Recalling Fitzgerald's life, death

December 21, 2006|By Rafael Alvarez

LOS ANGELES -- Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald's magnificent heart gave out here 66 years ago today in the Hayworth Avenue apartment of his mistress. The author of The Great Gatsby, out of print and out of sync with a world that had turned on him and away from him, was 44 years old.

Who got the call to come and take care of every little thing attendant to the death of a great man?

Not the mistress, Sheilah Graham. Not the wife, Zelda, institutionalized with schizophrenia in North Carolina. Nor the Fitzgeralds' only child, daughter Scottie, a student at Vassar. The work of making the arrangements fell to Fitzgerald's secretary, Frances Kroll.

For more than a year, Frances had nursed the writer's hangovers and managed his correspondence to the likes of the editor Max Perkins and the grocer who kept him supplied with cases of Coca-Cola when he was on the wagon. She tossed Fitzgerald's gin bottles when he fell off the wagon, and took notes for The Last Tycoon, the Hollywood novel that survived Fitzgerald as an unfinished manuscript before its publication in 1941.

She was 23 years old.

In the short time I've surfed the relentlessly desperate sunshine of Los Angeles, I've met a handful of worthy characters, including an extremely lucid Ozzy Osbourne and a couple of displaced Baltimoreans right out of central casting: John Elliott IV of South Carey Street - known to all as "Elliott"-and "Uncle Donnie" Elliott, a former Maryland correctional officer also shaped by a childhood in Pigtown.

But Frances Kroll Ring is my favorite, and the most important to an old newspaperman looking for the real in Hollywood. That's because she had a front-row seat to the labors of another reluctant screenwriter searching for the same thing in the same town.

"Fitzgerald looked inside, that's why his work has lasted," she says. "He drove me crazy. ... the intensity and the desperateness [of] a sweet and funny man who was full of demons."

After Fitzgerald hit the deck at 1443 N. Hayworth Ave. (around the corner from his Laurel Avenue apartment), Frances did it all: packing up Fitzgerald's personal papers; acting as a public shield for the gossip columnist Graham (suddenly a juicy item herself); selecting a casket and paying for it with cash among Fitzgerald's effects - "I knew where everything was," she says - and shipping the body to a mortuary in Baltimore, where Scott and Zelda had lived before the author moved to Southern California to make a buck.

"It was a Saturday," remembers Frances in her Beverly Hills home, filled with original art and first editions ranging from The Last Tycoon to Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

"I usually worked half a day on Saturday, and he'd given me some letters to type - mostly Christmas letters to Zelda. The last thing he said to me was, `Have a good weekend.'"

By the time Frances returned to her parents' home in the San Fernando Valley, there was a message to turn around. Hopping in her father's 1937 Pontiac, she raced back to find her boss "lying on a stretcher, half in and half out of the doorway, with his face uncovered. I thought he had fainted. I couldn't grasp it [until] Sheilah came out of the bedroom, sobbing."

In that moment, says Frances, she ceased to be a child. ("Today," she laments, "kids lose their innocence sooner but they stay children longer.")

The sudden bang of Fitzgerald's death "was my growing up, having to face the reality of life."

"I was always wanting to take care of myself, and I wanted to write," she says. "Always, I wanted to write. After Fitzgerald, I didn't want to work for other writers. I became a writer myself."

Fitzgerald - who needed intelligent people working for him, else he could not make himself understood - gave Frances memories galore. Drunk, he even tried to steal a kiss once.

"But the gift he left me," she says, "was an education."

In time, the young secretary would marry and her byline - Frances Kroll Ring - would frequent the Los Angeles Times book page. She also wrote Against the Current, a clear-eyed memoir of her long months with Fitzgerald.

Today, Frances writes poetry, most of it just for her journal, verse about aging in a world where "nothing is new to me anymore." She is now pushing 90.

"I've always had a love for writing and writers," she says. "Mostly, I tried to interview people whose work I liked, between my steady jobs of magazine writing, editing and book reviewing."

Fitzgerald, she says, hoped to write for future generations as well as the one he is identified with - the Jazz Age - but would be discouraged not only by society's changing patterns of romance but its graceless forms of expression.

"It's coarse," says Frances. "And it bothers me."

In the end, says Frances, Fitzgerald was a man who tried to do the right thing.

"I get tired of all the focus on the drinking. He drank when he couldn't write, when his family responsibilities got to be too much. It took a lot of money to keep Zelda in a sanitarium and Scottie in Vassar, but he met those responsibilities.

"They were a family."

Rafael Alvarez' new short stories appear in the collection "Out of Tune." His e-mail is: orlo.leini@gmail.com.

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