Francis Scott Fitzgerald was born 1896 in Saint Paul, Minnesota; he died 1940 in Hollywood, California, at 1443 North Hayworth Avenue, within walking distance of Schwab’s drugstore, then as now a meeting place for those on their way up or down in what is still known in that part of the world as The Industry, elsewhere as the movies.
Between 1920 and 1940, Fitzgerald published four novels, 160 short stories, some fragments of autobiography. He worked on a dozen film scripts. He also wrote several thousand letters, keeping carbon copies of the ones most apt to present posterity with his side of a number of matters that he thought important. Although very little of what Fitzgerald wrote has any great value as literature, his sad life continues to provide not only English Departments but the movies with a Cautionary Tale of the first magnitude. Needless to say, Scott Fitzgerald is now a major academic industry. Currently, there are two new models in the bookstores, each edited by Professor Matthew J. Bruccoli. The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald contains all 2078 notebook entries while Correspondence of F. Scott Fitzgerald includes letters to as well as from Fitzgerald.
A quick re-cap of the Fitzgerald career: in 1920, he published This Side of Paradise and married the handsome Zelda Sayre. In 1921, they set out for the territory—in those days, Europe. But the Fitzgeralds’ Europe was hardly the Europe of James’s “The Passionate Pilgrim.” The Fitzgeralds never got around to seeing the sights because, as Jazz Age celebrities, they were the sights. They wanted to have a good time and a good time was had by all for a short time. Then things fell apart. Crash of ’29. Zelda’s madness. Scott’s alcoholism. As Zelda went from one expensive clinique to another, money was in short supply. Scott’s third and best novel The Great Gatsby (1925) did not make money. Novel number four did not come easily. Back to America in 1931: Baltimore, Wilmington. Fitzgerald made two trips to Hollywood where he wrote movie scripts for money; he made the money but no movies.
The relative failure of Tender Is the Night (1934) came at a time when Fitzgerald’s short stories no longer commanded the sort of magazine prices that had made the living easy in the Twenties. After a good deal of maneuvering, Fitzgerald wangled a six-month contract as a staff writer for MGM. At $1,000 a week, he was one of the highest paid movie writers. From 1937 to 1940, Fitzgerald wrote movies in order to pay his debts; to pay for Zelda’s sanitarium and for his daughter’s school; to buy time in which to write a novel. Despite a dying heart, he did pretty much what he set out to do.
In a sense, Fitzgerald’s final days are quite as heroic as those of General Grant, as described in General Grant’s Last Stand, a book that the Scribner’s editor, Maxwell Perkins, rather tactlessly sent Fitzgerald after reading the three autobiographical sketches in Esquire (reprinted, posthumously, by Edmund Wilson in The Crack-Up).
“I enjoyed reading General Grant’s Last Stand,” Fitzgerald replied with considerable dignity under the circumstances, “and was conscious of your particular reasons for sending it to me. It is needless to compare the difference in force of character between myself and General Grant, the number of words he could write in a year” (while dying of cancer, dead broke), “and the absolutely virgin field which he exploited with the experiences of a four-year life under the most dramatic of circumstances.” It was also needless to mention that despite a failed presidency, a personal bankruptcy, a history of alcoholism, Grant had had such supreme victories as Shiloh, Vicksburg, Appomattox, while Fitzgerald had had only one—The Great Gatsby, a small but perfect operation comparable, say, to Grant’s investiture of Fort Donelson.
At the time of Fitzgerald’s death in 1940, he was already something of a period-piece, a relic of the Jazz Age, of flappers and bathtub gin. The last decade of Fitzgerald’s life began with the Depression and ended with the Second World War; midway through the Thirties, the Spanish Civil War politicized most of the new writers, and many of the old. Predictably, Ernest Hemingway rode out the storm, going triumphantly from the bad play The Fifth Column to the bad novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (Fitzgerald’s comment: “a thoroughly superficial book with all the profundity of Rebecca“). Nevertheless, with characteristic panache, the great careerist managed to keep himself atop the heap at whose roomy bottom Fitzgerald had now taken up permanent residence.
But, sufficiently dramatized, failure has its delights, as Fitzgerald demonstrated in those autobiographical pieces which so outraged his old friend, John Dos Passos, who wrote: “Christ, man, how do you find time in the middle of the general conflagration to worry about all that stuff?” But all that stuff was all that Fitzgerald ever had to deal with and he continued to confront his own private conflagration until it consumed him, while eating chocolate on a winter’s day just off Sunset Boulevard.
At Princeton, Fitzgerald and Edmund Wilson were friends; they continued to be friends to the end even though Wilson was an intellectual of the most rigorous sort while Fitzgerald was barely literate. Yet they must have had something in common beyond shared youth, time, place, and I suspect that that something was the sort of high romanticism which Fitzgerald personified and Wilson only dreamed of, as he pined for Daisy.
When Wilson put together a volume of Fitzgeraldiana and called it The Crack-Up, the dead failed writer was totally, if not permanently, resurrected. Since 1945, there have been hundreds, perhaps thousands of biographies, critical studies, PhD theses written about Fitzgerald. Ironically, the movies which so fascinated and frustrated Fitzgerald have now turned him and Zelda into huge mythic monsters, forever sweeping ’round to Wiener waltzes en route to the last reel where they sputter out like a pair of Roman candles on a rainy Fourth of July—disenchanted, beloved infidels.
For Americans, a writer’s work is almost always secondary to his life—or life-style, as they say nowadays. This means that the novelist’s biographer is very apt to make more, in every sense, out of the life than the writer who lived it. Certainly, Fitzgerald’s personal story is a perennially fascinating Cautionary Tale. As for his novels, the two that were popular in his lifetime were minor books whose themes—not to mention titles—appealed enormously to the superstitions and the prejudices of the middle class: This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned—if that last title isn’t still a lu-lu out on the Twiceborn circuit where Cleaver and Colson flourish, I will reread the book. But when Fitzgerald finally wrote a distinguished novel, the audience was not interested. What, after all, is the moral to Gatsby? Since there seemed to be none, The Great Gatsby failed and that was the end of F. Scott Fitzgerald, glamorous bestseller of yesteryear, bold chronicler of girls who kissed. It was also to be the beginning of what is now a formidable legend: the “archetypal” writer of whom Cyril Connolly keened (in The New Yorker, April 10, 1948) “the young man slain in his glory.” Actually, the forty-four-year-old wreck at the bottom of Laurel Canyon was neither young nor in his glory when he dropped dead. But five years later, when Wilson itemized the wreckage, he re-created for a new generation the bright, blond youth, forever glorious, doomed.
Professor Bruccoli’s edition of The Notebooks comes highly recommended. Mr. James Dickey, the poet and novelist, thinks that “they should be a bible for all writers. But one does not have to be a writer to respond to them—these Notebooks make writers of us all.” If true, this is indeed a breakthrough. Why go to BreadLoaf when you, too, can earn- good money and get tenure by reading a single book? Mr. Budd Schulberg, the novelist, says, “Of all the Notebook masters, beyond Butler, Bennett, even Jules Renaud [sic], Fitzgerald emerges—in our judgment—as not only the most thorough and professional but the most entertaining and evocative.” This is a stunning assessment. Better than Butler? Better than Jules Renard? Rush to your bookstore! At last, an aphorist superior to the man who wrote in his cahier, “I find that when I do not think of myself, I do not think at all.”
Professor Bruccoli is understandably thrilled by The Notebooks which “were [Fitzgerald’s] workshop and chronicle. They were his literary bankroll. They were also his confessional.” Edmund Wilson disagrees. In the introduction to The Crack-Up, Wilson notes that, even at Princeton, Fitzgerald had been so much an admirer of Butler’s Notebooks that when he came to fill up his own notebooks it was “as if he were preparing a book to be read as well as a storehouse for his own convenience…. Actually, he seems rarely to have used them.”
The entries range from idle jottings, proper names, and jokes to extended descriptions and complaints. I fear that I must part company with Wilson who finds these snippets “extremely good reading.” For one thing, many entries are simply cryptic. “Hobey Baker.” That’s all. Yes, one knows—or some of us know—that Baker was a golden football player at Princeton in Fitzgerald’s day. So what? The name itself is just a name and nothing more. As for the longer bits and pieces, they serve only to remind us that even in his best work, Fitzgerald had little wit and less humor. Although in youth he had high spirits (often mistaken in freedom’s home for humor) these entries tend toward sadness; certainly, he is filled with self-pity, self-justification, self…not love so much as a deep and abiding regard.
In general, Fitzgerald’s notes are just notes or reminders. Here are some, presumably numbered by Professor Bruccoli:
12 Sgt. Este
137 Ogden and Jesus
375 Let’s all live together.
975 Paul Nelson from School Play Onward
1058 Tie up with Faulkner—Lord Fauntleroy. [If only he had!]
1128 De Sano tearing the chair
1270 Actors the clue to much
1411 Bunny Burgess episode of glass and wife.
1443 The rejection slips
1463 Memory of taking a pee commencement night
1514 Coat off in theatre
I’m not at all sure how these little notes can make writers of us all or even of Fitzgerald. Certainly, they do not entertain or evoke in their present state. One can only hope that Professor Bruccoli will one day make for us a skeleton key to these notes so that we can learn just what it was that Bunny B. did with his wife and the glass. In the meantime, I shall personally develop item 1069: “The scandal of ‘English Teaching.”‘
There is a section devoted to descriptions of places, something Fitzgerald was very good at in his novels. Number 142 is a nice description of Los Angeles, “a city that had tripled its population in fifteen years,” where children play “on the green flanks of the modern boulevard…with their knees marked by the red stains of the mercurochrome era, played with toys with a purpose—beams that taught engineering, soldiers that taught manliness, and dolls that taught motherhood. When the dolls were so banged up that they stopped looking like real babies and began to look like dolls, the children developed affection for them.” That is sweetly observed. But too many of these descriptions are simply half-baked or strained. The description of a place or mood that is not in some way connected to action is to no point at all.
Those journals and notebooks that are intended to be read must, somehow, deal with real things that are complete in themselves. Montaigne does not write: “Cardinal’s house at Lucca,” and leave it at that. But then Montaigne was a man constantly thinking about what he had read and observed in the course of a life in the world. Fitzgerald seems not to have read very much outside the Romantic tradition, and though his powers of observation were often keen and precise when it came to the sort of detail that interested him (class differences, remembered light), he had no real life in the world. Early on, he chose to live out a romantic legend that had no reference to anything but himself and Zelda and the child.
As I read The Notebooks, I was struck by the lack of literary references (other than a number of quite shrewd comments about Fitzgerald’s contemporaries). Although most writers who keep notebooks make random jottings, they also tend to comment on their reading. Fitzgerald keeps an eye out for the competition and that’s about it. By the time I got to the section labeled “Epigrams, Wise Cracks and Jokes,” I wondered if he had ever read Gide. Whether or not he had read Gide is forever moot. But he had certainly heard of him. “Andre Gide lifted himself by his own jockstrap so to speak—and one would like to see him hoisted on his own pedarasty [sic].” Epigram? Wisecrack? Joke?
In these Notebooks Fitzgerald makes rather too many nervous references to fairies and pansies. But then his attitudes toward the lesser breeds were very much those of everyone else in those days: “1719 the gibbering dinges on the sidewalks; 1921 Arthur Kober type of Jew without softness…trying to realize himself outside of Jewry; 1974 Native Son—A well written penny dreadful with the apparent moral that it is good thing for the cause when a feeble minded negro runs amuck.”
There are lines from The Notebooks which have been much used in biographies of Fitzgerald; even so, they still retain their pathos: “1362 I left my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda’s sanitarium.” But most of the personal entries are simply sad and not very interesting. To hear him tell it, again and again: once upon a time, he was a success and now he’s a failure; he was young and now he’s middle-aged.
Out of 2078 entries, I can find only one line worthy of Jules Renard: “In order to bring on the revolution it may be necessary to work inside the communist party.” That’s funny. Otherwise, Fitzgerald’s observations resemble not Jules Renard but, as Mr. Schulberg has noted, Jules Renaud.
One would have thought that Andrew Turnbull’s collection of Fitzgerald’s letters was all that any reasonable admirer of Fitzgerald would ever need. Fitzgerald was not exactly the sort of letter-writer for whose pensées one sprints, as it were, to the mailbox to see if he’s remembered to write. When Fitzgerald is not asking for loans, he is explaining and complaining. But Professor Matthew J. “research begets research” Bruccoli thinks otherwise. In Correspondence he now gives us an altogether too rich display of Fitzgerald’s letters complete with the master’s astonishing misspellings; fortunately, he has had the good sense, even compassion for the reader, to include a number of interesting letters to Fitzgerald. If the marvelous letters of Zelda do not make this project absolutely worthwhile, they at least provide some literary pleasure in the course of a correspondence which, on Fitzgerald’s side, is pretty depressing.
Certainly, Fitzgerald had a good deal to gripe about and, to a point, these cries at midnight are poignant. But they are also monotonous. Since Fitzgerald’s correspondence is of current interest to a number of American graduate students, the letters deserve preservation but not publication. One can enjoy the letters of Lord Byron and Virginia Woolf without any particular knowledge of their works or even days. But Fitzgerald has not their charm or brutal force. On those rare occasions when he is not staring into the mirror, he can be interesting. “I’d like to put you on to something about Steinbeck,” he wrote Wilson a month before he died. “He is a rather cagey cribber. Most of us begin as imitators but it is something else for a man of his years and reputation to steal a whole scene as he did in ‘Mice and Men.’ I’m sending you a marked copy of Norris’ ‘McTeague’ to show you what I mean. His debt to ‘The Octupus’ is also enormous and his balls, when he uses them, are usually clipped from Lawrence’s ‘Kangeroo.”‘
Precocious talents mature slowly if at all. Despite youthful success, there is something “hurried,” as Fitzgerald put it, about his beginnings. Hurried and oddly inauspicious: the soldier who never fought (at one point he served under Captain Dwight D. Eisenhower—what did they talk about?) and the athlete who never competed. Yet, at twenty-one, Fitzgerald wrote Wilson: “God! How I miss my youth—that’s only relative of course but already lines are beginning to coarsen in other people and that’s the sure sign. I don’t think you ever realized at Princeton the childlike simplicity that lay behind all my petty sophistication and my lack of a real sense of honor.” Even before Fitzgerald had a past to search for, he was on the prowl for lost time, “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The most curious aspect of Fitzgerald’s early days was his relationship with Monsignor Sigourney Webster Fay at the Newman School. Fitzgerald was an uncommonly bright and pretty boy and, from the tone of the letters that Fay wrote him, pederasty was very much in the air. At one point, in 1917, Fitzgerald was to accompany Fay on a mission to Russia in order to bring the Greek Orthodox Church back to Rome. But the Bolsheviks intervened. Even so, the whole project has a Corvo-esque dottiness that is appealing, and one wonders to what extent Fitzgerald understood the nature of his loving friend whose assistant at the Newman School, Father William Hemmick (“with his silver-buckled pumps and cassocks tailored in Paris”), was to end his days in Rome, surrounded by golden ephebes, a practicing fairy, whose apotheosis was to come that marvelous day when, with all the gravity and splendor that robes by Lanvin can bestow, Monsignor Hemmick, in the very teeth, as it were, of the Vicar of Christ on earth, united in marriage, before the cameras of all the world, Tyrone Power and Linda Christian. One thing about Scott, he was show-biz from the start. Fay appears as Father Darcy in This Side of Paradise. Fitzgerald’s letters to Fay have vanished. Professor Bruccoli tells us that “they are believed to have been destroyed by Fay’s mother after his death.”
Since many of these letters deal with the personality of Fitzgerald (his drinking, marriage, friendships) it is not entirely idle to speculate—but pretty idle, even so—on Fitzgerald’s sex life. There are very few youths as handsome as Fitzgerald who go unseduced by men or boys in the sort of schools that he attended. Zelda’s occasional accusations that Fitzgerald was homosexual have usually been put down to the fact that she was either off her rocker or, mounted on that rocker, she was eager to wound Fitzgerald, to draw psychic blood. In a position paper which Fitzgerald may or may not have sent Zelda when she was hospitalized, he wrote: “The nearest I ever came to leaving you was when you told me you [thought] that I was a fairy in the Rue Palatine….” The answer to that one is, stay away from the Rue Palatine.
Unfortunately, the street had its fascination for both of them. Zelda was drawn to Madame, her ballet teacher, while Fitzgerald made the acquaintance of a Paris tough (in the Rue Palatine?) and brought him back to America as a butler and “sparring partner.” In any case, Zelda managed to so bug her husband on the subject that one day in Paris when he came to take Morley Callaghan’s arm, he suddenly let go. “‘It was like holding on to a cold fish. You thought I was a fairy, didn’t you?”‘ In That Summer in Paris Callaghan says that he wished that he had been “more consoling, more demonstrative with him that night.”
Whatever Fitzgerald’s sexual balance, there is no doubt that he was totally absorbed in Zelda. There is little doubt that he was impotent a good deal of the time because anyone who drinks as much as Fitzgerald drank will lose, temporarily at least, the power of erection. In Papa: A Personal Memoir Hemingway’s son, and MD, has made this point about his own hard-drinking father.
“One of the many ironies that inform the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald is that the writer who died ‘forgotten’ in 1940 is the most fully documented American author of this century.” Professor Bruccoli rather smacks his lips in the introduction to the Correspondence. “We know more about Fitzgerald than about any of his contemporaries because he preserved the material…. The best Fitzgerald scholar of us was F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Typing out these words I have a sense of perfect madness. Scholar of Fitzgerald? One sees the need for scholars of Dante, Rabelais, Shakespeare. But scholar of a contemporary popular writer who needs no introduction? Isn’t this all a bit out of proportion? Are the academic mills now so huge and mindless that any writer of moderate talent and notoriety is grist? All the time wasted in collecting every scrap of paper that Fitzgerald scribbled on might be better spent in trying to understand, say, the nature of that society which produced the Fitzgerald who wrote those letters. But today’s literary scholars are essentially fact-collectors, scholar-squirrels for whom every season’s May.
That said, one must be grateful to this particular scholar-squirrel for publishing sixty-two of Zelda’s letters to Fitzgerald. Like all her other writings, the letters are both beautiful and evocative. After a frantic attempt to become a ballerina, Zelda went clinically mad. From various sanitariums she did her best to tell Fitzgerald what going mad is like: “Every day it seems to me that things are more barren and sterile and hopeless—In Paris, before I realized that I was sick, there was a new significance to everything: stations and streets and façades of buildings—colors were infinite; part of the air, and not restricted by the lines that encompassed them and lines were free of the masses they held…. Then the world become embryonic in Africa—and there was no need for communication. The Arabs fermenting in the vastness; the curious quality of their eyes and the smell of ants; a detachment as if I was on the other side of a black gauze—a fearless small feeling, and then the end at Easter….” (This quotation is from Nancy Milford’s Zelda.) “I would have liked to dance in New York this fall, but where am I going to find again these months that dribble into the beets of the clinic garden?” And “I have been living in vaporous places peopled with one-dimensional figures and tremulous buildings until I can no longer tell an optical illusion from a reality…that head and ears incessantly throb and roads disappear…. Was it fun in Paris? Who did you see there and was the Madeleine pink at five o’clock and did the fountains fall with hollow delicacy into the framing of space in the Place de la Concorde and did the blue creep out from behind the Colonades of the rue de Rivoli through the grill of the Tuileries and was the Louvre gray and metallic in the sun and did the trees hang brooding over the cafés and were there lights at night and the click of saucers and the auto horns that play de Bussey….”
A master of weather and landscape, Zelda was almost as good with people. She was one of the first to realize that Hemingway was “phony as a rubber check.” When she read A Farewell to Arms in manuscript, she said that the prose sounded “pretty damned Biblical” while The Sun Also Rises was “bull-fighting, bull-slinging and bullshit.” Of Edmund Wilson, she wrote: “Bunny’s mind is too speculative. Nothing but futures, of the race, of an idea, of politics, of birth control. Just constant planning and querulous projecting and no execution. And he drinks so much that he cares more than he would.” No doubt, Fitzgerald was as charmed by the letters as we are. But he also understood her almost as well as he did his lifelong subject, himself. “Her letters,” he wrote, “are tragically brilliant on all matters except those of actual importance. How strange to have failed as a social creature—even criminals do not fail that way—they are the law’s ‘Loyal Opposition’ so to speak. But the insane are always mere guests on earth, eternal strangers, carrying around broken dialogues that they cannot read.”
Zelda and Scott. In a curious way Zelda and Scott were meant to be perfectly combined in Plato’s sense. Since this is not possible for us, each became shadow to the other and despite mutual desire and furious pursuit, no whole was ever achieved.
In July of 1922, Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald were offered the leads in a movie version of This Side of Paradise. Andrew Turnbull says that they turned down the offer. In 1927, Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald spent two months in Hollywood where he was contracted to write an original screenplay for Constance Talmadge. Although the screenplay was not used, Fitzgerald got his first look at the place where he was to live and die. In 1931, he came back to Hollywood for five weeks’ work on Red-Headed Woman at MGM. Although Fitzgerald’s script was not used, he got to know the boy genius Irving Thalberg, whose “tasteful” films (The Barretts of Wimpole Street) were much admired in those days. On one occasion (recorded in the story “Crazy Sunday”) Fitzgerald held riveted a party at the Thalbergs with a drunken comedy number. Movie stars do not like to be upstaged by mere writers, especially drunk writers. But next day, the hostess, the ever-gracious Norma Shearer, wired Fitzgerald (no doubt after an apologetic mea culpa that has not survived), “I thought you were one of the most agreeable persons at our tea.” In Hollywood that means you’re fired; he was fired.
All Americans born between 1890 and 1945 wanted to be movie stars. On Scott Fitzgerald’s first trip to Hollywood, he was given a screen test (where is it?). As early as 1920, Fitzgerald tells how “summoned out to Griffith’s studio on Long Island, we trembled in the presence of the familiar faces of the Birth of a Nation…. The world of the picture actors was like our own in that it was in New York, but not of it.” Later, Zelda’s passion to become a ballerina was, at its core, nothing except a desire to be A Star. But like so many romantics, then and now, the Fitzgeralds did not want to go through the grim boring business of becoming movie stars. Rather they wanted to live as if they were inside a movie. Cut to Antibes. Dissolve to the Ritz in Paris. Fade to black in Hollywood. Each lived long enough and suffered enough to realize that movies of that sort are to be made or seen, not lived. But by then she was in a sanitarium full-time and he was a movie hack.
In “Pasting It Together” (March, 1936) Fitzgerald, aged forty, made note of a cultural change that no one else seemed to have noticed.
I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest and supplest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that, whether in the hands of Hollywood merchants or Russian idealists, was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought, the most obvious emotion. It was an art in which words were subordinate to images, where personality was worn down to the inevitable low gear of collaboration. As long past as 1930, I had a hunch that the talkies would make even the best-selling novelist as archaic as silent pictures.
Fitzgerald was right. Forty-four years later, it is the film school that attracts the bright young people while the writers’ workshop caters to those whose futures will not be literary but academic. Today, certainly, no new novel by anyone commands the sort of world attention that a new film automatically gets. Yet, for reasons obscure to me, novelists still continue to echo Glenway Wescott who wrote that Fitzgerald’s hunch was “a wrong thought indeed for a novelist.” I should have thought it was not wrong but inevitable.
A decade later, when I wrote that the film had replaced the novel as the central art form of our civilization, I was attacked for having said that the novel was dead and I was sent reading lists of grand new novels. Obviously, the serious novel or art-novel or whatever one wants to call the novel-as-literature will continue to be written; after all, poetry is flourishing without the patronage of the common reader. But it is also a fact that hardly anyone outside of an institution is ever apt to look at any of these literary artifacts. Worse, if the scholar-squirrel prevails, writers will not be remembered for what they wrote but for the Cautionary Tales that their lives provide. Meanwhile the sharp and the dull watch movies; discuss movies; dream movies. Films are now shown in the classroom because it is easier to watch Pabst than to read Dreiser. At least, it was easier. There is now some evidence that the current television-commercial generation is no longer able to watch with any degree of concentration a two-hour film without breaks. Thus, Pabst gives way to the thirty-second Oil of Olay spot.
In our epoch, only a few good writers have been so multitalented or so well situated in time and place that they could use film as well as prose. Jean Cocteau, Graham Greene….who else? Certainly not Faulkner, Sartre, Isherwood, Huxley. In the heyday of the Hollywood studios no serious writer ever got a proper grip on the system. But then few wanted to. They came to town to make money in order to buy time to write books. But Fitzgerald was more prescient than many of his contemporaries. He realized that the novel was being superseded by the film; he also realized that the film is, in every way, inferior as an art form to the novel—if indeed such a collective activity as a movie can be regarded as an art at all. Even so, Fitzgerald was still enough of an artist or romantic egotist to want to create movies. How to go about it?
In those days, the producer was all-powerful and everyone else was simply a technician to be used by the producer. Naturally, there were “stars” in each technical category. A super-hack writer like Ben Hecht could influence the making of a film in a way that, often, the director-technician could not or, as Fitzgerald put it in a letter to Matthew Josephson (March 11, 1938),
In the old days, when movies were a stringing together of the high points in the imagination of half a dozen drunken ex-newspapermen, it was true that the whole thing was the director. He coordinated and gave life to the material—he carried the story in his head. There is a great deal of carry-over from those days, but the situation of Three Comrades, where Frank Borzage had little more to do than be a sort of glorified cameraman, is more typical of today. A Bob Sherwood picture, for instance, or a Johnny Mahin script, could be shot by an assistant director or a script girl, and where in the old days an author would have jumped at the chance of becoming a director, there are now many, like Ben Hecht and the aforesaid Mahin, who hate the eternal waiting and monotony of the modern job.
Although Fitzgerald underplays the power of the producer (in the case of Three Comrades the witty and prodigious writer-director Joe Mankiewicz), he is right about the low opinion everyone had of the director and the importance, relatively speaking, of the super-hack writers who pre-directed, as it were, each film by incorporating in their scripts the exact way that the film was to be shot. This was still pretty much the case when I was a writer under contract to MGM a dozen years after Fitzgerald’s death. Scott was still remembered, more or less fondly.
“But,” as the Wise Hack at the Writers’ Table said, “there wouldn’t ‘ve been all this revival stuff, if he’d looked like Wallace Beery.” The Wise Hack had only contempt for Edmund Wilson’s labors to restore Fitzgerald’s reputation. “The Emperor’s tailor,” he snapped. At the Writers’ Table we all snapped or riposted or even, sometimes, like Fitzgerald, shrilled.
When I said that I’d never much liked Fitzgerald’s face in the early photographs but found the later ones touching because he always looked as if he was trying very hard not to scream, the Wise Hack said, “No. Not scream, whimper. There was never such a whiner. God knows why. He had a good time around here. Joe admired him. Got him a credit. Got his contract renewed. Whole thing started with Eddie Knopf who was queer for writers. It was him who talked the studio into taking Fitzgerald, the trick of the week after all that shit he shoveled in Esquire about what a drunk he was. Then Joe puts him on Three Comrades because he thought he could get some good period stuff out of him. Then when that didn’t work, Joe got old Ted Paramore to help out on the script. But that didn’t work either. First day on the set, Maggie Sullavan says, ‘I can’t say these lines,’ and so Joe has to rewrite the whole damned thing. So why should Scott be pissed off? He knew enough to know that in this business the writer is the woman.”
But Scott was pissed off at what Mankiewicz had done to the script of the only film on which Fitzgerald’s name was ever to appear and for him to get what is known in the trade as a credit (debit is usually the better word) was a giant step toward big money, autonomy, freedom or, as Fitzgerald wrote Zelda (Fall 1937), “If I can finish one excellent picture to top Three Comrades I think I can bargain for better terms—more rest and more money.” To Beatrice Dance he wrote (November 27, 1937), “I’ve been working on a script of Three Comrades, a book that falls just short of the 1st rate (by Remarque)—it leans a little on Hemingway and others but tells a lovely tragic story.” To the same woman, a sadder if no wiser Fitzgerald wrote four months later, “Three Comrades, the picture I have just finished, is in production and though it bears my name, my producer could not resist the fascination of a pencil and managed to obliterate most signs of my personality.” To his mother-in-law, Fitzgerald wrote in the next month (April 23, 1938): “Three Comrades should be released within ten days, and a good third of that is absolutely mine.” But a few weeks later he wrote his sister-in-law: “Three Comrades is awful. It was entirely rewritten by the producer. I’d rather Zelda didn’t see it.”
But Zelda saw it and thought that a lot of it was very good even though
there isn’t any dramatic continuity—which robs the whole of suspense. I know it’s hard to get across a philosophic treatise on the screen, but it would have been better had there been the sense of some inevitable thesis making itself known in spite of the characters—or had there been the sense of characters dominated by some irresistible dynamic purpose. It drifts; and the dynamics are scattered and sporadic rather than cumulative or sustained.
Even in the loony bin, Zelda was a better critic than the ineffable Frank Nugent of The New York Times (who loved the picture) or Fitzgerald who had written a so-so first draft of a film that was to be altered not only during a collaboration with one Ted (The Bitter Tea of General Yen) Paramore but, finally redone by the producer Joe Mankiewicz.
Fitzgerald’s first-draft screenplay was completed September 1, 1937. Edited by the ubiquitous Professor Bruccoli, Fitzgerald’s screenplay was published in 1978, along with the various letters that Fitzgerald wrote but did not always send to Mankiewicz and the heads of the studio as well as the position paper that he did give to his collaborator Paramore. In an afterword, Professor Bruccoli gives a short history of the film’s production; he also compares the penultimate screenplay with Fitzgerald’s first draft.
Now I have always been suspicious of the traditional Cautionary Tale of Fitzgerald’s fragile genius, broken on the rack of commerce by “an ignorant and vulgar gent” (Fitzgerald in a letter to Beatrice Dance, four months after the picture’s release). Inspired and excited by Professor Bruccoli’s researches, I have now turned scholar-squirrel myself. I have penetrated the so-called “vault” at MGM where I was allowed to read not only a copy of the actual shooting script of Three Comrades (dated February 2, 1938) but also the revisions that Mankiewicz made during the course of the filming. I also know the answer to the question that has so puzzled my fellow squirrels: did Mankiewicz ever receive Fitzgerald’s letter of protest, dated January 20, 1938? He…. But let us not get ahead of our story.
On November 5, 1937, the first Fitzgerald-Paramore script was handed in. There was a story conference: one can imagine what it was like. Mankiewicz talking rapidly, eyes opening wide for emphasis while the faded Fitzgerald thought about the last drink—and the next drink; and Paramore did whatever it is that Paramores did or do. Subsequently, two more revised scripts were handed in by Fitzgerald-Paramore. Then between their last script, dated December 21, and the script of January 21, something happened.
On January 20, the day before the penultimate script was mimeographed, Fitzgerald wrote Mankiewicz a furious letter in which he attacked the radical changes that Mankiewicz had made in the script. Although Mankiewicz is on record as saying that “Scott Fitzgerald really wrote very bad spoken dialogue,” I don’t think this is true. But we shall never know for certain because little of his dialogue ever made it to the screen. In the case of Three Comrades, Fitzgerald thought that “37 pages mine about 1/3.” I’d say it was rather less.
In Fitzgerald’s original script the boy-girl dialogues are charming and, curiously enough, far less wordy than the final version’s. Fitzgerald’s lack of humor might not have been so noticeable in an anti-Nazi tear-jerker were it not for the fact that Mankiewicz is one of the few genuine wits ever to come out of Hollywood. Where Fitzgerald’s dialogue tended to be too sweet, Mankiewicz’s dialogue was often pretty sour; the combination was not entirely happy. In any case, Fitzgerald never did get the point to Mankiewicz’s jokes.
Fitzgerald’s original script was overlong and somewhat confusing. In an excess of conscientiousness, he had studied so many old movies that there was hardly a cliché that he overlooked. When the hero telephones the heroine’s sanitarium “CUT TO: QUICK TRAVELING SHOT OF A LINE OF TELEPHONE POLES IN WINTER—The line goes up a snowy mountain. CUT TO:” …Mel Brooks cutting the line.
Remarque’s story of three German World War I buddies who go into the car-repair business during the rise of the Nazis was plainly not congenial to Fitzgerald’s talents but since he needed the money, he did what all good writers who write for hire instinctively do: he pulled the narrative in his own direction. He made the German girl Pat (a rich girl now poor) into a Fitzgerald heroine and he made the boy Bobby (Erich in the final script) into a Fitzgerald hero. Once again, Scott and Zelda light up if not the sky the first-draft screenplay. Erich now has an unacknowledged drinking problem—hardly a page goes by that he doesn’t think of bottles of rum or ask for a double whisky (not the usual tipple of your average Weimar Republic worker-lad). Erich’s two comrades and the cleaning woman also, as they say in the script, “prosit” quite a lot.
When Pat is dying of tuberculosis in a sanitarium, Fitzgerald has a field day and much of the dialogue is charming. But even in Culver City, Fitzgerald could not escape the shadow of his monstrous friend Hemingway. “Pat (as if to herself): It’s raining. It’s been raining too long. At night sometimes when I wake, I imagine we’re quite buried under all the rain.” Fans of A Farewell to Arms will recall the soon-to-be-dying Catherine’s speech as “All right. I’m afraid of the rain because sometimes I see me dead in it.” Told that this is all nonsense, Catherine agrees: “‘It’s all nonsense. It’s only nonsense. I’m not afraid of the rain. I’m not afraid of the rain. Oh, oh, God, I wish I wasn’t.’ She was crying. I comforted her and she stopped crying. But outside it kept on raining.” There was a lot of rain in those days. Luckily most of it was outside.
Fitzgerald was not entirely at ease with the talk of young men in the car-repair business. He was also hampered by Hollywood’s insistence that an English-speaking film about Germans in Germany should be loaded with achs and auf Wiedersehens and Herrs. Mankiewicz also maintains the silliness: the one auf Wiedersehen in the script is his. Since profanity was not allowed in those chaste days, Fitzgerald has the lower orders accuse one another of being “twerps,” “squirts,” “greasepots,” when today he would doubtless have used the more succinct if somewhat bleak epithet for all seasons and occasions “ass-hole.” Fitzgerald also loaded the script with such epithets as “Holy Cats!” and “Great Snakes!” Wisely, Mankiewicz replaced Scott’s cats and snakes with emotion-charged ellipses.
Now for Fitzgerald’s January 20 letter. According to Professor Bruccoli, “Mankiewicz has stated that he never received this letter, which survives in a carbon copy in Fitzgerald’s papers. Since there is no closing on the letter, it is possible that Fitzgerald did not send it.” But Fitzgerald sent the letter; and Mankiewicz read the letter. Proof?
In Fitzgerald’s script the boy and the dying girl are on a balcony, gazing out over what is supposed to be Thomas Mann’s magic mountain but is actually Sonja Henie’s winter wonderland. “Pat: Is that the road home? Erich: Yes. Pat: How far is it? Erich: About five hundred miles. In May you’ll be starting back along that road. Pat: In May. My God, in May!” Fitzgerald left it at that—and why not? The dialogue comes straight from Remarque’s novel.
Mankiewicz kept the dialogue. But then he moved the couple off the balcony and into Pat’s bedroom at the sanitarium. Daringly, they sit on the bed for a really serious chat. After Pat’s “(unbelievingly): In May. My God, in May!” Mankiewicz adds: “(a pause then she turns to him): But we’re not saying what we should be saying this first time together. (he looks at her puzzled) All these months I’d figured out what you would say and I would say—word for word. Do you want to hear? (he nods, smiling) We’d be sitting here on the foot of this bed like this, hand in hand, and you’d ask, what time is it and I’d say that doesn’t matter now. We love each other beyond time and place now. And you’d say, that’s right. God’s in this room with us, lightning’s in this room, and the sea and the sky and the mountains are in this room with us. And you’d kiss me on the forehead and I’d say, how cool your lips are, don’t move away—(he kisses her on the forehead). And you’d say, ought I to be in this room now? Aren’t we breaking the rules? And I’d say must I start now—not breaking them—(he looks into her eyes, unsmiling) because I can’t let you go and then you’d say hello, Pat, and I’d say, Erich, hello, and suddenly it would all be so real it would stab my heart and—Erich: But—darling—“ They embrace “fiercely” and the camera sails out the window en route to the magic mountain and Settembrini and Naphta in the distance.
After Fitzgerald read this scene, he wrote Mankiewicz that Pat’s big speech is “utter drool out of True Romances…God and ‘cool lips,’ whatever they are, and lightning and elephantine play on words. The audience’s feeling will be ‘Oh, go on and die.”‘
Now if there is ever any way of making nervous the sardonic Mankiewicz it is to call him corny. Like Billy Wilder, he does not go in for scenes out of True Romances. Between January 20 and February 2 Mankiewicz rewrote the scene. He cut out “God” and “cool lips” and “lightning.” Here is Pat’s aria revised: “We’d be sitting here on the foot of this bed like this, and I’d ask, is that the road home. And you’d say, Yes. It’s four hundred miles. And I’d say, that doesn’t matter now. We love each other beyond time and place now. And you’d say, that’s right. And you’d kiss me—“* And five months later there was not, as they used to say, a dry seat in any cinema of the republic when Margaret Sullavan husked those words to Robert Taylor.
What Fitzgerald had not realized was that dialogue must be precisely cut in quality to the player’s talents and in length to the player’s salary. Margaret Sullavan was a star whose deathbed scenes were one of the great joys of the Golden Age of the movies. Sullavan never simply kicked the bucket. She made speeches, as she lay dying; and she was so incredibly noble that she made you feel like an absolute twerp for continuing to live out your petty life after she’d ridden on ahead, to the accompaniment of the third movement of Brahms’s First Symphony.
Fitzgerald’s death scene went like this: Pat is all in a heap beside her bed, as Erich enters. “Erich: Pat—oh, Pat. (He raises her, supports her. Pat’s head wobbles on her shoulders) Help—somebody! Pat: (very low) It’s all right—it’s hard to die—but I’m quite full of love—like a bee is full of honey when it comes back to the hive in the evening.” On this grammatical error, “her eyes close in death.” Joe will fix that line, I thought, as I put to one side Scott’s version and picked up the shooting script. But, no, Mankiewicz’s final words for Pat are: “It’s all right for me to die, darling—and it’s not hard—when I’m so full of love.” Joe, I say to myself, tensing, make her say “as.” But, alas, Miss Sullavan dies “like a bee is full of honey when it comes home in the evening.” At least Mankiewicz got rid of Fitzgerald’s hive.
In the novel, Remarque killed Pat more realistically—she doesn’t talk all that much. But then she had already made her great speech a few pages earlier on why it’s OK to be dying because she has Erich’s love: “Now it’s hard; but to make up, I’m quite full of love, as a bee is full of honey when it comes back to the hive in the evening.” (Emphasis added by me.) Curiously enough, there is no rain in the book. But then the Föhn is blowing.
Mankiewicz’s main contribution to this tear-jerker was an anti-Nazi subplot which the Breen office objected to. They wanted the German thugs to be communists. When Mankiewicz threatened to quit, the Breen office backed down; and the film was politically daring for its time. Mankiewicz also added a certain wit to the girl’s part, annoying Fitzgerald. He thought that Mankiewicz had made Pat “a sentimental girl from Brooklyn”—a mildly anti-Semitic swipe which was off the mark: Mankiewicz’s jokes were usually rather good and as much in character as anything else in the film. Incidentally, for those who subscribe to the auteur theory, Frank Borzage was in no way involved with the actual creation of the film that he humbly directed.
Professor Bruccoli tells us that “after MGM dropped his option in 1939, Fitzgerald freelanced at other studios before starting The Last Tycoon—which, in its unfinished state, is the best Hollywood novel ever written. In 1977 Hollywood turned The Last Tycoon into the worst movie ever made.” Well, I am sure that Professor Bruccoli does not regard himself as a literary or film critic. He is a scholar-squirrel and the nuts that he gathers from past Mays are great fun to crack. To say that The Last Tycoon is the best Hollywood novel is like saying Edwin Drood is the best mystery novel ever written. Since The Last Tycoon is a fragment and nothing more, it’s not the best anything. The Day of the Locust, The Slide Area, the crudely written but well-observed What Makes Sammy Run? are far more interesting “Hollywood novels” than the fragment Fitzgerald left behind, while to say that The Last Tycoon is the worst film Hollywood ever made is silly squirrel-talk. At the risk of betraying an interest, I would propose not the worst film ever made (critics are not allowed to use the sort of hyperbole that scholar-squirrels may indulge in) but a film that was certainly much worse than The Last Tycoon (and based on, dare I say? a rather better work), Myra Breckinridge.
Recently, I ran into the Wise Hack. He was buying the trade papers at the newsstand in the Beverly Hills Hotel. He is very old but still well turned out (blue cashmere blazer, highly polished ox-blood loafers with tassels); he owns a shopping center in downtown Encino; he has emphysema. Although he still keeps up with the latest movie deals, he seldom goes to the movies. “Too many cars,” he says vaguely.
When I mentioned Fitzgerald, he sighed. “At least Ketti made some money out of him.” It took me a moment to realize that he was referring to Ketti Frings who had written, in 1958, a successful stage version of Look Homeward, Angel.
“Did you hear the latest Polish joke?” The Wise Hack’s little eyes gleamed behind thick glasses. “This Polish star, she comes to Hollywood to make a picture and she,” the Wise Hack wheezed with delight, “she fucks the writer!”
Poor Scott: “He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.” Habent sua fata libelli. Writers have their scholar-squirrels.
May 1, 1980
Copyright © 1938 Loew’s Incorporated. Copyright renewed 1965 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Inc. (formerly known as Loew’s Incorporated). ↩