Fairyland

Bruce Bawer

  • Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald by James Mellow
    Souvenir, 569 pp, £15.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 285 65001 7
  • Home before Dark: A Personal Memoir of John Cheever by Susan Cheever
    Weidenfeld, 243 pp, £10.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 297 78376 9

Scott Fitzgerald – who was renowned in his lifetime as much for his escapades with Zelda as for his contribution to literature – would doubtless be gratified to know how profoundly most literate citizens of the English-speaking world now admire The Great Gatsby, Tender is the night, and a number of his short stories. Yet one wonders how he would react to the news that, in 1985, the world continues to be even more fascinated by his magical, misguided life than by his fiction. Certainly there cannot be many who are unfamiliar with the outlines of the Scott Fitzgerald story: the early years in St Paul as the humiliated son of a failed businessman (and as the inordinately proud descendant of Francis Scott Key, author of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’); the glorious salad days at Princeton University, which he left without a degree; the wartime courtship of Zelda Sayre, the belle of Montgomery, Alabama; the sudden fame – and the marriage to Zelda – that followed the publication of This Side of Paradise in 1920; the wild, drunken parties in New York and Maryland, on Long Island and the Riviera, during the roaring Twenties; the flapper stories for the Saturday Evening Post which set the tone of the ‘Jazz Age’ while paying the Fitzgeralds’ bills for a decade; the friendships with Edmund Wilson, Ring Lardner, Gerald and Sara Murphy, and above all with Hemingway; the insanity that crippled Zelda during the Thirties, and the alcoholism that devastated Scott; the prolonged composition and demoralising failure of Tender is the night; Zelda’s institutionalisation in North Carolina and the attempted resuscitation of his career by means of a scriptwriting stint in Hollywood; the affair with the gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who helped him climb back on the wagon and encouraged his return to novel-writing with the never-completed but extremely impressive The Last Tycoon; and, finally, the heart attack at the age of 43.

It’s a legendary American story, a beautiful and damned American dream turned nightmare, and in the past five years alone three biographers have seen fit to tell it yet again. In 1981, Matthew J. Bruccoli, archetype of the preposterously prolific modern American literary scholar (in the past decade or so, he has not only collected Fitzgerald’s letters, screenplays, notebooks and minor stories, but written Brobdingnagian lives of John O’Hara and James Gould Cozzens), produced a sloppy, simple-minded, adoring doorstop of a biography entitled Some Sort of Epic Grandeur. André Le Vot, a French scholar, followed in 1983 with a graceful English translation of his stately, sensitive and painstakingly researched F. Scott Fitzgerald. And now James R. Mellow – who in a brief period has turned out gargantuan lives of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Gertrude Stein (and is at work on Hemingway) – has weighed in with Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

The most noticeable distinction between Bruccoli and Le Vot, on the one hand, and Mellow, on the other, is that the latter is not a scholar but a ‘writer’, a literary journalist. Most of the facts in Invented Lives have been cheerfully glommed from those who got there before he did – not only Bruccoli and Le Vot, but the earlier Fitzgerald biographers, Andrew Turnbull and Arthur Mizener, Zelda’s biographer Nancy Milford, and Sara Mayfield, author of Exiles from Paradise. Mellow relies so heavily upon his predecessors, in fact, that Fitzgerald fans who have only recently read the Le Vot book may find passages in Invented Lives bringing on attacks of déjà vu.

Why, then, is Mellow offering this third Fitzgerald biography in five years? His answer: Invented Lives isn’t just another biography. It has a thesis. What thesis? That Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald struck out into life seeking, not so much to ‘find themselves’, as to create themselves. That they were protagonists in a novel of their own creation, actors who saw the whole world as a stage. One problem with this thesis, of course, is that ‘playing a part’ is not a rare phenomenon. Just to skim the index of Invented Lives is to come across the name of one person after another who did this: Tallulah Bankhead, T.S. Eliot, Sheilah Graham, Ernest Hemingway. To be sure, Mellow is undoubtedly correct in asserting that the Fitzgeralds had it worse than most. But this is hardly news. Their version is by now a cliché of American literary history. We all know that, for Scott and Zelda, it was not enough merely to be happy and successful: they had to be the happiest, kookiest, most in-love, most beautiful couple on earth, the very personification of the youthful, buoyant age they lived in. Unfortunately, Mellow does not have much that is new to say about this.

It would be misleading, though, to suggest that Invented Lives is devoted in any large part to the defence of its unspectacular thesis. Rather, it is, like Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, a monster of a biography – into which, every so often, Mellow remembers to interpolate a token sentence or two touching on this thesis. Chatty, diffuse, unencumbered by any finicky concern for stylistic elegance, Invented Lives often seems to be little more than a mammoth, mechanically-compiled collection of every known Fitzgerald anecdote, strung together in (more or less) chronological order.

Yet Invented Lives has its virtues, among which is a sturdy scepticism. If Le Vot, for instance, appears to accept as gospel truth Hemingway’s devastating ‘reportage’ in A Moveable Feast concerning his first encounter with Fitzgerald, Mellow, noticing the little inconsistencies in Hemingway’s memoir, does not hesitate to suggest that it is, at least in part, an act of dishonesty, ‘a masterly exercise in retrospective revenge’ designed to expose every fault in Fitzgerald’s character and make Papa shine by comparison. Mellow’s argument is convincing. Likewise, while Le Vot admiringly describes Fitzgerald’s devotion to the Princeton honour code (expressed in a letter to Maxwell Perkins) as ‘idealistic’, Mellow juxtaposes Fitzgerald’s letter with some pretty impressive bits of evidence that, honour code or no, would appear to suggest that Fitzgerald cheated on tests while at college. Time and again, then, Mellow provides a refreshingly cynical corrective to his perhaps excessively reverent predecessors.

Mellow is well-advised, too, I think, in placing more importance than previous biographers on the outrageous superficiality of Fitzgerald’s attitude towards romance. To Fitzgerald, the ritual of courtship was, fundamentally, not a matter of love between man and woman but of competition between man and man. He always wanted the most popular girl in town – whether Ginevra King in St Paul or Zelda Sayre in Montgomery – simply because she was the girl all the other men were after. To win the love of such a woman, and eventually secure her hand in marriage, was to triumph over one’s rivals, to be recognised publicly as the victor in a great competition.

What made Fitzgerald adopt such a strange, artificial view of the relations between the sexes? Mellow comes closer than Bruccoli, Le Vot and company to giving this question a satisfactory answer. Though he carefully avoids making any explicit claims in this direction, his book is full of evidence suggesting a strong homosexual component in Fitzgerald. This is hardly the first time that has been intimated, but Mellow has mustered the evidence more thoroughly and convincingly than any previous biographer. Though edgy with homosexuals, consistently disparaging of them in his fiction, and convinced, as Mellow writes, that they ‘were the enemies of life, the enemies of promise’, Fitzgerald became, in time, ‘more and more inquisitive about such sexual habits’. He was compulsive about ‘tallying “fairies” ’. He could write to Edmund Wilson – as a ‘joke’, of course – that ‘I long to go with a young man ... for a paid amorous weekend to the coast.’ He chased strange boys at parties, asking, ‘You’re a homosexual, aren’t you?’ and, drunk in Paris, asked Morley Callaghan: ‘You thought I was a fairy, didn’t you?’ Zelda accused him regularly, for a time, of having an affair with Ernest Hemingway, and in fact Scott was obsessed with Hemingway; one cannot help getting the impression that his disgust with the stereotypical ‘fairy’ image made it impossible for him to admit (to himself or anybody) the true nature of his feelings for the younger novelist. The closest he came to acknowledging these sentiments was in an oblique, rather enigmatic reference in his private notebook. ‘I really loved him,’ he wrote (obviously alluding to Hemingway), ‘but of course it wore out like a love affair. The fairies have spoiled all that.’

One does not think immediately of Scott Fitzgerald and John Cheever as having much in common, but the more closely one scrutinises the lives and works of these two writers, the more alike they look. Like Fitzgerald, Cheever watched his father fail in business, saw his family come down in the world, resented his father because of it, and developed an inordinate regard for wealth and respectability. He even had his own version of Francis Scott Key, the all-purpose respectable ancestor, in the form of Ezekiel Cheever, who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony from England in 1637 and begat several generations of Boston society. If Fitzgerald made it to Princeton only to leave without a degree, Cheever didn’t even get that far: he left prep school and, like the young author of This Side of Paradise, sought literary success in New York, not pursuing his Muse so much as fame, fortune and respect.

Cheever went on, as Fitzgerald had, to make his living by churning out formula stories. If Fitzgerald’s hack jobs for the Post were invariably cloying chronicles of flapper romance, Cheever’s generally more estimable contributions to the New Yorker concentrated, as a rule, on the travails of the upper bourgeoisie on New York’s Upper East Side. (Later, when the Cheevers moved from Manhattan to the northern suburbs, the settings changed accordingly, to the fictitious commuter burgs of Bullet Park and Shady Hill.) Like Fitzgerald, Cheever was, in his early novels (The Wapshot Chronicle, The Wapshot Scandal) and in stories like ‘The Enormous Radio’ and ‘The Pot of Gold’, concerned with the fragility of material success and of social status – which is to say, he was fascinated by money, by those who had it and those who coveted it, by the nouveau riche and the ‘shoestring aristocrats’; and his stories are thus peppered (as are many of Fitzgerald’s) with the names of the Holy Places of the New York wealthy – Sutton Place, Tiffany’s, the Plaza. Cheever, like Fitzgerald, was something of a hypocrite on this topic: he could moralise in his fiction about the vapidity, phoniness and corruption of the moneyed class even as he laboured to insinuate himself into it; could satirise social climbers even as he dreamed – so Susan Cheever tells us in this memoir of her father – of marrying his daughter to ‘a Vanderbilt, a Biddle, a Cabot’.

Eventually, Cheever’s literary focus shifted. As Fitzgerald had, in the Thirties, alienated the Post by submitting gloomily honest stories like ‘Babylon Revisited’, Cheever incurred the disapproval of his editors in the Fifties and thereafter by turning out stories like ‘The Swimmer’ and ‘The World of Apples’ which in the words of one editor, William Maxwell, ‘collided with the New Yorker idea of fiction’. Meanwhile Cheever was, as his daughter reveals, colliding, too, with the New Yorker idea of Cheever. For one thing, he was, beginning in the 1950s, an alcoholic – who, like Fitzgerald, heroically kicked the habit toward the end and resuscitated his talent in an impressive way (producing two intense, offbeat short novels, Falconer and Oh, what a paradise it seems). For another, he was a closet homosexual, who did not come to terms with his inclinations until his last decade. Like Fitzgerald, ‘he feared and despised what he defined as the homosexual community: the limp-wristed, lisping men who are sometimes the self-appointed representatives of homosexual love in our culture.’ Even when he accepted his impulses and initiated affairs with young men, Cheever continued to hide behind an image of himself as ‘a patrician, old-fashioned country gentleman’.

These revelations of Cheever’s long-suppressed homosexuality go a long way toward explaining his fixation, in life as in literature, upon appearances. Characters in his stories – the early ones, at any rate – are defined by whether the clothes they wear are stylish, the streets they live on fashionable, the jobs they hold down prestigious. He was the same way in life, according to Miss Cheever. ‘We were told that appearances were not important,’ she writes, ‘but no one believed it for a minute. My father described everything in terms of appearances.’ One can hardly help seeing this systematic superficiality as a form of psychological camouflage, designed to keep his unexpressed longings buried as long as possible. The phrase ‘invented lives’ was never more appropriate.

Because of these disclosures of alcoholism and homosexuality, Miss Cheever’s book provoked controversy when it appeared in America last year. The critics formed two neat ranks. One faction maintained that Miss Cheever had written a loving, heartfelt tribute to her late father; the words ‘sensitive’ and ‘honest’ were frequently invoked. The other faction felt that the book was an act of spite: Miss Cheever had exploited her father, had made unfair use of his private journals, had produced a tasteless, sensationalistic book. The latter group of critics have a point. Cheever is so recently deceased – 1982 – that his daughter’s rush to print does seem indecorous, her eagerness to advertise his painful secrets unsettling. And yet the book is no Daddy Dearest. It does not hurt Cheever. On the contrary, Cheever comes off as a rather sympathetic character. His personal torments give a human dimension to a man whom many considered something of a cold fish, a snob. The main problem with Home before Dark, in fact, is that it doesn’t give him quite as much human dimension as one might have expected.

What causes this disappointment to rankle is that there was clearly an abundance of promising material at Miss Cheever’s disposal. Some of it, to be sure, has found its way into Home before Dark. Miss Cheever’s inside stories about the New Yorker, like all inside stories about that most peculiar of publications, are fascinating. Cheever, as it happens, grew dissatisfied at one point with the magazine’s ‘Byzantine system’ of payment (the complex pay-rate formula, according to Miss Cheever, involved a minimum word rate, a bonus system that ‘rewards the writer for the quantity of stories published in the magazine each year’, a ‘Cost of Living Allowance’, and the editor’s top-secret ‘grading’ of each story ‘from A down to C minus’). On the day he delivered ‘The Swimmer’ to Maxwell at the New Yorker offices, Cheever hit him for a rise, and Maxwell replied that there was nothing he could do. Cheever thereupon left the building, walked down the street to a pay phone, called agent Candida Donadio, and told her his problem. ‘Stay right there,’ she said, and called back within minutes to relay a munificent offer from the Saturday Evening Post. Cheever went back to the New Yorker with the news. ‘Hurried conferences’ ensued. Cheever was offered ‘bonuses’ such as ‘the key to the men’s room and all the bread and cheese he could eat’ – and, ultimately, he elected to stay with the New Yorker. Afterwards, he wrote in his journal: ‘The Post has offered me twenty-four thousand; the New Yorker has offered me twenty-five hundred and I will take the latter. I’m not sure why.’ But of course we all know why, and so did he.

The glimpses of Cheever’s mind that such anecdotes give us are, in the last analysis, frustrating. They’re just not enough. Miss Cheever brings to mind one of those nervously self-conscious film directors who, desperate to avoid being taken for mere storytellers, make a habit of cutting away just when a sequence begins to get interesting or enlightening. The deliberately disordered, patchwork-of-memories structure of Home before Dark – unobjectionable in itself – makes it easier for Miss Cheever to carry off this systematic superficiality. So does the style. Miss Cheever has the New Yorker in her blood, and she has chosen, in Home before Dark, to write in a plain, impersonal manner, rich with maddeningly irrelevant detail, that is almost a parody of New Yorker style. The last thing this story needs is a plain, impersonal manner. Nor does it need so many pointless particulars – Miss Cheever gives us, for instance, enough addresses to fill a small-town telephone book.

Both books force us to think seriously about – even if, more often than not, they fail to help us to a better understanding of – their subjects’ obsession with wealth and social status, their pessimism about marriage, their all too often one-dimensional characterisation of women, their bleak view of bourgeois family life, and their reluctance, in many a short story, to venture very far beneath the surface of things.