In 1937, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a troubled, uncertain man whose literary success was long over. In poor health, with his wife consigned to an asylum and his finances in ruin, he struggled to make a new start as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
Those last three years of Fitzgerald’s life are the focus of Stewart O’Nan’s graceful and elegiac novel West of Sunset. With flashbacks to Fitzgerald’s glamorous Jazz Age past, the story follows him as he arrives on the MGM lot, falls in love with brassy gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, begins work on The Last Tycoon, and tries to maintain a semblance of family life with the absent Zelda and their daughter, Scottie. The Golden Age of Hollywood is brought vividly to life through the novel’s romantic cast of characters, from Dorothy Parker and Ernest Hemingway to Humphrey Bogart. Written with striking grace and subtlety, this is a wise and intimate portrait of a man trying his best to hold together a world that’s flying apart.
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About the Author
Date of Birth:February 4, 1961
Place of Birth:Pittsburgh, PA
Education:B.S., Aerospace Engineering, Boston University, 1983; M.F.A., Cornell University, 1992
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That spring he holed up in the Smokies, in a tired resort hotel by the asylum so he could be closer to her. A bout of pneu- monia over Christmas had provoked a flare-up of his TB, and he was still recovering. The mountain air was supposed to help. Days he wrote in his bathrobe, drinking Coca-Cola to keep himself going, holding off on the gin till nightfall—a small point of pride—sipping on the dark verandah as couples strolled among the fireflies rising from the golf course. Outside of town, Highland Hospital crowned the ridgeline, a spired Gothic palace in the clouds worthy of a bewitched princess. He couldn’t afford it, as he couldn’t afford the other private clinics they’d tried, but he pleaded poverty and hashed out a discount with the trustees, begging the money from his agent—an onerous form of credit, borrowing against stories he’d yet to imagine.
He had no choice. At Pratt they left her too much alone. She’d strangled herself with a ripped pillowcase, nearly succeeding, the livid band across her windpipe a reminder. One night while she was strapped to her bed, the Archangel Michael appeared, glow- ing, and told her the world would end unless she could move the seven nations to repent. She took to wearing white and memoriz-ing the Bible. In her paintings the faceless damned writhed in fire.
At Highland her new doctor believed in diet and exercise. No cigarettes, no sweets. Every day the patients hiked a prescribed distance, sturdy nurses spurring them on like coaches. She lost weight, her skin tented over her cheekbones, her nose a blade, re- calling that awful year in Paris she whittled her body down trying to remake herself for the ballet. Yet not manic, not frenzied like then, her knees bruised black, feet cracked from practice. After her insulin treatments she was calm, subdued by sheer lack of energy. Instead of sinners she painted flowers, big blowzy blooms just as corrupt. She could sleep now, she said, a mercy he envied. Her cur- sive returned, neat lines running like waves down the page in- stead of the bunched, slanted hand he’d come to dread.
Oh Goofo, every day I think of the warm skin of the sea and how I ruined our eyes for each other. You were angry and shut me in when I wanted the sun. Maybe I was never meant to be a salamander, just this thing they wrap in sheets and feed when the bell rings. I’m sorry I cost you all those cities all those perfect boulevards with their lights burning down around us in the night.
They spoke mostly by letter. Though he could see the hospital from the steps of the town library, he rarely saw her, which made her changes more striking. Dr. Carroll limited their visits, doling them out, like any privilege, by a strict reward system. Weekends they might be allowed a few unscheduled hours together, stroll- ing the grounds, even leaving the mountain for lunch at a diner or in a quiet corner of the hotel restaurant, tooling back up the wind- ing, rhododendron-lined drive in his roadster to the long sunset view at the top, but the week was reserved for the hard work of recovering herself. The patients woke before dawn, like farmers. At nine they played tennis, at eleven they painted. The idea was to keep her regimented, which he understood, having disciplined himself to write though otherwise his life had lost any semblance of order.
At forty, by a series of setbacks he ascribed to bad luck, he’d become a transient. With Scottie off at her boarding school, he no longer had to keep a house, a relief, since it meant one less expend- iture, except now they had no home to go back to, their most cher- ished possessions given up to musty storage. He’d pared down where he could, and still there was no way he could pay both the hospital and Scottie’s tuition, but—out of misplaced honor or plain delusion—he refused to skimp on his responsibilities. It would be too easy. Every month Zelda’s mother petitioned him to let her come home to Montgomery. She wasn’t ready, if she’d ever be. His hope was that Dr. Carroll would help her get well so he could go to Hollywood and make enough to cover his debts and maybe buy himself time to write the novel he owed Max.
There was interest at Metro, the promise of a thousand a week, but so far Ober couldn’t get them to commit. He had to be honest with Scott, the studio had concerns about his drinking—his own fault for publishing those mea culpas in Esquire. All March he pes- tered Ober for word, assuring him he hadn’t touched a drop, when his bottom drawer was heavy with empties.
With Zelda everything was a test. For their anniversary they were allowed to take a day trip to Chimney Rock. He was to be both husband and chaperone, charged with cataloging her con- duct, speech and intake—observations he registered automat- ically yet resented sharing, as if, after so long in captivity, they had a shred of privacy left. It was a balmy Saturday, the dogwoods frilled with pink, the visitors’ lot busy with gussied-up loved ones toting picnic baskets. Dr. Carroll himself delivered her to the front desk, handing her over to Scott like a doting father.
In her twenties, baby faced and petite, she’d seemed girlish. She’d been an athlete and a dancer, a notorious flirt, her stamina and fearlessness irresistible. Now, just shy of thirty-seven, she was pinched and haggard, cronelike, her smile ruined by a broken tooth. Some well-meaning soul had fixed her hair for the occasion, gathering the unruly honey-blonde mop back into a knitted black snood which sat catlike on one shoulder—a style he’d seen on shopgirls and waitresses but one she would never choose, espe- cially since it made her face even sharper, hawkish. The carmine sundress was an old favorite, though it had faded from hard washing and hung on her, robelike, the yoke of her collarbone hol- lowed, a sheer scarf knotted like a choker to conceal her throat. When he leaned down to greet her, she turned her face into his, her lips grazing his cheek.
“Thank you,” she said, pulling away, as if he’d done her a favor.
“Oh, Dodo. Happy anniversary.” It always surprised him to hear her soft Dixie lilt coming from this wizened stranger, as if, hiding somewhere inside, his fresh, wild Zelda still existed.
The doctor congratulated them. “How many years is it?” “Seventeen” she said, looking to Scott to check her math. “Seventeen years,” he confirmed, nodding, uncertain if this
fact was happy. The number was as illusory as their marriage. As his wife she’d now been hospitalized as long as not, and in fretful moments the question of whether she’d been mad all along and he attracted to that madness unsettled him.
“Enjoy yourselves,” the doctor said.
“We will,” she said, and took Scott’s hand, squeezing it as they walked through the vaulted lobby and into the bright day, relin- quishing it only when he opened the car door and helped her in like a footman.
On her seat rested a present he’d bought at the hotel gift shop. “Dodo, really, you needn’t have.”
As he closed the door, he palmed the knob, silently locking it. “It’s nothing—a token.”
“And here I didn’t get you anything.” She didn’t wait, shuck- ing the paper to reveal a shallow candy box. “If this is what I think it is . . . You devil. You know I can’t resist peanut brittle.”
“It’s lovely, darling, but I don’t think it’s allowed.” “I promise not to tell.”
“You’ll have to help me then.” “To dispose of the evidence.” “Precisely.”
How quickly they were conspirators, as if it were their natural state. Together, in another age, they’d been famous for their fash- ionable trespasses, the stuff of magazine covers and scandal sheets, and perhaps because his fall had been less spectacular, and far less punitive, at times like these a nostalgic guilt pricked him, as if, impossible as it was, he should have saved her.
Leaving the grounds, he had the sensation that they’d escaped. Though he knew it was exactly the wrong attitude to adopt, once they were outside the gates he liked to pretend they were any other couple off on a jaunt. A similar denial applied to his driving. At Princeton he’d been witness to a deadly wreck, and more than once, careering late at night over the darkened roads of Long Is- land or the Riviera, in the hands of stimulated friends, he’d been frightened for his life, with the result that, drunk or sober, he was cautious to a fault, going so slowly that he posed a hazard to oth- ers. Now, instead of guarding their new anonymity, he succeeded in attracting the wrath of everyone stuck behind them.
Another driver held up both hands as he passed, as if to ask what he was doing.
“Get off the road, you old fart!” a young twerp shouted. Scott waved them on.
Beside him, squinting like a sailor, her scarf luffing in the breeze, Zelda sat with one elbow propped atop the door, pointing out the rushing streams and burgeoning pear trees. He broke his concentration on the road to murmur appreciation and steal a glance at the knob, still locked. Once, on a bluff above Cap Ferrat, she’d opened the door as they traversed a curve and stepped out onto the running board before he could stop the car. She laughed like a child playing a naughty trick. She was just angry over a re- mark he’d made to Sara and Gerald about Marion Davies, or so he thought. To his shame, looking back, he couldn’t pinpoint when she’d lost control of herself, or how long it had taken him to notice. Now he watched her closely, knowing from terrible experience that at any second she might lunge across and grab the wheel.
She reclined and closed her eyes, basking. On her neck, peeking
from beneath the thrashing scarf, was a freshly healed scratch the color of raspberry jam. When she caught him looking at her, she stuck out her tongue playfully, then made a point of shifting her body to watch him.
Down in town they had to wait for the sole traffic light. “You look tired,” she said.
“You’re not drinking.”
“I’m not sleeping,” he said.
“Come spend a week with me. It’ll do you wonders.” “Someone in this family has to work.”
“Don’t be a dodo, Dodo. Mama can help.” “Let’s let Mama worry about Mama.”
They turned north, leaving Tryon, climbing into the moun- tains again, the air in the green hollows cool and damp. They saw a sharecropper with a lop-eared mule plowing a hillside, and a skirmish line of wild turkeys, and a groundhog that scurried away as they approached, each diversion making it easier and more of an occasion to be together, as if, in the future, they might remem- ber the day as a happy interlude.
Not wanting to set her off to no purpose, he’d postponed tell- ing her about Hollywood. As with anything delicate, it was a mat- ter of timing. Cowardly or hopeful, he figured it would be safer once she was home. Today was another step toward that goal, and while he remained vigilant for the slightest sign, so far he was pleased.
Equally tricky was the question of when to broach the possi- bility of Scottie coming down after exams. The last time they’d been together, in Virginia Beach, Zelda hadn’t been right and Scot- tie was annoyed and short with her, leading to a blowup on the boardwalk he foolishly tried to referee. Since then he’d had to prod Scottie to write her, both apologizing for the circumstances and trying to instill in her a sense of duty he himself had never felt toward his own mother. That they should reconcile had become a preoccupation, though how he might effect that was a mystery. So
much of his life now was making arrangements, and he’d never been any good at it.
They crested the summit and coasted over the far side. The road was switchbacked, stepping down the mountain, hairpin turns giving on sheer drops. Far below, neatly splitting the valley, lay the thin blue puddle of Lake Lure. They poked along, Zelda soaking in the view. A circus of hawks banked and tilted above the rocky outcrops. He was occupied with keeping the car be- tween the lines and was surprised to find a red park tour bus looming behind them, surging closer and closer till it filled the mirror. The driver swiped his arm sideways across the windshield as if shooing a pesky fly.
Zelda twisted in her seat. “I think he wants you to pull over.” “There’s no room.”
He sped up slightly, convinced of his right to the road. He wouldn’t be bullied into doing something stupid. He hunched over the wheel, concentrating, afraid to look back. He was going too fast to slip into the scenic turnoffs, and as the bus hounded them down the curves, brakes juddering, he wondered why, if the passengers were sightseers, they were in such a blasted hurry.
At the base of the mountain the road straightened out, regain-
ing its shoulder. The bus flashed its lights. Still he didn’t yield. “There,” she prompted, pointing to a rustic country store
ahead. “Please, darling.”
He braked and veered into the unpaved lot, sliding sideways, raising a cloud of dust that settled around them as the bus roared past, horn blaring.
He shook the back of his open hand at it, a curse they’d learned in Rome. “Ought to have his license taken away.”
Her laughter shocked him—raucous, head tipped back with delight. The gesture seemed false and histrionic, a typical symptom.
“Remember in Westport? You used to say that all the time. Everyone should have their license taken away. And then what happened?”
He’d had his revoked for running their Marmon into a pond on a lark with Ring. Ring, who was as dead as his mother. Those days seemed to belong to another age, another person he’d been— heedless, charmed.
“Thank you for reminding me.”
“I’m sorry, Dodo. You’re so easy to tease.” “Too easy.”
“Ohhh, don’t be cross.”
He wasn’t, not with her. It was humbling how quickly anger turned him into an idiot, and he resolved, as always, not to let his frustrations get the better of him—a pledge that seemed even more timely when, after apologizing, he swung the car past the open door of the log cabin and realized it was a bar, the neon dark- ness inside inviting. Back on the road, neither mentioned it.
At Chimney Rock the sun had brought out the throngs. Along one edge of the lot sat four tour buses parked nose to tail, making it impossible for him to single out the culprit. He found a shady spot on the far side, head-in against a split-rail fence, as if he might hide the car. She waited for him to come around, letting him un- lock the door and help her dismount.
Among the dungareed, overalled tourists swarming the walk- ways they were strangely formal, dressed for the theater or the philharmonic, yet when they cleared the cherry trees and the great stone column rose into the sky above them, piled precari- ously as children’s blocks, they stopped and shielded their eyes like everyone else. The rock stood alone, a chase of staircases stitching the cliff face behind it. High up, at the very top, outlined black against the wispy clouds, a narrow catwalk spanned the fi- nal gap. The profusion of tiny people clambering over the scaf- folding reminded him of an ant farm. The idea of joining that mass dismayed him, and protectively he thought of lunch.
She was already heading for the stairs. “Aren’t you hungry?”
“Come on,” she taunted, and before he could argue, she was off, cutting through the other gawkers and taking the first flight at a gallop, her snood bouncing behind like a tail.
He followed, trying to keep her in sight, but the doctor’s regi- men had worked. He wasn’t entirely well either. He spent too much time at his desk, smoked too much, drank too much, and by the second turning he’d lost her. He knew she wouldn’t stop: it was a game. The higher he climbed, already winded, the more he reassured himself that she was just being the old, playful Zelda. He was sweating, and shed his jacket, stripped off his tie. Once, in Macy’s, around Christmastime, Scottie had gotten away from him; now he felt the same helpless panic. He kept on, using the banister to haul himself up, resting on the landings, peering skyward, hop- ing to find her laughing at him from the catwalk. His fear, remote yet real, was that when he reached the top she wouldn’t be there, a crowd gathered where she’d climbed the rail and swan dived.
Once across the catwalk, he saw her immediately, her red dress a flag. She stood at the far end of the rock, bellied up to the rail, looking out over the valley with everyone else. When he slid in beside her, she covered his hand with hers. Now that he’d stopped, he was pouring sweat, drops gathering in his eyebrows.
“You’re getting old, Dodo.”
“You always were faster than me.”
“You should really take better care of yourself. I suppose that’s partly my fault. I’m supposed to take care of you, aren’t I? I’m afraid I’ve been a grave disappointment in that category.”
“I can take care of myself.” “Not hardly.”
“We’re supposed to take care of each other,” he said.
“I don’t want you to have to take care of me. I just want to go home.”
“I’ve been good, haven’t I?” “You have.”
“I try so hard and then things go wrong and I can’t stop them. I wish I could.”
“I know you do.” “You do?” she asked.
“Of course. I’m the king of things going wrong.”
“And I’m your queen.”
“You are,” he said, because, though the throne had sat empty for many years, and the castle, like the kingdom, long since fallen, she was. Despite all they’d squandered, he would never dispute that they were made for each other.
On their way back to the catwalk they came across a group of schoolchildren kneeling over sheets of paper, making charcoal rubbings. The rock was embossed with fossils—trilobites and skeletal fish—evidence that all of this had once been underwater. “They’re beautiful!” she cooed, a judgment he automatically resisted as sentimental. As she went from child to child like a teacher, praising each, he thought he should be more sympathetic. Wasn’t every world, ultimately, a lost world, every memento a treasure? As a writer he might believe that aesthetically, but here,in real life, he didn’t feel it. What was gone was gone.
The descent seemed longer, and then in the racketing cafeteria they had to wait. The special was goulash with noodles. He made the comment that the food wasn’t much better than the hospital’s, expecting her to argue. She said nothing, kept chewing vacantly as if she hadn’t heard. He leaned over his plate and waved his fork to get her attention. Even then it took an effort to rouse herself from the spell.
“I’m sorry, darling,” she said. “I’m just tired.”
He was so used to watching for signs. He understood. He was tired too.
Back at the car, the sun had moved. The pecan brittle had melted into a gluey mess taking the shape of the box.
“You can wait till it hardens,” he offered, “then break it again.” “I shouldn’t be eating it anyway.”
Once more it felt like they were escaping, leaving the throngs and the crammed lot behind. They passed the log cabin with its growing rows of cars outside and climbed the switchbacked road up the mountain at their own pace, stopping at the top to appreci- ate the view and the rarefied quiet, sharing an illicit cigarette. Far below in the trough of the valley, Lake Lure sparkled, sunstruck.
A few stray clouds draped black shadows over the slopes, remind-
ing him of Switzerland.
“Remember our chalet in Gstaad?”
“The one where Scottie split her chin open.”
He’d been thinking of the antler chandelier and the great, sooty fireplace and the eider duvet on their bed, but now he could picture the polished hardwood staircase, and Scottie trying to climb it in her Doctor Denton’s, the missed step and the solid knock of bone shocking them like an alarm. Strange, how the past was both open and closed to them, but she’d remembered. So often she couldn’t.
“I was thinking,” he said. “What do you think about Scottie coming down for a bit before she goes to camp?”
She dipped her head and drew a line in the dust with the tip of her shoe. “She doesn’t want to see me.”
“Of course she does. I think this is a good opportunity. She might not be able to for a while.”
“You’re not making her.”
“She wants to see you—if you think you’re up to it. I think you are.”
“I would like to see her.” “I figured.”
“I wish I could tell you I’ll be good for her.”
“I understand,” he said, and looked at her to seal the pact. She could be so reasonable. For an instant he thought of kissing her cheek, but—today, especially—feared she might misinterpret it. They gazed out over the silent vista again, and then, after she’d taken a last drag of the cigarette and dropped it in the dust for him to crush out, turned and headed back to the car.
As they coasted down the far side, he said, “I wonder if groundhogs like pecan brittle.”
“Southern ones do. I can’t speak for you Yankees.” “I believe they prefer peanut brittle.”
“Oh, Dodo, it’s been such a nice day. I don’t want to go back.” “I know.”
“Seventeen years,” she mused. “It doesn’t seem that long.”
“No,” he said, though he could disagree.
At the same time, he could feel the day waning, and their mo- ments alone together. Visiting was always hard, but these field trips were a torture, even more so when they went well. In the end, he was charged with returning her to her cloister. There was some- thing of a surrender to it that chafed his honor, as if he should be fighting for her. All the way through the hot, flat town and up the long, winding hill, instead of relief, he felt he was conspiring in his own defeat, a traitor to them both.
He checked her in at the front desk. The doctor was busy with other visitors, and a chipper nurse took her from him, asking if they had a nice time.
“Very nice,” Scott said.
“It’s our anniversary,” Zelda said.
“I know,” the nurse said. “Happy anniversary.” “Thank you. Happy anniversary, Dodo.”
“Happy anniversary,” he said, chastely embracing her, then letting go.
“Poor Dodo. Don’t look like that. I’ll see you next weekend. I’ll be good, I promise.”
“I’ll talk to Scottie.”
“Do, please. Till then, my love.” She blew him a kiss and let the nurse lead her away through the doors toward the women’s wing, leaving him alone again.
Outside, he maundered to the car, sapped of purpose. Her pe- can brittle sat in the backseat, evidence of his meager effort. Later, on the darkened verandah, it would serve as his dinner.
Monday, when he met with the doctor, he reported that she’d been fine. They’d gotten along. Her memory was sharp, her speech clear, her thoughts coherent. He didn’t mention the cigarette or the pecan brittle, or her manic gallop up the stairs, or her blank face as she chewed her goulash. The doctor seemed pleased, and agreed that seeing Scottie would be good for her, but then, after Scott had successfully lobbied Scottie, Zelda attacked her tennis partner with her racket, breaking the woman’s nose, and was moved to the locked ward. Scottie went off to camp as planned, and when Ober called and said Metro wanted him to come to New York for an interview, he took the first train from Asheville. For two full days he was completely, wrackingly sober, and passed. Six months at a thousand a week. He wanted to tell Zelda face-to-face, but she was in isolation. The doctor forbade him from seeing her, an affront and a reprieve. He waited till the last minute—in fact, after he’d packed up and left town—composing the letter in the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans, across from Union Station.
Dearest Heart, he wrote. Please forgive me. I have to leave for now to pursue our fortunes. I wish there were any other way. Keep working and try to be good, and I will where I am.
The next day, on Metro’s ticket, he took the Argonaut west.
Excerpted from "West of Sunset"
Copyright © 2015 Stewart O'Nan.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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