He Gave us Gatsby
The research I did to write Meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald was a journey in itself. In Fitzgerald’s home town of St. Paul I found his parent’s house where in a third floor bedroom he finished his first novel This Side of Paradise. I located the modest Beverly Hills home Sheilah Graham was living in when he met her. I went to a virtually deserted Princeton campus on a cold snow on the ground Sunday morning in March to search for his eating club and his dormitory.
I had never been to Princeton. I drove my rented car onto the campus grounds turned into the first side street I came to and parked. I sat there trying to figure out how I was going to find the buildings I was looking for. At first there was no one in site. Then I saw what appeared to be a male student on the sidewalk coming toward me. I got out of the car and asked him if he could tell me where I would find Scott Fitzgerald’s eating club. He pointed to his left and said, “You parked right in front of it.” It was as though I had been led there. I walked up the path to the door and stood on the porch absorbing the atmosphere and imagining how Scott must have felt the first time he had done the same. I walked around the side of the building and looked into the backyard.
I went onto the campus and found myself in front of the Student Union. Again there was no one in sight until a young girl came out of the Union. I told her I was researching Scott Fitzgerald and asked her if she knew where his dormitory was. She said, “No, but have you been to his eating club, The Cottage Club?” I said yes. She asked me if I’d gone in. I said I didn’t know I could. She said, “Oh yes, you can.” So back I went. I walked through the door into a huge dark wood entry hall and a completely empty first floor. On the left was an arched opening to a long high chandeliered West Point style dining room. To the right was a wide winding mahogany stair case leading to the second floor. At the top it opened onto a spacious hall, also empty. Directly across from the landing was a glass door leading into a small library. Inside, guarded under more glass, I looked at an autographed copy of This Side of Paradise that Fitzgerald had given the club when the book was published in 1920.
When I came out of the library I was surprised to see a young man sitting on a window seat at the end of the hall, with a phone to his ear. He looked at me suspiciously and asked what I was doing in the club. I told him I was researching Scott Fitzgerald for a play I was writing about him. He said, “Oh, my friend has his dormitory this year. I think he’s home, would you like to see it?” There are thousands of students at Princeton. I started to get the impression that Scott might be directing me.
So, off I went to Fitzgerald’s dorm. As I pulled my car up in front of the building a middle aged couple carrying what looked like grocery bags got out of their station wagon. The man gave me another suspicious look and said, “What are you doing here?” Again I went through my, “I’m researching Scott Fitzgerald” explanation and told him I was looking for his dormitory. He said, “Oh, our son has it this year. Do you want to see it?” Now I was pretty much convinced I was getting some big time help.
I walked into Scott’s dorm quarters with the people who were bringing supplies to their son. We went down a narrow hall. It had a little kitchen on one side and a couple of small bedrooms on the other. The hall ended at a tiny living room where there was a plaque hanging proudly over the fireplace commemorating the year F. Scott Fitzgerald had lived there. I sat on the window seat overlooking the commons as he had no doubt done probably dreaming of his first novel.
After Princeton I drove to Great Neck, Long Island to the house where Scott and Zelda lived and which inspired The Great Gatsby. I stood where Gatsby might have when he gazed hopefully across the water at the green light on Zelda’s dock.
Back in Los Angeles I went to a book store looking for something on Fitzgerald. The owner of the store asked me why I was interested in him. I trotted out my memorized explanation and he said, “Would you like to talk to Frances Kroll Ring?” Frances had been Fitzgerald’s secretary during the last months of his life. She was only 19 then. She was in her 90’s when we spoke. We had a great conversation about him. I had located the apartment where Scott lived in his final months. It was just off the Sunset Strip in Hollywood. It was where Frances had gone each day to type his writing of the day before. We talked of her memories by cell phone while I stood at the foot of the stairway she had climbed every morning so long ago to his second floor apartment. I continued to be amazed at how I was being guided through the process of getting to know this man.
Sheilah Graham had moved Scott from the San Fernando Valley to that Hollywood apartment to be near hers which was just a couple of blocks away. When he had his first heart attack she moved him again. This time it was into her first floor apartment so he wouldn’t have to climb the steps to his. It was in Sheilah’s apartment that he died. It was from a second heart attack. I went there one day and knocked on the door. A man opened it, took a look at me and said, “Yea, he died here, come on in.”
This was the end of the road for Scott and for my journey through his life. I went in. There was no entry hall. You stepped right into the living room. I walked over and put my hand on the fireplace mantle where he would have put his on that Saturday morning in December of 1940. He had suddenly jumped from the wing chair at the corner of the fireplace, clutched the mantle, fell to the floor and died. The chair wasn’t there but the feeling of what had happened in that spot certainly was.
Now, you can take the following any way you want. I talked for a while with the man who lived in the apartment about that long ago moment. Then he pointed down the hall that ran off the living room to a bedroom at its end and said, “That’s my bedroom. One night around two in the morning shortly after I moved in I was awakened by noise in this room, the living room. I thought I was being robbed and I was scared so I stayed in my bed as quietly as possible, hoping for the best. When the noise stopped I began to relax. Maybe the noise had been my imagination or some innocent settling of the building or something else, so I fell asleep again. When I got up in the morning and came into the living room, the wing chair that had been in front of the fireplace when I rented the apartment and which I moved to the window, was back in front of the fireplace.”
Well, as I said, you can take that any way you want. You can make a good case that the guy had invented if for all the romantics like me who had found the apartment where F. Scott Fitzgerald put down his pencil for the last time. Or, like me, you can just enjoy the story and think quietly to yourself—I wonder. I also wonder if maybe Scott was along with me on this journey saying, this way Larry, that way Larry, hurry up Larry. Write this thing. I need the publicity.”
It has been wonderful sharing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life with audiences who appreciate the man and his work as much as I do. And it has been equally satisfying to see the pleasure in the faces of people, young and old, who are just discovering him. The best of all those moments is when someone, and it happens often, comes up to me after the show and says, “I’ve got to go right out and get his novels.”
Scott and Zelda—their love for each other— will never be forgotten.