When Fitzgerald returned Isadora Duncan’s My Life, he was in a talkative but disconsolate mood. His depression that afternoon must have drawn on the note of doom sounded in her tragic story. A rash had broken out on his body, and he brooded over it, not doubting that it involved Rosemary or Lottie, or both. In spite of his preoccupation with it, he didn’t mention the rash until he had spoken at length about Isadora. Indeed, he was so fascinated by her that I thought he must have read the book before and have borrowed it to refresh his memory.
Passing over her tumultuous love life, Fitzgerald dwelt on the similarities between them that he discovered in her story—their rebellious Irish natures, their being Westerners, their early success and notoriety, and the jagged graph of their flamboyant, unhappy lives in America and on the Riviera. He was struck by the fact that their brilliant careers had moved into eclipse and that they were almost forgotten before reaching forty. Isadora had met a spectacular death in 1927, three months before the publication of her memoirs.
Fitzgerald’s biographers record an encounter he had with her two summers earlier. Scott and Zelda were dining with their friends Sara and Gerald Murphy on the promontory-like terrace of an inn overlooking the bay of Isadora’s beloved Nice. She sat at a table nearby drinking champagne with three men. She was no longer the lissome dancer of her twenties, but was a striking figure in her purple Grecian robes. The two celebrities had never met.
Fitzgerald now spoke of that occasion. But first he asked me if I had read two articles which he had “fixed up” and sold to his friend Arnold Gingrich of Esquire. I said that I had. In one of them, a nostalgic piece on the Scott-and-Zelda heyday, Isadora was described as “too old and fat to care whether people accepted her theories of life and art,” and that the champagne in which “she gallantly toasted the world’s obliviousness” was “lukewarm.”
That summer in 1925, Isadora was forty-six. She may have been fat, but she was still a magnificent-looking woman. (Fitzgerald himself was twenty-nine, Zelda twenty-five; on the basis of his obsession with age, they were a bit old themselves.) There was a touch of malice in those words—Zelda’s, not his, he assured me. Fitzgerald said he hadn’t written the article, only fixed it up to get quick money to pay her hospital bills. Her ungenerous description was directly connected with what had happened that evening, and her subsequent attempt to become a dancer.
Fitzgerald had risen from their table and had gone to sit at Isadora’s feet. He hadn’t known the dancer; Gerald Murphy had pointed her out to him. He was given to such theatrical gestures upon meeting famous people. He had earlier sat at Gertrude Stein’s feet and, upon meeting James Joyce, Fitzgerald had declared as a mark of his highest esteem that he was going to jump out of the window.
While he sat gazing up at Isadora, who immediately recognized him, she ran her fingers through his fine blond hair and called him her “centurion.” That much was known, he said, but not their conversation. What he told me that afternoon I jotted down on the flyleaf of her book. Fitzgerald had said to Isadora that he admired her as “a revolutionary American woman and artist.”
“My granny’s Irish blood,” Isadora said. “She went West as a girl in a covered wagon back in forty-nine. She taught me Irish jigs and inspired me as a child.”
“I am Gaelic too.”
“I could tell from your writing. You’re our dancing writer, just as Nietzsche is our dancing philosopher.”
He accepted the tribute modestly; even in telling about it he inclined his head. Isadora spoke of having been asked to write her memoirs and of having agreed for the money. Now the advance was spent, time had passed, and the publisher was pressing her to deliver the manuscript she hadn’t yet written.
“I’m struggling with it. I’m a dancer, I know nothing about writing. The truth frightens me, but I must tell it.”
“The truth or nothing.”
“Yes, truth is nobler than pride.”
Isadora asked if he would help her. He agreed with the gallant feeling of saving a lady in distress. By his account, she was a magnetic woman. As she rose to leave with her companions, Isadora took Fitzgerald by the hand and told him the name of her hotel in a voice that undoubtedly reached his table. Fitzgerald had heard that Isadora sometimes chose a lover for the night in this fashion, but he felt that her interest in him was due to her needing help with her book.
The story has often been told of what Zelda did at the time, yet I must retell it here—out of its proper order, since Fitzgerald did not mention it until later. According to the story, it was Zelda who now had the impulse to jump, but not out of a window. She climbed on her chair and flung herself across the table down a short flight of stone steps. An iron gate at the foot of the steps saved her from a fall that might have killed her. The Murphys, stunned by her self-destructive act, rushed after her and found that while she was cut and bruised, she wasn’t seriously hurt. Without a word Zelda went into the inn to restore her appearance. Fitzgerald never saw Isadora again.
That afternoon in my bookshop he wondered—without mentioning Zelda’s fugue—whether Isadora had indeed invited him to be her lover. Might he be a type to attract her? He was taken by the idea. To judge from her book, it seemed to him that her lovers tended to be more aesthetic and sensitive than was consistent with the American ideal of that period. He too had to be aesthetic and sensitive because of his profession, even though he struggled unsuccessfully to achieve the rugged facade of American manliness. He hadn’t ever outgrown the conventional image of feminine desirability: a fragile, girlish prettiness. No, he wouldn’t have been comfortable as Isadora’s lover. She was too overpowering a woman and, like himself, she seemed to need love-making for her own art. On the other hand, he admitted that she had attracted him by her sheer vitality.
I thought to myself, then and later, that Fitzgerald unconsciously sought dominant women, but at the same time found himself resisting their domination. If the woman also embodied his ideal of the American beauty, apparently he didn’t, in his personal life, probe deeply beneath the surface. His eye was surer in his novels. “Strength,” “cowardice,” “weakness” were words that he often used in our conversations; they represented concepts that still stood squarely in the twenties and thirties. Zelda, the most beautiful, feminine, yet dominant woman he had known, was the embodiment of all his conflicting ideals.
He went on talking about Isadora as though he had drunk champagne with her the night before. He was fascinated by her extraordinary life, and from time to time would pick up her book and comment on some passage. A remarkable woman he observed, self-educated and highly developed in her character through the combination of great talent, capacity for joy, and the terrible, unexpected blows of life. With little schooling, she had appreciated Dickens, Thackeray, Shakespeare, and pursued an understanding of Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Marx, and Darwin, to many of whom he was also indebted for his own outlook.
Another aspect of her life style with which Fitzgerald identified strongly was that expressed in certain desperate modes of conduct. He traced its source to the poetic recognition that life is essentially tragic. Dressed in a tunic, Duncan would dance the night through to Beethoven, Wagner, and Chopin played by a pianist in her entourage, while champagne flowed in her villa filled with the celebrities and the fashionable rich of the day. Her pleasure-seeking adventures on the Riviera—the yachts, sports cars, all-night fetes—helped to inspire the extravagant and reckless style of Fitzgerald’s own generation.
She had psychic powers, too, having premonitions, prophetic dreams, and visions throughout her life. She consulted readers of cards, hands, stars, and kept a personal fortuneteller in her household, in quest of revelations that would protect and guide her. Fitzgerald believed that her interest in the occult had replaced her cast-off religion. At one time she had thought herself going mad and had been haunted by the image of Nijinsky in his asylum. With the loss of her two children, foretold in a vision of death, her dance interpretations were given over to the spirit of tragedy. Fitzgerald was visibly affected as he spoke of this. Tragedy was linked to the dance for him, too; Zelda’s attempt to become a dancer had brought about her breakdown.
“I believe that although one may seem to go on living, there are some sorrows that kill.”
These were Isadora’s words, written some years after the death in a motor accident of her two children, Deirdre and Patrick, on the road to Versailles. Fitzgerald opened the book and showed the passage to me. It was underlined in pencil, which it hadn’t been before. I remembered that he had marked my copy of Taps at Reveille.
He riffled the pages of her book and stopped to glance at another passage. Then he turned to me and unexpectedly asked if I had seen Lottie. I went to the card file and found that she hadn’t been in for two weeks. Hesitating, but with a show of calmness, Fitzgerald told me about the rash that was spreading on his back and legs.
“Do you think I could have caught something from her, even with her negative report?”
“Why don’t you see a doctor about a test?”
“I can’t do it here,” he said flatly. “I don’t want anybody to know.”
“I’m not going to tell anybody.”
“Christ, it would have to happen to me!”
“But you don’t know. There’s no need to worry.”
“I feel tainted. I won’t take all that mercury,” he said. “I’ve been thinking of Rosemary. What if she gave it to her husband—after I gave it to her. What a hell of a present!”
“How long have you had it?”
“Over a week—only a spot or two at first.”
“Ever had this before?”
“I can’t think of anything more horrible and revolting than syphilis,” he said, paying no attention to me. “I’ve been lucky. And careful. I’ll never take another chance with her kind—if I know it.”
“What makes you think it was Lottie?”
“It couldn’t be Rosemary.” He thought a moment. “Though I did go to New York and there was—”
He suddenly changed the subject and told me he was still hearing from Rosemary. A note of bitterness had crept into her letters. She asked him if he had forgotten her and if he had another girl to keep him company on his sleepless nights.
“The poor, dear, lovely girl. I once told her that relationships had an unfortunate way of wearing out like everything else,” he said sadly. “She’s so afraid I will forget her. The hell of it is that I think I still love her. She hangs on to the hope that we will be back together again. Christ!”
Fitzgerald slammed the Duncan book on the desk and walked out of the shop without another word. I picked up the green-backed volume to place it on the shelf. It fell open at a page with another marked line: “Hope is a hard plant to kill and no matter how many branches are knocked off and destroyed, it will always put forth new shoots.”