F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Last Gatsby in West Hollywood

West Hollywood apartment where F. Scott Fitzgerald died
This is famed columnist Sheilah Graham’s apartment where ‘The Great Gatsby’ author F. Scott Fitzgerald died.

By Tony Castro

ALTHOUGH A NUMBER OF WRITERS have addressed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in Hollywood, his biographers have generally given short shrift to his time in West Hollywood — the assumption being that he never spent much time here.

But, in fact, the author of The Great Gatsby spent most of the nights of the last four years of his life in West Hollywood, beginning at the Garden of Allah apartments, a onetime bungalow colony on the Sunset Strip near Crescent Heights, where his neighbors were fellow authors-turned-screenwriters Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, Ogden Nash and others.

Much has been made by some biographers of Fitzgerald writing and avoiding alcohol as a shut-in at his Malibu beach house or his Encino home, scenes evoking a much more romantic portrait than the reality—that no American writer before Scott had achieved success so young nor fallen from grace quite so suddenly.

But more of Fitzgerald’s time while in southern California took place in West Hollywood than elsewhere. In the early 1920s the West Hollywood Realty Board recognized the unincorporated area by the name under which it would become a city six decades later. During Prohibition, the community had earned a reputation as a loosely regulated, liquor-friendly place for eccentric people choosing to skirt the law.

Perfect for Fitzgerald. In the Roaring Twenties, a time he named the Jazz Age, Scott and his wife Zelda became forever associated with that period’s lavish parties, bathtub gin, and cloche-hatted flappers.

In 1937, ensconced at the Garden of Allah bungalows, Fitzgerald’s career as a novelist was in disarray and no scene underscored that better than his avoidance of his Paris literary friend Ernest Hemingway who was in Los Angeles that year fund-raising for the Spanish Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.

Hemingway had just shown the film The Spanish Earth about that war to President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House and had brought it to Los Angeles to raise money from Hollywood studio moguls and movie stars with a screening at the house of Academy Award–winner Fredric March, where guests contributed $17,000 to buy ambulances for Spain.

In dreadful physical shape from trying to dry out from his alcoholism, Fitzgerald intentionally avoided Hemingway at the Hollywood screening because at that point their careers were polar opposites of what they had been in Paris in the 1920s. Hemingway was now the toast of the literary world as he campaigned for the Loyalist side in the Spanish Civil War, while Fitzgerald was down and out in Hollywood, collaborating on mediocre films.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (right) when he was on top of the literary world in Paris in 1925, but their roles had changed by the late 1930s when Scott was down and out in West Hollywood.

“Ernest came like a whirlwind,” Fitzgerald later described Hemingway’s entrance at the screening to Max Perkins, who was his editor as well as Hemingway’s. “I felt he was in a state of nervous tensity, that there was something almost religious about it.”

Feeling guilt-torn by his behavior, Fitzgerald later sent Hemingway a telegram: “THE PICTURE WAS BEYOND PRAISE AND SO WAS YOUR ATTITUDE.”

For Fitzgerald, the only religion in his life by then was what had made him a study in self-destructive alcoholism. Zelda, who had suffered a mental breakdown in 1930, was in a sanitarium in North Carolina. Scott himself had already been hospitalized more than nine times for his alcoholism. Though Fitzgerald tried to abstain in his later years, the toll from alcohol had already been too much on his body, even as he continued his bouts of excessive drinking.

“The case of F. Scott Fitzgerald has become distressing,” his friend H. L. Mencken wrote in a letter alarmed by Scott’s physical condition and near bankrupt state. “He is boozing in a wild manner and has become a nuisance.”

Was F Scott Fitzgerald trying to find a cure for writers block when he sent a postcard to himself while living at the Garden of Allah bungalows in West Hollywood?

During the day, Fitzgerald was at the studios unhappily working on writing and rewriting scripts that failed to impress executives. By night he was keeping company with the new woman in his life, famed British-born gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, effectively living with her at her apartment at 1443 N. Hayworth Avenue, just south of Sunset Boulevard.

Fitzgerald’s own apartment was a block west, at 1403 N. Laurel Avenue where his next-door neighbors were, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

Fitzgerald’s heart problems had worsened not long after arriving in West Hollywood. Then in November of 1940, Scott suffered a heart attack at Schwab’s Drug Store on the Sunset Strip, reportedly while he was standing in line to buy cigarettes.

With the heart scare and his doctor ordering him to avoid strenuous activity, Fitzgerald was forced to forego climbing the stairs to his own second-floor apartment and moved in with Graham, who lived on the ground floor.

It was there at Sheilah Graham’s apartment, on the night of Dec. 21, 1940, that Fitzgerald was relaxing and hoping to get back to his novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon,whose hero, Monroe Stahr, is based on the life of the legendary producer Irving Thalberg.

After eating a candy bar and browsing his newly arrivedPrinceton Alumni Weekly, Fitzgerald rose suddenly from his armchair, grabbed the mantelpiece above the fireplace and, with a gasp, collapsed on the floor.

Alarmed, Graham rushed to the building manager, real estate developer Harry Culver, for help.

Culver checked Scott and, finding no pulse, broke the news to Graham.

“I’m afraid he’s dead,” he said.

F. Scott Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack. He was 44.

Tony Castro, the editor of WeHoville.com, is the author of Looking for Hemingway: Spain, the Bullfights, and a Final Rite of Passage (Lyons Press), which NPR named one of the best books of 2016.

© 2021 Tony Castro

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Kate Bartolo
Kate Bartolo
2 days ago

Great article. Thanks for this! Interested in doing a story about Dorothy Parker’s time in the Norma Triangle, WeHo? Would love to read it.

Larry Block
Admin
2 days ago
Reply to  Kate Bartolo

please send to tonycastro@wehoville.com. Thank you.

WehoFan
WehoFan
3 days ago

Great article. Welcome back Wehoville.

Steve
Steve
3 days ago

The actual apartment is behind the second set of shrubs in the photo. I’ve been there It’s pretty interesting. Maybe it’s because I know he died there, but there seems to be a certain aura to the place.

Drew Pokorny
Drew Pokorny
3 days ago

Great read! And to think I just turned 44. Fitzgerald died at the same age. Too young.

Don Jones
Don Jones
4 days ago

What a welcome read and nice to see something is WeHoville other than click bait articles and rehashed press releases. Hope to read more features like this. Welcome to the new editor!

Joshua88
Joshua88
4 days ago

Learned something today!

Danadane
Danadane
4 days ago
Reply to  Joshua88

So interesting to hear about this era of my own neighborhood. Enjoyed the article thoroughly.

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