F. Scott Fitzgerald
by Kenneth Eble

Chapter 6
“The Carnival by the Sea”

“When the primary objects of love and money could be taken for granted and a shaky eminence had lost its fascination,” Fitzgerald wrote at the conclusion of “Early Success,” “I had fair years to waste, years that I can't honestly regret, in seeking the eternal Carnival by the Sea.” From May, 1924, to December, 1931, the Fitzgeralds spent five years abroad—two extended periods of over two years each, and one summer in between in the year 1928. The events of these years are not happy ones to recount. For despite the indisputable fact that the French Riviera is one of the beautiful spots on earth, the years the Fitzgeralds spent there are marked with ugliness, sterility, and finally insanity. They were, for Fitzgerald, years which left him desolated in the 1930's and made much of his later life an attempt to put back together in any serviceable form an existence that had once gone glittering.

Aside from the publication of The Great Gatsby and the work that went into it, the incident of most literary consequence during his first stay abroad was his meeting with Ernest Hemingway. Their friendship was not without strain, but it was a lasting one. Fitzgerald called Hemingway his “artistic conscience,” and the two exchanged conversations and letters about their work throughout the 1920s and 1930's. Initially, Fitzgerald was the established writer giving a hand up to a young unknown. Hardly five years later, Fitzgerald was looking at himself as a spent talent, while Hemingway's Farewell to Arms was selling ninety-three thousand copies the first year.

Fitzgerald may have known of Hemingway's work before he went abroad in 1924; certainly he heard of him during the months he was bringing The Great Gatsby into publication. He wrote Edmund Wilson shortly after the novel was published that he had looked up Hemingway, who was taking him to see GertrudeStein. During that summer of 1925, he was seeing a good deal of him in Paris. Almost from the beginning of their acquaintance, he began trying, sometimes with Hemingway's knowledge, sometimes without, to get Hemingway recognized. Glenway Wescott recalled in 1941 how Fitzgerald had taken him aside in this earlier time and had discussed ways of getting “the one true genius” of the 1920's recognized. Fitzgerald's strong personal interest found its way into an article, “How to Waste Material,” published in The Bookman in May, 1926.

The essay began as an attack on the dominant literary compulsion of the 1920's: to write “significantly” about America. By that route Fitzgerald arrived at a discerning review of Hemingway's In Our Time (1925) as the book of an author who had profited from recent American fiction's “dismal record of high hope and stale failure.” He singled out “Big Two-Hearted River” as one of the best contemporary short stories. Only Gertrude Stein's “Melanctha,” Lardner's “Golden Honeymoon,” and Anderson's “The Egg” had impressed him as much. “I read it with the most breathless unwilling interest I have experienced since Conrad first bent my reluctant eyes upon the sea.”

His judgment of other stories in the Hemingway collection is sound; his observations accurate. “My Old Man” is singled out as the least successful story, partly because “there is an echo of Anderson's way of thinking in those sentimental 'horse stories,' which inaugurated his respectability and also his decline four years ago.” He notices the way Nick's feelings illuminate the stories, the absence of exposition without a loss of impact, the power of the interpolated sketches. He concludes by saying, “many of us … have felt a sort of renewal of excitement at these stories wherein Ernest Hemingway turns a corner into the street.”

Fitzgerald was instrumental in convincing Hemingway to go with Scribner's, for he put Hemingway into correspondence with Maxwell Perkins. He shared with Hemingway the feeling toward Sherwood Anderson which provoked Torrents of Spring, the parody of Anderson which freed Hemingway from his contract with Boni and Liveright. When Hemingway did sign with Scribner's, it was partly because, as he wrote to Fitzgerald, “I would like to be lined up with you.”

In August, 1925, when Hemingway visited the Fitzgeralds on the Riviera, he brought with him a copy of The Sun Also Rises. He later revised the novel as a result of Fitzgerald's criticisms. At the same time, Fitzgerald told Hemingway something of hisplans for his next novel, “The World's Fair.” Their exchanges in the years following range from peevish responses to imagined injuries to broad joking about each other's work. The decline of their close relationship in the later 1920's and 1930's may have been due to Fitzgerald's feeling which he once recorded: “I talk with the authority of failure—Ernest speaks with the authority of success.” “With Ernest,” he wrote to Edmund Wilson in 1933, “I seem to have reached a state where when we drink together I half bait, half truckle to him.”

The fault, however, was far from being Fitzgerald's alone. However insulting he may have been in conversation, Fitzgerald never abused him publicly as Hemingway was to do in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” where the has-been writer is not only F. Scott Fitzgerald in fact, but in name, in that story's original appearance in Esquire. Their friendship did not break completely as a result of the story, but only perhaps because it had been gradually thinning out in the late 1920's and early 1930's.

Hemingway was only one of a great many artistic people the Fitzgeralds came to know in the last half of the 1920's. Like other members of the international set, they shifted residences from Paris to the Riviera, but they made staying on the Riviera in the off-season one of their distinctions. During their first stay, they went as far south as Rome and Capri. During their last, they found themselves in Switzerland where Zelda was treated after her first major breakdown. Most of the time was spent between Cannes and Nice, the scene described with such evocative power in the beginning of Tender Is the Night and in Zelda Fitzgerald's novel, Save Me the Waltz. In many ways, Zelda's volatile, undisciplined prose creates the most striking impression of these years abroad.

As with most other experiences of Fitzgerald's life, the events of these years found their way into fiction and nonfiction. The Post article (1924) “How to Live on Practically Nothing a Year” is faithful to the first trip abroad and their stay in the “hot, sweet south of France” in the off-season. “The Rough Crossing,” another Post story (1929), describes their third trip. “Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Number —,” by both Scott and Zelda, in Esquire (1934), is a kaleidoscope of all the years up to 1934—just as “Auction—Model 1934” describes their lives through the accumulations of their past travels. From 1926 to 1934, a great number of stories and articles were created out of one incident or another from their trips abroad.

“There was no one at Antibes this summer,” Fitzgerald wrote John Peale Bishop in 1925, “except me, Zelda, the Valentinos, the Murphy's, Mistinguet, Rex Ingram, Dos Passos, Alice Terry, the MacLeishes, Charles Bracket, Maude Kahn, Esther Murphy, Marguerite Namara, E. Phillips Openheim, Marines the violinist, Floyd Dell, Max and Chrystal Eastman, ex-Premier Orlando, Etienne de Beaumont—just a real place to rough it and escape from all the world.” The list is representative, not inclusive. In a short story, “One Trip Abroad,” Fitzgerald describes the kinds of people Nicole and Nelson Kelly went with during their years abroad:

The first crowd they had known was largely American, salted with Europeans; the second was largely European, peppered with Americans. This latter crowd was 'society,' and here and there it touched the ultimate milieu, made up of individuals of high position, of great fortune, very occasionally of genius, and always of power.

“One could get away with more on the summer Riviera,” he wrote in “Echoes of the Jazz Age” (1931), “and whatever happened seemed to have something to do with art.”

The many anecdotes that emerge from these years have several things in common. Almost all involve the alcoholic haze which hung over much of the rest of Fitzgerald's life. Almost as many involve one or both of them in basically destructive acts or desires. Some are carelessly self-destructive, as their driving their car onto a railroad trestle and going to sleep; others are a courting of purposeless violence, as their threats of sawing a waiter in half. Many disclose an antagonism between the Fitzgeralds which was never so much jealousy as an intense rivalry over their respective talents, ambitions, daring, and imagination. Ominously for a writer, very few of these anecdotes had much to do with Fitzgerald's work, though many found their way into his fiction.

Zelda Fitzgerald's passion to dance was the first certain sign of her mental disorder, though such diverse observers as Ernest Hemingway and Rebecca West had called her “crazy” as early as 1924-25. Fitzgerald later said that he had noticed signs of her coming breakdown in 1927. In October of that year she mentioned to Carl Van Vechten that she had joined the Philadelphia Ballet. Her desire not merely to study ballet but to becomea professional dancer—she was twenty-eight—became increasingly obsessive from that year on.

First in America, then in Europe, her single-minded devotion to an impossible goal must have rubbed Fitzgerald's own conscience raw. His inability to finish a novel, to work without drinking, and to drink without remembering the work he was neglecting, was nakedly exposed by Zelda Fitzgerald's intense application. Thus, while she danced, he managed what they had of a domestic establishment, felt himself slipping into the thirties still identified with This Side of Paradise, and became increasingly truculent and abusive and incapable of gaining control. “Thirty-two years old,” he wrote in his Ledger for 1928, “and sore as hell about it.” An additional notation was heavily underscored: “OMINOUS. No Real Progress in ANY way & wrecked myself with dozens of people.” The entries for 1928 bear out the caption: “June—Carried home from the Ritz; July-Drinking and general unpleasantness—first trip jail; August-second trip jail—general carelessness and boredom.”

Fantastic as Zelda Fitzgerald's ambition was, her dancing career went far enough to give her some hope of a professional engagement. In Save Me the Waltz, Alabama Knight makes her professional debut—a successful one—in Rome, but at the same time she incurs a foot infection which closes her career. In Zelda Fitzgerald's life, her dancing career ended in a complete nervous collapse in April, 1930. The specialists at Montreux, Switzerland, where Fitzgerald took her in the summer of 1930, diagnosed her case as schizophrenia. From that time on, she was never able to resume her old life for long; and, from then on, she was Scott Fitzgerald's almost constant care.

During the years abroad, which read like a flutter of travel brochures—Paris, Sorrento, Capri, the Pyrenees, Aries, Algiers, Lausanne, Munich—the Fitzgeralds made three stays in America before returning permanently. The second trip back brought Fitzgerald to Hollywood. In January, 1927, when he was asked to do a college story for Constance Talmadge, he turned out a competent script, a mixture of fantasy and romance, which was never produced. The experience was typical of other frustrating attempts to employ his craft for the movies. While in Hollywood, he met Mary Pickford, John Barrymore, Richard Barthelmess, Lois Moran (who became Rosemary Hoyt in Tender Is the Night), and other celebrities; and the life of parties, drinking, and playing pranks went on much as it had done abroad.

Of more importance than the two months spent in Hollywood was the acquiring of a home called Ellerslie outside Wilmington, Delaware. Much of the writing he did during these years was done at Ellerslie either during the first period of residence through 1927 until spring 1928 or during the following winter when the Fitzgeralds came back after a summer abroad. Their lives had evidently slid too far into disorder to be greatly affected by the comparative tranquility of a suburban home. Quarrels were frequent, visitors plentiful, and writing fitfully done and often discouraging. By the time their two-year lease ended in the spring of 1929, Fitzgerald had convinced himself he could not work at Ellerslie and left for Europe again. The third trip to America Scott made alone when his father died in January, 1931, in Rockville, Maryland. Zelda was in the sanitarium and Scottie was left in Paris with a governess.

When he returned, Zelda was sufficiently recovered to travel, and the trips they took to Annecy, Munich, Vienna were, accord-to Zelda, “like the good gone times when we still believed in summer hotels and the philosophies of popular songs. Another night we danced a Wiener waltz, and just simply swep' around.” Fitzgerald, too, seemed to have felt the charm of this period. He called the “nine months before her second breakdown”—the summer in Europe, the fall with Zelda in Montgomery and Scott in Hollywood—the happiest of their lives.

In September, 1931, they sailed for America, leaving Europe permanently behind. Judge Sayre died shortly after their return, and Zelda Fitzgerald's second breakdown came at the end of January, 1932. That spring Fitzgerald moved to Baltimore where Zelda had been receiving treatment. They moved into a large house on the Bayard Turnbull estate, where they were to live until the beginning of 1934. His address, as he noted in a letter to Edmund Wilson shortly after they got settled, was “La Paix (My God!).”

Next: Chapter 7 Stories and Articles: 1926-34.

Published in F. Scott Fitzgerald (Twayne’s United States Authors Series #36) by Kenneth Eble (revised edition 1977, first edition 1963).