- Historic Sites
America Was Promises
An Interview With Archibald MacLeish
August/September 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 5
The President argued that I could run the Library of Congress before breakfast. Ada foresaw the future. She said, “Don’t struggle too hard.”
Probably much less, and I haven’t any theories about an answer. Picasso was almost the longest lived of the lot. He went on producing long after everyone else in his world had stopped. Why did so many of the people involved die so young? Why the suicides?
In a poem you wrote about Hemingway, you hint at another reason: ”… the lad in the Rue de la Notre Dame des Champs/In the carpenter’s loft on the left-hand side going down—/ The lad with the supple look like a sleepy panther—/And what became of him? Fame became of him.” You had a long friendship with him, didn’t you?
I had a close relationship with Ernest which terminated at the end of about ten years. We continued to correspond after that, although we saw each other very little. In that period Ernest was constantly referring to the fact that he regarded himself as responsible for our breakup as friends. He felt himself incapable of friendship, that he’d broken up all his friendships. Well, that’s not true. When he started being down on himself, he got down on himself as nobody else I’ve ever known.
Ernest, who later became so difficult, was marvelous in his twenties. I first looked him up after I read a privately printed edition of In Our Time . He and his first wife, Hadley, were just breaking up and he was going to marry again. Through that intermediate period, for all intents and purposes, he lived with us. His bicycle was always at our front door. We saw him all the time. He took Ada, of all people, to the “boxings” whenever he could get her to go, which was quite frequently. He had a very persuasive tongue.
When he came back to the States a couple of years after we did, our friendship began just where it left off… and then it blew up. There was too much pressure. I just couldn’t take it, finally, and made some unkind remarks—which were immediately topped. That was down in Key West. We’d been out at Dry Tortugas over a four-day norther, and our nerves were all on edge. But I didn’t behave well. I failed on that one very, very badly.
In this whole period, were you ever really close to Scott Fitzgerald?
No, it was hard to be. I felt great affection for him and a great sadness for him. But you could never tell whom you were going to meet when you met Fitzgerald. It could be any one of a number of people, and I just gave up.
Didn’t you once have a fight with him at a party given by Gerald and Sara Murphy?
Well, I think that would depend on how you looked at it. The party was at the Murphy’s villa in Antibes. That was in 1926, I think. Scott was making a nuisance of himself, and Gerald asked me if I would try to stop him. He was being really very rude. A favorite form of rudeness was dropping figs in champagne glasses so that they would splash on ladies’ dresses. I got hold of Scott and got him to go down to a little sort of gardener’s house in the garden with a fountain in front of it. He sat on the edge of the fountain. He was quite tight, of course, and I was trying to explain why his behavior was not very kind to Gerald and Sara. He listened to me with his head down, sort of nodding, and I thought I was making some progress. The next thing I knew, he had come up off the fountain and hit me in the face with both fists.… That was my attempt at peacemaking.
Why did so many people decide to leave Paris all at once?
I’m not sure whether that is an appearance or whether it’s the truth. It’s the truth insofar as my friends were concerned. Ernest stayed on for two years after we left, but ended up owning a quite large house in Key West. The Murphys’ two boys both died, and those illnesses drove them back. The Depression, which began to be operative on dividends, dragged a lot of people home. And then there was another factor for some of the old hands who had been in France for a long time. By the middle of the thirties, it was pretty plain what was going to happen in ’39.
Were you able to support yourself by poetry when you returned?
Oh, no. Harry Luce saved my life by offering me a job at Fortune . The reason this was a godsend to me was simply that we had no other source of income. But Fortune saved all. Harry had gone to Hotchkiss and so had I. Harry had gone to Yale and so had I. Harry was in the Bones and so was I, and I was enough older than he so that he regarded me as an authority of sorts in certain areas. I’ve never heard of a magazine writer being hired on terms like the ones he offered me. I could work as long as I needed to in any month to pay my bilk—and then I’d get the hell out of New York and come up here to do my own work, until Harry called for me to go back. Sometimes he’d wait weeks to call me. I worked for Luce from 1929 until 1938. Somebody once added up my contribution. I did about one piece a month, for a total of something like 119.
That is impressive.