F. Scott Fitzgerald died 76 years ago today – December 21, 1940. An alcoholic and in poor health, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack at the age of 44.
At the time of his death, Fitzgerald was living in Hollywood with gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham. Fitzgerald had moved to California in 1926, earning a living doing screenplay revisions and rewrites. He also began work on a novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon, which was unfinished at the time of his death and later edited and arranged by writer/critic, Edmund Wilson, and published posthumously as The Last Tycoon. Beginning in 1939, Fitzgerald wrote a series of 17 short stories for Esquire Magazine about a has-been Hollywood hack named Pat Hobby, a character clearly based on Fitzgerald himself. The stories were collected and published as The Pat Hobby Stories in 1962.
In tribute to Fitzgerald and Pat Hobby I am rerunning:
"Ben Nutty Slings the Blues."
Ben Nutty's pockets bulged with quarters, dimes and nickels, giving him a jingly, lop-sided gait as he lurched off of a Southwest Airlines jet at the Las Vegas International Airport.
The trip from California, though only a short flight, had been rather stressful. Ben's wife, Leena, had been hoping for a warm, relaxing desert weekend helping her mother celebrate a milestone birthday, but Ben, currently between freelance gigs and with little else to do since losing his corporate communications job nearly two years prior, had somehow convinced her to allow him to tag along. "Perhaps I'll hear the siren song of the creative muse amongst the wail and clatter of the slot machines," Ben had said, hoping his colorful prose would convince her he meant business.
"Just remember that we're going for mom, not so that you can chase your 'muse,'" Leena had told him, already beginning to regret her decision.
"Of course, of course, the old dear will be first in my thoughts the entire weekend," Ben assured her.
Ben had agreed to handle the travel arrangements, and hence they found themselves sprinting through the Oakland airport five-minutes prior to departure. Once on-board, while Leena struggled to accommodate her carry-on luggage, Ben sat mulling over potential cocktail orders and eye-balling the still-boarding passengers in search of a suitable third seatmate for their row. "Ah, she's perfect," thought Ben, as a young woman of indeterminate Asian lineage made her way down the aisle. At about 110 pounds she fit the key factor Ben sought in a seatmate. That she be attractive was a less important, albeit hopeful attribute, however one of his numerous phobias was to be wedged beside a thick, malodorous individual. The young lady heading toward him was far from thick, and, in Ben's mind, exuded a soft hint of cherries and almonds.
"This seat is available," Ben had said, indicating the window seat with a smile and a wave of his fedora. The young woman eyed him carefully, then, apparently receiving better vibes from Leena, who smiled somewhat apologetically, climbed across Ben and settled into her seat. Ben then spent the remainder of the 1-hour flight regaling the poor woman with tales of the writer's life. "We're heading to Vegas to scope out good locations for the screenplay I'm working on," Ben had told her. "We'll spend one night at The Bellagio, another at Winn's; maybe hit the Mirage, even though The Mirage is so 1990's. It's all gratis of course. The studios want to make sure we're happy. They know they've got a potential blockbuster on their hands. It's going to be sort of a cross between Ocean's 11 and Dawn of the Dead. Zombies are so hot right now and ours are going to be really hot. We're in talks with George Clooney and Brad Pitt to play the main zombies. Even with rotting flesh, Brad and George will still put ladies in those theater seats."
"Thank God it's a short flight," Leena muttered to herself, cracking her book.
Entering baggage claim Ben immediately stopped at a row of slot machines, and, handing his carry-on bag to Leena, fished a quarter out of his pocket, fed it through the slot and pulled the lever.
"Big money! Big money! Ben shouted at the spinning bars and fruit. Leena spotted Winnie and Doug, standing beside a luggage cart and went to greet them.
"Hi mom. Happy Birthday."
"Thank you dear; so good to see you," Winnie said taking Leena in her arms.
"How are you, kid?" Doug said giving Leena a hug and taking the two bags from her shoulder.
"I'm good Doug. A little tired, but good."
"And how's Ben?" her mother asked as the three of them turned and watched Ben plugging another coin into the machine. The fedora pushed back on his head, the soggy knot of his tie already yanked away from his throat, he had the look of a man who'd just bet his kids' future at blackjack, only to discover that he'd be required to do math.
"He's an idiot," Doug said matter-of-factly, turning and heading toward a clanging baggage carousel. "Come on, let's get your suitcase."
Loaded into a rental car the four of them headed toward the lights of the strip. Leena and mom were chatting in the back seat while Ben sat up front with Doug. "God, it's hot here," Ben said, trying unsuccessfully to open his window. "Why doesn't this button work?"
"I've locked them because I have the A/C on. Opening the window would allow the cold air to escape, Ben. Why would we want to do that? Besides, it's hotter out there than it is in here. The temperature reading is the car is 86 degrees; much more comfortable than the 110 degrees outside."
"I'm dying," Ben groaned pressing his face against the cool glass. Doug sighed and pointed the car toward Las Vegas Blvd.
"So where does everybody want to go?" Doug said.
"It doesn't matter to me," Winnie said. "Leena, where do you want to go?"
"Well, the fountains at the Bellagio are supposed to be very pretty. How about we go there? Ben, what do you think?"
"So long as it's air-conditioned I don't care."
"The fountains are outside, Ben," Doug said. Ben groaned and leaned his face against the window again as Doug chuckled and headed down the strip to the Bellagio.
"It's coming up on your left," Winnie said.
"I can see it, dear," Doug answered.
"Right there. Right after that next light."
"I have eyes. I'm up front, don't you think I can see where I'm going?"
"I think we just passed it," Leena said quietly.
"Damnit, Winnie! All your gabbing got me distracted." Doug pulled a U-turn in the middle of the boulevard, cutting off a delivery van shaped like a bagel dog, which then jumped a curb, nearly obliterating a street performer dressed like the Jolly Green Giant.
"Oh my," said Winnie. "Did you see that fellow dressed like asparagus? Only in Las Vegas!" she hooted. Doug pulled into an underground parking garage and the four of them entered the casino floor of the Bellagio.
"Thank God it's air-conditioned," Ben said fanning himself with his fedora.
"Most buildings in the desert are air-conditioned, Ben," Doug said, but Ben had already moved off toward one of the bars, extracting handfuls of change and laying it out on the polished countertop.
"Gimmie a Singapore Sling," Ben said not looking up from his counting.
"Winnie, why don't you and Leena play something?" Doug said. "I'll keep an eye on Ben."
"Thanks Doug," Leena said slipping her arm through Winnie's. "Let's go, mom. That slot machine is calling to me."
When Doug reached the bar the seat next to Ben was already taken by an attractive woman wearing a short, black cocktail dress, her shapely legs resting on the support bar of Ben's chair. She gazed at him while she spoke. "That sounds so exciting, Ben. Zombies pulling a casino heist! And with George Clooney no less? You must be a very successful screenwriter."
"I do OK," Ben said, taking a long slurp of Singapore Sling.
Doug chuckled and shook his head. "I'll take a draft," he told the bartender.
"What other films have you written, Ben?"
"Well I've never actually completed a screenplay, but I've done quite a few of what we in the industry call 'spec scripts;' basically a few pages outlining the idea for a movie, maybe introduce the main character, throw in a little dialogue, you know, get the ball rolling and hopefully hook a producer. Yeah, I'm kind of known around Hollywood as 'Specs'. Anyway, I'm calling it 'Ocean's Dead 11.'"
"That's so clever, Ben!"
"Excuse me, uh 'Specs.'" Leena said from over Ben's shoulder. "How about digging some of that big Hollywood cash out of your pockets so I can play the slots? Who's your friend?"
"I'm not sure. What did you say your name was?"
"I didn't,' she answered. "It's Dolly."
"Beat it, 'Doll,'" Leena told her. "He can't afford you anyway."
The woman slid off the stool and began to leave. She looked back at Ben. "By the way, 'Spec,' I think a zombie version of Ocean's 11 is about the stupidest thing I've ever heard. And fedoras are so 2010." And with that she left the bar.
"What was that all about?" Ben said.
"Never mind," said Leena. Doug shook his head and chuckled again.
"Garson! Another Sling," Ben bellowed.
The ensuing hours saw a hefty depletion in the jingly bulge in Ben's pants, along with a sharp rise in his blood-rum level content. A harvest of newsprint flyers advertising the services of some of Las Vegas' more adult-centric entertainers sprouted from Ben's sport coat pockets as he weaved along the strip.
"What say we get something to eat? I've got an insane craving for a bagel dog."
"REPENT!" shouted a woman wearing a soiled T-shirt professing Cletus's Rib Shack – Your best bet in Vegas!, her face resembling a rawhide chew toy. While she stood in front of Ben blocking his passage along the sidewalk, one wrinkled hand slithered into his sport coat pocket extracting a flyer that read: Don't gamble with your life! Queen of Hearts Escorts are the cleanest in town! "Turn away from sin!" she hollered, waving the flyer in Ben's face along with the generous aroma of Cletus's best. "The devil never sleeps in Vegas. He's hard at work, 24-hours a day, seven days a week tempting the weak and the feeble-minded! Which one are you?"
"Umm. Huh?" Ben stammered.
"Come on," Leena said, steering Ben around the BBQ prophet, "Let's get some dinner."
Once safely back in the car it was decided that they'd head back to their hotel in Henderson for dinner. Doug and Winnie were tired and, "Besides, there are plenty of wonderful restaurants at our hotel," Winnie assured them.
The Sunset Towers was a 15-story hotel on the west side of Henderson. Between the hotel, the casino and the outer grounds it covered more than 10-acres of what was once desert scrub land. The complex boasted everything from a bowling alley to a 24-hour Fat Burger. After checking into their rooms the foursome reconvened in the casino to decide where to go for dinner.
"Let's get this shindig started!" Ben said, buttonholing a passing cocktail waitress. "A Slingapore Sing, my good lady," slurred Ben, with a tip of his fedora.
"I only serve people who are actually gambling, Sir. You'll have to order a drink from the bar behind you," indicating with her chin over Ben's shoulder.
"Ben, I think we're going to eat," Leena said. "I thought you were hungry?"
"Nonsense, the night is young; plenty of time to eat. Besides, we have yet to toast young Winnie's approaching birthday. What'll you all have?"
Drinks in hand, Leena, Doug and Ben stood around Winnie. Ben lifted his colorful concoction on high.
"To Winnie: May the saddest day of your past be the happiest day of your future!"
"I think you got that backwards, Ben," said Leena
"WHATEVER! The sentiment is the same! Drink up!" Ben said, knocking back his cocktail. "Barkeep, 'sling' me another one of these. Ha! Get it? 'SLING' me?" Ben extracted a notebook from his coat pocket and began to scribble. "I think I'll give that line to Brad."
Dinner continued much the same. Ben took it upon himself to order several bottles of wine for the table, sending one of them back because it had an "inferior bouquet" and because he'd "seen better legs on a bullfrog." Just after dessert arrived and the last strains of "Happy Birthday" were fading, Ben excused himself and vanished into the crowded casino, timing his departure precisely with the arrival of the check.
"Doug, I'm so sorry," Leena said as the three of them finished dessert. "I don't know what's gotten into Ben. He's usually not even much of a drinker. And please let me split that bill with you."
"Nonsense," Doug said. "We asked you to join us here for Winnie's birthday. This weekend's on us."
"Perhaps you should go look for Ben," Winnie said. "Doug and I will meet you in the casino."
Leena entered the roaring throng of the casino floor, passing row upon row of slack-jawed slot jockeys, mindlessly feeding coins into machines, hardly paying attention to the outcome before dropping another coin into the eternally gaping steel maw. She squeezed past a thunderously large woman over-flowing from a mobile scooter that she'd parked at the end of a long row of slot machines. The woman was simultaneously playing two machines on either side of the row. She would drop a coin in one slot, slap the button with a thick, spotted hand, then jerk her scooter backwards and drop a coin in the other machine. Button slapped, she would then jerk forward again repeating the cycle. In between plays the woman would alternate between puffing one of a never-ending chain of cigarettes, and adjusting an oxygen tank that road shotgun in the scooter's basket, its hose snaking about the basket and up around the handle bars, before affixing to the mole-farm masquerading as an upper lip where two thin nozzles disappeared into her cavernous nostrils. She defended both slots like a starving hyena protecting the bloated, stinking carcass of a wildebeest, and Leena could almost swear she heard the woman growl when, in her attempt to pass, she stepped to close to one of the machines. Leena spotted Ben, Singapore Sling in hand, wedged between to mountainous black gentlemen at a craps table. The two men were obviously on a winning streak, riding roughshod over the poor craps dealer, the look on his face clearly communicating that his replacement could not arrive soon enough.
"Ben, what are you doing?"
"Learning the fine art of crap."
"That's craps, G," said Mt. Shasta, whose head swiveled toward Leena on its thick neck. "Little man here is our good luck charm. Since he showed up it's been all titties and beer. We're on our 15th roll." Mt. Teton dropped a skillet-sized paw on Ben's shoulder and wrapped his fingers near fully around Ben's neck giving it a little shake, and giving Ben the appearance of one of those bobble head dashboard dogs.
"Word. This little Oompa Loompa is our golden ticket."
"Yes, well the Oompa Loompa is with me, Leena replied. "We ought to think about turning in, Ben. It's been a pretty long day."
"Baby, I can't leave now," Ben said. "The scrilla gorilla is hot, hot, HOT!"
"Word, G-Nutty," said Shasta.
"Speaking of scrilla," Ben said to Leena, "how much you got on you, baby? Nutter-Butter needs a little grease for the skillet."
"What the hell are you talking about, Ben?"
Having settled the check, Doug and Winnie wandered over to investigate all the commotion at the craps table. "Diggety Doug!" Ben yelled as the two approached. "Kick down with some dead presidents! The boys and I are on a hot streak!"
"Forget it, Ben. 'Diggety' wasn't born yesterday."
"Let's go, Ben, You're not even playing, you're just watching," Leena said. "Say good-bye to your friends."
"But baby, G-Nutty is on a roll! We could win big!"
"First of all you have to bet big to win big, and I'm pretty sure the loose change in your pocket does not qualify as 'big.' Second, 'G-Nutty' better roll on out, or I'm going to flip a nutty."
"Dude, you'd better go," said Teton. "Your lady's getting all strepitous and, well she's sort of scaring me."
"All right, all right," Ben said turning away from the craps table.
"Don't forget to let us know once filming begins," Shasta called after him.
"What's he talking about?" said Winnie. "What filming?"
"Oh, I told them I'd write parts for them in my Ocean's 11 zombie movie."
"There IS no Ocean's 11 zombie movie, Ben," said Leena. "Why do you keep telling people you're writing a screenplay?"
"Well, I might write it. I'm making notes, letting the creative juices simmer. There could be a zombie movie. You don't know."
"Then write it. Stop talking about it and write it."
"Yes, Ben," Winnie said wistfully. "You have a 'gift.' Leena is forever telling me about your 'gift.' The written word is your gift, just as I once had a gift for interpretive dance." Winnie suddenly executed a grand plié, springing up into a wobbly en pointe where she teetered for a few seconds before crumpling, at which point she broke into a rumba and began lurching about the casino.
"Oh good Lord," said Doug. "I knew ordering that third bottle of wine was a bad idea."
But bad or good, the dance had begun. Sufficiently lubricated, Ben and Winnie had created a conga line of two and were now snaking about the slot machines, up one row and down the other. Leena, never one to pass up an opportunity to dance, grabbed hold of Ben's coattails and extended the chain by another link. Doug simply stood and stared, not sure whether to call security or simply club them into submission.
"Hey, a conga line!" someone shouted, and suddenly Teton and Shasta had latched themselves to Leena, adding their own seismic contribution to the dance. Doug watched the line continue to grow as the multitudes of blue-hairs abandoned their slot machines, raising their collective voice in a Latin-esque caterwaul – dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-DUN - dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-DUN.
The spontaneous polyester-clad snake had grown to nearly 50 participants, looping crazily between the green felt tables as Winnie, the mad conductor of this human locomotive, continued to chug along. Ben was full into it, throwing his hips like a drunken stripper trying to entice spectators to open their wallets.
"This is the best birthday I've ever had!" shouted Winnie as she banked left past a gigantic Pinocchio posing in front of Gippeto's Gelato.
"And how!" Ben said, throwing a wink at the gelato girl. "We Nuttys sure know how to celebrate!"
As they came around the gelato stand, Ben glanced to his right and saw a glamorously stunning couple coming out of the Fat Burger. Both wore aviator sunglasses and towed a multiracial collection of children in their wake. "My God," proclaimed Ben. "That's Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie coming out of Fat Burger!"
"What are you talking about? Where?" said Leena.
"Right there!" Ben said, indicating the couple with a left thrust of his hips. "The guy in sunglasses with cheese in his goatee!"
Ben broke suddenly from the conga line, cutting Winnie loose. A kite without a tail, she went spinning crazily off in the direction of the penny arcade. The remainder of the snake came to an abrupt halt, plowing into each other like characters in a cartoon before dispersing, absorbed into the casino horde like some sort of flash mob. Ben bolted through the casino in attempt to intercept Brangelina on the far side of the casino floor.
"Brad! Brad!" Ben shouted, waving his notes for Ocean's Dead 11. "Angelina, Maddox!"
They couldn't hear him. He was too far away, the casino too loud. But the gap was closing. As the famous family proceeded around the tile walk-way flanking the gaming floor, Ben took a sharp right at the slot machines intending to intercept them as they passed Gippeto's Gelato. Breaking into a flat out sprint he raced down a row of whooping machines, his goal less than 10-yards away, when suddenly his path was blocked by the slot machine hogging behemoth and her scooter. Momentum clearly having the advantage, Ben crashed headlong into her doughy mass, his notes and fedora flying as the scooter toppled. A swarm of security officers had been tracking Ben's progress, and while Ben attempted to extricate himself from beneath the scooter and a tangle of flesh and air hoses, he caught a glimpse of the royal family being hustled through a side exit and into the bowels of the casino.
"You crazy son of a bitch!" Ben's corpulent captor screamed thrashing about like an upturned turtle, trapping Ben's face between one foul-smelling fold and the casino's grime encrusted carpet with each sway of her gelatinous bulk. However, help was on the way. For after ensuring that the beautiful people were out of harm's way, security turned their full and undivided attention to Ben. Hauling his crumpled form out from under, they fit him with a pair of Sunset Tower plastic zip handcuffs, while simultaneously attempting to pacify the woman with offers of free buffets and gambling chips. One of the security guards picked up a battered fedora and slammed it onto Ben's head as they dragged him toward the side door, the same one through which Brangelina had made their escape only moments before.
"Leena, my notes, my notes!" Ben hollered. He then yelled something about "the fats in the fire" and "habeas corpus," as the door clanged shut behind him.
Ben spent the remainder of the weekend in holding cell #3, a guest of the Clark County penal system, one of several conditions that Ben's party had agreed to in order to prevent the hotel from pressing charges. That Ben never return, not only to the Sunset Towers, but to Henderson as well, were conditions two and three. The hotel reserved their right to come up with additional conditions before Sunday night.
Come Sunday night, a shaken but liberated Ben Nutty sat nursing a club soda in the airport lounge while waiting to board the flight to Oakland. Leena said nothing. Having already discussed the matter, and her resulting mortification at length, she chose to sit in silence and watch the TV above the bar.
"Coming up next on Entertainment Tonight, Brad Pitt discusses his plans to write, direct and star in a zombie version of Ocean's 11."
ET: Brad, where did you come up with this crazy, albeit brilliant idea?"
PITT: "Angie and I were in Vegas with the kids recently and the idea just sort of came to me. Zombies are so hot right now. I think it would be a gas to get George and the gang back together again and put our own sick twist on the zombie genre."
ET: I know I speak for all of America when I say that we can't wait to see it!"
Mouth agape, Leena turned toward Ben, but Ben had fainted dead away; flat on his back on another dirty floor, fedora on his face.