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. Perhaps Fitzgerald was not yet a full blown alcoholic, but he certainly turned into a drunk over the next few years.
A future O’Henry Award winning writer, Patsy Ruth Miller, in her juicy memoir, My Hollywood: When Both of Us Were Young, narrates a fascinating anecdote that took place a few years later when a shaky Fitzgerald was under contract at MGM.
John [Lee Mahin] 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 artists. But the best, most productive screenwriters, then as now, understand that they are craftsmen working in collaboration with scores of highly talented people. Sadly, Fitzgerald never came to grips with the rigid studio system.
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 and locked away an all consuming anger and bitterness envelopes the great 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 emerging cells of Hollywood Reds. The love of humanity at the expense of the individual is at the core of Communist ideology. Too often Communist purges, where thousands if not millions are murdered, are justified by this 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 a wave of politically correct thought?
I doubt that this was the prime reason for Fitzgerald’s Hollywood decline. Common sense argues that the break-up of his marriage, alcoholism, chronic money problems and a loss of confidence were the prime motivators in F. Scott’s downfall. But 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 denunciations of Fitzgerald as the victim of a politically correct Hollywood ring true as contributing to Fitzgerald’s melancholy state of mind. And drawing from personal observation, I can attest to the wounds that can be inflicted by an almost monolithic political Hollywood sensibility.
Turner Classic Movie Alert
My friend Self Styled Siren, one of the best movie bloggers in the known universe—I think Ms. Siren has read even more Hollywood memoirs than yours truly—is, with the The New York Post’s Lou Lumenick, programming a series of films, in January, for Turner Classic Movies titled: Shadows of Russia
The festival will air Wednesdays in primetime throughout January.
From the TCM press release:
The selections focusing on the many views of Russia and communism to be found in American movies. Some films are masterpieces that the Siren and her readers know almost by heart (Ninotchka, The Manchurian Candidate, The Scarlet Empress), others the Siren loved on viewing but needs to get re-acquainted with (Reds, The Way We Were), still others are oddities deserving of a more focused look (Rasputin and the Empress, Red Danube, Conspirator, Comrade X). And there are some rare films being shown, including Leo McCarey’s film maudit My Son John, with poor doomed Robert Walker in the lead; The North Star, of which I am told TCM has located a good print that should show off James Wong Howe’s cinematography; and I Was a Communist for the FBI.
I will be watching and writing about the series for Big Hollywood. It should prove enlightening and fascinating.
Congratulations to Siren. Her exemplary work, along with many others in the lively and informative movie blogosphere, demonstrates that the internet is exerting a profound influence on the world of films.
Memo to TCM: If you’d like to program a series exploring the image of Jews in American movies, give me a call.