WITH MODEST, FAINTLY GRIZZLED LIGHT, DAWN CREPT OVER the seawall of the Malecon as they pulled up to a discreet roadside square that gave access to the Plaza de Armas. Stray revelers made their way home to hotels from all-night joints such as Sloppy Joe’s, still boisterous and frolicsome, outraged by the suddenness with which the dance floors had been pulled from beneath their feet. Small shipping vessels headed out of the harbor, huffing on choppy waters, the wake of each curling off the stern in an apron of froth, the barreled voices of the men aboard saluting soldiers on watch or fishermen on the docks who embraced their role as harbingers of day. At this quiet hour several taxis and a long white Cadillac nestled against the curb of the roadside square. The driver said to her, “That must be the car of Senor Cardona.”
Her stomach flipped with worry. In her haste to leave the peninsula, she had failed to negotiate a price with the driver. She had no idea what Scott might have paid for the trip to Varadero or what a reasonable surcharge for the emergency circumstances under which they left this morning might be. It was possible that the driver was yet another courier in the employ of Mateo Cardona. Should she leave the matter of payment to their benefactor? How far into his debt could she and Scott afford to sink? Short on cash, considering that she still hadn’t tracked down the return Pan American tickets and had no idea how much the hospital might cost or how much she might have to dole out for new plane tickets or subsequent train fare to New York City—the only place she could think to bring Scott for rehabilitation because she couldn’t inflict him on her elderly mother in Montgomery—she decided to assume the car ride had been paid for.
Cardona stepped out of the white car and strolled across the cobblestone plaza with the air of a man greeting the day rather than riding out a long night. “Ah, Mrs. Zelda Fitzgerald,” he called, “I hope the drive was pleasant.” Without invitation, he slid into the backseat to examine Scott and she didn’t protest. Instead she seized the opportunity to ask the driver to open the rear, so she might shuffle and repack the clothes strewn everywhere by Scott during his pain-induced rage, delving once more through interior pockets of the luggage in search of cash, plane tickets, the Moleskine, passports, turning up only the last of these. She checked the sport jacket worn to the cockfight, still smeared with dirt and blood: nothing inside its pockets. It made her recall her lost dress.
“His eye is very bad,” Cardona hailed her, and she came forward to find the Cuban reclining in the backseat beside her husband, the bandage now dangling loosely from Scott’s eye. “I boxed in my youth, and I have not seen an eye in that shape in a long, long time.”
“Scott also boxes, or used to,” she said, not sure why it was relevant.
“Let us head to the doctor next. I have made arrangements at a clinic affiliated with a club of which I am a member. These clinics provide the finest care in Havana. I will find a room for you at an appropriate nearby hotel,” he said, his tone solicitous. “You must be positively tired after—”
“I have decided against the hospital,” she said, making up her mind only as she spoke the words. She was terrified that they would be marooned in this city without funds if the doctors remanded Scott to their care.
“This is impossible, I have made arrangements with a doctor, a bed awaits Mr. Fitzgerald.”
“We need to go home,” she said studying the look of surprise on his face, aware that she had altered the script on him. She wondered what Cardona had been able to infer about their financial situation while they were away on Varadero. After all, their reduced fortunes were hardly a mystery, Scott’s adversities well chronicled if by no one other than himself, easy enough to track if you had access to an independent news services such as Reuters. Did he still believe them to be members of the American leisure class? Was he blindly unaware how close they skated to broke, ever along the edge of irrevocable collapse?
“This makes no sense,” Cardona protested, roused to anger, clearly someone who did not like to be defied. “This is not what you requested hours ago. I have gone to great trouble on your behalf yet once more. You are tired and upset and you are not thinking clearly.”
“Senor Cardona, I appreciate your efforts more than I can say. I still require your help in leaving the country.” She resented his last remark but was determined not to let it show. “We’re a short plane ride from Miami, from family in Alabama. It makes no sense for us to stay on here as strangers, imposing ourselves on your hospitality, when a flight will solve everything. There we will have access to money and can repay you for all you’ve done for us, and when Scott is better, he can negotiate whatever business the two of you have begun.”
She was aware, of course, that the last part was a lie, that Scott was in no position to transact any business with Cardona and had probably tried to make this clear to him.
“It is unsafe for him to fly in this condition, before his lungs have been checked.”
Cardona’s concern seemed to be heartfelt, and yet it was most likely meant to intimidate her or make her second-guess herself. Refusing to take no for an answer, he dropped his voice into a softer register, into what she could only have described as a seductive lilt, offering to escort them in his own car to the clinic where Scott would receive the highest standard of care.
“Again, I thank you for all you have done,” she said. “It is above and beyond the call.”
Their driver transferred their luggage to the white Cadillac, while Cardona and his chauffeur hoisted her husband from the backseat onto their shoulders and dragged his slack body across the plaza, his brogue shoes scraping on the cobblestone. She wasn’t sure whether Cardona had agreed to her terms or not. For all she knew, she was being abducted. She wished for more information, about what Scott and Mr. Cardona had discussed, about what agreement if any they’d come to in the wake of Saturday’s violent crime. What was it exactly that Scott had asked this man to do on their behalf? All she could be sure of for the moment, as she glanced across at Cardona, conducting himself as though he would ultimately make the decisions, was that he had settled her account with the driver, one less matter for her to worry about.
Inside the Cadillac, as her husband slouched between herself and Cardona, she repeated her wish to return to the United States. Cardona said nothing as the car drove out along the harbor, banking into a curve that hugged the seawall. Was it possible he had enough influence in this city, she wondered, to check her husband into a clinic without her consent? The Cadillac turned inland, up a street that ran parallel to a magnificent tree-lined promenade they’d walked only days ago, the splendid white dome of the Capitol visible up ahead, the pink and yellow neocolonial theaters, hotels, and mansions framing the street on which they rode. Soon they diverted onto a smaller street, the car rattling through a neighborhood of colonnaded porticos that fronted colorful three-story buildings with multiple stone balconies or heavy black iron balustrades along the second- and third-story windows, the ride so rough and dramatically uneven she found it hard to reconcile the architecture and the roads.
“I would make excuses for our streets,” Senor Cardona smiled, “but what excuse can there be? It is simply deplorable, loose blocks everywhere, potholes the size of small gullies.”
On cue they were jolted into the air, Zelda gasping in surprise, Cardona hitting his head on the roof of the car, then swearing softly in Spanish as he warned the chauffeur to be more careful. Through all the jostling, Scott slept on, unperturbed.
“Perhaps this is the condition in which one must drive our streets,” Cardona said, nodding toward her slumbering husband, but almost instantly eating his words—“I mean no disrespect, of course”—and telling her the story of the city’s new Capitol building, of the diamonds in its floor. He seemed oddly talkative. He held a newspaper in his hand, folded shut, as he listed off the morning’s headline news: Mussolini had scorned FDR’s proposal for a conference to curb Italy’s aggressive economic expansion; the U.S. president was rebuking not only international leaders but also dissenters from his own political party, suggesting that anti–New Dealers among the Democratic party resign; and here in Cuba, Colonel Fulgencio Batista expressed a willingness to stand for the presidential elections if it became necessary for him to do so.
“He is already running the country, of course,” Senor Cardona remarked.
“I am sorry,” she said, unable to feign interest. “I’m distracted this morning.”
“I have an errand that will take but a second,” he said as the car pulled sharply to a curb, Cardona opening the door before they had even come to a complete stop.
The more she thought about it, the more she resented Cardona’s officious manner, his presumption in asking her to wait while he ran errands and refused to tell her where they were headed. She might easily coax Scott into a cab and demand to be taken to the airport. But what if the return tickets really had gone missing? What if after paying the taxi she needed to haggle over the fare or customs fees? What if she lacked the funds to leave the country?
“Scott,” Zelda whispered, shaking his arm, “Scott, dearest, won’t you wake up?”
The lid above the undamaged eye fluttered. “Zelda, that you?”
“Do you remember where you stored our return tickets?”
No sooner had the words left her mouth than the door opened, Cardona standing above them framed by bright sunlight, the doctor at his side.
“I want him to look at the eye, listen to the lungs, that is all.”
Zelda wondered if this was a stratagem of some sort, but she didn’t protest as the doctor slid in next to her husband. The doctor listened to the lungs with a stethoscope, lifted the bandage from the eye to examine it as he asked questions of Cardona, who leaned into the car, now and then shooting her a few conciliatory words.
“He runs the clinic of the club of which I spoke, with its roster of patients that includes some of Havana’s oldest families.”
Immediately alarm shot through her and she said before she could gather her thoughts, “Really, we can’t afford a clinic,” stopping herself, feeling flustered by her mistake, finding it uncouth to have spoken so frankly of money to a man she hardly knew.
“What do you think about morphine?” Cardona asked, ignoring her remark. It took her several seconds to understand that the question had been addressed to her.
How much would the doctor charge, she wondered, for a shot of morphine? Scott’s complaints had subsided, the Luminal having cast its spell. Maybe the morphine shot wasn’t a good idea after all, especially with so many substances already in his system. Besides, if Cardona intended to overrule her and check her husband into a hospital, she would need him vaguely coherent, able to stick up for himself.
“Will it present a problem for the airlines?” she asked, making the tactical decision to proceed as though Cardona intended to cooperate with her wishes.
“You let me worry about that,” he replied.
“And it’s safe?” she asked, listing the substances Scott had ingested within the past twelve hours, almost too many to count.
The doctor administered a mild dose of morphine, assuring her it would keep the misery at bay for hours but would not prevent her husband from traveling.
As the car pulled from the curb, leaving the doctor behind, she breathed easier. She had been sure he would declare Scott in need of emergency care and insist on escorting him to the clinic. Still, she was at the mercy of a man they hardly knew, riding down streets she couldn’t recognize, Scott passed out and unavailable to help in any way. Cardona said little as the sun brightened behind them; and now the landscape grew familiar, no longer dusty as it had been on the ride into the country, here and there splashes of dark red clay, the countryside around them ordered in long green rows of neatly irrigated fields. The tightness in her chest released, giving way to gratitude, then triumph. They were headed toward the airport.
At the terminal, Mateo Cardona was a whir of efficiency, bypassing one line after another, working officials, skipping baggage and passport checks, preempting objections before the airline staff could raise them. He produced a letter from the doctor, waved it in front of several peons, and when they sought the advice of their superiors soon overrode all protests. “He has been given a few sleeping pills because he is ill,” he explained, setting aside objections that the passenger was in no condition to fly, “and his wife can easily wake him in case of an emergency.” When she tried to explain about the lost tickets, Cardona dismissed her concern. “It has been taken care of.” His solicitousness did not end there. He would not allow her to wait for the airplane alone, but instead ordered his chauffeur to transport the luggage to the tarmac, then helped her settle Scott on the plane, as a patient rather than an inebriated man who had been badly beaten in a fight.
She was prepared to give Cardona all the money in Scott’s wallet if it came to that. God only knew how much they truly owed their benefactor. She studied him with a new appreciation for his angular face, slender in the jaw, darkened ruggedly by stubble from a sleepless night. She would promise to send him money once they were home, not knowing what they could afford to pay or when. Or, she supposed, she might ask him to bill Scribner’s. Max might not be pleased, but over the past couple of years Scott had resolved his personal debts to his editor as well as his publishing house. He was good for the next loan.
“I wish we were leaving right away,” she said once they had boarded the plane, empty of passengers. It was not scheduled to depart for an hour still.
“Time is only the enemy if you see it as such,” Cardona said.
He was too much of a gentleman, she realized, to bring up money. So, versed in the etiquette of the Southern lady, exploiting codes against which she’d once dramatically rebelled, she summoned those social graces by which women procure favors without recompense and pay benefactors in flattery for kindnesses and benevolence. She couldn’t believe how easily she managed the aristocratic Cuban. And whatever his original intentions might have been, whatever he’d once wanted (perhaps still wanted) from them, he rose to the codes of a lapsing era and received her extended hand as if he’d never expected anything more.
“How can I ever pay you back?” she said, making it clear by her tone she could not.
Scott spent the flight wrapped in a morphine haze, experiencing only a lightheaded sense of being airborne, the pricks and aches of injury. From time to time he rose to consciousness, aware of the eye obstructed by gauze, the lid and lash flitting wildly against the cotton like a trapped insect, the visible world smeared in thick gray dabbings like the excess paint at the edge of an artist’s palette. When at last he opened his eyes, stinging, enmeshed in wrappings, he was on a train, able to remember (if only in faintly humiliating images) that he had lumbered in his sleep through an airport terminal before subsiding into a taxi.
“How did we get here again?” he asked his wife, seated in the booth across from the sleeping berth.
“Can’t you remember any of it?”
“Sure, I lost a cockfight, and the nurse Maryvonne tended to my eye. Were we in the city with Mateo?”
Portions of the night might eventually come back to him, though he wasn’t sure he wanted them to. Still, there was the terror of having gone missing from your own life— not just the wondering what you might have done, what you might have said, whether anything had taken place with that Frenchwoman, but the sense of having been rendered completely open to harm. An ambiguous terror, in truth attractive on some level: to lay yourself open to the cruelties and mercies and whims of other people. How many times had Scott seen drunks robbed, beaten, more or less ravaged? He’d even watched as such things were done to himself. Inside every true drunk was the desire to be punished for some crime you couldn’t remember having committed.
“Are you really awake? Will you remember this?” Zelda asked, and he said he was and he would remember, without knowing if his statements were true, still under the spell of the morphine.
Much of the conversation, she understood in advance, would slide back into his drug-hammered unconscious. Nevertheless there were things she needed to say. “The hardest part,” she said, studying him as he tried to memorize the words, “I wish you could understand this, Scott, the hardest part is never knowing whether these trips are experiments in starting over, if there’s anything at stake in them except killing time.”
“I’m sorry, Zelda,” he said. She had pulled him through a tough spot, all on her own. “The lengths you went to there at the end, I won’t forget, I won’t.”
He slept again, so she composed a note to him, organizing her thoughts: “Please believe me, Scott, the happiest I ever was was when I was with you. I do best that way, I think, in your arms and full of myself, and maybe I will again someday? Devotedly, Zelda.” She folded the note into the pocket of his shirt, vowing to scribble a whole series of notes over the next few days, if necessary. On a train traveling up the Eastern seaboard, through cities such as Charleston, Baltimore, and Wilmington, cities in which they had vacationed, reveled, or lived together, she began to plan the immediate future: how to manage Scott once they arrived in New York, how to get him checked into a hospital, what she must say to her doctors when she returned to North Carolina alone, the letter she would need to send Scott from the sanitarium covering for his failure to escort her safely home. Composing lines in her head, she tailored the story for the ears of her doctors, who read all her correspondence, who monitored every twist and turn in the drama of her private life. They must never find out what had happened in Cuba, not if she wanted to see Scott again anytime soon.
He took the news of the lost Moleskine fairly well. How could he not? It was his own fault.
“A lot of material in that journal, things people said, some nice sentences too,” he lamented. “But I suppose I’ll get most of it back.”
“I wonder if there are any words you can never get back,” she said, teasing him with the memory of her lost love letter.
“Zelda, why so cryptic, I can’t make sense of what you say when you talk like that,” he answered. “You’ve been spending too much time with clairvoyants.”
She laughed, giggling at first, then letting the thought expand in her mind, the laughter building as she dwelt on it. He liked her newfound confidence, her way of seeing herself as someone who could make things happen. “You have a winning air about you,” he said. “I should let myself get beat up more often.”
“Well, then, about California, when can I come?”
He showed less surprise than she expected. She told him how during the flight they had talked extensively of her visiting him in California within the next few months, of her helping him put his life in order. The truth was she had alluded to the possibility during the few minutes in which he’d opened his eyes, then drifted off, but while falling asleep he had said, “There’s room at my cottage, you could stay with me”—and that was all the encouragement she needed.
“You remember inviting me to come, don’t you?” she said, then stopped, changing tactics. She asked him if he was in much pain and stood up to fetch another pillow, propping it behind him. Even in the sleeping berth, wrapped in blankets, he still wore the two coats, feeling the cold all the time, the hacking in his chest erupting in unexpected fits that seemed to her to last longer each time.
“Of course,” he said automatically. He was lying, she knew he was lying, but it didn’t matter.
Zelda hadn’t liked Hollywood when they’d stayed there as celebrities a decade earlier. This time, though, it would be a private experiment, the two of them off the radar, in a cottage in Encino, in the hills outside Los Angeles. She was no longer afraid of what that city represented. She had lost too much this past decade to bother competing with beautiful darlings who relished the fickle favor of fame, likely to be tomorrow’s castaways before they had even realized it.
“When will I visit?” she asked again.
“Maybe in July, so we can celebrate your birthday, also the anniversary of our first meeting.”
“And, Scott, you do think I’m almost better? Truly?”
“I know it,” he said with all the conviction he could muster.
She stared out the window, the flat green land and the happy blues of oceans, glades, and marshes blurring as she held her forehead to the cool glass, overcome with fatigue. She hadn’t slept even an hour last night, and it was already past noon.
“Scott, you look cozy in that berth,” she said, “and I don’t feel like climbing up into mine. Do you think I could come and lie there beside you for a few minutes?”
“Of course,” he said. His bad arm was closer to the wall, so she, also fully clothed, wearing a long white frock, could rest her head on his shoulder.
“What about our shoes?” she asked, kicking her feet. “Shouldn’t we take them off?”
“Not yet,” he said. “Let’s just lie here perfectly still for a few minutes.”
These hours spent sleeping by her side on the train—these and the scurried, muddled days ahead in New York City—they are the last he will ever spend in her presence. Summer will pass with Scott on the mend, Zelda’s visit to Encino postponed, replaced by talk of his coming East, but those trips also put off. He will become immersed in his new novel, while Zelda is discharged from the Highland Hospital into her mother’s care—and for a year and a half there will be letters and imaginings, about how they will see each other as soon as circumstances permit, about how work progresses and finances deteriorate, and yet somehow he will always scrape together money for her expenses. It will be the longest span of not seeing each other in their entire life together, since they first met in the month she turned eighteen. Their love lies in the rhythm of written declarations of loyalty, in repeated vows of steadfast belief in each other and a future that remains within reach. He’ll write and tell her he’s under contract again, their money woes soon to be alleviated. And she’ll believe that this is the year in which he’ll get his life on track and at last make room for her somewhere, anywhere, since she now requires so little to be happy. Out of consideration for his illness, she’ll propose visiting him in California at a later date, when his lungs are recovered, when he’s making progress again on the novel.
And in December, on the mend from a heart attack weeks earlier, only two days after sending Christmas presents for Zelda and Scottie, he will sit down across from Sheilah Graham to read about the Princeton football team in an alumni magazine, by some accounts having also just consumed a piece of his favorite chocolate, and he will stand up to stretch his legs, licking his fingers, reaching for the mantel as he collapses at her feet, dead by the time Sheilah returns with help.
In the berth she slept contentedly, certain that the spirits couldn’t chase her on a train that was moving so swiftly. She awoke beside him having dreamt two dreams, the one melting into the other. She was dancing in a professional ballet company and attaining on stage greater height and arc in her leaps than ever before; then she was standing on a bluff above a white-sanded beach, her body turned out toward ocean, knowing Scott (though in the dream she couldn’t see him) was somewhere down below watching out for her. The dreams were exhilarating and she wanted to talk to Scott about them.
“You were the one who saw what I was going to be,” she said, not yet sure if he was awake, already saddened to have left the world of the dream. “But then one day I felt you giving up on me.”
“The lengths you went to there at the end, Zelda,” he started to say.
“Scott, you never have to thank me,” she said, interrupting him. “In the afternoons after you have worked on the novel, and I have taken long walks in the hills of Santa Monica, we will lie like this on the couch in your living room.”
Whenever she spoke of what might still happen for them—how things would soon get better, how her month’s stay in Encino might bring about a reunion not only in affections but in practical solidarity—he yielded completely, considering how much her hopes had cost her, how difficult it was in the face of decreasing dividends to talk herself into optimism. He received her words as though they came from someone who might look into the future and tell his fortune. It would be easier if she were to stay on for a few weeks, without the pressure of planned vacations, the implicit demand to fill her life with adventures—instead just the two of them getting by, day to day. It might make all the difference. In her hopes he intuited the structure, rhythm, and ritual certainty of faith. It was not mere self-deception—if only because they were never more earnest than when talking of the future. If only because, even in the wake of disaster, they meant every kind word they said.
“It’s strange,” she observed, “that there are so many homes you’ve made for yourself, hotels, apartments, all these places I can’t even begin to imagine.”
“Oh, they don’t matter.” Sheilah had found the cottage for him, of course, but he beat back that thought, concentrating only on what Zelda wished to hear. “Some of them were so tawdry, I’d be ashamed for you to step foot in the door. But every time I choose a place I truly like, where I could see myself staying a while,” he said, happy to be speaking freely now, without holding anything back, “I ask myself, ‘What would Zelda think?’ and I imagine what you will say when you visit me next.”
“Tell me again about California,” she said, “why I will like it so much better this time around. Why I will enjoy evenings on the captain’s deck of your small cottage. And what about the walks, are they marvelous, you know how I love long walks, Scott.”
He wanted her to believe in an existence that was quiet and ordered, in expectations that were safe rather than wild. So he described for her the hills in the immediate vicinity of his home, the trees undulating in lush green on the Santa Monica Mountains, how the sun settled down into them in the evening.
I’VE INCURRED MANY DEBTS IN THE WRITING OF THIS NOVEL. THANK you to my agent, Leigh Feldman, whose enthusiasm and vision for this book were tremendous from the very first read and who guided the manuscript expertly through several drafts. Thanks also to her assistant, Jean Garnett, whose editorial contributions were similarly deft and precise. I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with the fine staff at Overlook Press, and wish especially to thank my editor, Liese Mayer, whose insights and ideas refined the novel on every level. Thanks to my publicist, Theresa Collier, and to Melody Conroy, both of whom understood the power of the Fitzgeralds’ story—and this untold portion of it—right away.
Every writer needs a place to call home (as the itinerant Fitzgeralds had to learn the hard way), and over the course of the past two years, that place for me has been the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. My thanks to Connie Brothers, Deb West, and Jan Zenisek for all they do to allow writers to live as much as possible in their heads. I’m honored by the relationships and conversations I’ve enjoyed with the terrific faculty at the Writers’ Workshop while completing this book: Ethan Canin, Charles D’Ambrosio, Marilynne Robinson, Andrew Sean Greer, ZZ Packer, and Samantha Chang. From each of you I’ve learned much about the art of fiction. A handful of writers have long served as mentors and inspirations: Mark Costello, Leon Waldoff, Harriet Scott Chessman, Martha Serpas, Kevis Goodman, Leslie Brisman, and Richard Powers.
My thanks also to the following people for specific and important contributions to this novel along the way, often on writing matters, often on historical details pertaining to everything from architecture to cockfighting, from ballet to Cuban music of the 1930s (you know what you did): Andres Carlstein, Paul Jaskot, James Molloy, Don Waters, Robin Romm, Deborah Kennedy, Curt Armstrong, Susannah Shive, Mario Zambrano, Robert and Patricia Ream, Avantika Mehta, Jeff McCarthy, Lala Mooney, Celia Rosa, Angel Perez, Emilio Cueto, and Jonathan Hansen. The staff at the Firestone Memorial Library provided expert assistance on several separate visits during which I dug through portions of the vast archive of Fitzgerald’s letters and papers housed at Princeton University. And a special nod to the extended Spargo clan, for being part of this journey from the start.
Finally, there are three persons without whom this novel might never have existed: Amelia Zurcher, whose flawless ear for the English language couldn’t purge all my flaws (I choose to call them style), who read, commented on, and edited this manuscript at the earliest and latest stages, her improvements to the story too many to be counted; my sister, Jennifer Mitchell, a kindred spirit in literary taste, who brought that taste to bear by helping to shape this story and carry it out into the world; and Anne Ream, who shares my love of all things Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald (first expressed in long-ago happy hour conversations devoted to Tender Is the Night) and whose fine sense of historical detail, dialogue, and narrative pace helped bring focus and clarity to many a scene.
Published as Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald by R. Clifton Spargo (NY. Overlook Duckworth, 2013).