Radio: Biography in Sound

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"It was as if all his story described a big dance to which he had taken the really top girl, and as if he stood at the same time outside the ballroom, a little Midwestern boy with his nose to the glass, wondering how much the tickets cost and who paid for the music."

With these perceptive lines, punctuated by the frayed, nostalgic jazz of the 1920s, NBC-Radio News last week opened an hour-long Biographies in Sound (Tues. 9 p.m., E.D.T.) of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It proved to be a poignant re-creation of the tragic life and happy times of one of the most gifted American writers of the 20th century. It also showed off radio at its nonvisual, imaginative best. In the same field, television, with all its gaudy resources, might have distorted a story that simple words and music truly evoked. Biographies, a sustaining show with a tiny budget of $500 per program, started as a one-shot with a biography of Winston Churchill. It was so good that the show went on a regular basis last December and has been going strong ever since.

Alabama Beauty. In the Fitzgerald story, Editor William Hill recaptured the flavor of the flapper era and of the man who recorded and personified it, by simple and authentic means: period jazz (Chicago and New Orleans styles), Fitzgerald's own words and the varied voices of his friends reminiscing about him. The voices of Fitzgerald's friends were what gave this thumbnail radio biography a unique intimacy.

Cecil Reed, a boyhood friend in St. Paul, told how young Scott lay awake nights talking of his ambition to go to Princeton. Judge John Biggs Jr., a Princeton roommate, told how, fresh from St. Paul, Fitzgerald "had the advantage of being a superb writer, [but] his knowledge of spelling and punctuation was almost rudimentary." Gerald Murphy, an intimate friend of later years, described Zelda Sayre, the Alabama beauty Fitzgerald loved: "She had rather a powerful, hawklike expression, very beautiful features, not classic, and extremely penetrating eyes, and a very beautiful figure, and she moved beautifully. She had a great sense of her own appearance and wore dresses that were very full and very graceful . . . Her mind worked in a most interesting way. She almost never said anything indifferent or certainly nothing ever silly, and her angle of vision and her perception were very personal."

Ritual Orgies. Fitzgerald married Zelda on the $5,000 advance royalties of his first novel, This Side of Paradise, and they set off on a mad fling that was to span the decade, cover a couple of continents, and wind up with Scott an inveterate alcoholic and Zelda a hopeless schizophrenic. Fitzgerald's literary agent, Harold Ober, told radio listeners where the money came from: short stories, at $4,000 a story. Friendly Critic Malcolm Cowley defined the double vision that helped Fitzgerald command such prices: "He was a man of the 1920s who took part in the ritual orgies of the time, but he also kept a secretly detached position, regarding himself as a pauper living among millionaires . . . a sullen peasant among the nobility."

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