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The Greatest Interviews: F. Scott Fitzgerald Meets the New York Post

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The Guardian has compiled a list of the greatest interviews of all time, plus some of the more interesting things that happened when the tape was no longer rolling. This week, we're offering a up a few highlights from the series.

In 1936, F. Scott Fitzgerald sat down with the New York Post. This was not a happy interview. In truly breathless Post style, the interview revealed a desperate, restless Fitzgerald, wandering through anecdotes and shaking with alcoholism.

Here's how Michael Mok, the Post's interviewer, begins the meat of the article:

"A series of things happened to papa," [Fitzgerald] said, with mock brightness. "So papa got depressed and started drinking a little."

What the "things" were he refused to explain.

"One blow after another," he said, "and finally something snapped."

The interview ran in 1936, just four years before Fitzgerald would die of an apparent heart attack, a condition greatly hastened by his longtime addiction to alcohol. At the time, Fitzgerald's bright flaming literary star was lamentably, pathetically fizzling. Confronted with the steepening decline of his career, health, and personal life, Fitzgerald had been writing autobiographical articles for Esquire magazine, ruminating on his life as a "cracked plate."


To his interviewer, he explained, he had lost his confidence. "˜"A writer like me," he said, "must have an utter confidence, an utter faith in his star. It's an almost mystical feeling, a feeling of nothing-can-happen-to-me, nothing-can-harm-me, nothing-can-touch-me."'


Fitzgerald's constant companion at this time was his nurse, who dealt with both his physical pain -- a broken shoulder the result of an accident on a diving board -- and his mental anguish, his addiction to alcohol. At one point during the interview, a jittery Fitzgerald leaves the room and the nurse takes a moment to caution the interviewer: "'Despair, despair, despair,' said the nurse. 'Despair day and night. Try not to talk about his work or his future. He does work, but only very little - maybe three, four hours a week.'"

As the interviewer ostensibly tries to play it straight -- what does Fitzgerald think of modern writers? What does he make of the flapper generation he so brilliantly described in his novels? -- Fitzgerald becomes the embodiment of pathos. He's glitteringly brilliant, spilling little bon mots just as he would his gin, but it's a window on the utterly depressing demise of a talented writer.

Regarding the "jazz-mad, gin-mad generation" that had provided Fitzgerald his material and his fame, the writer -- and his interviewer -- had this to say:

"Why should I bother myself about them?" he asked. "Haven't I enough worries of my own? You know as well as I do what has happened to them. Some became brokers and threw themselves out of windows. Others became bankers and shot themselves. Still others became newspaper reporters. And a few became successful authors."

His face twitched.

"Successful authors!" he cried. "Oh, my God, successful authors!"

He stumbled over to the highboy and poured himself another drink.

Stories circulated that the article had so depressed him that Fitzgerald attempted suicide after reading it. And reading the article today, it seems as if Mok was gunning hard for Fitzgerald. But in the context of 1936, Mok's disappointment in the writer stands to reason: For much of America, the Great Depression had been a sudden, violent hangover from a decade of Jazz Age decadence -- the poster child of which had been bright young things like Fitzgerald and his tragic wife Zelda. Unflattering in the extreme, the interview is a public dressing-down of a writer who, a good number of Americans seemed to believe, needed a scolding. Or at least a mirror.

In a foreword to the Guardian's reprinting of the interview, writer Jay McInerney wrote, "Mok is remembered as one of the villains of the Fitzgerald story, one of history's cloddish butterfly crushers." Perhaps unfairly, McInerney argues -- while Mok certainly pulled no punches in his depiction of the dissipated writer, Fitzgerald seems unable to control himself, to keep himself from playing the role of a dissipated writer.

Whatever else it did, this interview solidified the tragic mythos that surrounded Fitzgerald, recasting him as one of the characters from his own novels.

Previously: Marilyn Monroe, Marlon Brando (by Truman Capote). Tomorrow: Princess Diana tells all to Martin Bashir.

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
A Chinese Museum Is Offering Cash to Whoever Can Decipher These 3000-Year-Old Inscriptions

During the 19th century, farmers in China’s Henan Province began discovering oracle bones—engraved ox scapulae and tortoise shells used by Shang Dynasty leaders for record-keeping and divination purposes—while plowing their fields. More bones were excavated in subsequent years, and their inscriptions were revealed to be the earliest known form of systematic writing in East Asia. But over the decades, scholars still haven’t come close to cracking half of the mysterious script’s roughly 5000 characters—which is why one Chinese museum is asking member of the public for help, in exchange for a generous cash reward.

As Atlas Obscura reports, the National Museum of Chinese Writing in Anyang, Henan Province has offered to pay citizen researchers about $15,000 for each unknown character translated, and $7500 if they provide a disputed character’s definitive meaning. Submissions must be supported with evidence, and reviewed by at least two language specialists.

The museum began farming out their oracle bone translation efforts in Fall 2016. The costly ongoing project has hit a stalemate, and scholars hope that the public’s collective smarts—combined with new advances in technology, including cloud computing and big data—will yield new information and save them research money.

As of today, more than 200,000 oracle bones have been discovered—around 50,000 of which bear text—so scholars still have a lot to learn about the Shang Dynasty. Many of the ancient script's characters are difficult to verify, as they represent places and people from long ago. However, decoding even just one character could lead to a substantial breakthrough, experts say: "If we interpret a noun or a verb, it can bring many scripts on oracle bones to life, and we can understand ancient history better,” Chinese history professor Zhu Yanmin told the South China Morning Post.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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6 Eponyms Named After the Wrong Person
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Salmonella species growing on agar.

Having something named after you is the ultimate accomplishment for any inventor, mathematician, scientist, or researcher. Unfortunately, the credit for an invention or discovery does not always go to the correct person—senior colleagues sometimes snatch the glory, fakers pull the wool over people's eyes, or the fickle general public just latches onto the wrong name.

1. SALMONELLA (OR SMITHELLA?)

In 1885, while investigating common livestock diseases at the Bureau of Animal Industry in Washington, D.C., pathologist Theobald Smith first isolated the salmonella bacteria in pigs suffering from hog cholera. Smith’s research finally identified the bacteria responsible for one of the most common causes of food poisoning in humans. Unfortunately, Smith’s limelight-grabbing supervisor, Daniel E. Salmon, insisted on taking sole credit for the discovery. As a result, the bacteria was named after him. Don’t feel too sorry for Theobald Smith, though: He soon emerged from Salmon’s shadow, going on to make the important discovery that ticks could be a vector in the spread of disease, among other achievements.

2. AMERICA (OR COLUMBIANA?)

An etching of Amerigo Vespucci
Henry Guttmann/Getty Images

Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci (1451–1512) claimed to have made numerous voyages to the New World, the first in 1497, before Columbus. Textual evidence suggests Vespucci did take part in a number of expeditions across the Atlantic, but generally does not support the idea that he set eyes on the New World before Columbus. Nevertheless, Vespucci’s accounts of his voyages—which today read as far-fetched—were hugely popular and translated into many languages. As a result, when German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller was drawing his map of the Novus Mundi (or New World) in 1507 he marked it with the name "America" in Vespucci’s honor. He later regretted the choice, omitting the name from future maps, but it was too late, and the name stuck.

3. BLOOMERS (OR MILLERS?)

A black and white image of young women wearing bloomers
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Dress reform became a big issue in mid-19th century America, when women were restricted by long, heavy skirts that dragged in the mud and made any sort of physical activity difficult. Women’s rights activist Elizabeth Smith Miller was inspired by traditional Turkish dress to begin wearing loose trousers gathered at the ankle underneath a shorter skirt. Miller’s new outfit immediately caused a splash, with some decrying it as scandalous and others inspired to adopt the garb.

Amelia Jenks Bloomer was editor of the women’s temperance journal The Lily, and she took to copying Miller’s style of dress. She was so impressed with the new freedom it gave her that she began promoting the “reform dress” in her magazine, printing patterns so others might make their own. Bloomer sported the dress when she spoke at events and soon the press began to associate the outfit with her, dubbing it “Bloomer’s costume.” The name stuck.

4. GUILLOTINE (OR LOUISETTE?)

Execution machines had been known prior to the French Revolution, but they were refined after Paris physician and politician Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin suggested they might be a more humane form of execution than the usual methods (hanging, burning alive, etc.). The first guillotine was actually designed by Dr. Antoine Louis, Secretary of the Academy of Surgery, and was known as a louisette. The quick and efficient machine was quickly adopted as the main method of execution in revolutionary France, and as the bodies piled up the public began to refer to it as la guillotine, for the man who first suggested its use. Guillotin was very distressed at the association, and when he died in 1814 his family asked the French government to change the name of the hated machine. The government refused and so the family changed their name instead to escape the dreadful association.

5. BECHDEL TEST (OR WALLACE TEST?)

Alison Bechdel
Alison Bechdel
Steve Jennings/Getty Images

The Bechdel Test is a tool to highlight gender inequality in film, television, and fiction. The idea is that in order to pass the test, the movie, show, or book in question must include at least one scene in which two women have a conversation that isn’t about a man. The test was popularized by the cartoonist Alison Bechdel in 1985 in her comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For,” and has since become known by her name. However, Bechdel asserts that the idea originated with her friend Lisa Wallace (and was also inspired by the writer Virginia Woolf), and she would prefer for it to be known as the Bechdel-Wallace test.

6. STIGLER’S LAW OF EPONYMY (OR MERTON’S LAW?)

Influential sociologist Robert K. Merton suggested the idea of the “Matthew Effect” in a 1968 paper noting that senior colleagues who are already famous tend to get the credit for their junior colleagues’ discoveries. (Merton named his phenomenon [PDF] after the parable of talents in the Gospel of Matthew, in which wise servants invest money their master has given them.)

Merton was a well-respected academic, and when he was due to retire in 1979, a book of essays celebrating his work was proposed. One person who contributed an essay was University of Chicago professor of statistics Stephen Stigler, who had corresponded with Merton about his ideas. Stigler decided to pen an essay that celebrated and proved Merton’s theory. As a result, he took Merton’s idea and created Stigler’s Law of Eponymy, which states that “No scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer”—the joke being that Stigler himself was taking Merton’s own theory and naming it after himself. To further prove the rule, the “new” law has been adopted by the academic community, and a number of papers and articles have since been written on "Stigler’s Law."

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