October 20, 2004: Features
last thing he wrote
By Anne Margaret Daniel *99
Here is the myth: When a heart attack flung him to the floor and killed him in Sheilah Graham’s apartment Dec. 21, 1940, Fitzgerald died as he had lived, looking back pathetically on the glory days of Princeton when he and the century were both in their teens. The myth is that he died comparing the Princeton football team of that fall to those of his undergraduate years – to the teams whose young men died in that first World War. Fitzgerald’s last writing – the scribbled pencil notes comparing teams past and present by names – has long been regarded as a sad and futile act, bound up entirely to the past.
Here is the myth’s genesis: On the day of his death, Fitzgerald was at Graham’s reading some mail that his secretary, Frances Kroll, had dropped off that morning. By Graham’s account in Beloved Infidel (1958), they were in her living room after lunch, Graham reading a book about Beethoven while Fitzgerald, eating a chocolate bar, read the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Graham noticed “that Scott, with one of his stubby pencils, was making notes on the margin of an article about the Princeton football team.” A moment later, he stood suddenly from his chair, and then fell dying.
Fitzgerald’s last copy of PAW is among the papers Graham gave to the Princeton University Library years after his death. The date of the magazine is Dec. 9, 1940, and the issue is chiefly devoted to war preparations on the Princeton campus. On the cover is a handsome young man in ROTC uniform, Andrew R. Jones ’42, looking every inch and almost eerily the perfect Fitzgerald hero, his blond hair smooth and blue eyes bright. As Fitzgerald picked up the magazine and began to read, did he think of his own officer training on campus in 1917? As Fitzgerald looked at Andrew Jones on the cover, and the photographs of students practicing military drill on the Princeton campus, was it more likely this, and not the slight story on football, that had him remembering his own college days long past – and of the “war to end all wars” that, everyone knew by December 1940, had not?
After a series of military-drill photographs and patriotic supporting text, the football story begins on page 9. “Plus and Minus: An Analytical, Long Range View of the 1940 Football Team; The Outlook for Next Year” was written by Gilbert Lea ’36, an All-American in football at Princeton who covered the sport for PAW in 1938, while living in the area and working in advertising in New York.
The following paragraph is circled in pencil:
“Faced with such men as Reagan [a Penn player], Arico of Dartmouth, Willoughby of Yale, or Mazur of Army, a player has his work cut out for him. The first prerequisite of a good tackler is his desire to tackle. You must want to tackle. After that it is a matter of training and the ability to think quickly and act quickly.”
In the margin of this clean, clear, and to-the-point passage is the following comment, in Fitzgerald’s unmistakable penciled writing: “good prose.”
Page 9 is a little torn by the football photograph, and on page 10 there is in Fitzgerald’s hand a list of names of football players past, written in lineup fashion, one across from the other. On this page is a suggestion of some very light brown discolored spots in the margin, spaced as fingertips on the page would be, right where one holds a magazine as one reads. They are not iron spots near the staples, engendered by age, but, I believe, the sweet, sad traces of chocolate fingerprints.
Yes, Fitzgerald did write, moments before he died, a list of football players. But he also noticed, in those same moments before he died, writing he thought worthy of critical comment, and he made such comment.
So much attention has been given to what Fitzgerald did not do, and never achieved, in the last years of his life. Not enough has been given to what he did do, and did accomplish, despite all the circumstances of ill health and alcoholism and financial distress. Frances Kroll Ring, and others, have staunchly maintained that Fitzgerald’s command of writing, and gorgeous ability to string words together into one sometimes unforgettable phrase or paragraph, remained to the end – and that his interest in good writing by others was constant. The very last words Fitzgerald wrote – other than some names – bear this out.
Gilbert Lea lives in Florida, where he retired after a long career in advertising for Time, Business Week, McCall’s, and ultimately at Ogilvy & Mather. At 89, on the telephone from his home last year, Lea recalled his story from 1940. He knew that Fitzgerald had been reading it when he died, and was happy to learn that Fitzgerald had praised his prose. And Fitzgerald’s interest in the football team, Lea reminded me, was no sad memory of some imagined glory days. During Lea’s four years at Princeton, the Tigers lost only one game and twice finished first in the nation. Any contemporary college football fan would hardly be thought pathetic and trapped in the past today for following a winning team years after graduation.
A final note, on the radiant cover of the last issue of PAW seen by Fitzgerald. Andrew Jones wore his uniform proudly in the photo, but he never went to war. A senior at Princeton in the fall of 1941, he was out hunting alone on his father’s farm in nearby Hopewell Township when, holding his rifle, he attempted to climb over a barbed-wire fence. The gun discharged. Andrew Jones died on Oct. 20, 1941, by that fence on the family farm. He was only 21.
Anne Margaret Daniel *99 teaches Irish literature at the New School in New York.