ONCE AGAIN TO ZELDA
Part I (Chapters 1 - 8)
Part II (Chapters 9 - 28)
Part III (Chapters 29 - 37)
Part IV (Chapters 38 - 47)
Part V (Chapters 48 - 53)
December 21, 1940
Author’s Note and Acknowledgments
About the Author
December 20, 1940
The Love of the Last Tycoon
is a great title for your novel. What does Max say?
I’ve been thinking that maybe I’ll brave an airplane ride and come to see you for New Year’s. Wire me the money, if you can. Won’t we be quite the pair?—you with your bad heart, me with my bad head. Together, though, we might have something worthwhile. I’ll bring you some of those cheese biscuits you always loved, and you can read me what you’ve written so far. I know it’s going to be a wonderful novel, Scott, your best one yet.
This is short so I can send it before the post office closes today. Write me soon.
If I could fit myself into this mail slot, here, I’d follow my letter all the way to Hollywood, all the way to Scott, right up to the door of our next future. We have always had a next one, after all, and there’s no good reason we shouldn’t start this one now. If only people could travel as easily as words. Wouldn’t that be something? If only we could be so easily revised.
The postmaster comes, keys jingling, to lock up. “How are you, Miss Sayre?” he says, despite knowing that I’ve been Mrs. Fitzgerald since 1920. He is full-blood Alabama, Sam is; Sayre from him is Say-yuh, whereas I have come to pronounce those trailing soft consonants somewhat, after living away for so long.
I tuck my hands into my sweater’s pockets and move toward the door. “I’m just about right as rain, Sam, thanks. I hope you are.”
He holds the door for me. “Been worse. Have a good evenin’, now.”
I have been worse, too. Far worse, and Sam knows this. Everyone in Montgomery knows this. I see them staring at me when I’m at the market or the post office or church. People whisper about how I went crazy, how my brother went crazy, how sad it is to see Judge Sayre’s children spoil his legacy. It all comes from the mother’s side, they whisper, despite Mama, whose main crime is that she came from Kentucky, being as sound and sensible as any of them—which, now that I think of it, may not be saying much.
Outside, the sun has sunk below the horizon, tired of this day, tired of this year, as ready as I am to start anew. How long before Scott gets my letter? How long ’til I get his reply? I’d buy a plane ticket first thing tomorrow if I could. It’s time I took care of him, for a change.
That commodity, once so plentiful that we spent it on all-day hangovers and purposeless outings with people I’ve long forgotten, has become more precious than we ever imagined it could be. Too many of our dear ones are ruined now, or gone. Nothing except luck protects you from catastrophe. Not love. Not money. Not faith. Not a pure heart or good deeds—and not bad ones either, for that matter. We can, any of us, be laid low, cut down, diminished, destroyed.
Take me, for example. Until moving here to live with Mama this past April, I endured six years in a series of sanitariums in order to heal my broken brain and fractured spirit. Scott, meantime, straggled through a bunch of different hotels and inns and towns, always nearby me—until Hollywood beckoned again and I urged him to go. His luck hardly improved: for three years now, he’s battled liquor and studio executives. He had a minor heart attack earlier this month.
Though I suspect he has someone out there, he writes to me all the time, and always ends his letters, With dearest love … My letters to him are signed, Devotedly … Even now, when we haven’t shared an address in six years, when he’s probably shining his light on some adoring girl who surely thinks she has saved him, we’re both telling it true. This is what we’ve got at the moment, who we are. It’s not nearly what we once had—the good, I mean—but it’s also not what we once had, meaning the bad.
Mildred Jameson, who taught me sewing in junior high school, calls to me from her porch as I pass. “Say, Zelda, when’s that fella of yours coming back for you?”
We’re celebrities in this town, Scott and me. Folks here have followed our doings all along, clipping articles about us, claiming events and friendships that are as invented as any fiction Scott or I ever wrote. You can’t stop the gossip or even combat it, hardly, so you learn to play along.
“He’s writing a new movie script,” I tell her, which is sexier than the truth: he’s done with the studios—for-ever, he says—and is working only on the book.
Mildred moves to the porch rail. “You can’t spend another Christmas apart!” Her gray hair is set in pins and covered by a filmy scarf. “Tell him to hurry up, for goodness’ sake—and tell him to put that handsome Clark Gable in the picture. Oh, my, I do love Rhett Butler!”
I nod and say, “I’ll tell him.”
“Make certain you do. And tell him to be quick about it! We aren’t any of us getting any younger.”
“I’m sure he’s working as fast as he can.”
At a dinner we attended for James Joyce, in Paris back in ’28, Scott lamented Gatsby’s lackluster sales and his slow start at writing a new book. Joyce told him that he, too, was making slow progress on a new novel, which he hoped to complete in three or four more years.
“Years,” Scott kept saying afterward, never anticipating that nine strange and tumultuous ones would pass between Gatsby and his next. And now again it’s been six, but I am persuaded that he’s going to finish this novel soon. After everything he’s been through, every disappointment, every insult, this novel will restore him—not only to his readers but also to himself.
The other day, he wrote to me:
I’ve found a title:
The Love of the Last Tycoon
. What do you think? Meanwhile, I finished Ernest’s
For Whom the Bell Tolls
. It’s not as good as his last, which explains why Hollywood’s giving him over a hundred thousand for it. Together with the fifty grand he’ll make for it being the first Book-of-the-Month selection, he’s really rolling in it like we never were (though we did put on a good show). Quite a change from when all he could afford were those awful rooms over the sawmill in Paris, isn’t it?
Ernest. Scott thinks we are all on an even keel nowadays, he and Hemingway and me. He said the new book came to him inscribed, To Scott with affection and esteem. He was so pleased. What I might have replied, but didn’t, is that Hemingway can afford to be magnanimous; why wouldn’t he tread the high road now that we are all in the places that, by his measure, we’re supposed to be?
Scott went on,
I just came across my Montgomery Country Club membership card from 1918, issued to Lt. F. S. Fitzgerald … do you remember that guy? Bold and dashing and romantic—poor soul. He was wildly in love with writing and life and a particular Montgomery debutante all the lesser fellows said was ungettable. His heart still hasn’t fully recovered.
I wonder if we’re completely ruined, you and I. That’s the prevailing opinion, but you’ve had eight pretty good months since you left the hospital, and my outlook’s improving too. Haven’t touched a drink since last winter, can you even imagine that?
But Zelda, what wouldn’t you give to go back to the beginning, to be those people again, the future so fresh and promising that it seems impossible not to get it right?
Lord help me, I miss him.
I wish I could tell everyone who thinks we’re ruined, who thinks Scott’s beyond washed-up and I’m about as sharp these days as a sack of wet mice, Look closer.
Look closer and you’ll see something extraordinary, mystifying, something real and true. We have never been what we seemed.
If you aren't in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?
—T. S. Eliot
Picture a late-June morning in 1918, a time when Montgomery wore her prettiest spring dress and finest floral perfume—same as I would wear that evening. Our house, a roomy Victorian on Pleasant Avenue, was wrapped in the tiny white blooms of Confederate jasmine and the purple splendor of morning glories. It was a Saturday, and early yet, and cloudy. Birds had congregated in the big magnolia tree and were singing at top volume as if auditioning to be soloists in a Sunday choir.
From our back stairway’s window I saw a slow horse pulling a rickety wagon. Behind it walked two colored women who called out the names of vegetables as they went. Beets! Sweet peas! Turnips! they sang, louder even than the birds.
“Hey, Katy,” I said, coming into the kitchen. “Bess and Clara are out there, did you hear ’em?” On the wide wooden table was a platter covered by a dish towel. “Plain?” I asked hopefully, reaching beneath the towel for a biscuit.
“No, cheese—now, don’t make that face,” she said, opening the door to wave to her friends. “Nothin’ today!” she shouted. Turning to me, she said, “You can’t have peach preserves every day of your life.”
“Old Aunt Julia said that was the only thing keepin’ me sweet enough to evade the devil.” I bit into the biscuit and said, mouth full, “Are the Lord and Lady still asleep?”
“They both in the parlor, which I ’spect you know since you used the back stairway.”
I set my biscuit aside so as to roll my blue skirt’s waistband one more turn, allowing another inch of skin to show above my bare ankles. “There.”
“Maybe I best get you the preserves after all,” Katy told me, shaking her head. “You mean to wear shoes, at least.”
“It’s too hot—and if it rains, they’ll just get soaked and my toes’ll prune up and the skin’ll peel and then I’ll have to go shoeless and I can’t, I have my ballet solo tonight.”
“My own mama would whip me if I’s to go in public like that,” Katy clucked.
“She would not, you’re thirty years old.”
“You think that matter to her?”
I thought of how my parents still counseled and lectured my three sisters and my brother, all at least seven years older than me, all full adults with children of their own—except for Rosalind. Tootsie, we call her. She and Newman, who was off fighting in France, same as our sister Tilde’s husband, John, were taking their time about parenthood—or maybe it was taking its time about them. And I thought of how my grandmother Musidora, when she lived with us, couldn’t help advising Daddy about everything from his haircuts to his rulings. The thing, then, was to get away from one’s parents, and stay away.
“Anyway, never mind,” I said as I went for the back door, sure that my escape was at hand. “Long as no one here sees me—”
“Baby!” I jumped at Mama’s voice coming from the doorway behind us. “For heaven’s sake,” she said, “where are your stockings and shoes?”
“I’m just goin’—”
“—right back to your room to get dressed. You can’t think you were walking to town that way!”
Katy said, “S’cuse me, I just remembered we low on turnips,” and out she went.
“Not to town,” I lied. “To the orchard. I’m goin’ to practice for tonight.” I extended my arms and did a graceful plie.
Mama said, “Yes, lovely. I’m sure, however, that there’s no time for practice; didn’t you say the Red Cross meeting starts at nine?”
“What time is it?” I turned to see that the clock read twenty minutes ’til. I rushed past Mama and up the stairs, saying, “I better get my shoes and get out of here!”
“Please tell me you’re wearing your corset,” she called.
Tootsie was in the upstairs hallway still dressed in her nightgown, hair disheveled, sleep in her eyes. “What’s all this?”
When Newman had gone off to France in the fall to fight with General Pershing, Tootsie came back home to live until he returned. “If he returns,” she’d said glumly, earning a stern look from Daddy—who we all called the Judge, his being an associate Alabama Supreme Court justice. “Show some pride,” he’d scolded Tootsie. “No matter the outcome, Newman’s service honors the South.” And she said, “Daddy, it’s the twentieth century, for heaven’s sake.”
Now I told her, “I’m light a layer, according to Her Highness.”
“Really, Baby, if you go out with no corset, men will think you’re—”
“Maybe I don’t care,” I said. “Everything’s different now anyway. The War Industries Board said not to wear corsets—”
“They said not to buy them. But that was a good try.” She followed me into my bedroom. “Even if you don’t care about social convention, have a thought for yourself; if the Judge knew you left the house half-naked, he would have your hide.”
“I was tryin’ to have a thought for myself,” I said, stripping off my blouse, “and then all you people butted in.”
Mama was still in the kitchen when I clattered back down the stairs. “That’s better. Now the skirt,” she said, pointing at my waist.
“Mama, no. It gets in my way when I run.”
“Just fix it, please. I can’t have you spoiling the Judge’s good name just so you can get someplace faster.”
“Nobody’s out this early but the help, and anyway, when did you get so fussy?”
“It’s a matter of what’s appropriate. You’re seventeen years old—”
“Eighteen, in twenty-six more days.”
“Yes, that’s right, even more to the point,” she said. “Too old to still be a tomboy.”
“Call me a fashion plate, then. Hemlines are goin’ up, I saw it in McCall’s.”
She pointed at my skirt. “Not as high as that.”
I kissed her on her softening jawline. No cream or powder could hide Time’s toll on Mama’s features. She’d be fifty-seven on her next birthday, and all those years showed in her lined face, her upswept hairdo, her insistence on sticking with her Edwardian shirtwaists and floor-sweeping skirts. She outright refused to make anything new for herself. “There’s a war going on,” she’d say, as if that explained everything. Tootsie and I had been so proud when she gave up her bustle at New Year’s.
I said, “So long, Mama—don’t wait lunch for me, I’m goin’ to the diner with the girls.”
Then the second I was out of sight, I sat down in the grass and pulled off my shoes and stockings to free my toes. Too bad, I thought, that my own freedom couldn’t be had so easily.
Thunder rumbled in the distance as I headed toward Dexter Avenue, the wide thoroughfare that runs right up to the domed, columned state capitol, the most impressive building I had ever seen. Humming “Dance of the Hours,” the tune I’d perform to later, I skipped along amid the smell of clipped grass and wet moss and sweet, decaying catalpa blooms.
Ballet, just then, was my one true love, begun at age nine when Mama had enrolled me in Professor Weisner’s School of Dance—a failed attempt to keep me out of the trees and off the roofs. In ballet’s music and motion there was joy and drama and passion and romance, all the things I desired from life. There were costumes, stories, parts to play, chances to be more than just the littlest Sayre girl—last in line, forever wanting to be old enough to be old enough.
I was on Mildred Street just past where it intersected with Sayre—named for my family, yes—when a sprinkle hit my cheek, and then one hit my forehead, and then God turned the faucet on full. I ran for the nearest tree and stood beneath its branches, for what little good it did. The wind whipped the leaves and the rain all around me and I was soaked in no time. Since I couldn’t get any wetter, I just went on my way, imagining the trees as a troupe of swaying dancers and me an escaped orphan freed, finally, from a powerful warlock’s tyranny. I might be lost in the forest, but as in all the best ballets, a prince was sure to happen along shortly.
At the wide circular fountain where Court Street joined Dexter Avenue, I leaned against the railing and shook my unruly hair to get the water out. A few soggy automobiles motored up the boulevard and streetcars clanged past while I considered whether to just chuck my stockings and shoes into the fountain rather than wear them wet. Then I thought, Eighteen, in twenty-six days, and put the damn things back on.
Properly clothed, more or less, I went up the street toward the Red Cross’s new office, set among the shops on the south side of Dexter. Though the rain was tapering off, the sidewalks were still mostly empty—few witnesses to my dishevelment, then, which would make Mama happy. She worries about the oddest things, I thought. All the women do. There were so many rules we girls were supposed to adhere to, so much emphasis on propriety. Straight backs. Gloved hands. Unpainted (and unkissed) lips. Pressed skirts, modest words, downturned eyes, chaste thoughts. A lot of nonsense, in my view. Boys liked me because I shot spitballs and because I told sassy jokes and because I let ’em kiss me if they smelled nice and I felt like it. My standards were based on good sense, not the logic of lemmings. Sorry, Mama. You’re better than most.
Some twenty volunteers had gathered at the Red Cross, most of them friends of mine, who, when they saw me, barely raised an eyebrow at my state. Only my oldest sister, Marjorie, who was bustling round with pamphlets and pastries, made a fuss.
“Baby, what a fright you look! Did you not wear a hat?” She attempted to smooth my hair, then gave up, saying, “It’s hopeless. Here.” She handed me a dish towel. “Dry off. If we didn’t need volunteers so badly, I’d send you home.”
“Quit worryin’,” I told her, rubbing the towel over my head.
She’d keep worrying anyway, I knew; she’d been fourteen when I was born, practically my second mother until she married and moved into a house two blocks away—and by then, of course, the habit was ingrained. I looped the towel around her neck, then went to find a seat.
Eleanor Browder, my best friend at the time, had saved me a spot across from her at a long row of tables. To my right was Sara Mayfield—Second Sara, we called her, Sara the First being our friend serene Sara Haardt, who now went to college in Baltimore. Second Sara was paired with Livye Hart, whose glossy, mahogany-colored hair was like my friend Tallulah Bankhead’s. Tallu and her glossy dark hair won a Picture-Play beauty contest when we were fifteen, and now she was turning that win into a New York City acting career. She and her hair had a life of travel and glamour that I envied, despite my love for Montgomery; surely no one told Tallu how long her skirts should be.
Waiting for the meeting to start, we girls fanned ourselves in the airless room. Its high, apricot-colored walls were plastered with Red Cross posters. One showed a wicker basket overflowing with yarn and a pair of knitting needles; it exhorted readers, “Our boys need SOX. Knit your bit.” Another featured a tremendous stark red cross, to the right of which was a nurse in flowing dress and robes that could not be a bit practical. The nurse’s arms cradled an angled stretcher, on which a wounded soldier lay with a dark blanket wrapped around both the stretcher and him. The perspective was such that the nurse appeared to be a giantess—and the soldier appeared at risk of sliding from that stretcher, feet first, if the nurse didn’t turn her distant gaze to the matter at hand. Below the image was this proclamation: “The Greatest Mother in the World.”
I elbowed Sara and pointed to the poster. “What do you reckon? Is she supposed to be the Virgin Mother?”
Sara didn’t get a chance to answer. There was a rapping of a cane on the wooden floor, and we all turned toward stout Mrs. Baker, in her steel-gray, belted suit. She was a formidable woman who’d come down from Boston to help instruct the volunteers, a woman who seemed as if she might be able to win the war single-handedly if only someone would put her on a boat to France.
“Good morning, everyone,” she said in her drawl-less, nasal voice. “I see you’ve found our new location without undue effort. The war continues, and so we must continue—indeed, redouble—our efforts for membership and productivity.”
Some of the girls cheered. They were the younger ones who’d only just been allowed to join.
Mrs. Baker nodded, which made her chin disappear into her neck briefly, and then she continued, “Now, some of you have done finger and arm bandages; the principle of the leg and body bandages is the same. However, there are some significant differences to which we must attend. For any who have not been so instructed, I will start the lesson from the beginning. We start, first, with sheets of unbleached calico…”
I squeezed rainwater from my hem while Mrs. Baker lectured about widths and lengths and tension and began a demonstration. She handed the end of a loose strip of fabric to the girl sitting nearest and said, “Stand up, my dear. One of you holds the bulk of the fabric and feeds it through as needed—that person is the rollee. The roller’s thumbs must be on the upper aspect of the fabric, the forefinger beneath, like so. As we proceed, the forefingers are kept firmly against the roll, thumbs advanced for maximum tautness. Everyone, up now and begin.”
I took a loosely tied bundle of fabric from one of several baskets lined up along the floor behind me. The fabric was pure white at the moment, sure, but it would soon be blood-soaked and covering a man’s whole middle, crusted with dirt and irresistible to flies. I’d seen photographs of Civil War soldiers suffering this way, in books that depicted what Daddy called “the atrocities done to us by the Union.”
It was my brother, Tony, seven years older than me and now serving in France, who Daddy meant to educate with the books and the discussions. He never shooed me out of the parlor, though. He would wave me over from where I might be picking out a simple tune on the piano and let me perch on his knee.
“The Sayres have a proud history in Montgomery,” he’d say, paging through one of the books. “Here. This is my uncle William’s original residence, where he raised his younger brother Daniel, your grandfather. It became the first Confederate White House.”
“So Sayre Street is named for us, Daddy?” I asked with all the wonder of my seven or eight years.
“It honors William and my father. The two of them made this town what it is, children.”
Tony seemed to take the Sayre family history as a matter of course. I, however, was fascinated with all of these now-dead relatives and would continue to ask questions about which of them had done what, when. I wanted stories.
From Daddy, I got tales of how his father, Daniel Sayre, founded a Tuskegee paper, then returned to Montgomery to edit the Montgomery Post, becoming an influential voice in local politics. And Daddy told me about his mother’s brother, “the great General John Tyler Morgan,” who’d pummeled Union troops every chance he got, then later became a prominent U.S. Senator. From Mama I came to know her father, Willis Machen, the U.S. Senator from Kentucky, whose friendship with Senator Morgan was responsible for my parents’ meeting at Senator Morgan’s New Year’s Eve ball in 1883. Grandfather Machen had once been a presidential candidate.
I wondered, that day at the Red Cross, if our family’s history was burdensome to Tony, oppressive, maybe. And maybe that was why he’d married Edith, whose people were tenant farmers, and then left Montgomery to live and work in Mobile. To be the only surviving son in a family—and not the first son, not the son who’d been named after the grandfather upon whose shoulders so much of Montgomery’s fate had apparently rested, not the son who’d died from meningitis at just eighteen months old—well, that was a heavy yoke.
Untying the calico bundle, I redirected my thoughts and handed Eleanor the fabric’s loose end. “I had a letter yesterday from Arthur Brennan,” I said. “Remember him, from our last trip to Atlanta?”
Eleanor frowned in concentration as she tried to form the start of the roll. “Was it thumbs under, or forefingers under?”
“Fingers. Arthur’s people have been in cotton since before the Revolution. They’ve still got old slaves who never wanted to go, which Daddy says is proof that President Lincoln ruined the South for nothin’.”
Eleanor made a few successful turns, then looked up. “Arthur’s the boy with that green Dort car? The glossy one we rode in?”
“That’s him. Wasn’t it delicious? Arthur said Dorts cost twice what a Ford does—a thousand dollars, maybe more. The Judge would as soon dance naked in front of the courthouse as spend that kind of money on a car.”
The notion amused me; as I continued feeding the fabric to Eleanor, I imagined a scene in which Daddy exited the streetcar in his pin-striped suit, umbrella furled, leather satchel in hand. Parked at the base of the broad, marble courthouse steps would be a green Dort, its hood sleek and gleaming in the sunshine, its varnished running boards aglow. A man in a top hat and tailcoat—some agent of the devil, he’d be—would beckon my father over to the car; there would be a conversation; Daddy would shake his head and frown and gesture with his umbrella; he would raise a finger as he pontificated about relative value and the ethics of overspending; the top-hatted man would shake his head firmly, leaving Daddy no choice but to disrobe on the spot, and dance.
In this vision I allowed my father the dignity of being at a distance from my vantage point, and facing away from me. In truth, I hadn’t yet seen a man undressed—though I’d seen young boys, and Renaissance artwork, which I supposed were representational enough.
“Speaking of nakedness,” Eleanor said, leaning across the table to take the end of the bandage from me, “last night at the movie house, an aviator—Captain Wendell Haskins, he said—asked me was the rumor true about you parading around the pool in a flesh-colored bathing suit. He was at the movies with May Steiner, and asking about you, isn’t that sublime? May was at the concession just then, so she didn’t hear him; that was gentlemanly, at least.”
Sara said, “I sure wish I’d been at the pool that day, just to see the old ladies’ faces.”
“Were you at the dance last winter when Zelda pinned the mistletoe to the back of her skirt?” Livye said.
“You should’ve been down here with us on Wednesday,” Eleanor told them. “Zelda commandeered our streetcar while the driver was on the corner finishing a smoke. We just left him there with his eyes bulging and went rolling on up Perry Street!”
“I swear, Zelda, you have all the fun,” Sara said. “And you never get in trouble!”
Eleanor said, “Everyone’s afraid of her daddy, so they just shake their finger at her and let her go.”
I nodded. “Even my sisters are scared of him.”
“But you’re not,” Livye said.
“He barks way more than he bites. So, El, what’d you tell Captain Haskins?”
“I said, ‘Don’t tell a soul, Captain, but there was no bathing suit at all.’”
Livye snorted, and I said, “See, El, that’s what I like about you. Keep that up and all the matrons will be calling you wicked, too.”
Eleanor reached for a pin from a bowl on the table, then secured the bandage’s end. “He asked whether you had a favorite beau, who your people were, what your daddy did, and whether you had siblings—”
Sara said, “Might be he just wanted some excuse to make conversation with you, Eleanor.”
“In which case he might have thought of one or two questions about me.” Eleanor smiled at Sara fondly. “No, he’s most certainly fixated on Miss Zelda Sayre of 6 Pleasant Avenue, she of the toe shoes and angel’s wings.”
Livye said, “And devil’s smile.”
“And pure heart,” Sara added. I pretended to retch.
“He said he’s not serious about May,” Eleanor said. “Also, he intends to phone you.”
“He already has.”
“But you haven’t said yes yet.”
“I’m booked up ’til fall,” I said, and it was true; between the college boys who’d so far avoided military service and the flood of officers come to train at Montgomery’s new military installations, I had more male attention than I knew what to do with.
Sara took my hand. “If you like him, you shouldn’t wait. They might ship out any day, you know.”
“Yes,” Eleanor agreed. “It might be now or never.”
I pulled my hand from Sara’s and lifted another pile of fabric from the basket behind us. “There’s a war, in case you haven’t heard. It might end up being now and then never. So what’s the use?”
Eleanor said, “That hasn’t stopped you from seeing a military man before. He’s awfully handsome.…”
“He is that. When he phones again, maybe I’ll—”
“Chatter later, ladies,” Mrs. Baker scolded as she strolled by, hands clasped behind her back, bosom straining forward like a warship’s prow. “Important though your affairs may be, our brave young men would appreciate your giving their welfare more speed and attention.”
When Mrs. Baker was past, I tilted my head and put my forearm to my eyes, mouthing, “Oh! The shame of it!” as if I were Mary Pickford herself.
That evening, the Montgomery Country Club’s high-ceilinged ballroom was filled to capacity. Along with the young men and women from the town’s top families were a handful of chaperones and dozens of uniformed officers who’d been given honorary memberships while assigned to nearby Camp Sheridan or Taylor Field. Those fellas would soon be joining their army and air corps brothers in the skies or on battlefields in places like Cantigny and Bois Belleau—but right now they were as youthful and happy and ready for romance as anyone there.
My ballet troupe readied itself behind a bank of curtains. Shoes snug, ribbons tied, skirts fastened and fluffed. Lipstick, rouge—though not one of us needed it, as warm and excited as we were. A final costume check. One more hamstring stretch, ankle flex, knuckle crack. Instructions to spit out our gum.
“Two minutes, ladies,” Madame Katherine said. “Line up.”
One of the younger girls, Marie, moved a curtain to peek out at the audience. She said, “Look at all those officers! I sure wish I had the solo.”
Another replied, “If you were as good as Zelda, maybe you’d get one. Plus, you better quit eating so much cake.”
“Hush,” I said. “It’s baby fat. Time and practice is all you need, Marie.”
She sighed. “You look like a princess.” Mama had pinned my wavy hair into as neat a bun as it would tolerate, then encircled it with a garland of tiny tea roses from her garden. The roses were the same deep pink as my costume’s satin-trimmed bodice, and a shade darker than my diaphanous skirt. I was a princess, for right now anyway—and right now was all I ever cared about.
The orchestra began and I waited anxiously for my cue, glancing down once more to make sure my shoe ribbons were tied, that a bit of my skirt wasn’t tucked into my stockings. Would I remember the one-more fouette the professor had added last minute? Would the two new girls remember to split the line when I came upstage from behind them?
When I took the stage, though, all of that disappeared, and I felt so light that I wondered if I’d been specially charmed by one of our Creole laundresses. Or maybe the lightness owed to the fact that I was finally done with school. Maybe it was the energy of wartime, the sensation that all of time was faster now, and fleeting. Whatever the case, my body was supple and tireless. It seemed I’d hardly begun the dance when the orchestra played the final strains and the performance ended to cheers and applause.
While taking my bows, I noticed the officers at the front of the crowd. Like others I’d met, these fellas were a little older than my usual beaux. Their uniforms, with those serious brass buttons and knee-high leather boots, gave them sophistication that the local boys—even the ones in college—were lacking. The soldiers wore an air of impending adventure, the anticipation of travel and battles, of blood and bullets and, possibly, death, which made them more vibrant and alive.
A pair of tall boots paler than the others caught my eye. As I straightened, I followed the boots upward to olive-colored breeches, a fitted uniform tunic, and, above it, an angelic face with eyes as green and expressive as the Irish Sea, eyes that snagged and held me as surely as a bug sticks in a web, eyes that contained the entire world in their smiling depths, eyes like—
Something bumped my arm. “Go, Zelda,” one of the young ballerinas said, and nudged me into line for our exit.
That officer was nowhere in sight when I returned to the ballroom after changing into my dress—corset included in the ensemble; shoes, too—and dabbing on Mama’s own rose perfume. So I danced a tango with a boy I’d known my whole life, then followed it with a half-dozen more dances, a new fella for every new song. Sweaty brows, sweaty hands; sweat trickling down my back as I moved from one partner to the next, indulging no one of them more than another. They were useful accessories, these fellas were. Good dancers. Good company. Nothing more—though I wouldn’t have said so to them. It was far more fun to let them think they had a chance.
Finally I took a break to catch my breath and get something to drink. As I stood near the doorway, cooling down and waiting for my latest partner to return with refreshments, here came the officer with the fawn-colored boots. Now I noticed the crisp white collar inside his tunic, his softly squared chin, the perfect almond shape of his eyes, and the long, feathery lashes that shadowed them. Oh, my.
He bowed. “Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald, hoping to make your acquaintance.” His voice was deeper than I’d expected, with no trace of Alabama or any place Southern.
I pretended to be shocked by his forwardness. “Without a proper introduction?”
“Life is potentially very short these days—and your latest partner might return at any moment.” He leaned closer. “I’m wiser than I am impetuous or improper, rest assured.”
“Well. General Pershing ought to be consulting you on strategy. I’m Zelda Sayre.” I offered my hand.
“Zelda? That’s unusual. A family name?”
“A Gypsy name, from a novel called Zelda’s Fortune.”
He laughed. “A novel, really?”
“What, do you think my mother is illiterate? Southern women can read.”
“No, of course. I’m impressed, is all. A Gypsy character—well, that’s just terrific. I’m a writer, you see. In fact I’ve got a novel being read by Scribner’s right now—they’re a New York City publishing house.”
I didn’t know publishing houses from Adam. What I did know was that he held himself differently from the other boys—other men, I thought; he had to be in his twenties. And his speech had that dramatic flair you find in people accustomed to playacting in theater, as I was. When you’d spent so much time performing onstage, the habit bled into your life. Or, possibly, it was the other way around.
I said, “I thought you were an officer.”
“My secondary occupation.”
“There’s not one bit of South in your voice, Lieutenant; where’s home?”
“Princeton, before my commission,” he said. “I did prep in New Jersey. My childhood was spent in Minnesota—St. Paul.”
“A Yankee in every single way.” I glanced beyond him; thirsty as I was, now I hoped my partner might forget to return.
“Yes—though I’ve developed quite an affection for the South since my assignment to Camp Sheridan. A growing affection, in fact.” In those captivating eyes was what Mama would call “an intention.” A spark, or sparkle; a glint or gleam. The fairy tales I’d read throughout my childhood were full of such words for such looks.
I said, “Well, that should make you more popular in these parts.”
He smiled then, and I felt that smile like a vibration moving through me, the way you might feel if you walked through a ghost or it walked through you. “Hopeful,” he repeated as the orchestra struck up a waltz, “and compelled to ask you for this dance.”
“Well, I am waiting for that nice fella from Birmingham to get back with a whistle-wetter. It is so blazing hot. I don’t know how you all can stand to wear all that”—I indicated his uniform—“and not want to just strip down and jump into some creek.”
“I think it’s because creeks are lacking somewhat in music and beautiful young women. Dancing, I’ve found, provides a good distraction from the discomfort of all this wool. Won’t you help a fellow out?”
He offered his hand. How could I refuse? Why would I want to?
“I suppose it would be a service to my country,” I said, just as the Birmingham boy returned with my drink. I took the glass from his hand, downed the punch, then returned the glass, saying, “Thank you so much,” and let Scott lead me off into the ballroom.
He danced as well as any of my partners ever had—better, maybe. It seemed to me that the energy I was feeling that night had infused him, too; we glided through the waltz as if we’d been dancing together for years.
I liked his starched, woolly, cologned smell. His height, about five inches taller than my five feet four inches, was, I thought, the exact right height. His shoulders were the exact right width. His grip on my hand was somehow both formal and familiar, his hand on my waist both possessive and tentative. His blue-green eyes were clear, yet mysterious, and his lips curved just slightly upward.
The result of all this was that although we danced well together, I felt off-balance the entire time. I wasn’t used to this feeling, but, my goodness, I liked it.
Two hours later, we stood facing each other in the pink glow of a driveway post lamp while the Club emptied out behind us. Any second now, Eleanor would come out, and then her daddy’s driver would be there to ferry us home in the old phaeton I’d once decided to drive myself. I was twelve at the time, and the horses nearly ran away with me before the whole thing went sideways and I was flung into a hedge.
“Tell me more about this book business,” I said. “I’ve never known anyone who could write more than a news article—well, Mama wrote a short play once, but that hardly counts ’cause it was a musical and it only ran some fourteen minutes—it was for a charity ball, we’re always having charity balls here, do y’all do that, too, up North?”
He laughed. “Do you want to know about my novel, or St. Paul’s society habits?”
“The novel! Both! Tell me every single thing about every single thing until El drags me off.”
“How about this: I’ll send you a chapter, and you can see for yourself what I’m about. Then you’ll be able to say you were among the first to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phenomenal first book.”
“Francis—after my cousin Francis Scott Key—The Star-Spangled Banner?”
“Oh yes. Besides which, F. Scott sounds weightier, don’t you agree? Authoritative.”
“Absolutely.” I nodded. “Why, I respect you more already and I haven’t read a word. Imagine how much I’ll admire you when I’m done. And then once it’s an actual book…” I let the sentence hang like that, allowing his imagination to fill in the rest.
I wanted him to tell me more about how he’d done it, written a whole entire novel, and about what he liked to read, and I wanted to tell him what I liked to read, and then we could talk about things from those books. India, for instance; I’d been reading Kipling since forever. And Joseph Conrad’s made-up Costaguana, from Nostromo—had he ever heard of it? Where exactly did he think it was? Tarzan of the Apes—had he read that one? Africa, now that was a place to talk about!
“The ‘actual book’ part may be a while, yet,” he said. “Alas. I’ll lend you something else in the meantime, though, if you like. Do you enjoy reading?”
“I’ll read most anything. My friend Sara Haardt just sent me the strangest story, Herland, it was in a magazine, and it’s about a society that’s made only of women. I wouldn’t like that much.”
He grinned. “Good news, all.”
None of the boys I knew had much interest in books. For them it was football and horses and hounds. I looked at Scott there in the rosy light, his hair and skin and eyes aglow with joy and ambition and enthusiasm, and was dazzled.
“Here she is,” Eleanor said, slipping her arm around my waist. A linebacker-size fella was with her. “I thought maybe you’d snuck off like last time.”
Scott said, “Snuck off? Had I but known—”
“To smoke,” El said the moment after I pinched her. “She’d snuck off to smoke with a couple of the older girls.”
“Seventeen,” I told him. “I’m seventeen ’til July twenty-fourth, that’s twenty-six—well, nearly twenty-five, really—days from now, given how it’s closing in on midnight. Twenty-five days, and then I’m eighteen.”
“After which time she’ll be far less annoying, I hope. We don’t smoke much,” El assured him. “But it’s good for preventing sore throats.”
“It’s good for making you feel good,” I said, “which is why the law and my daddy have always been against women doing it.”
“Who are you, by the way?” El asked Scott. She pointed at her companion and said, “This here new friend of mine, who is about to be on his way, is Wilson Crenshaw Whitney the Third.”
“Scott Fitzgerald, the one and only,” Scott told the two of them. Then, looking at me, he added, “Who very much wishes he didn’t have to do the same.”
“I purely hate that I have to go home,” I told him. “If I wasn’t a girl—”
“—I wouldn’t insist you allow me to phone you tomorrow. All right?”
“There’s my consolation, then,” I said. The phaeton was rolling to a stop in front of us. I followed El to its door, adding, “Judge Anthony Sayre’s residence. The operator will put you right through.”
The morning’s scattered clouds had, by afternoon, formed themselves into great towering columns with broad anvil tops while I lay on my bed, diary open, pencil in hand. I had one ear attuned to the thunder that might spoil my evening plans, and the other waiting for the telltale three short rings that indicated a telephone call for our residence. Scott still hadn’t phoned, and now I was almost certain that he wouldn’t. He’s all words, no substance, I thought. Writers are probably like that.
Tootsie appeared at my bedroom door. “Teatime. Katy’s got lemon pie, or tomato sandwiches—and I have gin.”
“So Mama has gone out.”
“Baby, I’m twenty-nine. Not exactly a schoolgirl, Lord.”
“Yet you still wait ’til Mama’s gone to pour a drink.”
“I try to be considerate. Anyway, it’s Daddy we need to worry about most … and God help me if he ever sees me smoking. I’m goin’ to muddle up some mint and raspberries to go with that gin. Are you game?”
“Okay, sure.” I glanced at my diary, where I’d been writing about the morning’s Service League work. We volunteers had served doughnuts and coffee to soldiers at the train station canteen, and a married officer had taken an obvious shine to me. Though I knew I was supposed to discourage his interest, I flirted with him anyway. He was attractive and funny, and what harm was there in it? He was nothing more than a way to pass the time until we finished, until I could return home, until that charming lieutenant phoned.
I asked my sister, “Tootsie, how’d you know you were in love with Newman?”
“Oh-ho!” She sat down next to me. “Who is he? Tell!”
Katy called up the stairs, “Miz Rosalind, what’d you all decide?”
“What did we decide? Pie?”
I wrinkled my nose.
“The sandwiches,” Tootsie yelled. “And rinse those berries for me, would you?”
Tootsie turned back to me. “Now tell.”
“Nothin’ to tell. I guess I ought to be aware of what to look for, is all. The signs of true love, I mean. Is it like in Shakespeare?” I sat up and took Tootsie’s hands. “You know, is it all heaving bosoms and fluttering hearts and mistaken identities and madness?”
The sound of the phone ringing downstairs made my heart leap.
“Yes,” Tootsie said with wide eyes, holding tightly to my hand as I jumped up. “Yes, it is exactly like that. Gird yourself, little sister.”
In mid-July, Sara Haardt and I were just leaving a Commerce Street hat shop when I heard a man call my name.
“Miss Sayre! Hello!”
Scott waved as he walked toward us through a throng of young women who turned to watch him. He tipped his hat and smiled at the women as he passed. Even dressed in civilian clothes—white shirt, blue sweater vest above crisp, cuffed brown pants—he seemed exotic, rare, desirable. I’d seen him twice since our first meeting, once when he brought me the typescript chapter from his novel, and then again after I’d read it. Both meetings had been too-brief exchanges of smiles and compliments enacted over cheese biscuits (Scott) and melon (me) at the diner, while Eleanor and Livye looked on from a booth nearby. Tempted as I was to clear my dance card and devote my weekends to this handsome Yankee interloper, as Tootsie called him, it was hard to know whether I should take his attentions seriously.
“How nice to run into you,” I said when he reached us.
“Do I give too much away when I confess it’s no coincidence? Your sister said I might find you here.”
“Well, gosh, we’re flattered, aren’t we, Sara? Oh—Sara, meet Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald of Princeton University. This is Miss Sara Haardt, of Goucher College. Suddenly I feel undereducated—not that I have any use for college. I could hardly sit still long enough to finish high school.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Haardt.”
“She’s brilliant, don’t let her fool you,” Sara said.
I pointed to the store’s window display. “Woman of the world that she is, Miss Haardt has been tryin’ to educate me on what up-to-the-minute ladies are wearin’ on their heads these days—which apparently is not these big feathered confectionaries you see here.”
Scott said, “I’d have to agree. The New York City shops were all showing smaller, less ornate styles last time I was there.”
“A fella who knows fashion!”
“I’m observant, that’s all. Writers have to be.”
Sara, tall and wiry and far plainer in appearance than in intellect, said, “Are you a writer, then?” She did this as innocently as you please, as if I hadn’t already told her everything I knew about him.
“Since about the time I could hold a pencil.”
“How fascinating,” Sara said. “I do a little writing myself. Zelda and I were on our way to get lunch; why don’t you join us, and you can tell us all about your work.”
“I’d love to, truly, but I have to get back to Camp Sheridan.” He turned to me. “Before I go, though, Miss Sayre—Zelda, if I may—I recall you saying a time or two that your birthday’s next week. If you’ll permit me, I’d like to arrange a little party at the Club in your honor.”
“You would? I don’t know what to say—”
“Say anything you like, except don’t say no.”
I laughed. “That narrows my options.”
“Just as I intended. I’ve got to run.” He grinned as he backed away. “I’ll phone you with the details!”
As we watched him hurry up the street, Sara said, “What a lovely gesture—too bad you’ll have to disappoint him.”
“Too bad I’ll have to disappoint Mama, you mean, when I tell her that her party is off—but I’ll make sure Scott invites her and the Judge, and maybe she can still do the cake.”
Upon hearing my news in the parlor after dessert that evening, Daddy said, “That boy obviously lacks good judgment. He hardly knows you. Where did you say he’s from?”
I hadn’t said, and wasn’t about to. “He did three years at Princeton before leaving to join up, and now he’s serving at Camp Sheridan.”
Mama said, “He’s enthusiastic, I’ll give him that.”
“He is,” Tootsie agreed. She was working a needlepoint American flag; I’d teased her earlier about turning into Betsy Ross. She said, “When he phoned this morning and I told him Zelda was out, he insisted that he had to know her whereabouts. ‘It’s extremely urgent!’ he said, as if his very life depended on it.”
“Frivolous is what he is—probably too much money and not enough sense. You see that a lot in carpetbaggers. Don’t be surprised if it comes out that his people are actually from the North.”
I said, “I think he’s terribly romantic, and it’s my birthday after all.”
Daddy reached for his cognac, the single drink he would allow himself, and only on Friday nights. “Be that as it may, your mother—”
“—understands the appeal of a handsome suitor,” she said, and smiled fondly at Daddy, which was enough to persuade him to relent.
On the night of my birthday, the party took place in one of the Club’s parlors, a high-ceilinged room lighted by a wide crystal chandelier overhead and smaller crystal sconces along the walls. For the occasion, I’d persuaded Mama to shorten a spring-green, scoop-necked silk dress so that the hemline would stop midcalf. I wore it with a new narrow-brimmed straw hat and a pair of sleek high heels like some I’d seen in Picture-Play. “Tell me more about this boy,” Mama had said while pinning up the dress, but I put her off. “You just have to meet him,” I said. “Then you’ll see.”
I loved the Club, it being the site of so many entertaining times, but the gaslights seemed a throwback now that electric lights were being used in all the modern buildings. Its elegantly shabby Oriental rugs and its creaking floorboards and its silent, colored staff were the antithesis of modern, too, and proudly so. This was my daddy’s South, my daddy’s club—not literally, but it might as well have been.
Now Scott stood in the center of the room, hands raised, and announced, “Ladies, gentlemen, welcome to Miss Zelda Sayre’s eighteenth birthday fete! I’m Scott Fitzgerald, your host and Miss Sayre’s most ardent admirer.”
He looked distinguished in a nicely cut pearl-gray suit. His tie was pale blue with gray stripes. His eyes, grayish green in that light, reminded me of the rare icicle in Montgomery, or a pebbled creek’s rushing stream in early spring. They revealed his intelligence in a way that made me want to dive inside his head and swim in its depths.
My friends cheered, and then Scott went on, “Jasper, our bartender, has created a drink in Zelda’s honor. I described her to him, and this gin-and-soda-and-apricots concoction is the result. You’ve got to try it, it’s outrageously good.”
“How about all this?” Sara Mayfield whispered, watching Scott consult with Livye, who was at the piano. “He’s wild about you, isn’t he?”
“I guess he is.” My chest was strangely tight.
“This must be costing his whole month’s salary. Does he have family money?”
“I have no idea. He went to Princeton, so I suppose there’s some.”
“How old is he?”
“Twenty-one,” I whispered. “He’s a writer; he’s already written a novel. I read part of it, and it’s awfully good. He plans to be famous.”
“There are worse things to plan on.”
“The Judge says anyone who’d throw a party like this for a girl he just met must be frivolous.”
Sara looked over at Daddy, whose stiff posture and expression said he was there under duress. She said, “There are worse things to be.”
The music began, and then Scott joined Sara and me. “I’ve persuaded your friend Miss Hart at the piano, there, to play us a fox-trot. Shall we dance?”
“Seeing as you’ve gone to all this trouble, I s’pose I’d better say yes.”
“Is she always this fresh?” Scott asked Sara.
“Hold on to your hat, mister,” was Sara’s reply.
A little while later, he told a story about a train trip he’d taken from Princeton, across the country through Chicago to St. Paul. In his telling, the land was blanketed in sparkling diamonds, his vivid fellow travelers were wise or funny or sad, the cities were cornucopias spilling over with ambition and industry.
He’s so worldly, I thought. Whereas I was the opposite, having never been farther from home than the North Carolina mountains. Worldly, but just as warm and eager as a golden retriever …
I was about to ask him whether he didn’t have golden retriever in his bloodline somewhere when Daddy pulled me aside.
“Baby, it’s time you made your good-byes.”
“Regardless. Mr. Fitzgerald asked us three times to have one of those cocktails. He might show a bit more restraint.”
I thought the cocktail was well worth the attention Scott was giving it—not that I could let Daddy know this. I laughed and said, “No, I’m pretty sure he won’t.”
Daddy’s eyes narrowed. “I’m certain you gave him your regrets as well.”
“Yes, sir,” I lied. “Well, I did have a sip of champagne—so’s not to be rude to our host. I’d hate for anyone to think you didn’t raise me right.”
He wasn’t fooled. “It’s plain he’s unsuitable; I won’t have you wasting any more of your time with this boy.”
Mama said, “Now, Judge, it’s her birthday,” and laid her hand on his arm.
“I’d really like to stay, Daddy,” I said. “All my friends are here. How would it look if I left so soon?”
He thought this over, then sighed heavily, as if his being sixty meant invisible forces like time or gravity pressed harder on him nowadays. “Tootsie will escort you home, then,” he said, eyeing Scott, who was now using empty champagne glasses to build a tower atop a table. “Are we clear about that?”
“Yes, Daddy—but he’s a good person, you have to get to know him better is all. Things are different now than when you were our age.”
Seeing my parents in the doorway, Scott left his tower to hurry over and shake Daddy’s hand, then kiss Mama on the cheek. “Thank you both for being here. Zelda is fortunate to have such parents as yourselves. And what a fine job you’ve done with her!” he said, looping his arm around my waist. “She’s remarkable.”
“Hmph,” Daddy said.
“Happy birthday again, Baby,” Mama said, hugging me. “We’re very proud of you. It’s hard to imagine that you’re all grown up now.” Her eyes were misty. “All of my children are grown.” She turned to my father. “Judge, you’ll have to help me understand how this could have happened.”
“The usual way,” he said, taking her elbow. “Good night, Baby.”
As soon as Mama and Daddy were out the door, Scott turned around, took my hand, and called over to Livye, “Dear girl, play us a tango!”
Daddy’s space in our otherwise feminine house was the library, a small room lined with dark maple shelves full of books. He’d inherited a great lot of them from his own father, then added to them liberally. He read serious novels and biographies and philosophy and history books, all of which he said helped him better understand the plight of man, an understanding that, in turn, helped him be a better judge. A man with my daddy’s intelligence and love of books should, I thought, be impressed with Scott’s ambitions, so during supper a few days after my party, I mentioned Scott’s novel.
“He’s calling it The Romantic Egoist, and he hasn’t got a publisher yet, but a good one—Scribner’s—is considering it this very minute.”
“Writing is a good pastime, a sign of an active mind—but it’s no way to earn a living. What does he mean to do as a profession?”
“Writing books can be a profession,” I said, even though I wasn’t certain this was so. The only people I’d ever heard of doing it were very famous, and already dead. I said, “Charles Dickens—he did it. And Henry James.”
Daddy’s sour expression was his response.
Tootsie gave me a sympathetic smile. “Lieutenant Fitzgerald is a lively young man.”
“Lively,” our father said, “will not put food on a family’s table either—and especially not when a great portion of whatever income he does receive goes to drink. His name—Fitzgerald—that’s Irish, you know. And I’ll suppose he’s a Catholic. I’m a fair man, but there are good reasons those people have the reputations they do. Baby, you don’t want to get ensnared here.”
I bristled. “I’m not ensnared. He’s a good and talented person and I happen to like him is all, and I think it’s somethin’ that he’s going to get a novel published.”
“Speculation, at best,” Daddy said, gazing at me over his glasses. “Supposing they do publish anything by such an untested writer—unlikely, but not impossible, I’ll give you that—then he’ll be flush enough to buy himself a new topcoat or some such thing. Wonderful.”
Katy entered the dining room and began clearing the salad plates while I was saying, “Don’t you think we should credit him for having initiative?”
Daddy looked at me as if I was simple. “A man deserves credit when he accomplishes something of importance. Something that provides for the betterment of his life and his family’s life and, whenever possible, mankind.”
“But books can do that. I know you think so, or we wouldn’t have so many of ’em in there.” I pointed toward the library.
“Scott Fitzgerald is not Dickens, Baby. Nor is he James—who had family wealth, by the way, as do Edith Wharton and the rest of them. He’s not a scholar, he’s not a philosopher, he’s not a man of property or business or even politics. He’s—what? An Irish Yankee pup who enjoys liquor too much, didn’t finish college, and is about to be shipped off to the war with no apparent prospects afterward—assuming he comes back in one piece.” Daddy aimed his fork at me. “You had best set your feet on the ground and pull your head from the clouds, or one day you’ll find yourself living in a shack like some nigger, washing your clothes in the river and eating peas for dinner every night.”
“My goodness, Judge, what an image,” Mama said. Then she patted my hand while saying, “Katy, we’ll have the roast now.”
I wanted to pursue the argument but was out of ammunition. As far as I knew or could otherwise prove, Daddy’s opinion was indisputable.
“You do not,” he continued, “want to ever have to work for your support.”
And he was right, I didn’t. No respectable married woman held a job if she had any choice about it, not in Alabama. We girls were trained up knowing there was only one goal to worry ourselves about, and that was marriage to the best sort of fella who would have us. As many rules as I was willing to break, I never gave that one a minute’s thought. So the only thing for it was to make sure Scott would turn out to be right, and Daddy would turn out to be wrong.
“I can’t stay to eat, but I needed to see you,” Scott said.
It was an October evening, and I’d been waiting on the front porch for his arrival. Scott had been doing a lot of waiting of his own: to know the fate of his manuscript, which had been rejected once, revised, and submitted again; to ship out—which we knew would happen any day now; and for me to declare him first and best among my beaux, a possible husband, something I was still reluctant to do. He had no intention of returning to the South when the war was over, and, much as I cared for him, I was having trouble with the notion of leaving it. Who would I be, away from Montgomery?
Just the same, he kept riding the rickety bus from Camp Sheridan into town as often as he could get free. We’d go for long walks, we’d go to dances, he’d take me out for supper, and now and then we’d sit on the steps and porches of my friends’ houses sipping gin from the men’s flasks and telling stories, laughing the way only people who haven’t ever suffered real loss or hardship can laugh. We spent a good lot of time perfecting our kissing skills, too, which I’d warned him was not binding—“Else I’d have been married well before now,” I said.
Most of this I hid from Daddy, because as old Aunt Julia used to say, “Trouble, it don’t need an engraved invitation.” She’d been born one of Granddaddy Machen’s slaves and was Mama’s childhood nurse before later coming to raise us Sayre kids; she said Emancipation just meant you had to get even better at looking out for yourself.
Now Scott’s expression was grim, and his red-rimmed eyes suggested illness, or maybe a hangover. He’d told me how the strain of waiting to ship out was taking its toll; he and some of the other officers had been spending their nights drinking corn liquor and talking about all the ways they’d vanquish the enemy, if they ever got the chance. Maybe that’s all this was. I hoped it wasn’t the horrible Spanish influenza everyone was talking about.
“What is it? Are you ill?”
He reached into his pocket and withdrew a folded sheet of paper. “In a sense.” He handed it over.
The letterhead read Charles Scribner’s Sons, and I knew right away that his revision had not been sufficient. This letter was brief, apologetic, and seemed final.
“Aw, I’m sorry. You worked so hard.”
He sat down on the top step—drooped onto it, as if the rejection had softened his bones. “You know, I was the worst student as a kid. No concentration. And since my father has a name but no real money…”
“Like us,” I said, going down the steps to lean against the rail. “Neither Mama or Daddy inherited much—which he says is best anyway, a man ought to earn his way himself.”
“He should. And my parents hoped I would, if I could just get serious about school. My aunt suggested Newman prep and paid for everything. Princeton, too. It was quite generous of her,” he said flatly, picking at a hangnail. “But I hated that I was hardly better than a scholarship case. All my school friends with their millionaire fathers, their houses, their trips abroad, their society galas … why couldn’t I have been born one of them?” He looked over at me, and I shrugged. “I wanted a place at their tables. My writing was supposed to get me there—not the millions, there’s no hope of that, but the prestige. In America, you can invent your way to the top of any field. And when you do—well, you’re in.” He pointed at the letter still in my hand. “That, my dear girl, is the end of a dream.”
I led him into the yard to get us out of earshot of whoever might be lurking near the porch’s windows, then sat down on the grass. He plopped down next to me.
“Aren’t there other publishers?” I asked.
“Scribner’s was my best chance.” He lay on his back, face up to the mauve sky, and sighed. “I might as well let the Huns use me for target practice.”
“You’re being ridiculous. You’re as good a writer as there is. These Scribner people, they’re just not smart enough to see it. Prob’ly a bunch of stuffy old men whose shirt collars are too tight.”
He smiled dimly. “They are a conservative publisher.…” But then the smile drooped, too. “My ideas are too radical. And my style—it’s not traditional enough.”
I put the letter on his chest. “This Mr. Perkins doesn’t think so, though.”
Scott sighed again. “It doesn’t matter what Perkins thinks if the answer’s still no. God, I’m a failure. I should’ve taken orders—did I tell you? Monsignor Fay, my mentor, my friend, he’s always felt I had a calling. I put him in the novel—which of course no one will ever read.”
He sounded so desolate. I thought for a minute about how I might get him out of this gloom and back to his usual upbeat self. Maybe an appeal to his pride would work on him the way it had often worked on my brother. Tony was so moody, and tough talk did more to boost his moods than sympathy did.
I said, “Now really, is that what you want me to think? That you’re a failure? Not only a failure, but a quitter? Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, lately of Princeton University, is nothing but a weak-willed, washed-up has-been. Is that it?”
Scott sat up on his elbows and peered over at me, brow wrinkled, lips pursed. I raised my chin and gave him my most serious expression, the one I used when tutoring elementary-school children about poetry. You had to make the kids think you were fully sincere—especially, say, when it came to William Blake and his brightly burning tiger. They so often got off track about that tiger. Was it really on fire? Did it die? What made it burn? Was it lightning? Was it God? I had to make them believe that poetry was serious business; they’d come upon limericks soon enough.
Scott, here, needed to believe that his reputation with me was at risk. I gave him a disapproving glance, then looked away.
He said, “You do know I’ve taken a turn or two on the stage, don’t you?”
“You did tell me that.” He’d been active in Princeton’s Triangle Club, writing scripts and lyrics and acting in several shows.
“Yes, so, right now, see, I’m playing the part of the Dejected Young Man. Honing my performance skills. A fellow has to keep in practice.”
I forced myself not to smile as I turned toward him again. “You’re not a failure, then?”
“No,” he said heartily, sitting upright. “Of course not. I’ve had scores of things published in my schools’ newspapers. Poems, lyrics, stories, reviews. A list as long as my arm. I wrote a musical! This is nothing. A minor setback. I can try again.”
“That’s pretty much what I was thinking. So you’ll stay for supper?”
“I’d hate to disappoint your father.”
On the day Scott’s regiment shipped out, my sister Tilde, who’d now come to stay, too, while her husband was gone, found me sulking on the front-porch steps.
My closest sister by age, Tilde was twenty-seven years old, confident and capable, mother to a sweet baby boy named for his father. She was a real Gibson Girl type. Nothing ruffled her. With her dark-blond hair, her spectacles, her decisiveness, she looked and sounded a lot like Daddy.
She sat down next to me. “Scott’s gone, then? Tootsie told me.”
I picked apart a white cape jasmine bloom, dismembering the fragrant, silky flower and dropping its petals between my bare feet on the wooden plank. I looked over at Tilde. “Why do they do it?”
“Yes, that—and have wars to begin with. Why do they still think anything can be accomplished by having a bunch of young men meetin’ up in fields and woods and towns, all shootin’ at each other like it’s goin’ to prove that one side is righter than the other, all just for who gets to keep that field, or this river, or those buildings? Why does John care if the Germans get a chunk of France? Why does he care about that more than he cares about you?”
Tilde laced her fingers together over her knees. “Men don’t think of it that way. They believe they’re showing us their character. They’re fighting for our benefit.”
“How do I benefit from this war? How do you? Nobody’s invadin’ Montgomery, or any place in America.”
“The war brought you Scott.”
“And now it’s taking him.”
“Be patient, Baby. You’re so young—you don’t have to pin your hopes on any one man yet.”
“Don’t you like him?”
“From what little I’ve seen, I do. Though the way Mama tells it, he does seem to be like a little boy running around and yelling, ‘Look at me! Look at me!’”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I worry, and so does Mama, that the two of you would wear each other out,” Tilde said. “Anyway, the thing to do is wait and see what happens. I know you enjoy his company quite a lot, but even so, maybe he’s not the one for you.”
Thinking of how much better I’d feel if Tilde was right, how much simpler my life would become, I said, “I wish he wasn’t, but I’m afraid he probably is.”
1 November, 1918
I write from Long Island, still stuck in port until my men are done with the ’flu and we can proceed at full capacity. The other officers and I pass the time with bad poetry and pretty good bourbon, wearing our overseas caps in the hope that we can will ourselves into health and action. Dear, dear girl, I miss your smile and the sound of your voice and the soft, rosewater scent of that delicate spot on your neck, just below your ear. Funny how eager I was to get to France before I knew that spot existed.… Now I’m just ready to be done with this damned war so that I can do what I’m truly meant for.
Not wanting to think about what awaited him in France, I kept my reply cheerful. I told him I’d begun an oil-painting class at the encouragement of Mrs. Davis, who’d been my art teacher at Sidney Lanier High and thought I’d shown real promise. I wrote, “We spent the entire first day learning to pronounce the technique terms Grisaille and Chiaroscuro, which don’t exactly roll off the Southern tongue.” I related a tale of how on the previous night I’d had two heavily spiked drinks before a dance at the Exchange Hotel and had subsequently climbed onto a tabletop to demonstrate steps to a sassy Negro dance called the Black Bottom before one of the chaperones pulled me down. I said,
The nice old woman informed me with great seriousness that it’s a
dance, and I told her with equal seriousness that she was preventing me from fulfilling my promise. Darling heart, do you think I could be good for anything besides entertainment? I hardly think I want to be—but of course it’s you who I want to entertain most. And so I’m putting my sordid stories in my diary like always, so that you’ll have some good reading when you do get back.
He’d been gone all of three weeks when I came home one Monday to find Mama, all three of my sisters, and Marjorie’s husband, Minor, surrounding Daddy, who was holding a newspaper before him like a trophy.
I shouldered in next to Tilde for a look. “What’s going on?”
“It’s over!” Tilde said, wrapping her arms around me. “The Huns surrendered!”
Daddy tapped the paper with the back of his hand, then turned it toward me. It was an Extra edition and proclaimed PEACE. Fighting Ends! Armistice Signed. “This morning, Paris time,” he said. “We are victorious!”
Tilde said, “Tony and John and Newman are coming home!”
And Scott, I thought, awash with relief. He wouldn’t have to sail the rough Atlantic to face the brutal enemy, would never be wrapped in those bandages I and so many others had rolled, would not be mired in muddy foxholes risking injury, infections, parasites, death, while I waited in my own kind of limbo for the war to end.
Home for him, though, would be New York, the city of his dreams. He’d told me how his Princeton friend Bunny Wilson had lived in Manhattan before the war, working as a reporter, sharing an apartment with a couple of men and a great many books, the clamor and attractions of the city all around them. Scott envisioned a life like Bunny’s, not a life like he’d have here in sleepy Southern Montgomery, where the liveliest feature of a hot afternoon was a spinning ceiling fan.
“Aren’t you thrilled?” Tootsie said, giving me a hug.
“Yes, course I am. Who wouldn’t be?”
Scott returned to Montgomery briefly, to help close Camp Sheridan down. We pretended not to worry about where he’d live, spending most of our time together kissing passionately in out-of-the-way alcoves at the Club, or in the back row at the Empire Theater while some picture or other played. We joked about how our romance seemed always to have a musical accompaniment. “I bet that’s how Lillian Gish feels, too,” I said.
On a damp, cold early-February day, we went out for a walk in a stiff wind under scudding clouds just so we could be alone for a while. At the corner of Sayre and Mildred Streets he took my hands and said, “I’ll send for you, would you like that? New York isn’t much colder than it is here today.”
I stared at him in surprise. His face was ruddy, his eyes bright and hopeful. “Is this an actual proposal?”
“I can repeat it in candlelight over dinner, if that makes it feel more official—but, yes, I want you to marry me.” He dropped to one knee. “Marry me, Zelda. We’ll make it all up as we go. What do you say?”
I looked around at my neighborhood, at the familiar homes, at the street sign that bore the Sayre name, at the sidewalks and post lamps and trees that had seen me through years of footraces, bicycling, roller skating, bubble-blowing, tag-playing—and, more recently, strolls with fellas who were as eager as this one to turn me into a bride. I loved Scott with all the enthusiasm of the most ardent eighteen-year-old girl, but did I love him enough to leave my home forever?
He saw the indecision on my face and, rising, said, “You don’t have to answer now. Think it over. I’m yours, Zelda, if you’ll have me.”
When I closed my eyes that night, I saw myself as if I stood at an actual crossroads:
I’m out in the country. The air is still, and all is quiet around me as I wait for Fate’s wind to blow, to push me in one direction or the other.
Standing there, looking down the long dirt road, I know that if I let Scott go, I’ll most certainly end up married to some nice, proper fella from a good family whose people have deep roots in the South. I’ll be the same girl I’ve always been, only the parties I go to will take place in drawing rooms instead of the Club or the Exchange Hotel. My husband will be, say, a cotton grower who golfs and hunts and drinks fine bourbon with his friends. My children will have colored nurses who mind them while I go to luncheons with my girlfriends and plan all the same kinds of social and cultural events the young me has taken part in over the years. I know this life, can see it clearly, love it the way I love my family, understand it, have no real desire to do anything differently.
Looking down the road in the other direction, I see the life Scott offers me, the life he outlined at the end of our walk. It’s more unpredictable than Alabama’s weather in springtime.
To start, he’ll go to New York City, where he’ll find some kind of writing job that will support us reasonably well, he’s pretty sure, and then he’ll send for me. He’ll find us some place to live—an apartment, which will be old and small, he says, but cozy. Somehow, with my help, he says, he’ll get his novel published and take his spot among the top writers of the day. We’ll socialize with literary people and his friends from Princeton, who he’s sure I’ll find delightful. Sooner or later, we’ll have kids. In the meantime, we’ll be able to gorge ourselves on the kinds of entertainment we both love: music and dancing and plays and vaudeville. It will be an adventure—adventure: there’s a word that worked on us both like a charm.
I could easily have chosen either life. But only one of them included the unique fella whose presence lit up a room—lit up me, and that was saying something. The question was, could he make it all work out? Which way was the wind going to blow?
I was eighteen years old; I was impatient; I decided, Never mind waiting for the wind. Around three A.M. I crept downstairs and placed a phone call to Scott’s quarters. When he came to the phone, I said, “You’ll make it worth my while, right?”
“And then some.”
“Look at you,” Sara Haardt said when I arrived at her parents’ house for tea one gorgeous, fragrant afternoon in May. “Could you get any lovelier? You look like Botticelli’s Venus.”
Sara, born “blue” and always a slim girl, was thinner than the last time I’d seen her, and pale as ever. “And you’re Mona Lisa,” I said. “Think of the attention we’ll get if we appear in public together.”
“I can’t imagine you’re wanting for attention, all on your own.”
I wasn’t. Though Scott had sent his mother’s diamond ring and I wore it with pride and pleasure, my social life was going on pretty much as it had before. The local fellas, all home now from France—except for the dozens who would never come home—seemed not to mind my long-term unavailability so long as in the short term I could still do a good two-step, and tell a good joke, and climb onto a chair or table now and then to demonstrate how well the little bit of fringe on my dress collar swayed when I shimmied. Also, Second Sara and I were volunteering as assistant wedding planners with Mrs. McKinney. Also, there was my painting class, where I was on my third pass at perfecting a dogwood bloom. Also, there was tennis. And now that the golf course had greened up, I was working hard on my drive, so as to maybe win the women’s amateur trophy at the tournament next month.
I trailed Sara into the Haardts’ parlor, where the maid was laying out the china tea service on a table near two floral-chintz chairs. Outside the picture window, three fledgling cardinals, their feathers sticking up in tufts, crowded together on a magnolia branch. I could hear their chatter through the glass.
Sara said, “What’s the latest on Scott? No one can believe you’ve actually allowed a man to catch you—and take you off to New York City! What do your folks say?”
“Oh, they had a fit when I announced our plans, but I told them, ‘I adore Scott. There’s no one else like him. I’ve found my prince.’ Daddy rolled his eyes, you can imagine. But Scott’s wonderful is all,” I said with a sigh. “Course, before he can carry me off, he has to do this quest, you know. Hardships must be overcome. Dragons must be slain. Then he can return for me, triumphant.”
“You’ve been reading Tennyson, haven’t you?”
“Isn’t Lancelot marvelous?” I said. Then I leaned back and propped my feet on the table. “I used to think I’d never want to leave here, even for a fella as impressive as Scott, but now Eleanor’s at her sister’s in Canada, and you’re in Baltimore most all the time, and my brother and sisters are away—well, except Marjorie—and, I don’t know, plenty happens, but nothing happens.”
Sara nodded. “I’ve been to some of the most interesting lectures recently. Have you heard about this new subject, sexology?”
“Don’t let your mother hear you say that word.”
“She went to one of the lectures! I was so proud of her.” Sara poured our tea. “Sexology is concerned with women’s power within the intimate relationship, and about understanding our unique physiological qualities so that we aren’t shamed by our desires. We live in historic times, you know. Women are going to get the vote when Congress comes back into session and finishes ratification.”
“Sounds like a witch’s spell. Ratification—turns you into a rat.”
Sara swatted me. “It’s going to turn us into actual persons with rights,” she said. “Women will be able to choose our next president.”
“Right now, I’ve chosen me a husband, if he stops promising and actually comes through. He sold one story this spring, to some fancy magazine called The Smart Set, then spent the whole thirty dollars they paid him on a feathered fan for me and flannel pants for him. He can’t find work he likes—he’s writing advertising copy for ninety dollars a month and living in some terribly depressing apartment near … what did he say? Harlem? Some place kind of in the city but not really. He hates his job, but he keeps saying, Soon, and I have to tell you, the more he says it, the less I believe it. How long is soon? It isn’t days, or weeks, or a season. It’s a placeholder is what it is, no measure at all.” I leaned toward Sara. “Do you think I’m foolish to marry him? Tell me. I trust your opinion.”
“Does he love you—and I mean genuinely, for the special person you are and not just some idealized feminine object?”
“He does, but—”
“If he doesn’t succeed, he’ll be miserable. I’d have a miserable husband and a miserable apartment. Romantic as I am, I’m pretty certain love does not conquer all. Plus I haven’t had a letter from him in two weeks. He’s got this whole other life. Other friends.”
“So do you, from his perspective,” Sara said. “Give him a little more time. If he regards you the way you say he does, he’s a rare man, Zelda. Even in times as modern as ours is becoming, most men don’t see any reason to get well acquainted with more of a woman than her vagina.”
“Why, Sara Haardt,” I said admiringly. “Goucher’s given you quite the vocabulary.”
“Are you ever serious?”
“You’ve known me my whole life.”
“Right.” She laughed. “Most women hear things like I just said—and I don’t mean only that word—and want to put their fingers in their ears. ‘What about romance?’ they say. ‘What about love?’ We can have romance, love, sex, respect, self-respect, and fulfilling employment in whatever interests us, if we like. Motherhood doesn’t need to be our whole lives—it can be one feature in a woman’s broader life, the same as fatherhood is for men.”
“You really think so?”
“If we had easy, legal ways to prevent pregnancy—other than the obvious one, I mean. Those are coming, too, thanks to women like Margaret Sanger.”
And to women like Sara, who’d led the Montgomery campaign for women’s rights. I said, “You are impressive, Sara Haardt. I really ought to at least try to be more like you.”
“What fun would that be?”
“That’s the problem in a nutshell, isn’t it?”
In late May, I got bronchitis with a cough so severe that it kept me housebound. While I waited for the fever and cough to break and for Scott to report back on a lead he’d gotten for a newspaper job, I read. First was Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, which Daddy had given me. “Some food for thought,” he said, “now that you have to sit still for a spell. See if it doesn’t open your eyes about your future.”
That wasn’t the book for the job; that one amounted to a dry bunch of Stoic platitudes everyone had heard before but no lively person actually wanted to observe. “Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good.” The man was a killjoy. Clearly, joy-killing was Daddy’s intention, too.
The eye-opener was Plashers Mead by Compton Mackenzie, which Scott had sent. Its protagonist, Guy Hazlewood, resembled the romantic poet Scott said he saw in himself, and its heroine, Guy’s fiancee, Pauline Grey, was a passionate woman Scott said reminded him of me. These characters were older than we were, and their circumstances were different from Scott’s and mine, yet in reading the story I felt as if I was living a version of it. It was the strangest thing.
There was a line in the book, in the chapter titled “Another Summer,” that jumped out at me, stuck itself into my brain and would not leave me alone. A friend of Guy’s said this about him to Pauline:
He’s such an extraordinarily brilliant person that it would be terrible if he let himself do nothing in the end.
That friend was speaking directly to me.
The newspaper job Scott was trying for: Did that add up to “nothing”? Scott didn’t want to think so. For him, such a job appeared to be an answer to the problem of how he could support us properly in New York. But that was only one little part of things. He was giving too much credit to the idea that if he secured a new job, he’d be able to put the rest of his plan into action. New job, new wife, time for writing, cash for the theater and parties, great book, literary fame—he would make it all happen at once, by God, or die trying.
It was an impossible plan.
A few days later, Mama was on the phone with Tony when I came into the front hall. “I’ll wire you the cash,” she was saying, talking too loudly and leaning too close to the mouthpiece, as usual. She didn’t trust telephones and treated them the way she’d treated Grandmother Musidora when Grandmother’s hearing had nearly gone. “But this needs to be the end of it. You know how the Judge feels about a man living within his means—” She caught sight of me. “Your sister’s here; do you want to say hello?”
She held up the receiver and I took it, while she moved out of the way.
“Hey, Tony,” I said, my voice still raspy, “when are you comin’ to see me?”
“Oh, soon,” Tony said.
“Can’t get time away from this damned job right now. If I don’t act like I’m supremely grateful to muck around in the swamp measurin’ saw grass so’s Montgomery can have a highway to Mobile, there’s fifty unemployed former soldiers who will.”
“Well, we sure do miss you. Maybe I’ll come pay y’all a visit once I know I won’t infect you. I have all kinds of time.”
“Meanin’ you still haven’t set a wedding date.”
“Scott’s still tryin’ to work out the details.”
Tony laughed, but it wasn’t a happy laugh. “I know fellas like that, senior engineers, here, fussin’ over this and that while the rest of us go gray. Better marry a farmer—they know ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist.”
“Those senior engineers, though, they’re just makin’ sure it’ll be a good road. Right?”
“It’ll be no road unless someone gives them a swift kick.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.”
That night, when the house was quiet and there was only the sound of crickets at the windowsill and frogs in the trees, I sat at the desk in my bedroom and composed a letter. It took hours of careful thought—much longer than I’d expected—and, nauseated, I tore up my efforts twice, wanting to believe that what I was attempting to do wasn’t necessary. Then I thought it through again and got back to work.
In the end, the letter was brief:
What a fine time we had last weekend in Atlanta!—but I’m afraid I went just a little too far by accepting your fraternity pin. Blame the gin. I regret having to wound such a tender heart, but your pin is enclosed. I can’t accept it while I’m still promised to someone else. That may change, though, and if it does I’ll certainly let you know.
I tucked the letter, along with a pin from an old beau, into an envelope, which I then addressed quite deliberately to Scott.
Sara Mayfield was with me when Scott’s reply arrived the following week. Mama had sent her up to my room, aware that I’d been morose for days but unaware of the reason. When Sara arrived, I’d heard Mama say, “Go see if you can cheer her up. My moody children, goodness…” I couldn’t tell Mama what I was up to; she’d have clucked about it endlessly and made everything worse.
Now Sara sat next to where I lay on the bed with damp eyes and the letter clutched in my hand. She patted my arm and asked, “What does he say?”
The lump in my throat made it hard for me to answer, so I handed her the letter, which was as brief as mine had been and amounted to Never contact me again.
Sara read it. “Wow, he sounds really hurt. But then, that’s what you wanted.”
“He’ll be happy in the long run, I guess. If he gets his book published and all.”
Wiping my eyes, I nodded my agreement.
“And if he loves you truly, he’ll love you then, too. You had to do it, Zelda.”
“For his own good.”
“And yours.” She took my hands and pulled me up from the bed. “Now come on, it’s hot and I’m thirsty. Let’s go down to the drugstore and have us some ice-cold dopes. There’s more to life than fellas, right?”
“Not really,” I said. My smile felt weak, but it was a start.
Ten days later, Scott stood in the hall of my house. “I had to see you,” he said breathlessly, while Daddy scowled at us from the library’s doorway. “This is all wrong.”
He looked as desperate and miserable as I’d been when I’d gotten his letter. He wore a light brown suit that he’d obviously slept in—and run in, it seemed, likely all the way from the train station. Sweat was beaded on his forehead and made shiny trails along the sides of his face.
I took his hand; it was moist, too. With a glance at my father, I said, “Come outside.”
As I led Scott to Mama’s rose garden, he said, “It was all my fault for taking too long. Come back with me—we’ll get the first train and get married right away.”
My heart pounded in my chest. Yes! Buy me a ticket, I’ll pack my trunk! I tried to say the words, they were right there in my throat, but—
He’s such an extraordinarily brilliant person that it would be terrible if he let himself do nothing in the end.
Yes, I know, I thought—but I was stubborn, too, and he was right there with me looking so hopeful and impassioned, and I didn’t want to let him down and I didn’t want to give him up.
“Have you ever thought that writing should just be your hobby?” I asked hopefully, selfishly—stupidly too, ’cause I already knew better. “You could do something stable for a profession. Banking, maybe, like my brother-in-law Newman.”
Scott shook his head. “I can’t.”
“Why can’t you? Why does it have to be writing?”
“It’s the only thing I know how to do. I don’t have a single other talent or skill.”
“You could learn one.”
“I can’t. You don’t understand. I was terrible in the army. Worst aide-de-camp ever. I can’t run an office. I can’t lead men. I’m not a whiz with numbers. I’ve got no patience for administrative work—do you know what kinds of idiots head up these companies? But it doesn’t matter. None of that matters. With you there to come home to … You’ll inspire me. You do inspire me. I’ll work so much better if I’m not worrying about you.”
Such romantic words! If the scene were being played out in a dime novel or a picture show, the heroine, heart racing, would swoon and fall into the hero’s arms. We’ll leave it to fate! she’d say as she fainted. I guess I’m not the swooning type, though, because I knew Scott was giving himself a prescription:
I’ll work so much better if I’m not worrying about you.
As I had already concluded, he was completely right, just not in the way he thought. He’d never give up on any of his goals—wasn’t his appearance here clear proof of how ridiculously stubborn he was?—and if he didn’t give up on any of them, he’d fail at them all.
So I swallowed hard and said, “You know, I think our love has run its course and we both need to just move on.”
His mouth fell open. “What are you talking about? What—because I won’t be something else, something your father would approve of, something soul-crushing and meaningless just to get a good paycheck?”
“If you want to see it that way.” I shrugged.
Oh, the look on his face! It was awful. I thought flames might shoot from his eyes, that his hair might catch fire, that he might burst apart on the spot.
When he could speak again, he accused me of having led him on, of being self-centered and unwilling to sacrifice my comfortable life for the meager-but-honorable one he was offering. He pointed at me. “I never should have trusted a girl like you. You’ve obviously been lying to me all along.”
I shrugged again and told him he should go.
“Zelda—” he tried once more, so angry, so confused.
I couldn’t stay there and face that; I’d break down before long and then where would we be? I got up and walked away, head up, chin out, fists and teeth clenched, until I was safely inside the house, inside my bedroom.
There I stayed for hours, pacing, crying my eyes out, sure I’d done the wrong thing. I wanted him to come pounding at the door, insisting I elope with him—and at the same time I was terrified that he might.
He didn’t return, though, and when my tears turned to hiccups and then to sighs, I took a bath and washed my face and got on with the business of being a heartsick, single, almost-nineteen-year-old Montgomery girl.
—Until October, when I came home one day to find a telegram waiting:
MISS ZELDA SAYRE
6 PLEASANT AVE MONTGOMERY ALA
MY DEAR SCRIBNERS TO PUBLISH MY NOVEL MUST SEE YOU ARRIVING THURS. SCOTT.
When I saw him, he told me how, that summer, he had quit his job, gone home to St. Paul, and put all his effort into revising the novel once more. He said that he’d sent Scribner’s the manuscript in September. The next spring, it would be published as This Side of Paradise—the book that started it all.
When Scott returned to visit in January, he took a room at an inn across town from my house. No need to explain the choice; I understood full well what he had in mind. Understood, and was as eager as he was.
In the twilight of that wintertime afternoon, I changed out of my wool dress into the green one I’d worn for my eighteenth birthday. Beneath my dress was only one undergarment: an ivory silk chemise I’d bought earlier that day.
Our engagement is rock solid, I told myself. Why not take this next step?
We had decided we’d wait ’til spring to marry, so that he’d have time to finish polishing up his manuscript and a bunch of short stories he hoped to sell. The advance he’d gotten for the book wasn’t enough to live on, not by far. But he’d acquired a literary agent. Credibility. He’d written to my father to assure him that all the doors had now opened to him, that the two of us wouldn’t be living on tins of fish and beans, that he’d keep a suitable roof over our heads.
It’ll be fine. He loves me. There’s no real risk.
Under cover of darkness and a heavy, figure-hiding old coat and headscarf that had been Grandmother Musidora’s, I went to see him at the inn.
He met me at the front door. “Aunt Myrna!” he said for the clerk’s benefit. “So good of you to come. I brought some supper in; we can have it in my room. Come on, I’ll bet you’re hungry.”
I hobbled along with him, head down, face hidden. “Good of you to anticipate your poor old Aunt Myrna’s desires,” I said, and Scott coughed.
“You’ll see,” he said as we reached the staircase. “I have such good things waiting for you.”
The room could have been my grandmother’s, too, that’s what I thought when Scott ushered me inside. Flouncy draperies covered the windows. The chair and settee wore crocheted antimacassars. On the narrow bed was a beautiful but old-fashioned quilt. All of the furnishings were timeworn, as if they’d been bought from old estates and then given a new life here at the inn.
Scott pulled me to him. When he kissed me, I tasted bourbon.
“How ’bout a drink for your girl?” I said.
“Are you nervous?”
“No. Yes. No,” I decided. “Not nervous. Just … It’s all so momentous. I feel like you and me … we’re this new creature just hatched into the world and there’s nobody like us and we have to figure out every little thing fresh. But that’s silly, isn’t it? People’ve been fallin’ in love and doin’ the next natural thing for eons before us.”
Scott pressed his forehead to mine. “It’s not silly at all. We are making our own path. This is momentous.” He kissed me again. “Let me pour you that drink.”
The bourbon did what bourbon can do so well, and before long, Scott was admiring that new chemise with his eyes, then his hands, then he was moving it out of the way of places he wanted to admire with his mouth. I was admiring him as well.
We went about it slowly, a little awkward at first, me giggling, him shushing me and then laughing, too. Bare skin against bare skin, we entwined ourselves, eventually fitting together exactly as Nature intended. When Scott buried his face in my neck and moved against me, all thought fled my mind. There was nothing but sensation, this profoundly primal feeling I hadn’t anticipated or even known could occur.
And while that first time lasted only a few intense minutes, it proved for certain that Scott and I had something exceptional, something irresistible to us both. For good or ill, that act, those feelings, defined everything my life was going to become.
Scott visited again in February. Again, I went to his room eagerly and in disguise. I don’t recall us saying more than Hello before we were peeling off each other’s clothes and falling into bed.
Afterward, I told him I thought I might be pregnant.
“You couldn’t possibly know the minute it happens.” He laughed.
“From before, I mean.”
He stared at me for a moment, then said, “Well, I guess neither of us has any right to be surprised. Fatherhood, though.” He shook his head. “I didn’t imagine it would happen so easily—not that I don’t want to have children.”
“It just feels awfully fast.” He shifted so that he could sit up, then lit a cigarette.
I sat up, too, pulling the sheet up to cover us both. “I know, it does.”
“Too fast. There are ways of … of managing the situation. Do you know about the, er, treatments? The pills and such?”
Tallu’s sister, Eugenia—Gene—had informed us girls on this topic, along with all sorts of other salacious things that we were forever asking her to repeat. I did also learn some important things. To prevent pregnancy, there were devices and herbal teas and special rinses—none of which were considered fail-safe, and none of which I’d ever considered trying. Like Scott, I’d thought that getting pregnant would more likely take multiple exposures. It’d taken Marjorie years, after all, and Tootsie seemed to be on that same path.
And, Gene told us, to undo pregnancy there was another class of herbal teas and special rinses, along with a variety of pills that I’d seen advertised as providing “feminine relief.” No girl I knew had used any of these things, but we all talked about them. There were, we all agreed, certain kinds of women and certain kinds of situations that would benefit from such things. For example, really poor women who had too many children already. And of course prostitutes.
Scott said, “So that’s what you’ll do, then.”
“Hold on. First of all, I haven’t even seen a doctor yet—”
“It’d be better to have a year or two to ourselves. I really need time to get established. A baby in the house … I can’t imagine being able to concentrate on anything.”
“Well, sure, but since we’d eventually have ’em anyway—”
“Eventually I hope to afford a nurse and a nanny and whatever other help you want. But that can’t happen until I’ve got more things written, more things sold. You understand.”
“There’s still seven or eight months before the baby’d come,” I said, “and then when they’re first born, they pretty much sleep all the time. So that’s at least a year.”
Scott was shaking his head. “If I can’t write, I don’t make more money, and if I don’t make more money, none of our plans will work out—and any money I’ve made already would go for the baby. I’ve paid in blood to get where I am, Zelda. You’ve got to take care of this. This isn’t what we want right now.”
“You have paid, I know. But a whole year should be—”
“Zelda.” He shifted to face me. His eyes were stern, but fearful, too. “I’m so close. Everything I ever wanted, it’s right there.” He stretched out his arm as if literary success dangled like an apple on a tree.
“My father was a failure,” he went on, getting out of bed to pull on his undershorts, then pour drinks for us both. “When he lost his job in Buffalo and we had to go back to St. Paul, only the charity of Mother’s family kept us afloat. There we were, living in this grand house, acting as if we were as well-off as our rich neighbors, and it was all a farce.”
He handed me my drink. “I can’t be almost successful. I can’t get this close to the life I’ve been witnessing, my face against the window like the Little Match Girl, and then see it dissolve like a mirage. When I get back to New York, I’ll see about some options, and we’ll get the matter taken care of. You understand, don’t you?”
“I guess I do.”
The solution to my still-missing monthly arrived a week later wrapped in a paper packet tucked inside an envelope. The small, pale yellow pills looked innocent as aspirin. It would be easy enough to swallow them fast and then just not think about it anymore—until the effects came, at which time it’d be too late for anything but regret. I held them in my palm for a moment, then slid them back into the packet, tucked it underneath my mattress, and went downstairs.
At the piano, I paged through the pile of sheet music, rejecting the jazz piece I’d been working on, rejecting my father’s favored tunes like “Dixie” and “On to the Battle,” which I’d often played to get his attention and coax a smile. Then I saw “Dance of the Hours.” I put it on the stand and began to play.
How simple everything had been that night I’d danced to this song. How easy. Nothing but laughter and the enchantment of a charming officer in his crisp dress uniform. Now everything was a tangle of hope and circumstance and connected fates.
Scott’s happiness is my happiness, I thought. ’Til the end of time, amen.
But … if I took the pills, if I ended a pregnancy just because it wasn’t convenient, wasn’t that the same as declaring that what we’d done was dirty and wrong? That I was no better than a whore?
On the other hand, if I had this possible baby and our life afterward proved to be nothing but misery, he’d be resentful forever, and what kind of life would that be?
But it wouldn’t be misery, I was sure. He was overdramatizing—
“Zelda, for heaven’s sake,” Mama called from the library. “You needn’t pound the keys!”
I’d never compromised on anything important, damn it. Leaving the piano for a minute, I ran upstairs for the pills, then returned to the parlor and put the packet into the fire.
As luck would have it, a few days later the matter resolved itself. I wrote to Scott, Things have a way of working out for us, and this is just one more sign.
I believed it, too. Who wouldn’t have when, from about this time onward, nearly everything Scott had written in the previous year began to turn to gold?
“So his novel will be out soon,” Daddy said. We were in the parlor, where Mama and I had been discussing my trousseau. “Good for him, but it’s not a job. How long will it be before he can sell another, and what will you two live on in the meantime?”
I explained that Scott had begun selling his short stories. “The Saturday Evening Post bought one called ‘Head and Shoulders’ for four hundred dollars—and they liked it so well that they paid nine hundred for two more.” When Daddy still didn’t look impressed, I said, “Add that to how much he got for his novel and it’s already as much as he’d have earned in two years at his old job. And he’s got a pile of stories already done.”
“I don’t like it,” Daddy said. “It’s not a plan, it’s luck. And when his luck runs out—”
A knock on the door interrupted him, and a moment later Katy came into the parlor to hand me a telegram.
I opened it quickly and read the short message, and then I whooped! “How about this, Daddy: the Metro Company is paying two thousand five hundred dollars for movie rights to ‘Head and Shoulders’!”
For a girl who needed irrefutable proof that her father was plain wrong in his thinking, nothing could have been better. I danced around the parlor waving the telegram before me, and didn’t care a bit that Daddy left the room in disgust.
Later that week, I was in my bedroom working on a story of my own when Mama came in with a small package. I was glad for the distraction; the story, which Scott had encouraged me to write, was going nowhere. I could give the most detailed examinations of my characters, but then couldn’t seem to make them do anything interesting.
“This just came for you,” Mama said.
Inside the plain brown paper was a short, square box, and inside that box was a hinged, velvet-covered one. I opened the lid and gasped.
Mama said, “Lord!”
It was a watch unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Its narrow rectangular face was set inside a perimeter of sparkling square-cut diamonds, with a band made up of diamonds laid out in an intricate, almost floral design.
I took it out. Beneath the watch, Scott had tucked a card that read, To wear at our wedding—just a little “something new.”
“I’ll guess it’s platinum,” Mama said.
Engraved on the back was From Scott to Zelda. I turned it over again and again, marveling at the design, the shimmer, the very fact of it.
“Baby, do you have any idea what an extravagance this is? It had to have cost hundreds of dollars. He really ought not to spend this way; it’s irresponsible. This is a time to save.”
I fastened the watch onto my wrist. “I know how it seems. But he’s earning a lot now, and his book’s not even out yet. He’s making his place in the world, Mama. It’ll only get better from here.” Everything he’d promised was coming true.
My mother sighed. She looked suddenly ancient, as if she’d aged ten years in one. Her hair had gone steely gray. Her skin had grown crepey and was so pale—paler, even, than wintertime could explain. She didn’t seem ill, just tired and worn. I felt I could disregard anything she said because what could such an old woman know about modern love and life?
I said, “It’s different for us, Mama. We’re not going to do things the same old ways.”
She sighed again. “Honestly, I don’t know whether to envy your optimism or pity it.”
I took off the watch and turned it again to see the inscription, then flipped it back to admire the diamonds. As I did, I caught sight of Daddy standing in the doorway.
“When the novelty wears off,” he said—and I got the feeling he was referring to more than just the watch—“you can trade that for a down payment on a house.”
“Just think,” Eleanor said, the night before I was to leave home, “New York City! Did you ever imagine?”
It was April 1, 1920; my wedding was set for April 3, one day before Easter and one week after the publication of This Side of Paradise. Eleanor and I were sitting cross-legged on my bedroom rug while I practiced how to look more sophisticated when I smoked. Along the wall were three new trunks filled with what little I’d take with me into married life: clothes and linens and shoes and books, a handful of photographs and a box of mementos, my diaries and my old doll, Alice. “Tilt your chin up a little more,” Eleanor directed.
I did, saying, “New York’s goin’ to be grand. Scott made us a reservation at the Biltmore Hotel for our honeymoon.” I handed Eleanor the advertisement Scott had torn out of a magazine and sent to me.
She read, “‘The Biltmore is the center of international social life in New York.’ Just the place for you, then.”
“He said there’s nothing like it in Montgomery, not even close. Millionaires stay there.”
“You can get room service.”
“And swim in the indoor pool!” I said. “And he says there’s a big ballroom on the twenty-second floor—twenty-two, and that’s not nearly the tallest!—with a roof that opens up when it’s warm out and you can eat under the stars.”
Eleanor was speechless.
“And, I’m going to see the Follies.” I took a sophisticated drag on my cigarette.
“And the Statue of Liberty.”
“And you’ll be the wife of a famous man.”
“Not so famous, not yet anyway; his book has only been out for a few days.”
“Well, handsome then, and famous as soon as enough time has passed for people to know his name. Next thing you know, I’ll be adding rich to my list of adjectives and everyone will say, ‘Finally he’s good enough for our Zelda.’ Now show me that watch again.”
My folks said their good-byes in our front hall. Not one of us mentioned that they weren’t making the trip, too, or why that was. Mama and Daddy said little, in fact, beyond “Travel safely” and “Write soon” because my father had already said, “We think this is a poor choice and we won’t condone it. Marry him, if that’s what you think you want to do—we can’t stop you. But we won’t stand there and see it done.” Mama had only sat nearby trying to be stoical, tears pooling in her eyes.
All the preparations had been made at Scott’s end, with aid from Tootsie and Newman, who were now living nearby. There was no role for our parents and, really, little role for our siblings—and so Scott had told his folks and his sister to just stay home. My sisters were mainly participating because it was convenient for Marjorie to accompany me on the train, and convenient for Tootsie and Tilde, who’d also moved to New York State, to come into Manhattan. The three of them could enjoy a rare visit, and Marjorie could see the city; nothing more was necessary, or desired. Certainly I didn’t yearn for any further oversight. Excited as I was to be going, I’d hardly given the separation from home a thought. I could easily have hurried out the door without even a formal good-bye.
My friends had all gathered at the station for a surprise send-off. Here, the scene was emotional as they saw me onto the train with kisses and tears and flowers. I hugged everyone, dispensed jokes and advice while continually wiping my eyes, and promised I wasn’t leaving forever—if only so that Eleanor and the Saras would let me go.
Once aboard the train and settled in our Pullman, I began to relax a little. As the engine chugged away from the station and Montgomery unspooled behind us, I drew a deep breath, exhaled, and tipped my head back against the seat. The car was new, sleek and modern-looking compared to the plush, older ones we’d taken before the government had commissioned all the trains for the war. There were window screens now, and dust deflectors. The carpet was unpatterned, and plain, smooth seats had replaced the old tufted ones. Out with the old, I thought, and away goes the new.
“I guess this will be a kind of adventure for you, too,” I told Marjorie, who still looked startled by all the commotion in the station. Marjorie often looked startled, as if she was far more comfortable staying shut away in her simple little house, sewing and reading and cooking and tending Noonie, her daughter.
“Yes, I’m looking forward to seeing New York City. Tootsie thinks it’s grand.”
“I’m sure you all are going to excuse Scott and me from your tourin’ schedule.”
Marjorie smiled. “Honeymooners are excused.” Then she added, “Now, Baby, I know you’ve had a lot more experience with boys than I ever did at your age—”
“At any age,” I quipped. “Daddy said, ‘Marry that fine fella Minor Brinson,’ and you said, ‘Yessir.’”
“That’s a bit simplistic. But anyway, there are things you may not know that you should know before your wedding night.”
“Did Mama put you up to this?”
“I volunteered, but she thought it was a wise plan.”
“Sure, bein’ that she’s probably forgotten how such things as might happen on a girl’s wedding night actually work.”
“You do have hot pepper running through your veins, don’t you? Where do you get that, do you suppose?”
“From the Machen side, I’m sure. The Sayres are such a dour bunch. Mama was pretty lively before her daddy put a leash on her.”
“Fathers have to look out for their daughters. It’s their duty.”
I considered this. Our father was nothing if not dutiful, and so were my friends’ fathers. Some had softer edges than others, but all of them were without question the heads of their households. I could think of only one exception: Eleanor Browder’s household, where, from everything I’d seen, both parents were equally in charge. Mrs. Browder did not indulge in any of the routine, small deceptions that the other girls’ mothers did—Mama included. She didn’t need to.
In fact, at times Mrs. Browder’s behavior bordered on obnoxious. Once, when I was at Eleanor’s house, Mrs. Browder told us she wished Eleanor and I could trade places with her—that if she weren’t so weighted down with her present duties and age, she would be out encouraging women to vote, and distributing Margaret Sanger’s booklets to middle- and upper-class households, where, she said, the real facts of life needed to be known. “These women somehow believe that only the poor are subject to venereal diseases. Why, I could name a half-dozen of our neighbors who’ve been treated for ‘female disturbances’ that are in fact gonorrhea they’ve caught from their unfaithful husbands, who got it from the whorehouse!”
We girls weren’t against this kind of progress, necessarily. Rather, we didn’t feel it concerned us. We weren’t political; we were young and pretty and popular. Neither of us had any desire to be the kind of feminist Mrs. Browder wished to be, a fact the poor woman said she found wasteful and offensive.
Now I asked my sister, “The Judge never gave you any trouble, did he? Tilde says you were a model child.”
“My veins run with cool water. Too cool sometimes.” The thought brought a frown. Marjorie had “moods,” Mama had said, and those moods could keep her in bed for days. Whereas I had “fits of temper” lasting minutes, usually, sometimes hours. Tootsie was “hard-nosed, but eventually she sees sense.” Tony was “sensitive.” Only Tilde’s label was complimentary—she was “the cooperative child.”
“Anyway, you were sayin’? About the wedding night?”
“You may be aware, there’s a thing called ‘the marital act’ that happens first on the wedding night, and then, depending on the man, more or less frequently throughout a marriage. Its purpose is reproduction, but a lot of couples believe it’s a … pleasurable thing to do.” Her face reddened. “Men in particular find it pleasurable because their bodies are built … well, more efficiently in that regard.”
I pretended wide-eyed fascination as Marjorie continued the lesson, quietly describing male genitalia and its arousal response, and then outlining what a man did with that aroused genitalia and how a wife was supposed to respond. Finally she paused and looked over at me.
“That is downright fascinating,” I said heartily, then clamped my lips in an attempt to suppress my smile.
Understanding spread across Marjorie’s face. “You devil. You knew all of that already, didn’t you?”
“I’d never heard it explained quite that way, though.”
“Hot pepper,” Marjorie said, shaking her head.
Published in April, 2013.