This is an edited version of "The Other Side of Paradise, Scott Fitzgerald, 40, Engulfed in Despair" by Michel Mok, first published in the New York Post, September 25 1936
Tuesday 18 September 2007
Long ago, when he was young, cocksure, drunk with sudden success, F Scott Fitzgerald told a newspaper man that no one should live beyond 30. That was in 1921, shortly after his first novel, This Side of Paradise, had burst into the literary heavens like a flowering Roman candle.
The poet-prophet of the post-war neurotics observed his 40th birthday yesterday in his bedroom of the Grove Park Inn here. He spent the day as he spends all his days - trying to come back from the other side of paradise, the hell of despondency in which he has writhed for the last couple of years.
He had no company except his soft spoken, Southern, maternal and indulgent nurse and this reporter. With the girl he bantered in conventional nurse-and-patient fashion. With his visitor he chatted bravely, as an actor, consumed with fear that his name will never be in lights again, discusses his next starring role. He kidded no one. There obviously was as little hope in his heart as there was sunshine in the dripping skies, covered with clouds that veiled the view of Sunset Mountain.
Physically he was suffering the aftermath of an accident eight weeks ago, when he broke his right shoulder in a dive from a 15- foot springboard. But whatever pain the fracture might still cause him, it did not account for his jittery jumping off and on to his bed, his restless pacing, his trembling hands, his twitching face with its pitiful expression of a cruelly beaten child.
Nor could it be held responsible for his frequent trips to a highboy, in a drawer of which lay a bottle. Each time he poured a drink into the measuring glass on his bedside table, he would look appealingly at the nurse and ask, "Just one ounce?"
Each time the nurse cast down her eyes without replying. Fitzgerald, for that matter, did not attempt to make his injury an excuse for his thirst.
"A series of things happened to papa," he said, with mock brightness. "So papa got depressed and started drinking a little."
What the "things" were he refused to explain.
"One blow after another," he said, "and finally something snapped."
Before coming to North Carolina, however, his visitor had learned something of Fitzgerald's recent history from friends in Baltimore, where he lived until last July.
The author's wife, Zelda, had been ill for some years. There was talk, said his friends, of an attempt at suicide on her part one evening when the couple were taking a walk in the country outside Baltimore. Mrs Fitzgerald, so the story went, threw herself on the tracks before an oncoming express train. Fitzgerald, himself in poor health, rushed after her and narrowly saved her life.
There were other difficulties. Mrs Fitzgerald finally was taken to a sanatorium near this city, and her husband soon followed her, taking a room in the rock-built Park Grove Inn, one of the largest and most famous resort hotels in America.
But the causes of Fitzgerald's breakdown are of less importance than its effects on the writer. In a piece entitled Pasting It Together, one of three autobiographical articles published in Esquire, which appeared in the March issue of that magazine, Fitzgerald described himself as "a cracked plate".
"Sometimes, though," he wrote, "the cracked plate has to be retained in the pantry, has to be kept in service as a household necessity. It can never again be warmed on the stove nor shuffled with the other plates in the dishpan; it will not be brought out for company, but it will do to hold crackers late at night or to go into the ice box under the leftovers.
"Now the standard cure for one who is sunk is to consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering - this is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutory daytime advice for every one. But at three o'clock in the morning ... the cure doesn't work - and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning, day after day. At that hour the tendency is to refuse to face things as long as possible by retiring into an infantile dream - but one is continually startled out of this by various contacts with the world.
"One meets these occasions as quickly and carelessly as possible and retires once more back into the dream, hoping that things will adjust themselves by some great material or spiritual bonanza. But as the withdrawal persists there is less and less chance of the bonanza - one is not waiting for the fade-out of a single sorrow, but rather being an unwilling witness of an execution, the disintegration of one's own personality ..."
Yesterday, toward the end of a long, rambling, disjointed talk, he put it in different words, not nearly as poetic but no less moving for that reason:
"A writer like me," he said, "must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It's an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothingcan- happen-to-me, nothing-can-harm-me, nothing-can-touch-me.
"Thomas Wolfe has it. Ernest Hemingway has it. I once had it. But through a series of blows, many of them my own fault, something happened to that sense of immunity and I lost my grip."
In illustration, he told a story about his father.
"As a boy, my father lived in Montgomery County, Maryland. Our family has been mixed up quite a bit in American history. My greatgrandfather's brother was Francis Scott Key who wrote The Star- Spangled Banner; I was named for him. My father's aunt was Mrs Suratt, who was hanged after the assassination of Lincoln because Booth had planned the deed in her house - you remember that three men and a woman were executed.
"As a youngster of nine, my father rowed spies across the river. When he was 12 he felt that life was finished for him. As soon as he could, he went west, as far away from the scenes of the civil war as possible. He started a wicker-furniture factory in St Paul. A financial panic in the 90s struck him and he failed.
'We came back east and my father got a job as a soap salesman in Buffalo. He worked at this for some years. One afternoon - I was 10 or 11 - the phone rang and my mother answered it. I didn't understand what she said but I felt that disaster had come to us. My mother, a little while before, had given me a quarter to go swimming. I gave the money back to her. I knew something terrible had happened and I thought she could not spare the money now.
"Then I began to pray. 'Dear God,' I prayed, 'please don't let us go to the poorhouse; please don't let us go to the poorhouse.' A little while later my father came home. I had been right. He had lost his job.
"That morning he had gone out a comparatively young man, a man full of strength, full of confidence. He came home that evening, an old man, a completely broken man. He had lost his essential drive, his immaculateness of purpose. He was a failure the rest of his days."
Fitzgerald rubbed his eyes, his mouth, quickly walked up and down the room.
"Oh," he said, "I remember something else. I remember that when my father came home my mother said to me, 'Scott, say something to your father.' I didn't know what to say. I went up to him and asked, 'Father, who do you think will be the next president?' He looked out of the window. He didn't move a muscle. Then he said: 'I think Taft will.'
"My father lost his grip and I lost my grip. But now I'm trying to get back. I started by writing those pieces for Esquire. Perhaps they were a mistake. Too much de profundis. My best friend, a great American writer - he's the man I call my artistic conscience in one of the Esquire articles - wrote me a furious letter. He said I was stupid to write that gloomy personal stuff."
"What are your plans at the moment, Mr Fitzgerald? What are you working on now?"
"Oh, all sorts of things. But let's not talk about plans. When you talk about plans, you take something away from them."
Fitzgerald left the room.
"Despair, despair, despair," said the nurse. "Despair day and night. Try not to talk about his work or his future. He does work, but only very little - maybe three, four hours a week."
Soon he returned. "We must celebrate the author's birthday," he said gayly. "We must kill the fatted calf or, at any rate, cut the candled cake." He took another drink. "Much against your better judgment, my dear," he smiled at the girl.
Heeding the nurse's advice, the visitor turned the talk to the writer's early days and Fitzgerald told how This Side of Paradise came to be written.
"I wrote it when I was in the army," he said. "I was 19. I rewrote the whole book a year later. The title was changed, too. Originally, it was called, The Romantic Egotist.
"Isn't This Side of Paradise a beautiful title? I'm good at titles, you know. I've published four novels and four volumes of short stories. All my novels have good titles - The Great Gatsby, The Beautiful and Damned and Tender Is the Night. That's my latest book. I worked on it four years.
"Yes, I wrote This Side of Paradise in the army. I didn't go overseas - my army experience consisted mostly of falling in love with a girl in each city I happened to be in.
"I almost went across. They actually marched us on to a transport and then marched us right off again. Influenza epidemic or something. That was about a week before the armistice.
"We were quartered at Camp Mills, in Long Island. I sneaked out of bounds into New York - there was a girl concerned, no doubt - and I missed the train back to Camp Sheridan, Alabama, where we had been trained.
"So this is what I did. Went to the Pennsylvania station and commandeered an engine and a cab to take me to Washington to join the troops. I told the railroad people I had confidential war papers for President Wilson. Couldn't wait a minute. Couldn't be entrusted to the mails. They fell for my bluff. I'm sure it's the only time in the history of the United States army that a lieutenant has commandeered a locomotive. I caught up with the regiment in Washington. No, I wasn't punished."
"But how about This Side of Paradise?"
"That's right, I'm wandering. After we were mustered out I went to New York. Scribners turned my book down. Then I tried to get a job on a newspaper. I went to every newspaper office with the scores and lyrics of the Triangle shows of the two or three previous years under my arm. I had been one of the big boys in the Triangle Club at Princeton and I thought that would help. The office boys were not impressed."
One day, Fitzgerald ran into an advertising man who told him to stay away from the newspaper business. He helped him to get a job with the Barron Collier agency, and for some months Fitzgerald wrote slogans for street car cards.
"I remember," he said, "the hit I made with a slogan I wrote for the Muscatine Steam laundry in Muscatine, Iowa - 'We keep you clean in Muscatine.' I got a raise for that. 'It's perhaps a bit imaginative,' said the boss, 'but still it's plain that there's a future for you in this business. Pretty soon this office won't be big enough to hold you.'"
In This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald had one of his principal characters take a crack at the popular authors of the period - some of whom are popular still - in these words:
"Fifty thousand dollars a year! My God look at them, look at them - Edna Ferber, Gouverneur Morris, Fannie Hurst, Mary Roberts Rinehart - not producing among 'em one story or novel that will last 10 years. This man Cobb - I don't think he's either clever or amusing - and what's more, I don't think many people do, except the editors. He's just groggy with advertising. And - oh, Harold Bell Wright and Zane Grey, Ernest Poole and Dorothy Canfield try, but they are hindered by their absolute lack of any sense of humour."
And the lad wound up by saying, it was no wonder that such English writers as Wells, Conrad, Galsworthy, Shaw and Bennett depended on America for over half their sales. What does Fitzgerald think of the literary situation in this country today?
"It has improved a lot," he said. "The whole thing broke with Main Street. Ernest Hemingway, I think, is the greatest living writer of English. He took that place when Kipling died. Next comes Thomas Wolfe and then Faulkner and Dos Passos.
"Erskine Caldwell and a few others have come up just a bit after our generation, and they haven't done quite so well. We were products of prosperity. The best art is produced in times of riches. The men who came some years after us didn't have the chance we had."
Has he changed his mind on questions of economics? Amory Blaine, the hero of This Side of Paradise, predicted the success of the Bolshevik experiment in Russia, foresaw eventual government ownership of all industries in this country.
"Oh, but I made an awful boner," said Fitzgerald. "Do you remember I said publicity would destroy Lenin? That was a fine prophecy. He became a saint. My views? Well, in a pinch they'd still be pretty much towards the left."
Then the reporter asked him how he felt now about the jazz-mad, gin-mad generation whose feverish doings he chronicled in This Side of Paradise. How had they done? How did they stand up in the world?
"Why should I bother myself about them?" he asked. "Haven't I enough worries of my own? You know as well as I do what has happened to them. Some became brokers and threw themselves out of windows. Others became bankers and shot themselves. Still others became newspaper reporters. And a few became successful authors."
His face twitched.
"Successful authors!" he cried. "Oh, my God, successful authors!"
He stumbled over to the highboy and poured himself another drink.