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Getting a Read on F. Scott Fitzgerald

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With F. Scott Fitzgerald fans pausing this week to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, one Beverly Hills woman can’t help remembering his death.

Frances Kroll Ring was there at the end. During the last 20 months of Fitzgerald’s life, she typed his rough drafts, sharpened his pencils and lifted his spirits each time a bad hangover consigned him to bed. While Fitzgerald churned out Hollywood piecework and raced to finish his final novel, Ring served him as personal assistant, confidante and friend.

Then, she did one last thing for the man who wrote, “It is in the 30s that we want friends. In the 40s we know they won’t save us any more than love did.” After the 44-year-old writer’s heart failed a few days before Christmas, Ring gathered his belongings, closed his Laurel Avenue apartment and picked out his plain gray coffin.

Today, Ring may be the sole surviving witness to Fitzgerald’s resilience, a trait that gets lost amid stories of his frail romantic spirit and alcohol-scorched nerves. “Nobody really addresses the way it was at the end,” she says. “All the books focus on the drinking and all that, and that was not the total man.”

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Days before starting a nationwide round of parties and panel discussions for the centennial of Fitzgerald’s birth date--Sept. 24, 1896--Ring relaxes in her book-filled Beverly Hills house, among prized editions of “Taps at Reveille,” “Tender Is the Night” and “The Great Gatsby,” each one elaborately inscribed to her by the best boss she ever had. At 77, she’s led a full life. Husband, children, career. But, somehow, Fitzgerald still defines her. “It’s been like a shadow throughout my life,” she says without regret.

Every detail of the man remains bright and clear in Ring’s mind. She remembers that he chain-smoked filtered Raleighs. She remembers that he drank Gordon’s gin. She remembers that he wrote on legal pads, using blunt, knife-sharpened pencils because their points didn’t easily break.

In a way, she still works for “Scott,” polishing his image, disputing his reputation as a Jazz Age relic who simply gave up. Always, Ring insists, Fitzgerald fought bravely to come back, to resurrect himself through writing, to beat on against the current.

“He was a very hard-working writer,” she says. “And I try to establish the struggle that he had at the end, and how he overcame it by himself, through his writing. Because that was the thing that meant most to him. When he was writing, he was great.”

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Biographers sometimes seek out Ring. Conferences often invite her. In 1985, Creative Arts Books brought out “Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald,” her reminiscence, which one reviewer called “a rediscovered snapshot.” Still, few people really want Ring’s version of events. Mostly, she says, “they want to touch me.”

At last weekend’s Princeton University commemoration of Fitzgerald, Ring found herself besieged by dewy-eyed fans, each one asking the same question:

“What did he sound like?”

Her response was always the same.

“Human.”

It was a Hollywood employment agency that sent her to Fitzgerald when she was 20. Though she’d heard his name and read a few of his Saturday Evening Post pieces, other writers of the day intrigued her more. “Frankly,” she whispers, “I was reading a lot of Hemingway.”

Arriving at the Encino ranch where Fitzgerald lived and worked, Ring found the writer lying in bed, tired and glum after a disastrous visit with his wife, Zelda, at a North Carolina sanitarium.

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“He was a very handsome man,” she says. “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.”

Fitzgerald watched Ring’s reaction, perhaps to see if she’d be shocked by the collected evidence of his alcoholism. When she reacted not at all--because she didn’t know what alcoholism was--he seemed amused. “I’d never met anybody that interesting in my whole life,” she says.

Immediately, Fitzgerald revealed his intention to write a grand novel about Hollywood, that capricious and pernicious force in his latter life. Offering to pay her $35 a week, Fitzgerald invited Ring to be his helpmate.

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Ring became a fixture in the Encino household, the one person responsible for keeping Fitzgerald organized, focused and fed. “It wasn’t your typical workday,” she says.

In the morning, she might read to him from Keats or Ecclesiastes. In the afternoon, she might rush to the airport with corrections for a story he’d mailed East just hours earlier. (“What he could have done with a fax machine,” she says.) In the evening, she might type a heartfelt letter to his editor-mentor, Maxwell Perkins, or balance his checkbook or restock his cache of Coca-Cola, a drink he gulped endlessly to fend off the thirst for gin.

But, frequently, Ring would see Fitzgerald cosseting a tumbler of clear liquid, which she slowly came to understand was straight gin. One day, she found his landlord outside the house counting empty gin bottles in the trash cans.

Ring reported the scene to Fitzgerald, who panicked. Ever fearful of scandal, he asked Ring to begin removing his empty bottles from the premises and discarding them in secret. Thereafter, once a week, Ring would drive to a remote ravine, where she’d wait until no cars were coming, then hurl a burlap sack full of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dead soldiers into the darkness.

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Later he immortalized Ring and her least favorite chore in “Pat Hobby’s College Days,” a story Esquire published a year before his death.

“The afternoon was dark,” he wrote. “The walls of Topanga Canyon rose sheer on either side. Get rid of it she must. The clank clank in the back seat frightened her. Evvlyn did not like the business at all. It was not what she came out here to do. Then she thought of Mr. Hobby. He believed in her, trusted her--and she was doing this for him.”

Pat Hobby stories--which always featured a down-at-heel hack and sometimes featured an oddly familiar secretary--seemed to come in effortless spurts for Fitzgerald. His Hollywood novel, however, blossomed more gradually. Among Ring’s most vivid memories is the sight of Fitzgerald pacing furiously, then penciling another two or three gorgeous sentences.

“He felt he was a damned good writer,” she says. “He really felt that. Otherwise he couldn’t have survived.”

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Fitzgerald edited his manuscripts ruthlessly, and Ring would incorporate his revisions into double-spaced second drafts.

“And he’d go over that,” she says. “Ad infinitum. Until he died.”

In the early months of 1940, Fitzgerald suffered what doctors diagnosed as a “heart warning.” He decided to rent a West Hollywood apartment on Laurel Avenue, not far from Sheilah Graham, the gossip columnist he was seeing.

Ring followed him into town, and he continued to divide his working hours between movies and the novel. He was loathe to neglect the novel, but his wife’s care was expensive, as was their daughter Scottie’s college education. Hollywood always provided the fast cash Fitzgerald needed.

Soon Fitzgerald’s fiction writing began to click again, and the newfound creative momentum helped him steer clear of the gin. But his physical condition worsened, as two decades of glittering parties and private binges began to tell. Beset by weakness and dizzy spells, Fitzgerald no longer could climb the stairs to his apartment, so he moved in with Graham, who lived on the ground floor.

“He had a bed desk that we’d made up,” Ring says. “He’d write in bed, and then I’d come pick up the sheets and type them and bring them back. He was working pretty steadily. And he looked fine.”

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Then came Dec. 21, 1940. In the morning Ring told Fitzgerald how well and rested he looked, a compliment he greeted with a dubious smile. In the afternoon, she dropped by her parents’ house, where an urgent message from Graham was waiting.

Frantic, Ring rushed to Graham’s apartment, where Fitzgerald was sprawled on the floor.

At his lawyer’s request, Ring put Fitzgerald’s estate in order. He’d recently bought a dark Brooks Brothers suit, and she decided to bury him in this. But he’d left only $700 in cash, so she found her choice of coffins limited. At last she selected a $400 box with a plain white interior.

It was some comfort imagining Fitzgerald’s reaction to her selection. She thought he would have quipped that a more appropriate shade would be purple, to symbolize his high-flying prose style.

Ring tries to imagine Fitzgerald’s take on many things. Especially tantalizing is trying to imagine how he would have reacted to another taste of success, which his Hollywood novel might have afforded.

He was half-finished when he died, but Scribners published the manuscript as “The Last Tycoon.” Perkins, who edited the book, told Ring it would have become the best thing Fitzgerald ever wrote.

“I often wonder what would have happened if he had finished,” Ring says. “Whether he had the physical strength to go on. Whether he could have dealt with his marriage and Sheilah. What Zelda would have thought at not being the heroine for the first time in this book. I don’t know.

“And maybe it was opportune that he should die and leave this great question hanging.”

She smiles.

“He might have ended a book that way.”


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