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Column One

She lent Fitzgerald her hand

Years after 'Gatsby,' his secretary got to witness the second act of

June 08, 2009|David L. Ulin

All these years later, Frances Kroll Ring can still see it, the afternoon she filled out an application at Rusty's Employment Agency on Hollywood Boulevard and drove to Encino to meet a writer who was looking for a secretary.

It was April 1939, and she was 22, a Bronx transplant with typing and dictation skills. She'd been in Southern California for a little more than a year, coming west to help her father, a New York furrier, set up shop on Wilshire Boulevard. "Everybody said, 'You're a furrier? What are you doing in Southern California?' " Ring remembers. "But he knew the studios used furs. Because then the actresses used to be dressed to the gills."

At 92, Ring is elfin: small, spry, dressed in black pants and flat shoes. Her gray hair is short but not close-cropped and when she laughs, which is often, she reveals a toothy grin. Her house on this quiet spring morning in Benedict Canyon is full of books and mementos; a drawing by author William Saroyan hangs on one wall. Sitting at her dining table, sipping coffee, she looks back to the afternoon that started it all.

"At the agency," she recalls, "they asked if I knew Scott Fitzgerald and I said I wasn't really sure. I hadn't read Fitzgerald then. I'd read Hemingway, who was the big muck-a-muck." This was not unlikely: By 1939, 14 years after the triumph of "The Great Gatsby," Fitzgerald had been essentially forgotten, much of his writing out of print. Now he was in Los Angeles to hack it out for the studios, struggling to support his wife, Zelda, institutionalized in North Carolina, and their daughter, Frances, known as Scottie, a student at a boarding school back east. He was an alcoholic recently recovered from a nervous breakdown; he hadn't published a book in four years.

Ring, however, didn't know any of that when she went "over the hill" to where Fitzgerald was living. She also didn't know Fitzgerald was planning his own literary resurrection, a novel that, notes Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer A. Scott Berg, "promised to be his best book." That was "The Love of the Last Tycoon," the Hollywood epic on which Fitzgerald worked, with Ring's assistance, for the last 20 months of his life. Left unfinished at his death in December 1940, the book would be instrumental in rehabilitating Fitzgerald's reputation when it was published in 1941.

"She's the last real witness," Berg points out, "along with Budd Schulberg" (the 95-year-old author of the classic 1941 Hollywood novel "What Makes Sammy Run?") "to Fitzgerald as a working writer. She had a front row seat for a year-and-a-half." Novelist Steve Erickson calls her "a living connection to an American culture that cared about writing and literacy . . . She is the keeper of a literary flame in a city that has always had more literature than it gets credit for."

Ring has, on occasion, told her story; in 1985, she published a slender memoir, "Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald," which was made into the 2002 Showtime movie "Last Call." But she's also deeply protective of her time with Fitzgerald -- "she didn't want to seem to be exploiting it," suggests Erickson -- which explains why so few know about his final months.

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From the start, Fitzgerald was frail, if focused. He had just returned from a disastrous trip to Cuba with Zelda -- the last time they would see each other -- and was recovering from the bender the voyage had become. "He was lying in bed," Ring says of their first meeting, "and he asked me all kinds of questions. Then he gave me some money and asked me to wire it to his daughter -- and to call him when I was done. That was his way of testing my honesty. He was only in his 40s, but he was fragile. The kind you wanted to help. He was very pale and had very blue eyes, and he was a charmer."

Toward the end of the interview, Fitzgerald asked Ring to open a drawer in his bedroom; "Instead of shirts or underwear or whatever one might expect to find in a bureau drawer, there were gin bottles," she writes in her book.

It's not clear, exactly, whether Fitzgerald was warning her about what she was getting into or letting her know what he was trying to overcome. One possibility is that it was another test, another indication of the need for discretion, of the type of closeness that working with him would require. "He told me he was going to do a novel about Hollywood," Ring says. "That was another thing: Could he trust me? Because he didn't want anyone to know what he was doing."

Fitzgerald wasn't, at first, able to work. "He wasn't organized yet," Ring says. "We did letters. I could type, I could do letters, I could do bookkeeping because I used to take care of my father's stuff. And at the beginning, he wanted to sit and talk. He was in bed most of the time, or he'd get up and pace around. He'd talk about books, and I was well-read, which intrigued him, because a lot of the secretaries were not well-read. There were other functions for them at the time and I wasn't that kind of girl."

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