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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, March 6th, 2005


In Gatsby's Shadow: The Story of Charles Macomb Flandrau

by Lawrence Peter Haeg

A locked-up life

A review by Olivia Cole

Born in St Paul, Minnesota, Charles Macomb Flandrau might have had a career as spectacular as the city's most famous writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald; this, at least, is the suggestion of Larry Haeg in his biography of this almost forgotten literary figure. Whereas Fitzgerald had to fund his serious writing with sales of short stories for the Saturday Evening Post, Flandrau was comfortably well off, and had to be persuaded to contribute. He was something of a celebrity at twenty-six for his Harvard Episodes, a series of vignettes which exposed the high jinks of privileged students; after that, apart from Viva Mexico! (1909), an account of time spent on his brother's coffee plantation, his plans for work did not materialize. His life was a lonely cocktail of isolation, drinking, attempting to write and escapist travels. Given Flandrau's slender oeuvre, In Gatsby's Shadow, though elegantly written and evocative, is, by necessity, as much a portrait of a time as of a writer.

Flandrau had little taste for literary life: "New York is so appallingly big", he wrote to his mother, and headed back to Minnesota. It was there, in 1919, that Fitzgerald sought him out, to ask his advice on how to find a publisher for This Side of Paradise. Flandrau was mesmerized by Fitzgerald's presence, intellect and promise, and the pair maintained a long-distance friendship, meeting later in Paris, from where Flandrau reported that the young student had become "the most clever, attractive, really sympathetic creature I have run across in years, a young man of great talent, ability and purpose in life". He added, in the same letter to his friend John K. Egan, that, during dinner with Zelda at the Bois de Boulogne, Fitzgerald was drinking "practically nothing, all we had was two cocktails, two quarts of Burgundy, a few cognacs with the coffee and, later on countless flagons of cold beer".

Flandrau only grudgingly accepted the Post's commissions and nicknamed its legendary literary editor, George Horace Lorimer, Mr Lorelei. Despite arguments over the Post's insistence on sanitizing the antics of Flandrau's fast-living characters (much to the author's fury, "highballs" were silently amended to "lemonade"), Lorimer succeeded in persuading Flandrau to write a sequel to his college tales. The series was to be called Sophomores Abroad and Flandrau headed off for Europe to record his experiences through the eyes of his two college heroes, Tommy and Berri. "They were, I felt, charming youths", Flandrau later recollected, "and I shrank from the idea of their disappointing me or anybody else." This admission goes straight to the heart of his failure as a writer they no doubt would have "disappointed", had they ever appeared. While Fitzgerald allowed his flappers and philosophers to grow up, Flandrau retreated into silence, with towels wrapped around the telephone receivers in the flickering gloom of his candlelit house.

Aside from his prolific output of theatre reviews for the local paper (whose editing he could control), Flandrau wrote little. "I no longer seem to see anything in a writable light. Perhaps it may come back -- perhaps not", he wrote to his sister. In Paris, once more, he was, writes Haeg, "a forgotten remnant of the 1890s, a parlor chair in a Cubist world". The only twentieth-century innovation he learned to love was the car, and he went on a succession of road trips across the United States. What he saw he described as "a kind of gaudy window display -- a Woolworth Kresge, catch-penny effort". Each night Flandrau and his driver ate in forlorn diners that had begun to appear all over the country, "like solitary figures in an Edward Hopper painting".

While Flandrau's writing is extensively cited by Haeg, the man remains unknowable -- as private in his legacy as in his life. But the writers and thinkers who are portrayed in his unpublished letters are vividly evoked. Like a shadowy guest at one of Gatsby's parties, Flandrau wandered in and out of various social worlds. He was known and admired by some of America's greatest writers. At Harvard he was taught by Charles Townsend Copeland, who also taught T. S. Eliot, Maxwell Perkins, Conrad Aiken and e. e. cummings, and as a young man in Boston he was entertained by Isabella Stewart Gardner, the patron and friend of John Singer Sargent, James Whistler and Henry James.

The comparison with Fitzgerald, which Haeg insists on, is intended to show the precariousness of a writer's life. In the case of Fitzgerald, the emotional bankruptcy that came from having to live in the present, rather than in a candlelit cocoon, made him a great writer even if it destroyed him as a man. Towards the end of his life, Flandrau began to fear that his fortune might be diminishing and considered going to work for CBS. In a script, written in 1935, which was never broadcast, he described the

"lifeless, soul-less look that a house so quickly acquires when within it there no longer is a soul and a life. Houses are like that, and far too often people are like that. With advancing years, spiritual doors and windows, as well as architectural doors and windows, must be kept unlocked and wide open as often and as long as possible. Unless that is done, in both cases something distressing inevitably happens."

Charles Macomb Flandrau had been shutting doors and muffling the lines of communication for years. If only he could have brought himself to make use of the disappointing and eminently "writable" territory that he inhabited.

Olivia Cole works for the London Evening Standard. In 2003 she won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors.

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