By Jack Engelhard
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last royalty check came to around $4.85. In the beginning (with the publication of “This Side of Paradise”) he was America’s literary darling. In the end, practically everybody gave up on him. Hollywood snubbed him. His wife, Zelda, died in an insane asylum. Only his lover, the columnist Sheila Graham, remained loyal.
The author of “The Great Gatsby” — the prince of novels in our literary kingdom – died forgotten, a self-perceived failure.
Today, even Hollywood appreciates him. A short story of his, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” was turned into a movie and won two Oscars at last night’s Academy Awards. Too bad he’s dead. Fitzgerald could have used some of that love when he was still alive. He got nothing but scorn.
This may well typify the life of a novelist in Hollywood, or the life of a novelist, period. How we glorify our artists usually too late!
Fitzgerald – in his novels and short stories – is the man we turn to for sentences that sing. But after “Paradise” and even after “Gatsby” he teetered from rejection to rejection. He tried Hollywood and got himself a credit for one movie, something called “Three Comrades.” He was hired on to do some tinkering for “Gone With The Wind” but his tinkering was too much. Nobody touches Margaret Mitchell. He was escorted off the set.
He kept going back to ask for any kind of screen work, even “additional dialogue,” just to pay the bills.
He placed himself at the mercy of a particular Hollywood tycoon. “Tell me what to write and I’ll write it,” he pleaded.
“Me?” said the boss. “I should tell F. Scott Fitzgerald how to write?”
His last work, still unfinished, has been published as “The Last Tycoon.” It’s about Hollywood. Some say that even though it’s unpolished it may still be the finest novel ever about Hollywood. That honor must be shared with Nathanael West who gave us Hollywood unwashed in “The Day of the Locust.”
Nathanael West was killed in a car accident en route to Fitzgerald’s funeral – as if to prove the Hollywood jinx for true novelists.
Fitzgerald spoofed Hollywood in a series of short pieces collected as “The Pat Hobby Stories.” These vignettes that are about a hack always in search of an angle, are delightful and often hilarious. They spoof Hollywood without malice, but we get the message. They do not belong in the Fitzgerald canon because they’re so un-Fitzgerald-like, written somewhat in the style of Damon Runyon and Ring Lardner. But they were written by F. Scott Fitzgerald, so even when he tried to write flip, he still could not write a bad sentence.
Hemingway kept after Fitzgerald to write “true” and to refrain from the pursuit of money. But Fitzgerald was always desperate. The boozing didn’t help. Hemingway was especially critical when Fitzgerald put words to his own disgust, despair and melancholy in “The Crack Up,” a still underappreciated but sterling work of art. This reads like a follow-up to King Solomon’s “Ecclesiastes” and is Fitzgerald at his best, like the following:
“I must continue to be a writer because that was my only way of life, but I would cease any attempts to be a person – to be kind, to be generous… The decision made me rather exuberant…I felt like the beady-eyed men I used to see on the commuter train from Great Neck fifteen years back – men who didn’t care whether the world tumbled into chaos tomorrow if it spared their houses. I was one of them now.”
No, he wasn’t. He wasn’t one of them, much as he tried. He left us the glory of his writing. Hollywood finally came around.
Too bad he’s dead.
About the author: Novelist Jack Engelhard wrote the international bestselling novel “Indecent Proposal” that was translated into more than 22 languages and turned into a Paramount motion picture starring Robert Redford and Demi Moore. His latest novel, now available in paperback, is “The Bathsheba Deadline.” He can be reached at his website www.jackengelhard.com.