Michel Mok’s interview with Scott Fitzgerald is one of the most famous hatchet jobs of all time. Or at least, that’s how I remembered it, and that’s how Fitzgerald’s biographers usually characterize it – I just went back and looked at some of them. I can’t think of another interview of a literary figure that has featured so prominently in his own legend. And yet on rereading, it comes across as a more nuanced and sensitive portrait than I remember; if indeed I ever actually read it, as opposed to reading about it. I don’t know, maybe the full-frontal tabloid journalism of our era has blunted my own sensibility …
Mok is remembered as one of the villains of the Fitzgerald story, one of the history’s cloddish butterfly crushers. And while it’s true this interview did tremendous damage to Fitzgerald’s reputation (and there is a rumour that Fitzgerald tried to commit suicide having seen the piece), it can also be read as the mass-market version of his own “Crack-Up” essays – a vivid filling-in of the portrait of mental and emotional collapse that he limned somewhat abstractly in a series of autobiographical essays in Esquire that same year.
In September 1936, when the interview was published, America was still recovering from the Great Depression, and the 1920s seemed to many like the gaudy binge that had produced the terrible morning after. Fitzgerald was the spokesman for the flamboyant generation that emerged after the first world war, a representative figure who not only chronicled the era but who seemed to embody it. “For just a moment, before it was demonstrated that I was unable to play the role,” he wrote in a collection of essays, My Lost City, “I was pushed into the position not only of spokesman for the time but of the typical product of that same moment.” He and his beautiful wife Zelda provided at least one of the indelible images of the era when they jumped into the fountain of New York’s Plaza Hotel in evening dress after a night on the town. The Fitzgeralds were “flaming youth” personified, and for a few years they seemed to relish the role, during the years that Fitzgerald produced a significant body of work including one of the greatest artefacts of the jazz age, The Great Gatsby.
In retrospect, Gatsby reads like an epitaph for that era; it is, among many other things, a prescient forecast of the end of the party, a subtle critique of the glossy materialism of the era – although Gatsby sold far fewer copies at the time than This Side of Paradise, the novel that gave birth to the flapper era and made its author a star.
If being a spokesman for a generation is a fleeting occupation, being a symbol of an era is downright dangerous for anyone who has the bad luck to outlive it. In the next few years the expatriate Fitzgerald continued to publish stories about flappers and giddy undergraduates in the Saturday Evening Post even as he struggled with alcohol and Zelda’s increasingly unstable mental state. Travelling with Zelda in North Africa in 1930, he wrote about hearing “a dull distant crash which echoed to the farthest wastes of the desert”. When he returned to the States in 1931 he found a very different country from the one he had written about. By the time he published Tender is the Night in 1934, the privileged characters who populated his work were thoroughly out of fashion. The critic Philip Rahv, in his negative review in the Daily Worker, scolded: “You can’t hide from a hurricane under a beach umbrella.” The hurricane being the Depression, and, perhaps, the will of the proletariat.
For those who didn’t read the Daily Worker, or the New York Times Book Review, Mok’s interview provided a morally satisfying answer to the question, what happened to that guy who wrote about flappers and bathtub gin? His portrait of the artist as a broken-down failure was almost as indelible as the earlier stereotype of the gin-swilling golden boy. Having ceased to be a spokesman for his generation, Fitzgerald again became a symbol, this time of its flameout, like the apocryphal stockbroker jumping out of the window.
Mok’s portrait is unseemly, but it’s not unfair, and one of the things that makes it so poignant is Fitzgerald’s collaboration in his own depantsing. What possessed him, you can’t help wondering, to expose himself this way? It’s as if he has determined to be a representative figure once again, even at the expense of humiliating himself, to reaffirm his significance as a generational totem by portraying himself as an exemplary victim of its faults. What makes this document even more poignant, almost unbearably so, is that Fitzgerald seems to have undervalued the literary achievement that would one day resurrect his reputation, even as it would always remain intertwined with the tragic myth of his life.
· Jay McInerney is a novelist and the author of Bright Lights, Big City.