Somebody, presumably Campbell Scott (no relation to F. but son of G. C.) reads excerpts from F. Scott Fitzgerald's 1922 short story, "Winter Dreams," which sounds a little like a wind tunnel experiment for Gatsby. It's a collage of stills, contemporary film footage, expert commentary, and the sometimes amusing gossip of those old enough to remember Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre. It appeared on PBS's "American Masters" series, done with class. It won a Peabody Award.
I don't think I want to go through the whole epic story of Fitzgerald, with or without his mad wife. Let's say Scott was born into what might be called the lower margin of the upper class in St. Paul, Minnesota, was accepted into Princeton University -- at the time, a factory for the white wealthy elite -- and flunked out. With the first world war looming, he was commissioned into the army, stationed near Montgomery, Alabama, and met Zelda Sayre, madcap rich girl, from Montgomery's highest caste. Every place this guy went, he seemed to run into strict class systems.
In the space of three days, Scott had been married and had his first novel published. The novel, "This Side of Paradise," was a blockbuster and was followed by other successful novels and many short stories, all of which brought in a river of money. The couple moved to glamorous, clamorous New York and epitomized what was the be called The Jazz Age, familiar to us newbies through movies about flappers, the Charleston, swanky night clubs, and everybody bathing in tubs of gold coins except for the lower 90% of us. The Fitzgeralds were celebrated by this time, at the top of the heap -- except that, as E. L. Doctorow puts it, Scott "was haunted by his own sense of inauthenticity." I don't know exactly what that means. I'm too dumb. But I'd guess it means that Scott had doubts about his being able to churn out so many successes. It was the sort of doubt that would never have bothered his later friend Ernest Hemingway, not until Big Ernie was over the hill anyway.
Scott was 27 when he and Zelda moved to Paris and fell in with the "in" crowd. He recommended Hemingway to his own publisher -- "He's the real thing." It was here that he wrote "The Great Gatsby," one of the finest novels in English of the century. It was a smash. Everybody read it. It was my mother's favorite novel and she returned to it repeatedly although she never got past the eighth grade in school. I read it in a high school English class and found it boring, unable to identify with the characters. Many years later, stuck for a summer on a Cheyenne Reservation with a tiny library, I read it again and was gripped, having discovered in the intervening years a little more about hope and loss, and about the relationship between character and class. There have been at least three feature films adapted from the novel.
They returned to a different New York in 1930. The Great Depression was nearing its bottom and there was more than enough suffering to go around. Zelda was stricken with a mental illness diagnosed as schizophrenia but which sounds as much like what was called at the time manic depression. She danced in a frenzy. It must have been extremely painful because there were no effective drugs at the time. Scott was finding it difficult to keep her in an asylum and his novel, "Tender is the Night", was giving him no end of trouble. He drank more than ever. They were booted out of their house on the asylum grounds after Zelda caused smoke damage to some of the expensive artwork on the walls. Scott wound up in Hollywood, just another writer in just another office. Faulkner managed to work from his home in Mississippi. Hemingway's method of dealing with Hollywood was, he said, to drive to the state line, the producers on one side and Hemingway on the other. He tossed them the rights to his novels. They tossed him the checks. Then he drove quickly away. His last, unfinished novel, "The Last Tycooon," was about Hollywood. I never much cared for it. It reads as if it's unfinished.
At any rate he died in Los Angeles at the age of 40, while conversing about football. At the time it was reported that all his books were out of print but that wasn't true. They were all in print but they sold so few copies that his royalties amounted to $13.13. That's even lower than mine, even taking inflation into account. For some reason -- I don't know why -- readers and critics have recently begun to take a second look at F. Scott Fitzgerald. His Hooper Rating has improved enormously. I'm certainly glad that I took that second look.
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