For the second time that year Fitzgerald had to face the prospect that no big scene would take place to rescue him from his hopeless state. There was no course left but to go on living and writing so that he might educate Scottie and take care of Zelda. This was his fate; he said he was being driven by fear, duty, and necessity as by a three-pronged whip.
Armed with the best of resolves, he went North to check with Zelda’s doctors in Baltimore and go on to New York to see a friend or two and perhaps his daughter. After conferring with the psychiatrists, he started for New York, but he hopped out of the train at a way station and took the next one back to Baltimore. There he picked up gin, went to his usual hotel, and drank himself into an alcoholic stupor that left him, after three days, with a fever and in a pool of sweat.
What the doctors had told him about Zelda may have set him off, although I had feared that he might do something of the sort after his disappointment over the test. He usually needed a reason to trigger such a bust; the disappointment was enough to do it. By this time I had observed that before Fitzgerald could be serious about such a resolve he first had to hit bottom, wallow in disgust and self-pity, atone and repent, and then use that position as a starting point for one of his determined uphill climbs.
Shortly after he returned to Grove Park Inn, he called me one morning to come see him. I found him in pajamas and an old dressing gown he often wore while working. There were papers on the table and the couch; he reached for a pencil behind his ear while mulling over the rough page of a story. There were circles under his eyes, his face was pallid, his beer belly protruded. When he put down the page, I noticed that his hands hardly shook.
“That rash was a kind of eczema,” he said, breaking the silence.“Probably due to the combination of sleeping pills I was taking. The itching stopped as soon as I switched them.”
“So it was sleeping pills,” I repeated.
“Who knows?” He shrugged, poured a glass of beer, and held it before me. “Too early?”
“Ten a day is my new regime. So far so good.” He cleared a chair and the couch for us to sit, and lit a cigarette. “Before I left I was consuming thirty-five. Yes, a day. The bellboy counted them. That explains this barrel gut. But I’ll get it down. Have you seen Lottie?”
“Yesterday,” I said and sat in the chair. “She asked for you.”
“I owe her an apology. If you see her before I do, please apologize for me. Say it was noninfectious leprosy and that it mystified a dozen Johns Hopkins top brains.” He looked at me sideways and without the hint of a smile. “Zelda had the worst kind of eczema after her first break in Paris. The doctors couldn’t decide who or what caused it— Scottie, me, her diet, some chemical, or her anxiety over losing precious time.
“Someone got the bright idea that it was psychological. There was a story about a woman who broke out with it when she caught her husband stealing from the baby’s piggy bank. I must have done something worse in her eyes, or Scottie. It was a living hell for her. Zelda wished she were dead. They tried everything on her, even hypnosis, but the best cure was for me to stay away from her.
“I had a hell of my own those lonely, sleepless nights in Switzerland. It’s the last stop—where nothing begins, but everything ends. I tried to figure out what I had said or done to hurt her that she should have such a violent reaction to me. That was about the time my insomnia began. I tried different combinations of pills, pink, yellow, blue, to get some sleep and rest my nervous system.”
I remember the visit as one of his most relaxed. He spoke in a low voice and his manner was contrite, like that of a boy who had been reprimanded for misconduct. It was no grandstand show reminiscent of the interview; he was calm, subdued, introspective. Though his eyes seemed directed inward rather than being focused on me, he wasn’t distant or impersonal but warm and confidential.
“It was probably all my fault,” he said as if carrying on a conversation with himself. “I shouldn’t have taunted her. I can be a bastard when it comes to taunting and accusing people. She had talent. I hated to see it go to waste. She had been too much of a playgirl and there was a lazy or indolent streak in her. That comes naturally to those bred in the sluggish atmosphere of the Deep South. I kept after her, probably in self-defense, to paint or write—even ballet at first— so I could work and so she wouldn’t be bored or restless, itching for a dance or a party that often ended at dawn and left us with a hangover that shot the next day for me.”
Zelda had once told him that she hoped never to become ambitious about anything. Still, he encouraged her to work, recognizing her flair for clever and descriptive writing. She had written articles for popular magazines, some signed by herself and others that shared his byline— even if she had done all the writing—so they would command his usual high price. And then came her more or less autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, at the time of her second breakdown.
Fitzgerald was pouring himself another beer when the buzzer sounded. I went over to open the door; a bellboy was there with a paper carton of beer bottles. Fitzgerald joined us and told me it was his quota for the day. The Negro took them into the other room; before he left he had Fitzgerald initial a room-service check he hadn’t signed that morning. Fitzgerald lit another cigarette, sat down opposite me, and went on as though there had been no interruption.
“I was relieved not to see a copy of Waltz in your shop. But you have read it.”
“Yes,” I said and sat down again.
He then told me that Zelda had started the novel in Montgomery and finished it in the Baltimore clinic—“in six obsessive weeks as if driven by the demons that possessed her. It had the material of a classic tragedy, but she couldn’t see it any more than she was capable, as a person, of facing it. Waltz sprang from the depths of her misery— the wasteland of her shattered ego. I told Perkins it was good and to publish it—to give her a boost. But it remains a bad novel—worse than Paradise. What did you think of it?”
I said, “At first I was annoyed by her bizarre style, the strange metaphors, and all those adjectives. I thought it was smart and superficial. Then I was hypnotized by its incantation and its mad vitality. But while reading it I had the odd sensation that the novel had been badly translated from another language.”
Fitzgerald appeared to be both annoyed and impressed by my remarks. “Did you review it?”
“Scribners didn’t send me a copy.”
“I wish you had. Zelda would have liked most of what you said. Yes, it sounded as if it were badly translated from another language. The language of the deep unconscious. Jung’s fantastic world. The book was a literary feat of what psychiatrists call ’free association’ and Joyce called ’the stream of consciousness.’ But it’s still a bad novel.”
I was silent. After a pause he went on: “The original draft was a hodgepodge that would have embarrassed us both as writers. I revised some passages to give the book form. I did nothing to her prose. I couldn’t tamper with her style any more than I could change her after all those years. It was hopeless.”
Then he rose, went to refill his glass, and was silent.
“Did you make drastic cuts?” I ventured.
I shouldn’t have asked that question. It was stupid of me, the sort of thing one sometimes does to keep the conversation alive. Fitzgerald came out of himself and peered at me with sudden suspicion, as if I had turned up a painful and long-forgotten secret.
“What have you heard?”
“Nothing,” I said with an uncomfortable feeling.
He looked at me as if I had suddenly become an enemy. A gulf seemed to open between us. I rose and walked away from him.
“You must have heard something—to ask such a question.”
“Yes. That the hero was a painter with no talent or personality,” I said matter-of-factly without meeting his curious stare. “He was named Amory Blaine. You changed it to David Knight.”
“That’s true,” he said in a cordial tone. “But you asked about drastic cuts. What did you mean?”
I now felt free to speak out and said, “Her attack on you as a writer and a husband.”
“Your private life, marriage, quarrels.”
“How did you find out?” His voice again was insistent, challenging. “How?”
“I don’t remember.”
“That’s no answer and you know it.”
I gazed at the ceiling, neither shaken nor intimidated.
“Who told you?” he asked sharply. “Who?”
“I can’t tell you,” I said, backing toward the window. “It was told to me in confidence.”
“Do I know the person?”
“Probably, I can’t say.”
“Have you told anyone?”
“Of course not,” I said, facing him.
“You expect me to believe you?” he asked, but not as sharply as before.
“Scott,” it was one of the few times that I addressed him by his first name, “that’s up to you.”
I had only to reveal the name of my informant at Scribners’ promotion department and all would have been as before with us. During my few years as a reporter I had been taught never to betray a confidence. Fitzgerald went for another bottle, returned with a full glass, and lit a cigarette. I no longer felt uneasy, I was restless; I glanced at my watch, hoping to announce I was due at the Bookshop. But I couldn’t leave in such an atmosphere of estrangement.
Fitzgerald calmly sat down and resumed the subject of Zelda’s novel, saying that the critics had been unkind, despite everything he had done to improve it. Its sale had been about a thousand copies, and Zelda had received nothing in royalties after the small advance. I sat down again opposite him and asked how she had taken its failure.
“Zelda was a saint about it. The minute we were through with the galleys, she put it behind her and started writing something else.”
“Would you say writing it was a kind of therapy?” I hoped that such a question might bring us back to our old intimacy.
“I think so,” he said. “I believe Jung said the arts, as mediums of creative expression, can serve as the best outlet for our deepest neuroses. You know Jung?”
“Some, and Freud too. But I prefer Jung.”
“So do I,” he said in a friendlier tone. “He stresses the unconscious and the creative process, Freud the sexual side of human activity. Writing Waltz seemed to have calmed some of her egomania and freed her from competitive drives.”
He went on speaking of the book. “It’s a bad novel, not a bad book. A psychiatric document of the schizophrenic mind in action. A mind gone berserk, evidently not with a natural drive or ambition, but consumed by a passion to dazzle and show off. I know her better than I know myself. We could be twins. She pushed herself beyond the limit, hoping to blaze a trail as I did. I made it, she broke down.”
The phone rang. It was the operator saying that a bellboy was bringing up a package. He thanked her, hung up, and muttered to me, “Rosemary.”
I glanced at my watch and said I had to go. He motioned me to stay; I stopped near the door, undecided.
“My apologies for sounding like a movie district attorney. I was surprised you knew so much about me. I guess we were bound to meet, but probably not to be friends. Don’t go. Not yet.” His voice was more friendly. He picked up the telephone. “Let me order you some lunch.”
It was a friendly lunch. We both made an effort to recapture some of the old intimacy, but his reserve lingered. The reserve seemed to be a result more of his sober and penitent mood than of the gap that had begun to open between us. Conversation gave way to revelations in which he aired further disturbing thoughts about Zelda. While saying that he had been responsible for bringing on her destructive malady, Fitzgerald tried to justify the role he had played and to lighten the burden of his guilt about it.
“We lost everything, Zelda and I. Peace, love, and health. Money too, but that was the least of it. I could always dash off a Post story or two when we were broke and the weather was right. Peace went first—with our gay and reckless times. Love next—with our quarrels and loss of trust and confidence. Then health—with her demon of insanity and mine of drink that made us mindless enemies.
“Yet we had some of our most beautiful times together after her first break. It was an idyll of recaptured closeness, despite the anxiety of living on the edge of different worlds. Then came her second, to snatch it all from us as if it had been a mirage. And finally the third, to smash all hope of recovery or a change that would make it possible for me to write or sleep again.”
He put a hand to his face. I was silent. Then he spoke again: “Did you ever slap your wife?”
“Probably you didn’t have to be a bully.” He paused. “She ever call you a fairy or a yellow bastard?”
“How long have you been married?”
“There’s still time or—she’s not the type.” Another pause. “She doesn’t seem jealous of what you want to do.”
He was silent again. I remember his pauses, his not looking at me, and his need to unburden himself about Zelda. He sat deep in the couch, not rising for cigarettes or more beer. He seemed to be scanning inner horizons.
“When Zelda said she hoped never to become ambitious, I should have listened, not driven her, thinking it was merely indolence. What she feared, I believe, wasn’t ambition so much as the fact that it would possess her. She would have to give herself to it exclusively. Once it possessed her, there would be no rest until she had conquered it or it had destroyed her.”
When she decided to study ballet Fitzgerald thought it was impossible at her age, but he didn’t object. It was when she plunged into ballet with the frantic determination to become a Pavlova—twenty years too late—that he turned against it. He warned her that it was one of the most difficult of the arts; it called for hours of practice, dedication, and a youthful and flexible body. And though she had been praised as an amateur dancer, he said that there was a wide gap between the amateur and the professional in all the arts.
“I shouldn’t have told her that she didn’t have the body or was starting too late,” Fitzgerald said, nodding to himself. “It was a challenge to start at twenty-seven, and she accepted it. Having no time to lose, she naturally expected quick success. It was like writing Waltz in six weeks, which came later. That fall she went into ballet with the frenzy of a ritual dancer invoking the gods. She would be a Pavlova or—”
They were living at the time in an old mansion along the Delaware near Wilmington. She commuted three times a week to Philadelphia to study with Catherine Littlefield, head of the Philadelphia Opera ballet corps. Scottie was six at the time, and she went along with her mother to study ballet too. Their living room was converted into a practice studio with a ballet bar and a gigantic gilt-framed mirror. Close to it Fitzgerald tried to write; he was irritated by the record that Zelda played over and over during her stint of four or five hours a day.
Zelda had barely started work when, according to one of the biographies, she wrote their friend Carl Van Vechten that she had joined the Philadelphia Opera ballet. In the same letter she spoke of having found enough chaos—she liked the word chaos in those years—to go her own way, and that she was heading for Paris in the spring to study ballet. To reduce the tensions between them, Fitzgerald closed the house and they went to Paris.
“She was soon lost to the ballet craze,” he said about that period in their lives.
Paris was the dance capital after the Russian Revolution sent most of the dancers into exile. Many groups had settled there, and old dancers of the Russian ballet had opened studios to teach and coach. One of these was Madame Lubov Egorova, a former princess and ballerina, who had taught Miss Littlefield and also a daughter of Fitzgerald’s friends the Murphys.
“Zelda had to study with Egorova—the teacher who would turn her into a ballerina with a magic wand,” he said with a note of bitterness. “We met her at one of Gerald’s parties. They entertained the Diaghilev company. But that wasn’t the year Zelda was stung by the ballet bug. Of course she had taken dancing lessons before, and sometimes she kicked off her slippers and let herself go into a solo. In her absorbed state she ignored the applause of friends and strangers.
“Yes, I saw plenty of ballet dancers because of her. They live in a fairy-tale world of their own making, detached from life and reality. I saw them as children taking silly poses and with as much common sense as a third-rate Italian tenor. Ballet was a mystical experience to them, and their teacher was a saint to worship. That was the worst atmosphere for Zelda in her chaotic mental state. She threw herself into it with the blind faith and adoration of a child.”
They were in Paris a part of that year and returned the next for her to continue with Egorova, or so I learned later. That second year Diaghilev died and, though Nijinsky had been confined to an institution for more than a decade, dancers there were lamenting the end of the ballet. Zelda had a couple of minor engagements on the Riviera, and she also received an offer from the enterprising San Carlo Opera ballet school in Naples, but rejected it. Yet this attention gave her the illusion that she was professional and ready for the big time. She now worked harder than ever with Egorova; she was dieting for her figure and she put on grease paint for her ballet class. Fitzgerald said she was drinking too, to sustain her long practice periods, the hours with Egorova in class, and private lessons. Ballet became her obsession; neither he nor Scottie existed, only her teacher who possessed the gift to turn her into a ballerina.
“Zelda wanted to shine like a big star in the most glamorous of all worlds, the dance world. I didn’t mind, but there was something absurd and pathetic about her efforts,” he said with sadness in his voice. “I found myself saying hateful things to her. I couldn’t stop. I was at war with myself. We quarreled, poked in the ashes of the past, and flung words that raised a wall of indifference between us. We became hostile strangers and went our separate ways while living a hell under the same roof.”
One day while Zelda lunched with friends before going to ballet class, she showed definite signs of her first breakdown. She had cocktails, ate little, was nervous, possibly because of her dieting, and feared being late, although she had plenty of time to make her class. She left in a taxi, changing into practice clothes on the way; when the cab stopped at a light she hopped out and dashed wildly on foot the rest of the way. A few days later she entered a Paris hospital, where the doctor diagnosed anxiety symptoms and advised her to stop the lessons for a while. But she resumed them and two weeks later had her first breakdown.
I was curious to know whether Fitzgerald remembered or had an idea why she had started ballet in 1927 with Littlefield, instead of two years earlier with Egorova. My question brought him to his feet. He walked away from me, his step was heavy, and there was a slight hunch to his shoulders. After a silence he turned to me as if he had pondered my question, hit on something he hadn’t expected, and seemed undecided about telling me.
“That summer in Wilmington,” he slowly said, walking toward me, “there were signs of disaster in her craving for excitement. She was bored, restless, irritable. She tried painting—it bothered her eyes. Writing hadn’t brought her the success she most wanted. There was still ballet. It was now or never. I can’t say she functioned with such logic. Rather I’m inclined to believe that Zelda—in her chaotic state— needed a shock to get her going.”
A fixed expression was on his face. He stopped a short distance from me and seemed to be debating with himself whether he should tell me what had occurred to him. And then, even if he had decided against it, he seemed incapable of holding back what was on his mind.
“That shock might have been the news of Isadora’s fatal accident,” he said in a low voice, while looking at me intently as though what he said was meant only for my ears. “I’m not saying it was. Probably it was a coincidence, or it’s only one of my hunches. Yet it’s possible. She started to study ballet a bit sooner, but she didn’t go into high gear until mid-September, when the accident occurred. Isadora was an extraordinary woman. One in the limelight, one she would like to have been. Isadora did it on her own. It was Zelda’s insane wish to do the same. Replace Isadora now that she was dead, and outshine me at the same time.”
Then for the first time he briefly recounted how Zelda had flung herself down the steps after he sat at Isadora’s feet. The episode, he said, was no fit of jealousy as he had thought at the time; Zelda was too proud to show jealousy. It was an early symptom of her illness. He again hesitated before telling me the rest of the thoughts my question had stirred up.
“The day we heard the news of the accident, there was a severe, brooding look in Zelda’s eyes. I can still—”
He stopped as though realizing the full significance of what he had said. He became fearful and suspicious that I might repeat it, and mentioned the fear to me. I assured him that I respected a confidence and that he had nothing to worry about. He may well have remembered that I hadn’t divulged the name of the person who told me what he had done about Save Me the Waltz. I was, in fact, silent on both matters for thirty-five years. But a tag end of suspicion must have stayed in his mind.
Before I left him that afternoon, he had more to say about Zelda’s breakdown, as if speaking about it gave him relief. When I went back I made notes in a rental copy of Nijinsky; I still have the copy in which I jotted down what Fitzgerald said to me:
“As a child Zelda dreamed of becoming a Pavlova. As a woman she worked madly to outshine Isadora. And on her road to insanity she followed the footsteps of Nijinsky. Ironic. She had more in common with him then than during his shining years. They both had a daughter and wished for another child, a son. They wrote at great speed under pressure of their madness. They spent time at Valmont clinic where their illness was diagnosed by Professor Eugen Bleuler, foremost authority on schizophrenia, who believes that no one can become insane, but is born to it. And they both turned to God and religion in the fantasy world of dreams. A full circle for Zelda.
“To this day I feel partly responsible for her breakdown, though experts have told me that her trouble started long before we met. But this much I know for certain. She may have shown signs of insanity those first years, but she didn’t crack up until she cut me out of her life and went over to Egorova and her crowd of ballet mystics. Throughout our years together, I gave Zelda a kind of balance that kept her from going over the brink. I was her only reality. Yes … I was her only reality.”