Friday, September 18, 2015

Head and Shoulders

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896–1940)
From F. Scott Fitzgerald: Novels & Stories 1920–1922

In June 1920 F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to the editor of Movie Weekly about The Chorus Girl’s Romance, a forthcoming movie based on a story he had published earlier that year. “The original title of ‘Head and Shoulders’ was ‘The Prodigy’ & I just brought in the chorus girl by way of a radical contrast. Before I’d finished she almost stole the story.” (When he had submitted the manuscript to an agent the previous year, the story had an altogether different title: “Nest Feathers.”) He told the movie critic that this light comic tale was inspired in part by his own adolescence. Although Fitzgerald was seventeen—not thirteen—when he went to college, he boasted that he almost became a prodigy himself, having been “one of the ten youngest in my class at Princeton.” About the movie, a vehicle for the silent film star Viola Dana, Fitzgerald added, “I’d rather watch a good shimmee dance than [modern dance artist] Ruth St. Denis and [ballet dancer Anna] Pavlova combined. I see nothing at all disgusting in it.” To his agent, however, Fitzgerald admitted that he wasn’t crazy about the film’s change of title and, presumably, its shift in focus.

“Fitzgerald’s fiction has a curious way of anticipating life,” wrote the late scholar Matthew Bruccoli about the story—Fitzgerald’s first of many to appear in The Saturday Evening Post. “Just as Horace is deflected by marriage from scholarship to entertainment, so would the author of ‘Head and Shoulders’ soon be under pressure to provide literary entertainment after his own marriage to Zelda Sayre.” Throughout their two-year engagement, Fitzgerald was anxious to prove to his betrothed (and her family) that he could make enough as a writer to support her. Harold Ober, the agent who received “Nest Feathers” unsolicited in the mail, sold it to The Saturday Evening Post for $400—three times what the young author had many on any of his previous stories, all of which had been published in the small literary magazine Smart Set. With this sale, Fitzgerald’s readership leaped from twenty thousand to two million. Then, a week after the story was published, on February 24, 1920, Fitzgerald sent a telegram to his fiancée in Montgomery, Alabama: “I HAVE SOLD THE MOVIE RIGHTS OF HEAD AND SHOULDERS TO THE METRO COMPANY FOR TWENTY FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS I LOVE YOU DEAREST GIRL.”

Fitzgerald spent part of the film proceeds on a platinum-and-diamond wristwatch inscribed on the back, “from Scott to Zelda.” The windfall from the movie and the arrival of the gift gave Zelda the courage to inform her mother at last of the couple’s impending marriage. In a letter thanking him for the watch, Zelda wrote to Scott, “Now that she knows, everything seems mighty definite and nice, and I’m not a bit scared or shaky— What I dreaded most was telling her.” She then closes the letter by unwittingly echoing a scene from “Head and Shoulders”: “I love you so terribly that I’m going to read McTeague,” the classic realist novel by Frank Norris and one of Fitzgerald’s favorite books. While surely not as difficult as the “light” reading (Samuel Pepys’s diary) recommended to Marcia by Horace in the story, McTeague (which features a dentist in the title role) was apparently not to Zelda’s liking: “It certainly makes a miserable start—I don’t see how any girl could be pretty with her front teeth lost in action, and besides, it outrages my sense of delicacy to have him proposing when she’s got when of these nasty rubber things on her face. . . . I do hope you’ll never be a realist—one of those kind that thinks being ugly is being forceful.”

Notes: The opening of Fitzgerald’s story mentions the June 1918 battle of Château-Thierry, in which American troops helped stop a major German offensive in heavy fighting east of Paris. Horace names his easy-chairs after eighteenth-century British empiricist-philosophers David Hume and George Berkeley, and Marcia teases Horace with the nickname Omar Khayyam, the Persian mathematician and philosopher. On page 313 are two popular culture references: the Florodora Sextette were six actresses in the Broadway musical comedy Florodora (1900) who had a hit song with “Tell Me Pretty Maiden,” and the wife of Alabama nineteenth-century theater impresario Sol Smith sometimes played Juliet to his Romeo. The Bohemian Girl mentioned on page 316 is a light opera written in 1843 by Michael William Balfe. Herbert Spencer (p. 327), with whom Marcia believes Horace had a “standing date,” was a nineteenth-century English philosopher and leading exponent of evolutionary theory. The Latin expression Mens sana in corpore sano, from Juvenal’s Satires, means “A sound mind in a sound body.”

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In 1915 Horace Tarbox was thirteen years old. In that year he took the examinations for entrance to Princeton University and received the Grade A—excellent—in Cæsar, Cicero, Vergil, Xenophon, Homer, Algebra, Plane Geometry, Solid Geometry, and Chemistry. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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