Toasting Fitzgerald Literature: If the icon and chronicler of the Roaring Twenties were alive today, he would be 100 years old and probably celebrating at the Owl Bar.

September 24, 1996|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

This is a good day to go to the Owl Bar at the Belvedere Hotel, order something made with gin and toast F. Scott Fitzgerald's courage as a writer.

Fitzgerald would have been 100 years old today, and he was a very brave writer indeed. The late Nelson Algren, America's toughest novelist, celebrates Fitzgerald's grace as a writer under the pressure of his troubled life in a newly published book-length essay called "Nonconformity: writing on writing."

Fitzgerald used to drink in an earlier incarnation of the Owl Bar, often and heavily, when the times were good and sometimes when they were very, very bad. He's said to have favored gin rickeys, perhaps more gin than rickey.

And he's been dead now much longer than he was alive. He started dying early. His novel "This Side of Paradise" made him the golden boy of American literature when he was 23. He was handsome, and his wife Zelda was lovely, and together they symbolized the reckless, beautiful people of the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties.

He died at 44 in Hollywood, at the tail end of the Great Depression, symbolic of nothing, his comeback novel "The Last Tycoon" unfinished. He'd become the quintessential American burn-out case.

Nobody was buying his books. Even the Modern Library had discontinued "The Great Gatsby." Zelda had been in and out of mental hospitals for a decade.

"He considered himself a failure," says Matthew Bruccoli, the indefatigable researcher into the Lost Generation.

"There are no second acts in American lives," Fitzgerald wrote in his notebooks, an epigram endlessly repeated by people who never even had a first act. But he turned out to be wrong -- posthumously. A generation after his death, he was acclaimed as one of the great triumvirate of 20th century American literature along with Faulkner and Hemingway.

"The Great Gatsby" is a contender for the heavyweight title of the Great American Novel, as Norman Mailer once was wont to say. A nearly perfect novel of American money, class, love, aspiration and failure, "Gatsby" continues to provide the model and standard even for contemporary writers like Jay McInerney.

Fitzgerald took great pride in being a professional writer. He wrote more than 120 stories of uniformly high quality -- many for the Saturday Evening Post, a popular journal disdained by academic critics.

"You do not produce a story for the Saturday Evening Post on a bottle," he said with some acerbity, as Arthur Mizener, an early biographer, records.

But still Fitzgerald is remembered as much for his weaknesses as for his strengths. A generation of Baltimoreans dined off tales of helping him back to his Bolton Hill home or the Stafford Hotel on Mount Vernon Place after an evening of unseemly overindulgence.

Now comes Nelson Algren celebrating Fitzgerald's brave perseverance as a writer:

"Out of the shambles that he made of his personal life, Fitzgerald's art triumphed. Unsaving of spirit, heart and brain, he served the lives of which he wrote rather than allowing himself to be served by them.

"And so he died like a scapegoat, died like a victim, his work unfinished, his hopes in ruin. "

'The Crack Up'

He quotes from Fitzgerald's mediation on his life called "The Crack Up: " "I only wanted absolute quiet to think out why I had become identified with the objects of my compassion."

Algren, the author of "The Man with the Golden Arm" and "A Walk on the Wild Side," learned his compassion and considerable wisdom on the back benches of a hundred Chicago night courts.

"He stood on the precipitous edge of exhaustion," Algren writes, "a man who had spent himself, by coins of pity and love and pride, into spiritual bankruptcy Yet time's terrible eraser sweeps the board swiftly of the names of those who succeeded by never taking the risk of failure," Algren says.

He says that what Fitzgerald risked was "an emotional sharing of the lives he recorded.

"Scott Fitzgerald's people possess considerably more standup vitality than the people you met last night at your analyst's house-party."

In a letter Fitzgerald wrote to Sara Murphy, the model for Nicole Diver in "Tender is the Night," he said "The Crack Up" was the record of a despairing "dark night of the soul" he had gone through in the autumn of 1935 when he lived in Baltimore.

Zelda had perhaps cracked first. They had moved here in 1932 so Zelda could enter the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic of the Johns Hopkins Hospital. Zelda was treated at Phipps and at Sheppard Pratt Hospital.

Scott rented a rambling old Victorian house called La Paix, which stood on what is now a parking lot for St. Joseph's Hospital. La Paix survives only as the name of a lane on the edge of Towson State University campus.

"I left my capacity for hope on the little roads that led to Zelda's sanitariums," he said.

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