F. Scott Fitzgerald is a legendary author, and deservedly so. Now readers have the chance to get a deeper look at his craft and genius in I’d Die For You: And Other Lost Stories, a collection of unpublished or uncollected stories spanning some of the hardest years of Fitzgerald’s life.
I’d Die For You is edited by Anne Margaret Daniel, who provides helpful introductions before each story and biographical context. Much of I’d Die For You was written in the 1930s, when Fitzgerald was struggling financially and personally. As Daniel writes in the introduction, “Debt and hard times wounded him irrevocably in the mid-1930s.”
This is Fitzgerald writing when he’s backed against the wall. He’s trying hard to find some deep human truth in the midst of the pain, and sometimes he succeeds quite masterfully, including in a few truly hilarious stories.
The rejected stories of I’d Die For You were turned down for various reasons, including by Fitzgerald’s mainstay, The Saturday Evening Post. Daniel observes that often the stories were rejected simply because Fitzgerald—despite his need for funds—wouldn’t change or cut his work to suit editors’ requests.
Fitzgerald thought some of the stories in I’d Die for You were excellent, and was deeply disappointed, for personal more than financial reasons, to have them rejected by editors wanting him to write jazz and fizz, beautiful cold girls and handsome yearning boys.
A Darker Side of Fitzgerald
There still are “beautiful cold girls and handsome yearning boys” like in the story “Offside Play” penned in 1937, but there’s a darker tinge to the whole endeavor. “Offside Play,” for example, is a tale of corruption and romance set against the backdrop of Ivy League football. The story includes adultery, dishonesty, casual sex, and some frank dissections of class privilege. In a particularly cutting passage, the protagonist Kiki tells a poverty-stricken football star she’s slept with not to worry that she’ll get attached (even though he wishes she would):
‘Don’t worry—I won’t fall in love with you.’
‘Oh, you won’t?’
‘Certainly not— I’ve been thrown over once and I haven’t faintly recovered— if I ever do.’ She moved away from him gently. ‘Please stop. Don’t you understand that was last night, it wasn’t even me—you don’t even know me, Rip, and maybe you never will.’
In many cases, Fitzgerald wasn’t willing to compromise his craft for the sake of propriety and publication, including in the title story “I’d Die For You,” which is about unrequited love and suicide:
Editors and readers didn’t want young people having sex on a cruise ship? Didn’t want soldiers to be tortured during a war? Didn’t want people threatening to commit suicide? Or drinking and drugs in the Hollywood hills? Or graft and payola in college sports? Too bad.
Fitzgerald, like the economy itself, was down on his luck in a big way, eventually trying to earn money to pay for his wife, Zelda, who later had to be institutionalized on account of mental health struggles. He was penning stories about breakups, illness, suicide, and lost love, and not pulling any punches in the process:
Fitzgerald’s fortunes, so high just a few years before, had fallen with the country’s. He was often sick, often broke, and anxiously shuttling between the Baltimore area—where he and Zelda had settled with their daughter, Scottie—and a string of health resorts in the North Carolina mountains.
Many of the stories in I’d Die For You are focused on the nature of beauty, love, and suffering, as well as the question of how to find meaning in life. They’re also remarkable for the number of strong female protagonists and the focus on female beauty, both inner and outer. Fitzgerald channels various female perspectives on the world from a variety of headstrong, sad, and lonely female characters. These stories are very interested in the psychology of the fairer sex.
The Lighter Side
There’s a surprising amount of humor in I’d Die For You. “The I.O.U.,” for example, is one of Fitzgerald’s earliest stories, written when he was 23. It’s hilarious. The story is written in first person from the point of view of a money-hungry publisher who complains about “All the columnists and communists (I can never get these two words straight)” who criticize his truth-shirking, profit-seeking ways.
“The Couple,” which Daniel posits was likely written in the early 1920s, shows us the nuts and bolts of Fitzgerald’s writing process. It’s about a married couple who decides to divorce but gets more than they bargained for in the process. Some parts of it are also seriously funny.
The compelling “Nightmare (Fantasy in Black)” is set in a mental institution and cuts deep in its portrayal of the sometimes blurry edge between mental health and mental illness. The protagonist, Kay, is a young female psychiatrist who falls in love with a new arrival at the institution as she is increasingly burdened by “the unpreventable sadness in the world,” not to mention a coworker who irks her.
In a line sure to ruffle the feathers of modern-day feminists, Kay daydreams about no longer being a working professional: “She wanted to buy out the cosmetics department of a drug store, and talk about trivialities to men who would think of her as decorative rather than competent.” Another classic part of the story sees a new patient, Peter Woods, suggest a rather traditional cure to her malaise: marriage (to him, once he’s better). “Why don’t you marry? That would probably solve all your problems,” he tells her.
“Gracie at Sea” is basically a comedy screenplay synopsis in the form of a short story, co-written by Fitzgerald and Robert Spafford. It falls a little flat and is confusing and dull, in one of the low points of I’d Die For You. Still, it shows how low Fitzgerald sunk at points just in an attempt to earn some money.
In the title story “I’d Die For You, (The Legend of Lake Lure)” Fitzgerald recounts the tale of a depressed man hiding from his past at a hotel in rural North Carolina. There’s a trail of rumors behind him about the hearts he’s broken. Fitzgerald himself attempted suicide in North Carolina in 1936 and admitted to a friend that ending things was on his mind a lot at the time.
One detects some of the author’s pathos when the protagonist Delannux says he’s past his prime: “I fitted in to a time when people wanted excitement, and I tried to supply it,” Delannux says. One of the women in love with Delannux, Isabelle, is crushed that he doesn’t love her and betrays him to the authorities. “You certainly must have loved him a lot to have hated him that much,” a man remarks to Isabelle.
“Cyclone in Silent Land” describes a stunningly attractive nurse-in-training nicknamed Trouble, who causes her male coworkers to become dumbfounded with desire. The story teases out tension between the power of female sexuality in a male-dominated working world: “Then Trouble, knowing she’d done it, leaned back against the wall, conscious, oh completely conscious of having stamped herself vividly on their masculine clay.”
In the unpublished story “The Pearl And The Fur” a young teen has a rollicking adventure in New York City during the struggles of the Depression, and ends up growing as a person in an unexpected way.
In “Thumbs Up” Fitzgerald takes us through a fraught Civil War tale that gets pretty dark pretty fast. Anchored by another strong female protagonist, Josie, “Thumbs Up” brings racial tensions, the horrors of war and out-of-reach love to the surface in a powerful way.
“I am a citizen of nowhere, part of a lost cause, broken and beaten with it,” Josie’s love interest Tib says in despair at one point. The story ends on a hopeful note, optimistic that “the cruelty of a distant time” would disappear into history and be replaced by cooperation and kindness. It’s basically an epic love story spanning many years and crowded into the form of a short story, but “Thumbs Up” has an undeniable emotional impact.
An alternate version of “Thumbs Up” is pursued in “Dentist Appointment,” although it is not as engaging a take.
“The Woman in the House (Temperature)” is like an oddball, antiquated version of Stephen King’s Misery. Lovelorn bachelor Emmet grows weed in his garden and is stuck in his house after being recently diagnosed with a heart condition. He crumbles into despair and anger surrounded by female nurses who annoy him to no end: “He was one of those Americans who seem left over from the days when there was a frontier, and he had chosen to walk, ride or fly along that thin hair line which separates the unexplored and menacing from the safe, warm world. Or is there such a world—”
There are also echoes of Fitzgerald’s own alcoholism: “A contemptuous line ran through his head in savage rhythm: ‘I never think much of a man who reaches for a glass of whiskey every time anything goes wrong.’ He turned to the closet where there stood the brandy bottle.”
Despite its dark tone, the story has some hilarious lines, such as when describing Emmet’s movie star neighbor: “Carlos Davis was a Dakota small town boy, with none of the affectations ascribed to him—it was no fault of his that he had been born with a small gift of mimicry and an extraordinary personal beauty.”
“Salute to Lucy and Elsie” was written in 1939 the year before Fitzgerald’s death in the heady days when he was working on his novel The Love of the Last Tycoon and trying to make a fresh start in Hollywood. It concerns a man called Lawson who discovers his college-age son is involved in some pretty cavalier sexual behavior. The father isn’t very comfortable with this and tries to get through to him. “But in the mornings Lawson could be modern enough to think: ‘This isn’t 1890. And it takes two to make a seduction.’”
The story ends with a devastating line about women using emotional vulnerability to manipulate men into commitment: “…at certain times thereafter he would remark upon modern young women and their ways. His kindest comment was that they were the only hunters desperate enough to bait a trap with crushed and broken portions of themselves.”
A Capacity for Hope
As Daniel notes:
[S]ome of the stories are dark and stark … Fitzgerald wrote about young men worrying over venereal disease and having gotten sixteen-year-olds pregnant, and Esquire said no thanks.
It’s funny Daniel mentions Esquire rejecting controversial Fitzgerald content in the 1930s. Somehow, one can’t see Esquire, which now publishes pieces such as “Sex Parties Are the Latest Trend to Hit the Hamptons: What are YOU doing this weekend?” being similarly concerned today about salacious or controversial topics.
I’d Die For You is definitely worth a read for Fitzgerald fans and those interested in his life and work. Also, it’s not all gloom and doom, far from it. In fact there are quite a number of happy endings to these tales. There’s vitality, life and tempered optimism running through many of the stories. As Daniel writes:
Through it all, through the difficulties and alcoholism and sickness, Fitzgerald kept on writing, and trying to reflect what he knew and saw. The true Fitzgerald hallmark of these stories is their capacity for hoping.