Amor Towles, The Rules of Civility
“That’s the problem with being born in New York. You’ve got no New York to run away to.”
Amor Towles, The Rules of Civility
Image Credit: The Romantic Egoists, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
“There’ll be quite a few lines you’ll recognize. I hope you don’t mind.”
--F. Scott Fitzgerald to Budd Schulberg, The Four Seasons of Success
Writing can be like pulling a rabbit out of a hat—a conjuring trick. Yes, there is magic, but there is also sleight of hand. Consider F. Scott Fitzgerald. Even an author of his stature pirated experiences from his friends, making off with their best lines and material. One day in December 1940, a few weeks prior to Fitzgerald's death, young Budd Schulberg discovered that the hard way when Scott permitted him to read the first few chapters of the manuscript for Fitzgerald's novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon. The book was familiar to Schulberg, and not because he had already read it, but because some of the best bits were taken from his own life.
Schulberg was the scion of one of the original film families. His father had been director of production at Paramount. The film industry was a part of young Schulberg's life from the time he learned to walk. Make-believe was his reality. He understood Hollywood in a way that non-natives rarely do. It was only natural that Schulberg entered the family business, but he did so as a wunderkind screenwriter, not as a producer. Schulberg wanted to become a novelist and could not believe his luck when Walter Wanger assigned literary legend F. Scott Fitzgerald to help Schulberg complete the script for Winter Carnival (1939)
The project was a life-changing one for Schulberg, and at times hair-raising (when Fitzgerald's demons got the better of him). In spite of those difficulties or maybe because of them, Schulberg and Fitzgerald bonded. Life, however, is filled with the shades of grey not found in Hollywood Technicolor productions. Fitzgerald's avuncular interest in Schulberg did not preclude him from making off with his new friend's best material. What better person to help Scott authenticate his novel about Hollywood than someone who had been born into one of its leading families? The great author's inner dictaphone was always recording. Reading The Last Tycoon, Schulberg discovered:
“There were many moments when Scott seemed to be telling his story directly through my eyes. There were my anecdotes, my observations of Hollywood personalities with whom I had been raised. It was almost as if I had written the book and then Scott had filtered it through his more tempered and sophisticated imagination. ... I wished, quite frankly, that I could call back some of the things I had told him. Now that they were imbedded in his book, to use them again would be a most curious form of plagiarism.”
Schulberg eventually made his peace with the legacy of his late friend. And, in the end, he evened the score with his novel, The Disenchanted. It was based upon his writing experiences with Fitzgerald, their research trip to an New England college campus, and its comedic but disastrous consequences. [Download the audio version of The Disenchanted narrated by Kevin T. Collins—it is excellent.]
Zelda Fitzgerald could have warned Budd Schulberg about her husband's propensity for literary graft, but she was locked away in an insane asylum. Significant portions of Fitzgerald's earlier novel The Beautiful and the Damned were lifted directly from her diaries and letters. Zelda was one of the most original personalities of the 20th Century, and some of Fitzgerald's best work was actually hers. An editor friend wanted to publish excerpts of her diaries, but for obvious reasons, Scott insisted she refuse. [See Nancy Milford's Zelda: A Biography or Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation.]
F. Scott Fitzgerald was, of course, not the only writer guilty of literary thievery. The actress and playwright Ruth Gordon inserted a Dorothy Parker-type character into so many of her plays that Dorothy quipped she dare not write her memoirs lest Gordon "sue her for plagiarism." Lillian Hellman was another notorious thief. She claimed the heroic deeds of another as her own in her autobiographical Pentimento. She nearly got away with it, but for the publicity when the book was adapted into the Academy Award-winning film Julia. [See "Lillian Hellman versus Mary McCarthy in Literary Feuds, A Century of Celebrated Quarrels.] And, proving the rule that cheaters never prosper was Truman Capote. The publication of “La Côte Basque, 1965,” in which Truman notoriously stole from the lives of his society friends, all but destroyed him.
Zelda Fitzgerald was not only her husband's muse, she was a gifted illustrator. Below is her draft proposal for The Beautiful and Damned dust jacket, alongside the William E. Hill illustration that was eventually selected for the American first edition.
Zelda's dust jacket rendering, as well as other works of art by her are included in the excellent coffee table book, The Romantic Egoists, A Pictorial Autobiography from the Scrapbooks and Albums of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
"Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy."
--F. Scott Fitzgerald
The image is from The Romantic Egoists, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.