The Last Secretary of F. Scott Fitzgerald

Chrissy ON May 15, 2013 AT 9:17 am

by Chrissy Iley

I had not long been living in Hollywood when I met Frances Kroll Ring. I met her through Barry Humphries. He was extremely taken with her, told me that she was incredibly poetic and used to take out all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s empty bottles.

Frances Kroll Ring

She was his last ever personal assistant. She typed out his letters and his last works. The Pat Hobby Stories and The Last Tycoon.

She nursed him through his time at the Hollywood Studios. By the time she got to him, the Jazz Age, the non-stop partying was long over. Zelda was at an institution for her schizophrenia. He was broke and struggling to pay hospital bills and school fees for his teenage daughter Scottie.

Frances seemed to have a soul connection with her namesake. She was part daughter figure, part carer, part muse.

When I met her she was in her late eighties. Her white hair in a sort of bob, similar to the style she must have had when she met him at the age of 22 in April 1939.

Her home was one of those houses typical of the Hollywood golden age. Hazelnut brown wood floors in slim slats. A proud over stuffed couch, pristine occasional tables.

I marvelled at the time at the fact that Fitzgerald’s last secretary was still alive. She was sparkling, vibrant, soft.

She was herself transplanted from the East Coast. Her parents had decided late in life they wanted to move to the sunshine and she didn’t know what to expect when the employment agency sent her for an interview. He didn’t ask her much about herself, simply to wire some money, $35, to his daughter, which she did. Apparently if she’d kept the money she wouldn’t have got the job but the thought never occurred to her.

Fitzgerald was in his forties with faded blond hair but very blue eyes. He was broke and trying not to be broken. ‘When I came he was finished with Hollywood, or it with him, except for the occasional assignment.’

Fitzgerald had been bewildered by ‘hacks’ rewriting his screenplays and was rather desperate for money. He lived in a small apartment on Laurel Avenue, West Hollywood, just round the corner from where I live now. If I went to my gym every day I would pass the building every day.

‘I didn’t have an exact routine. It was different every day. Sometimes he’d send me a telegram to say he was sleeping late. There were no regular hours. Sometimes he’d write in the middle of the night on long sheets of paper and they’d be on my desk when I arrived so I’d start to type them up.

‘He gave me copies of his books. Tender Is The Night he inscribed in a really extraordinary way. “For Frances Kroll, In memory of those happy years together on the Riviera which inspired this book. From her admirer.”

‘Sometimes he would send a telegram pretending to be Jerome Power. “Please be at my office at 10.20 but don’t phone me unless headquarters call. A thousand wild stormy kisses. Tyrone.”’

She giggled still. ‘There was a little madness. Lots of madness actually. But a lot of times there were serious moments. He died at a real low point.’

Even though he was drinking less, in fact much, much less, the years of alcohol abuse, partying and tortured passion had taken their toll.

‘He was very good at what he did. He knew structure and his last book was published unfinished (The Last Tycoon). I gave some suggestions to Edmund Wilson who edited it. It was hard for me. It ended in the middle. The critics said it was the best thing he ever did, but by that time it was war and no one was concerned about publishing.

‘When the paperback industry started up Fitzgerald took it over. He was published everywhere. Students were reading him and that was the beginning of what I call his afterlife. It’s so strange. He always wanted an afterlife.

‘When he died nobody was talking him. His death was a shock because he was so young (aged 44). A lot of his contemporaries felt they’d lost their youth in a sense. You know, his life was a great love story and a sad one. Essentially he was a very decent and aside from all the glamour and handsomeness of it all he was seriously interested in people, in the world, in the politics of it all. He was no flighty person.

F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda

‘He and Zelda had some wild times, but he was always there for her and always paid for all she needed. He was never abusive. Hemingway was abusive to him, to everybody.’ Perhaps because he was jealous? ‘Perhaps he was.

‘Fitzgerald wanted his daughter Scottie to turn out right. He was fearful her life would go the same way as his. He would go nuts to try and track her down sometimes. When he was drunk he was off balance. It was not out of maliciousness.

‘The first time Scottie came to visit he’d just began an affair with Sheilah Graham (columnist in the vein of Hedda Hopper but British and living in Hollywood).

‘Scottie was about sixteen and still had some tyrannical feelings about having another woman while her mother was there (still alive but institutionalised).’

It seems that Fitzgerald and Scottie had a sometimes turbulent relationship? ‘He would correct her all the time – don’t eat this way, don’t dress that way. But I think she was smarter than he gave her credit for. The last time she came out they had a great time. They talked about writing. He was proud of her but he had to live with his own demons which were considerable.

‘He was a kind man but he converted that kindness into weakness, especially when Hemingway was around. He was not a nice man. They were both fascinated with each others’ talent. It wasn’t until Fitzgerald died that he could even acknowledge that he was a good writer.’

She said that Fitzgerald was always writing. He carried a weight in his soul of disappointment, of loneliness. The worry about Zelda and hospital bills and Scottie, how would she turn out. ‘Sometimes he got into a devilishly alcoholic state.’

This would mean that relations with Sheilah would be stressed and she would give him ultimatums to stop drinking. ‘I’m not saying he was a saint but people can act out when they get out of control. But he would always apologise. He always had good manners.

‘The drinking was very private. In fact in the time I worked for him (April 1939 till his death December 21, 1940) I never saw him go out much. He didn’t care for that kind of social life any more. He would only occasionally go to Hollywood parties.

‘In the days when he was in Paris it was a different time. Everybody was drinking. Everybody had parties and dinners. It was the jazz age. Scott and Zelda were the Jazz Age.’ As excessive and crazy as the Jazz Age was, the Thirties followed exactly the opposite; sad, restrained and broke.

Frances paints Fitzgerald as having bursts of charm and frivolity, but mostly bearing down to a small life knowing his best years were behind him. In early 1940 he suffered a mild heart seizure. He tried to go on the wagon. He tried not to be dramatic.

Most afternoons he would rest while Frances would type what he had previously dictated. If the work had gone well he was too exhilarated to rest and wanted to stay talking and working.

They worked on plays, scripts and short stories while he tried to obey doctor’s orders. Frances’s furrier father updated an old fur coat of Sheilah’s and made it into a more useful style for Scottie’s Christmas present. There was no money to buy anything else.

She recalls the last time she saw him he was resting in bed. It was the Saturday before Christmas. He told her he would see her Monday but bizarrely reminded her there was money in a book in the bureau in case anything should happen.

Later that afternoon she got a call to go back immediately. When she arrived she found Sheilah sobbing and Scottie lying on the floor fully dressed in slacks and a plaid jacket. He had died.

She got the task of providing a suit in which to put him in his coffin and selecting a coffin. She was the only one who knew where the hidden cash was. It turned out that the cheapest funeral that could be had came to $613. When she looked in the book she saw that he had set aside $700, almost the exact amount. It was devastating.

The book that he believed would bring him back to public attention was unfinished. His comeback was never going to happen, or so she believed at the time of his death. Once The Last Tycoon was edited and biographies written and the paperback industry was ignited in the Fifties and Sixties there was nobody that didn’t want to be part of The Great Gatsby, its glamour and its tragedy.

‘He would often have me read out loud his work so he could hear it. He was a fastidious craftsman. He had the soul of a poet. I wouldn’t have stayed with him if he was a son of a bitch.

‘He was always criticising his own work but he could inject sentences with more passion, with more feeling than any other writer. He wanted to capture the essence of what he was talking about.’

Did you talk to him about souls and your soul connection? ‘No. we never did. But I always thought he would want to hear that. To him when you read out his passages to him he would want to hear it as if he were a blind person that couldn’t read it. He would want to know that the essence of what he was trying to say had been captured. He would want to know that he was read and heard.’

 

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