Will You Still Love Me? A Gin Rickey Salute to F. Scott Fitzgerald
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Things have moved on since The Hemingway Affair, or maybe I should say back, into the past.
I arranged to meet F. Scott Fitzgerald in the glitziest bar in town, the kind that stocks forty types of gin in substantial bottles, and I wore my flimsy blue number since I know he always did like girls in blue dresses best of all.
Outside, the May night, cool and clear, brought back the memory of another Spring, a memory scratched and smeared in recent months but in itself still a lovely and idyllic thing.
I was feeling nervous and maybe a bit guilty that I haven’t read his stories in years, apart from a quick glance through Gatsby before DiCaprio got a hold on him. The girl behind the bar, who seemed far too young, asked if she could help me. She had a cloud of blonde hair and a necklace that spelled her name at the hollow of her neck; Elsie.
I ordered a Gin Rickey, Fitzgerald’s tipple of choice, pulled the book from my capacious, middle-aged handbag, and paused to admire again the gold and Tiffany blue cover.
I keep thinking of how they’ll turn on him—when he’s given them so many grand afternoons.
This was my last opportunity to get up and leave, to avoid that most difficult of emotions: disappointment. Surely I’d already had the best of him and had it at the best possible time, when I was young and willing to believe in the green light of romance. Would he have aged, have paled, have lost his charm? Was there a chance that he would still have the magic? Would he still have the words to make me believe in a diamond as big as the Ritz? I’m sure I didn’t care so long as I could just hear his voice one more time.
Anne Margaret Daniel’s introduction sounded the cool voice of reason. Fitzgerald had given the magazines, and me, exactly what we wanted all through the twenties, his twenties and mine. He churned out romantic stories of rich boys and beautiful girls, fast cars, flappers and jazz. They paid him well and he lived it up.
Once I believed...I could (if I didn’t always) make people happy and it was more fun than anything.
But not everyone believed in Gatsby’s orgastic future. The lukewarm reception and poor sales of Fitzgerald’s third novel discouraged him greatly. To make matters worse, the Great Depression led to drastic cuts to the price that magazines were willing to pay for his stories. Fitzgerald was still a highly paid writer by the standards of the day but he and Zelda had grown accustomed to a glamorous lifestyle. Beyond that, Zelda began to require recuperative stays in expensive psychiatric clinics and their daughter, Scottie, attended costly private schools. The Fitzgerald’s were living well beyond their means.
The hard-pressed author turned to writing screenplays in Hollywood, work he found tedious and associated with failure but which paid well. He was hired to collaborate with other writers and put a lick of his polish on scripts including A Yank at Oxford and Gone With The Wind. He wrote his own movie scenarios but all too often they had a dark edge that audiences of the depression era weren’t interested in knowing about.
I tell you the subject’s too gloomy. People want to laugh now,’ said the fictional movie producer in the story Travel Together to Chris, the fictional screen-writer.
Some of those rejected scenarios are included in this collection. My hopes sank, I hadn’t got all dressed up just to hear half-hearted movie pitches.
Daniel’s introduction, unemotional and reasonable in its tone, reassured me that Fitzgerald still knew how to write, and what’s more, he was well aware of the difference between his commercially successful hack work and the good, and truly modern, stories that oftentimes couldn’t find a buyer. He became ever more resistant to interference, refusing to pander to the magazine editors’ desires for ‘beautiful cold girls and handsome yearning boys.’
For the most part, this is a collection of the stories that editors rejected, or sent back with requests for changes. To his credit, Fitzgerald held on to the stories, cannibalised some of the best lines into other stories or his unfinished novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, or simply chose to let them wait for an audience more willing to read real stories, gritty and sometimes ugly stories, about alcoholics, dope fiends, venereal disease, physical torture, psychiatric illness and extra-marital sex.
The time has come.
Raising my eyes, I watched him walk through the swing door. He looked as nervous as I felt but he spotted my Gin Rickey and smirked. He raised his eyebrows at Elsie and made a gesture towards my glass, make it two, he seemed to say. What I wanted, more than anything else, was to hear him tell me a story the way he used to, with wild imagination, a million miles from the mundane.
...something about love. Love is a sure thing – it takes a living man to love.
And then he did.
Just continue along the road and think of the nicest things in the world and all of a sudden something tremendous will happen.
The book opens with The I.O.U., the sort of smart ass story only a sassy young man could write. It was written for Harper’s Bazaar when Fitzgerald was at the height of his popularity. Perhaps they didn’t like the way he poked fun at the publishing industry or how he scoffed at the public’s demand for bodice-rippers and psychic thrillers. Either way, they sent it back and the story simply got forgotten in the busy shuffle of success. It’s a fine story, witty and sharp, funny enough to make me laugh out loud. But Fitzgerald’s trademark happy ending isn’t as satisfying now as I might have found it back then. Neither of us believes in happy endings anymore.
He seemed to have none of that quality that was once called “IT” about him, only an amusing frankness and a politeness that made him easy to be with.
I wanted to say, thanks for that, but tell me how you’ve really been.
And then he did.
In Nightmare the writer’s starkly realistic portrayal of mental illness and life inside a psychiatric hospital is drawn from Fitzgerald’s tragically personal experience. The story is a study of the fragility of mental health and questions how sanity should be defined and who should be permitted to define it.
...her eyes were full of tears for the unpreventable sadness in the world.
Fitzgerald’s agent, Harold Ober, granted that the story was ‘well told’ but wrote to the author that, ‘Nightmare will never, never sell for money, in any times.’
Nightmare was sold at Sotheby’s on June 15th, 2012.
So we drifted on. There was a sketchy story about a student nurse, a girl called Benjamina Roselyn or ‘Trouble, to her friends.’ Fitzgerald claimed he was proud of it but I didn’t like it much.
They sighed audibly in full mutual comprehension.
Then, The Pearl and the Fur, a compelling story about two rich kids discovering reality after their parents lose fortunes in the crash. It crossed my mind that Fitzgerald would clean up these days as a writer of Y.A. fiction. I guess that’s exactly what he was, and what he did. It was his ability to harness the untarnished potential and limitless possibility of youth that made his early writing sparkle. The heroine of the story is about the same age as Scottie was at the time; he gets her voice just right whilst also projecting a father’s protective instincts to the reader. It’s a good story which did, in fact, sell to the Pictorial Review but the magazine folded before the story could be published. Fitzgerald's luck was out.
We knocked back a second round of Gin Rickeys and made our way together through Thumbs Up and Dentist’s Appointment, two stories with the same grisly beginning but vastly different endings. It might have been an excess of alcohol, on my part or his, but I couldn’t make much sense of either version. All the same, it was fascinating to have such insight into an exceptional writer at work. I wasn’t disappointed.
...but rather felt a sense of guilty pleasure that she had got one over on life.
If Fitzgerald’s early writing held the excitement of escapism, I’d Die For You, the real gem of this collection, is grounded in truth.
‘truth’s the foot rule.’
The title story was written in 1935 when Fitzgerald had admitted to attempting suicide and lived with the constant threat of his wife harming herself.
I’ve got enough past for three people.
The plot is inspired by the true story of Peg Entwistle who jumped to her death from the letter H in Hollywood in September, 1932, aged just twenty-four. I’d Die For You is a tense story, tightly strung with foreboding and disarming in its honesty and self-awareness.
I fitted in to a time when people wanted excitement, and I tried to supply it.
Fitzgerald was aware that the threat of suicide running through the story would make it a hard sell but this was a deliberate attempt to move away from the frothy, jazzy stories of his reputation.
For the first time in her life, for better or worse, she was emotionally wide awake, trying by turns to analyze her passion for the man, to argue him from her mind, to think what should be done.
‘Come here close’, he said, and then, ‘come closer,’ so I did.
She was touching him and suddenly her face was reaching up to his. Then at the end of the kiss he kept her close with the pressure of his hands along her inside arms...
So you see I think I’d better go away.
But if you go I’ll always think I drove you away.’ She was so transparent now that she was not even ashamed—meaning him to see the truth underneath.
Do you remember when I told you that I belonged to another age? ...Anything between you and me would be all dated – sort of mouldy.’ He looked up and faced her helpless love.
Her reasoning came to wreck upon the single rock that he did not love her.
I didn’t want the experience to end, held out ‘till the last with a tuck in my breathing. I revelled in his closeness and the warmth of genuine communication.
Not everything in this book lives up to the reputation of the man who named the Jazz Age but there are lines and some very modern ideas that make you wish that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s heart had held out longer than his forty-four years. They say that the real test of a novel is how sad you feel on reaching the last chapter. This, then, was genuine heartache.
On departing he tipped his hat in the Latin Manner. “Multa gratia, Lucia,” he said jovially – and then to the other barmaid, “Adios Elsie.” He tipped his hat again and bowed and as he walked out left the two girls staring, unaware that he had bowed across two generations into an American past.
So, that was it. He was gone.
Later, before she went to sleep, she remembered a dozen indirect little compliments he had given her – the kind that one could remember with a pleasant shimmer. He made her laugh and he made her feel attractive.
He never said he loved her but he made her believe that he did.
Fitzgerald was good at titles and a genius at intriguing opening lines. He may have had a tendency to meander a bit about the middle but he was flipping brilliant at the close.
There were long times when no words at all were necessary – where the two of them merely communicated. And though the roses were quitting for the year pretty soon, it seemed likely it would go on forever between these two.
Half a lime
2 fl.oz. gin
Chilled Club soda
Fill a tall glass with ice. Squeeze half a lime into the glass and toss in the lime shell.
Add the gin and top it up with Club soda.
A dash of sugar syrup is entirely optional.
(Credit: Everything inside quotation marks belongs to F. Scott Fitzgerald, the remainder to Sultanabun.)