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SCOTT FITZGERALD, DRINKING MAN

Fitzgerald . . . had one of the rarest qualities in all literature. . . . The word is charm -- charm as Keats would have used it. . . . It's a kind of subdued magic, controlled and exquisite.
-- Raymond Chandler
SCOTT FITZGERALD:
A Biography
By Jeffrey Myers
HarperCollins
400 pages, $27.50

From where I sit writing this review, I can look out through my bedroom window onto Highland Avenue and down on No. 71, "the house with the single turret that resembled a witch's hat," as Andrew Turnbull described it in his 1962 biography of Scott Fitzgerald. Turnbull's is one of the three really important evaluations to date of that writer's puzzling personality, the other two being the excellent Lives by Arthur Mizener in 1951 and this new one by Jeffrey Meyers.

That Highland address, where Fitzgerald lived as a child from 1905 to 1908, highlights the major omission in Meyers' splendid biography. It has no Buffalo dimension. Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, whose great-great-grandfather was the brother of the author of "The Star-Spangled Banner," came to Buffalo from St. Paul, Minn., when he was only 1 1/2 years, and, except for a Syracuse interlude, spent his boyhood here until he was 12.

The most rudimentary prescription of psychology underlines the all-importance of those early years. Fitzgerald, the laureate of American social nuance, was molded by that Buffalo residence. The years that determined what he later became are a turn-of-the-century montage of Buffalo dance cards, dancing pumps, school desks from the old Holy Angels School and the still-flourishing Nardin Academy.

Otherwise, Meyers' "Scott Fitzgerald" is a splendid biography. The question arises: Do we need another Life of him? I think we welcome one for two reasons. First, because of the perfection of his work at his best -- T.S. Eliot said the "The Great Gatsby" was "the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James." Second, for the inexhaustible interest that attaches to his life as an icon of the Jazz Age's "desperate hedonism."

It was the Age of the Lost Generation, too. More than anything else, perhaps, it was the Age of the Cocktail, and Fitzgerald was surely the titular deity of that orgiastic aspect of his era. Ring Lardner, the drinking companion he prized most and for whom he wrote a tender obituary expressing his grief over Lardner's alcoholic self-destruction, could almost match his intake.

Lardner looked -- and, one might say, thought -- very much like Buster Keaton. Meyers draws a book-length portrait of Fitzgerald's own physical beauty even in decline.

Meyers' treatment of Fitzgerald's beautiful, wanton, pathetic, ultimately mad wife, Zelda, is eminently satisfactory, as is his handling of their likable daughter, Scottie. Fitzgerald's own self-knowledge was always acute and strangely true. He said of his temperament: "I am half-feminine -- that is, my mind is." And again: "My characters are all Scott Fitzgerald." He wrote of his invariable situation in life.

That was always my experience -- a poor boy in a rich town, a poor boy in a rich boy's school, a poor boy in a rich man's club at Princeton.

He might have added: a poor drinker in a drinking man's world. Meyers attributes his alcoholism to a physical state of hypoglycemia. He himself admitted that he "could never get sufficiently sober to endure being sober"; and an effort to fight his addiction by cutting down to 27 beers a day proved laughably inadequate. After a few drinks he translated into disastrous action Belloc's dictum about the upper classes liking the sound of breaking glasses by such behavior as smashing his hostess' "gold-flecked Venetian wine glasses" by throwing them over her garden wall.

As what he described as his "crack-up" worsened, Fitzgerald sent himself a revelatory postcard in the summer of 1937, only a decade before his death at 44: "Dear Scott -- How are you? Have been meaning to come in and see you . . . Yours, Scott Fitzgerald."

Only death could heal the deep rift in his personality. But the reading world remembers with gratitude the tortured life that produced these masterpieces of health and sanity: "The Great Gatsby," "Babylon Revisited," "The Rich Boy," "Crazy Sunday," "Absolution."

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