The Beautiful and Damned is F Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel. His modest output, with only four of the five published in his lifetime, is dominated by the justly famous The Great Gatsby which everyone has either read or seen on screen, but all of them deserve more than one reading. It is said, by some, that this novel is something of a roman à clef with the principal characters Anthony Patch and his wife Gloria being modelled on himself and his wife, Zelda, and their troubled marriage. It could be so: authors do not write in a vacuum. However, the sad story stands up to scrutiny in its own right without needing any external rationale.
Anthony Patch is a young, well-to-do New York ‘drone’ living on his private income and enjoying working on the question of whether or not he should do something and, as a corollary, what that something should be. Meantime, what about another cocktail?
This was his healthy state and it made him cheerful, pleasant, and very attractive to intelligent men and to all women. In this state he considered that he would one day accomplish some quiet subtle thing that the elect would deem worthy and, passing on, would join the dimmer stars in a nebulous, indeterminate heaven half-way between death and immortality. Until the time came for this effort he would be Anthony Patch – not a portrait of a man but a distinct and dynamic personality, opinionated, contemptuous, functioning from within outward – a man who was aware there could be no honor and yet had honor, who knew the sophistry of courage and yet, was brave.
What gave him the additional degree of confidence in his position, his standing, and his security was that he seemed likely to be the beneficial heir of his grandfather, Adam J Patch, worth seventy-five million dollars and who presently used his wealth to inveigh against ‘liquor, literature, vice, art, patent medicines, and Sunday theatres’.
Anthony led his fairly stress-free life until the age of twenty-five, in 1913 winging his way from one watering hole to the next and enjoying the company of many woman of various ages relative to his until, in that fateful year, he came across his perfect partner, Gloria Gilbert. The sybaritic Gloria was born and raised with the sole purpose of making an excellent marriage with a wealthy man. Anthony came to think he should be that man and, not without some setbacks, convinced Gloria.
Alas, together they were more destructive of each other than they had been apart. Grandfather Adam does offer Anthony the chance to go to Europe as a war correspondent but that came too perilously close to having to work for a living and he passes up on this. Meantime, the pair of them live the life of the idle rich, wintering in California, taking a house out on Long Island for the summer months when New York was too hot, and spending more than their income which means eating into their capital, selling the bonds that yielded their income. On top of this, they entertain relentlessly and drink cocktails copiously. Never mind, they tell themselves; when old ‘Cross’ Patch dies, their finances will be well and truly sorted out.
From time to time, Fitzgerald gives the opinionated Gloria a voice that is more articulate than seems credible for such an airhead but this allows him to convey a point of view that is archetypical of someone of her background. For example, when they are looking over the house of American Civil War hero, General Lee near Washington, Gloria vents her snobbery and limited intelligence.
But you can’t [preserve old things]. Beautiful things grow to a certain height and then they fail and fade off, breathing out memories as they decay. And just as any period decays in our minds, the things of that period should decay too, and in that way they’re preserved for a while in the few hearts like mine that react to them. That graveyard at Tarrytown, for instance. The asses who give money to preserve things have spoiled that too. Sleepy Hollow’s gone; Washinton Irving’s dead and his books are rotting in our estimation year by year – then let the graveyard rot too, as it should, as all things should. Trying to preserve a century by keeping its relics up to date is like keeping a dying man alive by stimulants.
Trying to come to terms with their finances, they give up their summer rented cottage and, eventually, move to a smaller, less fashionable apartment in New York. But they keep on spending. Then, three years into their marriage, Anthony is drafted into the Army and has to travel south to his training camp; and Adam J Patch dies and appears to have cut Anthony out of his will. Since the principal beneficiary is the man servant who has managed old Adam for many years there are grounds for contesting the will but the law suit grinds on forever, at great cost. Anthony becomes an alcoholic and seems destined for an early and penurious death.
And there, to avoid a plot spoiler, this review must stop. The book is worth reading to the end for the ironic humour of the author and his gift for language, and for the fascinating conclusion. If it gives you a taste for the other Fitzgerald novels then so much the better. He is up there with Faulkner, Steinbeck and Hemingway as a wonderful chronicler of twentieth century America.