Years after 'Gatsby,' F. Scott Fitzgerald's secretary got to witness the second act of an author who didn't believe in them.
All these years later, Frances Kroll Ring can still see it, the afternoon she filled out an application at Rusty's Employment Agency on Hollywood Boulevard and drove to Encino to meet a writer who was looking for a secretary.
It was April 1939, and she was 22, a Bronx transplant with typing and dictation skills. She'd been in Southern California for a little more than a year, coming west to help her father, a New York furrier, set up shop on Wilshire Boulevard. "Everybody said, 'You're a furrier? What are you doing in Southern California?' " Ring remembers. "But he knew the studios used furs. Because then the actresses used to be dressed to the gills."
At 92, Ring is elfin: small, spry, dressed in black pants and flat shoes. Her gray hair is short but not close-cropped and when she laughs, which is often, she reveals a toothy grin. Her house on this quiet spring morning in Benedict Canyon is full of books and mementos; a drawing by author William Saroyan hangs on one wall. Sitting at her dining table, sipping coffee, she looks back to the afternoon that started it all.
"At the agency," she recalls, "they asked if I knew Scott Fitzgerald and I said I wasn't really sure. I hadn't read Fitzgerald then. I'd read Hemingway, who was the big muck-a-muck." This was not unlikely: By 1939, 14 years after the triumph of "The Great Gatsby," Fitzgerald had been essentially forgotten, much of his writing out of print. Now he was in Los Angeles to hack it out for the studios, struggling to support his wife, Zelda, institutionalized in North Carolina, and their daughter, Frances, known as Scottie, a student at a boarding school back east. He was an alcoholic recently recovered from a nervous breakdown; he hadn't published a book in four years.
Ring, however, didn't know any of that when she went "over the hill" to where Fitzgerald was living. She also didn't know Fitzgerald was planning his own literary resurrection, a novel that, notes Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer A. Scott Berg, "promised to be his best book." That was "The Love of the Last Tycoon," the Hollywood epic on which Fitzgerald worked, with Ring's assistance, for the last 20 months of his life. Left unfinished at his death in December 1940, the book would be instrumental in rehabilitating Fitzgerald's reputation when it was published in 1941.
"She's the last real witness," Berg points out, "along with Budd Schulberg" (the 95-year-old author of the classic 1941 Hollywood novel "What Makes Sammy Run?") "to Fitzgerald as a working writer. She had a front row seat for a year-and-a-half." Novelist Steve Erickson calls her "a living connection to an American culture that cared about writing and literacy . . . She is the keeper of a literary flame in a city that has always had more literature than it gets credit for."
Ring has, on occasion, told her story; in 1985, she published a slender memoir, "Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald," which was made into the 2002 Showtime movie "Last Call." But she's also deeply protective of her time with Fitzgerald -- "she didn't want to seem to be exploiting it," suggests Erickson -- which explains why so few know about his final months.
From the start, Fitzgerald was frail, if focused. He had just returned from a disastrous trip to Cuba with Zelda -- the last time they would see each other -- and was recovering from the bender the voyage had become. "He was lying in bed," Ring says of their first meeting, "and he asked me all kinds of questions. Then he gave me some money and asked me to wire it to his daughter -- and to call him when I was done. That was his way of testing my honesty. He was only in his 40s, but he was fragile. The kind you wanted to help. He was very pale and had very blue eyes, and he was a charmer."
Toward the end of the interview, Fitzgerald asked Ring to open a drawer in his bedroom; "Instead of shirts or underwear or whatever one might expect to find in a bureau drawer, there were gin bottles," she writes in her book.
It's not clear, exactly, whether Fitzgerald was warning her about what she was getting into or letting her know what he was trying to overcome. One possibility is that it was another test, another indication of the need for discretion, of the type of closeness that working with him would require. "He told me he was going to do a novel about Hollywood," Ring says. "That was another thing: Could he trust me? Because he didn't want anyone to know what he was doing."
Fitzgerald wasn't, at first, able to work. "He wasn't organized yet," Ring says. "We did letters. I could type, I could do letters, I could do bookkeeping because I used to take care of my father's stuff. And at the beginning, he wanted to sit and talk. He was in bed most of the time, or he'd get up and pace around. He'd talk about books, and I was well-read, which intrigued him, because a lot of the secretaries were not well-read. There were other functions for them at the time and I wasn't that kind of girl."
Indeed, Ring became something of a surrogate daughter to Fitzgerald, keeping him company, helping him get back into writing shape.
"What's fascinating," muses Berg over the telephone, "is that in the end, here is Scott Fitzgerald, his wife in the asylum, his daughter at school on the East Coast, and he falls in love with another blond and in many ways adopts another girl named Frances -- like his daughter -- and replicates the family. It's spooky to me, eerie, almost like a parallel universe."
The blond was Sheilah Graham, the gossip columnist with whom Fitzgerald began a relationship in 1937. Eventually, he would move into her apartment on Laurel Avenue in West Hollywood, but when he was still in Encino, Graham would visit in the afternoons. "She would roll down her stockings," Ring chuckles. "It was a signal for me to leave."
Although there were, she admits, "drunken periods," mostly it was a time of stability. "He had a daughter to whom he felt total responsibility," she reflects. "He felt he was the one solid family member -- and he was."
This responsibility manifested in a variety of ways, beginning with his work on "The Last Tycoon." As Fitzgerald zeroed in on the novel, he dictated notes and character sketches, outlined chapters and scenes. "The book was meticulously planned," Ring says. "By the time he started to write, he knew who his characters were and what the struggle was between them."
"The Last Tycoon" is the story of Monroe Stahr, a Hollywood boy wonder who Fitzgerald saw as a sensitive soul, artistic even, in a cutthroat business. The key, Ring suggests, was Fitzgerald's notion of the novel as redemptive, a way to make use of everything he'd observed in Hollywood, to take its degradation ("I hate the place like poison with a sincere hatred," he wrote to his agent in 1935) and transform it into literature.
Fitzgerald wrote "on long sheets of paper," Ring remembers, "yellow pads. He had a big, scrawling hand. I would type it up triple-space. And then he would redo it." He worked all the time: on the novel; on various film projects, including an adaptation of his own "Babylon Revisited"; and on the 17 "Pat Hobby Stories" that he wrote for Esquire, which were published, beginning in January 1940, at $250 apiece. In his introduction to "The Pat Hobby Stories," collected as a book in 1962, Esquire editor Arnold Gingrich quotes from the many wires Fitzgerald sent seeking payment: "Again the old ache of money," the author writes. "Again will you wire me, if you like it. Again, will you wire the money to my Maginot Line: The Bank of America, Culver City."
Partly, this had to do with his commitments to his wife and daughter, spread out across the country like distant satellites. "He never could get to the book," Ring says, "because he constantly needed money. He'd knock out a short story and then he'd get a week at a studio, sometimes two weeks. He couldn't turn it down."
Yet, the sheer volume and quality of the work he was doing says something else about Fitzgerald, putting the lie to the myth that he burned his talent out. Rather, the last 20 months of his life represented a creative resurrection, a rebuttal to the author's own assertion, in the pages of "The Last Tycoon," that "there are no second acts in American life."
In fact, Ring continues, Fitzgerald was fiercely aware of his reputation, of the split between the work he was doing and the way the culture had passed him by. "He would get angry if he got rejected by an editor at Collier's who he had no regard for," she says. "He would go crazy. He was essentially a gentle man, but he would get so furious at being rejected. But his strength was that he didn't give up. A lot of guys would have gone to seed. He went to drink, but he controlled the drink. The work was more important than the drink."
Some of this toughness, it seems, wore off on Ring; she took care of the details when Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at age 44 on the Saturday before Christmas 1940, at Graham's apartment, where he'd moved after having had a first heart attack a few months before. "I had to arrange," Ring says, "for the body to be shipped back because the funeral was back east. He was alone out here. Sheilah was not that kind of help. She was hysterical. By some odd quirk, he had put away $700 in cash, which he told me about; the payment for the burial and the coffin came to just under $700. I always thought he must have called at one point to find out, that he lived with a premonition of death, in a sense."
Then, in 1941, she faced down the formidable critic Edmund Wilson over the posthumous edition of "The Last Tycoon," critiquing his summary of the book's unfinished chapters and arguing that "a few colorful background facts will make Stahr more memorable even though so much of the novel has to peter out in synopsis form."
These experiences served Ring well; in the 1940s, as a reader in the story department at Paramount, she was arrested for picketing during a divisive eight-month Hollywood strike involving the Conference of Studio Unions.
She was married at the time, but 25 years later, after the death of her husband, she reinvented herself as the editor of Westways, the magazine of the Automobile Club of Southern California, which she built into a powerhouse, publishing Saroyan, Carey McWilliams and Anaïs Nin.
Listening to Ring now, it's impossible not to imagine the young woman she must have been, as if in death Fitzgerald had left her to be his advocate. Such a feeling lingers. The connection feels almost physical, distinct in its own way from space and time. It's not that Ring is living in the past -- she isn't -- but that here at the top of Benedict Canyon, the past is somehow present, the borders are porous.
The sensation grows when Ring mounts the stairs to the second floor, where in a small office are three first editions ("Tender Is the Night," "Taps at Reveille" and "The Great Gatsby") that Fitzgerald inscribed to her, as well as a King James Bible he gave her father for having recut a fur coat for Scottie in the style of the time.
Ring takes up the books one by one, reads aloud the inscriptions. "This one is my favorite," she says, holding open "Taps at Reveille":
She has a soul
(She claims to know it)
But when young Frances
Does her dances
She don't show it.
From the bald headed
man in the front row,
But it's the Bible that provides an unexpected coda, bringing Fitzgerald into the room in an almost three-dimensional rush. The book is boxed, although the box has long since broken and is held together with a rubber band.
Slowly, carefully, as if she were invoking her two fathers -- one physical, the other figurative -- Ring opens it and removes a letter, written in pencil and folded into an envelope.
It's a note of thanks:
"Dear Mr. Kroll, I want to add my thanks to Scottie's for the beautiful cutting of the coat. It is perfectly magnificent and we are so happy to have it. Not having seen her for fourteen months, I took pleasure in imagining her face when she got it -- her surprise and delight.
"It was a grand Christmas present, much greater than I would have been able this year to give her myself. . . .
"With all good holiday wishes."
After the signature, there's a P.S.: "The pencil is the result of writing in bed for the present."
"He always had to do that," Ring says, laughing softly, "to put that little tag on. To draw attention to his illness. He was a hypochondriac." She pauses. "But this time it was true. He didn't have the energy. This was Dec. 14, just a week before he died."
The room grows close, quiet. You can almost feel Fitzgerald there. The pencil marks on the unlined paper look so fragile, vulnerable even, and in them is contained everything he was up against.
"I was invested in Fitzgerald," Ring says, refolding the letter. "Because you couldn't be with him and not know how desperately he wanted to write another good book. He was out of it, and he was just too good to be out of it."