The Jazz Age Began 100 Years Ago Today in Scott Fitzgerald’s “May Day”
When a friend, reading his manuscript, asked what a certain word meant, Fitzgerald said, “Damn if I know, but doesn’t it fit in there just beautifully?”
—Andrew Turnbull, from Scott Fitzgerald (1962)
By Stuart Mitchner
The most notorious of the May Day uprisings that shocked New York and other American cities 100 years ago today erupted in Cleveland Ohio, where a march by the Socialist Party sparked riots resulting in two deaths and numerous injuries. In the chronicles of 20th century American literature, however, the dateline May 1, 1919 belongs to “May Day,” a long story by Scott Fitzgerald that first appeared in The Smart Set in July 1920 and was reprinted in Tales of the Jazz Age (1922).
In Paradise Lost (Belknap Press 2017), the most recent of numerous biographies, historian David S. Brown suggests that although Fitzgerald “always considered himself politically on the left and self-identified as a ‘Socialist’ in Who’s Who in America,” his “critque of capitalism” grew out of “a primarily conservative impulse.” For an example, Brown cites an observation by one of Fitzgerald’s first biographers, Andrew Turnbull: “Fitzgerald’s political thought, like all his thought, was emotional and impulsive, general ideas being for him little more than a backdrop to his fiction.”
An All-Night Binge
Turnbull’s biography locates the impetus behind “May Day” not so much in the attack on a Socialist newspaper as in Fitzgerald’s all-night binge with a fellow Princetonian following a Yale fraternity dance at Delmonico’s. Fitzgerald’s wild night began in Child’s Restaurant on 59th and Broadway, where “the dance crowd was sobering up,” but not Fitzgerald, who sat off by himself “mixing hash, poached eggs, and catsup” in his companion’s derby before approaching various Yale men with hostile designs on their fried eggs or shredded wheat. “Soon food was being thrown and Fitzgerald was kicked out,” though he tried to “sneak back in on hands and knees each time the restaurant door opened.”
Returning to Delmonico’s “in the early dawn,” the two revelers took the “In” and “Out” signs off the coatroom doors and fixed them to their shirt fronts, thereby becoming “Mr. In” and “Mr Out,” which is how they introduced themselves to the friends they called on the house phone at the Biltmore Hotel. After being refused champagne for breakfast at another hotel, they were finally served at the Commodore “and ended up rolling the empty bottles among the churchgoers on Fifth Avenue.”
These drunken escapades prefigured Fitzgerald’s cavortings with Zelda Sayre when they honeymooned at the Biltmore (from which they were eventually banished), bathed in the Plaza fountain, and took the show to Princeton, where “Zelda turned cartwheels down Prospect Street” and poured a demijohn of applejack over omelets to make omelettes flambée during breakfast at the Cottage Club.
Fitzgerald puts his sprees to effective, sometimes inspired use in “May Day,” which has room for Mr. In and Mr. Out; two soliders who join the attack on the newspaper; Ivy Leaguers and their dates dancing and drinking at Delmonico’s; and in the end a drunken marriage and a lonely suicide. Fitzgerald’s gift for redeeming outrageous behavior in his work recalls Hemingway’s stunned admiration for The Great Gatsby: “When I had finished the book, I knew that no matter what Scott did, nor how he behaved, I must know it was like a sickness and be of any help I could to him and try to be a good friend.”
Turnbull ends the May Day chapter with a sentence from Fitzgerald’s 1937 essay “Early Success”: “The uncertainties of 1919 were over — there seemed little doubt about what was going to happen — America was going on the greatest, gaudiest spree in history and there was going to be plenty to tell about it.”
“A Somewhat Unpleasant Tale”
Fitzgerald refers to the autobiographical component of “May Day” in a brief preface to “this somewhat unpleasant tale” that “relates a series of events” connected only by “the general hysteria” that “inaugurated the Age of Jazz,” events that he tried (“unsuccessfully I fear”) to weave into a pattern that would “give the effect of those months in New York as they appeared to at least one member of what was then the younger generation.”
Fitzgerald’s token “unsuccessfully” is belied by the dimensions of his vision of a time and place, specifically New York City on the cusp of Prohibition. The bravura prelude, a mock-heroic hymn to the gaudy splendors of Manhattan, casts a satirical light on the inane materialism of the period, at the same time evoking the capitalist greed targeted by the Socialist newspaper: “Never had there been such splendor in the great city, for the victorious war had brought plenty in its train, and the merchants had flocked thither from the South and West with their households to taste of all the luscious feasts and witness the lavish entertainments” and “to buy for their women furs against the next winter and bags of golden mesh and varicolored slippers of silk and silver and rose satin and cloth of gold.” The tone is taken to an even broader level in the next paragraph’s reference to the “foot-soldiers” returning from the war “pure and brave, sound of tooth and pink of cheek” to be welcomed by “the young women of the land,” who were “comely both of face and of figure.”
The plotline of the story follows Gordon Sterrett, “a darkly handsome” down-and-out artist desperately soliciting a loan of $300 from his wealthy ex-roommate at Yale Philip Dean. As he waits in a New York hotel room while Dean takes a shower, Sterrett’s gaze falls on “a family of thick silk shirts littered on the chairs amid impressive neckties and soft woollen socks.” Picking up one of the shirts, he gives it “a minute examination. It was of very heavy silk, yellow, with a pale blue stripe — and there were nearly a dozen of them. He stared involuntarily at his own shirt-cuffs — they were ragged and linty at the edges and soiled to a faint gray. Dropping the silk shirt, he held his coat-sleeves down and worked the frayed shirt-cuffs up till they were out of sight.”
At this point, most readers of The Great Gatsby will be reminded of the scene where Gatsby dazzles Daisy with his wardrobe: “He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, … shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray.” As he brings out still more, “the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue.” Expensive shirts that become beautiful in the lyric glow of Gatsby become hateful amid the ugly ironies in “May Day,” especially in the eyes of the aspiring artist who claims he could pay back the loan if only he had enough money to buy “decent drawing materials.”
Fitzgerald had “been there” himself during the half year before Scribner’s accepted his first novel. In his 1932 essay “My Lost City,” he describes “being haunted always” by his “other life,” his “drab room in the Bronx,” his “square foot of the subway,” his “shabby suits” and his “poverty.” Embattled by the “vibrant life” of the city, he got “weeping drunk” and went home to Minnesota to finish his novel. By the time he returned to New York, the book that became This Side of Paradise had been accepted, the offices of editors and publishers were open to him, “impresarios begged plays, the movies panted for screen material.”
The Fitzgerald Touch
All through “May Day” there are touches of the poetry that achieves full expression in The Great Gatsby. The account of the early morning melee at Child’s is buoyant and amusing, as might be expected from the author of the real-life chaos. But then the commotion gives way to a “phenomenon” that draws admiring glances from everyone in the restaurant: “The great plate-glass front had turned to a deep blue, the color of a Maxfield Parrish moonlight — a blue that seemed to press close upon the pane as if to crowd its way into the restaurant. Dawn had come up in Columbus Circle, magical, breathless dawn, silhouetting the great statue of the immortal Christopher, and mingling in a curious and uncanny manner with the fading yellow electric light inside.”
What at first appears to be another preview of Gatsby is the scene where the story’s Daisy, a debutante named Edith, encounters a drunken, miserably needy Gordon Sterrett during the dance at Delmonico’s. Fitzgerald seems to be setting the stage for a Daisy-Gatsby moment in his description of Edith fantasizing about Gordon, “falling in love” with her memory of a romantic interlude they’d shared at another dance before the war. In a lesser story, she might have given him the compassion he was desperately seeking. But according to the grim trajectory followed in “May Day,” she finds his drunken misery disgusting and gives him nothing.
After reprising Mr. In and Mr. Out in the penultimate section of “May Day,” Fitzgerald ends the story with Gordon waking in the bedroom of a small hotel next to a woman who had boozed and blackmailed him into marriage. It’s a long way from “Maxfield Parrish moonlight” to the moment he begins to comprehend his fate. The windows in the room are “tight shut,” the room smells of “stale cigarette smoke and stale liquor,” and there’s a rip in the large leather chair he’s staring at as realizes he’s “irrevocably married.” Half an hour later he buys a revolver at a sporting goods store, takes a taxi to the room he’d been living in, and, “leaning across the table that held his drawing materials, fired a cartridge into his head just behind the temple.”
Some 30 years later, Fitzgerald’s great admirer J.D. Salinger ends his breakthrough New Yorker story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” in a hotel room that smelled of “new calfskin luggage and nail-laquer remover.” With the woman he had just married lying asleep on one of the twin beds, Seymour Glass “went over and sat down on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple.”
In a letter to Zelda written from Hollywood shortly before his death at 44 from a heart attack on December 20, 1940, Fitzgerald told her he was writing “a constructed novel like Gatsby [published in 1941 as The Last Tycoon], with passages of poetic prose when it fits the action.” After noting “how odd it was that his talent for the short story had vanished,” he suggests that “part of it was tied up somehow with you and me — the happy ending.”