Under several layers of not so fresh paint on the second-floor walls of the third entry of Princeton’s Little Hall, the literary sleuth might still be able to come upon some rather interesting hieroglyphics, dating back to the autumn of 1915. They were addressed to the Freshman occupant of Number 34 and their author was the Junior occupant of Number 32. The rooms faced each other across a dead-end hall. Number 32 looked out on the imposing neo-Gothic campus, spreading easterly below Blair Arch down towards the gym and flaunting its “romantic battlements, with their spires and gargoyles.” From Number 34 there was a rather uninspiring view of the spur railroad and toy station which, in spite of the intermittent chug-chug, kept Princeton a quiet backwater, very definitely off the beaten tracks of what we called the “Pennsy,” and without the cacophonies of New Haven and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Freshman (Class of 1919) who tried to decipher these scrawls was myself. The upperclassman (Class of 1917) who defaced the murky walls night after night was a kinetic, wavy-haired young man whose full name was Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald. The messages usually read; “Dale Warren wake me up at 7 sharp” or “D.W. don’t forget to wake me” or “Don’t let me miss my 8 o’clock.” At first they concluded with a “(Signed) F. S. F.,” then with a mere “S.” Then there was no signature at all. The scribbles were anywhere from two to six inches high with total disregard for alignment, and were often superimposed on one another. It may have been because fluorescent lighting was still a post-war dream, but I doubt it.
When one wall got used up he began on the other, but by that time I had taken my assignment as routine. My procedure was to shake and yank the prostrate figure on the bed, sometimes applying a wet towel, and after that to begin a search for socks, shoes and other articles that were scattered all over. He would pull on something while I would help him pull on something else. A razor was an unnecessary hurdle. Then we would somehow get downstairs, out into the fresh air, hopefully to go our separate ways. Gradually I learned that my charge had come to Princeton by way of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Newman School, that his athletic ambitions had soon been squelched—the cult of the campus athlete was still in its heyday—but that he was now a “Big Man” in more refined circles; he was a leading light in the Triangle Club, and had been elected to the editorial board of the Tiger. He was a member of Cottage Club. I also learned that he had missed class so often that he was close to the maximum number of cuts allowed, that his academic standing was precarious, that he had forfeited his chance to participate in the extracurricular activities by which he set such store. He was definitely a “status seeker”—but he worked for it.
It was for me to discover for myself that Mr. Fitzgerald “slept heavy.” Occasionally I was conscious of his stumbling down the corridor when he came in, or dropping his pencil. His few hours’ sleep seldom refreshed him, and I began to suspect that the morning haze might well be due to a beery night-before at the “Nass,” Princeton’s nearest equivalent to a den of iniquity. Once or twice I found him lying fully or partly clothed on top of the rumpled bedspread. One morning when he was not there at all I assumed that he was out-of-town, but later learned through the grapevine that he had spent the small hours of the night on the dewy grass somewhere out behind the Peacock Inn.
Number 32, Scott’s room for a brief tenure, was the usual conglomeration of miscellaneous and probably second-hand furniture, such a boon to undergraduates in an era when taste and any pretense to elegance was considered somewhat effete. A Morris chair and undoubtedly a few “mission” pieces. For all I remember there may have been a Maxfield Parrish on the walls and a banner or two, but certainly not the array of pin-up girls of today. The only recollection I have of the decor of Number 34, my own room for two years, is of a strong Elbert Hubbard note, highlighted by a grotesquely embellished reproduction of Kipling’s “If” which I had had framed and hung over my desk. I doubt very much if there was a companion piece across the hall.
For all its convention and casual disarray, Number 32 differed in certain respects from the typical student’s room. There were very adult books that I had never heard of, and that were certainly not curricular reading. There were papers of various sorts and shapes and sizes with writing on them, piled on the desk and chairs, even mixed up with the socks and shoes and crumpled pajamas on the floor. The wastebasket overflowed. Obviously when other students were reading their history assignments or plugging away at calculus, he was experimenting with Triangle lyrics, working over a skit for the Tiger or a piece for the more highbrow Lit. There was no sign of the battered typewriter, now a must for the would-be writer. Otherwise I might have been more aware of what was going on. That these nocturnal literary binges were not all confined to collegiate concerns the future was clearly to show. The playboy and the serious artist were pulling in different directions in an attempt at some sort of embryonic fusion. The word now would probably be schizophrenia.
I remember a day in the ramshackle offices of the Daily Princetonian, for which I was a candidate, or heeler as we said, when one of the editors, Alec McKaig, blew in flourishing a sheaf of glossies of a breath-taking siren, and asked us to name her. One said Marilyn Miller, another Justine Johnstone, a third Ann Pennington. We were all wrong. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald photographed as a chorus girl to publicize the upcoming Triangle Show. Ironically, although he had written most of it, he had been declared ineligible to take part or to go on the coveted Christmas trip.
Disappointment, discouragement, overindulgence, late hours with pencil and paper, and increased worry over his academic standing all ganged up and in November landed him in the infirmary, knowing that he would have to repeat his Junior year. To save face, always important to him, he voluntarily “withdrew” until the following fall, and went home to St. Paul to recuperate and lick far too many wounds. Of the months which followed, actually his first “crack-up,” his biographers, Mizener and Turnbull, have written with understanding and sympathy. Suddenly the occupant of Number 32 was no more. The sincere if effusive thanks I received always seemed to be far out of proportion to the mundane services rendered. I had seen Shelley plain—very plain indeed.
I was never a close friend of Scott’s either during that term or later. We seldom, either here or in Europe, seemed to be in the same place at the same time. We did, however, have many mutual friends—my own classmates, Henry Strater, Robert Cresswell, David Bruce, Herbert Agar, Cecil Read, Francis Comstock, and Lansing Holden, and upperclassmen Charlie Arrott, Henry Chapin, Alec McKaig, Paul Dickey, Sap Donahoe, and principally the urbane and exuberant West Virginian, John Peale Bishop. Of the sagacious Edmund Wilson I was scared to death—and still am —although I somehow brought myself to call him Bunny. With Scott I shared great respect and affection for the wise and perceptive Christian Gauss, then Professor, later Dean, who stood almost alone among faculty members in sensing something rather special in this unruly but gifted student. We were also mutual friends of Struthers Burt, a real live author who was then making his home in the Town.
Scott’s return the next fall was to a Princeton that had vaguely grown more sober, more adult. Undergraduates thought increasingly about the War, though they may not have discussed it apprehensively during the midnight bicker sessions. Even if its age- of-innocence was drawing to a close, Princeton was still a rather happy combination of ivory tower and homogeneous small-town, with Revolutionary history behind it and almost a Southern tradition. Leafy McCosh Walk, the cheery, muddy spring on Bayard Lane, informal Sunday night suppers at some professorial fireside. Automobiles appeared principally on the days of the big football games. There were a handful of retired residents with sylvan estates, but few regular commuters who ate leisurely breakfasts in comfortable dining-cars. The Town had as distinct an appeal as the Gown. To many the idea of a good time was a stroll with a congenial companion along the banks of the old canal. “Joe's’’ held its own with the “Nass,” and did a big business in milk and bacon buns as curfew nightcaps. Rumor to the contrary, an occasional tea-dance at the Plaza or the sedate Club de Vingt, foxtrotting with a flapper from Dobbs, Westover or Farmington, collected from “under the clock at the Biltmore,” generally held more allure than a raucous evening at Bustanoby’s or Reisenweber’s. Trenton seemed very far away and not very interesting. Students went around the campus humming “Poor Butterfly” or whistling the livelier “Tres Moutarde.” “Love Sends a Little Gift of Roses” was guaranteed to raise the temperature, whereas our idea of a daring couplet was:
The things that Olga Petrova knows
Won’t pass the censored shows.
It was the era of “One lump Percy, Percy the Parlor-Snake,” as one of the Triangle lyrics had it. Soon it was all to change, but to live on in memory. “To this day whenever I pass the Plaza,” notes Morley Callaghan, “Scott comes into my head.” And he is not alone.
Our friends kept dropping out one by one to join some branch of the Armed Services. Many were never to come back “to the best old place of all”—or anywhere. Campus drilling began to take the place of sports, even of classes. Most of us found our four years beneath the elms split down the middle. Accepted values were being questioned and one aspect of this wakening idealism showed itself in the anti-club rebellion. Scott was sympathetic with the motives of several of the leaders, although he was firmly entrenched in Cottage, where the flash and dash and dazzle had quite logically drawn him. If some of the members were guilty of “running it out,” they were pretty “good eggs” just the same. He sometimes said he might have been more at home in “literary Quadrangle,” as he characterized it, to which John Bishop, Alec McKaig, Townsend Martin and others of his writing friends belonged, and which rather boasted of its non-conformity, the only club with a “distinctly intellectual flavor.” A popular Quad member, Ludlow Fowler, was to be best man at his wedding. When I later joined Quadrangle, the clubhouse was closed for the duration and the members were enjoying the hospitality of Cottage, which was considerable. They even went so far as to set before us fresh breakfast scrapple which miraculously appeared from Philadelphia every Tuesday. Likewise, the New York Princeton Club had moved in with the Yale Club, and Scott took advantage of the opportunity to observe Yale men at close quarters.
But by this time Scott was in the service, for which he had conscientiously prepared, and only came down to Princeton when he had a brief leave. In his uniform he looked every inch an officer, a contrast indeed to the “chorus girl” pictures of two years before. Much has been made of his effeminate appearance, but feminine would be closer to the mark, as it was with John Barrymore of the striking and quite similar profile. He was blond, pale, sallow, and often looked “washed-out,” but with it all went a buoyancy and tensile strength. An agile and adroit parlor-snake if there ever was one, but yet something more.
If Scott’s amorous interests were centered on the fabulous Ginevra King while he was an undergraduate, it was Zelda Sayre, the Alabama belle, who became Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, in April 1920. The week-end houseparties held each spring by the various Princeton Clubs were coming up, and the Fitzgeralds were, rather inadvisedly, asked to “chaperon” the affair at Cottage. Although I had graduated and Quadrangle, soon to be graced by the genial presence of Adlai Stevenson, was again functioning, the doors of Cottage were still open to us, and it was a night to remember. The Jazz Age had arrived and so had Prohibition, complete with flasks. This was the only time I ever saw Zelda, and I would have eagerly urged her to “save me the waltz,” if I had thought I had any chance.
The story—although I cannot vouch for it—soon circulated to the effect that the bride and groom allowed each other a certain leeway in the matter of necking, an expression which alternated rather casually with petting. The deal was that each “chaperon” was allowed freedom to neck, but that the scores had to be kept even. There were antics and escapades and more of the same, which were subsequently responsible for Scott’s suspension from the Club. For the Fitzgeralds it added up to a sad occasion, presaging even sadder things to come.
Those little scraps of paper I had encountered floating around 32 Little Hall had paid off, but only after blood, sweat, many tears, and rejection slips. Zelda had made a point of not marrying him until they had, as she also wanted to go places—eventually to her regret. This Side of Paradise had not only been finished but actually published a month before, and the University Store could not keep it in stock. “Amory Blaine” was on everyone’s lips. We had also tracked down John Bishop and Hank Strater, Bunny Wilson and Ginevra. Who was this Professor? Who was that vamp (read glamor girl)? Were you on that party? Is he really being fair about So-and-So? It was all great fun and all very exciting, to be reading history when you had seen it in the making and were, or thought you were, a part of it. The legend had begun, and the man was one with it.
Was this a true picture of Princeton and our times, or wasn’t it? The debate went on and on. I tried my hand at an appraisal, or rebuttal, sometime later, and wrote a piece in answer to an article of Scott’s which appeared in College Humor. All I remember is the opening: “Scott Fitzgerald calls Princeton the pleasantest Country Club in America. Of course it is.” I then went on to try to explain, in a heavy-footed manner, that it was many more things besides.
Time passed. One morning, sometime in the middle Twenties, I was starting to cross Fifth Avenue at 48th Street, and there was Scott.
He said: “Let’s go into Huyler’s and have an ice-cream soda.” I followed him and in we went. The last thing in the world I wanted at eleven o’clock in the morning was a chocolate ice-cream soda but, any port in a storm, and I followed along. We sat together up on two stools, and he gave the order. He wanted a cigarette and I gave him one. Refusing a light, he laid it on the counter. He asked me what I was doing and I told him looking for a job. He said he had just come out of Scribner’s and suggested that I go and see the editor, Max Perkins. I answered that I knew Max Perkins as he had lived in Plainfield where I grew up, that I had been in to see him (as well as Whitney Darrow) and had been very politely turned down.
At this point he slid off the stool and made for the door: “Well, it’s been nice seeing you. If you would like a letter to Max Perkins just let me know.” Later, I learned that he had extended the same helping hand, with memorable results, to four literary friends, Thomas Boyd, Ring Lardner, Morley Callaghan, and Ernest Hemingway. When I started to follow him, the soda-jerk called: “Who pays for the sodas?” Returning, I said: “I guess I do, and I hope you enjoy both of them.” I gave him the change, retrieved the unlighted cigarette, and departed, wondering just where do we go from here.
It was the last time I ever saw Scott, although reports reached me from time to time from John Bishop who often deserted his home on Cape Cod and his neighbor, Bunny Wilson, for a day or two in Boston. I had a rather intimate glimpse of his earlier Holly- wood period through Dorothy Speare who was out there working on “One Night of Love” for Grace Moore, and seeing a good deal of her old “rival.” About her undergraduate days at Smith she had written the revealing and slightly shocking Dancers in the Dark which had stamped her as the “female Fitzgerald.”
Sometime after our Huyler’s reunion, I found myself in Boston working for Houghton Mifflin—where I have greatly enjoyed my association with Bunny Wilson’s daughter Rosalind, who scares me not at all. In 1934 we published Phyllis Bottome's Private Worlds which topped the best-seller list, a record soon equalled by her Mortal Storm. It dealt with psychiatry, a subject quite new to fiction (and was considered extremely “daring” when produced on the screen by Walter Wanger), as did Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night which appeared the same season. In our weekly newssheet I sent out a release stressing the coincidence and adding: “Whereas Mr. Fitzgerald leaves this subject until the concluding chapters of his novel, Miss Bottome introduces it on the very first page.”
Thereupon a telegram was dropped on my desk. It read:
HATE QUIBBLING IN NARROW TIMES BUT YOUR NEWS CARRIES IMPLICATION THAT BOTTOME GIVES FULL LOAF TO MY HALF LOAF ABOUT PSYCHIATRY STOP ITS FAIR TO CAPITALIZE RESEMBLANCE BUT SINCE YOU MADE MISSTATEMENT IN USING WORDS QUOTE CONCLUDING CHAPTERS UNQUOTE FEEL YOU SHOULD AMEND IN NEXT ISSUE
F. SCOTT FITZGERALD
I answered it as tactfully as possible and had an immediate reply:
My God! My God! I didn't think when I made all that fuss about nothing that I was digging at an old Princetonian. Forget it and forgive me…
With best wishes and hoping to see you soon.
It was not until some days afterwards that I reread the telegram, and happened to note that it was filed at AM 5:02.
“In a really dark night of the soul,” Scott wrote at one time, “it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” Apparently it was not much lighter two hours later. The telegram had come from Baltimore at a time when he and Zelda were both under gruelling strain and stress. This was my last direct connection with F. S. F. It underscored my earlier impressions of his sense of loyalty, likewise observed and recorded by others, somewhat collegiate if you wish, but wholly in character.
One of the most recent footnotes, a revealing and lengthy one, to the Fitzgerald saga is That Summer in Parts by Morley Callaghan, and I got my copy the day it was published. Opening it at random, I came abruptly upon these words of Scott’s: “Dear Morley, I apologize immeasurably for having sent you that stupid and hasty telegram.” They gave much the same feeling that I have whenever I happen to pass the Plaza.
Published in The Princeton University Library Chronicle magazine (Volume XXV, Number 2, Winter 1964).