Posted: 27 May 2013 10:13 PM PDT
“We were going to the Old World to find a new rhythm for our lives with a true conviction that we had left our old selves behind forever.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald, Evening Post, 1924
The “old selves” Scott and his wife Zelda were leaving behind were as stars of “the Jazz Age,” a phrase coined by Fitzgerald himself. He was the most famous young writer in America, catapulted to celebrity by his best-selling first novel This Side of Paradise in 1920, at age twenty-four. This handsome young man from Minnesota and his enchanting Alabama belle Zelda plunged into the wild, boozing, lavishly spending party-going circles of New York and Long Island, the world he was to immortalize in The Great Gatsby. But after four years of this dissipated life, Fitzgerald woke up to the reality that he was destroying his chance to do what he truly wanted to do, write a serious novel instead of the short stories in popular magazines that were supporting them. So he and Zelda abruptly pulled up stakes and sailed with their little daughter Scottie to France, settling in the quiet Mediterranean town of Saint Raphaël. There Scott went on the wagon, focused full-time on his novel, letting nothing at all stop him, even the terrible pain he felt because of Zelda’s affair with a French pilot, and finished The Great Gatsby in the fall of 1924. After wintering in Italy, the Fitzgeralds moved to Paris at the end of April 1925. The Great Gatsby had come out at the beginning of that month, but the book was not selling well. Praise from Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and T.S. Eliot helped lift his spirits (he was in awe of important writers), but beside having to support his and Zelda’s costly lifestyle, what he desperately needed was financial success from The Great Gatsby if he was to keep writing serious novels. He began drinking again and acting badly in public.
Despite his anxiety over The Great Gatsby’s fate Fitzgerald remained an openhearted fellow who liked to help promising writers get a start. So one day shortly after his arrival he went up to Montparnasse to seek out a young man whose stories he’d read and enormously admired -- so much so that he had already alerted his editor, the great Max Perkins at Scribner’s, about the young man, who had been published in Paris, but not yet in America. Fitzgerald made his way to the right place, a popular expatriate hangout called the Dingo at No. 10 Rue Delambre. And there he was: Ernest Hemingway standing at the bar. That old mahogany bar is still there, in the Auberge de Venise, now a fine Italian restaurant. People who come on my tours let out gasps when they lay eyes on this venerable literary relic where the difficult relationship of these two great writers began. Unfortunately, there is only one account of this historic get-together: Hemingway’s A Movable Feast. This memoir of his “very poor and very happy” life in Paris in the 1920s was written three decades after the fact, in the late 1950s, when he was suffering from the severe depression which led to his suicide in 1961. Fitzgerald had died two decades earlier, in 1940, his books (even The Great Gatsby) out of print, and considered by everyone, even himself, to have been a failure.
My question is this: why did Hemingway feel it necessary to write so maliciously about him? A large part of A Moveable Feast – some twenty percent -- is devoted to tearing Fitzgerald down in one way or another. Not that he was the only writer to be trashed by Hemingway. Gertrude Stein, Sherwood Anderson, Harold Loeb, Ford Madox Ford, and John Dos Passos also suffered the treatment. Hemingway was an extraordinarily competitive man, unwilling to admit that anyone had helped him. And I think that since Fitzgerald was the writer who had done the most to advance Hemingway’s career, he got the worst of it. In A Moveable Feast, the mean-spirited writing starts with their first meeting at the Dingo, where Hemingway portrays Fitzgerald as a less-than-manly man (“the mouth worried you until you knew him and then in worried you more”), objects to his overly enthusiastic public praise about Hemingway’s writing, a no-no in Hem’s manly code, and elaborates on his drunkenness at the bar (probably true; he was an alcoholic, after all). Hemingway’s narrative stance is a patronizing one, coming across as a savvy older brother (though he was three years Scott’s junior) trying to help his wayward sibling get out of various messes, but also with an overt disdain for him because of his squandering of his literary talent. The final scene about Fitzgerald in A Moveable Feast takes place long after World War II, when the bar chief at the Ritz, who had worked at the hotel all through the 1920s, asks, “Papa, who was this Monsieur Fitzgerald that everyone is asking about?” People say he was a regular at the hotel back then, but the barman can’t recall the first thing about him. So he asks Hemingway to write about him, “and then if he came here I will remember him.” “We will see,” says Papa.
The one moment of outright respect he gives to Fitzgerald has to do with The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald has given him a copy at the Closerie des Lilas, asking Hemingway to read it and see if he can figure out why the book is not selling. Hemingway writes, “When I finished the book I knew that no matter what Scott did, or how he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could to him and try to be a good friend. … If he could write a book as fine as The Great Gatsby I was sure that he could write an even better one. I did not know Zelda yet, and so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him. But we were to find them out soon enough.”
David and his tour guests at Auberge de Venise
David Burke is launching his spring and summer program of Writers in Paris Walking Tours in April. Take a look at his web site for them: