- - Thursday, February 5, 2015


By Stewart O’Nan

Viking, $27.95, 289 pages

The Gilded Age. “The Great Gatsby” exemplified the privileged life style of the 1920s Jazz Age. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were the toast of the literary world as well as of the demi-monde. “Nothing was impossible — everything was just beginning” wrote Fitzgerald, as quoted by Stewart O’Nan in his engrossing new novel, “West of Sunset,” about the last years of Fitzgerald’s life, years that proved that indeed, “[t]here are no second acts in American lives.”

Fitzgerald’s earlier years of excitement, success and world travels with free-spirited Zelda, a time when Zelda had not yet succumbed to the mental illness, are told in flashbacks. Now, “[h]e was a poor boy from a rich neighborhood, a scholarship kid at boarding school, a Midwesterner in the East, an easterner out West. If he’d ever belonged anywhere, those places were gone, the happiness he recalled there as fleeting as the seasons.”

The years from 1937 to 1940 cover Fitzgerald’s move to Hollywood in an attempt to make money to pay his mounting debts, and the costs of keeping Zelda in the mental institution and their daughter, Frances (“Scottie) in an expensive private school and later at Vassar.

They were not successful years for Fitzgerald, who was no longer famous, but still had enough of a reputation to make Hollywood moguls willing to hire him. At the time, Los Angeles “was a city of strangers, but, unlike New York, the dream L.A. sold, like any Shangri-La, was one not of surpassing achievement but unlimited ease, a state attainable by only the very rich and the dead. Half beach, half desert, the place was never meant to be habitable. The heat was unrelenting. On the streets there was a weariness that seemed even more pronounced at night, visible through the yellow windows of burger joints and drug stores about to close, leaving their few customers nowhere to go.”

After a lonely beginning in Santa Monica, Scott moved to the Garden of Allah apartments on Sunset Boulevard where he joined his friends, Dorothy Parker, her husband Alan Campbell, Humphrey Bogart and his then girlfriend, Mayo Methot and Robert Benchley.

Gossip and gin took over. He rose at 5 in the morning to work on short stories and his novel, “The Last Tycoon,” then went to the Iron Lung, as the writers called their Writers’ Building on the MGM lot, with a briefcase filled with Coca Colas to work on “A Yank at Oxford.” He was disappointed when he was taken off the film, without credit. He “wasn’t used to having his work dismissed, the long days and weeks of fretful effort he’d devoted to it wasted, fruitless.” His next assignment was “Three Comrades,” which he decided to keep “his and his alone.”

One evening at a party, he met Sheilah Graham, the British-born gossip columnist, tall, beautiful and in his eyes, a dead ringer for Zelda. He fell in love. Their affair started slowly, cautiously, but gradually Scott was spending most evenings with Sheilah. The relationship made him happy, despite the guilt he felt about Zelda.

For holidays he would return East, by train or plane, to spend a few days with Zelda and, sometimes, with Scottie along. These outings away from the hospital were awkward and difficult for Scott. “All they had was the past, but they couldn’t go back.”

In Hollywood, his contract was renewed but his work kept being rewritten. In 1939, Metro let him go and he became a freelancer. Gin was a problem, but so was his innate contempt for Hollywood. “Was there anything more heartbreaking than starlets, their sisterly camaraderie, their shared dream so nakedly on display? A veteran, he was better at concealing his ambition and fear. He’d been worried, uncertain of the wisdom of his return [to Hollywood], but the goofy business of production soothed the song-and-dance man in him.”

He promised Sheilah to give up drinking and tried to do so on several occasions, but always succumbed. “Like a weakness for underage flesh or declaring oneself a Bolshevik, drinking was a pardonable offense in Hollywood, but not indefinitely.” Ultimately, drink cost him his film work. Mr. O’Nan’s account of the final, wild binge at Dartmouth with Budd Schulberg at the university’s Winter Carnival, where he was on assignment, is hilarious and heartbreaking.

“West of Sunset” is not a biography. It’s a novel. Nevertheless, the facts are true: what Scott did, where and with whom is real, as are the characters. What he thought, saw and felt, however, are the creation of the author. The wonder of the novel is not only in the elegant descriptive passages and lively account of Hollywood in its heyday, but its tone. Mr. O’Nan, using Fitzgerald’s letters and writing as background, has created what well might have been Fitzgerald’s state of mind and anguish of soul. The reader is transported into a world that makes Scott Fitzgerald a very human figure — handsome, talented, weak, dedicated and secure only in his talent.

“Tom [Wolfe] was right, and [Scott’s] fear was that he would die like him, a wanderer far from home — the fate of all men.” And that is how he died: in Sheilah’s apartment, a wanderer far from home, aged 44.

Corinna Lothar is a Washington writer and critic.

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