F. Scott Fitzgerald, like other novelists, harboured a desire for the stage. Stuck forever and a day in a lonely writing tower, he longed to strut and fret on the boards for the surf-smack of applause. He was not alone. Charles Dickens had his amateur dramatics; Mark Twain tried his luck as a playwright and failed; Theodore Dreiser at least had the pleasure of hearing his anonymous contribution to his brother Paul’s smash hit, On the Banks of the Wabash, voiced in vaudeville, but wisely trod no further.
No successful novelist, as far as I know, has ever been able to make a mark in mass entertainment – in theatre, movies or pop music.
Thank goodness! For if Scott Fitzgerald’s play, The Vegetable, presented on Broadway by Irving Berlin’s theatre partner Sam Harris, had not been a resounding flop – following the roaring success of his two flaming youth fiction farragoes, This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned – the Jazz Age kid author might have been tempted to remain in Show Biz and thus might never have had the inclination and concentration to write his masterpiece The Great Gatsby, that gorgeous, glorious slim silver cigarette case of a novel, a treasure of poetic prose.
Like any proper novelist Fitzgerald, side-stepping for a few precious months his part as a player in the passing parade of nonsense, had (based on his alter ego as an observer of life’s tragic-comic farce) locked himself away to become an imagineer – an alchemist cooking up Jay Gatsby, the doomed romantic, the lover who could never bounce high enough for his lady, but who was also the Great American who tried to answer the siren call of the Great American Dream and walk with the Gods, thanks to a ‘heightened sensitivity to the promise of life.’ In a raucous tawdry world of jazz and cocktails and yellow women at least Gatsby/Fitzgerald had given it a go – had tried.
Although he coined ‘The Jazz Age’ (and, like the rest of them, never knew what jazz was), Scott Fitzgerald came of age as an Ivy League collegian in the pre-war Ragtime Era. While Vernon and Irene Castle were setting the style in modern urbanity from ballroom to boudoir with their peppy (but not Dionysian) dance steps, casual clothes and easy-going un-Victorian social manners, this beautiful boy with the long lashes and petal mouth was writing the words for musical shows put on by the Princeton Triangle Club in 1916-17.
Olde-Worldly lyrical as in Underneath the April Rain (‘One day ‘ere May had brought our wonderful flower/’Twas, in a stummering shower I saw her pass by’) he could be up-to-date and Tin Pan Alley-aware the next minute in Take Those Hawaiian Songs Away where everyone was ‘growing dippy’ on songs set in Alabam’ and Mississippi and every débutante was ‘whirling round at the will of Irving Berlin’. He was so in the swim that he wrote a Humming Blues and even got all gussied up and photographed as a cute showgirl.
In college breaks he went to all the latest Broadway shows, fell in love with many a gorgeous evanescent creature as she shimmered in the limelight, and, when the rude lights came on, declared his ambition to write a ‘famous’ musical comedy.
The end of the Great War also brought an end, as Fitzgerald later wrote, to a stance of constant ‘moral attention’ in the service of Great Causes. Now was the time to tear off the corsets of old-time restraint, restriction and repression. Noisy and snap-bang fidgety little jazz bands, the very latest sensations from the South, with instruments that shrieked and cried and uttered creditable barnyard noises, were making good girls shake everything they owned. First there was this new freedom music, then there was frantic dancing to it, and after that came sex. The world, as Fitzgerald said, was ‘in a state of nervous stimulation’.
His ‘Jazz Age’, though, was not just a band but also a mood, an attitude, a way of addressing matters, especially hung-over old ones. For suddenly, after the war clouds had evaporated, curtains drew back to reveal a wonderful playground of gorgeous sights and sounds for young and restless Americans. Somebody was needed to pin the pretty butterflies in print.
Meme-time was nigh! And Scott Fitzgerald was just the person to respond to this beckoning, twinkling amusement park.
In 1920, as This Side of Paradise – a hot-mess guide to petting and parties and the rest – raced up the bestseller list, Scott and his madly attractive and mercurial wife Zelda were elected by common consent of press and public as the cheerleaders and spokespersons for the young generation. When the press demanded an explanation for the way the young were leading the old world on a crazy trip in the direction of the dogs, Scott was quick with a quippy answer: ‘Flappers and young things with a splendid talent for life!’
Egged on by book sale royalties and a natural talent for self-advertisement, the pretty couple embarked on a national campaign to shock and embarrass and get talked about. Luckily their exploits never impressed England, which irritated Scott no end. There he was simply a typically coarse American, no more, no less.
So – they got in the news for bad behaviour: riding atop taxicabs down Fifth Avenue, eating goldfish live out of hotel fountains, whirling in revolving doors for a good half hour, deliberately laughing out loud in the wrong places at serious plays.
Only Ziegfeld’s Follies and midnight rooftop extravaganzas could hold them in thrall, could shut them up. Hushed and awed the jazzed couple gaped as down the famous celestial stage staircase stepped stately ex-farm girls fresh from glorification by the magic vulgarian Florenz Ziegfeld of Chicago, the city of Scott’s lost and unrequited love, Ginevra, and from where the Great Gatsby’s shady business associates were to telephone at ungodly hours.
Statuesque and coolly indifferent, these show girls did little but look juicily tempting in their stillness while puffing out a certain flutter-andripple essence that, while mysterious in origin was, to a discerning heart and mind, signifying nothing. All this was not lost on Fitzgerald, a serious novelist in the making.
In an appropriate interval the rarified regal air was broken by the clowning of comics like W. C. Fields and Bert Williams, and also the netherregion shaking of lasciviously lovely Gilda Gray, queen of the Shimmy Shewabble, the dance that got the baldheads glistening.
After the show the couple made their mark at supper palaces. Scott would introduce Zelda as his mistress and, perhaps, throw a few rolls or toss a drink at someone, while Zelda would stop the table talk by asking, ‘I’m sure you all agree that Al Jolson is far greater than Jesus Christ!’
Then, as Scott described it in song lyric form: ‘People would clap when we arose/At her sweet face and my new clothes’.
They had come, he said, not for the food but for the music. And what was that music? Was it jazz?
Certainly not. It was New York’s current fox-trotting dance music, with the occasional waltz thrown in to calm things down – a far cry from the dizzying polyphonic jump jazz stirred up in Chicago niteries by tightly wild and relatively tiny black and white bands, and danced to in a jerky, spasmodic manner by stuttering tuxed-up comedian Joe Frisco, juggling his derby and twirling his cigar.
Scott and Zelda danced to the very tops in modern music: Paul Whiteman & His Band at the Palais Royal serving sweet and soft sounds: muted trumpets, soapy saxophones, tishy drums – rigorously controlled by arrangements, dance music at its most refined, sporting harmony choruses, cunning key changes, and nutty surprise endings with tiers of chinesey chords. Ferde Grofe, the band’s staff arranger, was capable of symphonic work should the occasion arise. Whiteman might be crowned ‘King of Jazz’ but his background was conservatory classical.
Stand by, in the dazzling future, for a coming wedding cake ensemble – an orchestra to amaze the world. To place syncopation in historical context, to make Lady out of Jazz! Stand by for the concert hall!
In the fall of 1922 the Fitzgeralds moved to Great Neck, a fashionable part of Long Island, not far from Broadway – which was where Scott wanted to be: he was writing a play, The Vegetable, and he felt certain it would make him another pot of gold.
Their new neighbourhood was awash with show-biz luminaries such as Ziegfeld stars Ed Wynn and Eddie Cantor, and veteran producers such as Sam Harris and Lew Fields. Groucho Marx was nearby, as was Oscar Hammerstein II. And the Great Ziegfeld moved in for a while, lured by his right hand man, Gene Buck, who, a handsome fellow in shouting tweeds and an ever-ready smile, reigned in a vast mansion where even the owner could get lost and holler for help.
This was Broadway-by-the-Sea and Fitzgerald adored it, partying so hard that he and Zelda sometimes bunked down at dawn on their front lawn. Word-spinning in the still of a study had not been forgotten, though, and Scott found company in neighbour Ring Lardner, the celebrated sports columnist and lately teller of salty tales in a short and slangy style, eschewing grammar like any good street person. A long-faced lugubriant with poached egg eyes and few words at parties but pithy in print: ‘Wives is people that thinks two ashtrays should ought to be plenty for a twelve room house’. He had also written songs for his pal Bert Williams and one had actually been featured in the 1917 Follies: ‘Home, Sweet Home (That’s Where the Real War is)’.
Scott and Ring became fast friends, linked by an addiction to clean writing and strong drink. They revered the new Old Masters, dancing a hornpipe on the lawn of Mr. Doubleday, the publisher, in the hope that his guest Joseph Conrad would see the spectacle and call for more. Instead they were quickly strong-armed off the estate.
Lardner later introduced Scott to heavy Russian authors and the younger man became a little more introspective and less self-absorbed. For literary inspiration they paid visits to Gene Buck at his palace and jeered behind the great man’s back at his arriviste vulgarity: their host’s cavernous shoe house, they agreed, was like a football stadium; Ring suggested the living room might be leased for a Six-Day Bike Race; Scott recoiled at the remembrance of Mrs Buck’s clumsy approaches to him, a sex-shy and secret puritan.
Ring went home, got out his poison pen and wrote a devastatingly funny and cruel short story called ‘The Love Nest’ about an egocentric producer and his neglected alcoholic wife – about utter hypocrisy, about shallow living – really a nasty and thinly-veiled account of life in the Buck place.
The Broadway veteran, a Detroit boy who had risen from nothing to become a designer of classic sheet music covers (Hiawatha, Creole Bells), who had written the words to Hello, Frisco, Hello and collaborated with the likes of Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern; the talent scout who had discovered W. C. Fields, Ed Wynn, Will Rogers and Joe Frisco; the Ziegfeld loyalist who had steered eighteen Follies to success and who had even helped Lardner get a couple of his skits accepted for a Follies – this man of achievement – had the grace never to confront the wretched writer with his treachery, however artistic. Instead he magnanimously laughed and explained his gargantuan living room as an early site offering for the forthcoming 1932 Olympic Games.
Fitzgerald went to Buck parties and many others too. He partook vigorously and he made notes for the future.
That future came within the year, when his sure-fire Broadway success turned out to be a box-office disaster. ‘Trashy’, ‘tedious’ and ‘smug,’ said the reviewers. ‘A bright young man succumbs to the glamour of the selfadvertising business,’ added the New York Post. The shattered writer quickly turned to a string of pot-boiler short stories for the slick magazines so as to pay the bills. Then he and Zelda retreated to Valescure on the French Riviera, a pleasant spot in which to lick wounds and consider, and to write seriously, soberly, slowly, and quietly.
By the summer of 1924, a few months after Rhapsody in Blue had climaxed Paul Whiteman’s Experiment in Modern Music concert at New York’s Aeolian Hall in New York, The Great Gatsby was complete. Fitzgerald had turned a corner and was no longer an actor in mad Jazz Age theatrics.
The fatal perfume of song and dance, of uncontrolled merriment and its consequences, of brittle Broadway values, of all the things Fitzgerald learned from Show Biz, permeates the book…
Little girls, like clear glass, give voice across the grass to The Sheik of Araby creeping into a lady’s tent as she lies asleep; Jay Gatsby, attempting to woo the girl he never wins, orders a hanger-on called Klipspringer to play The Love Nest on the piano in the hopes of creating a mood of romance and when this fails Klipspringer (what a fabulous name!) goes into Ain’t We Got Fun? (‘The rich get rich and the poor get – children’); Daisy, the object of Gatsby’s magnificent obsession, appalled by the Broadway shallowness of his noisy gatherings, foresees the partygoers being eventually ‘herded along a short cut from nothing to nothing’.
But then from the open door of the house drifts out the strains of Three O’Clock in the Morning and this ‘neat sad little waltz’ makes her realise there are ‘romantic possibilities’ inside that might include ‘some authentically radiant young girl’ who would whisk Gatsby off his feet in one ‘magical encounter’ and take him beyond his blue gardens and silly uninvited guests into a happier place.
And all the above romance from a 1919 instrumental piano piece by Julian Robledo, composed in New Orleans and first published in London, England; then Paul Whiteman had an enormous instrumental hit with his version in 1922; lyrics were added by Theodora Morse as ‘Dorothy Terriss’, only to be parodied by James Joyce in Ulysses as ‘blue o’clock in the morning after the night before’. Such is the power of pop!
But the set piece of Show Biz at work in the service of art is the first Gatsby party that our hero Nick Carroway attends. Here, as the huge orchestra, stuffed with oboes and piccolos and low and high drums, plays yellow cocktail music, ‘men and girls come and go like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.’ The moon rises high and all is transformed until the ‘stiff tinny drip of the banjoes on the lawn’ jolts us back into reality.
Single, wandering, confident women take over the banjo or the drums from time to time; another, in ‘trembling opal’ dances alone, ‘moving her hands like Frisco’ and the chatter is that she is Gilda Gray’s understudy from the Follies. But she isn’t. Nothing is real.
At one point, on the boom of the bass drum, the orchestra leader announces that at Mr. Gatsby’s request they will play Vladimir Tostoff’s latest work which, last May, got so much attention at Carnegie Hall – in fact it was a sensation. ‘Some sensation!’ he adds and everyone laughs. And he taps his baton to begin The Jazz History of the World.
Now here, in the published novel, we leave the new piece because the narrator’s attention is drawn to Gatsby standing alone, looking around from person to person approvingly. Then it is all over and women are swooning back into the waiting arms of their swains.
But in an earlier galley proof, cut from the final novel, the author describes this Jazz History, conducted by a ‘gigantic’ leader (Paul Whiteman?) and I like to believe Fitzgerald is talking about Rhapsody in Blue.
This is the way it is described: there is a ‘weird spinning sound’ at the start, followed by a ‘series of interruptive notes which coloured everything that came after them, until before you knew it they became the theme and new discords were opposed outside’. Just as you are enjoying the new discord an old theme would return – a ‘weird and preposterous cycle’.
Fitzgerald confessed he knew nothing about how music worked but I think you get what he is describing – a dangerous piece echoing a topsy-turvy world in which Gatsby parties, as he once said, ‘are a form of suicide’.
Nevertheless, unlike Ring Lardner who found humanity ‘loathsome’, Fitzgerald always saw hope in the affairs of men, straining like a blocked sun on a doom-gloomy day until that fine morning arrived with a fanfare.
His written world was one of honest imagination and he lived deep in it. But the pop songs and entertainers that he dragged in with him, leaping and glittering, hot and sweaty, were wrapped within his gorgeous gift package, becoming fatter and goosier and so damned edible, swelling finally into something far greater than their parts. Thus the musicians, the songwriters, the dancers, the impresarios – the whole gang of us – are glorified and we are all the better for it.