A year before F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack, he completed a short story about a hard-drinking writer diagnosed with cardiac disease.
“And as for that current dodge ‘No reference to any living character is intended’ — no use even trying that,” Fitzgerald warns at the start of “Temperature,” an 8,000-word piece dated July 1939 that is receiving its publishing debut in the current issue of the literary quarterly The Strand Magazine.
Presumed lost for decades, “Temperature” was written while the author known for “The Great Gatsby” struggled to find work in the movie business and hoped to revive his fiction career. His screenwriting contract with MGM had expired and twice in 1939 he had been hospitalized because of alcoholism.
“He felt anachronistic and was trying to find a voice that didn’t echo with the Jazz Age,” Kirk Curnutt, author of “The Cambridge Introduction to F. Scott Fitzgerald,” wrote in a recent email. “To this end he experimented with more hardboiled tones and sardonic comedy.”
Set in Los Angeles, “Temperature” is an antic story of failure, illness and decline, common themes in Fitzgerald’s work. The narrative is consciously cinematic, with such lines as “And at this point, as they say in picture making, the Camera Goes into the House.” The protagonist is a 31-year-old writer, Emmet Monsen, whom Fitzgerald describes as “notably photogenic,” “slender and darkly handsome.” Circling around the self-destructive Monsen are medical authorities, personal assistants and a Hollywood actress and estranged lover.
Andrew F. Gulli, managing editor of The Strand, came upon the manuscript earlier this year while looking through the rare books and manuscript archive at Fitzgerald’s alma mater, Princeton University.
“Fitzgerald … couldn’t help using his satirical abilities to mock everyone from doctors, Hollywood idols and the norms of society,” Gulli said of the story. “When we think of Fitzgerald we tend to think of tragic novels he wrote such as ‘Gatsby’ and ‘Tender is the Night,’ but ‘Temperature’ shows that he was equally adept and highly skilled as a short story writer who was able to pen tales of high comedy.”
Fitzgerald’s stories had run in Collier’s, The Saturday Evening Post and other magazines, but by the late 1930s he no longer had a wide following and was unhappy with his literary agent, Harold Ober, who in the past had supported him financially. In a letter sent to Ober in August 1939, Fitzgerald writes he was feeling so neglected that on his own he mailed submissions of “Temperature,” which was turned down by the Post.
“Sending a story direct may be bad policy but one doesn’t consider that when one is living on money from a hocked Ford,” he told Ober. “I don’t have to explain that even though a man has once saved another from drowning, when he refuses to stretch out his arm a second time the victim has to act quickly and desperately to save himself.”
Curnutt was amazed to learn that a copy of “Temperature” still existed and called the discovery a “great find.” Fitzgerald bibliographies list the story (sometimes referred to as “The Women in the House”) as unpublished or lost.
Fitzgerald called Hollywood a “hideous town” but also “the history of all aspiration.” It was the author’s literary setting for the rest of his life. By early 1940, he was turning out his self-deprecating “Pat Hobby” stories, dispatches about a failing screenwriter that ran in Esquire. He also worked on a Hollywood novel he left unfinished, “The Love of the Last Tycoon,” released posthumously as “The Last Tycoon.” Fitzgerald died in December 1940 at age 44.
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