Lost in the Movies: Echoes of Fitzgerald

Echoes of Fitzgerald

Despite the picture, these are not selections from The Great Gatsby (which, upon recently re-reading, launched me on my present Fitzgerald kick) but from "My Lost City", an essay featured originally in The Crack-Up (1945), and which I read for the first time in the slim 1996 volume The Jazz Age. (I had originally planned to include the bittersweet valedictory "Echoes of the Jazz Age," which opens the collection and lent my post its name; but I realized all my favorite quotes were from the next piece in the book.)

When John Updike died last year, I noted how some actors, artists, and writers feel like their "ours" in ways others don't. No writer is more "mine" than Fitzgerald, whose prose is more intoxicating than any other I've read, and whose insights resonate so strongly with me that his pages make me feel like I've "some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if [I] were releated to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away." Or at least as if I'm in the presence of one such genius, one generous enough to pass that "romantic readiness" on to his readers.

Without further ado then, here are bits and pieces of this one extraordinarily fine reminiscence, one which will be perhaps especially evocative for those of us who lived, and perhaps failed, in New York, but universal enough to appeal to all citizens of the globe. Consider these breadcrumbs, leading you (return trip or otherwise) on to that gingerbread skyscraper upon whose ramparts innocence lets loose its last sigh...

"There was first the ferry boat moving softly from the Jersey shore at dawn - the moment crystalized into my first symbol of New York. Five years later when I was fifteen I went into the city from school to see Ina Claire in The Quaker Girl and Gertrude Bryan in Little Boy Blue. Confused by my hopeless and melancholy love for them both, I was unable to choose between them - so they blurred into one lovely entity, the girl. She was my second symbol of New York. The ferry boat stood for triumph, the girl for romance. In time I was to achieve some of both, but there was a third symbol that I have lost somewhere, and lost forever."

"But that night, in Bunny's apartment, life was mellow and safe, a finer distillation of all that I had come to love at Princeton. The gentle playing of an oboe mingled with city noises from the street outside, which penetrated into the room with difficulty through great barricades of books; only the crisp tearing open of invitations by one man was a discordant note. I had found a third symbol of New York and I began wondering about the rent of such apartments and casting about for the appropriate friends to share one with me.
Fat chance - for the next two years I had as much control over my own destiny as a convict over the cut of his clothes."

"And in a haze of anxiety and unhappiness I passed the four most impressionable months of my life.
New York had all the iridescence of the beginning of the world. The returning troops marched up Fifth Avenue and girls were instinctively drawn East and North toward them - this was the greatest nation and there was gala in the air. As I hovered ghost-like in the Plaza Red Room of a Saturday afternoon, or went to lush and liquid garden parties in the East Sixties or tippled with Princetonians in the Biltmore Bar I was haunted always by my other life - my drab room in the Bronx, my square foot of the subway, my fixation upon the day's letter from Alabama - would it come and what would it say? - my shabby suits, my poverty, and love."

"I wandered through the town of 127th Street, resenting its vibrant life; or else I bought cheap theatre seats at Gray's drugstore and tried to lose myself for a few hours in my old passion for Broadway. I was a failure - mediocre at advertising work and unable to get started as a writer. Hating the city, I got roaring, weeping drunk on my last penny and went home...
...Incalculable city. What ensued was only one of a thousand success stories of those gaudy days, but it plays a part in my own movie of New York."

"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 at the Ritz with the wistful Kay Laurel 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."

"An afternoon alone in our 'apartment' eating olive sandwiches and drinking a quart of Bushmill's whiskey presented by Zoe Atkins, 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."

"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."

"It was too late - or too soon. For us the city was inevitably linked up with Bacchic diversions, mild or fantastic. We could organize ourselves only on our return to Long Island and not always there. We had no incentive to meet the city half way."

"It was three years before we saw New York again. As the ship glided up the river, the city burst thunderously upon us in the early dusk - the white glacier of lower New York swooping down like a strand of a bridge to rise into uptown New York, a miracle of foamy light suspended by the stars. A band started to play on deck, but the majesty of the city made the march trivial and tinkling. From that moment I knew that New York, however often I might leave it, was home."

"Whole sections of the city had grown rather poisonous, but invariably I found a moment of utter peace in riding south through Central Park at dark toward where the facade of 59th Street thrusts its lights through the trees. There again was my lost city, wrapped cool in its mystery and promise. But that detachment never lasted long - as the toiler must live in the city's belly, so I was compelled to live in its disordered mind."

"I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York's boom days. We were somewhere in North Africa when we heard a dull distant crash which echoed to the farthest wastes of the desert.
'What was that?'
'Did you hear it?'
'It was nothing.'
'Do you think we ought to go home and see?'
'No - it was nothing.'
In the dark autumn of two years later we saw New York again. We passed through curiously polite customs agents, and then with bowed head and hat in hand I walked reverently through the echoing tomb. Among the ruins a few childish wraiths still played to keep up the pretense that they were alive, betraying by their feverish voices and hectic cheeks the thinness of the masquerade. Cocktail parties, a last hollow survival from the days of carnival, echoed to the plaints of the wounded: 'Shoot me, for the love of God, someone shoot me!', and the groans and wails of the dying: 'Did you see that United States Steel is down three more points?'"

"From the ruins, lonely and inexplicable as the sphinx, rose the Empire State Building and, just as it had been a tradition of mine to climb to the Plaza Roof to take leave of the beautiful city, extending as far as eyes could reach, so now I went to the roof of the last and most magnificent of towers. Then I understood - everything was explained: I had discovered the crowning error of the city, it's Pandora's box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorker had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he had supposed but that it had limits - from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless. And with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe, the whole shining edifice that he had reared in his imagination came crashing to the ground."

"So perhaps I am destined to return some day and find in the city new experiences that so far I have only read about. For the moment I can only cry out that I have lost my splendid mirage. Come back, come back, O glittering and white!"

This post was originally published on The Sun's Not Yellow. 


Stephen said...

That book cover is gorgeous evocative design.

"...some actors, artists, and writers feel like their "ours" in ways others don't."

Very well put. It really is true.

Margaret Benbow said...

Thank you for your fine tribute. Yes, "intoxicating" is the right word. I never fail to be mesmerized by his books, especially "Tender Is The Night." Used to turn to his essays in "The Crack-Up" when having problems with insomnia, and then would become so fascinated that I struggled to stay awake!

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, both. Stephen, isn't it amazing how 85 years later they still use the same cover image? Maybe it's just my ignorance, but I can't think of many other novels where that's the case. It's certainly one of, if not the, most iconic covers of all time.

Margaret, I agree - and Tender is the Night is upcoming (I'm working on This Side of Paradise right now).

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