Whether the following pages be fact or fiction, there can be no doubt that they will intrigue any inquisitive, well-informed reader. That they exist at all is a minor miracle.
Five years ago, on a Sunday afternoon in the Spring of 1978, Harvey Ratchman, a retired electrical engineer, attended the Washington, DC garage sale of Mrs. Beth McDonald, a kindly widow in her late seventies, whose grown children had come from out of town to assist her in cleaning out her apartment house before its sale became complete by the close of the escrow period. Mrs. McDonald was planning to move in with her daughter, after having resided on the premises as owner-manager for over forty-five years. While browsing among the garage sale items, Mr. Ratchman came across a very heavy trunk of papers. It was in good condition and—as it wasn’t tagged—he inquired about the price. Negotiations ensued between Mr. Ratchman and Mrs. McDonald’s daughter, and a nominal amount was agreed upon.
As Mr. Ratchman emptied the trunk’s contents in a large trash box, Mrs. McDonald approached and spoke at great length to Mr. Ratchman of the trunk’s previous owner. His name was Hyman Skolski. Mr. Skolski, according to Mrs. McDonald, had been a member of the French Resistance. He resided with Mrs. McDonald in a rear upstairs bachelor apartment from June 15, 1940 until February, 1942. He had asked Mrs. McDonald to keep his locked trunk in storage until he sent for it. He never did.
At this point, Mr. Ratchman perused the papers he was emptying into the trash. He thought they were handwritten in a foreign language—perhaps Polish, because of Mr. Skolski’s surname. Mrs. McDonald knew nothing about the papers, as she had never seen them. Her son had just opened the trunk that morning, snipping off the key lock with a pair of wire cutters. Mr. Ratchman was curious. It occurred to him that the papers might contain information of historic interest.
Determined to find out, Mr. Ratchman placed Mr. Skolski’s papers back into the trunk. He took the trunk home. During the next week, Mr. Ratchman was painstakingly thorough in his research, but he could not find any language which approximated the language of Mr. Skolski’s papers. That was when he realized the writing was in code.
Working systematically, Mr. Ratchman approached the code as if he were looking for crossed or faulty wiring in a piece of tricky electrical circuitry. Five months later, he had broken the code, thus rendering it into French, a foreign language he neither spoke nor understood. He acquired the services of Daphne Ellis, a retired foreign language instructor, and the two of them labored diligently over the next six months, translating the documents from French into English. Working from Mr. Ratchman’s code, the documents have been re-translated by Raymond Kaufman of Columbia University, for this edition, resulting in a somewhat more elegant refinement of expression.
We owe much to Mr. Ratchman’s dedication and tenacity—without his efforts, this volume of elusive operative Henri Duval’s fascinating historical correspondence to Hyman Skolski would not be available to readers. The information contained herein undoubtedly sheds new light on both literary and world history. Many will say the documents are a hoax. But having been consulted in the preparation of this book in an editorial fact-checking capacity, I could not, in good conscience, recommend its publication if I thought it a fraud. For even though we have had difficulty in confirming Henri Duval’s activities in L’Esprit Libre, his Resistance group, Duval’s role as one of the founders of the organization has been authenticated. And we are fairly certain that he lived in Hollywood during the period of this correspondence (his name is listed in the employment records of Paramount Studios). Although F. Scott Fitzgerald makes no express reference in any of his writings to any clandestine liaison with Duval, the French Resistance, or any political faction, his political sentiments are strongly expressed in his communications with family and friends in the last year of his life.
Still, we cannot confirm the surreptitious activities alleged in Duval’s letters. In addition, from further inquiry, we know of no extant person of Fitzgerald’s acquaintance who ever met Duval or saw Duval and Fitzgerald together. However, we have scrutinized the dates, times, people, and events portrayed in these documents, and, though we do not possess unequivocal proof of their veracity, we cannot refute their hypothetical existence in fact by citing incontrovertible evidence of things it has been documented that Mr. Fitzgerald did in their place.
In short, the ultimate judgment belongs to the discerning reader and future historians.
Bertrand B. Sloan
June 25, 1940
It feels like a lifetime since I’ve had a decent meal with drinkable wine. Here, they look at you like you’re crazy if you order anything aside from a sickening-sweet milkshake, watery beer, or terrible whisky. I’ve given up trying to get wine, even in the better restaurants. It’s too much of a chore. Even the French varieties have already turned.
Americans. If we didn’t need them so desperately, you couldn’t pay me to set foot here. I agree with you that they are an uncivilized, barbarous race. As you’ve said, there is no sense of balance in them (with my architectural training, I can also see this in their buildings—more on that later). They do not know how to savor pleasure or sustain enjoyment. They are forever guilt-ridden and Puritanical. My close study of the American writer-type personified by F. Scott Fitzgerald indicates that, when it comes to drinking, they are either entirely against it, or they indulge to such destructive excess that it kills them even as they live. They are worse than the French—if you can believe it.
Enough philosophizing. My finances are holding up well. I’ve been living in the lap of luxury, as the Americans say. My residence is a celebrity hotel that goes by the exotic name of the Garden of Allah. It is quite beautiful in a very second-class sort of way—a collection of large, Spanish-style stucco bungalows clustered about a large pool that is supposedly shaped like the Black Sea because its original owner, a Russian silent-screen actress named Alla Nazimova, wanted something to remind her of home.
The Garden of Allah is typical of this place called Hollywood. Everywhere, the buildings are stage sets—from log cabins to chateaus. The average people are “fans” (short for fanatic, in case you didn’t know), meaning they’re madly happiest when they’re trying to live out their fantasies of their favorite stars. Their fashion and hairstyles follow the latest movies. Crazy, isn’t it?
As to the stars themselves, many stay at this hotel when they’re visiting from New York on assignments with the film studios. Or they live here permanently if they don’t want the responsibility of keeping up a home or apartment. The Garden of Allah is a good place for them to be seen, too. That’s what these people are always doing—keeping up their images, and making show business contacts to advance their careers. They have to. The Garden of Allah is expensive—my room is $100 per week. Many of them have been involved in scores of pictures, but they must spend every cent they make. Which is why they move in and out daily. It costs a great deal to live as if you are always putting on a show.
But this is the perfect place for me. In addition to the occasional stars, many other successful show businesspeople—particularly writers—live here. I am just a block away from Mr. Fitzgerald’s apartment.
Who would guess that the rest of the world is in the middle of a war? It’s all over the papers, but here, you don’t hear people talking about it around the pool or on the street. Of course, we go everywhere by car, mostly, so there isn’t much time for conversation or sustained thought. And there aren’t any real cafes, where you can run into friends and sit and talk without a waitress hovering over you, check in hand, as other people stare, tapping their toes and waiting for your seat.
What a godforsaken place. But at least it’s generally cheerful (the weather is wonderful!) and the Americans are strong. They would never lack for courage—nor would they ever let themselves lapse into a state of unpreparedness. Because they do not seem to have learned how to relax or enjoy their existence, they are vigilant, watchful, and resourceful in preparing for some nearly accessible, just-out-of-reach future in which happiness, love, prosperity, and passion will freely reign in startling, endless abundance. They are a self-sufficient people—that much I can say for them. They may have wrapped themselves in a waking dream-cloud—as evidenced by their hysteria for the cinema—but dreaming too much is better than not dreaming at all. Wouldn’t you agree? When was the last time our average Frenchman dreamed that he was anything but an ass-wipe for a German rear?
Of course, I have seen all the papers. The headlines say the war has ended for us and that we are in mourning for our “dead lost cause.” Don’t you love it? Doesn’t it make you laugh that the great Marshal Philippe Pétain says that we are “certain to show greater grandeur in avowing our defeat than in opposing vain and illusory projects”? Gandhi, I must quote: “What is going on before our eyes is a demonstration of the futility of violence and also of Hitlerism. I think French statesmen have shown real courage in bowing to the inevitable and refusing to be party to mutual slaughter.”
Piss on them both! France is not dead if the two of us—at least—are in health and sound of mind.
June 26, 1940
I’m so damned bored and anxious here, waiting for the proper moment to contrive my introduction to Mr. Fitzgerald. I hardly know what to do with myself when I’m not writing you letters. I hope you don’t mind. Our correspondence helps me to clarify my thinking. I feel confident our security is good. I will use the code always. If there are any problems that I should know about, you know the other way to reach me.
I will be the first to admit the irony of our respective positions. You are the writer, yet I have ended up in Hollywood doing my best to impersonate one. Perhaps it’s better this way. Most of the other writers here are impostors, too, except they don’t know it. They tell me that they sit around in teams of two or three on couches, telling each other stories and trying to make up catchy dialogue that they throw back and forth to their shared secretary. She records it on a machine, types up what sounds best to her, and then everybody goes home.
Is this writing? Is this the search for Flaubert’s le mot juste? Some of them work together in their hotel rooms. There are two guys next door to me. Yesterday, after I wrote to you, I listened to them through the wall. They yelled so much and used so much slang, I couldn’t make sense of the story they were working on. It had something to do with what they call a “Western,” with cowboys and Indians and such. I heard a young lady screaming as a man shouted that he wanted to lasso a cow. I’ve since discovered that a lasso is a rope cowboys use to catch cattle or horses.
Then gunshots went off.
I did what any ordinary man would do in such a situation. I ran next door. But I discovered a party. There were almost twenty people there! Three men wore Western clothes, Stetson hats, bandanas around their necks, boots with spurs, and leather leggings over their trousers. Two of them were twirling old-fashioned six-shooters, firing them with blank charges and laughing. One of these cowboys had a thick greasepaint moustache, and he’d used the same stuff to darken his eyebrows. The one without the six-shooters wore a curly blond wig. He was the one with the lasso, encircling a young lady with platinum blond hair. It was extremely loud and hectic, but the theme of this gathering seemed to have to do with these silly-looking men and their costumes. They solicited the small crowd’s opinion of their appearance and were anxious whether they looked funny.
They call themselves the Marx Brothers, I found out—Groucho, Harpo, and Chico—and they are very popular in American comedy cinema. I can’t make sense of them, but they’re very nice fellows. They enjoyed themselves immensely making fun of my heavy French accent. Groucho enjoyed it the most. He thought it very heroic of me to rush in to save the maiden in distress, and he introduced me to the platinum-haired girl who had been screaming and told her to find out what is so great about French lovers. He kept rushing around the room, wagging his cigar. Then he’d come back to the girl and myself and ask us nonsense questions about my amorous aptitude.
“Have you always been a great lover?” he said. Before I could answer, he interjected, “I’ve always loved her, too, but it led to divorce.” He turned back to the girl. “I loved her, and he loved her. They all loved her. But why did she love him?”
It didn’t make much sense, but it was very funny at the time, though it flustered the girl. It’s the only time I can remember enjoying being the butt of someone else’s joke. I’m starting to feel a special kinship with these Americans—for soon, if all goes according to plan, they will give their flesh and blood to our cause. And there’s something else, I suppose. Have I said these people have the innocence of puppies? They’re so fresh and sprightly—even the adults are like children or idiots. They smile when they walk down the street. It’s a little frightening.
But back to Mr. Groucho Marx. I left the impromptu affair a few hours later, and had just gotten into bed when someone knocked on my door. It was the young lady from the party. She giggled and said Groucho had sent her for research into foreign affairs. She liked to giggle. I didn’t go to bed with her, though she was most ravishing. There have already been numerous opportunities for such dalliances, but I am trying to cultivate an image, am I not?
The writers, as I have observed, are a merry but puritanical lot. Most of them seem to be married. Few would entertain the notion of having more than one mistress at a time. Especially Mr. Fitzgerald. It is important that I begin my association with the man from a position of respect, so that the two of us have things in common. Therefore, I am wearing a wedding band. I have also bought the same model car as his—a 1934 Ford coupe—for $140. Americans enjoy talking about their cars. Mr. Fitzgerald is sure to find it a fascinating coincidence, and one that should prove a fruitful topic of conversation.
After sending Mr. Marx’s lady friend away, I was asleep finally by around 1 a.m., when I was awakened by another knock. It was another woman this time—a tall brunette. “Groucho sent me,” she said. I told her I was in bed, and she offered to join me. When I asked her why, she looked surprised and said that she thought I was another writer on the new picture. I told her I didn’t know a thing about the new picture, and she left.
Six other women knocked at my door over the next few hours. They were of every description—from twenty to eighty years of age. I was no longer amused. When I opened my door for what I’d decided was the last time, it was Mr. Groucho Marx. Except for his greasepaint, bandana, Stetson hat, and boots with spurs, he was nude! He had a six-shooter in each hand. He asked me if I was married. I lied, answering in the affirmative. He shot off both guns, said, “That explains it,” and walked away.
Ten minutes later, someone knocked again. It was a policeman in a blue uniform.
“You’re under arrested,” he told me.
I grinned at his seeming malapropism. “For what?” I asked.
“Development,” he said, breaking character with a chuckle. “Groucho says no Frenchman in his right mind could ever be so much in love . . . with his wife, that is.”
He said Groucho was sorry for having disturbed me, and then laughed and walked away.
I should have plucked one of those succulent plums, perhaps. I don’t want these people to stop thinking I’m French.
 Accounts Payable, Paramount Studios, August-October, 1940; courtesy of Paramount Studios Archives.