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Excerpt: Gatsby's Girl

Jacket of 'Gatsby's Girl' by Caroline Preston


Scott Fitzgerald's daughter called long distance, out of the blue. Her voice sounded apologetic, as if she was afraid I wouldn't remember who he was. She explained that she had had no idea how to get in touch with me. She decided to give the number in his old telephone book a try, even though Scott had been dead for ten years. "I can’t believe you’re still in the same place, Mrs. Granger."

That made me sit down, hard, on the hall bench. Scott had bounced around from St. Paul to New York to Paris to Baltimore to Hollywood, and here I was, still in the same house where he’d come for a visit, back in 1916. "I’m not Mrs. Granger anymore," I said. "Now I’m Mrs. John Pullman." At least that part had changed.

She told me her name had changed too, to Scottie Lanahan, and she lived on a farm in Chevy Chase. Judging from all the racket in the background, she had a couple of small children and a dog. "My father always used to talk about you. He said you were the first girl he ever loved."

"I’m afraid I wasn't very nice to him," I said lightly, as if I hadn't had years of regrets about the way I treated Scott.

"He said you threw him over without a second thought." She let out a merry little laugh, as if she didn't take any of her father's heartbreaks too seriously. "Anyway, that's why I'm calling. I'm sorting through Daddy's papers to give to the library at Princeton, and I found something I know he would want you to have."

"What?" I asked, thinking maybe it was one of my letters, even though he was supposed to have destroyed them all.

"Let's just say it's something unusual. You'll have to see for yourself," she said in a teasing way. It reminded me of the game Scott used on girls at parties. "I’m thinking of two words that describe you," he'd say, "can you guess?" "I’m going to be in Chicago next week and I was hoping I could give it to you in person. I've always wanted to meet you."

I tried to think of someplace cheerful and uncomplicated to meet, in case Scottie was prone to cocktails and mournful moods like her father. "How about the Walnut Room at Marshall Field's? You’ll be my guest, of course. The Welsh rarebit is famous."

"My favorite." There was a huge clatter in the background, like a stack of pots and pans falling off a top shelf.

"Uh-oh," said a small voice.

"Better go," Scottie said. "See you next week. At the Walnut Room. I want to hear all about you and Daddy. Your version."

I hung up the phone and studied the front hallway, trying to remember what it had looked like that summer Scott visited. The house was brand new then and still had all the fripperies my father had insisted Mr. Shaw include. The iron balusters had been gold-leafed, the black-and-white marble tiles were hard-waxed and buffed once a week by Mrs. Coates, the privet by the front door was clipped into poodle balls. Daddy had bought a second-rate salon portrait at auction to hang in the stairwell -- three sons of some unknown Austrian aristocrat, dressed in ostrich feathers and satin pantaloons, with oddly enlarged heads.

My image of Scott when he'd stepped through the front door came in disconnected fragments. His white linen suit was rumpled across the back, and his collar had a ring of grime from the long train ride. His hair was bright blond, like a Dutch boy's. The chin and nose were strong, but hadn't firmed up into the famous profile yet. He dropped his battered suitcase on the marble floor with a bang and surveyed the hallway as if it were a cathedral -- first staring up at the ceiling and then rotating slowly to take it all in. Then his girlish mouth pulled back into a tight grin, as if he was trying not to laugh. Even though Scott's family lived in a rented flat in St. Paul, he could see that an Italianate villa smack-dab in the middle of the prairie was pretentious. Later, after he'd had a couple of my father's gin and tonics, he announced that Lake Forest consisted of nothing more than the palaces of meatpackers.

I could remember Scott's letters more clearly than his face, which wasn't surprising. I saw Scott only a few times, but there had been dozens and dozens of letters. Each sheet stamped with the Princeton seal, the letters so thick that the envelopes bloated like a puffer fish and needed extra stamps. For a while, I found one every day in my wooden mail cubby at Westover. The letters seemed clever at first, filled with the flattery and clippings of his latest in the Tiger Lit. -- he was the only boy I'd ever met who fancied himself a "writer." But then he came for a visit to Lake Forest, and under Daddy's judgmental gaze, Scott and his avalanche of love letters began to seem foolish, tiresome. And I'd met someone more dashing, at least in my sixteen-year-old opinion -- Billy Granger.

The subject of Scott's letters was bound to come up when I had lunch with Scottie, and I'd have to admit the truth. That a week after Scott's visit in August 1916, I'd gathered his letters into a heavy, wobbly stack, carried them down the back stairs, and dumped them in the trash can outside the kitchen door. I could still see the cream envelopes with the black-and-orange crest landing on a mound of coffee grounds and eggshells. My excuses would sound lame. He asked me to destroy his letters, said he was afraid I'd use them as "incriminating evidence," which was such nonsense. How could I have ever guessed that the Princeton boy who wrote silly songs and poems would turn into a famous author?

Scottie had probably read the description of our meeting in This Side of Paradise: She paused at the top of the staircase, like a diver on a springboard or a leading lady on opening night -- something like that. So typical of Scott, to take a punch party at a shabby country club and fill it with flickering lamplight and romantic interludes. To take a stuck-up pre-debutante and turn her into a noble creature capable of deep feelings.

I wondered what memento of our romance Scottie had found in her father's papers -- a clipping about the party at the Town and Country Club in the St. Paul paper, a ticket stub for Nobody Home, the sash from the Hawaiian costume I'd worn the night I broke it off with him? I had my own secret collection of mementos about Scott, hidden away on the back shelf of a cedar closet behind a pile of unused evening bags. But I wouldn't share those with anyone -- not his daughter, and certainly not the Princeton library.

I would tell Scottie my version of F. Scott Fitzgerald, without the moonlight.

The story began in the dormitory of Westover School, second floor, last door on the left. I could see myself then, a girl strolling jauntily down a long, dim hallway, her high heels clacking on the bare wood floor, a pale blue moiré jacket slung over one shoulder like a college boy. I was two months shy of my sixteenth birthday and stood a pinch below five foot four. I had been told I was pretty far too often for my own good, but my only unusual features were a thick coil of dark hair and large, doe-brown eyes that could turn wistful. Dramatic coloring was my claim to fame back in the days when girls weren't allowed to wear rouge or lipstick.

I was still bristling from the injustice of my father's words as he put me on the train. He’d said that Westover was my final chance to prove my character and warned me not to dilly-dally at Grand Central or I’d miss my connection to Middlebury.

I do have a good character, I fumed. I am good on the inside, and I never say things I know aren't true. Sometimes I'm too emotional and don't think things through, but why is that such a character flaw? But I had dawdled for a few minutes, to have some cinnamon toast in a real English teashop with organdy curtains and to window shop, and missed my connection. I caught the next one, but I was three hours late.

Copyright © 2006 by Caroline Preston. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.

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Caroline Preston