No evil dooms us hopelessly except the evil we love, and desire to continue in, and make no effort to escape from.
“Listen to this!” Scott said. “Thirty-five hundred up front … twelve thousand five hundred dollars if the script’s accepted; we’re going to California!”
We’d disembarked the ship a day earlier and were at the Plaza in New York City. Scott had just retrieved the bundle of mail that had been routed to his bank there, a common practice for rootless people like us. Among the letters was the offer he’d just trumpeted, which had come from Douglas Fairbanks at United Artists. He was producing a new film and wanted Scott to write it.
I said, “What about your book? You told Max—”
“I’ve often thought my real genius was for stage and film,” Scott said while putting his coat back on. “It was just a matter of the industry catching up to that eventuality.”
“Where are you going?”
“To cable Fairbanks. And we’ll need train tickets. Oh—would you phone my mother and tell them we’ve had a change of plans? She’ll take it better if she hears it direct from you.”
Scott’s parents had moved to Washington, D.C., and assured us we would love the area. Join us here, his mother had written. We could be such a help to you and Zelda, and Scottie deserves to know her grandparents, don’t you think? It was the best thing for Scott, so of course we’d agreed that, yes, we’d find a quiet place to rent nearby and settle in for a while, live like regular folks.
“So, we’re not going to move to Maryland?”
Scott put his hat on. “Ask Mother to keep Scottie while we’re away. I’m not sure how long it’ll be—a month or two for sure.”
I shook my head. “We’ll just bring her.”
“There’s no time to find a nanny.”
“Then I’ll stay.”
“I need you with me, Zelda, and I need you free. This could be my biggest break, and you know socializing is a huge part of that. Don’t worry, she’ll love being spoiled by her granny,” he said, and then he was out the door.
What didn’t I love about Hollywood, once we’d finally arrived? It was all so wonderful, at first.
There was the trellis thick with fragrant roses outside the window of our Ambassador Hotel bungalow; the aquamarine parrot calling us to join him beside the brilliant aquamarine swimming pool; the heat, the eucalyptus, the palms and poinsettia trees; the surprisingly low-key parties to which I wore a new, smart black suit or green dress or creamy silk blouse with a kaleidoscope skirt. I loved that we were celebrities again and looked forward to the luncheon Douglas Fairbanks was going to hold in our honor. I loved that Scott hadn’t mentioned his great good friend since before we’d gotten off the train.
Scott loved going to his office at United Artists. He loved the idea of himself as a screenwriter, the prospect of the money he could make, the attention of the film-to-be’s star, Constance Talmadge, the sight of the new celebrity estates dotting the hills above town. At the Fairbanks luncheon, I heard him telling a young lady—a guest’s teenage daughter, I assumed—how he loved the way Hollywood was all about invention and reinvention, that a little talent combined with a lot of effort could lead just about anyone to home ownership in those hills.
That teenager turned out to be a starlet, a supposed nuppincomer named Lois Moran. She wasn’t all that pretty. Her face was too round, her nose too sharp, her hair—like mine—too frizzy without serious attention by the likes of an Elizabeth Arden salon. She had something, though; that’s what they say in Hollywood when you don’t look like Mary Pickford or Greta Garbo. She was sweet and smart and had landed a prime role in Stella Dallas, a movie that came at the end of the silent-films era, too bad for her: she had a tiny voice, impossible for the talkies.
At first, it seemed that Scott was doing with Lois what he had so often done for an admiring and aspiring new friend: taking an interest, sharing his expertise, making connections or recommendations. We, or he, would see Lois and her mother at brunch, or for tea, or bump into them at a restaurant and end up spending the evening together. These events were mixed in with a lot of other similar brunches or lunches or teatimes or dinners with some other actor or writer. Lois’s mother was ever present as her chaperone, so I had no qualms about Scott spending time with her. She was not quite eighteen years old.
I was at the pool one afternoon, writing to Scottie about my earlier trip to the zoo, when Scott appeared. The workday being done, I’d been expecting him and was expecting that we’d then get ready for dinner out with the Van Vechtens, who we’d known since Great Neck.
Scott sat down in the lounge chair next to mine. “Change of plans. We’re not meeting Carl and Fania tonight, something came up. I have to run and change my shirt. Have dinner here, this place is beautiful.” Then he was off, hurrying toward the bungalows. Over his shoulder he called, “I’ll be back by eleven or so.”
I watched him go, then continued my letter.
Daddy is so busy here, with more energy than a bouncy kangaroo. We ought to take a trip to Australia one day, would you like that? The koala bears and kangaroos would all love my little lamby-pie, I’m sure. I miss you dreadfully and wish you’d write to me soon.
At eleven or so, Scott turned up as predicted—but with his tie loosened, his collar undone, his hair mussed, his lips redder than they could get on their own. Without his saying a word, I knew that somehow little Lois had given her mother the slip.
“How far did it go?” I asked tersely.
“What’s that, darling?”
“You and the teenager—I do hope you didn’t take advantage of her.”
“You’re crazy,” he said as he headed to the bedroom. “I was with a couple of the fellows from the studio.”
I followed him, then leaned against the bedroom door frame while he hung his jacket in the wardrobe. All the while, my heart was racing madly. “Then I’ll suppose you dressed up in drag.”
“What are you talking about? We had dinner at Musso and Frank.”
“Is that right? So if I pop in there tomorrow and tell them how Mr. F. Scott Fitzgerald sure did enjoy his dinner with those fellas from UA, they’ll know all about it?”
Scott closed the wardrobe door and turned to face me, his arms crossed the way a guilty man’s would be. “You’re a fine one to talk about trust.”
“I never denied a thing.”
“No, you just hid the truth until you were ready to throw me over.”
“So your tactic is, what, obfuscation now, confession later?”
“All right, if you really want to know, Lois asked me to meet her for dinner; she wants me to write something for her. There’s no money in it up front, of course—she’s not earning all that much yet. But if we can sell it to Fairbanks, it’ll be a perfect next step for her and me both.”
I might have asked him to tell me why he’d lied to begin with, or whether her mother had been present—except I already knew the answers. I knew the answer to my next question, too, but—call me a masochist—I wanted to hear what he’d come up with.
“And your lips are so red why?”
He touched them with two fingers, then went over to the mirror. “Huh. Must be from the wine.”
“What is so special about her? Why are you bothering?”
“She’s talented and bright, and she’s doing something about it. I admire that. I want to help her achieve her potential.”
“You want to be everybody’s hero.” Except mine.
“I like to help people, what’s wrong with that? She’s so organized and focused. You could learn something from her,” he said.
We would remain in Hollywood for two increasingly difficult months. Scott would struggle to finish the script he’d been hired to write, fight with me about Lois, fight with the star about the script, spend everything he’d been paid (and more), see Lois ever more frequently, and at the end of it all—well, the end looked like this:
Scott had been out who knows where and returned to the bungalow late, drunk, disheveled, distraught. He swayed as he stood inside the door. “That bitch hates me.”
I’d been reading, but now I set the book aside. “Who hates you? Surely not your little Lois?”
“No, no—the precious star,” he sneered. “She made Fairbanks reject the script.”
“Serves you right for making her mad.”
He didn’t have enough energy left to fight with me. All he did was frown. “Pack up, we’re leaving tomorrow.”
“Good.” I went into the bedroom and locked the door behind me.
In the morning, I woke to find that he’d piled all the living-room furniture into the center of the room. At the very top of the pile, tacked onto the leg of an upturned chair, was the Ambassador’s bill for all the charges we’d accrued during our stay. In big red letters Scott had written, C/O UNITED ARTISTS.
He was still in the suit he’d been wearing the night before. When he saw me, he said calmly, “All right, then. Get dressed and let’s go.”
See us living in a columned behemoth of a house called Ellerslie, a plantation, almost, in the Delaware hamlet of Edgemoor. Three full floors of great, square, high-ceilinged rooms defy me to furnish them sufficiently. We pay only $150 a month to rent this twenty-seven-room Greek Revival home on a hill overlooking the Delaware River, though we’ll spend nearly that much each month in winter to heat it.
Beyond our royal lawn, the river flows past, broad and brown and silent, unconcerned with the little party gathered at its bank on this afternoon, the twenty-first of May. It’s 1927, but could be a hundred years earlier or a thousand or three; the river doesn’t know or care. It doesn’t care, either, about the dramas playing out among the people at this picnic, or about the one taking place in the sky far to the northeast, where Charles Lindbergh is attempting to cross the Atlantic Ocean to Paris with a single engine in a single flight.
If the river has a soul, it’s a peaceful one. If it has a lesson to impart, that lesson is patience. There will be drought, it says; there will be floods; the ice will form, the ice will melt; the water will flow and blend into the river’s brackish mouth, then join the ocean between Lewes and Cape May, endlessly, forever, amen.
Who’s listening, though? See us on the river’s bank, our picnic blankets outspread on the clover. Here are Scott’s parents, Molly and Edward, looking amazed at what their boy has acquired; here are Carl and Fania Van Vechten; here is a fellow Southerner, critic and novelist James Boyd; here are Lois Moran and her mother—who are the feted guests because we have been away from Hollywood for two entire months and Scott is badly in need of a fix-up, a dose of the girl whose “absolutely platonic affections” have for him become paramount. Does anyone besides the two of them and me know this is the case? The river says, Who cares? but I’m too distracted to pay it any mind.
The blanket is checkered in a picnic-proper red-and-white design. The ice bucket is kept filled by a pair of colored women, who Edward eyes with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. His world has always been white. We are post-sandwiches and pre-dinner, so our time is occupied with gin martinis and croquet.
Lois wears gingham and acts the innocent, as if the floorboards outside her bedroom don’t creak mere minutes after I wake in the night to an empty bed.
Scott is in a Brooks Brothers poplin suit that’s far sharper than the man inside it, the man who, only a few days earlier, wrote his agent that his novel, still only two chapters long, will be finished in July. This is the same man who, when July arrives, will interrupt his wife at the ballet barre she installed against his wishes to say, in a trembly panic, that he is on the verge of something horrible—either nervous breakdown or death. This he’ll do three times before August ends, and then to prevent further frights he’ll switch to a lower-nicotine cigarette and forswear the gingham girl. He’ll try to quit drinking and will succeed for two days, until he declares that the world is far too raw and bright for him to be able to settle down and work—he needs a little something to soften it and steady him. A new bad habit will be born, along with a series of stories for the slicks and lots of letters to his great good friend Ernest—but no novel. In winter, he’ll attempt to give a speech at Princeton, but will appear at the podium drunk and mute; he’ll arrive home—where his sister-in-law Tootsie is visiting—still crying tears of mortification, then fight with his wife about her breaking the liquor cabinet’s lock, and bloody her nose in the process.
My dress for this picnic is as brown as the river. As much as I’m succeeding in imitating the river’s appearance, I haven’t been able to assimilate its wisdom—and won’t, not until years later. Right now I’m the woman who, in an attempt to escape her husband’s life, has begun taking ballet lessons three days a week. She’s not needed at home; her husband directs the maids and the cook and the governess that both she and her daughter despise. And so the woman studies books about art and works on paintings in between dance lessons, then works on essays and stories when her painter’s eye is spent, and if any hours remain between these activities and sleep, she passes those hours in as thorough an alcoholic haze as can be achieved without ending up horizontal. Guests will come and go and come and go. Her husband will do the same. She will dance and paint and write—and many remarkable things will come of her efforts: beautiful painted furniture and lampshades that delight her daughter; publication, interviews, opportunities, acclaim. These are the good things she’ll hold on to later, when she’s in the thick morass of the bad.
The sight of one of the maids standing on the porch and waving a dish towel gets our attention. “It was on the radio!” she calls. “Mr. Lindbergh just landed his plane in Paris!”
We foolishly look up at the sky past the treetops, as if we can see the plane, see it descending lower, lower, then disappearing from our sight. It is the end of an astonishing journey, I think. All done now, nothing more to see.
Carmel Myers was a lovely, dark, sultry woman, a real beauty with hooded eyes and lips that were shaped in such a way that her mouth was always slightly open. When we ran into her in the lobby of our Genoa hotel in late March 1928, she said, “You’ve got to come meet Fred and me tonight for dinner.” Who could turn her down?
Fred was Fred Niblo, who’d directed Carmel in Ben-Hur. He was twice Carmel’s age, and married, not that it mattered. For all we knew, the two of them being in Genoa together was as coincidental as our seeing them there while en route to Paris for a visit.
“Excellent to see you again!” Fred said as we joined them at the hotel’s restaurant. He pointed to a name on the menu. “Have you ever tried this brandy? It’s an experience, I’m telling you. Four glasses,” he told the waiter in English, holding up four fingers and then indicating all of us. “Four glasses, two bottles,” he tapped the brandy’s name on the menu, then made a V with his fingers. “Doo-ay. To start.”
Carmel said, “We’ll toast to your return visit to Europe—how exciting to be spending the summer in Paris! How was the journey? Don’t you love traveling by ship? It’s so intimate, so romantic, don’t you think?”
Scott and I glanced at each other. Our answers, unsaid, were both Hell no. The weather had been terrible—rough seas, cold rain—and all we’d done for the first two days was argue about my intention to continue dance lessons when we got to Paris. Tiring of that, we spent the next seven days ignoring each other entirely, reconciling somewhat only on the last day, when relief at the sight of land gave us something in common again.
A small orchestra performed dance tunes I recalled from my childhood. Dinner was some kind of fish, some kind of vegetable—nothing special, and I didn’t eat much. The brandy, though, was memorable; I sipped it with pleasure, enjoying the little bit of escape a good drink can provide. Fred and Scott finished a whole bottle between them before dessert arrived.
Scott’s was a tart that looked richer than my stomach would be able to handle gracefully, so when he said, “It’s fantastic; here, try a bite,” I demurred.
“You go ahead. I’m full.”
He looked so disappointed. “But you can’t miss out on this, it’s delicious.”
“I’ll have a bite,” Carmel said, and she held those lips of hers open a little wider than usual.
Scott stared at her mouth, just stared like he was hypnotized, paralyzed, like that crimson O was the answer to all of life’s problems, or maybe just his prayers. I kicked his shin to break the spell, which worked; he blinked, then ate the bite himself as if he’d never even offered it to anyone at all. I looked frankly at Carmel; her expression was innocently amused.
There are women whose whole selves are engaged in being a public commodity, and Carmel was one of these. Every gesture she made, every syllable she uttered, the tinkle of her laughter, the way her dress’s fabric draped over her breasts, all of it was self-conscious and deliberate, designed to elicit admiration in women, desire in men. This isn’t to say I held any of that against her. Not a bit. I liked her, in fact. The way I saw it, she was a kind of living work of art, and funny and thoughtful besides. Was it her fault if she, as had happened to me, sometimes provoked the basest feelings in a man?
Scott and Fred made short work of that second bottle of brandy while Carmel’s and my glasses still held our initial pour. I’d found that drinking very much of any kind of alcohol still did bad things to my stomach. Carmel might have found that it did bad things to her self-preservation; I know that if I looked like her, I’d never let down my guard.
Fred entertained us with an ongoing routine of self-deprecating jokes about why Jews (like himself, and Carmel) were so prevalent in the entertainment world. Carmel rolled her eyes a lot, that perfect-O mouth open to express mock disapproval. The more brandy Scott drank, the less he was able or willing to tear his eyes from that red O—until I finally slapped the table and said, “All right, that’s it!”
Everyone jumped, and I went on, “Why are men so taken with women’s mouths? Is it just … you know, what they wish that mouth would do to them?”
Scott said, “Zelda!”
“What? You’re the one who’s fixated.”
Fred said, “No, no, it’s so much more than what you think. Consider: The mouth is the only bit of erotic landscape visible when a woman is dressed. It is the symbol of every moist cavern a woman possesses, which all men are bound to seek out, we have no choice.”
Scott looped his arm around Fred’s shoulders and said, “You see? You are an artist!”
“Who doubted it?”
This set the three of them off into a discussion about whether filmmaking was a legitimate art form and who thought so and who thought not, and whether talkies like last fall’s The Jazz Singer were going to alter Hollywood forever.
I’d resigned myself to waiting out the remainder of the night, my mind already wandering to subjects of more interest to me—Natalie’s salon; ballet with a serious, European teacher; brioches from my favorite boulangerie—when I noticed that Scott was staring at me.
“What? Why are you looking at me like that?”
He stood up and offered his hand. “Dance with me. It’s a waltz.”
I listened to the band; sure enough, they were playing “Kiss Me Again,” which I’d heard on the radio and loved.
“Go on,” Carmel said, nudging me. “Dance with your husband. Or I will.”
But Scott shook his head as I reached for his hand. “No one but Zelda for me.”
June 27, 1928
My dearest Second Sara,
It’s been three very full months in Paris. We’re staying at 58 rue de Vaugirard—the Left Bank, this time. I meant to write sooner, but as usual I’m burning my candles from both ends.
Scott meant for us to be close to you-know-who, and was disappointed when we arrived to find out that the great man’s new wife was with child and wanted to give birth on U.S. soil—any minute now, I’m told. So she shuttled them off to Key West, Florida, which I think is a perfect out-of-the-way spot for them to settle. His last letter to Scott was all about conquering man-sized fish.
I am conquering age and gravity with a new ballet teacher, Lubov Egorova, who came recommended by the Murphys—Honoria takes lessons at her studio, and now Scottie’s going, too. Egorova is also
Princess Nikita Troubetska
, isn’t that wonderful? And even better, she is a formidable teacher and the most lovely and lyrical of ballerinas. When I grow up, I want to be her.
Things are otherwise much the same, though Paris is not—there are hardly any French people left here. Every boulevard is packed with Americans whose mispronunciations make me sound like I’m native. Scott and I had a row last weekend and haven’t spoken since—but as we are going to Sylvia Beach’s dinner for James Joyce tonight, I’ll once again have to put on my
Mrs. F. Scott
costume and try to play nice with him and the other children. Whose life is this, anyway? Only when I’m sweating rivers perfecting my plies in the studio do I feel like a whole and real person. Is this how you felt when you were reaching the end with John?
Enough of that. Pray tell, when do you return to Paris? We’re here until September, then back to Ellerslie for the winter, during which Scott may or may not finish his novel.
Yours as ever—
A ballerina’s training looks nothing like the result of her work, her performance. In training she is bludgeoned repeatedly by words that have every bit the impact of a cudgel, if not more. She’s a prisoner, a slave by choice. She asks to be tortured; she tortures herself. More! Stretch! Higher! Taller! And at the end of every series of commands comes the most dreaded one: “Encore!”
Do it again!
In Madame Egorova’s studio, I spent my hours lined up at the barre next to fourteen other women, all of them clustered at the cusp of twenty years of age. The day my twenty-eighth birthday came, I observed it silently except for the huffs and grunts and sighs that corresponded with my motions. The other girls all knew I was older than they were, that I had a husband and a child. But if my arabesques looked like theirs, if my jetes were executed as crisply, if I could turn, and turn, and turn, and turn, and turn, and turn, and turn, I wouldn’t be bullied more than anyone else was, and I’d be allowed to stay.
The regimen was brutal—we were allowed no poisons in our bodies (meaning alcohol), no pollutants (meaning drugs), not if we wanted to be professionals. I loved it. I loved the strict rules, the strict diet, the aching muscles, the bleeding toenails, loved it all because Madame had answered my question “Pourrai-je devenir danseuse professionnelle?” with “Mais oui.” She said that if I hadn’t shown the potential to dance professionally, she would never have allowed me into the advanced class.
And I loved the regimen because it had done what the appendectomy had not quite managed to do: it cured me. My colitis was now completely gone.
Scott, however, was convinced that I adhered to the rules as a selfish excuse not to go out socializing with him. For example:
On that birthday afternoon, I arrived at the apartment twenty minutes before he did and collapsed facedown on the bed, clothes still damp, hair escaping wildly from the tight bun I forced it into for lessons. He’d been asleep when I left that morning and, as far as I knew, had then spent his afternoon with his friends watching fights at the American Club. He was wild about boxer Gene Tunney that summer, who he’d latched onto through playwright Thornton Wilder, that’s how these things went.
“Hello, birthday girl,” he announced when he came in. “I got us a dinner reservation at La Tour d’Argent, how about that? We’ll eat like royalty, watch the sunset color the Seine, see Notre Dame in twilight … The Murphys want us to come by afterward—Sara’s got a cake for you, and then they’re leaving again for Antibes tomorrow.”
Too much effort for too little reward, I thought, silently apologizing to Sara. I rolled onto my back. “What I would really like for my birthday is a bath.”
“A quick one, then.” He stripped off his tie and went to the wardrobe. “Fowler is going to meet us at the Ritz at six o’clock.”
I watched him take his shirt off. His undershirt was doing a poor job of hiding his fleshiness, which looked all the worse when compared with the lean body I saw in my reflection.
“Let’s do this on the weekend,” I said. “Class was really hard today. We did a lot of center work—you know, away from the barre, nothing to support you but you. Fouettes, mostly—a whipping sort of turn that begins with a plie, then a—”
“It’s your birthday now. You need a night out; no excuses.”
“Exhaustion’s not an excuse, it’s a reason.”
“Whatever it is, it’s interfering with our life. I’m glad you like dancing. It’s nice that you’re still good at it. It’s taking over, though. Maybe you don’t see that. Which is why,” he said, tugging my arm, “you need to listen to your husband and get yourself ready for a birthday celebration.”
I pulled my arm from his grip and sat up. “Since it’s my birthday, I ought to have the say—and I say all I want is a bath and then dinner here with Scottie and you.”
“You see!” I thought he might stamp his foot. “This is why—”
He stopped, so I said, “What? This is why what?”
“This kind of thing is why men like Pound and Ernest take up with other women.”
“Their wives were the opposite of me! I’m doing something—”
“Yes, something all about you. Pauline, she understands where she should be placing her extra attention.”
“Hadley was a slave to him! Don’t you go tryin’ to make it like his affair was her fault.”
“Regardless. Never mind. The point is, men need compensation for the pressures they face every day. They need to know that all their effort matters to the woman in their life. We give up our freedom, devote our entire selves to one woman—”
“—at a time, maybe—”
“—so is it too much to want that woman to make us her favorite activity? To accept our attentions and offerings with pleasure?”
I said, “What about Lois?”
He looked confused.
“Don’t you remember? ‘She’s so organized and focused,’ you said. ‘You could learn something from her, Zelda.’”
“Completely different situation. I wasn’t suggesting you take up a career.”
“She was … There was something … fresh about her. I admired her spirit.” His voice was wistful. “I wanted to admire yours, but you were always criticizing me, or the help. She looked up to me, just like you used to.”
She never had to live with you.
Tired of the argument, I got up and, as I passed Scott on my way to run my bath, said, “Please give Ludlow and Elsie my love and regrets. As for Sara, I’ll phone her and explain.”
“No, I won’t, and no, you won’t. I’m tired of this, Zelda. You’re not a ballerina, you know; you’re my wife. You need to start devoting your time to your actual duties.”
In the bathroom, I started the water and then returned to the doorway. In my most guileless voice I said, “Actual duties, right. We all should tend to our actual duties, that’s a good philosophy. Tell me, darling, how much writing did you get done today?”
He looked hurt, then angry. “You know, I always defend you when Ernest says that your jealousy and disruptiveness is ruining me. But he’s right. Jesus, he’s been right all along.”
Then he turned and left the room, slamming the door as he went.
Still in my clothes, I stepped into the tub, got down on my hands and knees, and put my head under the faucet, letting the noise and the rush of the water on my head cancel everything out.
Ellerslie again; early December 1928. I was in the chintz-bedecked southern parlor reading an article Sara Haardt had sent about Virginia Woolf’s recent Cambridge lectures, after I’d told her I’d been writing some new things—
Are women not subjugated, prevented by fathers and husbands from having the wherewithal to produce the stories of their experiences? Mrs. Woolf says, too, that so long as men are the primary voices of women’s experiences, Woman shall remain powerless in her own society. “False constrictions deny fulfillment of one’s talents,” Woolf claims, “and the world is poorer for it.”
Sara, ever urging me to become a feminist. But I was writing pretty much whatever I wanted to write; I had no dog in this hunt.
Scott was … well, he might actually have been upstairs writing something. One of his Basil Duke Lee stories, probably; the novel remained stalled where he’d left it before we’d sailed for the States—which is to say at chapter four or five.
Scottie was playing on the parlor floor with a set of Red Riding Hood paper dolls I’d made for her, but leapt up when a knock sounded on the door. She went running to answer it. Now seven years old, she had lost most of the little-girl chubbiness I’d loved so much and was becoming a leggy little colt who wanted to be involved in everything.
“Daddy!” she yelled from the foyer. “Telegram for you!”
Curious, I went to the foyer while Scott came down the stairs.
He opened the telegram and read it. “Oh, hell,” he said, then handed it to me and went to get his coat.
PHILADELPHIA PA 6 DEC 1928
MR. SCOTT FITZGERALD ELLERSLIE, EDGEMOOR DE REGRET ASKING. FATHER DIED AM STUCK IN PHILLY WITH BUMBY NEED CASH TO SEND HIM ON TO FL. ME TO OAKPARK. WIRE ME C/O NORTH PHILLY STATION THANKS ERNEST
Scott put on his coat and hat, saying, “I’m going to drive up to Philadelphia—I’ll probably stay overnight.”
“What? It’s at least two hours to Philly, why would you go there? Just wire it to him like he says.”
“My God, Zelda, are you heartless? The man’s father just died.”
He went off toward the back of the house where the kitchen and servants’ rooms were located, yelling for his so-called manservant, Philippe, a former boxer and taxidriver Scott had met in Paris and had imported here to work for us. “Get the car! Allons-y! We need to go help our friend Ernest!”
Scottie tugged my arm and whispered, “Mama, are they going to bring a dead man here?”
“No, lambkins. Daddy’s just going to lend money to Mr. Hemingway,” who always knows just who to ask when he’s short of funds.
I hated Philippe almost as much as I hated Hemingway. He was surly, Scott’s man only, as much a drinking buddy as a butler/chauffeur/handyman. When I practiced ballet at home, he sometimes lurked at the doorway, his expression unreadable. May and Ella, the maids, said he watched them, too; they’d begun keeping a pistol in their room, and I’d have done the same, except that if Philippe was home, Scott was, too, so there was no real danger for me. There wasn’t for the maids, either, so much as we all knew, but who could blame them for assuming the worst?
Between Philippe and haughty Mademoiselle Delplangue, the new governess Scott had hired, I felt like an unwelcome guest in my own home. Even Scottie complained that she didn’t like Miss Del, earning a stern lecture from Scott about having proper respect for adults.
When I later told Scott that I wanted him to send Philippe back and to replace Delplangue with someone who wasn’t a tyrant, he said, “If you’re forever too busy dancing to manage your own home, you’ll just have to live with the selections I make.”
I was starting to worry that I hated Scott, too.
January 30, 1929
We’ve just finished reading the article by you and Scott in the latest
. “The Changing Beauty of Park Avenue” is a brilliant essay, just beautifully done! We always felt you possessed underutilized literary talents, and this proves it. We hope you’ll keep writing. Congratulations to you both!
We Murphys have all been suffering greater or lesser versions of cough, fever, and malaise. Patrick’s lingered, but he’s well now. I’m to tell you that he misses Scottie—and will she be at Villa America this summer?
Will she? We heard from Scott that he’s setting his novel in Paris and that you’ll be returning this spring, in order to make sure he gets the details right. As it appears that Scott is mending his ways, we will be only too happy to see all of you wherever, whenever.
Much love to you and Scott and Scottie too—
Feb. 13, 1929
Your praise was very much welcomed—but despite the byline, the article is all mine, how about that? I have another coming in June in
, and have just sold them one more. Scott and his agent feel the joint byline is what enables me to place my work with these national magazines—which I agreed to, so as to use the money to pay for my ballet lessons. It’s an uneasy compromise but a necessary one.
Yes, we’ll be in Paris in March or April, depending on our route. I’ve been maintaining my dance lessons here, and I’m writing Madame Egorova to ask for a place again in one of her classes. I can’t afford to interrupt my training for yet another season of debauchery. Tell Patrick that Scottie can’t wait to see him—as we are awfully eager to see his parents.
Best love to all—
I think it was the painter Henri Matisse who’d told us about the Beau Rivage hotel in Nice. Scott, though he had no interest in Matisse’s work, hated to miss anything grand, so he booked us rooms for two weeks in March, as a landing point for our journey from the States. We’d go on to Paris from there.
Who Scott spent his time with during those two weeks I can’t begin to say. I hardly saw him between sundown and sunup, except for the night the police detective phoned to say they’d arrested Monsieur for assault and public drunkenness, and did Madame wish to come post his bail? Non, Madame did not wish to—Madame wished she could leave him there until such time as he would somehow regain some self-control, not to mention self-respect; she had a seven-year-old daughter asleep in her suite. Madame put a nice young bellhop into a cab, francs in hand, on a reconnaissance mission to the jail.
“No more,” I told Scott when I let him into the suite two hours later. His right eye was swollen half-shut and turning all sorts of shades of purple. Blood had caked along his hairline and was spattered on his shirt. Thank God Scottie wasn’t seeing him like this.
“I’m so sorry,” he said, and looked it. “But the son of a bitch said he wouldn’t read my work no matter what, that he had no interest in anything written by a fairy. Goddamn McAlmon.”
I felt for Scott, I truly did. “Aw, Deo, that’s rotten.” There was no lower blow for Scott than someone dismissing his work, especially for such a wrongheaded reason. “I don’t blame you for giving him what for.”
Scott’s face bloomed with surprise. “Thank you.” His grateful smile was an amusing contrast to his beat-up face.
“Of course. Now come on, let’s get you cleaned up. Paris tomorrow, all right?”
He nodded, and when morning came he was in good spirits again. He told Scottie, “Look at this—I went out for cigarettes last night and had a run-in with an orangutan.”
“Daddy,” she scolded him. “Orangutans live in Asia.”
“They do, but they have very long arms.”
In Paris, we took an apartment on the rue Palatine, in the same neighborhood as our last place, which made it feel like home. The lovely stone-and-iron Gothic building, the kind Paris does so well, was right by the remarkable Eglise Saint-Sulpice—one of those churches I’d once imagined might exist after I’d first seen St. Patrick’s.
Here, it was a five-minute walk to Natalie’s on rue Jacob, another five to the Seine, and a short cab ride to Madame Egorova’s beloved, timeworn studio. Perfect geography, if not perfect circumstances.
No surprise, the Hemingways were also back in Paris. What was surprising, to Scott anyway, was that he had written Ernest for his street address and gotten no reply. Then he’d written Max, who, gentleman that he is, delicately explained that Hemingway had asked him to keep his location private. Something about avoiding late-night serenades that could wake little Patrick or, worse, get Hemingway evicted.
Even knowing this, Scott wanted to pay Hemingway a visit first thing. So while I was once again immersed in unpacking and contacting agencies for household help that Scott would then approve or reject, Scott went out in search of Hemingway or a friend who’d lead him to Hem, whoever he found first. “It’ll be fine,” he said when I asked whether he ought to wait for the great man to find him. “He doesn’t mean anything serious by it, he’s just making a point.
“And anyway,” he added just before he left, “I’m certain it was Pauline who made him hold back the information. He’s still pretty torn up about his father’s suicide, you know. He’ll probably do anything she says.”
I’m sure Hemingway was indeed distressed that his father had put a revolver to his head and taken his life. Anyone would be. Hadley sure had been when her father had done the same—though she’d been young when it happened, so when she told me how awful it had been, she’d described it all with a quiet detachment and gentle regret. Gentle regret described her attitude about her divorce, as well, by all accounts. The woman didn’t have an excitable bone in her. Her ex-husband, on the other hand, needed to express himself in a wide variety of ways—one of which was a new book.
“Ernest channeled a lot of his grief into the story,” Scott said one evening in May, laying a copy of Scribner’s Magazine on the sofa next to me. “He’s calling it A Farewell to Arms, but I’m not wild about that title.”
I had a notebook in hand and was writing what would be my third short story for College Humor magazine, “Southern Girl.” Following the sale of my essays to them, we’d sold the first story of the series in March, and I was looking forward to its July appearance.
I glanced at the magazine, then said, “You know, this joint-byline business is making me cranky. I’m going to tell Harold to make ’em change it to just my name after the first two stories are out.”
“But they’re all joint efforts. You rely on my critiques and my connections to get them publishable and published.”
“If that’s so, why isn’t Hemingway’s first book also by you? Why isn’t Peggy Boyd’s?”
“You and I are a team.” Scott looked surprised that I didn’t know this answer. “You’re using our joint experiences, and what are essentially my ideas—or my themes, at least.”
Thinking of all the ways I’d assisted with his work, I said, “Then why isn’t my name also on your stories and books?”
“That’s not the same thing at all.”
“No? You tell me what the difference is, ’cause I sure don’t see it.”
“It’s the difference between the amateur and the professional. I’m a writer, it’s my profession, how I earn my living. Whereas you dabble at it, the same way you dabble in painting and dance.”
“So all those times when you wanted my help to work out a plot or—”
“I was trying out ideas on you. Thinking out loud, or surveying opinion. I didn’t need your help.”
He was so convinced of his view that there was nothing more I could say. And there was no one I could go to on my own; what agent would be willing to cross a woman’s husband—especially when her husband was F. Scott Fitzgerald? Like it or not, if I wanted to see my stories in the world, I had to dress them in Scott’s clothes.
I picked up the copy of Scribner’s, which had Hemingway’s name on the cover. They were serializing the book ahead of its publication. “Far as I’ve seen, Hemingway has put his energy into boxing, liquor, and hauling his most faithful drinking partner all around the Left Bank.”
“It’s his right to enjoy himself, now that—”
—his novel’s done.
Scott couldn’t say that, though, knowing that my retort would surely be Then what’s your rationale? So he said, “The first installment’s there in the magazine. Read it for yourself.” He went to the window and looked out, up the street toward the church. “Granted, the serialization leaves plenty to be desired. I told him to give me the manuscript and I’ll help him shape it up before the book goes to print.”
Another way of avoiding work on his own novel while asserting his role as mentor—which I suspected Hemingway was beginning to resent. In this, Hemingway and I had something in common.
Even with my resentment, knowing that Scott was struggling with his novel troubled me. It was a dilemma: his drinking habits prevented him from working on anything that required more than a day or two’s attention, while his inability to do more than produce more short stories demeaned him in his own eyes—which made him want to drink more. Getting tight soothed the insecurities that Hemingway had cued into so quickly and so well; but they came raging back if he indulged too much. I felt bad for Scott in one way, impatient with him in a whole bunch of others. Where was the man I’d married?
“Maybe I’ll read it when I’m done with this,” I said. But don’t hold your breath.
Scott turned. “I’m going to have a bath. We’re meeting the Callaghans tonight, don’t forget.”
“I did forget, and I intend to forget again. I’m tired, Deo, and I need to get this story done. Harold’s expecting it next week, latest.”
Scott held his hand out for mine. “All work and no play makes Zelda a dull wife.”
A dull wife. Like Hadley. Who was now a divorced wife, a replaced wife, a possibly happier but possibly destitute former wife, who now had to share her little boy with the woman who’d replaced her.
“Dull, huh? I’m going to go, but only ’cause I don’t appreciate that adjective.” I took his hand and let him pull me to my feet.
At Deux Magots, we ate dinner with Morley and his pretty new wife, Loretto. They’d gotten married in the spring and were still shiny with newlywed gloss—lots of hand-holding and sweet smiles and meaningful looks. Though he was short and stocky and had small teeth and a receding hairline, Morley was no question Adonis to his more attractive bride. Watching them made me sad for what Scott and I had lost. Not lost; misplaced, I decided. If it’s real, it must exist somewhere.
“Is your food all right?” Loretto asked.
“What? Oh, it’s fine, I’m sure. You’re real sweet to ask. Guess I’m just not hungry tonight.”
After the dishes had been cleared, Scott took the copy of Scribner’s from his pocket, saying, “Morley, you’ll want to hear this—it’s from Hemingway’s latest,” then read a short passage using full theatrical technique:
The town was very nice and our house was very fine. The river ran behind us and the town had been captured very handsomely but the mountain …
On Scott went, and then after he was done, he said to Morley, “Pretty damned impressive, isn’t it? Bet you never thought the Ernest you knew back in his Toronto days could produce anything like that. I’ve been working with him since, gosh, ’25—four years, now, and I think this shows how far he’s come.”
Morley shrugged. “Some might say so.”
“It’s in Scribner’s,” Scott said, with the air of superiority he often assumed when he was about one drink past jolly but still several away from fully obnoxious. “They only publish top work.”
I rolled my eyes. Probably everybody in the place did the same.
Morley said, “Well, ‘top’ is a matter of opinion, you should know that.”
Morley was seven years younger than Scott and had only one novel in print at that time, so Scott gave him a dismissive look. “You’ll learn.”
“I don’t need to ‘learn,’ I already know. It’s too deliberate, too forced. He’s trying to be something he isn’t.”
I said, “See, that’s just what I’ve been saying all along! What Hemingway really ought to be is an actor. Well, in my opinion he is an actor, and Bob McAlmon says—”
“That’s enough, Zelda,” Scott said, and told them, “She’s not good at holding her liquor.”
I said, “Don’t be stupid. I’m not drunk—and even if I was, my opinion would be the same.”
“You’re hardly qualified to judge—”
“I’ve had nearly as many things published as he has, not to mention my nine years of marriage to someone who never stops talking about writing, so how am I not qualified?” To the Callaghans I said, “Right now I’m working on a story for College Humor—they’re taking six of ’em, it’s a series, they’re about different girls who find themselves in all sorts of unusual situations and have to try to figure out what’s right and best—and they don’t always, but—”
Scott put his hand on mine. “You’re being a bore, don’t you think, all this talk about yourself?”
“What I am is bored with you trying to act like I’m boring,” I said, pulling my hand from beneath his and turning to the Callaghans. “Whatever you two do, make sure you avoid using the Fitzgeralds as role models. We used to be sorta like you, and then, wow, we just lost control; it was like flying a kite in a windstorm. So let that be a lesson. Now, what do you say we all go roller-skating over at—”
“I think you ought to call it a night.” Scott grabbed my wrist. “You’re obviously tired.”
“I’m not—” I began, and then, realizing he was handing me my escape, said, “Actually, yes, yes, I am, I’m purely exhausted—I just run on like this when I’m tired, and nice as it’s been to see you—and meet you, Loretto—I believe my dearest darling husband is right.”
“I’ll get you a cab,” Scott said, then signaled for the check. “Morley, Ernest’s sparring with some fellows over at the American Club. Why don’t you send your lovely wife home and we’ll join him there?”
“Another time,” Morley said.
We were all outside at the curb awaiting our cabs when a light rain began to fall. We opened our umbrellas while, fifty feet away, a boy no older than Scottie took a newspaper from the stack he was attempting to sell and held it above his head. The rain fell harder, fast becoming a deluge that turned the paper into a soggy hat.
Scott said, “Hang on,” and he went running off with the umbrella, leaving me in the rain.
I ducked in with Loretto and Morley, and we watched while Scott handed the boy his umbrella, then took out his wallet, withdrew some bills, and gave the money to the boy. Then Scott picked up the whole stack of soggy papers and said, “There, you did a great job tonight, go on home.” Whether or not the boy understood English, he understood that he’d been freed. Off he went into the wet Paris night.
As Scott started back toward us, Morley asked me, “Was that for the kid’s benefit, or ours?”
“Honey,” Loretto scolded, “now really, what a thing to say!”
Morley looked at me.
“I wish I knew,” I said.
Some hours later, a crashing noise woke me and I bolted upright, ears straining in the darkness.
“Shit!” Scott muttered from somewhere in the living room. Then came Scottie’s voice from down the hall, “Mama?” and the sound of Delplangue’s door opening, and then another crash as I was hurrying into the hall.
I pushed the switch, lighting the hallway. To my right, Delplangue was at Scottie’s door. I nodded to her, then went left, toward Scott, who had pitched face-first over a table and onto the Oriental rug. Beside him was a ceramic lamp, now in pieces.
“Are you all right? Get up.”
He groaned and lifted his head slightly, then let it drop forehead first against the rug. “I ’it the lamb,” he mumbled. “Goddamn lamb.”
Lamb? Oh—lamp. “Yes, it’s damned for sure. Now, come on.”
“Ernest.” He rolled onto his side and then blinked at the light from the hallway. He squinted at me. “Oh. ’M I home?”
“Lord knows how you made it here, but, yep, you’re home, and you need to get to bed before your daughter sees you like this.”
“Whyza lamb there?” he said sorrowfully.
“Never mind. Up.”
An eternity seemed to pass while he gathered himself sufficiently to get onto his knees, then his feet. Once up, he swayed to one side, then the other, and then his knees began to buckle. I barely caught him by putting myself in the path of his fall. “Holy Christ, Scott, how much did you drink?”
He swung his arms wide-open, saying, “’Smuch,” and knocking us both against the wall.
I pushed him upright, my teeth clenched with the effort. “When are you going to learn?”
“’E said ’s okay.”
Scott peered hard at me and didn’t answer.
I helped him to the bedroom, silently promising to pay Delplangue extra if she managed to invent a convincing story to explain the commotion to Scottie.
In bed again a while later, I couldn’t sleep. Scott was as bad as I’d ever seen him, and I was worried about alcohol poisoning. We’d all heard the stories about bums found dead in the gutters, having literally drunk themselves to death. One young fella, an artist who’d come over from Wales, had done it, too. With him it had been a drinking contest against a Frenchman twice his size. I could all too easily imagine a similar contest between Hemingway and Scott.
Lying on his stomach, Scott snored then stopped, snored then stopped, mumbled, snored, mumbled, snored. After a good while of this I grew more annoyed than worried, and finally I gave him a shove.
“Come on, roll over.”
“Mmmm,” he moaned, stretching one arm up past his head. “No more, baby, I can’t…” His tone was half-protest, half-pleasure. “’S so good but ’s wrong,” he mumbled. Then he chuckled this throaty, low chuckle and moaned again, more quietly … and then nothing, just sleep-heavy breathing.
My heart was thumping hard. No question about it: wherever he thought he was, sex was involved. I waited for him to say more. And waited. And waited. Then I got tired of waiting, and my thoughts started to drift like thoughts do when you’re not quite asleep in your bed in the dark middle of the night.
Just as I was beginning to slide into another of my dreams about flying, Scott shifted and moaned a little, waking me. He muttered, “C’mon, Ern, no…,” and then gave a sigh of pleasure.
All my senses snapped to attention, heart galloping, eyes wide. C’mon, Ern?
So there was that. And then there was this, a few nights later:
After having dinner together at Prunier’s pub, Scott and Hemingway went to the American Club, where Morley and Hemingway were going to square off. They gave Scott a stopwatch and told him to time the rounds: three minutes per round with a one-minute rest in between. The fighters stripped down, donned their gloves, climbed into the ring, and went at it.
The first round was mostly a warm-up, neither opponent prevailing, and Scott called time right at three minutes.
One minute rest.
Round two: now Hemingway was getting aggressive—more aggressive than he’d been when they’d sparred before, Morley later reported to Loretto; he wondered whether that wasn’t because Scott was there.
Morley had some actual boxing training in his past. Hemingway’s talents, such as they were, were proudly self-taught. Hemingway was swinging hard, but mostly missing. Morley blocked and jabbed and circled and dodged, and Hemingway cursed and spat. On it went, and then Morley drew his arm back and really let Hemingway have it. One swift, hard punch to Hem’s head and down he went.
“Oh my God,” Scott cried after looking at the stopwatch. “I let the round go four minutes!”
Hemingway said, “If you want to see the shit kicked out of me, Scott, just say so. But don’t say you made a mistake.” Then he picked himself up off the canvas and went storming off to the showers.
“Morley said it was like a lovers’ spat,” Loretto told me.
The apartment was empty, a rare event and one I intended to make the most of. I’d waited six days for this opportunity, the chance to pick the lock of Scott’s private trunk and see if proof of Bob McAlmon’s assertion was hiding inside.
With two hairpins and a recollection of instructions my brother had shared with me twenty years earlier, I worked on that tiny steel lock. Outside, taxidrivers blew their horns and vendors called out from their carts and the wind changed direction, blowing the bedroom’s long, gauze curtains in, making them dance over me like ghosts—and still I crouched there, determined to get at the truth. Then the lock clicked open suddenly, and I tipped onto my backside.
Gathering myself, I opened the trunk’s lid and saw, first, the ordinary things I’d anticipated, given that I’d seen Scott using this trunk for years: stacks of journals, cardboard boxes, folders, notebooks, files. His unused overseas cap was in here, along with photo albums and scrapbooks begun when he was a boy.
The most recent journal sat on top. Inside its cover, Scott had written
F. Scott Fitzgerald
14 November 1928—
We’d been at Ellerslie in November. I turned the page and began scanning the scrawled musings for Hemingway’s name.
A lot of what was there concerned Scott’s thoughts on his works-in-progress, along with reminders like Tell John to try Scribner’s mag and Harold: $400 but keep pressing, and notes such as ’Flu two weeks. Nothing real deep, and no mentions of his pal, beyond E’s father suicide $100; Re-reading in our time; E $50 for bet, lost Tunney. There were several other notes about lending E money. There were even more about the money Scott had asked Max or Harold to deposit into one account or another. I blinked at these without taking time to calculate.
Tucked along one side of the trunk was a folder of letters from Hemingway. Here, then, would be the evidence. I sat down on the rug with my back to the bed and began to read. The letters—there were dozens—dated all the way back to July of 1925, when Hemingway had gone to Pamplona. It was no surprise that Scott had saved them; inside the trunk were other folders containing all the letters I’d written him, all the letters he’d gotten from his parents and his sister, his correspondence with Max, with Harold, with the Princeton boys, with just about every English-speaking writer on the planet. What surprised me was that Hemingway had written so many.
In that first one, he’d said,
I’ll bet heaven for you would be an unending cocktail party with all the best and powerful members of the best powerful families there. A wealthy and faithful bunch they’d be. Your hell would be some seedy bar that had run out of booze where the unfaithful husbands sit waiting forever for a drink.
Whereas for me heaven has the corrida and my own stream full of trout; nearby I’d have two houses, one with my family and my most loving wife and the other full of beautiful women all seeing to my needs and I’d have all the worthless lit magazines printed on soft tissue and stocked in the toilets.
Most of the letters were like this. They were casual, humorous, and surprisingly personal. Truly, they were the letters of a good friend. Only the more recent ones seemed edgier, critical, moody. The most damning things I found were endearments that might, through a certain lens, seem a little too chummy—but those were plainly in jest, as were the occasional closings like With salacious sincerity, Ernestine. A few times Hemingway had said things like I wish to hell I could see you—but I’d written things like that to my friends and that didn’t make me a lesbian. On the other hand, I sure do miss you. I’ve been trying and trying to get down there to see you concerned me. Did men who weren’t fairies write to each other this way?
Occupied as I was, I hadn’t noticed the shifting daylight, nor did I hear the apartment door open and close. Not until the sound of footsteps right there in the room caught my attention did I even glance up from the letters, which I’d spread on the floor all around me.
“Find what you’re looking for?” Scott asked.
I was too saturated with Hemingway’s words to be startled, I guess, because all I did was look up at Scott and say, “Are you two in love?”
He leaned down and took all the letters and tucked them back into the folder. His hands shook, and I smelled wine on his breath as he said, “He’s my good friend, Zelda. Christ, now you’re after us, too?”
“The other night—”
“What about it?” To my practiced ear, he sounded defensive.
“You were talking in your sleep. About him. And you sounded … amorous.”
“That’s crazy.” He closed and locked the trunk, then turned to leave the room.
I followed him into the hallway. “You were drunk—do you even recall coming in and breaking that lamp? Sloppy drunk.” Throat tight, the pressure of tears behind my eyes, I said, “Maybe even drunk to the point of unedited honesty.”
Scott turned. “What did you say?”
I was crying now, couldn’t seem to help it. “I said, maybe McAlmon isn’t the ‘goddamned liar’ you two call him.” Scott’s eyes widened. “Maybe you’re both … fairies, and, and”—I drew a breath as his eyes widened even farther—“and it could be you just hide the truth in plain sight the way so many of the other fairies try to do.”
Scott shook his head as if to clear it. “You really are insane. You don’t have one shred of evidence—”
“You said his name a couple of times, and you said, ‘No more, baby,’ and you were moaning, and you’ve been just, my God, consumed with him and his career—”
“Stop it.” He grabbed my upper arm. “Do you hear me? I am not a fairy. Ernest is not a fairy. If I ever…” He paused, then swallowed and said, “If you ever so much as even accuse us in your thoughts, let alone suggest such a thing to anyone, I swear I will take my daughter and you’ll never see her or me again.”
“I’m sorry,” I cried. “It just seemed like … I mean, you don’t want me anymore.”
He released my arm. “What man would want a woman who thinks he’s a secret homosexual? Not to mention all you talk about is ballet and artists and—Jesus, Zelda—”
“Nothing,” he said, his voice swollen with disgust. “I’m going out.”
He left me standing there in the hallway, the whole encounter spinning in my head. I had to brace my hands against the walls, could barely walk a straight line to the sofa.
When my emotions finally settled, though, I thought I understood what was probably true: When it came to Scott’s affections, I’d been displaced if not replaced and had only made the situation worse by confronting him. Probably, Scott loved Hemingway truly but platonically. Probably, he couldn’t see that Hemingway’s feelings weren’t so clean. That was the thing with Scott: if he loved you truly, he had trouble seeing your flaws. What a gift, I thought. What a curse.
Probably, I had my answers. And yet I was no happier than I’d been before.
A Saturday in early July: I was with three of my ballet classmates at a cafe when Pauline rolled her pram up past our table and parked it beside a broad ivy arch. Even in her Patou suit, Pauline looked harried. Motherhood hadn’t otherwise changed her, not visibly at least; possibly she’d made a connection between Hadley and motherhood and Hemingway’s roving eye. Predictable though it seems now, she didn’t know—none of us knew—that it wouldn’t matter a bit what she did or tried to do to keep that eye focused on her. She was trying to be his best wife, the same aspiration all of us had been taught to aim for. Which didn’t mean I liked her any better.
“Hi,” she said. “I saw you here and thought I’d just stop over and see whether you and Scott will be at Sara’s latest Dinner-Flowers-Gala next week, before everyone runs off for the summer.”
“That’s our plan.”
“What are you going to wear? I just bought this sweet little shift, Drum said it’s darling on me, but I don’t know—it’s rose-colored linen, with a nice contrasting—”
“Sounds perfect. I don’t know what I’m wearing; I guess I’ll decide that day.”
Pauline said, “Sure, I know you’re so busy these days with your dance lessons. You look fantastic; I just know that everything you could wear will look gorgeous on you. And of course Sara will wear something tres elegant, and the apartment will be all decked out with flowers, and there’ll be a fine band, and, well, you know Sara, nothing halfway.”
I nodded. “Yep.”
The baby started fussing. Pauline stood, saying, “Just like his father, he hates to sit still. I’m off to the market, then.”
I ignored the invitation in her voice, the longing for me—or someone, anyone—to join her. If she was lonely, well, she’d made that bed for herself when she ended her single-girl-at-Vogue life while stealing another woman’s husband.
I visited with Tom Eliot and Jean Cocteau at Natalie’s salon that night, along with a group that included two women journalists who both were engaged and told me they intended to keep their jobs after marriage.
“It can be done,” one said. She was tall and solid, with brown eyes that dared anyone to argue with her—about anything, I suspected. “You just have to set the ground rules up front.”
“Women couples are doing it,” said the other. She was petite, and as thin and pale as Sara Haardt. “They don’t put restrictions on each other’s work.”
“And there are plenty of married women working in factories or as domestics,” said the first. “Sure, it’s because the family needs the cash, but so what? Their husbands accept this. Mine will, too.”
I said, “I envy you two, getting married now. Ten years ago when I was engaged—well, I was in the American South, so there’s that—but still, we were just getting around to having such high-minded ideals.”
Leaving them, I went to find Natalie, thinking, Women couples. They seem to have all the answers.
How funny, I thought, that Natalie was a lesbian, and Romaine was, and Djuna Barnes, and Sylvia Beach, and this didn’t bother me at all. Yet I’d twisted myself up into knots wondering about Scott and Hemingway, thinking that if they were lovers, it would be a disgusting, horrible thing. How could I have one standard for the women and a different one for men? Or maybe it wasn’t different for all men; I liked Bob McAlmon just fine, and I adored Cole—though we had been startled when Sara told us, somewhat reluctantly, that, yes, the rumors were true, he preferred fellas in bed. At the moment, he was doing a poor job of hiding a new affair with some young man, almost as if he didn’t care whether everyone knew.
Homosexuality did seem unnatural, and puzzling, too, but to each his—or her—own, that’s the way I’d thought of it. Maybe my standard was just different for the one man who was supposed to be mine.
Leaving all of that aside, I saw Natalie and followed her into the kitchen, where I told her about having seen Pauline earlier that day. I said, “She seems stuck, if you ask me. Stuck, and a little desperate.”
Natalie refreshed her drink, saying, “It’s a matter of making a full commitment to one’s life—and if you can take an honest assessment without hating me for it, I’d like to observe that you, my dear, seem stuck, too.”
“Are you a dancer? Are you a writer? Are you a painter, a mother, a wife?”
She smiled. “And Pauline right now is several things, too. But look around us: when you see any of these people, don’t you identify them by one label—the one they themselves have chosen? Me: poet. Djuna: journalist. Sylvia, there: book vendeuse. We are all other things as well, but these are us foremost.”
“I guess I see what you mean. But you all don’t have to worry about husbands.”
“Maybe you should stop worrying about yours. What are you doing to help refine yourself?”
“Well, my dance company had a recital last week, a small one, and Madame gave me a featured role. Representatives from all the top European ballets were there.”
“So you hope to dance professionally despite your marriage, yes? This is good. Be a model for other wives. Lead.”
“I’m too selfish to lead, don’t you think? Scott won’t have it anyway, and I can’t afford to leave him. I don’t want to have to leave him. I want him to quit being so stubborn.”
Natalie winked. “You may as well ask him to quit being a man.”
That night I lay in bed alone, sleepless, restless. Scott was out who knew where doing who knew what with who knew whom. I shoved that thought away, and in its place came bits of my conversations from earlier:
You know Sara, nothing halfway.
Whereas I did everything in my life halfway, or worse.
You, my dear, seem stuck, too.
And I was. What did I commit to absolutely? In my heart I was fully committed to Scottie, sure, but in my days I was, at best, ten percent. Everything else—Scott, painting, writing, dance, friendships, family—got less of my heart by far, even if I did give it more of my time. How did Sara manage nothing halfway? Was it built into her character? Or something she’d aspired to when she was younger, maybe? Something she’d worked at and then achieved? What chance did I have? Surely Sara had been born perfect.
For days, while at my morning and afternoon dance classes, while I ate, while I bathed, while I tried but failed to sleep, I considered how I might become more like the women I respected and admired. Surrounded as I was by such ambitious, accomplished women, I couldn’t ignore the little voice in my head that said maybe I was supposed to shed halfway and do something significant. Contribute something. Accomplish something. Choose. Be.
I was a Sayre, after all; a woman, yes, but still a Sayre; my life was intended to mean something beyond daughter-wife-mother. Wasn’t it?
Oh, just let it go, a different voice urged me. What difference could your puny achievements possibly make?
All the difference, the other voice answered.
Which of my many possible lives did I want to define me? Which one could I have?
And the question that troubled me most: Was it even really up to me?
September, Cannes—so that Scott could do research for the novel and try, again, to write it. He’d been shoring up his eroding confidence with stories that now brought an astonishing four thousand dollars apiece, but always there was the novel, the novel, he needed to write the novel. And it had to be phenomenally good, he said; critics would expect a masterpiece, given that more than four years had elapsed since Gatsby.
We had come to Cannes in July. To keep up my training, I took lessons with ballet master Andre Nevalskaya, who’d worked for the Nice Opera. I’d done three recitals in Cannes and Nice, earning no money but a lot of admiration and praise. At each performance’s conclusion, I faced the applauding audience and thought, I am a dancer.
This day, I’d just finished class and returned to our lovely rental, Villa Fleur des Bois, to find an intriguing envelope awaiting me. Like the villas we’d rented on the Riviera before, Villa Fleur was a spacious collection of marble-floored rooms with pretty millwork and ironwork and wide French doors. There were twice as many rooms as we needed, most of which sat unused. We never economized; the very word economy was abhorrent to Scott’s thinking. I’d once heard him tell Gerald, “Truly big men spend money freely. I hate avarice, but I hate caution even more.”
The letter’s postmark read Naples, Italy, but it was the sender’s name, Julie Sedowa, that got my attention.
23 Sept. 1929
Having seen your July recital in Paris and last month’s in Nice, it is my distinct pleasure to write you this morning with an invitation to join the San Carlo Opera Ballet Company as a premier dancer and soloist. We first wish to offer a very worthwhile solo number in
, and think you would find our theater to be a magnificent venue in which to perform regularly.
Should you decide to join us for the duration of the season, we can offer you a monthly salary which we will discuss. It cannot be a tremendous amount unfortunately, as we do not have a budget such as the Ballets Russes, but the experience would be of great value itself, and also, Naples is inexpensive. One can find good lodging and board for only 35 lire a day.
Please advise soonest as to your disposition in this. We would be most pleased to have you.
Director, San Carlo Opera Ballet Company
I sank into a nearby chair for support and then read the lines again. Here it was, just handed right to me, my chance to be a professional dancer. This offer had to be fate.
How, though, to tell Scott? His routine since we’d come to Cannes was not so different from the way he’d been doing things for a long while, except that now he drank vodka before, during, and after his afternoon writing sessions, when he’d shut himself away in the villa’s tiny maid’s quarters and work until about eleven at night. He went out afterward and usually didn’t return for a day or sometimes two. We hardly saw each other—even when we were in the same room.
Scottie and her governess came in and found me still sitting in the hallway. “Mama!” my girl said, and wrapped her arms around me. She wrinkled her nose and pressed it to mine. “You smell like salt and apples.”
“You’re making me hungry.”
She sat down on my lap. “I told Mam’selle that I should have sailing lessons, and she says I need to ask my papa. Is he home?”
“I’m not sure, I just got in. Sailing lessons?”
“And un petit bateau.”
“Will you ask him?” she said.
“Your chances are better if it comes from you.”
I waited until after Scottie had sought him, found him, and softened him with her charms and her charming request before going to talk to him myself. Besides the obvious advantage of finding him in a better mood, I needed time to frame my more unusual request, see if I could put things in such a way as to make him think that my joining the San Carlo ballet would only benefit him, and in ways he might not have considered before. Something like I can be your wife and a dancer, both. We’ll be leaders, Deo, we’ll be relevant, modern, we’ll set the trends again.
Scott was sitting on a sofa in the little conservatory, his feet up on the cushion, a neat pile of handwritten pages resting on his thighs. The doors stood open to the stone-paved courtyard, where red bougainvillea competed with honeysuckle and purple clematis for space and glory.
He had a glass of something clear in his hand and a tender smile on his lips. “I told her she can have the lessons,” he said when he saw me, “but that the boat will have to wait until she’s proven her mettle.”
“That’s both generous and fair.” I lifted his feet and sat down in their spot, then let them rest on my lap. This was the most intimate we’d gotten in months. “Now I have something to ask. You know how you’re always saying I just dabble at my interests? Well, I’m a dabbler no more: I’ve been invited to dance with a Naples company, and I want to take the job.”
I handed Scott the letter. His lips tightened as he read. Then he sighed and handed the letter back. “It’s flattering, I’m sure, but you can’t run off to Italy to become a dancer.”
“I thought we would go—you see where she says it’s cheap to live there. It’d just be for a year. Not even a whole year. Eight months, I think the season is.”
He was shaking his head. “Our life is in France. And I hate the Italians—remember our first trip to Rome, when they tried to arrest me for stealing a bicycle?”
“You did take it without permission. Who cares about that anyway? That was Rome eight years ago, this is Naples now.”
“I have a book to finish. I don’t have time to find another apartment and another set of servants and another governess if Delplangue won’t go, all while you’re off playing ballerina for at most a couple thousand lire a month.”
“‘Off playing ballerina’? It’s a professional position—they’re offering me a solo. I’m good, Scott, and I want to make something of my life while I’ve still got this”—I indicated my body—“to work with. And besides, if we do this, we’ll be trendsetters again. We’ll be—”
Scott pulled his feet off my lap and got up. “Oh, you want to ‘make something’ of your life, do you? Scottie and I, the Fitzgerald family, all that is nothing to you—I see. Just one more thing you dabbled in on your way to your serious, professional life in the ballet.”
“What is wrong with you?” I said, my temper rising. “I have trailed you all over this continent and back and forth across an ocean and across another continent besides, all so that you can chase movie stars and drunken friends while you drown yourself in liquor, and fuss about your sad circumstances, and pretend you’re going to write another book. And now I ask you for one thing that matters, one thing that’s about my ambitions, something that could also put you at the forefront again, and this is what I get? You hate that I might succeed while you … you rot away from the inside out!”
Scott pointed at himself. “I am in charge of this family, Zelda. If not for my blood, my sweat, my—my—my determination, you’d be nobody special, just another aging debutante wasting away the years somewhere in Alabama, getting fat off of biscuits and preserves. It’s my life that made yours worthwhile! And yet all I get is selfish ingratitude.”
We glared at each other then, with the kind of hatred that comes from being deliberately wounded in one’s softest, most vulnerable places by a person who used to love you passionately.
“So that’s your position.” I rose to my feet. He nodded, so I said, “All right. Don’t come to Naples, but I’m going. I’m sure I can find a place that will suit Scottie and Del—”
“Scottie’s not going. You’re not going to abandon me and take my daughter with you.”
“Abandon you? It’s a few months apart, so that I can maybe become the kind of person every thinking woman these days would expect F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘First Flapper’ to be.”
“Then they’re as misguided as you are. All of that flapper business was just to sell books. When are you going to understand that what I want is for you to get your priorities straight?”
Translation: Worshipping me should be your only desire.
I said, “When are you going to become someone who deserves to be my priority?”
After making some discreet inquiries, I learned that the law, being less progressive even than Scott, would favor him in all matters relating to Scottie’s custody. If a woman left the marriage, the father kept the children—unless he chose otherwise, and Scott never would.
I wrote back to Julie Sedowa with my regrets.
My short story “The Girl with Talent” was written just before we left Cannes in October—right before we learned that, back home, the stock market had crashed. What’s more, Bunny had checked himself into the Clifton Springs Sanitarium in upstate New York because of a nervous collapse.
Scott’s face was bloodless as he laid down Bunny’s letter. “He says it’s ‘alcohol and panic attacks and a complete inability to work.’ God.”
“Bunny, really?” I said. It seemed so out of character, and he’d seemed so … Bunny-like when we’d seen him the previous winter—but then what did we know about him and his life, really? We hardly understood our own.
As for the markets, well, if you’d never managed to invest, you had no money to lose.
Harold got me eight hundred dollars for my story, which, in Paris again, I used for the coming winter’s lessons with my beloved Madame Egorova. Dance now became a different, more obsessive escape for me. My hopes of being a first-rate professional persisted—I might yet get on with a company here in Paris, which would make it harder for Scott to protest. But I also couldn’t stand to be still.
My mornings began with one poached egg and one small cup of coffee. I dressed in my tights and leotard, my leggings, my sweaters, my skirt, my boots. I bound up my hair, then wrapped myself in my coat and scarf. Instead of taking a taxi, I walked through the Parisian winter mornings, sometimes stopping to buy a scarf or a book to give to Madame, who had become the shining light that powered my world. Madame understood me, she encouraged me, she made me believe I had every reason to continue striving for perfection.
For eight or nine hours each day, I trained with the other girls, forcing my body to defy time and gravity and metabolic needs. I shredded my muscles and taped them back into place and went on throwing myself across the worn wood, eyeing my reflection in the wall of mirrors with admiration and loathing. I needed to jump higher. I needed to be thinner. My body’s lines were still a little off. Failli, cabriole, cabriole, failli … thirty times. Fifty. Afterward I went home, ate a brioche, had a bath, and went to bed. My sleep was deep and it was dark, bottomless, empty, cold. The next day I awoke and repeated the routine.
On the weekends, I practiced in the studio on my own, then went home in the afternoon to paint and to write.
A Millionaire’s Girl
Twilights were wonderful just after the war. They hung above New York like indigo wash, forming themselves from asphalt dust and sooty shadows under the cornices …
Scott was writing, too, claiming progress on his novel. Life became calm if not happy. Stagnant is a better word; that’s how I felt when, for example, I followed Scott to “an important gathering” at Gertrude Stein’s on a Saturday in December and sat at the tea table with Alice and Pauline while the people who mattered—Scott, Hemingway, Ford Madox Ford—talked Art with Miss Stein. The woman I’d been at twenty would have tried to shake things up; the woman I was now, at twenty-nine, was, instead, inert.
“You look awfully wrung out,” Pauline told me. “Don’t you agree, Alice? Drum says you spend all your time at lessons and Scott’s awfully cross about it—you should spend more time at home if you don’t want to lose your husband.” She leaned closer and added, “Zelda, I say this as your friend: you really do need to gain some weight. Your clothes, well, they’re hanging on you. It’s not flattering.”
“What do you know about Scott or me or ambition or purpose?” I said. “You gave your life away just to be Hemingway’s whore.”
Pauline jerked back as if I’d slapped her. “Suit yourself.”
In February, the nuisance cough I’d been trying to ignore turned into a hacking cough, with fever. I coughed my way through my morning routine and through my lessons and through the evening and through the night. Everyone around me urged me to go to the doctor, go to bed, do something—and a part of me understood that, yes, I should, yet I went on this way for two weeks, dazed, unable to exist in the world if I didn’t persist.
Scott stopped me at the door one morning. “We’re going to Africa. Just the two of us. You’ve got to take a break and get away from this climate before I get a call from Egorova saying you’re dead.”
“Some new ground. It’ll be good for us, don’t you think?”
I just blinked at him. Apparently no, I didn’t think, not very clearly or very well.
Algiers, Biskra, camels, beggars in white sheets; black ants, Arabs, desert, strange cries in the night. All of it as if experienced through a haze of black gauze. No conversation. No love. No sex, even. Why did we go? I had no idea.
See me post-Africa: dancing again, little food, sometimes vodka—to help me finish “A Millionaire’s Girl.” The vodka is a writing technique I’ve borrowed from Scott.
Harold somehow mistakes the story as Scott’s and sends it to the Post. They love it! he reports by cable, and says they offer the now-usual four thousand dollars. “If it runs under Scott’s name only,” Harold tells us, after I make Scott phone him about the mistake. Scott says, “We need the money, Zelda, and what’s the difference? You know the story’s excellent or they’d never take it. That’s what counts.”
“Is that what counts?” I ask Gerald, who sits beside me in a movie house. Sara is on my other side. It’s an April afternoon, a day in a week in a month in which I’ve felt agitated all the time, and two beats off the rhythm of everything around me. Scattered. Fearful. Restless.
I’ve ignored this, excused it, chalked it up to sleep deprivation, to irritation with Scott, to the pressure of new recitals that might yet land me a new offer, a new chance to get my way.
“I danced beautifully last night,” I tell Gerald. “I could support myself that way, you know.”
Gerald, trying to pay attention to the movie, whispers, “Sorry, what?”
“Money. I could make my own money.”
“What are you talking about?” He’s frowning at me, a strange, long, exaggerated frown.
“Sorry. I was thinking of something.”
“Could you think quietly?” he says kindly.
I love you, Gerald, I think. Watching him, I feel strange, bleary. Is his mouth misshapen? Something is happening to his face—or is it just the theater’s darkness, the strange light bouncing off the screen?
When I turn back toward the screen, it’s difficult to focus. I blink at the shapes, which seem to be forming into something large, something solid, something with long legs—tentacles? An octopus, it’s an octopus, it’s propelling itself off the screen! I dive to the floor, sure that the beast will snatch me up and haul me off. “Help me,” I whimper.
Sara’s voice comes from far away: “Zelda, darling, Zelda, it’s all right. Is she taking medication?”
“How should I know?”
—What’s going on?
—Should we send for a doctor?
—Is that woman drunk?
—We ought to get her home.
The floor is cold under my hands and knees. I’m shivering. I let Gerald help me upright while I cast about for signs that I’m safe. “The octopus—”
“What octopus?” he says.
I risk a glance at the screen. A man and woman are speaking. I recognize them from a movie poster for Hold Everything.
“Hold everything,” I say, feeling muddled, dazed.
Sara takes my arm. “Yes, that’s right—but we’ll come back to see the rest, maybe tomorrow. You feel clammy, darling; we’re going to get you home and make sure you’re not coming down with something.”
“Yes, good, thanks.”
Outside, the muddled feeling eases a little amid the evening traffic, and by the time we get to my apartment, I’m more exhausted than terrified. Or rather the terror has seeped into my skin, making my entire body buzz with the knowledge that I am no longer in full control of what’s going on inside my head.
“I’m fine, honest,” I tell the Murphys. “Tired, but fine. I must’a been half-asleep, is all.”
“A bad dream,” Sara says, nodding. “Get some rest.”
But I am coming down with something, something I’m too frightened to talk about, something I persuade myself will go away if I just work a little harder to get my leaps high enough, my turns sharper, my lines a little cleaner.
I dance mornings, I dance afternoons, I roam the streets in search of … nothing. Colors all look wrong to me, too bright. Music lives in my head like a ferret running on a wheel. My dreams are of ballet moves: soubresaut, sous-sous, rond de jambe, releve; it doesn’t matter that there’s no sense to it, no logic or flow. I don’t even notice now. It’s all one with my waking dream, with the echoing voices rising from flower stands, the undulating pavement beneath and around me, the desperate desire for Madame’s attentions, caresses, adoration—Please, someone must love me—and the horrible sensation, just before my collapse, that the world is running out of oxygen.
I can’t breathe, can’t breathe, can’t—
Published in April, 2013.