F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tiger's Third Act

Whenever I read about Tiger Woods’ tribulations I think about the dictum ascribed to F. Scott Fitzgerald: “There are no second acts in American lives.”

That quote was apparently scavenged from notes to the unfinished final novel, The Last Tycoon, during American literature’s manic Fitzgerald revival which saw the Jazz Age’s putative author posthumously lionized as perhaps even the greatest of American novelists, largely on the strength of The Great Gatsby.

Fitzgerald was deeply into a period of physical and emotional decline as a Hollywood hack by the time he began writing Tycoon based on the life of Irving Thalberg, the dynamic MGM studio boss who died of a heart attack at the age of 37 as the end neared for the old studio system of which he had been undisputed emperor. No doubt Fitzgerald — who was never above feeling sorry for himself — saw something of himself in Thalberg. By then he may even have wished that, like Thalberg, he too could be spared the ignominy of a long humiliating followup to his youthful first act as the glamorous golden boy of American letters.

A Princeton dropout Fitzgerald may have been, but he knew as well as Horace and Shakespeare that great tragedies come in five acts. Notwithstanding his famous dictum to the contrary — which was no doubt jotted in an ironic frame of mind — he probably knew that he was into his fifth act as he wrote that line.

Fitzgerald’s own first (expository) act coincided, of course, with his first novel This Side of Paradise which bared his lavish talent albeit in mawkish chrysalis. Instantly it made him the embodiment of the Roaring Twenties. Then came the second act’s rising action of insouciant living afforded by the success of the first (well represented by his glitteringly bad second novel The Beautiful and the Damned).

The climactic third act came with publication of The Great Gatsby which faced Fitzgerald with the intractable conflict between artistic success and the financial success he desperately needed to continue the debauched lifestyle to which he and Zelda had grown accustomed. Gatsby was a financial dud, putting Fitzgerald in dire straits.

In the fourth act Fitzgerald showed himself to be an artist at bottom, producing in Tender Is the Night a treasure trove of passages that illustrate another of his dicta — that character is action. Its cast of upscale expat misfits are delineated with the butterfly touch of which Fitzgerald is now the acknowledged master. He may have wished to produce the kind of overwrought passages that seduce readers by the millions, but not even dire financial need induced him to port his Saturday Evening Post “whoring” to his beloved novel form.

Instead Fitzgerald set the stage for his fifth and final act by choosing to indenture himself to a Hollywood studio as a rewrite hack to pay for Zelda’s expensive sanitarium and Scottie’s elite prep school and college. He moved into a modest apartment called the Garden of Allah and quickly worked himself to death. He battled alcoholism and moonlighted with more magazine stories to augment his income and poured his heart into Tycoon even as it began fluttering out hints that it was ready to quit. When F. Scott Fitzgerald died of a massive heart attack in 1940 at the age of 43, he had thoroughly disproven his most famous dictum about American lives.

I’m hoping that Tiger Woods has come to grips with the fact that — notwithstanding witty aphorisms — his life is only now getting to the edge-of-the-seat part. It was nice to see that he had been blessed with the talent of a champ. It was a blast to see him squirm like a chump over his curiously adolescent and downscale romps on the wild side. It was interesting to hear his avowals about the renaissance he was engineering for his game. Then he really ratcheted up the suspense by managing to blow up 17 chances to win a tournament in the past 15 months.

Will he hock another loogie on the green after blowing yet another putt? Will he continue to chuck his clubs at his longtime caddie? Will Tiger ever come to understand that character is action, especially in the lees of happiness (as Fitzgerald might have put it)?

It’s time to raise the curtain on Act Three.