Frances Kroll Ring

Posting a Zippy yesterday about F. Scott Fitzgerald reminded me of one of 2015’s more remarkable obituaries, for Frances Kroll Ring, who was Fitzgerald’s secretary and assistant. To put ths in context: Ring started working for Fitzgerald before I was born, and when the writer died, I was only three months old. Now I’m an old man, and Ring died only last June 18th (aged 99), a relic of times long gone by. Her story was told by J. R. Moehringer in the New York Times‘s “The Lives They Lived” issue on December 27th, under the heading “More Than a Secretary: She befriended F. Scott Fitzgerald and never let go”.

The beginning of the story:

One day Frances Kroll Ring read to him from his beloved Keats. He was lying in bed, ill, frail, probably hung over, and the words hit him with special force. He had tears in his eyes, so she stopped, left the room and let him rest.

F. Scott Fitzgerald surely knew that Keats, on his deathbed, was read to by his young friend Joseph Severn. Did he have a sense that he was re-enacting that famous scene? That his young friend, Ring, might be his Severn? Did she?

Their relationship began in April 1939 with another bedside scene. By chance, Rusty’s Employment Agency in Hollywood sent her to Fitzgerald’s house in Encino to interview for a job as his secretary. Nervously, she walked into the house and into the bedroom and discovered the author of America’s Great Novel propped limply against the pillows.

‘‘He was a very handsome man,’’ she told me in 1996, when I interviewed her for The Los Angeles Times. ‘‘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.’’

She was 22, wholly innocent. He was 42, anything but. Deeply in debt, artistically discouraged, physically compromised by years of drink and by tuberculosis, the disease that killed Keats.

And yet they were well matched. Maybe it was because each was trying to make a fresh start on a new coast. Ring had recently come to California from the Bronx, where she grew up; Fitzgerald had come from North Carolina, where his estranged wife, Zelda, was confined to a sanitarium [diagnosed with schizophrenia]. In fact, he told Ring he had just returned from an unhappy tryst with Zelda in Cuba, the last time they would ever see each other. One of Ring’s first tasks was to type a letter of conciliation and apology.

Her main task, however, was the new novel. For $35 a week, she typed up the oversize sheets he covered with his knife-blunted pencils. If he had no new pages for her, she might restock his supply of cigarettes and sodas, warm up his favorite turtle soup, pick up his groceries, run interference with his daughter, Scottie, a Vassar student, and his girlfriend, Sheilah Graham, a Hollywood gossip columnist.

Sometimes, she simply listened. Fitzgerald talked to Ring about everything: politics, religion, family, Hemingway, his publisher — his career. He shared with her his sorrow at no longer being read, his determination to be good again. In her 1985 memoir, ‘‘Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald,’’ Ring described how stirring it was to see him shake off his demons and give himself to the work — like ‘‘an athlete who had let himself go to fat decide that he was going to make a comeback.’’

Over 20 intense months, their relationship evolved. Fitzgerald cast Ring in many roles, and vice versa. Father and daughter, tutor and pupil, boon companions. At times it got confusing. He made a pass at her, which she deftly blocked. Throughout, she remained the wide-eyed observer, the empathetic witness to his doomed desire.

Finally, on Dec. 21, 1940, Ring got a cryptic message from Graham: Come quick. She hurried to Graham’s apartment and found Fitzgerald (tan slacks, plaid jacket) sprawled on the floor. Heart attack.

In the following days and weeks, it all fell to her. Pay his bills. Pack his things. Gather his unfinished novel and meet with his editor, [the celebrated] Maxwell Perkins.

But she never really stopped. She spent the next seven decades wrapping up — consoling Zelda, befriending Scottie, meeting with journalists and scholars and fans. As Severn did with Keats, she told the world again and again how it was at the end.

She also played a vital role in the campaign to restore Fitzgerald’s reputation.

Fitzgerald’s cause was also taken up by the English professor Matthew Bruccoli, who developed a life-long obsession with Fitzgerald and his circle and made them into a kind of personal industry.

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