for expanding the central character, Sammy Click, with whom he was familiar from a couple of short stories he had read and liked. We talked a long time that day about the old, silent Hollywood of my youth and about my relationship with my father and the big studio he ran. We talked about my summer-vacation trip to Russia, and the fear of the major producers, a fairly cohesive in-group in those days, that I would turn Bolshevik and disgrace The Industry. The solemn pronouncement had been “Let him talk to Irving.” There was only one Irving (Thalberg), though my father B.P. probably would have outscored him on a comprehensive exam in English literature. Scott pressed me for details of my audience with Irving and our inner-circle discussion of the temptations and pitfalls of socialism. Scott was fascinated by Thalberg’s acceptance of his role as the creative-intellectual prime- ministering fount of this mythical kingdom. He suggested we keep in touch with each other, and wished me luck.
When I came back to Hollywood nearly a year later I asked Scott to read my book. His phone call a few days after that brought marvelous news. He thought the book was “brave” and “fresh” and “original” and “by far the best thing ever done about Hollywood…” His voice was full of superlatives, but more than that he seemed genuinely pleased and excited for me, and once again his unselfishness toward other writers, either contemporaries like Hemingway or younger men like myself, came home to me strongly. Tired, sick, embattled, vain and proud and painfully conscious of his fall from fame and fortune and creative productivity, he seemed congenitally incapable of practicing the sour egoism he preached. I went over to his apartment (I’m rather poor at dates for places, hut believe he had just moved in from the Horton guesthouse in the Valley to a small but comfortable apartment just south of Sunset Boulevard, near the Strip). There Scott told me all the things he liked best about Sammy. It was the first of its kind, he said, and that seemed to delight him: “You know, you’ve really caught the feeling of Hollywood. You always talked it awfully well, but I honestly didn’t think you’d be able to get it down on paper.” He offered to write Bennett Cerf of Random House a letter that could be used as jacket copy.
It was then that he told me for the first time that he was at work on a Hollywood novel of his own, had been for some time, but had not wanted to tell me for fear it would inhibit my own first try.
The questions, and the long talks about Hollywood began to fall into place (though I was still in for some surprises). I began to realize, as I had with Red Lewis, that Scott’s friendship had not been quite so altruistic as it had appeared. No writer’s is. Fitzgerald, like Lewis, for all his humanness, was a writer first, a human being second. This may not be the golden rule, hut it is the inkpot or typewriter-ribbon rule. “All my life I’ve found myself taking mental notes, even about the things that were affecting me most painfully and most immediately,” Scott had said to me. “I mean at the very moment when you’re going through the worst of it, some little cold spot in your brain is reminding you to describe it in case you ever need it for a story.” Now I realized that he had been taking mental notes while I had paced up and down reminiscing about my Hollywood of pepper trees and self-made immigrants. I was eager to see what he had written. He said it was not far enough along, but one day he would show me the outline and the first few chapters.
I felt then—and this is not hindsight for I tried to describe these feelings for The New Republic at the end of that fateful year—that he was physically on the downgrade but creatively on the rise. One evening he dropped in (a rare occurrence now as he had been eliminating his evenings out) and joined me in a game of darts in my basement study (his signature is still burned into the round back- board I’ve carried on my back like a turtle from California to Florida). That night Scott’s co-ordination was off so badly that other friends were ducking because he was throwing at right angles to the board. A couple of drop-in acquaintances wondered if he were drunk. He wasn’t at all. He had been on the wagon for many months. But his nervous system was slipping out of control like a worn-out gear. Not his mind: that was clear and sharp and determined. He left early that evening because he said he was trying to rise early these mornings, to work while his energy was still high.
Along with a number of other friends—Dorothy Parker, Bob Benchley, John O'Hara—I greatly admired Scott during this period. A love of life was still beating a strong pulse in him. and although he was inclined to speak more harshly of Hollywood after a series of souring experiences, he retained a marvelous capacity for descending many levels of hell without becoming pinch-souled and defeated.
When my daughter Victoria was born, I called Scott from the hospital as he had asked me to, and he launched into a loving twenty- minute monologue I hesitate to paraphrase for fear of failing to do it justice. It developed like a novella from the mysterious moment of birth across the various, difficult thresholds to the out-of-the-nest and into-the-world age of the college graduate. In Vicky’s honor, Scott said, he was going to change the name of the daughter Honore to Victoria in his film script of Babylon Revisited, one of his best stories, for which he was receiving the incredibly low sum of five thousand dollars. (Years later, ironically, I was asked to rewrite Scott’s screenplay. I read it and thought it first-rate, just ns it stood. I saved it in my files as a quiet little monument to Scott’s screenwriting ability. Some years later a wildly distorted version of Babylon was turned out by M-G-M, under the title of Elliot Paul’s memoirs, The Last Time I Saw Paris.) Scott’s first (and last) gift to Vicky was an autographed first edition of Tender Is the Night inscribed, “For Victoria Schulberg—in memory of a three-day mountainclimbing trip with her illustrious father—who pulled me out of crevices into which I sank and away from avalanches—with affection to you both—F. Scott Fitzgerald—Beverly Hills—1940.” This was fifteen months after our “mountain-climbing,” but the avalanche had branded us both, with ice instead of fire.
The passion for writing and the nagging fascination with Hemingway prompted another memorable phone call, this one lasting nearly an hour. He had just finished reading For Whom the Bell Tolls. After praising all the good things “that only Ernest can do well, or do at all,” he went into a long discussion of the celebrated sleeping-bag partner, Maria. “Ernest knows how men fight wars, blow bridges, hold out, surrender, die—he’s really in the big league when it comes to men dying—not so good on women dying—in fact when it comes to women in general I don’t think Ernest has learned a single thing about women since he was a junior at Oak Park High School,” Scott said, and this I remember exactly as if I had taped it or had the total recall of Scott’s Hollywood friend O’Hara. For a long time, while I shifted the receiver from ear to ear and murmured an occasional “Mmmm-hmmmm,” Scott delivered a verbal essay on Hemingway’s shortcomings as a mature novelist. “And with all that childishness, and that’s what it is, boyish dreams of sexual glory, he’s still so right when he’s right,” he said.
There was, in what Scott was saying, awe, envy, familiarity, inferiority, superiority, love and hate and pride and objectivity. I felt that evening—though he did not say so explicitly—that he believed he could be a better or more profound novelist than Hemingway, and yet there was Hemingway doing it, in the mainstream, moving along confidently with a popular, compelling subject of the moment, while Scott, so far as Hemingway and most others were concerned, seemed to be floundering, if not sinking, in a brackish backwater.
Scott's extended phone call—there were many more to other friends—was characteristic, symptomatic of his reaching out; if physical disability was beginning to make a recluse of him, he was still gregarious and outgoing and would reach for the phone. It was his nature. It was the way he gave and took and learned and lived, despite his mournful protestations.
Early in December, 1940, I stopped in to see Scott, to tell him that I would be going Fast again, perhaps for a long time, as my book was about to come out and I was hoping to settle across the river from Hanover and start another one. Scott was in bed, reading a chapter of The Last Tycoon that his secretary had just transcribed. He said that although he had shown them only to his secretary and Sheilah Graham I could see the first few chapters “which are still pretty rough.” The shock of the opening lines is still keen to me: “Though I haven't ever been on the screen, I was brought up in pictures. Rudolf Valentino came to my fifth birthday party—I put this down only to indicate that even before the age of reason I was in a position to watch the wheels go 'round… My father was in the picture business as another man might be in cotton or steel, and I took it tranquilly…”
Many years have passed, but whenever I open this book I still get the same queasy feeling. For those were practically my words (except that I had said it was Jackie Coogan who came to my birthday party when he was a bare-kneed child star). My first reaction was a flare of resentment. Scott had led me on. Scott had cheated me of a birthright. Every writer has, we always say, just so many stories, and here was one of my central experiences neatly typed into Scott’s book. He saw the look on my face and he said, with the shy, apologetic toughness I’ve seen in many writers since. “I sort of combined you with my daughter Scottie for Cecilia (the novel’s narrator who goes from Hollywood to Bennington instead of Dartmouth). There’ll be quite a few lines you’ll recognize. I hope you won’t mind.”
At that moment I wasn’t sure whether I did or not. I read on. Again and again I heard myself. But I began to simmer down. The central character was a figure entirely beyond my ken or grasp. Monroe Stahr was Irving Thalberg ingeniously combined with and romantically filtered through the nature of Scott himself. Although I found myself occasionally quoted verbatim, and flushed when I came across our Selznick-producer’s blood family joke filched and rather carelessly tossed away, I was drawn to his unique, roseate realism, a positive approach to motion-picture significance that I, in what might be called my negative realism, had not been able to conceive.
When I came to “Robinson"—a literal, verbal snapshot of our frenetic, profane, competent cutter and second-unit director on Winter Carnival (real name Otto “Lovey” Lovering)—I laughed out loud. One of the private jokes of our trip had been to wonder who would put the colorful Lovey on paper first. “All writers are leeches,” Scott said, as if he had to remind me. “They fatten on other people's blood.” Lying there in bed, a ravaged old man of forty-four, he looked like a rather bloodless leech, but the blood coursed with a bright vitality in those opening chapters. It seemed to me he was more in control of himself and of his material than when he was writing Tender so beautifully between crack-ups and breakdowns. I had doubts about his climax as indicated in the detailed outline, for the murder of Stahr by Hollywood labor racketeers seemed unnecessarily lurid, and while labor thuggery was being introduced to Hollywood I doubted that our Bioffs and Brownes would go to the melodramatic extremes that Scott was suggesting; at the same time I told him I thought he was on his way to a fascinating book that could be his best, possibly combining the depth of Tender Is the Night with the precision of The Great Gatsby.
He was pleased. “It’s coming well,” he said. “Just a few pages a day, except for a spurt when I wake up with a little of my old pep. But at least it's coming.” By the time I came back to Hollywood, he said, he ought to have a completed first draft.
“Marvelous,” I said, and then, kidding, “I'll bring champagne.”
“Oh, God, not this time!” He laughed. “This time I know—I’ve got no choice—I’m on the wagon forever, baby.”
When I stopped off in New York on my way up to New Hampshire I dashed off a note to Scott thanking him for the enthusiastic send-off for What Makes Sammy Bun? which I had just seen in print, including his letter reproduced in full on the back of the jacket, and telling him what a beauty of a start I thought he had made on his Tycoon. It excited me to think that he was on his way back to a pre-eminence some wind-tossed critics and a fickle public had deprived him of throughout the Thirties.
A few days later I was having a drink with a Dartmouth professor at the Hanover Inn. Rather casually, assuming I already knew, he said, “Isn’t it terrible about Scott?”
I put down the Bloody Mary and went out into the bright, cold December and leaned against the Main Street side of the inn. I saw the cars and the people and the lively Hanover scene, but only dimly. In this very inn, on another winter day when he was dying (though I had been unaware of this), he had said, with characteristic distance from himself, “You know, I used to have a beautiful talent, baby. It used to be a wonderful feeling to know it was there, and it isn’t all gone yet. I think I have enough left for two more novels…”
A little later that day I read the maddeningly smug, righteous and ignorant obits: the Times and the Tribune and Westbrook Pegler’s nonsense; they treated Scott like a dodo who had outlived the era he really belonged to, the Flaming Youth of the Foolish Twenties. This was sentimental easy-think. Scott Fitzgerald was as ready for the Forties, and the Fifties and Sixties, emotionally, creatively, politically, as any writer I knew. What a pity, what a waste that he was not permitted to carry out the plan that would have proved this.
“Despite the twin ironies that the best book Scott wrote in the Twenties had nothing to do with flaming youth, while his most profound (if not his most perfect) work appeared toward the middle of the Thirties,” I wrote in a brief tribute for the special Fitzgerald issue of The New Republic early in 1941, “my generation thought of F. Scott Fitzgerald as an age rather than as a writer, and when the economic stroke of 1929 began to change the sheiks and flappers into unemployed boys or underpaid girls, we consciously and a little belligerently turned our backs on Fitzgerald. We turned our backs on many things…”
But the second postwar generation rediscovered Scott Fitzgerald with almost as much enthusiasm as the first postwar generation had embraced him originally. The two additional novels for which he thought he had salvaged enough talent undoubtedly would have reinforced his hold on our lasting rather than faddist attention. He was so eminently, uniquely American in all his strengths and weaknesses that it is little wonder his life and work have encouraged an American mythology. He himself had been a prime mover in this god-making and god-smashing.
But behind, or rather inside, this myth of the tragic poet fallen from the great Ferris wheel of Success-in-America, lived old Scott, the Scott Fitzgerald I remember, the most beguiling adventurer I ever knew.
Published in Esquire magazine (January, 1961).
Illustrations by unknown Esquire artist.