The scene is a store in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. and Mrs. Scott Fitzgerald were buying shoes for their young, blonde, six-year-old, blue-eyed daughter, Scottie. The time, late 1927. A woman standing nearby with her twelve-year-old daughter, wishing to chat with the famous author and his wife Zelda, whose exploits as an adolescent in the sleepy city of her birth had made her equally well known, strolled over and exclaimed, “What a lovely child!” “She's not a lovely child,” Zelda snapped, “Look!” and she raised one of Scottie's legs. “Look how terrible this is!” “I told her to stop talking like that,” said Scott. “She's my child as well as yours, and there's nothing terrible about her. Zelda and I quarreled for the rest of the day. I didn't realize then that she was ill. How could I have been so blind?” (Actually, Scottie happens to have beautiful legs.)
Everyone who writes about Scott and Zelda seems to take sides—either sympathizing with Scott and blaming Zelda for the stress of the Fitzgerald marriage or sympathizing with Zelda and blaming Scott. For example, Andrew Turnbull, who was partial to Scott, saw Zelda as spoiled, selfish, and unstable, a drain on Scott's energy and talent. For Nancy Milfordit is Zelda who emerges generous and courageous, and Scott who is selfish, jealous of his reputation, and immature.
Both Mr. Turnbull and Mrs. Milford are responsible biographers—both have striven to be as accurate and fair as possible. But in writing about a pair of lovers who were more antagonists than helpmates, one comes up against such questions as “Which of the Fitzgeralds can be held most accountable for the wreckage of their lives?” “Which was the most selfish?” “Which one was the other's victim?”
Trying to sort this out, their biographers seem to lose impartiality. Since boyhood, Andrew Turnbull, who committed suicide a few years ago, had been under the spell of Scott's charm—from the days when the Fitzgeralds lived as his parents' tenants and neighbors at La Paix in Maryland. Nancy Milford did not know Zelda personally but seems to sympathize more readily with the struggle of a woman to express and fulfill herself than with that of a man to preserve his reputation.
My own point of view cannot escape being prejudiced in Scott's favor. It was he who told me the story of his courtship and marriage, and I unquestioningly accepted his point of view: that Zelda had been a spoiled first family Southern belle, as tomboy Tallulah Bankhead, her acquaintance, was—one source informed me that Zelda and Tallulah attended first grade together. Zelda, said Scott, was unable to accept the spotlight shining on her famous husband; that her efforts to compete with him had climaxed in her obsession to equal him as a writer and finally in her overanxious desire to be a top ballerina; that unable to bend, unable to accept that she was too old at thirty to become a great dancer, she broke, and that he had been victimized by her selfishness and madness. As he wrote in a letter to Scottie, “I think the pull of an afflicted person upon a normal one is at all times downward, depressing, and eventually somewhat paralyzing.” “The weak,” he said to me, “always destroy the strong.” And though I have since read accounts insinuating that Zelda was more normal than Scott and that he insisted on her insanity simply to get her out of the way, Scott at least had no doubt that Zelda was theafflicted, he the normal—however emotionally and physically exhausted—person.
In order to free himself from the paralysis of his ruined marriage, Scott seemed, when I knew him, to have achieved a certain detachment from his wife and her condition. The shadow of Zelda only darkened him when he visited her. Even when he read me her letters, his involvement did not seem too personal. She was like a case history in which we were both interested. I felt sorry for her, but he had told me that she was mad, and I knew that the best place for her was in the sanitarium.
But perhaps my acceptance of Scott as the strong partner and Zelda as the weak one was too simple. After Scott's death, friends feared that she would completely fall apart. Yet she managed quite well, staying most of the time with her mother in Montgomery, and returning at rare intervals to the sanitarium when she found she was not coping. Also, I think that Scott to the end was more bound to Zelda—dependent on her just as he claimed that she was dependent on him—than he ever acknowledged to me. They had leaned against each other and both had fallen down. Sometimes he saw himself and his wife as a couple of invalids, bound together by their common collapse.
I now realize that during the time I knew Scott, he was leading a sort of double life. I knew that he looked after Zelda, and I understood that he must. But I didn't know that he was still—certainly in the first couple of years of our association—writing her love letters. And Zelda, almost to the end, was writing even stronger love letters to him. He didn't show me his letters to her, though he did read hers aloud to me. We discussed their style. I thought there was a dignity and beauty in her sometimes extravagant prose, especially when she was describing nature. Though the lush images became repetitive, and the relentless intensity a bit exhausting, I was impressed. But when I said to Scott, “This is beautiful writing,” he replied, “Yes, but it doesn't lead anywhere. It doesn't add up.”
Rereading Zelda's letters later in the various books, I find that they do add up. They show a woman clinging to her past and to the man who had been her life. Her appeal, I think, touched him more deeply than he would ever admit to me. I thought then that I was the center of his life, together with his daughter, and that for Zelda he had only pity. But actually, I wasn't the center, I was somewhat off-center, because if he had turned his back on Zelda and the image of their past, he would have been denying his youth, his legend.
Scott and Zelda had worked hard at becoming legends —that was the fabric of their lives. Perhaps it was not quite real. But it was still the cloth they had made to wear. Scott had to make Zelda the most important factor of his life because otherwise there wouldn't have been much life left.
So, however Scott minimized her to me or dwelt on the experiences with her that he claimed had disillusioned him —her breaking off their engagement because he had no money, her affair in the South of France with Edouard Jozanne, the French aviator—I now understand that Zelda was his great passion, however destructive their years together.
I still accept Scott's point of view that Zelda was spoiled, selfish, and rather calculating. Indeed, it might have been better for both of them if they had never met. But to the end I think Scott was proud of Zelda and in a strange way, proud even of the chaotic waste of their lives. If he considered his wife a responsibility, it was his precious burden.
Zelda Sayre, provincial belle and pampered daughter of Montgomery's prominent Judge Sayre and his wife, was a match for the author of “The Captured Shadow” and The Romantic Egotist. Both felt that the world and everything in it belonged to them. From early childhood they had lived with the conviction that they were marked for a spectacular destiny. Perhaps the central difference in their expectations was that Scott always knew he would have to work for his fame and glory. But Zelda, and girls of her background in the South —Tallulah, and Mrs. H. L. Mencken, for example—did not go out to work. They expected to be taken care of—well taken care of—all their lives. Thus Zelda felt no need to discipline her talents. She was a bright student, but she never bothered withmuch studying—she would bring her homework back to class and finish it while waiting for the teacher to call on her. She never kow-towed to anyone. Insensitive to the opinion of others, she was her own person. And her insouciance was a large part of her charm for Scott.
It was only when things started going badly for the Fitzgeralds and he was tired of wondering what Zelda should do that Scott started reminding her that he was a worker and she was not. When Zelda tried to be a worker, with her frenzied writing and the strenuous ballet dancing, it precipitated her madness.
Scott's change of attitude now strikes me as unfair. He began to despise his wife for precisely the quality he had initially loved about her—that she was the gay, good family, spoiled, darling, beautiful girl.
When Scott first met Zelda, she had an aura of confidence and supremacy that dazzled him. Scott, who had never been excessively brave, was also impressed by her daredevil bravado. “She had no fear whatsoever,” he told me. As a child she had climbed the highest trees and laughed when her frightened friends begged her to come down. She dove into swimming holes from heights that could have killed her. This was her way of saying, “I obey no one but myself. All you conventional people, what a dreary life you have.” It never bothered her what anyone thought or said, that she was talked about disparagingly or envied by more normal girls.
It seems to me that in Zelda's carelessness, there was a streak of calculation. If she didn't care what impression she was making on other people, she did crave their attention. It pleased her when the local newspapers praised her dancing in a charity ballet performance and remarked on her beauty and talent. Also, like Scott, she knew how to create her own dramas. The day she calmly telephoned the fire department and said there was a girl on the roof who was unable to come down, she then climbed onto the roof and kicked away the ladder. She loved the fuss of the screaming fire engines and the startled neighbors. Perhaps a boy might have done this but not a girl. Zelda preferred to be with the boys. They were more daring, but none more than she was, and they admired her.
Hearing about Zelda from Scott, I felt both akin to her and very different. I, too, had dreamed of glory, of doing something wonderful, of trying for the best. But I did not have her careless attitude toward people and events. I conservatively followed the rules in public, although hypocritically I had always done as I pleased in private. But even in my private life, I don't believe I ever lost my sense of balance, of self-conservation.
For Zelda, before her breakdown, there were no limits. This made her fascinating, especially as she was so beautiful. She was the sun-kissed child. But as Edmund Wilson wrote of her in his January 1959, New Yorker review of my book, Beloved Infidel, “While the good fairies had bestowed on her every possible gift they could, they had omitted the stabilizing influences that could have saved her the later anguish of schizophrenia.”
In hindsight it is easy to discern the germs of madness in Zelda's early behavior. I wonder that no one questioned it, especially given the mental instability in her mother's family. Minnie Machen's mother—Zelda's maternal grandmother —committed suicide when Zelda was a girl, but no one in the Sayre household ever mentioned this. Also Zelda's oldest sister Marjorie had suffered a nervous breakdown. And later on, after Zelda's own collapse, so did her brother Anthony. Finally afraid that he might kill his mother, he took his own life by jumping out a window. (In fact, Turnbull has pointed out that there was mental illness on both sides of Zelda's family.)
As for Zelda, I have seen a photograph of her when she was five, and there is a strangeness in the unsmiling face with its piercing eyes. It could be a twin for the photograph taken after she became officially insane—remarkable for the same staring rigidity.
Scott, however, had no doubts concerning Zelda's sanity before 1930—when he came home to their apartment in Paris to find her playing in a corner with some dirt. The doctor told him, “Votre femme est folle.” I shivered when he described this scene. There are two things I was most afraid of—drunkenness and madness. They both have the unreasonableness of a hysterical child. They are outside the laws we have made to contain ourselves from frightening aspects of behavior.
It also seemed incredible to me that he should not have suspected earlier that she was obviously unstable. But the 20s were a crazy time, what with Tallulah and John Barrymore making spectacles of themselves, so that Zelda in its context was simply “an original.” Those plunges into the Plaza fountain—today she would have been carted off to Bellevue. The undressing at the Follies—well, that at least might be countenanced today as streaking. But streakers seem tame compared to Zelda. She was flamboyantly wild in an era when even little old ladies were seen staggering across the lobby of the old Waldorf Astoria. They were still staggering in the hangover from Prohibition when I came to New York in 1933.
Scott sometimes wondered whether he might have been able to help his wife if he had worried about her sooner. But he never tried to control her “original” behavior. Instead of serving as a rock for her to lean on, he tried to be more original than she was, to outdo her in crazy pranks. The time he lay down on the road and told her to drive over him—a feat Zelda would have attempted except that the car stalled. Knowing Scott, I am sure he would have rolled out of danger at the vital second, as I am sure he had one eye open when he and Zelda slept in the stalled car on the French railroad tracks. They were both adept at playing Russian roulette with life. Only he was not crazy and she was. He could have helped her but he didn't. This tender transplant from the South needed care to survive in the reckless postwar cosmopolitan world. Perhaps if Scott's character had been more solid, Zelda might have been spared her collapse.
Zelda was the youngest of her family—at her birth Anthony was already nine, her sister Rosalind eleven, and Marjorie fourteen—and from the beginning to the end of her life, close relatives called her “Baby.” Judge Sayre set himself at a rather formidable distance from his children. But Minnie Sayre —who breastfed Zelda until the child was four and standing to take the milk—was even more obsessed with this daughter than Mollie Fitzgerald was with the young Scott. All her life Zelda adored her mother. I have always felt that in her death before Mrs. Sayre's, she was spared what might have been an intolerable loss.
Mrs. Sayre made clothes to enhance the fairy-tale quality of her pretty daughter—fluffy tulle flounces spreading from the tight bodice. And she protected Zelda from ever being punished. When Zelda started smoking and going out with boys—as flamboyant a belle as she had been a tomboy—her father locked her in her room but her mother let her out. No one, said Scott, ever thought of giving the girl a sense of responsibility or of teaching her to consider her effect on other people. She took everything that came her way as rightfully belonging to her. And this included, in 1917, the young handsome lieutenant, Scott, whose air of weary cynicism alternated with his wild enthusiasm for life, especially for the beautiful, fearless belle. She had never met such an appealing man.
Scott described to me his encounter with Zelda at the Montgomery Country Club Saturday night dance. (How strange that he and I should also come together on a dance floor.) He saw this lovely, blonde, vibrant girl in a flouncy white dress—made by her mother—surrounded on the dance floor by officers. “I was immediately smitten and cut in on her. She was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life. And from that first moment I simply had to have her.” The handsomest boy had to have the most beautiful girl. Scott and Zelda looked fairly alike—both blond and blue-eyed. They say opposites attract each other, but more often it is people who resemble each other who fall in love—perhaps it's the reflection of themselves. Zelda was Scott's dream come true, not rich but with the insolent confidence of the most popular girl in town.
Scott characterized her to me as “sexually reckless.” He believed she was a virgin until they became lovers a year before they married. But she flirted dangerously, going as far as she could without the ultimate act, claiming to have kissed “thousands of men.” Scott remembered how she had teased him. It was called necking in those days, but it went further than that—in cars, on the dark grass, anywhere. Scott didn'treally want to go the whole way. He respected Zelda, and well-brought-up girls saved the final yielding for the wedding night. But, he told me, “I doubt whether Zelda would have cared if she had become pregnant.” She might have enjoyed it as another slap at the conventions she found depressing.
When Scott returned from his aborted war, they became engaged, Scott wishing to marry at once but Zelda more sensibly holding back. She knew Scott wanted to be a writer, but though she shared his dreams of glory, she was conscious they had not yet materialized. Scribners had rejected The Romantic Egotist, as Scott learned when he was out of the army, though the editor, Max Perkins, had been encouraging. Meanwhile, Scott had no money. In the army there had been his officer's pay and additionally an allowance from his family. As a civilian, out of his Brooks Brothers uniform, he had nothing except his dream of success. A job was imperative. So in March 1919, he went to New York where, after failing to get work with the newspapers, he landed an unglamorous job with the Bar-room Collier Advertising Agency.
While Scott created slogans for his employers at the job he hated and lived in one room in the Bronx, Zelda, back in Alabama, was flirting with every man in sight. It was as though she was playing to a vast audience, and every man in it owed her homage. As when, driving in an open car down the main street of Montgomery and seeing a group of boys, whom she had named Jelly Beans, she had thrown open her arms and cried, “All my jellies.” To be a belle in a Southern town in those days meant that you could have any boy you wanted. “She used this power,” said Scott, “to make me unbearably jealous, writing to me about this and that party, this and that man.” In one letter she offers the consolation, “You are the only man on earth who has ever known and loved all of me.” This wasn't at all soothing to Scott. Yet her desirability for other men was one of the reasons he fell in love with her and wanted to pin her down for himself.
What Zelda loved about Scott was his air of excitement and optimism. But when he paid her gloomy visits from New York, nagged her about her flirtations, and seemed to have no prospects of success, her faith in him wavered and she broke the engagement. Not that she was mercenary, she hastened to explain, but she sincerely believed that he would love her less without the money to give her the setting to make her always attractive to him. “I would never love her as much,” Scott confessed to me. But he was still in love with the idea of capturing the prettiest girl in the South. When they finally married, following his recognition as the new brilliant author for his generation, did they love one another or were they just smitten with their image of success and glamor?
The truth about their feelings strikes me as elusive, because they were both so adept at playing a role. To hold Scott on a string when the engagement was off and to continue to make him jealous, Zelda invented an “engagement” to the famed golfer Bobby Jones. Scott always believed that she had promised to marry Mr. Jones. He told me this with conviction. But when Andrew Turnbull was writing his biography of Scott, he questioned the golfer, who denied even knowing Zelda.
As for Scott, he dramatized to everyone that his girl had thrown him over, writing to several friends of his broken engagement and heart. I am sure he suffered as much as he told me he did. The idea that Zelda might be having an affair with someone else tormented him. He desperately wanted her back. Yet a part of him was thoroughly disillusioned with her. Why not then give her up?
Perhaps because Scott so insisted on his attachment, he committed himself to being true to it. At any rate, deciding that his life was to be all or nothing, he gave up his job in July 1919 and went back home to St. Paul to rewrite his book—Max Perkins had liked some parts of it. With an untrammeled energy that he no longer had when he was writing The Last Tycoon, he wrote at a feverish pace in his attic room. And when the book was finished and accepted, his girl came back to him. He had been completely faithful to her, her image for him was everywhere, but he was to hold it against her for the rest of his life that she had broken their engagement because he was poor.
After Beloved Infidel was published in 1958, I received a letter from a lady with the pretty name of Isabelle Amorous containing a letter she had received from Scott:
Princeton, N.J. Feb. 26. (1920)
Excuse this wretched paper but being a hard working literary man it's all I ever use. I hope you're a reader of the Saturday Evening Post, Smart Set, Scribners etc., in which my immortal writings appear from time to time. And I read your letter with a mixture of impressions, the situation being somewhat complicated by the fact that Zelda and I have had a reconciliation. And Isabelle, much as I like being a “strong character,” candor compells me to admit that it was she and not me who did the throwing over last June.
No personality as strong as Zelda's could go without getting criticism and as you say she is not above reproach. I've always known that, any girl who gets stewed in public, who frankly enjoys and tells shocking stories, who smokes constantly and makes the remark that she has “kissed thousands of men and intends to kiss thousands more,” cannot be considered beyond reproach even if above it. But Isabelle I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self respect and it's these things I'd believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn't all that she should be.
But of course the real reason, Isabelle, is that I love her and that's the beginning and end of everything. You're still a Catholic but Zelda's the only God I have left now.
But I want to thank you for your letter and thought of it. You are a strange and rare combination, Isabelle; a woman who is at once very beautiful and very good, and I hope your destiny won't lead you into the same devious paths that mine has. My friends are unanimous in frankly advising me not to marry a wild, pleasure loving girl like Zelda so I'm quite used to it…
Faithfully, Scott Fitzgerald
I showed this letter to Nancy Milford, whose book Zelda was published by Harper & Row in 1970. She used it, but I am borrowing it back because in addition to demonstrating the charm, truthfulness, boasting, and loyalty, so typical of Scott to the end of his life, it shows his willingness, even his pride in marrying a woman he knew might be no good for him.
Scott's feeling that Zelda was bad for him never wavered despite all his love for her. A letter to Scottie, written during the time that I knew him, explains:
When I was young I lived with a great dream. The dream grew and I learned how to speak of it and make people listen. Then the dream divided one day when I decided to marry your mother after all, even though I knew she was spoilt and meant me no good. I was sorry immediately I had married her, but being patient in those days, made the best of it and got to love her in another way… But I was a man divided. She wanted me to work too much for her and not enough for my dream. She realized too late that work was dignity and the only dignity, and tried to atone for it by working herself, but it was too late and she broke and is broken forever.
Scott's remarks here call to mind the passage in The Great Gatsby, where Gatsby pauses before kissing Daisy, knowing that “When he kissed this girl, and wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God.” Was Scott thinking of his own experience with Zelda?
Certainly Zelda was jealous of Scott's fame. She was used to being the center of a group, and she would do anything to retain the spotlight. When Scott was the one everybody wanted to know, she rebelled against being pushed into the background. In Paris while Scott chatted with Gertrude Stein, Zelda had to talk with Alice B. Toklas, and she swore they would never go to the Rue de Fleurus again. Perhaps making Scott work for her was Zelda's way of sharing in his glory, of somehow stealing it from him. She, too, longed, as she once put it, “to move brightly along high places.” Unfortunately she lacked the discipline to make this dream her own reality. But she did manage some short stories in 1930 and 1932 and published her book Save Me the Waltz, written during a frenzied six weeks while she was in the Phipps Clinic in Baltimore.
Scott blamed Zelda for draining him, distracting him. But in reality they were both victims of their fame, Zelda as well as Scott. The Southern gum-chewing speed and the unsure Midwesterner, two babes in the New York woods, found suddenly to their bewilderment that they were the leaders of the rebellious postwar generation. They created the Jazz Age of the 20s practically single-handedly. Whatever they did became news, and then they had to outdo themselves in order to stay in the news. They were expected to behave wildly and they did. But meanwhile they were destroying themselves —their energy, their money, and the capability of Scott Fitzgerald to work. Several of the stories he wrote at that time were mediocre. It was a miracle, in fact, that he did any work at all. But he could write all night then—sometimes for forty-eight hours without a break. With the arrogance of youth he thought he could always stay on top of the world. His recklessness seemed heroic to him. In retrospect, said Scott, it was merely foolish.
Where Zelda failed Scott—just as he failed her—was in her inability—even before the insanity—to take a firm stand when he went too far. When he told me about his crazy pranks at the Murphys' during the mid- and late-20s in the South of France—smashing Gerald's beautiful Venetian goblets, dropping a ripe fig into a decollete gown, a lump of ice down the back of an evening dress—I was not amused, I was shocked. One great difference between Zelda and me was that I would never have condoned such conduct. But however she might protest feebly at his drinking, she could not criticize his infantile show-off pranks. She did not recognize any limits.
I think their lives also suffered from Zelda's increasing desperation as to what to do with herself. She had no idea of being a wife—shortly after they were married Scott discovered all his dirty shirts piled up in a closet—and, although she tried in the times of sanity, still less of being a mother. Her famous utterance at Scottie's birth which Scott incorporated into The Great Gatsby, “I hope she will be a beautiful fool,” is pure whimsy—a beautiful fool is such a bore. It was Scott who proved the more realistic parent, assuming the responsibility of Scottie's clothes, her schooling, her health, her habits.
“What shall Zelda do?” was a common remark at the Murphys' in the South of France. Scott had his writing and Zelda her swimming. But what should she do? Her friends were relieved when she was seen with the good-looking French ex-aviator, Edouard Jozanne, frolicking on the beach and dancing with him intimately at the waterside bistros. “I liked him and was glad he was willing to pass the hours with Zelda,” Scott told me. “It gave me time to write. It never occurred to me that the friendship could turn into an affair.”
Scott had previously believed in his wife's faithfulness, even when in the early 20s in New York she sometimes spent several hours out and returned to their hotel without explaining where she had been. She had married him and sexually he trusted her—despite all his earlier jealousy over her suitors, and their fights about everything else: Zelda's lack of housekeeping, her helter-skelter dealing with servants, her erratic behavior toward Scottie, her competing with Scott, her jealousy.
My own feeling was that the constant quarrels must have bred resentment. I told Scott that I did not believe in quarrels, that each hurtful remark leaves a scar that grows larger with the next bout of anger. “Perhaps for women, but not for a man,” he replied. “Each love, each quarrel is the first time for a man, but a woman remembers the last time and adds it to the present.” Well, Zelda was a woman.
Soon everyone at St. Raphael knew about her affair with Jozanne (Tommy Barban in Tender Is the Night) except Scott. When he did learn of it, he told me, he was so furious that he challenged Jozanne to a duel and bought a pistol. According to Scott, they each fired a shot but neither harmed the other. While he was telling me this, I had the feeling that the whole episode was to provide material for his book, and this it did. Did the Fitzgeralds ever do anything just for the sake of doing it, and not to bolster the legend they had deliberately created about themselves or to provide Scott with episodes for his fiction?
Moreover, I have since wondered how much of the affair and the confrontation of husband and lover actually occurred. Jozanne, interviewed by Nancy Milford, failed to mention a duel and flatly denied that the romance with Zelda was ever consummated. Perhaps he was still acting the gentleman and seeking to protect her. It is so difficult to know the truth, entangled as it is in the roles the Fitzgeralds played for one another and for the world. Zelda conceivably could have lied to Scott to make him jealous. Scott might have exaggerated the affair to dramatize his sense of victimization. One thing is certain—Zelda emerged from the romance more frustrated and desperate than ever to find some way of achieving her own recognition.
“The ballet lessons, were they the cause of the ultimate breakdown?” I asked Scott. “Not really,” he replied. Scott felt that Zelda's problem was her inability to recognize any limits. And her obsession to be a premiere danseuse was just one manifestation of this. It was unrealistic. She was thirty years old, too old to compete for a top place with the great ballerinas who had been studying and practicing all their lives with Spartan austerity. Certainly, Zelda had taken ballet lessons when she was a child and had been praised in the local newspapers. But she was an amateur, and it was too late to be a professional.
Scott disliked amateurs, and he did not spare Zelda's feelings in rubbing in that she belonged to this group. She was upset when he told her that, measuring herself against the great dancers, she could never be more than third rate. She might be good enough for a role in the Folies Bergeres—she had the offer of a part in their ensemble and a leading role with a second-rate ballet company in Monte Carlo—but she would never get far with the best of ballet. This must have slapped her as a cruel assessment. Both Fitzgeralds always aspired for the best. Scott had admired Gerald Murphy for deliberately giving up painting when, as he told Scott, he realized he would never be a truly great painter. “But he enjoyed painting,” I protested. “That was not the point,” replied Scott.
Zelda's obsession with ballet caused the most bitter quarrels of their marriage. She accused Scott of being jealous of the time she spent having dancing lessons with her teacher, Madame Egorova, a former Russian aristocrat who instructed the top ballerinas in Paris. She retaliated by saying he spent too much time in the bistros with his idol, Ernest Hemingway. Zelda once described herself as sensual whereas Scott was not. I never thought he was. He was gentle, sensitive, and had all the intuition usually associated with women. There was nothing gross about him. He had a certain spiritual quality.
After Zelda's breakdown, ballet was out of the question, but she still was determined to attain artistic recognition for her writing and painting. Scott encouraged her in these efforts, as he later did me. But he also felt that a part of her illness was due to the intensity with which she tried to prove to him and the world that she could be as good as he was. Zelda couldn't abandon the idea that she merited the same attention and adulation and that the way to achieve this was to be recognized as a genius in her own right. Only then would she be as extravagantly admired as she had been as the belle of Montgomery, Alabama. Scott felt his duty was to protect her from strain and disappointment. She should write and paint and even dance, but only in moderation. If she worked too hard at anything, even athletics, the doctors had warned that she was in danger of lapsing into total madness. He was wryly amused as he told me of Zelda's reaction to a doctor at the hospital beating her at a game of tennis. She sailed over the net and hit him over the head with her racket.
Scott's concern that Zelda not overtax herself can be and has been interpreted as a fear that she might overshadow him. The articles that she wrote with minimal help from Scott he attributed to both of them and one to himself alone. But his motive was not insecurity. As Scott explained to me, his name brought in the money, so it ought to be used. And when they found themselves vying for the same material—the breakdown of Zelda's sanity and their marriage—Scott felt that, as he was the breadwinner and had the reputation, he knew how to put Zelda's undisciplined gifts into a coherent story that could support them all. I agree that he had every reason to beoutraged when he read Zelda's novel Save Me the Waltz, covering the same ground as Tender Is the Night, on which he was progressing so slowly. Zelda was sharp enough to send the manuscript direct to Max Perkins at Scribners. Even so, Scott insisted on substantial cuts and changes.
I have read Save Me the Waltz and find it a difficult book to enjoy with its overlush, sometimes unintelligible prose and its unremitting intensity. But even though Zelda was not a writer of Scott's stature, should this mean that she be denied the freedom to tell her story? Scott encouraged her (as he did me) to “write about what you know.” It seems to me, though, that Zelda was acting out of hostility in whipping out a book in a few weeks on the exact subject her husband had been wrestling with for many years. “A very shrewd and canny woman, whose motives, both healthy and pathological, can stand a good examination,” Scott was to describe her to one of her doctors.
It took Scott eight years to complete Tender Is the Night, largely because of his preoccupation with Zelda's illness. To pay for the series of expensive sanitariums—Prangins in Switzerland, Phipps in Baltimore, Shepherd Pratt in Towson, Maryland, and Highlands in Asheville, North Carolina—he constantly abandoned work on the novel to turn out short stories for magazines. He also proceeded to drink himself close to insensibility.
In the long years of intermittent writing, Tender Is the Night became confused. It was really two books, Scott explained to me. The focus was always to be Zelda. Originally, Scott conceived the story of a girl who was raped by her father and became strange, with a background of the Riviera. After Zelda's breakdown this shifted into the tale of a woman cured by a charming doctor, who falls in love with her and is ultimately destroyed by her. This, confessed Scott, was his and Zelda's story with himself superimposed upon Gerald Murphy, who was initially outraged when he read the book and claimed that he was not the least like Scott. When I knew Scott, he wished to redo Tender Is the Night, and cut the confusion in it.
Scott often complained to me and others that he resented the hours he had wasted writing what he considered “trash”—a favorite word—to keep Zelda in the luxury he thought she craved. Actually, after several bouts in costly sanitariums, she begged him to put her in a state asylum, to save his money which had shrunk to a dribble. But this did not tally with his idea of the right surroundings for his wife. And yet he blamed her for causing him to leave his serious work for the fast buck.
I once said to him, “There are so few people with real talent that you should consider your writing first and your wife and daughter next.” He put my advice in a letter to Scottie dated June 12, 1940:
… What little I've accomplished has been by the most laborious and uphill work, and I wish now I'd never relaxed or looked back—but said at the end of “The Great Gatsby”: “I've found my line—from now on this comes first. This is my immediate duty —without this I am nothing” …
I may sound jealous, and perhaps I am, but I am trying to be honest when I ask: was the Scott-Zelda legend the love story it has been acclaimed? Looking at it coldly from the distance of Scott telling me about his life with Zelda, it seemed more like a nightmare than a love story. How restless and unsettled they were, always moving around, always renting homes, always living in other people's furniture. Scott bought books, but never, with few exceptions, a rare book or antique furniture or painting masterpieces.
Perhaps if Scott had not been raised in the Catholic faith, they would have parted in the first year of marriage, when indeed they talked of divorce. Or perhaps if they had not been such a famous couple, they would not have had to keep up their show together for a world that was watching them so minutely, or so they thought.
Zelda in the early 20s confided to her sister Rosalind, when they found themselves together at a party on Long Island, that she had never really wanted to marry Scott. As Scott felt, Zelda “might have been happy with a kind simple man in asouthern garden,” sheltered from the stresses her nature could not cope with. And Scott would not have wasted the years building up their legend. Zelda's experiences were of use to him in his writing, but they also destroyed the time he could have been writing.
I often wonder how Scott's career would have been affected if he had not married Zelda. She is the model of so many of his novels and stories. But if not Zelda, there would of course have been other models. And given Scott's susceptibility as a young man to spoiled, elusive women, I wonder how different from her any others might have been. But perhaps they would not have been so “original.”
Possibly the suffering that Scott experienced because of his commitment to his irresponsible, wild, egocentric Zelda helped to mature him both as a man and a novelist. I think he finally outgrew his attraction to her type of woman. And his writing, moving away from “the flapper,” the “rich bitch,” gained in depth and power. It could be I say this because in The Last Tycoon he wrote about me and my coping with a harsher reality. But being as objective as I can, I find the love affair between Kathleen and Stahr the most adult, the most fully fleshed to be found in all of Scott's fiction.
The idea that I was the model for a new type of Fitzgerald heroine has been suggested by several critics. It's a notion that intrigues me though I think there is a danger of error in drawing too pat a distinction between Zelda and me. In such comparisons I always come off sounding enormously helpful, efficient, and a little lack-lustre. Aaron Latham, for example, writes:
Zelda had been first rate, like the 20s but with the 20s' fatal flaw, burning with the bright short-lived flame of paper when set afire. She had been greatly admired but in a moral sense never quite admirable. Sheilah embodied a diminished decade, the 30s. She was not dazzling the way Zelda had been but as a worker, an achiever, a caring nurse, she was admirable. Zelda and Sheilah were opposites, which the author held unreconciled in his mind.
I think that's absolute nonsense. The point is that both Zelda and I were glamorous women; we both had a glamorous relationship with Scott. In my case, he knew that men were often falling in love with me. But I had chosen to be the girl of this fascinating man who (except when drinking) was careful to show me the best side of himself, to keep intact my image of him as a strong, mature man.
There were differences between Zelda and me, an essential one being that I was never so dependent on him as she was. For all her fearlessness, Zelda lacked a streak of independence. She would take the rows and the drinking on and on, whereas I wouldn't. He knew that I would leave him if his miserable behavior kept up, and then I did leave. Twice I gave him up when I could no longer stand it. So he knew that he could no longer continue to abuse me. I told him that it was enough, that I would not take it anymore. And I went. Zelda never went. And he didn't, either, from her. She didn't condemn him or judge him. She wistfully wished that he wouldn't drink anymore. “Oh Dodo, please don't drink so much … the doctors say it's so bad for you.” But she never put her foot down and said, “You will never see me again unless you stop drinking.”
It's strange, given her reputation, to realize that Zelda was not really a fighter. She wanted many things but bowed to circumstances, especially in the years of her illness. In the last year, committed to the Asheville sanitarium, she wanted to leave and live with her mother. To persuade Scott to her plan, she even got Scottie to beg for her in addition to her mother and sister, Rosalind. Scott thought they conspired against him to set her free and that they blamed him for keeping her in the sanitarium. He was very depressed, I remember, in Encino (early 1940) after a letter from Rosalind accusing him of putting Zelda away for his own reasons. In actual fact, he was following the doctors' advice in keeping her in the hospital, even though it was costing him more money than he could afford.
Zelda humbly acquiesced to Scott's viewpoint, though three weeks before Scott's death she did finally win this particular argument. At her bequest the young, good-looking Dr. James Rennie of the Phipps Clinic in Baltimore, came to Hollywood to convince Scott, who had just had his first heart attack, that she was well enough to live with her mother. Rennie, Scott, and I attended a film preview at M-G-M, and I was concerned when I realized we would have to walk up a fairly long flight of steps to reach the projection room. I pretended to have hurt my ankle and walked up in front of the two men at the slowest pace I could. Rennie's mission was successful, and Zelda was with her mother when the news came of Scott's death. She wanted to attend his funeral in Baltimore, but at the last minute her doctors decided it would be too much for her.
Zelda, I believe, never knew of my existence. Scott was convinced that he only need intimate the slightest interest in some other woman to bring on her insanity again. He felt he could make her psychotic in fifteen minutes if he wanted to. Zelda's sisters suspected there might be another woman, but they were as careful as Scott to keep this fact from Zelda. During 1926 she had tried to kill herself, falling down a long flight of stone steps at St. Paul de Vence on the Riviera while he was admiring the famed dancer, Isadora Duncan. Scott told me of the incident with some relish mixed with the anguish. Isadora, dining in the same restaurant as the Fitzgeralds and the Murphys, sent for Scott to come to her table. He was delighted to comply and knelt in homage at her feet while she rumpled his hair and called him her centurion. But after a few minutes Scott was distracted by shouts from his own table —Zelda had rushed out and deliberately flung herself down the stone steps. Fortunately they had a door at the bottom or she would have been hurled to the foot of a cliff.
A few years ago, Martin Poll, the film producer, gave a dinner party for me at this restaurant. The guests included Charles Boyer, Glenn Ford, and Hope Lange. I saw the stone steps and shuddered, visualizing the scene. Of course Zelda was not in her right mind, and it is incredible that neither Scott nor the Murphys realized this. Her behavior went beyond the limits of jealousy. If she felt in danger of being eclipsed, she could be suicidal. Another frightening story was her response to Scott's flirtation in 1927 with Lois Moran, the young Hollywood actress whom Scott admired as a worker. In revenge, Scott told me, Zelda set fire to all the furniture in the Ambassador Hotel suite.
In the years that I knew Scott, Zelda was less defiant and destructive, perhaps made more considerate of her husband by her own terrible suffering. But he felt that she would surely do away with herself if she knew that he was in love, really in love with another woman.
I dreaded the times when Scott visited Zelda—her doctors had written that it would help to take her out of the sanitarium to live with him for a week or so, supposedly as a normal couple. It was not that I was jealous. With unwarranted complacency, I believed that a man who was in love with me wouldn't want to have sex with another woman. It wasn't that he might sleep with her that worried me. It was the strain of these visits on Scott. As long as Zelda and he were apart he could love her. With contact he hated her for what she had done to his life. And there were always misadventures.
When he made his first trip East in 1937 to see her, I had only known him for a few months. Scott had been on the wagon and miraculously he did not drink in the time they were together. But this was the only such occasion.
The second visit to Zelda came toward Christmas. This time I thought it was rather sad that I was to be left alone over the holiday. Somehow Christmas—at least before I had my children—was always a bad time for me. Something always went wrong which intensified my sense of loneliness. The worst time would be when Scott died four days before Christmas, 1940. But already by 1937, I had spent one Christmas in a nursing home, recuperating from an operation, and another recovering from an unhappy love affair. King Vidor, the first man I thought I might marry when I was in Hollywood, went back to the other woman just at Christmas and spent the holiday with her. So when Scott went off, I thought, this is going to be the pattern of my life.
I was still feeling low when Scott telephoned me a few days after Christmas from the L.A. airport and said, “Zelda and I are getting a divorce … You and I are going to be married.” Iwas delighted. While waiting for him, I spent the interim writing out my name—my new name—Sheilah Fitzgerald —doing it at first very carefully, then very fast. I was in the golden haze of happiness that I've sometimes had in my life.
Then Scott arrived. When I saw him, his face flushed, I realized he had been drinking. My happiness disappeared. I said no more about his proposal because I judged it was part of his binge. Perhaps, though, he meant it, or wished he could mean it. He had had a terrible time with Zelda. I believe this was the visit when he was so drunk and behaving so badly that Zelda tried to have him committed to a mental institution. He was supposed to be taking care of the mad woman, and the mad woman was taking care of him.
I do not think that Scott completely gave up on the idea of ever living with Zelda as his wife until the last year of his life. He had seen her in the spring of 1939 after our struggle for his gun. I had taken it from an open drawer during a drinking time. He had then gone to Zelda and taken her to Cuba where Scott was beaten up trying to rescue two cocks in a cockfight, while Zelda was praying for his salvation as the boys worked him over. Because he disliked me then, he invited Zelda to come to Hollywood, something she wanted to do throughout the 1937-1940 years. He believed he and I had parted for good. It was only when we got together again that he reneged on the offer to Zelda. And as it turned out, he never saw her again.
Perhaps when we quarreled and I left him, his life was less complicated. He could then give all his thoughts to Zelda and Scottie. But for a man of forty to forty-four, there was still a large gap in his life that the invalided Zelda could not fill. He needed to love and be loved and to have a steady companion. Once we were together, the urgency to be with Zelda dimmed.
In the year before Scott died, when he was sober and happily working on The Last Tycoon, he accepted that it would be destructive to return to Zelda, even for a visit, and he thought seriously of divorcing her to marry me. At the beginning I had wanted to be his wife. I lost this desire when I saw what happened to him drinking. But in that last year of serenity, I thought it might be possible, unless the severance from Zelda would start him drinking again.
Scott felt that our marrying could take place either if Zelda recovered sufficiently to live for the rest of her life with her mother or if she went so permanently mad that she lost all contact with the real world about her. Scott explained to me, “She is not unhappy when she goes insane and is moderately happy in the sane periods. It's when she's in that indeterminate stage that she suffers so terribly.” Were Zelda's condition to stabilize one way or another, Scott hoped he could divorce her. Then he would have a normal life with me.
In late 1940, Zelda's health was improving and there seemed real hope that she could withstand a divorce. Scott wrote to his friends, Nora and Lefty Flynn, asking what they thought of the idea. Nora replied encouragingly. Scott showed me her letter: “I feel that Sheilah is right for you.” She had met me a few years previously at a lunch in London with Viscount Castlerosse, who was writing the gossip column on page two for Lord Beaverbrook's Sunday Express. Castlerosse had thought that we would like each other, but in fact I was rather intimidated by her being one of the trio of beautiful Langhorne girls. I remember she gave me advice on how to dress my hair so as to balance my high cheekbones. And now here she was advising Scott to make me his wife—she had forgotten our first meeting. Perhaps it would have happened if he had lived.
When Scott died, Zelda told Harold Ober that while they had not been close in the past year, Scott was the best friend a person could have been to her. He had continued writing her once a week, and their late letters are full of mutual tenderness and consideration. After all the quarreling and recriminations, perhaps they found greater friendship with less passion.