Fitzgerald at the End
by Midge Decter

“Yes,” objected Amory, “but isn’t it lack of willpower to let my imagination shinny on the wrong side?”
This Side of Paradise.

In 1938, so the story is often told, when Walter Wanger assigned the young Budd Schulberg to collaborate with F. Scott Fitzgerald on a script for a movie about Dartmouth, Schulberg said, “Fitzgerald—I thought he was dead.” So too, apparently, had the group of drama students who produced “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz” in a small room above the Pasadena Playhouse in 1939 and who were nonplussed and embarrassed to receive a backstage visit from Fitzgerald—in full evening dress—on opening night. It was not so much that Fitzgerald had disappeared—he was publishing a little in those days, though by his former standards very little; and after all Tender Is the Night had come out only in 1934. It was that by some kind of unspoken consensus Fitzgerald was labeled “Finished” and put away. Perhaps at the time there was a deep public courtesy involved in thinking him dead, for his life, which neither he nor anyone else had ever succeeded in separating from his work, had become an ugly spectacle, marked by illness and Zelda’s insanity and alcohol and failure. The man—like the “Age” he had been saddled with representing, like the American Dream itself—had finally collapsed. He was violently and often viciously drunk much of the time. He was in debt, apparently unable to work. And in 1936, when to do such a thing was taken to be a clear sign of “selling out,” he went off to Hollywood to make some money and learn how to write successful movies. He himself had publicly announced his collapse in three articles in Esquire (“The Crack-Dp,” “Handle With Care,” “Pasting It Together”). The articles were of course in their very nature a lie: true, they were the exploration of their author’s feeling of personal ruin, his “spiritual bankruptcy,” but they were also among the strongest and most trenchant products of a writer still capable of first-rate work.

When in 1940 Fitzgerald did die, he left behind six chapters of a novel and voluminous notes for its completion. He left behind, too, a feeling, and one that has persisted through the last eighteen years of posthumous publication and reams of serious criticism and acclaim, that some special redress of a wrong is due him. Or if “redress” and “wrong” are loo emphatic, that some kind of subtle imbalance in the world’s view of Fitzgerald must be set right. At the end of his biography Arthur Mizener says,

Like Gatsby… Fitzgerald loved reputation, the public acknowledgement of genuine achievement, with the impersonal magnanimity of a Renaissance prince. He lived, finally, to give that chaos in his head shape in his books and to see the knowledge that he had done so reflected back to him from the world. He died believing he had failed. Now we know better, and it is one of the final ironies of Fitzgerald’s career that he did not live to enjoy our knowledge.

That “now we know better,” written ten years after Fitzgerald’s death and at the end of a painstaking biography, strikes the curious personal note of apology—not so much for Fitzgerald as to him—that sounds so often in the writing about him.

Now Sheilah Graham, who lived with Fitzgerald during his last four years, has written her autobiography and the section about their life together is also a moving personal defense of him.

Sheilah Graham was sent to Hollywood by the North American Newspaper Alliance to take over its syndicated movie gossip column. Before coming to America from London, she had held many posts in a rather stunning career of imposture and social climbing: born Lily Sheil in London’s East End and raised in an orphanage, with no education, no experience and a bad accent, by her late twenties she had managed to marry respectably, to make something of a success on the musical comedy stage, to be presented at court, to crash the society of the English country aristocracy, and finally to get in some semi-professional experience as a newspaper feature-writer. Beloved Infidel is unfortunately one of those autobiographical memoirs written in collaboration with Gerold Frank, in which all the author’s real feelings, ideas, and responses to what has happened in life are buried beneath the most irritating narrative style ever invented. Everything in the book is reduced to an event coming at Miss Graham from the outside; her own part in it gets squeezed into a few handy mass-magazine formulas (“This was wonderful. This was the answer to everything” or “Even now, I wonder, who looked after me?”)—so that the reader is left begging for a little relief from the specter of those wide-open baby-blue eyes. Nevertheless, merely from Sheilah Graham’s story itself, and from the reconstruction all its flatly-told facts make inevitable, one can understand something of what must have been, what must be, the quality of this remarkable woman. There is, for instance, the fact that at each crucial moment of her life some man was waiting, and always just the man needed, to give her the protection and the training for the next audacious push of her ambition—the acme of which, I suppose, was reached in a proposal of marriage from the Marquess of Done-gall, who has one of the oldest peerages in Britain. She was pretty; she was absolutely devoted to the climb: but these are somehow not enough to account for her astonishing career. Beyond them what she clearly had was grace, some Midas touch of the personality. However, what makes her most remarkable of all is that, with her gift of grace and given her lower-class romance about the rich and her totally expedient morality, she did not stop with the British aristocracy, the Marquess of Donegall, her fantasy of having children called the Earl of Belfast and the Lady Wendy of Chichester. She went on to an American newspaper career and to Fitzgerald. She never makes clear what prompted her to this last seemingly unaccountable step. She says she went to America looking for “love,” but love is something no more easily to be found in New York than in London, and her street sense must have told her so even if her romantic literary ego no longer does. She describes a very unpretty scene between Randolph Churchill and Charlie Chaplin at a posh London restaurant in which Churchill was over-beating and arrogant and Chaplin was obsequious, and talks of her own shock at discovering that even genius must bow to the blood. Years earlier, as a hungry young girl strolling down Piccadilly night after night, money and titles had seemed the best the world could offer. But when she got access to them, she wanted something better, something by whose terms Charlie Chaplin did not have to be patronized nor she to be a liar. And when she met Fitzgerald in Hollywood, she was able to decide almost immediately that he was what she wanted. She had never known anyone like Fitzgerald—writers and literary intellectuals during her brief stay in New York had intimidated her—but her infallible instinct must have seized on what even by the time she sat down to do this book she could only express indirectly and cumulatively: that with Fitzgerald she had come to the very best.

Fitzgerald educated her. He would prepare detailed reading lists for her, discuss her assignments when she had read them; they listened to music, read criticism, and they called it the “F. Scott Fitzgerald College of One.” If there is something embarrassing and pathetic in the way she talks about her studies (“I thought, suddenly, I will not be in this position again. They discuss Franz Kafka and T. S. Eliot and Wallenstein and Richelieu and the Thirty Years’ War and I sit on the outside, looking in.”) and about the reading lists themselves, there is also something new and striking in such a picture of Fitzgerald: the man who with Edmund Wilson and other friends seemed humbly to accept his role as intellectual inferior, whose spelling was a public joke, had with delight and great energy taken on the role of “intellectual conscience” to someone else. And so much of what Miss Graham presents of Fitzgerald comes at us this way. She found him all by herself. She hadn’t known who he was; she hadn’t read his books. For her there were no staled or hackneyed public images, no old history, coming between them. This is why she can make us see the things his friends and Mr. Mizener could only refer to in writing about him: his wit, his charm, his astonishing profligacy of spirit, and his self-hatred. Even his drunks, which had until this book become distant and legendary—one or them already the subject of a famous novel and play—are made real; meaner, nastier, more shocking, perhaps, than it had become necessary to think—but for the first time the real behavior of a real man. The F. Scott Fitzgerald Miss Graham found because she looked for herself and because she had the proper need of him was a strong man. He educated her; he gave her values.

The final twist about the Fitzgerald we see through Sheilah Graham’s eyes is that for her he had become the exponent of the values he embodied as a creative artist—he who had seemed so helpless to come to terms with them himself.

Perhaps nobody’s values nave been subjected to the kind of critical scrutiny Fitzgerald’s have. Virtually everything he wrote raises in the minds of his readers the question of his own relation to the moral and spiritual emptiness of the ethos he so poignantly chronicles. Does he stand inside or outside the terms by which his characters judge the world and on account of which they are doomed? It would take only a small failure of imagination, only a minute but essential shutting off of sympathy, to find Fitzgerald’s life doomed as are the lives of his characters, and for something like the same reason: not because he seemed so much to dignify their illusions but because the illusions he dignified were so cheap.

Like Sheilah Graham, Fitzgerald had done a great deal of traveling to get to the Hollywood where they met. If her journey can be described as one straight up. then his was one clown through the bottom and out the other side. Both of them had displayed great courage, but hers, of the nervy kind, risked only not succeeding; he had risked failure. In order to be something it was impossible for him to be—what he called “an entire man in the Goethe-Byron-Shaw tradition, with an opulent American touch”—he had handicapped himself and his thick, easy, generous talent at every turn, and in the end probably only left one book and a few stories that will outlast the radical social changes of the next few decades. The “entire man” he dreamed of was a man always to be remembered as much for what he was as for what he did, in whom it would be impossible to distinguish the boundary between personality and achievement, a “figure.” But Fizgerald was born into a world in which everyone begins as a figure. In St. Paul the confusion between personality and achievement, though on another level, comes easy. You do not attain it. you fall victim to it. In a place like the snowy, red-cheeked, robust, self-made world of “The Ice Palace” and “Winter Dreams,” what you do is the public definition of what you are; the exclusive and exhaustive one. And the problem, if you do something so indefinable and subversive of order as write, is not to impose a public image but precisely to protect your private personality from the exactions of an image foisted on you, as it we’re, almost at birth. Under the circumstances, Fitzgerald did not have to become the embodiment of the Jazz Age, or anything else—without some great effort he could not have avoided it. In seeking the old unity of life and art, what he achieved was an immensely fertile but almost fatally cosily confusion of experience with the meaning of experience, of identification with empathy. He became someone for whom there was neither escape from innocence nor retreat from consciousness.

That he kept the cost from being fatal, that he made his self-conscious innocence work for him, is after all only an ambiguous victory. Nevertheless, it is a victory, and one to which we owe a unique, irreplaceable record of what Americans come from and what they must all get through in order to grow up. In some ways the purest product of Fitzgerald’s special gift for tossing experience at you still raw and just unwrapped from the nerves is This Side of Paradise. Certainly the book is a chaos, an adolescent riot of literary mismatched limbs, changing voice and sexual incompetence. However, it is wild and profuse not only because Fitzgerald was then a totally undisciplined writer but also because the novel itself so perfectly achieves an identification with the disorganizing and unmanageable predicament of Amory Blaine. Amory’s predicament often seems like child’s-play, but Fitzgerald’s keen inside sense of it, his respect for its urgency, cuts through the triviality of its specific content and makes us see it for what it really is: an expression of the great American conflict between a meanness of culture and a grandeur of pretension—the struggle between the coarseness of attitude that gives Americans so much will to deal with the world and the faint, delicate image of beauty that is to be the object of that will.

This Side of Paradise lacks even the pretense of a plot, and the fact that is it not plotted derives from a conscious refusal on Fitzgerald’s part to have it so. He does not know what must become of Amory and therefore cannot make what happens to him fit into some pattern of becoming. “I know myself—but that is all!” is Amory’s last cry—and it is Fitzgerald’s cry too. Nor does he really plot the later novels (of course, and always, excepting Gatsby). Anthony Patch and Dick Diver get older; their lives themselves have taken on more form, and therefore the books do. Fitzgerald is able to take these characters farther—he takes them, in fact, up to the point of dissolution. But he does not really either get beyond them in time and look back nor outside them and look in. He is never recreating life but only making a progress report on it.

With Gatsby something different happened. Gatsby is not a character in Fitzgerald’s sense, not a life in the process of unfolding. Gatsby is an idea. In writing the book Fitzgerald was clearly seized by a vision, a pure distillation of his relation to something large and abstract—to America—and at the end of this vision there was Gatsby’s corpse floating in the pool. The corpse, the abstraction, gave, him the freedom he never sought or took elsewhere to direct all the movement that led to it.

Tender Is the Night, then, is Fitzgerald’s last progress report on his odyssey into figuredom. The report is a bad one. Dick Diver is finished, and finished in a way seemingly prophetic for Fitzgerald: he is no longer useful to those it had become the meaning of his life to serve. The year Tender Is the Night came out, Fitzgerald and Zelda published a little piece (“Auction—Model 1934”) taking inventory of the acquisitions of their life together. They unpack their household goods and find themselves left with a heap of attic-bound junk, the bric-a-brac of former good times and enthusiasms and wastefulness. The article is written in a tone rather lyric and tender, but the inventory has the finality of a last counting. They end by saying: “We shall keep it all—the tangible remnant of the four hundred thousand we made from hard words and spent with easy ones these fifteen years. And the collection, after all, is just about as valuable now as the Polish and Peruvian bonds of our thriftier friends.”

There is no human stance so attractive as the refusal to be thrifty. To the Midwestern boy Fitzgerald was for such a long time, using up with easy words what had been earned with hard ones became a point of self-respect. More than that, it must have seemed the only possiblity for purging himself of the littleness, the spirit of husbandry, bred so inescapably in the struggle of his forebears to make some permanent mark on the wide, shifting middle reaches of a vast continent. Surely in his projected ideal triumvirate of the “entire man,” it was the force of Byron that Fitzgerald felt most keenly. And like Byron he was to write one book out of the wisdom that comes with knowing the self has given all it had to give and that therefore it need give nothing: The Last Tycoon is his Don Juan.

If the collection of stuff that in only a few years came to be relics of an ancient and dead past was no more worthless than the Polish and Peruvian bonds of the prudent, unlike the bonds it had to be paid for twice. It was yet to present Fitzgerald with a bill in the form of a terrible crisis of spirit. Fitzgerald was to be forty years old and totally unable to write—he who had sometimes knocked out stories in a matter of hours—before his romantic conscience could decide he had paid enough and was now permitted to muster the thrift to save himself. The Last Tycoon and the Pat Hobby stories, written during the time with Sheilah Graham, signal his capitulation—or if you will his advance—to a new role. He was now to be that most intensely partial, un-“entire” of men, an artist.

He was ashamed of the new demands he felt obliged to make and spoke of them with heavy irony: “And if you were dying of starvation outside my window, I would go out quickly and give you the smile and the voice (if no longer the hand) and stick around till somebody raised a nickel to phone for the ambulance, that is if I thought there would be any copy in it for me. I have now at last become a writer only.” To Sheilah Graham he spoke of his demands not at all. But though the best of the times they had together were often idyllic, often gay, though Fitzgerald was tender and infinitely sympathetic, what she says makes it clear that happiness for him then was work.

The Last Tycoon finished might have turned out to be his best novel or his worst, but it would have been a novel different in kind from all the others. The completed chapters and notes are written by a Fitzgerald who had finally settled for the wisdom that can come this side of paradise and for the comforts of the traditional relations between a novelist and his society: the one not taking meaning from, but giving meaning to, the other.

Published in Partisan Review magazine XXVI (Spring 1959), pp. 303-312. Text scanned from F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Collection of Criticism, ed. by Kenneth Eble (New York: Mcgraw-Hill, 1973).