“Grandma, was F. Scott Fitzgerald anti-Semitic?”
“Of course not. Not when I knew him, at least.”
Grandma, known to the rest of the world as Frances Kroll Ring, was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last secretary and personal assistant before he died. She knew a lot about Fitzgerald, but she knew a lot about many things by the time she died. She was 99 years old.
I remember her telling me bits and pieces about Fitzgerald when I was about fifteen years old. During our childhood visits to Grandma’s house, she’d tell us about the “ancient history” of her life, but only if we asked. According to Grandma, Fitzgerald just didn’t spend a lot of time with Jewish people.
Grandma had her own relationship with Judaism. She didn’t go to shul. She grew up in New York City in the 1910s and 1920s; girls weren’t included in many synagogue-related Jewish activities of her youth. And when she moved out to LA with her parents and brothers in the 1930s, the family left a lot of traditions on the East Coast. I once asked Grandma why she didn’t keep separate sets of dishes in her home. Her response? “Feh! It’s all a racket!”
Despite her skepticism regarding Jewish tradition, her crowd of friends when she was a young woman in LA was a group of young Jewish transplants from New York, just like her. It was through them that she met my grandfather, George, who once bailed her out of jail when she got arrested for protesting for the union in the 1930s. The event had been huge, masses of protestors and even Pete Seeger on the back of a flatbed truck singing, “Oh, you can’t scare me, I’m working for the union,” and she later described it as both thrilling and dangerous. George was very upset at her arrest, afraid that she could have gotten seriously hurt, but she persuaded him that worker’s rights were worth the risk—she needed to get involved and be part of something larger than herself.
Frances Kroll Ring was inspired by the world around her, but she was also a somewhat reserved person—a trait which helped her in her work for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Though she wasn’t allowed to go to college, she was encouraged to get a job to help the family financially. Rusty’s Employment Agency on Hollywood Boulevard sent her for a job interview at what turned out to be the writer’s home address. The maid led her into Fitzgerald’s bedroom, where he was lying in bed, hung over.
He asked if she knew anyone in Hollywood. She didn’t. He told her to open the top drawer of his dresser, where there were dozens of half empty gin bottles. She shrugged. Satisfied that Grandma wouldn’t rat him out to tabloids or judge his drinking, Fitzgerald hired her that day.
One of the first tasks Grandma was given as Fitzgerald’s assistant was to haul away his empty gin bottles because he was afraid people would see them in his trash can and think he was a drunk. He didn’t want people to see them in the dumpster either, so she had to pile them in the back of the family car (which she borrowed from her father), drive the bottles to the outskirts of town and chuck them into a ravine. She would always shrug when telling the story—it all seemed perfectly logical to her at the time.
Sheila Graham, Fitzgerald’s mistress, hated his drinking. Grandma, for her part, hated Sheila Graham. She thought Graham was rude and condescending to her and mean to Fitzgerald. Grandma was never unpleasant to Graham in person, but she and Scottie (Fitzgerald’s daughter, who was about the same age as Grandma) bonded over their mutual dislike of Graham. Scottie and Grandma became good friends during Grandma’s time with Fitzgerald, and they maintained correspondence for years afterward.
The one time Fitzgerald “got fresh” with Grandma was greatly romanticized in the movie version of events. “He never kissed me!” Grandma maintained. “It was more like groping. He was drunk, anyway. He was very apologetic afterward.” When asked whether she had a crush on Fitzgerald, Grandma always said, “I admired him, and he was a very handsome man. But I always felt it would have been wrong, because of Scottie.”
Over the years she worked for him, F. Scott Fitzgerald learned a bit about Jews, and Grandma learned a great deal about writing and literature. Who needs college when F. Scott Fitzgerald is giving you book recommendations? Her deep appreciation for literature and for writers stayed with her throughout her life. When she was in her fifties, she became the editor of Westways, a travel magazine put out by the Auto Club in Southern California. Under Grandma’s guidance, the magazine published work by Anais Nin, William Saroyen, and other well-known writers of that era.
She was petite and birdlike, with a decidedly bohemian aesthetic; her wardrobe was full of colorful scarves and funky beaded jewelry. She was devoted to art and literature and good liberal causes, donating regularly to a handful of local charities in LA. Everyone who knew her described her as a sweet woman—but with a wry sense of humor, a snarky wit. An example of Grandma’s snark: when she met my partner and learned that I would be marrying a rabbi, she rolled her eyes and moaned, “A rabbi? Oh God, you should have warned me!” (To be fair, Grandma loved my partner Suzie dearly. It was the rabbi part that made her laugh and roll her eyes.)
Grandma claimed she didn’t need rabbis. She also said she didn’t need water, preferring instead to drink coffee as often as humanly possible, along with regular glasses of red wine and the occasional cup of vodka. "Water?" she’d scoff, "Never touch the stuff!" Apparently water is not necessary to live to 99.
Grandma’s connection to Fitzgerald also stayed with her throughout her life, and in 1984 her memoir of her time with him, Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald, was published. She was invited to speak at Fitzgerald conferences for decades, and eventually the book was made into a movie, Last Call, starring Jeremy Irons as Fitzgerald and Neve Campbell as young Frances herself.
When asked about her accomplishments, Grandma would always shrug and say, "Well, if you live long enough, you get to see some pretty remarkable things!" Frances Kroll Ring was a pretty remarkable lady, and I’m lucky to have known her and luckier still to be her grandchild. I feel her laugh and roll her eyes as I say kaddish for her, knowing she would tease me for praying, and I feel her smile as I type words onto a page, feeling her love of language.