Frances Kroll Ring dies at 99; secretary and assistant to author F. Scott Fitzgerald

At the end of a busy day, Frances Kroll Ring, then in her early 20s, wrote a jokey note to her boss: "I squeezed the oranges, boiled the coffee, laid the eggs, typed the story, put out the cat, started the dogs howling and I'm off to the city. Hope you have a good night's rest."

Of course, she omitted a few of her typical duties.

As F. Scott Fitzgerald's secretary and personal assistant, Ring picked up his laundry, fetched his groceries, balanced his checkbook, heated up canned turtle soup for his lunch, and stuffed his empty gin bottles into burlap potato sacks before heaving them into a brushy ravine. She sharpened his pencils with a knife because he thought the points lasted longer that way. She found a carpenter at a fix-it shop on Cahuenga Boulevard who built him a writing desk that he could use in bed, where he did much of his work.

Living with her parents in Los Angeles, Ring took Fitzgerald's late-night calls, quietly pulling the phone into the bathroom and sitting on the edge of the tub as he plaintively asked whether anyone still read his books. He rambled on to her about his wife Zelda, who was in a North Carolina mental hospital, and his daughter Scottie, who was a college student at Vassar. He fretted about plot points and characters in "The Last Tycoon," the Hollywood novel that he was writing but never completed.

Ring, a Bronx transplant who worked for Fitzgerald in his last two years and was consulted for decades afterward by writers eager for her insights into the anguished genius of Jazz Age America, died June 18 in her Beverly Hills home. She was 99.

Ring declined rapidly after breaking her hip in a fall, her daughter Jennifer Ring said.

In her middle years, Ring was editor of the Automobile Club of Southern California's Westways magazine, to which she drew some of the best writers of the day.

But it was her 20 months as Fitzgerald's assistant in 1939 and 1940 that colored the rest of her life. In 1985, she released a memoir called "Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald." The title is from "The Great Gatsby," Fitzgerald's 1925 masterpiece: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Ring's book won high praise from Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, F. Scott and Zelda's only child.

"I think my father would be more pleased by knowing that he kept her affection and respect throughout than by any other reassurance which may have reached him in that special corner of heaven reserved for tormented artists," she wrote.

Born in New York City on May 17, 1916, Ring grew up in the Bronx, the daughter of a furrier. Her parents, enchanted by California's weather on an anniversary trip, moved the family to Los Angeles in 1938.

The following year, Ring, a high school graduate who knew typing and bookkeeping, showed up at Rusty's Employment Agency on Hollywood Boulevard, where she was given directions to a guest cottage on actor Edward Everett Horton's estate in Encino.

Fitzgerald, fresh from a drunken disaster of a Havana vacation with Zelda, was there to meet her.

"He was a very handsome man," Ring recalled in a 1993 Times interview. "He looked very pale and he had sort of faded blond hair and blue-green eyes. He sat me down and it was a lovely room. It was a country farmhouse, and the sun was coming in, and he had me open a drawer — and it was filled with empty gin bottles."

Famously dissipated, the novelist was doing occasional writing for movie studios.

For months, he continued drinking heavily. One evening, he read Keats and Ecclesiastes aloud with Ring before falling into tears. He had screaming fights with his girlfriend, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, but he once again started to write. He sold 17 short stories about Pat Hobby, a down-and-out screenwriter, to Esquire and he meticulously plotted out a novel that would become "The Last Tycoon."

Early in 1940, he moved to a West Hollywood apartment around the corner from Graham's. Aided by Coca-Cola, cigarettes and a heart scare, he tapered off his drinking and feverishly worked over the triple-spaced text that Ring transcribed from his handwritten manuscript.

"If one of his characters bothered him, he poked and prodded and analyzed until the person came into focus — much like a sculptor adding a bit of clay, digging out another bit, tearing down and rebuilding," Ring later wrote. "This fearless attack on his own manuscript made a lasting impression on me. He was his own best editor."

With her subtle humor, Ring made an impression on him as well.

"He made a big to-do about giving me time off to observe Yom Kippur," she recalled. "He wrote to Scottie that I was going to atone for his sins.

"'I wasn't that religious,' I told him kiddingly."

On Dec. 21, 1940, a grief-stricken Graham summoned Ring to Fitzgerald's apartment. He had died of a heart attack at 44. Ring, shaken and saddened, selected a gray casket for his burial.

Unfinished, "The Last Tycoon" was published posthumously in 1941.

Ring is survived by her daughter Jennifer, son Guy and two grandchildren. George Joseph Ring, her husband of 23 years, died in 1966.

After her husband's death, Ring became a staff writer at Westways and rose to editor, recruiting such luminaries as Wallace Stegner and Anais Nin.

"She called them and met with them and cajoled them, and she got great artists and writers to contribute," her daughter said. "She wanted to turn it into a New Yorker of the West Coast. She was a tiny, smart woman and she kept going in her own quiet way."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

Twitter: @schawkins

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