Now was the time of hospitals, nurses, night sweats, sedatives, and despair. Fitzgerald seemed to be slipping back into the morass of 1935-6. Half-crazed with worry and isolation, he was also ‘ blocked in his work, and “a writer not writing,” he once remarked, “is practically a maniac within himself.”
The previous autumn, when Malibu turned chilly, he had moved to Encino in the milder San Fernando Valley where, at a nominal $200 a month, he had rented a house on the Edward Everett Horton estate. There was a rolling lawn, a picket fence, a rose garden, magnolias, a swimming pool, but surroundings had ceased to mean much to Fitzgerald, who lived in the palace or the prison of his moods and thoughts. He had rightly guessed that after his performance at Dartmouth screen jobs would be more difficult to come by; nevertheless, in March and April he spent several weeks on a Madeleine Carroll-Fred MacMurray vehicle. Of this period he later wrote, “I was going to sleep every night with a gradually increasing dose of chloral—three teaspoonfulls and two pills of nembutol every night and 45 drops of Digitalin to keep the heart working to the next day. Eventually one begins to feel like a character out of the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ “ At the same time he was trying to make gin a substitute for energy, and each week his secretary collected the bottles and disposed of them lest they be noticed in the rubbish.
The end of April, against his better judgment, he took Zelda to Cuba where he wandered into a cockfight and got beaten up for trying to stop it. From Cuba he went to New York where hewas hospitalized, and returning to Encino, he spent the next two months in bed, x-rays having shown a lesion on one of his lungs. He was running a fever, which he dramatized in his letters when he wanted something, but his chief trouble was drink. He drank vindictively, as if he were trying to punish someone—himself, his mother, Zelda, Sheilah, the world—who knows? But still he kept writing, though what he composed might be little more than gibberish. In his worst periods there was always a slim thread pulling him back.
One night his damp pajamas got twisted around him so he couldn’t move his arms, and the doctor, hoping to scare him, pronounced it alcoholic paralysis. After that he took hold, his need for funds being an added spur. Though he had cancelled his debt to Ober, he still owed Scribners $7,000, and his medical expenses had been heavy. Pictures being out of the question because of his health, he began considering the high-priced magazine field where he had once been enthroned. After a two-year layoff he felt he should have some good short stories in him.
The middle of June he wired Ober for a $500 advance against a story he would shortly be mailing. Ober complied but said it would be hard on him and bad for Fitzgerald if they slipped back into the previous indebtedness. A month later, having sent Ober two stories that hadn’t sold, Fitzgerald asked for another advance and Ober refused. Fitzgerald was stunned. It had been Ober’s policy to lend him up to the probable yield of a completed story, and Fitzgerald couldn’t bear the thought that after long association Ober should lose faith in him. “I have been all too hauntingly aware during these months,” he wrote Ober, “of what you did from 1934 to 1937 to keep my head above water after the failure of Tender, Zelda’s third collapse and the long illness. But you have made me sting none the less. … If it is of any interest to you, I haven’t had a drink in two months, but if I was full of champagne I couldn’t be more confused about you than I am now.”
Ober’s affectionate concern for Scottie—he and his wife, Anne, were practically her adopted parents—made a rupture embarrassing, yet it seemed to Fitzgerald that Ober had turned disciplinarian. He wrote Perkins, who tried to heal the breach, that Ober was “a single-tracked man and the feeling that he once had of definite interest combined with forgiveness of my sins, has changed to a sort of general disapproval and a vague sense that I am through—this in spite of the fact that I paid him over ten thousand dollars in commissions in the last year-and-a-half and returned the whole thirteen thousand that I owed him.”
From now on Fitzgerald would be his own literary agent, dealing directly and none too successfully with the magazines. The truth was he had lost his touch for the commercial love story. “I can’t write them convincingly,” he said. “It requires a certain ebullience about inessential and specious matters which I no longer possess.” In August, and again in September, he picked up movie jobs that lasted only a week. “I have been paying the grocer with short pieces for Esquire,” he wrote Zelda, “meanwhile trying to get the detachment from physical and mental worries which is necessary for a good short story…. I have many times wished that my work was of a mechanical sort that could be done or delegated irrespective of morale, for I don’t want or expect happiness for myself—only enough peace to keep us all going.”
It made him wistful to think of his contemporaries moving ahead in various fields. He had recently exchanged letters with John Biggs, now a federal judge. Biggs described his family life, his travels, his satisfaction with his work: in two years on the Third Circuit bench he had written 113 opinions, none of them reversed by the Supreme Court. “I hope you’ll be a better judge than I’ve been a man of letters,” Fitzgerald had replied, conscious that his own reputation had never been lower. It was fashionable now to consider him passe, buried with the foolishness of the twenties. Of his last volume of stories—his best—one reviewer had said, “The children of all ages—from thirteen to thirty— who decorate Fitzgerald’s pages seem as remote today as the Neanderthal man.” Nine of his books were in print, but no one was buying them (his total royalties for 1939 came to a little over $33), and the Modern Library edition of Gatsby would presently be dropped because it didn’t sell. Thinking his name might even be a handicap, he published a piece in Esquire under a pseudonym to see if it improved the reception.
Two years before, when he had noticed in the paper that the Pasadena Playhouse was staging an adaptation of “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz,” he had decided to take Sheilah to the opening and make a celebration of it. He phoned the theater, saying he was the author and asking them to reserve two seats. He rented a chauffeur-driven limousine which seemed more in keeping with the occasion than his second-hand Ford, and he and Sheilah, in evening clothes, dined at the Trocadero beforehand. When they reached the theater, they were surprised to see no one entering. The lobby was deserted, and Fitzgerald thought he might have mistaken the date. He went off to inquire, coming back with the news that the students were giving the play in the upstairs hall. Though dashed, he was trying to be casual.
Upstairs the little hall with fifteen rows of wooden benches was empty too, but just before curtain time a few students came in—then a few women and girls in slacks and skirts. There were perhaps a dozen in the audience. After the performance, which Fitzgerald followed closely and stoutly applauded, he said, “I’m going backstage—it might encourage them to know the author came to see them.” Rejoining Sheilah, he said they were “nice kids—I told them they’d done a good job,” but driving back to Hollywood he was silent and depressed.
Such bitter experience lay back of the games he played with the occasional fan letter that trickled in. He wrote a Chicago dentist who asked for his photograph, “I’m terribly sorry but I haven’t had a picture taken for about twelve years. I think now that I shall wait until it’s time for a death mask because I am in that unattractive middle-aged phase that doesn’t seem safe to record for prosperity. (this is not a misprint).”
A lady who said she was making a study of his life and works got the following reply:
“My dear Miss Feuerherm:—
In regard to your letter about F. Scott Fitzgerald we refer you to the following:
‘F. Scott Fitzgerald: His Youth and Parentage’—C. B. Ansbrucher, Berlin. Privately printed.
‘F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Image and the Man’—by Irene Kammer Thurston, Brentanos, 1937.
‘Fitzgerald As I Knew Him’—J. B. Carstairs. Scribners, 1928.
‘F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Rise of Islam.’ Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1922.
‘The Women Who Knew F. Scott Fitzgerald’—by Marie, Comtesse de Segours. Editions Galentiere, Paris.
I hope that these books will serve your purpose. Sincerely yours, J. P. Carms Secretary”
His pique showed through, however, when Arnold Gingrich’s secretary asked for personalia to accompany a story in Esquire. “Attached is some biographical data,” Fitzgerald replied. “Sorry I have no picture but I may say that out here I am known as the old ‘oomph man.’ So any haberdasher’s advertisement will do as a portrait. Will you tell that so-called Mr. Gingrich that I am accustomed, in my haughty way, to some word of approbation if not ecstasy about my contributions. Bland and chaste as your check was it somehow lacked emotion. However, we are accepting it.”
Fitzgerald felt his rejection keenly. “… to die so completely and unjustly,” he wrote Perkins, “after having given so much. Even now there is little published in American fiction that doesn’t slightly bare my stamp—in a small way I was an original.” He had been pressing Scribners to bring out an omnibus volume of Paradise, Gatsby, and Tender, but Perkins thought they should wait until the past described in those books had acquired a romantic glamour. Meanwhile Fitzgerald’s consolation was his new novel. By October, 1939, he had done what he called “the thinking according to my conscience” and accumulated sixty pages of outline and notes. “Look!” he wrote Scottie. “I have begun to write something that is maybe great, and I’m going to be absorbed in it four to six months. It may not make us a cent, but will pay expenses and it is the first labor of love I’ve undertaken since the first part of ‘Infidelity’… Anyhow I am alive again.” [In the proposed omnibus, This Side of Paradise would appear with a glossary of its inaccuracies and absurdities, The Great Gatsby would be unchanged except for minor corrections in the text, but Fitzgerald had come to feel that Tender Is the Night had failed through faulty construction, that its true beginning—the young psychiatrist in Switzerland—was tucked away in the middle of the book. He therefore planned to revise it (see Tender Is the Night, with the Author’s Final Revisions, Preface by Malcolm Cowley, Scribners, 1951).]
Colliers had thought of serializing it. If they liked the first 15,000 words, they would pay Fitzgerald $30,000 in installments, thus sparing him the necessity of doing hackwork. By the end of November he was so pinched that he sent Colliers the first 6,000 words, hoping for a small advance. When they asked to defer judgment until they had seen more, Fitzgerald sent the manuscript to the Post. “THE COLLIERS BUSINESS WAS WISH FULFILLMENT ANYHOW,” he wired Perkins, “AS I HAVEN’T SEEN A PIECE OF FICTION IN THERE FOR SEVERAL YEARS THAT WOULD SERVE THE PURPOSE OF A SEARS ROEBUCK CATALOG.” But the Post wouldn’t commit themselves either. Meanwhile Perkins read it and said it was “a beautiful start—stirring and new.” He sent Fitzgerald $250 out of his own pocket, adding that he would be able to spare $1,000 by January 1st. Fitzgerald immediately showered Perkins with drafts against the $1,000, until Perkins was obliged to remind him that he had helped all he could for the present.
Perkins’ support had been crucial. Fitzgerald wrote him that he and one other man—Gerald Murphy—had been friends through every dark moment of the past five years (it was Murphy who had lent Fitzgerald the money to send Scottie back to Vassar). Though Fitzgerald had seen the Murphys only a few times since their return to America in 1931, tragedy had deepened their intimacy. The Murphys’ two sons had died, one of spinal meningitis and the other of tuberculosis, and Gerald told Scott that of all their acquaintance he alone seemed to understand what they had been through. “You are the only friend to whom I can tell the blank truth of what I feel, …” wrote Murphy. “I know now that what you said in Tender Is the Night is true. Only the invented part of our life—the unreal part—has had any scheme, any beauty. Life itself has stepped in now and blundered, scarred, and destroyed.”
The Murphys could also appreciate what Scott had been through with Zelda. “I think of her face so often,” Sara wrote, “& so wish it had been drawn (not painted, drawn). It is rather like a young Indian’s face, except for the smouldering eyes. At night, I remember if she was excited, they turned black —& impenetrable—but always full of impatience at—something, the world I think. She wasn’t of it anyhow—not really. I loved her & felt a sympathetic vibration to her violence. But she wasn’t throttled—you musn’t ever think she was—except by herself. She had an inward life & feelings that I don’t suppose any one ever touched—not even you.”
Meanwhile Sheilah was having a time of it. Her base was her Hollywood apartment, but she went to Encino several days a week to be with Fitzgerald. He depended on her, was jealous and possessive, while antagonizing her with his drinking. Once they tussled over a loaded gun, which Fitzgerald kept against prowlers and which she felt he shouldn’t have. When her work took her away from Hollywood, his drinking increased with his loneliness. One night, unable to sleep, he sent for Gay Lloyd Smith, the colored man who worked for him, and he and Gay stayed up till dawn, talking and putting golf balls on the rug.
The drinking grew worse in December after Colliers and the Post declined his manuscript. One evening Sheilah came in to find him entertaining two hobos, whom he had picked up when they were thumbing a ride on Ventura Boulevard. He had asked them to stay for dinner and was offering them some of his clothes, but Sheilah ordered them out of the house. As soon as they were gone, Fitzgerald flew into a rage. He threw a bowl of soup at the wall, he struck Sheilah, he kicked the nurse when she tried to interfere, he danced around the room chanting the name Sheilah was ashamed of, “Lily Sheil! Lily Sheil! Lily Sheil!” He threatened to kill her, but while he was looking for the gun which she had hidden, she called the police.
Sheilah now made up her mind to break with him. When she wouldn’t speak to him on the phone, he sent her threatening notes. “Get out of town, Lily Sheil, or you’ll be dead in 24 hours”—“Leave town or your body will be found in Cold-water Canyon.” One day he slipped into her apartment and took back a silver fox jacket he had given her. It hardened her against him until letters began to arrive in a softer key—then a bouquet of roses—finally a phone call which she answered. When she saw him, he told her he was determined to stop drinking whether she went back to him or not. She went back to him.
“I am not a great man,” Fitzgerald wrote Scottie the spring of 1940, “but sometimes I think the impersonal and objective quality of my talent and the sacrifices of it, in pieces, to preserve its essential value has some sort of epic grandeur.” His talent was his lifeline. He would speak of it with tears in his eyes, and when his sister Annabel had criticized some of his recent work, he had said, “Don’t tell me I can’t write—it’s like telling Cliff he can’t fly.” (Annabel had married a naval aviator, Clifton Sprague, who later commanded the escort carrier group that turned back the Japanese Fleet in the Battle of the Philippine Sea.)
Part of Fitzgerald’s difficulty had been finding a theme, for he was still a romantic at heart, albeit the ash end of one, and he needed a romantic hero. As he said in his notes, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” At last he had found his hero in the legendary producer, Irving Thalberg—the frail, sickly son of an Alsatian-Jewish lace importer who had come to Hollywood in 1919 as the personal secretary of Carl Laemmle, president of Universal Pictures. When Laemmle went East, he left Thalberg behind as his liaison man, so that at the age of twenty Thalberg was assigning actors and directors and giving orders for the making of films as if he were head of a studio. When Fitzgerald met him eight years later, he had rocketed to production chief of MGM with a salary of $400,000. He was small, slender, and finely-made, with long-fingered sensitive hands of which he was proud. With his hair combed in a pompadour and his dark, magnetic eyes and considerate mien, he seemed like some French youth bien eleve, though he was tough underneath. He ruthlessly pursued his goal of making pictures a little better than they had ever been made before, and his passion for creation was wedded to a romantic belief that money would buy anything. A perfectionist, he shot his films over and over, meanwhile taking a hand in every facet of their production. He was a benevolent autocrat who, with few exceptions, deferred to talent and encouraged differences of opinion, thereby winning the loyalty and affection of his subordinates.
Thalberg had dazzled Fitzgerald with “his peculiar charm, his extraordinary good looks, his bountiful success, the tragic end of his great adventure.” Fitzgerald conceded it was Thalberg who “inspired the best part of the character of Monroe Stahr [hero of The Last Tycoon]—though I have put in some things drawn from other men and inevitably much of myself.” Like Fitzgerald, Thalberg had been the gifted child; he was Christ in the Temple, with a scorn for what had been done before and a sure knowledge of how it should be done in the future. He was, moreover, the master of a medium with unprecedented power over men’s minds; Napoleonic in his vigor, he had flourished like Napoleon at a time when it was still possible for one man to keep his hand on all the controls. Fitzgerald saw the struggle at MGM between Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer (the struggle between Stahr and Brady in The Last Tycoon) in terms of art versus money, quality versus quantity, the individualist versus the industrialist. In 1936, when Thalberg died at the age of thirty-seven, he left behind him a void such as Stahr was intended to leave at the end of The Last Tycoon. With Thalberg gone, a wag had said, working at MGM was like going to the Automat.
The novel Fitzgerald hoped to fashion from this material would be concentrated, like Gatsby. On his way to Hollywood the summer of 1937 he had written a friend that his novels had alternated between being selective (Paradise and Gatsby) and blown up (The Beautiful and Damned and Tender). The latter two, he said, might profitably have been cut by one-fourth— “(of course they were cut that much but not enough.) In This Side of Paradise (in a crude way) & in Gatsby I selected the stuff to fit a given planned mood or ‘hauntedness’ or whatever you might call it, rejecting in advance in Gatsby, for instance, all the ordinary material for Long Island, big crooks, adultry theme, and always starting from the small focal point that impressed me—my own meeting with Arnold Rothstien for instance.”
The novel Fitzgerald had in mind would be tragic. As far back as 1920, when he was giddy with success, he had written the president of Princeton that “my view of life, President Hibben, is the view of [the] Theodore Driesers and the Joseph Conrads—that life is too strong and remorseless for the sons of men.” He was being a little dramatic perhaps, but experience had confirmed this opinion, so that in 1940 he would tell Scottie of “the thing that lies behind all great careers, from Shakespeare’s to Abraham Lincoln’s, and as far back as there are books to read —the sense that life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat, and that the redeeming things are not ‘happiness and pleasure’ but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle.”
Finally, his novel would say something fundamental about America, that fairy tale among nations. Fitzgerald saw our history as a great pageant and romance. “I look out at it,” he said, “—and I think it is the most beautiful history in the world. It is the history of me and of my people. And if I came here yesterday like Sheilah I should still think so. It is the history of all aspiration—not just the American dream but the human dream and if I came at the end of it that too is a place in the line of the pioneers.” [Fitzgerald would have agreed with Bernard de Voto’s view of American history, as expressed in a letter to Catherine Drinker Bowen: “Sure you’re romantic about American history. What your detractor left out of account was the fact that it is the most romantic of all histories. It began in myth and has developed through centuries of fairy stories. Whatever the time is in America it is always, at every moment, the mad and wayward hour when the prince is finding the little foot that alone fits into the slipper of glass. It is a little bard to know what romantic means to those who use the word umbrageously. But if the mad, impossible voyage of Columbus or Cartier or La Salle or Coronado or John Ledyard is not romantic, if the stars did not dance in the sky when our Constitutional Convention met, if Atlantis has any landscape stranger or the other side of the moon any lights or colors or shapes more unearthly than the customary homespun of Lincoln and the morning coat of Jackson, well, I don’t know what romance is. Ours is a story mad with the impossible, it is by chaos out of dream, it began as dream and it has continued as dream down to the last headlines you read in a newspaper. And of our dream there are two things above all others to be said, that only madmen could have dreamed them or would have dared to—and that we have shown a considerable faculty for making them come true. The simplest truth you can ever write about our history will be charged and surcharged with romanticism, and if you are afraid of the word you better start practising seriously on your fiddle.”]
Monroe Stahr is the end product of this race of pioneers. “Is this all America amounts to?” he seems to be saying, and though the answer is “Yes,” he views his world with compassion.
For a long time Fitzgerald had looked younger than his years, but lately he had looked older. He seemed washed out, drained of vital energy, and his fine face, paling and losing some of its definition, had taken on an ascetic cast. There was a grayness about him, a dust of the attic, and a woman who met him now for the first time remarked that she had never seen a man with such dead hair. But his eyes were still alight in the tired body— whether soft and pliant with sympathy or summing you up with a hard, objectifying stare. Fitzgerald had lost little of his quick, absorptive interest in people and their doings.
He was just as courteous, too, in his attractively old-fashioned way, and he dressed with the same Brooks Brothers propriety, with even a touch of elegance; “I have an idea he was careful about ties,” a friend of this period recalls. Yet he seemed transplanted, immaterial, archaic. He would ask questions about celebrities of the twenties as if they were still in the news, and much of the time he was cold and huddling—a psychic as well as a physical state. One evening at Encino, when he and Edwin Justus Mayer wandered out in the garden after dinner, Fitzgerald excused himself—to get a drink, Mayer thought—but he reappeared wearing a hat and coat, although there wasn’t a trace of chill in the air. The gesture sent a chill through Mayer.
Fitzgerald played on his failure a little. One felt it in a gentle condescension he had, an exquisite consideration of others. Around Hollywood most people didn’t know who he was, though if he were pointed out, there might be a flicker of interest at his once illustrious name. He was still someone in his own eyes, however. He had an essential dignity that wouldn’t let you patronize or intrude. If you asked him whether he needed money, or if you sympathized about Zelda when he hadn’t brought the subject up, he put you in your place.
Having learned the lessons of success and the deeper ones of failure, he spoke with new authority. Whatever he may have been at the start, he was now the least superficial of men. He had not only grown up, he had grown way beyond the “maturity” most people achieve in a safe, conventional existence, as any reader of his last letters to Scottie cannot fail to notice. Schooled by suffering—some self-inflicted, some not—he had attained a knowledge of himself and of the human condition that may truly be described as tragic.
Since Tender Is the Night he had pondered the art of the novel, while following the work of his contemporaries, and though he admired Faulkner, Thornton Wilder, and Erskine Caldwell, he still considered Wolfe and Hemingway the foremost contenders, their connection with Max Perkins perhaps having something to do with it. Enthusiastic as he had been about Wolfe’s first novel, he was critical of “the gawky and profuse way” Wolfe handled his material in the second one. “Tom’s genius is gigantic, tremendous, immense in its prolific scope,” he had told Laura Guthrie, “but he’ll have to learn to cut down, choose, condense.” Fitzgerald wrote Perkins that Wolfe with his “infinite power of delicacy and suggestion” had no right to “glut people on whole meals of caviar.” A further shortcoming was a self-absorption which stood in the way of his understanding others. “… the lyrical value of Eugene Gant’s love affair with the universe—is that going to last through a whole saga?” Fitzgerald asked Perkins. “God, I wish he could discipline himself and really plan a novel.”
Such had been Fitzgerald’s “case” when he wrote Wolfe the summer of 1937. Fitzgerald told Wolfe he should cultivate the alter ego of a more conscious artist; the higher one’s emotional pitch, the more it needed to be rarefied and controlled and thrown into relief. Flaubert in a novel of selected incident had left out the things which Zola presently came along and said, with the result that Madame Bovary was eternal while Zola already rocked with age. Wolfe fired back that Tristram Shandy was a great novel for an entirely different reason, “because it boils and pours—for the unselected quality of its selection.” Great writers, he said, were “putter-inners” as well as “leaver-outers,” and Shakespeare, Cervantes and Dostoevski would be remembered for what they put in as long as Flaubert would be remembered for what he left out.
It was a temperamental difference that nothing could bridge, just as the crystalline density of Fitzgerald’s best work lies atthe opposite pole from Wolfe’s loose, shambling eloquence. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald respected Wolfe’s “rich mind,” his verbal felicity, his strength of emotion (“though a lot of it is maudlin and inaccurate”), and the few times he had criticized Wolfe in conversation he had felt badly afterwards “for putting sharp weapons in the hands of his inferiors.” When Wolfe sickened and died in the fall of 1938, Fitzgerald wrote Perkins of “that great, pulsing, vital frame quiet at last. There is a great hush after him—perhaps even more than after the death of Ring who had been moribund so long…. The more valuable parts of Tom were the more lyrical parts or rather those moments when his lyricism was best combined with his powers of observation—those fine blends such as the trip up the Hudson in Of Time and the River.”
As for the other master—Hemingway—Fitzgerald had caught a glimpse of him shortly after reaching Hollywood the summer of 1937. Hemingway had come out with a documentary of the Spanish Civil War for which he had written the narration, and Fitzgerald accompanied Lillian Hellman to a private showing at the home of Frederic March. Driving her there in his 1934 Ford coupe (he drove so slowly nowadays that people honked at him), Fitzgerald poured out the story of his break with Hemingway. With the air of a small boy put upon by an older one, he said he didn’t want to see Ernest or speak to him.
He needn’t have worried. That evening Hemingway was engrossed in his own affairs. Vigorously expansive, he grew angry at one point and dashed his glass in the fireplace. When he passed the hat for the Loyalist cause, movie stars began making out thousand-dollar checks, and Fitzgerald felt very much excluded. Later, he wrote Perkins that Hemingway had come through “like a whirlwind” and put Lubitsch, the great director, in his place by refusing to have his picture remade a la Hollywood. “I feel he was in a state of nervous tensity,” said Fitzgerald, “that there was something almost religious about it.” When Perkins wrote back describing some bad publicity Hemingway had gotten as the result of a scrap with Max Eastman in the Scribners office, Fitzgerald replied, “He [Hemingway] is living at present in a world so entirely his own that it is impossible to help him even if I felt close to him at the moment which I don’t. I like him so much, though, that I wince when anything happens to him, and I feel rather personally ashamed that it has been possible for imbeciles to dig at him and hurt him.”
Nevertheless, Fitzgerald had begun to notice cracks in the once impregnable facade. After “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” incident he had said that Hemingway “is quite as nervously broken down as I am but it manifests itself in different ways. His inclination is towards megalomania and mine toward melancholy.” In Fitzgerald’s opinion, Hemingway was still rebelling against having been made to take cello lessons when growing up in Oak Park, Illinois. Fitzgerald also doubted whether one could write artistically about experience sought for the sake of writing about it, which Hemingway’s experience had tended more and more to be. For Whom the Bell Tolls seemed to Fitzgerald a cut below Hemingway’s best. He called it “Ernest’s Tale of Two Cities though the comparison isn’t apt. I mean it is a thoroughly superficial book which has all the profundity of Rebecca.” It hadn’t the “tensity or the freshness [or] the inspired poetic moments [of A Farewell to Arms]. But I imagine it would please the average type of reader, the mind who used to enjoy Sinclair Lewis, more than anything he has written. It is full of a lot of rounded adventures on the Huckelberry Finn order and of course it is highly intelligent and literate like everything he does.” Of the book’s commercial success, Fitzgerald was patently jealous and said so in a letter to Hemingway. A Book-of-the-Month-Club selection, it had been sold to the movies for upwards of $100,000. “Rather a long cry from his poor rooms over the saw mill in Paris,” Fitzgerald wrote Zelda. “… Do you remember how superior he used to be about mere sales?”
And yet, in the last analysis, Fitzgerald hesitated to stand in judgment on Hemingway who, like some force of nature, was a law unto himself. Familiar with his background, Fitzgerald understood how certain of his quirks and demons had been the result of circumstances, and Hemingway, the Byronic hero, would always magnetize Fitzgerald, who alluded to him far more than any other contemporary. “People like Ernest and me were very sensitive once,” he wrote at this time, “and saw so much that it agonized us to give pain. People like Ernest and me loved to make people very happy, caring desperately about their happiness. And then people like Ernest and me had reactions and punished people for being stupid, etc. etc. People like Ernest and me—.”
Right up to the end Fitzgerald peppered his letters to Perkins with questions about Ernest: where was he?—what was he doing?—how did he feel about the war? And Hemingway, for all his condescension, sent Fitzgerald a copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls inscribed, “To Scott with affection and esteem.” “It’s a fine novel, better than anybody else writing could do,” Fitzgerald wrote back, and signed himself “With Old Affection.”
Among the notes for The Last Tycoon there is the following: “This novel is for two people—S.F. [Scottie] at seventeen and E.W. [Edmund Wilson] at forty-five. It must please them both.” If there had been a coolness between Wilson and Fitzgerald, they were drawing closer at the end. For one thing Wilson, disillusioned with Stalinism, was emerging from his Marxist political phase and addressing himself once more to contemporary fiction, and for another, the new Fitzgerald, humbled and sobered, was somewhat easier for Wilson to take than the high-riding irresponsible of the twenties. The fall of 1938 Fitzgerald and Sheilah had spent a night at Wilson’s home in Stamford, Connecticut, where he was living with his recent bride, Mary McCarthy. Wilson, with middle age, had taken on a brisk corpulence, a burgher-like solidity, and the domed forehead beneath his thinning auburn hair gave him somewhat the aspect of a judge. Rather like a sixth-former at the feet of his headmaster, Fitzgerald had listened while Wilson—with a brown, weighing seriousness of the eye, an occasional challenging glare —held forth on Kafka and other topics that interested him. In conversation he didn’t skip about like Fitzgerald but pursued one theme until he had exhausted it. Afterwards, Fitzgerald wrote Wilson that the evening “meant more to me than it could possibly have meant to you,” and Wilson replied that Fitzgerald mustn’t spend the rest of his life in Hollywood—“Everybody is waiting for your later period to begin.”
The ties between them had remained, as they were in the beginning, primarily literary. The man who blue-penciled Fitzgerald’s first efforts for the Nassau Lit was still a mentor. Fitzgerald equated Wilson’s approval with literary immortality, for Wilson was a critic in the great tradition of a soul adventuring among masterpieces, and his judgments were backed by a wide, humane, negotiable learning. Wilson, on his side, had been interested in Fitzgerald as a writer whom he had helped to launch and in a way develop, by urging him towards hardness, objectivity, and a classic sense of form. Wilson had been impressed with Fitzgerald’s growth, but if his pronouncements showed a sense of Fitzgerald’s importance as an artist, they scarcely concealed an annoyance, a kind of superciliousness towards the man and his romantic legend.
Indeed Wilson and Fitzgerald were so different that it is surprising they got along as well as they did. Wilson had found his vocation at fifteen, when he happened on Taine’s History of English Literature in his father’s library and became absorbed in the chapters on the poets and novelists he was then reading. His approach had remained to a large extent Tainean: tell me a man’s background and origins and I’ll tell you what he is and can do: tel arbre, tel fruit. Wilson’s strength lay in logical analysis, in his ability to reason a problem through to plausible conclusions. He was a master of the literary case or argument, marshaling his evidence with the cogency of a legal brief and pushing his point across in persuasive, common-sense prose. Fitzgerald’s mind and sensibility ran counter—towards the imaginative, the intuitive, the evocative, the inconsistent, the magical, even the mystical. He was a natural poet as Wilson was a natural critic. [As a critic Wilson is often compared to Sainte-Beuve— an apt comparison in many ways, although Wilson has been kinder and juster to his contemporaries than was Sainte-Beuve.]
And yet in each there was a grain of the other which went a long way toward explaining their compatibility. While basically not a student or an intellectual, Fitzgerald had been growing in that direction, and he envied Wilson the superb assurance of a mind that had always done its homework, so to speak. In a different way Fitzgerald had gotten under Wilson’s skin, for Wilson had a wistful romantic side—his impulse to satirize Fitzgerald’s romanticism springing from a disposition towards it. As a young man Wilson used to speak of his own Byronic trait, which no one else seemed aware of, and he had been in love with Edna St. Vincent Millay—one romantic lead on the stage of the twenties as Fitzgerald was the other. Wilson, in the beginning, had wanted to be a poet or a novelist or a dramatist, but while Fitzgerald was gallivanting around Princeton sopping up impressions and atmosphere, Wilson had been closeted with his books. The living scene had never been quite as real to him as the printed page on which he could bring his full intelligence to bear. Compared to Fitzgerald, he saw life a little coldly on the one hand and on the other a little indirectly through the veil of what he had read. [A few years previous Fitzgerald had judged his own formal learning as follows: “How I Would Grade My Knowledge at 40—Literature & Attendant Arts, B + ; History & Biography, B+; Philosophy, B—; Psychiatry, C; Military Tactics & Strategy, D+; Languages, D; Architecture, D; Art, D; Marxian Economics, D. Everything else way below educated average including all science, natural history, ect. ect., music, politics, business, handicrafts—save for some specialized sport knowledge—boxing, football, women, etc.” Concerning Wilson’s novel, I Thought of Daisy, which Scribners had published in 1929, Fitzgerald wrote Perkins, “Sorry Bunny’s book didn’t go—I thought it was fine, & more interesting than better or at least more achieved novels.”]
He was withal an admirable and in some ways an affecting character. His lofty impatience, the snappish Dr. Johnson side he showed the world, covered a vein of kindness, loyalty, sympathy, and chivalry. As a lonely little boy he had learned conjuring tricks, and he was almost his best when putting on a performance for the neighborhood children. His integrity, his refusal to be swayed by mere popular opinion, had been an object lesson to Fitzgerald. The sensitive, diffident youth, who had bucked Philistinism at Princeton, had remained true to something in himself through the intellectual cross-currents of two decades. If he had achieved less than he hoped, he had aimed high, trying his hand at every sort of literary production like a good eighteenth-century man of letters. He had a conscience, too, and when Fitzgerald died—when the difficult personality fell away from the monument of his work—Wilson immediately felt that Fitzgerald’s contemporaries had done him less than justice. For all their divergences, Wilson and Fitzgerald had been born under the same star, they had blossomed in the same spring. “I have felt Scott’s death very much,” Wilson wrote Bishop, “—men who start out writing together write for one another more than they realize till somebody dies.”
Of the Princeton group, it was Bishop who understood Fitzgerald best and responded most deeply to his tragedy. When Fitzgerald was writing Tender Is the Night at La Paix, he had named Bishop his literary executor, should anything happen to him before the novel was finished. In a sense Bishop, too, had fallen short of his early promise. He had spent long periods rusticating abroad and his life now had a pastel quality. Recently he had offended Fitzgerald with an essay in The Virginia Quarterly. “[Bishop] reproached me with being a suck around the rich,” Fitzgerald wrote Wilson. “I’ve had this before but nobody seems able to name these rich. I always thought my progress had been in the other direction—Tommy Hitchcock and the two Murphys are not a long list of rich friends for one who, unlike John, grew up among nothing else.…” [In 1957 Edmund Wilson wrote me of his relationship with Fitzgerald, “In a sense, we were not very close. I was ahead of him at college, and from the time he went to live in Europe, I hardly ever saw him.” At John Peale Bishop’s funeral Wilson remarked to Bishop’s sister, “John was Scott’s great friend—I wasn’t.”]
But Bishop had seen into Fitzgerald’s heart and anguish, and in his requiem for Fitzgerald he wrote:
I have lived with you the hour of your humiliation.
I have seen you turn upon the others in the night
And of sad self-loathing
Heard you cry: I am lost. But you are lower!
And you had the right.
The damned do not so own to their damnation.
Because of the summer heat in Encino—also to economize and be near Sheilah on whom he depended more and more— Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood in April 1940. At $110 a month he rented an apartment a block from hers, and they shared the same maid and dined at each other’s places on alternate nights. His only regular income came from Esquire for which he was doing the Pat Hobby stories—Hobby being a studio hack and a heel, about whom it was a consolation to write since his plight was always a little worse than Fitzgerald’s. Luckily, an independent producer named Lester Cowan, having bought the rights to “Babylon Revisited,” now paid Fitzgerald $5,000 to do a script. Fitzgerald exulted in the work. Not only was “Babylon Revisited” a favorite among his stories, it was about a man who gets a second chance. It was also about Scottie, one place where he felt he hadn’t failed.
He wrote Zelda that Scottie was “an awfully good girl in the broad fundamentals.” True, they squabbled when they were together for any length of time, as during her visits to Hollywood the past two summers, and he had to keep reminding her of their meager finances (“Have paid Peck & Peck & Peck & Peck & Peck”). But for years she had been the lift in his life as he dragged himself towards uncongenial tasks, and through her career at Vassar he was reliving Princeton. Like him, she had enjoyed her first term so much that she went on probation. Like him, she wanted to write, and he was advising her as best he could in some of the most profound and moving letters he ever wrote. When she sold an essay to Mademoiselle in June, 1939, he was jubilant until he read it. Scottie had criticized his generation for its lack of character and responsibility, and he rebuked her for “riding on my shoulder and beating me over the head with a wooden spoon.” A few months later she redeemed herself by selling a sketch to The New Yorker. She also wrote and produced a musical comedy and founded a club called the OMGIM (Oh My God Its Monday) to perpetuate the idea— “almost the same thing that Tarkington did in 1893 when he founded the Triangle at Princeton,” crowed Fitzgerald. But immediately he was cautioning her not to waste her energies on amateur theatricals as he had. He was more concerned that she develop a literary style and hammered home the importance of poetry, “the most concentrated form of style…. Anybody that can’t read modern English prose by themselves is subnormal—and you know it. … The only sensible course for you at this moment is the one on English Poetry—Blake to Keats (English 241).”
Fitzgerald had been eager for Scottie to make her Baltimore debut “just in case”—he never said in case of what—and he continually fretted over her summer plans. When she suggested New England summer stock, he wrote her, “Honey, I might as well turn you over to the white slavers and do a thorough job of it.” The Vassar Employment Bureau was no solution either. “It would mean (quite selfishly) a worry for me, for I would have to come East and investigate the job. And though I appreciate the remorse and the intensity of purpose that inspired your five-and-dime suggestion, I assure you that Barbara Hutton is not going to let a rival in there. She kind of feels she owns it you know.” He was adamant that Scottie finish college before getting married, and then—while business seemed to absorb most of the attractive and energetic boys—he hoped life would throw her among lawyers or those going into politics or big-time journalism, as they led rather larger lives. But fundamentally all he cared was that she shouldn’t marry someone who was “too much a part of the crowd.”
The “Babylon Revisited” script, though it wasn’t produced, helped Fitzgerald’s standing with the studios, and in September he successfully adapted an Emlyn Williams play for Darryl Zanuck. He knew in his heart, however, that he would never belong in Hollywood. The movies in their present state seemed to him “nothing more nor less than an industry to manufacture children’s wet goods,” and he was constantly fighting producers about the way pictures ought to be done. As for Hollywood itself, he called it “a dump … A hideous town, pointed up by the insulting gardens of its rich, full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement.” “It is,” he wrote Gerald Murphy, “… such a slack soft place—even its pleasures lacking the fierceness and excitement of Provence—that withdrawal is practically a condition of safety.… Except for the stage-struck young girls people come here for negative reasons—all gold rushes are essentially negative—and the young girls soon join the vicious circle.… Everywhere there is, after a moment, either corruption or indifference.” [Beneath Fitzgerald’s rivalries and differences with the writers of his generation was a fundamental loyalty, a sense of common struggle, and no doubt he was thinking primarily of them when he rounded off an essay the summer of 1940: “Well—many are dead, and some I have quarrelled with and shall never see again. But I have never loved any men as well as these who felt the first springs when I did, and saw death ahead, and were reprieved—and who now walk the long stormy summer step in step with me. If my generation was ever lost it certainly found itself. It is staunch by nature, sophisticated by fact—and rather deeply wise. And this tragic year, so like another year, I keep thinking of a line of Willa Cather’s—’We possessed together the precious, the incommunicable past.’” (“My Generation,” unpublished)]
But if Fitzgerald had failed in his ambition to conquer Hollywood, he wasn’t going to let Hollywood drag him down. Engrossed in his novel, he wrote Scottie that he wished he had never relaxed or looked back but had said to himself after Gatsby: “I’ve found my line—from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty—without this I am nothing.” He and Sheilah were each living in quiet seclusion. They shopped together in the supermarkets along Sunset Boulevard and lingered in Schwab’s drugstore over magazines and malted milks. Sometimes they went to a preview in the evening, but mostly they stayed at home, reading and listening to music. Fitzgerald was helping her with a series of liberal arts courses he had mapped out for her—his version of what a college education should be. The war was an excitement; far from making everything seem unimportant Fitzgerald said it had created in him “a rebirth of kinetic impulses.” He had prophesied the quick extinction of Britain, followed by Americans fighting Germans in the swamps of Brazil, but Sheilah said he didn’t know the British, and he had to agree with her after the evacuation of Dunkirk. He had flashes of his old gaiety; inside the man there was still a boy who talked in football metaphor and danced an occasional jig. He and Sheilah were happier than they had ever been together, though sometimes, when she came on him unawares, she couldn’t help noticing his lines of sadness and oppression. [Fitzgerald’s inability to get along with producers is made still clearer by an anecdote which a Hollywood columnist printed the summer of 1938. Fitzgerald was dining at a producer’s house and the conversation had been restricted to motion pictures. Finally the producer said, “But I’m talking too much shop and you aren’t interested in my opinions on the movies.” “On the contrary,” Fitzgerald replied, “I’m not interested in your opinions on anything else.”]
His life was a fragmented thing: the novel; the paid labor for the movies and Esquire; Sheilah; the old sunken Eastern ties; Scottie and Zelda, with always the shadow of Zelda’s illness. Fitzgerald had written of “the voices fainter and fainter— How is Zelda, how is Zelda—tell us—how is Zelda” She was well enough to visit her mother in Montgomery without a nurse, and he corresponded with her more than he ever had. But reading her letters to Sheilah, he would pause and say, “You see, they don’t quite add up—they’re a little out of focus.” “How strange,” he wrote Scottie, “to have failed as a social creature— even criminals do not fail that way—they are the law’s ‘Loyal Opposition,’ so to speak. But the insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers carrying around broken decalogues that they cannot read.”
Ashen and frail, subject to recurring coughs and fevers, Fitzgerald was best off in his apartment where the wall was covered with charts, as it had been for Tender Is the Night, showing the movements of his characters and their histories. He wrote Zelda that it would be “a constructed novel like Gatsby, with passages of poetic prose when it fits the action, but no ruminations or sideshows like Tender. Everything must contribute to the dramatic movement.” He remarked how odd it was that his talent for the short story should have vanished. “It was partly that times changed, editors changed, but part of it was tied up somehow with you and me—the happy ending.” On November 2nd he wrote that the novel was “hard as pulling teeth but that is because it is in its early character-planting phase. I feel people so less intently than I did once that this is harder. It means welding together hundreds of stray impressions and incidents to form the fabric of entire personalities.” He spoke of “digging it out of myself like uranium—one ounce to the cubic ton of rejected ideas. It is a novel a la Flaubert without ‘ideas’ but only people moved singly and in mass through what I hope are authentic moods.”
Since Dartmouth, Fitzgerald had been slightly in touch with Budd Schulberg who by now had finished a first novel, What Makes Sammy Run? Fitzgerald was never one to underrate competition. When he heard that Schulberg was also writing about Hollywood, he was concerned—though in another way he wished Schulberg well and hoped his book would be good. When he read it, however, he laid it aside with a little half-smile, saying the novel on Hollywood had yet to be written. It wasn’t the exaltation he got from a piece of writing he really admired. “Bud Schulberg, a very nice, clever kid out here is publishing a Hollywood novel with Random House in January,” Fitzgerald wrote Perkins. “It’s not bad but it doesn’t cut into my material at all.” Ever generous and encouraging to tyros, he was only too glad to send Schulberg’s publisher a complimentary letter to be used as a blurb. But in his notebook he put, “Bud, the untalented.” [Sheilah Graham and Fitzgerald’s secretary, Frances Kroll, gave me almost identical accounts of his reaction to What Makes Sammy Run?]
The French have a saying that the sword wears out its sheath. There are spirits whose intensity erodes the flesh. Fitzgerald’s first prophetic title for The Beautiful and Damned had been The Flight of the Rocket, and the rocket was coming to earth. He was a more delicate, complex transmitter than he had ever been, but the signal was growing faint. Whether The Last Tycoon would have been his best novel we cannot know, but does it matter? The important thing was Fitzgerald’s belief in his work and in himself … against great odds … and after long apostasy. The quality of a life can be more impressive than art.
One afternoon toward the end of November he went out to the drugstore and came back trembling. Easing himself into a chair, he lit a cigarette carefully before answering Sheilah’s question. “I almost fainted in Schwab’s,” he said. “Everything started to fade.” Sheilah thought it was probably hypochondria, but next day a cardiogram showed he had had a heart attack. The doctor told him he must stay in bed six weeks, and to avoid climbing stairs he moved into Sheilah’s ground-floor apartment. Writing Proust-like on a desk fitted to his bed, he seemed in good spirits. “Francoise,” he would joke about his devoted secretary, Frances Kroll, “is asking for the day off to atone for my sins.” If he felt the end was near, he didn’t show it, though it may have been now that he scribbled the lines
There was a flutter from the wings of God and you lay dead.
Your books were in your desk
I guess & some unfinished chaos in your head
Was dumped to nothing by the great janitress of destinies.
The evening of December 20th, after conquering a difficult scene, he decided to celebrate by accompanying Sheilah to a preview. When they rose to leave the theater, she saw him stumble and grip the arm of his seat. In a low, strained voice he told her everything had started to go. It was the same sensation he had had in the drugstore a few weeks earlier, and when she gave him her arm, he didn’t push it away as he had on previous occasions.
The outside air revived him, and next day he was cheerful, talking with satisfaction of Scottie and of his progress on the book, which was more than half done. The doctor was coming to see him that afternoon. Sitting in an armchair after lunch, he was eating a chocolate bar and making notes on next year’s football team in a Princeton Alumni Weekly, when suddenly he stood up as if jerked by a wire, clutched the mantelpiece, and fell down with his eyes closed, gasping for breath. It was over in a moment.
Fitzgerald had wanted to be buried with his family in the Catholic cemetery in Rockville, but since he had died a non-believer the Bishop raised objections, and he was buried in the Union Cemetery not far away. The simple service specified in his will was held December 27th. It was a meaningless occasion, having no apparent connection with the man, save as one of life’s grim jokes designed to make us think. It was the sort of envoi a great dramatist might attach to the end of a play. In the airless hall and communicating rooms of the funeral parlor were a few spindly poinsettias, while here and there a cheap print of a winter scene or an autumnal forest decorated the walls. The casket was open, and the suave funeral director ushered us up to it. All the lines of living had gone from Fitzgerald’s face. It was smooth, rouged, almost pretty—more like a mannequin’s than a man’s. His clothes suggested a shop window. The waxen hands were crossed.
We sat on stiff chairs in the overlit room as friends and relations arrived in twos and threes—the Murphys, the Perkinses, the Obers, Cousin Ceci and her daughters, Ludlow Fowler, John Biggs, Zelda’s brother-in-law Newman Smith—twenty or thirty in all. At the last, there was a flurry of boys and girls— Scottie’s friends on their way to or from some party—who seemed to have dropped their gaiety on the other side of the door. The coffin was closed. The roll of a carpet sweeper was heard gathering stray leaves and petals, and then the voice of the clergyman droning the Protestant burial. It was as if nothing were being said of him or to him that the heart could hear.
Afterwards, we drove to the cemetery in the rain, and when the casket had been covered, my mother laid some pine branches from La Paix over the red earth.
“He was,” wrote Zelda after Scott’s death, “as spiritually generous a soul as ever was. … In retrospect it seems as if he was always planning happiness for Scottie and for me. Books to read—places to go. Life seemed so promising always when he was around … Although we weren’t close any more, Scott was the best friend a person could have to me …”
“Maybe he wanted his rest: come unto me all ye that labour and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.”
When The Last Tycoon appeared, Zelda said it made her want to live again; it differed from so much contemporary literature that reveled in the futility of human destiny till there seemed nothing worth doing “save the publishing of volumes establishing the uselessness of having written them.” Zelda rejoiced over Scottie’s marriage in 1943 and the birth of her first grandchild. Living most of the time with her mother in Montgomery, she tried courageously to find a little happiness between the attacks of her incurable malady. She painted and tended her flowers. “Down here,” she wrote a friend, “the little garden blows remotely poetic under the voluptes of late spring skies. I have a cage of doves who sing & woo the elements and die.” Sometimes she walked the streets in a long black dress and a floppy black hat with an open Bible before her and her lips moving, and once she told an acquaintance that she was riding the streetcar to the end of the line just for something to do. [I had a last glimpse of Zelda the winter of 1943 when she was visiting Scottie in New York and the three of us went to see Oklahoma!] The fall of 1947 she wrote her sister, “I have not been well. I have tried so hard and prayed so earnestly and faithfully asking God to help me, I cannot understand why He leaves me in suffering.” As she always did when she felt herself slipping, she went back to Asheville. She had grown to love the mountain country and the regime of the sanitarium restored her. Early in March the doctor said she was well enough to go home, but she decided to stay on a little longer to make sure. The night of March 11th, the main building of the Highland Hospital caught fire, and Zelda was one of seven patients trapped on the top floor. In those flames she died her second death and was buried in Rockville beside Scott, where she belonged.
Published as Scott Fitzgerald by Andrew Turnbull (New York: Scribners, 1962; London: Bodley Head, 1962).