August 20, 2008
Having sat on a boat for the last five weeks, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect, and reflect I did. Getting old tends to make one look back, nostaligize for that green light of the dock, and, of course, the great F.Scott Fitzgerald himself. Yes, he was the master of evoking the grand old days, when Gatsby boys wore white ducks and ran around in open cars, their gals flighty, their hair not yet up, all giggly in their summer dresses. But he also showed the tragic dimension of American life, the damage inherited money can inflict, the waste of youth, the carelessness of the very rich with other peoples’ lives.
He was America’s first celebrity writer, as famous as any modern pop star with his fair hair, luminous eyes and almost angelic countenance. He was perhaps the greatest novelist of the 20th century, a man whose short life symbolized both the American dream and the American nightmare. He died on December 21, 1940, broke, unhappy and unknown. As he himself said, there are no second acts in American lives. But he was wrong. The Great Gatsby, a tale of prohibition era gangsters and obsession—as relevant today in our celebrity and sensation hungry times—is considered the greatest American novel, a perfectly constructed gem in the first person. Tender is the Night is my favorite. I first read it age 14. I had spent the summer on the French Riviera with my parents and had stayed at the Hotel du Cap, Hotel Josse in the book. Having been thrown out of Lawrenceville and Salisbury, I was reading it in study hall at Blair Academy, a jewel of a small prep school in Blairstown N.J. Mr Koth, a math teacher, saw me holding something underneath the desk and approached. “I bet you’ve got a dirty book down there,” he said, and asked me to show him what I was holding. Once I did, he said three words: “Keep reading it.”
In no time I had become obsessed with Dick Diver, Tommy Barban, Rosemary Hoyt and the beautiful Nicole. When Dick takes a last look down the beach of his golden youth and makes a sign of blessing it, Nicole tells Tommy, “I must go to him.” He holds her back as Diver disappears. I thought I would die of grief. No sooner had I gotten out of school for good I went looking for those Fitzgerald characters. On the Riviera. I can’t in all honesty say I found them, but in some cases I got close. There were plenty of types back then whose emotional bankruptcy had come about from possessing too much beauty, charm and privilege. They drew me like the proverbial moth to their flame. Most of them ended up badly, just like the Fitzgerald heroes did. It was, after all, only normal.
Fitzgerald was wild and spendthrift and an alcoholic from early days, and was even more self-destructive than his friend and arch competitor Ernest Hemingway. Scott, like Papa, was a Midwesterner, but unlike the latter, he was no prude. Towards the end, with Zelda suffering from acute schizophrenia, broke and desperate, he was dining in Baltimore with Papa Hemingway and his then-wife Pauline. Every time the black maid would come into the room to serve, Scott would ask her to tell “Mr Hemingway that Mr Fitzgerald was the greatest f—k she ever had.” Hemingway was furious. “Now just stop it, Scott, a gentleman doesn’t brag about such matters…”
Yet Fitzgerald was a terrific gent. No man could write the things he wrote without being one. Fitzgerald’s life has been chronicled almost as much as Hemingway’s. Princeton, army during World War I, stationed in Alabama where he was smitten by the belle Zelda Sayre, as magnetic as Scarlett O’Hara but very tortured. His first book, This Side of Paradise was published in 1920 and became an instant bestseller. Overnight he became the spokesman of the post-war generation of mad-cap gaiety, wild syncopated rhythm and short skirted flappers. He coined the phrase “The Jazz Age.”
Zelda was to Scott what Daisy was to Gatsby, the dream girl which would prove his nemesis. The irony is that today her illness would be controllable with medication but back then condemned her to frequent, costly stays at clinics and painful treatment. Zelda was jealous of his success, and when she had an affair with a French aviation officer, it proved to be the muse for Tender is the Night. Tommy Barban was the Frenchman, although Scott made him an American in the novel. Living it up with the Murphys on the Riviera did not help Scott’s finances, and the lack of success of Tender is the Night, published in 1934 while America was in the grip of the depression, broke his heart. Papa Hemingway was said to have likened him to a pitcher with a dead arm.
This was cruel and horrible coming from a man Fitzgerald had helped and encouraged. But such are the joys of writers’ egos. After Zelda was permanently committed, Scott went to Hollywood in order to make some money for his beloved daughter Scottie. He began an affair with Sheila Graham, an English gossip columnist who helped him until the end. He died aged 44, a few days after asking for a book of his in a bookstore whose salesman told him Fitzgerald was dead and his books out of print. The year he died his publishers sold seven copies of Gatsby and nine of Tender. Now both books sell more than 100,000 ever year, and he enjoys acclaim beyond Hemingway, especially in Europe where people rank him alongside Chekhov and Pushkin. His heartbreaking Babylon Revisited, Crazy Sunday, and The Diamond as Big as the Ritz are masterpieces and along with The Sun Also Rises of Papa’s formed my real education. That of life.
All this is old stuff, needless to say, but it’s fun to write when one’s feeling nostalgic.