Posts Tagged ‘alcoholism’



The Fitzgeralds in their Paris apartment, 1926. “Scottie,” age 5, Scott, and Zelda

Zelda Fitzgerald‘s health improved greatly following an appendectomy in June of 1926 in the American hospital in Neuilly outside of Paris. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of her husband, American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940). Although his recently-published novel, The Great Gatsby (1925), had received mostly positive reviews from literary critics, it was not selling well.


il_794xn.1994892106_o3k1While Zelda (1900-1948) was still hospitalized, Sara Mayfield, Zelda’s childhood friend from Montgomery, Alabama, ran into Scott in Paris. She was having drinks with the son of the Spanish ambassador to the United States and Michael Arlen, whose novel, The Green Hat, was creating a sensation abroad. Scott joined them at their table. At first, the conversation flowed pleasantly. Scott complimented Arlen on his literary success.  A half hour and more drinks later, the conversation turned to the writing of Ernest Hemingway. Arlen did not think highly of it. Scott considered Hemingway his great friend and a great writer. Scott pounced on Sara’s friend, accusing Arlen of being

a finished second-rater that’s jealous of a coming first-rater.”

Someone diffused the situation and steered Scott off the subject. Then Scott was on his way to the hospital to see Zelda and asked Sara Mayfield if she would join him. She agreed. First, however, he decided he wanted to have dinner. He wanted to find Hemingway who may have returned from seeing the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. He and Sara stopped at Harry’s New York Bar. Things turned nasty quickly. A newspaper man asked Scott if he was promoting Hemingway. Scott somehow got offended and wanted to punch the newspaper man. Fortunately, someone interceded and stopped him.

Sara and Scott never did get around to visiting Zelda. Scott got roaring drunk and passed out in the fresh food market, Les Halles.

More and more, Scott’s nights and days were passed in this way: no work done, drinking, and talking with friends, passing out and being put into a taxi and sent home alone.”

Once Zelda was sufficiently recovered from her surgery, the Fitzgeralds were back in the South of France in the area known as the French Riviera for the rest of that summer.


The Fitzgeralds ca. 1927. photo courtesy Mary A. Doty.

One evening in August, they were dining with two other American expatriates, Sara and Gerald Murphy  in the hills above the Mediterranean near Nice, France in St. Paul-de-Vence at La Colombe D’Or.

St. Paul-de-Vence is located where you see the red marker, approximately 20 km southwest of Nice in the hills.

St. Paul-de-Vence, South of France

La Colombe d’Or was a quaint and popular roadside bistro frequented by artists like Picasso, who sometimes paid for his meal with drawings. The open-air terrace restaurant is set on the edge of the ramparts of the ancient Roman hilltop town of Saint-Paul-de-Vence.  

That August evening, the Murphys had reserved a table for four on the elevated stone terrace overlooking the Loup Valley, two hundred feet below.

A view from the open-air terrace of the hotel/restaurant La Colombe d’Or. Image from the book La Colombe d’Or: Saint Paul De Vence

La Colombe D'Or today, a restaurant and hotel

La Colombe D’Or today, a restaurant and hotel

Midway through the meal, Gerald noticed that the famous American dancer, Isadora Duncan (1878-1927), was sitting at a table nearby along with three of her admirers. Gerald pointed her out to Scott and he and Sara told Scott who she was.

Now 48 years old, Isadora was no longer the lithe young dancer who had revolutionized the dance world by eschewing the rigidity of traditional ballet. In her heyday as a dancer who toured the globe, Isadora Duncan abandoned the plié, stiff-toed pointe shoes, and the tutu, preferring free form movement—skipping about in meadows and on beaches, barefoot, bare-legged, fluttering her arms about, wearing loose and flowing Greek tunics with long scarves trailing and billowing behind her.

Isadora dances for Ital war relief fund

Isadora Duncan dances for the Italian War Relief Fund during World War I. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images) 1917

Now 48 years old, Isadora was hugely fat and her dissipated life was legend. Her hair was dyed with henna.

Nevertheless, Isadora Duncan still had star power. Scott, enamored of fame, rushed over to introduce himself to her. He crouched at her side. He praised her artistry. Knowing that Scott was a writer, she divulged to him that she had a contract to write her memoirs; she had received a cash advance. As a result, she was being pressured to complete and submit the manuscript to her editor and, frankly, she was stuck. Scott offered to help. She wrote down her hotel and room number and handed this note to Scott. Scott was still fawning at her feet. Isadora reached down and began running her hands through his hair. She called him a centurion, her protective soldier.

At this point, Zelda, observing this scene, stood up on her chair, and, without warning, leaped over the table—and over Gerald, who was sitting with his back to the valley view—and dove into the darkness beyond and below the terrace. (Zelda was a proficient diver and swimmer.)

I was sure she was dead,”

recalled Gerald.

Shortly, Zelda reappeared. She had fallen down a stone staircase than ran down the hillside. Her knees and dress were bloody. Otherwise, she was remarkably all in one piece. Sara grabbed her napkin, flew to Zelda’s side, and began wiping away the blood. Gerald’s first thought was

that it had not been ugly. I said that to myself over and over again.”

Zelda Fitzgerald’s behavior would grow more and more peculiar and yet she would live another twenty-two years. In the fall of 1927, she returned to her childhood study of ballet and it became an obsession. She would practice 6-8 hrs a day to the point of exhaustion and a weight loss of 15 pounds.


Zelda in ballet costume, 1929.

In 1930, she suffered a mental breakdown and was hospitalized in Paris. From then on, she would drift in and out of various mental institutions in Switzerland, France, and the United States. She endured grueling and often inhumane and certainly experimental treatment for her diagnosis of “schizophrenia.” She would make progress and then exit the institution before, reliably, suffering setbacks and needing to be readmitted to the hospital. Her mental health spiraled downhill.


Fitzgerald, in his own words, “just couldn’t make the grade as a hack” writing Hollywood scripts for MGM. Illustration by Barry Blitt for the New Yorker

Meanwhile, Scott’s party drinking had exploded into full-blown alcoholism. He found it harder and harder to write in those gin-soaked years. But their daughter, Scottie, had expenses and Zelda’s hospitalizations cost a fortune so he had to write to make money. He wrote until the end of his days, although suffering ill health all the while. He died of a heart attack in Hollywood at the age of 44.

Isa Duncan 1903

Isadora Duncan, ca. 1903, wearing a signature neck scarf

After having met Scott Fitzgerald on the terrace of La Colombe D’Or, Isadora Duncan would live another full year. On the night of September 14th, 1927, she was riding in a open-top car with a friend in Nice, France, when the long, silk scarf she was wearing—her signature look was her long, silk scarf— became entangled in the spoke of one of the rear wheels, breaking her neck, dragging her backwards, and killing her instantly.

According to dispatches from Nice, Duncan was hurled in an extraordinary manner from an open automobile in which she was riding and instantly killed by the force of her fall to the stone pavement.”

Upon learning of Duncan’s tragic death by strangulation, the poet and Nazi collaborator Gertrude Stein acidly remarked:

 affectations can be dangerous”


Vaill, Amanda. Everybody Was So Young (1998).

Bruccoli, Matthew J. Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1981).

Milford, Nancy. Zelda (1970).

Taylor, Kendall. The Gatsby Affair: Scott, Zelda, and the Betrayal that Shaped an American Classic (2018).

O’Neill, Frances; Rennie, David Alan. F. Scott Fitzgerald in Provence-A Guide (2018).

The New York Times. 1927-09-15

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Actor Richard Burton (1925-1984)

Actor Richard Burton (1925-1984)

“Which one?” he asked, when actor Richard Burton was told in 1957 that his father had died.  It was an odd question, but a legitimate one. Richard, indeed, did have more than one father. Was it his birth father, the poor Welsh coal miner, who had died? Or, was it his foster father, the British schoolmaster and BBC producer who taught Richard how to be a fine Shakespearean actor?

It was his birth father who had died. He was Richard Jenkins, 81, and he had died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Locally, in the coal pits and pubs, he was known as Dic Bach. His seven boys and four girls called him “Dadi Ni.” Richard Burton, named Richard Walter Jenkins at birth, was named after his father. When young Richard was born in 1925, his father was 49, his mother, Edith, 42. Edith would live only two more years; she would die giving birth to Richard’s younger brother, Graham.  As a result, at the tender age of two, Dadi Ni sent Richard away permanently to live with his older sister, Cecilia, and her violent miner of a husband in the nearby town of Port Talbot. Only occasionally did Dadi Ni come to visit Richard.

Graham and Richard (1925-1984) were the only Jenkins boys to escape the mines. The Jenkins brothers, Tom, Ifor, Will, David, and Verdun

grew tall like their mother, rugged and strong like their father, and [they] went down to the mines like their ancestors before them,” recalled Richard Burton’s sister, Hilda Jenkins Owens. (1)

Richard’s father Dic Jenkins often worked from 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., six days a week, seeing the sun only on Sundays. Miner’s work was hell and Dic was a “right terror for his booze,” said one of the miners who had grown up in the village of Pontrhydyfen with the Jenkins.

Only his size, tiny, couldn’t be 5’2″ out of his boots. But drink! Bloody hollow legs!” (1)

The village was full of pubs – the Bird in Hand, Heart of Oak, Boar’s Head, Miners’ Arms, British Lion – and most of the miners went there, where the drinking was “tremendous and cheap.”

Dic Jenkins was severally alcoholic, going on drinking binges that lasted for days. Once he was burned in a mine fire. His daughters rubbed olive oil on his burned arms, which were then bandaged to his chest so he couldn’t use them at all. Even that didn’t stop him from drinking. He went straight to the pub and had pints of bitter poured directly down his throat. That night, walking home drunk from the pub, his arms strapped to his side, he was attacked and horribly beaten by an old enemy. His teeth were knocked out and he was thrown over a wall. He wasn’t found until the next morning. He survived and loved to tell the tale at the local pubs, again, over pints and pints of bitter.

Actor Richard Burton (l.), laughs with his father, Richard Jenkins, and brother Ifor Jenkins, 1953.

Actor Richard Burton (l.), laughs with his father, Richard Jenkins, and brother Ifor Jenkins, 1953.

Fortunately, when Richard was a teenager, his schoolmaster, Philip Burton, recognized his talent as an actor. Philip Burton became Richard’s foster father, adopting Richard as his ward, teaching him how to speak English without a Welsh accent, to use a knife and fork, and to dress and speak like an educated man. He taught him to read the classics. Richard left his sister’s house and moved in with Philip Burton.

Burton served as a navigator during WW2 in the British RAF. Here is shown as a RAF cadet, age 18.

Burton served as a navigator during WW2 in the British RAF. Here is shown as a RAF cadet, age 18. His eyesight was too poor to allow him to be a pilot.


In 1943, Richard changed his surname from Jenkins to Burton. Under Philip Burton’s tutelage, Richard Burton made his London stage debut at 18, and won a scholarship to Oxford. From them on, Richard would refer to Philip as his father.

Richard Burton did not attend his birth father’s funeral. Dic Jenkins had not approved of Richard’s choice of profession. He was actually very insulting about it. They did not have a close relationship.

Richard Burton had cast off his birthright, changed his name. He had escaped the mines. He had become an international film star, an accomplished stage actor, and had married perhaps the most beautiful woman in the world, actress Elizabeth Taylor.

During the filming of Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton find each other. The island of Ischia, Italy, 1962© Bert Stern, courtesy of Staley-Wise Gallery, New York

During the filming of Cleopatra, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton find each other. The island of Ischia, Italy, 1962© Bert Stern, courtesy of Staley-Wise Gallery, New York

And yet he could not escape his inheritance from Dic Jenkins –  a propensity for heavy drinking. In 1984 at age 58, Richard Burton would die – like his father – of a cerebral hemorrhage, his physical deterioration hastened by years of excess alcohol consumption. He had begun drinking alcohol regularly at the age of eleven. He used to boast that he could drink a half gallon of cognac or a fifth of whiskey during one night’s stage performance.

In 1980, Richard Burton appeared on the Dick Cavett show and spoke frankly about his personal struggle with alcohol:

(1) Kashner, Sam and Schoenberger, Nancy. Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.

For more on Richard Burton, click here.


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