The writer he introduced to his editor Maxwell Perkins in 1925 was the current rage. Ernest Hemingway’s latest novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, would sell more than 270,000 copies in its first year. Fitzgerald had received a copy inscribed “To Scott with affection and esteem Ernest” and responded with a note on November 8:
Congratulations on your new book’s great success. I envy you like hell and there is no irony in this. I always liked Dostoeifski (sic) with his wide appeal more than any other European—and I envy you the time it will give you to do what you want.Fitzgerald’s notebooks record a different opinion: “a thoroughly superficial book which has all the profundity of Rebecca.” The Love of the Last Tycoon would be quite different:
I want to write scenes that are frightening and inimitable. I don’t want to be as intelligible to my contemporaries as Ernest who as Gertrude Stein said, is bound for the Museums. I am sure that I am far enough ahead to have some small immortality if I can keep well.That same month Fitzgerald received a scare when he had a mild heart attack in Schwab’s Drug Store on Sunset Boulevard. His doctor ordered him to stay in bed. Fitzgerald was then living on the top floor of a three-story walkup. To avoid the stairs, he moved into the ground-floor apartment of his lover, gossip columnist Sheilah Graham.
His estranged wife Zelda was then living with her mother in Montgomery, Alabama. Fitzgerald wrote her weekly. His December 13 letter read:
The novel is about three quarters through and I think I can go on till January 12 without doing any stories or going back to the studio. I couldn’t go back to the studio anyhow in my present condition as I have to spend most of my time in bed where I write on a wooden desk. . . The cardiogram shows that my heart is repairing itself but it will be a gradual process that will take some months. It is odd that the heart is one of the organs that does repair itself.As biographer Matthew Bruccoli recounts in Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, Fitzgerald suffered a dizzy spell following the premiere of a new film he and Graham attended on December 20. Because his physician was coming to see him the next afternoon, Fitzgerald chose not to see a doctor. Reading about the German-Italian pact in the newspapers the next morning, Fitzgerald told Graham that he’d like to cover the war from Europe after he had completed his novel. “Ernest won’t have that field all to himself, then.” Moments later he started from his chair, clutched the mantelpiece and fell to the floor. Graham called the fire department. Fitzgerald was pronounced dead at 5:15 p.m. of coronary occlusion. He had completed the first draft of five of the projected nine chapters of his new novel. He was forty-four years old.
Also of interest:
- Read more about Fitzgerald’s last days at The Writer’s Almanac
- Read about Fitzgerald’s last dinner party with Nathanael West on December 13, 1940, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- Read “The Cut-Glass Bowl” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, an LOA Story of the Week
- Listen to Garrison Keillor’s tribute to Fitzgerald at the 25th anniversary celebration of The Library of America