“Vitality,” wrote Fitzgerald in his notebook, “shows in not only the ability to persist but the ability to start over.” When he rented La Paix, he may have felt that the best was behind him, but he still had plenty of fight and hope.
I remember my father causing a stir at the breakfast table when he announced that a novelist had rented the other house on our property. My mother, the reader of the family, had heard the name Fitzgerald but couldn’t recall anything he had written, which was not surprising, for the Jazz Age had roared past almost without our knowing it. Our twenty-eight-acre place on the edge of Baltimore was a cultural pocket whose atmosphere had changed very little since my grandfather built the old house there in 1885. Stolidly Victorian, La Paix had lost whatever charm or style it might have once possessed. It was a ramshackle affair of faded reds, browns, and grays, with the gables and heavy trimmings and discordant bulges of the period, and the whole thing girded round by an open porch. A sign over the door said “Pax Vobiscum.” Peaceful it certainly was—no one would deny that—but it was also dim, cavernous, and from a child’s point of view spooky, and I was glad we weren’t living there any more. A few years before Fitzgerald came, my father—an architect— had built us a happier house on a rise overlooking the old one, which now lay half hidden from us in its grove of ancestral oaks.
What odd surroundings for Fitzgerald—this barn of a house and these quietly antiquated acres to which he came trailingsparks from another world! To the once famous but temporarily eclipsed author La Paix must have seemed like the end of the line. Not that it lacked a literary tradition. Here my grandfather had edited a magazine called The New Eclectic, and my grandmother, under the spell of Mrs. Humphrey Ward, had written historical romances with titles like Val-Maria and The Royal Pawn of Venice. In those good days life at La Paix had a graciousness Fitzgerald would have known well how to capture with an image. The velvet lawns were embroidered with flower beds of coleus and geraniums (one of them spelled out “La Paix”), and each arch of the long porch was hung with a basket of begonias. In summer, my grandfather went out every morning before breakfast and cut a dewy rose for my grandmother’s place at table, a gesture that to me has always seemed to typify the era. But by the time Fitzgerald arrived, the sound of carriage wheels had long since faded from the gravel drives, and there were no more flowered patterns on the lawns of rougher cut. The old house, with the red-brown paint bleaching on its Victorian gingerbread, had begun to disintegrate; its trembling windows suggested a massive looseness, and squirrels from the surrounding oaks nested unabashed in its downspouts and mossy eaves. Yet this obsolescence did not daunt Fitzgerald. “I’ll take it,” he said after a brief reconnoiter with my father. “I never was interested in modern plumbing.”
Fitzgerald came to La Paix as Tom Buchanan came East in The Great Gatsby—“in a fashion that rather took your breath away.” All one morning cars and vans swirled down our quiet lane and out of sight around the bend. Scottie arrived with a French governess who was soon superseded when Fitzgerald hired a secretary. The interviewing of the candidates—in a house cluttered with trunks, furniture, and packing cases full of books—occasioned another deluge of cars, for Fitzgerald’s requirements were unique. He wanted someone who was not only competent, attractive, and willing to look after Scottie but with whom it would be constitutionally impossible for him to fall in love.
Fitzgerald at the time seemed both old and young for his thirty-six years. There were moments when he looked a trifle worn and seedy, and yet in his saddle shoes, pink shirt, and black Shaker-knit sweater he had the air of a college athlete home for vacation. I remember his courteous informality, the faint smile on his trenchant, mobile face, and his eyes that were neither hard nor green—as has sometimes been remarked—but gray-blue, faraway, and full of the pathos of burned-out desires. His conversation was taut with emotion, and he seemed always to be analyzing or appraising as he talked, in a voice that was normally tender but that rose at times to an abrupt, scornful, “My God!” Physically he was both delicate and compact, with a fine nervous precision about his movements, and something scrappy, self-contained, and even a little belligerent in the swagger of his walk. Under the impact of this charming, unpredictable man with his gift for intimacy, life on our place began to vibrate to a faster, subtler rhythm than we had ever known.
My friendship with him—I was eleven at the time—grew out of football. I too was a student of the game, though my horizons were limited to my Alma Mater, the Gilman Country School. Fitzgerald opened my eyes to Princeton where a great new coach, Fritz Crisler, and a bumper crop of freshmen players foreshadowed the Tiger juggernauts of 1933-35. As it happened, Princeton had just received into its arms one of Gilman’s immortals, a fullback named Pepper Constable. I remember running up the hill at top speed to get a Gilman yearbook wherein was an Achilles-like picture of Constable surrounded by his teammates. Fitzgerald took a polite interest in my interest, but I couldn’t seem to persuade him that here was an authentic hero. Gilman sounded provincial to him; it lacked the authority of Exeter, say, or Kiski, or Lawrenceville. With prep school captains two and three deep in every position on this spectacular freshman squad, Fitzgerald held out little hope that Constable would ever be heard from again.
He bought a football which we tossed around the lawn when he was feeling athletic. Because I was small for my age and not a fast runner, he was going to make a passer out of me. (He was determined to make something out of me, for his instinct was always to mould, manipulate, cajole the human material around him—to get it to perform in one way or another.; He gave me a book by Barry Wood called What Price Football? and introduced me to the Football Annual, a marvelous publication full of swollen rhetoric and grimacing Ail-Americans.
That fall, when he took me to Princeton to see the Navy game, I was struck by his uncanny familiarity with the Princeton team. He knew so many details about each player that I suspected him of having memorized the programs of previous contests. His hopes that day were riding on a sophomore with the pungent name of “Katz” Kadlic—no ordinary quarterback according to Fitzgerald, but “a great field general,” a kind of Stonewall Jackson with cleats on. Though Kadlic happened to be a pretty fair passer into the bargain, it was his tactical genius that concerned my host, who identified himself in some obscure way with the brains that leavened Princeton’s brawn. The best Kadlic could manage that afternoon was a scoreless tie, but the following fall Fitzgerald and I saw him—plus the great freshman team, now sophomores and playing on the varsity—overthrow Columbia 20-0 (the same Columbia team that afterwards defeated Stanford in the Rose Bowl). Unaccountably, my old friend Constable turned up at fullback, where he played the smashing brand of ball I had been telling Fitzgerald about. It was only the beginning of a splendid career, for Constable went on to captain Princeton’s undefeated team of 1935 and to be mentioned for All-American.
By then Fitzgerald had left La Paix, but he wrote me a letter giving his version of how this Gilman peasant had risen to high estate. “So far as Constable is concerned,” he said,”—/ don’t want you to run him down. He’s all right—not as good as his substitute Rulon-Miller but all right. And I’m glad. In fact I got him elected Captain—I came into the room in a black-beard disguise during the conclave and pled with them. ‘See here,’ I said. ‘A good back hasn’t come out of Gilman since Slagle, & they’re starving for somebody to admire, them kids are. Pretty soon they’ll begin to turn to dolls like “Apples” Fitzpatrick & “Mozart” Hopney—’ but I stopped myself at this juncture. I enclose Fritz Crisler’s answer.”
The enclosure, a bona fide letter from Crisler, contained a humorous postcript in Fitzgerald’s handwriting, which said in part, “I have had Constable elected captain as a favor to your young friend Turnbull.” Fitzgerald had ceded a point in his fashion, and yet I always thought it typical that on this Princeton team of glory he was excited by the peppery little climax runner, Gary LeVan, rather than the rugged workhorse Constable.
Fitzgerald was a promoter. It was he who prevailed on my father to build the grass court—or rather the rough and homemade approximation that never had all the mole-hills rolled out of it or all the bare spots covered with turf. Lobs had a way of vanishing into overhead boughs and dropping down from unexpected angles, but once you got used to the court’s eccentricities you could have a lot of fun on it. Fitzgerald, strong on expertise, imported a bronzed if aging tennis pro, who popped balls at Scottie and me by the hour in an effort to build up our groundstrokes. And sometimes Fitzgerald himself would appear, racket in hand, looking for a doubles match.
He played a cocky, aggressive game with rather more form to it than content. Moving with instinctive grace and poise, he managed to look like a tennis player even when the ball categorically refused to do his bidding. His serve was a short snappy twist with lots of wrist in it and a contortion of the mouth that showed concentration and effort. He sliced his forehand unmercifully, and I do not remember that he had any backhand at all. He was happiest at the net where he could hit the ball hardest and it had the shortest distance to go. I can see him now —a little paunchy in his white flannels and with the first suggestions of baldness behind—swaggering up to his alley and crouching professionally to await the return of service, (His walk was a self-important strut with a slight hunch of the shoulders—the stagy, dramatic walk of a man of action come suddenly on the scene to set things straight.) When playing opposite me he’d threaten me with, “I’ll perforate you, Andrew!” —which he never did, for all the ferocity of his tone. His overheads, when they didn’t hit the net, were apt to splatter harmlessly out of the court.
A more direct and satisfactory outlet for his belligerent streak was boxing. He fancied himself a fighter, and the urge coming on him in the middle of dinner, he might insist that a bewildered guest go back to his den with him and put on the gloves. Occasionally he sparred with a lean intellectual who came out from Baltimore to discuss Marxism. The two men squared off in front of La Paix where the road circled a plot of grass to form a natural ring. Watching these contests, one couldn’t help feeling apprehensive for Fitzgerald. He had an insubstantial quality made all the more apparent by his gameness—as if one good upper cut might be the end of both his boxing and his writing careers. But Fitzgerald surprised you; he was quite capable of taking care of himself for a short, puffy round or two. Crouching behind the gloves, which fortunately were of a large and squashy make, he kept his head up and his eye on the target as he moved forward with foolhardy resolution. He had a philosophy, no doubt gleaned from Hemingway, that small men—this included me—should get inside their opponents’ guard and destroy them at close range. And so, though the gallant Marxist did not press his physical advantage, at least he had a busy time defending himself.
Fitzgerald could never understand my preoccupation with wrestling. At Gilman it was a major sport, which the students were encouraged to learn from the time they entered, and I was starting to be successful at it in a small way. This did not impress Fitzgerald, who refused to see that groveling around on a mat had either glamour or utility. He would have me know that men of honor settled their differences with their fists, and that if I closed in with a half nelson, I would be accused not only ofcowardice but of ill-breeding. To stimulate my interest in boxing he arranged a match between me and Sammy Green, a little tough who lived at the top of our lane. Sammy was a red, stocky, scar-faced lad who was about my age but seemed years older because he smoked, drank coffee, swore ruggedly, and worked in a grocery store in his off hours. As we had never liked each other, our collison would have elements of a grudge match, but that was all part of Fitzgerald’s plan.
Looking back on it, I doubt whether Sammy was any more eager to fight than I was, yet Fitzgerald put it up to us in such a way that there was no honorable escape, and the bout took place on a summer’s evening as the first fireflies were rising off the outdoor ring. Fitzgerald was all polished up for the occasion. He had washed and put on clean clothes, and as he laced my gloves with those tremulous hands of his (rather large, capable-looking hands, the long fingers blunt and squarish at the ends and stained with nicotine), he exuded the sharp, spiced reek of tobacco mixed with the bay rum he used as an after-shave lotion. His bearing was serious—even official. When he called us to the center of the ring, his impartial tone gave no hint of the fact that only an hour before he had been telling me precisely what I should do to defeat Sammy. After several rounds Fitzgerald called a halt to our grunting and sweating and flailing of skinny arms, declaring the match a draw so as not to hurt any feelings.
He was careful about such things. I remember, too, his sympathy for the underdog—the outsider. One balmy afternoon three youths from a Baltimore slum wandered out the single-track railroad that bordered our place, and spying our pond they undressed and jumped in for a swim. The pond was barely two feet deep and a paradise for tadpoles and leeches, but the boys splashed vociferously until my mother came out and ordered them to leave. Fitzgerald must have been watching the drama from his shaded porch, for as the boys straggled off in the direction of the railroad tracks, he called them over to La Paix and asked them to stay for dinner. Part of it, no doubt, was his writer’s curiosity—he was starved for life in those days—but also in his gesture there was more than a touch of the good Samaritan. Scottie, my sister Eleanor, and I were pressed into service as co-hosts, and the six of us played games organized by Fitzgerald until dinnertime, when an elegant roast was served with Fitzgerald presiding at the head of the table. The boys were invited to come back someday, and Fitzgerald was a little nonplussed when they actually came. “The poor boys called on me again,” he wrote me at camp. “I tried to discourage them by making them work, but I think they liked it!”
In Fitzgerald’s study, a back room where we children were seldom allowed to penetrate, there was a fascinating cupboard that housed a rusted helmet and bayonet which he had picked up on a European battlefield. The helmet had a bullet hole through the crown, and I remember speculating as to whether some of the caked rust on the bayonet might be human gore. Fitzgerald did nothing to discourage this theory. His attitude puzzled me. I had been taught that war was an outmoded barbarism, but here was Fitzgerald predicting another holocaust by 1940 and seeming rather cheerful about it! He owned two lavishly and horribly illustrated French tomes on the World War, and as a toughening exercise he would sit me down before a group of faces that belonged to living men though large sections of them had been chewed away by shrapnel. (Scottie wasn’t allowed to look at these, since she was a girl and it might shock her sensibilities.)
The next step was to interest me in firearms. When Fitzgerald offered to buy me a .22, my father hesitated to refuse him, though he made the provision that we shouldn’t shoot any of the wildlife on the place. For a few days that bright, oily little weapon was the center of existence. We practiced on bull’s-eye targets, and when that palled we improvised a shooting gallery with a set of china dolls that belonged to Scottie. At this point the gardener joined the fun, but while he was relaxing between shots, the gun went off and almost shot him through the leg. It turned out that the .22 was a hair trigger and had to be condemned. So ended Fitzgerald’s efforts to bring some of the austerities of war to La Paix.
Remarking my interest in words, he used epithets on me that sent me scurrying to the dictionary, and one day Scottie brought me the following note:
In deponing and predicating incessantly that you were a ‘Shakespearean clown’ I did not destinate to signify that you were a wise acre, witling, dizzard, chowder head, Tom Nody, nizy, radoteur, zany, oaf, loon, doodle, dunderpate, lunkhead, sawney, gowk, clod-poll, wise man of Boeotia, jobbernowl or mooncalf but, subdititiously, that you were intrinsicly a long head, luminary, ‘barba tenus sapientes,’ pundit, wrangler, licentiate learned Theban and sage as are so many of the epigrammatist, wit-worms, droles de corp, sparks, merry-andrews, mimes, posturemasters, pucinellas, scaramouches, pantaloons, pickle-herrings and persifluers that were pullulated by the Transcendent Skald.
Unequivocally, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Two weeks later came an afterthought:
Upon mature consideration I advise you to go no further with your vocabulary. If you have a lot of words they will become like some muscle you have developed that you are compelled to use, and you must use this one in expressing yourself or in criticizing others. It is hard to say who will punish you the most for this, the dumb people who don’t know what you are talking about or the learned ones who do. But wallop you they will and you will be forced to confine yourself to pen and paper.
Then you will be a writer and may God have mercy on your soul.
No! A thousand times no! Far, far better confine yourself to a few simple expressions in life, the ones that served billions upon countless billions of our forefathers and still serve admirably all but a tiny handful of those at present clinging to the earth’s crust. Here are the only expressions you need:
‘Gimme de meat’
and you need at least one good bark (we all need one good bark) such as:
‘I’ll knock your back teeth down your throat!’
So forget all that has hitherto attracted you in our complicated system of grunts and go back to those fundamental ones that have stood the test of time.
With warm regards to you all,
Sometimes, usually after a siege of writing, Fitzgerald would emerge in his bathrobe and we would settle ourselves on the porch corner in the crackly wicker chairs that went back to my grandfather’s day and thrash out the moral dilemmas. Fitzgerald was an engaging conversationalist because, as in the case of Dick Diver, “there was never any doubt at whom he was looking or talking—and this is a flattering attention, for who looks at us?—glances fall upon us, curious or disinterested, nothing more.” Fitzgerald focused on you—even riveted on you—and if there was one thing you were sure of, it was that whatever you happened to be talking about was the most important matter in the world. A further seduction was his smile— quick, tight, and very appealing. It was not so much a smile as a flash of confidence in you and your mortal possibilities. Fitzgerald would be sitting there with a cigarette clenched in the fingers of his gesticulating hand, with the deep inhales oozing out of his fine-cut nostrils (he belonged to that class of smoker that seems to eat the cigarette rather than smoke it) and with a faraway nostalgia in his eyes, and suddenly he would start up and swagger towards a table or some other object as if he were going to tear it apart with the energy of his thought. Then he would lapse into a preoccupied silence, staring at the floor. What held your attention in the final analysis was his keen dramatic sense, for the attitudes and postures he struck were often more profound than his words.
I do not remember much of what he said, but at the heart of his doctrine was a kind of Emersonian self-reliance. He had the idea that I was independent and went my own way, and felt that that was good. He put respect above popularity. “My God, Andrew!” he would say, facing me with that cocky, shoulder-swinging stance of his. “Popularity isn’t worth a damn and respect is worth everything and what do you care about happiness—and who does except the perpetual children of this world?”
My mother’s friendship with Fitzgerald—she was nine years older than he—developed just as spontaneously along different lines. Knowing nothing of his life before she met him may have made it easier for her to come to grips with the quicksilver man behind the garish legend. The first day, when Fitzgerald had drawn up in a taxi like a general in advance of his troops, my mother had been working at La Paix on the heels of the cleaning women and was hastening down the high front steps with a last batch of obsolete china, a basin, and a slop jar. Fitzgerald laughed when he saw her burden. They both laughed, and my mother felt his easiness, his animated interest, and guessed we would see more of him than we usually did of our tenants.
On the fourth of July he invited us to dinner en famille. As Father, Mother, my two sisters and I came in sight around a pine tree, Fitzgerald started up the lane to meet us, and my mother called out, “I’ve never felt so apologetic for the size of my family before,” to which he replied, “It’s a little late— isn’t it?—to do anything about it.” There was still a touch of formality in our relations, but during dinner Fitzgerald grew heated on the subject of Thomas Wolfe and left the table to get his copy of Look Homeward, Angel, which he insisted my mother take with her and read at once. For him, all the pride and torment of youth was in that novel, and as he described it, there was no nuance of the small town Southern atmosphere which he did, not feel and make my mother feel. Out of such threads their friendship was woven. Each time they met there was a carry-over from the previous meeting—something to discuss that seemed of vital importance.
My mother found Fitzgerald that rare complement to a good talker—a good listener—wonderfully attentive to the other person’s point of view, though he could be ruthless in his opposition to it. He had the knack of breaking down your defenses, of making you feel there was nothing you couldn’t say to him, just as he was quick to open up his own life to you. From the start he wanted to tell my mother about Zelda: her beauty, her brillance, her daring, her appeal to men—all that he had had and lost, but hadn’t given up hope of regaining. He spoke philosophically about his drinking to which he had become reconciled as an exigency of the creative life—the classic vice of authors—though he admitted it was a sign of defeat. Knowing the dryness of our Victorian household, the few times he came to dinner he made mysterious trips to the downstairs lavatory where he had parked a bottle of gin. On shorter visits he would slip into our dining room and help himself to the homemade currant wine, having discovered the location of the decanter in the sideboard.
Sometimes my mother alluded to her Presbyterian upbringing—she was a minister’s daughter—and while Fitzgerald found religion a less congenial topic than some, he approached it with the frontal honesty he reserved for all serious themes. As a writer he was sensitive to the beauty of the Bible, and he could grew eloquent over the majesty of Ecclesiastes or the narrative swiftness of St. Mark, but as an intellectual he believed the test of human values should be, as he wrote my mother, “a conformity to the strictest and most unflinching rationality.” He considered religion primarily the woman’s sphere, because women were intellectually less rigorous than men, though he respected, and perhaps envied, all honest believers. His admiration for our gardener—a weather-burned, earth-smelling Irishman, stooped with years of bending over flowerbeds—had, I think, something to do with the man’s true Catholic zeal. When the gardener’s wife was dying of cancer, Fitzgerald asked after her often, and when she was finally laid out in the neat little “best parlor” of their cottage, he went to pay his respects. Unshaven, with only a topcoat concealing his habitual pajamas, he knelt in prayer beside the coffin—not as a Catholic, but out of the kindness of his heart, hoping it might mean something to the family.
He was constantly lending my mother books: Proust, D. H. Lawrence, Hemingway, Rilke, the diary of Otto Braun (a promising German youth killed in the First World War). Sometimes he would read a passage aloud, and he was a marvelous reader. In his excitement over a page of good prose he seemed almost to caress the words, and his eyes filled easily. Once, seated on the stone coping of our porch, he read my mother his obituary essay on Ring Lardner, which he was about to send off to The New Republic. Through the intensity of his feeling he communicated the tragedy of his gifted, lovable friend who, like himself, had lived none too wisely. Fitzgerald had an unfailing eye and heart for the little things that make up our existence, the little things that are really of such vast importance—the whole story for most of us.
Aside from books and ideas the chief link between my mother and Fitzgerald was we children. He liked to consider us in terms of our possibilities, and one day he came up to our house to tell her how he had passed Scottie perched high in a tree, with me seated beneath her, my back against the trunk, both of us reading, completely lost, completely at peace. He said it was one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen. Then he went on to contrast this oblivious child’s contentment with the struggle and bitterness that might one day come between us as man and woman. Another time he sent my mother a scrap of paper with “Frances looks like a trinket” scrawled across it in large letters. Underneath he wrote that he thought it a nice, simple description of my older sister’s “gold quality,” and that he would undoubtedly use it in one of his stories. But my younger sister, Eleanor, in whom he saw the makings of an actress, was his pet. He called her Eleanora Duse, and once he and she did the mad scene in Hamlet, using as props a couple of faded daffodils and a rusty wastebasket. The image of Ophelia had haunted Fitzgerald since Zelda’s collapse.
During the Christmas holidays he spent hours each evening rehearsing a play that he had written for Eleanor with Scottie in the supporting role, a considerable investment of time when one considers the audience: Father, Mother, Frances, and me. He had undertaken, now that I think of it, a systematic campaign to fortify Eleanor’s ego. For example, he had brought back from Europe an elaborate collection of lead soldiers and figures and scenery—knights, grenadiers, peasants, farm animals, even Gallic slaves with their hands chained behind their backs, even miniature oases—and one day, having spread these treasures on the dining-room table, he assigned Scottie, Eleanor and me different locales to reconstruct. When we were finished, he strode into the room with that Napoleonic decisiveness of his and pondered the results with folded arms. After a moment he named Eleanor the winner, partly because her subject—a farmyard in Brittany—was the easiest and afforded the least chance for making mistakes, but also, I am sure, because he wanted to impart confidence to the youngest and most fearful contestant. It was the same impulse which, when he thought I was teasing Eleanor too much, made him threaten to terminate his lease if I persevered.
For Eleanor and me (though perhaps not for Scottie, who was too close to him) there was always something of the magician in Fitzgerald. He was the inventor, the creator, the tireless impresario who brightened our days and made other adult company seem dull and profitless. It wasn’t so much any particular skill of his as a quality of caring, of believing, of pouring his whole soul and imagination into whatever he did with us. His card tricks were elementary, but he executed them with a special deck—white markings on a black background—and with such an air of mystery that he soon had us thinking the deck was bewitched. He applied the same conviction to helping us build an igloo once when a blizzard was followed by a heavy freeze. Joining us in his hat and galoshes with his overcoat collar turned up, he showed us how to cut the blocks of crusted snow and fit them together. When the structure was completed we could all get inside. Fitzgerald couldn’t make it last forever —he wasn’t quite enough of a magician for that—but I do recall that when the thaw set in, the igloo was the last patch of snow to disappear from the lawn.
Let me add that about Scottie, Fitzgerald was objective and becomingly modest, though one could see he adored her and was proud of her. She was part of his sense of obligation towards life, and her importance grew as Zelda waned and became a child. Over the years some of his best stories had grown from his paternal affection: “Babylon Revisited,” “The Baby Party,” the slight but charming “Outside the Cabinet-Maker’s,” and, most recently, “Family in the Wind,” where the alcoholic doctor’s love for the little girl is the spar that keeps him afloat.
Scottie had put up with a great deal during her itinerant girlhood. On the Riviera a wit had remarked that she wasn’t a child at all but a little widow of forty, though in the background there had always been a nurse who threw an island of order around her, and since Zelda’s breakdown Scott had tried to be a mother and a father as well. It was he who planned the games at Scottie’s parties, who worried about her clothes and saw to it that she had the right kind of ballet slippers. He gave her a lot of himself and expected a lot in return. Scottie was under constant pressure to excel—in everything from French to high-diving, from tennis to politeness. Fitzgerald wanted her to be both hard and soft, to be able to make her own way, and yet to appreciate the amenities of those who hadn’t had to. His idea of hardness did not include dissipation, and his anxiety about moral questions went to ludicrous extremes.
For example, halfway between our house and La Paix was a forsythia bush where Scottie and Eleanor cached notes to each other, describing the little they knew about sex. (Eleanor claims that on this subject she was the better documented of the two.) The notes were deposited in a soggy shoebox, and one day the box was gone. When Eleanor went to Scottie for an explanation, she was met by Fitzgerald who said he had found the box and that as a punishment Scottie would not be allowed to see Eleanor for a week. He spoke of his terrible disappointment in them both, though he put most of the blame on Scottie, she being the older.
Scottie’s natural buoyancy rose above such crises. A round-faced, delicate-featured, golden little girl, she had a gay airiness about her that seemed untouched by family tragedy. She was bright and precocious; when taken to the chambers of the Supreme Court in Washington, she had asked the person she was with, “Where is the accused?” Every other word was “Daddy” or “Daddy says,” despite his so-called “character building,” which consisted of promising her things and not coming through with them. They were a winsome duo, this father and daughter, and after an evening at La Paix I can remember the feeling of solidarity they imparted as they waved good-by from the lighted porch, Fitzgerald singing “Goodnight, Sweetheart” in a weak, rather tuneless voice, and suddenly breaking into a little foxtrot shuffle. [When friends reproved Fitzgerald for his sternness with Scottie, he would answer that there was always a “whipped and an unwhipped generation.” Connecting his own faults with his parents’ leniency, he intended to reverse the process.]
Fitzgerald’s isolation during the La Paix period was spiritual as well as physical. He was learning the sense of Oscar Wilde’s epigram that nothing is so dangerous as being too modern, for one is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly. Since 1926, when he published his last book of stories, the whole climate —the air he breathed and condensed into fiction—had changed. The fashionable Byronic despair of the twenties, really an inverted optimism, had given way to the more tangible despair of the worst depression in history.
While recognizing the end of an era, Fitzgerald retained a proprietary affection for “the Jazz Age” (even the coinage was his). It had “[borne] him up, flattered him, and [given] him more money than he had dreamed of, simply for telling people he felt as they did.” “It is the custom now,” he would write later on in the thirties, “to look back on the boom days with a disapproval that approaches horror. But it had its virtues, that old boom: Life was a great deal larger and gayer for most people and the stampede to the Spartan virtues in time of war and famine should not make us too dizzy to remember its hilarious glory.” No one had written more gorgeously than he of America’s last fling at adolescence. The gay chic of his style, with the wit and tenderness constantly breaking through, had suited a time whose very tawdriness, in a work like Gatsby, he had transformed into lasting beauty.
And yet, even after Gatsby, there lingered doubts as to his ultimate worth. Some thought him slick and superficial, like a many-faceted glass ball revolving in the light which every now and then refracted something quite wonderful. His emphasis on money and success seemed all wrong for a serious artist; it smacked of Booth Tarkington and Robert W. Chambers. And wasn’t his great charm, after all, an ephemeral, collegiate thing—an ability to describe girls as flowers, and keep on doing it at an age when most writers had lost the touch if they ever possessed it? The new decade would find him short on ideas— real substance—and taking stock of himself in 1936, Fitzgerald had to admit that he had done very little thinking save within the problems of his craft. For twenty years, he said, Edmund Wilson had been his “intellectual conscience.”
Between Wilson and Fitzgerald there had occurred not so much a rift as a drift. During the early twenties Wilson had been amused and refreshed by Scott and Zelda and even a little proprietary about them. Thus when he heard of her breakdown in 1930, he wrote Perkins for details—adding that he wished something could be done about the Fitzgeralds, who never saw anyone with any sense. (Wilson had recently had a breakdown himself, which made him conversant with such matters.) In a letter of sympathy to Scott, he said how much he had missed the Fitzgeralds in recent years. He wished they didn’t insist on living abroad which he thought unwise for American writers, bad as America could be to live in. The Fitzgeralds’ values had always seemed false and childish to Wilson—the more so now that he was going over to Marxism. His new book of reportage on the national crisis ended with a credo. Prosperity, he said, had fooled everyone. “Our political and economic thinking, like our literature and art, has been mostly mediocre as our world has been mostly middle-class.” The Puritan in Wilson was reacting against the materialistic glut of the twenties. As John Peale Bishop put it, the ghost of Cotton Mather (one of Wilson’s ancestors) was burrowing under his conscience like a mole. Wilson’s tradition was that of the learned professions. From his forebears—chiefly ministers, doctors, lawyers, and professors—he had inherited a dislike and distrust of American business. It seemed to him that the well-to-do bankers, brokers, bond salesmen, and stockholders led fatuous lives, and he admitted he wasn’t sorry “to see it all go glimmering.” He now believed that art and science, morals and manners, could only be perfected in a rational (i.e., communist) society, run for the common good.
Fitzgerald was confused by Wilson’s new tack. Apropos of it, he wrote Perkins that “a decision to adopt Communism definitely, no matter how good for the soul, must of necessity be a saddening process for any one who has ever tasted the intellectual pleasures of the world we live in.” Fitzgerald’s politics —he seldom read a paper—had remained pretty much the nihilism, cynicism, and indifference of the intelligentsia under Harding. But now it seemed that Marxism might be the wave of the future, and Fitzgerald was eager to move with the times. He read Das Kapital, or at least read at it, and discussed it with his Marxist sparring partner. “The logic of history won’t permit us to go backward,” he wrote my mother after one of their talks, and again, “When a United States Senator after his election has to look up the principles of Marxism by which one-sixth of the world is governed, it shows he’s a pretty inadequate defender of his own system.” In his Ledger for 1932 he spoke of “political worries that were almost neurosis.” When a friend took him to call on Maurice Hindus, the well-known writer on Soviet affairs, Hindus had a hard time convincing Fitzgerald of the impossibility of a Communist revolution in America, the richest country in the world.
Marxism, of course, was fundamentally alien to Fitzgerald. Spengler’s idealism had come to him more naturally than Marx’s materialism, just as Spengler’s class society appealed to him more than Marx’s classless one. Fitzgerald knew nothing of the poverty out of which Marxism had grown, nor had he studied history in terms of social classes and movements— though occasionally he would show an intuitive grasp of these things, as in Dick Diver’s musings on the grown-over battlefield in Tender Is the Night. But history for him was chiefly color, personalities, and romance. It was Jackson’s Valley Campaign; it was the Gallant Pelham rapid-firing—one cannon against sixteen—at Fredericksburg. The individual meant everything to Fitzgerald. And so he expounded Marxism to my parents as one seeking to epater le bourgeois, the self-made man in him being mildly contemptuous of us as privileged, protected folk who did not know what the real rough-and-tumble was all about.
Despite his claims to “unflinching rationality,” Fitzgerald’s political thought, like all his thought, was emotional and impulsive, general ideas being for him little more than a backdrop to his fiction. There might be some facet of Marx and Spengler which he grasped better than anyone else, but he wouldn’t see the broad picture. His culture was also deficient in art and classical music—rather surprising when one considers the musical and pictorial qualities of his prose. Nor was he a student of nature. He once told my mother that reading Thoreau made him realize how much he had missed in this respect and yet, rambling on in his nostalgic cadences, he could epitomize in a casual phrase the beauty of our acres—the dark shadows of the pines athwart the moonlit lawns, the scent of honeysuckle and the thorny lemon tree, the winking fireflies, the mist rising from the pond whence came the gutteral diatribe of the bull frogs.
Fitzgerald’s gift was narrowly, concentratedly verbal. He performed some alchemy with words that brought out their overtones, “their most utter value,” as he once put it, “for evocation, persuasion, or charm.” And if his thinking had been restricted to the problems of his craft, that thinking had been authoritative; writers as different from him as Dos Passos and MacLeish have testified to his literary acuity, to the way one always listened to him on technical matters even when he was discussing trifles. He was familiar, too, with the tradition he was working in and what remained to be done. In the field of fiction he had read widely and passionately, and Max Beerbohm’s remarks about another Irish writer, George Moore, make one think of Fitzgerald.
“Of learning,” wrote Beerbohm, “[Moore] had no equipment at all; for him everything was discovery; and it was natural that Oscar Wilde should complain as he did once complain to me, ‘George Moore is always conducting his education in public.’ Also, he had no sense of proportion. But this defect was, in truth, a quality. Whenever he discovered some new old master, that master seemed to him greater than any other: he would hear of no other. And it was just this frantic exclusive-ness that made his adorations so fruitful: it was by the completeness of his surrender to one thing at a time that he possessed himself of that thing’s very essence. The finest criticism is always passive, not active. Mastery comes only by self-surrender. The critic who justly admires all kinds of things simultaneously cannot love any one of them, any more than a lady can be simultaneously in love with more than one gentleman. That kind of critic is often (if I, who am that kind of critic, may be allowed to say so) very admirable. But it is the Moores who matter.”
Among Fitzgerald’s contemporaries Hemingway still excited him the most. Without belittling his own talent, Fitzgerald gave the impression that he thought Hemingway’s a talent of a higher order. He was proud of their friendship, too, and once he showed my mother a letter which delighted him because underneath the signature “Ernest,” Hemingway had written in brackets “Christ, what a name.” Fitzgerald was obsessed by this man of action and prowess, who yet embodied the self-contradictions of the artist. Hemingway was double-edged: on the one hand, warm, gentle, generous, humble, and kind; on the other, arrogant, cruel, ruse. While favoring the underdog, he felt that too much sympathy was soft and weak, and like anyone who lives in his passions he could turn on you brutally, though he might regret it afterwards. He was quite capable of literary vendettas and had a record of quarreling with writers who had helped him in his ascent. His emotions were of a piece. When he felt something, he was all that way—all-friendly or all-hating—which is perhaps one reason he wrote so intensely well.
By now Fitzgerald realized that the balance of power had shifted. Hemingway’s output had been regular and impressive, while rumors continued to spread of Fitzgerald’s drinking and domestic chaos. The first time Fitzgerald and Hemingway spent an evening together back in 1925, Fitzgerald had passed out, and this image was firmly rooted in Hemingway’s mind. When Fitzgerald went on the wagon in January, 1933, he wrote Perkins, “… but don’t tell Ernest because he has long convinced himself that I am an incurable alcoholic, due to the fact that we almost always meet on parties. I am his alcoholic just like Ring is mine and do not want to disillusion him, tho even Post stories must be done in a state of sobriety.”
Fitzgerald’s impulse to reform had followed a disastrous meeting with Hemingway and Wilson in New York; Fitzgerald, who had been on a bat for several days, afterwards wrote Wilson that he shouldn’t have looked up the other two in his mood of impotent desperation. “I assume full responsibility for all the unpleasantness—with Ernest I seem to have reached a state where when we drink together I half bait, half truckle to him.” “Ernest—until we began trying to walk over each other with cleats,” he wrote elsewhere.
The result of it all was that Fitzgerald felt very much out of things, and when my mother told him that T. S. Eliot would be staying with us while giving a lectures series at Johns Hopkins, Fitzgerald pricked up his ears. He said Eliot’s letter about Gatsby had given him more pleasure than any he had received. Fitzgerald came to a small dinner for Eliot, and my mother remembered the distinction—in appearance and personality— of the poet who was also a philosopher and the novelist who was also a poet. In the intimacy of a fire-lit room Fitzgerald was asked to read some of Eliot’s verse, which he did without hesitation in that moving voice of his that could bring out all the beauty and hint at all the mystery of words.
Afterwards he wrote Wilson of spending an afternoon and evening with Eliot. “I read him some of his poems and he seemed to think they were pretty good. I liked him fine.”
Zelda all this time had been living at La Paix, with brief returns to Phipps when she seemed in danger of a relapse. I remember Zelda as a boyish wraith of a woman in sleeveless summer dresses and ballet slippers, with not much expression on her hawk-like face and not very much to say. She is linked in my mind with “Valencia,” a popular song of the twenties which she continually played on a small, wind-up Victrola, increasing her inexplicable air of something lost and left behind. From the tight-wound gramophone would come a high-pitched accelerated man’s voice …
“Valencia! In my dreams it always seems I hear you softly call to me …”
And the answering chorus—“In all of my dreams it seems I hear your voice when it calls to me …”
“Valencia!”—the man’s voice again—“Where the orange trees forever scent the breeze beside the sea …”
“Forever the orange trees the breeze is scenting beside the sea…”
And sometimes Zelda would dance to this.
I also remember her at the deep, cool quarry in the country where we used to swim. She wore a two-piece maroon bathing . suit and her short, tawny hair would be water-slicked and her skin very brown, as she sat on the raft smoking, and glorying in the sun.
During the first months at La Paix she seemed to be improving. She was writing a play and had taken up horseback riding “as non-committally as possible so as not to annoy the horse. Also very apologetically since we’ve had so much of communism lately that I’m not sure it isn’t the horse who should be riding me.” She wrote John Peale Bishop that Scott was reading Marx while she read the cosmological philosophers, and the brightest moments of their day were when they got the two mixed up. Fitzgerald called their united front “less a romance than a categorical imperative,” but no one who saw them together could doubt that there was real love between them. Fitzgerald lived the phases of Zelda’s illness, its ups and downs, the interviews with doctors. My mother thought he would have been more to blame if he had grown a little bored by, or indifferent to, Zelda’s tragedy instead of grappling with it daily as he did. His intense concern and fundamental loyalty never wavered, though of course much had passed out of their relationship, and he probably felt that her condition absolved him from being faithful to her. There were also grievances that had never been forgotten—Zelda’s affair with Josanne in 1924 and Scott’s to some extent retaliatory interest in Lois Moran in 1927, the terrible resentment which Scott had sensed back of the original version of Save Me the Waltz—such wounds as these help to explain why Scott, despite his affection for Zelda and his eagerness to help her, could be cruel to her at times.
There is no other word for his behavior during a luncheon Zelda gave at La Paix. She had invited my mother, another Baltimore matron who was an old friend from Montgomery, and a relative Scott did not like; he had painted an acid portrait of the latter as Marion in “Babylon Revisited.” The occasion began auspiciously enough, with gay conversation in the living room, but soon there intruded sepulchral growls and ejaculations, complete with rattling of chains, from the floor above. Suspecting the origin of these noises, no one paid any attention, and presently the four ladies sat down to lunch. They had begun to eat when they noticed a figure parading back and forth along the porch, which connected with the dining room through French windows—open wide, for the day was hot. The figure, robed in a trailing sheet with a bath towel around its head and a gold fillet around the towel, was reciting some of the more portentous passages from “Julius Caesar.”
At this moment a new character entered the drama, a deus ex machina in the form of a Negro clergyman who visited our place once a year to solicit funds for an orphanage. When he appeared at the front door, Fitzgerald sensed his opportunity and seized it with the audacity of Caesar himself. In a flash, he had ushered the elderly Negro into the dining room, introducing him as a distinguished visitor from Equatorial Africa, and requesting that he be invited to join the meal. The unbidden guest was polite but terror-stricken and took the first opportunity to escape. Fitzgerald then resumed his solemn march along the porch, this time including the dining room in his tour, where he circled the table—even pausing to pass a plate of biscuits—until finally he grew tired of his prank and went away. Zelda kept her dignity throughout the performance, pretending to ignore it and making no reference to it afterwards.
She had had other disappointments, such as the reception of her novel. Because it had sold a mere 1400 copies, she had shifted her hopes to her play, Scandalabra, which the Vagabond Players put on the spring of 1933. The opening performance, though fairly well attended, was an embarrassing failure. Afterwards Fitzgerald gathered the cast in the Green Room of the Hotel Belvedere, and sitting in a throne-like chair with a case of beer at his feet—he was “on beer” at the time—he read the script aloud. Each line had to be justified in relation to the plot or out it came, but after radical surgery, the script was abandoned.
Scott had been trying to assist with Zelda’s treatment despite his antipathy for Dr. Adolf Meyer, the Phipps’ eminent authority on schizophrenia. Meyer considered it a dual case. He wanted Fitzgerald to face his drinking, to be treated for it if necessary, but Fitzgerald balked at psychotherapy—partly from pride (he didn’t want to give Zelda’s family the satisfaction of being able to say, “You see, it was Scott’s fault all these years”), and partly from the artist’s instinctive distrust of having his inner workings tampered with. He was afraid that psychiatric treatment might make him a reasoning, analytic person instead of a feeling one, and he instanced several novelists who had been psychoanalyzed and had written nothing but trash ever since. He considered alcohol part of his working equipment. “During the last six days,” he wrote Meyer the spring of 1933, “I have drunk altogether slightly less than a quart and a half of weak gin, at wide intervals. But if there is no essential difference between an over-extended, imaginative, functioning man using alcohol as a stimulus or a temporary aisment and a schitzophrene, I am naturally alarmed about my ability to collaborate in this cure at all.” He went on to say that if Meyer could interview a series of qualified observers, there would be less doubt in his mind “as to whence this family derives what mental and moral stamina it possesses. There would be a good percentage who liked Zelda better than me and probably a majority who found her more attractive (as it should be); but on the question of integrity, responsibility, conscience, sense of duty, judgement, will-power, whatever you want to call it”— ninety-five percent, he said, would pronounce in his favor. Zelda still cherished the illusion that success in her writing would give her some sort of divine irresponsibility backed by unlimited gold. She was working “under a greenhouse which is my money and my name and my love… She is willing to use the greenhouse to protect her in every way, to nourish every sprout of talent and to exhibit it—and at the same time she feels no responsibility about the greenhouse and feels that she can reach up and knock a piece of glass out of the roof any moment, yet she is shrewd to cringe when I open the door of the greenhouse and tell her to behave or go.” [Fitzgerald was also wary of mixing psychiatry with his art. Though writing on a psychiatric theme in Tender Is the Night, he reminded himself that he “must avoid Faulkner attitude and not end with a novelized Kraft-Ebing— better Ophelia and her flowers.” The same point of view colors his note on Hemingway, “Some day when the psycho-an[alysts] are forgotten E. H. will be read for his great studies into fear.”]
Fitzgerald wanted more authority to discipline her. He clung to the notion that part of her trouble was pure selfishness. He wondered if it might not be wise, temporarily, to give her the feeling of being alone, of having exhausted everyone’s patience. He was also aware of the history of mental illness on both sides of her family, and when her brother committed suicide in 1933, Fitzgerald came up to our house to tell my mother, “You see, it’s not my fault—it’s inherited.” He had taken comfort from the words of the great psychiatrist Bleuler, who had been called in for consultation while Zelda was at Prangins. “Stop blaming yourself,” Bleuler had said. “You might have retarded your wife’s illness, but you couldn’t have prevented it.”
Always complicating and aggravating Zelda’s condition was the clash of two artistic personalities, the theme which kept recurring during a transcribed interview between Scott, Zelda, and her psychiatrist, Dr. Thomas Rennie, in May, 1933. In this interview, a key document, Scott spoke of his battle to become a top-flight professional. He said the difference between a professional and an amateur was hard to define—“It just simply means the keen equipment; it means a scent, a smell of the future in one line.” Assuming there were ten or twelve first-rate writers in America, he estimated that the chances had been ten million to one against him. He spoke of the integrity that makes one writer better than another. “To have something to say is a question of sleepless nights and worry and endless ratiocination of a subject—of endless trying to dig out the essential truth, the essential justice. As a first premise you have to develop a conscience and if on top of that you have talent so much the better. But if you have the talent without the conscience, you are just one of many thousand journalists.”
Fitzgerald spoke of the manuscripts sent him by friends and of his telling them, as politely as possible, “You can’t write, you haven’t got a chance—all that has been said and donebefore.” Then Zelda had come along believing anything was possible. She had written some talented sketches, but she wanted to be a novelist at Scott’s expense, for she was using his material. It was as if a good artist came into the room and found something drawn on his canvas by a mischievous little boy. Zelda had no conception of what Fitzgerald had sacrificed to be where he was—of his long, lonely struggle against other finely-gifted authors. A novelist, said Fitzgerald, must reflect the exact shade of opinion in his day, but he must also interpret it, and Zelda could not interpret. If she heard Fitzgerald say something perceptive, she would put it into her writing, unaware of “the terrible amount of cerebral stuff that comes in— does this relate to human justice?—the enormous moral business that goes on in the mind of anyone who writes anything worth writing.”
Zelda took the position that because of Scott’s drinking she needed something to fill her life. She was determined to go on writing, it was part of her make-up, though she agreed to stop work on the new novel she had begun until his was published. Beyond that she made no guarantees. The impasse was so serious that Scott looked into the statutes governing divorce on grounds of insanity. He probably came nearer the step now than at any other time, for after Zelda’s third breakdown his gallantry refused to contemplate it.
The losing battle with Zelda’s condition must have had something to do with the change we felt in Fitzgerald his second year at La Paix. We were still friends, of course—we were always that—and our appreciation of him kept growing, but the first year’s light-heartedness declined, to be replaced by a haunted sense of hope lost and time run out. Our families alternated driving the children to school, and when it was our week to take Scottie, Fitzgerald didn’t appear on the porch so often to stand for a moment in the sunshine and toss some bantering remark across the railing. More and more he withdrew into his study where his light blazed on into the small hours, apoint of desperate and mysterious energy in the surrounding dark.
“Drinking increased—things go not so well,” he wrote in his Ledger. In addition to his professional worries he was perplexed by Zelda’s attempts at housekeeping. Once Fitzgerald told my mother that there was nothing to eat in the house except five hams. Aquilla, the colored chauffeur who drove the old blue Stutz, was another responsibility. The orders that one gave him had a way of miscarrying, yet Fitzgerald took a kindly interest in his lackey. Aquilla’s nose was so flat that the tip of it almost joined his upper lip, his short stocky frame was packed into purple pin-stripe suits, and his passion for root beer was evidenced by the empty bottles that littered the grass around La Paix. He had a speech defect that made him substitute “s” for “th”—a challenge to Fitzgerald, who devised a sentence full of “th’s” which he made Aquilla practice over and over.
Money was now such a serious problem that for the first time Fitzgerald complained to Zelda about the expense of her illness. The Post was paying him five hundred, a thousand, in some cases fifteen hundred dollars less per story than they had two years before. He had suffered a mild recurrence of the tuberculosis which had first been suspected in his college days, and insomnia was a scourge as it often is with alcoholics. There were nights when he couldn’t write and he couldn’t sleep either, and he would reach out desperately for human contact.
On such a night Asa Bushnell, Princeton’s graduate manager of athletics and a clubmate of Fitzgerald’s, was wrenched awake by a phone call at 3 a.m.
“Get a pencil and paper,” said Fitzgerald. “I have some suggestions for Fritz Crisler.”
Bushnell did not stir but let an appropriate time elapse before telling Fitzgerald to proceed.
“Yale will be laying for us,” Fitzgerald went on. “They’ve had a good chance to scout Crisler’s system and he’s got to cross them up. Here’s how he does it. Princeton must have two teams. One will be big—all men over two hundred. This team will be used to batter them down and wear them out. Then the little team, the pony team, will go in and make the touchdowns.”
Before Bushnell had a chance to reply, Fitzgerald had hung up, but half an hour later the phone rang again.
“I forgot to mention,” said Fitzgerald, “that the big team will be coached on defense and be given only a few power plays. Little team will be coached on offense, great variety of plays. Substitutions to be made as a unit.”
Toward dawn came a final call wrapping it up.
“Incidentally, my system will do away with all the parental and alumni criticism about playing the wrong men in the games because under this system everyone will play.”
Informed of Fitzgerald’s brainstorm, Crisler wrote him that the plan had many virtues and would be adopted on one condition—that it be called “the Fitzgerald system” and that he take full responsibility for its success or failure. Fitzgerald wrote back that he guessed they’d better keep the Fitzgerald system “in reserve.” The idea, however, was less fantastic than it seemed, and when two-platoon football became universal in the forties, Crisler, as chairman of the NCAA Football Rules Committee, played an important role in its development.
The turning point of Fitzgerald’s eighteen months at La Paix was the fire that broke out in June, 1933, when Zelda tried to burn something in a long-disused upstairs fireplace. The first we knew of it scarlet engines were hurtling down our lane and smoke was pouring from the second-story windows. Soon Fitzgerald was seen mixing among the firemen, for he loved to take command of situations. When the flames were finally overcome—the damage had been pretty much confined to the second floor—he passed out drinks to all hands. On the spur of the moment we invited the Fitzgeralds for dinner that evening, and Zelda appeared first, staying only a few minutes. Somewhat later Scott dropped in—his eyes bleary, his lips white and compressed. It was our custom to sing a hymn after dinner, and as he joined us around the piano (we all felt a bit shaky and unreal after the day’s excitement), my mother asked for “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” an inspired choice in view of its closing lines,
“Speak through the earthquake, wind, and fire,
O still, small voice of calm.”
Next day, Fitzgerald came up to make his formal apologies and to request that repairs on the house be postponed. With his novel nearly finished, he did not want to be disturbed by the din of workmen. And so he labored on amid the water-stained walls and woodwork in that hulk of a house, whose bleakness matched the color of his soul.
Though he was reticent about his novel, my mother could see he was excited by it and thought it might be the best thing he had done so far. At the back of his mind, however, lurked an awareness that his star was falling, that the public had ceased to be concerned with the fast, moneyed society which was his material, that interest was shifting to a more grass roots kind of literature—to the works of Farrell, Caldwell, and Dos Passos. It worried him, too, that he had taken so long on the job. “After all, Max,” he wrote Perkins, “I am a plodder. One time I had a talk with Ernest Hemingway, and I told him, against all the logic that was then current, that I was the tortoise and he was the hare, and that’s the truth of the matter, that everything that I have ever attained has been through long and persistent struggle while it is Ernest who has a touch of genius which enables him to bring off extraordinary things with facility. I have no facility. I have a facility for being cheap, if I wanted to indulge that. I can do cheap things. I changed Clark Gable’s act at the moving picture theatre [stage show] here the other day. I can do that kind of thing as quickly as anybody but when I decided to be a serious man I tried to struggle over every point until I have made myself into a slow moving Behemoth.”
Back of La Paix was a stretch of road where Fitzgerald used to pace hour by hour, refining the last draft of Tender Is the Night. There he meditated on the Murphys—their organized sensuousness, their fine gradations of charm—and there he dreamed of the Iles de Lerin, those blessed isles off Antibes where you went in the excursion boats. Returning to his study, he penciled it all down in his rounded, decorous hand on yellow legal-sized paper. Interrupting him at work, I remember the illumination of his eye, the sensitive pull around the mouth, the wistful liquor-ridden thing about him, the haunting grace of motion and gesture, the looking at you, through you and beyond you—understandingly sweet—with smoke exhaling.
Once the decks had been cleared and he knew where he was going, the book had progressed rapidly, despite his having to turn out Post stories to pay the bills. In his Ledger for August, 1932, there is an entry, “The Novel now plotted & planned, never more to be permanently interrupted.” By late October, 1933, he had a complete draft. “I will appear in person carrying the manuscript and wearing a spiked helmet,” he wrote Perkins. “… Please do not have a band as I do not care for music.”
When Fitzgerald came to La Paix his period of greatest acclaim was over. He hoped he might regain the lost ground, as he hoped he might regain Zelda, but he was by no means sure. Two years later, with the mood of “The Crack-Up” tightening its hold upon him, the hope was dead. He had come to feel that his mine was exhausted, that other veins were being worked by other writers to whom the public would turn more and more. My mother was grateful she knew Fitzgerald when she did, for he must have been more impressive then than at almost any other time—because more tragic, and therefore more profound. He said to her once with a wry sort of pride, “It is from the failures of life, and not its successes that we learn most,” and he was counting himself among the failures. He was Dick Diver. My mother became for a brief season a listener to and therefore a sharer of his thoughts, and they blotted out the surface lights and carried her, as the poetry of his books has carried others, down into the depths. And not the depths of weakness and illness alone. They were there, but also the angels.
Published as Scott Fitzgerald by Andrew Turnbull (New York: Scribners, 1962; London: Bodley Head, 1962).