Famous writers and their vices: why we can’t get enough of them
Whether it’s Hemingway or F Scott Fitzgerald, we relish writers stepping into their pages
Martha Gellhorn on her husband, Ernest Hemingway: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.” Photograph: Hulton/Getty
‘Real stingo within’
You are most likely wondering about the title of this article. It comes from a John Clare poem – “stingo” is slang for strong ale – and I’ve always imagined that the protagonists in the following story have “real stingo within” (even though it’s certain strong ale is not swashing round their cosmopolitan guts).
Picture the scene: a literary party in 1970s New York; canapes and cocktails (much more likely than ale); and two of the largest egos to ever bestride the literary landscape. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal lock horns, the street scrapper versus the American blue blood; bad blood has pulsed between them for years.
Mailer, a purveyor of the pugilistic arts, and Vidal, no delicate flower either, having enlisted in the US army at 17, set to it. The former knocks the latter to the floor, but it’s fair to say Vidal takes a points victory on this occasion. “Once again words fail Norman Mailer,” he retorts before getting back to his feet. It is a feud that bubbles for decades – their bickering comes to a boil on The Dick Cavett Show – until Mailer and Vidal make some form of peace with one another late in life. The relationship is like a bad marriage, Mailer notes in hindsight.
All the same, aren’t we fortunate to have such an anecdote? It’s the perfect image of two major writers who rarely sought the minor key.
We fall in love with the words, so we fall in love with the writer, and it follows that we wish to fall in love with the individual
A maxim for journalists is never to become the story. In the book world, however, we have always relished tales where writers step into their pages, where they become as large as (and sometimes bigger than) some of the characters they have invented. This idea applies to the great writers especially: character comes when we discover causality. Vidal’s intellect and creativity were fired by feuds throughout his career: Mailer, Truman Capote, William Buckley and Christopher Hitchens, among others. Mailer, meanwhile, needed to bristle to bring about his best work.
Wild stories and writers: what’s more gratifying for any reader peeking through the curtain at those hunting the mot juste? We fall in love with the words, so we fall in love with the writer, and it follows that we wish to fall in love with the individual. This isn’t always possible, as anyone who values the early work of Ernest Hemingway will attest.
Your attitude to Hemingway depends on how early you reach him on your reading map. It’s difficult for your feelings to stay unsoiled by the bumptious parody of the personality. Martha Gellhorn, one of the greatest journalists of the 20th century, who had the misfortune of being married to Hemingway for a few years, said of him: “A man must be a very great genius to make up for being such a loathsome human being.” A telling judgment from someone who probably irked Hemingway in the end for being just as good a writer and a damn sight more courageous a person. Gellhorn rolled 10 lives’ worth of experience into her war correspondent’s portmanteau, and Travels with Myself and Another is one of the finest books I’ve read. I am grateful for her stories.
Stories create relics of the writer; these relics are the pay-off as we consume the writer and the life, even if we suspect the latter may prove unpalatable.
Another of Hemingway’s old sparring partners, F Scott Fitzgerald, is the subject of a recent and enjoyable biography by David S Brown, Paradise Lost. Most readers have a mental postcard of Fitzgerald’s life already: produced two masterly novels, some good books and many excellent short stories but ultimately wasted his talent with hack work and the movies, all the while drinking himself to death. Why buy the new biography, then? Why do we return to the well?
Again, it’s due to the stories outside the author’s page. Brown’s Paradise Lost is welcome in that it filters some of the poor-boy-in-life-and-love consensus. We are drawn to Fitzgerald’s life for his flaws as much for as his achievements. The question of how he could fail so well is intriguing for any reader or writer.
Lives as large as Fitzgerald’s are unlikely to be seen in the world of books again. His was rich and complex, in spite of his premature passing, but a melancholy hangs over his 44 years like some nebulous cloud that can overshadow the shimmering body of work.
Brown’s book prompts questions on the lives of modern writers, too: how will we judge life outside the page for the contemporary man and woman of letters – and will we even want to? Of those writing now, whose life and work will be measured with the kind of tape used on the likes of Fitzgerald? Who are the bon viveurs, the hedonists, now? The last figure we can look to is the much-missed Hitchens. Other reputation-preceding mavericks seem cosily domesticated these days.
To tilt the canvas: is there room for a writer’s myth to grow in our digital age of connectivity and accessibility? It was depressing to see the elusive Elena Ferrante outed by a journalist who burrowed into her pseudonym but failed to find the romance of her anonymity. Her alter ego did not have a chance to grow.
As the idea grew of what the United States once was, or what people thought it once was, so too, eventually, did Fitzgerald’s myth. To modern readers it seems unlikely he will ever be forgotten, but this is precisely what happened during his lifetime. (His final royalty cheque was for $13.13.) Age, naturally, shunted Fitzgerald from his habitat when he was struggling to write new material. How could a thirtysomething father continue to write about youth’s gilded wasteland? He was resigned to wandering in the Hollywood wilderness as a consequence, and this spiritual drift gradually saw him lose faith in his talent. After Tender Is the Night comes a tailspin towards the teeth-grinding hack work for ready cash, weaker material (such as The Pat Hobby Stories) and, eventually, the crash-landing of an early death, in 1940. Then the Fitzgerald myth would really take off.
Being hailed as a spokesperson for a generation, and being considered a writer who defined an age, must have been heavy burdens for Fitzgerald. Anyone would be frazzled and frayed by such an experience. Then, suddenly, it was gone, like a light unexpectedly extinguished – and in such circumstances outlines linger before the eyes. Fitzgerald could no longer switch the light back on. But he could always make out the shape of a glass. Must we forever think of him as looking through it darkly?
A word that tinkles and then melts into the potency of the Fitzgerald myth is “booze”, and I’m certain a large part of his enduring appeal is because of, not in spite of, the liquor (even though commentators usually lament its effect on him).
The drinking is another layer to the legend: how it shaped Fitzgerald, how he always believed it was fuel for his creativity, despite his countless hops on the wagon. I admire (almost) every word he ever scribbled, and will declare, without reservation, that I love him just as much for the joy he distilled from his life and his drinking. For me it adds a deeper hue to his work that might not be there had he lived like some stunted altar boy. What the booze might have taken out of Fitzgerald he surely put back into the work.
You may say there is no sense in celebrating alcoholism. But I celebrate Fitzgerald’s work more so because he was an alcoholic, even if the writing was easy for him, and drinking was the hard part. Anyway, who, and how, are we to define sense, and a sensible way to live, especially in the capricious craft that is a writer’s life?
In The Life of Samuel Johnson James Boswell reminds the eponymous hero that drinking too much wine in his company used to give him a headache, to which Johnson replies: “Nay, Sir, it was not the wine that made your head ache, but the sense that I put into it.”
Boswell: “What, Sir! Will sense make the head ache?”
Johnson: “Yes, Sir, (with a smile), when it is not used to it.”
Thinking about Fitzgerald, I considered the other great writers who continue to fascinate. I realised they all had one characteristic in common: vice. What’s more, these writers readily celebrated – reconciled themselves to – their bad habits. And, like bubbles in wine, a list came to the surface of my mind. I do not believe there are many writers living today whose lives will intrigue us in the same way as those of Mailer, Vidal and Fitzgerald, or those of, say, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, Hunter S Thompson, Marguerite Duras, John Berryman, Flann O’Brien, Elizabeth Bishop, Philip Larkin, Jack Kerouac, PG Wodehouse, Charles Bukowski, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud and Kingsley Amis (once described by Amis fils as the laureate of the hangover).
Jean Rhys based much of her writing on a turbulent life defined by failed marriages, depression, cruel men and even a period of prostitution
Will we want to imbibe the stories of “all the Jonathans”, as one critic sneeringly, but memorably, called the modern novelists?
Therefore, if we embrace Fitzgerald as one of the greatest prose writers ever on one hand, we should enjoy him as a two-fisted drinker on the other. Read The Crack-Up and let’s not be so po-faced. We need to serve him straight, with no chaser of excuses. I picture his talent with the image of the blue blazer cocktail: the boiling water of his life is one mug, and the ignited whiskey, representing the writing, is in the other. They are poured from one cup to the other, to create a continuous stream of liquid fire.
Another favourite writer, Jean Rhys, based much of her writing on a turbulent life defined by failed marriages, depression, cruel men and even a period of prostitution. Would she have been the same writer without these experiences? Could she have produced Good Morning, Midnight in a more orthodox environment?
“I want more of this feeling – fire and wings,” Rhys once wrote. When she was working on her autobiography Rhys said she sometimes felt “more like a pen being used than like a person using a pen”. Rhys loved to drink, and obnoxious, opportunistic men who expected gratification in return usually paid for her habit. In Paris she had an affair with Ford Madox Ford (who, it should be noted, encouraged her to write), and he was part of a pattern of lovers who used her up and then tossed her aside, although some continued to give her money afterwards; Rhys did not turn it down. (She got her own back on Ford somewhat by featuring the unhappy relationship in her novel Quartet.)
Most writers, though, liked to keep that part of their personal lives – sex – closed off, it seems, even if Henry Miller did leave his door on the latch. It was said that Gustave Flaubert liked to “unblock” himself, if encountering a block in his writing, while DH Lawrence mostly abstained, by all accounts.
Another vice, cigarettes, finds loving attention from John Berger in Smoke. Berger compresses the ideas, companionships and joy sparked by the simple act of smoking in the time it’ll take you to get through a couple of gaspers. “If alcohol is queen, then tobacco is her consort”; I have always enjoyed the act of lighting up as a kind of mental full stop, with pen poised to begin the next sentence. Think of how it worked for Albert Camus, George Orwell, Virginia Woolf – while The Smoking Diaries, by Simon Gray, is a very funny read whether you puff deep, light or not at all.
You may accuse me of letting booze off the hook, and declare that what is really the sloppy drunk in the corner has instead been poured into the well-cut suit of doomed romanticism. It’s a fair point. Henry Miller, again, is example par excellence of how we sometimes show devotion to the debauched, provided they produce works of art. If a writer is a pygmy when it comes to moral values, but a titan of the page, is it right we let it slide? Once again, the stories make up our minds, and new opinions are being formed on the likes of John Updike and David Foster Wallace.
No one desires the shattered soul of a soused Malcolm Lowry, of course; just think as his alter ego searching for his “id” in a sea of glass shards in Under the Volcano. Nonetheless, a novelist of altered states, willingly showing us smashed pieces of the self, is hard to resist. Consider how the cracked windowpane draws the eye more than the normal one; we marvel at how it holds.
The truly great writers should be like skylights for the mind, lifting our thoughts to the stars and giving narrative to our sense of place in the universe. But their lives should enable us to look inwards as well; it’s comforting to see flaws and vices, too; the bird shit on the pane, the creaking hinge.
The common thread stitching together all these names is that they each had a major weakness – no, that’s too negative a word – a predilection for some sort of vice. Honoré de Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day to fuel his pen. Apart from the heart palpitations, such ebullient quaffing would surely bankrupt the modern scribe working out of a favourite cafe nowadays. On a more mellow note, it is worth digging out Walter Benjamin’s writing on his experimentations with hashish, but it shouldn’t surprise you to find that the book has an unfinished feel.
As for harder drugs, it is difficult to travel any higher on story mountain than Stephen King, who says he does not remember writing Cujo, such was his dependency on cocaine, rinsed with a river of beer, at the time. “Drinking is a crutch. But nobody gets through life without a crutch or two,” King once said.
(There is no room here to consider food as a vice for writers, what Rabelais called “victuals and belly furniture”, but food-related literature is endless. “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible” – “I know. And such small portions,” as Woody Allen has it in Annie Hall.)
Let us bed down on a sweet note. Something from the pen of PG Wodehouse, a renowned toper who lived to 93, a fact justly celebrated with the booze concoction Highballs for Breakfast. Here is Wodehouse’s “Squiffy” Bixby, aka Lord Tidmouth: “ ‘They say,’ continued Lord Tidmouth earnestly, ‘that strong drink biteth like a serpent and – if I remember correctly – stingeth like a jolly old adder. Well, all I have to say is – let it! That’s what I say, Bill – let it! It’s what it’s there for. Excuse me for a minute, old man, while I mix myself a stiffish serpent-and-soda . . .’ ”