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Getting a Read on F. Scott Fitzgerald

Memories: She was his friend and assistant. And in this, the 100th year after his birth, Frances Kroll Ring is making sure that the public knows the total man.

September 27, 1996|J.R. MOEHRINGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With F. Scott Fitzgerald fans pausing this week to mark the 100th anniversary of his birth, one Beverly Hills woman can't help remembering his death.

Frances Kroll Ring was there at the end. During the last 20 months of Fitzgerald's life, she typed his rough drafts, sharpened his pencils and lifted his spirits each time a bad hangover consigned him to bed. While Fitzgerald churned out Hollywood piecework and raced to finish his final novel, Ring served him as personal assistant, confidante and friend.

Then, she did one last thing for the man who wrote, "It is in the 30s that we want friends. In the 40s we know they won't save us any more than love did." After the 44-year-old writer's heart failed a few days before Christmas, Ring gathered his belongings, closed his Laurel Avenue apartment and picked out his plain gray coffin.

Today, Ring may be the sole surviving witness to Fitzgerald's resilience, a trait that gets lost amid stories of his frail romantic spirit and alcohol-scorched nerves. "Nobody really addresses the way it was at the end," she says. "All the books focus on the drinking and all that, and that was not the total man."

Days before starting a nationwide round of parties and panel discussions for the centennial of Fitzgerald's birth date--Sept. 24, 1896--Ring relaxes in her book-filled Beverly Hills house, among prized editions of "Taps at Reveille," "Tender Is the Night" and "The Great Gatsby," each one elaborately inscribed to her by the best boss she ever had. At 77, she's led a full life. Husband, children, career. But, somehow, Fitzgerald still defines her. "It's been like a shadow throughout my life," she says without regret.

Every detail of the man remains bright and clear in Ring's mind. She remembers that he chain-smoked filtered Raleighs. She remembers that he drank Gordon's gin. She remembers that he wrote on legal pads, using blunt, knife-sharpened pencils because their points didn't easily break.

In a way, she still works for "Scott," polishing his image, disputing his reputation as a Jazz Age relic who simply gave up. Always, Ring insists, Fitzgerald fought bravely to come back, to resurrect himself through writing, to beat on against the current.

"He was a very hard-working writer," she says. "And I try to establish the struggle that he had at the end, and how he overcame it by himself, through his writing. Because that was the thing that meant most to him. When he was writing, he was great."

*

Biographers sometimes seek out Ring. Conferences often invite her. In 1985, Creative Arts Books brought out "Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald," her reminiscence, which one reviewer called "a rediscovered snapshot." Still, few people really want Ring's version of events. Mostly, she says, "they want to touch me."

At last weekend's Princeton University commemoration of Fitzgerald, Ring found herself besieged by dewy-eyed fans, each one asking the same question:

"What did he sound like?"

Her response was always the same.

"Human."

It was a Hollywood employment agency that sent her to Fitzgerald when she was 20. Though she'd heard his name and read a few of his Saturday Evening Post pieces, other writers of the day intrigued her more. "Frankly," she whispers, "I was reading a lot of Hemingway."

Arriving at the Encino ranch where Fitzgerald lived and worked, Ring found the writer lying in bed, tired and glum after a disastrous visit with his wife, Zelda, at a North Carolina sanitarium.

"He was a very handsome man," she says. "He looked very pale and he had sort of faded blond hair and blue-green eyes. He sat me down and it was a lovely room. It was a country farmhouse, and the sun was coming in, and he had me open a drawer--and it was filled with empty gin bottles."

Fitzgerald watched Ring's reaction, perhaps to see if she'd be shocked by the collected evidence of his alcoholism. When she reacted not at all--because she didn't know what alcoholism was--he seemed amused. "I'd never met anybody that interesting in my whole life," she says.

Immediately, Fitzgerald revealed his intention to write a grand novel about Hollywood, that capricious and pernicious force in his latter life. Offering to pay her $35 a week, Fitzgerald invited Ring to be his helpmate.

*

Ring became a fixture in the Encino household, the one person responsible for keeping Fitzgerald organized, focused and fed. "It wasn't your typical workday," she says.

In the morning, she might read to him from Keats or Ecclesiastes. In the afternoon, she might rush to the airport with corrections for a story he'd mailed East just hours earlier. ("What he could have done with a fax machine," she says.) In the evening, she might type a heartfelt letter to his editor-mentor, Maxwell Perkins, or balance his checkbook or restock his cache of Coca-Cola, a drink he gulped endlessly to fend off the thirst for gin.

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