As a young screenwriter who helped but a little on the script of a recent movie featuring Frederic March, I’m stunned the star invites me to his lavish Beverly Hills home to watch a screening of the documentary The Spanish Earth written and narrated by Ernest Hemingway, who Frederic says will be there along with another literary idol, his friend Scott Fitzgerald. Many Hollywood stars also grace the residence, and despite being reasonably confident in most company I concede feeling a little nervous when such pretty people smile at me or at least at someone nearby.
Really, it’s quite exciting when Hemingway enters the living room. I’d liken it to chugging a double shot of whiskey. He smiles and shakes hands and embraces ladies who I assume he’s never met, and everyone’s looking at him and most are smiling but one who isn’t is Scott Fitzgerald.
“Scott,” says Hemingway, “how the hell have you been?” He hugs the smaller writer.
“Rather well, Ernest, considering.”
Hemingway moves on, pumping my hand and slapping my shoulder, working the room like a lovable grizzly bear.
Fitzgerald, who’s short, slight, and pale, watches the activity, and walks to my side, perhaps trusting someone of my youth. “Look at him. He’s always the hero. It’s his destiny. Even after his betrayal, the bastard’s still mine.”
“What betrayal?” I ask.
“Don’t you read literature?”
“In a 1936 issue of Esquire, my dear Ernest, who senses blood better than a shark, published a great shorty story, ‘The Snows of Kilimanjaro,’ wherein the dying hero ‘remembered poor Scott Fitzgerald and his romantic awe’ of the rich, and that when I found out they weren’t special ‘it wrecked’ me. I’m not going to quote the whole beautiful goddamn passage. Everything he writes seems to be special and I love his work even as most think mine’s sinking. By the way, notice I’m not drinking tonight. I’m not always drunk. Sometime soon I’m going to quit drinking altogether.”
Frederic March and his lovely wife Florence Eldridge invite everyone to gather in the screening room where he motions for the projectionist to start The Spanish Earth. A few minutes into the amateurish black and white film, Scott, sitting across the room from Hemingway, says, “You didn’t really write this drivel, did you, Ernest?”
Hemingway’s face tenses but he doesn’t otherwise respond.
“This silly music and its tepid trumpets are absurd rather than arousing and in no way coordinated with your boring images of daily life.”
“You’re a rummy, Scott,” Hemingway says.
“I picked an unpropitious night to be sober, Ernest.”
The hosts and their guests look at the novelists but are evidently too embarrassed to speak as the documentary continues.
“Since you’ve fought in so many wars, Ernest, I’m disappointed you don’t understand how artificial the gunfire and explosions are. You must’ve dubbed them after a day of drinking and disemboweling marlin on your boat in the mighty Caribbean.”
Rising, hands clenched at his sides, Hemingway marches to Fitzgerald and says, “If you weren’t such a pathetic little man I’d knock you out. Instead, this’ll do…” He right-hand slaps Scott’s face, knocking him on his side on the sofa.
The projectionist stops the movie.
“I’m sorry, everyone,” Hemingway says, “I guess you all know about Scott.”
Florence Eldridge eases over and says, “Let me help you. Come into the kitchen.” As they leave she nods to resume the documentary.
I walk into the kitchen where Scott’s backed against the counter and Florence is sponging his swelling red cheek. “Please let me borrow your necktie.”
Confused, I point to mine. Scott nods. I remove the tie. He holds out his hand. I place the tie there. He turns and walks to the screening room. Florence looks at me and says, “He’s a sad man.”
Florence and I talk a couple of minutes until someone shouts, “That’s enough, Scott,” and we run into the screening room where Scott, standing behind Hemingway, has the tie around his neck and is growling as he pulls hard in opposite directions.