Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Disenchanted: On Budd Schulberg's Hollywood writing assignment with F. Scott Fitzgerald.

A Q&A with Benn Schulberg, who is the son of Budd Schulberg, author of The Disenchanted, which was reissued in a University of Minnesota Press edition in September 2012. The moving, controversial novel captured both the dazzling spirit and the bitter disenchantment of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age. It centers around an ill-fated screenplay writing gig between the fictional Manley Halliday and young writer Shep Stearns, with events directly inspired by a real-life Hollywood screenplay writing assignment between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Budd Schulberg.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1937.
Image from Creative Commons; photographer
is Carl Van Vechten.

How big of an F. Scott Fitzgerald fan was Budd Schulberg before he met him?

My father was a huge admirer of FSF and you could go so far as to say he was one of his literary heroes. Of course, as many others did, my father didn't even know he was still alive. That's how far FSF had fallen since his golden years during the 1920s.

My father was completely shocked when Walter Wanger told him FSF was in the next room reading his script for Winter Carnival.

My dad waited anxiously for FSF to finish reading the script and when they met he told Budd it wasn't very good. My father said, "I agree with you," and their endearing friendship began from that moment forth.  

You are currently in possession of FSF's social security card. Could you explain the events that led you to obtain it?

My father told this story many times and it still remains one of my favorites. They were en route via train to their destination at Dartmouth, along with Wanger, who was anticipating a brilliant script to be ready in time for production there. FSF had fallen off the wagon ever since my grandfather, B.P. Schulberg, gave Budd bottles of champagne to take on the flight from Los Angeles to NYC. He was equally ecstatic that Budd was working with FSF, but neither was aware of his delicate sobriety at the time.

Long story short, Scott, as my father always called him, got off the train during an extended stopover when he saw the opportunity of a bar nearby. Budd followed and they lost track of time. When they heard the call from the conductor and tried to run for it, FSF fell off his stool with his wallet and other papers came out. My dad snatched them up and they made a run for it as the train sped away. They ended up tracking the train down in cab at the next stop and somehow my father kept FSF's social security card in his pocket.  

How did your father feel about the Roaring Twenties after his encounter with Fitzgerald?

I wouldn’t say Fitzgerald changed his perspective of the era, but it did make him realize how quickly success can vanish, even for the most gifted of artists. Yet, growing up as the son of an early film pioneer made my father an expert in the pitfalls of the entertainment business and how quickly careers can change. For Budd, the Twenties were important for his own development as a writer and represented the golden years for the Schulberg family, with B.P. on his way to running Paramount Pictures and his marriage to Ad still intact while settling down in Hancock Park.  

Did your father talk much about his time with Fitzgerald?

I was always very curious about my father’s life and fascinated that he knew FSF. I spent hours asking questions about their relationship and vividly remember staying up late listening to my father tell me about his experiences with FSF. The beautiful aspect of my father’s storytelling is that once you got him on a subject he’d take you on a detailed and quite magical ride. He always enjoyed talking about FSF and had only positive memories of him. He found him endearing and supportive of his career.

One thing that shocked my father was FSF’s physical condition. He was a relatively young man who looked so old and worn that my father couldn’t believe it was him.

As for favorite anecdote, I’d have to go back to their train ride together to Dartmouth. Since leaving Los Angeles together and holing up in a NYC hotel to re-write the script, nothing had been accomplished except excessive drinking and late night reminisces. My father tried to get FSF working, to no avail. At one point in their NYC hotel suite, FSF told Budd to go in one room and write the first half, and he would write the second, and later they’d reconvene and put it together. My dad knew they were in trouble but went along with FSF’s plan. One night in NYC, my dad returned to the suite to find FSF gone with only a drunken note left behind. My father spent hours scouring the bars near the hotel and eventually found him basically passed out in a booth.

Walter Wanger kept asking Budd how things were going and my father would cover for the pair to satisfy their producer’s concerns. The truth was, though, that they ultimately had the train ride up to Dartmouth to prove their worth to Wanger and FSF’s drinking had gotten out of control. The story goes that during the early morning hours on the train, FSF came up with a new pitch idea for Winter Carnival and told it to my father in a drunken stupor. Budd didn’t think it was very good and was horrified when FSF said he wanted to go to Wanger’s room at that moment and tell him. They knocked in the middle of the night and Wanger opened the door in his bathrobe and said, “This better be good.” My father wasn’t exactly sober himself and had quite a bad stutter in those days, especially when nervous. He figured FSF would pitch the new idea to Wanger, but instead, FSF said, “Well Budd why don’t you tell it?” It was disastrous as my father stuttered his way through this cockamamie story that FSF just came up with. Wanger was furious and kicked them out of his room and it was clear to my father that the end was near for the FSF-Budd Schulberg dream partnership.  

One particularly compelling line I took from the book is from Anne (a character modeled after gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, with whom FSF had a relationship toward the end of his life): "An athlete's career is just the opposite of an artist's. The athlete matures faster, loses his reflexes through his twenties and is washed up in his thirties. But an artist should build slowly through his twenties, start maturing in his thirties and reach his peak in his fifties or sixties. Maybe that's the trouble with you American writers, you think of yourselves as athletic stars." This quote seems to speak rather poetically to Fitzgerald's career. What does it tell you with regard to your father's own career? 

Interesting question, and sadly for Fitzgerald, alcohol was ultimately his downfall. My father always said that FSF was maybe the most talented writer he’d ever come across and he found him incredibly insightful and obviously a master of prose. Ironically, my father often compared writers to boxers (a sport he followed and wrote about throughout his life) in the sense that both were exposed for all to see and had to hone their craft alone with all the doubters and critics trying to cast them down. My father’s resilience was one of his greatest attributes and allowed him his remarkable longevity. FSF lived only 44 years and to think my dad made it to 95 is just amazing. He never thought of himself as a star and had the ability to move from project to project in a very compartmentalized way, which enabled him to stay in the moment and not concern himself with topping his last hit or worry what people will think of his next work. That was such a key for him, and thankfully for me, he outlived all the other great writers of his day.  

How does this particular line from The Disenchanted strike you, as Budd's son? "You feel an absurd pride when your son turns out to look like you. And another savage shot-in-the-arm when he begins to emulate you." 

That’s a helluva line. I think it speaks to the perils of the entertainment industry and growing up as Budd’s son, similar to how he felt with his father, your understanding of the dangers of the business are magnified because of your experience inside that world.

You've got a film, Hollywood Renegade, forthcoming about your father's life and "the many lives of Budd Schulberg." Can you tell us a bit about it?

We hope to have it ready for my father’s centennial in March. We began filming when he was 91 and the film evolved into a story about a young son who went back into his father’s life to find out who he really was. He was in his late 60s when I was born, and so his great works such as On the Waterfront and What Makes Sammy Run? were obviously before my time. We went back to Hollywood and filmed in the house he grew up in and to the Paramount lot where he used to sit on the bench with Charlie Chaplin, joke with the Marx brothers, and play pranks on various stars. We also went back to Hoboken, where On the Waterfront was filmed, and many other places. The film, though, is more than just a nostalgic journey into the past. It’s a political story that centers on the McCarthy Era and the price one pays for his beliefs, and ultimately the sacrifice one makes for freedom of speech and protecting a nation from the dangers of communism.  

More information:  

Also of interest: A video by the Robert H. Jackson Center of Budd Schulberg on F. Scott Fitzgerald.


Benn Schulberg is writer, producer and director of Hollywood Renegade: The Many Lives of Budd Schulberg. He is the son of Budd Schulberg, whose many novels include The Disenchanted, What Makes Sammy Run? and The Harder They Fall.

"[Manley Halliday] will haunt the imagination of all who have the good fortune to be coming, for the first time, to this remarkable novel." 
Anthony Burgess  

"As Fitzgeraldian as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Halliday is the very essence of ‘the lost generation.’" 
—Library Journal

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