The lure of the East. The glamour of the seaboard states for the sensitive soul born and nurtured in the Midwest. In one of the Basil stories Fitzgerald described the anticipation that filled him as he left for boarding school. “Beyond the dreary railroad stations of Chicago and the night fires of Pittsburgh, back in the old states, something went on that made his heart beat fast with excitement. He was attuned to the vast, breathless bustle of New York, to the metropolitan days and nights that were tense as singing wires. Nothing needed to be imagined there, for it was all the very stuff of romance—life was as vivid and satisfactory as in books and dreams.”
A forty-minute ride from New York via the Jersey tubes, on the outskirts of Hackensack, was the Newman School, which drew its sixty pupils from wealthy Catholic families all over the country. Known as a “lay Catholic school,” or one that prepared its students for secular universities, Newman included a sprinkling of Protestants and no one was obliged to attend Mass save on holy days. For a school of its size Newman was well equipped: a large, ivy-grown main building, several adjoining cottages, an up-to-date gymnasium, two football fields, a baseball diamond, tennis courts, and an outdoor hockey rink on the edge of the Hackensack marshes. The boys ate in a common dining hall and lodged the usual complaints against the food, though from the vantage point of college Newman fare was remembered as quite palatable.
And yet the gap between the ideal and the reality, which lend? pathos and humor to all human enterprises, was particularly evident at Newman. The school flourished in an atmosphere of hilarious chaos and Irish individualism which would have horrified the renowned Cardinal for whom it was named. Dr. Jesse Albert Locke, Newman’s founder and headmaster, was a Catholic convert of “proper Bostonian” outlook. He had conceived of the school as a small-scale Catholic Eton, but since the boys were constantly breaking the rules and just escaping being caught, what he achieved was a sort of academic hare and hounds.
The spring before Fitzgerald’s arrival, when Halley’s comet was due and unaccountably late, some of the students trooped out to the highway at midnight under pretext of scientific observation and repaired to a roadhouse to drink beer. One lazy afternoon a sit-down strike was staged: the boys adjourned en masse to the baseball field, returning for dinner to find the beaten masters sitting gloomily at table, for it wouldn’t do to expel the whole school. During study hall strange chants would erupt, as for example, “Fly open Polly!—Fly open Polly!— Fly open Polly!,” meaning that an absent-minded master, nicknamed “Polly” for his parrot-like beak, had forgotten to complete his dressing arrangements that morning. In spring there was snake season, when every boy had a pet garter snake. Some went in for large, black gopher snakes that made a thudding sound as they coursed down the corridor during the exercise period before “lights out.” The Newman of this period has been compared to Clongowes Wood, the famed Jesuit school outside Dublin, where the students showed a like talent for writing, acting, leading and rebelling. Many Newmanites came from the same stock that produced James Joyce and Oliver St. John Gogarty and the lesser known young men, who found their way into the Abbey Theatre and the flying columns of Michael Collins.
Fitzgerald approached this organized tumult with the imaginative will-to-conquer which he lavished on all new experience. From boys’ books he had learned the steps whereby one became the hero of one’s school. In the back of his mind there was perhaps a regret that he wasn’t going to a more prominent academy, to Hotchkiss, say, or Andover. When a girl in St. Paul claimed never to have heard of Newman, Fitzgerald answered, a shade defensively, “It’s a good school—you see, it’s a Catholic school.” He wouldn’t have chosen it for himself, yet he rose to its challenge.
Here is his self-appraisal as he was about to enter Newman.
“I had a definite philosophy which was a sort of aristocratic egotism. I considered that I was a fortunate youth capable of expansion to any extent for good or evil. I based this, not on latent strength, but upon facility and superior mentality. I thought there was nothing I could not do, except, perhaps, become a mechanical genius; still I traced special lines in which I considered [I] must excell, even in the eyes of others. First: Physically—I marked myself handsome; of great athletic possibilities, and an extremely good dancer. Here I gave myself about eighty percent. Second: Socially—In this respect, my condition was, perhaps, most dangerous, for I was convinced that I had personality, charm, magnetism, poise, and the ability to dominate others. Also I was sure that I exercised a subtle fascination over women. Third: Mentally—Here I was sure that I had a clear field in the world. I was vain of having so much, of being so talented, ingenuous [ingenious] and quick to learn.
“To balance this I had several things on the other side. First: Morally—I thought I was rather worse than most boys, due to latent unscrupulousness and the desire to influence people in some way, even for evil. I knew I was rather cold; capable of being cruel; lacked a sense of honor, and was mordantly selfish. Second: Psychologically—Much as I influenced others, I was by no means the ‘Captain of my Fate.’ I had a curious cross section of weakness running through my character. I was liable to be swept off my poise into a timid stupidity. I knew I was ‘fresh’ and not popular with older boys. I knew I was completely the slave of my own moods, and often dropped into a surly sensitiveness most unprepossessing to others. Third: Generally—I knew that at bottom I lacked the essentials. At the last crisis, I knew I had no real courage, perseverance or self-respect.
“So you see I looked at myself in two ways. There seemed to have been a conspiracy to spoil me and all my inordinate vanity was absorbed from that. All this was on the surface, however, and liable to be toppled over at one blow by an unpleasant remark or a missed tackle; and underneath it, came my own sense of lack of courage and stability. If I may push it farther still, I should say that, underneath the whole thing lay a sense of infinite possibilities that was always with me whether vanity or shame was my mood.”
A sense of infinite possibilities… .
Fitzgerald tells us elsewhere that at fifteen a Puritan conscience made him consider himself a great deal worse than other boys, but with the temperament outlined above one might have foreseen that he was heading into trouble at Newman. At dinner the first evening, since everyone else was shy and silent, he felt very much at home by comparison and asked rather too many questions about the football team and its prospects. It had been suggested that because of his age he repeat Fourth Form, but he struck such an air of dignified astonishment that he was put probationally in Fifth. Reporting for third-team football practice, he took to telling the others what to do; then suspecting his lack of diplomacy, he tried to smooth it over with, “Excuse me for bossing everyone around, but I’m used to being captain of the teams in St. Paul.” Meanwhile he paraded his store of general information. In class his hand waggled convulsively at all questions.
Athletics, he knew, would provide the crucial test. They were taken seriously at Newman, which fielded good teams although its ranks were thin. In due course Fitzgerald was promoted to quarterback on the second string where he ran afoul of O’Flaherty, the coach, who, in his other capacity of history teacher, was already tiring of Fitzgerald’s freshness. As one of the lightest men on the seconds Fitzgerald feared the poundinghe had to take from the varsity, and soon O’Flaherty was accusing him of cowardice. The varsity captain joined in the reproof. The younger boys took up the cry and before long Fitzgerald was a pariah. He was underdog in several fist fights, one of which he provoked in sheer desperation. He began to walk in the least-used corridors and spent most of his time in his room. His marks suffered. He was called exclusively by his last name. Something about his bitter sulkiness goaded the masters into punishing him for every petty offense, and losing their sense of justice, they piled on the demerits.
A few shafts of light penetrated the gloom. Once, after he had been taken out of a football game for being yellow—only this time he knew he hadn’t been—he wrote a Kiplingesque poem which was published in the Newman News. Thus he learned, as he afterwards wrote, “that if you weren’t able to function in action you might at least be able to tell about it, because you felt the same intensity—it was a backdoor way out of facing reality.” Another memorable experience was the Princeton-Harvard game when Sam White, the Princeton end, raced ninety-five yards with a blocked field goal for the winning touchdown. “Sam White decides me for Princeton,” Fitzgerald wrote beside the ticket stub in his scrapbook. On trips to New York he was getting his first taste of big-time musical comedy—George M. Cohan’s The Little Millionaire, and Ina Claire in The Quaker Girl.
Christmas was a long time coming, but finally the holidays were upon him, bringing a welcome respite in St. Paul. The Fitzgeralds had left Grandmother McQuillan’s house the fall of 1909, and after a year at 514 Holly Avenue and another at 509, they had come to rest at 499. In October Aunt Clara had died of tuberculosis. She was the prettiest of the three McQuillan sisters, the one most nearly resembling Scott in her fine blondness. He stood in awe of his other aunt—Annabel—who deplored his parents’ loose rein on him, his being allowed to read trash and attend vaudeville. Because Aunt Annabel did not spoil him, Fitzgerald respected her and called her “the real matriarch of my family, a dried up old maid, but with character and culture.”
Fitzgerald went back to Newman determined to make good. The great bath of unpopularity had cleansed him of some of his conceit as he began the long climb out of the abyss. Poor marks put him on bounds at midyears. As soon as he got off, he went to New York and saw a musical, Over the River, which started him writing librettos of his own. About this time he befriended Sap (for homo sapiens) Donahoe—a classmate and one of the most popular and respected boys in the school. A quiet, modest, decent sort, who excelled in both studies and athletics, Donahoe was the rock to which the more volatile Fitzgerald instinctively gravitated. At the same time Donahoe appreciated Fitzgerald’s originality, realizing he had something to learn from the other’s wide-ranging interest in books and people. A further bond was the fact that both were Westerners in a predominantly Eastern school. Donahoe came from Seattle, and their friendship ripened on the long trips across the continent.
During spring vacation Fitzgerald went to Norfolk to visit a first cousin on his father’s side, Cecilia Taylor. She was sixteen years older than Scott who as a child had been a “ribbon holder” in her wedding. Now she was an impoverished widow with four little girls whom Fitzgerald treated with avuncular kindness, herding them into drugstores for sundaes and sodas. Cousin “Ceci” was Fitzgerald’s favorite relative; she would be the model for the charming widow, Clara, in This Side of Paradise.
The Southern trip was memorable for a visit to Ceci’s brother —Thomas Delihant—a novice at the Jesuit Seminary in Woodstock, Maryland. This visit gave Fitzgerald the setting for his story “Benediction”—an embodiment of the religious sensibility which never left him, even after he strayed from the Church. Fitzgerald came from a religious background; the McQuillans were devout Catholics and his father was at least an observing one. From time to time Scott would fall under the spell of some magnetic priest and try to convert his Protestant friends, yet he could be impishly irreverent. During a servicein St. Paul, when he noticed that the candle held by one acolyte was dangerously close to igniting the lace on the back of another, he got the boy he was with laughing so hard that they were asked to leave the church.
His spring term was climaxed by a small athletic triumph. He won the junior field meet. His marks improved and his “A” in ancient history delighted him because of the astonishment of O’Flaherty, the history-teaching football coach. Home for the summer, he basked in sudden popularity. The girls were attracted by his air of sadness and consideration, the result of his discovery at boarding school that others had wills as strong as his own and more power. But as usual he went rotten under praise, and the boys soon had enough of him. Periodically they ignored him, and he would go off by himself and write until he came up with some new scheme for the general entertainment.
Meanwhile Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale had become a sort of handbook, and in his desire to be a football hero he set up a tackling dummy in his yard. According to his Ledger, fifth form had been “a year of real unhappiness,” while of sixth form he wrote: “Reward in fall for work of previous summer. A better year but not happy.” It had its moments though, such as the Kingsley game, said to be the most exciting ever played on Newman Field. Fitzgerald rose to brilliant heights that day, and one write-up attributed Newman’s victory largely to his “snap and bang runs.” Now five feet six and a hundred and thirty pounds, he was neatly well-built save for somewhat stubby legs. As substitute for the captain who was frequently injured, Fitzgerald saw action in six of the seven contests.
He played with fanatical intensity, his speed making him most effective around end, though being a bit clumsy on his feet he often seemed on the verge of falling. A younger boy who watched him from the sidelines recalled that Fitzgerald had “a desperate, bent-forward, short-legged, scuttling way of running with the ball, but somehow it conveyed emotion, and when he was good, it was thrilling and when he was bad (as he often was) you had to look away from his visible shame.” Fitzgerald was an erratic, impetuous, self-willed player, not a natural like Sap Donahoe, who, though smaller than Fitzgerald and handicapped by poor eyes, quarterbacked the team with cool finesse. If Fitzgerald sparkled at times, at others he sank to ignominy. In one game he avoided an open field tackle, and several teammates who saw it rode him about it afterwards. Caring too much as he invariably did, he took the lapse harder than it deserved to be taken.
The great event of his autumn, though he couldn’t know it at the time, was not the Kingsley game, but his meeting with Father Sigourney Webster Fay, a trustee of the school who would presently become headmaster. A Catholic convert from an old Philadelphia family, Fay had an infectious charm which made one forget his rather odd exterior. He was almost pure albino with thin flaxen hair, white eyebrows and lashes, and pink watery eyes that jiggled behind thick lenses. His soft bulk, his round face with a button nose surmounting several rolls of chin—anyone could see that Fay liked to eat. He also liked to sing and play the piano and gossip and tell stories which he punctuated with high-pitched giggles. He had a supply of Church jokes and pitied the Protestants for being unable to laugh at themselves. One of his whims was to say Mass in Greek or Celtic. Yet with it all went the ardor of the convert who had found in the Catholic Church the romance of his life. Fay’s sophistication did not preclude a childlike faith which prompted him, on occasion, to bless the house he was visiting from attic to cellar.
Between Fay and Fitzgerald there sprang up an immediate rapport such as that between Father Darcy and Amory Blaine in This Side of Paradise. No doubt Fay’s very accents are preserved in Father Darcy’s “Have a cigarette—I’m sure you smoke. Well, if you’re like me, you loathe all science and mathematics.” Hitherto Fitzgerald had thought of the priesthood in terms of crude unlettered Irishmen, but here was a priest (Irish on his mother’s side) who was also an intellectual, a man of the world, a familiar of Cardinal Gibbons and Henry Adams. Father Fay had a Continental air as did his assistant, Father Hemmick, with his silver-buckled pumps and cassocks tailored in Paris.
Fitzgerald was now living in the relative freedom of the SixthForm Annex. His private life being less harassed, he was able to devote more energy to his writing and three of his stories were published in the Newman News. “A Luckless Santa Claus” told of a man trying to give away twenty-five dollars on Christmas Eve and being beaten up for his pains. In its colloquial realism and ironic bite, the story brings to mind some of Stephen Crane’s hard luck pieces though Fitzgerald hadn’t been reading Crane at the time. “Pain and the Scientist” satirized Christian Science, while “The Trail of the Duke” was a foray into the lives of the Fifth Avenue rich.
Fitzgerald, sure of his talent, was playing around with it as might a boy with a hot-rod, trying to see what he could make it do. He wasn’t a hellion in the Newman tradition—by Newman standards he was even a bit subdued—but he resented all encroachments on his freedom. Often late to class, he wrote surreptitiously when he got there or involved the teacher in discussions which had nothing to do with the assignment, smiling superciliously when he disagreed.
The other students still had reservations about him. They found him a bit too fond of smoothing his blond, wavy hair and eyeing himself approvingly in the mirror. An unspoken bravado, some cocky assurance about his destiny, stood between him and his fellows, most of whom had no idea where they were going. But they handled him gingerly now. He was no longer their butt. They had grown to respect his quick intelligence, not to mention his skill at satirizing them in verse or epigram. Among the younger boys there was even a sort of informal “pro-Fitz” society, for in contrast to the other fifth and sixth formers, who had a harmless but oafish way of knocking the small fry about, Fitzgerald always responded to their chorused greetings with a slight smile and spoke to each by name as he went about his business. He did not play up to them—indeed he gave them little of his time—but the relative maturity of his conduct won their approval. Likewise, when introduced to someone’s parents in the corridor, Fitzgerald never failed to charm them with his gracious, spontaneous interest. He had an ease and courtesy thatwere well beyond his years, having skipped the stage most boys go through of being clumsy puppies.
In March the Newman Comedy Club presented The Taming of the Shrew (during rehearsals Fitzgerald had suggested how certain of Shakespeare’s lines might be improved upon). The high point of the evening, however, was a curtain-raiser written by one of the masters—The Power of Music. This period piece, set in the Graustarkian kingdom of Schwartzenbaum-Altminster, concerned the ambition of the Chancellor’s eleven-year-old son to be a concert violinist. In his disgust, the Chancellor sequesters the son’s violin, but the son steals it back to enter a royal competition for prodigies. At the play’s end the Chancellor is preparing to horsewhip his son when trumpets sound without. Fitzgerald as King of Schwartzenbaum-Altminster—all resplendent in a white and gold hussar’s uniform that had belonged to the musical comedy star, Donald Brian—enters with his arm protectively around the Chancellor’s son. He explains that the son has won the competition and berates the Chancellor. To the second former who acted the son, it seemed at that moment that Fitzgerald was the king of some imaginary kingdom, and that he, the second former, could play the violin like Fritz Kreisler. Fitzgerald had cast his spell of belief, and the audience was unforgettably moved.
That spring, with graduation just ahead, Fitzgerald’s mood expanded to the euphoria described in This Side of Paradise. “He moved his bed so that the sun would wake him at dawn that he might dress and go out to the archaic swing that hung from an apple tree near the sixth-form house. Seating himself in this he would pump higher and higher until he got the effect of swinging into the wide air, into a fairy-land of piping satyrs and nymphs with the faces of fair-haired girls he passed in the streets of Eastchester. As the swing reached its highest point, Arcady really lay just over the brow of a certain hill, where the brown road dwindled out of sight in a golden dot.”
He was reading indiscriminately—Kipling, Tennyson, Chesterton, Robert W. Chambers, David Graham Phillips, E. PhillipsOppenheim. As a schoolmate said with unconscious irony, Fitzgerald got poor grades because he read so many books. But he skimped his classwork and later recalled that “only ‘l’Allegro’ and some quality of rigid clarity in solid geometry [had] stirred his languid interest.” Lying on the edge of the baseball diamond, or late at night with cigarettes glowing in the dark, he and Sap analyzed the school. Fitzgerald liked to dissect people and put them in categories and prophesy how they were going to turn out.
He was definitely going to Princeton, attributing his preference to the fact that Princeton always just lost the football championship. “Yale always seemed to nose them out in the last quarter by superior ‘stamina’ as the newspapers called it. It was to me a repetition of the story of the foxes and the big animals in the child’s book. I imagined the Princeton men as slender and keen and romantic, and the Yale men as brawny and brutal and powerful.”
Taking his entrance exams at the New York YMCA, he managed a little judicious cheating which he regretted ever after.
Summer sped by with only his Civil War drama, The Coward, to take his mind off the coming autumn. It was staged by the Elizabethan Dramatic Club, so-named for its “directress,” Elizabeth Magoffin. Fitzgerald did most of the directing, but Miss Magoffin—a large, plump, enthusiastic girl in her mid-twenties —kept order at rehearsals with an attitude of ‘the least we can do is learn our lines.’ Her belief in Fitzgerald quickened his sense of dawning power. She gave him her photograph inscribed “To Scott ‘He had that spark—Magnetic mark’—with the best love of the one who thinks so.”
The theme of The Coward was Fitzgerald’s favorite of redemption through bravery; a Southerner, after refusing to bear arms, enlists and becomes a hero. The performance before a sellout crowd at the YWCA auditorium netted $150 for the Baby Welfare Association, or more than twice the take from The Captured Shadow, Fitzgerald’s play of the summer before. By request The Coward was performed a second time at the White Bear Yacht Club, where Fitzgerald had recently become a member.
As mainspring of the Elizabethan Dramatic Club, he had begun to show the qualities of a real impressario. He knew how to soothe the girl who had only been able to rent one costume for a play whose action extended over several years. (Her mother had suggested her saying, “Here I am in the same old dress I was wearing when Sumter fell!”) Then there was the girl who blushed at the line, “Father, remember your liver!” and the girl who wouldn’t say the business about cleaning her nails because it was undignified. All this had to be worked out. When it came to rewriting, Fitzgerald was indefatigable, retiring to a corner and tossing off new lines with his ever-facile pen. As an ad-libber he was equally skilled. During the performance at White Bear everyone was waiting for the cue A shot without, but no shot came. The boy in charge of firing had discovered at the last minute that his pistol contained a live cartridge instead of a blank. In his alarm he ran down three flights of stairs and out to the end of a pier, where he blasted away into the night. Fitzgerald, on stage at the time, filled the gap quite plausibly by rummaging for a box of cigars. His ingenuity was again tested when one of the actors said, “Here comes Father now,” gesturing to the left. Whereupon the old man in his wheelchair hurtled in from the right—jet propelled, it would seem, for the stage was a raised platform, and it had taken considerable pushing to get the wheelchair up the ramp.
In August Fitzgerald began studying for make-up exams, as Princeton would not accept him on the basis of his marks in the spring.
“Are you really going to Yale [read Princeton] this fall?” a friend asks Basil Duke Lee in ‘Forging Ahead.’
“Every one says you’re foolish to go at sixteen.”
“I’ll be seventeen in September. So long.”
Published as Scott Fitzgerald by Andrew Turnbull (New York: Scribners, 1962; London: Bodley Head, 1962).