Second Acts: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood

June 6, 2013

    1. The Crack-Up

    WHEN THE 1920S WERE OVER, Scott Fitzgerald cracked up. The world he’d helped create — The Jazz Age — had ended. By the time he died in 1940, at age 44, most of his works were out of print. He was not forgotten so much as he was willfully put out of mind.

    I’ve loved Fitzgerald since I was a teenager, and over the years I’ve read nearly everything he published. The Great Gatsby has never been my favorite, although I don’t despise it. The hardness and grace of his style in Gatsby are astonishing, and there’s no question that it’s his most perfect novel, by far. My favorites, though, are his imperfect novels, the ones where his poetry and humanity show through the prose: Tender Is the Night, The Beautiful and Damned, short stories like “The Freshest Boy” or “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” and the Crack-Up essays.

    Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood in 1937, and there he wrote two works that in many ways show the full range of what made him so much more than a product of his time. The first is The Last Tycoon, the story of studio chief Monroe Stahr, who is captivated by mystery woman Kathleen Moore, loved by Hollywood princess Cecelia Brady, and haunted by his dead wife, movie star Minna Davis. The book was unfinished at the time of Fitzgerald’s death, but in 1941 it was assembled for publication by Edmund Wilson, and then edited and reissued in 1993 by his biographer Matthew Bruccoli, who called it “the most promising — and the most disappointing — fragment in American fiction.”

    The second work is less well known, a series of stories Fitzgerald was writing for Esquire magazine at the same time he was working on The Last Tycoon. The Pat Hobby stories began appearing in January 1940 and continued for 17 months, through May 1941 — uninterrupted by Fitzgerald’s death the previous December. In the stories, Pat Hobby is a hack screenwriter, a relic of Hollywood’s silent era, a drunk. According to Fitzgerald’s editor Arnold Gingrich, the stories were largely dismissed as having been “done to pay the grocer.” They were, of course, but that’s beside the point. As Gingrich wrote in his introduction to the collected Pat Hobby stories, published more than 20 years after they began appearing in print, “with this volume, an authentic first edition, however belated, the Fitzgerald cast of major characters is at last complete, and Pat Hobby takes his rightful place, if not alongside Jay Gatsby and Dick Diver, then at least between Monroe Stahr and Amory Blaine.”

    In the wake of the new film adaptation of Gatsby, as we look at how Hollywood has treated F. Scott Fitzgerald it’s worth looking too at how Fitzgerald treated Hollywood. For those who love his work, what he did there can be seen to describe the full arc of his great, heartbreaking genius.

    2. The Last Tycoon

    F. Scott Fitzgerald met Irving Thalberg in 1927. Thalberg, only 27 years old at the time, was head of MGM studios; Fitzgerald was 31, and the toast of what seemed to be the entire world. The author disdained Hollywood both publicly and privately, but in Thalberg he found someone to respect and admire. Thalberg was disciplined, but also cunning, and though he possessed a once-in-a-generation talent, he had a sense of sacrifice about him. Later, recalling Thalberg, Fitzgerald wrote, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” That was Monroe Stahr.

    Stahr is unlike Fitzgerald’s other major characters, neither frivolous like Amory Blaine, nor rotten like Anthony Patch, nor broken like Dick Diver. He comes close to Gatsby in his brilliance and far-off-ness, and perhaps if Fitzgerald had lived to finish writing The Last Tycoon, Stahr would have come closer still. But unlike Gatsby, Stahr came by his gifts honestly, through hard work, and the love Stahr feels in the novel is driven not by what he can’t have but by what he has had and never will again.

    Although it’s primarily a romance (the novel’s full title, according to Fitzgerald’s lover Sheilah Graham, was The Love of the Last Tycoon: A Western), in its unfinished form The Last Tycoon is as much a story of Stahr in Hollywood as it is the story of Stahr and Kathleen Moore. Fitzgerald was fascinated with Thalberg, and in 1938, fascinated finally with Hollywood. Stahr is more than a man, he’s an entire industry — a tycoon, yes, but he contains multitudes, and his powers extend far beyond the making of films. Says Cecelia Brady, the daughter of Stahr’s partner at the studio and the keeper of an unrequited love for him: “It’s more than possible that some of the pictures which Stahr himself conceived had shaped me into what I was.”

    Cecelia is Fitzgerald’s telescope into Hollywood, though in his notes Fitzgerald writes that “Cecelia does not tell the story though I write it as if she does whenever I can get the effect of looking out” — outside the story, that is. The stories all belong to Stahr. In the course of the novel, we see him keep company with writers, directors, and producers, entertain a prince and a communist, and turn a skeptical novelist on his ear. “You can take Hollywood for granted like I did,” Cecelia says, “or you can dismiss it with the contempt we reserve for what we don’t understand.” She continues:

    It can be understood too, but only dimly and in flashes. Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads. And perhaps the closest a woman can come to the set-up is to try and understand one of those men.

    This is a note of mea culpa from a novelist who was once skeptical of Hollywood, and paid a price for it. It’s impossible to know how much of it would have made its way into the finished novel; character by itself doesn’t constitute drama. It seems safe to say that the love story would have grown over time and revision, and the Hollywood story would have been diminished. But you can read into the unfinished fragment a desire on Fitzgerald’s part to make good, and do right by his inspiration.

    One thing to note, in that regard: Love and work blur for Stahr, as do movies and real life. After all, Minna Davis, his wife and his true love, was a movie star. Kathleen captivates him because she looks like Minna. She’s an imitation, though a strange one. “You look more like how she actually looked than how she was on the screen,” Stahr tells her, the unreal screen image of Minna more real to him than the woman herself. Stahr lives in a self-made reality, as does Gatsby, but for Stahr the stakes are higher: his successes are projected on the big screen, as are his failures. Real and unreal are that much more entangled.

    There are at least two tragedies at work in The Last Tycoon. The first is that Kathleen is not Minna; the second, more gripping tragedy is that Stahr is ill, suffering from a congenital defect made worse by overwork and loneliness. His work, his love, is killing him. “He was born sleepless,” Cecelia says, “without a talent for rest or the desire for it.” Stahr doesn’t bring on his own death, however; he couldn’t. There’s work to do. Fitzgerald wrote in his notes, “Stahr didn’t die of overwork — he died of a certain number of forces allied against him.” He wrote too, of himself, “I am sure I am far enough ahead to have some small immortality if I keep well.” The desire for immortality haunts Fitzgerald’s work because, better than anyone, he knew how finite his time was. And still, the people in his fictions try to make their lives as gorgeous as they can — that’s the thing that made me fall in love with him to begin with.

    3. The Pat Hobby Stories

    The Pat Hobby stories are not the only stories Fitzgerald wrote in or about Hollywood. “Magnetism,” which he wrote in 1928, was part of the basis for Tender Is the Night, although by the time the novel was finished the only common bit that remained was Rosemary, the Hollywood ingénue who coos at Dick, “Oh, we’re such actors — you and I.” And he based “Crazy Sunday,” a story he wrote in 1932, on an evening cocktail party at Thalberg’s house, at which Fitzgerald drank heavily and behaved badly.

    Hobby is further gone than Fitzgerald ever was, although in Arnold Gingrich’s words, “much of what [Fitzgerald] felt about Hollywood and about himself permeated these stories.” As a character, he’s difficult to pin down. He’s both degenerate and steadfast, lazy and indefatigable, corrupt and true. To commiserate with him is impossible, but not to do so breaks your heart. Above all, he is a man who got left behind when the world moved on. Not one of Fitzgerald’s gold-plated failures — just a failure, with nothing left to hide behind.

    The stories begin with “Pat Hobby’s Christmas Wish,” in which Hobby attempts to blackmail a producer into putting him on salary permanently. Though Fitzgerald has sympathy for Pat Hobby, he’s also merciless in showing his flaws. “Of course, he’s a complete rat,” he wrote to Gingrich after the story’s publication, “but it seems to make him a little sinister which he essentially is not.” “A Man In the Way” provides perhaps a better introduction to what Pat Hobby essentially is. Looking for a place to dry out, Hobby wanders into an office and meets a pretty young writer. She tells him her idea for a picture, about a useless old man who was once a great artist; Hobby “warm[s] to this conception of himself,” steals her idea, and sells it to a studio bigshot. The story ends just before he’s outed as a fraud — by the pretty young writer, who’s sleeping with the bigshot. That Pat Hobby never finds out his own disgrace is a small act of charity on Fitzgerald’s part.

    The Pat Hobby stories lack Fitzgerald’s characteristic lyricism, and perhaps for that might be read as mercenary or hackwork; but what they lack in beauty, they make up for in wit and pathos. Pat Hobby begins the story “The Homes of the Stars,” for example, by playing up his close personal friendship with Ronald Colman, and ends — after several mishaps — hoping the actor doesn’t remember his last name. Or in “Boil Some Water — Lots of It,” Pat Hobby hits a man who’s threatening to upend the social order of the studio cafeteria, only to find out that the man is actually a heavyweight producer in costume as an extra. Hobby was once “a good man for structure,” it is said, and in many of the Pat Hobby stories, Fitzgerald proves that he is, too.

    In the sequence’s most poignant moment, Pat Hobby tells a frustrated writer from the East, “Authors get a tough break out here. […] They never ought to come.” “Who’d make up the stories,” the author replies, “— these feebs?” “Well anyhow, not authors,” says Pat. “They don’t want authors, they want writers — like me.” Fitzgerald wrote of himself in The Crack-Up, “I have now at last become a writer only.” That he could write a character like Pat Hobby, who cut so close to the quick, shows the fragility of his talent, insofar as it should have been cradled, protected. Fitzgerald captured people in crystal so that we could see them from all sides, and reflected in a thousand different angles, but never, finally, get close to them.


    F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, in his notes on The Last Tycoon, that “there are no second acts in American lives,” which in common usage has come to mean something like, “There are no second chances.” If anything, both Fitzgerald’s writing and his life show us that there are infinite chances, endless do-overs, that the American mind has no choice but to forge ahead, trying, trying again. There’s probably scholarship to contradict me, but I think Fitzgerald was getting at something more like the idea that there are no true endings — but rather, that what’s wrapped up with a bow is only waiting to come undone; our stories are constantly unfolding, scene after scene.

    That doesn’t mean we don’t know regret, however. Fitzgerald certainly knew it. He died on December 21, 1940, of a heart attack, in a small Hollywood apartment that didn’t belong to him — but he already seemed to sense that his own story was all but over when, in 1931, he finished his essay, “Echoes of the Jazz Age”:

    Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth. Sometimes, though, there is a ghostly rumble among the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones that swings me back into the early twenties when we drank wood alcohol and every day in every way grew better and better, and there was a first abortive shortening of the skirts, and girls all looked alike in sweater dresses, and people you didn’t want to know said “Yes, we have no bananas,” and it seemed only a question of a few years before the older people would step aside and let the world be run by those who saw things as they were — and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more.


    Jillian Goodman is an editor in Manhattan and a writer in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in New York, Slate, and Glamour, among others. 


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