In 1924 while shooting a film in New York, actress Patsy Ruth Miller (1904-1995) developed a close friendship with author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda. Frequently, Fitzgerald and Patsy Ruth would go out for dinner while Zelda remained home pleading fatigue. Patsy Ruth eventually realized that Zelda’s fatigue was acute alcoholism.
Observes Patsy Ruth:
It didn’t seem to me that Scott drank more than most of the men I knew. He seemed intoxicated on words, and sometimes we would sit, our after-dinner coffee growing cold, while Scott tried to make me see some fine point of writing, or understand why an emotion had been ill or well portrayed. But often I had the feeling that he was unsure of himself as a writer, that he was afraid of that one day he’d have nothing left to say, and I also had the impression that Zelda did little to build his confidence, even sometimes, in a perverse way, seemed to enjoy his battle with self-doubt.
Fitzgerald’s agonies of self-doubt are common among writers. The fear of having nothing left to say will, inevitably, be paralyzing. And a non-supportive spouse can act as a fatal poison to a vulnerable writer. Most witnesses observe that Fitzgerald was a heavy drinker as a student in Princeton. There is no doubt that by the time he landed in Hollywood he was a hopeless drunk. It’s a measure of how common was alcoholism in early Hollywood that Patsy Ruth didn’t think Fitzgerald’s intake was all that unusual.
A future O’Henry Award winning writer, Patsy Ruth Miller, in her juicy memoir, My Hollywood: When Both of Us Were Young, reveals a fascinating anecdote that took place a few years later when a shaky Fitzgerald was under contract to MGM. At the time, Patsy Ruth Miller was married to the great screenwriter John Lee Mahin, director Victor Fleming’s frequent collaborator.
John often saw Scott at MGM, where they were both working, and told me that Scott seemed very despondent. I said that was only natural, with Zelda in a sanatorium, but John said, No, that wasn’t it. He was writing a screenplay based on someone else’s story and hated his assignment. Then why does he do it? I asked. Money, I suppose, said John, but it’s a damn shame.
In truth, Fitzgerald never mastered the craft of the screenwriting, and in the tense, sink or swim factory atmosphere in which studio screenwriters labored, the master novelist’s confidence level was further undermined. Most authors idealize themselves as romantic artists. But the most productive screenwriters—then as now—understand that they are well-paid craftsmen working in collaboration with scores of highly talented people. Sadly, Fitzgerald never came to grips with the rigid studio system established by Irving G. Thalberg in which the producer is the final authority.
Remarks Patsy Ruth on Fitzgerald’s bleak state of mind:
I finally ran into Scott one day at the studio where I had gone to pick up John. It was true, he did seem to have less sparkle, less animation, than he had in New York. I remember John saying to him, “Come on, kid. It’s all grist to your mill. Some day you’re going to write something about Hollywood as good as The Great Gatsby.”
Scott reacted as though he’d been accused of raping his twin sister. He said that he had never written anything worthwhile, that Gatsby was already dead and best forgotten, that nothing he had ever done would live, and not to give him any of that crap about great literature.
Bit by bit, F. Scott Fitzgerald unravels in Hollywood. Certainly, Fitzgerald’s unhappiness with his Hollywood career is a prime factor, and with Zelda quite mad—probably schizophrenic—and locked away, an all consuming anger and bitterness envelopes the novelist.
But John Lee Mahin has a different take on Fitzgerald’s broken spirit:
On the way home John said this was all because of the people Scott was surrounded by all the writers who had suddenly become politically oriented, social consciousness was the cry, and anyone who merely wrote about people and their everyday problems and emotions, was at least a Facist or maybe worse. Poor Scott had been tossed into this whirlpool of Liberalism, and without a political credo to cling to, was drowning in it. He had never espoused causes, nor been very interested in politics; as a writer, Humanity had meant little to him, the Individual everything…
Of course, Patsy Ruth is describing the cells of Hollywood Reds. The love of humanity at the expense of the individual is at the core of Communist ideology. Communist purges, where thousands if not millions are murdered, are justified by Stalin’s charming dictum: “You have to break a few eggs in order to make an omelette.”
Patsy Ruth observes:
His work was condemned, they said, and he believed them. He denounced himself even more harshly than his judges, accusing his work of being trivial and superficial.
“He actually told me he’s ashamed of The Great Gatsby,” John fairly snarled. “Those cursed Do-gooders… they’ve got him believing his work isn’t worth a tinkers damn just because he wasn’t waving a banner or marching in a picket line. They’ve destroyed him, as sure as God made little apples.”
That shouldn’t keep him from writing,” I protested.
The hell it doesn’t,” John said. “Who can write when you’ve been told, when you’ve been convinced that anything you have to say is a bunch of crap. He can write rings around every one of those bastards who’ve done this to him, but he doesn’t believe it any more, and if you don’t believe it, you can’t do it.”
Is Mahin’s theory correct? Did Fitzgerald fail in Hollywood because he felt diminished by an onslaught of politically correct thought?
I doubt that this was the prime reason for Fitzgerald’s Hollywood decline.
Common sense argues that the failure of his marriage, ill-health, alcoholism, chronic money problems, and a loss of confidence were the prime motivators in F. Scott’s downfall. Let’s not forget that Fitzgerald did write The Last Tycoon, unfinished yes, but still a masterful portrait of Hollywood with Irving Thalberg as Monroe Stahr, the central character.
Nevertheless, Mahin’s belief that Fitzgerald was a victim of a politically correct Hollywood rings true as a contributing factor to Fitzgerald’s emotional and professional disintegration.