The lost F. Scott Fitzgerald

After Tod Browning surprisingly shot an early blockbuster for MGM in 1931 with the film adaptation of “Dracula,” the studio owners gave him a free hand for his next film. A decision they have been regretting a year later. “Freaks” never went to the theaters. Instead, it entered the studio’s poison cabinet.

By The World’s Work – The World’s Work (June 1921), p. 192, Gemeinfrei,

Only years later it was found there again, and since then it belongs to the most controversial masterpieces Hollywood ever made; during that time. Browning’s story about the affluent, runtish Hans, who earned his living as an actor in a freak circus that was travelling throughout the country in the USA at the time, and who was to be robbed of his money by a beautiful artist, was suddenly too much “horror” for the studio bosses. Mainly because Browning didn’t rely on masks nor did he participate in the beginnings of special effects, instead, he recruited his actors from real freak circuses.

The Siamese twins, the bearded woman, the man without arms and legs and all the others played themselves, in their own role, so to speak. And since they did this on the MGM studio premises, they naturally spent their lunch breaks in one of the canteens there. There they gathered together, but all alone, by themselves, because none of the other actors, extras, technicians or authors from MGM wanted to sit at the table with them. But sometimes someone broke this exclusion, one of them was F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Whenever someone asks me how I would characterize F. Scott Fitzgerald, that’s when I love to tell this anecdote from the early days of Hollywood, although – or perhaps precisely because it seems so atypical for a man, whose life was an endless quest for success and inclusion in the circle of the upper ten thousand. In 1932, when these scenes took place, Fitzgerald had already arrived at the end. Only 36 years old, eight years until his early death, he had once been acclaimed as the greatest living writer, was selected as THE couple of the 1920s together with Zelda, now he earned his living as a little scriptwriter. Enough money to pay for the alcohol – and the hospital bills for Zelda, who spent her life in mental hospitals. The man who had been at the top was at the bottom again. That wasn’t new, but this time he should not be allowed to make a comeback.

Give me a hero, and I’ll write you a Drama.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

Today we live in a society that is held together by a lie. It is the lie of the possible ascent. If you make enough effort, work hard, are educated, smart enough, then the way leads up. Everyone is said to be able to create their own paradise. Unspoken it is added that whoever fails, is to blame for himself. It was his family circumstances that brought little Scott into a very similar situation back then. The father was a businessman without much success, but the mother came from a wealthy family. As a poor boy little Scott always went to schools meant for rich children. Schools where he quickly felt he didn’t belong. It was a formative experience, for better or for worse. It was here where Fitzgerald discovered his talent as a writer. He wrote short stories and plays which gave him the recognition he was looking for. But also that urge developed in him to belong at all costs to the ever-present guild of creative writers. To become rich, famous and for sure very big. Whatever he was to begin the next few years, he started with almost unrealistic hopes. In Princeton he wanted to be the star of the football team. But after a day of training he was made to understand that with his small, slender physique he had more similarities with the ball than with the other players. Again, he began to write successfully, but so fanatically that he did nothing else. Except maybe drinking excessively. Both together ultimately led to his leaving college without a degree.

It was America’s entry into World War I what prevented him from crashing. As an officer he came with his regiment to Alabama where he waited for his embarkation to Europe and spent his time in the country clubs. As fate would have it, he met his “Golden Girl”, the southern beauty Zelda Sayer. Two soul mates met, which was both a curse and a blessing. Two insatiable spirits united here, without one having been able to bring the other to reason. But it still took a while until the pair of the golden 1920s was finally found. The war ended before Fitzgerald was embarked. He went to New York, earned his living as a copywriter and when he wanted to catch up with Zelda as his wife – she realized that her lifestyle was a little different after all. Not financeable with the salary of a copywriter – and certainly not glamorous enough.

We grew up and based our dreams on the infinite promise of American advertising.

Zelda Sayer Fitzgerald

When Zelda’s message reached him to break the engagement, F. Scott Fitzgerald disappeared on a drinking binge lasting about three weeks, only to reappear in his parents’ small town at the end. But he was still young and ambitious enough. He borrowed cigarettes and began to write wildly. In the end, “This Side of Paradise” was created. It founded his fame, it founded the literature of the new era after the end of the “great war that was to end all others.” Fitzgerald stood at the beginning of what is now called the “lost generation.”

By en:Image:Zeldaportrait.jpg, originally scanned from „Zelda“ by Nancy Milford. Scanned by en:User:Pantherpuma, Gemeinfrei,

From one day to the next, F. Scott Fitzgerald was no longer the young man with the big dreams from any small American town, he was a star in the sky of American literature. And he was famous enough to change Zelda’s mind.

All’s well, that ends well, … The lovers moved to New York and began a life in the wild 1920s. He was the author who put the lifestyle of the time into words like no other, she who literally created the myth of the Flapper Girl, the type of woman of the time. The Fitzgeralds were the epicenter of the new age. They lived, in the here and now, today, not for tomorrow. Alone, it was high life like in a dream, and occasionally even there the bills exist. Literally, and with the effects it has on the human body, which does not always resist the way the celebrating spirit demands it.

The Fitzgeralds – in those years, it was almost impossible not to think of Scott and Zelda together – found yet another last fork on the road not to go towards the predetermined end of the line: Paris

In those years the word “Paris” had an irresistible powerful sound back in distant America. Already in 1903, the American Gertrude Stein had settled there, and after the end of World War I more and more artists had gathered around her as writer, publisher and art collector. Picasso was not only hanging on Gertrude Stein’s walls but was also one of her regular guests, as was Henri Matisse. The American writers and great storytellers Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway also chose Gertrude Stein as their point of reference for their lives in Europe. And soon F. Scott Fitzgerald should be one of them.

We’re two lousy acrobats. 

Ernest Hemingway

All’s well, that ends well … Even though the Fitzgeralds never really got involved with the French themselves, they settled in well. They made friends, spent a lot of time on the French Rivera. They wrote. Both, because also Zelda was a talented writer whose lifelong curse was to be called “Fitzgerald.” Even today, her few published works are known only to those initiated into the literary scene, whom she appreciates. Little Frances was rescued, Fitzgerald’s only child. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway formed a male friendship, although Hemingway often found himself being pushed into the role of an attentive big brother. Not opposed to a good sip himself, he did not know what worried him more about his friend. The amount of alcohol he drank every day or the mood swings his friend was haunted by. Moreover, it became more and more apparent that the Fitzgeralds would become one of those couples who loved and beat each other. Their arguments became as legendary as their infatuation with each other.

But one last time it was meant to live life excessively. Once New York had celebrated the new era, celebrations began on the edge of fascism spreading throughout Europe. In Italy Mussolini had already seized power, in Germany Hitler’s rise seemed inevitable, but also in France or Great Britain, the fascists marched through the streets where wild music and the party noise of a generation coming to an end penetrated the passers-by. These were the years in which F. Scott Fitzgerald set about not only writing short stories for his income but also the book that makes him unforgettable to this day: “The Great Gatsby.” Had he written with “This Side of Paradise” the very book which heralded the beginning of an era, he now completed it with the Great Gatsby. The narrative that describes the life of a upcomer and its viewpoint as an observer of a relationship, driven by the obsession to get this one person for himself, the “Golden Girl,” which he was once denied because of his origins. Before Zelda, this girl had once existed in the life of Princeton student Fitzgerald. But Fitzgerald and Gatsby were also at one with the way to the downfall.

Again, it was Hemingway who intervened in the lives of his friends and made sure that Zelda, who was slowly drifting into madness, sought medical help. Shortly after that, however, they parted ways. Hemingway later went to Spain, the Fitzgeralds returned home to America.

The golden age was over, the world economic crisis paralyzed the country. Instead of debauchery, F. Scott Fitzgerald had to write again to survive, and Zelda began the sad rest of her life, which until her death in 1948 left her to spend more time in mental hospitals than outside those walls. After a long search Fitzgerald finally found in Hollywood at least one way to earn a regular income. He who had written perhaps the two most significant novels of the last two decades, wrote dialogues for the sound film that was just gaining ground.

He went on to write that the short stories about screenwriter Pat Hobby, with their quiet but sarcastically accurate humor, were perhaps among the best descriptions of everyday life in Hollywood but were only published in a book in 1962. Shortly before his untimely death, he began a new novel. “The Last Tycoon” was to be another masterpiece, but Fitzgerald died at the age of 44, marked by alcohol and fast-paced life. His work remained unfinished but was already so far advanced that it was nevertheless published and at the same time with “The Great Gatsby” brought to a film adaptation. Had he completed it, I am not the only one convinced that “The Last Tycoon” might have been able to outshine his other two masterpieces. This is how brilliantly he describes his observation of Hollywood in those days, which was already beginning to become just a shadow of itself. Like the film tycoon who is at the center of the observations of his first-person narrator, F. Scott Fitzgerald was already a legend from a bygone era.
A hero who held on to the old times and whose life was bound to end in tragedy.

Perhaps F. Scott Fitzgerald’s early death at the age of only 44 was ultimately also a symbol of what (literary) historians still consider him to be today, the prototype of the “lost generation.” Gertrude Stein coined this term for a generation of Americans who also included giants such as Ezra Pound, Henry James or T. S. Eliot. But the most influential faces were F. Scott Fitzgerald and his friend Ernest Hemingway. One died young of a heart attack, the other put an end to his own life. What this “lost generation” ultimately was, was probably best described by Fitzgerald himself:

A generation, grown up to find all the gods dead, all the wars fought, every faith in humanity destroyed.

F. Scott Fitzgerald

He might have been wrong. There were still gods to kill, wars to fight much more cruelly, and the belief in mankind always big enough to be destroyed by another war. And yet here, perhaps like no other, he described the mood of a generation that we remember today from images of ecstatic Charleston dances, but behind all the party mood and cheerfulness, in the end, was a lost generation.

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