Scott Fitzgerald
by Andrew Turnbull


Those who had known Fitzgerald at Princeton and around New York after the war were inclined to skepticism. “We were all egomaniacs then,” one of them recalled, “—all wrapped up in our own little concerns—and to think that this guy who had written songs for the Triangle should blossom out with a book that would make him famous! It was fantastic. I didn’t have time to read it. This Side of Paradise couldn’t be any good.”

But the gusto of the critics made one reconsider. Here, it seemed, was a writer of uncanny gifts and enormous promise whose very defects—brashness, arrogance, immaturity—were part of his charm. What mattered his carelessness, his lack of form? Wasn’t exuberance to be prized above technique in a young man’s book? Tarkington’s Seventeen and Johnson’s Stover at Yale, both of which Fitzgerald had pored over and admired, were called mere superficial sketches by comparison. He found his name mentioned in the same breath with Byron, Kipling, the early Dreiser, and the words “artist” and “genius” leapt out at him from the reviews.

For a while he lived in a state of pleasant madness, thinking only of his book’s reception. He knew the parts of the country where it was selling best and could tell you its approximate earnings at any moment. He lingered in bookstores, hoping to hear it praised, and when he met someone who didn’t know of it he was crushed. It amused him that Puritans were shocked by his accounts of drinking and necking. The strictures of the Catholicpress also gave him wry satisfaction, though the priest, Father Darcy, seemed to him the most sympathetic character in the book. [One incident connected with the book’s reception must have delighted Fitzgerald when he heard it. Mrs. James J. Hill, wife of the railroad king, told the manager of a St. Paul bookstore, “I’ve been looking for some one to write the life of Archbishop Ireland and now I think I’ve found him. They tell me there is a fine young Catholic writer who has just published a religious book, This Side of Paradise.”]

Less easy to shrug off was the criticism of Heywood Broun, the New York Tribune’s influential reviewer. “We are afraid,” wrote Broun of Fitzgerald’s hero, “that not a few undergraduates are given to the sin of not kissing and then telling anyway.” When the gibes continued in succeeding columns, Fitzgerald invited the big, ramshackle ex-sports-reporter to lunch and told him in a kindly way that it was too bad he had let his life slip by without accomplishing anything. (Broun had just turned thirty.) [Subsequently Broun shifted to grudging praise of Fitzgerald’s first volume of short stories, and after joining the New York World in 1921, he even tried to enlist Fitzgerald as a feature writer.]

Let us remember Fitzgerald in his first glory, happier than he would ever be again, though for six or eight years his life would be relatively unclouded. A faun, with waving blond hair parted in the middle and an expression half-serious, half-humorous, he radiated a perceptiveness, a sense of discovery that made you tingle when you were with him. He was living the American dream—youth, beauty, money, early success—and he believed in these things so passionately that he endowed them with a certain grandeur. He and Zelda were a perfect pair, like a shepherd and shepherdess in a Meissen. You could hardly imagine one without the other, and you wanted to preserve them and protect them and hope their idyl would never end.

That is, when they were behaving themselves. There were times when you wished they would sober up or go away. In April they went to Princeton to “chaperon” houseparties. “We were there three days,” Fitzgerald wrote a friend. “Zelda and five men in Harvey Firestone’s car and not one of us drew a sober breath. … It was the damndest party ever held in Princeton & every one in the University will agree.” Zelda, whom Fitzgerald introduced all around as his mistress, turned cartwheels down Prospect Street and came to breakfast at Cottage with a demijohn of applejack, which she poured over the omelets to make omelettes flambees. Fitzgerald got into brawls and people began to speak of him as a boisterous “run-it-out” drunk—“running it out” being the pejorative term for someone who made a spectacle of himself.

The following weekend Fitzgerald, John Peale Bishop, Edmund Wilson, and Stanley Dell descended on Princeton in Dell’s Buick for a banquet honoring the Nassau Lit’s former editors. Equipped with props from the Greenwich Village Playhouse, they drove up Fifth Avenue which had been cleared of traffic for the May Day parade. Fitzgerald and Bishop in the back were making signs and hanging them out the window; the policeman who chased them away took particular offense at “We Are the Reds from Parnassus.” On the way to Princeton more signs were displayed, such as, “Here’s to John Grier Hibben [president of Princeton]. He ought to be selling ribbon.” They stopped first at Christian Gauss’s, and when the professor met them at the door, they crowned him with a laurel wreath and Fitzgerald delivered an oration ending with the sentiment, “We are going to give literature the greatest boost it has ever known.” “Who knows,” said Gauss, “you may give it the fatal shove.” Then Fitzgerald, wearing a halo and wings and carrying a lyre, went to Cottage where he was symbolically ejected from a rear window. It was the first he knew of his suspension from the club.

Apparently his and Zelda’s misbehavior during houseparties had since become a scandal, and some of those who had aided and abetted them at the time had voted for Fitzgerald’s suspension. Not only was he hurt, but the hypocrisy of the proceedings hardened his contempt for uplift and reform.

Several weeks later he was honored to receive a letter from President Hibben, congratulating him on “The Four Fists,” a didactic story which Fitzgerald was ashamed of, but which, according to Hibben, showed “human nature at its best.” Hibben had been distressed by certain aspects of This Side of Paradise; he thought it made Princeton seem too much like a country club where a spirit of calculation and snobbery prevailed. “The Four Fists” pointed to the instinctive nobility of man, and Hibben hoped Fitzgerald would pursue this philosophy in his future writings. Fitzgerald’s reply was respectful but uncompromising. While appreciating President Hibben’s interest in his work, he said he had written “The Four Fists” when it was financially necesary to give the magazines what they wanted, and he was surprised by the plaudits it had received. [A year and a half later Fitzgerald wrote Max Perkins, “I’ve always hated & been ashamed of that damn story The Four Fists. Not that it is any cheaper than The Offshore Pirate because it isn’t but simply because its a mere plant, a moral tale & utterly lacks vitality.”]


New York in 1920. “The first speakeasies had arrived, the toddle was passe, the Montmartre was the smart place to dance and Lillian Tashman’s fair hair weaved around the floor among the enliquored college boys.” New York, the playground of a younger generation that was tired of Great Causes, at odds with its elders, full of energy stored up by the war, and determined to be amused. Fitzgerald’s blend of flippancy and glamour caught the mood of the moment, and so he became, in the words of a contemporary, “our darling, our genius, our fool.” He was not the first spokesman for insurgent youth—that honor belonged to Randolph Bourne or possibly Edna Millay—but with the talents of an actor wedded to those of an author, he dramatized a point of view that was second nature to him. It had long been apparent that his own parents were incompetent and unknowing. He extended the notion to the parents of everyone else, and the mystique of the Younger Generation caught hold.

Fame altered him surprisingly little. He took it with a light touch, making fun of it in a way that scarcely concealed his satisfaction. “You can’t treat me like this,” he would say with a twinkle, “I’m an important person”; or “Let’s go down to the Plaza for lunch—they’ll swoon when they see me come in.” With naive enthusiasm he would tell how much he was getting for a short story or a movie right, and at lectures, after captivating his audience with nervous young ramblings about the flapper, he succumbed to the autograph seekers with embarrassed delight.

Around New York he remained the incorrigible undergraduate. He and Zelda surrendered to impulses which wouldn’t even have occurred to more prosaic souls. The two of them taking hands after a Carnegie Hall concert and running like the wind —like two young hawks—down crowded 57th Street, in and out of traffic. Scott doing handstands in the Biltmore lobby because he hadn’t been in the news that week, and, as Oscar Wilde said, the only thing worse than being talked about is being forgotten. Scott and Zelda at the theater sitting quietly during the funny parts and roaring when the house was still. Scott whimsically divesting himself of coat, vest and shirt in the sixth row of the Scandals, and being helped out by a posse of ushers. Scott and Zelda going to a party, one of them on the roof of the taxi and the other on the hood.

They got away with it because of their air of breeding and refinement. They seemed so much a lady and gentleman that it was hard to credit the more outlandish tales about them until they began to happen right before one’s eyes. Then too their devilment stopped short of vulgarity; without being prudes, they shared a disdain for smut or grossness of any kind.

After several weeks of honeymooning at the Biltmore, the Fitzgeralds were asked to leave, the continuing hilarity of their presence being considered prejudicial to good order and restful nights. They moved to the Commodore and then decided to spend the summer in the country, where Zelda could swim and Scott could write undisturbed. In their second-hand Marmon they set out for Lake Champlain, but the first day on the road someone told them the lake was too cold to swim in, so they bore east till they came to Westport, Connecticut. Here they rented the gray-shingled Wakeman “cottage,” almost in sight of Long Island Sound. The original house dated from Revolutionary times, and nearby a stone monument of a Minute Man stood watch over the placid fields.

The Fitzgeralds joined the beach club, but soon the quiet of their days became oppressive, and they made trips to New York in search of excitement. They sloshed down gin-and-fruit-juice concoctions in various bachelor apartments, and they traveled the popular routes from dinner to the theater, thence to the Midnight Frolic, or, at Zelda’s urging, to one of the cellars in Greenwich Village where the “new poetry” movement was having its short-lived boom. Weekends they gave over-stimulated parties in Westport at which Scott’s Princeton friends rubbed elbows with the artists, writers, and theater people of their new milieu.

By now Fitzgerald realized what he must previously have guessed: that Zelda was no housekeeper. Sketchy about ordering meals, she completely ignored the laundry, much to the chagrin of Scott, who liked to change his shirt several times a day. Her carelessness with money was partly his fault, for when a check came in from his agent, he gave her huge wads of bills for the most trifling expenditures. But there were compensations; living with Zelda was like a poem. Always dainty and appetizing in her fresh cotton dresses, she had what Fitzgerald called “a flower-like quality of blooming and hibernating with the seasons.” She was earthier than he and brought him back to nature and the senses from which his imagination was constantly transporting him. He was proud of her attractiveness to men—of the way they flocked around her in rowdy groups warming themselves with her vitality. Had they loved each other less there would have been occasion for a good deal of jealousy.

But, as Fitzgerald wrote in The Beautiful and Damned, “of the things they possessed in common, the greatest of all was their almost uncanny pull at each other’s hearts.” Moments in that novel carry the imprint of their early devotion. On leaving a hotel where they have been happy together, the wife in the story begins to cry, and when her husband tries to comfort her she says, “ ‘Everywhere we go on and move and change, something’s lost—something’s left behind. You can’t ever quite repeat anything, and I’ve been so yours, here—’

“He held her passionately near, discerning far beyond any criticism of her sentiment a wise grasping of the minute….

“Later in the afternoon when he returned from the station with the tickets he found her asleep on one of the beds, her arm curled about a black object which he could not at first identify. Coming closer he found it was one of his shoes, not a particularly new one, nor clean one, but her face, tear-stained, was pressed against it, and he understood her ancient and most honorable message. There was almost ecstasy in waking her and seeing her smile at him, shy but well aware of her own nicety of imagination.”

Or take the letter in The Beautiful and Damned that is but a slight re-wording of the following, written by Zelda after one of their fights:

“I look down the tracks and see you coming—and out of every haze & mist your darling rumpled trousers are hurrying to me—without you dearest, dearest, I couldn’t see or hear or feel or think—or live—I love you so and I’m never in all our lives going to let us be apart another night. It’s like begging for mercy of a storm or killing Beauty or growing old, without you…. Goofo, you’ve got to try to feel how much [I love you] —how inanimate I am when you’re gone—I can’t even hate these damnable people—Nobody’s got any right to live but us— and they’re dirtying up our world and I can’t hate them because I want you so. Come Quick—Come Quick to me—I could never do without you if you hated me and were covered with sores like a leper—and if you ran away with another woman and starved and beat me—I still would want you I know.”

If Scott had begun by being the more in love, after their marriage Zelda gave herself so completely that such comparisons were meaningless. And yet the precariousness of their situation was apparent from the start, as one learns from the diary of Alexander McKaig, an advertising man with literary ambitions who had been a classmate and close friend of Scott’s at Princeton. [For the excerpts from Alexander McKaig’s diary I am indebted to his nephew, Robert Taft.]

April 12 [1920]. Called on Scott Fitz and his bride. Latter temperamental small town Southern Belle. Chews gum—shows knees. I do not think marriage can succeed. Both drinking heavily. Think they will be divorced in 3 years. Scott write something big—then die in a garret at 32.

June 13 Visit Fitz at Westport…. Terrible party. Fitz & Zelda fighting like mad—say themselves marriage can’t succeed.

Sept. 15 In the evening Zelda—drunk—having decided to leave Fitz & having nearly been killed walking down RR tracks, blew in. Fitz came shortly after. He had caught same train with no money or ticket. They threatened to put him off but finally let him stay on—Zelda refusing to give him any money. They continued their fight while here…. Fitz should let Zelda go & not run after her. Like all husbands he is afraid of what she may do in a moment of caprice…. Trouble is, Fitz absorbed in Zelda’s personality—she is the stronger of the two. She has supplied him with all his copy for women—Fitz argued about various things. Mind absolutely undisciplined but guesses right— intuition marvelous…. Senses the exact mood & drift of a situation so surely & quickly—much better at this than any of rest of us.

Sept. 27 John [Peale Bishop] spent weekend at Fitz—new novel sounds awful—no seriousness of approach. Zelda interrupts him all the time—diverts in both senses. Discussed his success complex—artist’s desire for flattery & influence —member of financially decadent family—Fitz bemoaning fact [that he] never can make more than hundred thousand a year—to do that have to become a Tarkington.

Oct. 12 Went to Fitzgeralds. [By now they had moved back to New York.] Usual problem there. What shall Zelda do? I think she might do a little housework—[apartment] looks like a pig sty. If she’s there Fitz can’t work—she bothers him—if she’s not there he can’t work—worried of what she might do. … I told her she would have to make up her mind whether she wanted to go in movies or get in with young married set. To do that would require a little effort & Zelda will never make an effort. Moreover, she and Fitz like only aristocrats who don’t give a damn what the work thinks or clever bohemians who don’t give a damn what the world thinks…. Fitz makes a good criticism of himself —does not see more than lots of people but is able to put down more of what he sees.

Oct. 13 Fitz made another true remark about himself—draw brilliant picture of [George Jean] Nathan sitting in chair but how Nathan thinks he cannot depict—cannot depict how any one thinks except himself & possibly Zelda. Find that after he has written about a character for a while it becomes just himself again.

Oct. 16 Spent evening at Fitzgeralds. Fitz has been on wagon 8 days—talks as if it were a century. Zelda increasingly restless—says frankly she simply wants to be amused and is only good for useless, pleasure-giving pursuits; great problem— what is she to do? Fitz has his writing of course—God knows where the two of them are going to end up.

Oct. 20 Fitz is hard up now but Zelda is nagging him for a $750 fur coat & she can nag. Poor devil.

Oct. 21 Went up to Fitzgeralds to spend evening. They just recovering from an awful party. Much taken with idea of having a baby. Have just planned a good baby & a bad baby—former has Scott’s eyes, Zelda’s nose, Scott’s legs, Zelda’s mouth etc. Latter has Zelda’s legs, Scott’s hair etc. Scott hard up for money in spite of fact he had made $20,000 in past 12 months.

Oct. 25 Follies with Scott & Zelda. Fitz very cuckoo. Lost purse with $50.00 & then after every one in place hunted for it, found it. He did not have enough money to pay check of course.

Nov. 27 I spent evening shaving Zelda’s neck to make her bobbed hair look better. She is lovely—wonderful eyes and mouth.

Nov. 28 Scott said—to go through terrible toil of writing man must have belief his writings will be eagerly bought and forever.

Dec. 11 Evening at Fitz. Fitz & I argued with Zelda about notoriety they are getting through being so publicly and spectacularly drunk. Zelda wants to live life of an ‘extravagant.’ No thought of what world will think or of future. I told them they were headed for catastrophe if they kept up at present rate.

Dec. 18 [John Peale Bishop and I] discussed glamor of Fitz phrases. I mentioned his intuition. Also his dissipation all aimed to hand down Fitzgerald legend. His claiming to be great grandson of Francis Scott Key is part of it. Never claimed that till recently—now it is being press agented. I think he is really a grand nephew.

April 17 [1921] Fitz confessed this evening at dinner that Zelda’s ideas entirely responsible for “Jelly Bean” & “Ice Palace.” Her ideas largely in this new novel. Had a long talk with her this evening about way fool women can rout intelligent women with the men. She is without doubt the most brilliant & most beautiful young woman I’ve ever known.

May 5 Fitzgeralds gone gloriously to Europe on the Aquitania. I miss them dreadfully—used to see them every day.


To go back a little, after their summer in Westport the Fitzgeralds had rented an apartment near the Plaza where they could benefit from the hotel’s room service without being subject to its rules. One day Lawton Campbell, Scott’s friend of Triangle days, was invited to join them for lunch. Arriving promptly at one, Campbell found their room a shambles; overflowing ashtrays and half-filled glasses from the night before, breakfast dishes on the unmade bed, books and papers scattered everywhere. Scott was dressing while Zelda luxuriated in the tub with the door ajar. “Scott,” she would call, “tell Lawton ‘bout…. Tell Lawton what I said when…. Now tell Law-ton what I did….” Before Scott could elaborate, Zelda would give her own version. Scott cued her and chuckled as she told of spinach and champagne, of going back to the kitchen at the Waldorf and dancing on the table tops, of crashing dishes and being escorted out by the house detectives. The anecdotes rippled on until she appeared in the door buttoning her dress and Campbell, glancing at his watch, saw it was almost two and his lunch hour was over.

Such were the Fitzgeralds of legend. From this period Scott remembered “riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.” It wasn’t till much later that they realized how lonely they had been amid the carnival of New York—“like small children in a great bright unexplored barn.” They were not altogether what they seemed. Over the din of a night club Scott would start talking literature, and suddenly one realized that behind his collegiate facade was someone finer and quieter, someone very much harassed by a gift. Sensitive as a young leaf, he trembled to all his surroundings. He registered every emotion, noticed every change of manners, and put it in his fiction which he wrote almost like journalism with a dash of poetry added. Thus he recorded the age he was helping to form, and his work and his play became hopelessly intertwined.

In this difficult game Zelda was both an inspiration and a torment. Her pranks gave him much of his material, but then again he would have to force her to leave him alone so he could make use of what he had before the next onslaught began. Her touch of fantasy, her shrewd strangeness added spice to his wonderful perceptiveness—his ability to catch an earthly manifestation on the wing and give it life and fire. At the same time the standards he had set himself were beyond her comprehension. Basically an artist, he chafed at having to write Saturday Evening Post potboilers with what he called “the required jazz ending.” Long afterwards Zelda said, “I always felt a story for the Post was tops, a goal worth seeking. It really meant something you know—they only took stories of real craftsmanship. But Scott couldn’t stand to write them.” Fitzgerald, by his own admission, was “a man divided.” Zelda wanted him to work too much for her and not enough for his dream. [Fitzgerald’s attitude toward the Post could not help being colored by the opinion of some one like Charles G. Norris, whose novel Salt had made a deep impression on him. In November, 1920, Norris wrote Fitzgerald, “I am delighted to hear you are novel-writing. I make it a point not to see the Post, so I don’t know whether you’ve been slipping or not. You can re-christen that worthy periodical The Grave-yard of the Genius of F. Scott Fitzgerald’ if you like and go on contributing to it until Lorimer sucks you dry and tosses you into the discard where nobody will care to look to find you! I’ve never aspired to be a contributor to the ‘Post’ so I’m not speaking from personally hurt feelings.”]

During the summer he had begun a novel which he continued in spurts through the fall, giving out enthusiastic reports of his progress. November 10th: “The novel goes beautifully. Done 15,000 words in the last three days which is very fast writing even for me who write very fast.” In The Flight of the Rocket, his provisional title for The Beautiful and Damned, he was describing how a young man with the tastes and weaknesses of the artist but with no actual creative inspiration—how this young man and his beautiful wife are wrecked on the shoals of dissipation. “This sounds sordid,” he wrote his editor, “but it’s really a most sensational book & I hope won’t dissappoint the critics who liked my first one.”

In August, Scribners had published a volume of his stories, Flappers and Philosophers. Over them glittered the sun of his early success—“a wealthy happy sun” that “shyed little golden discs at the sea” or “dripped over the house like gold paint over an art jar”—but there was also terror in the imprisoning chill of “The Ice Palace” and the mesmeric doom of “The Cut-Glass Bowl.” The critics, on the whole, did not feel that the collection fulfilled the promise of This Side of Paradise. They warned of a slick commercialism, an ad-man’s glamour, and Fitzgerald’s cocky tone seemed of a piece with his errors in grammar and syntax, though few could deny his charm. Through his tales ran a lyric beat, a fox-trot, a melody. Fitzgerald was a born romancer and illusionist, whose ever-beautiful, ever-witty young people did not exist outside his pages although later they seemed to typify the age. [In the copy of Flappers and Philosophers which he sent H. L. Mencken Fitzgerald classified its contents as follows: Worth reading—“The Ice Palace,” “The Cut-Glass Bowl,” “Benediction,” “Dalyrimple Goes Wrong;” Amusing— “The Offshore Pirate;” Trash—“Head and Shoulders,” “The Four Fists,” “Bernice Bobs her Hair.”]

The early twenties was a thrilling time in American letters. The renaissance, heralded in the work of Dreiser, Anderson, and others, had gained momentum with the war. As America, the most powerful of nations, broke its subservience to European culture, new voices sprang up on every hand. The writers of the post-war generation were united in their opposition to Victorian ideals but intensely competitive among themselves, and under the circumstances not the least attractive thing about Fitzgerald was his professional generosity. He promoted the work of his fellows and took pride in their success. Zelda would remember him sitting up at night to wrestle with a friend’s manuscript when his own was unfinished. “No one knows how much Scott did for others,” said Maxwell Perkins of Scribners. “He was so kind, and with his ability to spot new writers he would have made a good publisher if he hadn’t written.”

Publishing Fitzgerald had been a departure, one might say a break-through, for the house of Scribners, whose lists in recent years had featured such dignitaries as Edith Wharton and HenryJames. Known also for their British authors—Meredith, Stevenson, Galsworthy, and Barrie—Scribners had thus far eschewed the realism of the “American renaissance.” Fitzgerald’s realism, to be sure, was sweetened with romance, but Charles Scribner, Sr. had hesitated to put his imprint on This Side of Paradise, which struck him as frivolous. When he yielded to the enthusiasm of Maxwell Perkins, his most far-seeing editor, the monarchy of Scribners went over to the revolution.

Perkins was deceptive; at first glance he seemed spare New England and perfectly in the Scribners tradition. With his roots in Boston and Vermont, he had gone to St. Paul’s and Harvard and come to publishing by way of journalism, with a suppressed desire to write. A courtly, seemingly withdrawn, yet listening man in his middle thirties, he was given to pregnant silences, during which he stood gently rocking with thumbs behind his lapels, or doodled profiles of Napoleon and his other boyhood hero, Shelley—profiles that oddly resembled his own in their antique beauty. Some said Perkins was shy, but others disagreed on the grounds that a shy man would not sit in your presence and say absolutely nothing; at some point he would babble from sheer embarrassment. Perkins was a unique blend of the Puritan and the artist, of granite and warmth, of shrewdness and imagination. He used to say that the best part of a man is a boy, and back of his blue eyes—“full of a strange misty light,” Thomas Wolfe remembered, “a kind of far weather of the sea in them”—one felt the perpetual boy, the romantic adventurer. “His passion,” said a colleague, “was for the rare real thing, the flash of poetic insight that lights up a character or a situation and reveals talent at work.” Modern and experimental in his literary taste, he was still old-fashioned enough to believe that honor, loyalty, and fortitude were the important things, and that to be born knowing this was a step towards becoming a great writer in more than the technical sense. If one of the signs of talent is the instinct or capacity for meeting the right helper at the right time, surely Fitzgerald’s meeting with Perkins was a case in point.

Around the offices of Scribners, sedately reminiscent of the last century, Fitzgerald’s presence was as exotic as his prose. He gave the atmosphere a perceptible lift when he blew in after a night of writing or carousing, eager and responsive, a smile or a quip for everyone despite the circles under his eyes. An editor would be working at his desk when a hat landed plop in the middle of it, meaning that Fitzgerald, passing by in the corridor, had tossed it over the partition—his way of saying hello.

Occasionally he looked in at Vanity Fair where editors Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop were enjoying a youthful authority: Bishop urbane and dignified, talking a little as if he had a hot potato in his mouth; Wilson absent-minded and detached, so that at the mention of a current happening known to everyone he might register surprise. In their lighter moments Wilson and Bishop spoke Latin to each other, or played a game called “The Rape of the Sabines,” which consisted of hoisting their secretary onto one of the file cabinets. They were Fitzgerald’s link with his intellectual past, with the Princeton he cherished, and their reaction to his success had been a mixture of surprise, delight, amusement, and—on Wilson’s side —a touch of envy, for he was more ambitious than Bishop.

In any event, neither Wilson nor Bishop had foreseen Fitzgerald’s easy jump to prominence. At Princeton they had taken each other seriously, while Fitzgerald was on the fringes of what they believed in. Even now they had a feeling, shared by a good many others, that his Saturday Evening Post effulgence was all very well, but a little trashy (a favorite epithet of Wilson’s) and not likely to last. Teasing him, they drew up an exhibit of Fitzgeraldiana for the Scribners window, which would contain among other items:


—Original copy of Rupert Brooke’s poems (Borrowed from J.P.B.) from which the title [This Side of Paradise] was taken

—Overseas cap never worn overseas

—Copy of Sinister Street (borrowed from E.W.) used as inspiration for T.S. of P.

—Entire Fitzgerald library consisting of seven books, one of them a notebook and two made up of press clippings

—Photograph of the Newman foot-ball team with Fitzgerald as half-back (with certificate signed by the Headmaster and vouching for the genuineness of the photograph)

—First Brooks suit worn by Fitzgerald



While Fitzgerald would never be as close to Wilson as he was to Bishop, Wilson’s eminence as a critic was to make him the greater influence as time went on. Already Wilson had a settled air, and his essays and reviews suggested the weight and skill of a much older man. At Princeton people had thought him funny, queer, distant, but he had gone his way with briery independence. One had imagined him rising to the top in a distinguished university, yet with sound instinct he had bucked a naturally withdrawing temper and taken, for him, the harder road out into journalism.

At bottom he and Fitzgerald remained two sides of a coin, in stimulating opposition. Though Wilson could appreciate romanticism intellectually (his first book of criticism, Axel’s Castle, would be a study of the Symbolists whom he treated as more sophisticated Romantics), he himself was eighteenth century in his sturdy rationalism, his omnivorous curiosity, the sane balance of his mind and style. He had in him some of the crusading vigor of the French Enlightenment, the same willingness to fight for a cause or an idea he believed in, and his discursive and expository talents belonged to an age of prose. “Your poems I like less than your prose,” Fitzgerald presently wrote him, “. …. all your poetry seems to flow from some source outside or before the romantic movement even when its intent is most lyrical.” It was Fitzgerald who, by comparison, belonged with the Romantics—with Byron, Keats, and Shelley, each of whom he resembled in facets of his nature (Byron’s dash, the sweetness of Shelley, Keats’s yearning for artistic perfection). Wilson liked to deflate Fitzgerald by pricking his dreams and illusions with common sense, yet Wilson, who also wanted to write imaginative literature, had much to learn from Fitzgerald if it could ever be taught. Wilson’s problem had always been an inability to engage with life, to experience it at first hand. He understood books better than people, who did not greatly interest him unless they were artists or intellectuals and could meet him on his own ground. Even as a reporter he remained essentially the student, the brilliant outsider, getting up on this or that subject from which his temperament seemed to exclude him. At parties where Fitzgerald would be mixing with everyone or generally misbehaving, Wilson was likely to be in a corner talking earnestly—still so shy that he might not even look at you, and then as you turned away, you were conscious of his brown eyes, choleric and watchful, climbing your face like squirrels.

Wilson’s shyness, however, was that of a man who could also be very bold. He was sure of his values and opinions, he knew where he stood, and his early criticism of Fitzgerald’s work betrays a somewhat patronizing tone. Wilson sounds the note of the schoolmaster whose exceptional but wayward pupil has fallen short of his best. Though Fitzgerald is “exhilaratingly clever,” This Side of Paradise is “very immaturely imagined,” illiterate, and almost devoid of intellectual content. Not only is it highly imitative, in Compton Mackenzie it imitates an inferior model. It has almost every fault and deficiency that a novel can possess except the cardinal one of failing to live. Wilson’s praise, when it comes, is backhanded. He is more intent on showing the minus than the plus. But if he did less than justice to the book’s freshness and beauty, if he failed to communicate its excitement for its day, he pointed knowingly to its flaws and Fitzgerald respected him for it. “Wilson’s article about me in the March [Bookman] is suberb,” Fitzgerald wrote Perkins. “It’s no blurb—not by a darn sight—but its the first time I’ve been done at length by an intelligent & sophisticated man and I appreciate it—jeers and all.”

Wilson, of course, was still a fledgling. Among the more established critics Fitzgerald looked up to H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Co-editors of Smart Set, the first magazine to publish his work, Mencken and Nathan were dynamiters of Puritanism and the “Genteel Tradition” in American literature. Nathan, a cynic and dandy with dark eyes and a sensitive, sullen mouth, was making a name as a theater critic, and sometimes he took the Fitzgeralds to first nights bristling with celebrities. During the summer, he had visited them in Westport, professing his ardor for Zelda in a series of billets-doux of which the following is a fair sample: “Dear Blonde: Why call me a polygamist when my passion for you is at once so obvious and so single? Particularly when I am lit.” Or this: “Dear Misguided Woman: Like so many uncommonly beautiful creatures, you reveal a streak of obtuseness. The calling of a husband’s attention to a love letter addressed to his wife is but part of a highly sagacious technique. … It completely disarms suspicion. … I have bought five more cases of Miltshire gin.”

In Westport the Fitzgeralds had had a tiny Japanese butler, Tana, whom Nathan insisted was a German spy. He sent Tana a postcard addressed to Lt. Emile Tannenbaum, commanding him to investigate the Fitzgeralds’ cellar and report in code cipher 24-B whether the floor was solid enough to hold a two-ton cannon in the event of war. There were subsequent communiques in oriental calligraphy. Fitzgerald always handed them to Tana without a smile, and hours later the butler would be found puzzling over them in the kitchen, protesting that the symbols weren’t Japanese, nor anything resembling Japanese. Meanwhile Mencken added his touch. “I have sent Tannenbaum five copies of the Berliner Tageblatt each plastered with German stamps,” he wrote Nathan. “Let me know if Fitzgerald is killed when the Westport American Legion raids his house.”

Mencken was Fitzgerald’s special delight. The Teutonic bon vivant, with the taste for beer, seafood, and Uncle Willy cigars, with the racy talk and snapping blue eyes under sardonically arched brows—who could resist his enchantment with the everlasting spectacle of human folly? His railing at the Establishment —whether it be the “rev. clergy” or the professors, Democracy or Prohibition—brought Fitzgerald’s grateful applause. When Fitzgerald told Mencken he was basing one of the characters in his novel on Nathan, Mencken proposed a secret conference. “There are certain episodes in Nathan’s life,” he wrote, “that, while extremely discreditable, are very effective dramatically, and I’d like to impart them to you. There was, for example, the Schapiro case in 1904. I am surely not one to credit the Schapiro girl with anything approaching innocence, but, nevertheless, Nathan’s treatment of her could not and cannot be defended. And no one sympathized with him very much when he was forced to leave town for two months and hide in Union Hill, New Jersey.”


In April, 1921, with the novel completed and Zelda pregnant, the Fitzgeralds decided to go abroad. They were tired of their New York apartment with its stifling atmosphere of liquor, smoke, open trunks, too many callers, and eternal laundry bags, and there were indications that New York was tiring of them. One evening in the Jungle Club, an elaborate speakeasy, Law-ton Campbell noticed a somewhat wobbly Fitzgerald arguing with the enormous bouncer at the door to the inner bar. The bouncer thought Fitzgerald had had enough to drink, and fearing a scene Campbell intervened and persuaded Fitzgerald to join his table. Moments later Zelda appeared at the door looking for Scott. Campbell ushered her to the table also, but she refused to sit down, saying Scott had walked out on her. Hoping to change her mood, Campbell asked her to dance. No thank you, she was going back to the bar and Scott was going with her. No so-and-so bouncer could tell him what to do.

Heads high, the Fitzgeralds returned to the fray. The bouncer let Zelda pass, but not Scott, who on a word from Zelda swung at him and missed. After another phantom blow, the bouncer lost patience and gave Fitzgerald a shove that sent him crashing into a table halfway across the room. Campbell went over and persuaded him to leave. As Zelda had disappeared, Campbell decided to come back for her after getting Scott outside. They were signaling a taxi when Zelda rushed out on the pavement, hatless and wrapless, crying, “Scott, you’re not going to let them get away with that! If you want a drink why shouldn’t you have one?”—and Fitzgerald staggered back in over Campbell’s protests.

Next day Campbell was getting a haircut at the Plaza when the barber said, “Have you seen your friend Fitzgerald? You wouldn’t recognize him.” The barber had been summoned to give Fitzgerald a shave—somewhat pointlessly as he was in bed with his head bandaged and one eye completely closed. There were scars and bruises on his body that indicated a brutal beating. When Campbell went to see him, Fitzgerald was unable to remember what had happened. Campbell asked after Zelda. “Oh, she’s fine,” Fitzgerald whispered through the gauze. “She’s gone to exchange our tickets. We were sailing for Europe today.”

They got off a week later on the Aquitania. Fitzgerald went down the passenger list checking the names of the people he had heard of, and beside “Mr. and Mrs. Francis S. Fitzgerald” he put, “Disguise! Sh!” Zelda wrote Max Perkins that the main object of the crossing seemed to be “to gaze furtively & impressedly at Colonel House & answer your horrible dinner partners in monosyllables. However, I suppose it amuses the people that think ‘there’s something in every fellow if you can just get at it.’ “

The first stop was London. This Side of Paradise, now in its eleventh American printing, was about to be published there, and Fitzgerald, eager to make a good impression, heeded Shane Leslie’s warning that English intellectuals did not drink. When John Galsworthy invited them to dinner with St. John Ervine, Scott told his host that he was one of the three living authors he admired most—the other two being Conrad and Anatole France. Later asked what Galsworthy had replied, Fitzgerald said, “I don’t think he liked it much. He knew he wasn’t that good.”

Fitzgerald found Oxford just as beautiful as he had imaginedit from Compton Mackenzie’s Sinister Street, and Zelda enthused to Shane Leslie over “the Town Hall with the Redskins walking around it”—by which she meant Buckingham Palace during the changing of the Grenadier Guards in their scarlet tunics. Leslie would remember Zelda as “a toy, a little geisha, a lovely thing.” He took the Fitzgeralds on a tour of the river slums, of Limehouse and Wapping, showing them where Jack the Ripper had slain his victims, and they were enthralled. But on the whole, sightseeing was not their dish. People were their nutriment, and when they got to France they couldn’t even speak the language. In Paris they sat for an hour outside Anatole France’s house hoping to catch a glimpse of the old gentleman, but he failed to oblige. Presently they were asked to leave their hotel because of Zelda’s penchant for lashing the elevator at her floor with her belt, so as to have it on hand when she had finished dressing for dinner. After a jaunt through Italy, which to their American palates was even more distasteful than France, they returned to London the end of June. Scott had thought of settling there, but now he changed his mind, chilled perhaps by the unflattering reviews of This Side of Paradise.

Returning to America, the Fitzgeralds went to Montgomery with the idea of buying a house and putting down roots. At the last minute, however, they decided to have their child in St. Paul.

Next: chapter 9

Published as Scott Fitzgerald by Andrew Turnbull (New York: Scribners, 1962; London: Bodley Head, 1962).