The F. Scott Fitzgerald Literary Festival is held Oct. 10th. His final Hollywood years are imagined here. 2,557 words. Illustration by John Mann.
At forty, by a series of setbacks he ascribed to bad luck, he’d become a transient. His hope was to go to Hollywood and make enough to cover his debts and maybe buy himself time to write the novel he owed Max Perkins. There was interest at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the promise of a thousand a week, but so far his agent couldn’t get them to commit. The studio had concerns about his drinking — his own fault for publishing those mea culpas in Esquire. All March he pestered his agent for word, assuring him he hadn’t touched a drop, when his bottom drawer was heavy with empties. Metro wanted him to come to New York for an interview, so he took the first train. For two full days he was completely, wrackingly sober, and passed. Six months at a thousand a week. The next day, on Metro’s ticket, he took the Argonaut west.
He’d come to Los Angeles twice before, as two very different men. The first time, he’d entered the city triumphant, the golden wunderkind and his flapper bride, signing autographs and mugging with Zelda for the cameras as they detrained. The last, after the Crash, she was recovering in Montgomery, and he got off at Pasadena to avoid the reporters. Now as he stepped down onto the platform there was no one to greet him. He gathered his bags, flagged a cab and disappeared into traffic.
Like a new schoolboy dreading his first day, he was afraid of being late, waking to the strange room at three-thirty, and four-fifteen, and again at five, to birds shrieking in the trees. He packed his briefcase with fresh legal pads and pencils and set out early, arriving well before the prescribed time. The façade of the studio was an imposing colonnade of Corinthian pillars, and, like everything there, a monumental fake, made of lath and plaster. They had his pass waiting at the gate, or one for a Mr. Francis Fitzgerald.
His last time on the lot he’d been a guest of the real boy wonder, Irving Thalberg, chauffeured around in his Rolls like a prized pet. Now that Thalberg was dead, and Metro’s best intentions with him, Francis Fitzgerald had to find his own parking spot. He left the Ford behind the paint shop and walked back up Main between the numbered, warehouse-like soundstages, slipping into the flow of gaffers and grips and extras dressed for a Western.
The old Writers’ Building, a stucco block the color of chopped liver, had been replaced by a poured concrete mausoleum the size of a high school named, unjustly, after Thalberg. The lobby was as cool as a theater. In a nod to honesty, the roster by the elevator didn’t list a single writer, only the producers on the fourth floor.
He was being thought of for the project Three Comrades just getting started: three soldiers who come back from the war to their little town in Bavaria, and each of them has to find his way home, or figure out what home is now. He hadn’t planned on being pitched his first day back, which only showed how long he’d been gone, and how much he’d forgotten. He knew the novel, had considered it pat and maudlin when it was published a year ago. He reminded himself that, just for sitting there, he was being paid. He thought the idea should buoy him more.
There was an office waiting for him. Down the hall, he passed the gilt-edged names of several old friends. Dottie Parker and her husband Alan Campbell were here — or not, since their offices were dark. His own office had no name and a view across Culver Boulevard of a billboard in a vacant lot.. On the desk sat an impressive new Royal, which, though he didn’t use a typewriter, he appreciated as a piece of machine design. Beside the desk stood a bookshelf, half full, and around the walls, as in a gallery, hung framed stills of Metro’s moneymakers. In one corner a gooseneck lamp and end table attended a throne-like leather easy chair. The air-conditioning kicked in with a shudder. The vent on the wall exhaled a long, low bass note like the sigh of a leviathan.
He had to admit that, from the outside, the process of making movies still possessed a glamour and excitement he’d found nowhere else save Broadway. It was more than the simple collision of money and beauty, those commonest of ingredients. His late, lamented patron Thalberg knew what the robust L. B. Mayer never would. Gross as moving pictures were, in the best of them, as in the best writing, undeniably, there was life. Twice he’d journeyed west and failed to capture anything approaching that spirit. Now, standing outside the closed set, he resolved that instead of exile, he would accept his time here as a challenge.
It was his first full week on the job. Over the years he’d watched Hollywood devour his friends from back East, sapping their nobler ambitions as it filled their pockets. The heat was as much to blame as the money, the whole city drowsy with a subtropical languor. Even he was tempted to loll around the pool and do nothing. His colleagues could afford to slough off, with their Guild cards and laundry lists of credits, but he still needed to pay the bills.
He hadn’t honestly slept in years, a side effect of his Cokes and his smoking. At night he relied on two Nembutals and a few teaspoons of chloral hydrate to soothe him. In the morning, standing before the medicine cabinet, he washed down an equally necessary pair of Benzedrine, and soon evened out again. He was terrified he would die, pencil in hand, leaving an unfinished sentence and his daughter Scottie a legacy of debt. When he was working, it worked. It was when he stopped that the world returned, and his problems with it, which was the reason he worked in the first place. He was a Writer — all he wanted from this world were the makings of another truer to his heart.
His second week at Metro his car had been towed. They had neglected to tell him parking was a privilege of the stars. Unlike his hall mates, he was punctual. He liked to believe his diligence was being tallied toward some future reward. In his Frigidaire of an office he lifted a brace of Cokes out of his briefcase and set them next to the air vent, then sat down at his desk with pencil and paper to ply his trade, shivering like Bob Cratchit.
Producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz had brought another writer onboard Three Comrades. Scott knew him from New York: Ted Paramore, an ex‑Broadway hack who’d snubbed him and Zelda at the Plaza when they were the city’s reigning couple. To even things, he’d sent him up in The Beautiful And Damned, calling a sniveling character Fred Paramore.
His understanding, at first, was that Paramore had been brought in to help tighten the structure and shore up any soft spots in the original script, which Mankiewicz said he liked on the whole. Instead of helping Scott make the script better, Paramore questioned long-settled choices, down to the names of the three heroes, taken directly from the book. Mankiewicz listened to his suggestions as if Paramore were an equal — as if he’d written anything of consequence. Scott fought against the obvious but was overruled. He wasn’t surprised. In all his dealings with Hollywood save one, the collaborative process was a case of the narrowest majority agreeing on the broadest effects to please the widest audience. The one exception, as he told anyone who’d listen, was Thalberg, and Thalberg was dead.
Line by line, scene by scene, Paramore was exacting his revenge, and Scott couldn’t stop it. Each week came new instructions to dynamite his carefully turned work. Though they shared a hallway, outside of Mankiewicz’s office they didn’t speak. His secretary delivered his revisions to Paramore’s, and vice-versa. Every knock on the door promised another assault. Occasionally, when Paramore had done more than his usual violence to his words, Scott thought of crossing the hall and beating the little weasel to his knees, and would have if he didn’t need the paycheck.
He was sick of fixing Three Comrades, which should have been done a month ago. While he felt nothing for the script at this point — the freshest part had been ruined by a thousand compromises — he’d come west not just for the money but to redeem his previous failures here, the scripts he’d believed in rewritten by hacks or ditched entirely. After the last few years he knew he was lucky to have the chance. His goal with Three Comrades was to keep it his and his alone.
Next week they started shooting on Stage 11. The sets were already waiting. Turning in the script was anticlimactic. He gave his messy final draft pages to his secretary, who gave the typed pages to Paramore’s secretary, who gave the script to Mank, who, several long days later, sent Scott a copy with an official Metro stamp declaring it APPROVED. His name still came first, but Paramore had completely changed a big scene. There was no point complaining. He was getting a credit, his first in three visits, and on a prestige picture. It qualified as a triumph.
Late one afternoon, Dottie burst in without knocking, Alan at her heels. They took Scott to secretly screen Three Comrades. Like moguls, they took the front row. The lights died, the projector whirred, and the screen glowed white. A numbered header snaked past, replaced by a chalk-marked slate, the lens racking, pulling focus. Though he’d worked on it for months, seeing the title made the film suddenly real, and for an instant he was inordinately proud.
Scott had brought his script to see if they’d changed anything. At first, it was all there exactly as Scott had written it. But the next speech Scott and Paramore had battled over, and as it played out before him on the screen, with a creeping sense of disbelief, he realized the whole thing had been rewritten. They hadn’t kept a single line of his. The next scene had been gutted as well, and the next, just stray scraps of dialogue left.
“Welcome to Hollywood,” Dottie said.
“And this is the raw stuff,” Alan said. “Wait till they cut it.”
The prospect made Scott wish he’d never seen the footage. Now he felt truly powerless.
He knew the vicissitudes of life at the studio, where so many hopes met abrupt, unhappy ends. He’d been there almost a year now, working steadily, and all he had to show for his efforts were a couple dozen pay stubs. Of the scripts he’d written, only Three Comrades had made it into production, after the most savage battles. Its fate was still in doubt. He couldn’t stop it from being sabotaged. He feared there was nothing left of his script, and as the premiere neared, he steeled himself.
The premiere was at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre, a grand, pillared temple among the luncheonettes and pawnshops of Hollywood Boulevard. With its flickering torches and stone obelisks and staring Sphinx, the Egyptian’s courtyard had been designed for the open-air pageantry of premieres. The mob was already there, the uninvited penned behind police barricades, shaking 8 x 10 glossies and autograph books at the chosen.
Once Scott and his paramour Sheilah Graham reached the red carpet they had to stand in the glare of the klieg lights, bunched with other couples waiting to process. It was like being on a set, every movement orchestrated. On both sides, packs of photographers cordoned off behind velvet ropes jostled for shots. As each party approached the gauntlet, a studio flack announced them like a butler. The man knew Sheilah, but had to ask Scott his name.
“I wrote the picture,” he explained, knowing that in a few hours he might disown it.
“Miss Sheilah Graham and Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald, writer.”
They posed, holding their smiles, blinded by a galaxy of flashes. Farther on, a radio host waylaying guests for comments let them pass without a second glance, restoring their anonymity, and by the pillared entrance, as if to reinforce their unimportance.
Inside, the lobby was jammed and boisterous with small talk. Following custom, concessions were free, and the lines were long — all waiting, patient as cattle, for their popcorn and candy. Their seats were a fair barometer of where he stood at Metro. The center of the orchestra was reserved for the producers and stars and their guests, while the wings on both sides were packed solid with early birds, leaving them to fend for leftovers in the loge. They had to climb to find two together, high up in a corner. The house lights dimmed, a signal for the stragglers.
“Are you nervous?” Sheilah asked.
It seemed an unfair question just then. “I’m anxious to see how badly they mangled it.”
Finally the curtain parted. Before the show could start, a spotlight followed Mank across the stage to a microphone where he thanked everyone for coming and everyone involved in this important international production, fawning, calling on each of his great stars to stand and take a bow, and his incredibly talented director, and the brilliant author of the bestselling novel. Leo the Lion roared — and their names flashed, thirty feet high. It was his turn. For a few seconds, to a lukewarm ovation, he and Paramore shared the screen. Even if the billing was strictly alphabetical, he was relieved to see he was on top.
It was what he’d come here to do, and while the picture itself wasn’t his vision, was likely a mockery, he was still proud to have earned his first credit. After all the back-and-forth with Paramore, all the niggling memos and tone-deaf corrections, he was prepared to find only the faintest traces of his script left, so he was surprised to see they’d kept his opening. The dialogue was all wrong — too slick and punchy, as if it was a comedy. Apparently in this Germany there was no Hitler. It looked like some scenes had actually been reshot. It was a total whitewash.
He couldn’t watch any longer. “Excuse me,” he told Sheilah, sidled past their neighbors and strode up the aisle, the picture nattering at his back.
The lobby was bright and surprisingly busy. Above, the night was cool and clear, a lone searchlight sweeping the sky. He lit a cigarette, inhaled deeply and blew out a cloud like a sigh, just as Sheilah appeared in the doorway. She took the cigarette from him, took a puff and handed it back. “You knew you weren’t going to like it.”
“I don’t know why I thought they’d play fair. It’s just a mess. Too many cooks. Two, specifically.”
They were close enough to the exit to beat most of the crowd outside, and hand in hand made a beeline for the valet stand. Again, his obscurity protected him. No one stopped him to offer congratulations or ask what picture he was working on now. The valet brought his car and they escaped, tooling down Hollywood Boulevard, chased by the searchlights.
From WEST OF SUNSET: A Novel by Stewart O’Nan. Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2015 by Stewart O’Nan.