I have been enamoured with the era of the flapper and silent film, what F. Scott Fitzgerald lovingly dubbed the “Jazz Age.” It’s not merely for the fashions of that time, as I’ve never been a clothes hound, but for the carefree, luminous atmosphere in which women bobbed their hair and danced till dawn with dapper men. Resplendent actors mingled with writers like Fitzgerald, Wilson, and Glyn. Music was metamorphosing into something called jazz, no longer stuffy or sedate with echoes of long ago battles or lovers dead, but rhythmic and wild and ebullient. Music that was sad was sexy and exploration, touching on emotions that people had beforehand experienced, but were too repressed to admit. These passions were no longer to shame them before themselves, but to positively wallow in.
I recently finished The Great Gatsby and while I was largely unimpressed with the story itself, excepting the pitifulness of Jay Gatsby and his dream unfulfilled, Fitzgerald’s writing struck me as beautiful and unique. He had an original spirit and I’d never encountered a writer capable of surprising me with such stunning prose. Ask an average man to describe a summer picnic and he’ll say that it was nice because the sun was out and there were good things to eat. Ask Fitzgerald and he’d tell you so many different things and see a million beautiful intricacies in people’s faces and the surrounding scenery. Not only would he tell you about details you’d never notice yourself, but he’d describe them such a way you’d feel you were not imagining a commonplace event, but something elevated or spiritual. Just beautiful writing!
Since Gatsby, I’ve been eating my way through Fitzgerald’s short stories. Most are from Flapper Magazine. Some of them deal with commonplace subjects, but all are wonderfully composed. I assume he wrote these more to support his family and less to create literary triumphs, but they’re entertaining and lovely. I’ve just procured two of his novels, The Last Tycoon and This Side of Paradise. I plan to tear into these as soon as I’ve finished his short stories.
Some writers don’t infuse their writing with pieces of themselves. They prefer to create imagined situations or characters. Fitzgerald seems to have put so much of himself into what he wrote, his ideals and passions and hang-ups. Echoes of his relationship with his wife, Zelda, are apparent in one story, Head and Shoulders. I imagine she touched even The Great Gatsby, though it’s obvious Daisy Buchanan was based largely on a first love from his college years, a girl who turned down his marriage proposal with the words “Rich girls don’t marry poor boys.” This heartache stung Fitzgerald, but he took it and polished and reworked it to the benefit of millions of readers. It’s his romance that touches me most of all, the adoring reverence with which he wrote of women and love, his unabashed surrender to his feelings. He was a woman’s man and men often disliked him, but he found indelible pleasure in the glow of feminine company.
One delightful story, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, was written in response to his younger sister, who wanted advice on attracting boys. Bernice is a pretty, but boring girl who is visiting a popular cousin. Her cousin instructs her in how to appeal to men, and one of Bernice’s methods of teasing the boys is to hint at having her hair “bobbed.” This was something only wild, free-living women did at the time (flappers!) and the story culminates in the unfortunate Bernice being coerced into the barbershop for a cut. I won’t spoil the ending, but I’ll say that it put a smile on my face.
Fitzgerald once said, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” Fitzgerald was a hero of the literary world and wrote his own tragedy through a series of bad decisions. He lost his popularity and marketability due to alcoholism. He lost his wife to insanity. He alienated and frightened associates, friends, and lovers with his increasingly erratic behaviour. Gin was never far from his side. He worked as a screenwriter in Hollywood for a time, but never gained prominence in that role. People who saw him remarked that he was the pale, quiet, and forlorn man in the corner, sadly nursing a soda in lieu of gin. He tried to curb his drinking while in Hollywood, but to little avail. Fitzgerald had lost his perfect world with the Crash of 1929 and it’s as though he moved through the remaining years of his life as a ghost, a stranger in a world in which he couldn't function. In 1940, he suffered a sudden heart attack and died at the age of 44, forgotten and uncelebrated.
I've been immensely touched not just by his writing, but by the beauty and elegance of his person. Here was a beautiful person who wrote beautifully. There are old stories about fairy children who mistakenly wander from fairyland into the human world, and unable to find succor languish until death. Fitzgerald wandered into a new world following 1929, the bright lights and laughter of the free-wheeling flappers lost behind him, and tried dazedly to gather his bearings. He wasted slowly, but died untimely.