When F Scott Fitzgerald met Edith Wharton

Nancy Caldwell Sorel
Saturday 09 December 1995 00:02
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"To your generation," Edith Wharton wrote from her estate outside Paris to Scott Fitzgerald at his flat near the Place de l'Etoile, "I must represent the literary equivalent of tufted furniture and gas chandeliers."

If true, it was only half the story. To Fitzgerald, she embodied an enviable conjuction of wealth and social connection, prodigious authorship, critical success and intimate association with the artistic upper crust. It was a persona he much admired. According to him, two years previously, when she had been in New York at Scribners, their common publisher, he had barged into the office and knelt in obeisance at her feet. If such a meeting took place, she made no mention of it when, in that summer of 1925, she wrote to thank Scott for sending The Great Gatsby, just out, and to invite him and Zelda to tea.

Zelda refused. She would not go and be made to "feel provincial", so Fitzgerald took along Teddy Chanler, a Wharton family friend. As to what occurred, we have Scott's version, Teddy's version, Teddy's revised version, and Zelda's version of Scott's version. First Scott warded off his apprehensions with a few (many) drinks on the drive out. The tea party in the elegantly furnished sitting room was rather formal (boring), and to enliven it Scott rose, strolled (weaved) (staggered) across to the fireplace, leaned picturesquely (tipsily) against the mantel, and began a story about a naive American couple who spent three days (two weeks) in a Paris bordello, thinking it was a hotel. End of story. His hostess, whom he had expected to register shock, expressed only irritation. Where was the plot, the detail? "But Mr Fitzgerald," she said, refilling his cup, "you haven't told us what they did in the bordello."

Poor Scott. The visit proved a - well, sobering experience. He had thought to be audacious and had emerged merely jejune: he had failed his generation. We are left with Edith Wharton's version, summed up in her diary: "To tea, Teddy Chanler and Scott Fitzgerald, the novelist - awful."

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