When most readers think of F. Scott Fitzgerald, they conjure up Gatsby-esque images of fame, fortune, and prohibition speakeasies – where the booze, smoke and creative ideas swirled. The fact that we romanticize the Jazz Age comes as no surprise, but I believe a lot of readers also tend to romanticize the Fitzgeralds personally, as if they spent their entire lives dancing and drinking in the presence of other brilliant and tortured minds. Which, of course, they did for some time. But when money runs short and addictions prevail, sometimes you do what you have to do. For F. Scott Fitzgerald, that meant accepting a desk job as a Hollywood screenwriter so he could support his ailing wife and teenage daughter.
And this is where Stewart O’Nan’s novel begins – at the end. In 1937, a debt-ridden and insecure Fitzgerald moved to the Hollywood Hills with rather ordinary aspirations – to pay off his debts and revive his career as a respected writer. But as he soon learned, Hollywood is cutthroat, competitive, and not exactly conducive to free-flowing creativity, at least not for a middle-aged novelist with heart disease and a well-established addiction to alcohol and nicotine.
Around the same time, his wife Zelda was famously admitted to a mental hospital in Asheville, North Carolina (coincidentally, not far from where I live), where she was treated for Schizophrenia. Their daughter, Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald was attending school elsewhere, so Scott had the opportunity to live as a bachelor again. Here, O’Nan paints a portrait of a humbled yet hopeful man who is quietly, slowly and sadly accepting his fate as a working-class, middle-aged father and husband – a hard fall from his glory days in Paris. But the reality is, Fitzgerald was never a wealthy man. He usually had enough to support his and Zelda’s partying habits, but the two were constantly struggling to make ends meet.
But in Hollywood, Scott’s redemption doesn’t come in the form of fame and fortune, it arrives in the form of a gorgeous, silver-tongued blonde journalist – Sheila Graham. Their affair lasted for more than 3 years (until Fitzgerald’s death in 1940), and it may be the only reason an ailing Scott lived as long as he did. While O’Nan’s account of their relationship is somewhat slow-paced and heavy, it is mirrored by Scott’s guilt and regrets over his increasingly distant relationship with Zelda and Scottie. And the sad irony is that Scott was, in Hollywood, likely surrounded by more celebrities than at any other time in his life – a status change that was muffled by illness, depression, and exhaustion.
O’Nan never villainizes Fitzgerald in any way, though. If anything, he provides the proper, weighted context of the poor but human decisions we make when we mourn dreams and accept failures. If you’re a fan of the Fitzgeralds or of the Hollywood golden years, I highly recommend this biographical novelization. As a Fitzgerald enthusiast myself, I was especially fascinated the manic depictions of Zelda’s life at Highland Hospital in North Carolina, which tragically ended when the hospital grounds caught fire in 1948. I happened to be traveling through the Asheville area while I was reading this novel, and decided to take a scenic detour through the old hospital grounds (which is now an office/medical park). Here’s a few photos from my excursion:
West of Sunset