Zelda Fitzgerald’s life was made for story. It had page-turning qualities even before Zelda and Scott amended it for the legend.
The tale begins with the indisputably Thespian timing of her birth, which coincided with the start to the new century. Later she saw the dramatic possibilities of a life that paralleled an era.
Even her name had already been fictionalized. When Zelda was born on Tuesday 24 July 1900 at 5.40 a.m. in the Sayres’ house on South Street, Montgomery, her forty-year-old mother Minerva, herself named for a myth, was known locally as an avid reader. Perusing romantic novels, Minnie had twice run across the unusual name Zelda.1 In Jane Howard’s 1866 Zelda: A Tale of the Massachusetts Colony the heroine was a beautiful gypsy. In Zelda’s Fortune, written in 1874 by Robert Edward Francillon, the second Zelda, again a gypsy, ‘could have been placed in no imaginable situation without drawing upon herself a hundred stares’.2 Francillon’s line could have been written expressly for Zelda Sayre.
Zelda’s rhapsodic looks matched her artistic temperament. Her hair/long and loose, ‘was that blonde color that’s no color at all but a reflector of light’.3 And it was the lighthearted Machens, her sunny mother’s relations, that Zelda took after, while her brother and sisters were dark like her father’s temperament and Montgomery’s history.
Zelda always said that her home town’s controversial history strengthened her. Although (or perversely because) prolonged civil war tore the South apart and massacred an entire generation of Southern men, Montgomery citizens were proud that a nation had been born there. Today, more than half a century after Zelda’s death, they still are. Montgomery was the Cradle of the Confederacy and its first flag had been raised from the staff of the state Capitol.4 In Zelda’s girlhood ghosts of the late Confederacy drifted through sleepy oak-lined streets.
The Civil War, the defining historical event of the Deep South, still vibrated in people’s minds. It created a distinctive Southern culture often at odds with itself and the country. During this blood-letting of 1861–5 the Confederate states in the South which wished to secede from the Union fought to maintain certain rights, not least the right to determine state law on the institution of slavery, the mainstay especially in the South of an agricultural plantation economy. Thus the South ran counter to the moral beliefs of its time in perpetuating slavery just when the rest of the Western world was decisively giving it up. Traditionally there had been a gulf between black fieldhands and black house servants: black women for instance, in the houses of Zelda and her friends, cooked and wet-nursed and raised the children.
In Zelda’s birth year, only thirty-five years after slavery was abolished in America, some historians believe the secret heart of the South still carried an uneasy but powerful sense of the rightness of their nineteenth-century position on slavery. In adolescence Zelda saw period advertisements which proved lynching, mutilation and the mark of the branding iron had been incontestable methods by which black fieldhands and house servants were kept in check. But what Zelda heard was that these shocking brutalities disturbed the elan of white Montgomery families less than the tragedies that had befallen their own brave youths. For in this volatile environment, the resentments of the blacks were stifled beneath the white romanticization of antebellum plantation life built on slavery.
In her childhood Zelda never questioned the fact that the respectable white families with whom she mixed had been instrumental in upholding laws that penalized Negroes. In her own family her father, Judge Sayre, had even created such laws. Zelda’s daughter Scottie later wrote: ‘I am sorry to say that while he was a just man, known for his unshakable integrity, he was probably one of the sturdiest pillars of the unjust society … he was author of the “Sayre Election law”, which effectively prevented Negroes from voting until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. So he was one of the heroes of the established order … but then if you weren’t, in those days and in this place, you would have been an outlaw from society.’5
What Zelda learnt from the Judge and her mother, Minnie Sayre, was that Southerners were fanatical about their Southern beauties, the chivalry of their Southern gentlemen, Union General Sherman’s devastating raids which were instrumental in the Confederacy’s defeat.6 Because she came from an old-established white Southern family, she understood the symbolism of the South’s luxuriant blossoms which atrophied into perfumed decay. She grew up acutely aware that casualty and spoilage could always occur at a moment of great promise to any of the young men who courted her.7 Zelda’s heritage was the proximity of youth and beauty to death and annihilation.
Talking about the dead was therefore common amongst Zelda’s circle. She knew her ancestors were spirited, quixotic and rash. Pioneers and speculators, politicians and lawyers, they raced to the brink and didn’t pull back. Zelda felt she took after them. The Sayres and the Morgans on her father’s side were illustrious and property-owning while the Cresaps and the Machens on her mother’s side were powerful and romantic.
After Zelda’s death, when her daughter Scottie investigated the Maryland Cresap line that stretched from Zelda’s maternal grandmother Victoria Cresap Mims back to the seventeenth century, she said it became clear why Zelda emerged from a conservative Southern background as one of the Twenties’ most flamboyant figures: ‘my mother was descended from some of the most audacious, impetuous, picturesque and irrepressible figures in all of Maryland’s colorful history’.8
The most audacious was Colonel Thomas Cresap, born 1694 in Skipton, Yorkshire. This quintessential frontiersman had emigrated to the York County side of the Susquehanna River in Maryland, where he ran a ferry across to the present-day town of Washington Boro. Cresap was known as ‘The Maryland Monster’ to the Pennsylvanians among whom he settled.9 Rumoured to be Lord Baltimore’s secret agent, he had been granted 500 acres and appointed surveyor, magistrate and captain of the militia in competition with the Pennsylvanian officials. So obnoxious was he to them that finally they sent him to jail. As he was led in chains to the courthouse hundreds gathered to see the infamous Maryland Monster.
Once released, he impertinently borrowed from his lawyers to move his family to Oldtown, an abandoned Indian village near today’s Cumberland.10 He founded the massive Ohio Company and became guide, explorer, politician and protagonist in the wilderness drama. Depending on which version you credit, the Monstrous Frontiersman died at the age of 96, 100 or 102.
It was Thomas’s ‘perfect mate’ Hannah Johnson, married to him in 1727, who particularly fired Zelda’s imagination. Born in Prince George’s County, Hannah, a ‘darkly handsome Amazon’, defended her disputed territory on the old Indian lands of Conejola. When arrested by Lancaster County’s sheriff in 1736 she ‘carried a rifle, two pistols, a tomahawk, a scalping knife, and a small dagger in her boot’.11
Of Hannah’s three sons, one was killed by Indians and another died serving in George Washington’s army in 1775. Her oldest son, Daniel Cresap, fought in the French and Indian War and was buried in Maryland in 1798 at the foot of Dan’s Mountain, named after his own glorious exploits. His son Daniel Jnr, born 1753, who commanded a regiment to put down the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion,12 died from hardships on the campaign without the benefit of whiskey.
The last of Zelda’s bold Maryland ancestors, Daniel Jnr’s eldest son Edward Otho, his courageous wife Sarah Briscoe13 and two small daughters travelled down the Ohio river on a flat boat to Kentucky. Within six years Sarah was widowed with five tiny children. A tame version of Edward’s death suggests he caught pneumonia but Zelda always preferred the version that he was killed by Chickasaw Indians. One anecdote on which all versions agree is that because of the tangled position in which his body was found he had to be squeezed into his coffin. Then when it was opened at the wake, out sprang the body of Edward Otho.14
Sarah’s daughter Caroline Cresap, Zelda’s great-grandmother, who married John Mims of Kentucky, inherited the Cresap bravado. Caroline’s daughter Victoria married Confederate Senator Willis B. Machen, twenty-eight years her senior and already twice widowed, with whom she had two daughters: Zelda’s mother Minnie and the younger delicate Aunt Marjorie. Minnie would tell Zelda how during the Civil War her intrepid grandmother Caroline, on a visit to the Machens’ Kentucky home Mineral Mount, on the Cumberland River, insisted on flying the Confederate flag from the roof. A passing Yankee gunboat instantly splintered the house with shells.15
In Zelda’s home in Pleasant Avenue, Minnie, five years old at the time of the incident, still kept Senator Machen’s carved mahogany secretaire whose corner had been blown off by the gunfire. She riveted young Zelda with tales of their Machen ancestors’ earlier exploits. There was John Machen, who boldly emigrated to Virginia from Scotland in the early seventeenth century.16 There was his son Thomas Machen, still restless, who left Virginia for South Carolina then finally settled to marriage with a Sayre cousin, Mary Chilton.17 There was Thomas’s son Henry Machen I, a man still on the move. A lieutenant during the Revolution, he went to Kentucky with an English immigrant, Grace Greenwood. By 1802 Zelda’s great-grandfather, tobacco planter Henry Machen III, and his wife Nancy Tarrant had formed a Scottish colony on Kentucky’s Cumberland River. Minnie showed Zelda a sepia photo of herself on which an admirer had scrawled ‘The Wild Lily of Cumberland’.
Henry Machen III’s son Willis, raised in Kentucky when the state was a frontier, was energetic, enterprising and multi-talented like his granddaughter Zelda. Initially an iron-refiner, when his business failed, to everyone’s astonishment he became a successful lawyer in Kentucky’s South West, served in the legislature and helped frame Kentucky’s constitution.
Willis’s major rebellion came during the Civil War when Kentucky’s allegiance to the Union was challenged by a provisional state government set up by secessionists, amongst whom Willis was pre-eminent. He was elected to the Confederate Congress18 and appointed President of the Council of Ten, the Governor of Kentucky’s advisory board.
However, in 1865 as a secessionist he was forced to flee with a price on his head to Canada, where Victoria and their daughters joined him, until he was pardoned by President Grant in 1869 and returned to Kentucky to rebuild his plantation.
In 1872 Willis served for four months on the US Senate, during which time young Minnie visited Washington with him. His name was presented by the Kentucky Democratic Delegation for the Vice Presidential nomination that year, though he did not win it. By 1880 he was a powerful member of the Kentucky railroad commission. Minnie, like Zelda a rebel, did not always agree with her father but remained proud of him.19 It was that pride which Zelda absorbed and which she saw in her home, a veritable seat of justice presided over by her father, Judge Anthony Dickinson Sayre. Zelda learnt from her father that blood and breeding were more significant status symbols than house ownership. The Judge’s home became a ‘shining sword [which] sleeps at night in the sheath of his tired nobility’. In Zelda’s first novel, her father becomes a retributory organ, the force of law and order, the pillar of established discipline. He was a ‘living fortress’ who offered his children such a sense of security that it absolved them ‘from the early social efforts necessary in life to construct strongholds for themselves’.20 This made her despise ‘weaklings’ without the ‘courage and the power to feel they’re right when the whole world says they’re wrong’.21
Yet when she was in the wrong her father’s reputation protected her from open criticism. In his thirties he was asked to serve as a member of the Alabama House of Representatives. Four years later he was elected President of the State Senate for a term. By 1897 he had become a City Court Judge in Montgomery.
In 1909 he was appointed to the Alabama Supreme Court as Associate Judge. ‘Though judges were elected, he refused ever to campaign, which fortunately became unnecessary for he early on ceased having any opponents. The thing he is most famous for in legal circles is never having had an opinion overturned.’22 From 1910 he was re-elected each year, and by 1928 he was awarded the degree of Doctor of Laws. Throughout Zelda’s childhood, ‘he was considered a great judge, so much so that when it rained, the conductor of the streetcar … which he caught every morning, would stop the streetcar and walk for two blocks with an umbrella to fetch him’.23
Zelda’s father, Judge Anthony Sayre, had grown up in his father Daniel’s book-lined house on Court Street, Montgomery, where Daniel had inspired his children with a love of learning. Daniel Sayre had founded and edited a Tuskegee newspaper, then moved to Montgomery to edit the Montgomery Post. Anthony, his youngest son, was sent to a small private school, then in 1878 to Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia, from where he graduated with honours in Greek and mathematics.24 He spent a year teaching at Vanderbilt University, then returned to Montgomery to read law and be admitted to the Bar. He earned little during his first few years as a practising attorney. However in 1883, at twenty-five, when he was appointed clerk of the city court he knew he was in a position to marry.
As the nephew of the distinguished United States Senator John Tyler Morgan (his mother Musidora’s younger brother), he spent some leisure time with the Morgans. On New Year’s Eve his uncle John’s family gave a ball. A young Kentucky woman, Minnie Buckner Machen, who was staying with her Montgomery cousin Miss Chilton, was invited. The Chiltons were also cousins to the Sayres, which gave shy young Anthony a reason to approach her. He noticed her mass of curling hair, her firm bones that held her jewel-like face, her determined chin, which Zelda inherited.
Minnie was less interested in flirting with him than in hurrying back to Kentucky, for her father, Senator Willis B. Machen, had promised she might go to Philadelphia for elocution and music lessons. Minnie’s chin was determined on a stage career. She was talented: she wrote poetry, acted, sketched and sang soprano. She gave music lessons to friends and her first story had been published.
Life on a big stage held greater interest than life as a small-town lawyer’s wife. Minnie left Anthony for Philadelphia, where she read for Georgia Drew, head of the Barrymore-Drew theatrical family and, offered a role, was determined to accept. But when Willis Machen discovered her unseemly actions, he hurtled after his daughter, dragged her off the stage, put her on a train back to Kentucky. Once home she discovered the reason for his rage. The Southern Democrats were talking of nominating him as their Presidential candidate. He certainly could not afford to have a daughter who was an actress. It would be more seemly for her to marry a lawyer with prospects. Mineral Mount, Machen’s red-brick mansion on his three-thousand-acre tobacco plantation, would be a fine place for a wedding.
And so it was, on 17 June 1884.
Minnie told Zelda that she never entirely got over her disappointment at not going on the stage: a disappointment heightened after a Kentucky publisher asked her to consider writing a novel, when the most she could manage was occasional poems or stories for the Montgomery Advertiser. For by then she was running a household of ten, which included her five children: daughters Marjorie, Rosalind and Clothilde, fourteen, eleven and nine when Zelda, always known as Baby, was born in 1900, her one surviving son, Anthony Dickinson Sayre Jnr, born 1894, whom she treasured, and several relatives.
The death at eighteen months of her elder son, her second child Daniel, threw a permanent shadow over her life. After the birth in 1886 of Marjorie, frail, fretful, always subject to illness, Minnie had been heartened by the birth in 1887 of strong robust Daniel. But the boy child who raced through their home one day was stricken by spinal meningitis the next. ‘When he died I wanted to die too,’ Minnie said. ‘I shut myself up in my room. I wouldn’t see anyone or eat. I lay on the bed and turned my face to the wall. It might have gone on like that for no telling how long. But then … our family doctor … made me look at him. “Minnie”, he said. “l know how you feel. But you’ve got a poor lonely girl downstairs who needs you. What’s past is past. You’ve got to live for the living.”’25
It was a phrase Minnie was to use often in a life so shaken by tragedies that a friend suggested an epitaph: ‘Tragedy was an old familiar acquaintance of Mama Sayre’s, one to whom she could say calmly, I know you and I am not afraid.’26
Still grieving when Rosalind (Tootsie), born in 1889, and Clothilde (Tilde), born in 1891, confirmed her disappointment that her family had ‘hatched into girls’,27 Minnie recouped her energy with Tony’s birth. On him she lavished love to be surpassed only by her extravagant affection for baby Zelda. Six when Zelda was born, similarly highly strung, Tony became her competitor. When Zelda uses Tony to depict ‘Monsieur’, the older brother of her autobiographical heroine Janno in her second novel Caesar’s Things, he is allowed more licence than Janno and is ‘angry at his rights being contested’.28 Although Zelda later grew particularly close to both her brother and her father, as a child she contested all Tony’s rights and battled against her father’s.
A family friend said that the Judge, a ‘severe and rather humorless disciplinarian’, would send his children from the table without supper ‘if they were late in arriving or unmannerly in conduct’.29 Though Marjorie, Rosalind and Clothilde, even Tony, respected him for fear of reprisals, Zelda felt it was her right to disobey his rules and never accepted his icy detachment. She constantly goaded him as if she thought a bleeding wound would bring him closer to her. Her mother confessed that the Judge might have borne a closer relation to his girls had he not lost his boy in infancy;30 Zelda, shaken, pretended she couldn’t care less. She escaped out of her bedroom window despite being forbidden to go out at night. When her father called her a little hussy for kissing a date goodnight she said caustically: ‘isn’t that the way hussies do?’31 The Judge was outraged that Zelda believed she was one of those girls who ‘think they can do anything and get away with it’, like her later fictional heroine Alabama Beggs, who said: ‘I will be troublesome, too, if I can’t do as I please.’32 Pleasing herself was Zelda’s most significant childhood trait.
To her friends she referred to solemn Papa as ‘Old Dick’, a ribald shortening of his middle name Dickinson, and continued to taunt him. One story suggests that Scott Fitzgerald, at his first dinner at 6 Pleasant Avenue, watched in amazement as Zelda provoked her father to such uncharacteristic rage that he chased her round the table with a carving knife.33
Minnie never provoked him. It was thought in the family that she poured out so much love on her children because she found her husband wanting in the affection she needed: ‘he was known to be a very dry, silent type, without a shred of gregariousness’.34 There must have been many times when, having seen herself as an actress, Minnie was irked by the reality of her role as a housewife. There must have been many times when Judge Sayre emerged from ‘his cerebral laboratory’, where he ‘better provide[d] for those who were his’35, and noticed a flicker of regret in his attentive wife’s eyes.
How happy, then, were Zelda’s parents?
‘When I was a child, their relationship was not apparent to me,’ Zelda later recalled. ‘Now I see them as two unhappy people; my mother was dominated and oppressed by my father and often hurt by him; he forced her to work for a large family in which he found neither satisfaction nor a spiritual link.’36 So little satisfaction did he find that Zelda bitterly portrays him as saying: ‘“I will build me some ramparts surrounded by wild beasts and barbed wire on the top of a crag and escape this hoodlum.”’37
Neither of Zelda’s parents, however, complained about each other. Her father complained so insistently about lack of money that in her first novel, Save Me The Waltz, Zelda makes it the predominant feature of her heroine’s father. Her own father’s anxiety about insufficient funds meant that for most of his life he did not own his own ramparts but rented other people’s.
The Judge’s parents, who originally lived in the Capitol area, had resettled in the top hat district known as ‘The Hill’, though not in its stateliest homes. In 1885, a year after his marriage, the Judge sold his father’s Court Street house and bought a small cottage west of Sayre Street near their family Church of the Holy Comforter, where Minnie played the organ and sang in the choir. After their son Daniel’s death, the house, already too small for six children, was now haunted by grief. When several relatives moved in with them the Judge decided to sell. Though his Supreme Court salary was a respectable $6,500 a year, his financial commitments and his many dependent relatives made him uneasy about another purchase. In 1907 he rented first a house in Montgomery Avenue, then two further houses nearby. In 1909 the family moved to 6 Pleasant Avenue, which he continued to rent until his death in 1931.
It was in this airy white house filled with flowers that Zelda grew up. In Save Me The Waltz, she describes it as having ‘an affinity with light, curtain frills penetrated by sunshine … Winter and spring, the house is like some lovely shining place painted on a mirror.’38 The many green-shuttered windows of this grey frame house looked out on the deep porch that ran along the width of one side. Zelda’s mother, an ardent gardener, trailed clematis vines and Virginia creeper across the porch, where Zelda entertained her friends, to screen it from the sun. From the porch with its creaking swing, the family’s focal point, a flight of steps led down to the front garden, and a second flight from the garden to the sidewalk.
Inside the house, the large rooms were distinguished by polished pine floors and oriental rugs. Zelda used the red velvet portieres which separated the back hall from the front as stage curtains for her theatrical performances.
Zelda’s parents always employed a cook, laundress, gardener and when necessary a children’s nurse. This meant Zelda grew up with virtually no domestic skills. Zelda’s nurse was a large, handsome black woman called Aunt Julia, who wore a cap and apron and lived in a tiny cottage in the rear yard.
All the servants were black, so Zelda and her white girlfriends were tended by ‘unfailingly loving, efficient black women’ to whom they were close.39 In later years this produced conflict, because in Montgomery they moved in a society where the parallel isolation of Southern black and white women was intensified by the cult of the white woman as ‘soul of the South [who] must remain untainted by association with inferior classes and races’.40
Montgomery, that stronghold of segregation whose early settlers came from Virginia and South Carolina as well as from Europe, was built upon seven hills, high on the tawny red bluffs above the wide brown swirling Alabama River. Zelda always recalled the deep elm trees overhanging the brown foam at the water’s edges and the shadows which slept under the Spanish moss. Brown mud oozed between the cobblestones of the main streets which curled down to the riverside lined with decaying wharves. Blue and white octagonal blocks paved the sidewalks. Zelda would later fictionalize the town as so hot, with breezes so seldom, that young girls would shelter behind thick flowering vines or struggle for centre place under ubiquitous electric fans.41
Those girls were modelled on girls from two kinds of white Montgomery families: Old Money (like the long-established Perry Street and Cloverdale families) and New Money (often from business, recent residents trying in vain to buy themselves into the inner circuit).
All Zelda’s friends were Old Money, mostly with good addresses. The well-bred Haardt sisters, Ida, later Zelda’s classmate, and the older Sara, who despite two years’ seniority would share with Zelda a number of beaux, lived in fashionable Perry Street. Sara’s Bavarian grandparents had come to Alabama in the 1840s cotton-boom days.42 Her mother, descended from two distinguished Virginian families, ‘fanatical about the South’,43 was proud of their address. Occasionally Zelda persuaded studious Sara to cartwheel down the elegant avenue. Later, when Zelda was a young mother and Sara a writer, Zelda reminded her: ‘[I remember] sailing wildly down the middle of Perry Street hill, screeching at the top of my lungs and catching hold of the backs of automobiles as they dashed up the hill again.’44
Katharine Elsberry Steiner, Zelda’s close friend and cousin by marriage, was supremely ‘Old Montgomery’, for her great-grandfather had been private secretary to Jefferson Davis and Assistant Secretary to the Confederate Congress. But while Katharine lived in Cloverdale’s Gilmer Avenue and Felder Avenue, Zelda’s family, equally renowned but insufficiently wealthy, did not.45
Lack of wealth did not hinder Zelda from occupying a dominant role within her group of friends. Her sisters Marjorie, Rosalind and Clothilde were too old to be in the running. Zelda’s friends all ran behind. ‘She was our leader, and when she said “Jump!” we all jumped,’ said Katharine. She and Zelda considered themselves soul-mates because ‘we were in and out of each other’s houses. We were very much alike. We dressed alike, and even looked alike.’46 In a photograph of the two girls taken in their early teens, they have identical flyaway curly bobs and floating lawn skirts, but what distinguished Zelda was her hoydenism. Most Montgomery girls were interested in attracting the attention of boys. Zelda was interested in being one of them. ‘I have always been inclined towards masculinity. It’s such a cheery atmosphere boys radiate — And we do such unique things.’47
She saw her mother as a free spirit whose fire had been quenched, but her father stood for independence. ‘Zelda looked at her sisters and her mother and saw ladies in their traditional role. Then she looked at her father who had the freedom of the Southern male. She decided to be her father.’48
‘From earliest childhood she was the neighbourhood tomboy,’ said Scottie, Zelda’s daughter, ‘the agent provocateur who dared other little girls to race down the middle of the street on roller skates, or jump from the rocks into the swimming hole as only boys were supposed to do.’49
Zelda fictionalized her own ‘original and devil-may-care attitude’50 in Save Me The Waltz, where her autobiographical heroine Alabama admits: ‘I never let them down on the dramatic possibilities of a scene — I give them a damn good show.’51
Montgomery gossip thrived on the show. Zelda thrived on the gossip. Years later, she told a doctor that as a child she did not have ‘a single feeling of inferiority, or shyness, or doubt, and no moral principles’.52 This allowed her to run counter to the repressive Southern ideology about women at the turn of the century. Elaborate male courtesy masked rigid restrictions. Women, expected to see domesticity as paramount, had to exhibit ladylike behaviour. So Zelda’s mother tried to instil the ‘No Ladies’ rules into her brood. According to Sara Mayfield, five years younger than Zelda and her devoted follower, there were six cardinal maxims.
No lady ever sat with her limbs crossed. Young ladies said ‘limbs’ instead of the crude four-letter word ‘legs’. Ladies’ backs did not touch the backs of chairs. Ladies never went out without clean linen handkerchiefs. No lady left the house until the last button on her gloves was fastened. No lady ever let her bare feet touch the bare floor.
Zelda, unlike the other girls, flouted all six. She used cruder words than ‘legs’. She swung on the chairs, didn’t bother with buttons because she didn’t bother with gloves, climbed trees with bare feet and with bare hands fought Tony’s male friends. To entertain the boys she double-somersaulted, cartwheeled and competed with daredevil Tallulah ‘Dutch’ Bankhead in backbends. Tallulah, the only girl to rival Zelda’s flamboyance, bent so far backwards she could pick up a handkerchief with her teeth, rousing the boys to cheers. While Zelda, determined to be a dancer, started ballet in 1909,53 and took billing in young people’s recitals at the Grand Theatre, Tallulah was preparing herself for an acting career.
Crowds of youngsters gathered to watch Dutch and Zelda hold court in the appropriately named Court Square where both Zelda’s and Sara Mayfield’s fathers, who served on the Alabama Supreme Court for twenty years, had offices. Presiding over the Department of Archives and History in the square was Tallulah’s uncle Dr Thomas Owen, Sara Mayfield’s cousin. Tallulah and her sister Gene (Eugenia), left motherless early, had run wild at their grandparents’ in Fayetteville until their aunt Marie Bankhead took them back home to Montgomery.54
Zelda’s set also hung around the State Capitol, spellbound by the Greek Revival building with its imposing dome and gleaming white porticoes supported by Corinthian and Doric columns.55 Sara Haardt, who would major in English and history at Goucher College, stood awed, with her poetry book, beside the brass star that marked the spot where Jefferson Davis had taken the oath of office as President of the Confederate States. Zelda, never awed, flashed past the star, raced to the top of the stone steps that led to the dome, then, as defiant as Davis himself, sat astride the guns before sliding down the banisters of the famous rotunda circular staircase.56
Zelda’s defiance conflicted at all times with Southern society’s protective attitude towards all its women and in particular with her father’s protective attitude towards her: ‘it’s very difficult to be two simple people at once, one who wants to have a law to itself and the other who wants to keep all the nice old things and be loved and safe and protected’.57
More often she saw herself as confident: a child in motion. ‘I walked on the open roofs … I liked to dive and climb in the tops of trees.’58 Zelda used her backyard swing like a circus trapeze artist. When the Ringling Brothers Circus came to Montgomery she raced down to Judge Sayre’s office to hang out of his window and watch the gaudy painted parades pass by. Years later she would paint circus artists from those memories. The acrobats she drew turned the somersaults she had turned. ‘I was a very active child and never tired, always running with no hat or coat even in the Negroid district and far from my house,’59 an act of daring at a time when there was considerable if unofficial geographical segregation in Montgomery. The blacks (only one-tenth of the population) still suffered the indifference to their injuries of the largely white North and the hatred of the largely white South.60 This had produced an almost mythic terror of black sexuality amongst white Southern adults. Though that fear affected most of Zelda’s young girlfriends, she herself responded boldly. In Caesar’s Things she writes about her child-heroine Janno’s ‘fear of the black-hand’,61 yet one of the least aggressive scenes in the novel, which is saturated with images of mutilation and death, is Janno’s accidental meeting with a negro man. He is patently more scared than Janno of the consequences to him if he behaves badly. The child registers that she should feel terror, yet this interaction of a black man and a small white girl seems relatively safe to both Janno and the readers.
Though she read a great deal, not surprisingly she preferred books with action. ‘The fairy tales were my favourite,’ she said, because their creatures twisted, contorted and rushed through the pages. The three little pigs, Hansel and Gretel and Alice in Wonderland, which she copied as a child, she later formally painted. In Judge Sayre’s extensive library she dipped into his encyclopaedias, Shakespeare, Thackeray, Dickens, Scott, Wilde, Galsworthy, Kipling, Plutarch, Aristotle, Aeschylus and Gibbons. She read Victorian children’s books, gobbled up fiction slightly too old for her: ‘popular tales for boys, novels that my sisters had left on the table … all I found about the civil war’.62
However, books alone could not replace a sound education, and in her late twenties Zelda regretted her inattention to early school life. Judge Sayre, a member of the Montgomery Board of Education, felt his children should be educated in public schools, so Zelda did not go with Tallulah Bankhead and Sara Mayfield to Miss Gussie Woodruff’s Dame’s School. Instead her mother sent her at six to the Chilton Grammar School behind Zelda’s home.63 Zelda did not like school, came home, told her parents it was worse than prison, and refused to return. Although Minnie Sayre, a student of theosophy, valued education — she had herself graduated from Montgomery Female College on 26 June 1878 and ‘spent a winter being “finished” in Philadelphia’64 — she indulgently allowed her daughter to stay off school until she was seven, after which Zelda returned until her graduation.
Scott Fitzgerald believed that Minnie’s indulgence65 had spoilt Zelda’s character and encouraged what he saw as her selfish recklessness. Zelda’s friends and relations sturdily refuted this perspective. Their view was that while Zelda received Minnie’s constant praise, she was also taught to be kind and considerate. Sara Mayfield, who became her biographer and knew her for forty years, delineated her as compassionate, thoughtful and tender. Zelda never patronized anyone younger or weaker and protectively showed youngsters how to skate or dive. She was generous with time and money and never condescended. As one Montgomery child said: ‘She didn’t look down on me as little but made me feel as big as she.’66
From her father Zelda inherited secrecy and reflectiveness, for she was not always the madcap of legend. Zelda carried about her an air of urgency and mystery that made her elusive,67 dreamy and sensual.68 She would go on solitary walks, veer into strange silences or bubble out a stream of free association that whizzed through her brain, which later characterized her remarkable epistolary technique.
Even with friends she spent some evenings in reverie. In the powder-blue dusk that replaced the scorching sultry afternoons, Zelda, the Haardt sisters, Katharine Elsberry and her schoolfriend Eleanor Browder would catch lightning bugs. The others talked as they put them in bottles to make lamps, while Zelda’s silence seemed louder than their conversations.
When she felt most unsettled or most alone, Zelda wandered down to Oakwood’s Confederate Cemetery, where many of her ancestors lay. In that place of memories and secrets she would smell the lush decay from the bruised petals of poppies and roses which drifted over the grey headstones and grey gullies. Southerners still see those short-lived tissue-paper poppies and parchment magnolias as nostalgic reminders of lost childhood, fallen dead and family silences. It was Zelda’s inheritance from a land of unlayable ghosts.
Sara Haardt’s mother used to tell the girls: ‘The South wants to forget.’69 But the South never forgot. ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’70
Consequently the cemetery, in Zelda’s youth, was a place people treated like a park, bringing flowers, chatting to the dead. Today Old Montgomerians take researchers around the cemetery and point proudly to the six gleaming white graves that relate to Zelda, their local heroine. That the bodily remains of the Sayres lurk inside is not disputed; but the accuracy of the inscriptions is as puzzling as the portions of their lives that are omitted.
The first tombstone, adorned with fresh flowers, is Minnie’s: the gravestone merely informs visitors she was born in Eddyville 23 November 1860, died 13 January 1958 and was the Judge’s wife.
Next to Minnie’s grave is a tomb for two: Zelda’s eldest nervy sister Marjorie Sayre Brinson, born according to the tombstone in 1885 (but according to the Family Bible in 1886), who died two years after their mother in 1960, and her husband, Minor Williamson Brinson, who died in 1954. Locals say breezily: ‘It was Marjorie who went crazy you know not Zelda, but then you could say it ran throughout their family.’ Scottie recalled her Aunts Clothilde and Rosalind as constantly nervous and ailing, though not as depressed as Aunt Marjorie, who spent time in a sanatorium in 1945 with a nervous breakdown. When Marjorie’s daughter, little Marjorie, stayed with the Sayres during her mother’s breakdowns the child was told her mother was away on ‘visits’.71 Not until 1933, when Zelda’s brother Tony had his breakdown during Zelda’s own nervous illness, did their mother open up. She wrote to Zelda: ‘Morgan blood is a pest since it means unstable nerves,’ revealed how she had nursed Marjorie for two years ‘and was with Tilde at her worst last summer’.72 Scottie herself, determined to deny the family’s melancholy stain, remained relentlessly resilient.
Tony has the next grave, with a neat plaque recording his birth, 9 March 1894, and his death, 27 August 1933. One would not expect it to mention his dissolute behaviour or the fact that he left Auburn University without a degree. But curiously, it removes any trace of his marriage. Tony married Edith, known by locals as ‘a girl from the wrong side of the tracks’, who ‘disappeared’ after Tony’s final illness and was never spoken of again. The gravestone fails to record that Tony killed himself after many months of recurring nightmares of killing his mother.
The imposing grave next to Tony’s is that of Judge Anthony Dickinson Sayre, born 29 April 1858 in Tuskegee Alabama, died 17 November 1931. Visitors notice that seventy years after his demise this grave, too, is swept and the stone polished. Zelda’s friend Katharine reported that Minnie ‘had to keep an eye on the Judge because he was given to terrible dark depressions’.73 But no graveyard guides talk about this. They tell you proudly that the responsible Judge took several family members into his home, but they never mention that his subsequent anxiety led to a severe nervous breakdown. For fifteen years Minnie never mentioned it either, until she forced herself to tell Zelda she had nursed the Judge ‘through nine months of prostration in 1918’.74
Next to the Judge’s memorial is another twin tomb containing two of his brothers: Daniel Morgan, the second Sayre child and eldest boy,75 born 1839, whose death is shown by research to be 1862 but is given on the tombstone as 1888;76 and John Reid Stonewall Sayre, sixth child and third son, who died 17 February 1940.77 He was well known to Zelda, for the Judge had given him a home at 6 Pleasant Avenue.
The sixth Sayre tomb contains the Judge’s parents: Daniel, born Franklin, Ohio, 1808, and Musidora Morgan, whom he married on 26 November 1835 in Benton County, Alabama. Daniel the journalist, who died in 1888, was also a democrat and landowner.
The Sayres, early settlers on Long Island, had moved via New Jersey and Ohio to Alabama. By the time of the Civil War they had become completely Southern in outlook and politics. Daniel’s elder brother William had built the White House of the Confederacy for Jefferson Davis, and had become a founder of the first Presbyterian church in Montgomery.
Musidora’s death, recorded as 4 March 1907, is firmly established by research, but her birth, given on the tombstone as 1818, was in fact 1817. None of the townsfolk, however, care much about the birth date, as ‘Musidora wasn’t from here. Born in Huntsville you know.’ Zelda’s grandmother, a respected schoolteacher,78 was eccentric, forthright and didn’t care whom she upset. Locals still talk about the day the widowed Musidora, also given a home by the Judge, intentionally muddled up two friends of the Sayres, both called Mrs Bell. As the wealthier Mrs Bell walked past the Pleasant Avenue porch Musidora exclaimed: ‘Are you the nice Mrs Bell or are you the wealthy, ordinary and very common Mrs Bell?’
Graveyard guides inform visitors that such behaviour was due to Musidora’s many griefs. She bore nine children but saw four die very young and two in early adulthood. The girls were particularly vulnerable.79 Of the three surviving children, one was Zelda’s Uncle Calvin, a silversmith, whose silver was kept in Scottie’s closets until she died. In June 1871 Uncle Calvin married Zelda’s friend Katharine Elsberry’s great-aunt Kate. Zelda and Katharine were nine when he died in Los Angeles.80
The second surviving child was John Reid Stonewall; the third, Zelda’s father, was treasured as the youngest. The miracle of his survival in part accounted for his overweening sense of responsibility.
On a graveyard tour one hears of the prestigious reputations of Musidora’s brothers Irby and Philander, but most especially of the eminence of another brother, US Senator John Tyler Morgan.81 What one never hears is that in his blood, too, ran the nervous disposition that haunted both sides of Zelda’s family. After getting his Panama Canal scheme through the Senate he suddenly killed himself.82
In Oakwood Cemetery one gravestone is patently missing. That is the grave belonging to Marjorie Machen, Zelda’s aunt. After suffering a series of tragedies she too was invited by Zelda’s dutiful father to live with them. Had Aunt Marjorie died elsewhere, the absence of a grave would occasion no surprise. But Marjorie killed herself in the outhouse next to the kitchen of 6 Pleasant Avenue, the Sayres’ ‘pleasant house on a pleasant street, filled with pleasant people’.83 Katharine Elsberry said: ‘That suicide was hushed up even more than most of them were.’84
If you ask the graveyard guides where Aunt Marjorie’s grave is, or exactly what happened to Aunt Marjorie, they shake their heads and look surprised, as if vanishing graves or repressed insanities are nothing to do with them.
In Zelda’s favourite Oakwood Cemetery, there are as many omissions as there are memorials.
Zelda’s previous biographers have written very little about the strains that affected Zelda’s family because mental illness is one of the least discussed, if most common, occurrences in Old Montgomery. Zelda’s mother had never mentioned that her mother, Victoria, had suffered mental illness in the harsh Canadian conditions. Minnie never told Zelda that two years after Grandfather Willis’s death Victoria, griefstricken, committed suicide. It was one of several suicides not spoken of in Zelda’s family.
Montgomery people point out that ‘the Civil War did something terrible to Southern men’. Suicides were more common amongst Montgomery men than was ever publicly acknowledged. Sara Mayfield’s brother, and the father of Zelda’s cousin Katharine, both committed suicide. Both deaths were hushed up. This was the dark side to the vivid life of the South in which Zelda grew up.
‘In the South most of our good families are tainted with insanity. We handle it by thinking of the insane as “special”. But we don’t talk about anything considered “unpleasantness” and insanity would be unpleasantness. So Montgomery families create incredible facades. Entire blocks and neighbourhoods support each other in the lie of stability. Southerners don’t like those who are willing to wrestle with their demons in public. You can be sure if you don’t deal with the South it will deal with you.’85
But in the Northern life Zelda was to lead she would have to face those inherited troubling instabilities.
She would need great courage. How fortunate that from her ancestors Zelda also inherited resilience and a sense of the romantic.
1 Sara Mayfield, Exiles from Paradise: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, Dell Publishing, New York, 1971, p. 11.
2 Jeffrey Meyers, Scott Fitzgerald, Papermac, Macmillan, London, 1995, p. 43.
3 ZSF, ‘The Original Follies Girl’, Collected Writings, ed. Bruccoli, p. 293.
4 Sara Mayfield, The Constant Circle: H. L. Mencken and his Friends, Delacorte Press, New York, 1968, p. 21.
5 Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, Memoir (holder Cecilia Ross). Also Eleanor Lanahan, Scottie the Daughter of …: The Life of Frances Scott Fitzgerald Lanahan Smith, HarperCollins, New York, 1995, p. 20.
6 Union General Tecumseh Sherman is remembered for his ‘total war’ technique, an unprecedented assault on non-military targets. His Atlanta campaign was known as the ‘March to the Sea’. In Atlanta he defeated Confederate General John B. Hood in September 1864. Sherman’s capture of the Confederate capital Richmond, Virginia, on 3 April 1965 was a decisive turning point in the war; four days later Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Grant.
7 Most young women in Montgomery in the early part of the twentieth century recognized this aspect of their heritage. Zelda’s Montgomery friend Sara Haardt wrote before her death aged 37 on 31 May 1935: ‘Well, death, a full tropical death at the moment of greater promise, was the peculiar heritage of the South, and of all Southerners. I was merely coming into my own.’ Sara Haardt, ‘Dear Life’, Southern Souvenirs, p. 310. (‘Dear Life’ originally published as ‘Story’, Southern Album, Sep. 1934.)
8 Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, ‘The Maryland Ancestors of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald’, Maryland Historical Magazine 78:3, fall 1983, p. 217.
9 Thomas was known as ‘The Big Spoon’ by Indian friends because he fed them so well and as ‘The Rattlesnake Colonel’ by the British who came to fight the French.
10 Oldtown was later renamed Cresaptown.
11 Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, ‘Maryland Ancestors’, p. 217.
12 A revolt of corngrowers and distillers against excise tax on whiskey.
13 Sarah inherited her bravery from her great-great-grandfather the infamous John Coode, leader of the 1689 Maryland Revolution.
14 It was of course a severe case of rigor mortis but it scared the wits out of poor widowed Sarah. However she ‘soon remarried, to a Mr Cobb’. Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, ‘Maryland Ancestors’, p. 227.
15 Ibid. Another version of this incident is given in a letter from Zelda to Scottie, c. 1947, quoted in Matthew J. Bruccoli, Scottie Fitzgerald Smith and Joan P. Kerr, eds., The Romantic Egoists, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1974, p. 39.
16 Mayfield, Exiles, p. 4.
17 This ensured that both Anthony Sayre and Minnie Machen had Chilton cousins and were therefore distantly related.
18 He was elected both by soldiers in the field and by residents in his district.
19 In Zelda’s first novel Save Me The Waltz she uses Willis’s last fatal adventure. Alabama asks her mother about her grandfather.’ “He was thrown from a race cart when he was eighty-three years old, in Kentucky.”’ This means something special to the young girl. ‘That her mother’s father had a graphic life of his own to dramatize was promising to Alabama. There was a show to join.’ (ZSF, Save Me The Waltz, Zelda Fitzgerald: Collected Writings, p. 24). For Zelda there was always a show to join. Like Willis she had trouble picking which one. Though Willis the showman died seven years before Zelda’s birth, she remembered him gazing down at her from his portrait on the sitting room wall. She swore he was twinkling. Zelda gave the Adventurer’s portrait to Scottie, who hung it on her sitting-room wall until she died.
20 ZSF, Waltz, pp. 12, 9.
21 Zelda Sayre to FSF, late fall 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 27, PUL.
22 Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, Memoir.
24 Anthony D. Sayre graduated as valedictorian of his class. So excellent was his Greek that the previous year the College had awarded him a Maltese Cross, which his granddaughter Scottie kept for years under a towel in the guest room (Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, Memoir).
25 Helen Blackshear, ‘Mama Sayre, Scott Fitzgerald’s Mother-in-Law’, Georgia Review, Winter 1965. Helen Blackshear was a close friend of Minnie’s granddaughter Marjorie and knew Minnie well for ten years.
27ZSF, Waltz, p. 10.
28 ZSF, Caesar’s Things, ch. I, CO183, Box 2A, Folder 2, PUL. Zelda uses Scott Fitzgerald as well as Tony for her characterization of ‘Monsieur’.
29 Blackshear, ‘Mama Sayre’.
30 ZSF, Waltz, p.10.
31 Mayfield, Exiles, p. 15.
32 ZSF, Waltz, pp. 32, 21.
33 Given the Judge’s icy calm, this only seems possible if the visit had occurred at the time of the Judge’s nervous breakdown in 1918. The story originated with Gerald Murphy who had been told it by the Fitzgeralds as a racy part of their courtship.
34 Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, Memoir. Also Lanahan, Scottie … p. 19.
35 ZSF, Waltz, p. 10.
36 Records kept by Dr Oscar Forel (trans. Mme Claude Amiel) during Zelda’s stay at Les Rives de Prangins clinic, Switzerland, 5 June 1930–15 Sep. 1931, p. 8. (Subsequently referred to as ‘Prangins records’.)
37 ZSF, Waltz, p. 10.
38 Ibid., p. 12.
39 Ann Henley, Introduction, Southern Souvenirs: Selected Stories and Essays of Sara Haardt, ed. Henley, University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 1999, p. 27.
40 Anne Goodwyn Jones, Tomorrow Is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859–1936, Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, 1981, pp. 14–15.
41 There is a wonderful description of the town in Zelda’s story ‘Southern Girl’, Collected Writings, p. 299.
42 Ann Henley, Introduction, Southern Souvenirs, 1999, pp. 2–3.
43 Sara Haardt, ‘Southern Souvenir’ (short story), Southern Souvenirs, p. 298.
44 Sara Haardt interview with ZSF at Ellerslie, Delaware, 1928, accepted but unpublished by Good Housekeeping. According to H. L. Mencken this was because of editor W. F. Bigelow’s rage on discovering that Haardt was almost engaged to Mencken.
45 It was many years before Zelda’s sister Rosalind and Scott and Zelda were all able to live in the prestigious Cloverdale area. Rosalind later bought a house in Perry Street. Scott and Zelda rented 819 Felder Avenue in 1931.
46 Koula Svokos Hartnett, Zelda Fitzgerald and the Failure of the American Dream for Women, Peter Lang, New York, 1991, p. 10. See also Eddie Pattillo, ‘Last of the Belles: A Remembrance’, Montgomery, July 1994. Both Pattillo and Hartnett (p. 10) report that Zelda and Katharine Clitherall Elsberry Perkins Steiner May Haxton considered themselves soulmates. Zelda’s uncle Calvin Sayre married Katharine’s great-aunt Kate Elsbury (the name is spelt several different ways, the two most frequent being Elsberry and Elsbury).
47 Zelda Sayre to FSF, Feb. or Mar. 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 13, PUL.
48 Conversations between Ida Haardt McCulloch (Zelda’s classmate) and Janie Wall, and between Janie Wall and the author, June 1999, Montgomery.
49 Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, Memoir; also quoted in Lanahan, Scottie …, p. 19.
50 Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, Memoir.
51 ZSF, Waltz, p. 32.
52 Prangins records.
53 Sara Mayfield, Constant Circle, Delacorte Press, New York, 1968, ch. 2.
54 Tallulah’s mother, Adelaide, died of blood poisoning three weeks after Tallulah’s birth. Tallulah and her sister Eugenia were taken by their father, attorney and Congressman William Brockman Bankhead, to his parents in Fayetteville, Alabama. Tallulah, who always perceived herself as chubby and went on a lifelong series of diets, felt overshadowed in her youth by Gene’s good looks and well-proportioned body. Though Zelda saw herself as Tallulah’s rival in childhood, it was Gene who later attracted Scott.
55 Zelda found the Capitol’s green slopes, known locally as Goat Hill, more fascinating than the fairground, the zoo at Oak Park, or even the gypsy palmist at Pickett Springs whom Zelda and Sara Haardt occasionally consulted. Mayfield, Constant Circle, ch. 2.
56 Ibid.; also author’s conversations with Camella Mayfield, Tuscaloosa, June, July, Aug. 1999.
57 ZSF, Waltz, p. 56.
58 Prangins records.
60 The 1900s was an era when even the vote the blacks had gained in the Civil War was exercised under duress and in stringently reduced numbers after white supremacy had been restored. ‘Reconstruction’, which officially transformed slaves to citizens, left liberated slaves landless, powerless, impoverished and with nothing but their ‘freedom’. By 1900 the strict social boundaries between blacks and whites in the South were still in force and would only gradually be eroded. These divisions helped to establish the American convention that the South was another land.
61 ZSF, Caesar, ch. I, CO183, Box 2A, Folder 2, PUL.
62 Prangins records.
63 The school, later known as the Sayre Street Grammar School, was named after her great-uncle William Parish Chilton of Tennessee, twice brother-in-law of Zelda’s paternal grandmother Musidora Morgan. First he married Musidora’s eldest sister Mary Catherine. Then two years after Mary died in Talladeega in 1845, William married Musidora’s younger sister Elvira Frances, known as Ella, sixth in their family of ten children. The Chiltons like the Sayres, their cousins, were a distinguished family with insufficient funds so Miss Chilton founded the school to find employment.
64 Mayfield, Exiles, p. 5.
65 Minnie Sayre had suckled Zelda until she was four and old enough to bite through a chicken bone.
66 Mayfield, Exiles, p. 13.
67 ZSF, ‘The Original Follies Girl’, Collected Writings, p. 295.
68 Prangins records.
69 Sara Haardt’s mother told her: ‘No Southerner has lengthened his life or his fame for a day by writing his memoirs. The South, my dear, wants to forget.’ Sara Haardt, ‘Southern Souvenir’, Southern Souvenirs, p. 299.
70 William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun (1951), Act I.
71 Lanahan, Scottie …, p. 159.
72 Minnie Sayre to ZSF, 31 July 1933, CO183, Box 5, Folder 21, PUL.
73 Conversation between Katharine Elsberry Steiner and Eddie Pattillo, reported to the author by Eddie Pattillo.
74 Minnie Sayre to ZSF, 31 July 1933, CO183, Box 5, Folder 21, PUL.
75 He was named for both their parents, Daniel Sayre and Musidora Morgan.
76 The author suggests that the stonemason confused Daniel Morgan with his father Daniel, who did indeed die in 1888.
77 John Reid Stonewall’s birth is a curious statistical mystery. The tombstone records 8th April 1862, the Family Bible offers 1842 in Tuskegee, but as the Sayres did not move to Tuskegee until late that year the most probable date is 1852.
78 She taught both at home and at the Classical and Scientific Institute.
79 Musidora’s eldest child Lucille, born Montgomery 16 May 1837, died aged eight within two days of the death of the second daughter Catherine Viola, born 1841, who was only four. Musidora’s strength sapped when her third daughter May, born 1847, died aged seven, followed by Ella, eighth child, who died at a mere two years old. Two more children died in young adulthood: Daniel Jnr, second child, from bilious fever at twenty-three, and daughter Gem, seventh, born in 1853, at eighteen.
8 °Calvin was born 13 Nov. 1844 in Talladeega and died 12 Jan. 1909.
81 Although John Tyler Morgan had only three years of formal schooling his scholarship was outstanding. At nine he ‘had already read Historiae Sacrae, the first six books of Caesar, the Georgics, the Bucolics, and the Aeneid. He had also dipped into Sallust and Horace.’ A brigadier general in the Confederate army, he served as a US Senator from 1876 to 1907, introducing several progressive measures. Mayfield, Exiles, p. 5.
82 Lanahan, Scottie …, p. 159.
83 Mayfield, Exiles, p. 9.
84 Conversations between Katharine Elsberry Steiner, Eddie Pattillo and the author.
85 Janie Wall in interview with the author, Montgomery, June 1999.
As an adolescent Zelda embodied the ‘romantic readiness’, the heightened sensitivity to the promises of life which Scott Fitzgerald would one day write about.1 Her romantic qualities embraced a love of nature, a love of the past and — even in these early years — a primitive imagination. Her Southern schooldays always seemed to her to be fragile.
When she and Sara Haardt were living in the North many years later, Zelda reminded her friend: ‘It always seemed to be Spring … the whole town filled with the smell of kiss-me-at-the-gate … at night we were skating again, … or dancing violently. For us, life had become spectacular, bombastic, almost unbearably exciting … then … we had the inescapable feeling that all this beauty and fun — everything — might be over in a minute.’2
As Zelda blossomed into a young woman, many people remarked that there was something theatrical about her eyes. They changed colour: sometimes blue, sometimes green; most often Confederate grey. Young men stared at Zelda and she stared right back. Her appearance with its peaches-and-cream complexion was also archetypically romantic.
At Zelda’s co-educational school, Sidney Lanier High,3 to which she moved after graduating in 1914 from the Sayre Street School, when her classmates listed the qualities of a composite Ideal Senior Girl, Zelda rated top marks for a kissable mouth. In This Side of Paradise Scott uses both Zelda’s peaches-and-cream complexion and her ‘eternal kissable mouth, small, slightly sensual, and utterly disturbing’ for his heroine Rosalind Connage.4
Zelda, with a figure that ‘fitted together with delightful precision, like the seeds of a pomegranate’,5 looked tall, an illusion of height due to her erect posture and her dancer’s grace.6 She had finely-sculpted strong bones, a hawk-like nose which gave her face great strength and a low voice with an attractive Southern drawl.
Adults remarked on her convoluted vocabulary. Her idiosyncratic speech pattern, bursting with high-flown metaphors and disconnected associations, had become habitual and had never troubled her family. Scott, who met her four years and many metaphors later, found her unusual connections curious but copied them into his notebook for use in his fiction. Later, however, her language jolted her Northern doctors. Her sensuous Southern allegories became an integral part of the way psychiatrists diagnosed her symptoms as schizophrenia.
Zelda’s speech was in fact rooted in traditional Southern dialect which is characterized by that same concrete sensual detail, vivid dramatic imagery and sly humour. It arose from the mixture of both black and white folk speech which Zelda heard as she grew up tended by black mammies and overseen by white educators.
Zelda spent her high school years lightheartedly dashing off the classic curriculum of history, geography, English literature, French, Latin, physics, chemistry, maths and physiology. She had a consistently high B average and did even better in English and maths. Considering her low class attendance her aptitude was dazzling, but her long-term interest was nil. ‘We played hookey almost every day from school … Sometimes we’d stop at old Mr McCormack’s grocery store … and buy a lot of loose crackers and dill pickles and chocolate nigger babies … When we were tired … we would go in a picture-show and sit in the dark of the theatre while the janitor swept around us and picked up the peanut shells … [or] we went swimming in some inconceivably muddy hole.’7 What did interest her was art and ballet. She shone at painting lessons in school and out of school she enrolled in Professor Weisner’s dancing class.8
On her few days in school she inventively talked her way out of trouble. In her senior year she was chosen to represent England in a public wartime pageant. Sara Haardt remembers rehearsing Zelda in the dressing room. ‘She had recited her speech, letter-perfect: “Interrupted in these benevolent pursuits for over three years I have been engaged in bloody warfare” … [Then] with a shining helmet and sword, she marched on the stage and faced the tense, waiting crowd … her tongue was suddenly paralyzed. “Interrupted —” she began. “Interrupted —” she began again. “Interrupted —”. It was hopeless. Zelda went on repeating it like an irritating gramophone record until with supreme confidence she made an exit line that brought the cheering house to its feet: “Gentlemen, I’ve been permanently interrupted!”’9
Her schoolfriend Livye Hart recalls Zelda’s complete disregard for propriety. During the last part of their school years there was an unbreakable taboo on any mention of childbirth, especially out of wedlock. Zelda broke it on Armistice Day 1918. A mixed crowd milled around scattered with confetti. Zelda said in a stage whisper to Livye so that the boys could hear: ‘I’m so full of confetti I could give birth to paper dolls.’ The men heard too and wanted to laugh but their wives were tutting. Days later, Zelda, fresh from a date, went further: ‘I liked him so much that he will probably be the father of my next child.’10 Zelda pasted into her scrapbook a school magazine item that said: ‘What would happen if Zelda Sayre ever said anything serious?’11
Some evenings, when bored, Zelda would borrow one of the boys’ cars and drive past Madame Helen St Clair’s, the local whorehouse, flicking the spotlights on boys she recognized as they entered or left the establishment.
She was voted prettiest girl in class — but not the best dressed. The Belles who looked drab at school also looked dull in the evenings. The majority, who looked trim at school, looked elegant at nights. Their clothes were consistent. Zelda’s were not. As with everything else there was something slightly askew. Out of line. A beat away from the norm.
Her school clothes were deliberately careless, pleated skirt bunched up round her waist to shorten it so that her slip showed, tie hung the wrong way. But at night her melodramatic finery outclassed everyone else’s. Her mother was an excellent seamstress, so Zelda stood on the stage lending an air of importance to two yards of green tulle. The first thing you noticed was ‘that manner she had, as though she was masquerading as herself’.12
Zelda knew it was mandatory for Southern Belles to define themselves by their looks. Zelda’s daughter Scottie told her children: ‘In the South the sense of femaleness is implanted at a very young age … Southern girls [have] long hair in tumbled curls … high heels and fetching make-up.’13
Zelda’s set felt keenly their fashions were inferior to New York. ‘We were all little Alabama girls, kinda greenhorns, but Zelda was more up for the show‚’ commented Grace Gunter, two years younger than Zelda, who went to the same schools, became a Belle with her and would remain a friend when Zelda returned to Montgomery in 1940. ‘You felt as if you had to compete. I had flannelling pyjamas with feet in them but Zelda … soon changed to negligees with big lace. During the day we all wore middy blouses … but at nights we might wear lawn with lil pink roses. Alabama girls were meant to look very feminine. We all wore high heels … had long hair and didn’t smoke. Later some of us did bob our hair but our parents would be very fierce.’14
It was 1919 before Zelda cut hers, at which point she wrote to Scott: ‘I’m going to bob my hair, and that may evoke a furor.’15
Minnie Sayre told her daughters a lady was meant to create a quality of life, not question it. Zelda’s three attractive sisters never questioned it. What they did flout was the Old Montgomery expectation that they should not work before marriage. Both Marjorie and Rosalind chose interesting careers cut short by engagements. Marjorie was a good pen-and-ink artist and a schoolteacher before she married Minor W. Brinson in 1909 and resigned.16 On graduating from Sidney Lanier High School Rosalind worked as a teller at the First National City Bank, the first Montgomery girl of a ‘good family’ to hold a non-teaching job. Later Rosalind, always pragmatic, told Scott that she firmly believed in bourgeois values, but at the time she enjoyed the frivolous job of Society Editor for the Montgomery Journal before she married Newman Smith in 1917. Two months later, dark and serious Clothilde, reputed to be almost as attractive as Zelda, married John Palmer who, like Rosalind’s husband, served as an officer in the American Expeditionary Force in Europe.
As Tony, the sibling she was closest to, was working in Mobile as a Mississippi River Civil Engineer, by the time Zelda finished high school in 1918 she was the only child left at home.
Zelda’s bedroom was the smallest of five. It was pink, white and magical. The white bed covered with a Marseilles counterpane looked on to starched white muslin curtains that let in the sunlight. Pink flowers climbed over white walls, matching the pink chintz-covered dressing table. Her grandmother Musidora’s desk and a slat-backed rocking chair stood near the bed.
Years later she recreated her bedroom colours in her first novel and suffused the pages with the smell of pear trees, for opposite their house was an orchard where overripe fruit tumbled down and split open.
In summer she had a perfect view of her mother’s pink geraniums, yellow peonies and purple verbenas. In spring she gazed on a lake of blue hyacinths edged by sunshine jonquils and Mexican primroses. Her bedroom also overlooked the grounds of the landlady’s estate in which grew camellias, boxwood and kiss-me-at-the-gate. Her particular love was for giant cape jasmines and voluptuous magnolias which would become memorable signatures in her paintings.17
But Zelda’s romantic relationship to flowers was edged with something strange. She watched her mother tame ferocious tiger lilies and arrogant iris until they grew quietly alongside the crepe myrtle, then years later drew those lilies with petals like tentacles and a phallic arrogance. Later she said that beneath their surface beauty she saw an underlying fragmentation and despair. It was a grown-up viewpoint and a provocatively Southern vision.
If Zelda’s intuitive responsiveness to natural beauty was partly influenced by the profusion of Alabama flowers, it was also marked by some of North Carolina’s lushest landscapes where the Sayres took their summer vacations. Zelda accompanied the Judge and Minnie to a hilltop inn in Saluda, North Carolina.18 They picked blackberries and walked, dwarfed by towering mountains. Later, Zelda’s paintings braced those same mountains with highly coloured visible tension.
Though as an adult Zelda lived in the North, her creative insights were for ever Southern: there were no cold colours, her most striking landscapes were scorching.
Legend suggests that Zelda had few women friends but in fact she was extremely popular. Her friends were of course all white: Old Montgomery Belles were never permitted friendships with young black women. Even white Southern women were somewhat isolated from each other by the dictum of competing for male attention. Nevertheless Zelda moved with a strong female team as vivacious and beautiful as herself: Livye Hart, a dark gypsy, Eleanor Browder, a Modigliani portrait,19 Grace, ‘eldest of the six beautiful Gunter girls’ and daughter of Montgomery’s Mayor which gave her a slight edge. All had the characteristic Old Money appreciation of their own worth but Zelda’s belief that her way of doing anything was the best was even stronger than her peers’.
There is a photo of Grace, Zelda and their set leaning against a motor on their way to a picnic, all in regulation white middy blouses with neat black ties, all laughing except Zelda who stands taller than the rest, her tie knotted more carelessly, unsmiling. ‘We always moved around in groups‚’ Grace said holding the photo nostalgically. ‘That day the chaperone made a pass at my boyfriend so I’ve got my head down I was so furious … Zelda was our natural leader. It didn’t happen to her.’20
Zelda later reminded Sara Haardt: ‘We were never conscious of chaperones or disapproval of any sort. If we were criticized one place we simply went to another. We had … no sense of guilt … nothing seemed unnatural. It was only when the older generations made us conscious of what we were doing that we grew confused and wild.’21
On Friday nights Zelda’s set went out with their dates to teenage dances over May’s Confectionery shop because Zelda adored May’s pineapple drops and sugared perfume balls. Sometimes Zelda suggested dances at the pavilions in nearby Oak Park or Pickett Springs.22 Sara Haardt recalls the last Christmas dance she and Zelda attended at the ballroom of Montgomery’s Exchange Hotel where Mrs Jefferson Davis received visitors. ‘I saw her [Zelda] … wearing a flame dress and gold-laced slippers, her eyes starry and mocking, flirting an immense feather fan. Her bronze-gold hair was curled in a thousand ringlets, and as she whirled about, they twinkled enchantingly like little bells. Around her flashed hundreds of jellybeans … [with] pearl-studded fronts and hundreds of other flappers … but they seemed somehow vain and inarticulate beside her. Beauty, they had, and grace, and a certain reckless abandon — yet none of them could match the gleam of gay derision that flickered beneath the black edge of her eyelashes — and none of them could dance as she did, like a flame or a wind.’23
Virginia Foster Durr, later a Civil Rights activist, also described Zelda’s popularity: ‘Zelda always did things to shock people … she was just gorgeous. She had a glow around her. When she came into a ballroom, all the other girls would want to go home because they knew the boys were going to be concentrating on Zelda. The boys would line up the whole length of the ballroom to dance with her for one minute. She was pre-eminent and we recognized it … Zelda was like a vision of beauty dancing by. She was funny, amusing, the most popular girl; envied by all the others, worshipped and adored, besieged by all the boys. She did try to shock. At a dance she pinned mistletoe on the back of her skirt, as if to challenge the young men to kiss her bottom.’24
Zelda had more freedom than her friends. She could go straight from school to the ice-cream parlour without checking in. Rosalind said that, apart from the ‘No Ladies’ rules, ‘we were not brought up on “Don’ts” but were allowed to think for ourselves.’25 They owed this to their mother, who though she lived in Montgomery for seventy-five years always felt an outsider, with an outsider’s eccentric privileges. Minnie saw her neighbours as provincial and dull. They saw her as ‘artistic’ or odd. Montgomery residents still tell the tale of how Minnie permitted her four daughters to bathe nude on her back porch, a place that could be overlooked by keen-eyed local boys. When the respectable ladies suggested to Minnie that she found them a more modest location she is reputed to have said tartly: ‘Why should they? God gave them beautiful bodies!’
In view of this maternal example it comes as no surprise that Zelda herself should later have chosen to wear a tight flesh-coloured Annette Kellermann one-piece bathing suit and to encourage the rumours that she swam nude.
According to Katharine Elsberry and Grace Gunter Lane those rumours were quite untrue.26 Ida Haardt told a friend: ‘Zelda was spirited. But nevertheless we thought of her as a lady. She was not thought of as wild or immoral. Zelda was well liked and well respected. The tales of her being “fast” came from people’s jealousy.’27 Alabama Judge John P. Kohn said: ‘[Zelda was] attractive, vivacious, daring … No one to my knowledge ever questioned her good reputation as to morals.’28 How then were reputations made or lost?
Grace Gunter explained:
We were coy and we expected the boys to be courteous … unless a girl already had a bad reputation. Zelda did not have a bad reputation … She just had a reputation as a tomboy who did daring things. Like once Zelda got up on a table in the Country Club and did a dance. Everyone was shocked. Another time she commandeered a street car and drove it off like a crazy person. Daring and more boyish she was but she never drank, none of us did, none of us smoked, nor did Zelda. She wasn’t wild sexually, she did not have that kind of reputation. She was very independent. She got bored and restless quicker than the ordinary girls. Zelda was different from everyone else.29
All her set agreed that Zelda was ‘different’.
Sara Mayfield believed that as ‘flirtation was an old Southern custom but “going the limit” was not, the evidence was against Zelda being ‘a speed’. But even loyal Sara had to admit that when Zelda’s beaux slipped away from her one night because they wanted to swim naked, she followed them and tied their clothes in knots. True or false, Zelda at fifteen did nothing to discourage tales of her outrageous behaviour.
At fifteen Zelda would have liked the newspaper publicity she achieved at twenty, but she rarely made the Montgomery newspapers before 1918, owing to the rule that ‘A lady’s name should never appear in print but three times: when she is born, when she marries, and when she dies.’30
To Zelda’s chagrin it was Tallulah Bankhead, her childhood rival in daredevilry, who managed to break that embargo. In the interests of decorum and public safety, as one girl put it,31 Tallulah had been removed from Montgomery and sent with her sister Eugenia to New York’s Academy of the Sacred Heart where she pressed to go into the theatre.32 At sixteen she finally got a small part in the play The Squab Farm. Montgomery was so appalled that the newspapers ran the horrified headline: ‘Society Girl Goes on Stage’. When Tallulah’s aunt Marie Bankhead read it she was so shocked that she immediately wired Tallulah: ‘Remember you’re a Bankhead!’ The telegraph office got it wrong and Tallulah received the message: ‘Remember you’re a blockhead!’33
Once she finished schooling, Tallulah lived alone at New York’s Algonquin hotel where later Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley and other wits would set up their circle. The Sayres would have insisted Zelda had a chaperone before setting foot in such a place. But Tallulah employed a French maid who, she assured her Montgomery friend, was just as effective for she was ‘still a technical virgin’.34
Montgomery women adhered to the same rules as New Yorkers. Under the ‘New Freedom’ Zelda’s set could have a good time as long as they preserved their technical virginity. Confederacy codes meant no gossip. The sin lay in the saying. That was where Zelda differed from the rest. None of them were ‘speeds’ but Zelda couldn’t resist the temptation to appear one, to tell the tale. So while Sara Haardt confined her dancing to the more dignified waltz, foxtrot or tango, Tallulah in New York and Zelda in Montgomery raised their hemlines to the knee and danced the sensuous shimmy and the Toddle cheek to cheek. To be thoroughly rebellious they tackled the Charleston, which originated as an African American South Carolina dance. In New York Tallulah was one sophisticate amongst many; in Montgomery Zelda was one on her own.
It was a relief to Zelda’s teachers when in 1918 she graduated from Sidney Lanier. Under Zelda’s graduation photo run the lines:
Why should all life be work, when we all can borrow.
Let’s think only of today, and not worry about tomorrow.35
Sara Haardt had graduated two years previously but though trained like Zelda to become a Belle, she had merely gone through the motions.36 Sara’s intransigence was intellectual. She knew that ladies were not expected to hold radical opinions or speak out and that if they did they could be punished. But when the Northern Suffragettes arrived in Montgomery and spoke from soapboxes Sara and some other Belles, though not Zelda, joined them. Within minutes they were hauled off by the police.
Sarcastically Sara said later: ‘If you have a mind, and you don’t want to use it — or you can’t use it — the place to live is the South.’37 But Zelda wasn’t quite sure what to do with her mind. As an intelligent young woman she felt stifled by the way Southern Belles were pressed towards uniformity. She knew from her mother’s experience that artistic women had to conceal any commitment to free their creative voice. But as Grace pointed out: ‘Zelda wasn’t serious or studious like Sara Haardt … there was all the difference in the world between Sara and Zelda, they were not the same kind of girl. Zelda was clever too but they had different goals.’38
When Sara, never strong, overcame bouts of illness to enter Goucher College, Baltimore, in fall 1916, she began a life that would enable her to become a writer.39 Sara had taken the path which sharply divided the Brains from the Belles; it was a path that Zelda, brainier than most, later wished she had taken.
When Zelda graduated she wanted to escape, but the idea of college never entered her head. Though bolder than Sara in most respects, she would conventionally accept the route through marriage. To achieve that, eligible beaux must become her priority. She was never short of male admirers whom she constantly encouraged to take the risks she took, on motorcycles, in cars, or diving into seas from high cliffs, and she was contemptuous if they failed.
Zelda was not a ‘tabloid sort of person. From the first, the men who liked her were very distinguished.’40 Two of the most distinguished were John Sellers and Peyton Mathis, whom she had known since childhood and who courted both her and Sara Haardt for several years. On the surface they appeared to be Southern gentlemen, labelled the Gold Dust Twins because of their wealth, renown and inseparability. Peyton was the proprietor of the Montgomery Marble Works and creator of several distinguished monuments in the cemetery. Older than Zelda’s other beaux and known as ‘The Pride of the Confederacy’, Peyton behaved as if he had a romantic past. Sellers was tall, chestnut blond and from a society background.41 Along with Leon Ruth, Lloyd Hooper and Dan Cody42, all Zelda’s ex-beaux, these two men were endowed with physical magnetism and money. However, the smooth-talking Sellers and Mathis played a highly destructive role in one of the most savage scenes in Zelda’s adolescence.
It was a sexually abusive scene which Scott later euphemistically termed a ‘seduction’. In the 1930s, during bitter recriminations about their marriage breakdown, Scott reminded Zelda that though at the time of their marriage ‘the assumption [was] that you were a great prize package — by your own admission many years after (and for which I never reproached you) you had been seduced and provincially outcast. I sensed this the night we slept together first, for you’re a poor bluffer.’43 In 1938 Scott went further in a letter to Zelda’s sister Marjorie and offered chapter and verse: ‘Your mother took such rotten care of Zelda that John Sellers was able to seduce her at fifteen.’44 Scott’s biographer Jeffrey Meyers confirms that Zelda lost her virginity at fifteen.
Further evidence of Sellers’ violence comes from Sara Mayfield’s later relationship with him. Despite Sellers’ courting of both Zelda and Sara Haardt, it was young Sara Mayfield whom he married in 1924 when she was nineteen; but within three years his drinking, cruelty and sexual violence forced Sara to divorce him. This would have taken great courage as divorce in the South in the Twenties was heavily stigmatized. But when Sellers violated a particular Act which forbade men to cross state lines for immoral purposes such as prostitution or sex with young girls, Sara had little choice.45
Zelda never at any time refuted Scott’s accusation. As a girl who did not have a bad reputation her shock at being treated like one who did would have secured her silence. She did however leave one account which implied Scott’s accusation was almost certainly correct and probably took place in the girls’ schoolyard. In Zelda’s version, in her second novel, Mathis as well as Sellers was implicated.
Montgomery and her schooldays, often represented as a golden time in a peaceful place, are depicted in the autobiographical Caesar’s Things as dark and threatening. The town initially wears ‘an air of bounty’. Janno, Zelda’s confident heroine, darts through the sunny hours, a rebel like herself. Then suddenly ‘a penderant cumulative doom hangs latent in the air’; a ‘great fear of the black-hand covered the town’; people talk of an impending ‘cataclysmic event’. There is blood on the sidewalks. As the sickly-sweet summer vines fade Janno/Zelda’s terror increases. She has forgotten ‘all about this year of her life until she was grown, and married, and tragedy had revivified its traces — as she then saw, carved from the beginning’.46
Forbidden activity for girls and violence from boys crowd the chapters. On Janno’s porch, the creaking swing is jammed with boys, as proprietorial and powerful as those Zelda grew up with. When the gang rush off, four, including handsome Dan and Anton, who hang around like the Magnetic Twins, with the obvious attributes of Sellers and Mathis, stay with Janno. They ‘subscribed to heavy petting’ and did not believe that sex ‘should be the expression of an inward emotion’.
Anton, with chestnut hair, is ‘a rich boy and knew the criteria. He killed himself later but you never could have told it at the time. He was debonair, insouciant, and he went to church with prestige.’ The boys turn on her: come with us. One of the mothers has told the girls not to ‘go like that’ with boys. Janno wishes fervently it had been her mother. That might have given her the strength she needed to refuse.
Lacking ‘rules and prescriptions for right’, she tries: ‘It’s not right. I don’t want to go.’ Dan won’t argue with a mere girl; Anton feels ‘girls went where boys told them and were glad of the attention’. And he wants Janno. ‘The boys looked wisely at each other; turned ominously … “Then if you don’t want to go with us, nobody will have anything further to do with you.”’ Zelda suggests Janno is intimidated not only by the boys’ menacing lines but also by their superior clothes and manners. ‘It was clearly a threat, an ominoys [sic] world. It was not clear in her mind just what ominous rendezvous with other orientations they proposed; but it was quite clear that this was a step from which irrevocable consequence would result.’
Like a Greek chorus the boys intone: ‘If you didn’t go with us where will you be?’ They assume the air of an ‘authorized committee’: ‘You won’t have any friends — nobody else will come to see you.’ Janno ‘looked over the threat of doom — and followed the judgment of men’.47
Zelda, who from childhood was familiar with Greek tragedy, allows something horrible to happen offstage as Janno is led away by the Magnetic Twins.48 Some sinister sexual violence occurs.
They went up to the haunted schoolyard so deep in shadows and creaking with felicities of murder to the splintery old swing and she was so miserable and trusting that her heart broke and for many years after she didn’t want to live: but it was better to keep going.
Janno proudly pretends not to care. She will try to be attractive, to ensure she is ‘well received’. She will strive for popularity, make the best of the broken circumstances. But in her mind something says: ‘But what you do is to suffocate the soul because you do care and it would be better to cry.’ Zelda believes that self-respect and survival ensure a traumatized woman forgets. She ‘relegates that sort of thing to the ash can until years later’.49
Though this very strong evidence for Zelda’s early tragedy is fictional, it would seem to be autobiographically accurate; but it will also have been influenced by later clinical traumas. Most significant incidents in Zelda’s fiction do have autobiographical triggers. Black moments patently clouded the well-documented Alabama sunshine. The Gold Dust Twins are substantial models for Dan and Anton, her imaginative creations.
Another piece of factual evidence relates to this very important incident. Zelda was known for her extreme coquetry, which can be explained in two relevant ways. To some extent Zelda was influenced by the Southern code that demanded flirtatiousness in women, and by the effects of World War I on modern American women which deterred them from exclusive commitment.50 But her purposefully capricious sexual style could also be rooted in the violent girlhood incident Scott refers to. Recent research shows that most girls who have been sexually abused grow up sexualizing their friendships, sometimes physically, usually emotionally and often verbally through heavy sexual banter. As Janno in Zelda’s novel explains, the original trigger for this behaviour is often suppressed for many years.
It is also relevant that the young beaux’ code of courtesy and honour in a town where the Bible was read and memorized was set against their knowledge that possum hunting, military escapades, adulation of male violence and lynchings were as routine as courting and weddings.
These of course were to be abruptly changed by the war, as indeed was Zelda. She recalled how before the war ‘there was scarcely a ripple in our lives; life itself seemed serene and almost smugly secure.’51 Montgomery, which she later fictionalized as Jeffersonville in ‘Southern Girl’, was a sleepy town: ‘Nothing ever seems to happen …; the days pass, lazily gossiping in the warm sun. A lynching, an election, a wedding, catastrophes, and business booms all take on the same value, rounded, complete, dusted by the lush softness of the air in a climate too hot for any but sporadic effort.’52
Then on 6 April 1917 the USA declared war on Germany.
‘Suddenly, almost the next day — everything was changed. Life had suddenly become exciting, dangerous; a crazy vitality possessed us … the War came … we couldn’t afford to wait, for fear it would be gone forever: so we pitched in furiously, dancing every night and riding up and down the moonlit roads and even swimming in the gravel pools under the white Alabama moon … Oh, we did wild, silly things — often incredible things — but oftenest with a sense of tragedy.’53
Montgomery was besieged by soldiers from nearby Camp Sheridan and aviators from Camp Taylor. ‘The war brought men to town like swarms of benevolent locusts eating away the blight of unmarried women that had overrun the South since its economic decline.’54
Belles’ habits changed. They hurried through their self-conscious rituals of five o’clock swims when the sun went down followed by languid six o’clock sodas in order to join ‘the taller, broader, older youth in uniform’. According to Caesar’s Things, ‘the town smelt of khaki’, there was a ‘general air of the felicity of romance about. The girls were prettier than the shop windows … One had to be in love … the city staggered with the impact of love.’55
Zelda’s circle entered new kinds of courtships. Katharine Elsberry recalled: ‘We had a date with a different boy each night of the week.’ By 1918 Katharine had eloped with a Canadian stationed at Camp Sheridan, partly because Northern soldiers were a novelty but also, as she told Zelda, because of ‘sexual curiosity’. Afraid to break the news to her family, she called Zelda and asked her to tell them.56
‘There weren’t enough girls to go round‚’ wrote Zelda. ‘Girls too tall or too prim … were dragged from their spinsterly pursuits to dance with the soldiers … You can imagine how the popular ones fared!’57
The most popular was Zelda. Admirers from Auburn University had already founded a fraternity based on her initials: Zeta Sigma. Zelda now added the military to fraternity boys and football heroes. Uniformed beaux swarmed her sagging veranda, which looked like a recruiting station. In her glove box she collected the soldiers’ gold and silver insignia which they threw down before her as tributes.
‘It was strange what things the war did to us … Of course I suppose, it goes back further than that, but it was as if everything in the air, in life, sort of led up to it.’58 For Zelda war intensified the feeling of life’s fragility. A youth spent in Montgomery is time spent in a past that is always present, where the only currency is the imminent possibility of death. Zelda had both always known it yet never known it until now. Once the war began, soldiers left and did not return. Aviators were flung from the skies and did not rise. Suddenly her particular Southern past had converged with the national wartime present.
But she was only seventeen. She did not yet want to think about it. In time she would acknowledge those feelings in her fiction and painting, but for now she is off to the wartime dances.
‘I danced every night‚’ she recalled, ‘… but the ones I enjoyed most were the privates’ dances down in the dirty old City Hall auditorium. Only a few girls went … it was supposed to be rough … there were no officers present — there weren’t even any intermissions because there weren’t enough girls to go round.’
At those dances she still could not dismiss that sense of tragedy. ‘We even danced by sad, wailing tunes, for it was just about then that the blues came in‚’ she said.59 But there was a new element at the dances: something not tragic at all.
As the leading Belle at the Country Club, Zelda had the pick of the Montgomery bluebloods. But her romantic sensibility had attached itself to wider horizons, more sophisticated dreams of urban glamour, worldly success, swimming in a larger pond than Montgomery. When the Yankee army came to Camp Sheridan her attention was caught by new kinds of officers. There were midwestern Babbitts, Southern sharecroppers and rich Yankees. One night there was a young fellow from St Paul, Minnesota. He was a blond first lieutenant in the 67th Infantry whom she would later draw as a paper doll with pink shirt, red tie and brown angel’s wings.
Zelda was performing a solo, ‘The Dance of the Hours’. He stood at the edge of the dance floor and watched her.
She didn’t ask his name. But he told her anyway. He was Scott Fitzgerald.
1 FSF, The Great Gatsby, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli, Abacus, 1992, p. 6.
2 ZSF in conversation with Sara Haardt, Ellerslie, Delaware, 1928 (unpublished interview).
3 Sidney Lanier High School, now known as the Baldwin High School, is still in Montgomery. Judge Sayre did not allow Zelda to attend Miss Margaret Booth’s private girls’ finishing school at Miss Booth’s home at 117 Sayre Street with Sara Haardt.
4 FSF, Paradise, p. 156.
5 ZSF, ‘The Original Follies Girl’, Collected Writings, p. 293.
6 She was in fact a couple of inches shorter than Scott’s five foot seven, which on his passport he elevated to five foot eight and a half.
7 Sara Haardt/ZSF interview, 1928.
8 In 1917.
9 Sara Haardt/ZSF interview, 1928.
10 Livye Hart Ridgeway, ‘A Profile of Zelda’, original manuscript, Sara Mayfield Collection, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
11 Bruccoli et al, eds., Romantic Egoists, p. 43.
12 ZSF, ‘The Original Follies Girl’, p. 293.
13 Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, Memoir, p. 62.
14 Grace Gunter Lane to the author, June 1999, Montgomery. Middy outfits were a skirt and blouse with a tie.
15 Zelda Sayre to ZSF, spring 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 2, PUL.
16 She was following the ‘custom’ that if women teachers married they would resign. In 1889 in Washington two married teachers caused a sensation by refusing to follow the custom and the Columbia District School Board trustees attempted to turn a custom into a rule to prevent married teachers from working. The School Board Trustees finally stepped down. Harold Evans, The American Century, Jonathan Cape, 1998, p. xxii.
17 This lifelong love of flowers made Scottie say later that its intensity was surely as Southern as Zelda’s strong feelings for tradition and colour. Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, Memoir.
18 Sometimes the whole Sayre family went to Alabama’s cooler Mountain Creek for the summer with Judge Sayre joining them at weekends.
19 Sara Mayfield thought she looked like one of Modigliani’s better models. Exiles, p. 19.
20 Conversations between Grace Gunter Lane and the author, Montgomery, June 1999.
21 Sara Haardt/ZSF interview, 1928.
22 Later the Belles attended the dances Zelda fictionalized at the Country Club or the auditorium over the old City Hall.
23 Sara Haardt/ZSF interview, 1928.
24 Virginia Foster Durr, Outside the Magic Circle, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 1985, p. 64; interview with Virginia Durr, 1992, in Meyers, Scott Fitzgerald, pp. 44–5. Her acid tone might be due to the fact that Virginia’s husband-to-be, Clifford Durr, was for several months one of Zelda’s beaux.
25 Rosalind Sayre to Sara Mayfield, Mayfield Collection, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. Quoted in Hartnett, Zelda Fitzgerald, p. 25.
26 Grace Gunter Lane to the author, Montgomery, June 1999.
27 Conversations between Ida Haardt McCulloch and Janie Wall, and Janie Wall and the author, Montgomery, June 1999.
28 John P. Kohn to Sara Mayfield, quoted in Hartnett, Zelda Fitzgerald, p. 19.
29 Grace Gunter Lane to the author, Montgomery, June 1999.
30 Mayfield, Constant Circle, p. 22.
31 Ibid., p 25.
32 After the Academy of the Sacred Heart Tallulah and Gene went to Mary Baldwin Academy, Staunton, Virginia, then to Fairmont Seminar, Washington DC.
33 Information from Marie Bankhead’s cousin Sara Mayfield. Mayfield, Constant Circle, p. 25.
34 Tallulah Bankhead confided this intimate fact to Sara Mayfield. Ibid., p. 26.
35 Bruccoli et al., eds., Romantic Egoists, p. 43.
36 Sara Haardt graduated from the Margaret Booth School on 24 May 1916.
37 Quoted by Ann Henley, Introduction, Southern Souvenirs, p. 28.
38 Grace Gunter Lane to the author, Montgomery, June 1999.
39 Ironically one of the writers she most admired who encouraged her early stories was Scott Fitzgerald.
40 ZSF, ‘The Original Follies Girl’, p. 294.
41 John Sellers’ family belonged to the Twenty Twos, the Montgomery equivalent of New York’s Four Hundred. His father was a wealthy cotton broker. John was later trained to class and staple cotton in his father’s firm.
42 Scott would appropriate Dan Cody’s name for The Great Gatsby.
43 FSF to ZSF, unsent letter, late 1939, CO187, Box 41, PUL.
44 FSF to Marjorie Sayre Brinson, Dec. 1938, CO187, Box 38, Folder Marjorie Brinson (Sayre), PUL.
45 The Act was the Mann Act. According to Camella Mayfield, Sara Mayfield’s cousin and literary executor of the Mayfield Collection at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, a confidential letter in the divorce records confirms this violation of the code of sexual behaviour.
46 ZSF, Caesar, ch. I, CO183, Box 2A, Folder 2, PUL.
47 Ibid., ch. IV, CO183, Box 2A, Folder 5, PUL.
48 Zelda’s childhood reading in her father’s library included Aristotle and Aeschylus (see above, ch. 1). In a letter to Scott (written after 13 June 1934) she wrote: ‘You talk of the function of art. I wonder if anybody has ever got nearer the truth than Aristotle: he said that all emotions and all experience were common property — that the transposition of these into form was individual and art.’
49 ZSF, Caesar, ch. IV, CO183, Box 2A, Folder 5, PUL.
50 Ginevra King, Scott’s idealized first love, behaved similarly to Zelda. In an interview after Scott’s death she said that Scott had been one of a ‘string’, that later she was engaged to two other men. ‘That was very easy during the war because you’d never get caught. It was just covering yourself in case of loss.’ Meyers, Scott Fitzgerald, p. 29. During the war women set less store on their men than the men did on them, Scott for instance kept every letter sent by both Ginevra and Zelda. Each of them lost his or destroyed them.
51 Sara Haardt/ZSF interview, 1928.
52 ZSF. ‘Southern Girl’, Collected Writings, pp. 299–300.
53 Sara Haardt/ZSF interview, 1928.
54 ZSF, Waltz, p. 37.
55 ZSF, Caesar, ch. IV, CO183, Box 2A, Folder 5, PUL.
56 Eddie Pattillo, ‘The Last of the Belles’, Montgomery, July 1994.
57 ZSF, ‘Southern Girl’, p. 302.
58 Sara Haardt/ZSF interview, 1928.
59 Sara Haardt/ZSF interview, 1928.
Zelda later fictionalized that first meeting with Scott Fitzgerald in July 1918 by writing: ‘There seemed to be some heavenly support beneath his shoulder blades that lifted his feet from the ground in ecstatic suspension, as if he secretly enjoyed the ability to fly but was walking as a compromise to convention.’1
It was an incorrigibly romantic line.
Scott matched it. His first impression of Zelda was that of ‘a saint, a Viking Madonna’2 whose beauty so stunned him that he changed his portrait of Rosalind Connage in This Side of Paradise (1920) to base her partly on Zelda. Then he wrote: ‘all criticism of Rosalind ends in her beauty’.3
That too was a romantic line.
When Dorothy Parker encountered Zelda and Scott she thought they looked like a couple who had just stepped out of the sun.4 But Zelda and Scott each had another side: a less sunny side, and one that synchronized. Not long after they met, Zelda wrote to Scott: ‘You know everything about me, and that’s mostly what I think about. I seem always curiously interested in myself, and it’s so much fun to stand off and look at me.’5
Much less romantic: definitively egotistical; yet Scott found it provocative.
What was more, he could surpass it. One of the finest — if intermittent — marks of both his fiction and his character is his clear and honest self-appraisal. In a flash of insight many years after their first meeting, he wrote: ‘I didn’t know till 15 that there was anyone in the world except me, and it cost me plenty.’6
In time their egotism and self-centredness would damage their relationship, but in their first few months Zelda and Scott inflamed each other by flaunting those very qualities.
Their personal evaluations had a dangerous symmetry, as did their fierce judgements on other people. After dating Scott for some time Zelda wrote: ‘People seldom interest me except in their relation to things, and I like men to be just incidents in books so I can imagine their characters.’7
Less openly in his Notebook Scott wrote: ‘When I like women I want to own them, to dominate them, to have them admire me.’8
He had already voiced this view before he met Zelda. Like all infantry lieutenants in that period, Scott expected to die in battle. In the Officers Club he had begun writing a novel for posterity: ‘The Romantic Egotist’. Among the 120,000 words9 ran the lines: ‘I was convinced that I had personality, charm, magnetism, poise, and the ability to dominate others. Also I was sure that I exercised a subtle fascination over women.’10
As Edmund Wilson said later, Zelda and Scott’s fantasies were precisely in tune. Curiously, their appearance as well as their ambitions had a strange congruence. If Scott Fitzgerald looked like an angel he also looked absurdly like Zelda. People would soon mistake them for brother and sister. There are several photos of Zelda and Scott during the year they first met. They both have that gold-leaf hair that sets off their similar black one-piece swimsuits. She lounges lazily on a bank of flowers or is poised near a pool. She holds her breath before she dives in. The only difference is that whereas Scott’s appearance at least in photos remains consistent, Zelda’s changes from photo to photo, even in those taken the same year. She had as many faces as she had voices. Both Zelda and Scott had a gift for self-dramatization which often disguised their self-awareness. Both spent extravagantly, drank heavily, spelt badly, were spoiled children of older parents. Both had disliked their first schools and been allowed to withdraw from them by indulgent mothers.
Both liked to exchange sexual roles. Scott had dressed up as a showgirl for Princeton’s Triangle Club. When Scott was temporarily out of reach, Zelda put on men’s clothing and went to the movies with a group of boys. Scott, who was always surrounded by women, admitted: ‘I am half feminine — that is my mind is.’11 Zelda by her own assertion had always been inclined towards masculinity.12 When Scott suggested that she met his mother, she wrote ner vously: ‘I am afraid I am losing all pretense of femininity, and I imagine she will demand it.’13
From early on they enacted dramas in order to attract attention. On getting it, Scott became excited by people’s response while Zelda was indifferent.
Most versions of Zelda’s legendary first meeting with Scott suggest it was at Montgomery’s Country Club. J. Winter Thorington, a cousin of her family, believes that they met earlier at a teaparty at his Great-Aunt Bessie’s. In that version neither Zelda nor Scott took much notice of the other.14 A few days later they met again at the Country Club, when Zelda’s utter disdain for Scott first engaged his attention. He stared at her bewitched as she ignored the line of stags crowding around her.15 Without asking anyone to introduce him, he cut in on her, astounded at her popularity. Not once could he dance across the room with her before another man cut in. In the intermission, frustrated at his low ranking, he asked her for a late date but she replied: ‘I never make late dates with fast workers.’
She was prepared to give him her phone number, which he rang so often that he remembered it as long as he lived. He also remembered that her date book was filled for weeks ahead.
Despite her apparent coolness however he had made a visual impression on her. Scott looked like a jonquil. His golden hair, parted in the centre, was slicked down with tonic. He swaggered as he walked, rated himself a good dancer, and hid a slightly tense mouth with an engaging smile.16
His classical features, straight nose, high wide brow, heavy dark lashes, were striking, and his eyes, like Zelda’s, changed colour. Though Zelda saw them as green, when Montgomery’s Lawton Campbell met Scott at Princeton in 1916, he saw them as lavender. He thought Scott ‘the handsomest boy I’d ever seen’.17 Hardly sur prising that at Princeton Scott ‘collected a painful number of votes as the prettiest member of his class’.18 Scott himself boasted that though he did not have John Sellers’ and Peyton Mathis’s envied qualities of great animal magnetism or money, he did have the two lesser requirements, ‘good looks and intelligence’, so he always got ‘the top girl’.19
Zelda immediately noticed Scott’s smart attire. Brooks Brothers in New York had tailored his officer’s tunic. His sunshine yellow boots and spurs gave him a kick start over his fellow officers who wore ordinary issue puttees. When Zelda fictionalized him as David Knight in Save Me The Waltz (1932) she said he smelled like new goods. This apt simile matched Scott’s own preoccupations. In his writings haberdashery is symbolic. Jay Gatsby and Scott Fitzgerald both see connections between their wardrobes and their wealth.
After checking out his clothes Zelda agreed to date him. She did not agree to stop dating other men.
Scott began to call regularly at the Sayres’. He sat with Zelda on the grey frame porch screened with clematis and vines from the sun. He swayed with her on the creaking swing to the scent of honeysuckle, while Miss Minnie sat in her peeling rocker and the Judge ostensibly read his evening paper while observing him.
But Scott was not the only man to share the swing. He was but one of many officers who called regularly, all of whom Zelda knew ‘with varying degrees of sentimentality’.20 Dashing young aviators from Taylor Field routinely performed aerial stunts over the Sayre house to amuse Zelda. One moustached suitor, Second Lieutenant Lincoln Weaver, who had been kissed by Zelda, amused her for weeks until he proposed. At that point she instantly rejected him. Utterly astonished, he asked why had she kissed him? As testing the unknown was Zelda’s passport to excitement she replied flippantly that she had never kissed a man with a moustache before.21
The aviators’ flattering performances suddenly took a nasty turn. Two planes crashed while paying tribute to Zelda, one piloted by Weaver, the rejected moustached suitor who made the headlines as ‘badly injured’.
For Zelda the tragedy of that aviator becomes a symbol of lost love which in her fiction she reuses several times. For Scott too, the rejected lover who falls like Icarus from heaven and dies becomes an enduring fictional symbol. Zelda and Scott pasted the death of Weaver neatly into their scrapbooks and their respective legends. But Weaver himself did not die. He survived and collected his army separation pay the following year. For Zelda and Scott, even in these early years, imagination was always more powerful than fact.
In Zelda’s Save Me The Waltz, one of the captains courting Alabama tells her that he intends to get transferred to avoid being one of her beaux who falls out of planes and clutters up roadsides. When she asks who fell out, he tells her it was ‘your friend with the Dachshund face and the mustache’. She is unmoved: ‘we must hold on to ourselves and not care … There isn’t any use worrying about the dog-one.’ Alabama’s careless response is characteristic of Zelda’s own attitude towards suitors.22
Scott’s rivals for Zelda were not pilots alone. There were golfing beaux, Southern halfbacks, rich university students and the wealthy and well-born boys she had grown up with. Scott however was a Yankee, his family were in trade, he was only an infantry lieutenant. As Sara Mayfield said: ‘He was no great catch by Zelda’s standards.’23
The self-styled ‘great Southern catches’ Peyton Mathis and John Sellers, who had been dating Sara Haardt during her vacations, began to rush Zelda when Sara returned to Goucher College and Scott arrived on the scene. Sellers, who felt he still had a hold on Zelda, began to goad Scott. As he and Mathis disliked Scott more than the other Northern invaders who dated ‘their’ girls, when they noticed his drinking habits they mockingly dubbed him Scotch Fitzgerald. Worse still, they openly exhibited their financial superiority. On his army pay of $141 a month Scott could hardly afford to give Zelda a $10 bottle of bonded whiskey or a $6 dinner at the Pickwick Cafe, and he could never treat her to taxis. The Gold Dust Twins naturally had cars in which they drove Zelda to the cemetery to admire the art works, but when Zelda took Scott there to show him the Confederate graves she had to walk.
The Twins’ Southern courting approach made them disdainful of Scott’s Yankee wooing tactics. Southerners, in theory, put Belles on pedestals. Scott, in practice, certainly did not. One evening he carved his and Zelda’s initials on the pillars of the Country Club, but in a bad error of judgement made his initials large and Zelda’s small. That it rankled with her for years showed in her first novel, written in 1932, when David Knight carves words on the club doorpost. ‘“David”, the legend read, “David, David, Knight, Knight, Knight, and Miss Alabama Nobody.”’24
The way Zelda treated her men appalled yet fascinated Scott. He felt she treated men badly. She abused them, broke appointments with them and looked bored — yet they returned to her time after time.
In an early letter to Scott, Zelda said women should ‘awake to the fact that their excuse and explanation is the necessity for a disturbing element among men — [if they did] they’d be much happier, and the men much more miserable — which is exactly what they need for the improvement of things in general’.25
Scott, who soon saw ‘borrowing’ Zelda’s words as a neat way to improve his fictional characterizations, lifted her lines for his description of his heroine Rosalind in This Side of Paradise: ‘She once told a roomful of her mother’s friends that the only excuse for women was the necessity for a disturbing element among men.’26
Scott found Zelda’s behaviour disturbing and erotic. At a dance soon after they met, knowing Scott was observing her, she took her escort into a lighted phone booth and kissed him. Though provoked, he desired her more. Fully aware of this, she took advantage of it. Or perhaps she could not help it. Whatever her motives, the consequence was the same: her behaviour stimulated them both to fictionalize it. Zelda not only understood Scott’s tendency to live a fictional life, she created one for herself.
Perceptively she wrote later in Caesar’s Things: ‘[He] was proud of the way the boys danced with her and she was so much admired … [It] gave [her] a desirability which became, indeed, indispensable to [him].’27
Scott had already written something similar in The Great Gatsby with Gatsby’s response to Daisy: ‘It excited him, too, that many men had already loved Daisy — it increased her value in his eyes.’28
Twice in his Notebooks Scott explored a deeper reason for the way his erotic drive for Zelda was stimulated by another man’s interest. First he wrote the phrase ‘Proxy in passion’, later he enlarged on it: ‘Feeling of proxy in passion strange encouragement’.29
That Zelda did not mind his voyeuristic ardour says something about her own alienation from her sexuality. She too had a private sexual vision: she liked watching him watching her with other men.
Despite her large number of beaux and her seemingly heartless behaviour towards them, Scott began to captivate her. They began to hold intimate conversations which gave her an uncanny feeling of exposure and closeness. No man had ever talked to Zelda quite like that before. In comparison with the sportsmen she was used to, Scott was intellectual, artistic and gentle, and Zelda had a ‘quality which you couldn’t help feeling would betray her sooner or later … the quality that made her like intellectual men’.30
Though he never fared well with men, Scott knew how to make women respond to him. His most remarkable characteristic — a genuine talent for intimacy born from an unguarded spontaneity — became irresistible to Zelda, as it did to many women, though it could cause confusion or hostility in some men. Zelda discovered that Scott preferred to emulate men rather than empathize with them.
‘When I like men’, he wrote, ‘I want to be like them — I want to lose the outer qualities that give me my individuality and be like them.’31
In this dual approach to the two sexes, in his ambitions and insecurities, Scott was undoubtedly influenced by his relationship with his parents.
He talked to Zelda about them. Told her he identified with the Fitzgeralds who were genteel but impoverished. He did not say much about the McQuillans, on his mother’s side, because he despised them for being wealthy but not well bred. Unlike Zelda, who was socially secure, this ambivalence made Scott feel highly insecure: ‘I developed a two-cylinder inferiority complex‚’32 he told his friend John O’Hara later.
His parents had high ambitions for him, upon which he built. They began just after his birth on 24 September 1896 at 481 Laurel Avenue, St Paul, Minnesota, when they christened him Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald after his relative, the Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key, who wrote ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. Scott loved the name and was quick to inform Zelda and all her friends. A month after Zelda met him, she took him to the Capitol to show him the star on the steps where Davis had taken the oath of office and to meet Sara Mayfield and Sara Haardt. Scott’s introductory line to them was that he was Francis Scott Key’s great-grandson — a somewhat inflated connection as they were merely second cousins three times removed.33 This ploy fits the revealing anecdote that Scott’s first credited word was ‘up’ at a mere ten months old.
Zelda’s parents did not approve of the fact that Scott was a Roman Catholic Irish Midwesterner, even if as the son of Edward Fitzgerald he could trace his heroic Scott and Key ancestors back to seventeenth-century Maryland. While Zelda was proud of her mother, Scott was always slightly ashamed of his — for Mary (Mollie) McQuillan was the granddaughter of an Irish immigrant carpenter. That Edward Fitzgerald and Mollie married on 12 February 1890 in Washington DC when Mollie, nearly thirty, was already considered a spinster, must be credited to her assertiveness. Dramatic like her son, she got Edward to propose by threatening to throw herself into the Mississippi if he didn’t.34 Scott inherited from his mother a propensity for absurd antics that annoyed his friends but at the start amused Zelda.
Mollie’s father, Philip F. McQuillan, was a shrewd example of the American Dream to which Scott himself would respond so avidly in his novels. Philip, born in Ireland’s County Fermanagh, moved first to Illinois then to St Paul, Minnesota, also moving up the ladder from impecunious bookkeeper to wealthy renowned wholesale grocer.35 On his death at forty-three from Bright’s Disease complicated by tuberculosis — the spectre of the latter would haunt Scott throughout his life — he left an estate of nearly $300,000 which allowed Scott’s mother (the eldest of five) a sound education and several European trips.
Scott, attracted by the indisputably beautiful Zelda, confessed that Mollie according to Edward Fitzgerald ‘just missed being beautiful’,36 but according to him missed it by a mile. Mollie was vivacious, bright and eccentric: she frequently wore different coloured shoes, believing it was better to break in one new shoe at a time. She read, in Scott’s opinion, a heap of bad books, and was constantly to be seen holding her umbrella aloft as she hurried to the public library to exchange one bad book for another.
Zelda and Scott were both spoiled as children, for similar reasons. Having lost two daughters, aged one and three, in an epidemic in 1896 while pregnant with Scott, Mollie, grief-stricken and hysterical, coddled him from birth. After the death of another infant girl in 1900, Mollie did not have a daughter until Annabel was born in July 1901. Scott’s possible guilt about surviving may have led him to hypochondria in his adulthood. Publicly he turned his sisters’ deaths into something mystical and mythic: ‘I don’t know how it worked exactly. I think I started then to be a writer.’37 He may have meant he had been born out of suffering and singled out for special talents. His mother, hostile to his literary ambitions, nevertheless recorded every significant event in his childhood. This habit may have encouraged Scott to historicize himself, for from an early age he listed his partners on dancing school programmes, collected and collated his valentines, and at thirteen wrote a private ‘Thoughtbook’, the start of his lifelong list-making compulsion, delineating amours and recording highs and lows on the popularity scale. It was also the first example of the way he recorded every experience. From his schooldays nothing was real to him until he had written about it. Unlike Zelda, Scott was always concerned with his image, so he analysed what he thought of other people and cared deeply what they thought of him.
Scott’s brains, vitality and often out-of-place directness of speech came from his mother whose frankness caused much local embarrassment. She once alarmed a woman whose husband was dying by saying: ‘I’m trying to decide how you’ll look in mourning.’38
Scott disparaged and resented her and turned for moral guidance to his father, whom initially he admired. Edward Fitzgerald loved literature, read poetry aloud to his son and encouraged him to write. A handsome man with Southern manners, he had a gentle ineffectual unambitious nature. The Fitzgeralds were Southern in sympathy. Edward Fitzgerald’s first cousin Mary Surratt was hanged for conspiracy in Lincoln’s assassination. As a boy Edward guided Confederate spies during the Civil War. Scott grew up listening to his father’s tales of the lost South, and ‘acquired an extended and showy, if very superficial, knowledge of the Civil War’ which helped to enhance his reputation in Zelda’s eyes.39
When Scott was born, Edward, who had attended Georgetown University without graduating, owned a doomed wicker furniture business,40 was drinking too much, which horribly embarrassed Scott, and was already cushioned by his wife’s wealth. By Scott’s second birthday his business had failed, after which he became a salesman with Procter and Gamble in Buffalo, New York. After several more moves which left Scott feeling anxious and dislocated, Edward finally lost his job in July 1908.41 Scott was at home when the phone call came for his mother. The boy knew from the tone of her voice a disaster had occurred. Perhaps unaware of his mother’s money, he prayed: ‘Dear God … please don’t let us go to the poor-house.’ Eleven-year-old Scott knew the worst when his father came home. Edward had been fired. He had left home that morning a confident young man. He had returned that evening a broken old man. He felt a failure the rest of his life.
That incident coloured all Scott’s relations with those wealthier than himself and, in the case of Zelda’s family, those whose values were less materialistic than his. (The context of Scott’s anecdotes is always as important as the content. Therefore it is significant that Scott first recounted that touching incident to a journalist who saw him as an alcoholic and forgotten writer.42 This touching narrative was also pragmatic and self-serving.)
His father’s failure fuelled Scott’s determination to succeed, yet his creative mind responded more readily to tales of failure. He would always spin stories from lost causes. From his father Scott also inherited his romantic love of the past, his good looks, his impeccable tailored style and his honour, which even in the worst stages of his marriage to Zelda would never allow him to desert her.
As a boy Scott had lived with a ‘great dream’ with which now as an adult he tried to captivate Zelda. It was the dream of success as a writer which started in 1908 when his defeated family returned to St Paul, where they lived in the most fashionable Summit Avenue area of the city, but in a series of rented houses or apartments on the edges. This situation bears a remarkable similarity to Zelda’s, for her family too lived on the margins of a silk-hat section. There were so many coincidences in their lives it is as if their conspiratorial natures had a historical precedent.
Scott’s parents finally settled at the end of the finest street. Scott revelled in the symbolism, which was almost too neat. One biographer felt this made Scott feel an outsider whose sense of difference sharpened his skills as a social observer, but Lloyd Hackl, a St Paul historical researcher, points out, and St Paul residents confirm, that actually his mother’s wealth gave him an entree to the best in that society.43 It was perhaps his self-consciousness and conceit that initiated and made him cling to his idea of isolation and difference. On entering St Paul Academy in September 1908 he began to realize his literary ambitions but did not achieve equal success in his social life.
In October 1909 his first published story, ‘The Mystery of the Raymond Mortgage’, appeared in St Paul Academy Now and Then; another, concerning the heroic behaviour of a Confederate soldier, was the only juvenilia to interest Zelda.44
In August 1911 he wrote, directed and starred in his first play for St Paul’s Elizabethan Dramatic Club, The Girl from Lazy J. These early writings, like his conversations, had a joyous childlike quality that he never lost because he never buried the past. His imagination reached out and responded to every experience, a quality Zelda from the first found alluring.
As a young girl Zelda always won popularity contests, whereas Scott as a young boy was desperately unpopular. Not one invited child turned up to his sixth birthday party, forcing the small soulful Scott indoors where he solemnly consumed the whole birthday cake, including several candles. As an adolescent he fared worse. Though he struggled for recognition, playing football, basketball and enrolling in Professor Baker’s dance class, he was labelled a show-off. He would memorize titles in bookstores then discuss books he had not read; he would observe his classmates’ faults then publicly criticize them, or he would see through them then write about it. He also expected others to be as interested in him as he was. This lifelong narcissism flawed his novels, adversely affected his later friendships and damaged Zelda.
But during his early years in St Paul he made several lasting women friends, including Marie Hersey, who would help Zelda buy her first New York wardrobe.
Scott’s grades at St Paul were so poor that he was sent to the Catholic Newman School in Hackensack, New Jersey, in September 1911 to make a fresh and better start. The gamble failed. At Newman his grades sank lower, he was thought fresh, and on home visits began to be known as ‘a man who drank’.45
He had a capacity for hero worship, usually for athletic and socially self-assured men. It brought him the friendship of quarterback Charles (Sap) Donahoe, with whom he later roomed in Princeton — but when he ventured out on to the Newman football field himself he was labelled ‘yellow’. After his failure he wrote a poem called ‘Football’, whose success made him feel writing was an adequate substitute for real action.
Scott’s most important influences were two like-minded men: Father Cyril Sigourney Webster Fay,46 a trustee of Newman, and Fay’s friend, the Catholic convert and Anglo-Irish novelist Shane Leslie. Scott saw Shane, who had sat at Tolstoy’s feet and swum with Rupert Brooke, as a romantic hero.
Fay, whose friends moved in high places, took Scott under his wing and served for some years as mentor and substitute parent. The thirty-seven-year-old priest and the sixteen-year-old student shared an egotistical absorption in self-analysis. Scott, impressed with Fay’s social class and Catholic elitism, temporarily considered the priesthood. But entering the world of wealth through Fay’s connections, about which he would always feel ambivalent, began to attract him more.
In his last year at Newman he met a well-heeled younger boy, Stephan Vincent Parrott (nicknamed Peevie), with whom he would vie for the priest’s affections and to whom he would later show Zelda’s private diary, which he considered brilliantly written. Father Fay encouraged Peevie and Scott to see themselves as spiritual brothers, though Fay’s letters to Scott indicate less a fatherly feeling than a homosexual one. If Scott registered this at the time, his affection for Fay would have made him repress that recognition, because his attitude at all times towards male homosexual behaviour was a loud insistent melodramatic repulsion.
Scott’s self-esteem in his last months at Newman had been somewhat salvaged by producing more plays in St Paul, by trips to the New York theatre, and by inventing ideas for musical comedies. He had discovered a musical score for a show called His Honor the Sultan produced by Princeton’s Triangle Club. In that instant he determined to go to Princeton, the Southerner’s Northern University. Despite flunking all the entrance exams he argued his way to acceptance in September 1913.
Enthralled by the university’s Gothic architecture, he schemed to become one of the ‘gods of the class’47, but his fastest route was closed by a knee injury at football practice. He decided instead to achieve prominence via the Triangle Club, whose key members were Bunny Wilson, the shy scholar with the whiplash mind who would become Scott’s literary mentor and ‘intellectual conscience’,48 and poet John Peale Bishop, four years older than Scott. Bishop felt Scott was determined to be a boy genius even if he had to trim his age to look precocious. When their talk turned towards books Bishop, admitting he had not read many, commented that Scott had read even fewer, but ‘those he said he had read … were many, many more’.49
Scott’s other Princeton friends, all wealthy, were more interested in intellectual and literary excellence than in social aspirations. They included Alexander McKaig, Townsend Martin and Montgomery’s Lawton Campbell, who became frequent visitors of the Fitzgeralds in their early married days, and John Biggs Jnr, who became a lifelong friend of both Fitzgeralds and who occupied a special place later in Zelda’s life.
Wilson, a virgin, was like Scott painfully shy about sex. Bishop and McKaig were womanizers. One anecdote locates Fitzgerald, Wilson, McKaig and Bishop strolling down Nassau Street when two girls known to McKaig as ‘hookers’ passed them. Instantly he and Bishop rushed after them leaving Scott and Bunny flummoxed. Scott remarked prudishly: ‘That’s one thing Fitzgerald’s never done!’50
Scott’s fiction during this period is marked by the same caution about sex. His heroes have a puritanical restraint. Girls are lightly kissed by men who see a mere kiss as a commitment to an engagement. Once he uses Zelda as his role model, Scott’s heroines emulate her spirited self-centredness: men are women’s prey. Even in his apprentice work Scott’s female characters illustrate these role reversals. In ‘The Debutante’ (1917) Helen, his selfish protagonist, said that she enjoyed controlling situations though it became tedious being in charge. Helen was stimulated by chasing men but when they responded she enjoyed it less.
In ‘Babes in the Woods’, written in 1917, Scott’s college freshman courts Isabella, a 16-year-old ‘speed’, grants her the right to destroy him, waits for her high-handed ‘mask to drop off, but at the same time did not question her right to wear it’.51 Scott’s quintessential theme of the gifted man ruined by a selfish woman had begun. The Fitzgerald heroine was the writer’s inspiration so long as she was unattainable.
When Scott finally met Zelda in 1918 he came face to face with the woman of his early fiction.
Scott’s real-life bid for social favours mirrored his fictional seesaw. Each social success at Princeton was followed by an academic catastrophe. He was made a member of Cottage, Princeton’s prestigious eating club,52 joined the Tiger’s editorial board in 1915, his stories appeared in the Nassau Lit and he became Triangle’s secretary for 1915–16, writing the lyrics for Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi! a much vaunted Triangle show. However when he tried to build on this by writing lyrics and offering to play a beautiful showgirl in Bunny Wilson’s production The Evil Eye, which he hoped would lead him to the prize of Triangle President, he failed yet again. His scholastic record was so appalling he was made ineligible for the Triangle show tour, which would have included his solo performance in drag, and for the Presidency.
His Ledger registered the words ‘Drunk’, ‘Passed Out at Dinner’, ‘Drunk’, with tedious regularity. His habit of using alcohol to console himself for failure was one with which Zelda would grow increasingly bored and angry during their romance. She saw it as it was: a sign of terminal weakness.
It was not drunkenness however but a sickness diagnosed as malaria (which he preferred to think of as tuberculosis) which forced Scott to withdraw from Princeton on 3 January 1916. The University tagged his exit with the label ‘withdrawn for scholastic deficiencies’ but Scott successfully nagged the authorities for a letter saying he had left voluntarily on grounds of ill-health. Twenty years later, writing up his miseries for a Crack-Up essay, he said: ‘I had lost every single thing I wanted … and that night was the first time I hunted down the spectre of womanhood’, his classy name for the prostitute he had earlier ignored.53
But there was yet more to lose.
Over Christmas 1914 in St Paul, Scott had attended a party given by Marie Hersey for her friend Ginevra King, a strikingly beautiful sixteen-year-old socialite from Lake Forest, Illinois. Ginevra, as dark and brown-eyed as Zelda was fair, but neither as daring nor as dashing, like Marie was at Westover Girls’ School in Connecticut from where she dated a string of Ivy League conquests. For Scott she had a magical glory, was rich and radiant, became his winter dream, his summer evanescence. She accepted Scott’s usual invitation for a next-day date, after which, utterly in love, he wrote daily, sent telegrams, whizzed her to the Ritz in New York, invited her to Princeton. During a two-year courtship there was ever-growing ardour on his side and ever-growing indifference on hers. Slowly, painfully, he recognized that Ginevra, ‘infinitely rare and to be marvelled at’,54 never asked him to Westover and was courted by men in a far superior social set. At her Lake Forest home in August 1916 he was made aware that poor boys should not think of marrying a girl ‘whose voice is full of money’.55
One of Scott’s oddest ideas — yet one that appealed to Zelda — had been to try and impress Ginevra by his performance as a glamorous showgirl in the tour of The Evil Eye. When he became ineligible to perform, he had to make do with his posed publicity stills, which were carried by newspapers around the country including the New York Times. There he was in blond wig, elegant off-the-shoulder gown, lace picture hat, diaphanous stole, carrying flowers, looking every inch as feminine as Ginevra herself. He received fan letters from men who wanted to date him and an agent offered to book him a vaudeville tour as a female impersonator.
Zelda, who revelled in outrageousness, would probably have posed with him attired in a gentleman’s suit. But not Ginevra.
With his new love waning, Scott significantly mailed his thirteen-year-old sister Annabel, at convent school, a long letter that was in essence a charm course on how to get and keep men. He advised her on conversation, couture and cosmetics, how to sit, move and above all how to listen: ‘Boys like to talk about themselves.’56
He told Annabel that Ginevra was a specialist in how to gaze at a beau effectively: mouth drooping, head hanging slightly, wide-open eyes fixed on the man in question. What he didn’t tell Annabel was that the pathetic appealing look he advocated was the one he had used on his publicity photos!
Scott made even better use of his advice to his sister. He dressed up in women’s clothes, sneaked a powder compact in the top of his blue stocking, accompanied a male friend to a fraternity hop at Minnesota University, danced his way through the evening with several eligible bachelors and was not unmasked until he had to go to the men’s room.
Scott returned to Princeton in September 1916 to repeat his junior year. Though he invited Ginevra to the Yale game that November she had lost interest in him. In January she broke with him, broke his heart, then announced her engagement to the wealthy Ensign William Hamilton Mitchell, and finally entered Scott’s world of fiction as the rich unobtainable heroine. By another fortuitous coincidence Mitchell, a good-looking young aviator, was able to harden up Scott’s most consistent symbol: the aviator risking death.57
Scott kept all Ginevra’s letters and typed and bound them into a book. Ginevra thought his letters were clever, bulky but unimportant. She destroyed them in 1917.
However, the loss of Ginevra and his multitude of failures did wonders for his fiction. It grew up, had a new resonance, hinted at power.
America entered the war, Scott’s friends joined up, he took his exams for the army and received his commission on 26 October 1917. There seemed nothing left in his life except to read more good books and think about writing one. Thus it was in his first Officers’ Training Camp at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, he started ‘The Romantic Egotist’, which he sent to Shane Leslie who had offered to show it to his publishers Charles Scribner’s Sons. Leslie corrected the grammar and spelling and sent a covering letter suggesting that Scott was a prose Rupert Brooke. ‘Though Scott Fitzgerald is still alive it has a literary value. Of course when he is killed, it will also have a commercial value.’58
Instead of getting killed Scott met Zelda Sayre in July 1918 while Scribner’s were still considering his manuscript. On 19 August Scribner’s rejected it, overruling the enthusiasm of Max Perkins who would soon become Scott’s editor and most loyal friend. Scott rapidly revised it but in October Perkins sent another rejection. Scott captioned the telegram ‘The end of a dream’ and stuck it in his scrapbook. Meanwhile he had posted Zelda one of the chapters telling her ‘the heroine does resemble you in more ways than four’.59
It was a sharper wooing line than even those Scott had recommended to Annabel. The fact that he cautioned Zelda to secrecy about the chapter appealed to her sense of mystery. She elevated him to her top beau. The myth reports that Zelda and Scott fell in love at first sight. Not at all. On 4 September Ginevra King got married.60 Three days later Scott entered these serious words in his Ledger: ‘Fell in love on the 7th.’ Scott had been unable to offer Ginevra anything she did not have or could not acquire. But Zelda wanted to escape from the claustrophobia of Montgomery gripped by its past. With Scott she saw a chance of a life in New York — though for that she needed the conditions to be right.
1 ZSF, Waltz, Collected Writings, p. 37.
2 Mayfield, Exiles, p. 2.
3 FSF, This Side of Paradise, Penguin, 1963, p. 156. Rosalind Connage was based on a combination of Zelda Sayre and Beatrice Normandy from H. G. Wells’ Tono-Bungay, 1909.
4 Dorothy Parker to Nancy Milford, interview 26 Aug. 1964, quoted in Milford, Zelda, p. 68.
5 Zelda Sayre to FSF, spring 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 3, PUL.
6 FSF to Scottie Fitzgerald, summer 1935.
7 Zelda Sayre to FSF after receiving from Scott a gift of Compton MacKenzie’s book Plashers Mead, which she hated.
8 FSF, Notebooks 938.
9 Completed in an amazing three months’ work at weekends only.
10 FSF, ‘The Romantic Egotist’, unpublished MS, ch. 1, pp. 33–4, CO187, Box 17, PUL.
11 Quoted in Laura Guthrie Hearne, ‘A Summer with F. Scott Fitzgerald’, Esquire 62, Dec. 1964, p. 258.
12 Zelda Sayre to FSF, Feb. or Mar. 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 13, PUL.
13 Zelda Sayre to FSF, ibid.
14 Janis L. Magin, ‘Montgomery Recalls High-Living Zelda’, Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution, 6 Nov. 1993. The author was also told this by Eddie Pattillo and Janie Wall Montgomery, 1999.
15 When Scott was ordered to Camp Sheridan he had written to Lawton Campbell, a fellow Princetonian who came from Montgomery, to ask for the names of the prettiest girls in Montgomery. Lawton sent back three. These did not include Zelda because she had grown up after he left. Scott had already dated all three who were busy that night so he went on his own to the dance.
16 Mayfield, Exiles, p. 3.
18 Arthur Mizener, The Far Side of Paradise, Heinemann, 1969, p. 23.
19 FSF, Notebooks No. 1378.
20 ZSF, Waltz, p. 34.
21 Zelda illustrates this in her story ‘The Original Follies Girl’ when Gay, asked why she had suddenly become serious about taking the veil, retorts ‘Because I’ve never done that’ (ZSF, ‘The Original Follies Girl’, Collected Writings, p. 294).
22 ZSF, Waltz, p. 36. This is similar to Daisy Buchanan’s response in The Great Gatsby (1925) when she too smashes up people then retreats back into her money and her ‘vast carelessness’, FSF, Gatsby, p. 167.
23 Mayfield, Exiles, p. 3.
24 ZSF, Waltz, p. 39.
25 Zelda Sayre to FSF, spring 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 17, PUL.
26 FSF, Paradise, p. 156.
27 ZSF, Caesar, ch. IV, CO183, Box 2A, Folder 5, PUL.
28 FSF, Gatsby, pp. 138–9.
29 FSF, Notebooks Nos. 466 and 765.
30 ZSF, ‘The Original Follies Girl’, p. 293.
31 FSF, Notebooks No. 938.
32 FSF to John O’Hara, 18 July 1933, CO187, Box 51, PUL.
33 Mayfield, Constant Circle, p. 31. Scott Fitzgerald and Francis Scott Key were related as second cousins three times removed: Philip Key, founder of the Maryland family and Francis Scott Key’s great-grandfather, was Scott’s great-great-great-great-grandfather. Matthew J. Bruccoli, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, Sphere Books, London, 1991, p. 16.
34 Mizener, Far Side of Paradise, p. 2.
35 He became a benefactor of St Paul’s Catholic church, founder of the McQuillan Block of buildings and streets and owner of an impressive Victorian mansion complete with cupola.
36 Richard Washington to Arthur Mizener, quoted in Mizener, Far Side of Paradise, p. 2.
37 FSF, ‘Author’s House’, in Afternoon of an Author, ed. Arthur Mizener, Princeton University Library, 1957, p. 184.
38 Meyers, Scott Fitzgerald, p. 5.
39 FSF, ‘The Romantic Egotist’, p. 4, CO187, Box 17, PUL.
40 The American Rattan and Willow Works.
41 The Fitzgeralds moved to Syracuse, New York (Jan. 1901) and back to Buffalo (Sep. 1901).
42 Interview by Michel Mok of the New York Post on 24 Sep. 1936, Scott’s fortieth birthday.
43 Lloyd Hackl to the author, St Paul, July 1999.
44 FSF, ‘A Debt of Honor’, St Paul Academy Now and Then, Mar. 1910.
45 Mizener enlarges on this (Far Side of Paradise, p. 29).
46 Scott would immortalize him as Monsignor Thayer Darcy in This Side of Paradise.
47 FSF, Paradise, p. 46.
48 As editor of the Nassau Lit Wilson published the first of Scott’s contributions.
49 Alfred Kazin, F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Man and His Work, World, Cleveland, 1951, p. 47. Scott himself wrote: ‘I discussed books voluminously, books I had read, books I had read about, and books I had never heard of.’ ‘The Romantic Egotist’, ch. V, p. 33, CO187, Box 17, PUL.
50 Edmund Wilson, A Prelude, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1967, p. 148.
51 The Apprentice Fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. John Kuehl, Rutgers University Press, 1965, p. 136.
52 He joined Cottage with Sap Donahoe but Alex McKaig, Townsend Martin, Ludlow Fowler and John Peale Bishop all joined the more literary club, Quadrangle.
53 FSF, ‘Handle with Care’, The Crack-Up, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1965, p 47.
54 FSF, Gatsby, p. 103.
55 Ibid., p. 113.
56 FSF to Annabel Fitzgerald, c. 1915, F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli, Touchstone, New York, 1995, p. 7.
57 Mitchell was an instructor at the naval air station in Key West, Florida, as well as an aviator. He may also have been the ‘beautiful Billy Mitchell’ whom Scott met with Ginevra at Lake Forest (Aug. 1916). James R. Mellow, Invented Lives, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1984, p. 53.
58 Shane Leslie to Charles Scribner, 6 May 1918, PUL.
59 FSF to Zelda Sayre, c. 1918, Bruccoli et al., eds., Romantic Egoists, p. 47.
60 Scott saved the wedding invitation and a piece of Ginevra’s handkerchief in his scrapbook with the note: ‘The end of a once poignant story’.
Zelda threw herself into their courtship, playing the Deep South baby doll. Letters using the Southern Belles’ courtly code winged their way to Scott:
‘Nothing means anything except your darling self’ … ‘Don’t you think I was made for you? I feel like you had me ordered — I want you to wear me, like a watch-charm or a button hole boquet’ … ‘Sweetheart I want to always be a help.’1
Those lines offer some evidence that her mother’s training in femininity had at least reached Zelda’s pen if not her intentions, but in case they were insufficient to impress Scott with the strength of her desire, Zelda outdid herself with this line:
‘I’m all I’ll ever be without you — and there’s so much more room for growth — with you — all my mental faculties are paralysed with loving you — and wanting you for mine.’2
Her mental faculties of course were far from paralysed. She ended that letter briskly with a description of a helpless movie heroine who had stimulated her scorn for the way ‘most women regard themselves as helpless’.3
Although in love with Scott, she preserved a wry detachment. ‘Being in love’, she wrote later, ‘… is simply a presentation of our pasts to another individual, mostly packages so unwieldy that we can no longer manage the loosened strings alone. Looking for love is like asking for a new point of departure,… another chance in life.’4
The couple held hands in pine groves and discussed poetry and seduction. But in wartime, loving Scott was not Zelda’s only interest. She was preparing a war benefit ballet and according to Sara Haardt they danced all night, then spent every day working for the Red Cross. When Sara and Zelda talked about it later Zelda said: ‘Some of the older girls … thought that because we talked so much we of the younger generation would never get any work done, but we sold more tags5 and folded more bandages than all the rest … It was as if we were possessed with an insatiable vitality.’6
In October 1918 Scott received orders to go North, after which he hoped he would be sent to France. Zelda resisted his attempts to pressure her into commitment before he left. She was cautious of throwing in her lot with an insecure unpublished writer. A Southern Belle’s expectation was rarely love on a budget; but more significantly, Zelda despised weakness. She needed Scott to feel realistically self-confident before she could feel secure about leaving her safe Southern world. Later, Scott rewrote and simplified Zelda’s viewpoint until it became an avaricious girl’s refusal to marry until the beau attained New York success. But at the time he knew Zelda’s stand was consistent with her refusal to compromise on her desires. ‘Here is my heart’ were his last words before leaving.7 Zelda would remember them until her death.
‘Zelda was cagey about throwing in her lot with me before I was a money-maker …’ Scott wrote later. ‘She was young and in a period where any exploiter or middle-man seemed a better risk than a worker in the arts.’8
Rosalind later wrote to Sara Mayfield: ‘I do not believe that Zelda’s hesitancy about marrying Scott was prompted by any mercenary motive … it was rather her uncertainty about the wisdom of leaving her known world for a strange new one that restrained her.’9
Rosalind’s analysis seems accurate. Despite her dashing ways Zelda had a tense uncertain side of which Scott appeared unaware, even though he had criticized her nervous habit of biting the skin on her lips. She needed the rock-solid protection of her family and community in order to rebel.
Zelda had a remarkable understanding of the way in which Scott inextricably linked his attitude to money with his attitude to her.
‘There’s nothing in all the world I want but you — and your precious love‚’ she wrote. ‘All the material things are nothing. I’d just hate to live a sordid, colorless existence — because you’d soon love me — less and less.’ She reassured him that money did not matter, whilst acknowledging that if she was not adorned like a material girl he would think less of her.10
Years later Scott would admit that he had ‘never been able to stop wondering where my friends’ money came from, nor to stop thinking that at some time a sort of droit de seigneur might have been exercised to give one of them my girl’.11
In Camp Mills, Long Island, as Scott anxiously waited to be posted, the Armistice was signed. Disappointed at not getting overseas he went on a drinking marathon, missing his unit’s sober departure for Montgomery. However when the troop train pulled into Washington, there, sitting on a baggage truck with two girls and a bottle, was Scott. He told Zelda he had commandeered a locomotive on the plea that he was a courier with papers for the White House.12 Zelda listened with amusement as another Fitzgerald fabrication passed into legend.
Her family neither encouraged the match nor took it seriously. Though there was Southern anti-Catholic feeling, the Episcopalian Sayres had become less opposed to Scott’s Yankee Catholicism than to his lack of money and future prospects. Scott had not graduated, had no real career and drank too much. The Judge, seriously ill for nine months with ‘nervous prostration’, was not at his most tolerant, so when Zelda said Scott was sweet her father curtly replied: ‘He’s never sober.’13
Scott’s harshest critics were Minnie and Rosalind, who both felt strongly that their Southern Baby needed more protection than Scott offered. Later Rosalind would hold Scott and the Southern uprooting largely responsible for Zelda’s breakdowns.
For years Scott, ill at ease with the socially skilled Sayres, bitterly resented their judgemental opposition, particularly Minnie’s. He retaliated by accusing Minnie of poor parenting: ‘For a long time I hated her mother for giving her nothing in the line of good habit — nothing but “getting by” and conceit.’14
That Zelda, surrounded by beaux, did seem able to get by made him despair. She swam with boys in icy spring waters, she and Eleanor Browder formed a syndicate to buddy ‘more college boys than Solomon had wives’15 and she irritated Scott by retelling her mother’s tales of penniless young authors turned out on dark stormy nights. Zelda’s lack of faith in him provoked quarrels.
In December 1918 Scott wrote to a confidante that he was determined not to marry Zelda. But determined though he was he had to acknowledge that Zelda was extraordinary.16
That is the only evidence that Scott ever seriously tried to give up Zelda. But within two weeks, his resolve weakened. He wrote the bold word ‘Love’ in his Ledger before once more falling into it, this time decisively. ‘The most important year of my life. Every emotion and my life work decided.’17
They spent romantic hours in restaurants, at vaudeville at the Grand Theatre, anywhere they could be alone and hold hands. Several biographers suggest they went further than holding hands.18
Scott wrote in retrospect that Christmas 1918 at the Sayres was a time of Zelda’s ‘sexual recklessness’19, though this is questionable. One piece of evidence is a note pinned to Scott’s 1934 ‘Count of Darkness’ Philippe stories: ‘After yielding [she] holds Philippe at bay like Zelda + me in summer 1917’. However Scott and Zelda had not yet met at that point so Scott’s memory appears to be faulty.20
Stronger evidence points to the date being spring or summer 1919 when Zelda’s letters have a heightened sensual intimacy.21 They may have made love in April 1919 on one of Scott’s three trips to Montgomery from New York where, trying to make sufficient money to marry Zelda, he lived in one room and worked as a copywriter for the Barron Collier advertising agency.22 At this time in a letter to Scott Zelda wrote these subtly passionate lines: ‘Sweetheart, I love you most of all the earth — and I want to be married soon — soon — Lover — Don’t say I’m not enthusiastic — You ought to know.’23
Whatever date is assigned to their lovemaking, it was a brief sexual experiment after which Zelda again held back.
On 9 January 1919 Scott had a premonitory seizure of trembling; neither Scott nor Zelda knew why. The following day, Scott learnt that his mentor Monsignor Fay had died. After Fay’s death Scott had no further supernatural experiences though he continued to scatter them through his fiction. His Catholicism also died with Fay. Scott indicates that Zelda replaced the influence of Fay and the Church. ‘Zelda’s the only God I have left now‚’ he wrote on 26 February.24
During the spring Scott wrote nineteen stories and received 122 rejections with which he papered his walls, hoping that when he became famous biographers would relish and retell that story. Indeed they do.
Zelda was given the star part of Folly in the April Folly Ball held by Les Mysterieuses, a society of prominent Montgomery girls and matrons. Minnie and Rosalind had written the play which preceded the complex ballet. Zelda sent Scott a photo of herself amongst the roses in Minnie’s backyard, poised on tiptoe in her black and gold costume trimmed with tiny bells. In an auditorium decorated with baskets of sunshine roses entwined with gold and black ribbons that matched her Folly outfit, Zelda expertly performed intricate sequences. Her ethereal beauty haunted the audience long after she stopped dancing.
Her practice had not been without pain. In March she had written to Scott: ‘Your feet — that you liked so much — are ruined. I’ve been toe-dancing again and nearly broke my right foot … The doctor is trying … but they’ll always look ugly.’25 Curiously, Scott too had a strange view of his naked feet, which since his youth had been a source of erotic shame.
Zelda and her schoolfriend Livye Hart also performed in the Seague Musical. Irritatingly, she told Scott one actor was so impressed he ‘tried to take me and Livye on the road with him’.26 When dancing, she assured Scott, she felt ‘self-reliant’.27
Though Livye and Eleanor shared Zelda’s dance life, other friends were taking new directions. Katharine Elsberry, who had initially moved North with her wartime bridegroom, bore a son, and returned to Alabama where Zelda frequently visited her and the baby. With no support beyond her family’s generosity, Katharine became a dental receptionist and the first divorcee of Zelda’s set to do work other than schoolteaching.28
At Goucher College Sara Haardt was encouraged by her English instructor Harry T. Baker to write short stories that would soon be noticed by the literary critic H. L. Mencken.29 Since October 1914 Mencken and drama critic George Jean Nathan had been co-editing The Smart Set.30 Both Sara and Scott submitted some early stories. Mencken initially rejected Sara’s stories until he met her in 1923, when he published ‘Joe Moore and Callie Balsingame’, the tale of a Montgomery girl and boy who grew up in the neighbourhood where she and Zelda met their beaux. When Scott revised and submitted his 1917 Nassau Lit story ‘Babes in the Woods’ Mencken published it in 1919. At $30 this became Scott’s first and only commercial sale that year. Immediately he bought himself a pair of white flannels and knowing her love of finery, a luxury for Zelda. One story suggests it was ‘moon-shiny’ pajamas in which Zelda felt ‘like a Vogue cover’ and wished Scott’s pajamas ‘were touching’.31 Another suggests it was a magenta fan with ‘those wonderful, wonderful feathers [that] are the most beautiful things on earth’.32
Throughout their separation in spring 1919 they wrote constantly. Zelda seldom dated her letters scrawled in her large ‘sun-burned, open-air looking script’.33 Her punctuation was restricted to a series of dashes and a scattering of exclamation marks.
Zelda pasted Scott’s telegrams into her scrapbook as they held a certain glamour. But (like Ginevra) she did not keep any of Scott’s letters. Zelda wasn’t sentimental.
Scott, who constantly catalogued, classified and preserved, did keep Zelda’s letters. Every one of them. He wasn’t sentimental either. He knew they would come in useful.
Take the letter Zelda wrote to him after one of her visits to Oakwood Cemetery.
I’ve spent today in the grave-yard … trying to unlock a rusty iron vault built in the side of the hill. It’s all washed and covered with weepy, watery blue flowers that might have grown from dead eyes sticky to touch with a sickening odor.
Zelda had been moved by thoughts of long-dead passions.
Why should graves make people feel in vain? … somehow I can’t find anything hopeless in having lived — All the broken columnes and clasped hands and doves and angels mean romances and in an hundred years I think I shall like having young people speculate on whether my eyes were brown or blue … I hope my grave has an air of many, many years about it — Isn’t it funny how, out of a row of Confederate soldiers, two or three will make you think of dead lovers and dead loves — when they’re exactly like the others, even to the yellowish moss?34
Zelda’s letters at nineteen were remarkable for their sensitivity to place and her visualization of her emotions. Unlike Scott, she wrote spontaneously without regard for audience or effect. Her letters are significant because for two important years before they married we see Zelda, a frivolous, loving, acutely sharp woman, through her own words and eyes rather than through Scott’s.
To Scott the letters were a gift in more ways than one. He inserted Zelda’s graveyard description into the penultimate page of This Side of Paradise, which he had been rewriting in summer 1919. His editorial acumen assured him there was little need to alter Zelda’s words.
On an impulse he [Amory Blaine] considered trying to open the door of a rusty iron vault built into the side of a hill, a vault washed clean and covered with late-blooming, weepy water-blue flowers that might have grown from dead eyes, sticky to the touch with a sickening odour … He wondered that graves ever made people consider life in vain. Somehow he could find nothing hopeless in having lived. All the broken columns and clasped hands and doves and angels meant romances. He fancied that in a hundred years he would like having young people speculate as to whether his eyes were brown or blue, and he hoped quite passionately that his grave would have about it an air of many, many years ago. It seemed strange that out of a row of Union soldiers two or three made him think of dead loves and dead lovers, when they were exactly like the rest even to the yellowish moss.35
Zelda never revealed her reaction to this plagiarism. Young, in love with love, riding high on excitement, still professionally uncertain, she was probably more flattered by the attention paid to her words than offended at their appropriation.
Zelda trusted Scott enough to show him her personal diary.36 He found it so extraordinary that he borrowed it for several months. In an act of betrayal he loaned it to Peevie Parrott, after telling him intimate details of his affair with Zelda. Parrott reported: ‘As you say, it is a very human document, but somehow I cannot altogether understand it … It is hard for me to picture it [love] anywhere but in a book.’ Parrott, like Scott, did picture Zelda’s diary in a book, and thought it worth publishing.
Parrott, Zelda, Scott and all subsequent biographers agree on that first stage of the diary’s travels. There are however several versions about the next stage.
Sara Mayfield said that in late 1918 Scott, ‘with the diary in hand’, accompanied by Wilson and Bishop, besieged Mencken’s co-editor, the critic and writer George Jean Nathan, in his Royalton apartment, where Scott, who ‘proposed to turn Zelda’s journal into a novelette called “The Diary of a Popular Girl”, asked Nathan to read it’. Nathan immediately wanted to publish it and meet Zelda. According to Mayfield, Scott seemed keen, until Zelda broke off her engagement to him in June 1919, when, ‘in an embarrassing position in regard to publishing her diary … [he] quietly diverted it to his own purposes in This Side of Paradise.’37
Curiously, when Mayfield later wrote Zelda’s biography she revised the story. Scott, she says, had agreed to rewrite Zelda’s diary for Nathan as ‘The Journal of a Young Girl’ but withdrew from his verbal contract, realizing he could put the diary to better use.38
One Fitzgerald biographer suggests that Scott had always intended to use Zelda’s letters and diary in his first novel This Side of Paradise, to ensure his hero Amory Blaine’s affair with Rosalind Connage resembled his own affair with Zelda.39 When Scott later sent his editor, Maxwell Perkins, a segment of his manuscript containing parts of Zelda’s diary, he confessed that much of the dialogue was Zelda’s.40
Nathan himself recorded the episode quite differently for Esquire thirty-eight years later. His version does not implicate Scott as the instigator of the deal. On a visit to the married Fitzgeralds in Westport in 192041 he wandered down to the cellar and ‘discovered’ Zelda’s diaries. He talks about them in the plural. ‘They interested me so greatly that in my capacity as a magazine editor I later made her an offer for them [author’s emphasis]. When I informed her husband, he said that he could not permit me to publish them since he had gained a lot of inspiration from them and wanted to use parts of them in his own novels and short stories, as for example “The Jelly Bean”.’42
Evidence suggests there were several diaries, all of which Zelda seemed prepared to give to Scott. Certainly she offered no resistance to Scott’s high-handed refusal of Nathan’s offer. Zelda may not have realized at the time that through her silent acquiescence her literary property became and remained Scott’s.
What is known is that later Scott used diary extracts in The Beautiful and Damned as well as in ‘The Jelly Bean’.
What is not validated is the view proposed by some that Scott, fearful of losing Zelda to a prosperous rival, was determined to win her by writing a successful novel in which he would express his love by including her diaries and portraying her character.43 We have Scott’s fictional appropriations but we do not have Zelda’s diary or diaries. Perhaps in the course of the Fitzgeralds’ changing addresses they were accidentally mislaid or removed from public perusal, if not deliberately, at least conveniently.44
Zelda, aware of the extent to which Scott drew on her writings and ideas, was led to try out some fiction herself. ‘Yesterday I almost wrote a book or a story‚’ she wrote Scott, ‘… but after two pages on my heroine I discovered that I hadn’t even started her, and, since I couldn’t just write forever about a charmingly impossible creature, I began to despair. “Vamping Romeo” was the name, and I guess a man would have had to appear somewhere before the end. But there wasn’t any plot, so I thought I’d ask you to decide what they’re going to do.’ She wished she had sufficient ambition to carry on but was ‘much too lazy to care whether it’s done or not’. At this stage she did not want to be ‘famous and feted’, but preferred to be ‘very young always and very irresponsible and to feel that my life is my own — to live and be happy’, and (she added with unconscious irony) ‘die in my own way to please myself’.45
She told Scott she hoped ‘I’ll never get ambitious enough to try anything. It’s so much nicer to be sure I could do it better than other people — and I might not … that, of cource, would break my heart.’46 Already she had an insight into how much ambition could cost her.
During spring 1919 Scott posted Zelda an engagement ring which had belonged to his mother. ‘Scott Darling, it really is beautiful. Every time I see it on my finger I am rather startled — … but I love to see this shining there so nice and white like our love — and it sorter says “Soon” to me all the time — Just sings it all day long.’47
Zelda told him she hardly ever took off the ‘darling ring’ except to swim, but the truth was she hardly ever put it on. ‘She soon relegated it to her trophy box‚’ said Sara Mayfield, ‘because … to exhibit it flagrantly would have impeded her conquests.’48
Zelda’s letters swung Scott this way and that on a seesaw of emotion. She assured him of her love, then confessed to an escapade when she dressed in men’s clothes to have fun in the movies with a gang of boys, followed by a crazy drive ‘with ten boys to liven things up’.49
Protestations of everlasting passion compete with ‘amusing’ encounters with other beaux. Typically she tells Scott an ‘old flame from the Stone Ages is calling’ but remembers to add: ‘He’ll probably leave in disgust because I just must talk about you.’ By April 1919 Scott’s Ledger registers ‘hysteria’. Zelda stayed cool: ‘Scott, you’re really awfully silly — In the first place, I haven’t kissed anybody goodbye, and in the second place, nobody’s left in the first place — … If I did have an honest — or dishonest — desire to kiss just one or two people, I might — but I couldn’t ever want to — my mouth is yours.’
Ruthlessly she continued: ‘But s’pose I did — Don’t you know it’d just be absolutely nothing — Why can’t you understand that nothing means anything except your darling self and your love — I wish we’d hurry and I’d be yours so you’d know.’50
Scott wished he could keep Zelda locked up like a princess in a tower and told her so incessantly.51 Finally in exasperation she responded: ‘I’m so damn tired of being told that you “used to wonder why they kept princesses in towers” — you’ve written that verbatim in your last six letters! … I know you love me, Darling, and I love you more than anything in the world, but if it’s going to be so much longer, we just can’t keep up this frantic writing.’52
But when, to placate her, he paused, Zelda chastised him: ‘The only thing that carried me through a [trip to Auburn] … was the knowledge that I’d have a note from you when I got home — but I didn’t … I hate being disappointed day after day.’53
Her view of Scott was piercingly accurate: ‘I know you’ve worried — and enjoyed doing it thoroughly … [but] it’s all right I rather hate to tell you that — I know it’s depriving you of an idea that horrifies and fascinates — you’re so morbidly exaggerative — Your mind dwells on things that don’t make people happy.’54
What Zelda did not realize was that while besieging her with attention and becoming infuriated at her flirtations, Scott was dating another three women.
The first was the curly-haired Montgomery Belle May Steiner. May, popular with officers, fitted the pattern of Fitzgerald’s lovers. Scott’s Ledger for 1918 testifies to May’s consistent appearances if not to the correct spelling of her name: July: ‘May Stiener. Zelda … May and I on the porch. Her visiting bows’. August: ‘Zelda and May’. In September there is no entry for May, presumably because he ‘fell in love [with Zelda] on the 7th’. But in October the Ledger again registers: ‘May Steiner. Reunion on 26th … left for North on 26th.’
Months later, May and Scott were still in contact. Zelda, unaware of Scott’s entanglement, told him in her chatty April 1919 letter that after a severe bout of Spanish ’flu ‘all her [May’s] beautiful hair came out’ so she was going to New York to have it treated and would phone Scott.55 This was the hair admired by Scott, who was secretly aware of May’s impending visit.
May, who entered Zelda’s close-knit set when later she became Katherine Elsberry’s sister-in-law, also entered Scott’s fiction. Naturally he heightened their drama, so that in The Beautiful and Damned (1922) May, as Dorothy Raycroft, has an affair with Anthony Patch (the Scott hero), who jilts her when she becomes seriously ill.
Zelda, unaware also of Scott’s romance with a second woman called Helen Dent,56 was more significantly kept in the dark about his brief but passionate affair in New York with Rosalinde Fuller, an English actress. Scott’s Ledger entry for October 1919 states: ‘Went to see Zelda. New York. Rosalind.’ Biographers have generally assumed this referred to Zelda’s sister, but it is more likely to have been Fuller.
Rosalinde, at twenty-seven four years Scott’s senior, was small, dark, with something of Ginevra’s pert attraction. Edmund Wilson later told Rosalinde that Scott had considered his sexual encounter with her to be ‘his first serious love affair’. At their first meeting at a Plaza Hotel party, Scott introduced himself, then suggested they leave at once. Unlike Zelda who refused late dates with fast workers, Rosalinde, an emancipated believer in free love, agreed immediately. Fitzgerald called a hansom cab, jumped his date inside, pulled a rug around their legs, and according to Rosalinde’s racy account ‘the clip-crop of the horse’s hoofs made a background to our discovery of each other’s bodies’.57
In the cab Scott’s ‘eager hands’ felt ‘in warm secret places under the old rug’. Once out of the hansom he met Rosalinde frequently for brief but intensely sexual assignations. Though in 1935 Scott told Tony Buttitta that he had had no sexual experience before Zelda, Rosalinde’s diary refutes this: ‘We made love everywhere, in theatre boxes, country fields, under the sun, moon and stars … no end to our delight and discovery of one another.’ Rosalinde temporarily succeeded in abolishing Fitzgerald’s sexual inhibitions.58
Though Scott ceased to correspond with Rosalinde after their affair, its repercussions continued. The erotic hansom cab ride enters his fiction. His story ‘Myra Meets His Family’ (1920) includes the heroine’s romantic carriage ride up Fifth Avenue. In another 1920 story, ‘The Lees of Happiness’, his heroine Roxanne Milbank, known as the ‘Venus of the Hansom Cab’, was at least partly based on Rosalinde. In The Great Gatsby (1925) the narrator, Nick Carraway, chooses a hansom cab ride through Central Park in which to kiss Jordan Baker. In 1934 in Tender Is The Night, Dick Diver (partly based on Scott) is in a Paris cab when he kisses Rosemary Hoyt, the young woman who comes between Dick and Nicole Diver (partly based on Zelda).
Whether Scott wished to retaliate for Zelda’s flirtatiousness or whether he wanted a final fling before marriage, he felt a ‘sense of shame at having let himself go so far in yielding to his physical proclivities’.59 Curiously, Scott records no sense of shame about deceiving Zelda while berating her for what were, according to relevant Montgomery beaux, far less sexually explicit flirtations.
It is interesting to speculate on Zelda’s response had she known. She might well not have minded. For when Scott, attempting to make her jealous, dwelt on an attractive girl in New York, she parried with: ‘if she’s good-looking, and you want to, one bit — I know you could and love me just the same’.60
But what Zelda might have minded was his self-righteous deceit.
In June 1919 the climax to their roller-coaster romance came with Zelda’s involvement with Perry Adair, an Atlanta golfer. Invited by him to the Georgia Tech dance, she returned home wearing a fraternity pin as a sign of their commitment. Realizing she had gone too far, she returned his fraternity pin with a warm note. Unfortunately, possibly by mistake, possibly not, she sent Adair a letter to Scott and posted Scott the note to the golfer. Fitzgerald was incensed and told her to cease writing to him.61
In June 1919, still angry with Zelda, with his lack of success and with himself, Scott swung into the Sayres’ parlour where he tried to intimidate Zelda into an instant marriage, first with threats, then with tears. She could not bear to see him demean himself. Marriage and New York was how Zelda planned to change her life, but she would not stand for any change founded on failure. Sad but resolute, she returned his ring and told him to leave.
He commemorated his personal tragedy first with a three-week binge, during which time he quit his advertising job and returned to St Paul,62 later with a fine story, ‘The Sensible Thing’, ‘about Zelda + me’,63 in which the anti-hero George O’Kelly seized Jonquil Cary in his arms ‘and tried literally to kiss her into marrying him at once’. When that failed he broke into a long monologue of self-pity and ceased only when he saw he had made himself ‘despicable in her sight’.64
Though Scott would never forget Zelda’s rejection, he used it to his best advantage as he metamorphosed from amateur to professional. During July and August ‘I dug in and wrote my first book.’65 In rewriting he discovered his style, his voice and his subject.
Scribners finally accepted This Side of Paradise on 16 September 1919. Scott wrote immediately to Perkins asking for a fast publication: ‘I have so many things dependent on its success — including of course a girl.’66
In November Wilson, Scott’s literary mentor, suggested that Fitzgerald cease the cheap effects of commercial stories and substitute the serious work necessary for high art.67 Temporarily ignoring this issue, Scott recalled his words to Wilson when they left Princeton: ‘I want to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived, don’t you?’ Now on his way, he needed to see Zelda again.
In October he wrote asking if he could come to Montgomery, telling her of his success. She responded she was ‘mighty glad’ he was coming. ‘I’ve been wanting to see you … but I couldn’t ask you.’ With her old wicked touch she told him she was recovering from a ‘wholesome amour’ with Auburn’s ‘startling quarter back’ and asked him for a ‘quart of gin’. He might find her mentally ‘dreadfully deteriorated’ but ‘you never seemed to know when I was stupid and when I wasn’t, anyway … ’S funny, Scott, I don’t feel a bit shaky and “do-don’t”ish like I used to when you came — I really want to see you — that’s all — Zelda.’68
Zelda had taken pride in men not being able to fathom her intelligence. She had already written to Scott: ‘Men think I’m purely decorative, and they’re just fools for not knowing better … I love being rather unfathomable … Men love me cause I’m pretty — and they’re always afraid of mental wickedness — and men love me cause I’m clever and they’re always afraid of my prettiness — One or two have even loved me cause I’m lovable, and then, of cource, I was acting.’69
She believed Scott was the one person who knew and loved all of her. He wasn’t quite so sure.
In November 1919 he became a client of Harold Ober at the Reynolds Agency, who remained his friend and agent for years. Ober’s coup was to persuade the prestigious Saturday Evening Post to buy Scott’s story ‘Head and Shoulders’ for $400 before Scott left for Montgomery in late November.70 Thus he went with some triumph and some trepidation, but the reality of encountering Zelda could not live up to five months’ fantasies. Scott wanted to repeat the past, but realized that ‘There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.’71
Although informally they renewed their engagement, Scott left Montgomery feeling they had lost what they had. Though Zelda wrote saying she would release him from any marriage obligation, she was the more optimistic. Earlier she had told a friend that she was not romantically in love with Scott but that she felt it was her mission to help him realize his potential as a writer.72 Unlike Scott, she now felt a more realistic romantic resurgence. She felt they were building their love castle on firmer foundations. That first abandonment couldn’t last. She thought it foolish to mourn for a memory when they had each other. ‘“When love has turned to kindliness” doesn’t horrify me like it used to — It has such a peaceful sound — like something to come back to and rest — and sometimes I’m glad we’re not exactly like we used to be.’73
Between November 1919 and February 1920 Scott’s stories about bright upper-class adolescents were accepted fast. The Smart Set published ‘The Debutante’ in November, ‘Porcelain and Pink’ in January, ‘Benediction’ and ‘Dalyrimple Goes Wrong’ in February. He cabled Zelda with each success.
In December she read This Side of Paradise. Her response was: ‘Why cant I write? I’d like to tell you how fine I think the book is and how miserably and completely and — a little unexpectedly — I am thine.’74
By January Scott had made sufficient money to leave cold New York for warm New Orleans, from where he visited Zelda.75 When he said she had inspired his novel she responded: ‘It’s so nice to know you really can do things — anything — and I love to feel that maybe I can help just a little.’76
Scott wrote formally to the Judge for her hand77 and they resumed their sexual relationship. During February Zelda suspected she was pregnant. Earlier, on seeing Katharine’s baby, Zelda had told Scott: ‘It’s darling … I felt like I’d sorter like to have it’,78 but faced with a possible baby herself she was initially unsure whether she would ‘sorter like to have it’.
Yet when Scott, who was very sure he did not want the responsibility of fatherhood, sent her pills for an abortion Zelda refused to take them. ‘I wanted to, for your sake, because I know what a mess I’m making and how inconvenient it’s all going to be — but I simply can’t and won’t take those awful pills — so I’ve thrown them away. I’d rather take carbolic acid … I’d rather have a whole family than sacrifice my self-respect … I’d feel like a damn whore if I took even one.’79
Before Zelda discovered that she was after all not pregnant, Scott had already repeated Zelda’s key phrase ‘self-respect’ in a note to a friend’s sister. If a young woman smokes and drinks in public, tells hair-raising stories to shock people and admits that she has kissed thousands of male admirers and certainly does not intend to stop, that girl is hardly a lady. But Scott confessed he had fallen for Zelda’s bravery, honesty and ‘flaming self-respect.’80
Between March and May Ober sold ‘Myra Meets His Family’, ‘The Camel’s Back’, ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’, ‘The Ice Palace’ and ‘The Offshore Pirate’ to the Saturday Evening Post, which raised his fee to $500.
Scribner’s Magazine paid Scott $150 for ‘The Cut-Glass Bowl’ and ‘The Four Fists’, more serious pieces. Then in February, having sold movie rights of ‘Head and Shoulders’ for a staggering $2,500, he sent Zelda a diamond and platinum wristwatch. She wrote back exuberantly: ‘O, Scott, it’s so be-au-ti-ful — and the back’s just as pretty as the front … I’ve turned it over four hundred times to see “from Scott to Zelda”.’81
Myth says the success of This Side of Paradise reassured Zelda so that she decided to marry him. Zelda said it was because Scott had renewed confidence in himself. When his novel was accepted she knew nothing about it. When she agreed to marriage it had still not been published and she had no way of knowing its outcome.
Six days before Scribner’s published on 26 March 1920, Scott sent H. L. Mencken a review copy inscribed on the flyleaf with the words: ‘This is a bad book full of good things, a book about flappers written for philosophers, an exquisite burlesque of Compton Mackenzie with a pastiche of Wells at the end.’82
Five days before it was published, the Montgomery Advertiser celebrated the twin achievements of two Montgomery Belles. It announced Zelda’s engagement, and on the front page of the society section of the same 21 March issue it ran the headline: ‘Sara Haardt elected to Phi Beta Kappa.’ On Sara’s graduation in June, the Goucher yearbook hailed her as ‘a soulful highbrow’.83 The two women writers-to-be had decisively taken different paths.
Scott sent Zelda her first corsage of white orchids. She sent him her most loving letter:
Darling Heart, our fairy tale is almost ended, and we’re going to marry and live happily ever afterward just like the princess in her tower who worried you so much …
I DO want to marry you — even if you do think I “dread” it — I wish you hadn’t said that — I’m not afraid of anything. To be afraid a person has either to be a coward or very great and big. I am neither. Besides, I know you can take much better care of me than I can, and I’ll always be very, very happy with you — except sometimes when we engage in our weekly debates — and even then I rather enjoy myself. I like being very calm and masterful, while you become emotional and sulky.
Then, perhaps feeling she had tipped her hand a bit, she hastily finished with another courtly codeline: ‘I’m absolutely nothing without you — Just the doll that I should have been born — You’re a necessity and a luxury … you’re going to be a husband to your wife.’84
Zelda’s wedding was to take place in New York, where Scott insisted on being married in the Catholic church. He favoured St Patrick’s Cathedral because he had a cousin, Father William B. Martin, on the staff there who would marry them. Zelda’s family had always attended Montgomery’s Church of the Holy Comforter, where Minnie played the organ, Rosalind had sung in the choir, Marjorie had been married, and Zelda herself who went regularly to Sunday School had been baptized, a little late, in 1910. Zelda told Sara Mayfield she did not feel sentimental about the Holy Comforter and thought it more exciting to be married in Manhattan. The Sayres, who avoided the turmoil and expense of a Southern wedding, apparently raised no objections.
Zelda left Montgomery wearing a Confederate-grey suit, almost — according to Sara Mayfield — the colour of her eyes. ‘Some of the people with her thought they had never seen her look so beautiful before‚’ said Sara.85 A crowd of her friends laden with flowers for her saw her off at the station. Astonishingly, not one of Zelda’s many friends had been invited to the wedding. Apart from the bride and groom there were to be only Zelda’s three sisters — Marjorie Sayre Brinson, Clothilde (and her husband John Palmer), Rosalind (and her husband Newman Smith) and Scott’s Princeton friend Ludlow Fowler. He was to be best man while Rosalind stood as matron of honour.
Zelda’s parents had decided not to attend. They were not overtly opposed to a Catholic wedding, as long as it was in the North. Family members thought that as devout Episcopalians they would have felt uncomfortable about a Catholic ceremony in Montgomery. The Sayres’ main concern was that Zelda should be accompanied by her sister Marjorie and would stay with her sister Clothilde. Indeed, the announcement in the Montgomery Advertiser stated that Zelda and Marjorie would be guests of Clothilde and John Palmer.86 Events did not turn out as the Sayres had planned.
Zelda and Marjorie were met by Rosalind and Newman Smith at Pennsylvania Station, but instead of going to Clothilde’s home in nearby Tarrytown, they found Scott had arranged for them to stay at the Biltmore Hotel.87
Zelda and Scott were married on 3 April 1920 in the Rectory of St Patrick’s Cathedral. Scott, nervy and impatient, insisted that the wedding start even before the time at which Clothilde and John Palmer were due to arrive.
Zelda wore a blue-grey spring suit adorned by the single corsage of white orchids Scott had sent her. She had a matching hat trimmed with leather ribbons and buckles. She was the only ornament at her own wedding — for there was no music, no flowers, no photographer, and no lunch for the out-of-town visitors. After the ceremony the priest said: ‘You be a good episcopalian, Zelda, and, Scott, you be a good catholic, and you’ll get along fine.’ Scott said later to Ludlow Fowler that it was the last advice he got from a priest.88
Immediately after the wedding, Zelda and Scott hurried away to suite 2109 at the Biltmore Hotel, a favourite amongst Princetonians. It was noticeable that Scott had not thought to ask any Princetonians apart from Fowler to his wedding.
Zelda, who had been treated as a princess most of her life, must have been shocked by the tiny, hurried wedding about which she had barely been consulted and in which her family had not been taken into account. She was painfully aware that Rosalind, Marjorie and especially Clothilde were disconcerted, distressed and angry. ‘Scott had done all the planning without consulting me,’ said Rosalind. ‘Marjorie and the Palmers, and Newman and I lunched together, then Marjorie went home with Tilde.’89
Years later Scott described his emotions as a bridegroom: ‘The man with the jingle of money in his pocket who married the girl a year later would always cherish an abiding distrust, an animosity, toward the leisure class — not the conviction of a revolutionist, but the smouldering hatred of a peasant.’90
Zelda never openly described her emotions. But she would have known, then, that her family’s feelings were not important to her new husband.
1 Zelda Sayre to FSF, 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folders 18, 11, 10, PUL.
2 Zelda Sayre to FSF, early 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 31, PUL.
4 ZSF, Waltz, Collected Writings, p. 29.
5 For war benefits.
6 Sara Haardt/ZSF interview, 1928, unpublished.
7 Recalled years later by Zelda. ZSF to FSF, 13 Feb. 1940, Romantic Egotists, p. 225.
8 FSF, Notebook G, ‘Descriptions of Girls’.
9 Rosalind Sayre to Sara Mayfield, Mayfield Collection, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.
10 Zelda Sayre to FSF, 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 11, PUL.
11 FSF, ‘Handle with Care’, Crack-Up, p. 47.
12 Mayfield, Exiles, p. 44. Scott was given the post of aide-de-camp to General J. A. Ryan. He was discharged Feb. 1919.
13 Meyers, Scott Fitzgerald, p. 49.
14 FSF to Scottie Fitzgerald, 7 July 1938, The Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Andrew Turnbull, Penguin, 1968, p. 48.
15 Zelda and Eleanor also ran the street-car all day until they got fired.
16 FSF to Ruth Sturtevant, 4 Dec. 1918, Letters of F. Scott Fitzgerald, ed. Turnbull, p. 474. Turnbull (p. 474) says that Scott had made Ruth Sturtevant of Washington a confidante in his romance with Zelda. Later (in 1920) it was Ruth Sturtevant who organized somewhere for Scott and Zelda to stay on the shores of Lake Champlain before they settled on the Wakeman house in Westport, Connecticut. Andre Le Vot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Allen Lane, London, 1984, p. 86.
17 FSF, Ledger, 1918 (Scott’s Sep. summary of the year).
18 Milford does; Mayfield doesn’t.
19 FSF, Notebook G, ‘Descriptions of Girls’. Scott compared Zelda’s fearlessness and indiscretion with that of Beatrice Dance and Nora Flynn, two other ‘spoiled babies’ with whom he had brief affairs. He knew Beatrice Dance in Asheville in 1935. Nora Flynn was a friend of his in Tryon NC, wife of former Yale football star and movie actor Lefty Flynn.
20 Milford, Zelda’s first biographer, follows Scott’s line by saying that by Christmas 1918 Zelda was sexually incautious and, enchanted by him, she moved into a ‘passionate attachment’ (Milford, Zelda, p. 35). But Scott’s memory, therefore Milford’s version, is faulty. Scott’s biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli also thinks they might have had sex before Scott’s unit went north on 26 Oct. 1918, using as his fictional evidence Gatsby’s line about Daisy: ‘He felt married to her, that was all’ (Bruccoli, Epic Grandeur, 1991, p. 105), but factual evidence does not support this.
21 Biographer Jeffrey Meyers, who sees Zelda as an ‘impulsive yet calculating’ woman who will sleep with Scott yet won’t marry him before he is a financial success, also believes April to be the probable date. Meyers bases his theory on Scott’s own view when he revises his portrait of Rosalind in This Side of Paradise, so that he can reveal Rosalind/Zelda’s desire to remain young and irresponsible but have wealth to comfort and protect her. Meyers, Scott Fitzgerald, p. 48.
22 He lived at 20 °Claremont Avenue. His trips to Montgomery were in April, May and June 1919.
23 Zelda Sayre to FSF, c. spring 1919, quoted in Meyers, Scott Fitzgerald, p.48.
24 FSF to Isabel Amorous Palmer, 26 Feb. 1920.
25 Zelda Sayre to FSF, spring 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 14, PUL. From this experience she would consistently paint dancers’ feet as monstrously swollen with exercise.
26 Zelda Sayre to FSF, Apr. 1919, CO187, Box 42, PUL.
27 Zelda Sayre to FSF, possibly spring 1920 (or a year earlier) CO187, Box 42, Folder 6, PUL.
28 In Alabama Katharine dated John Durr but his strait-laced family wouldn’t countenance a divorced woman, so she married the more liberal Harvard-educated Robert E. Steiner and had two more children. Eddie Pattillo, ‘Last of the Belles’, 1994; also conversations between Pattillo and the author, June 1999.
29 Harry T. Baker invited Mencken to adjudicate the students’ short stories. It was at the 1923 Goucher College adjudication, the year Sara Mayfield won the contest, that Mencken first met Sara Haardt.
30 Subtitled ‘A Magazine of Cleverness’.
31 Zelda Sayre to FSF, 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 12, PUL.
32 Zelda’s letters suggest both gifts came at this time. Scott’s ‘Early Success’ states that the $30 he earned from The Smart Set in spring 1919 was spent on ‘a magenta feather fan for a girl in Alabama’. But in ‘Auction — Model 1934’ Zelda says the money was used to buy Fitzgerald’s flannels and the fan was ‘paid for out of the first Saturday Evening Post story’ — ‘Head and Shoulders’, written fall 1919.
33 Zelda Sayre to FSF, 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 13, PUL.
34 Zelda Sayre to FSF, spring 1919, ZSF, Collected Writings, p. 446.
35 FSF, Paradise, p. 253.
36 Misspelled by Scott as ‘dairy’ in his December 1918 Ledger entry.
37 Mayfield, Constant Circle, pp. 35, 36.
38 Mayfield, Exiles, pp. 50–51.
39 Mellow, Invented Lives, p. 74.
40 FSF to Maxwell Perkins, c. 21 Feb. 1920, Dear Scott/Dear Max: The Fitzgerald-Perkins Correspondence, ed. John Kuehl and Jackson R. Bryer, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1971, p. 29.
41 Two years later than previous versions.
42 George Jean Nathan, ‘Memories of Fitzgerald, Lewis and Dreiser’, Esquire, Oct. 1958, pp. 158–9.
43 Meyers, Scott Fitzgerald, p 49.
44 The early draft of Zelda’s first novel and Scott’s angry letter demanding cuts and revisions were also ‘mislaid’.
45 Zelda Sayre to FSF, late fall 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 27, PUL.
46 Zelda Sayre to FSF, Dec. 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 29, PUL.
47 Zelda Sayre to FSF, late Mar. 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 14, PUL.
48 Mayfield, Exiles, p. 48.
49 Zelda Sayre to FSF, c. Apr. 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 18, PUL.
51 ‘I used to wonder why they locked princesses in towers’: FSF, Ledger, Apr. 1919.
52 Zelda Sayre to FSF, c. Apr. 1919, CO187, Box 42, PUL.
53 Zelda Sayre to FSF, c. early June 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 24, PUL.
54 Zelda Sayre to FSF, 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 3, PUL.
55 Zelda Sayre to FSF, Apr. 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 19, PUL.
56 Helen Dent appears in FSF’s Ledger in fall 1919.
57 Mellow, Invented Lives, p. 83. In Rosalinde Fuller’s diary she describes riding through the city like Emma Bovary and Leon Dupuis in a closed carriage that aroused their sexual appetites.
58 Hartnett, Zelda Fitzgerald, p. 35; Edwin McDowell, ‘Fitzgerald-Fuller Affair Recounted’, New York Times, 9 Nov. 1984.
59 Mellow, Invented Lives, p. 83.
60 Zelda Sayre to FSF, c. Apr. 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 19, PUL.
61 Scott inflated the story by saying Zelda had sent him a photograph of herself affectionately inscribed to Bobbie Jones, a world famous sports champion. Even in his June 1919 Ledger he wrote: ‘Zelda’s mistake about the pictures’. But Jones had never met Zelda much less dated her.
62 Scott lived with his parents at 599 Summit Avenue.
63 FSF to MP, c. 1 June 1925, Life in Utters, p. 121.
64 FSF, ‘The Sensible Thing’, F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Collected Short Stories, Penguin, 1986, pp. 384–97.
65 Bruccoli and Bryer, eds., Fitzgerald In His Own Time, p. 251.
66 FSF to MP, 18 Sep. 1919, Life in Letters, p. 32.
67 Wilson said that despite Compton Mackenzie’s obvious influence and its hero Amory Blaine being ‘a fake of the first water’, he had read it with ‘riotous mirth’. Edmund Wilson to FSF, 21 Nov. 1919, Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912–7972, ed. Elena Wilson, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, New York, 1977, pp. 45–6.
68 Zelda Sayre to FSF, Oct. 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 28, PUL.
69 Zelda Sayre to FSF, May 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 22, PUL.
70 ‘Head and Shoulders’ was about a prodigy who marries a chorus girl and exchanges roles with her to become a trapeze artist while she becomes a success.
71 FSF, ‘The Sensible Thing’, p. 397.
72 Mayfield, Exiles, p. 47.
73 Zelda Sayre to FSF, Dec. 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 29, PUL.
74 Zelda Sayre to FSF, Dec. 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 30, PUL.
75 He spent a month in a New Orleans boarding house, 2900 Prytania Street.
76 Quoted in Meyers, Scott Fitzgerald, p. 54.
77 Zelda had asked him to ‘write to my Daddy’ having wished that she was detached — ‘sorter without relatives. I’m not exactly scared of ’em, but they could be so unpleasant about what I’m going to do.’ He did write but sent it to her. ‘I’m slowly mustering courage to deliver it — He’s so blind, it’ll probably be a terrible shock to him.’
78 Zelda Sayre to FSF, 1919, CO187, Box 42, Folder 3, PUL.
79 Zelda Sayre to FSF, Feb. 1920, ZSF, Collected Writings, p. 447.
80 FSF to Isabel Amorous Palmer, 26 Feb. 1920.
81 Zelda Sayre to FSF, Feb. 1920, CO187, Box 42, PUL.
82 According to Mayfield Mencken did not acknowledge the book or review it until after Nathan introduced him to Scott and Zelda the following summer.
83 Mayfield, Constant Circle, p. 33.
84 Zelda Sayre to FSF, c. Mar. 1920, ZSF, Collected Writings, pp. 447–8.
85 Mayfield, Exiles, p. 54.
87 At 43rd Street and Vanderbilt Avenue.
88 Ludlow Fowler to Arthur Mizener, quoted in Mizener, Far Side of Paradise, p. 119.
89 Rosalind Sayre Smith, unpublished documentation on Zelda Fitzgerald, Sara Mayfield Collection, W. W. Hoole Special Collections Library, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa
90 FSF, ‘Handle with Care’, Crack-Up, p. 47.