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A writer's life: Novelist's former secretary visits literature classes at UM
Frances Ring, former secretary to writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, signs a copy of Fitzgerald's book “The Last Tycoon” for a University of Montana student Monday morning after lecturing in a literature class.
KURT WILSON/Missoulian
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Imagine walking into an employment agency and being given the assignment of typing the last novel of one of America's most iconic writers.

Frances Kroll Ring calls just such an assignment her "unfinished relationship" with the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald.

"It's been a long time," Ring told a literature class at the University of Montana on Monday. "I've had a whole life since then: marriage, children, other jobs, but it keeps coming back all the time."

And just like Fitzgerald's notoriety since his death in 1940, Ring's responsibility has reached unexpected heights.

"When Fitzgerald died, he wasn't as well known as he is now," Ring said. "His books make millions of dollars now, and he died in poverty really."

Ring, who's very first job was that of a secretary to Fitzgerald in 1939, typed what would become "The Last Tycoon," as dictated to her by the writer during the last 20 months of his life.

Her 1985 memoir, "Against the Current: As I Remember F. Scott Fitzgerald," details her time spent with the writer and became the basis for the 2002 film "Last Call."

Today, her role is mostly that of a consultant.

"How was he really?" Ring said. "Was he really like this or really like that? Or what was his condition when he died?"

"And since I was there, I have an authentic answer," she said.

Her authenticity rang through with every syllable on Monday at UM, as she rambled through Fitzgerald's life as if he were a favorite uncle or family friend.

Ring was in Missoula as a favor to a UM Fitzgerald scholar from France, Pascal Bardet, who asked her to speak to two of his literature classes and at a showing of "Last Call" and public discussion Monday evening.

"She was really lively and engaging for being 90 years old," student Andee Ethington said after Ring's lecture. "It just makes literature real to us."

For Ethington, it was all about connecting with the past.

"Instead of it being something dead and in the past, when I think of Fitzgerald, I think, 'Oh, that was so long ago,' but then Frances came and she knew him, and it was a live connection," Ethington said. "I think it makes it real."

Ring touched on all the familiar parts of Fitzgerald's life: the alcohol, the financial trouble, the relationships with his wife Zelda, and Hollywood.

And she touched on the tender aspects of a man who wanted nothing more than to write - and to connect with young people.

"They still have the flamboyant pictures of his early youth and drinking and failure in mind, and that's a very saleable focus," Ring said. "I think they need to know that all he ever wanted to be was a writer and that was his chief object, and he wanted to be a good writer and he loved writing and he loved storytelling."

Bardet met Ring at a Fitzgerald Society meeting in Nice, France, in 2000.

"We didn't talk much," Bardet remembers. "She was busy with all the faculty there."

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But a year later, in Beverly Hills, Bardet thought he recognized a woman parking her car.

"Yeah, I think I know this lady," Bardet said. "I went up to her and said, 'You must be Frances Ring.' "

The two have become close friends since, and Bardet frequently spends time with Ring in Beverly Hills.

"I wanted them (students) to have the opportunity to hear from someone who had a personal, firsthand experience and memory of his life," Bardet said.

Fitzgerald has become a myth in American literature, he added. "I think it was good to have Frances here to debunk the myth and to see who was behind the myth, who the real Scott Fitzgerald was."

"Mostly, they stop short of the end and have him die in despair," Ring said, in her best myth-debunking voice. "He didn't die in despair, he died working because he wanted to be published again."

It was Ring's first visit to Montana.

"It's beautiful," Ring said. "I'm overwhelmed. I knew it would be a big size, you know, the size is there … but the colors and the fall are just exquisite."

Reporter Timothy Alex Akimoff can be reached at 523-5246 or at tim.akimoff@lee.net.

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