Jun. 30, 2010

Man Out of Time: “The Disenchanted” by Budd Schulberg

F. Scott Fitzgerald is easy to iconize. His story so neatly tracks his times: in the Twenties, he had a Jazz Age party; when America crashed, he cracked up; in the Depression, he was down and out. In The Disenchanted, Budd Schulberg’s novelization of the Scott-Zelda tale, an older, lightly fictionalized Fitzgerald is painfully aware of the symmetry:

It seemed almost too damned easy to think of himself and the Twenties as going smash together, as if he were unconsciously acting out the Twenties in some ghastly charade, and yet here he was in the first year of the Depression with his money gone, his wife nearly gone, his reputation going. What had Hank said? He didn’t know how to keep his distance.

The Disenchanted is partly a response to all the images and associations that built up around Fitzgerald. It strips away the dreamy illusions and portrays instead an older Fitzgerald who is all too human. Not the glamorous idol of the twenties, but the broke-down, post-crackup Fitzgerald of 1939 — ravaged by alcoholism, forgotten by the reading public, near dead at 43 years old. Schulberg’s depiction is so unforgiving that Sheilah Graham, Fitzgerald’s partner at the end of his life, never forgave him.

But the novel is not just about Fitzgerald’s decline. It is also about young Budd Schulberg’s own disillusionment when he discovered the Fitzgerald myth was just that, a romantic fantasy. It turned out, Fitzgerald’s story ended the same way everyone else’s does. No Daisy or Zelda, no green light, no “riotous” parties. Just the inevitable grinding-down of time. Even Scott Fitzgerald grew up then grew old. To a 25-year-old Fitzgerald fan, there is no drearier news.

The Disenchanted is long out of print now and rarely read or even mentioned. It sometimes turns up on lists of “Best Books You’ve Never Read.” (I had never heard of it until it appeared recently on a list of great out-of-print books.) When Budd Schulberg died last August, the obituaries focused on his screenplays, especially “On the Waterfront,” and the fact that he named names before McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. Of his books, only Schulberg’s other Hollywood novel, What Makes Sammy Run, was usually deemed worthy of mention.

That is a shame. The Disenchanted is a great read. And for Fitzgerald fans it adds a necessary denouement to the the familiar tale of Fitzgerald’s rise and fall — the glamor of the Scott-Zelda romance and its dingy unraveling. Fitzgerald himself began to write the story, with various degrees of fantasy, in Gatsby (act one) and Tender Is the Night (act two). But his life was a tragedy, so by definition Fitzgerald could not survive to write act three, the hero’s death. He died at age 44, in Hollywood, on December 21, 1940 — with his usual knack for symmetry, at the close of a decade and of an era in the life of the country. Schulberg wrote the final act for him.

The Disenchanted is based on actual incident. In 1939, Schulberg was a 25-year old screenwriter, the son of a major-studio head, and a graduate of Dartmouth (class of ’36). He had written a lousy first draft of a screenplay based on the Dartmouth Winter Carnival and was assigned a co-writer to help him fix it. The collaborator was F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Fitzgerald — who had published Gatsby just fourteen years earlier, at age 29 — was already an old man at 43. Schulberg found his hero scruffy and unfashionable, sallow and frail. And broke. “Last year my royalties were $13,” he admitted to Schulberg. Fitzgerald was reduced to hustling movie producers for low-rent screenwriting gigs and fighting the urge to drink himself into oblivion, all the while secretly carpentering away at his last best hope, the brilliant comeback novel that never was, The Last Tycoon.

In his roman a clef, Schulberg calls his Fitzgerald character Manley Halliday. He describes Halliday as a bit of an antique, a shabby relic from another era. Even when he is drunk, which is often, Halliday is courtly. His old-fashioned manners are out of place in Hollywood. He wears a homburg and a dark wool overcoat (“He looked more like Fifth Avenue around the Plaza, on a snappy Sunday afternoon”). He bows to women and tips his hat. Fitzgerald is a man out of time, in more ways than one.

Halliday/Fitzgerald is also keeper of the flame for a traditional, formal style of writing. To young Budd Schulberg, steeped in the sexier work of an avant garde — Pound, Joyce, Eliot, Hemingway, dos Passos, Gertrude Stein — Fitzgerald was a throwback to the previous generation of establishment writers like Henry James and Edith Wharton. Fitzgerald never experimented with abstraction. No stream of consciousness or jazz poetry, none of Hemingway’s mannered minimalism. For all his hard partying and mischief and publicity-seeking, in his work Fitzgerald was always a conservative. His writing style was traditional. Only his subjects were modern.

Schulberg is hardly alone in falling under the spell of Fitzgerald. When I was young, I was beguiled by the Scott-Zelda myth, too. After college, a friend and I tramped around Europe, being sure to stop in Antibes to visit the ghosts of Scott and Zelda and the Murphys and Villa America and all that. One drunken night, we broke into the Hotel du Cap to swim in the cliff-top pool and look out over the “bright tan prayer rug of a beach” where the party once had happened. One of us pissed in the pool, I remember, which was an odd tribute to a literary idol perhaps, but we were smashed, which was perfectly appropriate. For years I had an ashtray on my desk that I swiped that night. It was white ceramic with green cursive lettering, “Hotel du Cap” on one side, “Eden Roc” on the other.

So it goes. It is hard for a kid to resist Fitzgerald. He was a romantic, as all young men are, and dashing, as all young men hope to be.

The Disenchanted is hard to find, but if you can track down a copy you won’t be sorry. The plot is a little shaggy, retelling Schulberg’s 1939 trip to the Dartmouth Winter Carnival with Fitzgerald to research their screenplay — a trip that devolved into a bender for Fitzgerald. But the storytelling is heartfelt and the prose has style to burn. Schulberg is a terrific sentence writer, particularly good with capturing Hollywood types. This is the sort of book that makes you want to read sentences out loud to the person sitting next to you. Here he introduces a studio head:

Milgrim was nominally a Republican, just as he was nominally a monogamist, but his first loyalty was to success, contemporaneous success. Even last week’s would not do.

A Hollywood agent named Al Harper, at lunch with Fitzgerald/Halliday:

Manley Halliday was very nearly something the studios didn’t want, and as a trim little weather-vane on a Hollywood rooftop, Al Harper inclined toward condescension when facing Halliday. But Al was one of those shrewdly ignorant men who knew enough to know how much more there is to know, and he had a semi-illiterate’s respect for the books he would never read. So braided through his condescension for Halliday’s lowly status in the industry there was admiration for Halliday’s literary reputation. A Pulitzer Prize winner, he kept saying to himself, look at his suit, I can buy and sell him a thousand times over, but still, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

On first meeting Halliday:

Shep noticed for the first time how Halliday talked. The words came up out of a face that paid no attention to them. Only what had to be said was said. It was said nicely, with a care for the amenities, yet accompanied by the unspoken hope that what had just been said would suffice.

Here the young apprentice and the broke-down old writer consider one another:

In Hollywood it had occurred to Halliday: no matter how nice a young man is, inevitably there must be times when an older man will begrudge him his youth. And now Shep was thinking: no matter how much he understands and makes allowances for him, a young man in good health can’t help despising, at times, an older man who is ailing.

Near the end, Schulberg writes,

What had Manley Halliday said, the process of growing up is that of continual disenchantment, of continually shedding the old enchantment for the new?

Something like that happens to every kid who sees a hero brought low. How strange and deflating — how disenchanting — it must have been for Budd Schulberg, at 25, to see the great Fitzgerald in his final winding-down. If F. Scott Fitzgerald could not stay young and enchanting forever, then who can?

Further reading: Budd Schulberg told the true story of his 1939 trip to Winter Carnival with Fitzgerald many times, including here and here. For more on Sheilah Graham’s displeasure with the portrayal of Fitzgerald in The Disenchanted, look here. More on Schulberg from the L.A. Times, New York Times, and The Guardian.

Photos: Top: Fitzgerald, detail from studio portrait, around 1925. (Click to view full image.) Bottom: This image accompanied many of Schulberg’s obituaries. On May 23, 1951, Budd Schulberg tells the House Un-American Activities Committee that he “drifted” into the Communist Party in the late 1930’s but broke with it completely because the party tried to tell him how and what to write. Schulberg died Aug. 5, 2009, at age 95. (AP Photo) Click the image to view a stratospherically large hi-res version.