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Books The Decline and Fall of Scott Fitzgerald

By Frank Rich

308 pp., $7.95.

A NATIONAL magazine recently pointed out that F. Scott Fitzgerald, for decades one of this country's most seriously neglected writers, is rapidly becoming an American industry. In the wake of Nancy Mitford's best-selling biography of the novelist's wife Zelda, no less than five books about Fitzgerald have found their way on to publishers' lists this year. It only makes sense.

Never before and probably never again will the legend Fitzgerald created for himself and for his era have more commercial allure. Nostalgia, we are told, is in. So is art deco. Alcohol is making a comeback on the college campus, according to the New York Times . And women's liberation, one of our honest national issues, can rightly claim Zelda as an early casualty to male chauvinist pigdom.

Fitzgerald's life and works touch all these topical bases and then some. Still, lest Fitzgerald be lost in the shuffle again once his current vogue has passed, it is important that the lasting qualities of his work-the genius and sheer power that mark his writing as some of the best of this century-not be overlooked. Happily, the first of this year's crop of Fitzgerald books, Crazy Sundays: F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, does not sell its subject short.

This work's author, Aaron Latham, has smartly limited his territory-to Fitzgerald's various stints in Hollywood as a screenwriter. The novelist went to the movie capital several times during the last downhill decade of his life, partly to raise money for Zelda's sanitarium expenses, partly to save himself as a writer. What biographer Latham has done-and it is surprising that no one ever did it before-is go to Los Angeles and dig out the screenplays Fitzgerald wrote. almost none of which appeared on film in anything like their original form.

Often ingeniously. Latham interweaves his discussion of Fitzgerald's movie work with the horrifying story of the last three years of his life. This is the time when Fitzgerald fought alcoholism, bankruptcy, and tuberculosis with the help of his lover Sheilah Graham. then a fledgling Hollywood gossip columnist-and it is a hell of a depressing story.

Much of it has been told before. of course. Latham has drawn, for a large part, on Miss Graham's memoirs of the period ( Beloved Infidel and College of One ), as well as from Fitzgerald's published letters to Zelda and his daughter Scotty, other Fitzgerald biographies, and the novelist's own autobiographical fiction and essays of the period. Still, Latham has pulled together his resources neatly to tell of Fitzgerald's decline, and he has also filled in many of the gaps by interviewing the survivors of the period who remember the fading Scott.

And so here we get, in all the bloody detail, much of the exciting poop about the years when Fitzgerald was a struggling and forgotten artist: his fight with Hollywood director-writer-producer Joe Mankiewicz, his failed screen test, his drunken weekend with the young Budd Schulberg at Dartmouth while working on a picture called Winter Carnical . The hard-core gossip is laced with memory portraits provided by such Fitzgerald comrades as screenwriters Nunnally Johnson, Frances and Albert Hackett, and Anita Loos, and friends like actress Helen Hayes and director George Cukor.

MORE REVEALING, though, are Fitzgerald's lost screenplays themselves, among them an early version of Madame Curie , some rewrite work on Gone With the Wind , and an adaptation of his own story "Babylon Revisited" called Cosmopolitan , which finally appeared in drastically altered form as The Last Time I Saw Paris in 1954 (fourteen years after Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at age 44). Latham quotes amply from the screenplays (when the studios allow him to) and points up the obvious connections between the writer's Hollywood works and his novels. He also dramatizes Fitzgerald's growing interest in the movies as a new art form and his desire to perfect the peculiar craft of screenwriting.

Fitzgerald, as Latham painstakingly documents, was always fascinated by the film and the new industry it had created in America. Representatives of the movie world appear as characters in Tender is the Night (1934), many short stories, and of course at the center of The Last Tycoon, the Hollywood novel Fitzgerald was working on when he died. Latham mines all these works for relevant material-including some passages Edmund Wilson left out of the unfinished Tycoon manuscript he edited after Fitzgerald's death and an early unpublished draft of Tender . in which the novel's central figure was a movie cameraman. (The only boat Latham misses on this score is The Beautiful and the Damned , where Joseph Bloeckman, a self-made movie entrepreneur, hints of such later Fitzgerald heroes as Gatsby and Monroe Stahr, the tycoon Hollywood producer drawn from MGM "boy genius" Irving Thalberg.)

Crazy Sundays also makes a more than convincing case for Fitzgerald's comprehension of the film as a medium distinct from the novel or the play. By dramatizing the writer's development from screenplay to screenplay, Latham shows how Fitzgerald gradually began to disregard dialogue for visual images until, in Cosmopolitan , he wrote what seems to be an ideal script for the motion picture camera. We also see Fitzgerald's continued interest in sexual politics: in Madame Curie the novelist-turned-screenwriter played up the fact that his heroine had managed to fashion a successful marriage despite her devotion to a career.

AS FASCINATING as all this may be, Crazy Sundays is not without its drawbacks. Some of the writing is contrived, bland or pedantic. Latham has a tendency to point too energetically at the irony of each incident; he also has a predilection for Time-ese ("Zelda was teaching Scott lessons about tragedy which Aristotle had left out.") For someone unfamiliar with Fitzgerald's novels, the analysis here may be too sketchy; in any case, it is occasionally banal (The rape of Nicole by her father in Tender is seen as a symbol of capitalism's sin).

For an out-and-out devotee like myself-I've spent what seems like the better part of the past eighteen months reading and rereading Fitzgerald and his biographers- Crazy Sundays offers quite a few incisive footnotes, as well as the gold mine of new screenplay material. But, if you know little about Fitzgerald, it would be wiser to start with Arthur Mizener's fine standard biography. The Far Side of Paradise ; then take a look at the underwritten but magnificently researched Zelda . Better yet, take advantage of the Fitzgerald revival by getting copies of his works themselves, large stacks of which can now be found in every bookstore. In the past year, Fitzgerald's Hollywood works, Tycoon and The Pat Hobby Stories, have been published in paperback for the first time. So read them, and then take another look at Tender is the Night , his best novel. And, for that matter, you could do a lot worse things with your time than reading the collected stories (among them "Crazy Sundays," from which Latham took his title) and rereading Gatsby and attempting The Beautiful and Damned , which no one ever looks at and . . . so we beat, on, boats against the current . . . .

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