I’d Die for You
. . . it isn’t particularly likely that I’ll write a great many more stories about young love. I was tagged with that by my first writings up to 1925. Since then I have written stories about young love. They have been done with increasing difficulty and increasing insincerity. I would either be a miracle man or a hack if I could go on turning out an identical product for three decades.
I know that is what’s expected of me, but in that direction the well is pretty dry and I think I am much wiser in not trying to strain for it but rather to open up a new well, a new vein. . . . Nevertheless, an overwhelming number of editors continue to associate me with an absorbing interest in young girls—an interest that at my age would probably land me behind bars.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald to Kenneth Littauer, editor of Collier’s magazine, 1939
After his sensational start as a professional writer in 1919, F. Scott Fitzgerald was increasingly stereotyped as a writer of what he himself had dubbed “the Jazz Age.” Readers, and editors, anticipated from him standard romances, poor boys wooing rich girls, parties and glamour and glib flappers. When he tried something different, in a darker and deeper historical decade, and as a mature man who had lived through much pain, Fitzgerald found it very difficult to break out of this early stereotype. The young writer surrounded by campus life at Princeton (This Side of Paradise) becoming part of a new, golden couple (The Beautiful and Damned) and then the creator and chronicler of the Jazz Age (the story collections of the 1920s, and The Great Gatsby) gives way straight to The Crack-Up in most literary biographies and readers’ conceptions of Fitzgerald. He wanted, as he put it, to “open up a new well, a new vein.” Unfortunately, only a very few appreciated what he was trying to do.
These stories are about divorce and despair; working days and lonesome
nights; smart teenagers unable to attend college or find a job during the Great Depression; American history, with its wars, its horrors, and its promises; sex, with marriage thereafter—or not; and the wild, bright vitality and grinding poverty of New York City, a place Fitzgerald truly loved and understood in all its possibilities, shallowness, and ugliness. They show him not as a “sad young man” growing old, and trapped in the golden days of his own recent past, but at the fore of Modern literature, in all its experimentalism and developing complexities.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, graying and chunking up, is reputedly one of the most difficult authors from whom editors may wangle stories these days. He is the literary symbol of an era—the era of the new generation—and editors continue to want stories of flask gin and courteous collegiates preceding ladies through windshields on midnight joy rides. The public has acquired this Fitzgerald taste, too. But Fitzgerald has taken an elderly and naturally serious turn. Mellowed is the term. He wants to write mellowly, too. And if they won’t let him he won’t write at all. So there.
—O. O. McIntyre, “New York Day by Day” column, 1936
Contemporary editors of popular, mass-market magazines at the time were not philistines, of course. However, there were good reasons for them to shy away from what Fitzgerald was writing by the mid-1930s; some of the stories are dark and stark. Only one editor fully saw the merits of what Fitzgerald was trying to do and published him consistently—Arnold Gingrich, of Esquire, a novelist himself. Fitzgerald sold the brilliant Pat Hobby stories to Esquire for $200 or $250 apiece in the two years before his death. (This was a low price to Fitzgerald, but not for a writer during the Depression; and not if you consider its relative worth, when according to the 1940 U.S. Census the average annual income was just over $1,000.) Gingrich encouraged Fitzgerald to turn his fine chronicles of a failed, drunken, Irish-American screenwriter into a novel. But even Gingrich wouldn’t go for some stories; Fitzgerald wrote about young men worrying over venereal disease and having gotten sixteen-year-olds pregnant, and Esquire said no thanks.
Most of these stories are from the days when America, and the world, was in the Great Depression. Fitzgerald’s fortunes, so high just a few years before, had fallen with the country’s. He was often sick, often broke, and anxiously shuttling between the Baltimore area—where he and Zelda had settled with their daughter, Scottie—and a string of health resorts in the North Carolina mountains. After a breakdown in Europe in 1930, Zelda was hospitalized in February 1932 at the Phipps
Psychiatric Clinic of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. For the rest of Fitzgerald’s life, and hers, Zelda would be in and out of costly private clinics and hospitals; the pressure Scott put on himself to earn enough money to pay for these was immense. From early 1935, Fitzgerald’s own health was a concern to him, too, and despite his fear of a recurrence of the tuberculosis with which he’d been diagnosed as a young man, he complicated matters by smoking and drinking to excess.
However, the first story in this collection, “The I.O.U.,” comes from Fitzgerald’s earliest days as a writer; and the last complete ones, “The Women in the House” and “Salute to Lucy and Elsie,” from a stint in Hollywood in 1939 when he had quit drinking and was eagerly working on a new novel, published after his death as The Last Tycoon. There is writing from every stage of his well-chronicled career—the youth reveling in bright days and nights of success and celebrity; the husband and father at thirty suddenly plunged into a world of doctors and hospitals because of his wife’s illness; a struggling man in poor health himself, looking for that new vein to open up for his own writing; and, above all, a professional writer who never failed to take inspiration and energy from the American landscape and personalities around him. That hunger never ended for F. Scott Fitzgerald, and these stories show it.
Is there any money in collections of short stories?
—Fitzgerald to his agent, Harold Ober, 1920
Short stories were, from the first, Fitzgerald’s bread and butter. When Princeton’s president, John Grier Hibben, wrote him to complain of, among other things, the characterization of a shallow university and its students in his story “The Four Fists” (1920), Fitzgerald replied, “I wrote it in desperation one evening because I had a three inch pile of rejection slips and it was financially necessary for me to give the magazines what they wanted.”
To give the magazines what they wanted: that was Fitzgerald’s brief as a young writer, and he continued in this very lucrative mode through the 1920s. He sold his work for money and was acutely aware of that fact and of how much he could make, quickly, with short stories, as opposed to waiting until he had enough of a novel complete to consider serialization. He and his family lived well, but after the immense success of his first two novels, The Great Gatsby (1925) did not sell well, and he needed money. Fitzgerald’s discouragement over Gatsby’s lukewarm reception helped to keep him writing short stories for the Saturday Evening Post and spurred him to turn to work on screenplays in Hollywood
as the Jazz Age ended. Fitzgerald was walking the tightrope between art and commerce, and did it as well as any writer of his generation.
He was also quite aware of what was his best writing and what was, as he termed it, hack work. Fitzgerald never lied to himself, or anyone else, about the difference between his commercially successful and his imaginatively satisfying stories. He was delighted when the two categories coincided, when stories he valued, like “Babylon Revisited,” “Winter Dreams,” “The Rich Boy,” and the stories about Basil Duke Lee, sold for a high price. He always wished the ones he himself thought best would sell better. “I am rather discouraged that a cheap story like The Popular Girl written in one week while the baby was being born brings $1500. + a genuinely imaginative thing into which I put three weeks real entheusiasm [sic] like The Diamond in the Sky [“The Diamond as Big as the Ritz”] brings not a thing,” he wrote to his agent, Harold Ober, in 1922. “But, by God + Lorimer, I’m going to make a fortune yet.” George Horace Lorimer, the Yale graduate who edited the Saturday Evening Post from 1899 to 1936, paid Fitzgerald well for his writing: a fortune, in fact, for a young writer. In 1929 the Post began to pay him $4,000 per story, the equivalent of over $55,000 today. Yet Fitzgerald chafed under the golden chains, telling H. L. Mencken in 1925, just after Gatsby was published:
My trash for the Post grows worse and worse as there is less and less heart in it—strange to say my whole heart was in my first trash. I thought that the Offshore Pirate was quite as good as Benediction. I never really “wrote down” until after the failure of the Vegetable and that was to make this book [Gatsby] possible. I would have written down long ago if it had been profitable—I tried it unsuccessfully for the movies. People don’t seem to realize that for an intelligent man writing down is about the hardest thing in the world.
To his editor Maxwell Perkins at Scribner, in the same year, he was blunter and briefer: “The more I get for my trash the less I can bring myself to write.”
Fitzgerald always considered himself a novelist, though he was a superb writer of short fiction—not a more humble form of writing than the novel, just briefer. His short stories, loved and well-known, stand alone, but they were often a testing ground for him, a place for rough drafts, an initial space for ideas and descriptions, characters and places, elements of which would find their way into his next novel. The ledger of his life and writings, which Fitzgerald kept until 1938, lists many
stories in the “Record of Published Fiction” section as “stripped and permanently buried.” That “stripping” process is readily visible in his tear sheets and on magazine copies of the stories he published, where Fitzgerald revised, redacted, and indicated passages that later appeared in The Beautiful and Damned, The Great Gatsby, and Tender Is the Night.
The stories in this collection, most of which are from the middle and late 1930s, feature lines that will be familiar to those who have read Fitzgerald’s working papers (published as The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1978) and The Love of the Last Tycoon, his final novel, left unfinished at his death.
Is there money in writing movies? Do you sell scenarios?
—Fitzgerald to Harold Ober, December 1919
The pull and possibilities of Hollywood, and of writing scenarios and screenplays for movies, were a lure for Fitzgerald from his earliest writing days. In September 1915, when he was a sophomore at Princeton, the Daily Princetonian ran an advertisement that read: “Special Notice to Students Who Fail / Motion Picture Studio Work opens an almost immediate field for substantial earnings to young men who possess some natural ability.” This equation of motion picture work and failing was writ large for Fitzgerald from his first time in Hollywood. Though several of his stories and two of his novels were made into movies in the 1920s, he did not like them—he and Zelda thought the 1926 film version of The Great Gatsby, now lost, was “rotten.” Nonetheless, in January 1927 the Fitzgeralds settled at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles for three months while Scott worked on a screenplay, made to order, for Constance Talmadge. Talmadge, nicknamed “Brooklyn Connie,” was a major silent star trying to break into talkie comedies. At first, he and Zelda enjoyed meeting and socializing with movie stars, but it soon wore thin. The screenplay was rejected, and the Fitzgeralds headed home to the East. Zelda reported that Scott “says he will never write another picture because it is too hard, but I do not think writers mean what they say[.]”
She was right. Those unremarkable sales and mixed reviews for The Great Gatsby changed Fitzgerald as a writer. He threatened a future course of action almost immediately, writing to Perkins from Europe in the spring of 1925:
In all events I have a book of good stories for the fall. Now I shall write some cheap ones until I’ve accumulated enough for my next novel. When that is finished and published I’ll wait and see. It if will support me with
no more intervals of trash I’ll go on as a novelist. If not I’m going to quit, come home, go to Hollywood and learn the movie business.
In 1931, Fitzgerald went back to Hollywood, again for the money, for another miserable few months that proved creatively fruitless and personally taxing. Tender Is the Night, the novel he had been working on, remained unfinished. And this time, Zelda was not with Scott in Los Angeles; she was at her parents’ home in Montgomery, Alabama, on the verge of a breakdown that would send her into a hospital the following spring. However, her judgment, in writing to her husband in Hollywood in November 1931, could not be sounder: “I’m sorry your work isn’t interesting. I had hoped it might present new dramatic facets that would make up for the tediousness of it. If it seems too much drudgery and you are faced with ‘get to-gether and talk-it-over’ technique—come home, Sweet. You will at least have eliminated Hollywood forever. I wouldn’t stay and waste time on what seems an inevitable mediocrity and too hard going.”
Though he failed—again—in Hollywood in 1931, Fitzgerald, needing money—again—returned there for good in the summer of 1937. The third time was not the charm. In the title story of this collection, we see his view of the movie business—the inherent corrosiveness and the danger to individual creativity. Arnold Gingrich had warned Fitzgerald, in 1934, not to go back, and told him why in no uncertain terms: “It would be awful to see you piss away your talent in Hollywood again and I hope it won’t come to that. Because, regarding the written word like a musical instrument, you are the supreme virtuoso—nobody can draw a purer finer tone from the string of an English sentence—and what the hell has the written word to do with Hollywood?”
As Fitzgerald wrote to Perkins shortly before he left for the West Coast, with cold self-knowledge and prescience, “Each time I have gone to Hollywood, in spite of the enormous salary, has really set me back financially and artistically. . . . I certainly have this one more novel [The Love of the Last Tycoon], but it may have to remain among the unwritten books of this world.” Fitzgerald’s bills were large, for everything from his own living expenses to Zelda’s private sanitarium near Asheville, North Carolina, to Scottie’s schools. And the contract from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was large, too—$1,000 a week for his work as a script doctor. The last few of his stories were written in the time he could borrow from work on the screenplays of others—screenplays it was mind-numbing to read, and on which his dismissive comments survive in the margins. The Hollywood work discouraged and literally
sickened him, and his lack of enthusiasm for the place is evident in the weakness of his screenplay scenarios. Yet that MGM contract saved Fitzgerald when he was deeply in debt, and he found the material for The Love of the Last Tycoon there. He was happy when he died, working hard on that “one more novel,” but the psychic and creative costs of selling his talent and time were immense, and surely contributed to that novel remaining unfinished.
Fitzgerald thought some of the stories in I’d Die for You were excellent, and was deeply disappointed, for personal more than financial reasons, to have them rejected by editors wanting him to write jazz and fizz, beautiful cold girls and handsome yearning boys. He was a professional writer from his college days, laboring over draft after draft, and regularly continuing to revise even after a story or book was published. His own copy of The Great Gatsby has changes and notations made in his hand that extend from the dedication page to those now-epic concluding paragraphs.
Fitzgerald wanted the hard work he put into writing his stories to be rewarded. He wanted these stories to be published. He tried to have them published. However, most of them come from a decade in his life when he no longer wanted to be edited. Early in his career, he had not minded the changes so much; sometimes editors made them without his knowledge, which angered him later, and sometimes he held his ground when it mattered. He complained in 1922 of the “reams of correspondence” he had to have with Robert Bridges, the editor of Scribner’s Magazine, “over a ‘God damn’ in a story called The Cut Glass Bowl” (but his phrase the “God damn common nouveau rish” stood). In the 1930s, Fitzgerald was increasingly uncompromising about deletions, softenings, sanitizings—even when one of his oldest friends and a consummately professional agent, Ober, asked him to make revisions; and even when Gingrich, whose support of the Pat Hobby stories kept Fitzgerald both solvent and published, asked. He preferred to let the stories lie in wait. The right time might have come during his lifetime, if he had only lived longer.
No one chronicled his hardest times better than Fitzgerald himself, in his self-excoriating and confessional essay collection The Crack-Up (1936). The reevaluations he was making show in these pieces: a man trapped in an asylum desperate for a way out in “Nightmare”; a writer changing career course in “Travel Together”; a cameraman and a movie star thinking through the limits of their success, and wanting more, in “I’d Die for You.”
In several of the stories in this collection, Fitzgerald explores new opportunities available to women during the 1930s—and the limits on those opportunities: Mrs. Hanson, the traveling saleswoman of “Thank You for the Light”; teenagers such as Lucy and Elsie having sex; Kiki’s apparent affairs in “Offside Play.” The traditional marriage plot is under siege; “Salute to Lucy and Elsie,” for example, leaves a nuanced mix of approval and contempt for the new generation’s freedoms; and the film scenario “Gracie at Sea” alternately mocks and endorses them.
That four of these stories feature nurses and doctors in leading roles connects all too clearly to the Fitzgeralds’ lives during this period. The “medical stories”—“Nightmare,” “What to Do About It,” “Cyclone in Silent Land,” and “The Women in the House”—borrow some of their grim detail from what happened on the way to the crack-up, and Fitzgerald’s, and Zelda’s, continuing illnesses thereafter.
“I’d Die for You,” the collection’s title story, which Fitzgerald also called “The Legend of Lake Lure,” stems from his sad days in the salubrious North Carolina mountains. He went there for his health; fearing a recurrence of tuberculosis, he hoped the fresh air would help cure him—and cure Zelda. From 1935 until 1937, with trips back to Baltimore, where he, Zelda, and Scottie had tried to live in the early 1930s, Fitzgerald spent most of the time at a variety of North Carolina hotels. When he was solvent, he stayed at resort hotels, including the Lake Lure Inn, Oak Hall, and the Grove Park Inn; when he was broke, he lived in motels, ate canned soup, and washed out his clothes in the sink. When he had the time, health, and capacity to work, Fitzgerald was quite literally writing for his life. “I’d Die for You” comes from that time and those places.
Despite Fitzgerald’s own preoccupations and anxieties, some stories are the antithesis of autobiographical. Rather than wondering about the forces operative in his own life, Fitzgerald takes inspiration from, and perhaps refuge in, thinking and writing about the larger forces affecting American culture and history, from Depression-era poverty to questions of race and civil rights, and regional customs, perspectives, and culture. Sometimes, to be sure, those public and historical matters melded with the personal and private for Fitzgerald. As he was leaving the South, and his Alabama-born wife, for Hollywood in 1937, Fitzgerald was thinking hard about history and family. The genesis for a Civil War tale, presented here in two complete drafts with very different plots, came from his father’s story of a cousin strung up by his thumbs in rural Maryland. “Thumbs Up” and “Dentist Appointment” are full of brutality and torture, hard deeds and hard words—offering a sharp contrast to the romantic rewrites Fitzgerald was adding at the same time to the screenplay of Gone With the Wind.
These stories jarringly explore key moments in one of the most significant times of American history, and wonder at the myths that had arisen from it, while also showing Fitzgerald’s questioning of what sort of connection family history had given, or forced upon, him as a writer to larger historical moments. They also question originality and creative sources; retelling, or perhaps exorcising, a bedtime story one has heard as a child, versus a writer wanting to find something new.
“Ballet Shoes,” “Gracie at Sea,” and “Love Is a Pain” are in the form of screenplay proposals, or scenarios. Others read as if Fitzgerald had set out to write a marketable screenplay, and reshaped it into what he would rather be working on—a short story, or a novel draft—instead. For example, “The Women in the House” reads at first like a bright Golden Age romantic comedy, designed for William Powell and Carole Lombard. Then keen descriptions come into play, and a dark shadow falls across the plot: the handsome adventurer hero is dying of a heart condition that, tragically, mirrors Fitzgerald’s own. Can he still, in good conscience, court the beautiful movie star he loves? Twists enter the story that no movie studio would have approved, like a nurse criticizing past patients who were “dope fiends” and a male film star who is possessed of an uncanny “extraordinary personal beauty” and a large marijuana patch. The story sears and blisters Hollywood’s vanities, falsities, and greed, but literally delivers a bed of roses, in one of Fitzgerald’s classically beautiful, but not quite redemptory, endings. He not only mocks the love and romance plot Hollywood profited from, but serves up a knife-sharp parody of what editors wanted from him, and has fun doing it.
“Gracie at Sea,” “Ballet Shoes,” and “Love Is a Pain” are certainly imperfect as short stories, but that is what they are trying hard not to be. “Ballet Shoes” was written for another ballerina, but Fitzgerald felt that Zelda’s passion and training for ballet would help him “deliver something entirely authentic in the matter, full of invention and feeling”—and this makes the scenario revealing biographically. Fitzgerald returned to “Gracie at Sea” five years after starting it; his revision is included here for comparison. “Love Is a Pain” is notable for being “an original” by Fitzgerald; his own idea for a whole movie, and not simply his treatment of a story by someone else.
I think the nine years that intervened between The Great Gatsby and Tender hurt my reputation almost beyond repair because a whole generation grew up in the meanwhile to whom I was only a writer of Post stories. . . .
that my old talent for the short story vanished. It was partly that times changed, editors changed, but part of it was tied up somehow with you and me—the happy ending. Of course every third story had some other ending but essentially I got my public with stories of young love. I must have had a powerful imagination to project it so far and so often into the past.
—Fitzgerald to Zelda Fitzgerald, October 1940
The imagination driving the stories of I’d Die for You is acutely powerful. Their quality is uneven, and Fitzgerald himself knew this, as is evident from his correspondence. Some were very clearly written for cash, and, though radiant lines and phrases and characters are there, they feel hasty and flawed. Debt and hard times wounded him irrevocably in the mid-1930s; the pain and honesty of what he wrote to Ober in May 1936 sounds out in the stories from these days:
This business of debt is awful. It has made me lose confidence to an appalling extent. I used to write for myself—now I write for editors because I never have time to really think what I do like or find anything to like. Its [sic] like a man drawing water out in drops because he’s too thirsty to wait for the well to fill. Oh, for one lucky break.
Yet as he said to Zelda, about what the Post wanted of him and what he was no longer willing to do, “As soon as I feel I am writing to a cheap specification my pen freezes and my talent vanishes over the hill.” Whether Fitzgerald was writing to suit himself or someone else’s expectations, all these stories, taken together, show his increasing creative freedom, exploring of possibilities, and, often, heady resistance to producing what was expected of “F. Scott Fitzgerald,” or to following traditional rules or demands. Editors and readers didn’t want young people having sex on a cruise ship? Didn’t want soldiers to be tortured during a war? Didn’t want people threatening to commit suicide? Or drinking and drugs in the Hollywood hills? Or graft and payola in college sports? Too bad. Sometimes he was willing to revise. Sometimes, and particularly in cases where he was spending his talent seeking Hollywood approval—as in “Gracie at Sea”—Fitzgerald’s lukewarm feeling about what he was doing is plain. But sometimes, and increasingly as the 1930s went on, Fitzgerald refused to submit to the expectations of those surprised to find in him a broad streak of realism, or a progression into the bleakness and broken styles of High Modernism, or just plain something they thought ugly.
The fineness and precision, the lapidary phrases and elegant language we associate with Fitzgerald’s earlier prose, remain in the best of these stories as well. In Fitzgerald’s writings from the first to the last there continued to be humor both bright and dark, a fascination with beautiful people and places and all things, a delight in what the moonlight or dappled sunlight could do to a mood, and an affection for both his readers and his writing. Even when he despaired of ever regaining his popularity during his lifetime, Fitzgerald knew how good he was, and still could be, telling Perkins, in the spring of 1940,
Once I believed . . . I could (if I didn’t always) make people happy and it was more fun than anything. Now even that seems like a vaudevillian’s cheap dream of heaven, a vast minstrel show in which one is the perpetual Bones. . . .
But to die, so completely and unjustly after having given so much. Even now there is little published in American fiction that doesn’t slightly bare [sic] my stamp—in a small way I was an original.
Although Hollywood was, as he always knew it to be, bad for his craft as a writer in most ways, it was not entirely negative for Fitzgerald. In these stories there is often a compelling strain of the cinematic, where long scenes of description without dialogue seem like visual images on a screen: a man running, breathing harder and harder, up the stairs at Chimney Rock, looking for a girl, in “I’d Die for You”; an ambulance crashing in slow motion, its occupants emerging shaken and bruised to see a school bus full of screaming children in flames, in “Cyclone in Silent Land.” Skillful or innovative sequences like these offset, or atone for, other moments, such as the baby crawling up a harp in “Gracie at Sea,” where Fitzgerald’s talents are compromised or downright abused. He wrote to Zelda in April 1940, “I have grown to hate California and would give my life for three years in France,” but the month before he had told her, “I write these ‘Pat Hobby’ stories—and wait. I have a new idea now—a comedy series which will get me back into the big magazines—but my God I am a forgotten man.” Those new ideas, comic and not tragic ones, would make him remembered again. Through it all, through the difficulties and alcoholism and sickness, Fitzgerald kept on writing, and trying to reflect what he knew and saw. The true Fitzgerald hallmark of these stories is their capacity for hoping.
Anne Margaret Daniel