Friday, 24 September 2010

Happy Birthday Fitz

Today is F. Scott Fitzgerald's 114th birthday, and in honor of the event, I want to take the opportunity to refute a story that has become accepted as truth but is in fact a complete myth, the idea that Hemingway told Fitz that the rich are only different from you and me because they have more money.

Here is what actually happened:

In 1926, Fitzgerald wrote a story called "The Rich Boy," which opens: "Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me." The point of the story is to see how extreme wealth can ruin people (and if you think he's wrong, just think about Michael Jackson.)

Some years later, Hemingway was at a dinner with the editor he shared with Fitzgerald, Max Perkins, and an Irish writer named Mary Colum, a woman with a sharp wit. Hemingway said at the dinner: "I am getting to know the rich" (primarily by marrying them, but, hey, that's one way). Mary Colum said to him: "The only difference between the rich and other people is that the rich have more money."

In 1936, Fitzgerald published the Crack-Up essays in Esquire, and Hemingway took the opportunity to deride him in "The Snows of Kilimanjaro", also published in Esquire later that year, as "poor Scott Fitzgerald," who was in "awe" of the rich and had written a story saying "the very rich are different from you and me," and how "someone" had told him, "Yes, they have more money."

Ever since, Hemingway has been credited with the line but it was used against him. We know this because soon after the dinner Perkins wrote a letter to a woman named Elizabeth Lemmon telling her what had been said at the dinner, because he thought Hemingway's behavior was beneath contempt. Some think Hemingway did it in part because he hated being bested by a woman; certainly his rivalry with Fitzgerald drove him to more and more malicious mythmaking.

The truth of this story can be found in most of the Hemingway biographies, as well as the letters and biography of Max Perkins, and of course the Fitzgerald biographies, for example here.

While I'm at it: no one who knew Fitzgerald well believed that he asked Hemingway to check out his, erm, manhood at a Parisian restaurant to make sure he was properly endowed, as Hemingway claimed in A Moveable Feast. This is pure Hemingway machismo, just the kind of pissing contest he loved to invent. It is just possible that Fitz might have done it if he were very drunk (which of course happened a lot), when he was capable of all kinds of outrageous behavior. But in general he was sexually somewhat prudish and homophobic. He was raised a Victorian after all. So it's possible, but unlikely.