Friday, September 30, 2011

Flashback, September 1936: Post Runs a-Mok on Fitz

The fragile sense of self-esteem maintained by F. Scott Fitzgerald developed a mile-wide crack when The New York Post published a savage interview with the novelist. The article by Michael Mok, “The Other Side of Paradise,” depicted the former literary wunderkind as washed-up on the occasion of his 40th birthday. The interview was so pitiless, especially in its relentless focus on Fitzgerald’s alcoholism, that he would shortly attempt suicide.

Mok found Fitzgerald at his nadir. It had been 11 years since his classic The Great Gatsby had appeared. Now Fitzgerald, having squandered most of his money during “the Jazz Age” (a phrase he coined, though he preferred classical music), not only faced the high probability that his wife Zelda would ever recover her mental health, but also that he would have to pay for her institutional care.

But that was hardly the only load on Fitzgerald’s spirit as he sat down with Mok at the Grove Park Inn in Asheville, N.C. (where he was visiting Zelda):

* Fitzgerald was staring at serious debts to, among others, his publisher, Scribners ($9,000), and his literary agent, Harold Ober ( $11,000);

* Early in the summer, he had fractured his shoulder, and he still required the services of a nurse; and

* In August, Ernest Hemingway turned on the older writer who had once championed him. In the short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” the protagonist tosses a jibe in the direction of “Poor Scott Fitzgerald,” giving popular currency to a wisecrack rejoinder to Fitzgerald’s “The rich are different from you and me”: “Yes, they have more money.” (An annoyed Fitzgerald convinced Hemingway to change the name of this character to “Julian” when it was collected in book form, but it was still unmistakable who was being lampooned.)

Mok did allude in his piece to a rumored suicide attempt by Zelda that Scott stopped just in time. Otherwise, only one note of sympathy —quickly extended, then just as quickly snatched away (“With his visitor he chatted bravely, as an actor, consumed with fear that his name will never be in lights again, discusses his next starring role”)—appears throughout.

A clue to the journalist’s not-so-hidden agenda was sounded in the first couple of paragraphs. The young Fitzgerald was depicted not as an uncommonly gifted artist leading a generation of writers disillusioned by the world’s worst war to that time, but as the “poet-prophet of the post-war neurotics” (i.e., the Lost Generation). Worse, he was “cocksure [and] drunk with sudden success.” A single word—“drunk”—is planted in that sentence like a bomb that will detonate shortly, as Fitzgerald was depicted continually as rambling and so sick he couldn’t write for more than a few hours a week.

It is important to state this now: this was not Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing scandal rag, but a liberal broadside a couple of owners removed from the Australian media mogul. Mok’s attitude toward Fitzgerald reflected a prevalent attitude during the Great Depression: What right did someone who once made so much money have to complain about now? Why, Fitzgerald needed some self-discipline to get his life back on track again! Those attitudes sound a bit like contemporary media attitudes toward entertainment personalities in the grip of substance abuse.

I have called the interview “savage,” but in the years since nobody ever claimed that Fitzgerald was misquoted or taken out of context. His comments seemed blurted out, even when cryptic (e.g., he refused to explain what he meant by, "A series of things happened to papa. So papa got depressed and started drinking a little”). Moreover, they seemed all of a piece with his remorseful, reflective essays of the period, later collected by Fitzgerald’s Princeton friend and “artistic conscience” Edmund Wilson into The Crack-Up.

Mok would have had to plug up his ears and notice virtually nothing of what transpired that night in Asheville, N.C. So the question inevitably arises: what led Fitzgerald to be so painfully garrulous and self-pitying? A couple of explanations seem plausible: a) as an alcoholic, he had no internal censor; and b) in the Twenties, Scott and Zelda had given reporters acres of good copy, and consequently they came off as unfairly good-looking, intelligent, creative, fun-loving free spirits. Few minded how much money they made or spent back then; more than a few people were doing the same thing. Perhaps Fitzgerald expected similar favorable treatment now from this journalist unknown to him. That wasn’t what he received this time.

If Fitzgerald’s rueful “Crack-Up” pieces, then being released in Esquire, were, as I’ve just indicated, similar in tone to what Fitzgerald said in the interview, then the shock value of Mok's interview to contemporaries had to lie elsewhere. It resides in this, I think: the sense of shame still accruing to alcoholism then. Alcoholics Anonymous was only in existence a year, and it would not appreciably grow in the U.S. in the 1930s.

When Fitzgerald saw his babbled words in print, and sensed the reaction of friends and the public, it was too much for him, and he swallowed morphine. Fortunately, he survived the suicide attempt. In his better moments, once he sobered up, he grew remorseful, remembered his responsibilities, returned to his typewriter, and became again the professional who would take care of those he loved.

The writer Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (The Yearling, Cross Creek), who visited Fitzgerald not only after the Mok interview, caught something of this sense when she recalled “as a writer, except for the times such as this one has been, when his misery holds him up too long, his masochism will not interfere with his work… He has thrown himself on the floor and shrieked himself black in the face and pounded his heels—as lots of us do in one way or another—but when it's over he'll go back to his building blocks again.”

For that reason, the saga of Fitzgerald didn’t end with his suicide attempt. After recovering, he moved to California, where he wrote for a medium that had fascinated him for the past two decades: film. As insidious--and, occasionally, disastrous (a bender led to the termination of his MGM contract)--as his alcoholism was, he continued to work, paying for Zelda’s care and his daughter Scottie’s school expenses.

Fitzgerald could act abominably while under the influence, but--in a way Mok certainly never understood, judging from the interview--he somehow managed to get to his feet, again and again. When he died of a heart attack in December 1940, he was well along in what, even in its unfinished state, shows him at close to peak form: The Last Tycoon.

If Mok is recalled at all these days, it’s as a vulture who tried to pick apart a broken genius. At the time, neither he nor any of his readers could guess that, only 30 years later, Fitzgerald would be appearing frequently on high school and college English reading lists, or that, by the centennial of his birth in 1996, his likeness would appear on postage stamps, a symbol of his enduring achievement, tangible evidence of grace attained despite inner torment.

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