Fitzgerald returned to St. Paul in triumph. He carried within him a great excitement, and the crest of fame sat lightly on his young head. Going up to an older writer—Charles Flandrau— at a dance, he said, “Oh, Charlie, how wonderful it is to be young and beautiful and a success!” When interviewed for the St. Paul Daily News at White Bear Lake where he had rented a house, he came down in his pajamas, and his eyes were “blue and domineering,” his nose “Grecian and pleasantly snippy,” as he held forth on American letters. Mencken was the one man for whom he had complete respect. Floyd Dell had touched the depths of banality in The Mooncalf. Carl Sandburg was less of a poet than Charlie Chaplin. Fitzgerald claimed to have three novels in his head and gave the impression of great buoyancy, though even now he was subject to despair.
The past five months of loafing had demoralized him, the underside of his creativity being a destructiveness which tore at himself and others. “I should like to sit down with ½ dozen chosen companions,” he wrote Perkins, “& drink myself to death but I am sick alike of life, liquor and literature. If it wasn’t for Zelda I think I’d dissapear out of sight for three years. Ship as a sailor or something & get hard—I’m sick of the flabby semi-intellectual softness in which I flounder with most of my generation.”
With fall coming on, he and Zelda moved to a house on Goodrich Avenue in St. Paul. When their child was born October 26th, Fitzgerald wired Zelda’s parents, LILLIAN GISH IS IN MOURNING CONSTANCE TALMADGE IS A BACK NUMBER A SECOND MARY PICKFORD HAS ARRIVED.” Fitzgerald had been the most anxious of prospective fathers, though not too anxious to record Zelda’s remarks as she came out of ether: “Oh God, goofo, I’m drunk. Mark Twain. Isn’t she smart—she has the hiccups. I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.” (The last sentiment would reappear in the mouth of Gatsby’s sweetheart.)
Living in St. Paul threw Fitzgerald with his parents for the first time since his marriage, and he was more critical of them than ever. In his eyes his mother remained a grotesque, while his father, natty as ever with his Vandyke and the white piping on his vests, seemed bland and uninteresting. The parents were a study in contrast; picturing his father as an attractive gentleman who had never amounted to anything, Fitzgerald gave the impression that his mother took in boarders and did the wash. He liked to dramatize the incongruities of his background in a manner more literary than accurate.
After recent excitements, St. Paul was a come-down. The Victorian splendor of Summit Avenue no longer seemed grand but merely heavy. One missed the tempo of New York, where skirts were climbing rapidly to the knee and Macy’s displayed cigar cases that turned out to be flasks. But the urge to startle and amuse, to shake life out of its conventional wrappings and give it some of the color of fiction, was ever-present in Fitzgerald, who did what he could with the materials at hand. Running into an old girl, Margaret Armstrong, he reminisced with her— Fitzgerald had great nostalgia for his early friendships—after which he went down the block for a shave. When Margaret passed the barbershop moments later, Fitzgerald was in a chair with a cloth around his neck and lather all over his face, but he rushed out in the street exclaiming, “Margaret, how are you! I’m so glad to see you!” as if they hadn’t met for years. If it was partly done for the effect on passers-by, part of it too was his talent driving him. “Reporting the extreme things as if they were the average things,” he once noted, “will start you on the art of fiction.”
Determined to order his life, Fitzgerald rented a room downtown where he wrote his daily stint, afterwards going to the Kilmarnock Bookshop at Fourth and Minnesota for relaxation. You stepped off the street through a corner door into what looked like an old billiard room, dark and faintly dirty, the walls lined with books from floor to ceiling, and the new arrivals, chiefly fiction, on two long center tables. Glancing at these, Fitzgerald would proceed to the rear room, where a fire blazed in cold weather and a sprinkling of comfortable chairs held out their arms to visitors. Here there was always good talk. One of the proprietors had come back from England with bootleg copies of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was causing a great stir. The other proprietor, Tom Boyd, edited the literary page of the St. Paul Daily News, which helped to keep Fitzgerald before the public eye. Two years younger than Fitzgerald, Boyd was handsome, lusty, excitable, rough-smart, his education having stopped with high school. A hero in the Marines, he was soon to write a considerable war novel, Through the Wheat, which Fitzgerald got Scribners to publish. [Thomas Boyd’s letter to Fitzgerald, on hearing that Scribners had accepted Through the Wheat, shows the sort of appreciation Fitzgerald’s generosity inspired. “Dear Scott: To attempt to tell you of my honest gratitude would only show up my inability fully to express myself. When Scribner’s turned down Through the Wheat I cried on reading the letter of rejection—as I also did when I wrote certain parts of the book. And besides, I felt that so long as it remained unpublished I could never write anything else: the best of which I am capable is in Through the Wheat, and to damn that would be damn all subsequent transcriptions of thoughts and experiences. I feel quite aware that it is only through you and your inexhaustable exuberance that Scribners took the book. I hope for all of your sakes that it exhausts one edition. Strange, but I doubted that you would like it; why, I don’t know. And when I sent it I did not believe that you intended doing with it [what you did]. I thought you wanted only to read it. Well, it was a surprise. The wire came early in the morning over the telephone and getting me angrily out of bed at seven—I had not planned to do anything with it for five or six more years. But while the MS. was sunk my ambition was sunk also. You know how much I appreciate what you have done, don’t you?…”]
Distinguished visitors dropped in at the bookshop from time to time, and one day Fitzgerald met Joseph Hergesheimer, then approaching the height of his lucrative fame.
“Mr. Hergesheimer,” said Fitzgerald, “a writer’s life is full of bitterness, frustration, and despair. Don’t you think it would be better to be born with a talent for, say, carpentry?”
Hergesheimer’s eyes twinkled behind horn-rimmed glasses.
“For Christ’s sake!” he snapped, “I lived for years in the mountains of Virginia, eating hominy grits and black-eyed peas and writing on a broken-down machine before I sold one Goddamned line. And you talk to me about despair!”
A regular at the bookshop was Father Joe Barron, still a close friend of Fitzgerald’s, though the latter had had nothing to do with the Church since his marriage. (His daughter, however, had been baptized a Catholic with Barron as godfather.) Barron used to say the Church was well rid of Fitzgerald, secretly believing he would return to it some day because he was intelligent. Barron liked Zelda, much as they disagreed. One evening, when she advanced the proposition that most people—especially writers—took money too seriously, Father Joe queried “All right, Zelda—supposing Scott’s stuff stopped selling and you saw a dress that you wanted more than anything in the world, and to get it you’d have to spend your last hundred dollars. What would you do?”
“I’d buy the dress,” said Zelda.
Barron said she just thought she would; she was posing. Zelda flared back, and the argument went on until Barron declared she couldn’t be that tough because nothing in her life had conditioned her for toughness. Scott listened in silence, holding his drink and smiling.
During the fall and winter he polished the proofs of The Beautiful and Damned, which Zelda criticized with tangible results. She maintained, for example, that the new ending he had written was a piece of morality and ought to be cut. Fitzgerald, undecided, asked Perkins’ advice. Perkins said that from an artistic point of view he agreed with Zelda, and the book was concluded as it now stands. A passage Zelda particularly liked was Maury Noble’s debunking of the Old Testament as the work of some ancient skeptics, whose sole aim had been the literary immortality they achieved. Mencken also liked this bit of irreverence, and when Perkins denounced it, Fitzgerald was upset. He wrote a long letter, invoking Samuel Butler and Anatole France, Voltaire and Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain and George Moore, as great writers who had refused homage to the Bible and its God. “I do not expect in any event,” he wrote Perkins, “that I am to have the same person for person public this time that Paradise had. My one hope is to be endorsed by the intellectually elite & thus be forced on people as Conrad has. … If I cut this out, it would only [be] because I would be afraid and I haven’t done that yet & dread the day when I’ll have to.”
Perkins stuck to his guns. Granted that most people under forty would agree with Fitzgerald in substance, he did not think the Old Testament should be treated in such a way as to dismiss its immense historical importance. In the end, Fitzgerald softened a few words but let the passage stand.
Another fret was the illustration on the dust jacket. “I hope to God that Hill draws a good-looking girl,” Fitzgerald wrote Perkins, “also” (remembering the art work for This Side of Paradise) “that if there’s a man he’ll keep his tie outside his collar.” When the dust jacket arrived, it confirmed Fitzgerald’s worst fears. The prima donna in him was hypersensitive to his public image. “The girl,” he wrote Perkins, “is excellent of course—it looks somewhat like Zelda but the man, I suspect, is a sort of debauched edition of me. … I do not understand an artist of Hill’s talent and carefullness going quite contrary to a detailed description of the hero in the book…. Anthony is ‘just under six feet’—Here he looks about Gloria’s height with ugly short legs…. Anthony is dark haired—this bartender on the cover is light haired. … He looks like a sawed-off young tough in his first dinner-coat…. Everybody I’ve talked to agrees with me and I’m a little sore.”
The Beautiful and Damned, published March 3, 1922, brought Fitzgerald accolades from those whose opinions he valued. Mencken congratulated him for staking out new ground instead of rewriting This Side of Paradise, which would have assured him financial success as well as a good deal of uncritical praise. Nathan called the book “a very substantial performance —a first-rate job” and Edmund Wilson, who had read the manuscript and persuaded Fitzgerald to prune some of its excesses, thought it a distinct advance over This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald was aiming high; he only wanted to be the best novelist of his generation. “You can’t hurt my feelings about the book,” he wrote Bishop, “though I did resent in your Baltimore article being definitely limited at 25 years old to a place between Compton McKenzie who wrote 2½ good (but not wonderful) novels and then died—and Tarkington who if he has great talent hasthe mind of a schoolboy. I mean, at my age, they’d done nothing.”
Mencken was right. Fitzgerald, with the instinct that distinguishes the artist from the self-repeating hack, had tried something new. In a sense, The Beautiful and Damned was a repudiation of the Younger Generation thesis that had brought him to power; Gloria and Anthony Patch—young, glamorous, emancipated—live selfishly and hedonistically after the mode of rebellious youth and end up desperate and degraded. The bleakness of the theme put off many readers and caused somber speculations about the author’s private life. Gloria and Anthony, however, were not literal renderings of Scott and Zelda. “Gloria was a much more trivial and vulgar person than your mother,” Fitzgerald wrote his daughter in after years. “I can’t really say there was any resemblance except in the beauty and certain terms of expression she used, and also I naturally used many circumstantial events of our early married life. However the emphases were entirely different We had a much better time than Anthony and Gloria had.”
Still, an imagined kinship remained. The Beautiful and Damned was a projection of what Fitzgerald had come to consider the decayed part of their lives, and his amazing prescience, as we read the book today, gives a touch of heartache to its brassy prose. The jaunty epigraph—“The victor belongs to the spoils”—might have been the epigraph for Fitzgerald’s whole career, while the final glimpse of Gloria with her looks gone and of Anthony sunk in alcoholism is all too prophetic. After a fight in which Anthony breaks Gloria’s spirit, he muses that “it was yet problematical whether Gloria without her arrogance, her independence, her virginal confidence and courage would be the girl of his glory, the radiant woman who was precious and charming because she was ineffably, triumphantly herself.” Gloria recovers from the fight, but what if her spirit were permanently submerged in mental illness? So much of what Scott loved in Zelda depended on verve.
The Beautiful and Damned, while more consciously wrought and constructed than This Side of Paradise, was in some ways a weaker book. The earlier work was a portent, and as a picture of American college life it has never been surpassed. Fitzgerald told Shane Leslie he had written it, as Stevenson wrote Treasure Island, to satisfy his craving for a certain kind of novel. It has in spots the grace, the inevitability, the poetry of Fitzgerald’s deepest vein. The Beautiful and Damned, for all its wealth of irony and satire, seems a bit labored by comparison. [In 1958 the critic, Granville Hicks, reviewing recent college novels by Richard Frede and Robert Gutwillig, harked back to This Side of Paradise: “How naive and yet how fresh and vital it is! Page after page would make Frede and Gutwillig blush if they had written them, and probably Fitzgerald blushed over some of them in his later years. But there never was another novel of college life like This Side of Paradise. There had been Owen Johnson’s Stover at Yale, to which Fitzgerald admitted a debt, but Johnson had observed the proprieties whereas Fitzgerald was a pioneer of emancipation. He was out to tell all, and for him college had been many kinds of experience. The sentimentality of the loyal undergraduate, the desire to be a big man on campus, the quest for sophistication, his loves, his discussions, his rebellions—he poured them all into his book.”]
In March the Fitzgeralds went to New York to celebrate the book’s publication. On their return Scott wrote Edmund Wilson, “I was sorry our meetings in New York were so fragmentary. My original plan was to contrive to have long discourses with you but that interminable party began and I couldn’t seem to get sober enough to be able to tolerate being sober. In fact the whole trip was largely a failure.”
While getting together a collection of his short stories (it was Scribners’ policy to follow each novel with such a collection), Fitzgerald found time to write the St. Paul Junior League Show, and did it with a good grace and accommodation unlooked for in a professional of his standing. He and Zelda and the baby spent the summer at the White Bear Yacht Club while he toyed with the idea of a novel set in the Midwest and New York of 1885, though before starting it he wanted to accumulate enough money so as not to be interrupted. The four stories he had written since coming to St. Paul hadn’t begun to meet expenses, and it had been necessary for Scribners to advance him $5,643 on The Beautiful and Damned. Its sales proved disappointing’ 43,000 the first year, as against the 60,000 Fitzgerald had predicted. (This Side of Paradise had sold 44,000 during the same period, a good though not a startling sale considering its vogue.)
In July Fitzgerald weighed an offer to make a movie of This Side of Paradise, with him and Zelda in the leading roles, turning it down much to Perkins’ relief. His great hope now was a play he had written. He called it “a sure-fire money-maker” andcounted on having it produced when he and Zelda moved East in the fall, for they were tired of St. Paul. [In May Edmund Wilson had written Fitzgerald: “As I say, I think that the play as a whole is marvellous—no doubt, the best American comedy ever written. I think you have a much better grasp of your subject than you usually have —you know what end and point you are working for as isn’t always the case with you. If I were writing my Bookman article now I’d have to do parts of it in a different strain. I think you have a great gift for comic dialogue— even though you never can resist a stupid gag—and should go on writing plays.” Wilson assisted Fitzgerald in trying to get the play produced.]
Meanwhile the baby was adorable, and, said Fitzgerald, “… we dazzle her exquisite eyes with gold pieces in the hopes that she’ll marry a millionaire.”
Mid-September found the Fitzgeralds at the Plaza. When they weren’t house-hunting in the suburbs, Scott was writing a story, “Winter Dreams,” which he later called “a sort of first draft of the Gatsby idea,” or soberly transacting business in connection with his play. He and Zelda were on the wagon, having made up their minds to steer clear of the ever-impending bacchanalia around New York.
Early in October they rented a house at 6 Gateway Drive in the incorporated village of Great Neck Estates near Great Neck, Long Island. While Fitzgerald was at Princeton, he had gone with Shane Leslie to visit the Bourke Cochrans at nearby Port Washington and had carried away vivid memories of the great estates clustering that part of the Island. Because Great Neck was half an hour from Broadway by the Long Island Express, a new element had been moving in of late: actors, song-writers, comedians, producers—celebrities like Lillian Russell, George M. Cohan, and the great Ziegfeld himself. Their presence augured a good time, and having hired a couple to keep house and a nurse for the baby, the Fitzgeralds settled down to a riotous year which provided the background for The Great Gatsby.
The flavor of that year is suggested by these excerpts from Zelda’s letters to the Ralmans—Sandra and “Kallie”—a couple they had known in St. Paul:
Oct. 13, 1922. Are you really coming east for the football games? If you are you must come stay with us in our nifty little Babbit-home at Great Neck. We seem to have achieved a state of comparative organization at last and, having bought loads of very interesting flour seives and cocktail-shakers, are in a position to make a bid for your patronage on your next trip. We have had the most terrible time—very alcoholic & chaotic. We behaved so long that eventually we looked up Engalichoff which, needless to say, started us on a weeks festivity, equalled only by ancient Rome and Nineveh! For the rest we find ourselves diving into a fountain on the Greenwich Village Follies Curtain, getting drunk with Zoe Akins & George Nathan and hiring Swedish servants—having come all the way from Minnesota to avoid them.
Early November, 1922. And now for the weather: it is perfectly delicious here and you and Kallie must come for the games. Think of the ride through the dusty blue twilight back to New York and the crysanthemums and the sort of burnt smell in the air—and the liquor. And then think of the Mont Matre afterward and the theatre….
Late November, 1922. For a while I was consumed with a burning wrath at you two for not coming East, but after the game I began to see the wisdom of your decision. It was very spectacular and very dull, and doubtless you may have heard that Yale lost 3-0. That is all I know about the game part. After it was over, we went around to the clubs and I felt like Methusalah and all the kids were Peggys age so we ate dinner at “The Baltimore Lunch”—a place like Child’s, only not so exclusive. Then we took our drunken and very gay friends to call on a Presbyterian gentleman named Agar. There we met countless deans and proctors and professors daughters and our friends danced and sang for them, much to their horror and incomprehension.
January 5, 1923. I suppose you had a glorious New Years. We saw ourselves out and the Year in between drinks at a dull party which I succeeded in ruining by throwing everybody’s hat into a center bowl-shaped light. It was very exhilirating and I wish you had been here to help me.
June 21, 1923. First of all I feel perfectly awful about not seeing you on Monday—or whatever day it was. Everything beginning Friday and ending today has lost itself in the dimness and shadiness of my past and the Gregorian Calendar has lost all significance to me. It seems awful now that I have come to and discovered you gone that I never even got a good look at Sandy. Monday night when I returned from regions unmentionable because unknown and got your message I called the Ritz and had some faint difficulty with the clerk. I’m not sure that I told my right name but if I did, did you get word…. But Scott now has a flash of clairvoyance and informs me that I rode out of your room in a laundry wagon—and that Sandy became very high hat about it—so maybe you hope you will never see us again.
July, 1923. Scott has started a new novel and retired into strict seclusion and celibacy. He’s horribly intent on it and has built up a beautiful legend about himself which corresponds somewhat to the old fable about the ant & the grasshopper. Me being the grasshopper.”
The Fitzgeralds had moved to Great Neck hoping to settle down and be normal, but despite the hired help their menage was erratic. Zelda told an interviewer that breakfast and lunch were “extremely moveable feasts,” and dinner guests would find that the wrong food had been ordered, or else that there was too much of one thing and not enough of another. The house lacked a central command; Scott and Zelda gave overlapping instructions and in the end little got done.
There was a memorable dinner for Rebecca West at which she failed to appear. Fitzgerald got a pillow, painted a face on it, crowned it with an enormous plumed hat, and put it in the seat of honor. All during the meal he insulted this effigy of the authoress and teased it about her books. When a delivery boy rang the bell, Fitzgerald went to the door and said in a loud voice, “No, Miss West, you can’t come in. We don’t want you now.” Rebecca West, lecturing in this country, had received the invitation through a third party, and at the last minute had been unable to find Fitzgerald’s address or even the name of the town where he lived. When they met later on, they liked each other. Rebecca West always remembered Fitzgerald for his gracious-ness and charity.
It is interesting to speculate on the Great Neck parties that might have been a model for Gatsby’s. There were those of Herbert Bayard Swope, the well-known sportsman-journalist; on his croquet course, illumined by car headlights, games were played for $2,000 stakes. There were those of Gene Buck, Ziegfeld’s right-hand man. Buck’s house had been decorated by the Follies’ stage designer, and Ring Lardner described the living room as looking like “the Yale Bowl—with lamps.” The Fitzgeralds also entertained in a somewhat garish manner. They were usually “on” in the theatrical sense, and they liked their captive audience to be as large and illustrious as possible. They “knew every one,” which is to say most of those whom Ralph Barton, the cartoonist, would have represented as being in the orchestra on opening night. After one of their brawls they framed a set of house rules which were only partly facetious. Item: “Visitors are requested not to break down doors in search of liquor, even when authorized to do so by the host and hostess.” Item: “Week-end guests are respectfully notified that invitations to stay over Monday, issued by the host and hostess during the small hours of Sunday morning, must not be taken seriously.”
Fitzgerald was given to pet expressions. At Princeton all his enthusiasms had been “knock-outs,” and now the magic word was “egg.” People he liked were “good eggs” or “colossal eggs,” and people he didn’t like were “bad eggs” or “unspeakable eggs.” One evening the actress, Laurette Taylor, happened in on a Fitzgerald party. As she entered the room, Scott recognized her, and dropping to his knees he took her hands in his and said, “My God, you beautiful egg! You beautiful egg!” He led her to a couch before which he knelt and resumed his incantation: “You beautiful, beautiful egg!” When Laurette Taylor got home she summoned her husband, the playwright Hartley Manners, from his Saturday night poker game. “Oh, Hartley”—she began to cry—“I’ve just seen the doom of youth. Understand? The doom of youth itself. A walking doom.”
Despite their hospitality, the Fitzgeralds made few friends in Great Neck where their only real intimates were the Lardners. During the year Scott was meditating Gatsby, and the first six months of writing it, the supreme influence in his life was “Ring.” Lardner had a wondrous courtliness and consideration, though like Fitzgerald he was a practical joker of slightly sinister intent. One day the two of them lunched with Rube Goldberg, the cartoonist, and afterwards sat around drinking while Goldberg kept insisting he needed a haircut. Finally they adjourned to the local barber, who was about to go home and left the shop in their hands. Goldberg was inveigled into a chair where he promptly fell asleep, and when he woke up, his friends were gone and his hair was cut in patches. He was less amused than they, for he had to attend a family gathering that evening. On another occasion Lardner and Fitzgerald did a tipsy dance on the lawn of the Doubleday estate, hoping to attract the attention of Joseph Conrad who was staying there, but they only attracted the caretaker who expelled them.
There is a brotherhood of the intemperate which helps to explain the bond between Lardner and Fitzgerald, different as they were on the surface: the light and the dark, the short and the tall, the expansive and the reticent, the merry and the dismal. Fitzgerald described Lardner’s face as resembling a cathedral. The high cheekbones and swarthy complexion gave it an Indian cast, and the heavy eyebrows would have been fierce but for the sadness of the large, dark, hypnotic eyes. Lardner’s dignity and authority made one proud to be his friend. Not infrequently he and Fitzgerald talked the night away over a case of Canadian ale or something stronger, until Ring, yawning and blinking at the early sun, would say, “Well, I guess the children have left for school by now—I might as well go home.”
Mildly self-deprecating, Lardner considered himself a reporter rather than a literary man. His bailiwick was sports and popular entertainment, and he remained a little leery of the critics who were booming his work. What he gave Fitzgerald was intangible but invaluable—a fountain of wit, a cockeyed inner sense of truth, a feeling of being in cahoots with the world in general—while Fitzgerald, on his side, helped Lardner collect his first book of short stories which Scribners published. (“Readers,” said Lardner of the reviews, “might think I was having an affair with some of the critics.”)
But already there had fastened on Lardner the despair which deepened until his death in 1933. Then Fitzgerald summed up his affection for this proud, shy, inscrutable man in an obituary memoir which concludes, “Let us not obscure him by the flowers, but walk up and look at that fine medallion, all abraded by sorrows that perhaps we are not equipped to understand. Ring made no enemies, because he was kind, and to many millions he gave release and delight.”
In June Eleanor Browder, a friend of Zelda’s from Montgomery, spent a week with the Fitzgeralds and never forgot the day she and Zelda met Scott at the Plaza for tea. He came in carrying a bottle of champagne with which he had fortified himself for a dentist appointment, and now, with Anita Loos in tow, he was celebrating the fact that the appointment was over. The four of them went into the Palm Room where the waiter refused to serve them because of Scott’s condition, so presently they were driving out to Great Neck in a rented car, quaffing warm champagne from a case of it at their feet. Cocktails awaited them at Gateway Drive, followed by a candlelight supper. They had finished the first course when a woman who had been pursuing Scott came to the front door. He got rid of her, but when he sat down again Zelda made a remark. One word led to another, and suddenly Scott was on his feet wrenching the cloth from the table and striding out of the room amid the crash of china and glass.
“Shall we have our coffee in the next room?” said Zelda. The three women picked their way through the debris and sipped demitasses while Scott fell asleep under a tree. Later he came in, all politeness, and the incident was not referred to during the rest of Eleanor’s stay.
Despite such strangeness, the Fitzgeralds were still the golden couple of American letters. When a New York reporter called on them at home and Scott was asked to describe his wife, he said, “She’s the most charming person in the world.” Pressed for details, he added fervently, “That’s all. I refuse to amplify— excepting she’s perfect.”
“You don’t think that,” Zelda put in. “You think I’m a lazy woman.”
“No,” said Scott. “I like it. I think you’re perfect. You’re always ready to listen to my manuscripts at any hour of day or night. You’re charming—beautiful. You do, I believe, clean the ice-box once a week.”
Van Wyck Brooks has written affectingly of the Fitzgeralds as they seemed to him during this period. Brooks went to a dinner “at which Fitzgerald and Zelda, his wife, arriving an hour late when the others had finished, sitting at table fell asleep over the soup that was brought in, for they had spent the two previous nights at parties. So Scott Fitzgerald said as he awoke for a moment, while some one gathered Zelda up, with her bright cropped hair and diaphanous gown, and dropped her on a bed in a room near by. There she lay curled and asleep like a silky kitten. Scott slumbered in the living-room waking up suddenly again to telephone an order for two cases of champagne, together with a fleet of taxis to take us to a night club. That moment and scene bring back now a curious note of the twenties that one did not connect with insanity and tragedy then, while I was drawn to the Scott Fitzgeralds, whom I never really knew but who seemed to me, so obviously, romantic lovers.”
Around New York Fitzgerald was still the awesome, successful, young genius whose name was news. When he hit a plain-clothesman who insulted Zelda at a Webster Hall dance, he read in the paper next day, “Fitzgerald Knocks Officer This Side of Paradise.” But notoriety and success no longer satisfied— now that he had them he was inclined to think, “Is this all!”— and the writing he had to do to maintain himself had grown increasingly irksome. He found himself repeating the matter of an earlier period without being able to recapture the exuberant manner. It rankled him that a cheap story like “The Popular Girl,” tossed off the week the baby was born, should bring $1500 from the Post, while “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” a genuinely imaginative thing to which he had devoted three weeks of enthusiasm, had to be sold to Smart Set for $300.
To liberate himself from the Post, but also because the theater enticed him, he had written The Vegetable, or from President to Postman. It was a farce in which Jerry Frost, a henpecked railroad clerk, is persuaded to run for President. The second act, a fantasy with Frost dreaming he is President, gave Fitzgerald his chance to spoof the Harding regime, while the third act concluded happily with Frost becoming the postman he had always wanted to be. Fitzgerald thought it the funniest play ever written; he was sure it would make him rich, though three producers turned it down before Sam Harris agreed to undertake it.
The play opened in Atlantic City on November 20, 1923. The Fitzgeralds went down with the Lardners and Allen Dwan the movie director, and there was a gala audience including Mayor Hylan of New York. The first act went well enough, but the dream sequence in the second act confused the audience, who got bored and walked out in droves. “It was,” said Fitzgerald, “a colossal frost. … I wanted to stop the show and say it was all a mistake but the actors struggled heroically on.” During the second intermission Fitzgerald and Lardner asked Ernest Truex, the lead, “Are you going to stay and do the last act?” Truex said he was. “Don’t be silly,” they laughed, “we’ve met a bartender down the street who’s an old friend of ours”—and that was the last Truex saw of them.
After a fruitless week of patching and revising, the play was abandoned. Fitzgerald had been mistaken in thinking that his fictional talents were immediately transferable to the stage.
The sale of the movie rights to This Side of Paradise for $10,000 the previous spring had given him a false sense of security. He now had $5,000 worth of pressing obligations. His finances had always been a rearguard action, even during the first year of his success, when his income was doubling every month and he felt a little patronizing toward the millionaires riding down Park Avenue in their limousines. In 1919 he had made $879; in 1920, $18,850; in 1921, $19,065; in 1922, $25,135; and in 1923, $28,760. Not a cent of it had been saved, however, and investments were out of the question. He joked about something he called “his bond,” an unlisted security which he had bought just before his marriage and which he could never sell in moments of crisis. (Once it was turned in at the Subway Office when he accidentally left it in one of the cars.) He was always in debt to his agent, for when he submitted a story he was used to collecting the money for the next unwritten one. Scribners, too, had been giving him large advances. He was humorous about it, signing his letters to Perkins “the Inevitable Beggar,” and offering to pay interest, but the fact remained that he couldn’t live within his income, and where the money went no one knew. Eleanor Browder, when she visited the Fitzgeralds, found some of it stuffed in the side pockets of their Rolls Royce coupe.
With the play a failure and no book in sight, Fitzgerald had only one recourse. He retired to the large bare room with oil stove over his garage and emerged next afternoon with a 7000-word story. It took him twelve hours a day for five weeks “to rise from abject poverty back into the middle class,” and several more months at an easier gait before he had enough margin to resume work on Gatsby. Meanwhile the strain was giving him coughs, itches, stomach aches, insomnia. “I really worked hard as hell last winter,” he said in retrospect, “—but it was all trash and it nearly broke my heart as well as my iron constitution.”
Fitzgerald did not condone his improvidence. A stern self-critic, he deplored it and atoned for it with orgies of work. The sweat that went into his least productions has been underestimated. People said he was facile, and certainly he had that side to him, but he made his writing seem easier than it was by taking immense pains, by struggling with it until he got it precisely the way he wanted it.
At Great Neck a macabre note had entered the Fitzgeralds’ revels. The year after their marriage their drinking around New York had been a gay, irresponsible, left-over-from-college affair, but now their fun was turning destructive. Fitzgerald vanished into the city on two- and three-day drunks, after which neighbors would find him asleep on his own front lawn. At dinner parties he crawled around under the table, or hacked off his tie with a kitchen knife, or tried to eat soup with a fork. Once, when the Max Perkinses were along, he drove them into a pond because it seemed more fun—then he and Zelda got out in water up to their waists and tried to push the car ashore.
It is hard to say whether he or she was the leader in this chaos. They complemented each other like gin and vermouth in a martini, each making the other more powerful in their war with dullness and convention. Perkins blamed their extravagances on Zelda, when actually Scott was the more idiotically extravagant of the two. His pride demanded that Zelda have the best of everything, and he was always buying her expensive jewelry which she sometimes threw away in a moment of pique. Both were unstable; when they should have called a halt, they egged each other on. They faced life not ignobly but with a mad sort of daring, committed to doing as they pleased and never counting the cost.
Clearly, they needed a change. Scott complained that friends from New York were turning his home into a roadhouse, and he was tired of being publicized as the Homer of the flapper. He would take the atmosphere of Long Island—the starlight, the wealth, the magnificent estates, the glimpses of the Sound— and materialize it under foreign skies. He would go to Europe and stay there until he had accomplished some great thing.
Uprooting Zelda was no problem. “I hate a room without an open suitcase in it,” she used to say, “—it seems so permanent.”
In April the Fitzgeralds sailed on the S. S. Minnewaska, intending to settle near Hyeres on the French Riviera. Their departure brought this tribute from Ring Lardner:
Zelda, fair queel of Alabam’,
Across the waves I kiss you!
You think I am a stone, a clam:
You think that I don’t care a damn,
But God! how I will miss you!
For months and months you’ve meant to me
What Mario meant to Tosca.
You’ve gone, and I am all at sea
Just like the Minnewaska.
I once respected him you call
Your spouse, and that is why, dear,
I held my tongue— And then, last Fall,
He bared a flippancy and gall
Of which I had no idear.
When I with pulmonary pain
Was seized, he had the gumption
To send me lives of Wilde and Crane,
Two brother craftsmen who in vain
Had battled with consumption.
We wreak our vengeance as we can,
And I have no objection
To getting even with this “man”
By stealing your affection.
So, dearie, when your tender heart
Of all his coarseness tires,
Just cable me and I will start
Immediately for Hyeres.
To hell with Scott Fitzgerald then!
To hell with Scott, his daughter!
It’s you and I back home again,
To Great Neck, where the men are men,
And booze is ¾ water.
Published as Scott Fitzgerald by Andrew Turnbull (New York: Scribners, 1962; London: Bodley Head, 1962).