Always be drunk.
That’s it! The great imperative!
In order not to feel Time’s horrible burden weighting your shoulders,
grinding you into the earth,
Get drunk and stay that way.
On wine, poetry, virtue, as you please.
But get drunk.
And if you sometimes happen to awake on the steps of a palace,
in the green grass of a ditch,
in the dismal loneliness of your own room,
with your drunkenness gone or disappearing,
ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock,
ask everything that flees, everything that groans, or rolls, or sings, everything that speaks—
ask what time it is;
and the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock will answer you:
“Time to get drunk!
If you are not to be the martyred slaves of Time,
Get drunk! Stay drunk!
On wine, poetry, or virtue, as you please.”
Paris in 1925 was filling up with American writers and artists and dancers and singers and musicians of all stripes. And in the same way that high school students congregate in cliques and clubs and groups, so were the expatriates sorting themselves into like-minded collections, each with its favored gathering spot in town. Some chose restaurants and cafes on the Right Bank, where the establishments tended to be American in flavor, while others preferred the grittier and truer Paris of the Left Bank’s cabarets and cafes and bars.
Though Scott would prove to be a Right Banker in his heart, we’d spend a great deal of time on the Left, too, depending on which circus train we’d either hitched our wagon to or started pulling ourselves. The streets, the bridges, the glowing pink streetlights, all of it blurred so easily during a night of trailing from one place to another, our excursions an ever-movable cocktail party in search of the best people or the best drink or the best singer or songs.
Our apartment was on the Right Bank in the stately, elegant limestone building 14 rue de Tilsitt, right off the Champs-Elysees. We were on the fifth floor, surrounded by an assortment of wallpaper and furnishings that were “circa Grandmama,” as I told Scott when we saw the place.
If the decor was antiquated and as heavy to the senses as a plateful of friands foie gras, it was at least spacious, with rooms for Scottie and Lillian and a cook, plus a small suite for Scott and me. Most important, it had indoor plumbing, a feature for which I was willing to pay a great deal even under regular circumstances but which would prove a blessing when new health problems began to plague me in the months ahead. That we had a view of the Arc de Triomphe from the corner window impressed my sisters to no end.
Paris was the most remarkable place, even to a girl who’d spent a good deal of time enjoying everything fine and fun about New York City. Amid those cobblestone streets, the smells of roasting nuts and burning coal, the sculpted and carved stone facades that had witnessed Napoleon’s march, the 1870 Siege, the Great War’s miracle on the Marne, you felt that you were part of something, someplace much greater than yourself. While I’d felt something similar in Rome, it seemed more personal in Paris. You didn’t just see the antiquity, the history; you felt it was ongoing. You inhabited it and it inhabited you.
Shortly upon our return, we spent an evening at Gerald and Sara’s Saint-Cloud house. Sara and I enlisted the children to help bake a belated “book-day cake” for Scott, which they smeared with blue icing in more or less the color of Gatsby’s wrapper. Scottie declared that she had to lay the buttercups around the base of the cake, saying, “It’s my daddy’s book-day,” while the Murphy offspring, Honoria and Patrick and Baoth, watched her with the fascination of children who’ve never had the opportunity to be selfish.
We took our cake and tea in the parlor. Now when I gazed at the art hung on the walls here, I understood that Sara admired Renoir’s work for its vivid and delicate humanity. Gerald’s choices—Fernand Leger, Georges Braque, Juan Gris—expressed his modern taste and vision. I recognized the deliberation that had gone into each artist’s choices for the work. What was the focus? Where was the light source? How much black in the mix for that little girl’s hair? How much yellow in that sky?
In this setting, and maybe also owing to his depression, Scott was modest and subdued about the book. This was still early in our friendship with the Murphys, and Scott looked up to Gerald and Sara both; he wanted always to impress them and to win their high regard. The Murphys had this effect on everyone who knew them. We all endeavored to be our best selves because they were so excellent and genuine.
Our routine quickly became dominated by social gatherings with the people we knew already: we saw the Murphys and Porters and Myerses, we saw Dos Passos and Sherwood and met Ezra Pound. And just like in New York, then St. Paul, then Great Neck, our social circle expanded rapidly with every party; there were always new people to meet.
There would be no easing into the scene—when did Scott and I ever ease into anything? Even had I wanted to slow things down, Scott wanted to be everywhere with everyone, jovially encouraging his rise to the top of American letters. Every day had double the hours of days elsewhere in the world, yet at the same time I was half as aware of how I used all those hours—as if the Parisian air that heightened my other senses muddled my sense of time.
At first, my days were busy with lunch dates and shopping forays, and craft-making with Scottie, who’d become fascinated with beads. Nights were an endless succession of bars and cabarets, liquor and music and dancing. I came to adore a colored woman with vivid dyed-red hair whose name was Ada “Bricktop” Smith, after meeting her at one of Cole’s parties, where she’d been hired to teach us all the Black Bottom—which was now being called the Charleston.
She’d lined us up and announced the dance. “I learned this one when I was a girl,” I said, waving my arm in the air like the boisterous student I’d been.
Ada looked me over. “That was when, five minutes ago?”
“Feels more like five centuries, some days.”
She tsked and said, “Well, let it loose, girl!” So I did.
Before going out to a bar called Le Select one night at the end of April, we had dinner at home with Scottie, a light meal of her then-favorite foods, the sorts of things a three-and-a-half-year-old will eat: chicken legs, along with carrot disks and squares of little French cheeses, which we’d all eaten using toothpicks.
Scott had directed Lillian to begin teaching Scottie French—a sign that told me he believed France would be home for us, that he believed he could be at the top of the order here in a much more genuine way than he’d been in New York. I practiced my French with Scottie while we ate, naming the foods and then putting their names into silly sentences.
“Les carottes ne veulent pas etre mangees ce soir,” I said. The carrots do not want to be eaten tonight. And Scottie said, “Les carottes mangent le soir.”
I laughed. “The carrots eat the night—I like that better than what I said.”
“Les petits fromages sont prets pour leur bain.” The little cheeses are ready for their bath.
“Les petits fromages mangent leur bain,” Scottie said, giggling.
“Oh, now we have cheeses eating the bath! Aren’t you just the cleverest little lambkin?”
“You know it’s useless for you to do this,” Scott said. “There’s too much Alabama in your voice, she’ll never get the pronunciation right.”
“You’re probably right—but we don’t care, do we, ma petite quintefeuille?”
Scottie had become engrossed in stacking carrots on a toothpick and ignored us.
“You could take a turn,” I said. “My French is mediocre, but yours is deplorable. You could use the practice even more than her.”
He waved away the suggestion. “As long as I can read a menu and settle a bill, that’s good enough for me.”
At the Select, we joined a group that included our beloved Alec, who was passing through Paris. There were maybe eight of us all told, four other men and a woman, all of whom were Scott’s newfound friends. The woman spoke no English. All of the men were writers, some still aspiring to any kind of publication, others having placed stories in small American-run Parisian journals. Writerly barnacles, they were, who’d drifted to Paris after the war and had attached themselves to the literary community’s pillars and anchors. Who knew whether they were decent writers?
Two hours in, Scott was on his fourth cocktail and was leaning forward, his hands pressing the tabletop, his face alight with impassioned enthusiasm for his subject.
“Tell me one name,” he was saying, “one man who understands and can represent the beating heart of the American experience better than I’ve done with my Gatsby. Don’t say Lewis, don’t say Boyd—the prairies and small towns and factories might be in the heartland but they aren’t America’s heart! They’re the somnolent feet, dragging along, depressing us with their bleak, bloodless prose.”
Was I the only one who noticed that he was talking just slightly out of alignment? Everyone watched him with expressions of rapt adoration on their faces; did they admire him so much already, or was it the absinthe?
Scott continued, “And none of those depressing wartime dramas either, American soldiers and their sordid, bloody tales—that’s the past. Zelda, darling, you’ve read The Great Gatsby—and she’s tremendously well-read in general—you tell them: Have I written the preeminent American novel, literature’s shining city on a hill?”
By this time I’d come to recognize the warning signs that said Scott would, if no one stopped him, tumble over the cliff. So, while I would have supported him anyway, I took the extra measure and said, “There’s no doubt about it. It’s dazzling, people. His best work yet, and better’n everybody’s out there. Now is there any chance we’ll have some music here tonight?” I looked around for signs of a jazz quartet, at least. “’Cause I’d really like to dance with a preeminent American novelist, if one happens to be around.”
At a Left Bank bar called the Dingo a day or two later, we had just taken a table when Ezra Pound spotted us and came strolling over. With his crazy, thick hair and his Spaniard’s mustache and the mad glint in his eyes, Pound was one of my favorites among the Paris crowd. Married to one woman and publicly involved with another, passionate about women and politics and art, he was lawless and profound and genuine in both his life and his poetry. Because of that, I—and everyone, really—accepted him fully.
He said, “Just my luck! I’ve got someone you need to meet.”
“Who’s that?” Scott asked.
Pound led us to the bar. A dark-haired, mustached man wearing what appeared to be two thick, gray sweaters was saying good-bye to a pair of women I’d later know as Duff and Kitty. He looked to be in his mid-twenties, same as me, strikingly attractive, his face suntanned—from skiing, we’d learn—his hair mussed and curling onto his forehead, his dark eyes keen and brooding.
Pound said, “Wem, meet Scott Fitzgerald. Scott, this pup’s named Ernest Hemingway. Can you imagine such a name? It’s ludicrous. You can call him Wem or Hem or Wemedge or Ernie—or anything you think suits.”
While Pound was speaking, the man’s face had lit up with a smile that, if directed toward a girl, would no doubt make her swoon. He grabbed Scott’s shoulders. “Damn glad to meet you. Saw your story in American Mercury—good stuff, true and moving, really fine writing.”
Scott bowed a little and then backed out of the embrace in order to turn toward me. “Meet my wife, Zelda.”
“Don’t mind if I do,” Hemingway said, giving me the most charming, rakish look before gazing back at Scott. “To the victor go the spoils, eh?”
“So they say.”
“Um, pardon me,” I said in mock annoyance, hands on my hips. “I am not some prize.”
“I beg to differ.” Hemingway pulled out a chair. “Sit, please. Pound and I were just tiring of each other.”
“I was tiring of you. How are you, Fitz?”
I said, “He’s as fickle as the weather here, touchy as a feral cat—”
“I’ve been reading the latest opinions on my latest book,” Scott explained. “They correspond to the sales figures.”
“Neither are as bad as he’ll make you think,” I said. “It’s a marvelous book, everybody ought to buy ten copies.”
Scott smiled at this show of faith. “I would like to start with buying a drink.”
“Critics are all a bunch of goddamned eunuchs. What’s the book?” Hemingway asked.
“The Great Gatsby. It’s a novel—my third.”
“I’ve heard only good things,” Pound said. “Everything excellent. First-rate.”
“You, my friend, are a poor liar. No, look,” Scott told Hemingway, “the reception has been mixed—but wait,” he said, interrupting himself. “Hemingway! Bunny Wilson and Bob McAlmon talked you up so much that I went out and found your books. You’re good!”
Hemingway gave a crooked smile and scratched his scalp. “Yeah? Thanks. I’ve left McAlmon for Boni and Liveright, who’ve promised to take my novel—assuming I’ll have one to give them. I’m here in Paris to make a go of it.”
“Ah, I’m sorry for you then—talented as you are. It’s a hard-knock occupation.”
“How can you say that? You’re a celebrity by all accounts. I haven’t read your novels yet, but I sure have heard of ’em.”
“I get a lot of attention, no question. But if you stay in this godforsaken business, you’ll see that you only ever really believe the bad things they say.”
“Because they speak to your own fears.” Hemingway jabbed Scott’s chest. “Yet you’ve continued to write and to face down the devils, to surmount your fear. To my mind, that makes you strong and heroic and true.”
“Waiter!” Scott called while pointing at Hemingway. “Put this fellow’s drinks on my tab.”
Scott asked Hemingway where he was from, and when Hemingway told him Chicago and Michigan, they went about extolling the virtues of a Midwestern upbringing. Scott’s enthusiasms were all about growing up in a city like St. Paul, with its modest museums, libraries, concerts, plays; whereas Hemingway went into detail about the settings we’d seen in his stories—the rivers and forests where, he said, he’d spent as much time as he could steal from his overbearing family. “Nature tests you, and if it finds you worthy, it lets you live another day.”
The discussion went on into details about game and gear and survival techniques. Hemingway was enthusiastic and knowledgeable about his subjects, there was no doubt about that. And he had personality aplenty. He wowed you such that you could easily miss what, to me at least, was apparent in his writing: he was trying awfully hard to be a man’s man. Still, he seemed likable enough, and sufficiently interesting and different that Scott, with his boundless curiosity, was captivated.
I left them talking and went to find Pound, who’d gone over to the bar. “Dance with me, won’t you?”
He laughed. “There’s no band.”
“I’ll hum in your ear. Do you like a waltz—or maybe you’re game for a tango?”
“You hum, I’ll follow,” he said jovially.
“I’ll hum, but if you want to hang on to your masculine reputation in this town, you’d better lead.”
Scott and I walked through Montparnasse later, on our way to Les Folies Bobino to hear Georges Guibourg sing. This district was the pulsating center of Parisian life, with all its messy, joyous, tragic, fearful, heartening, disheartening ways. We edged along sidewalk cafes still crowded with men arguing or laughing or singing songs from their homelands. We passed fragrant flower and tobacco carts being packed up for the night, beggars in rags—fragrant in a less pleasant way, so we gave them a wide berth despite our sympathy.
A pair of sooty little boys in short pants ran up to us with their palms out. These boys tugged at my heart; why weren’t they home in bed? Did they have homes? Did they have childhoods? They deserved more—upbringings like I’d had or Scott had, or even Hemingway’s, with all its apparent masculine overemphasis. Anything but a life on the streets.
I put some coins in their hands while telling Scott, “That Hemingway just oozes manliness, doesn’t he? All that talk about fishing and hunting and skinning what you catch—”
“He’s an outdoorsman; that’s what outdoorsmen do.”
“Merci, madame! Merci, merci beaucoup, belle dame!”
“De rien. Rentrez chez vous. Au lit!” I told the boys. Scott and I walked on and I said, “I know … but I grew up with fellas who did all those things, and they didn’t sit around and talk about it all day, give it all that romantic minutiae the way Wem or Hem or whatever he goes by was doing back there. I mean, really, he’s a writer who lives in Paris, that’s what he is, just like all the rest of them, just like you.”
“I’ve never been fishing, did you know that? I didn’t want to tell him—”
“You’d hate fishing. You have to sit cramped up in a little boat, or on some log or rock for hours. And fish smell bad—and then of course there’s the bait.…”
“Sounds to me like you hate fishing. I think he’s right—there’s something honorable and true about pitting yourself against nature.”
“Did he mention a wife while I was dancing with Pound?”
“Watch out for him,” Scott said.
I let go of Scott’s hand to turn a few pirouettes. “He’s got his hands full as it is. Besides which, I’m not so good at sharing.”
“Ernest’s wife is called Hadley, she’s from St. Louis. And they have a boy who’s about eighteen months. Remember Scottie at that age? All that roundness? What did Ring and Ellis call her—I can’t remember. Not Pumpkin…”
“Little Miss Dimple.” I stopped turning and fell into step with him again.
“What? No. I don’t recall that.”
“I’m surprised you recall anything from Great Neck. I’m surprised I do. What I want to know is, what woman thought it’d be a good idea to throw her lot in with Wem.”
“You know, don’t you, that there are people who wonder the same thing about you after they’ve met or heard about me.”
“Maybe,” I said, linking my arm through his. “But the difference is that you don’t have a false bone in your body.”
“You think he does?”
“Anybody who uses the word true as much as he does can only be the opposite.”
Scott shook his head. “You’re wrong. He’s too young, too sincere, for it to be an act. He’s the real thing; just give him a chance, Zelda, and you’ll see.”
Scott was especially vigorous in bed that night, and then afterward he said, “If you don’t get pregnant by summer, we should find a specialist to check you over. There might be some treatment or procedure—”
“We have to give it some time, Deo. It hasn’t even been six months since my surgery.”
“Those wop doctors, I doubt they had any real idea what they were talking about. You should see someone here; the French are far more advanced in medicine than the Italians.”
He plumped his pillow and turned onto his side, throwing one arm over my hip while closing his eyes. “I’ll see about getting you an appointment with someone who’s tops in the field. I’d really like to have a son.”
As we’d soon learn, Gertrude Stein, an American expat whose salon rivaled Natalie’s, lived by her own rules. You never got the sense of her having been young; she seemed to have been planted at 27 rue de Fleurus as a middle-aged woman fully conceived in both physical form and reputation. Everyone knew Miss Stein, everyone admired her—and no one more than Ernest Hemingway, at least at the time.
“You just want to be around her,” Hemingway told us during dinner at his apartment on a Saturday evening in late May.
This was the first time we’d met Hemingway’s wife, Hadley. When she’d opened the apartment door, her appearance had shocked me nearly as much as the building’s horrible, stinking stairway had. I’d imagined someone pert and sweet like Sara Mayfield back home, or else one of those simmering, sultry types, like Tallu. Hadley was neither of those, nor any other type you might think would win herself a handsome, energetic he-man.
She was, in fact, just about homely. Her hair was dark and of no particular style—though I suspected it had at some time in the past been bobbed like mine. She wore a gray shirtwaist with a long, darker gray wool skirt and an apron over the top, and shoes similar to those I’d seen on peasant women plodding along the cobblestone alleyways with big cloth bundles on their backs. Her features were round and boyish—but her smile was genuine, and her eyes were warm; I liked her right away.
Hadley was saying about Gertrude Stein, “We’ve named her as Bumby’s godmother. She’s been lovely to Tatie, here. Very encouraging with her critiques.”
“You let her read your work?” Scott said with surprise. My surprise was in hearing Hadley call Hemingway Tatie. Sure, I had my nickname for Scott, which anyone hearing might find somewhat odd—and that’s why I didn’t use it around company. Tatie, I thought. Weird.
We passed around simple china bowls filled with potatoes, peas, slices of beef roast in gravy, and Hemingway said, “Sure I let her read it. There’s no better eye than Gertrude’s, no better mind.”
Scott looked dubious. “She’s, what, a fifty-year-old never-married woman, right, and a Jew to boot? Hardly seems like someone who’d be authoritative about modern writing. But I guess I’ll take your word for it.”
“It’s true,” Hadley said. “She’s been hosting a salon for artists and intellectuals every Saturday since, well, forever. It’s held in her home, which is a veritable art gallery. You should see it.”
“I’m surprised you haven’t already been,” Hemingway said. “So, good—we’ll bring you around tonight. I’m sure she’d want me to, and no time like the present, eh, Fitzgerald?”
“I’m game for anything.”
“So I hear, so I hear. How about boxing?” he said, and I made a serious effort not to roll my eyes. “Ever take a turn in the ring?”
Gertrude Stein was what you might call amply proportioned. Her skin was smooth, her features unexceptional save for her eyes, which had the clarity, humor, and wisdom I’d seen in old Aunt Julia’s ancient mother, Mama Clio, who I’d known when I was a little girl. Mama Clio was half-Haitian, half-African, and had the pruniest skin I’ve ever seen; she must have been near a hundred years old when she passed. She knew everything about life and the world; it was all there in her eyes, and she could tell you all about it. Gertrude Stein had those same eyes.
“I’ve been hearing a great deal about you,” she told Scott after Hemingway presented us to her in her anteroom. “Our friend Sherwood Anderson found your book very satisfying and sent it to me to read, and I’ve found much about it worth reading.”
Scott smiled—not the polite, secretly condescending smile I’d seen him give to other writers who saw themselves as superior to him, but a genuinely pleased grin. He said, “That’s very good to hear.”
We followed her into the whitewashed, high-ceilinged main room. Unframed paintings filled every wall; I recognized Pablo’s serene, lovely Head of a Sleeping Woman, which Sara Murphy had praised, and his striking portrait of our hostess, which hung at the head of a long table in the corner to our right. Small statuary done in marble and plaster and carved wood sat on sideboards and side tables throughout the room.
“Sit there,” she directed Scott, pointing to an armchair near the hearth. “Hemingway, pull up a chair for yourself as well, and ladies, Alice will get some tea.”
This Alice, who I guessed we were supposed to either know about already or not pay attention to at all, was looming silently nearby.
She said, “Come.”
I didn’t imagine that we “ladies” wouldn’t also gather at the hearth, but Alice led us past it into a distant corner of the room. Nice as the corner was—plush wool rug, upholstered settee and chairs, lovely spindle-legged side tables with hand-painted Chinese lamps—it wasn’t central, and I was used to being in the middle of things.
Alice left us, saying, “Please, make yourselves comfortable. I’ll just be a minute.”
I must have let my irritation show, because Hadley whispered, “I should have warned you. The wives sit over here.”
“And you don’t mind that?”
She shrugged. “I’m not a writer, or an artist either. I wouldn’t have much to contribute.”
I was both—which neither Scott nor I seemed capable of pointing out, here in the revered Miss Stein’s apartment. And so I said, “Is Alice her sister?”
“Her … companion,” Hadley said in a low voice.
“Oh.” I looked over at Miss Stein, trying to see her as the object of anyone’s desire, let alone another woman’s.
My stomach chose that moment to cramp, and I became far more concerned about those implications than about Miss Stein’s romantic life or whether I was worthy of an audience with her. Rather than tell Hadley about my stomach trouble and have her think her cooking was to blame, I stood up and said, “Well then, I hope you’ll excuse me. Not that it hasn’t been grand to visit with you, but there are other things that need my attention.”
I stopped beside Scott and said, “Miss Stein, it was purely a delight to meet you. I’m afraid I’ve promised myself elsewhere.”
Scott looked up at me with surprise and concern while Hemingway joked, “She’s got a date with Pound.”
“Dancing on a Saturday night—why not?” Then I leaned down and said in Scott’s ear, “It’s my stomach. Stay as long as you like.” I hurried off, calling, “Good night, all,” and barely made it back home in time to save myself an awful embarrassment.
A typical day that Paris summer would go something like this: I’d paint in the morning while Scottie had her lessons and Scott was still asleep—at this time I was using watercolors and gouaches on paper, which was simplest given the limited space in our apartment. I might have lunch with Scottie or I might meet up at Deux Magots with one of the women I’d met at Natalie Barney’s salon, which I preferred over an evening at Miss Stein’s. I’d paid my first visit when Scott and Hemingway went off to Lyon to retrieve our car, damaged during transit from Marseille. “He’ll be good company,” Scott had said, packing a bag with more clothes and books than he could possibly need. “And I think he could use my counsel.”
The luncheons sometimes turned into afternoon outings to a studio or gallery; sponge-time, I called those outings, wherein I soaked up everything I saw and was told about Impressionism, Realism, Rayonism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Modernism, Pointillism, Synthetism, Art Nouveau—and more. You couldn’t take a step in that district, Saint-Germain-des-Pres, without bumping into art. In addition to the galleries, along the riverfront on Quai Malaquai and Quai de Conti were artists and easels and, truth be told, a whole lot of really bad paintings.
Scott usually got up around eleven and then, with or without me, went out to the cafes in search of other writers who, like him, were doing a fine job of conversing about other people’s writing while producing very little work themselves. He’d finalized his choices for the new story collection, which would be published the following February as All the Sad Young Men, and talked a great deal about his unwritten next novel, as if by discussing it he would conjure a finished manuscript into being. There’d be wine at lunch—which lasted well into the afternoon—and then came late-afternoon cocktails before he’d return to the apartment to change clothes for the evening’s events. Throughout it all he exuded the same sort of pleasant buzz he must have been feeling.
Scott’s idea of an evening well spent began with a stroll among the horse-chestnut trees that line the Champs-Elysees, then cocktails at the Ritz, after which we’d often head into the Latin Quarter to meet up with the Hemingways at one or another of the bal-musettes for dinner, dancing, and drinks.
These had the potential of being good times, and to be fair, I enjoyed myself when the music began and I could set aside every thought and let the sounds infuse me from scalp to toes. A roomful of dancing, sweating, laughing people is a beautiful thing. Scott would dance with me some; more often he and Hemingway would drop out and I’d find them later at a table outside, debating not the finer points of sentence structure or the state of literary theory, but the merits or failings of various boxers whose matches they intended to see, or the intimate lives of their writer friends.
We would migrate from one place to another, getting progressively tighter and collecting friends as we went, and the party might go on until sunrise, at which time Scott would realize we’d lost the Hemingways hours earlier, Ernest having the self-discipline to leave early and get up, clearheaded, to write the next day. At home, Scott would want sex—except that sometimes his brain was more willing than his body, and nothing I tried made a difference. He’d push me away then, saying, “Never mind,” and we’d both just sleep it off.
I learned that if I consented to his outings regularly enough, on other nights I could go do what I preferred. On “my” nights, I would join the Murphys, or sometimes just Sara, or sometimes no one, for a performance of the Ballets Russes or a production at La Cigale theater. Here, amid the swelling orchestral music, the grace and beauty of the dancers, was the life of my childhood imagination.
As much as I loved the spectacle of the dance and the drama, I also loved being able to see the sets afterward, to meet the artists Gerald spoke of with admiration and high regard. In particular, Gerald introduced me to Mikhail Larionov, whose designs for the Ballets Russes that season were astonishing. Larionov fractured color into kaleidoscopic scenes that had sophistication and whimsy, both. You didn’t just view his wild sets and costumes; you felt them, responded to them. Or I did, anyway.
At the first of what would be many post-show coffee dates, the Murphys, Larionov, and I ran into Sara’s friend Pauline Pfeiffer and two of Pauline’s friends from Vogue at Deux Magots.
“So good to see you again, Zelda,” Pauline said. As usual, she wore an up-to-the-minute dress, in this case a gorgeous peony-and-birds print with gold metallic lace sleeves. “Didn’t we have great fun last summer in Antibes?” she went on. “Sara, do say we can all come to Villa America this year—I’m dying to see it done, and Zelda’s so good at that game we played.”
“We have grand plans to see everyone,” Sara assured her. “Have you met Mikhail Larionov, artiste extraordinaire? He’s promised to share all his brilliant secrets with us. Join us, why don’t you?”
“You’re sweet,” Pauline said while holding her hand out to Larionov. “Pauline Pfeiffer, not an artist. And thank you, Sara, but no. We’re on our way to the Dingo to meet some fellows.” She made a show, then, of kissing Gerald, then Sara, then me in the way the French do, before wagging her fingers and following her friends out.
I took Larionov’s arm and said, “Never mind those show-plates; let’s get a table, and then you need to tell me everything.”
His enthusiasm for his work was boundless. After two hours of conversation, he said, “I have much to add, but I must be on my way. Please seek me out anytime you come to a show.”
And so I did.
“Tell me how an artist makes a name for himself,” I urged him during our next meeting, just the two of us this time. “I want to know so I don’t end up like the proverbial grasshopper.”
He looked at me quizzically, and I explained, “Caught unprepared when winter comes.”
“Of what winter is it you speak?”
“I don’t know. I can’t describe it. It’s just a feeling I have—that anything can happen and I need to be prepared.”
He smiled generously. “A woman of your beauty will never find herself alone. I think you will always be warm when winter comes.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Just the same: How did you come to work with the Ballets Russes? When Diaghilev says he’s got a new ballet to stage, how do you begin forming your vision? Do you need to see the dancers in rehearsal, or just hear the music, or…”
We met weekly, then, and I wasn’t exactly deceiving Scott when I neglected to mention these platonic post-performance dates. He was always out when I got home, and by the time he was awake and sober the next day, his mind was occupied with the future, so why volunteer the information and give him the opportunity to overreact? My silence was a protection from distraction, that’s how I thought of it.
All was well until one night in June, when we attended a small party to celebrate Cole’s thirty-fourth birthday. The party was being held in one of the Ritz’s opulent private salons. Before we went in, though, Scott wanted to pay a visit to the Ritz bar, where he had quickly become a favored patron.
As always, we were greeted warmly by the maitre d’ and the staff of liveried waiters and the bartender, whose regard was maybe one grin shy of obsequious. Here at the Ritz, Scott was le supreme Americain, the role he’d been born to play.
“Champagne, my good fellow,” he told our waiter. We were dressed in our finery, Scott in a tuxedo with a bow tie, me in sleeveless teal silk and fringe.
“Monsieur has an occasion?”
“That’s what I want to know,” I said. “It’s Cole’s birthday, darling. Are we going to practice our toasts?”
Scott said, “Au contraire; we’re celebrating.” He sent the waiter off, then placed a square velvet box in the center of the table. “I have this, to go with this,” he said, then took a folded bit of newspaper from his jacket pocket and laid it out on the table beside the box.
The newspaper clipping’s headline read, “Our Own Movie Queen” by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and was followed by the story, my story, the one I’d written back in Great Neck.
“What’s the matter?” Scott said when I didn’t speak or react. “I know it took forever, but I thought you’d be ecstatic.”
“I … it’s great,” I said, my eyes scanning the words that I’d labored over. My Gracie Axelrod was now as alive as she’d ever become, here in the Chicago Sunday Tribune. Right below Scott’s name.
“It’s real exciting,” I added, forcing cheer into my voice.
“It is!” He pushed the box over to me. “Open it.”
I did; inside was a black-enameled, diamond-bejeweled film-reel brooch made of gold, about a half inch in size. “I had it custom-made,” Scott said, beaming.
Had I accepted the gift with grace and gratitude, the night might have ended better. Neither of those feelings came to me, though. My mind was warring with my heart over the disappointment I felt as I looked, again, at Scott’s name beside my story’s title.
This was my own doing. I’d agreed to let Harold sell the story as Scott’s, never guessing the result would depress me so. We’d gotten a thousand dollars, but where had that thousand dollars gone? What did I have to show for it—except this brooch that, pretty and thoughtful as it was, announced nothing of my talent, my imagination, my skill.
“I don’t want it,” I said. “It’s lovely, but you haven’t sold anything since winter. We can’t afford this sort of thing right now.”
Scott’s eyes narrowed the littlest bit, a flinch, really, and he glanced around to see whether I’d been overheard.
“That’s my concern, darling,” he said heartily, and now his voice had the false cheer. His eyes were wary, as if he was dealing with an impostor; his wife loved gifts, and had always before been thrilled with publication.
Heeding the warning, I said, “Yes, of course it is. Thank you.” I closed the box and tucked it into my handbag, then picked up my glass and downed the contents fast. I called out, “Garcon,” and signaled the waiter with my glass. “Bring us a bottle.”
Cole was at the piano when we joined the party. The room was afire with gilt and crystal, awash with gleaming silver and white tablecloths, abuzz with music, sequins, beads, feathers. Cole was in the middle of a jazzy tune we hadn’t heard before:
No one knows what a glimpse of paradise
Someone who’s naughty showed to someone who’s nice …
Linda, elegant in a powder-blue sequined suit, greeted us near the piano and said, “He’s test-driving this one—”
“If you hate it, don’t tell me,” Cole said as he continued to play. “At my advanced age, I can’t handle disappointment.”
He sang, “‘I’m in love again…’”
Scott said, “Does it make you think of Jozan, darling?” which alarmed me until he continued, “Linda, did Zelda ever tell you about the man who fell in love with her last year on the Riviera? Poor fellow took his own life when she rejected him for me.”
“My God!” Linda said. “How awfully sad.”
Jozan had not done any such thing, but I played along, affecting a bored look. “Yes, but what can you do? Men are so irrational about love.”
It seemed that Scott had decided to overlook my out-of-character reaction from earlier, so I tried to let myself relax and enjoy the party. Drinking, mingling, dancing: it was a routine so familiar to me that I ought to be able to do it automatically. I found, though, that this time the best I could do was listen politely while carrying a drink with me as a prop; the champagne and events of earlier had soured my stomach and my mood.
That mood lifted some when Mikhail Larionov saw me and came to say hello. He hugged me with all the warmth of an old friend. “Your art, how does it progress?” he said.
“Like a snail over boulders,” I told him, aware that Scott had come up beside me. Scott held a highball glass half-full of what looked like bourbon, and I just knew he was sniffing Larionov for trouble.
I went on, “Paris is too full of distractions for me to get much done. Mikhail Larionov, meet my husband, Scott Fitzgerald.”
“What line are you in?” Scott said, keeping his free hand in his pocket—and another warning bell rang in my head. “Do you write? Paint? Fly for the navy?”
A string trio had taken over for Cole, and he and Linda were hamming things up on the dance floor with an exaggerated waltz. They were an ideal pair, always affectionate, supportive, funny, sweet. Why, I thought, can’t that be us?
Larionov said, “I paint and sculpt, and do the stage sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes.” He nodded toward Diaghilev, who was waltzing with Sara.
“How good of you, then, to take Zelda’s little pastime seriously.”
Larionov raised an eyebrow. “Her mind is the artist’s,” he said. “And while I’ve not yet seen her work, I have quite enjoyed our conversations after the shows.”
“Oh, have you?” It was Scott’s brow that rose now, along with his pitch and volume. “And where have we been going for these delightful tete-a-tetes?” I started to answer but Scott went on, “Paris is such a marvelous city, so romantic, don’t you think? An ideal setting for intimate talks, walks along the Seine, conferences in quaint little hotel lobbies—or apartments—where doormen keep the riffraff out.”
“Isn’t that all true?” I said oh so brightly, and put my arms around Scott. His body was as rigid as his voice, but I persisted, “And so well put, darling. Of course Mikhail is a huge fan of yours, I’ve told him everything abou—”
Scott unwound my arms and set me apart from him, saying, “How do you suppose it looks, you out there alone, carrying on with men who aren’t your husband?”
My face grew hot. “There’s no carrying on, just a few of us having a coffee before going our separate ways.”
The song had ended and Sara came over, saying, “What’s this? You two aren’t quarreling?”
Scott said, “Coffee, sure. I’ll guess that’s his story, too.” He looked on the verge of tears. “And yours, Sara—you’ve all rehearsed this, haven’t you?”
“What is he on about?” Sara asked me, while Larionov was telling Scott, “It is nothing, all innocent—”
Now Gerald had joined us; I could hear him murmuring apologies to Larionov while Scott said, “You’ve got no business out running around Paris at all hours. I won’t have it, Zelda.” The music had stopped and his voice was now the loudest sound in the room.
“You’re hardly in a spot to complain,” Gerald said impatiently. “When are you ever home?”
Scott looked shocked. Gerald had never spoken harshly to him before. “I am the husband!” Scott yelled, poking his own chest and stumbling backward a step.
Everyone in the room was watching him, watching us. My face and neck and ears were so hot I thought they’d catch flame.
Abruptly, Scott sat down on the gold-and-black-patterned carpet, just plopped down like a child worn out from a tantrum. In a voice that was almost a whimper, he said, “I am the husband,” and started to cry.
The next day, he seemed to have blanked out everything except his suspicion. His first words when he joined Scottie and me at the table were “You can forget going out without me.”
“Says you,” I told him, not caring that both the cook and the nanny were in the room. I’d used up all my tolerance the night before, barely keeping my head high while Gerald and two other men practically carried Scott out to a cab. “I’m not giving up my interests just because you drink too much and have irrational jealous fits. Come along, if you don’t like me going by myself.”
“You know I can’t stand the ballet.”
“Well, I love it, so I’m going.”
“Then you’ll come straight home after,” Scott said.
Scottie popped strawberries into her mouth and watched us volley as she chewed.
I said, “When did you decide to become my father?”
“If your father had kept a tighter rein on you, I wouldn’t have to worry about your behavior.”
“Who says you need to worry in the first place?”
“You seem to be forgetting our friend Edouard Jozan.”
What defense did I have against that? Game, set, match.
But Scott went on, “They all want you, Zelda. Every man out there. What happens when you’ve had a few drinks and then some man tries to—”
“You think that doesn’t happen when you’re right there? It does. And I handle it, same as I’ve always done. You don’t need to act like some crazy, overprotective ogre.” I raised my arms and curled my hands in an ogre imitation, and Scottie giggled.
“I don’t want to be an ogre,” Scott said. “But what can I do? I love you beyond reason, I can’t help myself.”
Scottie tugged his sleeve. “Daddy, you do an ogre. Be a growly one,” she added, climbing out of her chair. “And I’ll be the princess in the forest and you chase me!”
“Really, can you blame me, Zelda?” Scott said, and then he went running after Scottie.
I let it go at that. It wasn’t wise to let him excuse his bad behavior with apologies and declarations of best intentions and helpless love. I knew that every time he got away with it, there was an increasing chance he’d behave badly again. I knew it, and yet I went along, as helpless to resist a bad choice as he was.
The next time I went to the ballet, Scott and I didn’t rehash the argument; we just made plans for me to meet him afterward. So when the performance was over, I left Sara and took a cab to the Dingo, where Scott was supposed to be playing cards.
The night was warm, the air scented with roasting chestnuts, and my head was aswim with the sights and sounds of Flore et Zephire. The cab let me off at the corner of rue Delambre; I leaned into the window to pay, and then when I stepped away from the car, there was Hemingway walking in my direction, toward the boulevard du Montparnasse.
“The incomparable Zelda Fitzgerald,” he said, embracing me and then kissing both my cheeks. He smelled of soap and sweat and whiskey. “Fine night, isn’t it?”
“I’ll guess it has been for you. You seem jolly.”
“Yes, now that your husband has graciously lent me a hundred so that I can make a trip to Pamplona to see the bulls. We went a couple of rounds in there,” he said, raising his fists while he inclined his head toward the bar. “I almost let him win.”
“So he’s here, then. Good.” I wondered how badly bruised Scott was going to be. What is it with men, I thought, that the ones who don’t instigate these stupid contests can’t seem to resist a challenge?
“He’s a real sport, your husband. Gifted. Lucky. Soused, I should add. He’s right now holding court on the bar—note that I say on and not at or even in.”
“My English teachers always did stress the importance of prepositions.”
I imagined Scott seated on the bar, legs dangling, a coterie of the also-soused grouped around him on barstools. “Where’s Hadley tonight? Be sure to tell her hello for me.”
“Insecure, though, isn’t he?” Hemingway went on, as if I hadn’t spoken. He put his hand out against the wall and leaned on it, blocking my path forward. “Obsessive. Can’t stop worrying about Gatsby’s sales and make progress on a new book. A writer’s life is a difficult one. He should accept this and embrace it fully. No greatness is possible without failure and sacrifice.”
“We’ve sacrificed plenty for the writer’s life he’s living—sleep, mostly,” I joked.
Hemingway put his free hand on my shoulder, then slid it down my arm to my wrist, which he gripped tightly. “All the men want you, you know.”
“And speaking of sleep,” I said, trying not to let my annoyance show, “seems like you could use some.”
“But you’re discriminating. You think most men are fools, I’ve seen it in your eyes. I know you’re devoted to Scott and I admire that and it raises you up above many women. No one would say he’s manly, though, and I see your passionate nature and wonder if you’ve ever been truly satisfied.”
He’d been drinking, which excused his behavior somewhat—and certainly I was accustomed to excusing the poor behavior of inebriated men. This man, though, had crossed a line no one had crossed with me before. There were no best intentions here.
How could he disregard his wife like this, not to mention his supposedly great new friend who also happened to be my husband? What made him think he could approach me this way? I’d certainly never encouraged him—but then, he didn’t need encouragement. I stood there for a moment, looking into his eyes. A glint of humor told me this wasn’t the first time he’d behaved this way with someone else’s wife, which only made me angrier.
“Is this what you do? You can’t box with women, so you try and seduce ’em?”
“I am a man.” He maneuvered us so that my back was pressed against a door and he pressed against me. His interest in me, or at least in sex, was plain. He put his palms on the wall, bracketing me between his arms. “It’s man’s nature to prove himself, to take what he desires.”
Bad enough that he’d spoiled what had been a gorgeous night of music, dance, and art; I was not about to become one of his conquests. Thinking my anger would only amuse him, I decided to turn the tables on him instead. I reached between us and put my hand on his erection through his pants. I rubbed the length of it, taking my time, letting him think he might yet take advantage of both Fitzgeralds tonight.
“Not bad,” I said, my mouth real close to his ear, and he chuckled. “But,” I added as I ducked beneath his arm and slid out, “here’s yet another area where Scott’s got you beat.” Laughing, I hurried away toward the Dingo’s door, sure that I’d gotten the better of him.
“Bitch,” he said with such calm assurance that the hair on my neck stood up, and I knew right then I’d made a mistake. “Go on. Go make sure you tell your half-impotent hero what a cocktease he’s married to. I can’t wait to hear how he takes it.”
I’d underestimated how astute Hemingway was, how much he already knew about us: He had seen into Scott’s soft heart and knew what hapless prey he’d be if he should decide to attack. And he knew that I wouldn’t tell Scott what had just gone on between us, that I would want to avoid provoking another bout of jealous misapprehension. Whether Scott had told him about Cole’s party or not, he knew.
I continued on to the Dingo without looking back, without replying. My step never faltered but my stomach lurched, as if it understood better than I did just how awfully stupid I’d been, and what it was going to cost me.
“I’m eager to see Villa America done,” Scott said as we cruised along the coast road en route to Antibes. “It’s a damn shame my father didn’t make something of himself the way Gerald’s old man did, and Sara’s; imagine having a place like they’ve built here—and two fantastic Paris apartments. All because old man Murphy knew that belts and shoes were at least as lucrative as saddles and such, and Sara’s father—what’s his name? Wiborg?—liked mixing chemicals. Do you know he was a millionaire before forty?”
This early-August trip was the first time in ages that Scott and I had been absolutely alone together. The daylong trek to southern France gave me a chance to really look at my husband, study him, assess him—and what I saw worried me. He’d grown soft in the face and neck and middle, blurring him, you could say. His hands were stained yellow-brown with nicotine, his hair was losing its luster; he looked ten years older than the almost twenty-nine he was.
I’d marked my twenty-fifth birthday a week before the trip. Twenty-five not being a milestone, I hadn’t expected anything—though I couldn’t help recollecting, as I did on every birthday, the party Scott had devised for my eighteenth. He sure had obsessed over me in those days; now he was obsessing over Ernest Hemingway.
—“I’m meeting Ernest for lunch.”
—“Ernest and I are going to the fights.”
—“Go ahead and go to bed without me; I told Ernest I’d read some of his stories before I see him tomorrow.”
—“Gertrude wants Ernest and me to come ’round tonight.”
Every time we saw Hemingway, he’d smile at me like we shared an evil secret, something worse than if I’d succumbed to his manly charms. My mind would urge, Tell Scott! but my gut said, Wait—suppose he takes Hemingway’s side? Better to let it be.
For the first time in my life, I chose to avoid confrontations. I’d hidden out for most of June and July, and I told myself that I was doing it more because of my stomach trouble than because Hemingway intimidated me.
As we drove, Scott went on talking about Mark Cross leather goods and about the Wiborg’s Ohio ink empire and about how wise we’d been to send Scottie and the nanny to Antibes by train.
“Ernest said he wished he could make his trip to Spain this way: just a man, a car, and a road.”
“At what speed do you s’pose it’s safe to jump?”
“What? Oh! I’m sorry, darling, I’m lost in my own head is all. Are you looking forward to the beach? Hasn’t it been forever since last summer and Jozan? Gad—there’s something absolutely mystical about how time behaves in Paris. Oh, speaking of Jozan: I told Ernest our tale about Jozan being tragically in love with you. This time, I said he couldn’t bear the thought of your rejection, and killed himself in his plane by crashing it into the sea.”
“What did Hemingway say?”
“That he could understand a man wanting to kill himself over you. It makes a grand tale, don’t you think? I can see it as a stage play, or even better, a movie…”
What was it about Paris, what had happened to us, that our crisis of the summer before could now so easily be reimagined for entertainment, our renewed connection not put aside, exactly, but not tended to, either?
Scott would later record in his ledger that the year had been “1000 parties and no work”; that summarized it for sure, but it didn’t explain a thing.
On the Riviera, my stomachaches were no more frequent than they’d been—which is to say, one every week or two—but they’d begun to hurt more. There we’d all be, us and the Murphys and Dottie Parker and Esther and Archie MacLeish and his wife, say (there were so many people there that month), strolling through Villa America’s seven lush acres of terraced groves and gardens, or down at la plage de la Garoupe on what everyone called Gerald’s Beach, and the cramping would sneak up on me and strike without warning. Within minutes I’d be hobbled by the pain or need to quickly use the toilet, and have to abandon the group. The walk back to the guesthouse took all of time and beyond, that’s how it seemed.
Once there, I’d swallow one of the pills from after my surgery and stay shut away inside the bedroom, curled into a ball on the bed while I waited for the medicine’s too-slow relief. Every time it happened, I’d tell myself, It’ll pass, it’ll pass … and it would, and then I would sleep for an hour or two and awake as fine-feeling as if nothing had ever hurt to begin with. A couple of times the drug didn’t work at all, though, and then Scott would get a doctor in, an angel, a savior bearing a hypodermic bearing morphine.
I found that if I ate carefully and avoided drinking, I could minimize the symptoms. I didn’t want to be involved with all the group’s activities, but neither did I want to be “Fitz’s sick wife,” so I made every effort to at least be present for luncheons on the terrace, afternoons on the beach, evening cocktail hour in whichever scenic spot Gerald was inclined to hold it.
After dinner there were games of cards and charades and, once Cole and Linda joined us, long evenings spent playing our favorite game of the previous summer—except with Cole at the piano instead of me. Scott said he could sometimes see a pinched look in my eyes and around my mouth, and Sara said she’d know I was uncomfortable because I’d get stiller, and quiet. I was glad to know that they were paying attention and that they cared.
Care, of course, can materialize—or not materialize—in so many different ways. Scott and I hadn’t made love since arriving in Antibes. We hadn’t made love since well before that, in fact, though I couldn’t place quite when the last time had been. Given how often I felt poorly, I should have viewed Scott’s not approaching me as a blessing; if he didn’t ask, I didn’t have to beg off. What I felt, though, was rejected and undesirable. There was none of the sweet affection that signaled his interest, none of those cues that married couples develop—the flirtations, the significant gazes—to help me know that he still wanted me whenever I did feel well.
I guess pitiful and insecure is what I was feeling when we went to dinner one night in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, at a restaurant set right into the rocky hillside overlooking the sea. It being August, the sun still graced the sky well into the evening. It washed the stone orange, then rosy, then lavender, while we sat on the outdoor patio eating fish and olives and drinking a local wine Gerald was excited about.
“It’s extraordinary,” he said as the waiter filled our glasses. “Not at all the table wine you find everywhere—and not that peasant stuff they like to serve on the Left Bank, so thick you just about have to chew it. This will transport you.” And because he was Gerald and, being Gerald, never exuberant without good reason, I had not one, not two, but three glasses of that wine before the sun had finished its descent, even knowing that I would pay later.
At about the time I was draining that third glass, someone—who can remember just who it was?—noticed, aloud, that the glamorous and beloved dancer Isadora Duncan, one of my own idols, was having dinner at a table across the patio.
“What? Really?” Scott said, and then he was out of his seat and in seconds had either fallen or collapsed or thrown himself onto the ground at her feet; I wasn’t equipped at this point to comprehend the finer details.
Miss Duncan reached for him, petting his face and smoothing his hair while he beamed up at her. “How lovely and golden you are, my faithful centurion!”
“My life is but to serve you,” Scott said.
What the hell? I thought. She was mine. He was mine. I got up out of my chair and, seeing that the shortest path to the steps that led down the hill away from the patio was across our table, I got up onto my chair, walked across the table, stepped onto the stone wall, and jumped into the stairwell.
If only the steps had been a fountain, like the one in Union Square—but no. No, they were old, solid stone, and my high heels were not so good for making an upright landing. Next thing I knew, I was on my throbbing hands and knees and Sara was there with her arm around me, helping me to my feet. Blood trickled down my shins, and I remember being glad I hadn’t worn stockings.
“I purely hate it when he does shit like that,” I said.
I remember, too, that Scott was far less distressed by my actions than the Murphys and MacLeishes were. In fact I think he appreciated the display—which might well be why I made it.
We were near to the end of our stay when, late one night after everyone was asleep, sharp pain woke me from a dream in which I’d been arguing with Alice’s Mad Hatter about whether cloche hats were still in style. (Feathers! he’d kept shouting. Brims!) I was disoriented for a moment, then got my bearings and tried to relieve my discomfort by rolling onto my side. When that didn’t work, I got up and headed to the bathroom.
The guesthouse was a sort of loose U of a building curled around a courtyard. To get to the bathroom, you went outside along a breezeway, to a door beside the kitchen. I’d hardly gotten there when the pain sharpened, making my knees buckle. It was as if someone had cut into me with a wide butcher knife and was digging around my belly with it, just cutting and twisting.… I thought I was going to die, wished, almost, that I would. I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, could hardly breathe without the knife twisting more.
When one pill didn’t seem to be helping, I took a second and waited, doubled over, breathing, breathing, waiting, breathing … “Please, God” was my refrain this time, and when it seemed as if forever had passed and still no relief, I took more pills, desperate for the damned things to do their merciful job. Just a little letup, and then I’d go wake Scott and have him get a doctor.
Later, Scott told me he’d awakened and wondered where I’d gone. When I didn’t come back, he went looking and discovered me on the bathroom floor, slumped against the wall. He ran for help. Gerald and Sara sent one of their groundskeepers for a doctor, then the three of them got me up and walked me around for hours, they said. Meanwhile the sun was rising and the birds were racing from branch to branch throughout the garden.
The doctor wouldn’t show up until almost noon, having been dispatched to deliver a baby in nearby Le Ponteil, so around the gardens we went. Only when I could respond coherently to their questions did they allow me to lie down and sleep off the remaining effects. I remember nothing about any of that; only the all-encompassing blankness, an ethereal kind of joy that, Thank you, God, the pain had diminished, dissolved, and nothing would ever harm me again.
Feb. 5th, 1926
My dearest Second Sara,
That you’re in Paris to study at the Sorbonne cheers me immensely, though I am so sorry that John couldn’t be a better husband to you. Divorce is awful hard, I’m sure.
Your letter found me in the Pyrenees, where we’ve come to the town of Salies-de-Bearn so that I can take the cure for what my doctor says is colitis. Daily baths in the hot salt springs will remedy everything, I gather, except the fact that my being here means I can’t see you until we return to Paris in March!
We’re at the Hotel Bellevue, with only five other guests in the entire place. Colitis must be woefully out of style—why didn’t anyone tell me? The village is a lovely, quiet, restful place, which of course means Scott hates it. What he really hates is that he can’t be right in the thick of things with that fella Hemingway I told you about. He’s made bringing Hemingway to Max Perkins at Scribner his holy mission. I’ve washed my hands of it; Hemingway wrote a nasty little “satire” of our good friend Sherwood Anderson’s book (his own first mentor, I should add!) and insists that whichever publisher wins him for the “highly serious novel” he’s writing about bullshit—I mean bullfighting—must also agree to publish this other book,
Torrents of Spring
Even his wife thinks he’s doing wrong. He’s a perfect bully but Scott won’t see it. Not only won’t see it, but thinks I’m jealous of the attention he’s giving his best good friend. Incidentally, Scott was against the book at first, but Hemingway pushed and Scott toppled. You’d never know Scott was the older of the two of them.
Do you think the salts will cure me of both colonic and pessimistic irritation?
Some good news:
The Great Gatsby
is now playing on Broadway. Reviews are solid and there’s a movie deal in the works, so Scott is on top of the world again.
We’ve left Scottie with her nanny—do go see her, she’s a four-year-old butterball and after almost a year here speaks French admirablement; we can take lessons from her.
What a gift it is to have you so nearby. —See? The salts are working already!
With all my heart—
While I rested and bathed and painted and read and corresponded there at the Bellevue, Scott was busy trading letters with all manner of people. He tracked Hemingway’s trip to New York to visit publishers and cheered when he read Max’s letter and then Hemingway’s, announcing the new addition to Scott’s Scribner’s Writers’ Club. None of them called it that, you understand, but I had come to think of it that way. Scott considered himself a hero for making the match—even knowing that both he and Hemingway had lost Sherwood’s friendship and were on the outs with Gertrude Stein, who thought Torrents deplorable.
On our return to Paris, Scott told anyone who would listen, “His novel’s the real deal. I’ve had a look at some of the early pages and it’s great stuff. My publisher—Scribner’s—gave him fifteen hundred dollars up front.” And as if this weren’t enough, he’d add, “I’m predicting The Sun Also Rises will go fifty thousand copies”—the same number of copies that each of Scott’s first two novels had eventually sold. I watched Scott extol Hemingway and understood something that explained everything and terrified me: Hemingway had become Scott’s alter ego.
At noon one day in March, Sara Mayfield and I met at Rotonde. “I understand what you mean about that character Hemingway,” she said, her wide blue eyes full of intensity and purpose.
“I was having lunch with a fellow student here a week ago, and there was a group behind us, a bunch of women all got up in belted dresses—like yours, but even fancier, in silk and such, you know? They all had the latest hats, the latest shoes, the careful, artful makeup. Anyway, I wasn’t minding their business at all until I heard one of them say ‘Zelda,’ and then I listened close; how many Zeldas can there be around here, after all?”
“None that I know of.”
“Right. So the woman says, ‘Drum thinks he’s decent—though he thought that one critic, Gilbert Seldes, was far too kind about his novel. But she’s odd, I’ve seen it myself—Drum says she’s crazy, maybe even dangerous, and he knows them well.’ Then she says, and I quote, ‘Drum believes she’s a huge liability—he told Scott as much.’ Of course the friends wanted to know what Scott said; she tells them, ‘Oh, he agrees, but he’s working to get her under control.’”
Drum. That could only be Hemingway. I asked Sara, “What did this supposed authority on my mental state and my marriage look like?” From her description of the group, I was sure I knew, but hoped I was wrong.
“You don’t sound real surprised.”
“Did you get a look at her?”
“No—I mean, I saw them all when they came in, but which one slandered you, I don’t know.”
“I think I do.”
Later I repeated the story to Scott, who said, “I don’t believe a word of it. Pauline might have said some version of that, but it didn’t come from Ernest.”
“So he never told you I’m a liability?”
Scott’s gaze slid from mine. “He knows how much I love you, and how that distracts me sometimes.”
“Because of how I’m always throwing myself at some fella or other, is that it?”
“No, of course not; but you are awfully sociable sometimes. You can’t blame me for worrying, not after—”
“If you bring up Jozan again, I swear I’ll pop you one.”
Laughing, Scott wrapped me up in his arms, pinning my arms to my side.
“Let me go.”
“I can’t, sorry. I’m working to get you under control.”
Two days later, despite my insistence that I had no appetite and wanted to spend my day reading Theodore Dreiser’s new An American Tragedy, Scott dragged me out to Deux Magots for lunch. I’d recently read Dreiser’s first novel, Sister Carrie, having met him at some Hotel du Cap soiree the summer before, and was interested in seeing what scandalous tale he’d written in the new book. There’s nothing like losing yourself in someone else’s troubles to make you forget your own.
Scott took the book from me, saying, “You read Gatsby, so you’ve already gotten the gist. Come on, I need to get out for a while.”
Before we were seated, I saw Hemingway rising from his seat at a table on the far end of the room. On the other side of the table was Pauline Pfeiffer, wearing a red silk chiffon dress that, in my opinion, made her look like she was trying too hard to be what everyone had decided she was: chic and smart and independent.
Scott said, “Hey, there’s Pauline and Ernest—he must be just back from New York.” His surprise struck a false note, and I suddenly knew that our being here at the same time was no coincidence.
Hemingway began to turn from the table, and Pauline reached out and grabbed his hand. Reluctance was evident in every part of her body, if not in her attire. Hemingway chucked her under the chin and then left her there alone. I wanted to go slap her, wake her out of her selfishness and stupidity—and might have, if not for what Sara Mayfield had overheard.
“Scott, my friend, my champion,” Hemingway boomed, crossing the room toward us. He was grinning. “I see you’ve got the little missus in tow. How are you, Zelda? Nerves under control now?”
“It was a stomach ailment.”
“Anxiety will cause that. My father has nervous bouts, and good God you didn’t want to use the bathroom—or be in the house!—when he was having one of his spells. Let’s get a table, shall we?”
While I disassembled and then rearranged a veiny corned-beef sandwich, Scott encouraged Hemingway to recount his New York trip. Scott wanted every detail about which editors Hemingway had seen and how the staff had treated him and what Max had said and whether the Scribner’s people had mentioned him, Scott, and how Hadley felt about the whole thing—he had to know it all. He said, “Hadley must be excited. It’s a tremendous step forward for your career.”
“She’s pleased.” Hemingway’s voice was level. Then he smiled and said, “Pfife, though”—he inclined his head toward Pauline, who had remained at her table for a few minutes and was now making her way to the door—“she got Torrents, she saw the deal coming, she supported the whole thing. She’s been just amazing.” His eyes and voice lingered on her before he turned back to face us, saying, “And she’s a great friend to Hadley, too.”
“I’ll guess you’re thinking of Ford?” Scott asked. “Trying that out?”
He was referring to writer Ford Madox Ford, who we’d all heard was living like a polygamist with both his second wife, Stella, and a smart, thoughtful writer named Jean Rhys. Variations on a theme, that’s all it was, that’s what everyone was saying.
Monogamy was old-fashioned and unnecessary, and wasn’t it better if these alternate relationships were conducted out in the open? Honesty and acceptance, that made all the difference; then there was no need for secrets, and everyone could get along happily. So the theory went—and it seemed that some people were succeeding at it, Ezra Pound included. The gossips said Pound’s mistress, Olga, wanted no distractions during her time with him, and so after following him and his wife to Italy, she’d given over her newborn daughter to a woman in the village and Pound was paying the woman to raise the child. This wasn’t “modern” to me, it was despicable; I’d liked Pound, and Olga, too, but now I wasn’t sure which of them I hated more.
Maybe I was alone in finding all these things distasteful. Maybe Hadley would be as acquiescent as Stella was, and Dorothy Pound. Maybe she’d be fine with sharing her extra-manly man. I sure couldn’t predict the outcome; any woman who was willing to take Hemingway in the first place was a mystery to me.
Hemingway said with a shrug, “All I know is it’s going to be interesting in Antibes this year.”
Scott leaned forward. “Did I tell you? We’ve got a place there, too, we’re leaving next week. Great little villa in Juan-les-Pins, half a mile from Villa America.”
I stared at Scott. As far as I knew, we were staying put in Paris just as we’d done the previous year and would visit the Murphys for a few weeks late in the summer. Hadn’t Scott told me that he’d assured both Harold and Max that he was going to buckle down and finish his novel, now that we were back from Salies-de-Bearn? He’d even rented a garret for the summer, “Like Ernest’s got,” he’d said, and planned to go on the wagon until the book was done. Surely he wouldn’t alter his plans—our plans—without consulting me, without informing me, even. He wasn’t that kind of husband.
“That’s grand,” Hemingway said, smiling at me. I, however, couldn’t bring myself to speak.
Scott went on cheerfully, “So whenever you need another set of eyes on the manuscript, I’m your man. And of course you can count on our support with Pauline and all that.”
“I hoped I could,” Hemingway replied to Scott, but he was still watching me.
After Hemingway had gone, I said, “It was real thoughtful of you to check with your wife before you went and made plans.”
“I intended it as a surprise. You’ve had such a difficult year; I thought a few months of sunshine and sea air would thrill you.”
“Well, you sure surprised me all right. Funny the approach you used, though—seemed more like you were surprising your great good friend. And when did you get on the two-wives bandwagon, or is there somethin’ else you’ve been meaning to tell me?”
My sarcasm was wearing on him. “Maybe you ought to make some friends of your own, then, if you’re so jealous of mine.”
I slapped the bread back onto my sandwich. “Cancel the villa; I want to stay here. I’m working on a painting, I’ve got Scottie signed up for ballet—you’ll break her heart if you make her wait ’til fall.”
“She can dance around Villa America with Honoria,” he said. “What difference can it make to a five-year-old?”
“It makes a difference to me.”
“It’s always about you, isn’t it? You don’t like Ernest, you don’t like Gertrude, you don’t like Pound, you don’t feel well—and I understand, I accommodate your feelings, I do everything I can to help. Now I need something, some time away from Paris. I’ve already paid for the place up front. We’re going.”
Shortly after our arrival on the Riviera, Scott and I got invited to a farewell party being given for Alexander Woollcott. To Scott, this was proof that the season was off to a good start. There was little joy for me, fixated as I was on Scott’s ability to deceive me so smoothly and easily, and without the least bit of remorse. He looked relaxed, though, his skin now lightly tanned from spending a few afternoons at the beach. I had to admit that the time here was already doing him good.
The party took place in one of the Antibes casinos. Mr. Woollcott was a slight acquaintance of ours from when we’d lived in Manhattan and Great Neck. Like George Nathan, he was a theater critic. Unlike George, he was doughy and sexless, but pleasant and kind, with a rich sense of humor.
At such parties, the thing was to sit around at great big tables eating and drinking and taking turns making either sentimental or ribald speeches about the man of the hour. Since Mr. Woollcott was not George, the speeches at this party tended to be the sentimental sort. Only playwright Noel Coward had anything witty to say, and it was too brief and too early in the evening for his words to have much effect.
Scott had helped himself generously to the wine. I wasn’t drinking at all and was growing restless and bored. On it went: Alexander was charming, Alexander was wonderful, Alexander was witty and wise, Alexander would be missed—nice speeches, really nice, but not captivating, and I needed to be captivated because my mind kept trying to drag me back to my outrage over having been made to come here when the life I was trying to lead was in Paris.
Working against that outrage, though, was my recollection of Mama’s latest letter. She’d written,
Baby, I’m not sure what gives you the notion that your husband—or any woman’s husband—is bound to consider his wife’s wishes when making decisions such as this. It’s so hard to understand the life you’re leading so far away from home.… Have you become one of those awful feminists? By my measure, your life has become foreign in
way if you are somehow led to believe that women are due equal say. We are meant to keep a respectable home and care for our husbands and children, and in return for this effort, our husbands support us entirely. Is this not the case for women in France? Certainly women deserve time to pursue hobbies and such, and can find fulfillment in interests of their own, but we are not entitled to assert them over our husbands’ priorities and wishes. Perhaps if you will accept this, your health will improve and subsequently so will your happiness.
Part of me chafed against Mama’s old-fashioned attitudes. These were modern times, and women were more than chattel. Part of me worried that she was right; maybe I would be happier if I accepted the traditional thinking, rejected this particular aspect of the modern woman’s approach to marriage. It was so much easier to be led, to be pampered and powdered and petted for being an agreeable wife.
Easier, I thought, but boring. And not only boring, but plain wrong. Who really believed that men could be trusted to always get things right?
I stirred the ice in my water glass and watched the other women. They were bored, too, but doing their damnedest to hide it. All these men in their dapper suits, their slicked hair and waxed mustaches and tight collars—we women were all here trying to please these men, and for what? So that they could drag us to another boring, self-congratulatory event tomorrow, and the next day, and the next? We were with them for the support they provided.
Single women could work all they wanted; married women locked themselves into a gilded cage. All of that had seemed natural before. Now, it made me angry. Now, I saw how a woman might sometimes want to steer her own course rather than trail her husband like a favored dog.
With all the laudatory speeches done, all the Woollcott well-wishers began turning back to their companions and food and drink.
“Hold on,” I said, seized by the need to take some kind of action, even if it was wrong. I stood up on my chair. “Hold on, everybody. Here you all are talking about Mr. Woollcott with praise that I’m sure he appreciates, but it seems kinda like you’re shortchanging him, don’t you think? Where I come from, which is a very highly traditional place in America called the state of Alabama, we never send our friends off without also giving them gifts. I’ll start,” I said. Then I reached up under my dress and shimmied out of my black silk-and-lace panties, which I tossed onto the table, knowing they’d land near Scott. “Bon voyage, Mr. Woollcott—this was the best I could do on short notice.”
That sure raised eyebrows—but what didn’t, that spring?
Take also poor Hadley, arriving at Villa America with only Bumby while everyone knew that Hemingway, in Madrid for the moment, was carrying on with Pauline—though we weren’t certain yet whether Hadley knew.
Worse, Bumby brought an awful cough with him, and when it turned out to be whooping cough, Sara went white with fear that any of the other children should catch it. We were having coffee in the Murphys’ olive garden when the doctor came from the guesthouse and said that, while the worst of Bumby’s illness had already passed, he was directing two weeks’ quarantine in order to prevent the rest of us from getting sick.
“We can’t keep them here,” Sara said, and then, as Hadley appeared behind the doctor, told her, “Hadley, I’m so sorry. I’ll find you a hotel, and we’ll send along whatever you’ll need. I’m so very sorry,” she repeated, already moving toward the house to make arrangements. “We can’t take any chances.”
“Sara—wait,” I called. “We’ll just trade with Hadley. There’s six more weeks on our lease.”
“We’ll get another place,” Scott amended. “Villa Paquita is a little damp for me, but should be just the thing for Bumby’s cough—you don’t want anything too dry, it irritates the lungs’ lining, don’t you know.”
Why was he lying? The villa wasn’t damp, it was wonderful, perfect, he’d said so himself.
“I couldn’t—” Hadley looked lost, as if all this was beyond her capacity to take in.
“Of course not,” Scott said, “but we must. You’ll be doing us the grandest favor. I’ve had my eye on this other spot, Villa St. Louis, right on the water’s edge, and needed an excuse to rent it.”
I stared at him. This was the first I’d heard of Villa St. Louis. Why would we take on yet another expense when we could use the guesthouse for these two short weeks?—and then it hit me: He’s leaving the guesthouse to Hemingway and Pauline.
He was saying, “The place has forty rooms, imagine! Why, we’d be doing them a favor by filling a half-dozen or so until the family’s return at summer’s end—so how lucky it is that poor Bumby is ill!”
“All right then,” Hadley said, nodding. “We’ll do that. It’ll be so nice for Bumby.”
“And even nicer for me,” he said. “If I didn’t put myself first, you’d all think I had taken ill.”
“That was the perfect solution,” Sara said later, thanking Scott. “I couldn’t turn her out but couldn’t keep her here, and with you in the guesthouse, where would we have put Ernest?”
With his wife and son, I thought, and why hadn’t that solution been foremost in everyone’s mind—including Hadley’s? Especially Hadley’s.
Hemingway arrived a few days later, temporarily alone. “I heard what you did,” he told Scott at dinner that night. “There’s no finer, truer friend. All of you,” he said with a sweep of his arm, “you’re incomparable. A man counts his fortune in the number of true and generous friends, and so while I’ve hardly got two francs to rub together, I am a rich man indeed.”
To celebrate his new books (Torrents just published and Sun forthcoming), Sara and Gerald hosted a party at the casino. Every person we knew on the Riviera that spring turned out for the party; of course they did. Who would miss a Murphy event, regardless of the purpose? It was certain to feature wonderful food, great music, and even better company. Pablo and Olga were there, and Coco Chanel, who I’d been wanting to meet. The MacLeishes, the Myerses, Man Ray, Diaghilev, Dottie Parker, Dos Passos, and a new fellow, a Canadian writer and friend of Hemingway’s named Morley Callaghan. It was, for me, another version of the scene from our earliest days in Manhattan, the Princeton boys now supplanted by this influential bunch.
That such a thing was happening on Hemingway’s behalf hadn’t sat well with Scott, who’d been grumbling, too, about the “war boys’ club” of Hemingway, Dos Passos, and MacLeish, all of them writers who’d been in the thick of things during the Great War, whereas Scott’s attempted sacrifice had been thwarted by the armistice.
We were dressing for the party, Scott standing at the mirror adjusting his tie, his mouth set in a hard line. He was wearing one of his better suits, nicely cut, brown summer-weight wool, and wore a striped tie that matched the color of his eyes. Except for his expression, he looked as good as I’d seen him lately.
He said, “Not to take anything away from Ernest, but I had a book out this spring, too—as if anyone gives a damn.”
“A story collection’s different.” My intent was to sound fully supportive, but Scottie, who’d just helped herself to one of my lipsticks and was using it like eye shadow, distracted me. “Here, sugar, give that to Mama. I’ll show you where it goes.”
I looked over my shoulder at Scott. “It’s just an assemblage of stuff you already published.”
“Which took a damn lot more effort than Torrents!” He turned from the mirror. “Jesus, Zelda, does she really need to be wearing lipstick? Nanny!” he yelled, then said, “Nobody appreciates how difficult it is to get a story in the Saturday Evening Post. Christ, they’re all agog at Ernest’s fifteen-hundred-dollar advance when I’m getting twice that for a short story.”
Lillian appeared, assessed the situation, and swept Scottie out of the room with a promise of fresh lemon parfait.
I said, “Maybe they’d appreciate it more if you did; you’re always disparaging the slicks and saying how you hate writing for ’em—as if somebody’s holding your feet to the fire ’til you spit out another flapper tale.”
“My feet are to the fire. And if I don’t complain, they’ll all think I’m done with serious work, finished trying to be relevant. I need the money, and I need my novels to be taken seriously.”
“Honestly, Scott, I don’t see how you can have it both ways, or why you even persist in trying. What’s wrong with being purely popular, as long as the quality is high? Look at Ziegfeld—do you suppose he worries about his critical reputation?”
“He doesn’t need to worry, he’s a millionaire.”
“Yes—because of dancing girls and bawdy songs and sentimental tearjerker, crowd-pleasing acts. And yet everybody thinks he’s tops.”
Scott checked his collar and adjusted his tie once more. “The standards are different in literature.”
“But they don’t need to be—they’re arbitrary, and you all just perpetuate the problem by acting like they aren’t. A coupla critics decide what’s important, what matters, and then you all go along with it like it’s been decreed by God himself!”
“You’re oversimplifying. Literature is an art, it has an effect—it matters.”
“I’m not saying otherwise. But good is good.” I followed him down the hallway to the front room, my heels clacking on the marble tile. “And there’s all different kinds of value, all of ’em legitimate. Fine artists understand this; why don’t writers? And why is this serious literary acclaim so important to you anyway? You’re popular, beloved—Deo, you still get fan mail from Post readers every week!”
Scott sighed. “Let’s just go,” he said.
At the casino, Hemingway looked different than he had when I’d seen him last. Smug in one way, edgy and watchful in another. Thanks in large part to Scott, he’d taken a great stride forward in his career and likely had a sense that things were going to improve even more in times to come—but he’d also begun shedding some of the very people whose friendship, guidance, and influence had led to his progress. Now his eyes seemed to be saying, Which of you want to latch onto me? Which of you will be of use to me next? Which of you can be trusted to serve my purposes? All around him he saw good prospects and faithful supporters—except when his eyes rested on me.
With a glass of champagne in one hand and caviar piled upon toast in his other, Hemingway raised his glass and said, “What a fine set of friends you are, and how fortunate I am to be here among you. To the Murphys I give my humblest thanks and highest regard, for there are no finer people on the planet.”
Gerald bowed. “We couldn’t be prouder of you. As many of you know, Ernest has been away watching the bullfights in Madrid. Tell us all about the corrida!”
He did, endlessly, and Hadley, the ever-dutiful wife, stood by getting slowly drunk.
I did my best to tune him out by talking with Coco Chanel. Sara had said Coco was involved with the Duke of Westminster, and Dottie Parker had said Coco saw Edward, Prince of Wales, too. I wanted to know which of the men was behind the astonishing diamond, pearl, and sapphire choker she wore to the party with her simple white sheath dress. And her eyebrows—they were so artful and expressive; I wanted to find out whether she did them herself.
While I sought distraction, Scott couldn’t seem to separate himself from the attention his great good friend was commanding. Every time I glanced across the room, there he was at Hemingway’s elbow.
If Hemingway was the king that night, then Scott was the court jester—or he tried to be, at least. Midway through the party, just when Coco, hand to throat, was saying, “This incredible decoration was a gift from—” Sara found me and pulled me aside.
“He’s asking the oddest things of the other guests. I wonder if you ought to claim a stomachache or something and have him take you home.”
“Only to turn back up like a bad penny later,” I said. “You know how he’s gotten. Leaving has to be his idea or it won’t stick.”
“Well, his idea right now seems to be finding out what color underwear the women have on, whether the men believe extramarital intercourse is a sin, and whether Dottie might be—and I quote—‘a fine piece of tail despite her big mouth.’”
“Oh, Lord, I’m sorry. He’s feeling a lot of pressure to turn in his novel, which of course isn’t nearly done. All of this attention on Hemingway…” I shrugged. “You should get Gerald to talk to him—he’s sure to have better luck than I would.”
I went to the ladies’ room, just to escape all the nonsense. It turned out to be no escape at all, though, because there was Hadley, sitting on a chair in the corner, crying.
“Oh, Zelda,” she said when she saw me, “I’m the biggest fool. Ernest and Pauline have been carrying on for God knows how long, he doesn’t even deny it. What am I supposed to do with this?”
I had no answers for her. Maybe I ought to have put her together with Coco, who might have enlightened us both about the impracticality and undesirability of giving one’s whole self to any man—for all the good it would have done.
When I saw Scott next, he was attempting to juggle three glass ashtrays and was managing pretty well until some man I didn’t recognize called out, “Say, Fitzgerald, when are you ever going to write another book?” Scott threw one of the ashtrays at the offender, grazing the man’s head.
“Enough!” Gerald hissed. He took Scott’s arm and led him toward the door. “You might have killed him. Christ almighty, Scott, go home and sleep it off.”
Scott’s eyes brimmed with tears. “I’m sorry.” Gerald turned from him and Scott clutched his hand. “I’m sorry. Please, don’t make me leave.”
I had to intervene. “Scott, darling,” I said soothingly, “your aim is a little off, yet. Let’s go back to our place and practice a little by chucking some rocks into the water. We can come back later.”
His bleary eyes lit up. “Yes! Grand. That’s just what we’ll do,” he said, and I led him out of the casino wondering how I was ever going to survive the summer.
There were so many people at the Riviera that year, and Scott was making it his business to befriend every one of them. In addition to those of us attached to the Murphys, there were theater and film people like Rex Ingram, whose film studio in Nice was a sort of second Hollywood, and playwright Charlie MacArthur, and actresses like Grace Moore—we’d first seen Grace in a musical during our honeymoon in New York—plus a number of those playboy types who enjoyed being wherever the actresses were.
Scott was forever meeting people at casinos and cafes and bringing them home with him, staying up until all hours, and then the whole lot of them would pass out wherever they happened to be when drink got the better of them. Mornings, I’d sometimes lead Scottie past a snoring man draped over a chair; or we’d see some actress, her eyeliner now raccooned around her eyes and lipstick bleeding around her mouth like a clown’s, sprawled in a garden chaise, undisturbed by the raucous gatah-gatah! calls of the pintail sandgrouse out for their morning drink.
To save my sanity, I tried to give most of my attention to painting. My head was still full of Larionov and his abstract work, his passion for rejecting conformity and realism in favor of works that expressed. My new oil would feature my impression of a young girl in a swaying orange dress, and a cheerful little dog as her companion—if I could get it right. With all my new education, my ideals had grown far loftier than my talent could accommodate.
The other problem was that Villa St. Louis, while ordinarily beautiful and serene, was the last place I wanted to be. Hemingway was there almost daily—and though I couldn’t know for sure, I suspected he was feeding Scott a steady diet of advice on how to manage a “crazy” wife like me. One evening during cocktail hour, Hemingway had said in front of everyone, “A woman who knows how not to be a distraction to her husband’s work and career is a good and fine and honorable woman.” He apparently had two such women, and if Scott took his advice, Scott might yet have one, too.
Though my colitis had improved a great deal since I’d taken the cure in Salies-de-Bearn, new twinges of pain made me scared that a relapse was imminent. Fear dragged me down and stole my appetite. I woke almost every day in a fog of dread that took an hour or two to shake off. Everything was bad, I thought, and getting worse. When I learned that Sara Mayfield was coming to Antibes for her summer holiday, I actually cried with relief.
We met at a tiny cafe in the old-town section of the city, in view of the Marche Provencal, a covered outdoor market where vendors hawked fresh beans, parsley, carrots, berries, scores of spices, hundreds of cheeses, ropes of dried peppers and garlic. There were bunches of lavender, buckets of roses, baskets of turnips, potatoes, squash. Alongside all of this were silk scarves dyed in colors even rainbows hadn’t thought of, tied like nautical flags along a length of clothesline and waving in the sea’s breeze.
We’d hardly ordered our shrimp cocktails before I started in about Hemingway’s latest insult. “They go out drinking all the time, and he knows Scott will be useless in every way afterward. He encourages Scott’s bad habits and then blames the effects of them on me.”
Sara said, “There’s something not right about him.” She was quiet for a few seconds. “I’ll guess you don’t know what Bob McAlmon has been saying. I wasn’t goin’ to tell you, but—”
“Saying about what?”
“About who; Scott and Hemingway, that’s who. McAlmon says that something scandalous happened between himself and Hem a while back, and that now it’s Scott who’s caught Hemingway’s eye, if you know what I mean.”
Skeptical, I shook my head. “I never heard this.”
“Who would tell you—besides me?”
“He thinks Hemingway’s a fairy?”
“If you believe ‘it takes one to know one,’ then I’ll guess he knows that’s the case.”
“He’s a fairy?”
“They say he goes both ways. Could be our mighty Hem does, too.”
“I don’t know…” I said, thinking of that night outside the Dingo bar. “He propositioned me once—and now he’s got two women tangled up with him. I wrote you about Hadley and Pauline, didn’t I?”
She nodded. “He tried to rope you into his sordid circle? What did you say?”
“That he’s got nothin’ on Scott. You can bet he didn’t like hearing that.” The recollection chilled me. “Scott doesn’t know. No one does, so don’t say anything.”
Sara reached for my hand. “He’s a shit, Zelda. You should give Scott an ultimatum: his pal Ernest, or you. Pick.”
“And if he doesn’t choose me, then what do I do, run home to Montgomery like some whipped dog?” I couldn’t imagine it. Montgomery, compared to Paris?
“Of course he’ll choose you. He’s crazy about you. You have a daughter together. You’re his muse.”
“Yes, well, he doesn’t need a muse if he’s going to spend all his time working on someone else’s book.”
Our food arrived. I picked at mine and said, “I just can’t imagine what the appeal is; they’re about as alike as parsnips and pachyderms.”
“Maybe it’s this,” Sara said. “Scott thinks he’s being the hero, while Hemingway thinks Scott’s worshipping the hero.”
I nodded and sighed. “Sounds about right. Do you really think McAlmon is telling the truth?”
Sara speared a shrimp. “Why would he say it otherwise?”
“Why do any of them do the strange things they do?”
“The real question is, what are you goin’ to do?”
“Wait it out, I guess.”
The first time I’d seen a doctor about my stomach troubles, I’d been reluctant to describe all the symptoms. It’s so much more embarrassing to talk about such disorders with a man than with, say, a girlfriend—more embarrassing, even, than discussing fertility troubles, with those intimate how-often, what-position, do-you/does-he questions. I’d done it, though, and that doctor, who was old and pleasant and sympathetic, made it as easy on me as it could be made.
The prospect of going through it all again with a stranger made me reluctant to seek care when the pains came back and refused to leave. For days, I put off taking action, staying in bed while Scott took off for his adventures and Lillian took Scottie off for hers. The so-blue sky and sea outside my window taunted me, Here we are, here we are, so I closed my eyes and slept … until I was awakened one afternoon by a strange man standing at the foot of my bed beside Scott.
He had beady eyes and thin, firm lips and dealt with my assessment real matter-of-factly, which I appreciated. Even so, I was mortified the whole time.
“The pains are where?… You see blood every time or only sometimes?… Describe the stool’s consistency…”
At least his English was good.
After the exam, he administered some morphine and pronounced, “Until we get in there and see it, we can’t know for certain whether it’s the ovary, the uterus, the colon, or the appendix. We’ll schedule a surgery and see if we can excise the thing that’s troubling you. It may not be possible, you understand.”
I understood all too well.
Scott was worried that the Antibes hospital was too far behind the times and insisted I have the operation at the American Hospital in Paris. I let him worry to his heart’s content, let him take over the planning, let him step back into his role as my protector, all the while secretly pleased to have wrested his attention from Hemingway. Fate was intervening to give me back my husband, at least for a little while. Before we left for Paris, I told Sara, “If things get out of hand again, I guess I can always have my tonsils out.”
The Paris doctors removed some scar tissue and my appendix and pronounced me cured, which I was willing to believe without reservation. I hardly cared that my lower belly was now and would forever be a map of scars; I was luxuriating in Scott’s attentive presence at my bedside throughout visiting hours every day. He read to me, we played cards, we wrote letters, we talked …
Apparently, though, it was the pain medication that made me so dreamy and content, because when my last day approached and I said I thought we should stay in Paris and send for Scottie, Scott said, “Stay? God, no. I’ve just finished writing a full evaluation of Ernest’s manuscript. There are some things he really has to address before we let Max have a look at it.”
I said, “Can he not just leave you be? Have you heard what Bob McAlmon’s been saying about you two?”
“McAlmon’s still seething over having lost Ernest to Boni and Liveright—who are now very sorry to have lost him to Scribner’s.”
The doctor came in then, and Scott said, “I’d like to take her back to Antibes. Don’t you agree that it would be better for her to avoid the city—the germs and filth and such—when she’s in this condition?”
“Quite right,” the doctor said. “I could do with a summer at the coast myself.”
And so to the Riviera we went, where Scott could return to the thick of the drama, the place in which he felt most at home. Surely this, not Hemingway, was what was truly drawing him back.
Late one night in July, Scott woke me by switching on the bedside light and shaking my shoulder.
“What? What’s the matter?” I said, immediately awake and certain that someone must have died—until I saw Scott’s face.
He looked giddy. “What do you get when you mix three different alcoholics together?”
Hemingway and the others had gone off to Pamplona a week earlier. Citing my delicate post-surgery condition, I’d refused to go, which made it easy for Scott to pretend that he would have gone, if not for me. The fact was, he had no stomach for the bullfights or for anything gritty or brutal beyond its presence in photographs or inside the pages of a book. He’d taken up, then, with Charlie MacArthur and playboy Ben Finney.
Scott and his new friends played all sorts of pranks on hapless waiters and musicians. Once, they persuaded a pair of waiters to come out for a ride with them, then drove to a cliff and acted as if they intended to kill the young men. They claimed to have been so convincing that one of the fellows wet himself before they confessed the joke, and then they took the pair out for a steak dinner and fine bourbon to make up for the trouble they’d caused.
Now I wanted to punch Scott. “I was sleeping. That’s what people do this time of night. Shut that light off.”
“Don’t be such a poor sport. Come on, tell me, what do you get when you mix three alcoholics?” He reeked of bourbon, and cigar smoke.
“Don’t you mean alcohols?”
“No—alcoholics. I am a wordsmith, you know. I always, always choose le mot juste.”
“If I answer, will you promise to bathe before you come to bed?”
“Sorry, madam, you’ve taken too long. You get Love’s Betrayal, or A Simple Story of Incest.” He leaped off the bed and began loosening his belt. “I’ve just finished the screenplay, and we’re shooting it over at Grace Moore’s villa, starting tomorrow.”
“Tell me I didn’t hear you right. Y’all are making a movie about incest?”
“Don’t scowl like that, it puts the most unattractive lines across your forehead.” He dropped back onto the bed still half-dressed and leaned against his pillow. “Oh, God, is it going to be funny. Grace will play Princess Alluria, the most wicked woman in Europe—”
“I don’t need to know any more. Turn the light off so I can get some sleep.”
“And we’re going to paint all the title cards right on the walls, to save the trouble of cutting them into the film.”
He held his arms out the way a director might when framing a scene. “‘Her tits were perfect halves of peaches, firm and ripe and golden from the sun.’”
“I said I don’t want to hear this. Just keep it to yourself.”
“‘These she displayed at any urging. But her juices she saved for only those she favored most.’”
I got out of bed, grabbed my pillow, and left the room.
In mid-August, Scott returned from a luncheon at Villa America. “Hadley’s given up.” He said this as if it was Hadley we should blame; the old girl was obviously deficient in some way. “They say they’re getting a divorce. Ernest’s just a mess over it.”
“Is he, now?” I was on the terrace at my easel, trying to perfect the shades of orange in my dancing girl’s dress.
“You don’t sound sympathetic in the least.”
“I have great sympathy—for Hadley. If you see her before I do, tell her I said, ‘Good riddance.’”
The marriage wasn’t over yet, though. Hem being Hem, he would prolong the agony when they got back to Paris, acting the innocent while letting his marriage bleed for months, until he’d tortured Hadley sufficiently for her to finally put the sword between the bull’s shoulder blades herself.
Scribner published The Sun Also Rises in October of that year, 1926. Its sales were respectable but not astonishing, and its reviews generally good but not an avalanche of praise. All of this sat well with Scott—far better than the performance of Hemingway’s next book would. For now, in his mind he was still the more prominent, more experienced, more successful of the two.
Though the Riviera season had ended, we stayed on through the fall. Scott’s new friends and admirers had such a hold on him that he attended every party, frequented every casino and bar. Too often, he would drink to excess, become argumentative or crass, embarrass me, and embarrass himself. There were fistfights. There was an arrest. There were mornings I woke to find him asleep at the kitchen table, the servants going about their business around him and averting their eyes from mine. I complained to him, he apologized to me, and we both acted as if There, that ought to fix it. Until the next time.
If I refused to accompany him in the evenings—and I did, often, claiming illness twice as many times as was true—he would stay out all night, and then, when he finally showed up at home, he’d refuse to say where he’d spent the night. He wanted to punish me for leaving him on his own. Other times he’d say things like “You deserve so much better than a louse like me, Zelda. I don’t mean to mistreat you.… I want us to be like we were. Two of a kind. ‘The Golden Couple.’ Didn’t everyone love us then?”
And because I missed those happier days, too, I forgave him.
There were limits, though. I was in the kitchen one November day, slicing mangoes for Scottie, who was playing hopscotch in the courtyard outside, when Scott appeared looking like death itself.
He was pale, unshaven. His hand shook as he reached for the cupboard door. “We’ve got to leave this country before it ruins me.”
This time I tried, but failed, to summon sympathy for his misery, and tried, but failed, to be agreeable. “How ’bout we leave this town and go back to Paris.”
“Max has been asking when we’re coming stateside, my parents want us home.… I need to be someplace where I’m not going to be tempted by so many distractions.”
“We’re always leaving a place that we went to because the previous place had too many distractions. Do you even see that?”
“And no more of the hard stuff.” He rubbed his forehead. “Water, from now on. I can do it if we’re back in the States.”
“How do you figure? Prohibition never slowed you down before.”
“I feel bad enough as it is, Zelda; couldn’t you show me a little faith, a little support? I’m trying to turn over a new leaf.”
“There are plenty of leaves in Paris. Come on, Deo; it’d be so much easier to go there than to change continents—you can use that room you rented,” I said, a setup that would benefit me as much as him. “And then while you’re working, just act like you don’t know anybody in town.”
“Renting that room was a mistake. I can’t work in a garret.” Meaning he’d decided that he couldn’t imitate his great good friend Ernest’s habits and still retain his superiority.
“And I don’t want you there hanging around with all those lesbians, that crowd with Esther and Natalie and those bull dykes. We need a fine, new, fresh place, a fresh start. Paris is unwholesome.”
“That’s pretty rich coming from you. And where’d you get that word, bull dyke? I don’t like it, it’s unkind.”
“I don’t know where I heard it. It’s around. Those women who look like men, wearing suits with pants, for God’s sake—”
“I bet it was Hemingway.”
“Right, blame Ernest, everything is Ernest’s fault.” He looked genuinely perplexed when he said, “What do you have against him?”
“He’s rotten inside. I can’t believe you still don’t see—”
“He’s a fine person, he just needs a little guidance. You know, I genuinely hope you get over the colitis and whatever else has made you so bitchy this year. I haven’t been an entirely model husband, but that never used to bother you. You used to have a fine sense of humor.”
I pointed the knife at him. “If I hear you use the word fine one more time, I’ll use this to take out your tongue.”
We let Lillian and the rest of the staff go, then sailed on the Conte Biancamano in December. To leave Europe was both a relief and a disappointment. The relief lay in knowing that Scott would be separated from his playmates. For me, though, I was once again being torn from the people and places that provided me with a sense of balance. An evening at Natalie Barney’s salon, a day wandering the galleries of Saint-Germain, another day at the Louvre, an ad-libbed dance solo performed with a cooperative orchestra’s accompaniment—all these had given me purpose or brought me pleasure. We weren’t sure, yet, where we’d settle, but it would be someplace remote, and then what would I do with my time?
On our first evening aboard ship, I was at the rail watching the sun dissolve into the sea and wondering why I couldn’t have one of those marriages where my husband was content to lead his own life—if not in a respectable manner then at least a separate one—and let me lead mine. Where I’d once been so central to his life, now I felt like an afterthought. And that was all right; I didn’t need to be central, not anymore. But if he couldn’t make our family the center of his life, then what I needed was to be left in peace. Being left in Paris would be even better. For that, I needed money of my own, more money than anyone in my family could give me if I were willing to ask, which I wasn’t.
I turned to see Ludlow Fowler coming toward me. He said, “What a delightful surprise!” I guess I was scowling because he added, “Or maybe I’m the only one who’s delighted?”
I hugged him. “Do I look that bad off?”
“You are as lovely as ever, but plainly not thrilled—even by my presence.”
“No, it is a treat to see you here. Where’s your new bride?”
“Elsie’s in the cabin—hasn’t got her sea legs yet, poor girl. But I’m hoping she’ll be fit for the salon later.” His eyes and his voice were aglow with affection and concern.
“I envy you two, being at the start of everything.… Can you believe it’s only been six years since we were in St. Patrick’s Cathedral together? Feels like it’s been twice as many, and all of them spent swinging a pick into a rock pile.”
Ludlow smiled sympathetically. “I’m sure it’s just a rough stretch of sea—”
“—on a fruitless voyage. Listen, if you want your marriage to be any good, don’t let drinking get you into the same position it’s gotten Scott.”
“Speaking of the devil, I ought to find him and—what?—punch him?”
“If I thought it’d do any good.”
“He loves you, Zelda. I hope you aren’t questioning that.”
“What good is it, though, when all he really wants is to somehow have been you? He was born into the wrong life, and Scottie and me, we have to pay for that mistake.”
“How is she, anyway? I loved the photo you sent, you three in the canoe.”
“She’s well.” Scottie, at five years old and with no recollection of life before France, fully believed what her papa claimed: that we were embarking on our biggest, best, most incredible adventure yet. “Still young enough that she’s mostly oblivious to her parents’ foolishness,” I added with a grateful sigh. “The question is whether we’ll improve in time to save her.”
Published in April, 2013.