11 June 2018

The Time My Grandfather Got Drunk With F Scott Fitzgerald

Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald
My grandfather liked to tell us about the time he got drunk with F Scott Fitzgerald. Every so often, usually at a family gathering, he'd find my sister and my cousins and I and pull us aside and ask if we wanted to hear about the time he got smashed with a famous novelist. We always played this little game where we pretended we'd never heard the story before. We loved Grandad and knew it made him happy to tell the story, plus we liked the story.

It was 1931. Grandad was at a swanky place in Manhattan that doubled as a restaurant and a speakeasy where he was introduced to the great writer by a mutual acquaintance who was in publishing. Grandad was an editor at the New York Herald and somewhat of a raconteur. Grandad's name was Emery Scanlon but everyone called him Em. Actually Grandad met, at one time or another, a lot of famous people from politicians to athletes to actors. But it was only Fitzgerald who impressed him. “The rest I wouldn’t have crossed the street to shake hands with, they were just people, but Fitzgerald was the writer. He wrote liked Mays played baseball, like Sinatra sang.”

Zelda was there too and Grandad was not particularly impressed. “She was an oddball and drank like a fish which I never cared for in a woman. I think she ruined Fitzgerald, myself. Imagine what he could have done if that broad hadn’t gotten into his brain. But everyone has their demons.”

“Wasn’t,” I finally asked Grandad once, “Fitzgerald’s drinking his biggest demon?” Grandad just waved that away. “Nah, a lot of writers are drunkards. No sir, it was that broad.”

As Grandad would tell it, the occasion of their debauch was a cool Autumn evening. He was sitting at the bar with “some dame I was trying to get in the sack. This was before I met your grandma, mind you. Anyway we were waiting for our table and I was turning on the old Scanlon charm, which I had in spades in those days, when I feel a hand on my shoulder. I turn around and it's Corey McCorliss a good friend of mine. 'Em, I’d like you to meet my friend Scott,' he says.

“I don’t think much of it at first but when I turn to look I see that the Scott is none other than Fitzgerald, my favorite writer. McCorliss was standing next to him beaming, knowing I was an admirer. I grabbed Fitzgerald’s paw and says, ‘this is a terrific honor Mr. Fitzgerald, I consider you a great writer.’ ‘Thank you, but please, call me Scott.'”

Grandad was then introduced to Zelda and he introduced his date and they and the McCorlisses agreed to dine together. Before they do there are several rounds of drinks which everybody fights over buying with McCorliss winning most of the time because as Grandad told it, he was "rolling in dough."

“We were pretty soused by the time dinner arrives, excepts for McCorliss’ wife Betty who never touched anything stronger than ginger ale. Course with dinner we had wine and brother we had lots of it. The man was not only a great writer but a true gent. A thoughtful person, very well-spoken and as articulate a man as I ever met. Real suave and yet a real intellect.”

For some reason it was usually about this point in Grandad’s retelling that I prompt him to tell us what they talked about. This I ritually did even after hearing the story more than a dozen times.  “Oh that, well you name it, friend. Everything. Fitzgerald was a great talker and I could hold my own too, ya know. That was the thing that was so great, we were talking like a couple of old pals, any subject was on the table and most got talked about. ’Course what I was most interested in talking about with my favorite writer was his writing.”

But that was as far as it ever went. The reality being that Grandad imbibed far too much that evening to remember specifics of his conversation with the great author. I’d ask him just the same hoping that some memory would jar loose but also to see if he’d make something up. But Grandad was an honest man not given to exaggeration or embellishment. Anyway I was grateful that my grandfather was able to remember as much as he did. Like how the night ended.

“After dinner we all agreed that midnight was just the shank of the evening and it would be wise to repair to another watering hole and continue our revelry. We in fact visited four other nightspots finding two that had jazz bands playing. At one joint we tripped the light fantastic. I took a couple of swings on the dance floor with Zelda, who I admit was pretty light on her feet.”

At this part of the story Grandad would always — and I mean always — pause for so long you’d think he was talked out, especially because his gaze would go downwards. Finally he’d sigh, look back up and with a wan smile finish the story.

“We left the last club just as the sun was coming up. For all I’d drank that night I felt great. I’d been talking and laughing with Scott Fitzgerald like we were old chum'ds. In fact I felt sure that we would be pals from then on and looked forward to his company in the future, not just because of him being my favorite writer, but because he was such a swell fella who I got on with so easily.”

I remember we were walking in the East Village still jabbering away when Zelda sticks out her arm at a passing cab. The cab stops and she says, ‘come on, Scott,’ and he they hop in together. As the cab pulls away he looks out the window and smiles and gives a wave. That’s it. They’re gone. I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘what the hell?’ And McCorliss tells me that that’s the way Fitzgerald is, especially when he’s with Zelda. Suddenly appearing or suddenly disappearing. ‘Don’t take it personal,’ he says. For several minutes I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. The dame I was with could tell I was hurt and she said, ‘come on, Em, I live near here, maybe I can do something to cheer you up.’ I’ll tell you what, 15 minutes later I was in her place not thinking about writers or anything else.”

(Grandad didn’t add that last part until we were in our later teens.)

As an addendum to the story Grandad would talk about how he asked McCorliss about Fitzgerald a few weeks later and whether he was around or if he’d heard from him and did he think they might all get together again. McCorliss said he’d heard nothing from Fitzgerald but would let him know if he did. Then a few months later McCorliss was killed. It turned out he gotten mixed up with some mob guys in a scheme hustling booze out of Canada (which helps account for him always being bucks up). McCorliss evidently made the mistake of double crossing one of them and paid for his mistake with a bullet through his brain. Thus Grandad lost a good friend and his only means of contacting Fitzgerald.

Grandad never stopped reading Fitzgerald’s novels and short stories and anything written about him. More than once he said: “I was sure we coulda been great friends and who knows I might have been able to save from his excesses, particularly that damn Zelda.” Then he’d wave his hand and say, “nah, I probably just woulda drank and swapped stories with him. Who am I kidding?"

Then he'd brighten up and say, “But I’ll tell ya, that was a helluva night I spent with him. Never forget it.”

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