Suddenly and without sufficient time for restoration, scenery from a half-forgotten drama is being rushed on stage. Characters lost in the limbo of a hidden past assemble behind the phantom wings. Lines spoken long ago must be remembered quickly. Roles that were played with youthful abandon must be reenacted with legitimate authority. A strange miracle has happened: a comedy of manners of yesterday has become a vibrant tragedy of today.
In the orchestra pit, the director taps his baton and the overture begins. The music swells with a medley of college songs, the Beautiful Lady waltz, martial airs and finally reaches a crescendo with the blatant blare of jazz. Then the curtains part with breathless suspense and the spotlight shines on the stars of the show—The Fabulous Fitzgeralds. The revival of the hectic drama of the life and times of Scott and Zelda is on.
It is my self-imposed duty to comment on this drama not as a critic, but as a close friend of the stars. This I feel compelled to do not only for the record, but because of recent publications which seem to me to distort the story of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald for sensational purposes and from the viewpoint of prize fight fans who prefer the knockout punches to the ability and integrity of the contenders. It is actually a simple story and not the great psychological or psychopathic dilemma that others have depicted: a simple story of two human beings, spoiled by beauty and talent, placed on a pedestal of sudden success and then smashed by self-indulgence and self-pity.
It was “horsing” week at Princeton when I first saw a freshman named Fitzgerald. “Horsing” was the Princeton name for hazing and that week in October 1913 was the last horsing week ever held in the university. I was a sophomore in the Class of 1916 and too busy working my way through college to spend any time in horsing. However, going from one class to another, I had occasions to pass groups of sophomores who were lining up freshmen with their coats turned wrong side out and their trousers pulled up to their knees for a parade, or to hear my classmen badgering some benighted freshman with dictatorial and intentionally embarrassing ques≠tions.
In passing one particular group, I heard an upperclassman say, “What’s your name, Freshman?”
“Fitzgerald,” was the reply.
“What great metropolis has the honor to be your birthplace? And say sir to me.”
“St. Paul, Minnesota, sir.”
“Where did you prep?”
“Newman, sir,” said Fitzgerald, shyly but firmly and not knowing what this answer would lead to next.
I could sympathize with his embarrassment as Newman was not then among the better known preparatory schools for Princeton. The year before the sophomores had horsed me to a fare-ye-well. The minute I had spoken they had known that I was from the South, and when I was forced to admit that I came from Montgomery, Alabama, I was made hoarse from giving the Rebel yell. I knew that Fitzgerald, coming from St. Paul, would be spared at least that and automatically I hoped he would get off lightly.
I looked at the young freshman with his ink-spot skull cap, his blond hair, piercing blue eyes and well-modelled features, so delicate that a girl would envy them. He arrested my attention away from all others in the group. There was something in his voice, even more in his eyes, that was compelling, and I remember saying to myself, “I’d like to know that fellow.” I was tempted to take up the horsing to find out more about him, but before I could make a move the upperclassman had released Fitzgerald with a “beat it before I,” and the blond novitiate was lost in the crowd. I did not see Fitzgerald again until the following spring, May 1914 to be exact, when the Triangle Club play competition was at white heat.
The newly elected president of the Triangle Club for the season 1914-15 was Walker Ellis of the class of 1915, a brilliant young man and a clever politician. Ellis announced the competition for the next season’s Triangle play in March 1914. I had then, as I do now thirty-seven years later, the same ambition to become a competent playwright. So I entered the competition. In my diary are six entries which tell the story and lead up to my first close contacts with Fitzgerald.
March 13,1914: “at Walker Ellis’ room to bull a little about next year’s Triangle play” (Walker’s suite over the First National Bank was reached by a long, breath-taking flight of stairs).
March 24th: “Out of about fifteen scenarios written for next year’s Triangle show, four were selected to be written up and mine was among them.” Another one selected came from a brilliant young freshman named Fitzgerald, so Ellis told me. I remembered then my first glimpse of “that brilliant young freshman” and somehow knew why he had attracted my attention that day in October. I went to work to “write up” my scenario, realizing that I had a dangerous rival. “Writing up” meant writing the dialogue and lyrics for a whole musical comedy. With the little time I had to spare, it became a tough assignment for me.
April 21st: “Had a long talk with Walker Ellis and feel a bit encouraged over Triangle situation.” This entry as I remember referred to one competitor dropping out, but I was constantly being reminded by Ellis that Fitzgerald was in there pitching.
May 15th: “Handed the play in tonight.” And that was the night! After I turned the manuscript over to Ellis, we sat in his study, “bickering” and mulling over the script. There was a knock at his door.
“Come in,” said Ellis.
The door opened and there stood Fitzgerald, out of breath from the hurried climb, his hair dishevelled and his eyes burning bright with excitement. In his hand was a manuscript. Before either Ellis or I could speak or rise, Fitzgerald said: “Is Campbell’s in yet?”
Up to that time, I had not known that Fitzgerald knew my name or that I even existed. “Foxy Mr. Ellis,” I said to myself, “playing one against the other and keeping the competition keen.”
“Campbell’s play is here and so is Campbell,” said Ellis as he and I rose for the introduction.
The rivals met and from that first handshake was born a bond of sympathy and understanding between Scott Fitzgerald and me that was to last a lifetime.
While the manuscripts were being read and appraised by Ellis, by Henry Elliot, the former Triangle president, by the composers and other officers of the Club, gossip ran rampant. Elliot preferred my play. Ellis saw no part in mine for himself. Scott’s lyrics were the best and most original ever written for a college show. And so on. All during this period of tension, and it lasted a month, Scott made many visits to my room, eager to get some indication of the way the competition was going. But the topics discussed during these visits extended far beyond the realm of our rivalry.
We discussed religion, books, careers, sex—everything. I found out that Scott knew much more than I did although we were the same age. He also had a much clearer idea of what he wanted of life. He wanted only to be a great and successful writer, period! And he was preparing himself for that career, come what may. He had learned Gilbert and Sullivan backward to help him with his lyrics. He had read every play of Oscar Wilde’s for his dialogue. But above all he had read The Picture of Dorian Gray, and that was where Scott led me into a realm of enlightenment!
Before these discussions with Scott began, Ellis had suggested that I read The Importance of Being Earnest as a guide for my dialogue. I read it with rapture, but was disturbed by the brief account of Wilde’s life in the foreword. Reference was made to his trial and punishment without any clarification of his crime. It must be remembered that in 1914 Wilde’s name was still under the cloud of condemnation, and no mention of his guilt was ever made in polite society. Frankly, I was puzzled, and I asked Ellis why Wilde had been sent to jail. Ellis replied that “it was something gentlemen didn’t talk about.”
Like a good gentleman, I let the subject drop and revelled in Wilde’s plays and indeed found them very helpful. Still in the dark about Wilde, I asked Scott what he knew and he informed me in no uncertain terms. He sailed into a diatribe against perversion with a fervor I never heard him use on any other subject. I often wondered whether Scott’s somewhat feminine appearance had anything to do with that obsession. I knew he did everything he could to avoid being called a sissy and I feel quite sure that he flaunted this violent intolerance toward “fairies,” a term he used often later on, as a protective armor against ever being mistaken for one. In many ways, Scott had a sympathetic attitude toward all kinds of irregularities, but toward Wilde’s “secret sin” he was bitter and blatantly brutal.
Another powerful obsession Scott had at the time was with old age. This I shared with him, but not so violently. Both Scott and I agreed that we did not want to live beyond forty, and Scott had a firm belief that he never would reach forty. This belief was almost confirmed, for he died at forty-four. My obsession with old age was abandoned during World War I, but for reasons that never affected Scott.
These meetings with Scott took place in the spring of 1914, and in our lives then there was no threat or even thought of war. The cult of youth to which he and I were dedicated seems to have had its roots in the resignation to and reverence of old age which our forebears had long ago adopted. We were revolting against that concept of life. Another factor leading to this obsession was the knowledge that so many writers in the late nineteenth century had died young, exhausted by early ardent inspirations and by youthful creative energy. We were to follow in their footsteps, singing paeans in praise of youth, shooting darts of derision at senility and decay.
During this period of our discussions, Scott and I did not take a drink together. I did not drink at all then, and if Scott drank, he never showed any signs or symptoms of it to me. The wine of youth was too strong for me to need any other stimulation, and I thought the same was true of Scott. In fact, at that time, he seemed to me to be a determined fellow, serious-minded, ambitious, and infected with touches of whimsy, rather than with a broad sense of humor. He was cheerful, amiable, breathlessly energetic but never raucous. There were fleeting moments when he seemed erratic and times when he disappeared from daily contact. At the time I thought he had locked himself in his room, ignoring classes, extra-curricular activities and the progress of the competition for his writing.
On May 18th, this entry appears in my diary, “Am in the depths as I heard that Fitzgerald’s play was better than mine.” I later found out that Ellis was working on the dialogue of Scott’s play and that Scott’s periodic disappearances were the result of their collabora≠tion.
Finally on June 10, 1914 my diary states, “Received my play back with encouraging compliments, etc.” Scott’s play had won and so ended my competition with him and my efforts to write the Triangle play.
In the fall of 1914, while the war in Europe was raging, The Princeton Triangle Club produced Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi! with the book by Walker Ellis ’15 and F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17 and with lyrics by F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17. As a footnote to this, my diary records on November 5th while the play was in rehearsal: “Found out that one whole scene in Walker’s (Ellis) play has been snatched from ’The Importance of Being Earnest.’ “
Scott became a big man on the campus and a lion among the literary aspirants of the university. He joined the select group which included Edmund Wilson ’16 and John Peale Bishop ’17, and was a central figure in their literary round table. He wrote verse and sketches for The Tiger, poetry and short stories for the Nassau Literary Magazine, and lyrics for later Triangle shows. I saw less and less of him during my two remaining years at Princeton, but there was always a cheerful greeting from him when we met and he often asked me to join him in the “bicker” sessions with Wilson, Bishop and others in that group. I explained that my work in managing Campus Club and as Assistant Reference Librarian left me little time for studies and practically none for anything else. Scott was always solicitous about my writing efforts. Later on, he admitted that my Triangle play was better than his, but attributed his victory to his lyrics and to Ellis’s interest in the leading character. He also admitted that there was practically none of his original play in the final production.
Scott had little patience with my “working my way through college” if it interfered with a literary ambition. Certainly he never let anything interfere with his ambition at any time, not even classes. Furthermore he wanted to spend more and more time with Wilson and Bishop as he knew they were erudite, had splendid literary backgrounds and could stimulate him with their critical comments. These contacts both paid him well. Wilson and Bishop were of great benefit to him at college and later in life as well.
After I graduated in 1916, I went to work as a newspaper reporter in New York and later joined an advertising agency as a copywriter. I only stayed a few months in this second job for the United States entered the war in April 1917. I was soon in uniform as a buck private in the army and assigned to the New York National Guard, then federalized and later to become the 27th Division A.E.F. In September 1917 my outfit was dispatched to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina. We spent the winter there in training and were sent overseas in the spring of 1918. I had not seen Scott since June 1916—and had not heard a word from or about him—but in June 1918 a letter from him was forwarded to me in France. Scott had received his commission as a Second Lieutenant and had been ordered to Camp Sheridan, Montgomery, Alabama. He knew that Montgomery was my hometown, and he wanted the names and addresses of some girls there. I had been born and reared in Montgomery, but had left in 1912 to make my home in New York when I entered Princeton. I had not been back to Alabama since that time, but I was in constant contact with my family and friends there and could supply Scott with some good names and addresses. I sent the names of several girls who I thought he would like to know, but he never used them, as he met on his own Zelda Sayre. After that meeting, he had no need of other names or addresses.
As a result of my bitter experiences in France and Belgium in the summer and fall of 1918, my obsession with old age disappeared. I had been close to death, and I wanted no part of it. I decided that life was worth living to the fullest and for as long a span as possible. What effect my kind of experiences in Europe would have had on Scott, I have often wondered. He was never subjected to the physical agonies of war, and his course of life continued uninterrupted without that horrendous hiatus. In many ways, Scott remained a perennial undergraduate, while those of us who had been in the front lines came back battle-scarred alumni and old before our time. Scott’s talent grew richer and deeper, but as he cavorted before the public in his heyday, he was still a disciple in the cult of youth.
Immediately upon my discharge in April 1919, I returned to Montgomery for a visit. By this time, Zelda Sayre had become a femme fatale. She was the talk of the town. As long as I can remember, and long before that I have been told, Montgomery always had at least one girl who either purposely or unintentionally stood out as a target of town talk. In the spring of 1919, Zelda was that target. She loved the attention it brought her and she thrived on it. Up to this time I had not known her, although she lived only a few blocks from my grandmother’s home on Sayre Street, named for one of Zelda’s ancestors. I had known her older sisters, but Zelda was a little girl when I left Montgomery, and our paths had not crossed because of the difference in years. But now seven years later, Zelda had reached the full bloom of enchantment. Her hair, her eyes, her mouth sparkled with deviltry. A beautiful dancer, she was grace itself. She was alive with sultry excitement. She knew no conventional bounds. She was a veritable witch of the Southland. The stories I heard about her as I reached Montgomery were intriguing. The ladies were shocked and whispered behind their fans, but the men swarmed around her. I could not help but recall a lyric from a Triangle show. It went something like this:
I’m so popular, popular,
I don’t know where to hide.
Troops of men are swarming
And forming on every side.
I could love an Apollo
But not these fellows that follow.
It sets your brain in a terrible whirl
To be such a popular girl.
Apparently Zelda had already found an Apollo but she would not let that interfere with her campaign to play her present role.
My first sight of Zelda might be termed a rear view. It can be used as an illustration of her methods of behavior. It happened at Les Mysterieuses Ball, which I attended shortly after my arrival. Les Mysterieuses was a group of the younger ladies of society who gave a costume ball each year and wore masks throughout the evening. Their escorts were invited by unknown voices over the telephone and were joined in the grand march by their masked hostesses. At the opening of the ball, a stage show was presented in which only the masked members of Les Mysterieuses appeared. On this particular occasion, the young ladies were dressed in Hawaiian costumes, and among the numbers was a hula dance performed by the entire ensemble. During this number, the audience began to notice that one masker was doing her dance more daringly than the others. All eyes were concentrated on her. Finally the dancer in question turned her back to the audience, lifted her grass skirt over her head for a quick view of her pantied posterior and gave it an extra wiggle for good measure. A murmur went over the auditorium in a wave of excitement, and everybody whispered “That’s Zelda!” It was Zelda and no mistake! She wanted it known beyond a doubt, and she was happy with the recognition. A mere mask could not hide her individuality, and no matter what the routine of the dance might be, she was going to give her own interpretation.
During Scott’s courtship, he had told Zelda about me. It was natural then when I met her that she should ask what I thought of him. I could honestly give her a glowing account of him because I was genuinely devoted to Scott and admired him greatly. She told me that they were engaged, off and on, but that he wanted her to come to New York to marry him. Frankly, it all seemed such a gamble to her, she said, and besides Scott was without the necessary funds. I told her that I was sure Scott could make money from his writing, and she told me about the interest some publisher had in his book and about his encouraging letters. As nearly as I can remember, my impression of what she said is something like this: “If Scott sells the book, I’ll marry the man, because he is sweet. Don’t you think so?”
When my visit in Montgomery was concluded I returned to New York to take a position as copywriter in the advertising department of a large corporation. I thought often of Scott and Zelda, but heard nothing about them. Somehow I doubted the possibility of their ever getting married. Zelda was having a good time at home and engagements there were seldom of long duration. I looked over the lists of forthcoming publications from time to time and saw no mention of Scott’s book. Then, suddenly in 1920, I met Scott and the next act was on!
The scene of this meeting was in the Yale Club in New York. The Princeton Club had sold its old clubhouse on Gramercy Park and had joined with the Yale Club in its new building on Vanderbilt Avenue during the war years and immediately following until the present Princeton Club on Park Avenue was ready. I went into the Yale Club one day—I believe it was early in March 1920—to have lunch, and as I started up the stairs to the second floor, Scott was coming down, beaming. He had in his hand a color-illustrated jacket of a book. On seeing me, with almost childish glee and radiating good news he said, “Look what I have here!”
He showed me the cover. I read “This Side of Paradise. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Charles Scribner and Sons.” If it had been my own first novel, I could not have been happier. I congratulated him most cordially. He was obviously pleased with my genuine response.
“It’s all about Princeton,” Scott said in that breathless way he spoke when he was excited. “You’ll probably recognize some of your friends. You might even recognize something of yourself.” Then he added, “It’ll be out before the end of the month.”
Zelda flashed across my mind. I told him that I had seen her when I was in Montgomery and had put in a good word for him. He thanked me and then looked at the jacket. He knitted his brow a minute as if to indicate that the months of hard labor on the book would be rewarded in more ways than one. He smiled and said: “I phoned her long distance last night. She’s still on the fence and I may have to go to Montgomery to get her, but I believe this will do the trick.”
As he was leaving, he asked what I was doing. I told him that I was writing advertising copy. He knitted his brow again, looked sadly at me and said, “You’ve sold your soul to business, Lawton. But good luck!”
After Zelda and Scott were married, I saw them in many different situations and settings. As I kept no diary in those days, I cannot remember the exact dates of our encounters, but I can recall them quite vividly in relation to other events. The Fitzgeralds and I were always congenial companions. We had many bonds in common: Princeton and Montgomery, writing and the theatre, dancing and the dangers of speakeasy life, but above all a mutual interest in people and places that reflected the ever-increasing tempo of the times. It was a day of discovery and sensational exploits, highlighted by the challenge of Prohibition and the determination to forget the effects of war. It was a frantic attempt to throw off at least the superficial coating of Puritanism and to achieve the utmost in the freedom of expression. It was the decade of youthful delirium.
I could and would like to have seen a great deal more of Scott and Zelda in those days than I did, but I could not plunge headlong nor remain long and constantly in the swim as they did. However, a few episodes of my experiences with them may help to throw some light on their life and their characters during that hectic decade now known as the “Twenties,” for which they seem to have become exhumed symbols.
Scott could write fast, furiously at times and labored at others, but he always wrote thoroughly. However, he had great difficulty in finding the time and place to write with Zelda around. Yet, Zelda was absolutely essential to him in those days. She was both his inspiration and his anathema. She gave him spontaneously much of his material and his dialogue. He would hang on her words and applaud her actions, often repeating them for future reference, often writing them down as they came from the fountainhead. Zelda called the tunes, and Scott joyfully paid the piper. Sometimes he had to force her to leave him alone for a while, so he could concentrate on the material she had given him and catch up before the next onslaught started.
On several occasions, Zelda came to my apartment so, to use her words, “Scott could write.” She would stretch out on the long sofa in my living room with her eyes on the ceiling, recount some fabulous experience of the night before, or dream up some strange exploit that she thought would be a “cute idea.” One day she came in with the queerest-looking hat. My mother asked her where she found it. Zelda replied quite casually, “Oh, I made it myself… out of blotting paper.”
It was amazing to me with the pace that Zelda set how Scott ever got his work done. The conditions under which he lived and wrote were seldom conducive to an orderly procedure for his careful workmanship. Still, he did his job miraculously under those adverse conditions and in distracting surroundings.
After This Side of Paradise and before The Beautiful and Damned was published, in fact while the latter novel was being written, the Fitzgeralds were living for a while at the Plaza Hotel. As I remember they stayed there quite often over the years. Somehow the Plaza seemed to Scott the pinnacle of achievement, the realization of a dream of good living which must have been conceived when we tangoed as undergraduates at our great gathering place, the Plaza Grill. Scott invited me to lunch during this period at the Plaza and asked me to meet him and Zelda in their room. I had only an hour for lunch. So I was prompt, one o’clock on the dot. When I entered, the room was bedlam. Breakfast dishes were all about; the bed was unmade; books and papers were scattered here and there; trays were filled with cigarette butts and liquor glasses from the night before. Everything was untidy and helter-skelter. Scott was dressing and Zelda was luxuriating in the bathtub. With the door partly open, she carried on a steady flow of conversation: “Scott,” she called out, “tell Lawton ’bout . . . tell Lawton what I said when . . . Now . . . tell Lawton what I did…”
Before Scott could comply, she would proceed to tell me herself about last night’s wild adventure. Scott would cue her and then laugh at her vivid description. Spinach and champagne. Going back to the kitchens at the old Waldorf. Dancing on the kitchen tables, wearing the chef’s headgear. Finally, a crash and being escorted out by the house detectives. This badinage went on until Zelda appeared at the bathroom door, buttoning up her dress. I looked at my watch. It was five minutes of two. My lunch hour had gone.
Scott and Zelda could not understand how I could be such a slave to a time clock. They had expected me to pick up where they left off the night before with champagne and spinach for lunch. Whether they were conscious of creating a legend then or whether they were living on capricious whims or whether they were dependent on new sensations to keep up their tempo, I did not know. There was no reason to pull the wool over my eyes. I knew them too well for that. Perhaps they felt that all comers, whether an intimate friend or casual acquaintance, should be well covered.
I soon decided after several similar episodes that dates with Scott and Zelda were futile for me. I could not count on them, and I certainly could not keep up with their pace. It meant for me, reluctantly, that our meetings from then on had to be by chance. Fortunately there were still many chance meetings to come.
One such meeting later on snowed with disastrous results how Zelda called the tunes and what power for good or evil she had over Scott. In those days we were all patrons of the speakeasies. Scott and Zelda were no exceptions. In fact, they might have been called habitues, to their own unfortunate satisfaction. Some speakeasies were drab affairs but others were as luxurious as the most expensive nightclubs today. One of these ultra-speakeasies was the Jungle Club. It had a large and brazenly well-stocked bar, a dancing floor with dimly-lit tables, a famous orchestra with popular entertainers, headwaiters in white tie and tails and many liveried attendants. It had, too, at the door of the bar, a bouncer. Well over six feet, weighing more than two hundred pounds, dressed in an impressive uniform, tough as nails, probably an ex-prizefighter, this bouncer could put the fear of God in anybody. I was sitting one evening at a table with three friends, when I spied Scott at the door of the bar. He was obviously under the influence and rather uncertain on his feet. I noticed that he was having words with the bouncer. Apparently the bouncer thought Scott had more than his share and would not permit him to go back into the bar. Fearing a scrap, I immediately went up to Scott and persuaded him to join me. He acquiesced and mumbled something about the bouncer which was far from complimentary. In a few minutes, Zelda appeared at the door of the bar, looking around for Scott. I went over to her and escorted her to our table, but she refused to sit down because, as she said, Scott had walked out on her. I told her that Scott had had a slight altercation with the bouncer and tried to divert her with a dance. No, thank you, she was going back to the bar, and Scott was coming with her. She took Scott by the arm and demanded that he accompany her on grounds of desertion and said to us at the table, “No so-and-so bouncer can prevent Scott from going anywhere he pleases.”
Despite my entreaties, Scott and Zelda, with heads high and with the grim determination of young Davids, went to the door of the bar. The bouncer let Zelda by but refused admittance to Scott. Zelda turned in the doorway and spoke to Scott, wherewith he took a feeble punch at his opponent which missed its mark. A few other phantom attempts were made, and finally the bouncer lost his patience and gave Scott a shove that sent him halfway across the room, crashing into a table.
I ran over to Scott, lifted him to his feet and finally persuaded him to leave with me and my friends. As we were leaving, I looked around for Zelda, but she had disappeared. I decided to get Scott down to a taxi and come back for Zelda. Downstairs we collected our coats and found a cab. Just as Scott was getting into the cab, Zelda dashed onto the sidewalk, hatless and wrapless, and yelled, “Scott, you’re not going to let that so-and-so get away with that.”
She pulled him out of the taxi and led him, unsteady as he was, back into the Jungle Club. I wanted to follow them, but my friends quite rightly persuaded me to go on in the taxi for the hour was late and, with Zelda in her fighting mood, there was little any of us could do for Scott. She was the master, and she was calling the tunes. Scott again was paying the piper, no matter how high the price.
The next day, I went to the Plaza Barber Shop for a haircut. I always had the same barber, Stanley. Sometime before this visit I had introduced Scott to Stanley, and Scott had been going to Stanley regularly, too. When I arrived that day, Stanley looked at me as if something disastrous had happened and whispered quietly to me as I sat in his chair.
“Have you seen your friend Fitzgerald today?”
“No,” I admitted, “but I saw him last night. Why?”
“Well, you won’t recognize him now,” said Stanley softly. “I tell you, Mr. Campbell, it’s awful.”
In response to a phone call for a shave, Stanley had gone that morning to Scott’s room. Scott was in bed with bandages all over his face and head. One eye was black and completely closed. There were gashes and bruises as if someone had tried to kill him. Stanley said he could only shave or trim around the edges of the bandages. It was plain to me what had happened. Egged on by Zelda, Scott had returned to defend his right of entry, and the bouncer had replied with savage brutality.
When my session at the barber shop was over, I went up to Scott’s room to see if there was anything I could do. He was the pitiful sight that Stanley had described, and he remembered very little of what had happened the night before. After a few words of consolation I asked how Zelda was, and between the bandages, Scott whispered, “She’s fine. Just went out to change our steamer tickets. We were sailing for Paris today.”
Later they did get to Paris, and I ran into them one lovely summer morning on the Champs-Elysees. Both were beaming, clear-eyed, and golden in the sunshine with no trace of bruises, binges, or burdens of any kind. Zelda was wearing a new tailored suit and hat of poilu blue, and she was highly pleased with her ensemble. She said, “I call it my Jeanne d’Arc number. It makes me feel like a saint.”
Despite the color, which set off her eyes and Scott’s too, it really was not a smart number. Actually, Zelda had no taste for style or dress. In the parlance of Montgomery, she was just a little “tacky.” But no matter what clothes she wore, nothing could keep her spirit from soaring nor her radiance from glowing. If any couple ever looked happier, healthier or handsomer, despite the Jeanne d’Arc number, than the Fitzgeralds did that morning in Paris, I have never seen them.
Scott and Zelda insisted that I join them for an aperitif at some favorite bistro that morning, but I declined. My time in Paris that trip was short. Furthermore, I knew that you had to have unlimited time both day and night if you followed in their footsteps. With a cheerful “au revoir,” we parted, and as I continued on my journey the morning seemed even more exhilarating and the sunshine more golden from the aura of charm and beauty that had just passed my way.
Now the scene shifts to Alabama, probably not in the proper chronological sequence, for I am sure our meeting in Paris followed some time after this episode. As I have stated already, Zelda loved to shock Montgomery. The Hawaiian dance was only one of many, but the greatest shock of all came when she was pregnant. I did not witness this particular episode myself, but it has been retold so many times with bated breath that I am sure it had some foundation in fact.
In those days, a Southern lady seldom if ever appeared in public “with child.” Perhaps the custom has changed to some extent today, but in the “Twenties,” and for many years before, it was a rigid rule of etiquette. Zelda had no secret pain to conceal; either she accepted her condition as a natural state of beauty or she felt that public exhibitions helped to startle the populace into a greater appreciation of her independence. At any rate, while well advanced “with child,” she stepped into a one-piece bathing suit, a more matronly size than she would ordinarily wear, and rode out to the municipal swimming pool. With no cloak or cape to conceal her figure, she paraded her pre-maternal glory before a wide-eyed audience. If she had remained on the edge of the pool, perhaps there would have only been whispers, but that was not enough for Zelda. She plunged headlong into the sunny waters that came from Montgomery’s famous and pure artesian wells, and the onlookers with one accord shouted, “That’s Zelda!” Immediately Zelda was ordered out of the pool, and she went “with child” to St. Paul for her delivery.
Of the daughter who was born to Zelda and called Scottie for short, I saw very little when she was a child and have not seen at all since she has grown up. But from all reports she must be a splendid, sensible young lady, intelligent and well-bred. How she survived her itinerant childhood is a miracle and a tribute to her own inner character. One year she attended my aunt’s school in Montgomery, the Margaret Booth School, and was pronounced a bright, apt and “precious” pupil by my aunt. That is indeed a compliment to any girl, for Miss Margaret does not pass out her credits lightly.
When Scottie was a very young child, Zelda and Scott had a place on Long Island. Zelda often received her guests in bed in the morning. Once when several houseguests were assembled after breakfast and were conversing with Zelda around her bed, the nurse brought Scottie in.
“Kiss Mother, dear,” said Zelda. The child shook her head and Zelda laughed, then turned to her guests and continued, “You see! She loathes me, but she hates Scott.”
Of course, nobody believed her, but it showed how Zelda could comment on a situation for a laugh or for a bon mot. This particular flair was one of the many traits that bound Scott to Zelda so slavishly and, at times, so helplessly. She tuned her notes to a concert pitch and played them for all she was worth.
By the end of the “Twenties,” Scott and Zelda were on the wing so much that I saw very little of them. When they were abroad, reports came to me of their madcap exhibitions. When they were at home, they supplied gallons of gossip about their unconventional exploits. Scott began to look wan and a little washed-out. Zelda became vague and at times a little bit weary. But the mad chase went on. However, if I ran into them en passant, they both always continued their solicitous interest in me and always displayed their usual sympathetic attitude of fond friendship.
In October 1930, my third play to be produced in New York, Solid South, opened at the Lyceum Theatre. I might add here that despite having “sold my soul to business,” I had managed to find time over the weekends to continue my attempts at playwriting with some measure of success. On the opening night of Solid South, I received the usual quota of well-wishing telegrams, but there was one that I prized most. It read: “Happy you did not over-sell your soul. Signed Zelda and Scott.”
From the frantic “Twenties” we crashed headlong into the threadbare “Thirties,” the Depression, and the New Deal. Scott and Zelda did not seem to be conscious of the changing times. They sought ceaselessly to continue their hectic mode of existence just as if the “Twenties” were still with us. Zelda studied ballet, wrote her book, Save Me the Waltz, scribbled quantities of half-finished verse and finally took up painting. I did not see any of her pictures, but some who did could not understand them at all. (I now have one, “Rhododendrons,” and it is beautiful.)
Scott went on with his work to The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night. From reports I had of his literary efforts, the work was getting more difficult as the years advanced, and his rapid output of the early days was slowing up and becoming more laborious.
Finally, I heard that Zelda was in a sanatorium in Baltimore, and Scott was eking out a strained subsistence in Hollywood. Once I saw Scott for a fleeting moment in Hollywood, where my radio work often took me. I was shocked at his appearance. Somehow the lustre had gone out of his skin and the light out of his eyes. His clothes were baggy and unpressed, past the peak of their sheen. The smart new Brooks suit, buttoned collar and bright tie of yesterday were faded and unkempt. When he saw me he greeted me most cordially and wanted to know what tentacles of big business brought me to Hollywood or “had I succumbed to the cinema.” I explained about my radio work, which he thought was a sacrilege to the aspirations of our youth. He told me about Zelda’s condition in a casual manner as if nothing could be done about it. He said he was working now under most adverse conditions and in an incompatible medium for two purposes. One was to pay off his debts and the other to build a trust fund for his daughter, Scottie, to go to Vassar.
It is one of the great regrets of my life that I saw so little of Scott in those days, because in that alien land he needed an old friend. As I look back I could have made more of an effort than I did despite the fact that my radio work then seemed to be a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week assignment.
The story of the last days of Scott and of Zelda’s disintegration I will leave to others. I am not a psychoanalyst and am not qualified to analyze the effect of their lives on their mental processes or vice versa. Even if I had the training to exercise such powers, I could not apply them to Scott and Zelda. They were friends of my youth. They were symbols of our youth, and it is the early phases of their lives I am best qualified to recall, and like best to remember.
There are many more experiences with the Fitzgeralds I might call back from memory, but I have tried to cull only those which reflected best their relationship with each other and their characters as I saw them. More episodes would become either variations of those I have recorded or repetitions of some which have been recorded elsewhere. What I have written about Scott and Zelda in this fragment of a memoir are facts to the best of my recollection, and even where rumor has crept in, there has been good evidence from authentic sources.
When Scott died in December 1940, I was shocked, but not because the end came as a surprise. I was shocked because something snapped in my heart and numbed my sensibilities. Surely it had been apparent for some time that his days were numbered. There was no mortal relief for his pain and desperation. Death had been overdue four years, according to his own early reckoning. Still, I was shocked for many reasons. First, I knew that he had been working on a new novel, which he had been unable to finish. The Last Tycoon might have been his finest contribution to American literature. Second, he had none of his family or old friends with him in his last days. It may be true that he did not call for them, but he should not have been allowed to die so detached from us. The fault in my case was my own. I was commuting back and forth between New York and Hollywood in those days, and a little effort on my part would have been rewarded with some final response. Third and perhaps most important of all, there were too many fragments of Scott’s later life left at loose ends and in the hands of strangers. That to me is the real tragedy for those of us who knew him long and well.
The minute I read of Scott’s death in the morning paper, I sent a wire of sympathy to Zelda in Montgomery. At that time, she had left the Baltimore sanatorium and was making one of several visits to her family in Montgomery between her voluntary sojourns in homes for mental patients. In a short time, I received a wire from her in reply to mine. Her reply read as follows: “Dear Lawton, Your wire brought back the nostalgia of rhododendrons signed Zelda.”
A year after Scott’s death, we were plunged into World War II. I was back in uniform again and had little chance of seeing Zelda, but on one occasion during the war I did manage to get to Montgomery for a few days. During this brief visit, I was sitting on the front porch of my aunts’ home on Sayre Street. While I was conversing with them on topics of the day, I looked up Sayre Street and saw coming down the hill a forlorn figure.
“There’s something familiar about that woman coming down the street,” I said. “Who is it?”
My aunts turned to answer my question and said in unison, “That’s Zelda.”
But it was a different “That’s Zelda” than they would have said in the old days. It had no overtone of shock or surprise. It had only the undertone of pity.
As she moved down the street, I could get a good picture of her. She wore a crewman’s cap, a dingy sweater, a nondescript skirt and tennis shoes. He hair was straggly and had lost its burnished gold. I walked down the steps to meet her as she approached the house. She greeted me with kind recognition but no spark of even feigned excitement. It almost seemed as if I were talking to a lifeless, faded wax image.
“The doctor has ordered me to walk five miles a day,” Zelda announced to me.
We talked for a few minutes but she did not mention Scott. So, of course, I did not refer to him either. I asked about her daughter and she told me that Scottie was in Vassar. Her remarks were quite glib and matter-of-fact but not conducive to prolonged conver≠sation. One of my aunts called out and invited her in but she declined and was soon headed down the street with a kind of mechanical wave of her hand in farewell.
When death came so tragically to Zelda in North Carolina it was more than seven years after Scott had gone. The flames that carried her away seemed then to have carried the whole life of the Fitzgeralds away, too, and to have scattered their ashes over a forgotten countryside. But strangely enough, less than two years later, phoenix-like from those ashes has risen the living legend of Scott and Zelda. Here they are before us in all their glory going through their motions after death as did Petrouchka and Till Eulenspiegel. They stand there in the spotlight, center stage, as stars of the show. The fabulous Fitzgeralds are giving a command performance to the delight, the tears and the clamorous applause of their vast present-day audience. Scott and Zelda live again, and their comedy of manners of yesterday has become a vivid, vibrant tragedy or today.
Editor: C. Lawton Campbell, Princeton ’16, knew Zelda Sayre in Montgomery and F. Scott Fitzgerald at Princeton. After their marriage he saw them in New York. In addition to pursuing a successful advertising career, Mr. Campbell had three plays produced in New York: Madam Malissa (1924), Immoral Isabella (1926), and Solid South (1930). In 1948 he was elected Chairman of the Board of ANTA. This recollection of the Fitzgeralds is printed from his typescript at the Princeton University Library, and was used by Andrew Turnbull and Nancy Milford for their volumes. Mr. Campbell has also written “Scott and Zelda Were His Friends,” The Villager (Bronxville, N.Y.), (April 1971), 8, 20.