Everybody's youth is a dream, a form of chemical madness.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald
Nothing can prepare the uninitiated for the truth of New York City. For all that Scott had talked dreamily about Manhattan, had told me about Broadway and the Hippodrome and the Gothic grandeur of the Woolworth Building—the tallest building in the world!—for all that he’d described the city as having a soul, of being a law unto itself, I was not prepared for what I would encounter after I got off the train at Pennsylvania Station.
Marjorie and I had traveled the final leg of the journey overnight. Our compartment was spacious with comfortable berths, but even so, my sleep had been filled with strange dreams. In the most vivid of them, I’d been able to fly. I glided over huge fields of pale violet Indian tobacco chanting, “Lobelia inflata,” repeatedly, worried that I was going to miss my botany exam. I soared along the tops of incredibly tall pines that grazed my naked stomach and breasts with a whisper-soft touch. All I needed to do to lift off each time was to stand on my toes with my arms outstretched, then bend my knees and spring upward. That little bounce, and then I was free. The air flowed around me as warm and soothing as a bath.
In the morning, I woke disoriented. The feeling would persist indefinitely.
Due to a three-hour delay somewhere in New Jersey, once the train rumbled through a tunnel beneath the Hudson River and came to a stop at Penn Station, we had only an hour to spare before the wedding itself and were already late for our rendezvous with Scott and the priest.
We disembarked onto a huge, glass-enclosed platform awash in brilliant sunshine, then stood awestruck, wordless and still. Passengers streamed around and past us. I was transfixed by the steel trusses that went up and up and up to wide glass panels and the blue, blue sky beyond. That glass-paned ceiling had to be more than a hundred feet high and was neatly segmented into the most pleasing steel arches and rectangular panes. Montgomery had some impressive buildings, but nothing that compared to this.
Still staring upward, I tugged at Marjorie’s sleeve. “At breakfast, did you see any bottle labeled ‘Drink Me’?”
“I didn’t notice any bottles— Oh, like in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, you mean.”
“Mm,” I said, gazing around us. “Bet there’s a white rabbit here someplace.”
“It’s like an enormous greenhouse.”
I sighed. “It’s like heaven’s depot. A place like this could only be built by angels, don’t you think?”
We followed the last of our fellow passengers up a staircase to the concourse, where the space opened—exploded, I thought—into the biggest atrium I had ever seen and could not have ever imagined. Everywhere, steel and glass and arches … The seemingly endless ceiling was broad enough to cover a small town. It was magnificent, and dizzying.
“All the clockworks in my head are just spinning and springing apart,” I said.
Marjorie only nodded. After a moment, she gathered herself and took my hand. “We should have let Tootsie and Newman meet us.”
I was anxious, too, but I knew the surest way to make things worse was to indulge Marjorie’s anxiety. “Scott says it’s easy enough to get a taxicab—there’s so many tourists coming that the drivers line up along the street out front all day long.”
“It can only be easy if you don’t feel as though you’re in Wonderland. This place is a city all by itself.”
Marjorie found a smartly dressed woman and asked for the quickest route to where the taxis would be waiting.
“Through there to the main waiting room,” the woman said while checking the time on the huge clock behind Marjorie. “You’ll see the exits—there are signs, too—and then outside any of them, there’ll be a queue for cabs. You’re first-timers here, I suppose?”
“Yes. My sister’s getting married at St. Patrick’s Cathedral at noon.”
The woman’s eyebrows rose almost to her hairline and I wondered if she could somehow tell I wasn’t a Catholic. I said, “My soon-to-be-husband cleared it with the priest.”
She gave me a quizzical look, then told Marjorie, “Yes, well, go right or left as soon as you’re in the main room—don’t spend all day meandering through here to Seventh. And you’ll want to take this advice to heart: give the cabbie the address as though you’re bored and have done it fifty times. If he thinks you’re green, he’ll run you all over the city before he lets you off.”
We left the atrium through a passageway to the main waiting room, as the woman directed. Even the passageway’s scale—thirty feet across and fifty high, all stone, arched, and with other passageways leading off it—was difficult to comprehend. It was like we’d disembarked into a dream even stranger than the ones I’d had overnight. I was Alice, or I was Jack, who, having tired of using the beanstalk to climb to the giant’s lair, had elected to travel there by train. The feeling was amplified when we came to the stairs leading down into the main waiting room.
The wide, sunlit chamber was domed—how high the ceiling was, I couldn’t guess—and built out of huge blocks of the same rose-colored stone that made up the atrium’s lower walls. It was easily the size of a football field. Lampposts were stationed throughout, their scale ridiculously small in this vast space. The far end of the hall had tremendous arched windows divided by small frames into towers of squares. Stairways led off all four sides.
“In my wildest imaginings…” I began.
“It’s after eleven,” Marjorie said. “We have to move along. Left or right, do you think?”
“How can you be so practical?”
“You’re on a schedule.”
“Scott will understand if this makes us later—this stuff is part of the package he sold me to get me out of Montgomery, after all.”
We walked into the hall and were crossing to the staircase that would take us to the exit when I stopped again.
I tilted my head back to see the ceiling from this aspect. Who carved all those hexagons—actually, a hexagon inside a hexagon inside a hexagon—that decorated the entire ceiling? Whose talent with a chisel rendered these tremendous columns? How had it been done? Where did the artists have a large enough work space to chisel the Corinthian curves and leaves that topped the columns?
If Marjorie hadn’t taken me by the arm and said, “You have a wedding in an hour, remember?” I might have lain down right there on the floor in order to marvel properly.
Oh, and then outside! The buildings, the people, the noise of engines and whistles and voices, the commotion of cars clattering past! I glanced at my sister; she looked frightened. I laughed and said, “I might never leave.”
I gawked at every single tall building and appealing storefront on our trip across town, then when we came around the block occupied by St. Patrick’s, I gaped at its arched, stained-glass windows. Each was a work of art.
But when the entry and front spires of St. Patrick’s came into view, my eyes filled with tears. I’d never seen a structure that was at once so ornate and so serene. The sight—the complexity of architecture, the graceful, intricately carved spires towering over the street, inlaid with smaller intricately carved spires, all of them topped by crosses—literally stole my breath. No wonder the woman at the station had looked impressed.
The thought of being married in this church felt overwhelming, but fitting, too; I was convinced that ours was no ordinary union. Scott was no ordinary fiance. How, though, had he engineered this?
The sidewalk was crowded with tourists milling around the church. Marjorie said, “I wonder if it’s always like this, or if tomorrow being Easter explains it.”
I spotted Scott at the top of the wide steps, where he waited with Tootsie and Newman and two unfamiliar men, and got out of the car before Marjorie had even opened her purse to extract the cab fare. Scott jogged down to the curb and swept me into an embrace.
“My dearest girl, my bride! We’ve done it, we’ve made it. Can you believe this? What do you think?”
“It’s wonderful.” I pulled back and smiled at him. His eyes were as green as they get, bright with pleasure and pride. “Look at you. My author husband.”
He glowed. “Nearly ten thousand sold already, I’m told. And the reviews so far are pretty damn good. Some critics are even saying it’s genius. They’re putting me up there with Byron and Kipling!” His voice caught as he said, “This, now, here with you, is the top of the world.”
“I’m so, so happy for you, darling.”
“It’s all because of you.” He kissed my hands. “Because I had to have you.”
Marjorie joined us as the others came down to the sidewalk. Scott turned to the priest. “Father, I’d like to introduce Miss Zelda Sayre and her sister Mrs. Marjorie Brinson. Ladies, this is Father Martin. He’ll be doing us the honor.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said as I squinted up at the arched entryway, which sat beneath a stone peak that resided under an even grander one. Everywhere, peaks and spires reached heavenward—which, I supposed, was the idea.
“This is the most remarkable church I’ve ever seen,” I said, still looking upward. “How many crosses are on this thing, do you suppose?” I looked back at the priest and smiled. “It’s amazing. I have the sudden desire to become a Catholic.”
“I believe that can be arranged.”
Newman said, “We’re told that the tallest of the spires reaches three hundred thirty feet.”
“Practically to heaven’s door,” Tootsie quipped as she gave me a hug. “You look radiant, little sister.”
I wore a suit the color of the evening sky, onto which I’d pinned the white orchid Scott had ordered for me from a Montgomery florist. He’d said it would keep overnight, and it had. My hat was the same fabric as my suit, trimmed out with gray leather ribbon and a silver buckle. I wore shoes to match and felt, as I’d told Eleanor when I tried on the suit for her, “like a proper lady—which might be the best costume I’ve worn so far in my life.”
Scott then turned to the man beside him and said, “This chap is Ludlow Fowler.”
Ludlow nodded to Marjorie and took my hand. “Fitz can’t stop talking about you, you know. Thank God you’re here—maybe now he’ll stop bothering us and instead fill your ears with stories about us Princeton boys.”
“As if the lot of you are worth my breath,” Scott said.
Tootsie announced, “We’re just waiting on Tilde and John. With all the last-minute arranging, we can only hope she remembered that you all settled on today instead of Monday.”
Scott checked his watch. “What I should have arranged for was a car to pick them up.” He turned to me. He looked like a horse at the starting gate waiting for the bell. “Scribner’s store is just two blocks down. I can’t wait to show you the book—we can go right afterward, if you like.”
“Yes. Yes, of course, I can’t wait to see.”
“You two,” Tootsie said. “It’s your wedding day!”
“It’s our everything day,” I told her.
It was ten minutes before noon. Scott said, “We should go in and get things situated.”
“I’ll stay on post and keep an eye out for them,” Newman offered.
Tootsie said, “Then if they’re late, you’ll miss it. That’s silly. Come on.”
Father Martin led us inside through the towering wood doors. The church’s interior was enormous, and so stunningly beautiful in its architecture and finishings that I didn’t know where to look first.
A long, straight ribbon of vanilla marble flowed far ahead of us to a magnificent altar. The ceiling towered overhead, formed by pale, graceful arching stone beams that seemed to bloom from tremendous stone columns that rose a hundred or more feet to the ceiling. Among the columns at floor level marched unending rows of polished wooden pews, nearly all of which were full.
I whispered, “These people, they’re not all here for us?”
“No,” Scott said. “We’re going to the vestry; that was the compromise, since you didn’t convert. Noon mass is about to begin.”
The ceiling’s arcs merged at regular points along the way to the front of the church, creating what looked to me like a row of poinsettia flowers. Interspersed high up the walls between the arcing beams were stained-glass windows depicting biblical scenes. Below, both sides of the room—if room was even the right word for this space—were lined by even larger window scenes, all glowing brightly in the midday sunshine. Statues, presumably of Roman figures, gazed down at visitors from pillars and nooks in poses of classic boredom, as if to say they were beyond such things as whatever impressed mortals, that heaven was really the thing to see.
Every surface, be it stone wall or ceiling, wooden balcony or bench, was sculpted or carved into one kind of artful form or another. Was all this about religion—an expression, say, of God’s supposed glory? Was this, somehow, about being Catholic in New York City? Maybe all the world’s great cities had cathedrals like this.…
For the first time, I had a glimmer of the immensity of the planet, of lives being lived as routinely or as vividly as my own had been at any given moment. The world contained who knew how many Pennsylvania Stations and St. Patrick’s Cathedrals. If New York offered these two treasures within an hour of my arrival, what else would I discover here? What music? What dancing? What books? What plays? Beauty and art such as I’d never really considered were everywhere in this city, and probably all around the globe—and here I was, in this magnificent example, about to marry a man who had just added his own work of art to the collection.
When we were about halfway to the front of the church, I stopped and turned in a slow circle to take it all in. Marjorie did the same, saying, “Oh, I do wish Mama had come.”
“Our parents say they’re too old to travel so far,” Tootsie explained to Father Martin. “And I’m sure Scott’s parents wanted to be here as well.”
“Certainly,” the priest said.
I said, “You could park an airship in here!”
“Indeed,” Father Martin replied. “We’ve considered the option—renting space to the government, should there be a need of maintenance funds.”
“Sellout crowd today, though,” Scott said.
Tootsie nodded. “I guess they heard that Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald was about to be married here.” She winked at me. I pinched her arm.
The vestry, though relatively intimate in size, was outfitted with rich wood millwork and leaded-glass windows. I breathed more easily in here. In this space, I could focus again on why we’d all come to be here in the first place. I could focus on Scott. How handsome and distinguished he looked in his dark gray suit, a finer cut than I’d seen him in before. He looked like the man he’d said he was going to be, and I thought, I will never doubt him again.
“It’s nearly time,” the priest said, inviting us to stand before him.
I looked at Tootsie and asked, “Any sign of Tilde?” Tootsie shook her head.
Scott said, “Father Martin has a full schedule today. Let’s get started.”
“But she’ll hate to miss it,” Marjorie said.
“We could end up waiting all afternoon.” Scott looked at me; I nodded and he said, “Go ahead, Father. We’re ready.”
With Tootsie at my elbow and Ludlow Fowler at Scott’s, the priest said all the things that needed saying in order for the Church and the state to consider us lawfully wed. While he spoke, I let his words flow over me. I stared into Scott’s eyes, seeing there all the happiness, the pride, the love, the promise that we’d been striving for, together, since that July night almost two years earlier.
“Now.” Tootsie nudged me.
“Oh—yes, yes, I do.”
We exchanged simple wedding bands, then kissed sweetly, to the applause of our small audience. The door opened then, and a young man admitted Tilde and John into the room.
“You’ve just missed it,” I said, going to my sister, whose unstructured dress and loose coat did a good job of disguising her advanced pregnancy—though of course the very fact of her wearing that style of clothing indicated her condition.
I put my hand on her belly and asked the baby, “Was it you who made them late?”
“The train.” Tilde put her hand over mine. “But the good news is that the motion lulls him to sleep. This child is going to be an acrobat.”
John squeezed my shoulder. “So he’s made an honest woman of you?”
“Can you believe it?” I said, as Scott joined us. “They claimed it’d never happen, but here I am, a happily wed woman.”
“One who’s got a date at Scribner’s.” In my ear Scott added, “And then the Biltmore.”
“Naughty,” I whispered.
Tilde took in the vestry’s scene. “Was the ceremony lovely?”
“It was quick. Here.” I lowered my voice to imitate the priest’s. “‘We’ve come together before God on this fine day in order to ensure that these two crazy kids don’t go to the devil.’” Then I kissed Scott the way I’d just done at the ceremony’s conclusion and said, “‘What God has joined together let no bunch of sisters interfere with.’ And,” I said in my own voice, “now we’ve got to get going.”
Marjorie said, “What, Baby, just like that?”
“I’d like to see the book,” Newman said. “Buy a copy, even.”
Tootsie told him, “Later. Let this be their adventure. Besides, we’ve got to feed poor Tilde, who I’m sure is famished.”
I hugged Tootsie. “Thank you.”
Tilde looked crestfallen. “It would be so much nicer if you joined us. Tootsie, why didn’t you help them set up something?”
“They didn’t want any fuss.”
“We’ll visit you after the honeymoon,” Scott said.
I nodded. “We’re off, then. You all have a nice time catching up. Marjorie, get a copy of the book for the Judge and take it home, would you? I’ll write to all of you; so long!”
Scott and I strolled the two blocks to Scribner’s store hand in hand. I was so busy looking at everything around us that I didn’t realize we were at the store until Scott pulled me over to a shop window.
“Here she is.”
The window display featured a number of books individually. Copies of Scott’s, though, had been built into a pyramid that dominated the display. In front of the pyramid was a sign:
At only twenty-three years of age, Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald is the youngest writer for whom Scribner’s have ever published a novel.
I said, “Is that true?”
“This is my husband’s book!” I shouted, pointing to the display. Passersby smiled. I turned to Scott and said, just to him, “And this is my husband.”
At the Biltmore Hotel, I couldn’t resist petting every polished brass railing, every gilded table, every brocaded chairback along the way to our suite. I twirled beneath the crystal chandeliers, posed in front of the clock. I admired the brass buttons on the elevator operator’s uniform. I admired the elevator. After a light meal in the hotel’s lush dining room, I admired the three bottles of bootleg champagne awaiting us in our suite—sent over by Scott’s Princeton friends, who I’d be meeting Tuesday night.
Soon after admiring the champagne (and its bubbles, and its flavor), I praised the wide bed and the way it accommodated the two of us no matter which way we lay or shifted while we made love. All this was so much grander than the life Scott had led me to imagine, and while I’d foreseen good things, this was simply beyond.
“Are we rich?” I asked.
“We are unstoppable.”
We slept late on Sunday, lazed in bed with a room-service breakfast of fruit and cream and muffins, bathed together in the marble tub in the afternoon, then spent the evening in the Broadway district. Supper first, at a little diner on Forty-third Street, and then, as promised, a performance of Ziegfeld’s Follies at the New Amsterdam Theatre. By the time we took our seats and the curtain went up and the stage revealed its remarkable sets and even more remarkable performers and, most remarkable of all, the Follies Girls’ resplendent beaded, sequined, feathered, shimmering, sparkling costumes, I could only stare and grin and wonder at the crazy luck that had put Scott and me together and brought us to this place.
On Monday, we took a picnic lunch of cold fried chicken over to Central Park in the early afternoon. I hadn’t expected statues or artful bridges or colorfully tiled tunnels. “They even make their parks like this?” I said, repeatedly, turning it into a joking refrain as we walked along the paths and over the bridges and beside the lakes. We ate in a sunny spot on the steps of the Bethesda Terrace near the Angel of the Waters, a benevolent statue that rose from the center of a wide, shallow fountain-pool. At the angel’s feet were four cherubs that Scott said were meant to represent Health, Peace, Temperance, and Purity. I laughed at that. “The first two hardly matter if you have to mind the last two.”
“That’s my girl,” Scott said.
Tuesday, I got my first real taste of what it was going to be like to be married to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
We had only just finished getting dressed when a knock sounded on our hotel-room door. A one o’clock appointment time for Scott’s first magazine interview had sounded reasonable when Scott mentioned it on Saturday afternoon. That was before either of us realized we’d be staying up until near dawn every night. New York City’s diversions were irresistible; if we could have survived without sleeping at all, we’d have done it.
Scott said, “Am I presentable?” as the rap on the door sounded again. “Coming!” he yelled.
I straightened his tie and kissed him. “Don’t be nervous.”
“Not a bit. He’s a Princeton man.”
Scott opened the door to Jim Ellis, a balding man of about thirty who had a soft, round face and eyes like a spaniel’s. His brown suit jacket looked tight through the shoulders and at the waist, and its sleeves rode up over his fraying cuffs. The overall effect was that the suit had shrunk, or its owner had expanded, or possibly he’d borrowed it last minute from a roommate or coworker. Ellis was a features writer for a magazine I’d never heard of. Some little start-up tabloid, Scott said.
Ellis shook Scott’s hand. “Thank you for agreeing to talk with me. Our readers are eager to get to know the man behind the novel.”
“Glad to do it.”
Scott led him into the sitting room and indicated a chair to my left, where the man dutifully sat down. I smiled at him as though he was as important to Scott’s career as Mr. Charles Scribner himself.
“Jim Ellis, meet my lovely bride of three days, Zelda Fitzgerald.”
Zelda Fitzgerald. What a foreign sound to my ears!
I crossed my legs, letting my knee show, and leaned forward to offer my hand. “It’s a pleasure.”
Ellis’s face reddened and he took my hand in a quick, shy clasp before turning back toward Scott. “Congratulations on your marriage.”
I recognized Ellis’s type. In my experience, there were two kinds of men. One type—no matter how plain or how poor he might be—is always willing to at least try his luck with an attractive girl. The other type looks upon all of those first types with envy. Ellis was among the second group. He probably wasn’t married, or if he was, I ungenerously figured he’d found a girl even less confident than himself, a pairing that was sure to perpetuate a race of timid, boring people you’d never invite to a party unless for some reason you’d taken a shine to them and wanted to lift them out of their misery.
While Scott sat, Ellis took out a notebook and turned to a page where he’d already written some notes. He pointed at the copy of This Side of Paradise that sat on the table between his chair and Scott’s. “I have to say, I read the novel and I fully agree with the Times: ‘As a picture of the daily existence of what we call loosely college men, this book is as nearly perfect as such a work could be.’ My sentiments exactly.”
Scott nodded his thanks. “I’m always especially interested in how it plays with fellow alums.”
“I wish my time there had been more like I hear yours was. I was a bit of a hermit.”
I said, “Oh, I can’t believe that. I’ll bet you were just a sensible fella.”
He glanced at me. Now his ears had gone red. He said to Scott, “What a thrill it must be to get a gold seal from the Times—and you being just twenty-three, first book…” Ellis shook his head with obvious envy.
I said, “He is impressive, isn’t he?”
“Why, thank you, darling.”
Ellis asked him, then, about how closely the experiences of Scott’s main character, Amory Blaine, reflected Scott’s own life.
Scott said, “Loosely. I’ve put a character into a version of my personal history, is what I’ve done.”
“So Blaine’s an alter ego.”
“A somewhat naive one, yes.”
“Well, sure, of course, that makes sense; you couldn’t write him so wisely if you were him.”
“Now,” Ellis continued, “about the women in this book—”
“It’s a novel about flappers—you know the term? These independent, morally modern girls?—a flappers’ story, for philosophers.”
Ellis nodded and made a note. “And the selfish girl who breaks his heart—Rosalind. Is she…” He glanced at me again.
I said, “She bears me some resemblance, it’s true—but you see, I married my Amory.”
Scott added, “But only after her Amory proved he had a far better outlook and future than our poor hero here.” He thumped the book. “Zelda was used to the finer things in life, things I couldn’t provide until now. She wouldn’t have me until I’d proven myself capable and had a few dollars in my account.”
I said, “Actually, it wasn’t quite as—”
“Darling,” Scott said, opening his cigarette case, then snapping it shut, “I can’t believe it, but I’m out. Would you ring for some while I finish up with Mr. Ellis?”
“Sorry?” I said, surprised that he’d interrupted me.
“Cigarettes. And something for you, Ellis?”
“If they’ve got a ham sandwich. I missed lunch—”
“Sure,” I said, “but I just want to explain that I didn’t—”
“No one thinks the worse of you for making me wait, darling. Women have to be practical.”
I stood up and, in a tone suited to my supposed character, said coolly, “How about I just go find the concierge personally?”
Neither man replied, but I felt their eyes on me as I crossed the room. As I opened the door, I heard Scott saying, “These flapper girls, they’re like racehorses.” I slammed the door closed behind me. To hell with them, I thought. Let them find someone else to play fetch.
When I returned ninety minutes later, Ellis was gone and Scott was seated on the floor with half a dozen newspaper clippings laid in front of him. His nearly full cigarette case sat opened on the end table nearby.
“You said you were out!”
He stood up and came to me. “That was just a ruse, so that you’d stop trying to straighten the story. I didn’t want you to dampen Ellis’s interest. Did you see how he looked at you? To him, you were Rosalind. In the future, if anyone should bring up the subject of Rosalind being like you, don’t split hairs; play it up. Be Rosalind. That’s what they’re hoping for.”
I took a cigarette and lit it from his, dragged on it, then exhaled slowly. “But I’m not her. To start with, she’s not Southern, not even a little bit. She’s New York society, and I sure am not that.”
He waved away the protest. “Artistic license.”
“And she’s a prissy snob, wouldn’t you say?”
“What, for following her family’s wishes and choosing a wealthy man over Amory? She’s practical. Chill-minded, we might call her. These aren’t bad traits necessarily. It’s all about the context, all about how the traits are put to use.”
“You want people to see me like that? Selfish? ‘Chill-minded’?”
“Anyone who knows the real you knows you’re warm and generous and smart. ‘Most Popular’ girl at Sidney Lanier High School—that’s indisputable. For the papers and magazines, what difference does it make who you really are—or who I really am, for that matter? It’s like in advertising: give the public what it thinks it wants, and they’ll lay down their cash.”
“Thinking they’re getting some sob-sister confessional about us, sure. I’d think you’d want the book judged on merit.”
“It’s been judged—by most everyone who counts; look at these.” He indicated the newspaper clippings. “The latest reviews from the weekend. My agent sent them, and they’re good.” His voice broke; he cleared his throat and added, “Max Perkins was a visionary, this proves him out.”
“It proves you out,” I said, softening. “You knew what you were talking about all along. It’s a smart, funny, wise book, Scott, and you deserve all this.”
“We deserve it. A lot of the dialogue in there came straight out of your diary.”
“The way you gave my words to somebody I would never be is pretty keen. Sort of a magic trick, isn’t it? It sure did work, though.”
“It worked, and here we are.”
I went to the window. “I never woulda thought it. Not like this.” I turned back toward him. “You’re sorta impressive.”
He shrugged away the compliment, but his smile said he was pleased. “The thing now is sales. Popularity means we get to keep doing things like drinking champagne,” he said, popping the cork from a bottle, “and wearing diamond wristwatches, and”—he tapped an envelope that lay on the table—“going to parties like the one next Friday night at George Jean Nathan’s place.”
“Another young Princetonian heir?”
“God no. He’s one of this city’s finest fixtures—editor of The Smart Set, plus he’s a writer and a true theater critic of the first order. He knows everyone. Ev-ree-one. And he wants us.”
I remembered The Smart Set, first of the prominent magazines to publish Scott’s short stories. I hadn’t realized at the time of the sale what a big deal it was; selling that story hadn’t seemed to boost him much—he’d been focused on selling his novel, and on finding a better job. But that first gust had turned into a strong breeze bringing him all the things he had now: reviews from papers around the country. Books selling out of stores. New stories sold in new places. Steady money coming in. A wedding at St. Patrick’s. A luxurious Biltmore suite. Reporters wanting to interview him—
“It’s you this Nathan fella wants,” I said.
“The invitation is for Mr. and Mrs. Scott Fitzgerald. And I think the occasion’s going to call for a new dress.”
“A dress for your Rosalind, you mean,” I said, stepping up onto the sofa and walking across it, then stepping onto the back of it. I raised my arms overhead as I balanced, walking carefully along the narrow upholstered frame. “It was easier in Montgomery. I just had to keep on being me.”
“Being you also meant being whatever character you portrayed onstage, didn’t it?”
I jumped down onto the cushion. “I s’pose that’s right.”
“So if I go along with this scheme, we’ll be playing parts, that’s what you’re saying. Same as if we were doing this year’s Folly Ball back home.”
Scott handed me a glass of champagne. “Only this time, we’re writing the parts ourselves.”
We dined at the Cascades that night, on the Biltmore’s top floor. While it was too cool outside for the roof to be open, we agreed that the fact that it could be opened was a thrill. The building was a wonder. Everything in New York City was a wonder, including Scott, who was treating me like the princess I’d once imagined I was. Fruit and cream from room service in the morning. Shopping and hair salon during the day. Dinner—that was the word refined Northerners used for the evening meal, Scott told me—at the top of a grand hotel. Dancing later, to the music of a first-rate orchestra. And champagne. We were drinking rivers of it. I’d told Scott the night before, “I bet you we’ll be peeing bubbles before long!”
And we made love every chance we had. Quickly and vigorously in between activities; languorously when we had hours on our hands. We shared the bathroom sink when we brushed our teeth at night. We talked to each other from the toilet. Marriage suited us, there was no doubt about it.
As the waiter cleared our plates, Scott told me that the interview with Ellis had given him an idea, and he wanted to see what his publisher thought of it.
“I want to write a fictional interview that could then be placed with the Times or the Tribune. That way, we don’t have to wait for the papers to decide they want someone to do it.”
“A fictional interview? So, another bit of alter-egoism.”
“Sort of. I haven’t worked it out yet … but I have some ideas.”
I could almost see those ideas swimming around in his head and watched, amused, as he took out his notebook and jotted things down.
“I have some ideas, too,” I said suggestively, just before the waiter reappeared with our creme brulee.
Scott glanced up at me, then caught my meaning and grinned. He asked the waiter, “Don’t we make a fine pair?”
“Absolutely, sir. In fact, a couple at a nearby table was just inquiring whether you weren’t famous, from the pictures or Broadway.”
“Is that so?” Scott said. “Which couple?”
“There, with the spectacles.” The waiter indicated a middle-aged man and woman several tables away.
Scott stood up then, and both the waiter and I watched him go straight over to the couple. He leaned down and spoke animatedly. They laughed, he laughed, then he took a pen from his breast pocket. He uncapped it and, as he did, must have said something that caused the couple to look over at me with appreciative smiles.
I waved graciously, as though this happened all the time.
Scott took the woman’s napkin right out of her lap and spread it on the table, then wrote something on it. When he was finished, he bowed to the man, kissed the woman’s hand, and returned to our table.
He said, “They’d hoped we were actors, but didn’t mind settling for the autograph of the dashing young author of that scandalous new novel everyone’s talking about.”
The waiter took a quick look around. “Would you mind…?” He laid Scott’s napkin on the tabletop. “And remind me, what’s the name of your book?”
The next morning, Scott arranged for a meeting at Scribner’s, where he’d see Maxwell Perkins, his editor, along with the fellow who was in charge of publicity there. Left with time to myself, I decided to catch up on my correspondence. I owed letters to the Saras and to Livye and to my parents, and I needed to see whether Tallu was back in New York or still working in London, where she’d been finding an easier path to fame.
Everybody in New York is famous, she’d written me a few weeks earlier. Everybody is beautiful. But England’s dying for attractive girls. Hope I’ll see you soon, but meanwhile, look up Gene. She’s easy enough to find—just follow the trail of men.
Scott returned with a spring in his step and a bag of sandwiches in his hands.
“It went well?”
“Oh, they think I have a screw loose, but they’ll indulge me, all right. What do you think of this?” He took a folded page from his pocket, then opened it. “My interviewer’s a guy I’ve named Carleton R. Davis. I’ve got him arriving as I’m here at loose ends. Things are in disarray—just like they are.” He looked around at the mess. Living out of trunks did not encourage tidiness. “And I’m looking for my hat, and this tie,” he said, patting the one he was wearing, blue with tiny white dots, “and my cigarettes, et cetera, but I encourage him to go ahead with his questions. We cover the usual ‘How long did it take to write the book?’ stuff, and I expound somewhat—”
He grinned. “Think you know me that well, do you?” He kissed me, then continued, reading from his notes, “He asks me what my plans are next.”
“What are your plans next?”
He gazed at me over the top of the page. “I guess you mean my literary plans.”
“No, Carleton R. Davis wants to know those.”
“Yes, yes, that’s right.” He looked at the page again. “And I shrug. ‘I’ll be darned if I know. The scope and depth and breadth of my writings lie in the laps of the gods.’”
“Who no doubt are reading This Side of Paradise as we speak—so’s to give you appropriate guidance for the future.”
“No doubt at all. And then I expound further, until I’ve impressed our Mr. Davis sufficiently for him to ask whether I intend to be a part of the great literary tradition.”
“Which you do.”
“No! No, that’s just it, that’s just what people would guess a fellow in my shoes would say! But I don’t. ‘There is no such thing,’ I say. ‘The only real tradition is the death of preceding ones.’”
A thought grabbed him and he paused and began to search his pockets, coming up with a pencil. “Hold on.” He laid the paper on the table and jotted something on it. Then he read, “‘The smart literary son kills his own father.’ What do you think?”
“Kinda Greek, isn’t it?”
“The cradle of literature, dearest girl. All writers draw from that well—and how’s that for mixing my metaphors?” He sat down next to me and said, “Give me a hero, and I will tell you a tragedy.”
I started to reply when Scott added, “Wait— Give me a hero … Give me a hero and I’ll tell you … no … I’ll show you…”
He reached for the pencil and wrote in the paper’s margin while I waited. It was so funny to see him transferring thoughts to words on paper as if he was taking dictation from those gods he mentioned.
“Here, I think I’ve got it: ‘Show me a hero, and I’ll write you a tragedy.’ That’s good. Don’t know where I’ll use it, but it’s good.”
“Isn’t that Shakespeare?”
Scott thought for a moment, then shrugged. “Who can say?”
We’d invited Scott’s friends to meet his bride in the Biltmore’s Palm Court. Dressing for this date was no different from dressing for any party or dance back home, yet I was anxious. Without Montgomery’s humidity, my hair didn’t quite know how it should behave. Without Montgomery’s context, I didn’t know quite how I should behave.
Except for Ludlow Fowler, these men knew me only from whatever Scott had told or written them. I was accustomed to being assessed only for my actual actions—I had control over what I did and with whom, and once I’d made up my mind to act, I was happy to let the dust settle however it would. But God knew what things Scott had said after our breakup; to any or maybe all of them, I might be a fickle speed of a girl who’d led Scott on and then dashed his hopes and then roped him in again and finally caught him. Everybody knew of couples like that, where the poor man was obviously in over his head and miserable for it. If that was the Princeton pack’s impression of me, I couldn’t allow it to stand. Nor would I stand for them seeing me as Rosalind. That was fine for strangers, but these men were like brothers to Scott.
I’d be my most charming with them, and plainly affectionate with Scott, and I’d let him shine in his well-deserved limelight. They’d see, then, that what Scott and I had—regardless of anything he might have said before—was genuine love and mutual respect. I’d make Sara Haardt proud.
My dress was a navy-blue chiffon number that Scott had spotted in a shop window. He said everything I’d brought from home looked provincial when contrasted with what New York women were wearing—even I could see that. So, odd as it was to take fashion advice from a man, I’d had to admit that if I was going to be a famous author’s wife—his apparently notorious wife—I needed to look the part. Gone were the simple cotton blouses and casual skirts that had been my everyday wear. Now I had finer cotton, and silk! My skirts and dresses showed my lower calves. I had smart hats and soft leather gloves and shoes in four different colors.
In truth, it had been awfully nice to walk into a shop and buy the thing I’d decided I wanted. No debating with my mother over color or style or length, no wheedling required, no discussion of sticking to Daddy’s budget. Scott had peeled off ten-dollar bills and given them over to the shopgirl while encouraging me to buy more, if I liked.
Now Scott stood behind me at the mirror while I applied my lipstick and put on my hat. “Aren’t you a wonder?” he said.
I smiled at his reflection. He wore a new striped tie that made his eyes silvery sage. His cheeks still had a rosy glow from our Central Park outing. He’d parted his hair in the center and combed it smoothly back, which made him look polished and confident. I said, “You aren’t too bad yourself.”
“In all the nonsense that will come from this lot tonight—and it’s likely to be an arcane mix of football and poetry and literary journals and publishing and bourbon and war and girls—I want you to know that you, my dearest, darling wife, are the center of my universe.”
“In that case,” I said, turning to face him in person, “I might let you stay.”
There were too many of them to keep straight at first. That first night, I hardly tried. It was enough to greet each of them in my new role, then sit among them as though I were an anthropologist who’d been drafted into a strange tribe.
Ludlow Fowler was easy to remember, having been at the wedding. “Mrs. Fitzgerald,” he said, taking both my hands and kissing my cheek. In his tailored suit and with freshly cut fine blond hair, he smelled like old money and somehow also of gardenias, as if his mother might still be sending him milled French soaps and he was still inclined to use them. Straightforward and confident in the way that born-rich men so often are, Ludlow reminded me of some of the well-off fellas back home.
The other five—who I’d later know as Bunny, Biggs, Townsend, Alec, and Bishop—I would have to study a bit, except for Edmund Wilson, the misnamed Bunny, who I’d heard so much about. He looked something like the reporter, Ellis, but Bunny’s clothes fit better, and it was clear right off that Bunny fit better in the world. He likely belonged to the first type of men, the ones who believed they were entitled to a chance at any girl who enticed them—though I was certain that Bunny’s tastes were very particular.
After the initial polite questions directed at me, who they surely saw as an odd new appendage that Scott had somehow acquired along with his new celebrity status, the men moved quickly into a hearty discussion of This Side of Paradise. Most of them had read it and had already offered Scott their critiques and their praise. What they wanted to know now was what it was like to be scrutinized so publicly, to be the latest literary sensation.
“You don’t look famous,” one said.
“Except that you seem to be wearing Fowler’s suit,” said another, a tall, blue-eyed, blond man who had a friendly smile.
Scott said, “That’s what selling a story’s film interest will do for a man; it’s got nothing to do with the book.”
“It’s the book that made them look at the story.”
“It’s George Nathan that made them look at the story.”
I followed the banter, amused.
“No,” Scott said, “that story, ‘Head and Shoulders,’ went to The Saturday Evening Post, not The Smart Set. My agent, Harold Ober, got it to the movie people.”
“My agent. Gad. He says it as if to the manor born.”
“I still say it was Nathan. He’s got a crush on you, Fitz.” This was from the dark-haired, young-looking one.
Ludlow Fowler nodded toward me. “But we needn’t worry about our boy’s manhood now.”
“Do we know any other fairies?”
The dark-haired one again: “I was in Greenwich not long ago and met a pair—that is, they weren’t a couple, that is, they were two. Edna Millay and Djuna Barnes.”
“Lesbians aren’t fairies,” Bunny Wilson said. “Christ, call yourself a wordsmith?”
Scott said, “Nathan’s no fairy.”
“Edna Millay is a lesbian?”
“I’ve seen her with men.”
“I saw her with a woman.”
Ludlow said, “Never mind that. How many stories have Nathan and Mencken taken from you now, Fitz?”
“Six. And The Saturday Evening Post’s taken four.”
“Paying…?” asked the dark-haired one.
“The Post?” Scott said. “Four hundred for one, four-fifty for the next two, and my agent’s got them to five hundred for the new ones.”
This stopped the conversation for a moment as all except Bunny and Ludlow stared at him, agog.
“And The Smart Set pays…?”
“Thirty,” Bunny answered, his voice as crisp and authoritative as three new ten-dollar bills. “Which won’t cover much more than his room here tonight, but the literary cachet is invaluable, isn’t that right, Fitz?”
Scott rubbed one hand over his hair and smiled.
The discussion went on for a time. Several of the men had brought flasks, which now began to appear more frequently; this then prompted a debate about the effectiveness of last October’s Volstead Act, and alcohol’s correct place within intelligent society. Did a thinking man need it? Did it hinder or enhance a writer’s productivity?
Bunny turned to me. “Zelda, what do you think?”
“I believe it makes most men better dancers,” I said, and held out my hand for his flask.
He complied, laughing. “I’m afraid that even liquor can’t help me much there.”
Scott caught my eye. His smile was one of gratitude. I had done something—perhaps everything—right.
This group, and this bookish world in which they lived and were simultaneously creating, was a collegiate literary circle puffed into wide proportions by the New York magazines and papers; that’s how I saw it before long.
Before their reign, before a smart, young writer named Dorothy Parker said too much too well and was fired for it, before Scott’s success, before people everywhere had been ravaged by war and flu, there’d been little glamour in the literary world. To be a writer then was to be a drab little mole who thought big thoughts and methodically committed them to paper, hoping for publication but not courting it, and then burrowing back into the hole to think again for a while.
With this group, though, and their counterparts from Yale, and the postwar push for life, for fun, for all the things Scott and I were seeking and embodying, the literary world put its foot into the circle of the entertainment world’s spotlight. Not far; far enough, though, for the public to see the polished, well-cut shoe and wonder to whom it might belong.
It belonged to the Princeton boys who’d made a happy circus of what had once been considered the ultraserious Princeton journal Nassau Lit. It belonged to Scott.
Some of their influence would occur due simply to luck. For example, Bunny was at Vanity Fair primarily due to Dorothy Parker’s lack of diplomacy (that’s what got her fired), and their friend John Peale Bishop was there because of Bunny. The literary hub that was Vanity Fair and its like-kind associations would soon grow new spokes and turn like a Ferris wheel set in the middle of Manhattan—a good ride, if you could get a ticket. And these Princeton fellas all had one. The wheel might put you off in a prominent book review or an important essay assignment; it might drop you at a party with Florenz Ziegfeld or George Cohan; it might toss you in with the new Hollywood types, and before long you’d be writing for the pictures and making hundreds of dollars a week, or more.
Some of their influence would grow from design—as when Scott had explained to me the publicity game that he saw forming in our future, a game he’d conjured, almost, and wanted the two of us to play. Some grew from our giddy laughter in the Biltmore lobby at two and three A.M., from the singing that emanated from parties in our suite, from the dancing in the hallway, from the polite but firm request from management that sent us to finish our honeymoon in a new suite at the nearby Commodore Hotel. The future would be grander, stranger, and more precarious than any of us knew.
Just then, though, that influential little group was still a bunch of young, ambitious, intelligent men, along with me, a very young woman who hadn’t known there would be this kind of carnival and wasn’t sure she even wanted to ride the Ferris wheel—but was game enough to give it a try.
I was just done with my bath when I heard Scott answer the door, and then his friend Alec’s voice:
“Did you see what they wrote about you two?”
“Of course we saw it—Zelda clipped it for her scrapbook.”
“It” was a gossip-column mention of what had gone on the night before during a performance of George White’s Scandals. The musical revue was similar to what we’d seen at the Follies, except that Scandals had Ann Pennington, and Ann Pennington knew how to shimmy. I could shimmy, too, and had, on occasion, during certain Montgomery parties after only a little encouragement and a little booze. The diminutive, dark-haired, wide-eyed Miss Pennington, however, did it while wearing strategically placed silver fringe, onstage, and with a spotlight trained on her. This had a dramatic effect on the audience, which responded with hoots and cheers and whistles and applause.
Amid this, Scott and I, having begun our evening with orange-blossom cocktails and at this point nicely tight, had been sitting close to the stage in the sixth row, talking quietly in each other’s ear about each act and the range of talent and whether either of us might be able to do a better job of it. When it came to Ann Pennington and the shimmy, I’d shaken my head and said, “Lord, I’m pretty good, but I can’t beat that.”
“I’ll bet I could,” Scott said.
“Nah. You? You’ve got moves, sure, but not like those.”
“You don’t think so?”
As the number ended, he stood up and slowly peeled off his jacket. The people nearby us began to cheer. He unbuttoned his vest next and slid it off the way a stripper would. Catcalls and whistles followed, while onstage all action stopped. He loosened his tie, then began to unbutton his shirt. The cheering increased, and then suddenly a spotlight swung onto us. Scott got up on his seat so that more of the audience could see him while he slipped his tie over his head and dropped it into my lap. Then he stripped off his shirt, and the crowd went wild. Scott took his bows as three ushers moved in, and then the two of us—along with Scott’s clothing—were escorted to the lobby and subsequently into a waiting cab.
The article Alec was referring to said, Celebrated New Novelist Fitzgerald Scandalizes the Scandals. It quoted theatergoers who’d been present with saying things like they hoped Scott would get a recurring role or at least some compensation, and how surprising it was that an author looked so pleasing without a shirt. Others said that New York standards represented a new low for the country; it was one thing to have that kind of activity done onstage in a revue, but when the public began acting out, clearly Prohibition had not gone far enough to curtail the wildness of today’s youth. We’d read the article over coffee and toast, and then Scott had tossed the paper aside and rolled on top of me, with an offer to scandalize me once more before lunch.
“Why, sir,” I’d said, “you may look fine without your shirt, but a lady’s got her standards to consider.”
Scott pressed himself into me. “I’ll give you a standard to consider.”
Afterward, still a little breathless, I told him, “You’re gettin’ awfully good at this.”
“I’d hoped that was the case, and that you weren’t calling out to the Lord for rescue.”
“You were very godlike, I will say. Everybody calls you Fitz, but I think your nickname should be Deo, from the Latin. I’m goin’ to call you that from now on.”
Scott laughed. “And I’m going to let you.”
And now Alec was saying, “You’re not upset?”
“It’s a game,” Scott told him. “The press needs stories, and the more sensational, the better.”
Alec still sounded troubled. “It’s your reputation, though.”
“We’re just having a little fun,” Scott said as I joined them. “They want to depict us a certain way because readers respond to that, so why not give them some material to work with?”
“What do you say, Zelda?”
“Do my buttons,” I said, presenting my back to Alec.
Scott nodded at Alec and winked at me. “The book is selling like crazy—they can hardly print them fast enough. Everybody wants to know what it’s like to be one of us.” Scott gestured to include Alec in us. “The book and the news stories offer a vicarious thrill for anyone who can’t or won’t get on the progress train.”
Alec was having trouble with my buttons. I could feel his hands shaking; it was sweet, and a little sad. Alec worked in advertising, the way Scott had done last year, and was living with his reportedly conservative mother. He didn’t think of himself as part of us, I was sure, and likely wished he could trade places with Scott.
Alec said, “It sounds to me like you believe your own press.”
“I’m a novelist,” Scott replied, putting on his topcoat. “By definition, I live in a world of make-believe.”
“And what about you, Zelda?”
I leaned over to strap on a shoe. “Darling, call me Rosalind.”
Our destination was a Greenwich Village speakeasy, for a party being given by someone none of us had met.
A train rumbled over the Third Avenue elevated track as our taxi moved into the busy Forty-second Street traffic. That trains could and did traverse the city—not only here next to the wonderful Grand Central Terminal, but also all along Second and Sixth and Ninth Avenues—still seemed strange to me. Stranger still was the subway system, with lines called IRT and BMT and stations tucked like hornet hives beneath the streets all around the city. It was, however, a wonderfully efficient way for Manhattan’s two million inhabitants to get around the island quickly.
Just for fun, Scott and I boarded once at South Ferry and rode all the way to the Bronx, where he then took me past the building he’d lived in on Claremont, “back when you broke my heart,” he said. The building itself was a heartbreak, I thought—so plain and grim that it was no wonder he’d gotten depressed. What a tremendous difference ten months had made in both our lives.
Lower Manhattan was still new to me then. Here, the buildings were older and narrower than in midtown, and shorter, too; here was a New York City that hadn’t known, yet, what it would grow up to become. The streets here were romantic in the twilight, and quieter than the bustling blocks around the hotels where we’d been staying.
Inside the little basement bar, cigarette smoke gave the space a blue haze that matched the low, mellow music being played by a quartet tucked into a corner of a tiny stage at the back of the narrow room. This music was jazz, but not like I’d heard before. Where the upbeat tunes of the Follies and Scandals made people want to tap their feet, to shimmy, this languid music, with lyrics sung by a colored woman who stood close to the band and swayed as she sang, made people want to drape themselves over one another as they sat, and smoked, and sipped from short glasses that in many cases were filled with what looked like green liquid. This music created half-lidded eyes and parted lips, and made the space between a dancing couple disappear.
“Whew!” I said, elbowing Alec. “Bet your mother wouldn’t let you out of the house if she knew you were coming to a place like this.”
Scott said, “And if she finds out, she’s likely to have you arrested.”
“Therefore,” I said, “we will protect your identity while encouraging you to get acquainted with…” I scanned the room, then said, “That girl, there, in the dark blue dress.”
Alec looked in the direction I was pointing. “They’re all in dark blue dresses.”
“Except the ones who are in black,” Scott said. “We should try to find our host. Hostess, actually.”
I smelled something that seemed green and earthy and mellow-sweet. “What’s that scent, do you suppose?”
“Perfume,” Scott said as a woman squeezed between them, her smile like the Cheshire cat’s.
“I don’t mean her. That smoky, earthy smell.”
Scott sniffed. “Reefer, I’ll bet.”
“It’s a plant you smoke, like tobacco, but with enhancements.”
“I kinda like it.”
“Whose party is this?” Alec asked Scott.
“A poet friend of Dorothy Parker’s.”
“Have you met Parker?”
“Some chap phoned us,” Scott told him. “Said he’d heard of us from Fowler, I think. Or maybe Bishop. Anyway, he said, ‘Dorothy’s friend’—well, he said her name, but I’ve forgotten it—‘the friend has a new book of poems and would love for you to come hear her read.’”
“Oh, shit,” Alec said. “A poetry reading?”
Scott shook his head sadly. “You have no soul.”
“I need a drink.”
“I need a drink,” I said, taking Scott’s hand. “Not ’cause of the poetry—we don’t know how bad it is yet, so we gotta save our desperate drinking for after we make that judgment, don’t you think?”
Scott clapped Alec’s shoulder. “It might be fantastic.”
“In which case,” I said, “the liquor can only make it better.”
We threaded through the crowd toward the bar, which seemed a makeshift affair. A wide, broad wooden plank rested on what looked like a series of stacked wooden boxes, though it was difficult to see it well. All of it had been painted black. I thought maybe it was supposed to be art.
I was studying what appeared to be a green drink when a voice said, “Zelda Sayre! Oh my God!” and two hands gripped my shoulders. I looked up to see Gene Bankhead’s happy face.
“Gene!” I said, not simply glad to see an old friend, but glad to see someone familiar, someone from home—except the thought of home, of my mama and all my friends, suddenly made me wish I hadn’t seen Gene after all.
“Tallu said you were coming up for a little hedonism—though why you bothered to get hitched first is beyond me. Is this gorgeous man the victim?” Gene asked, looking past me at Scott.
Scott held out his hand. “Scott Fitzgerald, at your service.”
“Oh, at my service, too?” Gene arched an artfully drawn eyebrow and took his hand. Her voice was as sultry as the face and body to which it belonged.
“Meet Gene Bankhead,” I told Scott, shaking my head. Just looking at Gene might be enough to set a man’s hair on fire. “Whatever character faults I may have are her responsibility.”
“Yes, yes,” Gene said, waving her cigarette as she spoke, “I corrupted those poor girls as best I could.” She leaned closer to Scott. “What do you say? Did I do a good job?”
“What do they have to drink around here?” Scott said, moving closer to the bar.
Gene reached out to pet Alec’s cheek. “Babies, I am going to fix you up.” Then she turned to the woman behind her. “Edie, you know that book everybody’s talking about? The one with the petting parties that’s got all the old folks frothing at the mouth? The handsome blond fella behind me’s the author.”
Edie went over to Scott, and then more Edie-like women did the same, and soon a crowd of marcel-haired Genes and Edies were asking him to tell them everything—as if anything he’d written could compare to the experiences they’d surely had. Alec and I could only stand back and watch as Scott became, that quickly, this strange little planet of a speakeasy’s sun.
And then, oh my, Union Square.
Someone had said, Hey, you ought to see Union Square, and then, somehow, there I was. There we were, Scott and I and five or six people whose faces were unfamiliar and whose names I couldn’t guess—except for the tall woman who looked like someone I’d seen in Picture-Play, maybe, or maybe I’d seen her onstage recently. Gene had suggested the green drink; I remembered that. It had tasted awful until I had more sugar put in, but regardless, it was so powerfully green that I hadn’t been able to resist. There was not much green in New York in April. A few green cars. A green dress or two. So little green, amid all the tan and gray surroundings. The green drink helped mitigate the gray.
“The green drink!” I said.
Gene asked, “What’s that you say, darling?”
Then, suddenly, there was a fountain.
“There’s a fountain!” I said. I pulled off my shoes, unclipped my garters, peeled off my stockings, and ran to it. Then everyone else ran, too.
With my skirt hiked, I stepped up onto the broad, circular pool’s lip. The stone was cold under my bare feet. My toes looked like stone toes in the dim light.
“Zelda here is a fantastic swimmer,” Scott told the others. “She won every medal they give out in Montgomery, Alabama.”
“Is that in Europe?” someone said, and then there was an “Ow!”
It was a cool night, but not cold. Certainly not anywhere near as cold as some of the spring days when I’d swum in the creek.
Or maybe it was colder. Really, it was hard to tell, and even harder to care.
The water looked black and deep, except at the center, where the fountain pulled the water up and then rained it down into a sparkling circle. It sounded like rain. When had it rained last? I looked up at the sky. A bright moon lighted thin clouds. So there was a sky over New York. This felt like a surprise.
Everyone was talking and laughing. Gene had stepped up onto the pool’s edge, too, and was walking along it holding on to Scott’s hand. A tethered pony, I thought, watching my onetime friend, whose long, dark hair streamed down her back like a mane. Scott was smiling up at Gene in a way that was supposed to be reserved for me.
I watched them a moment longer—too long, long enough to see Gene lean over and kiss Scott. Kiss him! Full on. Mouths, tongues. Scott’s hand on Gene’s thigh …
So I crouched down and put my hands on the stone, beside my feet. A moment later I was slicing through the cold water, my knees grazing the bottom of the pool. Not so deep, then, I thought, and was glad for the sensible part of my brain that had dictated a shallow dive.
I stood and shook the water from my hair. The group was cheering, and Scott was peeling off his jacket and laughing and motioning me to come to him.
Yes, I thought, looking for Gene. Yes, me.
I woke to sunshine stabbing my eyes, and checked the time: almost one o’clock. Scott, waking, reached for me.
My head was pounding, pressing images of the previous night into new recollection. I slid out of his grasp and got up, saying, “Wait, I’ll ring up Gene for you.”
“What are you talking about?” With his tousled hair and sleepy eyes, he looked like a little boy.
“You don’t remember?”
He sat up against the pillows and reached for his cigarettes. Pensive, he lit one. “I remember some bad poetry, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t Gene.”
“No, Gene was the one you were with at the fountain.”
Now he looked thoroughly confused. “What fountain?”
Now I was confused. Had there ever actually been a fountain?
I went into the bathroom; there was my dress, piled near the tub in a wet heap. “Did it rain?” I said hopefully, while I shook some aspirin from a bottle. “Do you remember that?”
“Come back to bed, Zelda.”
I went to the doorway. “Do you think Gene’s beautiful?”
“Do you want her more than me?”
Scott kicked the sheet to the end of the bed, exposing his nakedness and his desire. “You tell me: Does this look like a man who’s pining for another woman?”
“You have a good imagination. Maybe you’re using it.”
“It sounds like you’re using yours. Come on.” He patted the bed next to him.
“My head is killing me.” I stepped back into the bathroom, where I filled a glass with water and swallowed the aspirin. “What was that green liquor?”
“Absinthe. Too much of a good thing?”
Leaving the bathroom, I said, “Everyone wants you. It’s … it’s one big candy shop for you every time we go out. They find out you’re you, and I might as well be back in Alabama.”
“Do you want to be back in Alabama, or do you want to be here with your clearly desirous and loving husband, who, yes, happens to be getting a little bit of extra attention right now?”
I went to him and sat on the bed’s edge. “No, I don’t want to go back. Just don’t forget your lines.”
“That you did it all in order to win me.”
As it is in the South, in New York City the buildings have names. And as it is in Society, some names carry more import than others. Our destination for George Jean Nathan’s cocktail party was a high-society building named the Royalton, which was a hotel and residence, both.
The Royalton’s marble columns were imposing, to say the least, but the massive, studded red-ocher doors offset the somberness like a ruby brooch on a widow’s collar. We stopped on the sidewalk and considered those doors, which had no windows. They made the hotel seem an exotic fortress of some kind; the building might otherwise have been mistaken for a bank, or …
“It’s like a Greek prison or something,” I said. “He lives here? You wouldn’t think a person would choose a place like this voluntarily.”
Scott said, “New Yorkers are a different breed from anyone you’d have come across in the South—and I’m told Nathan’s a species unto himself.”
And so he was, as I saw after the doorman allowed us entry and directed us upstairs. George Jean Nathan had dark, expressive eyebrows and a knowing look about him. At almost forty, he was a tall, slender panther of a man in his fine black suit and glossy black shoes. His hair was almost as dark and as slick as his shoes. Seeing him there in the open doorway, I had a better idea of why this man lived in this building.
“Welcome!” he said, and waved us inside.
Scott shook his hand. “Scott Fitzgerald. It’s such a pleasure to finally meet the man who now gets to say he discovered me. Meet my wife, Zelda.”
“You were so thoughtful to include me tonight,” I said.
“My God, Fitzgerald,” he said, taking my hand but looking at Scott, “you’re good, but I had no idea you were this good.” He kissed my hand and asked, “How long have you and the new wonder boy been wed?”
“Three weeks tomorrow.”
“Three weeks! What’s he doing dragging you out to this miserable place during your honeymoon?” He took me by the arm. “I’m so sorry, my dear. Let me get you a cocktail to help you manage your obvious disappointment.”
As George led me away, I glanced over my shoulder at Scott. He looked surprised, but also pleased. I lifted one shoulder, Who would’ve thought? and then waggled my fingers, See you later.
George said, “Zelda, Zelda. An exotic name for a girl who looks like sweet cream at sunrise. You’re not from here.”
“Nope,” I said, assessing the other guests while he mixed a gin rickey. Scott and I were possibly the youngest people at the party, and just about the only ones who weren’t dressed in black. My ivory georgette dress was about as opposite as you could get, in fact, which made me happy. “I’m Alabama-born, so a transplant here—but I think I could enjoy growing some roots.”
“Then you like what you’ve seen of Manhattan?”
“It’s a grown-ups’ playground, isn’t it?”
“These days. Before the war—before this Eighteenth Amendment Prohibition business, really—most of that playground was confined to Broadway. What you found if you went out uptown were blue bloods with yappy dogs and trailing furs, men and women with their noses upturned at the very idea of adults committing … shall we say revelries.”
“I haven’t been uptown much. But I have been to Greenwich and Broadway—a few times, now—”
“So I’ve read. Your husband can’t keep his clothes on, while you enjoy swimming in yours at Union Square—”
“These gossip writers, they don’t miss anything, do they?” I laughed. “They got the bit about Scott paddling in the Plaza’s fountain the other night, too.”
“You two are so obviously noteworthy that I believe they’ve assigned a scout to trail you. Why, I imagine someone here tonight will be tattling on you in print tomorrow.”
“I guess I ought to consider giving people something worth reading about, then.”
George held out one hand to me and gestured to the center of the room with the other. “Shall we get started?”
The evening passed in a blur of new faces, laughter, flirtation, dancing, and liquor. The only time I wasn’t holding a glass was when I was in some man’s arms, moving to the new jazz music of Ben Selvin or Art Hickman’s Orchestra being played on the grandest phonograph I’d ever seen or heard. It had no visible horn and was contained in a finely carved, hand-painted cabinet. George Jean Nathan took all of his interests seriously, that was plain enough.
I hardly saw Scott, until toward the end of the party when he found me in the midst of a conversation with two stage actresses whose primary concerns were cold cream and lice. He took me by the hand and led me over to meet a man he said was “the finest literary mind in the country.”
“Finer than either of those two’s?” I asked as we crossed the room. “I’m not sure that’s possible.”
“The one who was on your left gets three hundred a week.”
“Yes—and probably love notes, too.”
“Wait,” I said, pretending I was about to turn around. “I need to get me the name of her cold cream.”
The finest literary mind belonged to a man with a sober, somber round face that was framed by neatly combed dark hair parted severely in the center. His scalp was actually white, I thought, assessing him through a happy gin haze.
He appeared to be close in age to George, but worlds away in joie de vivre. He sat sedately in an armchair in the corner farthest from the phonograph, and at this point in the evening, when most of the men had mussed hair and had shed their jackets and loosened their ties, this man was as tidy as he must have been in front of his mirror earlier. He had a serious mouth and serious eyes. I wondered if he had a woman in his life. I wondered if he’d ever had one.
“Zelda, this is Mr. Henry Mencken. He’s co-editor, with Mr. Nathan, of The Smart Set.”
I sat down on his chair’s arm. “I sure do appreciate you taking such a shine to Scott’s stories. He’s awfully good, isn’t he? It’s so nice that people are finally taking notice and paying him so well for all his hard work. It’s important that artists get recognition and money, don’t you think? Otherwise, how else can someone like Scott afford to buy his wife a dress like the one I’m wearing?”
“I don’t disagree,” Mencken said, looking amused. “The trouble for the artist lies in the temptation to mistake the public’s tastes—and thus their money—as a measure of actual value.”
“So then, whose tastes matter?” I asked. Scott put his hand on my shoulder.
“The intellectual’s. Someone who understands art—the history of it, its meaning to mankind.”
“By ‘mankind’ you mean intellectuals,” I said. Scott’s grip tightened.
Mencken nodded. “I sound like a snob, I realize. Bad habit. I don’t even have the formal education of this fellow, here.” He indicated Scott.
“Princeton didn’t give me much—”
“Except fodder for your novel, not to mention your newfound fame,” Mencken quipped.
I said, “A thing can be popular and good. Scott’s book proves it.”
“How old are you?” Mencken asked.
“Let’s have this debate when you’re thirty,” Mencken said.
Scott took my arm and practically pushed me up onto my feet. “Mr. Nathan supplied some really fine gin tonight, didn’t he? Come, darling, dance with your husband.”
“What’d you think of Mencken?” Scott asked me in the morning. Or possibly it was afternoon; I wasn’t sure.
I got up and shuffled to the bathroom. My mouth was dry. My eyeballs were dry. Dull, thick pain crept through my head.
“He seems kinda scary if you ask me,” I said from the toilet. “I like George a lot better.”
“And George likes you. Everyone likes you,” Scott called. “Bring me some aspirin, would you?”
“Long as you like me, I don’t care about everyone.”
When I returned, Scott was sitting up in bed. He had a cigarette in one hand and a pencil in the other. A notebook was open on his lap. “There’s not a finer man alive than Mencken, I mean that. He’s got the keenest eye in literature—he’s a natural. Taught himself everything he knows.”
I gave Scott the aspirin bottle. “That’s all well and good but he’s so damn serious. Didn’t it seem like he’d rather be most anywhere else than at a party?”
“Nathan says Mencken’s anti–New York, only comes up when he begs him to. Says he tells Mencken there’s no way he can get the pulse from his place in Baltimore. I told Mencken I’d send him a book, and he said he’s got a copy, isn’t that something?”
“He hasn’t read it yet. He thinks, though, that he’ll have a look at it soon, and he wants me to send The Flight of the Rocket when it’s out for review next winter.”
“Doesn’t that scare you?”
“Scare me? A review from Mencken … it’s what writers live for. The honor of getting even an evisceration—”
“He wouldn’t do that to you. He admires your work, if not your wife.”
“Oh, I think he admires you—your fearlessness, at least. He’s right about art, though. The most important work is too erudite for the masses.”
“And for me, too, apparently, since I don’t know what erudite is.”
“Which is quite all right.” Scott caught my hand and tugged me onto the bed. “You have other charms.”
April 27, 1920
Dearest Second Sara,
I was delighted to get your high school graduation announcement. Soon you’ll be free as a lark! And it’s no surprise to me at all that John Sellers has taken a shine to you—he sees what we’ve all seen in you all along: you’re sweet and clever and have as much innocent sex appeal as three Lillian Gishes. Mind you, there’s no need to rush into anything. Do like I did and wait until you know you’ve found your one true love.
New York is the most astonishing place, I must say, and Scott’s popularity increases daily—it’s truly impressive to behold. I’m just amazed, and so proud of him. He gets at least a dozen fan letters every week, from readers all ’round the country. And reporters are now starting to want to talk to
, can you imagine? What will Montgomery say about Tallu and me both being famous? You’ll have to let me know, ’cause I’m sure Mama will refrain from telling me anything that might swell my head.
Do come see us this summer. I think we’re going to take a place in the country so that Scott can get his next book done. Much love in the meantime,
Scott spotted her first: “Oh, darling, there she is: she is the one.”
If we were going to live in the country, we would need a car. The beauty that caught his eye, here at the downtown sales lot, was a 1917 Marmon, a sleek, convertible red sports coupe. Scott waved to a salesman, then climbed inside.
While he talked to the salesman from the driver’s seat, I examined the car’s spoked wheels and wide running boards and the keen, leaf-patterned hood ornament. Then I got inside the red-leather-dressed interior next to Scott. He was holding on to the wooden steering wheel with one hand and stroking the wooden dashboard with the other. Nickel-plated gauges and levers and buttons filled the dashboard.
The salesman said, “Her first master was a Manhattan playboy. I’ll let her go for the same price as a new, sedate 1920 sedan—how about that?”
“Let me just talk it over with the missus.”
The salesman nodded and left us alone.
“It all comes down to materials,” Scott told me. “The rich know this. Sure, we can get a newer car for the same price, but it won’t look or drive like this one.”
“We can afford it, right?”
“Our great friend Myra Harper’s going to pay for it,” he said, referring to the money he’d just gotten for selling movie rights to another of his short stories, “Myra Meets His Family.”
I ran my hand across the sun-warmed seat tops. “Wow, our very first car. It’s almost like we’re grown-ups.”
After a week of motoring about the countryside looking at houses for rent in a half dozen towns between Rye and Bridgeport, we fell in love with a gray-shingled house in Westport, Connecticut, about forty miles from Manhattan.
The house had a wide, deep front porch that reminded me of home, and sat on a road a few hundred feet away from the ocean—a happy fact that fascinated me to no end. I’d never seen the ocean before then, never seen any body of water larger than a big lake. Not much farther away was the Beach and Yacht Club, where we would get a summer membership. We thought it was the perfect setup for both of us: Scott would have the space and peace he needed for work, and I would have the beach, the club, and the ocean, and miles of old country roads to explore on foot or by bicycle. We told the real estate agent we’d take it through September, then we returned to Manhattan to pack our trunks.
On our first night in the house, we pulled two weathered rockers close together and sat outside on the porch, wrapped in blankets and drinking champagne by candlelight. The air smelled of salt, and cool, damp earth. We could hear the rhythmic boom of the surf.
“I always imagined the war would sound like this,” Scott said. “Like heavy guns firing in the distance. Back then, even as I was sure I was going to war, I never saw myself in the action—and then I never was in the action.”
“And a good thing, too.”
“Maybe—but Bunny made it back. And Bishop, and Biggs.”
“Well sure, but with no B in your name, you’d’a been in trouble.”
“There you go, reminding me yet again why I love you,” Scott said.
“The sound makes me think of Mama’s story about when her house in Kentucky got shelled by Union troops. She was five years old, and the war was almost over but not quite. They had to hightail it to someplace in the country, and then they went to Canada, where her daddy was living so’s not to get arrested for his Confederate activities.”
“He left his family there in Kentucky?”
“They had a great big tobacco plantation, and a bunch of iron furnaces, and he needed my grandmama to keep an eye on all the business goings-on.”
“Did he own slaves?”
“He did, sure. The plantation had six slave houses, Mama said—she and the other kids weren’t allowed inside ’em, though. It’s funny, ’cause I was always in old Aunt Julia’s house, and the only difference was that we paid her for workin’ for us.”
“Which reminds me: Fowler said he’ll phone you with the name of some agency out here where you can find a housekeeper.”
“Thank goodness for that!”
“He’ll know who’s best—the Fowlers have only a little less money than God.”
“What is it his family does?”
“Investments.” Scott explained to me about bonds and stock and trading and interest, all of which I followed earnestly and then forgot immediately, retaining only the thought that none of that would ever intrigue me in the least.
“Anyway,” he said, picking up the thread of our prior topic, “all respect due your grandfather, I can’t imagine ever leaving my family the way he did.”
“It turned out fine. After President Grant pardoned him—”
“The president pardoned him?”
“Well … yes. Who else would’a done it? And when they came back, he was almost nominated for president, and then he got on the Senate, and that’s where he and my great-uncle met, and the two of them got Mama and Daddy together. So, see, if it weren’t for my grandmama keepin’ the business going in his absence, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Is that how you see it?” Scott laughed. “I’m not sure there’s an actual connection.”
“Course there is. Everything’s connected.”
“All those things could have happened even if he’d taken his family to Canada with him.”
“Not if the Union had gotten control of his land and all. He’d’a been poor then, and you need money for politics. That’s why my daddy’s just a judge.”
“Just,” Scott said. “He’s one step from the highest seat in the state.”
“And that’s plenty good if you ask me. If he got any higher-and-mightier, he’d probably grow a beard and try’n elbow Zeus aside.”
“What story will our kids be telling about us someday, do you suppose?”
“It’ll be a lot more romantic than two senators matchmaking,” I said. “They’ll say that we were meant to be together no matter what. For us, stars aligned, the gods smiled—prob’ly there was a tidal wave someplace, too, and we just haven’t heard about it yet.”
“A Homeric epic, it sounds like. Have another glass of champagne and tell me more.”
Ludlow did phone that week with the agency name, but despite my appreciation and despite our need, I was in no hurry to hire anyone, not until we’d run out of clean clothes and used up all the dishes and needed to have the pantry stocked again. We were still honeymooning then, and as glad as we were to be there on Compo Road, neither of us wanted to pop that perfect bubble of happiness we’d been floating in for nearly two months.
When the inevitable did arrive, I hired us a Japanese houseboy named Tana, all the regular—that is, female—domestics having already been installed in the homes of women who’d made their summer plans in the wintertime. I never have been able to be organized that way. Tana was a quiet and efficient fella who I liked very much, but who Scott and George deviled by pretending that Tana was short for Tannenbaum, and declaring that they believed him to be a German spy in disguise.
My time was occupied as anticipated: I swam at the club and at the beach; I explored the countryside; I wrote letters to all my friends, to Mama and Daddy, to my siblings, to Scott’s friends who were now my friends, too. I read anything anyone recommended, and I gave a lot of thought to creating new cocktails for Scott and me and for the ever-increasing number of fellas Scott invited over. Ludlow and Alec were practically residents by summer’s end, and we saw an awful lot of George, too.
Scott had page proofs to correct or revise for his upcoming story collection, Flappers and Philosophers; he drafted chapter after chapter of what he’d titled Flight of the Rocket but would become The Beautiful and Damned; he went into New York for lunch dates with Scribner’s sales representatives and people associated with moviemaking. Already, he’d sold rights to three of his stories to the pictures—that was where the real money lay—and was looking for even more profitable ways to get involved.
How good life was! There was always an excuse to host a party or attend one. Every month, we got word that Paradise was going back to press for another five thousand copies. Scott wrote and sold three new stories. He befriended every actor, artist, writer, dancer, and bootlegger we came in contact with, and subsequently our house on weekends grew full of strange and lively and, yes, intoxicated people, but we almost always had a lovely time. Now and then he and I would get a drink or two past our limits, and a debate about, say, paganism versus Christianity would jump the fence of discourse and land in the slop trough of ugly argument, but there was nothing to such arguments; next day they’d be gone, along with all the food and the liquor, and we’d start fresh all ’round.
The single dark blot on that bright picture was my folks’ visit in August. We did scale back our usual gaieties, knowing how they’d react; however, two of Scott’s lesser Princeton classmates showed up drunk and uninvited at dinnertime one night. They barged in singing some bawdy fraternity song, and then before we were even out of our chairs, one of them puked in the kitchen sink. Daddy in particular was appalled; Scott got defensive; I tried to get rid of the friends, which only made Scott angry. He drank too much after dinner, and when my parents had gone to bed, we ended up in a truly ugly fight—and I ended up with a black eye. I was of the mind that I deserved what I got; it had seemed to me a fair fight, no different than I’d have had with my brother or any of the kids I’d grown up with. When my folks saw me in the morning, though, they were horrified.
It wasn’t only my black eye; nothing about my life made sense to them. I defended my life with Scott as our business. I was so sure of our love then, so determined to prove to Mama and Daddy that we weren’t doing things wrong, just differently. There was no way to know that certainty would one day become a luxury, too.
For that fall, 1920, imagine a scenario very much the same as the summer (minus the ugly fight), only see us in our little apartment on Fifty-ninth Street in Manhattan, right at the foot of Central Park. See us spitting distance from the Plaza, where, having put on our finery, we often drink cocktails in the lovely Japanese Garden. We no longer have Tana or any hired help; instead, we bring in our meals—from the Plaza’s kitchen, mostly—and send out our wash.
Scott is still working on The Beautiful and Damned. Flappers and Philosophers is out and is selling nicely enough for a story collection, though nothing like Paradise. He’s mostly happy about its reception—but Mencken’s review, while lauding a couple of the stories, calls the others “atrociously bad stuff” and asks rhetorically whether Scott’s going to be serious or be popular. Mencken doesn’t know that the question is far from rhetorical for Scott.
Scott often had dark circles under his eyes at the time, and a restlessness I didn’t quite understand. One minute he’d be agreeing with Mencken and Bunny and the other critics that the Post stories in the collection—the ones that paid for our life—were fluff at best and trash at worst, and then the next minute he’d be complaining that critics were rigid and hidebound, never willing to give due credit for anything that didn’t fit in with their predetermined parameters of what fiction ought to be. He’d say, couldn’t he be serious sometimes and popular other times? Wasn’t it better—wasn’t it more remarkable, he’d say—to have the ability to do both with real excellence? At those times, he was so sure he was right and everyone else was wrong.
On a Friday morning in late October, he handed me a roll of cash and said, “We’re going to the Palais Royale tonight—to commemorate ‘Head and Shoulders.’ Dress, shoes, hair—whatever you want, do it up right.”
The Palais Royale had made an appearance in that story, “Head and Shoulders,” but I hadn’t been there yet. That was the thing about New York: you could visit for months, you could live there, and still find a new place to go every time you went out.
As much as I liked the idea, I looked askance at the money. “Don’t you think we’ve commemorated it a few times already?”
When it came to Scott’s income, he gave me the highlights but I was not privy to the finer details. Even so, it was apparent that his earnings were unpredictable, and equally apparent that we were living awfully well. To spend even more, just on a whim like this, went beyond indulgence into luxury, which surely we couldn’t afford. Yet here he was with money in his hand, so maybe I had it wrong. Maybe he’d invested well—maybe Ludlow had passed on some of the knowledge that had made the Fowlers so wealthy. What did I know about how finance worked? I trusted that Scott knew what he was doing.
He said, “One can never commemorate too often—haven’t you ever heard that aphorism? I think Ben Franklin said it—or was it Mary Pickford?” He winked. “Get something really fabulous, something that’ll turn every head in the place.”
“I’ve got some nice things I haven’t even worn—”
“Surely you’re not going to turn down a chance to shop? Go on.” He patted me on the behind. “I need to rework a couple of chapters—I’ve promised them to Max, and then I’ve got luncheon with some of the boys. I’ll be tied up all day.”
He liked to show me off, and I liked being shown off, so, “Have it your way,” I said.
My first stop was a little boutique on Fifth Avenue that Scott’s friend Marie Hersey had mentioned when she’d stopped in to see us the week before. Parisian fashions for rich Americans was how Marie had described the shop’s goods, then she’d winked at Scott, who she’d known since they were children in St. Paul, and said, “Your bride deserves only the best, you told me so yourself.”
Inside the boutique, the racks held luxurious, indulgent garments of every type. Delicate lingerie trimmed with exquisite lace or fur; lush velvet opera capes; heavy silk suits with embroidery and bows and buckles; furs that ranged from narrow wraps to full-length coats in ermine, in mink, in rabbit, squirrel, fox—I’d never had a fur, or even wanted one, until I stepped into that shop.
I stroked an ermine jacket while I surveyed the goods. Nothing in Montgomery came close to this. I thought, What my girlfriends wouldn’t give to be here with me right now.
I missed the Eden-like environment of home, but the trade-offs I’d been enjoying for six months more than made up for it. And there, on a rack along the wall, was possibly the finest trade-off of all: a dress like I’d never seen before. It was black and sleeveless and simply cut—straight, almost, with just the slightest suggestion of a waistline. What was remarkable, though, was the decorative finish. One narrow line of silver sequins ran along the neckline, and then a river of tiny, ethereal silver beads flowed over the dress from the right shoulder all the way down to the hem, branching into an array of intricate flowers and vines.
A tall, slender, carefully made-up salesclerk came over to me. “Gorgeous, isn’t it? All silk, the best there is. But wait,” she said. “You are going to faint when you see this.”
She retrieved the dress and turned it so that I could see its back. A smoke-colored mesh insert so fine that it was almost invisible was all there was to it, a deep U-shaped panel bordered by sequins and dropping almost to the point where a woman’s tailbone might show. There, it joined the black silk that flowed around from the sides and into the back of the skirt, which had its own beaded riot of flowers and vines.
“My father would have me whipped,” I said.
“You have the perfect figure for it—you’ve got to try it on. It’s the very latest thing from Paris, a Patou design, so sexy, the way Parisian women are. Truly one of a kind.”
I took the hanger. “You don’t need to ask me twice.”
Ten minutes later, the dress was being boxed and sent to the apartment, and I was on my way to the hair salon.
“What service may we provide for you today, Mrs. Fitzgerald?” asked the clerk when I arrived.
From my purse, I took a piece of folded paper and laid it out on the counter. “Life should imitate art, don’t you think?”
The clerk read the headline, which was the title of Scott’s May Post story, “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” She said, “I do, absolutely. Carmen will be delighted to assist with your mission.”
“Quick, then, before I lose my nerve. How long does a person have to live here before they stop feelin’ like everything they’re doin’ is criminal?”
I was back home before Scott returned. From the bathroom, I heard him come in. He was humming something that I wouldn’t say was upbeat, exactly, but that he was humming at all was a good sign.
“What took you?” I called from the tub.
“Oh, you know. Business.”
“Don’t come in. I want to surprise you. Oh, I had the Plaza send up a light supper—dinner, I mean. Somethin’ with potatoes and beets. I was hungry. We can still get a bite later, too, if you want.”
“Are you in the tub?” he said from just behind the door.
“Do not come in here. I mean it!”
“All right then, I won’t tell you my surprise either.”
“What surprise?” I said, but he only laughed in reply.
I climbed from the tub, dried off, then took my time rubbing in the lilac-scented body cream I’d bought at the salon—where in addition to getting my hair bobbed, I’d had my first professional manicure. The deep red nail polish they’d talked me into still startled me—though not nearly so much as my hairstyle—but was going to look perfectly dramatic when paired with lipstick of the same shade.
I did my makeup, taking extra care with the eyeliner the way the salon girl had advised. A tiny hint of rouge, light powder, mascara, lipstick. Goodness, I thought, surveying the effect.
“What surprise?” I tried again.
“I’m afraid I can’t hear you, darling. These ice cubes”—Scott rattled some in a glass—“are just so loud.”
I said, “You’re an evil man, Scott Fitzgerald, I just want you to know that,” and resigned myself to waiting.
Sheer black, lace-topped silk stockings came next, with new garters. That was it for undergarments: the dress wouldn’t allow anything more. I was genuinely grateful to have small breasts that required no support. The prospect of going out in public without even a chemise beneath my dress, however, was awfully strange. Scary and thrilling at once. I thought, Those Parisian girls are brave. Well, I was brave, too, New York brave, Paris brave, even, and all this would prove it.
I slipped the dress on, regarded myself in the mirror once more, stepped into my new black high heels, and then swung open the door.
Scott was seated at the desk. When he looked up, I turned in a slow circle. He stared at this new bob-haired, bead-draped, Parisian version of his wife, then gave a low whistle.
“Oh, perfect,” he said.
George was waiting outside in a cab with the window rolled down. He saw me and whistled just as Scott had done. “Oh, doll, what has New York done to you?”
“Mind you, she’s still married,” Scott said, handing me into the cab and then climbing in after me.
George said, “If you have a point, I wish you’d get to it.”
“And you didn’t even see the back,” I told him, then leaned forward and let my velvet wrap slip down off my shoulders.
“Fitz,” George said, “where can we drop you?”
I asked George, “What do you think of this haircut? I’m hopin’ I wear it better than Scott’s Bernice.”
“Darling,” Scott began, “George might not have seen—”
“The Post?” George said. “The one with ‘Bernice Bobs Her Hair’ inside and your name on the cover?”
“And a handsome couple using a Ouija board,” I said. “I liked that illustration.”
Scott sounded almost apologetic as he told George, “That’d be the one. I would have offered you the piece, but I didn’t think it was a Smart Set sort of tale.”
“Wasn’t that a sharp cover illustration?” I said. “Y’all should get that artist for your magazine. I talked to a spiritualist once about Scott and me; Ouija couldn’t seem to get to the bottom of things.”
George laughed. “I’ll bet its turn as cover model got a lot of readers to part with their nickels, though.”
“Let’s hope so,” Scott said. “It takes a lot of nickels to justify the five hundred bills they’re paying me.”
I said, “‘Bernice’ is so much fun—people’d pay five cents for just that one story, if they had to. F. Scott Fitzgerald stories are always a good investment.”
“There’s a solid economic theory for current times,” George said, nodding. “Not to mention a very charming, if woefully naive, homage to a husband. He pay you to say this kind of thing in front of me? I can raise you to fifty dollars a story, Fitz—that’s all we’ve got in the budget.”
“But never mind all that,” I said, swatting George’s arm. “Wouldn’t Daddy frown at me, goin’ on about money? And this haircut! He’d say my morals have escaped me like a hound loosed for a hunt.”
George said, “Fitz, I do hope you write this stuff down.”
I ignored him. “Scott seems to like it, but I don’t know, it sorta makes me feel like a boy.”
“A boy!” George snorted. “Not any boy I’ve ever seen, and thank God. Doll, I think it’s going to go over like a house on fire.”
The Palais Royale at Forty-seventh and Broadway was lighted so brightly, it was as if the show was happening on the crowded sidewalk and street outside. Its marquee was strung across the second story, which housed the club and took up half the block, every shining letter in the name set inside a circle of lights. Above the marquee, perched on the roof’s edge like hawks overlooking Broadway, were two rows of giant rectangular billboards more brightly lighted than the club.
There were ads for Pepsodent and Camel, Listerine and Lucky Strike, Gillette, Bayer, Cremo, Coca-Cola, Wrigley’s, and Whiteway’s—which was offering a “woodbine blend dry cider” for rheumatism and gout.
“Lonicera sempervirens,” I said. The men looked at me blankly and I explained, pointing at the ad, “Honeysuckle—woodbine—in Latin.”
They leaned over to see the billboard, then George said, “Amazing how many more people have gout, now that booze is illegal.”
“Isn’t it?” Scott said while rubbing his elbow theatrically. “Think I’m going to need some medicine myself before the night’s out.”
I thought we’d go inside right away, but as George wanted to wait for some friends, we stayed on the sidewalk near the corner entrance and watched the tourists stream by. Music wafted out into the evening whenever the door opened. I tapped my foot in time to the jazzy song and only half-listened to the men, who were going on about Haiti and someone named Eugene O’Neill—a playwright, I gathered, before I tuned them out entirely.
There was so much diversion here in New York, and especially in Times Square. Automobiles and streetcars and people who, like our little trio, had dressed to the nines for their Friday-night dates. Men in derbies like Nathan’s, and in fedoras like Scott’s, in top hats—real dandies, here—and a few fellows who were reliving summer, it seemed, with straw boaters and linen Ivy caps. Their companions wore every version of evening dress, from the old-fashioned gored-skirt style that made me think of Mama, to silk suits similar to the ones I’d seen in the boutiques, to stylish shirtwaists and skirts trimmed in tulle or satin or lace. No one had a dress like the one I was wearing; the salesgirl was right about my leading the trend.
I was about to ask Scott to tell me his surprise when a woman yelled, “George!”
Her voice made us all turn to look. The owner of the voice, a tall, curvy girl, really, was the blondest person I had ever seen. Bottle blonde, I thought, not ungenerously. Next to her was another girl almost as blond and almost as attractive. Both of them wore low-necked velvet dresses, one garnet-red, the other emerald-green, and coordinated feathered hats. They were sisters for sure, probably twins, and had figures that were ripe for a chorus line someplace. I suspected they had personalities to match.
“Good evening, ladies,” George said. “You look remarkably pretty tonight.”
The girl in garnet said, “Well, I told Mary, here, that this was no time to slouch, you know? It’s George Nathan, I told her. Maybe he’ll bring a friend, I said.”
“She did say,” said Mary.
“And you did bring a friend,” said the first, indicating Scott. Then, eyeing me, she added, “But it looks like he brought a girl.”
“Some girl, too,” said Mary. Her gaze was direct and admiring—even envious, I thought.
“Indeed. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, meet Suzanne and Mary Walsh.”
Suzanne’s face lit up. “Oh, the girl is your sister.”
“No, my dear,” George said, putting his arm across her shoulders and steering her toward the door. “I should have said Mr. and Mrs. Scott Fitzgerald.”
“But they look so much alike!” Suzanne protested.
“Why don’t we start our evening at the pharmacy downstairs.”
“There’s a pharmacy?” said Mary. “I always thought it was a nightclub.”
“I’ll explain inside.”
George let the girls precede him and glanced over his shoulder with a smile that I found both wicked and endearing.
The “pharmacy” was a basement cabaret called Moulin Rouge. The dark, loud, smoke-filled lounge had a small stage embraced by red velvet draperies. The stage had a backdrop meant to resemble Paris—I recognized La Tour Eiffel, and the famed bridges—and was being overrun by six flouncy-skirted dancing girls who circled a top-hatted, red-cheeked, mustachioed man. The music, a raucous accordion piece, was like nothing I’d heard before.
“Is this French music, then?” I asked Scott, almost yelling in order to be heard.
He nodded. “From the fin de siecle—so not modern, but when the girls move like that”—he pointed with his chin—“who cares!”
We found a tiny cocktail table and fitted ourselves around it. George sat between the sisters, with Scott and me to their right.
I leaned closer to Scott and said, “Now will you tell me the surprise?”
“I know ‘soon’ with you, mister.”
“And it turned out to be worth the wait, didn’t it?”
We’d all had a couple of cocktails by the time the revue finished. I was feeling pleasantly light-headed and altogether happy with the night so far, so much so that I’d nearly forgotten that there was supposed to be anything more to it.
Scott looked at his watch. “It’s almost nine; let’s go on upstairs.”
“They’re meeting us?” George said.
Scott nodded. “I reserved a booth.”
“Who’s meeting us?” I asked.
“A couple of Nathan’s friends.”
I grinned at George. “Four girls?”
“Your high esteem honors me, doll.”
Scott told me, “But I ought to set this up for you first.”
“You ought,” George agreed. “Drawing it out is far better than unloading all at once.” This made the sisters giggle.
“So then,” Scott said, turning to me, “I’ve been in touch with some people who work in the pictures—”
“Who?” Mary said. “Can you introduce me?”
“And me!” Suzanne said.
Scott rolled his eyes. “Upstairs,” he said close to my ear, nudging me to stand.
George grinned and put an arm around both Suzanne and Mary. “We’ll find you later,” he said. Somehow, I doubted that would happen.
Onstage upstairs in the Palais Royale, a young woman in a shimmering aqua gown crooned some sentimental tune. The whole room seemed wrapped in soft orchestral swells. Here was a nightclub like the ones I’d seen in illustrations; right away, I understood why Scott had chosen to put this one in the story. The wide, long room had deep brown walls, a broad stage with footlights, a pit for the orchestra, and a dance floor large enough to fit fifty people or more. The entire rest of the room was tiered, with eight or ten rows of plush and intimately lighted booths. I guessed that anyone who sat in them would appear lovelier or more handsome than they actually were, as a simple matter of reflected glory. I’d liked the vigor of the Moulin Rouge; here, though, I felt instantly more sophisticated, more desirable, fully worthy of the stares I was receiving from women and men both.
The maitre d’ led us to a big U-shaped booth at the edge of the dance floor. A man and woman who had been seated there stood up when we approached. Scott introduced them as John Emerson and his wife, Anita Loos. The names were new to me, and I glanced at Scott, expecting more information. He said nothing more, just stood there rocking back on his heels with his hands shoved into his pants pockets.
John Emerson, middle-aged, thinning hair, rectangular in face and body, stared at me and shook his head. “Unbelievable.”
“Sorry?” I said.
“He told me you were screen-ready—and your photograph wasn’t bad. But now I see you have real dimension, and there’s something nice, something vulnerable yet mysterious, about your eyes.” He turned to his wife. “What’s your read?”
Anita was a little younger than John—thirty or so, I guessed, and pretty, but in a dark, studious way. “I can’t disagree.” She sounded almost sorry, or sad.
“Thanks, I guess.”
“Let’s sit, shall we?” Scott said.
When we were settled, John Emerson said helplessly, “And will you just look at the two of them together. You were right, Scott. I think we can pursue this further.”
Scott said, “Fantastic!”
“Y’all will forgive my manners,” I said, “but just what the devil is going on?”
John Emerson laughed. “Mrs. Fitzgerald—”
“Zelda, tell me, how would you like to be a moving-picture star?”
“What, me? Gosh,” I said. “There’s something I never considered. Where I come from, actresses are pretty common—that is, they don’t have good families or good breeding—with Tallulah Bankhead being the exception. Course, Tallu having grown up with her father always gone, and her mother dead since just after her birth, and only her aunt to raise her and Gene, well, all that just made her seem common—”
A man appeared at our table then, and we all looked up. He was an oval-faced fella, fine enough in form but with features that, together, added up to ugly. You imagined him as having been one of those poor, homely children that even other children avoid, the sort who then gets too much attention from his mother and none from his father, whose burning desire as he grows up is to make everyone respect him one day.
This man was well dressed, and his manner was silky as he said, “So delightful to see you here, John, Anita. Can you forgive the interruption? Mr. Fitzgerald left word with my secretary that you’d all be here tonight.”
Scott jumped up and proffered his hand. “You’re Griffith!”
“Indeed. I had the advantage in recognizing you from the magazine portraits. They hardly did you justice, even that new one in Vanity Fair—why, you should be starring in pictures, not writing for them.”
“Why not both?” I said, warming right up to the situation that seemed to be unfolding for us. I held out my hand and said, “Mr. Griffith, I’m Zelda, Scott’s wife.”
“Of course you are!”
I’d soon learn that this Mr. Griffith was D. W. Griffith, who along with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford had recently formed a company called United Artists. He sat down next to Scott, and before long the five of us were immersed in conversation that had nothing at all to do with literature, which I’ll admit made a nice change of pace.
There were more cocktails, more music, and then the dancing began. Anita claimed to be tired and urged John to dance with me. He obliged, and then when we got back to the table, Scott and Mr. Griffith were gone.
An hour passed before Scott returned, alone. He had fire in his eyes. “We need to go,” he said, reaching for my hand. “Good night, Anita, John—thanks for keeping Zelda out of trouble.”
John said, “We’ll talk next week.” Scott only nodded and led me out.
“What is it?” I said, having to almost run to keep up with him.
“Taxi,” he told the doorman, then said, “What is it? It’s Dorothy Gish. She needs a new movie.”
“And Mr. Griffith—”
“Will pay me ten thousand dollars if I can write up a suitable scenario.”
While Scott stayed up all night sketching out ideas, I fell asleep to the happy thought that everything was possible, anything might happen, and circumstances could change with speed and drama no one in Montgomery would ever have believed. The Montgomery girl I still was on the inside kept wanting to stop and gape, to take in the wonder of the scene or event. The New York woman I was becoming, however, didn’t have time for that girl. That girl was provincial and immature and frivolous; I was all too willing to leave her behind.
Scott wrote the scenario with his usual gusto, and two weeks after he’d gotten the assignment, he’d finished it.
“Let’s get lunch out,” he said, moving the curtain aside to look out the window. Central Park was now a half-naked forest of faded golds and deepening browns. The sky above was steely gray. “I’ll see who’s free to join us. Grab your coat and we’ll go to that Irish place on Broadway for shepherd’s pie.”
He wanted to walk, saying that after being cooped up all that time, he needed fresh air and exercise. “I’m susceptible to lung ailments, you know.”
I didn’t know. What I did know was that outside, the biting wind stole my breath and gusted into my skirt and through the weave of my wool coat, and made my nose drip and my eyes water. With gloved hands, I dabbed my eyes frequently as we walked, hoping to keep my mascara from striping my cheeks.
At the restaurant, we entered the vestibule and I said, “Thank God! Another minute out there and my eyeballs would’ve frozen over.”
Ludlow was waiting inside the door, at the end of the bar. His cheeks were ruddy and he still had his scarf wrapped around his neck. I said, “Hello there, Ludlow! You look like Hans Brinker.”
“And you look distraught, though still beautiful—Fitz is beating you, isn’t he?’
“Torturing me, in fact. He insisted we walk here!”
“You brute!” Ludlow said.
Scott gestured for me to follow the maitre d’, saying, “Obviously the South breeds sissies. Up North you build up a resistance.”
“I don’t need a resistance, I need a Caribbean villa. Right, Lud? I should have a villa.”
“And a new husband.”
“What you need,” Scott said as we were seated, “is a fur coat. Ankle length and, what, ermine? Otter?”
“Oooh, yes, that’s exactly what I need!”
Ludlow said, “What has he sold this time?”
“Nothing yet,” I said sorrowfully.
Scott frowned. “This woman has no faith in me.”
Ludlow declared, “This woman has too much faith in you.”
“This woman needs a fur coat,” I said.
After we’d placed our orders, I said, “How nice it must be to be covered in fur all the time. Animals have it good that way, don’t you think? A day like this is nothing to them; nature insulated them exactly right for their surroundings. Why do you suppose humans persist in living where it’s so cold that we’d want to cover ourselves up with another animal’s skin and hair? It’s sort of queer, isn’t it?”
Ludlow nodded. “Not to mention expensive.”
Scott had brought a bottle of brandy, which the three of us shared. As I polished off one glass and was into a second, the notion of actually owning a fur took hold of me as if of its own accord; I just couldn’t stop talking about the subject: all the kinds, who wore them, what I liked, whether men should wear them, and Scott and Ludlow encouraged me.
Our food arrived, and Ludlow asked Scott, “Say, have you had a chance to read the smash-hit novel Main Street? They say Sinclair Lewis started out like you, Fitz, writing popular stuff for the magazines—he really built himself a following that way.”
Scott’s mouth tightened. “Nope, haven’t gotten to it yet.”
“He’s been too busy,” I said cheerfully, “working so that he can buy me a fur coat.”
By meal’s end, I was nicely warmed in every way and ready to face the elements. Ludlow left for an appointment with some investment adviser, and we headed back to Fifty-ninth. I wasn’t paying any attention to the route we took home. We pushed against the wind, me chattering on about which movies I liked or didn’t and how I might like being an actress and what Tallu had done and what she’d written me and how everyone back home secretly found her exotic and wonderful while saying that she’d—Oh, isn’t it so, so sad—gone astray.
“What do you s’pose Montgomery will say about me? You can bet there’ll be gossips claiming I only married you so’s to get to New York, where I could get discovered.”
“I rather like that scenario; it recasts me as sympathetic.”
“Aw, the folks there all like you just fine—’specially now. It’s change they don’t like. And actresses.”
“Here we are.” Scott grabbed my arm and stopped some fifty feet from the corner, which confused me for a second. Then he tugged me toward a doorway and I saw that we were at a furrier.
“What are we—”
“You need a fur coat.”
“Deo, wow, that’s a wonderfully nice thought, and I know I went on and on about it, but really I just needed some brandy.”
He said, “All right, then, I need you to have a fur coat,” and led me inside.
Oh, didn’t I have the grandest time wrapping myself in every kind and color of fur! Some were little more than elegant shrugs; some fell to the waist; some were swingy numbers that hit midthigh. The one that went home with us, though, was substantial in every way. It was made up of gray-squirrel pelts, with a full collar and wide cuffs, big, round buttons at the waist, and went down to my knees. The moment I slipped into it, I knew we were meant to be together. Scott wrote a check for seven hundred dollars as if he bought fur coats every day of the week, and then when we left, we walked six blocks out of our way so that I could “try it out,” not to mention show it off.
Back in our apartment, we spread it on the floor in front of the fireplace and made love right there, right then in the middle of the afternoon.
I was blissfully certain that I had everything I could ever want.
Nov. 6, 1920
My Dear Sara,
Your account of that Woman Movement meeting almost shames me, as all I’ve been doing lately is crowing about how my husband’s novel was
the number one book for the whole entire United States in October
! If I were to die today, my headstone would read, “Proud Wife,” and my death would probably be at the hands of angry feminists.
I do realize I ought to consider doing something more with my time, but I can’t help it, I really am proud of him and I can spend entire days just on grooming and dressing and then meeting friends, whereby I tell them Scott’s fabulous news.
Besides which, it’s such great fun to have great fun—the few feminists I’ve met here wear long faces and dingy clothes and need hair dye desperately. Maybe I’ll buy a case and distribute bottles to these poor needy women. I want to do my part to support the effort.
You are the best of them, an exception in every way, and I’m proud of you. In fact, I’ll toast you at tonight’s dinner party—the hostess is some cosmetics heiress who’s sure to miss the irony of my doing so there.
Please stay out of trouble, for once. All my love,
Tilde and John invited us to their house in Tarrytown for the day. The last time we’d seen them was in summer, not long after the baby was born. Tilde had been tired and irritable at the time, and a bit skeptical, still, about Scott and me. We could see it in the way she studied us with that intense, piercing gaze of hers, like she was analyzing our every word and move. We hadn’t stayed long. Long enough, though, that now Scott felt the need to fortify himself before going over there again.
That fortification started with wine at lunchtime and continued with a steady stream of gin consumed throughout the drive, during which he sang Christmas-carol tunes but made up new lyrics to go with them.
“You should’ve been writing those down for me,” he said as we parked in Tilde’s driveway. “What was that line, from ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’?” He paused to recall it, then sang, “‘How gayfully and playfully the Christmas gifts are given / We do our parts to spare the hearts of all those but the heathens.’ What do you think? A holiday music revue? That’d be right up George Cohan’s alley.” He grabbed his notebook and began writing down the lines.
Tilde saw us from the front window and waved. I said, “Can’t we do this later?”
Scott ignored me and kept writing, so I climbed out of the car and went inside without him.
Tilde and John’s baby, now six months old, was the sweetest thing imaginable. “Give him over,” I said the second I stepped into their little brick house. It was a chilly day, crisp and cloudless; inside, the scent of apples and cinnamon simmering on the stovetop made the house seem even snugger and more inviting than it was. The baby had his own snuggly smell, like warm milk and rose-scented soap. I was wearing the squirrel coat and opened it so that I could tuck him right up against me. His skin was pure silk velvet. I put my nose up to his soft neck and inhaled deeply.
Tilde’s older boy, little John, hovered close to her, one hand clutching her skirt—a skirt that was as long as ever, and more matronly than I’d seen her wear before. She was not even thirty yet, and already she looked middle-aged.
She said, “You remember Auntie Zelda.” He shook his head and pulled her skirt in front of him like a curtain. “Our nurse has the day off,” Tilde said apologetically.
“We don’t mind a bit, do we?” I said to the baby, who gurgled happily in reply.
Scott came in then, still humming the song’s tune. “Greetings, Palmers,” he said, shaking John’s hand heartily.
“How about it, you two?” my brother-in-law asked. “When can we expect a Fitzgerald cousin for our fellas?”
I held the baby overhead and kissed his tummy, which made him giggle. “No time soon,” I said. “I’ve got to hang on to this figure a little longer. John Emerson—he’s a director and producer—is thinking of me for one of his pictures.”
“What?” Tilde said. “You, in the movies?”
“Why not? Everyone at home was always saying I had every bit as much talent and looks as any star. And Scott’s just turned in a scenario for Dorothy Gish—she’s Lillian’s sister, you know—and we’re chumming with lots of movie folks nowadays.”
John offered to take our coats and then, as we gave them over, said, “What about books? I thought that was your thing, Scott.”
“If I was among the independently wealthy, maybe. But I’ve got bills, and books won’t pay them.”
“Not unless it’s Sinclair Lewis’s book,” I said—a glib mistake that I realized too late.
Scott glowered at me. By now we’d heard from almost every one of Scott’s literary friends how that new book, Main Street, was selling so fast that the printers literally couldn’t keep up, exceeding Paradise by far. Worse, Lewis was, like Scott, a Minnesotan. This novel that Scott had declared dreary and bleak when he’d read it, finally, a few days earlier, was usurping his book’s place—his place, actually. He wanted to always be the favorite son.
He told John, “I’m awaiting word from a very powerful producer—head of United Artists,” he said, as if Tilde and John would be impressed. “Then we’ll have ten thousand to pay off our debts and start setting a little something aside.”
“Start?” Tilde said, directing little John to a set of building blocks. “What happened to all the money you’ve gotten from selling all those stories and things? Mama wrote that Zelda said you can’t stop making money. I’ll suppose a lot of it went for that coat—”
“Now, Tilde, dear,” John said, “that’s not our business—”
“That’s all right,” Scott said too heartily. “We’re family. It’s true, I’ve made a tremendous amount of money, with which we’ve had a tremendously good time.”
“The money’s just irregular,” I said, and Tilde gave me a look like I’ll say it’s irregular!
“You should buy bonds,” she said. She took the baby from me before either he or I wanted her to, as if remembering that I was irresponsible. “Children need a secure, stable home—and heaven knows they’re not inexpensive. A good nurse or nanny is worth her weight in gold.”
“I told you, we aren’t having any yet.”
“You will, though—”
“Your sister makes a tremendously valid point,” Scott said, and clapped me on the shoulder. “It’s time we started acting like adults. No more of this lavish spending. No more John Emerson seduction scenes. It’s tremendously improper—we know that,” Scott told them with his sincerest frown.
Tilde looked alarmed. “Seduction scenes?”
“Not literally,” I said. I glared at Scott; he was performing, putting on an act not for Tilde and John but for me, to punish me for having dared to utter Sinclair’s name.
“I can’t imagine telling friends in St. Paul that my wife’s an actress,” he continued. “Though I’m sure your good friend Nathan wouldn’t mind it at all.” When I started to speak, he held up his hand. “No, no, I’m going to have to put my foot down this time. I’m calling Emerson the minute we get back.
“Imagine!” he added, then leaned close to John as if to confess. “It’s awfully embarrassing to think I was almost as swept away by the idea as Zelda was.”
“Almost? You’re the one who arranged for it!”
“Dearest,” he said as he took his flask from his pocket, gave it a testing shake, uncapped it, and downed what little gin was left while my sister and John watched, eyes wide, mouths open. “Say, John,” Scott interrupted himself, “what do you have on hand? I’ll want a refill for the return trip.”
Tilde answered in a huff, “We’re not lawbreakers!”—but John’s expression wasn’t quite so definite.
Still, he kept silent and Scott went on, “Dearest darling wife, look at that magnificent little creature in your sister’s arms. Don’t you want one of those? I can’t wait to be a father.”
We fought the whole way home, and then he got right on the phone with John Emerson, saying I’d had second thoughts and was pining for motherhood—so no movie career for me. This wasn’t a problem in itself, because in most ways what he’d said was actually true. I didn’t actually want an acting career, and I did actually want to have a baby. I just resented Scott manipulating my life.
A silent night was followed by a silent morning, whereby our already-small apartment seemed to have shrunk to the size of an elevator car. I staked out a corner of the sofa to read the crime-fiction magazine George and Mencken had just launched, Black Mask, which was a terrific escape. Scott pretended to work for a while, then made a show of putting on his coat, hat, and gloves, surely expecting me to ask him where he was off to. When I didn’t, he left the apartment in a huff.
Later, the phone rang and the operator put through Griffith’s secretary, who said, “Would you please relay to Mr. Fitzgerald that Mr. Griffith and Miss Gish feel the scenario isn’t quite what they were looking for? His efforts are much appreciated. Mr. Griffith will be in touch.”
“I will tell him, you bet, and thanks very much.”
Scott walked in just as I was hanging up the phone.
I said, “Griffith had his secretary phone to say you just don’t have what it takes for the job. Looks like you’re out of luck.”
He stripped off his gloves nonchalantly, then his coat, then let all of it drop to the floor behind him. His hat remained on his head. “You should choose your pronouns more carefully,” he said. His voice was loose. “We are out of luck. We’re ruined, in fact.”
“What are you saying? You’re drunk.”
“I’m drunk, and we’re broke. Aren’t pronouns fun?” Then he pulled his pockets inside out for effect. “I can’t even buy us lunch.”
“Go to the bank, then.”
“No, I mean we have no money at all. Not in my pockets, not in my wallet, not in the bank. In fact, I had to borrow to pay for your coat.”
“Borrow from who?”
“The Bank of Scribner, in this case, although sometimes I use the Bank of Ober.”
I was confused. “Max and Harold lend you money?”
“Against royalties, or future earnings—it’s all money I’m going to get eventually; just, eventually doesn’t always arrive as quickly as I need it to.”
I went to the closet, pulled the coat from its hanger, and shoved it at him. “Send it back!”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He plopped down on the sofa. “You look fantastic in this coat. In fact, I think you should take off everything you’re wearing and then put the coat on.” His eyelids were drooping as he said this, and then they closed.
I watched him for a moment, thinking he’d fallen asleep. Then, without opening his eyes he said, “Don’t hate me. I’m sorry. It’s all for you.”
Scott went on the wagon and finished his novel, The Beautiful and Damned, a story of a young society couple so indolent and overindulged that they ruin themselves. His self-discipline impressed me, so much so that I was pregnant by February.
Knowing—sort of—what parenthood would do to our lives, when Scott made a seven-thousand-dollar deal with Metropolitan Magazine for the serialization rights to The Beautiful and Damned, we decided we’d better go abroad and see some of the places so many of our friends had seen and told us about. Touring Europe was the thing to do, I guess, now that America had invested so much in its salvation. We booked first-class passage on the Aquitania and departed May 3.
Having never been on board any water vessel larger than a rowboat, I was as enraptured by the ship as I’d been by so many things in Manhattan. Nine decks, including a grand ballroom decorated with all the polished wood, wrought iron, stained glass, marble, and gilt-covered splendor any overspending couple could possibly wish for.
“I bet the Titanic looked like this,” I said as we walked to our cabin.
A woman grabbed my arm and told me, “Hush! You’re going to jinx everything.”
“Titanic, Titanic, Titanic,” I said, pulling my arm away. “Better reserve your spot on a lifeboat.”
We spent a whole lot of time in the Palladium Lounge, where velvet-upholstered chairs and a wide, ornate fireplace deferred the Atlantic’s chill. For a week, we danced to the ship’s orchestra, dined on every variety of fish and prawn and pheasant dish imaginable, drank fine champagnes, and acquainted ourselves with a variety of people as dissipated as we would one day become. Scott was accosted by a fella who brought an opened copy of Shadowland magazine to our table. He dropped it in front of Scott and pointed at a paragraph, saying, “It says here that you are ‘the recognized spokesman of the younger generation—the dancing, flirting, frivoling, lightly philosophizing America.’” Then he pumped Scott’s hand like he thought Scott’s mouth might open and gold coins would spill out. When the seas got rough, we all told shipwreck stories the way people tell ghost stories while in a cemetery—you want to be prepared, I guess.
In London, we met up with Scott’s friend Shane Leslie—whose aunt was Lady Randolph Churchill, whose son Winston took luncheon with his mother and us and then went back to his duties at whichever important post he was assigned to at the time. Young as I was, I failed to be suitably impressed by both London and its celebrities, who seemed as stuffy and formal to me as I must have been unsophisticated and silly to them.
We saw Paris, we saw Venice, we saw Florence and Rome. It was strange to see liquor served right out in the open, though of course this made perfect sense, there being no Prohibition in Europe. After the first hundred impressive statues and cathedrals and fountains and alleyways and villas, our eyes and our brains took on a glaze. We were the most ignorant of tourists, and got little out of the experience because of that.
Our ignorance remained firmly in place upon our return to the States in July, when we went to Montgomery thinking we would live there, be near my family so that we’d have the support and help I’d be so appreciative of when the baby came. I wonder, were Scott and I just so distracted by the elements of our moment-to-moment life that neither of us recognized it was going to be as impossible for him to live there as it had been the first time around?
After a few days of visiting my family and seeing some friends, even I felt like a misfit, saturated as I was with my experiences since leaving New York. The South seemed so backward, so slow—not to mention unbearably hot for me in my ever-expanding state. My father’s perpetual disapproval made it easy for us to alter our course: by the end of July we were house hunting in St. Paul.
There’s a word for people who move from place to place, never seeming to be able to settle down for long: peripatetic. And there’s a word for people who can’t seem to stay out of trouble—well, there are a lot of words for such types: unstable, irresponsible, and misguided are some of them.
Trouble has lots of forms. There’s financial trouble and marital trouble, there’s trouble with friends and trouble with landlords and trouble with liquor and trouble with the law. Every sort of trouble I can think of, we’ve tried it out—become expert at some of it, even, so much so that I’ve come to wonder whether artists in particular seek out hard times the way flowers turn their faces toward the sun.
One element of my life that has never given me serious trouble, though, is my perfect baby girl, my sweet Scottie. She was born on October 26 that year, 1921, following a pregnancy that was unexceptional in every way.
My labor was long and awful—so, as unexceptional as my pregnancy had been. When I’d coughed and blinked my way out from underneath the anesthesia’s effects, there Scott was at my bedside as the nurse brought the baby in. He held a notebook and wore a Look what I’ve done! smile, as if he was the first father on the planet and had birthed that child himself.
The white receiving blanket gave nothing away. “Is it a boy or girl?”
“You don’t remember? You’ve been in and out,” he said. “We’ve got a daughter! You said you hope she’ll be ‘a beautiful little fool,’ but we won’t hold you to that.”
The nurse put the little swaddled bundle of baby girl into my arms, and my eyes pooled with tears. “Hello there, baby Patricia,” I said, rubbing her soft chin with my knuckle.
Scott leaned over us and petted her downy head. “Actually, I was thinking that she doesn’t really look like a Patricia. What would you say, darling, to naming her Frances—my name, but with an e instead of an i? Frances Scott Fitzgerald.”
“But … she’s Patricia. All this time, that’s what I’ve been calling her.”
“Frances Scott—it seems fitting, don’t you think? Her having been born in my hometown, you know. We have to think of her future. There’s nothing unique about being Patricia Fitzgerald; really, darling, it’s too common. The Irish are forever naming their sons and daughters some version of Pat.”
The nurse returned then, and Scott asked her, “What do you think of this: Frances—with an e—Scott Fitzgerald, and we’ll call her Scottie.”
“That’s so clever! Named after her famous father—she’ll like that, what a privilege!”
“Except that she’s Patricia,” I said, feeling foggy, still. This conversation was moving too quickly. “We agreed on Patricia.”
“Oh, well, that’s a perfectly nice name. Nothing special, but nice. You have to consider that she’s not just any child, though, don’t you?”
“Her legacy,” Scott said.
“Exactly.” The nurse took the baby from my arms. “Now, Mother needs her rest, so off with you”—she indicated Scott—“and you, little Frances.”
“Scottie.” He touched the baby’s tiny nose.
“Patricia,” I said.
I knew, though, that Scott would replay this scene with everyone he encountered, and that they’d all see it his way. No one would disagree with the charismatic hometown hero. Even so, I would stubbornly continue to assert my preference for weeks, the way you do when you allow hope to prevail over knowledge, and in the end, I would grow tired of the battle, and Scott would win.
We spent the exceptionally, ridiculously, unendingly frigid winter of 1921–22 in the company of an assortment of Scott’s old friends. My drawl, never a problem in New York, was a hindrance here. “Would you repeat that, dear?” was a regular refrain. And if I said something like “If I never see another snowflake, it’ll be too soon, I swear!” someone was sure to ask, “Is ahswayah a Southern term? I don’t think we have that one here.”
The women allowed me into their bridge groups, though, and invited me to join their committees—Lord, you never did see so few women create so many committees! They extended every courtesy whether they wanted to or not, unwilling to lose their connection to F. Scott Fitzgerald even if his wife was, unfortunately, a foreigner.
Scott’s mother, however, always treated me like I was an orchid she’d discovered blooming in her parlor. Sadly, Scott was far less fond of her than she was of me. He thought her old-fashioned and eccentric and absentminded—the very qualities that made her so dear. His father was old-fashioned, too, but Scott thought him benign, like an old pocket watch that keeps time and has style but isn’t worth much.
Whenever Scott and I weren’t, say, out riding in horse-drawn sleighs and then rewarding ourselves afterward with hot toddies, we worked together on a musical revue, Midnight Flappers, for the Junior League’s April fund-raiser. Scott wrote the script and was also the director; I was choreographer and, of course, would be one of the flappers—if I could get rid of all my leftover roundness, which, although I was nursing Scottie, stubbornly stuck with me as if I needed the fat to keep me warm. Scott and I collaborated so well and had so much fun that my irritation with him about the baby’s name faded and then disappeared. She was Scottie; this seemed self-evident before long, and I was glad we hadn’t named her Patricia.
She was a happy, indulged, adored infant. Nursing her was demanding but rewarding, too, most of the time. Scott had a bad habit of inviting friends up to our place without first seeing whether I’d welcome company. The commotion—and my goodness, between Scott and his former nemesis Sinclair Lewis and their third musketeer, Sherwood Anderson, there was always commotion—would wake the baby. She would want me, not the nanny Scott had hired, and so I’d have to go off and nurse her back to sleep. I’d hear the others talking and laughing, carrying on without a thought for me, for my having to go from gay socialite to milk producer in the space of a baby’s cry. Fierce as my love was for my baby girl, it was no antidote for resentment.
Scottie was not even four months old when my monthly, which had returned, sort of, in January, went missing again. I couldn’t be pregnant; my sisters had told me I’d be safe as long as I was nursing! But the doctor, after confirming what I hoped was not true, shrugged and told me, “The only sure method of prevention is abstention, and of course no husband can be expected to agree to that for long. Congratulations, Mrs. Fitzgerald, and give my best to Scott.”
For the next couple of weeks, while we planned a trip to New York to see friends and celebrate the March 4 launch of The Beautiful and Damned, I kept the news to myself and chased my thoughts around and around inside my head, unable to be happy about my condition and miserable about that unhappiness. I just could not imagine celebrating Scottie’s first birthday, still eight months away, by giving her a baby brother or sister. I couldn’t stand the thought of gaining so much weight again. I couldn’t see my way through the tall grass of sleep deprivation and milk-engorged breasts, couldn’t face the prospect of managing the needs of two wonderful but helpless, demanding little beings, even with the nanny’s help. I longed for my prepregnancy body and had just begun to wean Scottie in preparation for my being gone two weeks in New York.
Judge me harshly if you will—God knows I’ve spent the ensuing years judging myself that way—but I decided to assert my right to control my own fertility, as Margaret Sanger liked to say, and told Scott how it had to be.
“I can’t do it, Deo, the timing is all wrong, I’ll be awful to everyone if I do it, I just know I will. It would spoil our lives, we’re hardly getting started, I don’t want to be a baby-making factory, I just can’t.”
He didn’t want that life either; he said, “Yes, all right, I understand,” and the look of terror he’d worn the day I’d said, “I’m pregnant,” changed to relief.
While we were in New York, Scott gave an interview to a reporter from the New York World, who, having read Scott’s flapper stories and now the novel, wanted his opinion about women in Prohibition society.
“I think that just being in love and doing it well is work enough for any woman,” Scott said. “If she keeps her house nicely, and makes herself look pretty when her husband comes home from work, and loves the fellow and helps him and encourages him, well, I think that’s the sort of work that will save her.”
I slipped out, then, for my appointment with a doctor who I’d heard was discreet and reliable for all types of “women’s troubles.” He supplied me with those little yellow pills I’d once been so opposed to.
“I’ve got it!”
Scott rousted me from sleep a week later with a shake. “You won’t believe this, Zelda. It just came to me in a dream.” He switched on the lamp and grabbed his notebook and pencil from the bedside table. “It’s brilliant. A clerk who wanted to be a postman has delusions of becoming the president…”
Seemed to me that Scott was the one with delusions.
“Three acts,” he said, scribbling some notes. “Broadway will love this.”
I was still rubbing the sleep from my eyes when he said, “This is going to make our fortune—I’ll never have to write for the slicks again.” He tossed the notebook back onto the table. “Good-bye, Saturday Evening Post! Good-bye, Hearst’s! A successful Broadway show will pay residuals for years—it’ll make me a millionaire before I’m thirty, Zelda.”
He jumped out of bed and grabbed the notebook. “We’re going to have to move back to New York, of course.… Go back to sleep, darling, see you in the morning.”
In late March I came home from a Women’s Committee for the Betterment of St. Paul meeting to find the nanny—who’d insisted we call her Nanny—waiting for me near the door with Scottie in her arms. I reached for the baby, but Nanny held on to her and said in her stiff, Norwegian-accented English, “You have a message from Mr. Harold Ober.”
“I do? You must mean Mr. Fitzgerald.”
“No,” she huffed. “I make no such mistake. The number is on the notepad.” She pointed toward the parlor as if sending me to my room, despite her being less than a year older than I was.
Scott had insisted we hire this sort of girl. “Ludlow once told me his nanny could cut his meat just by scowling at it. All the Fowler kids were terrified of her, which really kept them in line.”
“She’ll give the baby nightmares.”
“She’ll give the baby rules and structure—all the things you and I do so poorly.”
Now I told Nanny, “All right, thanks. I’ll just take the baby and—”
“Her diaper is soiled,” Nanny said, already moving down the hallway. “We can’t possibly let you hold her in this state.”
No, I thought, watching Scottie recede, her wide eyes staring over Nanny’s shoulder, we can’t possibly. We can’t possibly put up with Battleship Nanny very much longer.
In the study, I phoned Harold, wondering what he could possibly want with me. It had to be something to do with Scott—but what? Scott was in touch with Harold often and had most recently been discussing the play, which he was calling The Vegetable.
Harold got on the phone. “Thank you for returning my call so promptly. Burton Rascoe, an editor from the New York Tribune, phoned me this morning to see whether you might be interested in writing a review of The Beautiful and Damned for them.”
“Sorry, am I hearing you right, Mr. Ober? They want Scott’s wife to review his book?” I’d never heard of such a thing.
“That’s it, yes. He thinks readers would love to have something from you personally, having heard so much about you.”
“I’ll guess you told him that I’m not a writer.”
“I don’t think he’s too concerned. If it’s rough, they’ll clean it up. They’ll pay you fifteen dollars for your trouble—and I’ll forgo my ten percent. You could get a new pair of shoes, or a bag or such. My wife always loves an excuse to buy a new hat. What do you think?”
“I’ll do it!”
“Oh—all right. Good.”
“You thought I wouldn’t?”
“I assumed you’d want to ask your husband first.”
“He’ll adore the idea, don’t you worry. Tell me what this Rascoe fella wants and when he wants it, and I’ll get right to work.”
As was often true while we were in St. Paul, Scott was spending his day with Tom Boyd at Kilmarnock, Tom’s renowned bookstore. Tom and his wife, Peggy, had become pretty good friends of ours—there was Tom, a fella who was all about books, and then Peggy, pregnant with her first at the same time I was pregnant with Scottie, so we were pretty well matched. Both Boyds were aspiring writers when we met them, and Scott gave Peggy a whole lot of good advice that she put to work in a novel, The Love Legend, which Scott recommended to Max Perkins and which Max had just agreed to publish.
Tom was doing a wonderful job with publicity for Scott’s book: newspaper ads, posters, and even a short reel that was running at the movie houses. Scott, ever determined to influence the what and the how and the when, wrote to Max to say that Scribner’s ought to do something more with advertising than they’d done in the past. Scott was worried that even though reviews had been good—even Mencken had admired it—sales of The Beautiful and Damned might fall short of the sixty thousand copies Scott had projected.
And so here it was, I thought, a ready-made invitation to put my informal writing education to work, and in such a way that would benefit Scott and me both. I was thrilled to be able to help.
With paper in hand, I found Nanny and told her, “I’ll be in the den. I’m not to be disturbed.”
“No, certainly,” she said. “We would not think of such a thing.”
I kissed Scottie’s blond fuzzy-duckling head, then went to work.
Though my writing experience was limited to diaries and letters, I was sure this assignment had been ordained and I was more than up to the task. After paging through the novel to remind myself of its particulars, I framed an idea in my mind and started writing it down.
The words seemed to flow directly from my brain through my neck and arm and fingers, right through the pencil and onto the page. This was so much fun! So easy! Who wouldn’t want to be a writer? I had the whole thing drafted by the time Scott came home.
“Deo, look at this,” I called when I heard him come in. “I’m reviewing your book for the Tribune—the New York one. Harold Ober called. They’ll pay me. Read it and tell me what you think.”
“I think I’d like to take off my coat and boots.”
“Fine, all right,” I pouted, then went out to the foyer. After he’d put his things away, I thrust the pages into his hands. “It’s funny, and I did what you and everyone always do when you’re reviewing each other’s books—it’s not afraid to be kinda critical, ’cause nobody would take it seriously if it’s all glowing praise. Right? You always say it’s the balance of praise and thoughtful criticism that makes folks curious to decide for themselves.”
He’d taken the pages but his eyes were still on me, and he had a bemused smile.
“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Just listen to you. Next thing I know, you’ll want to be Dorothy Parker.”
“Nah, she doesn’t have enough fun. Read it! I’m sure it’s awful, but I think it’s kinda brilliant, too.”
Scott sat down at his desk and I paced the room while he read. His face revealed nothing. When he was done, he laid the notebook flat. “All right: it’s got some pacing hiccups, and we’ll need to address punctuation a little bit, but it’s quite remarkable—your writing voice is almost precisely your spoken voice, even in essay form. How long did you work on this?”
“Just today. This afternoon. Since about three o’clock.”
Scott sat back in the chair, a mixture of emotions playing across his face. “Huh. Well, I guess you’ve found yourself a new hobby. I’ll call Harold tomorrow and see what else we might cook up for you.”
The review ran two weeks later—and, soon after, spurred a request from Metropolitan Magazine for a flapper essay by me, then another request, from McCall’s. I confess to feeling an outsize thrill when I saw the headline, “Friend Husband’s Latest” by Zelda Fitzgerald, wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, followed by the two thousand words I’d written, observations I’d made, quips I’d thought of, criticisms I’d noted and had refined with Scott’s help. Scott was proud of me, too; we bought two dozen copies of the paper and sent clippings to all our friends.
Sara Haardt, now living in Baltimore, wrote in reply,
Zelda, my dear,
I can’t tell you how much this pleases me! You, my lovely friend, are finally utilizing another of your many talents and being rightly recognized for it. Plus, I’m so glad to see you and Scott in such harmony. You give me hope for something similar in my own life one day. Meantime, I have just placed a story in a Richmond journal,
, which I will send to you with much joy upon its publication. I always said we could make our own ways in this men’s world.… My love to you, Scott, and the baby~
When my fifteen-dollar check arrived, I took it to the bank personally and asked the teller to please pay it out in one-dollar bills—not to make it seem like more money, but to make the counting out of it last just a little bit longer. Like having fifteen little bites of chocolate cream pie even though you could’ve finished off that slice in five.
“What will you buy?” Scott asked, when we were outside on the slushy sidewalk. “My first sale was thirty dollars, remember? I sent you a sweater.”
“No, a feather fan. And you got yourself some white flannel pants.”
“Are you sure?”
We’d come to the street corner. “Yep,” I said, surveying the nearby shops.
“What’ll it be for you, then? Matching white flannel pants?”
I turned to him and smiled. “Only if I want to get us thrown out of the country club.”
“We should do it.” He took my gloved hands in his, and I felt like we had stepped back in time, to those Montgomery days right after the war had ended. Scott’s face was ruddy from the cold, and his eyes were as bright as I’d seen them lately. “Come on, I bet you’ll look good in pants—and we’re moving back to New York anyway, right? Let’s show St. Paul what we’re really made of.”
Great Neck, New York, was, in the fall of 1922, a growing community of newly rich people who didn’t have enough sense to move farther away from the temptations of Manhattan. The town sits about fifteen miles to the east of Manhattan, on the North Shore of Long Island, where the tremendously rich had already built mansions to rival the Aquitania, or Buckingham Palace.
We had a nice house, a spacious, lovely, but comparatively ordinary house, and it wasn’t even ours; we paid three hundred a month to rent it. The truly wealthy folks had estates, with no mortgages, and spent three hundred a month on cigars.
They had tennis courts, and indoor swimming pools, and outdoor swimming pools. They had terraced gardens, where plants that had been imported and were cared for by teams of Japanese gardeners enjoyed invigorating views of the Long Island Sound—from which the owners gave their docked yachts views of the gardens. These wealthy folks had butlers, they had cooks, they had chambermaids and lady’s maids, they had stables occupied by horses—and by horsemen, who would teach you to ride while also letting you know they were capable of other services, too, if your husband was one of those who had, essentially, built such a place and then spent his life living in hotels in London and Cairo and San Francisco.
Nineteen twenty-two had been good to us so far. Scott had written a strange and whimsical story, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” for which he’d earned a thousand dollars; I’d written three new essays, earning more than eight hundred dollars altogether, enough to pay for a radio, which became Scottie’s and my most favorite thing—me, because now I had all kinds of music to dance to, and Scottie because I would hold her and spin us around the parlor, both of us giggling all the while.
We’d now seen four of Scott’s works—three stories plus The Beautiful and Damned—made into movies. Scott’s second story collection, Tales of the Jazz Age, had a good September launch, and overall his royalties income would end up, he said, in the fifteen-thousand-dollar range for the year. The Vegetable was in preproduction. There were opportunities that hadn’t panned out—another movie scenario Scott wrote for David O. Selznick being the big one. In light of all the good, though, we were untroubled by the bad.
While I had only a vague sense of our expenses and our existing debts, Scott was brimming with ideas and was busy every day placing phone calls and arranging meetings, which said a lot. At night he was romantic, passionate, and assured, which said the rest.
Though Scott and I were, by comparison to some of our neighbors, lacking in every material way, we felt fortunate—because what we did have while we were anticipating Scott’s big Broadway success was the camaraderie of our wonderful next-door neighbors, Ring and Ellis Lardner.
Scott and Ring were fast friends right from the start, a made-in-heaven pair like cherries and chocolate. One October weekend morning I was awakened by raised voices coming from somewhere in the house. I said, “Scott. Scott, wake up. I think I hear Nanny arguing with someone.”
This was a new nanny, of course; she was less severe than the one in St. Paul, yet more possessive, hardly willing to let Scottie out of her sight. We had to force her to take days off just so we could spend time alone with our baby girl. I wondered whether we’d all been better off before.
Scott said, “Probably Albert. Is there aspirin on your nightstand?”
“It’s not Albert; it’s Sunday.” We gave Albert and Angela, the live-in couple who served us as butler-cook-housekeeper-chambermaid for one-sixty a month, Sundays off.
“Sunday? What? That can’t be right. It was just Thursday. You’ve had a nightmare. Go back to sleep.”
It was just Thursday for Scott, who’d begun drinking while at tennis and had, along with Ring and writers John Dos Passos and Carl Van Vechten, kept the party going until the liquor ran out. Ellis and I had given up on our men by Friday evening and spent Saturday at the beach with the children—she had four boys. Scottie, almost a year old, toddled around on the sand like a drunkard herself, pointing to each new discovery as if it was her first ever, and yelling “Ma!” every time. Nanny, of course, hovered nearby, pesky as a horsefly.
That Sunday morning, what we heard next was a rich tenor from just beyond the bedroom door:
“Fitzgerald, hoo! I herald yo-o-u! The sun is creeping higher. You promised mee a symphon-ee of putters, woods, and drivers!”
“What did I tell you?” I said, throwing back the covers and reaching for my robe. With Ring, you could never be sure he wouldn’t come right into the bedroom and take a seat at the foot of the bed to tell you all about the six fish he’d caught while out with one or other of the neighbors, or the six fish he planned to catch, or the six fish he was going to miss catching thanks to Scott’s promise to play nine holes with him—and that was all right with him, he’d say magnanimously; such things couldn’t be helped.
“My God, how does he do it?” Scott asked.
Differently than Scott had managed, that’s all I knew.
We’d been in Great Neck for a little over a year when, in the weak afternoon sunlight of New Year’s Day 1924, I sat at our kitchen table with a brand-new ledger book in front of me. It was green leather and had been a Christmas gift from Scott. “If you don’t start keeping better track of things, it will all be lost to you later,” he’d said. “I’d be an absolute disaster without mine.”
Scottie was taking her after-lunch nap. Scott was still sleeping off the previous night’s effects; we’d gone to a tremendous masquerade party at Ziegfeld’s four-story mansion, where I’d been dressed, quite extravagantly, as Madame du Barry. Most of our help had the afternoon off, so the house was quiet and still, perfect for me to try bringing into focus the blur our time at 6 Gateway Drive had been so far.
I wrote the date and our address, then began making a list of my impressions and recollections:
• Salt in the air always.
• Insanely high prices for everything. Scott saying, more than once, that we’d run out of money.
• The train into Manhattan, drinks and parties at the Plaza and the Ritz-Carlton.
• Racing up and down Long Island in fast, fancy cars, laughing like crazy, picking bugs from our hair afterward.
• My Union Square fountain dive immortalized as a silhouette sewn onto the Greenwich Village Follies curtain—no sign of Gene Bankhead, though, anywhere.
• Scottie’s first words: Mama, mine, no.
• The sale of
This Side of Paradise
to the movies.
“We’re getting our ten thousand dollars after all!” Scott had said when that deal came through, waltzing me around the living room while Albert and Angela looked on, probably anticipating a raise. Or anticipating new and better ways to pad the quantities of food and goods they were already filching, which Scott and I knew was going on but ignored because we feared losing them.
I was as relieved about that sale as I was delighted about it, because while I remained uninvolved in our finances, I always knew by Scott’s moods when we were flush and when we weren’t, and was getting a sense, too, of when he’d allowed us to creep into the red.
• Astonishing parties at astonishing mansions: we met every movie star, every producer—Cohan, Ziegfeld—every suspected bootlegger millionaire—and got close to Gene and Helen Buck, Gene being Ziegfeld’s main collaborator, a hugely talented songwriter and not coincidentally also a millionaire.
• Scott getting too close to Helen Buck; both of them denying there was anything to it.
• That first year’s New Year’s party, when I took everyone’s hats and made a game of tossing them into the biggest bowl-shaped light fixture I’d ever seen. Not everyone was amused, but it seemed terribly gay to me at the time.
• Scott writing title cards and scenarios for the movies—his “Grit” scenario sells for $2000.
• Scott’s play,
, and its crushing failure.
That was in November of ’22, when it opened in Atlantic City and was so awfully bad that some of the audience walked out during the second act. I’d believed in The Vegetable as fully as Scott had and could never understand how what had seemed to work in rehearsal came off so badly at the tryout opening. I’d helped Scott write the play. Bunny had read and loved it. Max loved it—even published a revised version as a novel the next year. Sure, it had taken a long time to get a producer on board, but then it did get produced. So where had we gone wrong?
• Scott, missing for two days soon after the play closed; he came home hungover and unsure of where he’d been, or with whom. Smell of perfume on his shirt.
• Scott on the wagon all of January, February, and March, so that he could write enough stories for the slicks—ten in all—to see us through last year (1923), during which he intended to write the novel that he’d put off writing in anticipation of the play’s success. Novel still not done.
• My first real spells of uncertainty, of doubt.
• $2000-a-game croquet tournaments on Herbert Swope’s manicured lawn, played after dark with car headlights to illuminate the course.
• Dancing with Scott, me in a gown, he in a tuxedo, on a wide canvas dance floor with torches lighting the night. Champagne, orchestras, canapes, kisses.
• Guests in our house always: Tootsie, Eleanor, Scott’s Aunt Annabel, Max Perkins. John Dos Passos and Archie MacLeish (writers), Don Stewart (humorist), Gilbert Seldes (critic)—he loves Scott. Alec and his crush Esther Murphy.
• Unmarked, empty liquor bottles like lines of tired soldiers on our kitchen counters.
• The Hearst magazines option: gives them first-look at Scott’s stories and a guarantee of $1500 for the ones they take;
photograph of Scott and me together on the cover of Hearst International
. We are stars!
• “Our Own Movie Queen,” my first short story; Scott and Harold said it’s better to send it out under Scott’s name because I’d get more money for it. Harold sold it for $1000 to the
Chicago Sunday Tribune
• Scottie, with her little chubby legs, standing on Scott’s shoulders, her hands in his, the two of them giggling wildly as he galloped her across the lawn.
• Interviews—of Scott, of me, of me and Scott together. “The Fitzgeralds are as popular as movie stars,” we’re told, and everyone wants to know how we see the world. They want to see us: so we, and Scottie, are photographed for numerous features and now we
feel like stars.
• Scott’s “The Popular Girl” brings $1500 from the
, his highest price so far.
• Helen Buck and me playing golf while tight; they say I went wandering down the fairways, but I don’t recall that part.
• Eleanor’s visit, when we met Scott at the Plaza. He had Anita Loos in tow, champagne in hand. He’d been drinking cause he hates the dentist, then celebrating his survival afterward. That night at home: some woman at the door in search of Scott. My accusations make Scott pull the tablecloth right off the table, dishes flying everywhere. El, Anita, and me so tight we could only laugh at him.
• Scott’s “How to Live on $36,000 a Year” for the
makes a funny story of our inability to make do with so much money.
That essay was all fiction—the “we” in the story is a couple who manage their money (or fail to) jointly, unlike the “we” in our real life. Daddy saw it and wrote me, “This is what Mama and I were afraid of. Our friends are aghast. However, the youngsters here think you two are gods, and if that doesn’t trouble you, I fear you are lost for good.”
• A feeling, always, of standing on a precipice with a stiff wind at our backs. Nothing to hold on to.
The ledger did help me, though, to hang on to the details of that time. What I realized in doing it, however, was that maybe we didn’t know quite as much—about anything—as we’d thought we did.
And I was scared.
Early May 1924: What little snow we’d seen over the winter was long gone, and spring had exploded all over Long Island. Tiny leaves clung to every tree’s limbs in uncertain but determined assurance to remain in place no matter what; cherry trees blossomed; tulips crowded around front stoops or carpeted entire lawns, their yellow and red and pink and white heads swaying languidly in the southerly breeze.
We were packing up, this time for a move to France in the hopes that our money would stretch further there and Scott would finally write his next book. Everyone said that Americans were living like kings there, so of course we wanted to go. On our last morning in Great Neck, Ring and Ellis came over to say a final good-bye. We stood outside on the lawn while a small team of workmen loaded our belongings onto a truck. What furniture we’d accumulated would go into storage; the rest of what we owned was now crammed into seventeen trunks of various sizes, half of which contained books.
In addition to this mountain of leather and canvas was one hundred feet of baled copper mesh. A man lifted the roll to load it, and Ring, pointing, said, “What in the world—”
“French mosquitoes have a taste for American blood,” Scott told him. “Ungrateful bastards.”
“And you intend, what, to wrap yourselves in that stuff like chain mail?”
“To screen our windows.”
“They won’t have screens already?”
“Can’t take chances,” Scott said.
“Um, you’ll be living in France,” Ring replied.
“Yes, where all three of us will be able to eat three meals apiece for a total of two dollars a day. I have got to get this damn book written, and I won’t do it if I’m forever beholden to the slicks.”
A brilliant yellow car pulled into the driveway behind the truck, and Esther Murphy, an artist, heiress, and wild woman we’d met through Alec, got out. I was startled to see her wearing snug-fitting trousers, which she’d tucked into a pair of boots.
“What’s this?” she said, waving to us. “Scared you off, did we?”
“No, it’s been grand here, but some of us still work for our living,” Scott said as she approached. “Or are supposed to. We’re getting a place in France for a while.”
“Fewer distractions,” I said. “He’s going to finally get his book done.”
“You must look up my brother. You’ll adore him,” Esther told us. “He’s like me, only far, far sweeter, smarter, richer, and more talented. And I promise you, his wife, Sara, is a dream.”
“Another Sara?” I asked. “It’s like there’s some kind of cosmological attraction—I have two of them already.”
“She’ll be worth any confusion you might suffer, you’ll see.”
With everything packed for transit, we took ourselves to the Plaza for a final night before sailing. I’d hoped for a quiet evening with just the baby and Scott; instead, Biggs and Alec stopped by for drinks, then Bunny and his new wife—Mary Blair, an actress, of all things—brought dinner, then Townsend arrived, then Ludlow, who had the waiters bring fruit crepes and coffee. Scottie spent her last night in America stuffing herself with thick, sweet cream—which, inevitably, didn’t agree with her, so my last night was a mostly sleepless one as I washed the vomit out of her clothes and hair, and mine.
Once we’d gotten on board the ship and were under way, though, all the world as we’d known it ceased to exist. So long, New York. So long, America. I stood at the rail with my squirrel coat wrapped tight around me and Scottie in my arms, and Manhattan receded as if waved away by her miniature hand and my larger one. Now, finally, at long last, the Ferris wheel had stopped turning. I’d ridden by choice—I’m not saying otherwise—but that doesn’t mean I didn’t need to, and want to, get off after a while.
During that week of crossing the Atlantic, I encouraged Scott to spend his time doing whatever he liked. “Go socialize,” I told him over a lunch of poached salmon and boiled potatoes. The water goblets were crystal, the tablecloths white linen as clean and bright as fresh Minnesota snow. I urged him to write, to read—he’d brought the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica and claimed he was going to read the whole thing during transit—and I would indulge myself and my sweet girl, now two and a half years old, with uninterrupted togetherness.
“Go, Daddy,” Scottie said, having piled her potatoes into a pyramid.
“There is a fellow on board I’m hoping to meet, an editor with some French magazine; Fowler told me to look him up.”
Scottie and I saw Scott for meals, but otherwise our days were wondrous explorations of all kinds of things, like the elaborate designs woven into the carpeting, the colorful leaded-glass windowpanes, the filigreed wrought-iron railings, the labyrinthine paneled hallways, the fields of tables and chairs in the dining rooms and solariums and decks. A ship, for Scottie, was a planet.
I drew her pictures of zebras and elephants and giraffes and lions and made up little stories to go along with them. She slept beside me at night, knees and forehead pressed against me, little thumb resting against her little bow lips.
From our Paris hotel, I rang the Murphys’ house and spoke to Sara III, whose cultured voice matched Esther’s promise. “Come tomorrow for cocktails and dinner,” she said. “We’ve assembled some truly lovely people who’ll want to meet you both, I’m certain.”
“We’ve got our two-year-old daughter with us,” I told her. “No nanny as of yet.”
“Oh, bring her! We have three wee ones of our own, and a wonderfully competent nanny. I’ll give you the name of the agency we used, if you like. You’ll need someone who’s got good English, to start, and good references.”
“Thank you! I’m already so glad that Esther put us in touch.”
Still, when we arrived at the arched, gated entry to 3 rue Gounod in Saint-Cloud, an arrondissement that was just outside of Paris proper, my first sight of the house worried me. We’d known that Esther and Gerald Murphy owed their fortunes to their father’s luxury leather-goods company, called Mark Cross. And thanks to shipboard gossip, we now also knew that Gerald’s wife Sara’s family had an ink-manufacturing company in Ohio, which gave Sara a small fortune of her own. Though this house wasn’t a mansion, not in terms of what we’d seen on Long Island, it was three majestic stories of stone and wrought iron, set inside a little walled park. Our new life in France was going to be Great Neck all over again, I thought. There would be too much everything and not enough anything, and then where would that leave us?
There was no time to worry further, as the butler was showing us into the main salon and a handsome woman was saying, “I’m Sara, and you must be the famed miscreants of Manhattan and Long Island. Not you, of course,” she said to Scottie, bending down and shaking Scottie’s hand.
I looked over at Scott and mouthed, Famed miscreants. He winked.
Scottie, ever accustomed to meeting her mama and papa’s friends, wrapped her arms around Sara’s neck. “Mama told me to say bone swohr.”
“And you did it so well,” Sara said.
The house was spacious and luxe, done up in fine furniture and draperies and heavy-framed paintings of great variety, from classical nudes and still lifes to unidentifiable modernist compositions of colorful lines and shapes and spots. Several fashionably dressed people were already mingling, drinks in hand—though no one here wore anything like my Parisian dress from New York. This was not, I quickly knew, that kind of occasion, and I was glad I’d chosen a black and sage-metallic print dress that went on like a robe, with chiffon sleeves and a clasp and tie at the left hip. It covered everything but my calves. A slender man in a slim-cut tuxedo sat at the piano and played cheerful tunes for two dark-haired women who I guessed were in their thirties. The room smelled of money, refined.
My first impression of Sara: capable, classy, beautiful in an understated way. She had a great shock of chestnut-brown hair above a delicate, round face that was porcelain-pale and powder-smooth. She wore a white-trimmed, gray silk-and-chiffon dress, gray high-heeled shoes, and two long strands of white pearls. I guessed she was around my sister Marjorie’s age, not quite forty. She smoothed a curl from Scottie’s cheek, then stood and turned toward the drawing room and announced, “Everyone, meet Scott and Zelda.”
Among everyone that evening were Gerald Murphy (naturally); singer-composer Cole Porter and his divorcee, high-society wife, Linda; painter Pablo Picasso and his wife, ballerina Olga Khokhlova; artist, poet, and novelist Jean Cocteau; and aspiring musician Dick Myers and his wife, Alice Lee; along with a few women who seemed to have been added for color. None of the names meant a thing to us before that night, mostly because either we hadn’t had enough exposure to their work, or because their best work was still ahead of them.
Gerald, square-faced, square-shouldered, tall, with kind eyes, strode over to shake Scott’s hand. “Esther telegraphed, calling you ‘the Golden Boy,’ and said you used to write lyrics at Princeton. Cole here got his start doing the same thing at Yale.”
“It’s true,” Cole said. He’d swung around so that he sat with his back to the keyboard. “‘Bulldog! Bulldog!’ The fight song, don’t you know,” he said in a voice that was as slight as he was. “There’s ten minutes’ work that will bring a lifetime of infamy.”
Scott nodded and said, “‘Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi!’—just the lyrics, though. I’ll venture that you write the tunes, too.”
What followed was the most charming night of lighthearted conversation and music and laughter, uncorrupted by the heavy drinking we had been so accustomed to. It was as if the Murphys not only didn’t behave like crass drunks but weren’t even aware that one could.
Russian-born Olga, who’d danced for Sergei Diaghilev’s incomparable Ballets Russes, intrigued me. She and Pablo met when he’d designed the costumes and set for the ballet Parade, which Jean had helped to write. “Gerald, here, ’as done the art for Sergei as well,” Jean said in melodic French-accented English.
Olga said, “It is, what you say, a club with them.” She sounded unhappy about this.
“Do you still dance for Diaghilev?”
“No, I do five years but give it up when I meet Pablo. I am not so good to be missed.”
“It must have been something, though, dancing with that company,” I said, careful to pronounce my g’s for this group. “I was always hearing about the Ballets Russes in New York. They don’t have ballet, you know, so everyone has to come to Europe to see really great dance or to be a real dancer, isn’t that silly? I love ballet.”
Scott and I both were awed by how cultured all these folks appeared to be, how intact they all were. For a change, Scott listened more than he talked. They spoke of painting and music and dance—their own work as well as other artists’—with knowledge and candor and passion. If they felt rivalries, they expressed the situations as challenges, not jealousies. It wasn’t a fraternity party, or a night at a cabaret, or a gauche demonstration of wealth; my worries eased a little. The Murphys’ three children and the Myerses’ daughter took to Scottie like she was a favorite cousin, while Gerald and Sara felt to me like older siblings I’d somehow forgotten I had.
We lunched with the Murphys the next day, on a sunny stone patio surrounded by ivy-covered walls, and Gerald told us, “Cole’s persuaded us to try the Riviera for the summer—we’re thinking Antibes; you’ll have to come see us there.”
Scott and I glanced at each other, and I could see that he felt the same way I did: we’d passed an important first exam. Could it be that we were saved after all?
After interviewing nannies at the agency Sara suggested, we again hired the one Scott thought best matched his ideal of what a nanny should be. With this new one, Lillian, in place, we went on to Hyeres to find someone who could find us a house.
Lillian, a homely young British woman who’d been raised by nuns, stepped right into her role, showing all the authority and discipline we were paying her for—which made me a little sad. But life was in motion again, and if I wanted anything to turn out to my liking, I had to get involved, scout for houses, set things up—which I couldn’t easily do if I was also trying to give Scottie the attention she deserved.
As with our search four years earlier, Scott and I had to survey all the prospective towns and rentals before making up our minds. We visited Nice, Monte Carlo, Cap d’Antibes, Cannes, and Saint-Raphael; Saint-Raphael turned out to be “it,” for the moment anyway. No longer did I imagine that any place we lived would become permanent. The only question was how long we’d stay.
Saint-Raphael is a quaint and picturesque spot on the Mediterranean coast of France, not far from Cannes. We knew no one there—had chosen it for exactly that reason, so that Scott could settle down and work. It was not a fashionable place in 1924, not in the least. It was serene, though, with a rocky, verdant, slowly crumbling beauty that made me itch to try painting again. Having spoken with Pablo at the dinner party about his art—using Gerald, humorously, as translator—and having seen what Gerald was doing with his painting, too, I was suddenly aware of how much I hadn’t learned yet and how much I wanted to learn, and how nice it would be to dabble some more myself and see what came of it.
A property agent helped us locate Villa Marie, an old but remarkable little compound high up on a hillside above the sea, with garden walls and a big stone house all draped in luscious pink bougainvillea—all this for only seventy-nine dollars a month!
Following Scott’s Post essay about money, I’d managed to get him to tell me what sort of budget we were working from: we had seven thousand dollars, and no debts. We would have the villa, a nanny, a cook, and a housekeeper, all for one-fifty a month. We would buy a car. Scott would stay entirely sober, saving us a considerable amount of money on booze. The seven grand would be more than enough to see us through until the novel changed from an extensively outlined idea to a bound-and-wrapped fact. This was our plan.
We hired the servants, and I turned the villa into a version of home. One of our first orders of business was to explore the social scene, the cafes, the restaurants. As ever, Scott quizzed everyone he met, made copious notes about things, tried all the foods, taste-tested cocktails and offered bartenders his critiques. We liked to go to a little beach casino, where the festive crowd included a bunch of French aviators who were serving at an air station in nearby Frejus. At that time, my French was more or less limited to understanding the phrase “J’aimerais danser avec vous si cela ne derange pas votre mari.” I’d like to dance with you if your husband won’t mind—and replying, “Mais oui, dansons!”
Scott grew a mustache and read Byron and Shelley and Keats, all in preparation, he said, for the task ahead of him. How the mustache would help him write I couldn’t say, and I don’t think he could, either. And although his start was slow—it was early June by now, and he wasn’t writing much and he hadn’t given up alcohol yet—well, maybe that was how things needed to be. Becoming expatriates required a big adjustment.
Scott joined me on our terrace one evening where, after tucking Scottie in, I liked to sit and watch the sky darken and the stars appear, and to study the moon if it was around. The timelessness of nightfall comforted me. I was not quite twenty-four years old, and for all that I’d seen and done, when things quieted down I was still the old me, the Alabama girl who was as likely to swim in a moonlit creek as to dance a night away.
“Hi,” I said as Scott sat down. “I had a letter from Sara Mayfield today—she’s going to marry John Sellers. You remember John, he’s one of the fellas I went with before I knew you. Never seriously, of course; he had a kind of an edge I just never quite warmed to—but I bet that’s long gone now, if Sara’ll have him.”
“I’m ready,” Scott said. “I’m restarting the book tomorrow. I’ve had a look at the draft, I know what needs to change—I can see it all like a vision before me.” He set a pair of goblets and a wine carafe on the iron table between our chairs. “I can’t even describe how marvelous it’s going to be.”
“You’re going to write tomorrow after drinking tonight? Do you think that’s a good idea?”
“Wine’s not booze, dearest. Restaurants serve it with every meal.”
“It is too booze. It’s got alcohol in it, that’s a fact, and you can’t disbelieve a fact.”
“Children drink wine here,” he said.
“Maybe. But it doesn’t prove your case.”
“Are you planning to take over your father’s seat on the court?” he said as he filled both glasses and handed me one.
“See, this is how you get when you know I’m right.”
“This is how you act when you’re determined to sabotage my work.”
The remark surprised me. “That’s right,” I said, “I want you to fail at everything. That’s why I followed you to New York, and Westport, and St. Paul, and Great Neck, and now France—all in, what, four years? Yes, I gave up my family in Montgomery, gave up my house and my friends and everything that was so good about our Great Neck life, in order to follow you halfway across the earth and then sabotage you.”
He squinted at me, scratched his head, bit his thumbnail. “Poor word choice. Sorry. I’ve sampled the wine, maybe a bit too liberally?”
“It’s going to be a damned masterpiece, you know.”
“That’s quite a prediction.”
“Everything I’ve sketched out so far needs to be rewritten, but, Zelda, I’m finally going to live up to my potential with this one. I’m going to surpass my potential. This book’s going to prove that I’m the greatest writer of my age.”
“Is that so?” I said, still annoyed.
“It is so. Greatest of my generation, and the top second-rater of all time.”
Top second-rater. I had to laugh, and just like that my annoyance was gone. I said, “It’s good that you’ve got it all in proper perspective.”
I tried the wine; it had a dark, velvety flavor, like blackberries and vanilla and ancient hillside moss. Bats swooped past above the olive trees, keeping those bloodthirsty mosquitoes at bay. A church bell tolled in the distance. Nearer to us, a dog barked halfheartedly. The scent of lavender floated up the hillside from where it grew among the rocks at the sea’s edge.
Scott said, “This is the place where we make it all happen. I can feel it.”
“Well, I do have to say it’s nice to hear you sound so certain again.”
“It’s nice to feel certain. It’s been a tough couple of years.”
“We did pretty well, though,” I said. “There were some good times.”
“Too many. I’m a wreck. Spongy”—he pinched his stomach, which did have some rolls now—“lazy, and my production is way, way off. Do you realize that for two years—more than two years, in fact—I hardly produced anything? One failed play, half a dozen stories, a few reviews, and a few articles. That was it, before I locked myself up and did those stories over the winter. This novel should’ve been finished a year ago. I’m twenty-seven years old. Time is running out.”
“Running out how?” Stars had appeared now, and the moon was sneaking out from behind the distant mountains.
“I told you, it has to happen before I’m thirty.”
“What has to happen?” I knew he didn’t mean the book getting done; that had to happen before the money ran out.
“Immortality. By thirty, a writer’s vitality is gone, and his unique vision with it. Anything he’s got to say about the world has to be seen through his youth, his unjaded—or less jaded—eyes. Remember that article I wrote, ‘What I Think and Feel at Twenty-five?’ To the me who wrote Paradise, I’m already an old man.”
“You’re forgetting people like George. He’s got lots of sharp thoughts and observations, and he’s forty-two now.”
“He doesn’t write fiction.”
“If you’re so worried, I don’t know what you’re doing out here with me wasting your time. Get to work.”
He stood up, and I thought he was going to do just what I’d said. But he took my hands and pulled me up from my chair.
“What I’m doing out here”—he put his arms around my waist and held me against him—“is reminding myself why it is I asked such a beautiful and impressive woman to follow me to and from—what was that list you made?—all those places, and making sure to thank her sincerely for doing so.”
The first time I lost track of myself, truly lost all trace of me, the girl I’d been, the woman I thought I was becoming, would happen there in Saint-Raphael, while I was wrapped in the benevolent warmth of a Mediterranean summer.
The romantic ending to our night on the terrace was a romantic ending, period. With Scott shut away all day working in what would ordinarily have been Villa Marie’s servant’s cottage, and Lillian in charge of Scottie, and no cooking or housework for me to do—which I did poorly anyway, it’s true—there was a very big hole in my day, every day. A big hole in my life, really, seeing as how this would be our routine indefinitely, and I had no friends at hand. Days longer than whole months crawled by. Though I read some and painted a little, restlessness was like a mosquito always buzzing about my head.
Lillian had firm ideas of what should constitute a toddler’s day. I wrote to Mama,
She makes Scottie eat all her fruits and vegetables and has begun teaching her the alphabet forwards and backwards both. They have morning exercise and afternoon exercise and bath and tea and what Lillian calls “the lesson period.” If I interrupt, Lillian scowls at me. I want to let her go, but Scott says—wisely, I suppose—that with the way I eat and my devil-may-care approach to the day, I’m no kind of teacher for a young child. He says Scottie needs structure and discipline or she’s bound to turn out like me, and we wouldn’t want that, would we?
And Mama wrote back,
In matters regarding the nanny, I would have to agree with Scott. We never did give you enough discipline in your early years, which resulted in some very trying times in your adolescence. I believe the Judge is still tired from raising you. The English are supposed to be superior nannies—though our old Aunt Julia was wonderful in her way—so my advice is that you find productive uses for your time. Write to your sisters; they worry about you, as do Daddy and I. But then, that habit will never leave a parent no matter how the child’s life proceeds.
To pass my time, I reverted to my Westport habits of wandering the surrounding countryside during the cool mornings, and swimming at the beach in the afternoons. Oh, it was heaven to dive into the warm, so-blue waters at our little stretch of beach and swim until I was exhausted. The last of my stubborn post-baby fat disappeared, melting away into the sea, and my skin absorbed the sunshine and begged for more. Now and then I’d persuade Lillian to include beach time in Scottie’s exercise periods, and now and then Scott would break from his work and join us, and we’d get a visitor for an afternoon or an overnight once in a while. Mostly, though, I was on my own.
I’d taken to bringing sketchbook and pencil and books to the beach with me. On a wide reed mat, I would lie in the sunshine like a sleek otter after a swim, and then I’d pass the day drawing anemones, reading James or Kipling or Ford Madox Ford and Colette’s provocative French romance Cheri, which I’d selected to help improve my understanding of the language, but which may have seeded my brain for trouble. I might jot down story ideas or write to my sisters or my friends. Entire days could disappear this way, and did.
The aviators we knew from the casino also began to come to the beach, three in particular, Edouard, Rene, and Bobbe. Their schedules had them training at night. They would arrive in their white, white beach clothes and put their mats down near mine, and we’d talk, them with their iffy English, me with my slowly improving French. They thought Scott and I were so cosmopolitan, so glamorous; they wanted to know everything about New York and literary fame.
The men were, all of them, lean and handsome and inquisitive and good-natured. Edouard Jozan, though, had the keenest mind, the softest manner. On the occasions when we’d seen him in the casino, he and Scott and I had debated things like nationalism and heroism and the question of art versus action.
“To write the book—eh, novel—it is all very good, yes. Mais the young man must demonstrate the thought, not represent it in words. If he does not, there will be no change, no resistance. Anarchy will rule.”
“What gives the acting man the instruction for what to do and how to do it, though?” Scott replied. “Books do! And novels do this best of all. They present the situation and model the hero so that you and your friends can emulate him—or not emulate him, as the case may be, dependent of course upon the story.”
“This result we can achieve by discussion, though.”
“The spoken word is fleeting. That’s why novelists are so essential: we record everything we see, we dissect and analyze and reproduce the essence of what matters, for posterity.”
“Too much time!” Edouard said, shaking his head. “This writing and the reading, it is wasted time, when things could instead get done. Zelda, don’t fear your misguided husband, tell me, what is it you believe?”
“Surely there are times when there’s too much thought and not enough action, and times when there’s too much action without enough thought. What I really think, though,” I continued, “is that somebody here had better take some action and dance with me before I run off and find somebody who will!”
I saw so little of Scott during my endless weeks, and even less of him solo. If he wasn’t writing the book, he was thinking about it, or talking about it, or we were with Scottie or a friend, or we were out. In bed at night, he put off my affections: “I’m already exhausted. Making love will ruin me, Zelda. The energy I’d spend, well, I have to keep it stored and waiting for the book.”
Edouard was a year older than me, and something in the way he listened so carefully made me think he valued me as more than just an amusing American. As June rolled into July, he began to show up to the beach without Rene and Bobbe. He’d put his mat right beside mine and then ask me to tell him about the South, and my childhood. “Tell everything, s’il vous plait; your voice, it is my delight.”
I had already sensed the attraction between us—it was apparent from the first time we met—but that sort of attraction was so usual that it didn’t rate serious attention, let alone concern. When the attraction turned into something that smelled and tasted like substance, though, that was when things got complicated.
A married woman will first deny to herself that anything improper is going on. She’ll make excuses for her eagerness to see the man in question. She likes his sharp mind, for example, or his fresh views or the stories he tells about his experiences, which are so different from her own. She’ll dismiss as mere amusement her mind’s tendency to wonder where he is and what he’s doing and whether he’s thinking of her. She might even avoid the fella for a day or two, to test herself: if she doesn’t see him and she feels fine about that, she’ll know there’s no cause for concern. The test is false though, too, because she’s lying to herself to make sure she passes the test, which will then justify her choice to see him again, often.
Imagine languorous days with no responsibilities. Loneliness and Dismay are your regular companions, but they’re muted by soft sand, a sun-filled sky, and warm blue water, the sight and feel of which makes you drunk. Imagine your body is youthful, firm, a pleasure to live inside of—and you’re wise enough already to know that this is fleeting, this body and its condition. It won’t last. None of it will last. And because it won’t, you allow the beautiful person who seeks you out to become as much a part of your day, a part of this place, as the poppies that grow beside the rocky paths you follow to get here. You allow affections to develop and grow as if they, too, are poppies. You let it happen because all of it is illusory anyway, that’s how it feels, and that’s what you believe.
This lovely illusion, though, this romantic fantasy, will begin to seem real if given a chance, every bit as surely as delusions are real to a person suffering a breakdown.
A week into July, I was sure I’d fallen in love.
At the open-air, beachfront cafe, Scott sat at the table across from me. Gerald was to my left, Sara to his left. The children ran about the beach, with Lillian and the Murphy children’s nanny keeping watch. Lillian had dressed Scottie in a celery-colored jumper and a little straw hat; the hat hung down her back by its ribbons; the ribbon’s ends blew about in the breeze. She and little Patrick, who was her same age almost to the day, held hands, even while running. She has her little beach-love, too, I thought.
“How do you feel about Venice, Zelda?”
“She’s been terribly distracted lately,” Scott said.
If that’s not the pot calling the kettle black …
Gerald repeated, “We’re contemplating a trip to Venice. Cole’s doing a tremendous gala of some sort in this extravagant villa he and Linda found. Extravagant palace, rather. Forgive me for being gauche enough to say this, but they’re paying four thousand a month in American dollars for the place. I find it hard to support that behavior.”
“You know Linda’s well-off,” Sara told Scott and me. “Her first husband had to compensate her substantially when they divorced. But Cole came into a great deal of money of his own last year, and he seems determined to use it like water.”
Gerald said, “His grandfather was J. O. Cole, of Indiana—whose money was in mining and timber. Well, it was in speculation, Cole says. Calls him ‘the richest man in Indiana!’ in that way he has, you know.”
Scott said, “How rich is rich?”
“He didn’t name a figure, and I didn’t ask, of course, but how’s this: he’s hired Sergei Diaghilev and the entire Ballets Russes for entertainment.”
The word ballet finally centered me on the discussion. “What’s this about Diaghilev?”
Sara said, “We’ve all been close to Sergei for years; he’s tireless, and so talented. Last year he put on Gerald and Cole’s production, Within the Quota. Gerald did all the costume and set designs. It was a remarkable experience.”
“I wish we’d seen it. I used to dance,” I said.
“The man hired an entire ballet company to perform at a party?” Scott said. “The whole company?”
I thought we’d seen enough displays of wealth on Long Island that Scott would take another one in stride. Apparently not. This was, for me, yet another sign of why Edouard would be so much better for me than Scott had become. Edouard wouldn’t sit there gaping at the idea of what Cole was doing. Edouard wouldn’t care, except to express pleasure at the idea of this unusual presentation of fine performance art. “For the expression of life’s truest agonies and beauty,” he’d said to me, “nothing can exceed the dance.”
Everything Scott said rankled; everything Edouard said reigned. I was a woman possessed.
Gerald was frowning at Scott. “The whole company, yes.”
“His place there is that big, really?”
“He says it’s quite large.”
“Four thousand, you say?”
“Scott,” I said, “quit bothering Gerald with all that.”
“I’m just curious. In the book, see, I’m trying to work out the details about this wealthy character—”
“Let’s stay on Gerald’s subject, all right?”
Scott reached for one of Sara’s hands and one of Gerald’s. “Forgive me. My enthusiasm and curiosity sometimes overcome my good sense.”
“Not a bit,” Gerald said. “At any rate, we’re not sure whether we should go. We’ve got so much to do, what with the renovations to the new villa starting; I don’t feel we can get away.”
I said, “For a ballet performance like this? Of course you can!”
“You say you danced?” Gerald asked.
“She was first-rate,” Scott said. “In fact, the first time I laid eyes on her, she was performing a ballet solo.”
His reminder of that long-ago night, the romance of it, the treasure it had once been in my memory, was a thin, sharp knife’s thrust to the gut—but it was over so quickly that I could almost decide it hadn’t happened at all. Scott hadn’t seen it; Sara and Gerald couldn’t tell.
“You could take Zelda,” Gerald told his wife.
“Now there’s a thought!” Sara replied brightly. “Should we plan on it?”
“Why not?” I said.
The next morning, Scott sulked about not being invited. “I want to see Venice again. I didn’t fully appreciate it the first time. All that history!—you don’t even care about that; you’re only going for the party.”
“I do care, and I’m going for the performance, and you have a book to finish.”
“I think I’ll find Dos Passos and see if he’s interested in going to Monte Carlo.”
“Book,” I said.
“Or Dick Myers.”
“A few days won’t ruin me.”
“A few days of drinking and gambling—not the best idea.”
“I deserve some time off. You’re not the only one who deserves to have fun. In fact, you don’t actually deserve it at all; what have you been doing all summer except flirting with those flyboys and lying in the sun?”
I said nothing.
“You should try living my life. Locked away all day, sweating blood over how to make this damned plot work. You should try being the one who’s supporting a wife and child and household—that damn cook is cheating us blind, you know. Did you see the grocery bill?”
I left the table.
“Where are you going?”
“For a swim. I wouldn’t want to disappoint you.”
The morning was cloudy, the water cool. I wanted it colder, wanted it to shock my senses, help me understand what was happening, help me know what to do.
I hadn’t confessed my feelings to Edouard—though I was certain he knew them. Knew them and returned them; why else was he seeing me alone, edging his mat closer to mine, lying there beside me talking of passion and life and love? What I was less sure of was what might happen next. How far was I willing to go?
Lying alongside Edouard on the beach that afternoon, I could smell his warm, musky skin, so exotic to me after five years of having only Scott so naked and near. With our eyes closed to the sun, were he and I both imagining the same things? I hoped so. Did he think of kissing my mouth, of stroking my belly, of rolling onto me, insistent with desire? I couldn’t seem to clear these questions from my mind.
For long, agonizing minutes, I lay rigid with indecision, my breath shallow, my heart racing. When I glanced at Edouard, he seemed a bronzed god to me, and the image overwhelmed my senses. “I’m going over to la voiture de bain,” I said. “Do you want to join me?”
The little wheeled, wooden building—a “bathing machine,” in English—had been parked permanently and was now used sometimes by tourists who needed to change into and out of their bathing suits. But few tourists came to the Antibes beaches in summer back then, and none were there that day. We would be uninterrupted and unobserved.
Edouard opened his eyes, then sat up and cocked his head slightly. His irises were so dark they looked almost black. “Yes.”
“I wouldn’t have asked,” Edouard began, when we were inside the dim, cool shelter. It smelled of salt and cedar and talc.
“No. I know that. You’re an honorable man.”
“Not so honorable; I think of you … I think of this.” He kissed me gently, a testing kiss.
“And more?” I whispered.
He pressed me against the wall, the whole length of his body against mine. “So much more.”
We didn’t stay in there long, for the simple reason that the temptation to do so was so strong. While we were there, though, I reveled in every sensation his lips and hands and thighs provoked. He wanted me. I wanted him, or at least I wanted that, and for me at the time it was all one and the same.
“I could leave him, you know.”
“For life as an aviator’s wife? It would not be what you’ve had.”
We reenacted the scene a few more times over the next week or so—not only in the voiture but also outside the casino after dark once, while Scott was inside and oblivious. Those moments with Edouard felt perfectly endless, their own vivid, multicolored dream of a world in which I was no longer Mrs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, and I wasn’t Mrs. Edouard Jozan, either; I was becoming Zelda Sayre again. But not the popular Montgomery belle, swept away by a dashing young man who flew his plane in curling loops above my house—no. I was a strange new Zelda Sayre released from all constrictions, drunk with the timeless rhythms of sea and sun and passion, more daring and oblivious to danger than I’d ever been before.
An illusion, as I said.
Inside that illusion was a bachelor’s small apartment, its shades closed to the midday heat. Inside that apartment was a man, naked atop cool sheets on a low bed, his hand extended in welcome.
I couldn’t wait any longer for resolution.
Scottie was fast asleep. Lillian was in her room—probably doing another set of knee-bends while reading George du Maurier’s titillating Trilby. The cook and maid had gone for the day.
“Join me on the terrace?” I asked Scott, who sat at a little table in the room we called the library, his hair sticking out in all directions, books and papers spread out in front of him. A single gaslight lit the table; the rest of the room was dark. A glass filled with ice and some clear liquid sat sweating near Scott’s left elbow.
He finished whatever he was writing, than glanced up at me. “I’m working. It’s too warm in the cottage tonight.”
“How long will you be?”
“I’ve just had an idea about getting Tom and Myrtle to the Plaza—and a dog, I think. I’m arranging my thoughts, so I’ll be a while yet. I won’t wake you.” He began to write again.
“Now would be better.”
“What would be better now?” he asked without looking up.
“Scott. I need to talk to you.”
He set down his pencil and looked up at me. “If this is about Venice, never mind. Just go on, have fun, see if you can charm Diaghilev a little; I have some thoughts about a future production that could involve the ballet.
“Picture this,” he went on, leaning back in his chair. “Our heroine is a showgirl, a shimmy dancer from a rotten upbringing who always yearned to be a ballerina, and—”
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” I said, shaking my head. “No more plays or books or schemes. I want to get divorced.”
Scott stared at me while my words displaced the story he’d been framing. “What did you say? I couldn’t have heard you right.”
“No, you did.”
Panic flickered in his eyes. “What have you been drinking?”
“Ginger ale. Come out to the terrace.”
I walked away, giving him no choice except to follow me outside.
“What is this?” he asked when we were outside with the doors closed behind us. We usually weren’t shy about airing our disputes in front of the servants. This time, however, I didn’t want Lillian to hear.
I went and stood at the rail, facing the sea below. Not until I opened my mouth to speak did I know what I intended to say.
“It was all a mistake. We shouldn’t have gotten married in the first place. I should have waited to see how things might go. It just … it just seemed like we were embarking on a great adventure, but that adventure turned into a party we couldn’t resist, a five-year-long party, everybody in sparkling gowns and tuxedos with satin lapels, bottomless glasses of champagne … But that’s not a marriage, that’s not a way to live. Real life has to happen sometime.”
“Since when did you want a so-called ‘real life’? You’ve been living the life of a princess and loving every minute. Shoes, gowns, furs, this”—he swept his arm to indicate the house, the hills, the view—“who has a better life than you?”
“I want a husband who cares about me more than anything else, except his children maybe. With you, it’s always the next story, play, novel, movie, the unending pursuit of some stupid critic’s approval, an obsession over some magical number of copies sold, a terrible need for assurance that you’re the finest living writer on the planet and every thinking man will worship your books forever!”
Scott stared at me, mouth open. Then, “The pursuit of meaning!” he yelled. “The pursuit of excellence! That’s what I’m about. These things aren’t about me at all. You—do you hear yourself? Do you hear how selfish you are? You’re the one who wants to be worshipped.”
I shook my head. “Not worshipped, just loved. I’m alone all the time. With you, I have nothing in my life.” In the back of my throat trailed the words I am nothing in my life.… These I swallowed, and immediately I felt nauseated.
“Oh, and some other husband, some worthy man, he’d spend his entire day with only you, showering you with attention, is that it? I guess he’d have to be a wealthy man—a captain of industry, maybe—no, the captain’s playboy son. A prince! That’d be perfect for you, princess, that’s the man you need.”
“Not at all,” I said in a calm, low voice, hoping to keep the nausea at bay. “Edouard is only an army officer, but what counts is he prizes me above everything. And he’s not striving all the time. He’s living a good, regular life.”
“Jozan?” Scott was incredulous. “You’re in love with Edouard Jozan? That’s what this is about?”
“Yes? You don’t even deny it?”
“No, of course not. Why would I? I’ve fallen in love.”
This silenced him for a moment, because for all that he might argue that I was selfish, he believed, as I did, that we are helpless to resist or influence what our hearts are bound to do.
“You can’t do this to me now, Zelda. You can’t leave. For Christ’s sake, have you no mercy at all? I’m trying to write a book—the most important book of my life!” He began to pace the terrace. “How can you … how can you be so disloyal? This is not possible. I love you, for God’s sake, of course I do. I love you so much that I can’t even see straight sometimes, can’t breathe. I’m so afraid that something might happen to you, or to Scottie. Why do you think I work so hard?”
“I hear what you say, but I also see what you do—and don’t do.”
“Don’t do? What else can I possibly do? I started with nothing, Zelda, and look at what I’ve given you!”
“And look at how you’ve told your flapper stories for so long now that you’ve got me confused with all those selfish girls you invented! I agreed to marry you before you had one material thing to offer me.”
His mouth opened, then closed, and he blinked a few times, fast. “I—that’s true. So why did you marry me, then? Was it for the novelty? Was it … was it rebellion against your father? Did you ever really love me, or was it a lie all along?”
“No! God, of course I did. I do. It’s different now, though. We never … Manhattan was supposed to be a honeymoon, and then sure, things happened that we didn’t expect, and we had all these doors opening to us.… Even with the baby, we just couldn’t resist. Parties and work, those seem like your priorities.” I drew a deep breath, then let it out. “We’re bad for each other, Scott. Mama and Tilde were right in saying we’d wear each other out.”
His hands gripped the rail, knuckles pale and knobby in the gray moonlight. I thought of the calluses on his right hand, formed from years of holding a pencil, and hated them.
“I try so hard,” Scott said in a low, strangled voice. “I want to give you and Scottie the best of everything. I want to succeed in whatever I do, so that I make you proud. I want people to see us and say, ‘Those Fitzgeralds have it all figured out. Who wouldn’t want to be them?’ It’s a juggler’s act, I know—but I’ve been a pretty good juggler up to now. I thought I’d been.”
He had been a pretty good juggler. Even there in the midst of my belief that there was nothing worth salvaging, I could feel the truth of his words. Our circus act, begun in the Biltmore Hotel four years earlier, had mostly been a success.
To admit as much, though, would be to undermine my argument. He would take the admission and twist it around in some way that would make him the victim and me the villain. I couldn’t say what I knew: that I was the villain, too.
After a quiet minute, he went on, “Some days, though … I don’t know if you understand how it’s all I can do to face myself in the mirror, let alone sit at my desk and spin words into gold. There are days when I’m certain that everyone loathes me, that I’ll never write another word worth a damn, let alone a dollar. There are times when I see you, you with your confidence and your fearlessness and your discipline and your beauty, and I’m terrified that it might all end up—well, like this.”
I had no words.
“Please, Zelda, give me another chance.”
I thought of Edouard, of my chance.
“You always said our love was everything to you, that you couldn’t imagine life without me, wouldn’t want it, would rather die. If you love me even a little—”
“Let me think about it,” I said, knowing that if I let him continue, I might be lost forever.
When I met Scott, the first thing I knew about him, beyond his physical appearance, was that he was an army officer. Then I learned that he was a Yankee, and a writer. Initially, the first two matters seemed capable of sinking us. The third one, his being a writer, was the one I put all my faith in, as he’d done, too—and yet that third matter was the solid center of our crumbling world, not its beating heart but a cannonball.
Scott was the first serious writer I’d ever met. By 1924, though, I knew a bunch of them. Bunny and the Princeton boys—all of them serious if not all successful; Edna Millay, George Nathan, Shane Leslie, Dorothy Parker, Sinclair Lewis, Don Stewart, Sherwood Anderson, Tom Boyd, Peggy Boyd, Anita Loos, Carl Van Vechten, Ring Lardner, John Dos Passos, Archie MacLeish, Jean Cocteau, and of course my own beloved Sara Haardt. I’d become a writer myself, somewhat.
There are so many ways to be a writer, but I felt I understood writers in general, inasmuch as I think writers can be understood. We all have something to say, and we require the written word—as opposed to musical instruments, or paint and canvas, or clay, or marble, or what have you—to say it. Not all writers want to be profound (though an awful lot of them do); some want to entertain, some want to inform; some are trying to provoke the most basic, universal feelings using a minimum of words—I think of Emily Dickinson—to demonstrate how it is to be human in our crazy world today.
Yet, of all the writers I’ve heard of or met or come to know (the list has grown even longer since ’24), I’ve never met another who’s anything like Scott.
At the age when I was perfecting my cartwheels and learning to skate backward and stealing my brother’s cigarettes to see what smoking was all about, Scott was writing one-act plays. He was writing poems and lyrics. Not long after that, his plays were full three-act structures with stage direction included. He wrote detective stories and adventure stories and dramatic stories. His plays began to be produced. He wrote more of everything, and then he wrote his novel, and then he wrote it again, and then again, and now he’s written a play for
, and a musical revue, and all kinds of movie scenarios and scripts, and so many stories I’ve lost track of them all. When he’s not writing fiction, he’s writing essays and articles and book reviews and letters. He’s making notes and keeping ledgers where he tracks all of his stuff and my work, too.
Oh—I’d forgotten this, until just now:
We were newly married—still staying at the Commodore, I think—and had been out so late that we decided to go over to the East River to watch the sun rise. We were dressed up, still, from having been to a party at the apartment of a friend of one of George’s friends—no one we knew, but we wouldn’t think of refusing an invitation, and everyone there seemed to know us.
We walked from the host’s East Side apartment, somewhere around Seventieth, I guess it was, over to the riverfront in the gray-washed predawn, still feeling tight and gay, me teetering now and then in heels higher than I was accustomed to. I wore Scott’s jacket, and he wore my beaded hat.
The smell of the East River at dawn is dank and oily—though nothing so bad as Venice in August—and you get the sense that fish are decomposing all around you, just out of sight. Still, we found an empty stoop and sat there holding hands, oblivious. We sighed happily about the wonderfulness of being young and in love, of being in such demand simply because Scott had gotten some thoughts in his head and had written them down.
“You’d think anyone could do it,” he said. “Writing sounds so easy. Even
think it sounds easy, and I’ve got a hundred and twenty-two rejections that clearly prove it’s otherwise.”
“How do you know if you’re a writer, though? I mean, I’ve had thoughts and written them down—”
“Your diary, you mean—”
“My diary, yes. And I write my weight in letters every month, it seems. And I’ve tried a few story ideas like I told you, but I’m bad at it—”
“You’ll get better.”
“Maybe. What I’m sayin’, though, is I never thought, ‘I’m a writer.’ But you did.
did you? How did you know?”
“It was easy enough to tell: if I wasn’t writing, I didn’t exist.”
So that night at Villa Marie, after I told Scott that I needed some time to think, I went inside for a pillow and some blankets and then made myself a bed on a chaise in the garden. There, on that July night beneath the lemon trees, I had a sort of conversation with myself about right and real, and wishes and truth.
Edouard was a good, dear man. We had chemistry, yes, and we had those outside-of-time Mediterranean days, and we had the excitement of doing something unusual and fraught, which itself appealed to people like us—risk-takers, you know. What else did we have, though? My French was still rudimentary and his English only a little better; when I thought it through, I recognized that our communications were quite basic. And while plenty of people had gotten married with even less in common, I’d already determined that such a marriage wasn’t for me.
Here’s what I figured: Edouard was less a man than a symbol for me, a symbol of my yearning for something I couldn’t yet name. If I’d heard of Amelia Earhart at the time, I might have been as willing to follow her lead as I was Edouard’s.
I wasn’t in love with him, not really. Edouard was a symbol. Edouard was a symptom. Scott, for all his shortcomings, owned my heart.
By the time I went inside, the dew had settled; I tracked into the bedroom with wet feet. Scott was sitting up in bed. The end of his cigarette glowed.
I stripped off my damp clothes, then took the cigarette and put it aside.
“No more beach, no lunches, you won’t go anyplace without me while he’s here.”
Neither of us said another word for the rest of that night—a remarkable thing by itself. That night, we kept quiet so that our truth could be heard, and seen, and felt, in the ways we touched each other’s skin, the ways we sighed or gasped, our tentative glances, the press of my forehead to his.
When I didn’t return to the beach for a week, nor send a note to Edouard, nor place a call, he stopped looking for me there. At the casino, he asked after “the Fitzgeralds” and got nothing more than a shrug. All this Scott learned from Rene, who’d said he was loath to reveal anything at all to Scott, but out of respect for the friendship they’d developed during those months, he thought it only right that Scott know what had almost happened.
Scott told me, “Rene says Jozan is heartbroken and confused and may never get over you.”
“Perhaps. Though if he doesn’t, I won’t be surprised. I said to Rene, ‘Tell your friend that he’s now a member of a very prestigious club.’”
October: Scott found me in the Villa Marie garden taking in the inspiring Mediterranean view for what would be one of the last times that year. “Here.” He handed me a piece of paper that read,
High Bouncing Lover
Among Ash Heaps and Millionaires
Trimalchio of West Egg
Gold Hatted Gatsby
On the Road to West Egg
Under the Red White and Blue
The Great Gatsby
Our lease would end when the month did, and then we’d migrate elsewhere the way the birds and our friends were all doing—most to Paris, some to Venice, or London, or Berlin. I’d persuaded Scott to tour Rome and Capri so that I could see a lot of the art and some of the artists that I’d been hearing about from the Murphys during our visits with them. After the tour, we’d get a place in Paris and—we reassured each other—be even more responsible about the partying and drinking and our marriage than we’d been here.
In Paris, we’d await and then celebrate his third novel’s publication; he was more certain than ever that he’d accomplished everything he’d set out to do with this book, and at the same time he was terrified that he hadn’t.
“What do you think?” he asked now. “I’m torn. I’ve been leaning toward one of the Trimalchio titles, but Max thinks the association’s too obscure. I could make more of it in the book, I suppose—but I hate the thought of spoon-feeding my readers. God, I do too much of that for the slicks as it is. Still, Trimalchio of West Egg is a great title; it might be worth Nick making a little narrative sidestep in order to share the background.”
This being my third go-round with Scott and his novels in prepublication madness, I knew there was no shortcut out of the anxiety; we both had to endure it the way you endure the headache, nausea, and malaise of a hangover.
As was now our tradition, I’d read his draft—had just finished the new one, in fact—and had been gathering my thoughts while I sat there. “Before we get into titles,” I told him, “I have to say that there’s something still kinda blurry about Gatsby. I can see Tom and Daisy, and Myrtle’s poor husband! And even Nick is clear enough.… Maybe it’s that Gatsby’s history is murky. Wouldn’t people know something about him? Or think they did?”
Scott crossed his arms. “These people don’t care about how he made his money, they only care that he’s rich and throws insanely great parties.”
“You wanted my opinion.”
“I did, I know.” He uncrossed his arms. “Thank you.”
“For titles, I like The Great Gatsby.”
“You do?” He looked disappointed. “Really?”
“That’s the one Max wants, too.”
“Remember when you revised the end of Beautiful and Damned?”
Scott sighed. “I’m too close to the work, that’s what you’re saying.”
“That’s what I’m saying. So listen, the Murphys are just about to pack up and head back to Saint-Cloud. While you’re stewing over edits and titles and such, let’s take Scottie over to see Patrick—she’s been asking forever—and we can celebrate her birthday a little early. I was thinking I’d make a circus set for her—like paper dolls but the dolls will be animals. Camels, horses, tigers, elephants, lions, and a mistress of ceremonies who looks just like her. Maybe I’ll add a unicorn, too.”
“That all sounds marvelous, and I’m sure you’ll do a bang-up job of it. I was thinking it might also be nice to give her a brother.”
“Were you, now? All on your own?”
“With some help from the stork, of course.”
“The stork’s going to need more than seven weeks, you know.”
He said, “Hm. I suppose that’s right.”
“But I guess we can confer with the stork. Place the order, you might say.”
“Are you ready for that?” he asked.
“I believe I am.”
I rested my head against his shoulder and we watched the sun set, just like you might see in the movies. We’d worked hard to create this lovely, new domestic bliss, and before Gatsby’s publication, right up until the book was printed and put into the hands of both the reading and the reviewing public, it looked as if we might actually succeed.
Wait: if I leave it at that, it’ll sound like the novel’s disappointing performance is to blame for the disaster we made of our lives, and that’s not really so. Ernest Hemingway is to blame.
Sara Murphy looked sad as we all filed into the dining room for the season’s final Dinner-Flowers-Gala, as she called these more formal events. The men were in tails, the women in slim, ankle-length summer gowns in all the colors of a Mediterranean summer. Sara stood next to her chair and sighed. “One final gathering—”
“Before the next one.” Gerald kissed her forehead and took his seat at the opposite end of the table.
Present in this, their rented Antibes home, were Scott and me; Dick and Alice Lee; Pablo without Olga—they were on the outs; Pauline Pfeiffer, a friend of Sara’s who worked as a writer for Vogue magazine; Dottie Parker; and Linda without Cole, who, she said, was “traveling.” She said it like that, with quotation marks in her voice; no one asked her what she meant.
The weather had been perfect for us all week: clear skies, hot afternoons, the sea still warm enough for the children to spend all day splashing and playing. We’d toured the grounds and house that were slowly becoming the grand estate that the Murphys would name Villa America. In the evenings, the adults gathered for charades and bridge and a game Scott invented, whereby I sat at the piano while he named a theme, and then each of us had to ad-lib a story and sing it to one of the half dozen tunes I could play by heart. Every time I opened the keyboard, I apologized in advance: “Y’all will forgive me for not being Cole.”
“And forgive me as well,” Scott would say, but I knew he preferred it this way. Without Cole, the spotlight was all his.
Gerald’s invented cocktails were a real help with our game, which Linda named “The Terribly Witty Ditties.” Gerald poured the drinks while Scott exhorted everyone to come up with ever-more-creative rhymes. Then, when our imaginations could no longer meet the challenge, Scott would single out one or another of the group for Twenty Questions, which, depending on how much he’d had to drink, might go on well past twenty and into the night. His subjects always cooperated; who doesn’t love being found unendingly interesting?
Now Sara sat down at the table across from Gerald, saying, “It might be months before we see these friends again.”
At her right, Dick Myers reached over to Scott next to him and thumped him on the back. “One can hope.”
“Have I exhausted your talents?” Scott asked.
“Prob’ly their patience,” I said fondly.
“When he has exhausted yours,” Pablo told me in heavily accented English, “you must come to mi estudio en Paris, si? I will exhaust you all about art.”
Sara put her hand on mine. “You must. And visit Gerald’s studio, too. But see Rome’s art first, then bring them every question that comes to mind. You won’t find better mentors than this pair.”
It was while standing in front of the Temple of Vesta that I first had the pain, a funny twinge low in my pelvis, near my right hip. Women get pains of this sort often enough that I paid it little mind, and it dutifully disappeared—for a while. Later that night it was back, and worse. Then it faded and was gone for a few days, only to return again.
The discomfort went on this way for five weeks. Sometimes I was cranky but functional, and we’d go out. We met up with some of the cast and crew of Ben-Hur during this time—who knows how Scott met them, to start? We were always being introduced to someone who knew someone whose husband was or brother was or great old friend was connected to someone or something we simply had to see. This happened so often that I’d stopped paying attention to the connections and concerned myself only with the results.
Too often, I spent half the day in bed clutching a water bottle to my hips like a lover. If you’re thinking pregnancy was the culprit, well, you can join me in being wrong about that. One night in December, just as Scott led Scottie in to read a book with me in bed, he found me doubled over and in so much pain that I was wishing I could trade that pain for labor, for amputation, for anything that would be better than the aching, burning ball in my gut. Everything around me—my whole field of vision—seemed edged in white. “Take her and call a doctor,” I gasped.
When Scott scooped her up by her middle, Scottie didn’t protest being whisked away. She thought he’d begun a game. “Bye, Mama!” she called. I could hear her laughing as Scott carried her off. “Make me fly, Papa, I want to fly!”
The Italian doctor who arrived an hour later spoke no English and had French about on par with mine. He looked in my mouth and nose and eyes, he put his stethoscope on my belly, he pressed and prodded, asking, “Ici? Ici?” while I gritted my teeth and either flinched or didn’t flinch in response. When he was done, his expression was grave, his words sober as he pronounced his conclusion, in French.
Scott, on the other side of the bed, looked panicked. “What’s he saying?”
I told the doctor, “Yes. Oui. Fine, I don’t care what you need to do, just make it stop.”
“L’hopital Murphy,” he told Scott, as he took a needle and syringe from his bag. “Tout de suite. Comprenez-vous?”
“Zelda, for God’s sake, what’s he saying? What about the Murphys?”
I winced when the needle pierced my hip, a small but welcome pain that, within moments, delivered some miraculous something that allowed me to unclench my teeth enough to translate. “He thinks there’s probably a water ball on my tube, which will require a knife to resolve. They have good knives at Murphy Hospital; we should go there now.”
“A what?” Scott’s eyes were wild as a scared horse’s.
“A cyst,” I said, translating further as the drug continued to dull the pain. The white edges began to recede from my vision. “On my ovary, I think.” The pain faded, and faded, and I could breathe again.
Optimistically I asked the doctor, “Mais je me sens mieux. Est-ce que l’hopital est necessaire?” which was supposed to mean I’m feeling better now; do I really need to go to the hospital?
The doctor scowled and unleashed a string of Italian curses—or so it sounded to me. Then he said in French, “L’hopital ou la mort.” Go, or die.
The idea of submitting to surgery was only slightly less terrifying and undesirable than death, so I went.
Afterward, the pain wasn’t gone so much as it was altered and muted. Recovering, first in the hospital and then in our hotel, I felt altered and muted. To a person who has hardly been sick in her life, sudden illness feels like a betrayal.
The doctor hadn’t been able to assure us—not in Italian or French or English—that I would still be able to get pregnant now that one ovary was gone. When I translated this for Scott, he looked at me accusingly and asked the doctor, “Could medications for ‘feminine troubles’ have caused the problem?”
I knew what Scott was talking about, even if the doctor didn’t.
“Yes … to regulate cycles, and so forth.”
The doctor looked to me for translation. “C’est rien,” I said. “Il ne sait pas ce qu’il dit. Il est tout simplement inquiet.” Never mind. He doesn’t know what he’s saying, he’s just worried.
“Ce medicament permettra de remedier a la douleur,” the doctor said, nodding, and he wrote down a prescription for pain relief.
I told Scott, “He says no, it wasn’t the pills, and this medication is our best bet.”
For the next few weeks, I was tired and uncomfortable and crabby, and antisocial because of it. What I wanted was home. What I got was an assurance that we’d leave Rome soon for sunny, mild Capri. And in the meantime, Scott had written three new stories, then reviewed the Gatsby proofs, made corrections, and shipped the proofs back to New York. With that done, he grew bored. He went out a lot, then would turn up late in the evening glassy-eyed and pink-cheeked, often cheerful but sometimes belligerent.
“Suppose you can’t get pregnant,” he said on one of those nights. “Suppose that your abortion”—he spat the word—“got rid of my son. When Gatsby makes me an American literary legend, who’s going to carry on my legacy, my name?”
“What, now you’ve decided that a daughter’s not good enough? If you did have a son, I guess you’d name him Francis Scott Fitzgerald the Second—and what would you call him? Junior? Or would you take Scottie’s name away from her and call her Fran or something?”
“You don’t want another child,” he accused.
“You didn’t want what we thought would be the first one.”
He slumped into the chair in the corner of the bedroom. “Women never understand this,” he said, ignoring my point. “To you, every baby is just another child, no matter the sex. Men need sons, it’s built into us, an imperative.”
I knew he was anxious about Gatsby, not to mention inebriated, and enervated by everything we’d been through. But I was tired. I said, “What men need is to grow up.”
Capri is an island, a big, gorgeous, rocky chunk of dirt and limestone that appears to have broken off Italy’s southeast coast and lodged in the Tyrrhenian Sea. Sun-drenched and ancient, the island is an enclave for the young, the strange, the beautiful, the rich—heirs and heiresses to fortunes built wholly by their ambitious forebears and managed by teams of accountants and advisers. The beneficiaries dressed themselves in linen and silk and sat beneath striped awnings talking about polo, and travel, and how hard it was to find good help these days. But in that winter of 1924–25, it was an artists’ haven, too—and I was intent on becoming an artist.
My incision was well healed, and the discomfort I’d suffered those weeks following the surgery had diminished enough for us to carry on as usual. While Scott went out, paying calls to writers like his old hero (and mine) Compton Mackenzie, I took Esther Murphy’s advice to look up a woman named Natalie Barney and, through her, get acquainted with the artists’ community here. Esther hadn’t written much about Natalie, only saying, Just meet her. She knows everyone.
We met up at an outdoor cafe near the marina. Crying gulls skimmed overhead as a dark-eyed young woman seated us. She kept glancing shyly at Natalie but said nothing at all.
“So, Zelda Fitzgerald,” Natalie said when we sat down, “the prettiest half of literature’s Golden Couple. I’m glad to finally meet you.”
She was handsome, tall and thin and dressed in a smartly tailored white shirt above a long split skirt of blue linen. Her lack of makeup surprised me—not that she needed it. The soft lines near her eyes and the glow of her skin gave plenty of character to a face that looked proud of its forty-plus years.
I said, “The feeling’s mutual, I promise, but the truth is, I don’t really know anything about who you are or what you do. Esther insisted I find you here is all.”
“Well, when I’m not here amusing myself and seeing friends, I write poetry and plays and host a salon in the Latin Quarter in Paris.”
“You don’t know salons? A ritual gathering place, a standing date, an open house for any and all artists, writers, thinkers. Do you know T. S. Eliot? Mina Loy, Ezra Pound?”
“Some of the names ring a bell,” I lied; only Eliot’s did, and only because Scott had insisted I read Eliot’s strange “Prufrock” when we were en route to Rome. “You have all these people coming and going in your house all the time?”
She laughed. “It sometimes feels that way, but no, officially it’s only on Saturday evenings. You’ll have to come if you ever get to Paris.”
“We’re going this spring, in fact.”
“Lovely! So now, when you phoned, you said you paint a little; tell me about your art.”
“Well, I do oils, mostly, but I tried watercolor once—it’s too risky, if you ask me. One mistake and that’s it, you have to start all over.”
“Who are your influences?”
“I was afraid you were going to ask me that. I’ll tell you what I told Gerald. Where I grew up, pretty much all the art depicts the Glorious Confederacy. I like nature, so I guess you could say that was my influence, so far.”
“You had lessons?”
“Sorta. Years ago, in the States, I took a class from a crusty old man who thought Michelangelo was modern.”
“Well then, you must study with someone here. And in the meantime, we will expand your knowledge of what the art world has to offer. Tell me where you’ve traveled so far, and I’ll tell you what you’ve seen.”
The next week, Natalie took me to meet a painter friend of hers named Romaine Brooks. Romaine’s studio was a vivid white square of a building hanging on to a cliff, nothing but the sea outside its windows. The natural light inside was incredible. Even more incredible was what I saw in the corner of the studio, what Romaine, who was a whippet-like woman with a serious brow and short, dark hair, had created while existing in that light: a portrait of a woman of such austere beauty that you wanted to pull up a chair and start a conversation with her, find out what was behind those knowing eyes.
I said as much, and Romaine replied, “Ah, yes; well, perhaps if I’d known the answers myself, she would not have left me.”
Natalie nodded toward the portrait. “This was one of her lovers. They’ve just split up.”
The woman in the painting had been Romaine’s lover? Had I actually heard this right? Trying to mask my surprise at hearing her speak so plainly about something Montgomery folks wouldn’t dare even whisper about, I said, “Oh. Gosh. I’m real sorry.”
I didn’t mask it well; the women looked at each other, and then Romaine changed the subject with “Why don’t you describe the painting you’ve done. What subject matter do you like?”
When I repeated the story to Scott in bed that night, he said, “Mackenzie’s got the strangest group of friends, too, I have to say. Fellows dressing in white linen pants and pastel-colored sweaters and talking about … about pillows—about fabrics and silk braid and bric-a-brac. And they’re so clean, you know? Not a shadow of whiskers … sideburns so precise, back of their necks freshly shaved…” He rubbed his own fuzzy one. “In a way, they made me think of Cole—the mannerisms, that is. Except that these couple of guys, well, they just about said outright that they’re fairies.”
“Mackenzie’s married, though, right?”
“He is. In fact, his wife, Faith, was just telling me that she’s related to the Fowlers through some common distant cousin or something. I’ll bet half the people on this island know the Fowlers. Imagine being heir to millions of dollars—and they don’t appreciate what they’ve got, most of them. Wealth is wasted on the rich boys—”
He reached for his notebook and pencil, then repeated the phrase while writing it down. After he put the notebook back on the bedside table, he said, “The rich live an entirely different life from the rest of us, you know. That entitlement—it colors everything. If I didn’t like Ludlow so well, I’d hate the bastard.”
Scott spent the next several days drafting a story he called “The Rich Boy,” then set it aside and returned to his routine of having cocktails with those very same types.
Staying in Capri that winter offered more than mild weather and exposure to people whose money or sexuality puzzled and, to be honest, intrigued us; it brought me Nicola Matthews, a petite, graying, tremendously knowledgeable artist who had the time, interest, and patience to teach me all about form, composition, technique, style—and all about life as she understood it.
In her tiny studio in the hills above the harbor, as I practiced sketching, brushstrokes, paint-mixing, Nicola spoke of a kind of feminism that was about developing women’s natural tendencies to exist in groups with other women and with children, rather than in traditional marriages. Men would be used primarily for procreative sex, but weren’t otherwise needed. She talked about Sappho, and Lesbos, and sexual attraction being variable for some people while inflexible for others.
“Women are formed for love, yes, but also for purpose, and the highest state for a woman—for all humans, in fact—comes when one discovers and then achieves one’s ultimate purpose.”
“Interesting,” I said, thinking what a nice intellectual exercise it all was. I was twenty-four years old, I was still just beginning to find my way; ultimate purpose wasn’t something that concerned me in the least.
We got acquainted with Hemingway the writer before we met Hemingway the man. Bob McAlmon, a scrappy writer and publisher we’d first met when we were in London and saw again in Capri, had done a small printing of Hemingway’s work the year before and mentioned him to Scott. McAlmon said Hemingway was a true talent, “though he’s having a damnably hard time getting the attention of the Post.”
“Is that so?” Scott said. “I’ll have to read him, maybe put in a word. I’ve got a little pull there.”
While we were in Rome again, on our way to Paris from Capri, Scott tracked down copies of two Hemingway collections, with a mind to bring another fledgling under his wing. On an afternoon when Lillian was visiting home and I was entertaining Scottie with an art lesson and then a manicure, he lounged on a settee in our hotel suite and read the first of the books, Three Stories and Ten Poems, a slim, paperbound volume that, honestly, looked like something that had been assembled by a junior high poetry club.
When he finished a short time later, he stood and stretched and then dropped the volume onto the table near me, saying only, “Tell me if you think he’s an up-and-comer.”
Scottie, her fingernails now a glorious bright pink, said, “What’s a nuppincomer?”
“A nuppincomer is a person your papa thinks has talent, but will never be as talented as he is.” I winked at Scott, and he grinned.
I read Hemingway’s in our time, along with McAlmon’s edition of Three Stories and Ten Poems, at Scottie’s bedside a couple of nights later; my girl, being in between homes, wouldn’t go to sleep unless I was in the room with her.
“‘Mitraigliatrice,’” I said, reading the first poem’s title. “That’s a word? Am I going to need a dictionary to get through this?” Scottie blinked at me sleepily, then nodded off while I read the short poem.
Its last line ended with another mouthful word, mitrailleuse, which I supposed was French. Not knowing its meaning, though, meant the poem’s message was lost on me—and a lot of other people, too, I guessed. “Why would you do that?” I muttered, annoyed. “Show-off.”
I went to find Scott, who was sitting on the bedroom floor with magazine pages spread neatly around him—copies of all the stories he’d published since The Beautiful and Damned, from which he was trying to choose ten for a new collection. He saw me and said, “If I can finish ‘The Rich Boy’ and place it quickly, I think it’ll do a lot for the book’s chances.”
“Well, I’ve finished these Ernest Hemingway bits,” I said, setting the books on the bed.
“He sounds a lot like your pal Sherwood, except without the warmth. That prose, it’s clean and precise, sure, but it distracts you just like a cobra does with its dance before it strikes its victim. It’s a sham. There’s no substance there, no heart.”
Scott shook his head. “It’s spare, true. But I think you’re simply not seeing the substance, the character of it—maybe it takes a poet to spot it.”
“Oh, please. The two of you are no more genuine poets than I am. You—and I’ll venture every third writer in Europe nowadays—fancies himself a poet, when all you’re doing is building little towers of words set prettily on a page. His poems aren’t awful, they’re just not profound or impressive. He’s sure not Robert Frost, or Coleridge, or even Blake.”
“Darling … don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re not really the best judge of what makes a skillful or profound poem. You may read a lot, and, yes, you’ve written a little, and you’re a great help with my stories—but you aren’t serious about literature.”
“What, just because I don’t spend my every free minute reading or talking about that book or this author or the context and import and relevance and representational pulchritude of this image in that poem or story?”
Scott burst into laughter. “Okay, fine, you win, if only because you’re so gorgeous when you’re impassioned.” Scott filed the books in his satchel. “This Hemingway fellow’s prose has force, though. You can’t argue with that.”
I said, “Hammers have force, too, but they’re pretty limited in what they’re good for.”
April 10, The Great Gatsby’s publication day, arrived, and we celebrated by having lunch with friends at a cafe in Rome’s Centro Storico. Scottie amused herself in the gravel beneath the table; she pretended to be a dog, and we all fed her tidbits. I tried not to think about what Mama would say if she saw such a thing.
Our being in transit, abroad, meant we were in the dark about the book’s reception back home. It would be a good two weeks before the day’s papers could catch up to us—and who knew which papers would review for certain, let alone when any one review might run? Maybe three days had passed when Scott said, “I can’t stand it. I’m going to cable Max.”
We were out with Scottie at the Trevi Fountain, letting her toss bits of apple into the water to “feed” the carved horses. “It’s too early to know anything, Deo.”
“No, it isn’t, there’s a pattern to these things.”
My stomach had begun to cramp a bit; I shifted Scottie to my other hip in hopes that would help ease the pain. “Not when it’s only been a few days. You’d get just as good information by having some mystic over by the Vatican read your tea leaves.”
“You don’t understand, Zelda, and you never will because your life is nothing but a series of low-risk amusements. Shopping and hair appointments and painting lessons and parties. I seek information about my very existence, my fate, not out of some idle curiosity but because our future depends on this book’s performance. Do you think your surgery was free?”
Scottie threaded the fingers of one hand into my hair and put her head on my shoulder, her thumb in her mouth.
If Scott hadn’t been in such a state, I might’ve debated his view of my life. And I sure would have defended myself against his suggestion that I’d developed a life-threatening condition by choice. He was in a state, though, and that meant nothing would get through to him. So I said, “I’m sorry, I know you’re anxious. Fine, go cable him, we’ll meet you back at the hotel.”
Scott waited ten days for Max’s reply, which would find us in Marseille. In the meantime he ate little and slept less. Every hour was a battle in the warring factions of confidence, hope, and fear. Was he right? Had he synthesized all the past criticism and learned from it and produced an undeniably excellent and satisfying novel? Gatsby was short—around fifty thousand words—but in that brevity was a lot of nuance. He expected the critics to be smart enough to recognize all the subtleties they’d claimed were missing in his previous books. And when they did, their glowing responses would ensure that the public—who could not be so trusted, he said, but who needn’t bother with what was highbrow about it anyway—would flock to the stores with as much enthusiasm as they’d shown for This Side of Paradise.
Scott’s hands were like a palsied old man’s when he opened Max’s telegram. Over his shoulder I read,
SALES SITUATION DOUBTFUL. EXCELLENT REVIEWS
Scott crumpled the telegram and dropped it onto the floor.
Max was truthful on the first count, but he’d overstated the second: when the first packet of reviews from the clippings bureau found us in Lyon, there was praise, but it was mild and, most often, in the nature of “Fitzgerald shows he’s not quite as awful as we feared and may have even grown a bit.”
Even Scott’s hero Henry Mencken, who had privately written Scott a praise-filled letter, in public made the book out to be “a glorified anecdote.” Scott read that review in full silence, and even before I knew the actual substance of it, I saw in Scott’s open mouth, furrowed brow, and wounded eyes a kind of confusion mixed with horrified disbelief. It wasn’t so much what Mencken said, but what he didn’t say, which was anything that amounted to “You must read this book!”
I didn’t speak. After a moment Scott appeared to recover somewhat. Handing me the review, he said, “Scribner’s will be lucky to move even the twenty thousand they’ve printed.”
His outlook would improve a little over the next week, when Max’s and Harold’s letters included two very positive reviews. As we moved on from Lyon to Paris, Scott would write lists and letters that analyzed and strategized and summarized his thoughts on what he’d done wrong and what might yet be done to help the situation.
This was Scott. This is Scott, always looking back to try to figure out how to go forward, where happiness and prosperity must surely await.
Published in April, 2013.