Fitzgerald's Valley Days : * A documentary will look at the fabled novelist's life on the West Coast as he sought a literary comeback.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his heyday, F. Scott Fitzgerald shuttled between New York and Paris, epitomizing the Roaring '20s of excess materi alism and youthful invincibili ty. But, like his generation, Fitzgerald was pushed aside by a country preparing for war and looking for work. He entered middle age, and his novels lost immediacy and impact.

He started to write for Hollywood and, in 1939, at 43, Fitzgerald moved to Encino.

"He was one of our greatest writers, yet very little has been written or recorded about his West Coast years," said actor/announcer Gary Owens, executive producer of a documentary being filmed on Fitzgerald's life in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood. "A lot of people don't even know he lived in the Valley."

Along with producer Bart Paul, Owens has held discussions with the Arts & Entertainment Network, PBS and the Discovery Channel, and hopes to put the documentary on television by the end of this year.

For his research, Owens has relied heavily on the recollections of Frances Kroll Ring, the writer's secretary from April, 1939, until Fitzgerald's death in December, 1940. In 1985, Ring wrote "Against the Current," a book that chronicled Fitzgerald's struggles with alcohol, money and sagging reputation. Ring, now in her 70s, typed portions of "The Last Tycoon," Fitzgerald's unfinished last novel, and handled many administrative duties, including his funeral arrangements.

"He was very determined to do the book and put himself back in the literary world," said Ring, who later became editor of Westways magazine. "He was known as a romantic novelist and wanted to be considered more of a serious artist who understood the problems of the Depression."

Ring got the job with Fitzgerald because she had no connections with Hollywood. The author's new book was going to satirize the film community, and he was afraid to work with anyone who might compromise that purpose. "He didn't want it to leak out to the industry that he was doing a book on it," the Beverly Hills resident recalled.

From the beginning, Ring observed the pattern of Fitzgerald's life in Encino--wildly enthusiastic spurts of brilliant writing and occasional binges of booze. Still, his drinking escapades occurred less frequently and with less damage than in his younger days.

"He was not a mean drunk," Ring said. "And when he had work to do, he would lay off of it."

Besides writing a novel, Fitzgerald was occupied with supporting his daughter, Scottie, a student at Vassar, and corresponding with his wife, Zelda, who suffered from schizophrenia, in a North Carolina sanitarium.

"He never got depressed about the work; that excited him. He got depressed about the condition of his life. Money was a constant source of concern," she said.

To stay afloat, Fitzgerald wrote short stories for magazines--Esquire paid him $250 a crack--and rewrote movie scripts, she said. But it was the novel that occupied most of his writing time.

"He loved to read portions of it to me. We talked a lot about books and movies, and the state of the world, which was in chaos. He never treated me as someone who was working for him. He treated me as an equal," Ring said.

Despite the familial and financial pressures, she recalled, Fitzgerald's days in the Valley were peaceful. "It was quiet for him," she said. "He was as much at ease as he could be."

For about a year, Fitzgerald lived in a two-story white guest cottage on the Amestoy Avenue estate of well-known television and film character actor Edward Everett Horton, who is also remembered for narrating the "Bullwinkle" cartoon feature "Fractured Fairy Tales." The Horton estate was just a few blocks from Ventura Boulevard, a country road with ranches and a few stores. (The home was demolished to make room for the Ventura Freeway.)

Ring said the cottage had a large dining room and kitchen, two bedrooms and a small garden with roses surrounded by a picket fence.

"It was a big place, plenty of land with trees and grass," Ring said. "He'd get up and walk around a lot, but did most of his writing in bed. He wrote every day, no matter what."

One of Fitzgerald's good friends was fellow screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who won an Academy Award in 1954 for "On the Waterfront." Schulberg thought that the cottage was the perfect spot for the writer's comeback.

"There was a separate house with a separate entrance," recalled Schulberg, who now resides in Long Island. "That made it a very good workplace for him. I had a feeling that his West Coast years were sort of a last stand for him."

Owens, who served as the honorary mayor of Encino during the 1970s, is best known as the announcer on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In," and his voice-over work on television. He said he always admired Fitzgerald's writing, but hadn't thought about doing a documentary until he bumped into Ring at Dutton's Book Store in North Hollywood about a year ago.

"Davis Dutton and I were talking about great American writers," Owens said. "At that time, Frances Ring was in the store. I met her and bought her book, and then bought the option on it."

He said Fitzgerald "made people see that living the great reckless life wasn't as great as one might think." The documentary, Owens added, will include interviews with Ring, Schulberg and others who knew Fitzgerald during his Valley days.

In 1940, Fitzgerald moved from Encino to an apartment in West Hollywood, just around the block from Sheilah Graham, the Hollywood gossip columnist he dated for about three years. Fitzgerald died at Graham's home, but for his friends, the memories of his Valley days live on.

"I can still see him bouncing down the steps to read his latest short stories," Schulberg said. "He had so much spirit."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
60°