April 1, 2013
New Fitzgerald poems come to light
by Sal Robinson
Tomorrow, the autograph and memorabilia dealer Nate D. Sanders will be selling at auction a most unusual piece of F. Scott Fitzgerald-iana: two handwritten poems, composed for the first and eighth birthdays of Mary MacArthur, the daughter of the actress Helen Hayes, with whom Fitzgerald had become friendly during the late ’20 and early ’30s.
Appearing on either side of the same piece of paper, the two poems were written in 1931 and 1937, respectively. The first corresponds with the period after his wife Zelda’s first breakdown, when Fitzgerald was staying in Swiss hotels while Zelda was being treated, while the later poem was written shortly after Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood after signing a contract to write screenplays for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Hollywood was also where he also met columnist Sheilah Graham, who would be his lover and companion until his death in 1940 (an experience Graham wrote about in her memoir College of One, soon to be reissued by Melville House).
The first poem is doggerel, but the second moves back and forth between a more somber tone (questions about the worth of literature, for instance) and some lightfooted, goofy meditations on the topic of “how to raise a girl”:
How shall we give her that je ne sais quoi—
Portions of mama that seem to be right
Salted with dashes of questionable pa?
‘—Age her till eight and then save me a bite.’
Interestingly, Sanders notes in this interview in Fine Books & Collections that when Hayes reprinted the second poem in her 1965 book A Gift of Joy, she left out four lines that seem more explicitly to refer to Zelda.
Solve me this dither, O wisest of lamas,
Tell me the name of a madhouse for mammas
Or give me the nursery—let her have the study.
Sanders suggests that perhaps Hayes was keeping back from public scrutiny material that still seemed very personal—though Zelda and Scott were both dead by the end of the ‘40s, in the 1960s their daughter Scottie was very much still alive, working for the Democratic Party in Washington.
Poem #2 also contains, as any good Jazz Age product must, “necking,” a word that even in the ‘30s must have a sniff of old gin and sweaty garters to it.
It’s relatively rare that new Fitzgerald material comes to light, given the intense scrutiny his life and work have been subjected to. And so the poems, along with a copy of Tender is the Night with a dedication from Fitzgerald to Hayes, are expected to sell for the whopping price of between $75,000-$100,000.
Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.