Between the Bars

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s On Booze, from the New Directions Pearl series

by Jessica Ferri

Unless one has the time and money to turn writing into a glamorous and leisurely profession, being a writer can be a thankless pursuit. The profession can drive one to drink copious amounts of alcohol, regardless of his or her talents. “First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald.

A collection of Fitzgerald’s writings about drinking—released by New Directions under the title On Booze—might have been more appropriately titled On Writing. The book contains selections from the author’s notebooks and letters, as well as “The Crack-Up,” “Show Mr. and Mrs. F. to Number—,” “Sleeping and Waking,” and “My Lost City.”  It seems inconceivable to us today that the author of what may be the greatest American novel ever published, The Great Gatsby, was the same man who penned the soused essays in On Booze. But Fitzgerald wasn’t just completely disillusioned with his writing; he had come to consider himself a flat-out failure.

He had his reasons. Though his first novel, This Side of Paradise, was a huge success, his subsequent novels (including Gatsby) did not sell well during his lifetime. Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda spent a great deal of the 1920s traveling Europe, drinking and eating, and blowing through a lot of cash. Fitzgerald’s favorite alcohol was gin cocktails. Stories of the Fitzgeralds’ exploits included jumping into the fountain at the Plaza hotel, boiling friends’ wristwatches in tomato soup, and arriving in pajamas (Scott) and naked (Zelda) at a “come as you are” party. After placing Zelda in a mental institution, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood to pursue what he hoped would be a financially successful screenwriting career. Instead, he dropped dead of a heart attack at his girlfriend Sheilah Graham’s apartment, a few months shy of his 45th birthday. Eight years later, Zelda would perish when her asylum burned to the ground. In excerpts from his notebooks Fitzgerald writes, “Drunk at 20, wrecked at 30, dead at 40.”

Though Fitzgerald and Zelda will always be known as the ultimate Roaring-Twenties couple (and yes, they really were), Fitzgerald admits in “The Crack-Up” that “for a long time I had not liked people and things, but only followed the pretense of liking.”  The rosy cherub laureled in ringlets from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris is nowhere to be found in this book. Instead we become acquainted with the downtrodden, belittled writer. Like Nick Carraway in Gatsby, Fitzgerald expresses how uncomfortable money makes him: “I have never been able to stop wondering where my friends’ money came from, nor to stop thinking that at one time a sort of droit de seigneur might have been exercised to give one of them my girl. For 16 years I lived pretty much as this latter person, distrusting the rich, yet working for money with which to share their mobility and the grace that some of them brought into their lives.”

As critic Stanley Edgar Hyman pointed out in his 1966 essay “The Great Fitzgerald,” Fitzgerald was a blend of both Carraway and Gatsby. The mix was a tragic one—enraged by the wealthy and yet enticed by the lifestyle. “Unless madness or drugs or drink come into it, this phase comes to a dead end, eventually, and is succeeded by a vacuous quiet.” The happy memories, recounted in “Show Mr. and Mrs. F to Number—,” a journal of the Fitzgeralds’ decade of traveling, are too much to bear. At one point, the Fitzgeralds “bathed the daughter in the bidet by mistake and she drank the gin fizz thinking it was lemonade and ruined the luncheon table next day.” In another memory, “there were lilacs open to the dawn near the boarding house in Westport where we sat up all night to finish a story. We quarreled in the gray morning dew about morals; and made up over a red bathing suit.”

When Fitzgerald wrote this chronicle of his newlywed days in 1934, he was 38. By then, Zelda had been institutionalized. Even without knowledge of the context, the sentences in this piece are painfully beautiful: “The heat of the day lingered in the blue and white blocks of the balcony and from the great canvas mats our friends spread along the terrace we warmed our sunburned backs and invented new cocktails.”

But then comes the drinking alone. In one of the few letters included in this volume to friend John Peale Bishop, Fitzgerald interjects, “Oh Christ! I’m sobering up!” and adds as a postscript, “I am quite drunk again and enclose a postage stamp.” And later: “Excuse Christ-like tone of letter. Began tippling at page two and am now positively holy (like Dostoevsky’s non-stinking monk).” The mental picture of Fitzgerald writing letters totally sauced is a funny one but, like the third whiskey of the night, ends up depressing.

One night after he learned he had heart disease in 1940, Fitzgerald and Graham were at the theater. They left when he became lightheaded. As they went, he turned to Graham and said, “They think I’m drunk, don’t they?”

The man who wrote The Great Gatsby had been walking wounded for some time, and the later pieces collected in this little book deliver the fatal blow. “My own happiness,” Fitzgerald writes in “The Crack-Up,” “often approached such an ecstasy that I could not share it even with the person dearest to me but had to walk it away in quiet streets and lanes with only fragments of it to distill into little lines in books.” While it’s difficult to read Fitzgerald bemoaning the fate of his career and the downfall of his beloved New York City, On Booze is another opportunity to experience the sense of yearning that Fitzgerald mastered in his best writing—the kind that no amount of alcohol can assuage.

Jessica Ferri is a writer living in Brooklyn. You can find her at jessicaferri.com.

Judging Books by Their Covers

One solution to the publishing quandary is in these very editions. To make books more appealing as objects, even as aesthetic objects thanks to thoughtful design, taps into part of what makes reading a pleasure as a tangible sport, not something you download and scroll through on an electronic device.