The Greatest Interviews: F. Scott Fitzgerald Meets the New York Post

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The Guardian has compiled a list of the greatest interviews of all time, plus some of the more interesting things that happened when the tape was no longer rolling. This week, we're offering a up a few highlights from the series.

In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald sat down with the New York Post. This was not a happy interview. In truly breathless Post style, the interview revealed a desperate, restless Fitzgerald, wandering through anecdotes and shaking with alcoholism.

Here's how Michael Mok, the Post's interviewer, begins the meat of the article:

"A series of things happened to papa," [Fitzgerald] said, with mock brightness. "So papa got depressed and started drinking a little."

What the "things" were he refused to explain.

"One blow after another," he said, "and finally something snapped."

The interview ran in 1936, just four years before Fitzgerald would die of an apparent heart attack, a condition greatly hastened by his longtime addiction to alcohol. At the time, Fitzgerald's bright flaming literary star was lamentably, pathetically fizzling. Confronted with the steepening decline of his career, health, and personal life, Fitzgerald had been writing autobiographical articles for Esquire magazine, ruminating on his life as a "cracked plate."

To his interviewer, he explained, he had lost his confidence. "˜"A writer like me," he said, "must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It's an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothing-can-happen-to-me, nothing-can-harm-me, nothing-can-touch-me."'

Fitzgerald's constant companion at this time was his nurse, who dealt with both his physical pain -- a broken shoulder the result of an accident on a diving board -- and his mental anguish, his addiction to alcohol. At one point during the interview, a jittery Fitzgerald leaves the room and the nurse takes a moment to caution the interviewer: "'Despair, despair, despair,' said the nurse. 'Despair day and night. Try not to talk about his work or his future. He does work, but only very little - maybe three, four hours a week.'"

As the interviewer ostensibly tries to play it straight -- what does Fitzgerald think of modern writers? What does he make of the flapper generation he so brilliantly described in his novels? -- Fitzgerald becomes the embodiment of pathos. He's glitteringly brilliant, spilling little bon mots just as he would his gin, but it's a window on the utterly depressing demise of a talented writer.

Regarding the "jazz-mad, gin-mad generation" that had provided Fitzgerald his material and his fame, the writer -- and his interviewer -- had this to say:

"Why should I bother myself about them?" he asked. "Haven't I enough worries of my own? You know as well as I do what has happened to them. Some became brokers and threw themselves out of windows. Others became bankers and shot themselves. Still others became newspaper reporters. And a few became successful authors."

His face twitched.

"Successful authors!" he cried. "Oh, my God, successful authors!"

He stumbled over to the highboy and poured himself another drink.

Stories circulated that the article had so depressed him that Fitzgerald attempted suicide after reading it. And reading the article today, it seems as if Mok was gunning hard for Fitzgerald. But in the context of 1936, Mok's disappointment in the writer stands to reason: For much of America, the Great Depression had been a sudden, violent hangover from a decade of Jazz Age decadence -- the poster child of which had been bright young things like Fitzgerald and his tragic wife Zelda. Unflattering in the extreme, the interview is a public dressing-down of a writer who, a good number of Americans seemed to believe, needed a scolding. Or at least a mirror.

In a foreword to the Guardian's reprinting of the interview, writer Jay McInerney wrote, "Mok is remembered as one of the villains of the Fitzgerald story, one of history's cloddish butterfly crushers." Perhaps unfairly, McInerney argues -- while Mok certainly pulled no punches in his depiction of the dissipated writer, Fitzgerald seems unable to control himself, to keep himself from playing the role of a dissipated writer.

Whatever else it did, this interview solidified the tragic mythos that surrounded Fitzgerald, recasting him as one of the characters from his own novels.

Previously: Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando (by Truman Capote). Tomorrow: Princess Diana tells all to Martin Bashir.

February 25, 2009 - 4:30pm
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