The American icon was always meant to be a novelist, never a screenwriter.
In 1937, at age 41, F. Scott Fitzgerald found himself at rock bottom. He was struggling to pay for his daughter Scottie’s education at the Ethel Walker School in Connecticut, where she boarded. His wife Zelda had gone mentally insane and was now staying at the Highland Hospital in North Carolina, after a stint at a Swiss sanitarium. His recent books had received only tepid praise. (The Great Gatsby was generally critically panned, and Tender is the Night, published in 1934, seemed to confound critics: The New York Times lightly praised it (“logic personified”), and The New Republic called it “a good novel,” but “not a great novel.”) Throughout it all, he was also trying to redeem his own lost prestige.
A year earlier, he had published The Crack-Up, perhaps the first in the now-popular “tell-all” genre, in which he lamented that his life had slid precipitously downhill: from a literary prodigy and bestseller at 23 to an alcoholic with a mentally ill wife and a meager bank account. How did it all happen? The Crack-Up didn’t provide a concrete reason for the problem, but Fitzgerald nonetheless had a solution: Hollywood.
Following William Faulkner and Aldous Huxley, Fitzgerald entered the Hollywood machine, where he would use his literary talents to write scripts. He moved into a one-bedroom apartment and signed a six-month contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for $1,000 a week (about $17,000 a week when adjusted for inflation). Six months later he had his contract renewed and his salary augmented to $1,250 per week ($21,000). Things were off to a good start. Even for a bestseller like Fitzgerald, this was good money. Between his advance and royalties, he had made only a little over $8,000 for The Great Gatsby.
But Fitzgerald wanted more than money out of Hollywood. He wanted to be known again. He wanted the respect and adoration that he hadn’t had since his early twenties. He wanted to see his work on a screen, to have people thinking, F. Scott Fitzgerald has made a comeback.
About two years ago, I spent a week at the University of South Carolina’s library, which had recently acquired the full archive of Fitzgerald’s screenwriting from his days at MGM. Along with the dozen scripts he wrote, rewrote, treated, or polished, Fitzgerald left wrote a trove of letters during his Hollywood years. What they show, first and foremost, was that Fitzgerald was a passionate moviegoer and movie-lover even in his youth. In his letters, he mentions wanting to write for the movies as early as 1922 when he was 26. He thought of writing for the movies as a part of the wide-sweeping success he’d set out to achieve as a young man growing up middle-class in Minnesota.
In The Crack-Up, he called this desire, “The old dream of being an entire man in the Goethe-Byron-Shaw tradition, with an opulent American touch, a sort of combination of J. P. Morgan, Topham Beauclerk and St. Francis of Assisi.” Being involved in the movie business was a part of his being “an entire man.” In fact, it was even more than that. According to Charles Marquis Warren, who collaborated with Fitzgerald on a screen version of Tender Is the Night, “Scott would rather have written a movie than the Bible, than a best-seller.” He had success in the realm of books, why not the same in movies?
From the outset, Fitzgerald took the movie business seriously. He thought he would be a natural talent—just as he was as a natural novelist—and he thought he could make something great. But his grave mistake was in thinking that his talents in fiction writing would translate into screenwriting. “He didn’t condescend to the movies, but took them seriously—so seriously that he made the mistake of thinking that screenwriting was writing, and that it could take its place in his oeuvre,” wrote Richard Brody in The New Yorker.
“Instead of rejecting screenwriting as a necessary evil, Fitzgerald went the other way and embraced it as a new art form,” wrote Fitzgerald’s friend and fellow novelist-turned-screenwriter Budd Schulberg, “even while recognizing that it was an art frequently embraced by the ‘merchants’ more comfortable with mediocrity in their efforts to satisfy the widest possible audience.”
As I found in his journals, Fitzgerald maintained a rigorous writing routine. He woke early to work on his Pat Hobby stories, which concerned a young, fresh screenwriter trying to make it Hollywood. And he worked, almost daily, on what would become his final, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon. Then it was off to the studio to work on screenplays.
There would no longer be any slacking off in his life. He took detailed notes of his finances in a bound ledger. He set an alarm clock. He would be a part of society, play by the rules. For a while, it worked. In 1937, a year after coming to Hollywood, he had caught up on all of his debts and was able to comfortably pay for both Zelda’s hospitalization and Scottie’s schooling.
The beginning of his Hollywood career had Fitzgerald looking up. His early letters sent to his daughter showed his deep optimism and certainty that if he worked hard, he’d find himself on top again. “I must be very tactful but keep my hand on the wheel from the start—find out the key man among the bosses and the most malleable among the collaborators—then fight the rest tooth and nail until, in fact or in effect, I’m alone on the picture,” he wrote to Scottie, while she was studying at Vassar College. “That’s the only way I can do my best work. Given a break I can make them double this contract in less [than] two years.”
He thought he’d found this first bit of cinematic success when Shirley Temple showed interest in one of his screenplays, but her mother later backed out of the deal. He wrote another eleven scripts and rewrites, none of which were made into films—or were made into films but with so many changes that his name was no longer attached. By the end of two years, said he felt like nothing more than “a useless cog.” His screenwriting career had quickly snowballed into a series of frustrations and failures.
It started with A Yank at Oxford, a movie about a bumbling American who attends the University of Oxford and, among other bits of crass, physical humor, has his pants pulled down by some cheeky Brits. Fitzgerald was asked to do a rewrite of the screenplay, but after his rewrite another string of writers rewrote so much of what he had written that his name was cut out of the credits. Fitzgerald then spent two weeks on a screenplay for Gone with Wind alongside producer David O. Selznick, but this too was rewritten and his name, once again, was left out.
After that came Three Comrades at which he was given a shot at writing the script from scratch. He quickly ran into creative disagreements. The producer wanted Margaret Sullavan’s character to live. “He said the picture would make more money if Margaret Sullavan lived,” Fitzgerald wrote in his journal. “How about Romeo and Juliet—you wouldn’t have wanted Juliet to live, would you?” Fitzgerald had countered. “‘That’s just it,’” Fitzgerald remembered the producer saying, in regards to the 1936 MGM film. “‘Romeo and Juliet didn’t make a cent.’”
Fitzgerald then wrote Infidelity, perhaps the best script he ever composed. In the vein of Gatsby, it dealt with luxury living in New York and Long Island, where love is won and lost. But it ran into troubles due to its salacious material. MGM kept the content and changed the name to Fidelity, hoping to escape the censors, but their trick failed and the film was never made.
In 1939, two years after coming to Hollywood, Fitzgerald was still desperately trying to find success in his new business. He adapted Clare Booth’s The Women and Madame Curie, based on a treatment from Huxley. On both of them, producers wanted something different from what Fitzgerald had provided. In The Women, Fitzgerald had created a more modern, independent female protagonist, but the producer wanted a submissive “romantic” type; in Madame Curie, Fitzgerald was again pushed off the script after focusing too much on the science of the story and not enough on the romance (“too many test tubes,” the producer had said). Winter Carnival, Air Raid, and Raffles, even an adaptation of perhaps his best short story “Babylon Revisited”—none of these were ever made. In the end, the only screenwriting credit he received was for Three Comrades, which had nonetheless been greatly changed from his original script.
Writing to Scottie in 1939, his optimism had now been tempered. “I’m convinced that maybe they’re not going to make me Czar of the Industry right away, as I thought ten months ago. It’s all right, baby—life has humbled me—Czar or not, we’ll survive. I am even willing to compromise for Assistant Czar!” Shortly thereafter, he wrote even more somberly of his predicament to a producer. “To say I’m disillusioned is putting it mildly,” he wrote. “For nineteen years, with two years out for sickness, I’ve written best-selling entertainment, and my dialogue is supposedly right up at the top. I am utterly miserable at seeing months of work and thought negated in one hasty week.”
Fitzgerald simply didn’t fit into the Hollywood mold. The director Billy Wilder put it like this: for Fitzgerald to be a screenwriter is akin to “a great sculptor who is hired to do a plumbing job.”
When the screenwriter Lillian Hellman, who had spent time with the Fitzgeralds when they lived in Paris, saw him in Hollywood she was shocked by the change—of both his looks and demeanor. Hollywood had taken a heavy toll. “I had not seen him again until that night, and I was shocked by the change in his face and manner,” she wrote. “He hadn’t seemed to recognize me, and so I was surprised and pleased when he asked if I would ride with him to Dottie’s. My admiration for Fitzgerald’s work was very great, and I looked forward to talking to him alone. But we didn’t talk: he was occupied with driving at ten or twelve miles an hour down Sunset Boulevard, a dangerous speed in most places, certainly in Beverly Hills. Fitzgerald crouched over the wheel when cars honked at us, we jerked to the right and then to the left, and passing drivers leaned out to shout at us. I could not bring myself to speak, or even to look at Fitzgerald, but when I saw that his hands were trembling on the wheel… I put my hand over his hand.”
Anita Loos, another screenwriter, told the scholar Aaron Latham that Fitzgerald never fit into the inherent fraudulence of Hollywood. “Scott didn’t stand out in a group like that, but we accepted him because we respected him,” she wrote. “He wasn’t a phony and there were a lot of phonies at Metro in those days.” She remembers having lunch with him, where hee was often silent, and, as she recalled, “people treated him like an invalid.”
In 1939, after a string of failures and two years of hard work, Fitzgerald’s Hollywood dream had dissipated. MGM allowed his contract to lapse.
The ray of light in Fitzgerald’s Hollywood years came in the form of a young, English-born gossip columnist named Sheilah Graham. In early 1937, at age 33, Graham had divorced John Graham Gillam, her husband of 15 years, who, by most accounts was never the right match for her: he was impotent, had gone bankrupt many times over, and allowed her to go out with other men while looking the other way. She had married him at 18, hoping to improve her financial and social prospects, having come from an extraordinarily difficult background that she had kept hidden for the majority of her life.
Born in Leeds, England, as Lily Shiel, she was raised in an East London slum until she was ten months old. When her father died, her mother took a job as a washerwoman and raised her in a rented basement room in London. When she died six years later, Graham wound up in nearby Jews Hospital; shortly thereafter, she was transferred to the Orphan Asylum in Norwood.
Graham kept all of this a secret until she was 53 when she published her bestselling memoir Beloved Infidel. She had originally claimed, to everyone she met in Hollywood, that she was the daughter of eminent parents called John Lawrence and Veronic Roslyn Graham and that she had grown up in then-Bohemian Chelsea, “hoping,” as her son Robert Westbrook would later write, “this might explain any lapse of behavior.” She had worked her way out of her difficult past, first as a maid and later as a toothbrush demonstrator at Gamage’s department store, where she got the job due to, as she wrote, “my dazzling smile and perfect teeth thanks to a sweets-deprived childhood in the orphanage.” It was then off to Hollywood, where she quickly married the older, much quieter Gillam. She would later characterize herself as “a fascinating fake who pulled the wool over Hollywood’s eyes.”
Fitzgerald arrived in Hollywood in early 1937, just as Graham was finalizing her divorce and was on to the next man. In July of that year, Fitzgerald found himself at an engagement party thrown for her by the mustachioed columnist and actor Robert Benchley. She was to embark on her second marriage with the Marquess of Donegall. Upon seeing Fitzgerald at the party, however, “it was love at first sight,” Graham would later write. She broke her engagement with the nobleman and entered into a relationship with Fitzgerald.
Their relationship would last until his death, and, although Graham would marry twice more, she called her time with Fitzgerald her most meaningful relationship. “I was never a mistress,” she wrote. “I was a woman who loved Scott Fitzgerald for better or worse until he died.”
Ever one adept at understanding his own psychology, Fitzgerald must have sensed why he was attracted to Graham from the start. In many ways, he might have written her to life: she was downright Gatsby-esque in her dark past and personal transformation.
Without Graham, Fitzgerald might have given up in 1939 when his Hollywood failures were coming to a head. She provided him with a love and patience he hadn’t felt in at least the decade since Zelda had been committed to a mental institution. Graham would be the model for charming and sympathetic Kathleen, the heroine of The Last Tycoon.
But even Graham’s presence was not enough to change Fitzgerald’s fate. For the rest of the year and most of the next, he had no more success in Hollywood than when he had first arrived. He began to increase his drinking once again. Zelda’s condition was only getting worse. He had arrived in the summertime, flying into Los Angeles, where he recalled looking out the plane’s window, regarding the city’s flashing lights. He wrote then that they looked like “fireworks” and that they gave him a “feeling of new worlds to conquer.”
But Fitzgerald was never cut out for Hollywood. He didn’t have the right comportment to be a hack, and he didn’t know that being a hack is what it took for cinematic fame. At the peak of his misery, Fitzgerald wrote to a Princeton classmate, “I’m too much of an egotist + not enough of a diplomat ever to succeed in the movies. One must begin by placing the tongue flat against the posteriors of such worthys [sic] as Gloria Swanson + Allan Dwan and commence a slow carressing [sic] movement.” In what would be one of his final journal entries he wrote of his fate more seriously: “I just couldn’t make the grade as a hack—that, like everything else, requires a certain practiced excellence.”
On December 21, 1940, at age 44, Fitzgerald was sitting in Graham’s living room at 1443 North Hayworth Avenue. He was eating a Hershey’s chocolate bar and reading the Princeton alumni magazine when he stood up from his chair, grasped the fireplace mantle, and collapsed. Graham ran into the room and held him in her arms. He had died of heart attack—his Hollywood tragedy, finally complete.
This story originally appeared in Holiday Magazine (print only).
Feature photo of Fitzgerald and Graham