When History Goes Missing

A lost first edition, a vanished diary — two of Weymouth’s greatest mysteries endure

By Stephen E. Smith

On a warm June evening in 1935,
F. Scott Fitzgerald, celebrated author of The Great Gatsby, was feted by James and Katharine Boyd at their home in Southern Pines. Fitzgerald was in his element at intimate literary gatherings where he was the center of attention and as usual, he was intoxicated and pontificating, going on at length about the weaknesses he’d detected in his host’s latest novel, Roll River. He voiced his criticisms in front of Struthers Burt and his teenage son Nathaniel, the Boyds’ close friends and longtime neighbors, and James and Katharine were no doubt relieved when their over-served guest staggered off to bed and the uncomfortable episode receded into the past.

Except, of course, that the past is forever in the present.

What survives of that night’s unpleasantness are bits and pieces of mean-spirited sarcasm and post-party finger pointing referenced obliquely in an apologetic thank-you note from Fitzgerald and responded to in kind by a usually mild-mannered James Boyd. The evening also produced two genuine mysteries — a missing first edition of Fitzgerald’s Taps at Reveille inscribed to the Boyds; and a diary, also lost, kept by Katharine Boyd, that might offer insights into the state of mind of a talented but troubled writer.

Legendary Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins had gently encouraged the Boyd-Fitzgerald friendship as a character-building exercise. He wasn’t anxious on Boyd’s account — James was always a solid citizen — but he was worried about Fitzgerald, the Jazz Age bad boy, who was, at that moment in his downwardly spiraling career, heavily in debt and beginning to suffer through what he would later describe as a “crackup.” His finances were being depleted by his lavish lifestyle, his wife Zelda’s confinement in the Sheppard-Pratt Psychiatric Hospital in Baltimore, and his daughter’s tuition at Bryn Mawr School. The April 1934 publication of his fourth novel, Tender Is the Night, brought the author only tepid reviews and little in the way of royalties, and the March 1935 reception for Taps at Reveille, his fourth and final book of stories, was even more dismal. Changing literary tastes occasioned by the Great Depression had made it difficult for Fitzgerald to place short stories, always his chief source of income, in popular magazines, and his binge drinking only intensified his emotional woes. New Yorker writer James Thurber described Fitzgerald during this period as “witty, forlorn, pathetic, romantic, worried, hopeful and despondent . . . .”

The discussion that June night focused on the various mechanisms of the historical novel, and as the hour grew late and the alcohol flowed, Fitzgerald’s intoxication apparently overawed his fragile sense of decorum. Much of what we know about his conduct can be inferred from the self-serving thank-you note he wrote to the Boyds from Baltimore’s Hotel Stafford: “In better form I might have been a better guest but you couldn’t have been better hosts even at a moment when anything that wasn’t absolutely — that wasn’t near perfection made me want to throw a brick at it. One sometimes needs tolerance at a moment when he has least himself.”

But Fitzgerald’s thank you isn’t merely a plea for forgiveness; he uses the opportunity to reiterate his criticism of Boyd’s novel: “ . . . remember all the things I did like about Roll on Sweet Missoula [a sarcastic play on the title of Boyd’s Roll River] (I forget the exact name) and my theoretical objections to certain ideas of yours as to what in the novel should drive it. In spite of everything those are dangerous subjects as we grow older, no matter what we say, unless discussion is remote from anything of ours, like discussing someone else’s children in any terms except polite compliments . . . .” Fitzgerald, drunk or sober, couldn’t pass up an opportunity to further exacerbate the unfortunate encounter.

Although Boyd was usually polite to a fault, he didn’t endure Fitzgerald’s continued effrontery without responding in kind. In a letter dated June 26, Boyd wrote: “The way a writer handles other people’s ideas on writing is part of his character and his qualification as a writer. If they do him harm, that’s a deficiency in him . . . So don’t worry about our talk. I know my meat when I see it, and my poison too . . . If you have any qualms after this I’ll make my next, to relieve your mind, a novel of defiance: ‘Run on, Scott Fifty-Rivers,’ or, if that is too obscure a reference, simply ‘F— Scott Fitzgerald.’”

What’s missing from the June gathering is the inscription Fitzgerald scrawled in a copy of Taps at Reveille that passed between guest and hosts that evening. On July 22, Boyd mentions the book in a letter to Fitzgerald: “I read ‘Babylon Revisited’ [a story included in Taps at Reveille] again before I left. In feeling, rendering, and design it’s one of the completely satisfying jobs . . . Some of the lesser things have got no business in there with it at all. I know even the best of the boys can’t do a Hamlet every time out of the box, but in Taps at Reveille there’s too wide a spread to be inside the same covers.”

Although Fitzgerald had relished the chance to be judgmental, he wasn’t inclined to accept criticism from a fellow writer, no matter how diplomatically couched. After Boyd’s July 22 letter, Fitzgerald fell uncharacteristically silent, and the correspondence ceased altogether after two letters from Boyd went unanswered. On Nov. 21, Boyd wrote to Perkins: “Have never heard from Scott since writing him that some of his short stories in his last collection were not good enough to stand up against the best of them.”

Literary squabbles are frequent and frivolous, but Fitzgerald’s tiffs endure. He was our first celebrity writer, and his The Great Gatsby is a durable assessment of the dark side of the American Dream, as relevant now as it was when first published. His writing, firmly established in our literary canon, has shaded the thinking of generations of college students. Who knows what insights the missing inscription might offer scholars?

So where is the Boyds’ copy of Taps at Reveille? It’s safe to assume that the inscribed first edition — worth $75,000 or more in today’s provenance-driven collectors’ market — was, for at least a few years, safely stashed in one of the Boyds’ three in-house libraries, which were, over time, scattered to the winds. Fortunately, it’s possible to trace the dispersal of the Boyd books that have survived, and during the last 20 years, Weymouth librarian-archivist Dotty Starling has done yeoman’s service in reassembling the collections.

“James Boyd had three libraries in the house,” says Starling. “The books he used in his writing — dictionaries, reference works, and books by his favorite authors — were kept in his study, the room which now serves as the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame. The novels he’d written and books related to his research were kept in the room designated as ‘the library,’ located on the first floor. Other books were shelved in the living room, which we now call the great room.”

Scattering books haphazardly about one’s home is a less-than-ideal organizational system, but Boyd had his own meticulous method for storing and locating books. “Each book had a printed label affixed to the inside cover designating the room, shelf and position of the book,” says Starling. “A book housed in the downstairs library would be labeled L-A-4, meaning library, shelf A, position four. A book assigned to a shelf in the living room might be labeled LR-A-3, designating the exact position Boyd assigned it. A book shelved in Boyd’s study could be labeled S-A-1 and so forth. As books have been returned to Weymouth, I’ve been able to determine the exact position they occupied when Boyd owned them. We hope that people in the community who come across books with the Boyd nameplate will return them to us so that we can continue to reassemble the collections.”

Not long after James Boyd’s death in 1944, Katharine gifted the Princeton University Library 15 archival boxes containing manuscripts and galleys of her late husband’s novels — Drums, Long Hunt, Bitter Creek and Roll River — and miscellaneous correspondence, articles, short stories and verse. The books and manuscripts remain the property of Princeton University, Boyd’s alma mater. Taps at Reveille is not listed as part of Princeton’s Boyd collection.

In the late 1940s, Katharine funded an addition to the Southern Pines Library, located next to the post office on Broad Street. The room was modeled on the library at the Boyd house, complete with a reproduction fireplace and mantel, and the shelves were stocked with books from James Boyd’s collection, including many rare and valuable books — 20 volumes of Jefferson’s writings, 10 volumes of Thackeray, and a collection of Washington Irving’s works — but no Taps at Reveille.

“Everyone had access to the Boyd collection and could use the books,” says Lynn Thompson, the library’s current director. “The catalog was simply cards stacked in a shoebox. It wasn’t long before valuable books began to disappear.” When the Southern Pines Library moved from Broad Street to its present location on West Connecticut, the city, who had legal ownership of the Boyd Room books and accoutrements, lent the materials to the Weymouth Center. Before the transfer, an appraisal of the Boyd Room volumes was undertaken by book dealer Perry Payne, but there’s no mention of Taps at Reveille in the inventory.

The largest dispersal of Boyd books occurred when Sandhills Community College opened in 1965. Teresa Wood, an early employee of the college, recalls Mrs. Boyd’s generosity. “Our offices were located above what’s now the Ice Cream Parlor on the corner of Broad and New Hampshire in downtown Southern Pines. In order to open for classes, we needed a library, and Mrs. Boyd donated hundreds of books. We had shelves built in the building behind the Ice Cream Parlor — it’s some kind of restaurant now — and when classes started in 1966 we had a library for student use.”

ood doesn’t recall receiving a copy of Taps at Reveille, but if the book were among those donated, it would likely have remained in the college collection. In 1967, the college moved to its present location on Airport Road, and the Boyd books, each fitted with a nameplate acknowledging the gift, were shelved in the new library on the first floor of Meyer Hall. “When we moved to the new campus,” Wood says, “Mrs. Boyd donated even more books. We went through the donation and discovered her diary, which we immediately returned along with any other materials we thought were personal.”

The Boyd volumes remained in Meyer Hall until the Katharine Boyd Library opened, when a large number of the books were discarded as outdated. Miraculously, many of those volumes found their way back to the Weymouth Center, where Dotty Starling returned them, whenever possible, to their original positions on the shelves.

Did Taps at Reveille become lost in the shuffle?

The mystery was temporarily solved in 1993 when Faye Dasen joined The Pilot as Editor Sam Ragan’s assistant. “Mr. Ragan asked me to help organize his office,” Dasen recalls, “and I worked at straightening things up in my spare time. I was sorting through the bookshelves when I happened upon a book by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I opened the cover and there was a five- or six-sentence inscription signed by the author. When I asked Mr. Ragan about the book, he said, ‘Oh, that belongs to Weymouth. I have to take it up there next time I go.’ As far as I know, the book had been on the shelf since the Boyds owned The Pilot.”

James Boyd had purchased The Pilot in 1941. After his death in 1944, Katharine took over management duties until she sold the business to Sam Ragan, former editor of the News and Observer, in 1969. It’s possible that Taps at Reveille had been shelved in the publisher’s office by one of the Boyds and that it had remained there for more than 30 years. When the paper was purchased by Ragan, the book was included as part of the transaction. Since Sam Ragan was the driving force behind the establishment of the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities, he would have returned Taps at Reveille to Weymouth, except that he fell ill and died in 1996. When the family sold off the estate, Ragan’s library was purchased by a rare book dealer. Taps at Reveille went with the collection.

In 2008, a Weymouth board member queried the book dealer in writing about the status of the Boyds’ copy of Taps at Reveille. When a response was not forthcoming, a phone inquiry was made, and an assistant to the dealer stated that the book had been donated to a college library, although “he [the dealer] can’t remember which college.” In all probability, the Boyds’ copy of Taps at Reveille exists today in a safe deposit box or on a collector’s bookshelf or in a rare book room at an unidentified college. It’s hoped that the volume, so much a part of the Boyd history, will eventually find its way back to the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities.

As for Mrs. Boyd’s diary, its disposition is less definite. Katharine Boyd died in 1974, and members of the family claimed what furniture, books and papers they wished to retain. The remaining contents of the house were auctioned off by Sandhills Community College. When Jim Boyd, James and Katharine’s eldest son, moved back to Southern Pines in the late ’90s, the trailer containing his possessions collided with an abutment on the interstate and its contents burned, destroying many of his mother’s personal papers. The diary may have been among the papers that were lost. Since the return of the diary to Katharine in the early ’70s, no one has come forward with information as to its whereabouts.

Time might have soothed Fitzgerald’s bruised ego, but five years after his visit with the Boyds, he died in Hollywood at the age of 44. His unfinished manuscript of The Last Tycoon was compiled and edited by critic Edmund Wilson, and Perkins mailed a copy of the novel to Boyd, who responded with predictable grace and candor: “I can’t feel that the book would have been a triumph for him, but the notes are fascinating. As so often with . . . him, the means by which he strove to arrive were more significant than the destination. The exception, of course, is Gatsby, which I just re-read before my operation. I believe it’s the best piece of writing we have produced between the wars.”  PS

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.

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