by ARTHUR MIZENER
WHEN Fitzgerald met her, Zelda Sayre was just eighteen, a beautiful girl with marvelous golden hair and that air of innocent assurance attractive Southern girls have. The Sayres were an undistinguished but solid and respectable Southern family; Zelda’s father had become a Judge of the City Court of Montgomery in his early thirties and was later appointed to the Supreme Court of Alabama, on which he served for thirty years. His children were brought up quietly and conservatively in what was the small-town Southern society of Montgomery (Montgomery was then a town of about 40,000). As a girl Zelda often resented her father; he was aloof, Olympian, abstractly just, inhumanly perfect. But he provided for her a solid assurance of how things ought to be done which was always there to return to, however often she took small moral flights of her own.
With the Judge’s solid convictions always in the background to support her, and with her own beauty to give her confidence, she found it possible to do, quite simply, without hesitation or selfconsciousness, whatever came into her head. From the time she was a young girl she seems to have thought of herself as “two simple people at once, one who wants to have a law to itself and the other who wants to keep all the nice old things and be loved and safe and protected.” Until her marriage she could be both these people at once without serious strain, and the result was that she quickly became a famous figure in the community, a girl with innumerable unconventional exploits to her credit. With the coming of war, Camp Sheridan and Camp Taylor filled up with officers from all over the country and from what was for those times — and perhaps especially for Montgomery—a startling range of social classes. Overnight the social life of Montgomery took on an excitement, a feeling that anything was possible, which made every date a poignant moment of limitless romantic possibilities. And Zelda — or at least the Zelda who wanted to be a law to herself— was the ideal heroine for this world; she was beautiful and witty, and there was nothing she did not dare do.
Because she attracted him enormously, because she was desired by many, because she seemed to feel exactly as he did — and to have far more courage to do what she felt — Fitzgerald fell in love with her. And as with every important act of his life, he made out of falling in love with her an act of identification and dedication. Like Gatsby, “he took [her] one still . . . night . . . and found that he had committed himself. . . . He felt married to her, that was all.” He was head over heels in love, by turns jealous, charmed, ecstatic.
In her way Zelda was as ambitious as he was; it made for certain difficulties. Though she was in love with him, she did not, for all her yielding, commit herself as he did. She was not perfectly sure. “. . . except for the sexual recklessness,”Fitzgerald remembered with his remarkable clarity long afterwards, “Zelda was cagey about throwing in her lot with me before I was a money-maker, and I think by temperament she was the most reckless of all [the women he had known]. She was young and in a period when any exploiter or middle-man seemed a better risk than a worker in the arts.” Zelda wanted, just as Fitzgerald did, a luxury and largeness beyond anything her world provided and she had a certain almost childlike shrewdness in pursuing it.
All through that autumn of 1918 he and Zelda walked in the woods together, went to the vaudeville at the Grand Theatre and sat in the back so that they could hold hands, “gazed at each other soberly through the chorus of’ How Can You Tell!’" when they saw Hitchy-Koo, danced, and swam in the moonlight. Fitzgerald called her so often that he remembered the Sayres’ telephone number all his life. Still, Zelda was not easy to win. She let him read her diary (eventually he used parts of it in This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned; like all she wrote, it was brilliant, amateur work); she let him spend Christmas Day with her in a charmed anticipation of domesticity. But at the same time she continued to go to all the local dances with others, and to attend proms at Auburn and Georgia Tech. On these occasions Fitzgerald would get drunk, and later they would quarrel and Zelda would question whether he was ever going to make enough money for them to marry and live as she wished to. She “held him firmly at bay" (the phrase is Fitzgerald’s own).
On February 14, 1919, his discharge came through. Now there was the serious business of making a fortune to be attended to promptly, for Zelda was not going to wait forever. When he reached New York he began tramping the streets in search of a job. His notion was to “trail murderers by day and write short stories by night,”so he canvassed every newspaper in town, carrying the scores of his Triangle shows under his arm as evidence of his talent. “The office boys,”he said later, “were not impressed.” He finally settled for a job with the Barron Collier agency writing advertising slogans, mainly for streetcar cards.
He settled into a room at 200 Claremont Avenue — “one room in a high, horrible apartmenthouse in the middle of nowhere” — to live temporarily on his $90 a month and to make his fame and fortune writing stories at night. He produced nineteen of them between April and June, but “no one bought them, no one sent personal letters. I had one hundred and twenty-two rejection slips pinned in a frieze about my room.” In June he sold a story to The Smart Set, which George Jean Nathan and H. L. Mencken were making the liveliest magazine in America. But the story was “Babes in the Woods,” which he had written more than two years earlier for the Nassau Lit. He used the $30 it brought him to buy a pair of white flannels; he still had them, stored away like a bartender’s first dollar, in 1934. Meanwhile Zelda was becoming more and more what she called, in an ominous circumlocution, “nervous.” He knew what “nervous” meant — that she was emotionally depressed, that the prospect of marrying into a life of poverty and struggle was putting too much strain upon her love. Fame and fortune did not seem to be materializing on schedule for Fitzgerald, and Zelda was fretting her time away in Montgomery wondering if she ought not to marry one of her more eligible and financially belter equipped admirers.
It was all much too clear to Fitzgerald. In March he had sent her an engagement ring which must have been pathetically modest under the circumstances, and twice during the spring Zelda’s nervousness reached a point where frequent telegrams no longer calmed her and Fitzgerald had to go to Montgomery to see her.
In June Zelda sent him a print of a picture he had paid to have taken which she had inscribed affectionately to Bobby Jones, and when he taxed her jealously with this new sign of disaffection she again became so nervous that he went to Montgomery. But this time it did not work; Zelda had had enough of the strain of an engagement which every day looked less as if it were going to lead to a marriage. She told him flatly she was not prepared to go on.
Fitzgerald took the situation very badly. He came back to New York and went on an epic threeweek drunk which provided him with one of the best scenes in This Side of Paradise. Physical exhaustion and the advent of prohibition put an end to this cure, but it had, as he said of Amory’s drunk, “done its business; he was over the first flush of pain.” When he sat down to take stock of his situation, he decided he might as well try his hand once more at a novel. The remarkably optimistic young man had not, in spite of his recent blow, altogether given up his dream of success; he took up the idea of writing his novel over again in part because he still hoped to produce a best seller, win Zelda back, and become famous and admired.
He quit his advertising job with relief and, on July 4, left for St. Paul, having made an arrangement with his mother that he could have his old room on the third floor. There he settled down to rewrite The Romantic Egotist according to a schedule which he had pinned to the curtain before his desk.
He revised carefully every scene he retained from The Romantic Egotist and added a good many new ones, including practically all of Book Two of This Side of Paradise. He worked hard through two hot summer months in his third-floor front room at 599 Summit, with the result that by the end of July he was able to write Maxwell Perkins at Scribner’s that he had completed the first draft of the revision. “This is a definite attempt at a big novel,” he wrote, “and I really believe I have hit it. . .”By the end of August he had been through the whole manuscript again. On September 3 he wrapped it up, hugged it to him, and with his invariable feeling for the drama of an occasion, cried to his friend Tubby Washington, “Tubby! Maybe this is it!” The manuscript seemed to him too precious to trust to the mails, and he persuaded an acquaintance, Mr. Thomas Daniels, to carry it to Scribner’s.
He did not have to wait very long to hear from Scribner’s; this time Perkins was enthusiastic about the book and, with the help of Charles Scribner, Jr., persuaded the elder Mr. Scribner to accept it. He wrote Fitzgerald special delivery; —
I am very glad, personally to be able to write you that we are all for publishing your book, “This Side of Paradise.”Viewing it as the same book that was here before, which in a sense it is, though . . . extended further, I think that you have improved it enormously. As the first manuscript did, it abounds in energy and life and it seems to me to be in much better proportion. . . . The book is so different that it is hard to prophesy how it will sell, but we are all for taking a chance and supporting it with vigor.
Fitzgerald was overwhelmed. “Of course I was delighted to get your letter,” he wrote Perkins two days later, “and I’ve been in a sort of trance all day. . . .”He was so excited that day that he ran up and down Summit Avenue stopping cars and telling all his friends and a good many mere acquaintances that his book had been accepted. His battered morale revived and he was once more full of confidence. The possibility that the novel might not shake the world but, like most first novels, slip quietly into the great silence simply never occurred to him. A month or so later, when he called on Scribner’s in New York, he assured them he would be quite satisfied with a sale of 20,000 copies in the first year.
The book actually did far better than that. Published March 26, 1920, it had sold 32,786 copies by November 8, 1920, 39,786 by Februarv 1, 1921. Before the original sale died down, about the middle of 1923, it had sold better than 50,000 copies. A cheap reprint sold another 20,000 copies during the next year.
ON the crest of his enthusiasm he began to write like mad; he got some work down on a new novel which he tentatively entitled The Demon Lover (“A very ambitious novel . . . which will probably take a year”), but mostly he wrote short stories. Between September and December he produced nine stories — one of them was written in a single evening — and polished up another one that had been written in the spring and rejected everywhere. He was still anxious to demonstrate that he was a money-maker, and the quickest way to swing a cudgel in his “fight for happiness against time” was to produce salable short stories in impressive quantity. During October he managed to make $215 — mostly from The Smart Set — and to pay off his “terrible small debts.” Even small debts like these were terrible to him. One of the most persistent manifestations of his divided nature is the way he was always in debt, often seriously so, and yet never ceased to be deeply shocked by the fact.
The Smart Set’s $215, together with $300 that Bridges, the editor of Scribner’s Magazine, paid him on November 1 for two stories, made him a man of means and he felt ready to see Zelda again. Jn the middle of November, therefore, he returned to Montgomery in subdued triumph. He and Zelda walked in the Confederate cemetery and sat again on the remembered couch in the Sayres’ living room. It was the renewal he had dreamed of so long.
They became engaged again, informally; they would be married when Fitzgerald’s book came out. With this much assurance about Zelda, he went on to New York, where Paul Reynolds, the literary agent, agreed to handle his work. He was assigned to the immediate care of a young man named Harold Ober, who began auspiciously by selling “Head and Shoulders” to the Post for $400, nearly three times as much as Fitzgerald had ever been paid before. At the same time Metro made a flattering movie offer. On the strength of these successes Fitzgerald got roaring drunk and flooded his hotel by leaving the tap on in his bathroom.
He returned to St. Paul “in a thoroughly nervous alcoholic state which did not, however, prevent his celebrating at the Christmas parties. He had now given up the ambitious writing schemes he had worked out in his enthusiasm the previous fall. Instead he revised two of the old rejected stories and Reynolds promptly sold them to the Post for $1000. Then, with one of those incredible bursts of energy on which he was to come more and more to depend, he managed to turn out a mildly amusing story about a drunk who had gone to the wrong party as one end of a camel; “12,000 words,” as he wrote Perkins, ”... begun eight o’clock one morning and finished at seven at night and then copied between seven and half past four and mailed at 5 in the morning.”
In March he went down to Princeton to stay at Cottage until Zelda came up for the wedding. There he finally realized that dream of renewing his undergraduate life which he and Bishop had shared throughout the war. He went to the Prom and did a good many other things which had been luxuries or impossibilities for him when he was an undergraduate. The illusion of undergraduate days was easy to create because so many of his contemporaries were back in college from the war completing the work for their degrees. In his spare time he worked, and worked with that complete seriousness and concentration of his talent which he always seemed to be able to summon in the odd intervals of exhausting and irrelevant activities. “Can’t work here,” he wrote Perkins from Cottage, “so have just about decided to quit work and become an ash-man. Still working on that Smart Set novelette.” The Smart Set novelette was “May Day” and it was completed before he left Princeton.
On March 20 the Sayres announced the engagement and Fitzgerald sent Zelda her first orchid. They were now planning to be married as soon as possible. On March 26, 1920, This Side of Paradise was published.
This Side of Paradise struck most readers like a bombshell. “My how that boy Fitzgerald can write!” said Harry Hansen, then the literary editor of the Chicago Daily News. “I have just had a wonderful evening with ‘This Side of Paradise.’ It is probably one of the few really American novels extant.” Whether readers thought, as some did, that “the boy was a cad” and the girl an insult to her sex, or, as others did, that “the fine open eyed outlook that the boy has on his generation" and “the keen sense for details of contemporary psychology” gave readers “the very essence of youth” made little difference; they were fascinated.
It is possible to argue, as Burton Rascoe recently has, that there was nothing very novel about the life described in This Side of Paradise, that casual drinking and petting had been going on for several years. They had; Frederick Lewis Allen thinks “‘the petting party’ had been current as early as 1916”; and Fitzgerald himself later said it dated from 1915. But the historical fact is not the point. Fitzgerald was the first to describe this life in detail and to represent these activities as new, daring, and admirable. They cease to be in his book merely casual, occasional gestures and become the acts of a generation which was making a sincere effort to live more fully and happily than their parents and to be honest and unhypocritical about what they were doing.
To this generation’s extravagance and courage and to the romance of the idea that, one could do anything if one only tried, Fitzgerald responded with enthusiasm; these were his convictions, too. At the same time he was surprised by a great many things that the assertion of independence led others to do. What stands out most, strongly in his own memory of his attitude in the early twenties is his sense of separation from them. This curious yet characteristic combination of feelings makes This Side of Paradise much more interesting than other books on the same subject, like Dorothy Speare’s Dancers in the Dark or Percy Marks’s The PlasticAge, or even Benét’s The Beginning of Wisdom. In Fitzgerald’s book there is the constant play of an ingrained moral sense which, for all the charm and poignancy he finds in the life he portrays, places and evaluates it. He writes like some kind of impassioned and naïve anthropologist, recording with minuteness and affection and at the same time with an alien’s remoteness and astonishment.
This was always his attitude toward his material. The myths for his fiction were made out of the concrete experiences and the social ideals of his world, into which he poured his ambition for goodness and his idealizing imagination. He knew the American middle-class life of his time as few writers have ever known their material; “the people were right, the talk was right, the clothes, the cars were real,” as John O’Hara put it. About such things Fitzgerald was never wrong. And in his imagination they took on shape and color and meaning almost automatically.
He knew the life he described in This Side of Paradise; he understood it — within the limits of the standards it set for him — completely. He knew the absurdity of confusing its trivial manners and its serious morals, of supposing that a particular way of dancing was “an offense against womanly purity” and rolled stockings identical with sexual promiscuity. He knew from experience that within the emerging system of manners the old distinctions still held, that among his contemporaries there were still the wise and the foolish, the brave and the cowardly, the good and the bad.
The virtues in the book are the products of great honesty, of a determination to record what he saw and felt at any cost. The cost, at this stage in his development, was considerable. The distance between Amory and his creator, so far as values are concerned, is always very narrow, and sometimes nonexistent. It is not only Amory who is full of unrecognized intellectual affectations and emotional immaturities; it is, much of the time, the author; in these respects the book itself is hardly wiser than its hero. The case against This Side of Paradise was never more firmly made than by Fitzgerald’s friend Edmund Wilson, writing at the very height of the book’s fame.
[Amory Blaine] — he wrote — was . . . an uncertain quantity in a phantasmagoria of incident which had no dominating intention to endow it with unity and force. . . . [The book] is very immaturely imagined: it is always just verging on the ludicrous. And, finally, it is one of the most illiterate books of any merit ever published. . . . It is not only full of bogus ideas and faked literary references but it is full of English words misused with the most reckless abandon.
That Fitzgerald took such hard hitting from Wilson without complaint shows his fundamental humility.
The genuine subject of This Side of Paradise is the sort of transmuted biography which was always Fitzgerald’s subject. Throughout the book, amidst all the cocksure badness of judgment, the immaturity of sentiment, the affectation of knowledge and style, this subject keeps reasserting itself, the incorruptible heart of Fitzgerald’s imagination which he was so busy trying to beautify with borrowed feathers. Sixteen years later, still remembering what Edmund Wilson, who “had been my literary conscience” all his life, had said about the book’s bogus ideas and faked references, Fitzgerald remarked: “A lot of people thought it was a fake, and perhaps it was, and a lot of others thought it was a lie, which it was not.”
PLANS for the wedding were now pretty well completed. Fitzgerald prevailed on Zelda to arrive in New York in time to be married on Saturday, April 3. When Zelda arrived she seemed to Fitzgerald’s friends, as she was, charmingly and romantically Southern, but Fitzgerald, sensitive as always to such things, was upset by her clothes and immediately called in his old St. Paul friend Marie Hersey, who was in school in New York. “My God, Marie,”he said to her in an anguish of social distress, “you’ve got to help me! Zelda wants to buy nothing but frills and furbelows and you can’t go around New York in that kind of thing: you go shopping with her.” So Marie went shopping with Zelda and tactfully guided her to a Patou suit.
On April 3 they were married in the rectory of St. Patrick’s Cathedral; Ludlow Fowler, one of Fitzgerald’s college friends, and Zelda’s sister Rosalind were the only others present. After the ceremony the priest said to them: “You be a good Episcopalian, Zelda, and, Scott, you be a good Catholic, and you’ll get along fine.” It was, Fitzgerald always remembered wryly, the last advice he ever got from a priest.
During their honeymoon they went to Enter Madame “and the actors were cross because our tickets were in the front row and we laughed appreciatively at the wrong places and uproariously at the jokes we made up as the show went along.”They went to the midnight roof and “thought the man was real who straggled into the show dressed like a student and very convincingly got himself thrown out.”
They also went to a great many parties, and then, for the week-end of April 25, they went down to Cottage to chaperone house parties. Fitzgerald started the week-end off with one of his practical jokes, by solemnly introducing Zelda to everyone as his mistress. Since they appeared at the club dances in a condition such that, as one observer remarked, a draft would have blown them down, the joke persuaded more people than it should have; then there was “a rather gay party staged conspicuously in Harvey Firestone’s car of robin’s-egg blue” at which Fitzgerald acquired a very black eye; there was also a dinner at Cottage. It was all quite innocent and harmless, but it offended what Dean Gauss later called “bluenosed respectability.”
Presently the Fitzgeralds moved from their honeymoon cottage at the Biltmore to the Commodore and settled down to another round of parties. They celebrated the move by whirling about in the revolving doors for half an hour. With such gestures of innocent ebullience the period Fitzgerald was to name “the Jazz Age" began. “The uncertainties of 1919 were over,” he said in “Early Success”;
“— there seemed little doubt about what was going to happen — America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history. . . . The whole golden boom was in the air — its splendid generosities, its outrageous corruptions and the tortuous death struggle of the old America in prohibition.”Of this gaudy spree the people who were of an age with the century counted on having their share.
At the middle of this whirl of parties stood the Fitzgeralds. The boy from Minnesota who, as he said himself, “knew less of New York than any reporter of six months standing and less of its society than any hall-room boy in a Ritz stag line,” and his girl from Montgomery, Alabama, were an immediate and brilliant success in New York! With the publication of This Side of Paradise Fitzgerald had become a hero to his generation. To the young people who found in the book a glorious expression and a justification of the life they believed in and longed for, he became, as Glenway Wescott put it, “a kind of king of our American youth.” For this role he appeared to be almost ideally equipped. He was strikingly handsome, gracefully casual and informal; he loved popularity and responded to it with great charm; his strong sense of responsibility for the success of a social occasion made him exercise his Irish gift of gay nonsense until it seemed that the fun he could invent was inexhaustible. He was in his own person a triumphant justification of the way of life he described in his book. So, too, was Zelda. In no way a professional beauty, or, like some Southern girls, consciously feminine, she had with her striking red-gold hair an “astonishing prettiness.”The combination of her unself-conscious and fresh young prettiness with the wit and unconventionality of her attitude was invariably fascinating. With her quirk intelligence she immediately adjusted herself to the manners and customs of the New York world without losing the special attraction of her Southernness and her independence; she was, as one of their friends put it, “a barbarian princess from the South.”
Like a fairy-story hero and heroine they lived in a world in which the important things were romance and thrills— both of which could be bought on a roof garden in New York if you just had enough money.
The Fitzgeralds went about spending money and “doing what they had always wanted to do" with a youthful innocence and gusto which made whatever they did seem a part of their charm. They were as likely to be two or three hours late to a dinner party as on time, and even more likely not to come at all. They went to people’s houses, carefully greeted their hosts, and then sat down quietly in a corner and, like two children, went fast asleep. They rode down Fifth Avenue on the tops of taxis because it was hot or dove into the fountain at Union Square or tried to undress at the Scandals, or, in sheer delight at the splendor of New York, jumped, dead sober, into the Pulitzer fountain in front of the Plaza. Fitzgerald got into fights with waiters, and Zelda danced on people’s dinner tables.
Fitzgerald read all the publicity about his being “the youngest writer for whom Scribner’s have ever published a novel” and was even persuaded to say that This Side of Paradise was “a novel about Flappers written for Philosophers.” Heywood Broun, better than any critic in New York, put his finger on this brash quality in both the book and Fitzgerald’s conduct, though he seems not to have felt its authentic charm: —
We have just read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “This Side of Paradise” (Scribner’s) — he wrote — and it makes us feel very old. According to the announcement of his publishers Mr. Fitzgerald is only twentythree, but there were times during our progress through the book when we suspected that this was an overstatement, Daisy Ashford is hardly more naive. . . . None of Fitzgerald’s characters ever puts his hands down for a second. There is too much footwork and too much feinting for anything solid and substantial being accomplished. You can’t expect to have blood drawn in any such exhibition as that.
“. . . for some days [after this attack],”Fitzgerald remembered, ”I was notably poor company.”Nonetheless, he tried to meet Broun’s onslaught by inviting him to lunch and, as he himself put it later, “in a kindly way [telling] him that it was too bad he had let his life slide away without accomplishing anything. He had just turned thirty. . . .”Broun’s response to this well-meant advice was to print one of Fitzgerald’s interviews in which he told how he had become a great writer, and to remark at the end of it: “Having heard Mr. Fitzgerald, we are not entirely minded to abandon our notion that he is a rather complacent, somewhat pretentious and altogether self-conscious young man.”
Fitzgerald was not consoled by Perkins’s tactful suggestion that “we consider all this sort of thing as advantageous.”
In May he and Zelda decided to achieve peace and to collect their souls in the country; they began investigating Westchester County and near-by Connecticut. Eventually they settled in Westport in a comfortable gray-shingled house known locally as the Burritt Wakeman place. But peace did not descend; instead week-end guests descended. One night, out of some kind of boredom, Zelda put in a fire alarm, and when the department arrived and asked where the fire was she struck her breast dramatically and said, “Here.”
Through May and June they saw a host of old and new friends, college friends of Scott’s like John Biggs and Townsend Martin, new acquaintances like Charles Towne. George Jean Nathan came for a week-end and immediately announced that their Japanese servant, Tana, had whispered to him that his real name was Lieutenant Emile Tannenbaum and that he was a German Intelligence Officer; he kept urging on them parties which were hard to resist; “Can’t we all have a party during the week? Mencken will be here and I should like to have you meet him. I have laid in three more cases of gin,” he would write. He flirted gaily with Zelda. But for all his high spirits, he aroused Fitzgerald’s jealousy and Fitzgerald picked a quarrel with him.
Though they were very much in love, both Fitzgeralds were, in their different ways, easily made jealous. Scott’s was a lover’s jealousy, and when it was aroused, all the old-fashioned morality of his upbringing, which was not very far below the surface of his nature at any time, came out. Zelda, on the other hand, was often unhappy when Scott was lionized, for she liked to be the center of things as much as he did.
Gradually the division in Fitzgerald’s nature was being reinforced by the life they were living, by Zelda’s delight in it and her appeal to the old feeling, left over from his wooing, that her love required it.
When I was your age — he wrote his daughter in 1938 — I lived with a great dream. The dream grew and I learned to speak of it and to make people listen. Then the dream divided one day when I decided to marry your mother after all, even though I knew she was spoiled and meant no good to me. I was sorry immediately I had married her, but being patient in those days, made the best of it and got to love her in another way. You came along and for a long time we made quite a lot of happiness out of our lives. But I was a man divided — she wanted me to work too much for her and not enough for my dream.
This account of his feelings is distorted by the opinions of the much older Fitzgerald who wrote it. What he said about the Anthony and Gloria of The Beautiful and Damned in 1921 is probably closer to what he felt at the time. “The idyl passed,” he said of them. “. . . But, knowing they had had the best of love, they clung to what remained. Love lingered — by way of long conversations at night . . . by way of deep and intimate kindnesses they developed toward each other, by way of their laughing at the same absurdities and thinking the same things noble and the same things sad.” But those who worried about Fitzgerald’s career worried about his working for Zelda. “Scott was extravagant,”said Max Perkins, “but not like her; money went through her fingers like water; she wanted everything; she kept him writing for the magazines.”
ABOUT this time Fitzgerald began a lifelong habit of borrowing from his agent. At first his requests that Ober “deposit a thousand” would be made when he could say “am mailing story today.” But gradually he came to anticipate the production of a story, so that for twenty years he was almost constantly behind with Ober. About these calls for help Ober was unfailingly generous, and again and again Fitzgerald would write him: “I must owe you thousands — three at least — maybe more. . . . I honestly think I cause you more trouble and bring you less business than any of your clients. How you tolerate it I don’t know — but thank God you do.” Ober not only lent Fitzgerald money; he took the responsibility for Fitzgerald’s financial difficulties as if they were his own. His “we” in the following letter was habitual: “I realize this solves our difficulties only temporarily but if you can finish rewriting the fourth section of the story [Tender Is the Night] in eight or ten days and then take a little rest, I think it would probably be much easier for you to do a short story and I am sure we can survive some way until that is done.”
Fitzgerald was disturbed by the early discovery that the minute he started a novel, or any piece of work that took any time, he sank over his ears in debt. On December 31, 1920, he wrote Perkins: —
The bank this afternoon refused to lend me anything on the security of stock I hold — and I have been pacing the floor for an hour trying to decide what to do. Here, with the novel within two weeks of completion, am I with six hundred dollars worth of bills and owing Reynolds $650 for an advance on a story that I’m utterly unable to write. I’ve made half a dozen starts yesterday and today and I’ll go mad if I have to do another debutante which is what they want.
I hoped that at last being square with Scribner’s I could remain so. But I’m at my wit’s end. Isn’t there some way you could regard this as an advance on the new novel rather than on the Xmas sale [of This Side of Paradise] which won’t be due me till July? And at the same interest that it costs Scribner’s to borrow? Or could you make it a month’s loan from Scribner and Co. with my next ten books as security? I need $1600.00.
When everything proper has been said about Fitzgerald’s being in this financial mess after making over $18,000 in 1920 and about the transparent exaggeration that The Beautiful and Damned was two weeks from completion (it was not finished until the following April), this remains a touching letter: it is so obviously shocked itself by the amount required that once the awful sum is mentioned it turns tail and runs.
This particular crisis was soon over. This Side of Paradise was at the peak of its sales and Scribner’s was glad to make a little advance against his accumulated royalties; the movies also came forward to buy two more stories and to pay $3000 for an option on Fitzgerald’s future output. But this kind of rescue by fresh funds soiled nothing permanently. It was not until the end of his life that Fitzgerald faced the fact that he had never been “any of the things a proper business man should be” and recognized how “crippled . . . I am by my inability to handle money.”
In his genuine distress at finding himself $1600 in debt, Fitzgerald determined to work very hard; he planned to write a novel and a play within the next nine months. He was full of optimism about the novel and, having sold the serial rights to The Metropolitan for $7000, he assured Perkins it would be ready for serialization by the middle of September and available for book publication in the spring. “Scott’s hot in the midst of a new novel,” Zelda wrote, “and Westport is unendurably dull,” but as Fitzgerald told Perkins, “the duller Westport becomes, the more work I do.”
By November, however, they were finding that “late autumn made the country dreary” and moved into an apartment at 38 West 59th Street. Through the fall Fitzgerald alternated parties with spurts of strenuous work on the novel. (“Done 15,000 words in last three days which is very fast writing even for me who write very fast,” he told Perkins.) By January, 1921, enough hard work — and it took a great deal — had been done so that Part I of The Beautiful and Damned had been finished; a month later Wilson was reading and criticizing Part II and Fitzgerald was hoping to have the rest completed by the end of the month. Actually the book was not finished until just before they sailed for Europe at the beginning of May.
In March Zelda had discovered she was pregnant, which meant that if they were to take the trip to Europe which they had planned they would have to do so quickly, and amid a good deal of confusion they managed to get away on May 3 on the Aquitania. They began the trip with enthusiasm, Fitzgerald going carefully through the first-class passenger list and marking the names of all the important people, including “Mr. Francis S. Fitzgerald” (“Disguise! Sh!” he noted), but they quickly became depressed. They landed in England and then went on almost immediately to France, which was, Fitzgerald wrote Leslie, “a bore and a disappointment, chiefly, I imagine, because we knowno one here.” They sat for an hour outside Anatole France’s house hoping he would go in or out, but he did not oblige them. They went on to Florence and Rome, where they were similarly disappointed.
By the end of July they were back in Montgomery considering the possibility of taking a house there, for they were determined to get away from New York and the parties, at least until their child was born. But eventually Scott’s home town won out, and in the middle of August they arrived in St. Paul. It was a triumphant return. Between the continued popularity of This Side of Paradise and the first serial rights of The Beautiful and Damned he was making more money than ever. Moreover he was a famous man. He and Zelda were paragraphed in the papers when they arrived and Fitzgerald was quoted as saying that he “had got tired of New York and had decided to come to a nice quid town to write.” He also informed the press that he had three novels mapped out in his mind and that he would run off a dozen stories for a weekly magazine, presumably the Post, before he tackled them. The papers referred to him as “St. Paul’s first successful novelist and he was obviously doing his best to look the part.
It was a brave show, and publicly Fitzgerald did his best to make it appear that they had their lives under control; privately, however, he was discouraged about the way they were living and its effect on his work. Out of one of those states of depression in which he was inclined to exaggerate the disorder of their lives, he wrote Perkins: “I’m having a hell of a time because I’ve loafed for 5 months and I want to get to work. . . . I should like to sit down with half a dozen chosen companions and drink myself to death but I am sick alike of life, liquor and literature. If it wasn’t for Zelda I think I’d disappear out of sight for three years. Ship as a sailor or something and get hard — I’m sick of the flabby semi-intellectual softness in which I flounder with my generation.” For the moment the man who wanted to achieve had the upper hand of the man who wanted to enjoy.
The Beautiful and Damned got a mixed reception from the critics and a reception from the public which, if excellent by most people’s standards, was not up to what Fitzgerald had anticipated. By the time the book was published in March, 1922, he had borrowed from Scribner’s $5643, the amount he would make from the sale of 18,810 copies (the figures are his own, for it was part of his ceaseless anxiety at the mysterious way his debt piled up that he kept minute track of it). An advance of $5600 to an author as popular as Fitzgerald was not extravagant, but to the writer who had pressed hard to finish a second novel quickly and had driven himself since he returned from Europe to produce enough short stories to keep out of debt, it seemed a defeat.
In October, when their baby daughter was a year old, they decided to move back to New York. They finally settled on a $300-a-month house on Gateway Drive in Great Neck and Zelda went back to St. Paul to bring the baby and her nurse east. They bought a secondhand Rolls-Royce and settled down to New York.
They gave many parties, for, as Fitzgerald remarked ruefully, “it became a habit with many world-weary New Yorkers to pass their week-ends at the Fitzgerald house in the country.” He and Zelda wrote a set of Rules for Guests at the Fitzgerald House. “Visitors,” it said, “are requested not to break down doors in search of liquor, even when authorized to do so by the host and hostess”; and, “Week-end guests are respectfully notified that the invitations to stay over Monday, issued by the host and hostess during the small hours of Sunday morning, must not be taken seriously.” These rules were only partly a joke, for a Fitzgerald party was likely to go on indefinitely. It might begin at some night club. There would be, perhaps, a bootlegger, “some probably intimidated and indignant friends from the hinterland,” a mixed collection of literary and theatrical people, and a few unaccountable strays like the man who sang “Who’ll Bite Your Neck, When My Teeth Are Gone?” By the time they were ready to pick up the secondhand Rolls somewhere near the Plaza and go home, they would have attracted a crowd of friends for the confused drive to Great Neck.
The journey to and from Great Neck was always an adventure, for a car was not a safe instrument in the hands of either of them. Once Fitzgerald drove Max Perkins straight into a pond instead of following the curve of the road “because it seemed more fun”; Zelda got herself arrested as “the Bobhaired Bandit,” and once she drove slowly out of a side road in front of a car which missed her only by a heroic effort. When her passenger asked breathlessly if she had not seen it, she said, Oh yes, that she had. Yet somehow, in spite of their driving and in spite of the law, they always managed the return to Gateway Drive, where it was customary for their man to find them sleeping quietly on the front lawn when he got up in the morning.
This life made the proper operation of a household difficult at best, and, as Fitzgerald said of himself, “. . . I have [never] been able to fire a bad servant, and I am astonished and impressed by people who can.”They had three such servants at Great Neck. It was an expensive domestic arrangement. Nor were the parties cheap, nor the liquor, nor what Ernest Boyd called Fitzgerald’s “embarrassing habit of using his check book for the writing of inexplicable autographs in the tragic moments immediately preceding his flight through the weary wastes of Long Island.” They spent $36,000 during their first year at Great Neck.
(To be concluded)