A hopeless affair with America’s greatest—and deceased—man of letters.
Last year, I confessed to my best friend that I had fallen in love with another man. When she heard this man’s identity, she knew I was in trouble.
“First of all,” she told me, “you’re married. And so is he.”
“I know,” I said miserably.
“Plus, he has a mistress,” she pointed out.
“Yes,” I conceded.
“And, you know,” she went on, “he also happens to be dead.”
I had to admit that it was all rather inconvenient, but I was smitten and there was nothing I could do about it. The object of my affection: F. Scott Fitzgerald, oracle of the Jazz Age, author of the great American novel. We had first become acquainted when I was a nerdy, thick-ankled teenager (and God, how Fitzgerald reviled thick ankles in ladies). He intimidated me, and then I outgrew him. But recently our paths crossed again; now blessed with slimmer ankles and after years of training in the art of moderate decadence, I considered myself more up to his standard. Then, to my surprise, I fell for him.
To be fair, I’ve had other ill-fated affairs with dead authors: those years of pining for the attentions of Truman Capote (you can see the complications there); the make-out sessions with W. Somerset Maugham (although his worlds always proved a tad too humid for me); the obsession with Edith Wharton (my first and only time playing for the other team). But the affair with Scott Fitzgerald was the gravest affair yet, the most exquisitely anguished—and the most embarrassing.
This is how it went down.
A few years ago, I began researching a book recounting the genesis of Ernest Hemingway’s debut novel, The Sun Also Rises. Fitzgerald played a crucial role in this story, first by paving Hemingway’s path to Charles Scribner’s Sons, Fitzgerald’s own publisher since 1920; he then offered Hemingway some shrewd, crucial advice on the manuscript of Sun itself.
Each day, I had been making my way from New York out to the Scribners and Fitzgerald archives at Princeton University. By then I’d reread and adored Fitzgerald’s novels and most of his short stories, but it was his correspondence that got to me. In the early days of Fitzgerald’s career, reviewers often described his prose as “vivid” or “alive,” but his letters felt especially electric. It seemed criminal to me that all of that vivacity had been smothered for so long in drab olive-green folders in New Jersey. Many of those letters have been reproduced in anthologies, but seeing them in person felt like meeting Fitzgerald himself in person. He wrote as he might have spoken; I could almost hear his voice saying the words aloud as he penned them.
There was also something about his crazy handwriting—educated but unbridled—and I was charmed by the childish, relentless misspellings. (He never could, for instance, master Hemingway’s name, usually prescribing an extra m.) On a good day, I would turn a page and be rewarded with an amusing Fitzgerald sketch. In one 1926 missive to Perkins, he wrote, “There was something else I wanted to ask you. What was it? damn it!” Unable to recall, he switched gears and informed the editor that he intended to “live and die on the French Rivierra [sic]” and then asked if Perkins had “the inside dope on the Countess Carthcart case.” But the first forgotten question plagued him: “I can’t remember my other question and its [sic] driving me frantic. Frantic! (Half an hour later) Frantic!” He festooned the last “frantic” with a self-portrait of himself in a state of frenzy; I laughed out loud. On the flyleaf a copy of The Great Gatsby that Fitzgerald presented to Beach, he drew a Last Supper–style sketch of a several Lost Generation greats dining together: he portrayed himself kneeling at the side of James Joyce, whose head is ringed with a halo. Beach and her lover Adrienne Monnier are portrayed as mermaids, holding court at either end of the table.
Before I’d gotten to the Fitzgerald letters, I had been dragging myself out to those archives in baggy yoga pants, ratty T-shirts, hair wadded on top of my head. But then, one morning, my little family heard the alien sounds of high heels tapping down the stairs to breakfast. What was more: those heels were on my feet. I was wearing a belted dress and a fedora, jauntily angled over one eye. Scott would like that, I had thought.
“Are you wearing lipstick to the archive?” my husband asked, peering over his coffee.
“I always wear lipstick to the archive,” I said.
“No, you don’t,” he said.
“Well, I always wear Chap Stick, at the very least,” I countered feebly, and off I went.
Yes: I was dressing up for F. Scott Fitzgerald and lying about it. If the archivists at Princeton also noticed the change, they politely declined to comment. The other researchers, however, were well within their rights to hate the new me. Usually the only sounds that echoed through that high-ceilinged room came from turning pages and pencils scratching across paper, but now everyone had to endure my chortles and coos over Fitzgerald’s missives.
Who knows why some people enthrall us, while other supposedly charismatic figures leave us cold? I always felt wonderful after being with him—like you do after a hilarious, slightly drunken lunch with someone you have a crush on. After a particularly amusing or poignant afternoon spent with him on paper, I’d get a coffee and sit on the lawn of his old eating club, Cottage, and bask in the sun and think about what I’d read. At Princeton, you still feel his presence everywhere. There was a certain irony to this: back in 1920, the president of the university sent Fitzgerald a disappointed letter following the release of This Side of Paradise.
“[The] characterization of Princeton has grieved me,” he wrote. “I cannot bear to think that our young men are merely living for four years in a country club.”
Perhaps he needn’t have worried: even if it failed to imbue Princeton with a certain gravitas, the book undeniably helped ensure Princeton’s popularity for decades to come.
One thing my new boyfriend and I had in common: a love of gossip. That said, Scott wasn’t malicious or petty. His correspondence show him strategizing behind the backs of others—but often to boost the fortunes of fellow writer. He connived behind the scenes, for example, to help bring Hemingway into Perkins’s stable of Charles Scribner’s Sons; after this goal was successfully met, he instructed Perkins to treat Hemingway gently.
“Do ask him for the absolute minimum of necessary changes, Max,” he wrote. “He’s so discouraged about the previous reception of his work by publishers and magazine editors.”
Fitzgerald did, of course, famously hand Hemingway his own roster of tough edits for the manuscript of The Sun Also Rises—yet he delivered the medicine with sugar. “Remember this is new departure for you, and that I think your stuff is great,” he encouraged Hemingway. “The novel’s damn good.”
This encouragement was even more extraordinary given that it came at a time when Hemingway was beginning to eclipse Fitzgerald. Until that year—1926—Scott had reigned as their voice of their postwar generation, until then known as the Jazz Age; Hemingway, with the publication of Sun was about to dethrone him and begin his own reign as leader of the Lost Generation. Those in their world noted that Fitzgerald’s own writing style seemed to belong to a more romantic time, while Hemingway’s style felt like the future.
“People watched Hemingway and watched what Hemingway was doing and cared deeply about it, as I did, and weren’t too much impressed by Scott,” said their friend, poet Archibald MacLeish. “Scott doesn’t exist when you’re talking at the level of Picasso and Stravinsky.”
Fitzgerald too eventually began to feel himself Hemingway’s inferior, but it never seemed to make him bitter—at least not toward Hemingway himself. His 1920s letters to Hemingway evidenced his selfless capacity for love. It was extraordinary, in a way: in certain respects, Scott was said to be homophobic (he used to taunt Gerald Murphy, an unrepentant dandy, with little innuendo-laden barbs such as “Why do you have such a passion for buckles?”), but he had no qualms about expressing his deep admiration and affection for someone as brusquely masculine as Hemingway. He continued to champion his friend though his professional debut and offered consolation when Hemingway’s first marriage fell apart shortly after Sun’s release.
“I’m sorry for you and for Hadley … and I hope some way you’ll all be content and things will not seem so hard and bad,” he wrote to him. “I can’t tell you how much your friendship has meant to me during this year and a half,” he added. “It is the brightest thing in our trip to Europe for me.”
It began to seem unfair to me that Hemingway was the recipient of all that affection. After all, practically everyone in New York and Paris adored Hemingway by that point—even Dorothy Parker, who hated everyone. Why did he have to hoard Fitzgerald’s admiration, too? I sulked about it, until I remembered how my grandmother said that jealous women tend to purse their lips in an ugly way. That would never do. I walked it off, and came back the next day, conciliatory as a lamb.
Of course, I could not and did not keep this affair to myself. I began confessing to an unlucky selection of friends over dinners, giving the details in a state of fever dream. I sought out other F. Scott obsessives in a bid to decipher why he was so addictive. One fellow devotee pointed out that the Fitzgerald of later years would have made an exasperating and even repellent addition to the restaurant table that evening: he became, after all, an alcoholic who often drank himself into oblivion, and even hospitalization. How could someone like that have made an exciting lover, or even an adequate one?
It was then that I realized that my own affair with Scott had nothing to do with sex. Even in his younger years, Fitzgerald seemed to have precisely zero come-hither. I just irrationally wanted to be his girl, his comrade, his partner in crime. In the early and midtwenties, Fitzgerald and his actual girl, Zelda, were badly behaved—wonderfully so. Their antics on both sides of the Atlantic have been described as madcap or sophomoric at best and grossly self-destructive at worst. But to me, however, those misadventures just seemed like fun.
And when I was rediscovering F. Scott Fitzgerald, I happened to be having less madcap, self-destructive fun than ever. There was that hideous, pressure-cooker of a book deadline; those sleepless nights with a baby back home; that grueling commute. God, how I wanted to be at Scott’s side at his rented villa in Antibes, dousing myself in champagne, flinging ashtrays at pretentious expats, hurling crystal glasses toward the azure Mediterranean, kidnapping annoying local waiters and threatening to saw them open. I mean, who hasn’t wanted to give the middle finger to the humorlessness and anxiety of adulthood? Who wouldn’t want to be naughty without being bad?
There were, of course, loftier reasons behind my affection as well. Since we’re on the topic of being bad, I think one of the reasons I loved Fitzgerald is precisely because he was so good. Sylvia Beach nailed Fitzgerald’s essence when she described his “fallen angel fascination.” I revere goodness and honor in men, and Fitzgerald was just so goddamn pure and loyal. I loved his no-strings-attached generosity, even toward those who didn’t always repay him with gratitude.
Like his character Jay Gatsby, Fitzgerald had a heightened sensitivity to the dynamics among men and the rhythms of time, history and loss; yet like Gatsby, he also had astonishingly adolescent naïveté and behaviors at the same time. If Hemingway’s savvy high/low approach to authorial style interested me, Fitzgerald’s central dichotomy—youth/wisdom—proved positively engrossing, precisely because it was so unfathomable.
I didn’t have to spend so many months lurking in the Princeton archives, but I drew out the process until my deadline got scary: I knew that I had to sit down and write my book. Suddenly there was no room for frivolity, no appetite for pleasure, no time to pine for Antibes. There was only the writing, the daily word count, the necessarily crushing routine. Then, when I’d finished the manuscript, with my darling Fitz playing a heroic role in its pages, fate appeared ready to sever the affair permanently: my husband’s job was transferred from New York to Los Angeles and we moved across the country. Suddenly, I was an expat myself. Fitzgerald and Paris and Antibes felt very far away indeed.
Until this happened:
INT. DINNER PARTY, BEVERLY HILLS.
BLUME is seated next to a veteran Hollywood FILMMAKER who reveals his own interest in Lost Generation writers. They are discussing Fitzgerald’s brief and unsuccessful tenure in Hollywood at the end of the 1930s.
I’ve always read that his screenplays were supposed
to be pretty terrible. That he overwrote them,
and didn’t understand screenwriting.
I’ve read excerpts from some of those
screenplays, and they shocked me.
Why—were they worse than you expected?
No, they were pretty great, actually. Totally produceable.
Where did you see the screenplays?
They’re all over town, in various archives.
The following Monday morning, my husband and daughter were at the breakfast table, when they heard an ominous sound: high heels clack-clack-clacking toward the kitchen. I rounded the corner. My red lipstick confirmed the worst: the affair was back on. My husband put his head in his hands.
And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Lesley M. M. Blume is the author of Everybody Behaves Badly, now available from Eamon Dolan Books / Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.