At the sound of a light knock on the door of her office in the Thalberg Building on the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayor lot, Anita Loos looked up from a script. She was an old friend, but at the same time she was precisely what her visitor was not—a successful screenwriter.
“Come in,” Miss Loos said to the man standing in her doorway but making no move to enter.
“No,” he said diffidently, “you don’t really want me to come in.”
“Of course I do,” she assured him. “Come in.”
“No,” he said, “you’re just being nice.”
In the old days his own confidence and enthusiasm had been the only invitation F. Scott Fitzgerald had ever needed to go anywhere. An editor would be working at his desk when suddenly a hat would plop down in the middle of his papers. That meant that the hat’s brash young owner was on his way in. And then there he would be in the doorway looking—said a floundering young contemporary—“so successful he made me feel dirty.” But in Hollywood Fitzgerald’s habit of barging in had reversed itself.
Scott dropped by to see Miss Loos often—to reminisce about the old days in New York, to speculate about the future in Hollywood—but all the visits began the same way, with a knock followed by a self-imposed catechism of self-doubt which made them both uncomfortable, but which became a ritual between them. On one occasion Fitzgerald wrote a poem for his successful friend. It was a nonsense poem, one of which the Mad Hatter could have been proud, since it had to do with the Hatter’s chief interest—a birthday:
This book tells that Anita Loos
Is a friend of Caesar, a friend of Zeus
Of Samuel Goldwyn, and Mother Goose
Of Balanchine of the Ballet Russe
Of Tillie the Viennese papoose
Of Charlie MacArthur on the loose
Of shanks, chiropodist—what’s the use?
Of actors who have escaped the noose
Lots of Hollywood beach refuse
Comics covered with Charlotte Russe
Wretched victims of self-abuse
Big producers all obtuse
This is my birthday, but what the deuce
Is that sad fact to Anita Loos.
After Miss Loos read the poem, she laughed at first. She had written enough comedies to appreciate wit; then she came to those last lines about the birthday and felt their unexpected tug. A decade before, Fitzgerald had written in his ledger, “32 and sore as hell about it”; now he was turning forty-two and was more sore than ever. And what the deuce, Miss Loos did care—yet she could not help hearing a kind of echo: Come in, no you’re only being polite.
At the beginning of his assault on Hollywood, when he had hoped to be really at home there, even make a home for his daughter, Scottie, there, he had written Scottie about the friends she would have. “I know Freddie Bartholomew will love taking you around to birthday parties in the afternoons,” he said, “and you’ll find Shirley Temple as good a pal as Peaches and more loyal.” But it had not worked out that way. Scottie was still in the East, and it was her father who often needed a “good and loyal pal.”
Anita Loos had known Fitzgerald in his great days in the twenties. One day, she remembers, she had been walking along Fifth Avenue when he drove up beside her:
“He asked me where I was going, and I said that I was not going anywhere. I didn’t know that he was tight. We had a wild ride to Great Neck; I thought that he was going to kill us both. When we finally arrived, Zelda was at home and we sat down to dinner. Scott was very moody, not saying much. Zelda and I ignored him, and that seemed to make him angry. Finally he jumped up from the table and said, ’I’m going to kill you two.’ And he tried. He jerked off the tablecloth with everything on it and then started throwing the candelabra and other big, heavy things at us. Scott had locked all the doors, but the butler—he will always be a hero to me—broke through a glass pane in one of the doors and came in and held Scott. Then Zelda and I ran across to Ring Lardner’s house. Ring decided to go out looking for Scott. He looked for quite a while before he found him. When he did, Scott was kneeling in the road eating dirt. ’I’m a monster,’ he was saying. ’I tried to kill those two darling girls and now I’ve got to eat dirt.’”
The old candelabra-hurler was preferable to this timid knocker at the office door. “Scott had that unhealthy humility of the reformed alcoholic,” says Miss Loos. “It was an embarrassing humility. It convinced me that you should never sober up a chronic drunk.” Still she would put aside her work and try to entertain him, to reassure him, whenever he came calling.
These visits never lasted long. After some minutes Fitzgerald would feel that he had rested as much as he could afford, at which point he would take his leave and head back down the corridor to his own office. On his way he would pass by the doors of other offices, and even these would put him in his place; some actually glittered with success. The Army sews chevrons on sleeves or pins medals to chests, but at MGM the door was the thing. The studio caste system had long ago separated writers and department heads from producers by giving the latter gold name plates. (Some department heads were actually known to take cuts in salary in exchange for the gold-plated status that went with the title “producer.”) Fitzgerald would pass these success stories all written out in fourteen carats and finally come to the door where his own name was typed out on a little square of white paper. He would go in once again to Madame Curie or Marie Antoinette or Three Comrades or A Yank at Oxford—as the 1930s were drawing to a close he worked on them all. At one point he even spent several weeks on the big one, Gone with the Wind.
On his desk were the inevitable pencils and legal-size pads on which he wrote; impatient scripts in their blue cardboard covers waited beside the typewriter. On the floor, lined up against the walls, there were the Coca-Cola bottles he collected; an army of them would gather in a row as if on parade. They were his own private palace guard, a thin line which protected not a monarch but a mind: Coke was what Fitzgerald drank to keep from drinking something stronger. The novelist-turned-screenwriter threatened that when the column of bottles reached all of the way around the room so that the vanguard overtook the rear guard, he would celebrate the completion of the circle by going off the wagon.
Sometime between twelve and one, Fitzgerald would knock off for lunch. He would take his leave of the pencils and pads, scripts and Coke bottles, and set off down the third-floor hall for the elevator of the writers’ and producers’ building. The long, barren hallway belonged as much in a hospital corridor as it did in a place where movies were made up and written down. In fact, the building looked so much like a Krankenhaus that everybody called it the Iron Lung—which would have seemed funnier if Fitzgerald had not been such a sick man. Out the window he could see a small green building which looked like a drugstore but was in fact a mortuary—and that too would have been funny, death house and fantasy land sharing the same block, if Fitzgerald had not been so sick.
Since the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer empire believes, with considerable justice, that it is under constant siege from hoards of aspiring movie stars, it has built its plant like a fortress. Spiked fences surround everything and there are police stationed at every entrance. From the outside looking in, it has the air of the world’s most exclusive country club, but from the inside it can have the air of a prison camp. To reach the MGM commissary, known as the Lion’s Den, Fitzgerald had to leave the Thalberg Building and walk along a fenced-in corridor which led to the main lot, a sprawling, crowded place that looked like a blind city: almost none of its buildings had windows. There were rows of huge structures which from the outside were as shapeless and uninteresting as four-story cardboard boxes but were actually the sound stages where movies were being made. There were also a few office buildings, which in his unfinished Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon, Fitzgerald described as “old building[s] with… long balconies and iron rails with their suggestion of [a] perpetual tightrope. ”
The commissary was wedged between one of those office buildings and a theatre-size projection room. In Tycoon Fitzgerald remembered this huge dining hall as being “gay with gypsies and with citizens and soldiers, with the sideburns and braided coats of the First Empire. From a little distance they were men who lived and walked a hundred years ago…” In this commissary he would sit down quietly by himself.
Isolated in that crowd—this is how Frances Goodrich Hackett remembers Fitzgerald. Like Anita Loos, Mrs. Hackett was another successful screenwriter: with her husband Albert, she had scripted all kinds of movies for Metro, ranging from the classic Ah, Wilderness! to such popular hits as The Thin Man series. “The first time I saw Scott,” she says, “he was in the commissary sitting alone at a table. He just sat there but he didn’t order. What I noticed were his eyes. Never in my life will I forget his eyes. He looked as if he were seeing hell opening before him. He was hugging his brief case and he had a Coke. Then suddenly he got up to go out. I said to Albert, ’I just saw the strangest man.’ He said. ’That’s Scott Fitzgerald.’”
Like Manny Schwartz in Tycoon, Fitzgerald was
obviously a man to whom something had happened. Meeting him was like encountering a friend who has been in a fist fight or collision, and got flattened. You stare at your friend and say: “What happened to you?” And he answers something unintelligible through broken teeth and swollen lips. He can’t even tell you about it.
Later the Hacketts persuaded Fitzgerald to eat at the writers’ table, where he sat down with Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, George Oppenheimer, S. J. Perelman, and a battalion of other name writers. “We did get him to do that,” Mrs. Hackett remembers, “because I never forgot that tormented face.” Nash remembers Fitzgerald “at lunch with his Coca-Cola,” where he was “very quiet indeed but extremely attractive with a sweet nature that came through.” Some days Groucho Marx would join the writers for lunch and would prove Fitzgerald’s exact opposite. Nash says that Marx “turned things upside down so that you couldn’t have a coherent conversation—everything had to be a joke.” While Groucho kidded and talked all the time, Scott would sit as voiceless as Harpo, not even laughing. He and Groucho had been neighbors in Great Neck in the twenties. “Scott was drunk a good deal of the time back then,” the comedian remembers, “but that didn’t distinguish him from anyone else in Great Neck.” In Hollywood, sober now, Fitzgerald struck Marx as “a sick old man—not very funny stuff.”
The MGM writers’ table, which was long and stood against the wall of the commissary, existed in contradistinction—sometimes even open opposition—to what Fitzgerald called “the Big Table.” The Big Table meant the producers’ table and it sat like a road hog in the middle of the room. Mrs. Hackett considered the writers who crossed the line and ate with the producers “an awful lot of finks.”
George Oppenheimer remembers that some people called the writers’ table the Left Table both because it stood against the left wall and because its politics were much more liberal—some thought “pinko.” Fitzgerald later wove the politics of the Left and Right, of the screenwriters versus the producers and bosses, into the novel on which he was still working at his death.
So the writers would eat and joke and with it all keep an eye on the executive camp. They would watch, for example, as the producers rolled dice to see who would pick up the check for the whole table. “When they saw they wouldn’t have to pay that day,” Mrs. Hackett recalls, “they would order all kinds of things.” And through it all the legendary Fitzgerald sat quietly listening, saying almost nothing, his presence as bland as the potato soup.
Other days Fitzgerald would absent himself from the table against the wall to eat with another crowd, a group of writers and actors who thought of themselves as “the clique.” Those days he would walk down the spiked-fence corridor to the vast Monopoly board of a lot and sit down in the commissary at a table with Anita Loos and veteran gag writer Robert “Hoppie” Hopkins, Johnny Meehan and Howard Emmett Rogers, Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable. Sometimes Carole Lombard would be there. And while Aldous Huxley was at Metro working on Pride and Prejudice and Madame Curie, he was a part of the clique, too. “Huxley thought that we were a bunch of queer fish,” Miss Loos remembers. The group was snobbish, she says, accepting only people with brains, which meant that almost all the fabled actresses on the lot were excluded.
“Scott didn’t stand out in a group like that,” Miss Loos says, “but we accepted him because we respected him. He wasn’t a phony and there were a lot of phonies at Metro in those days.” Again, what Miss Loos remembers best about lunching with Fitzgerald is not what he said but his long silences. He was sick sober, she remembers, and “people treated him like an invalid.”
On rare days Fitzgerald would quit the studio entirely to lunch on the outside with his agent, or an actor or director. Occasionally he went to what he called “the Bev Brown Derby, a languid restaurant, patronized for its food by clients who always look as if they’d like to lie down.”
George Cukor, who directed The Women and part of Gone with the Wind, both of which Fitzgerald worked on, remembers that he once had the author out to his house for lunch. Back in 1926, Cukor had also directed Owen Davis’s Broadway version of The Great Gatsby—a play Fitzgerald had never seen, having been in France all the while Jay Gatsby was on stage. The author who created Jay and the man who directed him had waited over a decade to lunch together, and now as they met in Hollywood it seemed that they had waited too long, that they had almost nothing left to say to one another. Cukor describes a “very grim, very dim, slightly plump” man who “ate very quickly.” In fact, all the director remembers of their conversation is their talking about how fast they both ate. “I’ve only known two people to eat faster than you and I,” Cukor told Fitzgerald, “and they are both dead now.” They finished the meal “in five minutes flat.”
Scott had more to say when he lunched with his agent, H. N. Swanson. “He was always complaining about the stories they assigned him,” the agent remembers all too well. Swanson had been the editor-founder of College Humor in the twenties and had published many Fitzgerald stories, but in Hollywood the ex-editor and the ex-fiction writer had tense, strained meetings. Swanson thought of his client as “burned out,” “a magnificent failure in the picture business.” Fitzgerald felt the “poor Scott” condescension. In his notes to The Last Tycoon he wrote, “no mercy for Swanie.”
After lunch, it would be time again for characters like Marie and Pierre Curie—or Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, or Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara, or whoever it happened to be that day—to begin once again shouting inside his head. He would sit down and, scratching at one of his pads, try to be a screenwriter. Or, pacing up and down his office, he would dictate dialogue to his secretary.
Up above Fitzgerald as he wrote, like an Old Testament God, was Louis B. Mayer. Mayer and most of his fourth-floor crowd were Jewish, but people called them the College of Cardinals, and sometimes Fitzgerald, on the floor below, felt them weighing down heavily, as if part of his job were to hold them up. He knew they treated themselves well up there with masseurs and steam baths. “We used to say,” the Hacketts remember, “’You’re keeping all the wrong people healthy. While the producers are getting rubbed down up above, the writers are going crazy down below.’”
After fighting the good fight with his imaginary people for hours, getting their lines down, it would be time for another break, and that often meant a visit to the writers in Hunt Strom-berg’s unit. Stromberg, respected as one of Hollywood’s most creative producers, had gathered under him people like Dorothy Parker, her husband, Alan Campbell, and the Hacketts. Down the hall Fitzgerald would come, hoping to get away from dialogue for a moment, and what would he walk into but Parker and Campbell composing dialogue out loud.
Campbell would ask Parker, “What does Jane say?”
And Dorothy Parker would say a word softly so that only her coauthor heard.
“Don’t use that word,” Campbell would say, and then he would go on to the next question. “What does John say?”
“Don’t use that word. What does Jane say?”
“Don’t use that word.”
Sometimes Fitzgerald would swoop down for only a hit-and-run visit, like the time he wanted some professional advice. “One day,” the Hacketts remember, “Scott popped in and said some line. ’Is that funny?’ he asked. ’Oh, never mind.’ Then he popped out again. We didn’t understand what he was up to.” What he was probably up to was that same old insecurity treadmill—
— Is that funny?
—Come in, no you’re…
—Oh, never mind.
Other days Fitzgerald would stay longer. “He would write letters to his daughter,” Mrs. Hackett recalls. “She was at Vassar and I had been at Vassar and so he would come and read the letters to me. They were beautiful letters.”
The first epistles to Vassar had spoken of succeeding in Hollywood, of working his way up to the top as if he were starting out in business. “I must be very tactful but keep my hand on the wheel from the start,” he had written, “—find out the key man among the bosses and the most malleable among the collaborators—then fight the rest tooth and nail until, in fact or in effect, I’m alone on the picture. That’s the only way I can do my best work. Given a break I can make them double this contract in less [than] two years.”
But now these hopes were bankrupted too and the letters had come to speak with a different, tired voice. “I’m convinced,” he wrote after he had been in Hollywood for a year and a half, “that maybe they’re not going to make me Czar of the Industry right away, as I thought ten months ago. It’s all right, baby—life has humbled me—Czar or not, we’ll survive. I am even willing to compromise for Assistant Czar!”
About four o’clock Fitzgerald could get away to a saloon built right on the Metro lot. The place was called The Trap, so named because management seemed to think that it was poaching on their workers’ time. There Fitzgerald could be seen with one of his omnipresent Coke bottles in his hand; and there he would rejoin the clique—Loos, Gable, Tracy, Huxley, and the others. The way to make a hit was to say something funny, but true to what had become his style in those days, Fitzgerald rarely said anything at all.
The studio day ended, officially, at six o’clock. Having earned two hundred fifty dollars for his day’s work, Fitzgerald could go home.
Evening. During the years of his young success, evenings meant to Fitzgerald, as they had to Jay Gatsby, that a party would be starting soon. “The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun.” But now something had happened to Fitzgerald. Edwin H. Knopf, who was story editor at MGM and therefore one of Fitzgerald’s bosses, remembers that the author who had once personified The Prom, The Bonne Fete, The Wild Party, now shied away from large gatherings. “If it was to be a big party,” Knopf says, “he didn’t want to come.”
Knopf worried about Fitzgerald. After all, it was he who had offered the novelist the job at Metro in the first place and gotten him to come to Hollywood. “If he was lonely, he would call me,” Knopf says. “I finally trained him to do that.” On the lonely days when Fitzgerald did call, he would be invited out to the Knopfs’ sprawling home on La Mesa Drive in Santa Monica. The author would drive over, sit and talk and drink a Coke. “He always seemed frightened,” Knopf says of those visits. “He didn’t want to say anything wrong. But he trusted us to the extent that he didn’t think we would hurt him.”
It must have seemed to the author that Knopf had everything that he himself did not. To begin with, there was the Knopf home itself with its big entrance, huge dining room, two living rooms, seven bedrooms, and six baths. In one of his screenplays Fitzgerald had a woman wonder aloud, “I never understood what you’d do with a big house unless you had a thousand children.” To which the man replied, “Nothing but vanity. Or else sometimes you think you’re so much in love that your love could fill the biggest palace conceivable.” The Knopfs’ love had filled their mansion—filled it with children. Meanwhile Fitzgerald, like Last Tycoon Monroe Stahr, had only “the house he rented,” and there “the empty floor stretched around him— the doors with no one sleeping behind.” And a man without a house meant, in Fitzgerald’s symbol-studded mind, a man without a family—daughter away at school, wife away at the asylum.
There was another big, picture-filled house which Fitzgerald visited regularly. Set in Beverly Hills, it belonged to the author’s lunch-time companions, the Hacketts. Once a week the couple gave a dinner party for their studio friends. It was essentially the writers’ table picked up and moved to the Hacketts’ house— plus a few stars like Joan Blondell, who made a pretty centerpiece.
And what did the writers do when they got together for a dinner party? They took a writer’s holiday and played writing games. “Scott would pass a paper around,” the Hacketts remember, “and we would all try writing jingles in imitation of Ogden.” As Fitzgerald reached the end of his life, he still took an almost childlike delight in organizing such contests. In fact, that is how he autographed the Hacketts’ copy of The Great Gatsby—with a jingle:
When anyone dances
It’s liable to be Frances
While a quiet and malicious racket
Is liable to proceed from Albert Hackett
(Writing this way is rash
In the presence of Ogden Nash)
For Albert and Frances Hackett
There were other contests too. “One night,” the Hacketts recall, “Scott was playing some childish game sitting on the stairs with Joan Blondell.” No one could quite make out what the rules of the game were, but there on the stairs, moving up and down and around, they looked like two kids playing on a slide. Fitzgerald was very fond of the actress, and yet the reformed alcoholic wrote in his notebook, “Joan Blondell always a little drunk.”
Sundays Fitzgerald and everyone else went to lunch at Charles and Elizabeth Brackett’s. “I think it likely that the Bracketts posed for the words ’lady’ and ’gentleman,’” George Oppenheimer says of the man who wrote the film The Lost Weekend and his wife. “Certainly they were two of the most civilized people in Hollywood… They surrounded themselves not only with many of the more intelligent members of the movie colony, but they even invited ’civilians’ (nonmovie people) to their house for Sunday lunch, an occasion to look forward to… and savor, a meeting place of natives and outlanders, a crucible of Western [Hollywood] and Eastern [New York] culture with excellent Bloody Marys.”
One of the outlanders, of course, was Fitzgerald; another was Aldous Huxley. One Sunday the author of The Great Gatsby looked on as a crowd taught the author of Brave New World how to play a popular word game. His first time at bat, Huxley spelled out C-O-V-E-N.
“Coven? ” someone asked. “Whazzat?”
Fitzgerald smiled as Huxley answered, “A congregation of thirteen witches.”
The game proceeded smoothly for a time. After “coven,” everyone saw that Huxley could take care of himself when it came to using words. Then someone used three letters to spell out the enigmatic A-G-O.
“Ah-goo?” asked Huxley politely. “What may I ask is that?”
“Ago,” someone said. “Two hundred years ago England owned America.”
“Oh,” said Huxley.
Yes, some of the small Hollywood gatherings which Fitzgerald attended were fun. But then there were some of the other kind, too. He described one unidentified fete as follows: “The dinner party in fact looked just like a Metro movie—except for the lines. Since the writers could not balance the actors on their knees like ventriloquists and give them dialogue, everything was a bit flat—[William] Powell was facetious without wit—Norma [Shearer] heavy without emotion. Selznick snoring.” Perhaps the party was a bomb, or perhaps Scott simply did not feel well that night. At another point he observed in his notebook, “The people of Hollywood are not very nice outwardly—there is too much unwelcome familiarity, too much casual snootiness.”
Then the parties, good and bad, changed for Fitzgerald: he no longer went out of loneliness. In fact, he no longer went alone; he started bringing Sheilah Graham. She was twenty-eight when Fitzgerald met her, and had spent most of those years getting as far away as she could—socially, economically, and geographically —from her beginnings in the London slums. Edwin Knopf didn’t like her and many other people felt the same way, but Fitzgerald had escaped from the emptiness of the empty house. “Suddenly he had no attitude left except the sense that the day, at least, was complete,” he wrote of his alter ego, Stahr. “He had an evening— a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
Miss Graham wrote in her book Beloved Infidel that when they went to parties, Fitzgerald
mingled briefly with his friends and then found his place beside me in a corner of the room, and there we remained, quite content, while the wit and repartee flowed about us. Once Alan Campbell came up to us to say, almost enviously, “You two always look as though you had a secret you were going to talk about later.” He was right. Our secret was us…
At night, when we did not go out, we put on records and danced as we had done at the Clover Club: wheeling and pirouetting, or tap dancing together or separately, brushing past each other and bowing with an elaborate, “Pardon me,” if we touched. Or as I watched choking with laughter, Scott performed his own little stiff-legged dance while reciting Swinburne’s “When the Hounds of Spring.” Or we’d box together, Scott bouncing about me on his toes, making ferocious faces as he sparred with me: “Sheilo, keep your chin in or I’ll slug you!” Or, while I prepared coffee, he whipped together a batch of fudge in my kitchen and we gorged ourselves, as happy, as uncomplicated, as two children together.
Even in the evenings, however, Fitzgerald could not relax from work completely. The Pittsburgh steel mills keep trains running day and night to feed raw materials into their ovens, and the Hollywood movie machine keeps its writers running in much the same way. The studio was always following Fitzgerald home: once it even followed him to a party at the Hacketts.
Fitzgerald, like the Hacketts, was working for producer Hunt Stromberg at the time. “We asked Scott and Sheilah Graham to come to dinner,” the Hacketts recount. It was to be Miss Graham’s debut at the Hacketts’ weekly gathering. “The actors were scared to death of her,” the hosts remember. After all, the columnist had once written of King Gable: “Clark Gable threw back his handsome head and exposed a chin line upon which a thin ridge of fat is beginning to collect”; and of the girl who had come up all of the way from San Antonio, to be every shopgirl’s heroine: “If they hadn’t said to me, ’Miss Graham, we want you to meet Joan Crawford,’ I would never have recognized her in this tired, sallow-faced woman.” When Joan Blondell heard that Miss Graham was going to be there, she said, “I’m not going to open my mouth.”
When the couple arrived, Fitzgerald took the Hacketts aside and explained to them that he had just gotten a call from Stromberg. “As often happened with Stromberg,” according to the Hacketts, “he wanted an evening conference. Scott would have to leave Sheilah and go.” Only he hadn’t told her yet. “He didn’t dare say he had to go to a conference, he told us. She had gotten her hair all fixed for the party and he didn’t want to disappoint her.” When the author finally did work up the courage to tell his “Sheilo” that he would have to leave her alone and go talk things out with Stromberg, he broke the news in typical fashion. He wrote an Ogden Nash-styled poem which explained all about the call and what he would have to do—and then he read it to her. It was that same old shyness acting up again. Come in, no you’re just being polite. “The conference went on until all hours,” the Hacketts remember.
Other times the studio invaded the privacy of Fitzgerald’s evening recluse hours in a more subtle and damaging way, seeping through the cracks in his self-confidence. There was, for instance, a night when George Oppenheimer drove Fitzgerald home from some Hollywood function—home at that time being one of a group of bungalows known as the Garden of Allah. Since Oppenheimer was a cousin of Edwin Knopf’s wife, the conversation soon turned to MGM’s head of stories, the man whose great house and great family had always been open to the novelist. Fitzgerald would later write: “Eddie Knopf and I have always been friends… I think I’d rather work for him than any man I’ve met here.” But that night on the way home he talked very differently of his studio superior. The toil and trouble of paranoia had begun in earnest and now even friends seem to select their weapons and join the attack.
“Eddie Knopf doesn’t like me,” moaned the man on the car seat beside Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer assured Fitzgerald that Knopf did like him and liked his work.
No, Fitzgerald would not believe it. The boss had turned on him. What he could not understand was why.
Oppenheimer tried again.
Fitzgerald refused once again to be comforted.
And that was while the author still had a job. When MGM fired Fitzgerald, the paranoia got worse. Or was it all paranoia?
“Looking at it from a long view,” Fitzgerald wrote his agent during the last year of his life, “the essential mystery still remains, and you would be giving me the greatest help of all if you can find out why I am in the doghouse… Once Budd Schulberg told me that, while the story of an official black list is a legend, there is a kind of cabal that goes on between producers around a backgammon table, and I have an idea that some such sinister finger is upon me.”
Fitzgerald wondered in his letter if the producer blackballing him might be David Selznick or Edgar (“Eddie”) Mannix or Bernard (“Bernie”) Hyman? “Wouldn’t it be well when another offer comes up,” he suggested, “for you to tell the producer directly that certain people don’t like me? That I didn’t get along with some of the big boys at Metro? And refer them to people who do like me like Knopf, Sidney Franklin and I think, Jeff Lazarus… In any case, it seems to me to be a necessity to find out what the underground says of me. I don’t think we’ll get anywhere till we do find out, and until you can steer any interested producers away from whoever doesn’t believe in me and toward the few friends that I’ve made. This vague sense of competence unused and abilities unwanted is rather destructive to the morale. It would be much better for me to give up pictures forever and leave Hollywood. When you’ve read this letter will you give me a ring and tell me what you think?”
One summer night in 1937 Fitzgerald was forced to measure his diminished stature against an old friend who loomed as a giant in both physical size and writing output, and he came away shaken. Ernest Hemingway had come to Hollywood to raise money for the Spanish Republic which was fighting for its life in yet another war which Ernest would see but Scott would miss. He had brought with him the final cut of a motion picture called Spanish Earth which he, Lillian Hellman, Joris Ivens, and Archibald MacLeish had made. They ran off their movie for the very rich of Hollywood and raised thirteen thousand dollars to buy ambulances for Spain. Fitzgerald attended the screening and afterward agreed to give Miss Hellman a ride over to Dorothy Parker’s, where Hemingway and many others were to toast their success.
“I had met Scott Fitzgerald years before in Paris,” Miss Hellman later wrote,
but I had not seen him again until that night, and I was shocked by the change in his face and manner. He hadn’t seemed to recognize me, and so I was surprised and pleased when he asked if I would ride with him to Dottie’s. My admiration for Fitzgerald’s work was very great, and I looked forward to talking to him alone. But we didn’t talk: he was occupied with driving at ten or twelve miles an hour down Sunset Boulevard, a dangerous speed in most places, certainly in Beverly Hills. Fitzgerald crouched over the wheel when cars honked at us, we jerked to the right and then to the left, and passing drivers leaned out to shout at us. I could not bring myself to speak, or even to look at Fitzgerald, but when I saw that his hands were trembling on the wheel… I put my hand over his hand. He brought the car to the side of the road.
By way of explanation, Fitzgerald said, “You see, I’m on the wagon. I’ll take you to Dottie’s, but I don’t want to go in.” When they finally reached Mrs. Parker’s, Fitzgerald opened Miss Hellman’s door and almost whispered, “It’s a long story. Ernest and me.”
Ten years before, the small, yellow-haired author had helped convince Scribner’s to publish his hulking, black-haired friend, but Hemingway could never forgive a favor and for the past few years the canary and the bull had circled one another warily. The reversal of roles had always been a big theme in Fitzgerald’s fiction—the healer falling ill while the patient grew stronger— and now with Ernest he was living his theme. Hemingway was a success and Scott considered himself a failure.
Miss Hellman tried to change Fitzgerald’s mind about not going in, but he replied, “No, I’m riding low now.” Miss Hellman protested once again and Scott said, “I’m scared of Ernest, I guess, scared of being sober when—”
Miss Hellman took Fitzgerald’s hand and he saw that he could not refuse. The playwright and the former novelist entered Mrs. Parker’s living room just as Hemingway threw a glass against the fireplace. Fitzgerald’s unsteady hold on himself seemed to shatter with the crystal. He stayed only a few minutes, evidently never spoke to Ernest, then disappeared into the night where he faced still another fear: the slow drive home at ten miles an hour.
The next day Fitzgerald decided to send a wire to the man who had made a cult of bravery and whom he had been afraid to face. The telegram said: THE PICTURE WAS BEYOND PRAISE AND SO WAS YOUR ATTITUDE. Scott wrote Maxwell Perkins, who had long been both his and Ernest’s editor at Scribner’s, “Ernest came like a whirlwind, put Ernst Lubitsch the great director in his place by refusing to have his picture prettied up and remade for him a la Hollywood at various cocktail parties. I feel he was in a state of nervous tensity, that there was something almost religious about it.”
At the studio a few days later, Ogden Nash drew Fitzgerald into a rare conversation. “It’s no use writing,” Scott said, “so long as Ernest is around.”
Night. To help the man get through that night there was the woman, Sheilah Graham; but to stretch those hours and make them unbearable came Fitzgerald’s chronic insomnia. The author had once written an article called “Sleeping and Waking” about what the dark was like when the voices inside his head hammered:
I need not have hurt her like that.
Nor said this to him.
Nor broken myself trying to break what was unbreakable.
Sometimes it would be hours before the voices died down to a whisper followed by “real sleep, the dear, the cherished one, the lullaby.” Now his dreams would carry him back to that same old dream, the one which played over and over again in his sleep like a song in an old juke box:
In the fall of ’16 in the cool of the afternoon
I met Caroline under a white moon
There was an orchestra—Bingo-Bango
Playing for us to dance the tango
And the people all clapped as we arose
For her sweet face and my new clothes.
With the morning, the author would awaken in the Capital of Escapism to find that he could no longer escape. He would pull on a gray suit that he had bought back east some years ago; then as he was going out the door, he would stuff his head into an old Homburg. He was obviously in no hurry to adjust to California’s open, sunshine dress or manners. He was expected at the studio between nine and ten. When he arrived he would wearily sense what he once jokingly called “the smell of old dialogue in the writers’ building.”
Secretaries, even technicians, had to punch in at the beginning of the day, out and in again at lunch, and out at the end of the day. The writers were spared this, but there was still that time-clock atmosphere. And yet beneath the workaday rhythm there was for Fitzgerald the excitement of an author’s last gamble willingly taken up. He was betting everything on The Big Talent which he had once felt: “You know, I used to have a beautiful talent once, baby. It used to be wonderful feeling it was there.” Everything was riding on that number and that number only, with no energy left over to spread among friends up and down the hall.
Fitzgerald would go to the studio and he would know, as he had written in The Crack-Up: “I have now at last become a writer only. The man I had persistently tried to be became such a burden that I have ’cut him loose’ with as little compunction as a Negro lady cuts loose a rival on Saturday night… The old dream of being an entire man in the Goethe-Byron-Shaw tradition, with an opulent American touch, a sort of combination of J. P. Morgan, Topham Beauclerk and St. Francis of Assisi, has been relegated to the junk heap of the shoulder pads worn one day on the Princeton freshman football field and the overseas cap never worn overseas.”
In place of the Goethe-Byron-Shaw hero with his shoulder pads on and his combat fatigues too—ah, the nonsense of which dreams are made—he now strove to create a rougher beast: a screenwriter. He was quiet in the halls, but at his yellow writing tablet he could still be loud.
From that tablet came a polish job on A Yank at Oxford (1938), a funny, predictable story about a Yank who began his Oxford career by getting his pants taken off. The picture would make screen history not for what it was but for where it was made—England. It was one of the first “runaway” productions, but the script was prepared back home in Hollywood, which meant that it was built on an assembly line. Fitzgerald was asked to rewrite someone else’s half-finished script, and then, when he was finished, a whole string of writers rewrote what he had written.
After Yank came Three Comrades (1938), and this time Fitzgerald wasn’t rewriting anyone; he got first crack at the script. But after the screenplay was finished, the producer wanted to make some changes. “He wanted Margaret Sullavan to live,” Fitzgerald wrote later, remembering one of the many battles fought over the script. “He said the picture would make more money if Margaret Sullavan lived. He was reminded that Camille had also coughed her life away and had made many fortunes doing it. He pondered this for a minute; then he said, ’Camille would have made twice as much if Garbo had lived.’ ’What about the greatest love story of all?’ he was asked. ’How about Romeo and Juliet—you wouldn’t have wanted Juliet to live, would you?’ ’That’s just it,’ said the producer, ’Romeo and Juliet [a 1936 Metro film] didn’t make a cent.’” The writer and the producer quarreled bitterly, but they nonetheless managed to put together a sound script, and their movie was selected by the New York Times as one of the best of the year.
The novelist-turned-screenwriter was off to a good start; his salary was raised from one thousand to twelve hundred fifty dollars a week. Then suddenly, just as the apprenticeship was ending and Fitzgerald was beginning to write his best scripts, his work stopped reaching the cameras. Inexplicably, his chance to conquer Hollywood was already behind him, lost somewhere back in the vast obscurity of the Hollywood machine. After Comrades, Fitzgerald wrote Infidelity (1939), his best script yet; it was an original screenplay which looked back to the luxurious New York apartments and fashionable Long Island estates where Gatsby had loved a woman and lost his life. But the industry censor stopped the film because infidelity simply was not allowed in the movie houses in the thirties. The studio changed the title to Fidelity, hoping that no one would come out against that, but the trick did not work and the picture was never made.
Fitzgerald’s next assignment was to write a screen adaptation of Clare Booth’s fingernail-sharp comedy The Women (1939). As he worked on the project, he began to toy with the idea of a new kind of heroine, something more exciting than a warmed-over flapper. But again he began to quarrel with his producer, a man whose original genius had been blunted by drugs. After completing two drafts of the script, he was moved to another picture, Madame Curie.
In Madame Curie (1939) Fitzgerald found his modern heroine. In a letter to his daughter, Scott said, “The more I read about the woman the more I think about her as one of the most admirable people of our time. I hope we can get a little of that into the story.” Fitzgerald’s bosses, however, thought that there were too many test tubes and not enough romance in his screenplay; the author was fired from the studio.
For several months he moved about like a traveling salesman from one studio to another, working on Winter Carnival, Air Raid, Raffles, and the great one, Gone with the Wind. Then he got a job with an independent producer, adapting his own short story “Babylon Revisited” for the screen. Fitzgerald called his screenplay Cosmopolitan and it was quite simply the best script he ever wrote. But the star whom the producer wanted to hire asked too high a price, so Fitzgerald’s best screenplay took its place alongside his other trophies: the pads never worn in a game, the overseas cap never worn overseas, the movie never shown on the screen.
Fitzgerald died in Hollywood shortly after two o’clock on a winter afternoon in December 1940. He had arrived in the summertime just three and a half years before. He had come into Los Angeles by plane, and as they dropped down for the landing the air had gotten rougher, causing more bumps, but Scott had not been thinking of bumps then. He had been looking out the plane’s window at the flashing neon signs of the city. He said that they looked like “fireworks” and that they gave him a “feeling of new worlds to conquer.” At the very beginning as he looked down on all those lights, he must have known the same wonder which struck Gatsby “when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.” He had come a long way to this sprawling Western city, and his goal “must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it.” He could hardly wait to get down to work. He already had some ideas for that college film they wanted him to do.
Published as Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald In Hollywood by John Aaron Latham (New York: Viking P, 1971).