Scott Fitzgerald spent his declining years in ‘a hideous town, pointed up by the insulting gardens of its rich, full of the human spirit at a new low of debasement’. Hollywood, he complained in 1940, was ‘a dump, in the human sense of the word. Everywhere there is … either corruption or indifference.’ He used to wear a dark topcoat and homburg; ‘his outfit and pallor,’ his secretary Frances Kroll recalled, ‘were alien to the style and warmth of Southern California – as if he were not at home here, had just stopped off and was dressed to leave on the next train.’ Under contract as a screenwriter to MGM to pay off his debts and his wife Zelda’s medical bills, Fitzgerald became fixated on a golden-haired British gossip columnist called Sheilah Graham, who had, he said, the look of ‘a young Zelda’. The creator of Jay Gatsby wasn’t slow to see through her persona. Sheilah Graham was actually Lily Shiel, the youngest child of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants, who had grown up in a Stepney Green slum. Fitzgerald took it on himself to remedy her lack of an education. When she confessed she hadn’t read any of his books, he said they’d go and buy some of them right away. In Pickwick Books on Hollywood Boulevard they asked for anything by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The clerk said they had none in stock. Fitzgerald asked whether there was any call for them. ‘Oh, once in a while, but not for some time now,’ he replied. They tried another store – with the same result. The grey-haired proprietor of a third bookshop asked which titles they were interested in and, promising to track them down, requested a name and address. ‘I’m Mr Fitzgerald,’ he replied. According to Graham’s son, whose Intimate Lies is an account of her relationship with Fitzgerald, the old man was shocked: ‘He had believed quite simply that F. Scott Fitzgerald must surely have died years ago along with his era.’
In late November 1940 Fitzgerald had a heart attack at a drugstore on Sunset Boulevard. Afterwards, confined to bed, he tried to complete his Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon. This, his secretary remembered, ‘was the only time he really stopped drinking’. In his notes, he wrote of Monroe Stahr, his final protagonist: ‘Suddenly outdated, he dies.’ Less than a month later Fitzgerald was killed by a second heart attack. He was 44. His body was taken to a cheap mortuary on West Washington Boulevard. ‘There lay American genius [and] not a soul was in the room,’ the journalist Frank Scully wrote in his book Rogues’ Gallery: Profiles of My Eminent Contemporaries. ‘Except for one bouquet of flowers and a few empty chairs, there was nothing to keep him company except his casket. I’ve seen some pretty magnificent funerals in Hollywood, both on the screen and in churches and temples, but I never saw a sadder one than the end of the father of all the sad young men.’
This note of pathos and humiliation is exactly what a confirmed romantic like Fitzgerald would have wished. His work is consumed by an obsession with public and private failure. To die unmourned and forgotten, in such tawdry circumstances, completes his compulsive myth-making: it’s the final interpenetration of his life and fiction. Fitzgerald shared with his hero Gatsby an untimely death and barely attended funeral. David Brown’s thorough biography, Paradise Lost, emphasises that Fitzgerald lived with the constant tension between the desire to be a ‘whole man’ and the recognition of its impossibility. His life was full of drama and destruction: reckless spending, high living, marital battles, fights with bouncers and cabbies, drunken self-pity and bouts of remorse. Take his courtship of Edith Wharton, one of his literary heroes. At their first meeting, in 1920, he prostrated himself, kneeling ‘at her feet in a showy adulation’. Invited to lunch at Wharton’s French château, he ‘fortified his courage along the route with alcohol’ and showed up late, then launched into a lengthy story about an American couple in Paris who spent three days in a hotel before realising it was a brothel and all the guests were whores. Wharton described the day in her diary as ‘Horrible’.
The pattern of mistrusted success and willed failure was present from the outset. Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), full of Prohibition-defying drinking, dance crazes and bad student behaviour, was an unexpected success, allowing him to marry Zelda Sayre, a spoilt debutante he had met while stationed on an army base near Montgomery, Alabama. Zelda came from an old southern family, proud of its Confederate generals, senators and judges; she was named after a fictional gypsy queen. Fitzgerald was impressed by her unconventional beauty – ‘a hawkish visage accentuated by short, honey-blonde hair’ – and felt it was enhanced by ‘a fine and full-hearted selfishness’. Before This Side of Paradise was published to such acclaim, Zelda had displayed her ‘chill-mindedness’ by breaking off their engagement, having calculated that he was unlikely to prove rich enough to keep her. Now, at the age of 24, Fitzgerald had it all: the girl of his dreams, critical acclaim, showers of money, public adulation and staggering self-belief. ‘I really believe,’ he wrote to Edmund Wilson, whom he had met at Princeton, that ‘no one else could have written so searchingly the story of the youth of our generation.’ But he was already anticipating his later failure. ‘I remember riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rose sky. I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and I knew I would never be so happy again.’
The dazzling success of his first novel makes his subsequent decline dramatic. The dominant tone in his work becomes promise unfulfilled, human waste, the inevitable slide towards ruin. ‘I’m tired of being the author of This Side of Paradise and I want to start over,’ he told his editor, Max Perkins, frustrated that his public wanted his writing to be a simple reproduction of his life with Zelda. But it’s impossible to separate Fitzgerald’s life from his literary output: fact and fiction repeatedly inform each other. He told Charles Scribner II, his publisher, that his next novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922), concerned ‘the life of one Anthony Patch between his 25th and 33rd years. He is one of those many with the tastes and weaknesses of an artist but with no actual creative inspiration.’ This seems an attempt to distance himself from his character, but he went on to say that the book was also a record of ‘how he and his beautiful young wife are wrecked on the shoals of dissipation’. The wife, Gloria, resembles Zelda so much that when Fitzgerald turns their sex life into public property it feels like an act of voyeurism. Writing to Zelda in 1930, when she was being treated for mental illness in a Swiss sanatorium, he said that he wished ‘The Beautiful and Damned had been a maturely written book because it was all true. We ruined ourselves – I have never honestly thought that we ruined each other.’ ‘We were the most envied couple in about 1921 in America,’ he boasted to her in 1933, when they were fighting over who owned the ‘creative rights’ to their early married life. ‘We were awfully good showmen,’ she replied. ‘In even their most carefree moments and their most abandoned moods,’ James Thurber noted, ‘there was scarcely ever the casual ring of authentic gaiety. They did not know how to invite gaiety. They twisted its arm, got it down, and sat on its chest.’
An early short story, ‘Winter Dreams’, from the collection All the Sad Young Men (1926), features Dexter, a self-made man who allows himself to be trapped by Judy, a ditzy, wilful rich girl. She reveals herself in her smile: ‘radiant, blatantly artificial – convincing’. The narrative wonders whether Dexter, who has created himself ‘from the outside’, is any less artificial. Dexter himself doesn’t really care whether Judy is sincere or acting. ‘No disillusion as to the world in which she had grown up could cure his illusion as to her desirability.’ Fitzgerald ascribes the falseness to the influence of the movies and advertising. In The Great Gatsby (1925), the movie crowd, washing up at the endless parties Gatsby holds, is made to feel at home on a kind of stage set – a Normandy-style ‘Hôtel de Ville’ built by a brewer. Gatsby’s mansion is shiny new under the quick-grow ivy’s patina of antiquity. Gatsby surrounds himself with the most eye-catching commodities: yellow cars, pink suits and shirts ‘with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, with monograms of Indian blue’. His parties are advertisements, designed to attract Daisy. But the ‘old money’ of Daisy’s husband, Tom Buchanan, trumps the restive capitalism of Fitzgerald’s Jazz decade.
‘I have never been able to forgive the rich for being rich and it has coloured my entire life and works,’ Fitzgerald declared in a letter to his literary agent, Harold Ober. But it wasn’t just money: Brown’s biography shows the ways in which he consistently favoured the aristocratic, the premodern and romantic. As a child, he loved to pretend he was the foundling son of a medieval monarch, denying his parentage (like Gatsby). His strongest allegiances were to his father’s roots and antebellum beliefs. Edward Fitzgerald would recount tall tales about the old Maryland gentry, as though he were ‘an “authentic” aristocrat put out to pasture by the pocket-book power of wealthy arrivistes’. His mother’s family – wealthy, mercantile, Irish Catholic immigrants – never held as much sway. He believed they gave him only his restlessness (after a childhood spent moving between St Paul, Syracuse and Buffalo) and his ability to characterise himself as a Midwesterner, a permanent outsider.
But Fitzgerald’s literary imagination was also drawn to the new decadent urban set: aggressive bonds traders, flamboyant bootleggers and promiscuous flappers. He was happy to become part of this voguish elite, enjoying the access to new money that his commercial story-writing brought. Between 1931 and 1936 he wrote a number of stories for the Saturday Evening Post, all revolving around money. In ‘Diagnosis’, Charlie, an ex-Wall Street success, suffers anxiety over his suppression of the past. ‘Six of One –’ shows a surrogate father-figure obsessed with the idea of winners and losers in life. ‘A Change of Class’ balances the snobbery of the rich (a millionaire snubs his ex-barber-turned-speculator), with a weakening of their superiority (he ends up marrying his secretary). ‘The Rubber Check’ exposes the way money underwrites all personal relations when a social climber is almost ruined by a minor financial indiscretion. The mental and emotional wellbeing of all these lives rests on a jittery and unstable capitalist society.
Fitzgerald is always attuned to money’s erotic charge, its debilitating absence, its self-defeating emptiness. In The Beautiful and Damned he traces the rate at which Anthony lets his fortune dissipate. By the end his abuse of alcohol and money become completely intertwined when Gloria reprimands him for spending $75 on a case of whiskey even though they’re bankrupt. In his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast, Hemingway notices the odd way Fitzgerald liked to show off ‘a large ledger with all of the stories he had published listed in it, year after year, with the prices he had received for them and also the amounts received for any motion picture sales, and sales and royalties of his books … He showed us his accounts of his earnings as though they had been the view.’
‘Emotional Bankruptcy’, the concluding tale in the ‘Basil and Josephine’ short story sequence which ran in the Saturday Evening Post, displays his idea that people have a fixed amount of emotional capital, reckless expenditure of which can only result in bankruptcy:
She was very tired and lay face downward on the couch with that awful, awful realisation that … one cannot both spend and have. The love of her life had come by, and looking in her empty basket, she had found not a flower left for him – not one. After a while she wept. ‘Oh, what have I done to myself?’ she wailed. ‘What have I done?’
Fitzgerald was convinced that his and Zelda’s fractious partying and squandering of their early abundance had to be paid for. He also viewed Zelda’s breakdown and mental illness, coming only six months after the 1929 Wall Street Crash, as a symptom of a societal collapse. ‘It was this complex amalgamation, of the confident climber and the habitual self-doubter,’ Brown writes, ‘that gave him such insight into the boom/bust American character.’ More than this, it allowed Fitzgerald to capture the process of commodification. During the Boom, his Jazz Age characters behave as though they’re trading themselves on the stock market. Gloria wants to live her life like a roulette table and ‘use every minute of these years, when I’m young, in having the best time I possibly can’. After that she won’t care: ‘I won’t be able to do anything about it. And I’ll have had my good time.’ But the parties turn out to be interludes of mindless distraction before an inevitable reckoning. A decade later, an emptier form of commodification has taken hold. In ‘New Types’, a 1934 story, an unsettled, middle-aged male narrator looks at a fashionable, younger demi-mondaine: ‘Everybody here has just the kind of teeth and hair and clothes and cigarettes and automobiles and expressions that the people have in the advertisements.’ He meets a vacant young woman, who thinks: ‘I could be anything they wanted me to be if I knew what it was.’ She seems content to be ‘a perfection of form, a purely plastic aim, as if towards a motionless movie, a speechless talkie’. And Rosemary Hoyt, the young movie actress with whom Dick Diver becomes obsessed in Tender Is the Night (1934), can be anything to anyone; she exists as a projection of others’ desires.
Fitzgerald based Rosemary on Lois Moran, a 17-year-old Hollywood starlet. He had become besotted with her while working on a movie project called Lipstick. Humiliated by his behaviour – ‘you engaged in flagrantly sentimental relations with a child’ – Zelda burned her clothes in the bathtub of their hotel room. In Tender Is the Night, Rosemary is famous for her role in the hit movie Daddy’s Girl and Fitzgerald makes it clear that Dick is old enough to be her father. ‘There is something very special to be written about the psychology of pretty girls,’ he confessed in a letter to old friends. ‘Life promises so very much to a pretty girl between the ages of 16 and 25 that she never quite recovers from it.’ In a note to her psychiatrist, he complained that when Zelda turned 25 ‘she ceased to have that special, that fresh bloom of life.’ Zelda became a model for Nicole, Dick Diver’s wife, born into a hyper-wealthy family but a victim from the outset. Nicole is another ‘daddy’s girl’, sexually abused by her father. Dick, as a psychiatrist, tries to heal the daughter; as a husband, he tries to become the good father. But the damage is done.
Nicole must spend, spend, spend. Edmund Wilson upbraided Fitzgerald for being too attentive to the luxury goods of American life but his mastery of surface, the way his prose cleaves to the materiality of ‘stuff’, makes him the ideal documenter of capital’s lustre:
Nicole bought from a great list that ran two pages and bought the things in the window besides … She bought coloured beads, folding beach cushions, artificial flowers, honey, a guest bed, bags, scarfs, love birds, miniatures for a doll’s house and three yards of some new cloth the colour of prawns. She bought a dozen bathing suits, a rubber alligator, a travelling chess set of gold and ivory, big linen handkerchiefs for Abe, two chamois leather jackets of kingfisher blue and burning bush from Hermès.
At the same time, Dick, as an alter-ego and protagonist, is Fitzgerald’s most complicated and personal depiction of failure. In his notes for the novel Fitzgerald described him as ‘a superman in possibilities’ whose ‘great personal charm’ lets him cast a spell like the ‘Prospero of the Riviera’. In the novel Nicole’s inheritance corrupts him. But he also ruins his own natural talents and his move away from abundance to the obscure small town where he ends up requires not just drunken laxity but a willed determination. His failure is financial but it’s also sexual, as becomes clear in the humiliating scene where he fails repeatedly to stand up (‘make himself erect’) while aquaplaning, an act of athleticism for which he had once been celebrated.
Hemingway dwells on Fitzgerald’s own sexual insecurity in a notorious passage in A Moveable Feast: ‘Zelda said that the way I was built I could never make any woman happy and that was what upset her originally,’ Fitzgerald told him as they were having lunch in Paris. ‘She said it was a matter of measurements.’ After a furtive check-up in the restaurant lavatory Hemingway passed judgment: ‘You’re perfectly fine.’ A subsequent visit to view the genitalia of the Louvre’s statues left Fitzgerald still unsure:
‘But after what Zelda said –’
‘Forget what Zelda said,’ I told him. ‘Zelda is crazy. There’s nothing wrong with you. Just have confidence and do what the girl wants. Zelda just wants to destroy you.’
‘You don’t know anything about Zelda.’
Even allowing for Hemingway’s unreliability (his novel from this period, The Sun Also Rises, has an impotent narrator), the story reveals as much about Fitzgerald’s attitude to Zelda as about his adolescent need for reassurance. His inability to perceive her instability is part of his embrace of failure. Signs of Zelda’s incipient insanity were evident early on. Rebecca West met the Fitzgeralds when they were the high priests of the Jazz Age:
I knew Zelda was very clever but from the moment I saw her I knew she was mad. There was this smooth, shining hair, and the carefully chosen wild 1920s dress … There was this large, craggy face – a handsome face – but when one got the after-image it always showed a desolate country without frontiers. It is not quite easy to get on good terms with a man if you think his wife whom he is very fond of is mad as a hatter. And I remember once Scott saying something about Zelda having done something odd, and I had to check the words on my lips, ‘But surely you realise she’s insane.’
The same willed blindness is present in Fitzgerald’s serial boozing. He was highly aware of the ruinous consequences of drink. In The Beautiful and Damned, Anthony and Gloria ‘pour into themselves a gay and delicate poison’ and Fitzgerald notes each stage of their descent: ‘There was the odour of tobacco – both of them smoked incessantly; it was in their clothes, their blankets, the curtains and the ash-littered carpets. Added to this was the wretched aura of stale wine with its inevitable suggestion of beauty gone foul and revelry remembered in disgust.’ What Fitzgerald loves about drunkenness is the paradoxical way it supports a lyrically inflated view of the world that it simultaneously undermines. He knows exactly what drink does to the ego, relishing the moments of exalted apprehension and dreading the episodes of self-humiliation; noticing how the bottle preserves male illusions even as it hollows out whatever residual self is left. ‘As he sat there at the bar holding the glass of champagne,’ Hemingway wrote,
the skin seemed to tighten over his face until all the puffiness was gone and then it drew tighter until the face was like a death’s head. The eyes sank and began to look dead. The lips were drawn tight and the colour left the face so that it was the colour of used candlewax. This was not my imagination. His face became a true death mask in front of my eyes.
Fitzgerald’s friendship with Ring Lardner, an equally insecure alcoholic, acted as a prologue to his own demise. ‘One of the things about Ring that fascinated Scott,’ Lardner’s son wrote, ‘was the image he saw of his own future. He probably felt satisfaction that he could sleep off a drunk and get back to work with much more ease than his older friend but he must have known he was heading in the same direction.’ Lardner is the model for Abe North, the blocked composer in Tender Is the Night who unravels in drink and self-pity:
They stood in an uncomfortable little group weighted down by Abe’s gigantic presence: he lay athwart them like the wreck of a galleon, dominating with his presence, his own weakness and self-indulgence, his narrowness and bitterness. All of them were conscious of the solemn dignity that flowed from him, of his achievement, fragmentary, suggestive and surpassed. But they were frightened at his survivant will, once a will to live, now become a will to die.
‘Life-tired’ is the way Fitzgerald described himself in 1935. The title story in ‘I’d Die for You’ and Other Lost Stories draws on Fitzgerald’s suicidal tendencies in that year. It’s the story of Carley Delannux, once a famous playboy but now worn-out and middle-aged. He is a ‘survival from the boom days’, who ‘fitted into a time when people wanted excitement’. He can’t return love since he’s ‘somebody who’d had the best experiences in the world’ and wants no more. ‘There must have been something in Carley Delannux that made it necessary for him to die … something that had lived too long, or had been too long dead on its feet, and left corruption in its wake.’
Brown notes that the same feelings of self-disgust and self-pity surface in Fitzgerald’s confessional essays of the 1930s. ‘Eliding Zelda’s more serious “crack-up” and downplaying his own dependence on alcohol’, Fitzgerald wrote about his ‘failure to find sustenance in the world around him: “I had weaned myself from all the things I used to love.”’ These autobiographical essays hold more interest than his 1930s fiction. They blur his real and fictional selves in a new way; just as Fitzgerald is and isn’t Dick, Anthony and Amory, so he is and isn’t the person speaking in ‘The Crack-Up’ or ‘Early Success’: the world-weary persona is another mask. Typically, Fitzgerald describes his own malaise in relation to larger historical forces. The publicity-mad decade of 1920s America is first to be blamed, for its failure to nurture young artists, and making them instead celebrities with no space to mature. ‘Premature success gives one an almost mystical conception of destiny as opposed to will power – at its worst the Napoleonic delusion,’ he wrote in ‘Early Success’. ‘The man who arrives young believes that he exercises his will because his star is shining.’ Fitzgerald then links his breakdown to the destruction of the individual, the rise of 1930s collectivism in the shape of Hollywood, a capitalist dream factory exploiting teams of scriptwriters: ‘I saw that the novel, which at my maturity was the strongest medium for conveying thought and emotion from one human being to another, was becoming subordinated to a mechanical and communal art that … in the hands of Hollywood merchants … was capable of reflecting only the tritest thought.’
Despite this, Hollywood would become Fitzgerald’s final stage. He understood the projector’s ‘promissory whirr’, as Updike called it, its flickering beam of illusion. Gatsby reaches for the green light, arms outstretched to embrace his idealised future, a reimagined past. Hollywood allowed Fitzgerald to rework his own past. He moved away from a semi-tragic sense of failure, with Dick Diver as its most complete expression, and embraced pastiche. He found a vein of self-parody with the Pat Hobby stories, published in Esquire in 1940 and 1941. For all their farcical comedy, these tales seem bitter in their autobiographical portrayal of a drunken middle-aged ex-screenwriter. Hobby’s ambitions consist of boozing, betting and flirting with secretaries. He tries to pass off others’ work as his own, and to obtain or steal small amounts of money. He always fails. Fitzgerald drew on the daily humiliation he faced. He was renting a cottage on the Encino estate of Edward Everett Horton, a successful Hollywood actor with a line in camp butlers. Frances Kroll would arrive for work to find Horton peering into the trashcan at a fresh pile of gin bottles. ‘Looks like a case of DTs,’ he declared. Kroll used to deposit a bagful of empties in the bushes along Mulholland Drive, which is something Hobby also does. Fitzgerald, dumped by MGM, writes about the moment Pat is excluded from the lot, his pass withdrawn. He stands immobilised: ‘For the first time in his life he began to feel a loss of identity.’ He can’t conceive of a world beyond the studio gates. As a Hollywood hack he knows how the industry operates, yet he’s still under its spell. Almost fifty, he understands he is finished, shunned by his Hollywood contacts. But he will do anything to remain within the land of make-believe. The day he’s locked out for good is the day he begins to die.
In Fitzgerald’s representation of his Hollywood experience, Pat Hobby is balanced by the film producer Monroe Stahr in his last, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon. An absolute ruler over lesser mortals, Stahr controls everything on the lot: he’s a democratic ‘aristocrat’; an East Coast Jewish outsider who remakes himself as the embodiment of the American dream. A visitor to the studio, the prince of Denmark, registers Stahr’s extraordinary quality: ‘This then was Lincoln. This then, he thought, was what they all meant to be.’ The Last Tycoon is often seen as a return to the pared-down lyricism of The Great Gatsby; it’s another tight fable, told by an unreliable narrator half in love with his subject, a doomed man trying to recapture his past. But whereas Gatsby reaches for the green light, Stahr is the source of illumination. He’s the silver screen itself, the perfection of illusion. His constant light is the cold finality of death. Like Pat Hobby and Fitzgerald, Stahr has outlived his own time.
‘I do not know that a personality can be divorced from the times which evoke it,’ Zelda said after Fitzgerald’s death. ‘I feel that Scott’s greatest contribution was the dramatisation of a heartbroken and despairing era, giving it new raison d’être in the sense of tragic courage with which he endowed it.’ Once ‘his decade’ was over, Fitzgerald was seen as yesterday’s man, the last, drunken guest at a deserted party. But after his death, the same myth-making made possible his resurrection and afterlife. The first to promote the legend was the Hollywood screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who had also assumed Fitzgerald was dead until he was asked to work with him. In Schulberg’s novel The Disenchanted (1950), Shep, a young writer, reads a draft written by Manley Halliday, a once great novelist:
Shep knew why … Halliday hadn’t published in nearly a decade: because he was a defeatist, an escapist, cut off from ‘vital issues’ from ‘The People’, a disillusioned amanuensis of a dying order – oh, Shep hadn’t read his New Masses for nothing! Yet here were these 83 pages. My God, this was alive, while the writers who were not defeatist, not escapist, not bourgeois apologists and not ‘cut off from the main stream of humanity’ were wooden and lifeless. Was it possible … for an irresponsible individualist, hopelessly confused, to write a moving, maybe even profound, revelation of social breakdown?
Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald’s first literary custodian, couldn’t contain his wonder (and mild irritation) at the way his
gifted but all too human old friend had been cast … in the role of Attis-Adonis – the fair youth, untimely slain, who is ritually bewailed by women, then resuscitates, after perishing in the decline of his reputation, when his books were republished and more seriously read than they had usually been in his lifetime and when his legend became fully fledged and beyond his own power to shatter it.
Fitzgerald’s most celebrated aphorism, ‘there are no second acts in American lives,’ needs to be amended or erased, given his endlessly productive epilogue. The Great Gatsby, which sold fewer than 25,000 copies in his lifetime, has now reached more than 25 million. The torrent of novels, critical studies, movies and TV series based on the work and the life has never stopped.
Wilson, true to one side of American sensibility, found the explanation for Fitzgerald’s posthumous canonisation in the attraction of his romantic optimism. He is still often perceived through the distorted lens of Nick Carraway’s appreciation of Gatsby’s ‘extraordinary gift for hope, [his] romantic readiness’. As Brown puts it, Fitzgerald ‘never gave up on America, never lost his appreciation for a country that … represented “the warm centre of the world”’. One reason Fitzgerald continues to fascinate generations of US teenagers may indeed be the way his most popular book upholds the American dream, its ‘colossal vitality’, even as it exposes it. But even old friends like Wilson never quite appreciated the depth of Fitzgerald’s disillusionment, the nihilism behind the romanticism. ‘Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat,’ he wrote to his daughter, Scottie. There is no redemption in Fitzgerald. Even in a feather-light evocation of adolescence such as ‘The Captured Shadow’ (1928) there lurks the blankness of the empty stage:
Even as the crowd melted away and the last few people spoke to him and went out, he felt a great vacancy come into his heart. It was over, it was done and gone – all that work and interest and absorption. It was a hollowness like fear …
He was almost the last to leave, mounting the stage for a moment and looking around the deserted hall. His mother was waiting and they strolled home together through the first cool night of the year.
‘Well, I thought it went very well indeed. Were you satisfied?’ He didn’t answer for a moment. ‘Weren’t you satisfied with the way it went?’
‘Yes.’ He turned his head away.
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Nothing,’ and then, ‘Nobody really cares, do they?’