Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Book Review: Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Scott Donaldson (1983)

Cover of the 2012 University of Minnesota Press reissue of Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald, by Scott Donaldson, originally published in 1983. (Photo by Mark C. Taylor)

Scott Donaldson, who has written biographies of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, John Cheever,  and Archibald MacLeish, among others.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote in his notebooks, “There never was a good biography of a good novelist. There couldn’t be. He is too many people if he’s any good.” Fitzgerald was a very good novelist, and he presents a complex and contradictory figure for a biographer to take on.

Scott Donaldson’s 1983 biography Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald, is a penetrating look at this brilliant writer. Donaldson did not seek to present the reader with an exhaustive, comprehensive approach like Fitzgerald biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli, rather, Donaldson presents what he sees as the different keys to Fitzgerald’s psychology and personality.

Donaldson examines Fitzgerald’s adolescence in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and Fitzgerald’s social rank within the upper classes of Saint Paul. (As a fellow Minnesotan, Donaldson is well-equipped for this task.) As I’ve written in my other pieces about Fitzgerald and Saint Paul, Fitzgerald’s social status allowed him access to the world of the wealthy, but he never felt like he truly belonged to that world.

One chapter of Fool for Love dissects Scott’s marriage to Zelda Sayre, which had become a truly toxic cocktail of hatred and jealousy by the time of Zelda’s mental breakdowns in the 1930’s. Scott and Zelda may have loved each other, but if they had continued to live together, they would have destroyed each other even more thoroughly than they already had.

Fitzgerald’s alcoholism is a focus throughout the book, and Donaldson uncovered excellent material relating to Fitzgerald’s “crack-up” period from 1934 to 1936. In the summer of 1935 Fitzgerald was living in Asheville, North Carolina, where he met a divorcee named Laura Guthrie, who was working in his hotel as a palm reader. They instantly had a deep connection, and although they never became lovers, Guthrie worked as Fitzgerald’s secretary for the summer. (Being Fitzgerald’s secretary involved many tasks, including accompanying him to the movies.) Guthrie later wrote down her recollections of Fitzgerald, and while they were never published as a book, the manuscript is in the collection of Fitzgerald’s papers at Princeton University. Donaldson makes excellent use of Guthrie’s writing to flesh out his portrait of the artist at his lowest ebb. During this time Fitzgerald was writing some of the stories, initially rejected by the magazines of the day, that were recently collected in 2017’s I’d Die for You. He was also writing trivial oddities like “Shaggy’s Morning,” a short story written from the point of view of a dogMatthew J. Bruccoli writes that the story “may or may not have been intended as a parody of Hemingway.” (Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, p.397)

Even at this moment of extreme drinking and depression, Fitzgerald could still be a sharp analyst of his own work, telling Laura Guthrie, “My characters are all Scott Fitzgerald. Even the feminine characters are female Scott Fitzgeralds.” (p.209) He also told her, “Everything is either love or money. There is nothing else that counts.” (p.99)

Fitzgerald was aware enough to know how bad things were getting, if only in hindsight. He later wrote of this period in his notebooks: “My life looked like a hopeless mess there for a while, and the point was I didn’t want it to be better. I had completely ceased to give a good god-damn.” (p.156) As he prophetically wrote in a 1926 letter: “Wherever you go, you take yourselves and your faults with you. In the mountains or in the city, you make the same things happen.” (p.172)

It may sound like a stereotype, but reading Fool for Love led me to the conclusion that Fitzgerald really was an extremely sensitive artist. He was deeply in tune with so many nuances of meaning, and sharp delineations of class and status. I suspect he probably felt emotions more deeply than most peoplethis is part of the reason he was such a great writer, and also probably why he was hurt so easily by other people as well. As Donaldson wrote:

“In his papers at Princeton are at least three lists of snubs, with the longest of them naming a total of sixty-six people who had snubbed him during the 1925-29 period. To have been put down by so many in so short a time suggests (1) that some of the snubs were imaginary rather than real, though it was during these years that he and Zelda became personae non gratae because of their drinking and quarreling, and (2) that out of masochism or self-hatred he was actually courting the disapproval of others.” (p.181)

Fitzgerald was a charmer, but his shaky self-confidence meant that he constantly needed the approval of others. Donaldson wrote: “Almost everyone who knew him was struck by his obviouseven painfully obviousdesire to please.” (p.191) Margaret Egloff, who met Fitzgerald in Switzerland in 1931 said: “As far as I know, everyone who was really exposed to him loved him. He simply couldn’t bear it if they didn’t.” (p.191) Fitzgerald’s charm was considerable, as Margaret Turnbull said that he “had this extraordinary quality of giving you his undivided attention.” (p.191) Her son Andrew Turnbull wrote of him: “Fitzgerald focused on you-even riveted on you-and if there was one thing you were sure of, it was that whatever you happened to be talking about was the most important matter in the world.” (Scott Fitzgerald, by Andrew Turnbull, p.225) Donaldson quotes from a 1938 letter Fitzgerald wrote about Dick Diver, the protagonist of Tender is the Night: “Dick’s curiosity and interest in people was realhe didn’t stare at themhe glanced at them and felt them.” (p.196) I think this letter relates closely to how Fitzgerald saw himself, and fits in with his heightened sensitivity to people. As an adolescent, one of Fitzgerald’s favorite flirtatious gambits was to tell a girl he had just met, “I’ve got an adjective that describes just you.” While this was most likely just a line meant to pique a girl’s interest in him, it fits in with Fitzgerald’s writing about Dick Diver, “he glanced at them and felt them,” as though Fitzgerald had a sudden flash of insight into people’s character as soon as he met them.

Reading Fool for Love is a somewhat melancholy experience, as the reader sees what a mess the private life of this marvelously talented man was. I wish Fitzgerald’s life could have been as smooth and beautiful as one of his own sentences, but that was not to be.

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