Wednesday Sep. 24, 2014

The Last Swim of Summer

ought to be swum
without knowing it,
afternoon lost to
re-finding the rock
you can stand on
way out past the
raft, the flat one
that lines up four-
square with the door
of the boathouse.

Freestyle and back-
stroke and hours on
the dock nattering
on while the low sun
keeps setting fin-
gers and toes getting
number and number …
how could we know
we were swimming the
last swim of summer?

"The Last Swim of Summer" by Jonathan Galassi, from Left-Handed. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of poet Eavan Boland (books by this author), born in Dublin (1944). When she was just six, her father was appointed the Irish Ambassador to the U.K. and moved the family to London, where she first witnessed anti-Irish hostility. She returned to Dublin as a young teen, with a deeper appreciation of her heritage and a desire to write. She published her first collection, 23 Poems, while still a freshman in college in 1962, and followed up with another 10 books of verse, including Night Feed (1982) and In a Time of Violence (1994), for which she received the Lannan Literary Award. Her most recent book is a collection of prose essays titled A Journey with Two Maps: Becoming A Woman Poet (2011).

It's the birthday of Horace Walpole (books by this author), the 18th-century bon vivant and 4th Earl of Orford, who once mused, "The world is a comedy to those that think; a tragedy to those that feel." Born in London to the son of the first British prime minister, he was educated at Eton and King's College. An art historian, antiquarian, Whig politician, and member of Parliament, he is primarily known today as a prolific man of letters and the premier chronicler of the political, social, and cultural history of the 18th century. "The whole secret of life," he wrote, "is to be interested in one thing profoundly and in a thousand things well," and so, unhampered by the need to work, he devoted his time to social gatherings, correspondence, and writing. He wrote more than 3,000 letters to friends, family, and colleagues and, combined, his letters and memoirs fill more than 19 volumes, a tremendous historical legacy. "If I write," he said, "I must write facts." He believed in painting men and women as they were, and had no regrets in referring to the overly rouged Duchess of Bedford as "like an orange-peach, half-red and half-yellow."

It's the birthday of puppeteer Jim Henson, known as "The Father of Dreams," born in Greenville, Mississippi (1936). He's the creator of the characters on Sesame Street, including Big Bird and Cookie Monster, as well as Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the Muppets — a name he made by combining the words "marionettes" and "puppets."

Jim Henson said: "Follow your enthusiasm. It's something I've always believed in. Find those parts of your life you enjoy the most. Do what you enjoy doing."

It's the birthday of the man who said, "I talk with the authority of failure." That's F. Scott Fitzgerald (books by this author), born in St. Paul, Minnesota (1896). During the 1920s, he was famous and successful, publishing three of his four complete novels: This Side of Paradise (1920), The Beautiful and Damned (1922), and The Great Gatsby (1925). He supported his family by writing short stories for The Saturday Evening Post, and by the late 1920s he earned $4,000 per story.

Then things began to unravel. His wife Zelda was hospitalized for schizophrenia in 1932, and spent the rest of her life in treatment of one sort or another. His heavy drinking was taking a toll. He wrote in a letter: "I have lived hard and ruined the essential innocence in myself [...] and the fact that I have abused liquor is something to be paid for in suffering and death perhaps, but not renunciation." After Zelda entered a mental institution in Asheville, North Carolina, Fitzgerald lived in hotels in the area. He was sick and heavily in debt. He wrote some essays for Esquire, who paid him just $150 for each. His novels were more or less forgotten, and in 1936, he earned about $80 in book royalties.

Desperate for money, Fitzgerald moved to Hollywood in 1937, with a contract as a screenwriter for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He fell in love with a gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham. In 1938, MGM decided not to renew his contract. The next year, he was hired to work on a screenplay for Winter Carnival, based on his own short story, but was fired for excessive drinking. Afterward, he went on such a drinking binge that he was hospitalized in New York City. Returning to Los Angeles, he did freelance screenwriting for second-rate films. He began work on a new novel set in Hollywood, The Love of the Last Tycoon. He wanted it to be great, to restore his reputation. He wrote in his notebook: "I am sure I am far enough ahead to have some small immortality if I can keep well."

He was not well. In 1940, he toned down his drinking, but it was too late to improve his health. That summer was a good one. He lived in West Hollywood, worked on screenplays, stories for Esquire, and The Last Tycoon. Sheilah Graham lived just a block away. She wrote: "To economize, we shared the same maid, each paying half of her salary. We dined at each other's apartment on alternate nights [...] Like a married couple, we went shopping at night in the supermarkets on Sunset Boulevard, or spent an hour in Schwab's drugstore, five minutes away, browsing among the magazines and ending our visit sipping chocolate malted milks at the ice-cream counter." The happy time did not last. In November, he suffered a mild heart attack in Schwab's. His doctor ordered him to avoid any exercise, so he left his third-floor apartment and moved in with Graham on the ground floor. He took time off from paid work, but continued to work on his novel, writing from bed on a wooden board. His plan was to write 1,750 words a day, and finish the novel by January 15th.

On December 20th, he and Graham attended a premiere of a film, This Thing Called Love.He felt dizzy, and stumbled leaving the theater — he worried that the audience members thought he was drunk. The next day Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in Graham's apartment, eating chocolate and listening to Beethoven's Eroica symphony.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®