In 1931, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Willa Cather from the island of Capri “to explain an instance of apparent plagiarism” in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald worried his admiration for Cather’s A Lost Lady may, like the moon receiving its luminescence from the sun, have been reflected too brightly in his novel. He enclosed early drafts to prove his innocence. From her comfortable seat of literary greatness, Cather shrugged away his concern: “So many people have tried to say that same thing before either you or I tried it, and nobody has said it yet.” Cather did not mention whether she borrowed Fitzgerald’s mentor, Father Fay, for the priest of the same name in her novel My Mortal Enemy. Mostly forgotten by history but unforgettable to those who knew him, Father Cyril Sigourney Fay was an “exceedingly fat” man of great personal charm. He had a buoyant personality and childlike faith beloved of Fitzgerald, Henry Adams, Cardinal Gibbons, and Pope Benedict XV.
For Gatsby’s Daisy Fay Buchanan, Fitzgerald borrowed the names of Father Fay and Margaret “Daisy” Chanler, whom Henry James judged the only truly cultivated woman in America. More brazenly, Fitzgerald stole a poem from one of Fay’s letters and inserted it without attribution into his first novel, This Side of Paradise. As penance for his theft, he dedicated the book to his priest-mentor, who appears barely disguised as Monsignor D’Arcy:
Monsignor was forty-four then, and bustling—a trifle too stout for symmetry, with hair the color of spun gold, and a brilliant, enveloping personality. When he came into a room clad in his full purple regalia from thatch to toe, he resembled a Turner sunset, and attracted both admiration and attention.
The only son of a Lieutenant-Colonel from Philadelphia, Fay graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1897, where his reading of church history sounded the first alarm about his future in the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Episcopal Church. After college, he pursued seminary studies and ordination. His superiors regarded his affinity for Cardinal Newman’s writings on the Church Fathers and the development of doctrine as a dangerous path of temptation.
Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, the son of the Archbishop of Canterbury, experienced a crisis of his Anglican faith in Jerusalem when he was denied access to the Orthodox altar in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Greeks still viewed the Anglicans as upstart Protestant pups deserving only a temporary table for the celebration of their Communion. Fay experienced the same attitude during a trip to Czarist Russia. Later, when a respected friend in the American Oxford Movement was re-ordained a Catholic priest despite the intervention of Fay and his bishop, Fay took it as an embarrassing public blow to the validity of his Holy Orders. On assignment with his bishop at the cathedral in Milwaukee, Fay’s Anglican faith breathed a last gasp while he was silently reading in his study. He was now convinced of the primacy of the Roman Catholic Church, “into which, as Tertullian says, the Apostles with their blood poured their doctrine.”
Fay resigned from his Episcopal offices and entered the Catholic Church on June 4, 1908. It was not an easy year for the new convert. “Almost all the difficulties which a Catholic could ever experience, I experienced during my first year in the church.” He confirmed the words of Cardinal Newman: “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” After his initial enthusiasm dissipated, Fay sustained himself daily on the “enormous grace and power” of the sacraments of the Church.
Fay did not pursue Catholic priesthood in his native Philadelphia. His ambition led him to seek out Cardinal Gibbons, the Archbishop of Baltimore and a friend of President Roosevelt. Fitzgerald met Fay after Gibbons named the father chaplain of the selective Newman School in New Jersey. Like D’Arcy and Amory Blaine, the protagonist of This Side of Paradise, they took to each other immediately. “My dear boy, I’ve been waiting to see you for years. Take a big chair and we’ll have a chat.” Fay was ambitious for Fitzgerald to become a great Catholic novelist, even fantasizing that his mentee would become an American Robert Hugh Benson, whose dystopian novel Lord of the World is a favorite of Pope Francis’s. While Fay’s encouragement spurred Fitzgerald’s writing career, it also increased his conceit. While working on his debut novel, Fitzgerald wrote to the novelist Shane Leslie: “Did you ever notice that remarkable coincidence—Bernard Shaw is sixty-one years old, H. G. Wells is fifty-one, G. K. Chesterton is forty-one, you’re thirty-one, and I’m twenty-one—all the great authors of the world in arithmetical progression.”
Aside from the Fay-inspired D’Arcy, Fitzgerald placed an even thinner veil over Henry Adams in the character of Thornton Hancock, “of Boston, ex-minister to The Hague, author of an erudite history of the Middle Ages and the last of a distinguished, patriotic, and brilliant family.” Fay was a friend and spiritual counsel to Adams, and Fitzgerald captures their relationship:
“[Hancock] comes here for a rest,” said Monsignor confidentially, treating Amory as a contemporary. “I act as an escape from the weariness of agnosticism, and I think I’m the only man who knows how his staid old mind is really at sea and longs for a sturdy spar like the Church to cling to.”
The friendship between Adams and Fay deepened through a mutual love of medieval history and music. Fay already knew the truth that Adams found on the road from Mont St. Michel to Chartres. “There was mirth and good temper in the Middle Ages which the world has not seen since,” writes Fay in an essay, “and the old proverb which one still hears in England says, ‘It was merry in England when we had Mass.’” When the two were vacationing together at Adams’s summer home in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts, Adams insisted on driving Fay to the village church every morning. Adams walked the beach while Fay said Mass, recalls Father John LaFarge, S.J. The morning of a feast for the Virgin Mary, Fay mentioned that he would put off saying his breviary until after their afternoon drive. Adams, who had discovered his love for the Virgin Queen of Heaven in Chartres, became irritated: “Our Blessed Lady will not tolerate that sort of thing. Today is her feast and she wants her office said in time.” Adams ordered the priest back up to his room to complete his prayers with the grave announcement: “She is my only hope.” Some years later in 1918, Fay was in Europe while Adams lay on his deathbed. Adams burned a single candle for his beloved Lady of Chartres while repeating his hope that “Father Fay will come and tell us all things.”
Fay and Adams were friends through Margaret “Daisy” Chanler. The Chanlers met Fay while visiting their circle of friends in Washington, D.C., including Teddy Roosevelt, Henry James, Henry Adams, John LaFarge, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. In This Side of Paradise, Fitzgerald inserts Daisy as “Mrs. Lawrence, a type of Rome-haunting American whom Amory liked immediately . . . a very intelligent, very dignified lady, a convert to the church, and a great devotee of Monsignor’s.”
While personally serving Cardinal Gibbons, Fay was without a parish assignment, so he often visited the Chanlers at Sweet Briar Farm in upstate New York. He began his country house days with Mass in the family’s private chapel, and then the group would picnic by the lake, taking turns standing under the weir, getting “our backs pelted and pummeled by the gushing waters to give us a splendid tingling of the blood,” Chanler recalls.
Fay enjoyed introducing the family of converts to lesser Catholic rituals. “In cassock, rochet, and stole,” writes Chanler, “with the two little boys as acolytes carrying the holy water stoup, the good Father gave the Church blessing to every room in the house from cellar to garret.” He blessed their stable and garden and every living thing on the farm. When a plague of insects halted abruptly before their property line, everyone thanked the priest. After the same crops were stored in a neighbor’s barn and lost in a fire, Winthrop Chanler, one of the Astor orphans and later a Rough Rider with Roosevelt, said with a wink that “the devil got even with Father Fay.”
Daisy Chanler remembered “how like other fat people I have known, he was very light on his feet, moved with the specific gravity of the toy balloon that has come down, but barely touches the earth.” The Chanlers lived well, and Daisy once asked Fay if the ascetic saints would approve of their comfortable life. “Well, yes, I know, that is a special call—I personally have never felt it; it seems to me that we praise God better by enjoying and thanking Him for the good things He sends our way.” Then he shook a fleshy finger at her and offered a quick prayer of thanksgiving for her chef’s excellent soup.
From this life of ease, Cardinal Gibbons called Fay to serve with the International Red Cross in 1917. A secretive plan to enter Russia from the Pacific (with Fitzgerald as his personal aide!) was aborted after the Bolshevik Revolution. Fay instead reported for duty with the Red Cross in Italy, trading his silk cassock for khaki puttees, which gave him the appearance of a sausage in its casing.
Relying on the British ambassador Cecil Spring Rice and Foreign Secretary James Balfour, old English friends acquired through Henry Adams, Fay also earned the respect of the British government. To dissuade pro-German sympathy in Ireland, Fay and Adams co-wrote an essay in The Dublin Review on “The Genesis of the Super-German,” which traced the modern German aggression back to Teutonic Arianism, the fourth century heresy denying the divinity of Christ, whom they considered instead a powerful creation of God the Father. The way of Nietzsche’s Superman was prepared by Arius’s superangel, a Christ who came “not to redeem, but to lead.” Fay and Adams write that “from the time when Arian Christianity was embraced by the Teutons, this race produced one great military leader after another and these military leaders were supreme and absolute.” These leaders, Adams and Fay warned the Irish, intended to destroy Celtic-Latin religion and civilization. But to domestic dissidents he was more sympathetic: in 1916, after offering a Mass with tearful eyes for the dead rebels of the Easter Rising, he successfully requested British commutation of the death sentences issued to several captured revolutionaries.
Fay’s light humanitarian work in Rome concealed his diplomatic meetings in the Vatican with the Cardinal Secretary of State and Pope Benedict XV. Fay reported on the efforts to lobby the American and British governments to allow Vatican participation in the peace conference negotiations. Benedict XV took a personal liking to Fay and his frank assessments of the Catholic hierarchy. He was also amused by the sight of the chubby American priest dressed in the uniform of a wartime major, which the pontiff personally insisted Fay wear during his audiences. During their final meeting, Benedict surprised Fay by granting him the purple of a Monsignor as a Domestic Prelate. Daisy Chanler was happy for her friend but admitted this made him look like “an enormous peony floating about.”
In 1919, Fay died suddenly from the Spanish Flu, a few days after Teddy Roosevelt. Fitzgerald was devastated. “I can’t tell you how I feel about Monseigneur Fay’s death,” he wrote to Shane Leslie. “He was the best friend I had in the world.” Fitzgerald smiled to think how the Monsignor would have enjoyed his own requiem mass, with Cardinal Gibbons vested “like an archangel in mitre and cope” in the full solemn splendor of the Roman Rite. Leslie reviewed This Side of Paradise in The Dublin Review and noticed how the novel accurately described Fay’s funeral: “All these people grieved because they had to some extent depended upon Monsignor. . . . These people had leaned on Monsignor’s faith, his way of finding cheer, of making religion a thing of lights and shadows, making all light and shadow merely aspects of God. People felt safe when he was near.”
Fay’s Protestant mother dedicated a chapel in his name in the crypt of the new Catholic National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. The chapel’s mosaic features a fit epitaph for the snowy celibate from the opening of Psalm 119. “Ah, blessed they, who pass through life’s journey unstained, who follow the law of the Lord!,” in the translation of Monsignor Ronald Knox, another Anglican convert to Rome. At the shrine of the Virgin Mother, we remember Her loyal servant Father Fay in his full-fed girth and his saintly mirth.