Ernest Hemingway reputedly accepted this bar bet: Write the shortest story possible. His reputed winning response: “For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn.” In an interview with George Plimpton for The Paris Review on “The Art of Fiction,” Hemingway actually did say, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector. This is the writer’s radar and all great writers have had it.”
In the world of historical fiction, “reputedly” and “did say” meld. In playwright Mark St. Germain’s historical drama-dies like Camping With Henry and Tom (Ford and Edison), Ears on a Beatle (FBI and Lennon), and the smash hit Freud’s Last Session (Sigmund and C.S. Lewis), inspiration and fact often pleasingly leap hand in hand all over the radar screen.
In St. Germain’s latest historical imagining, Scott and Hem at the Garden of Allah, on St. Germain’s eponymous stage in Pittsfield, authors F. Scott Fitzgerald (Joey Collins) and Ernest Hemingway (Ted Koch) meet on July 4, 1937. A beautiful California blonde, Evelyn Montaigne (Angela Pierce), types. The noise of an outside party is too much; the blonde yells that “I work for Mr. Mayer”; the noise stops. Locked away in this West Hollywood apartment overlooking a pool where 1930s stage-and-screen star Tallulah Bankhead cavorts naked and the fastidious Charles Laughton swims in his Quasimodo costume, Scott is fitfully working on screenplays, including Gone With the Wind, when Hem walks in with mustache and whisky bottle. “Of all the apartments, in all the towns, in all the world, he walks into mine,” seems to hang in a thought bubble over the door.
What follows leaps: “Princeton pansy,” Hem calls Scott, who responds with “Mackerel snatcher.” When told by blonde bombshell Evelyn, as she leaves, that the two stars didn’t attend his documentary film opening, Hem replies succinctly, “Crawford and Gable can kiss the shrapnel in my ass.” Hem says he “took Gone With the Wind, ripped it up for kitty litter, and the cat wouldn’t piss on it.”
Scott and Hem recount their drunken travels and their literary duels. “F. Scott Fitzgerald is a guided missile without guidance,” Hem says. “I swear we invented Cubism,” Scott murmurs. Hem wants to know when Zelda fell apart; Scott says, “No party’s successful until you scandalize the guests.” “I am not a homosexual,” Scott protests. Hem protests, too, much that “I’m not a Homo!” “You’re becoming Zelda!” Scott declares. Unfortunately, Hem does not retort with “Oh, fiddle dee dee.” “Humanity isn’t a prerequisite to being the greatest writer alive,” Scott declares. Hem asks of Scott’s daughter, “What’s her inheritance: alcoholism or insanity?” “I am the highest paid short-story writer in the world!” Scott loudly declares, building to the play’s climax.
Scott and Hem scream. They air punch. They throw each other into furniture. The furniture crumbles nicely. The two hold onto each other, their chests heaving. Sweat is on their brows when they touch. And the band in the distance plays “In the Mood.” The hillside “Hollywood” sign stares down on them. The blonde walks in. They part. Scott: “Hem.” The door closes. Scott scoots to his room. Blonde: “I’ll tell him you had to go.” Hem: “I’m not going anywhere.” Drinks. “Every good story is a war story,” the blonde says.
She may have detected what’s wrong with “Scott-Hem in Love”; it’s more of a treaty negotiation than a war story. As Hemingway said of his Key West felines: “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah is more of a dog play. “You know it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch,” Hemingway mused. Hemingway also said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” The basic problem with Scott and Hem in the Garden of Allah is that it’s bloodless. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris feels closer to the center of the radar screen.