With Europe and the Murphys Fitzgerald came as close as he ever would to finding perfection in the real world, and in a way the rest of his life was a retreat from this summit. He inaugurated 1927 with a trip to Hollywood. Needing the cash and curious about his potential as a scriptwriter, he accepted an offer from United Artists to do an original story for Constance Talmadge.
During their two months in the film capital Scott and Zelda lived at the ultra-fashionable Ambassador Hotel, in a four-apartment bungalow with John Barrymore, Carmel Myers, and the author Carl Van Vechten. A woman reporter who called on them was met at the door by a restless young man with “Prince-of-Wales hair” and a “sensitive, taut, faintly contemptuous mouth.” The reporter wanted to know how the flappers of the screen differed from the original flapper Fitzgerald had created.
“Well, I can only”—he lit a cigarette, put it out, and crossed to another chair—“speak about the immediate present. I know nothing of their evolution. You see, we’ve been living on the Riviera for three years. In that time the only movies we’ve seen have been a few of the very old pictures or the Westerns they show over there. I might”—his face brightened—“tell you what I think of Tom Mix.”
“Scott!” Zelda cautioned.
Having exhausted the available chairs, he returned to the firstone and obligingly analyzed the stars playing flapper roles— Clara Bow, Constance Talmadge, Colleen Moore. It seemed as though the Flapper, that stereotype he had gone to Europe to escape, was irrevocably linked to his name.
Fitzgerald described Hollywood as “a tragic city of beautiful girls,—the girls who mop the floor are beautiful, the shop ladies. You never want to see any more beauty”—and to him one was more beautiful than all the others. Lois Moran—fresh, blond, blue-eyed, just seventeen and unspoiled by her success as an actress—was the perfect antidote to what, at thirty-one, he considered his approaching middle age. Recently returned from four years abroad, she spoke French almost as fluently as English and kept a chapbook full of poetic quotations. Fitzgerald put his first emotion for her into a story called “Magnetism,” where Lois is Helen Avery, the young movie star who causes the happily married George Hannaford to waver. Like Hannaford, Fitzgerald felt that he and Lois “each knew half of some secret about people and life, and that if they rushed towards each other there would be a romantic communion of almost unbelievable intensity.” It was all very pure and idealistic—never anything more than a delicate flirtation, with Lois wanting Fitzgerald to be the lead in her next picture. The charmer on the edge of girlhood would be a recurring figure in Fitzgerald’s fiction of the next few years, and he did Lois once and for all as Rosemary Hoyt in Tender Is the Night.
Zelda, meanwhile, had been taking Black Bottom lessons and having her fortune told by Santa Monica seers. At first she liked Hollywood, but soon its newness—the feeling that everything was mere decoration—began to pall. Since the movie colony wasn’t as gay as she had hoped, she and Scott tried to enliven it with their pranks. They went to one party in nightgown and pajamas, parodying the actors’ habit of going everywhere in the costumes they wore on the sets. At another, the guests’ nostrils were assailed by a strange odor, and out in the kitchen the hostess found Fitzgerald brewing the ladies’ compacts and handbags in tomato sauce.
Most of the time, however, he was incarcerated with his script and ate his meals in his room. One morning Carl Van Vechten saw him pacing outside the bungalow with his eyes on the distant hills.
“Scott, come here!” called Van Vechten.
“I can’t,” said Fitzgerald over his shoulder, “—I’ve got scarlet fever.”
He and Zelda drove out in the country to see a movie being made in a replica French village. There were hundreds of extras dressed as peasants and soldiers, and when one kind of whistle blew they all ran off to war and when another kind blew they all ran back again. It was odd to hear the director say, “I’ll take twenty peasants down here,” but it gave Fitzgerald an inkling of that “more glittering, grosser power” which, after the relative failure of Tender Is the Night, he would come to regard as fatal competition for the novelist. He didn’t like movie people in general—what he called their “almost hysterical egotism and excitability hidden under an extremely thin veil of elaborate good-fellowship”—and scriptwriting was a disappointment. He later admitted that he had gone to Hollywood confident to the point of conceit. “I had been generally acknowledged for several years as the top American writer both seriously and, as far as prices went, popularly. … I honestly believed that with no effort on my part I was a sort of magician with words—an odd delusion when I had worked so desperately hard to develop a hard, colorful prose style.” United Artists had paid him $3,500 down, but he never got the $12,500 due him on completion of the picture because his script was rejected. Writing the trip off as an experience, he went back to his real metier of prose fiction.
He needed a quiet place to finish his novel. Max Perkins had suggested Wilmington, thinking that the kind of feudality that existed there under the DuPonts would interest Fitzgerald and give him material for future work. With the help of his college roommate, John Biggs—now a Wilmington attorney— Fitzgerald rented Ellerslie, a large, high-ceilinged house romantically situated on the banks of the Delaware. Built in 1842, it was shaded by old oaks, beeches and horse chestnuts, and the Greek-columned portico behind commanded a sweeping view of the river. The house was said to be haunted; Fitzgerald sometimes tried to frighten guests by impersonating the ghost. The low rental was an attraction, for until he finished his novel he would need to economize.
Nevertheless he and Zelda continued to live their legend, though Wilmington was a more restricted stage than Paris or New York. They renewed their friendship with Tommy Hitchcock, the polo star, whom they had known on Long Island where he had suggested the kind of glamour Fitzgerald bestowed on Tom and Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald admired Hitchcock more than Lindbergh, the national idol of 1927, whom he called “a woman’s idea of a man.” Perhaps it was only that Hitchcock’s adventures made a better narrative in the Fitzgerald vein. He had flown in the Lafayette Escadrille with Hobey Baker, and after being shot down and made prisoner, had escaped by jumping from the window of a moving train. Returning to America with the Croix de guerre and a great name in polo, he had had the humility to enter Harvard as a freshman. “That combination [of qualities],” wrote Fitzgerald, “is what forever will put him in my pantheon of heros”—and a Fitzgerald hero was someone to emulate. During a houseparty at Ellerslie a polo match was staged with the contestants swinging croquet mallets while mounted on plow horses from a neighboring field.
In August, Scott and Zelda visited the Chanlers at their summer home in upstate New York. Teddy Chanler had accompanied him on the unfortunate visit to Mrs. Wharton, and Scott was especially fond of Teddy’s mother, the writer Margaret Winthrop Chanler, whom he once described as the most charming older woman he had ever met. She called him her “imprudent angel” and told him stories about Prince Borghese and other fashionables she had known during a girlhood abroad. When she asked him his ambition, he replied, “To stay married and in love with Zelda and write the greatest novel in the world.” “Then you’ll have to do something about your drinking,” she said, but Fitzgerald only shrugged. The Chanlers’ small bootleg stock was presided over by their Italian butler, on whom Fitzgerald exercised his wiles. Going out to the kitchen, he would confide in Venturino, “Mrs. Chanler is so brilliant that I simply have to have another drink to keep up with her.”
At Christmas the Fitzgeralds gave a party that was a parable of their whole lives. They had planned it as a quiet affair focused on Scottie, for whom they had bought innumerable presents and trimmed an exotic tree. They asked a few friends, but then the unexpected guests began to arrive: a newspaperman who passed out; a theatrical agent who came with his mistress and knocked her unconscious. Others dropped by and behaved no better. When a group of villagers appeared singing carols, they had to be asked in and feted, until finally everyone’s nerves snapped and what was to have been the perfect Christmas turned into a Witch’s Sabbath.
Fitzgerald could always detach a part of himself from these fiascos. Next day when they were picking up the debris and Scottie was crying and nerves were still frayed, he smiled and said, “Just think—it’s like this now all over the country.”
But there were also joyous, luminous times with Scottie such as the one he described in his sketch, “Outside the Cabinet-Maker’s.” While Zelda was in the shop ordering a surprise doll’s house, Fitzgerald sat with his little daughter in the car, extracting drama and excitement from a dingy Wilmington intersection. He had an instinct for quickening life, for taking the slag out of it and making it what in our dreams we think it should be. Thus the room with the banging shutter in the drab house across the street was where the Ogre had imprisoned the Fairy Princess because he wasn’t invited to the christening. The Prince would be able to release her when he had found the three stones, one of which had already turned up in President Coolidge’s collar-box. He was looking for a second one in Iceland, and as Scottie turned away, Fitzgerald announced that the room had turned blue, meaning the Prince had found the second stone. The small boy walking towards the house with enormous strides was the Ogre in disguise, and the chalk marks he made under the doorbell were magic signs. Two men crossing the street were the King’s soldiers, part of an army that was gathering nearby to surround the house. The banging shutter was being manipulated by the good and bad fairies, who had their private reasons for wanting it opened or closed.
“You’re my good fairy,” said Fitzgerald smiling and touching Scottie’s cheek.
Later, when the doll’s house had been built, Zelda papered and painted it and furnished it so elegantly and completely that one wanted to move in right away.
Since his suspension from Cottage Club in 1920 Fitzgerald had been a little cool towards his Alma Mater, but in 1927, when College Humor asked him to do a piece on Princeton, he found he really loved the place. Nostalgia welled up in him when he rode the rocky shuttle from the Junction toward the green and towered retreat that had inspired his first book. Needing color for a story, he stopped off several times in September to watch football practice, and his passion for the game flared up anew. For the rest of his life he would be an ardent fan and football analyst—though when he saw Princeton wallop Cornell in October his curiosity was not confined to events on the field. Sweeping the opposite stands with his binoculars he was heard to say, “I wonder how many of those people over there have gallstones.”
In January, 1928, Cottage invited him to lecture, and, anxious to atone for previous misconduct, he was unduly nervous beforehand. He made a point of having nothing to drink, but when he rose to speak he couldn’t get started. He would mumble a few sentences and then say under his breath, “God, I’m a lousy speaker!” Finally he sat down and someone began telling dirty jokes. What was to have been an inspirational talk on authorship degenerated into a round of the smoking room stories he abhorred. Later he drowned his sorrows at a partyin the home of Edgar Palmer, the donor of Palmer Stadium. At one point Fitzgerald went up to his host—a shy man—and said, “You know, I’ve been studying you, and thank God I don’t look like that. It must be because you have so much money.”
On the train to Wilmington next day he fell in with some undergraduates who shocked him with their cynicism about the honor system. In his article for College Humor, Fitzgerald had called it “Princeton’s sacred tradition … something humanly precious.” “Personally,” he wrote, “I have never seen or heard of a Princeton man cheating in an examination, though I am told a few such cases have been mercilessly and summarily dealt with.” His companions on the train, however, told him of violations that hadn’t been reported, and they weren’t even sure such violations should be reported. Fitzgerald wrote Dean Gauss at once; he wanted to know how the undergraduates could be awakened to their stupidity. When Gauss replied that his own position was delicate, since the honor system was completely in the hands of the students, Fitzgerald scrawled on Gauss’s letter, ‘He is probably the greatest educator in the country. Nevertheless he is pulling a Pontius Pilate here—not deliberately but waiting for a cue.”
In February the Fitzgeralds gave the house party which Edmund Wilson has described in his vignette “A Weekend at Ellerslie.” Now on the staff of The New Republic, Wilson had remained a sort of father figure in literature to whom Fitzgerald felt accountable for his progress or lack of it. Wilson had seen very little of Fitzgerald since his departure for Europe in 1924 and was conscious that their relations had “suffered a certain chill.” Wilson had grown more tolerant and worldly with the years, having by now been through a somewhat self-conscious Bohemian phase of his own, yet he frowned on Fitzgerald’s pleasure-seeking abroad as well as on his “invincible compulsion to live like a millionaire.” At one point during the weekend Fitzgerald invited Wilson and Gilbert Seldes to criticize his character. Seldes told Fitzgerald that if he had a fault it was making life seem rather dull, and, remembered Wilson, “this quite put him out of countenance till we both began to laugh.”
Just as often it was Fitzgerald who pulled Wilson’s leg. One day when they had lunched together in New York, they looked in on T. S. Matthews, Princeton ‘22 and a colleague of Wilson’s at The New Republic. “Fitzgerald was about Wilson’s height,” Matthews recalled, “but otherwise a lively contrast to him; alert, compact, grinning, crackling with nervous energy. Wilson introduced us.
“‘What!’ said Fitzgerald, opening his eyes wide. ‘Not the Mr. Matthews.’
“‘Oh,’ said Wilson, looking at him in surprise, ‘do you know him?’
“‘Know him! I used to fix his teeth!’
“This assertion,” remembered Matthews, “pleased me but seemed to alarm Wilson vaguely.”
Fitzgerald had returned from Europe a devotee of Spengler, whose Decline of the West was all the rage, and in the prosperous luxury-loving America of 1927 Fitzgerald thought he saw new evidence of Western man’s decay. Interviews with him sooner or later worked around to the ineffectuality of the American male, and the need of a war to test America’s mettle. The preoccupation with Spengler may also have been linked to Fitzgerald’s subconscious sense of his own decline. His writing, so abundant and free-flowing at the start, had become an increasing chore. Mired in his novel, he had had to resume short stories for the Post with consequent loss of morale, and Max Perkins was much concerned by what he euphemistically called “Scott’s nerves.” “The doctors,” he wrote Lardner the fall of 1927, “tell him he must take exercise and must not drink, but that he is really O.K. in every important way. [Yesterday] he worked here for an hour and then got one of his nervous fits, and could not work any more and wanted to go out and have a drink. So we did on condition that it would be only one drink, and that is all we had.”
Fitzgerald’s drinking wasn’t his only problem. Zelda’s long-smouldering discontent had made her increasingly difficult to live with. Her willfulness had modulated into a bizarre pettishness. Out with a group of friends, she would suddenly want fresh strawberries or watercress sandwiches and make everyone thoroughly uncomfortable until she got them. When others were enjoying themselves, she would say she didn’t like the orchestra and insist on going home. Her habit of nervously chewing the inside of her mouth had been growing, and recently her looks had begun to go. Her skin had coarsened, and her sharp features now at times seemed graven, stony, a little angular.
She was no longer satisfied to be simply the wife of Scott Fitzgerald. He had written her into his books and made her a legend, but she didn’t want to be an artist’s model—she wanted to be an artist herself. For a long time Zelda, the artist, had been obstructed by an indolent Zelda who was equally happy eating an apple, or reading a book, or sitting in the sun perfecting the tan on her slick brown legs. “I hope I’ll never get ambitious enough to try anything,” she had written Scott before their marriage. “It’s so much nicer to be damned sure I could do it better than other people—and I might not could if I tried —that, of course, would break my heart.” But gradually she had found the ambition to produce essays and sketches, and without much effort had gotten her by-line into the popular magazines. She frequently pointed out Scott’s indebtedness to her; in a review of The Beautiful and Damned she had said, “Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” Scott didn’t deny it. On the contrary, he used to say he knew nothing about human nature and had to learn it all from Zelda, and there was a measure of truth in his gallantry. Zelda was the realist of the two, the cooler in her appraisals, seeing through people whom Scott in his boyish way had already begun to idealize.
But since Scott had pre-empted the field of letters, Zelda felt she must choose some other art. There was painting which she had taken up semi-seriously the spring of 1925 at Capri. There was dancing; since she was a little girl, she had delighted to kick off her shoes and dance wherever she was. It was therefore no surprise when she began going to Philadelphia for ballet lessons, though her desire to be a professional ballerina twenty years too late was perhaps a bit odd.
In a story she wrote, “The Millionaire’s Girl,” the heroine leaves her husband to embark on a movie career because “ever since I met him everything I do or that happens to me has seemed because of him. Now I am going to make a hit so I can choose him again.” Zelda wanted to prove herself. In the past Scott had reproached her for being lazy and wasting her talents, pointing out that Lois Moran had made the most of hers. Well, Zelda would show him….
Her letters to Carl Van Vechten during the first year at Ellerslie had flashes of the old gaiety, but a forced, hectic quality prevailed, as in the following excerpts:
May 27, 1927. “From the depths of my polluted soul, I am sorry that the week-end was such a mess. Do forgive my iniquities and my putrid drunkenness. This was such a nice place, and it should have been a good party if I had not explored my abyses in public.—Anyhow, please realize that I am sorry and contrite and thoroughly miserable with the knowledge that it would be just the same again if I got so drunk.”
June 14, 1927. “I have painted a superb portrait of Lavinia, a very black and wizened ferret who lives under the bed upstairs I think but as she is always darting about behind corners I can’t swear that she actually exists at all.—But the portrait does—I want the Anderson Galleries to exhibit it.”
September 6, 1927. [Answering Van Vechten’s suggestion that the Fitzgeralds take a trip with him through New England.] “There is scarcely a pullman on the N.Y. Central in which we have not been taken drunk and Scott simply’ has to work. —Likewise I am painting again and will have to work if I am to turn two apples and a stick of gum into an affair of pyramids and angles and cosmic beauty before fall.—Also I have a maniac in charge of Scottie since the British Empire [Scottie’s nanny] passed out of our life. She came from the top of Mont Matre and rolls into a corner when I speak to her and begins muttering about how droll the vie is. She is a great trial, but I find her philosophy so uplifting and her tongue so sharp that I am afraid to fire her. I will surely have to go to France to get rid of her. —Besides, she has the evil eye—and I couldn’t leave Scottie here to be turned into a toad while I was flowing down the broad New England valleys.”
October 14, 1927. “Please forgive my not writing sooner.—It seems that life went to pieces. I joined the Philadelphia opera ballet and guests came and every-body has been so drunk in this country lately that I am just finding enough chaos to pursue my own ends in, undisturbed, again…. Our house is full of every ghost but Fanny Ward & Conan Doyle imaginable and I hope that I will never again feel attractive.”
March 23, 1928. “Scott is bridging the Atlantic with Post stories. We want to go in May because Wilmington has turned out to be the black hole of Calcutta and I simply must have some Chablis and curry and fraises du bois with peaches in champagne for desert. Also I want to feel a sense of intrigue which is only in Paris, and, maybe, in Monte Negro.”
As forecast above, the Fitzgeralds spent the summer of 1928 in Paris, at 58 rue Vaugirard across the street from the Luxembourg Gardens. One of the excitements of the trip was meeting James Joyce, whom Scott held in such awe that he had never dared approach him. When Sylvia Beach, proprietress of the bookshop Shakespeare & Co., invited Joyce and Fitzgerald to dinner, Fitzgerald threatened to jump out the window in tribute to Joyce’s genius. “That young man must be mad,” Joyce said afterwards. “I’m afraid he’ll do himself some injury.”
Through Sylvia Beach Fitzgerald met Andre Chamson, the only foreign writer he really befriended during all his years abroad. Chamson had come to Paris from the depths of the Cevennes, the mountain country north of Nimes, and though his regional novels were highly regarded, he was obliged to eke out his living with a clerical post at the Assemble Nationale. He lived in a top-floor apartment back of the Pantheon, and one evening Fitzgerald came clomping up the stairs with an enormous ice bucket full of champagne. When Chamson met him on a landing halfway down, Fitzgerald proposed to swim in the ice bucket. He stripped off his shirt, and, remembered Cham-son, “Little Puritan that I was, I found myself in great anxiety. Scott was getting ready to take off his pants. By dint of much eloquence I persuaded him he would be better off swimming in his ice bucket in my apartment”—where, however, still greater anxieties lay in store. At a point during the evening when Fitzgerald was none too steady on his legs, he stepped onto the ledge outside the balustrade of Chamson’s sixth-floor balcony—to be more in touch with the city, so he explained—and holding on with one hand he hopped up and down on one foot, crying, “I am Voltaire! I am Rousseau! I am Victor Hugo!” You couldn’t do anything with him at such moments. He was sardonic, sadistic even, as he tempted fate with the cavalier insouciance that was part of his charm.
Zelda, meanwhile, had been pursuing her ballet, and the few times Chamson saw her at the Fitzgeralds’ apartment her face was covered with grease. He got the impression that the relations between her and Scott were tumultuous and unhappy, though by himself Scott was a delightful companion, interested in everyone and everything. He seldom talked shop. “From time to time,” Chamson recalled, “he opened the armoire of his art, but he thought the problem of the artist was to live.” Intense living would inevitably lead to creation. To Chamson, then twenty-six, Fitzgerald seemed like a boy of twenty and brought to mind that Prince Charming of French Romantics, Alfred de Musset. Fitzgerald had Musset’s vanity, lyricism, and generosity, and the same urge to perpetuate his youth—or at least the illusion of it—with drink.
The Fitzgeralds returned to America in September. Scott was now thirty-two and “sore as hell about it,” he wrote in his Ledger. According to Max Perkins, who met him at the boatafter a stormy voyage, he “had wine checks for about two hundred dollars, and … was still moderately intoxicated. On the other hand he looked quite well, and told me his novel was all on paper—it was only a question of straightening out a few parts of it that did not satisfy him.” Embarrassed by his $8,000 advance from Scribners, Fitzgerald had taken to bluffing, and Perkins gave him the benefit of the doubt. Though he had promised to return with the completed manuscript, it wasn’t till November that he sent Perkins the first quarter of it, and the second quarter was still outstanding in March, 1929, when the Fitzgeralds’ two-year lease on Ellerslie expired and they went back to Europe to live. “A thousand thanks for your patience,” Fitzgerald wrote Perkins in a farewell note, “—just trust me a few months longer, Max—its been a discouraging time for me too but I will never forget your kindness and the fact that you’ve never reproached me.”
There was comfort in the Basil Duke Lee stories, nine of which Fitzgerald had written between March, 1928, and February, 1929. These tales of his boyhood were sincere and spontaneous, the least of them outshining the somewhat flimsy love stories he was used to writing for the Post. By 1927 his story price had risen to $3,500 and that year he earned a record $29,738. He and Zelda were living on the same scale as ever, with much the same abandon. “We don’t go in for self-preservation,” they said. “When we married we made up our minds never to be afraid.”
But during their final months at Ellerslie anyone could see they were skating on thin ice. Zelda was taxing herself to the limit; she painted and wrote and helped Scottie with her lessons, while her incessant ballet practice reminded John Biggs of the dancing madness of the Middle Ages. A change had come over Scott too. Self-contempt was making him overbearing, and he would go up to strangers in public places and provoke them with, “I’m Scott Fitzgerald, and who are you, and what do you do, and why do you do it?” One evening, when he came home intoxicated and Zelda said, “Oh Scott, you promised you wouldn’t!,” he picked up a figurine and smashed it on the floor. To the person she was with, Zelda said, “He does that because he knows it’s my favorite thing in the house.” During the summer abroad he had twice been jailed, and now he went down to the toughest section of Wilmington with his French chauffeur—an ex-pugilist—and got into brawls that ended at the police station. Several times John Biggs was roused in the middle of the night to extricate him.
Fitzgerald was sincerely and charmingly apologetic for his misdemeanors, which made them easier to forgive. After a party at Ellerslie he wrote a friend, “I’m afraid I was the world’s worst bore last night. I was in the insistent mood—you know the insistent mood? I’m afraid I irritated both you and Eleanor, and I wanted to please you more than any one there. It’s all very dim to me but I remember a lot of talk about fairies and the managing type of American woman, whatever that means…. Please forgive me and tell Eleanor I can be almost human when sober.”
Published as Scott Fitzgerald by Andrew Turnbull (New York: Scribners, 1962; London: Bodley Head, 1962).