It was a scenario that only a Hollywood screenwriter—including a down-on-his-luck novelist hoping to regenerate his life out there—could have conceived: the future author of The Great American Novel meets a future American war hero and President. F. Scott Fitzgerald, with dreams of (primarily non-military) glory in his head, reported for duty at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in November 1917. His commanding officer, fresh out of West Point, was equally eager to make his mark over in the Great War in Europe, and would be equally disappointed not to get there: Dwight D. Eisenhower (pictured here, with wife Mamie, only a year before). What the experience taught the two men, was, oddly enough, openness to whatever fate had in store for them—in the event, quite a lot.
Two men to become famous in the future, thrown together by fate: To our knowledge, they never actually exchanged greetings. That would seem like the kind of thing that could only happen in the world of alternative history. But that’s never stopped Hollywood before in fashioning events from what didn't happen, and I doubt if it would be an obstacle now if someone decided to make a film about them.
Before learning about this, the only real-life military figure I ever associated with Fitzgerald was his brother-in-law Clifton "Ziggy" Sprague, a WWII admiral who became a hero at the Battle of Leyte Gulf (by which time the novelist was dead). (I don’t count Fitzgerald’s frenemy Ernest Hemingway, who got his war wound not as an officer or enlisted man but as an ambulance driver on the Italian front, on an errand to hand out chocolate and cigarettes to other soldiers. When he got home, the young man was soon exaggerating his real exploits—carrying another wounded man to safety, despite his own injury—into a whole lot more for the benefit of hometown audiences.)
But Ike was bigger than Hemingway, or Sprague, or nearly anyone you could name from either war. Let’s explore what Fitzgerald and Eisenhower were like at the time, and how the seeds of what they became are prefigured here.
On the one hand, we have Fitzgerald, his Princeton education shortened by academic lassitude. Only the month before reporting to Fort Leavenworth, he had received a commission as a second lieutenant in the infantry. He was not fighting as part of a rush to defend his country, nor as part of a Wilsonian crusade for a wider world of peace, justice and security. At first, that might make one think that he was fighting the war without any sense of the romantic. But that is the last thing one could say. No, he had applied for officer training because he thought it would provide material for his fiction. In other words, he was a romantic youth craving a great adventure.
What kind of a person would fight in a war for that motive? The answer might be found in the title of the apprentice novel on which Fitzgerald would be working throughout his training: The Romantic Egotist, later to be turned into This Side of Paradise, the 1920 novel that made him the inadvertent spokesman for the Jazz Age. "I would begin work at it every Saturday afternoon at one and work like mad until midnight," he later wrote. "Then I would work at it from six Sunday morning until six Sunday night, when I had to report back to barracks. I was thoroughly enjoying myself."
Adding to his self-absorption, Fitzgerald was absolutely convinced he would die in combat. That might have been true, but he might have improved his chances—as well as those of the men who would be under his command—had he been paying more attention in class. Instead, he worked on his Ivy League bildungsroman, concealed in a copy of Small Problems for Infantry, according to Jean Edward Smith’s Eisenhower: In War and Peace.
Did Captain Eisenhower have any idea of the inattentive lieutenant under his command? It’s doubtful that Fitzgerald confided his literary ambition to the recent West Pointer. Still, it’s a safe bet that Eisenhower, had he ever been moved to put pen to paper about Fitzgerald, would not have been enthused. If Edward M. Coffman’ s 1968 history, The War to End All Wars, is to be believed, Fitzgerald even nodded off to sleep during at least one of Eisenhower’s lectures.
Eisenhower might not have been able to tell Fitzgerald much about the latter’s growing preoccupation—class—nor would he have displayed the worldly sophistication demonstrated by Father Sigourney Fay, his headmaster at Newman Prep in New Jersey. But the captain was doing his level best to teach the art of survival.
Instead, the budding novelist made the same kind of mistake that other Ivy League intellectuals were disposed to make about Eisenhower, even (perhaps one should make that especially) decades later: He underestimated him, badly. As one Columbia group of educators found out years later, Ike, when given the opportunity to lecture about military history, gave a crisp overview of the subject, not only displaying a thorough grounding in the subject but dispensing totally with the circumlocutions (more often than not, intentional) that baffled (and, in turn, were lampooned by) reporters during his Presidency.
I like to think that somehow, if fate had thrown them together where they could have spoken, as one human to another (rather than Ike, inquiring why Fitzgerald had caught 40 winks in his class), they might have established a solid bond of shared characteristics:
· * Love of football. At 5 ft. 7 in., 138 pounds, Fitzgerald was not much of a physical specimen, but he tried out anyway for the Princeton football team. As I wrote in a prior post, he was especially fascinated by a Princeton student of his time who was a legend on the gridiron, Hobey Baker. Eisenhower later admitted that it was hard to overstate his passion for athletics when he got to West Point. Though he bulked himself up enough to play on the varsity squad as a linebacker and running back, his gridiron glory ended abruptly when he injured his knee.
· * Self-discipline and ambition. It might be hard to think of an alcoholic as self-disciplined, but even as his disease increasingly got the better of him, Fitzgerald continued to produce work. His professionalism was all the more necessary in the 1930s, as he sought to pay for his wife’s medical bills and his daughter’s education. And as a young man, he was simply burning to make his way in the literary world. Eisenhower hid his ambition under a sunny smile. As his son John later remarked: “Dad could get over any disappointment easily, as long as he won.”
· * Smoking. Fitzgerald’s mistress, Hollywood gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, never saw him take another drink after January 1940, but he couldn’t shed his addiction to cigarettes, and the continuing damage from that (as well as the residual damage from drinking) led to his death later that year. Eisenhower’s smoking, which began at West Point, got his relationship with Bernard Montgomery off on the wrong foot, as the British commander starchily informed him in front of an entire group that he did not allow smoking in his presence. Eisenhower’s two heart attacks as President resulted from years of heavy use.
· * Study of “theatrics.” At an early age, Fitzgerald was drawn to amateur theatricals, and at college he wrote scripts and lyrics for the Princeton Triangle Club musicals. He was enthralled from early on by the power of the new medium, film, and spent several years toward the end of his life in Hollywood. From youth to adulthood, Eisenhower raced through western novels, the first, most dramatic genre of cinema. He was associated throughout much of the 1930s with a prima donna, perhaps the greatest actor of the first half of the 20th century. No, not Barrymore or Tracy or Olivier, but General Douglas MacArthur. That was the source of Ike’s wisecrack that he had “studied theatrics under MacArthur.”
· * Love of country. Eisenhower’s love of country was expressed not just in words that were obvious (“Never let yourself be persuaded that any one Great Man, any one leader, is necessary to the salvation of America”) but in ones not so much (“Don't join the book burners. Don't think you're going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. “). If he had had the chance to look at a piece of paper with the full name of the slight young soldier under his command—Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald—I’m sure he might have elicited a friendly conversation that would have resulted in the revelation that the composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was an ancestor. Later on, the young man’s most dazzling novel would feature a character marked by an “extraordinary gift for hope” that characterized his country, and that novel would end with an evocation of “the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world.”
Fitzgerald would have been surprised to hear that the commander with the outwardly friendly smile but steel-trap intelligence delivering lectures at Fort Leavenworth was as bored and frustrated by the process as he was. The only way Ike could abide being away from his wife and baby would have been fighting in Europe, where he could have distinguished himself in battle. Instead, he had not only been condemned to what he regarded as a backwater of the war by the Army, by virtue of his obvious talent for educating young men in drills, but reprimanded by deskbound bureaucrats for his repeated requests for transfers to the European front.
Eisenhower would have to be content, to the limited extent he could, with the thought that no experience goes utterly to waste. The same held true for Fitzgerald. Although he never got near the front (the war ended just before his unit embarked for Europe), it would be a mistake to say that WWI left no mark on him. (And I'm not thinking principally here of the fact that a later assignment to Camp Sheridan, near Montgomery, Ala., was the occasion for him meeting a beautiful 18-year-old Southern belle, Zelda Sayre, who became his wife.)
In Nick Carraway’s opening meditation in The Great Gatsby, he notes that after he returned from the war, he had wanted the world to “be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever.” In Fitzgerald’s last completed novel, Tender Is the Night, his protagonist, the expatriate psychiatrist Dick Diver, leads a small group on a trip to a battlefield in France. Though, like his creator, he did not experience combat, Diver knows all too well the cost of what happened here: “See that little stream — we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it — a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs.”
(The photo of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower was taken on the front steps of St. Louis Hall, St. Mary's University, San Antonio, Texas, in 1916. The source of the image is the Eisenhower Library.)