May 30, 2002
A Jewish girl from the Bronx, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the effect they had on each other.
This is a Los Angeles story, moreover one with a Hollywood ending. But it is also partly a Jewish American tale.
It is the story of 20 months in the early adult life of Frances Kroll Ring, written in the form of a memoir, "Against The Current." "Last Call," on Showtime last Saturday evening, starred Jeremy Irons as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sissy Spacek as his wife, Zelda, and Neve Campbell in the role of the young Ring. It recounts how Ring, then 22, not long departed from the Bronx for Los Angeles, took a job (her first) in 1939 as secretary, typist and general all-around life manager for Fitzgerald. He was trying, not very successfully, to embark on a novel about Hollywood, "The Last Tycoon," when she began working for him.
Ring was a nice Jewish girl who grew up in the Bronx, and continued to live at home with her parents when they moved to Los Angeles in 1938. Her parents had emigrated from Russia in their teens early in the 20th century. Her grandparents, who spoke only Yiddish, arrived years later.
She came of age in during the Depression, yearning to be an American, more political in her instincts than religious. She was "young and unworldly." She was angry at the anti-Semitism that seemed to be everywhere, and "outraged by the Depression." It is fair to say that, growing up in a Jewish neighborhood, the only people she knew well -- family, friends, schoolmates -- were Jews. She may have been her family's first generation American, but her experience and worldview were defined by ethnicity.
It was Fitzgerald, a faded literary icon, and in 1939 a marginal screenwriter, who served as her guide to literature and Hollywood. Fitzgerald had been the darling writer of the 1920s. It was his self-made quality that fired the imagination of so many immigrant Americans and their children. But then, of course, came the Depression and his world seemed to collapse overnight.
By the end of the 1930s, when Ring entered his life, he was a washed-up novelist and a serious alcoholic, writing dialogue, treatments and scripts for occasional films. He was still elegant, charming and preppy, a genteel, literary WASP in Jewish Hollywood. It is their life together, the impact of one on the other during the last 20 months of his life, as he struggled to complete "The Last Tycoon," that is recounted both in her memoir and the adaptation for television.
In Fitzgerald's last unfinished novel, "The Last Tycoon," the villain was modeled in part on Louis B. Mayer, then head of MGM. But as Ring explained to me recently, Fitzgerald was upset by the charges of anti-Semitism leveled at him in the '20s for making the gangster in "The Great Gatsby" (based on Arnold Rothstein) Jewish. And so Mayer in "The Last Tycoon" became Brady, a brutal Irishman, while the novel's hero, Monroe Stahr, was Jewish.
Ring sorted out these facts and emotions. Fitzgerald, she believed, was an admirable man and not anti-Semitic. She became his most ardent defender. That she was also loyal, honest and efficient served them both well. He became her mentor, her idol and the source of feelings, part-filial and part-romantic that shaped her life forever after. He was after all, her first real encounter with that other (non-Jewish) America. For him, she was pragmatic, dependable and young, slightly older than his college-age daughter. That she was Jewish gave her a certain exotic quality, but also connected her to values -- family and education -- that he admired. Their need, affection and -- just under the surface -- love for one another is the focus of her story. It ends with his death: a heart attack. He was 44; she was 23.
But Ring's life went on. There was a joyous stretch working as a script reader for Paramount and embattled times on the picket line as the screenwriters and Hollywood moguls clashed. There were also years writing book reviews and essays and editing a magazine. She married a man who had a Cadillac dealership in Los Angeles and raised two children in what might be described as a Jewishly secular household at the edge of Beverly Hills. In short, she became a part of America, which now was a blending of Fitzgerald's and Ring's American past. More than 60 years later. Ring, now at an age you must figure for yourself, has been able to see those years replayed, in close-up as it were. On the set, she watched as "Fitzgerald" kissed "Ring" in a car, and then Irons turned to the real-life Ring and asked kindly, "Did I get it right?" It was today's Ring who was toasted at the screening 10 days ago in Beverly Hills' Academy of the Arts and Sciences. The past is always with us, only slightly changed.
The story now begins to take on a familiar outline. Her children are raised without much attention to Jewish detail. Her daughter, who has a doctorate in political science, discovers the writings of Hannah Arendt (as her mother did Fitzgerald), then turns toward Judaism for a cultural and personal connection. Ring's grandchildren are themselves, at 14 and 19, bat mitzvahed, keep kosher and attend synagogue regularly. They are, like quintessential U.S. novelist Fitzgerald, as American as apple pie.