Although a number of writers have addressed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s time in Hollywood, his biographers have generally given short shrift to his time in West Hollywood — the assumption being that he never spent much time here.
But, in fact, the author of The Great Gatsby spent most of the nights of the last four years of his life in West Hollywood, beginning at the Garden of Allah apartments, a onetime bungalow colony on the Sunset Strip near Crescent Heights, where his neighbors were fellow authors-turned-screenwriters Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, Ogden Nash and others.
Much has been made by some biographers of Fitzgerald writing and avoiding alcohol as a shut-in at his Malibu beach house or his Encino home, scenes evoking a much more romantic portrait than the reality—that no American writer before Scott had achieved success so young nor fallen from grace quite so suddenly.
But more of Fitzgerald’s time while in southern California took place in West Hollywood than elsewhere. In the early 1920s the West Hollywood Realty Board recognized the unincorporated area by the name under which it would become a city six decades later. During Prohibition, the community had earned a reputation as a loosely regulated, liquor-friendly place for eccentric people choosing to skirt the law.
Perfect for Fitzgerald. In the Roaring Twenties, a time he named the Jazz Age, Scott and his wife Zelda became forever associated with that period’s lavish parties, bathtub gin, and cloche-hatted flappers.
In 1937, ensconced at the Garden of Allah bungalows, Fitzgerald’s career as a novelist was in disarray and no scene underscored that better than his avoidance of his Paris literary friend Ernest Hemingway who was in Los Angeles that year fund-raising for the Spanish Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.
Hemingway had just shown the film The Spanish Earth about that war to President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House and had brought it to Los Angeles to raise money from Hollywood studio moguls and movie stars with a screening at the house of Academy Award–winner Fredric March, where guests contributed $17,000 to buy ambulances for Spain.
“Ernest came like a whirlwind,” Fitzgerald later described Hemingway’s entrance at the screening to Max Perkins, who was his editor as well as Hemingway’s. “I felt he was in a state of nervous tensity, that there was something almost religious about it.”
Feeling guilt-torn by his behavior, Fitzgerald later sent Hemingway a telegram: “THE PICTURE WAS BEYOND PRAISE AND SO WAS YOUR ATTITUDE.”
For Fitzgerald, the only religion in his life by then was what had made him a study in self-destructive alcoholism. Zelda, who had suffered a mental breakdown in 1930, was in a sanitarium in North Carolina. Scott himself had already been hospitalized more than nine times for his alcoholism. Though Fitzgerald tried to abstain in his later years, the toll from alcohol had already been too much on his body, even as he continued his bouts of excessive drinking.
“The case of F. Scott Fitzgerald has become distressing,” his friend H. L. Mencken wrote in a letter alarmed by Scott’s physical condition and near bankrupt state. “He is boozing in a wild manner and has become a nuisance.”
During the day, Fitzgerald was at the studios unhappily working on writing and rewriting scripts that failed to impress executives. By night he was keeping company with the new woman in his life, famed British-born gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, effectively living with her at her apartment at 1443 N. Hayworth Avenue, just south of Sunset Boulevard.
Fitzgerald’s own apartment was a block west, at 1403 N. Laurel Avenue where his next-door neighbors were, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Fitzgerald’s heart problems had worsened not long after arriving in West Hollywood. Then in November of 1940, Scott suffered a heart attack at Schwab’s Drug Store on the Sunset Strip, reportedly while he was standing in line to buy cigarettes.
With the heart scare and his doctor ordering him to avoid strenuous activity, Fitzgerald was forced to forego climbing the stairs to his own second-floor apartment and moved in with Graham, who lived on the ground floor.
It was there at Sheilah Graham’s apartment, on the night of Dec. 21, 1940, that Fitzgerald was relaxing and hoping to get back to his novel about Hollywood, The Last Tycoon,whose hero, Monroe Stahr, is based on the life of the legendary producer Irving Thalberg.
After eating a candy bar and browsing his newly arrivedPrinceton Alumni Weekly, Fitzgerald rose suddenly from his armchair, grabbed the mantelpiece above the fireplace and, with a gasp, collapsed on the floor.
Alarmed, Graham rushed to the building manager, real estate developer Harry Culver, for help.
Culver checked Scott and, finding no pulse, broke the news to Graham.
“I’m afraid he’s dead,” he said.
F. Scott Fitzgerald had died of a heart attack. He was 44.