The MGM story editor who hired Fitzgerald in New York was surprised at the change in him. Instead of the fiery youth remembered from the twenties, here was this shy, evasive man with a limp handshake. The light had gone out of him, he seemed depolarized, but the story editor felt that what an author had once done he could do again in the right circumstances, and that if Fitzgerald came through, the results would more than justify the risk of hiring him. For Fitzgerald, the contract was the lifting of a great weight. A few months earlier his debts had totaled $40,000—some of it canceled by his mother’s legacy —but he still owed Ober $12,500 and almost as much again to Scribners, if one included his private debt to Perkins. Keeping $400 a week for his, Scottie’s, and Zelda’s expenses, he arranged to have the remaining $600 sent to Ober toward discharging his various obligations. [The change which Fitzgerald’s friends felt in him during his last years is illuminated by the following note for The Last Tycoon: “When you once get to the point where you don’t care whether you live or die—as I did—it’s hard to come back to life… It’s hard to believe in yourself again—you have slain part of yourself.”]
No one took more delight than Fitzgerald in planning, in contemplating new possibilities, and though his dislike of Hollywood on two previous visits had made him swear never to return, he approached it now with a certain elan. In “The Crack-Up” he had mourned that “the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another,” was becoming subordinated to the mechanical and communal art of the movies, but rolling west on the train early in July, he plotted how he would conquer this insurgent technique. Tactful but resolute,he would win the confidence of the key man among the bosses and ask for the most malleable of the collaborators so that, in effect, he would be alone on the picture—the condition for doing his best work. He also planned to rise early and devote his freshest hours to his own writing, but this turned out to be a pipe dream. Despite six months on the wagon, his health and energy hadn’t fully returned, and to get through a day at the studio he needed the stimulus of innumerable cokes.
He settled in at the Garden of Allah Hotel on Sunset Boulevard, then a favorite haunt of screen writers. Once the residence of the actress Alia Nazimova, it had a swimming pool built in the shape of the Black Sea to remind her of her native Yalta. Taking an apartment in one of the two-story bungalows out back, Fitzgerald tackled his job with a conscientiousness he hadn’t shown for a long while. He kept a file of the plot-lines of pictures, just as he had once diagrammed scores of Post stories when he was learning to write for them. He read “How-to-do-it” books and grilled his colleagues at Metro. “Don’t worry about a fade-in, a wipe, a dissolve,” they told him. “The cutters and directors will take care of that. Go ahead and write your story. Write what’s in your guts.”
But Fitzgerald had to know. He approached the medium with refreshing humility. He was sober, reliable, “grown-up” at last —though one couldn’t help regretting certain aspects of the man he had been. Dropping into the office of a fellow writer, he would say after a few minutes, “You don’t want to talk to me, do you? I’m boring you, aren’t I? Hadn’t I better leave?” The old confidence and dynamism were gone. Fitzgerald seemed like some mild-mannered clerk—sweet, gentle, amiable, but devoid of temperament or bite, as if he had been erased.
The playwright Edwin Justus Mayer, who shared his bungalow at the Garden of Allah, thought how different it had been when they met in 1923. Mayer, whose first book had failed ignominiously, was sitting in the office of his publisher, Horace Liveright, when a blond, spruce young man brushed past the receptionist and entered the room talking volubly. With his boater perched on the back of his head, he had the assurance of someone who is welcome anywhere. He was light, airy, golden with talent, and as Mayer said later, “so successful he made me feel dirty.”
Fitzgerald had been in Hollywood less than a week when he met the girl who would sustain him for the rest of his life. An attractive blond, Sheilah Graham had spent most of her twenty-eight years getting away from the pinch and poverty of her childhood. She had been born Lily Sheil in a London tenement. Her father died when she was a baby, and she and her mother had shared a basement room with a woman who took in washing. Her earliest memory was the stinging smell of laundry soap, blended with that of boiled potatoes on which they largely subsisted. At six she was sent to an orphanage, returning at fourteen to care for her mother who had been operated on for cancer and who died a few years later. Sheilah worked as a maid and a salesgirl, and when she was seventeen married an unsuccessful business man of forty-two who let her do as she pleased. She became one of Charles Cochran’s Young Ladies—the equivalent of a Ziegfeld Girl—but restless and searching, she drifted into journalism and went to America, where she got the job of Hollywood columnist for the North American Newspaper Alliance. By now a divorcee, she was engaged to the Marquis of Donegall who wrote a society column for a London daily. The engagement lapsed soon after she met Fitzgerald.
They were a curious pair—the broken novelist and the ambitious girl from the slums. Sheilah was fickle, and in a sense Fitzgerald was fortunate to have been loved by anyone so vital and alluring. In his present state of frailty and eclipse, his choice was not unlimited, but he held her absolutely with a charm, a tenderness, and an understanding that she hadn’t known to exist. She had invented a story about her origins that included a family background in Chelsea, a finishing school in Paris, and presentation at court by a rich aunt. When the story broke down under Fitzgerald’s relentless questioning, she feared she had lost him, but instead he was touched. He said he wished he had known her in her early days so he could have taken care of her.
Their liaison soon had a settled, comfortable air. They kept to themselves, and when they went to parties Fitzgerald stayed in the background, quietly observing. Sheilah wasn’t an intellectual, her tempo was quite different from that of the wits and writers he was used to consorting with, but he was tired and glad not to make an effort. He sparkled one evening when Thomas Mann was in the company; Fitzgerald talked delightfully, lifting the whole room, and gave the impression of knowing more about Mann’s writing than Mann did. But mostly he stood apart, the fact that he no longer drank having something to do with it. Sheilah didn’t drink either, and when Fitzgerald went on a binge after they had been together several months, she was horrified but made up her mind to fight his alcoholism. Her influence in this regard may well have prolonged his life.
By October the first excitement of the studio had worn off, and Fitzgerald was telling Ober he wished he could do an original script to “exercise the intellectual muscles in a more amplified manner.” After working several weeks on A Yank at Oxford, he had been switched to a Remarque war novel, Three Comrades. He liked the material but disliked the interminable story conferences where, as he once said, “personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration.” His co-writer, Ted Paramore, was another frustration. According to Fitzgerald Paramore was still turning out “Owen Wister dialogue”—putting such expressions as “Consarn it!” in the mouth of a German sergeant.
But when Fitzgerald heard that the job would earn him a screen credit, his morale picked up and just before Christmas he wrote Mrs. Harold Ober, “I love it here. It’s nice work if you can get it and you can get it if you try about three years. The point is once you’ve got it—Screen Credit 1st, a Hit 2nd, and the Academy Award 3rd—you can count on it forever … and know there’s one place you’ll be fed without being asked to even wash the dishes. But till we get those three accolades we Hollywood boys keep trying. That’s cynical but I’m not a bit cynical. I’m delighted with screen credit and really hopeful of a hit.”
The future looked even brighter when Metro took up his option for a year’s renewal of contract at $1250 a week, but in January producer Joe Manckiewicz rewrote the script of Three Comrades so that very few of Fitzgerald’s words remained. Though Manckiewicz liked the way Fitzgerald had brought the characters to life against their background, he found Fitzgerald’s dialogue too flowery and redundant—the work of a novelist rather than a scenarist. Fitzgerald’s touches of magic also seemed irrelevant. For example, when one of the three comrades phoned his sweetheart, an angel was supposed to plug in the connection at the hotel switchboard. “How do you film that?” someone asked drily.
Fitzgerald was crushed by what he considered the mutilation of an honest and delicate script, for it wasn’t his nature to write tongue in cheek. “37 pages mine,” he scrawled on Manckiewicz’ version, “about 1/3, but all shadows and rhythm removed.” “To say I’m disillusioned,” he wrote Manckiewicz, “is putting it mildly. For nineteen years I’ve written best selling entertainment, and my dialogue is supposedly right up at the top…. You had something and you have arbitrarily and carelessly torn it to pieces. … I am utterly miserable at seeing months of work and thought negated in one hasty week. I hope you’re big enough to take this letter as it’s meant—a desperate plea to put back the flower cart, the piano-moving, the balcony, the manicure girl—all those touches that were both natural and new. Oh Joe, can’t producers ever be wrong? I’m a good writer— honest. I thought you were going to play fair.”
Separated from Zelda by a continent, as well as a life she couldn’t share, Fitzgerald went East periodically to take her on vacations-—to Charleston in September, to Miami at Christmas. Her condition had stabilized to the point where it was thought she could visit her mother in Montgomery from time to time, and Fitzgerald almost dared to hope for the miracle of her being able to get along without him. “Certainly,” he wrote her doctor, “the outworn pretense that we can ever come together again is better for being shed. There is simply too much of the past between us. When that mist falls—at a dinner table, or between two pillows—no knight errant can traverse its immense distance. The mainsprings are gone.
“And if the aforesaid miracle should take place, I might again try to find a life of my own, as opposed to this casual existence of many rooms and many doors that are not mine. So long as she is helpless, I’d never leave her or ever let her sense that she was deserted.”
The end of March Fitzgerald joined Scottie and Zelda at Virginia Beach. Under the strain he got drunk, and Zelda went up and down the hotel corridors convincing everyone he was a dangerous maniac. After this fiasco he decided his usefulness in the case was over. He wrote Zelda’s doctor that he had “no desire ever again to personally undertake her supervision. That period has gone, and each time that I see her something happens to me that makes me the worst person for her rather than the best, but a part of me will always pity her with a sort of deep ache that is never absent from my mind for more than a few hours: an ache for the beautiful child that I loved and with whom I was happy as I never shall be again.”
Back in Hollywood, Sheilah prevailed on Fitzgerald to take a house at Malibu Beach. For $200 a month—half of what he was paying at the Garden of Allah—he rented a green-shuttered “cottage” with four bedrooms, a sunroom, a dining room, a captain’s walk, and a small garden. He hired a colored woman to keep house, and Sheilah spent as much time with him as her work permitted. She found to her dismay that he never went swimming and stayed out of the sun on principle, though in the late afternoons he might stroll up the beach, and he played a little ping-pong. In any case, the home life was good for him. He and Sheilah amused themselves by concocting rare dishes— say a crab soup and a chocolate souffle—which Fitzgerald would eat in reverse order, for his appetite was finicky and exotic.
The crisis of the summer was a scrape Scottie got into at Ethel Walker’s. She was constantly on her father’s mind, and as her horizons enlarged, his advice had become more portentous. “For premature adventure,” he had written her, “one pays an attrocious price…. The girls who were what we called ‘Speeds’ (in our stone-age slang) at sixteen were reduced to anything they could get at the marrying time. It’s in the logic of life that no young person ever ‘gets away with anything.’ They fool their parents but not their contemporaries. It was in the cards that Ginevra King should get fired from Westover—also that your mother should wear out young.”
After graduation, when Scottie was staying on at Walker’s to prepare for college boards, she and another girl hitchhiked to New Haven to have dinner with two Yale students. They were caught and asked to leave school, thus imperiling Scottie’s chances of getting into Vassar. Her father was beside himself. He wrote her a tirade, citing her mother who had idled through life until she realized “that work was dignity and the only dignity and tried to atone for it by working herself but it was too late and she broke and is broken forever.” Fitzgerald said his job in Hollywood was the last tired effort of a man who had once done something finer and better; there wasn’t enough money, or call it energy, to carry someone who was a dead weight. As punishment, he thought of canceling Scottie’s summer abroad but decided in the end to let her go.
When Vassar accepted her in July, Fitzgerald contained his joy. He wrote Scottie that she might as well have a try at it— at least till Christmas—to see whether she was honestly interested in higher education. He wanted her to be a scholar. He didn’t want her dyeing her hair—“You will coarsen it and look like a full-fledged ‘lady buyer’ before you’re 19.” If he heard of her taking a drink before she was twenty, he would feel entitled to begin his last and greatest non-stop binge. “Thank God,” he wrote her, “there are no snobbish time-wasting clubs [at Vassar] —you will stand for what you are.” He didn’t mention the fact that Scottie would be entering at sixteen. He took precocity for granted.
During Fitzgerald’s second year in Hollywood his hopeful ambition turned to discontent. For someone who came there as he had, out of need, there was depression in the flat, drugstore sprawl of Los Angeles with its unnatural glaring sun. Around the studio the older writers treated him with respect, though some of the brash younger ones, who had mastered a technique comparable to making Panama hats under water, made him feel his unimportance. Hollywood was such an industrial town that not to be a power in the movies was to be unknown.
Running into a college classmate, Gordon McCormick, Fitzgerald said, “I’m trying a great experiment—I’m trying to break into Hollywood.”
McCormick said he thought Fitzgerald would be in automatically with all he had done.
“No, it doesn’t work that way,” said Fitzgerald. “Sometimes I get it over to them, but sometimes it’s mislaid. With all the red tape I don’t know who has it. Other times I can’t get going. I thought it would be so easy, but it’s been a disappointment. It’s so barren out here. I don’t feel anything out here.”
In a letter to Perkins, Fitzgerald spoke of “this amazing business which has a way of whizzing you along at terrific speed and then letting you wait in a dispirited, half-cocked mood when you don’t feel like undertaking anything else, while it makes up its mind. It is a strange conglomeration of a few excellent overtired men making the pictures, and as dismal a crowd of fakes and hacks at the bottom as you can imagine.” After Three Comrades Fitzgerald had worked on Infidelity, starring Joan Crawford (the title was changed to Fidelity in the hope of getting it past the censor). On hearing that Fitzgerald would be doing her next picture, Miss Crawford fixed him with her burning eyes and said, “Write hard!” It wasn’t easy, for as he explained to Gerald Murphy, “[Crawford] can’t change her motions in the middle of a scene without going through a sort of Jekyll and Hyde contortion of the face, so that when one wants to indicate that she is going from joy to sorrow, one must cut away and then cut back. Also, you can never give her such a stage direction as ‘telling a lie,’ because if you did, she would practically give a representation of Benedict Arnold selling West Point to the British.” At the end of three months the picture was abandoned because of censorship difficulties.
Fitzgerald was transferred to The Women, then to Madame Curie, only to be taken off the latter when he disagreed with everyone on how it should be done. His final job at Metro was revision on Gone With the Wind. After reading the novel he declared it “good” but “not very original, in fact leaning heavily on the Old Wives’ Tale, Vanity Fair, and all that has been written on the Civil War. There are no new characters, new techniques, new observations—none of the elements that make literature—especially no new examination into human emotions. But on the other hand it is interesting, surprisingly honest, consistent and workmanlike throughout, and I felt no contempt for it but only a certain pity for those who considered it the supreme achievement of the human mind.” In writing the script Fitzgerald was told to use Margaret Mitchell’s own words, and it angered him to have to thumb through the book as though it were Scripture, checking the phrases that suited his purpose.
He had worked hard all year and was deeply hurt when Metro failed to renew his contract, though in a letter to Ober he sounded relieved. “Baby, am I glad to get out!” he said. “I’ve hated the place ever since [Manckiewicz] rewrote 3 Comrades.” He told Perkins that it was morally destructive to work on a factory basis, faced with the paradox “We brought you here for your individuality but while you’re here we insist that you do everything to conceal it.” Though the conception of a novel was stirring in him, he would have to freelance in pictures until he had laid by sufficient funds. Meanwhile, he hoped to improve his position with another screen credit, not having gotten one since Three Comrades.
He found a job almost at once. Early in February, 1939, Walter Wanger hired him to collaborate with Budd Schulberg on a screen play to be set against the background of the Dartmouth Winter Carnival. Several years out of Dartmouth, Schulberg was to supply the local color while Fitzgerald was counted on for the mature love story Wanger had in mind. After preliminary conferences, during which the collaborators got to know each other at the expense of their script, Wanger ordered them to the Winter Carnival where a camera crew was shooting background material.
In recent weeks Fitzgerald had been sweating and running a temperature. He feared a recurrence of T.B. and tried to get out of the trip but Wanger insisted. Sheilah Graham was so apprehensive that she flew East with him and waited in New York while he went on to Dartmouth. During the plane ride he sat with Schulberg, whose father had presented them with two bottles of champagne at the airport, and as soon as they were airborne, Schulberg persuaded Fitzgerald to join him in a toast —the start of a binge that would land Fitzgerald in the hospital a week later.
Fitzgerald’s colleagues on the film at Dartmouth remembered his haggard illness more than his misconduct. They felt sorry for him and looked after him as best they could. He was incoherent at a faculty reception and made a spectacle of himself falling down in the snow, but he also had a dignity that wasn’t to be tampered with. One of the crew members gave a small party at which some of the professors undertook to criticize the script. Knowing it was weak, the movie team welcomed advice, but the professors dissected it with a pettiness that showed their limitations. Sunk in his chair, Fitzgerald waved his hand now and then, mumbling, “Lotta nonsense.” Finally he rose and said, “You know, I’d love to be a professor in a university like this with all the security and the smug niceties, instead of having to put up with the things we have to put up with out there in the world. I bid you good night, gentlemen.”
Then the professors said wasn’t it too bad that after such a brilliant start Fitzgerald should turn into a stumbling drunk, wasting his time on trash. “He walked out of here on his own feet, didn’t he?” said one of the cameramen. “He knows more than any of you will ever know.”
Because someone had neglected to make reservations, Schulberg and Fitzgerald shared a servant’s room in the attic of the Hanover Inn. (Fitzgerald thought it symbolic of the writer’s role in Hollywood.) The only piece of furniture was a double-decker bed and lying in the lower berth Fitzgerald thought aloud: “You know, I used to have a beautiful talent once, Baby. It used to be a wonderful feeling to know it was there, and it isn’t all gone yet. I think I have enough left to stretch out over two more novels. I may have to stretch it a little thin, so maybe they won’t be as good as the best things I’ve done. But they won’t be completely bad either, because nothing I ever write can be completely bad.”
Publicly Fitzgerald was polite to Wanger, though in private he poured a year and a half’s indignation with the movie industry into Schulberg’s receptive ear. When Schulberg and Fitzgerald, at the end of a rowdy evening, ran into Wanger on the steps of the Hanover Inn, the producer lost patience and fired them. Schulberg accompanied Fitzgerald to New York where Sheilah Graham took over, and then, having made peace with Wanger, Schulberg went back to Dartmouth to complete the film.
Schulberg’s brief association with Fitzgerald was complex and ambivalent. A husky, heavy-featured young man with a soft stammer that enlisted your sympathy, Budd was likeable and seemed usually in some agreement as he listened to you with his head down, toeing imaginary sand. Son of producer B. P. Schulberg, he was celebrity-conscious. He had been used to first-naming movie stars since he was a child, but it was literary celebrities he really looked up to and wanted to be in with. He was therefore flattered to be collaborating with Fitzgerald, the glamorous success of the twenties, whom he would like to have emulated and whom he had supposed dead.
But there was another side to it. Schulberg was an ambitious junior script writer hungry for credits that would push him up the Hollywood ladder. Since Fitzgerald had been assigned to Winter Carnival because Schulberg wasn’t making a go of it alone, there was bound to be a touch of resentment on the part of the younger man. That resentment increased when Schulberg—albeit pained by Fitzgerald’s drinking and patient as it got more and more out of hand—found himself thrust into the role of Fitzgerald’s chaperon and nurse. At bottom Schulberg couldn’t help feeling a little superior to this derelict “genius,” who was not only making a fool of himself but compromising Schulberg’s first big assignment.
Schulberg had already published stories in the national magazines, he was serious about writing, and this appealed to Fitzgerald, who also viewed him as a specimen of the young Marxist intellectual then very much in vogue. Schulberg had spent a summer in Russia, and while editing The Dartmouth Daily had caused a furor by championing a nearby quarry strike. He was thus a window on a generation which, in Fitzgerald’s opinion, confused art with social consciousness. Another interesting thing about Schulberg was his inside knowledge of Hollywood, the setting of the new novel Fitzgerald had in mind. Sensing these arrieres pensees, Schulberg could never be sure how much Fitzgerald liked him and how much he was simply using him as a source and a sounding board. It wasn’t a clear friendship.
Published as Scott Fitzgerald by Andrew Turnbull (New York: Scribners, 1962; London: Bodley Head, 1962).