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A Day for Beautiful and Not-So-Beautiful Fools: F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Practical Joker

04/01/2013 10:15 am ET | Updated Jun 01, 2013

It's April Fools' Day, so it seems somehow fitting to note that the title of my new novel, Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, riffs on one of the world's better known witticisms about "fools" -- specifically, Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald's famous remark on awakening from anesthesia, after learning she'd given birth to a girl: "I hope it's beautiful and a fool -- a beautiful little fool."

There are many, many ways to play the fool, and Scott and Zelda tried more than a few of them. In the early 1920s life was all fun and games for the world's best known flapper and her writer husband -- and being famous, it often seemed, was nothing more than a lark. Their glamour was effortless; their recklessness natural, if a tad predictable. As a young married couple they took New York City by storm, stripping and splashing in the fountain outside the Plaza Hotel, spinning round and round in the revolving doors of the Commodore Hotel until the exasperated management asked them to leave, and riding on the hood of moving taxi cabs. Each of them drunkenly played the fool at a multitude of New York parties; and of course they were fools for love, running through countless flirtations and spurring jealousy in one another, always with that peculiar sense of solidarity they retained as a couple.

But over time, the gags -- inevitably -- began to feel a bit tired. The Fitzgeralds tore through Paris and headed to the Riviera as Scott finished The Great Gatsby; and in the aftermath of his artistic triumph they indulged in what he later characterized as a period of "1000 parties and no work." On their return to the States, they took their no-longer-quite-so-young but nevertheless wondrously irresponsible act to Hollywood, where they rubbed elbows with Hollywood's A list -- John Barrymore, Constance Talmadge, Carmel Myers -- and almost as quickly started rubbing a great many people the wrong way. The Fitzgeralds showed up at one party satirically garbed in nightgown and pajamas, poking fun at the celluloid stars who often appeared at glitzy parties in costumes straight off movie sets. On yet another occasion, Scott and Zelda, after arriving "zozzled' and uninvited to a party at a famous director's house, got down on hands and knees to bay like dogs outside the gates. Perhaps most famously, Scott -- faking the role of magician -- collected watches, jewelry, and handbags from his famous fellow guests, only to boil the precious items in tomato sauce on the kitchen stove. The result was anything but magic.

Viewed from the here and now, there's something rather "meta" about the Fitzgeralds' sense of humor. Scott and Zelda were watching the world watching them -- altogether ahead of their time in turning everyday life toward the bizarrely glamorous, performing their lives and transforming the glamorous into the banal. Think of that strange American tradition that runs (after them) from Andy Warhol through Andy Kaufman to the Kardashians: are Kanye and Kim the degenerate descendants of Scott and Zelda? But Scott and Zelda's often drunken antics poked fun at celebrity, theirs and everybody else's. Throughout their decadent twenties, which corresponded neatly with America's roaring 1920s, Scott and Zelda behaved like children trying the patience of whomever the adults -- in an era of Prohibition, in the heyday of moral censorship in Hollywood and so many aspects of American culture -- were supposed to be.

Such mischief is apparent in much of Scott's fiction, especially his stories. Not often enough remembered as a humorist, he mined the vein of tall tales, learned in part through careful study of Mark Twain. "The Diamond as Big as the Ritz" features a family whose fortune is based, outrageously, on ownership of an unsurveyed Montana mountain made entirely of diamond. "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" charts the life of its protagonist backwards, starting with a touchingly monstrous infant who is in fact a 70-year-old man, and ending with a man of slowly debilitating intelligence who occupies the body of a weakling child. In turning a pre-fabulist lens on American customs and moral conventions, Fitzgerald took in his times with a critical insight relieved by a delight in absurdity. Among Zelda's favorites of her husband's stories was an early piece of fantasy, "The Offshore Pirate," in which a spoiled rich young woman disdains all her peers, until an ingenious and secretly rich lad disguises himself as a pirate, captures her yacht, and wins her heart as an outlaw, only later revealing his true identity. A decade after its publication Zelda, on rereading the story, would exclaim to her husband, "You were younger than anybody in the world once."

There's a dose in Scott's fiction of what the real-life Scott and Zelda would gradually explore over time, as they moved -- perhaps forced by circumstance and adversity -- from easy, obvious fools to people whose humor became nuanced, quirky, and ultimately rather tragic. By the mid 1930s, they were engaged in a life-and-death struggle, fueled by Zelda's mental illness and debilitated physical health, Scott's recurring bouts of alcoholism and consistent struggles with depression, and their shared sense of having let one another down. Yet Scott, especially, never lost that boyish sense of bizarre mischief, as evidenced by a story -- originally recounted by librarian, Helen Northup -- that seems a fitting tribute to the memory of one of America's great humorists on a day devoted to the convention of the practical joke.

Members of small conference of librarians, including Northup herself, were gathered at a table in a hotel in Asheville, when they found themselves addressed by a man who introduced himself as the author of a famous Ernest Hemingway novel. Studying him skeptically, they kept their doubts to themselves, but he could discern their suspicions. "You don't believe me, do you?" he retorted, "I'm Scott Fitzgerald. I wrote Of Time and the River." For those of you who don't remember, that 1935 novel was actually written by Thomas Wolfe, who hailed from Asheville and who was the other great author (besides Fitzgerald and Hemingway) in Maxwell Perkins' stable at Scribner's. Northup assured the man standing above her that he must be lying -- either he wasn't Scott Fitzgerald or he hadn't written Of Time and the River. At this point the man became indignant, while the woman beside him tugged at his elbow begging him to leave the librarians alone: "Come on, Scott! Come on, Scott!" In no mood to have his credentials as a writer doubted, the would-be author vowed to prove he was none other than the legendary Scott Fitzgerald.

"Come with me!" he insisted, as the by now bewildered librarians followed him across the hotel lobby, most likely uncertain whether they were dealing with a madman or a drunk. Marching up to the hotel registration desk, the possibly famous author shouted at the clerk on duty in no uncertain words, "Tell this young lady who I am!" Without missing a beat -- we'll never know if the clerk was in on the gag or merely indulging a famous guest -- the clerk replied, "This is Mr. Scott Fitzgerald. He wrote Of Time and the River."

The author, still not quite satisfied by the librarians' willingness to let him be himself, perhaps also disgruntled by the fact that Wolfe's novel had given rise to a run of Scribner's novels featuring "river" in the title, began to lead his wife toward the elevator. But he soon turned to the librarians once more, scowling. "Any time you read a book about a river," he snapped, staring Helen Northup straight in the eyes, "remember I wrote it."

Was it all a practical joke, performed in perfect deadpan? I like to think so. It was also a joke likely bolstered by alcohol, and spurred by Scott's sad sense of his slowly descending literary star (he was by the 1930s often tagged a forgotten man in America letters) and his persistent desire for vindication. But even in combination -- drink, adversity, and mischief -- the incident is a reminder of the redemptive power of humor. There's catharsis in a brilliant joke, a sort of transcendent joy that we experience when our ordinary lives are purged of their ugliness -- even if we have to pretend to be somebody else to experience that sort of rare, elusive magic.

R. Clifton Spargo is the author of the novel Beautiful Fools, The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, to be published May 2.