Celebrity history: What famous author stayed in Palm Beach in 1938?


In January 1938, F. Scott Fitzgerald sat down with a reporter from The Palm Beach Post and explained his dilemma:

Should he spend his last day of Florida vacation relaxing at The Breakers? Or should he fly down to Key West to see his old friend Ernest Hemingway?

Such problems certainly bring to mind Fitzgerald’s famous line: “Let me tell you something about the very rich. They are different from you and me.”

What did Fitzgerald do? We’ll never know. Staying at the Palm Beach hotel with his wife, Zelda, he didn’t want any attention, and only agreed to the interview if it was published after he left.

Take a moment and try wrapping your head around the idea of being a reporter sent over the bridge to talk with F. Scott Fitzgerald. It would be an assignment to kill for — a dream for any writer or lover of literature.

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But in 1938, the author wasn’t the towering redwood, perennial film subject and high school reading requirement he is today. His drinking and spendthrift lifestyle had taken its toll. His best work was considered behind him. He was living in Hollywood, hacking away at screenwriting while dealing with his wife’s mental illness.

The Post story unintentionally hinted at Fitzgerald’s diminished status.

It ran on Page 3, without a byline or photo (or a direct quote, for that matter.) And while fulsomely praising Fitzgerald’s writing, the tone indicated that he was already a figure of a fading, Jazz Age past.

The first paragraph: “Unless your adult memory extends back to 1920, you probably won’t get a kick out of the news that F. Scott Fitzgerald was in town this week.” Later in the story, he is described as “the grand old man of the post-war generation.”

Less than two years later, the author of “The Great Gatsby” and some of the finest short stories produced in 20th-century America would be dead. The “grand old man” was only 44 years old.

***

Francis Scott Fitzgerald, who was born 121 years ago on Sept. 24, 1896, was no stranger to Palm Beach. Or at least the gilded, mythic illusion of the island. That line about the very rich, quoted often enough to become cliche, was from his 1926 short story, “The Rich Boy.”

In it, he described a glittering, overpriced fantasy land “sprawled plump and opulent” between the Intracoastal and Atlantic, namechecking everything from the Everglades Club to lost gems such as the Dancing Glade and Bradley’s House of Chance. His observation about The Breakers, where he would stay a decade later, brings the flapper era to life:

“Upon the trellissed veranda of the Breakers two hundred women stepped right, stepped left, wheeled, and slid in that then celebrated calisthenic known as the double-shuffle, while in half-time to the music two thousand bracelets clicked up and down on two hundred arms.”

As a chronicler of high society in the 1920s, Fitzgerald used Palm Beach as a code phrase for playgrounds of the rich and indolent. He glancingly referred to it not only in stories but his novels “Gatsby” and “The Beautiful and Damned.”

In an essay published in 1924 in The Saturday Evening Post about living within his means, something Fitzgerald struggled with his whole life, Palm Beach is a yardstick to explain how he squandered $36,000, a princely sum in those years before the stock market crash:

“Thirty-six thousand is not very wealthy—not yacht-and-Palm-Beach wealthy—but it sounds to me as though it should buy a roomy house full of furniture, a trip to Europe once a year, and a bond or two besides. But our $36,000 had bought nothing at all.”

When the Palm Beach Post caught up with him 14 years later, he was flush enough to stay at the island’s priciest resort. (He also liked to vacation at the Don CeSar in St. Petersburg Beach.) The article indicated that he was raking in money from Hollywood work, having just penned the screenplay for “Three Comrades.”

“Though a movie writer may be more anonymous, he is more prosperous,” the article stated.

Not quite. “Three Comrades,” a World War I tale starring Robert Taylor, would be the only screenplay in which Fitzgerald received credit onscreen. One month before arriving in Palm Beach, his $1,000-a-week contract had been increased to $1,250, according to online timelines of Fitzgerald’s life. Eleven months later, after fiddling unsuccessfully with several scripts, his contract was not renewed at MGM.

The Post article also gave no hint of the turmoil that had engulfed the Fitzgeralds before arriving in Hollywood. His mentally troubled wife, Zelda, had been institutionalized again in 1932. By 1936, the one-time prince of literary New York and the French Riviera was drunk and in debt.

At the Breakers, Zelda’s illness goes unmentioned. It is unclear if she was present at the interview. But in discussing her autobiographical novel, “Save Me The Waltz,” the reporter wrote that she wanted to be a dancer but “found she didn’t have the physical endurance necessary.”

The article says Fitzgerald talked over “a friendly dinner, so informal that the newspaper angle was almost forgotten in general conversation.” The author said that he hoped his then-15-year-old daughter would study business in college. He also was “torn” about leaving The Breakers to visit his “close friend” Hemingway.

Fitzgerald had reason to be wary. Just two years earlier, in his story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Hemingway had labeled him “poor Scott Fitzgerald” and mocked his “romantic awe” of wealthy people, recasting “The Rich Boy” line to say the only difference between them and others is money. It was a burn only the pugnacious Papa could apply. Wounded, Fitzgerald pointedly wrote to Hemingway: “Dear Ernest: Please lay off me in print.”

In the Post interview, Fitzgerald opined on how accomplished men defined American life. He said the late MGM film producer Irving Thalberg “was on his way to becoming the grand old man of the movies.”

It’s not surprising Thalberg was on his mind. He would be the inspiration for Monroe Stahr, the protagonist of Fitzgerald’s final, unfinished novel, “The Last Tycoon.” Fitzgerald was working on the book (now adapted as an Amazon TV series) when he died of a heart attack in December 1940 in the Hollywood apartment of his lover, gossip columnist and future novelist Sheilah Graham.

Ironically, Graham would live in Palm Beach in her later years. At age 84, she died at Good Samaritan Hospital of heart failure in 1988. She wrote three books about Fitzgerald — and dined out all her life on their relationship. Her most famous book was “Beloved Infidel,” which was turned into a 1959 movie starring Gregory Peck as Fitzgerald and Deborah Kerr as Graham.

She never tired of talking about him, telling the Post once that she wished she’d had a child with the author. In a speech at then-Palm Beach Junior College in 1982, she said Fitzgerald was “so exciting” but she didn’t know how to cope with his drinking. “I would know now, but perhaps I wouldn’t be in love with him,” she said.

But that love defined her, despite her many accomplishments, she admitted in a 1974 Post interview: “I do know that the only time my life was completely satisfying was with Scott.”

Sources: The Palm Beach Post, The Palm Beach Daily News, pbs.com, Wikipedia, shmoop.com, scribnermagazine.com, fullreads.com, newspapers.com



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