Monday, September 22nd, 2014
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c. 1936 / New York City

F. Scott Fitzgerald Blows Into Town


This is not an account of the city’s changes but of the changes in this writer’s feeling for the city. From the confusion of the year 1920, I remember riding on top of a taxicab along deserted Fifth Avenue on a hot Sunday night, and a luncheon in the cool Japanese gardens of the Ritz with the wistful Kay Laurell and George Jean Nathan, and writing all night again and again and paying too much for minute apartments and buying magnificent but broken-down cars. The first speakeasies had arrived, the toddle was passé, Montmartre was the smart place to dance, and Lilyan Tashman’s fair hair weaved around the floor among the enliquored college boys. The plays were Déclassée and Sacred and Profane Love, and at the Midnight Frolic you danced elbow to elbow with Marion Davies and perhaps picked out the vivacious Mary Hay in the pony chorus. We thought we were apart from all that; perhaps everyone thinks they are apart from their milieu. We felt like small children in a great bright unexplored barn. Summoned out to Griffith’s studio on Long Island, we trembled in the presence of the familiar faces of the Birth of a Nation; later I realized that behind much of the entertainment that the city poured forth into the nation there were only a lot of lost and lonely people. The world of the picture actors was like our own in that it was in New York and not of it. It had little sense of itself, and no center: when I first met Dorothy Gish I had the feeling that we were both standing on the North Pole and it was snowing. Since then they have found a home, but it was not destined to be New York.

When bored, we took our city with a Huysmans-like perversity. An afternoon alone in our “apartment” eating olive sandwiches and drinking a quart of Bushmill’s whisky presented by Zoë Akins, then out into the freshly bewitched city, through strange doors into strange apartments with intermittent swings along in taxis through the soft nights. At last we were one with New York, pulling it after us through every portal. Even now I go into many flats with the sense that I have been there before or in the one above or below—was it the night I tried to disrobe in the Scandals, or the night when (as I read with astonishment in the paper next morning) “Fitzgerald Knocks Officer This Side of Paradise”? Successful scrapping not being among my accomplishments, I tried in vain to reconstruct the sequence of events that led up to this denouement in Webster Hall. And lastly from that period I remember riding in a taxi one afternoon between very tall buildings under a mauve and rosy sky; I began to bawl because I had everything I wanted and knew I would never be so happy again.

© 1945 by New Directions Corp, renewed 1972 by Frances Scott Fitzgerald Smith. Used with permission of Harold Ober Associates.

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The City
About the Text

From “My Lost City.” Called by Ring Lardner the prince and princess of their generation, Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda moved in 1924 to the Riviera, joining an expatriate scene he later described in Tender Is the Night. After Zelda suffered two mental collapses and his drinking increased, he observed in 1936, “Of course all life is a process of breaking down.” He died in Hollywood at the age of forty-four.

Every city has a sex and an age which have nothing to do with demography. Rome is feminine. So is Odessa. London is a teenager, an urchin, and in this hasn’t changed since the time of Dickens. Paris, I believe, is a man in his twenties in love with an older woman.
John Berger, 1987
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Lewis H. Lapham is Editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.
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