There were many people and many sources OF information that were of great help to me during the six years of research and writing of this biography. Some of them I can and will thank on these pages. But for various reasons I am not able to directly express my gratitude to others who were just as helpful. I was fortunate enough to have had certain rare privileges of research extended to me which enabled me to draw on materials previously unavailable.
If it had not been for the early encouragement and backing of Lewis Leary when I was a graduate student at Columbia University I might never have begun. I cannot thank him enough. Let me also thank Joseph V. Ridgely for his sound counsel and friendship. And William York Tindall, who, one spring when I needed it, gave me his office to work in; and John Unterecker, who read an early and somewhat informal draft of part of this manuscript.
Of the more than one hundred people I interviewed and corresponded with, I am especially indebted to Mrs. Harold Ober, the late Doctor John Neustadt, Mrs. Sara Murphy and her husband, the late Gerald Murphy, Arthur Mizener, Judge and Mrs. John Biggs, Jr., Paul McLendon, H. Dan Piper, the late Dorothy Parker, Mrs. Laura Guthrie Hearne, Georges Poull, Sheilah Graham, C. Lawton Campbell, Doctor Oscar Forel, Mrs. Eleanor Browder Addison, the late Carl Van Vechten, and to Robert Taft for the loan of and permission to quote from Alexander McKaig’s diary.
I am also grateful to people who were kind enough to share with me their impressions of the Fitzgeralds, among them: Admiral Edouard Jozan, the late Andrew Turnbull, Dame Rebecca West, Edmund Wilson, Zack Waters, Sir Shane Leslie, Mrs. Bayard Turn-bull, John Dos Passos, Mrs. Lois Moran Young, Gilbert Seldes, Princess Lubov Troubetskoy-Egorova, Mrs. Isabel Owens, Mrs. Robert S. Carroll, Miss Mary Porter, Landon Ray, Mrs. Livye Hart Ridgeway, Mrs. May Steiner Coleman, Mrs. H. L. Weatherby, Malcolm Cowley, Mr. and Mrs. Clifford Durr, Mrs. C. O. Kalman, Gwinn Owens, Miss Sara Mayfield, Miss Lucy Goldthwaite, the late Leon Ruth, Fred Ball, Louis Whitfield, Mrs. Isabel Amorous Palmer, Mrs. John Hume Taylor, Calvin Tomkins, Mrs. Paul Scott Mowrer, Mrs. Helen F. Blackshear, Mme. Claude Amiel, Charles Angoff, and Mr. and Mrs. Archibald MacLeish.
The New York Public Library has generously granted me the privilege of working in the Frederick Lewis Alien Room, and to the boys in that excellent back room, Peter Burchard, Bill Fisher, Jim Flexner, David Hawke, and Frank Lundberg, I can only say that my education was deepened and whatever art I have was sharpened by your good talk and company. I am also indebted to the Princeton University Library for extending all sorts of privileges to me during five summers of work. My thanks to Alexander P. Clark and Mrs. Wanda Randall for giving so freely of their knowledge and assistance.
To Vesta Svenson who first suggested that I read Fitzgerald, to Mrs. Toni Milford who offered intelligent advice, to Judith Gustafson who typed for more years than we like to recall and to Nancy Wechsler for her counsel in my behalf, my best thanks. A final note of gratitude to my editor Genevieve Young for her constant belief and her clear head.
And to the only person who was behind me the whole way, who lived with me as I lived with and tried to shape the materials of this book, Ich bin din…
Biography is the falsest of the arts.
—F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, General notes to The Last Tycoon.
When I was young in the midwest and had dreams of my own, it seemed to me a fine thing to live as the Fitzgeralds had, where every gesture had a special flair that marked it as one’s own. Together they personified the immense lure of the East, of young fame, of dissolution and early death—their sepia-tinted photographs in rotogravure sections across the country: Scott, in an immaculate Norfolk jacket, gesturing nervously with a cigarette, Zelda brightly at his side, her clean wild hair brushed back from her face. But it was not her beauty that was arresting. It was her style, a sort of insolence toward life, her total lack of caution, her fearless and abundant pride. If the Fitzgeralds were ghostly figures out of an era that was gone, they had nevertheless made an impact on the American imagination that reverberated into my own generation. I wanted to know why.
In the spring of 1963, when I had just turned twenty-five, I began to gather reminiscences from people who had known the Fitzgeralds well, people who had shared a summer house, or a childhood. I remember Gerald Murphy turning to me once and saying suddenly, “Zelda was an American value!” He said it almost in fury, as if she had eluded him until that very moment. For she was an elusive woman. She was also vulnerable and willful and in deep hiding. Sara Murphy caught something of it in her letter to Scott written after Zelda’s first breakdown, “I think of her face so often, & so wish it had been drawn… It is rather like a young Indian’s face, except for the smouldering eyes. At night, I remember, if she was excited, they turned black—&impenetrable—but always full of impatience—at something, the world I think. She wasn’t of it anyhow… She had an inward life & feelings that I don’t suppose anyone ever touched—not even you—She probably thought terribly dangerous secret thoughts…”
What was Zelda to Scott that she haunted his fiction? What was it like to come to New York City in the spring of 1920, fresh out of Alabama, before your twentieth birthday? And marry Scott Fitzgerald, who was going to name the new decade the Jazz Age and make you the first American Flapper? I remember talking to two old men in Montgomery, Alabama, at the fiftieth reunion of Zelda’s high-school graduation, about the time she had ridden down Dexter Avenue in the center of town in a one-piece flesh-colored knit bathing suit with her legs draped nonchalantly over the back of the rumble seat of somebody’s electric. A group of boys, who were called Jelly Beans, hollered at her as she went by, and, seeing them, she stood up in the car, laughing, stretched out her arms wide and called, “All my Jellies!” One of the men said, “You see, you’ve got to remember, to us Zelda was a … a Kingmaker.”
Was it Zelda, then, shooting craps like Nancy Lamar in “The Jelly Bean,” tippling with the boys at Princeton and later at the Ritz Bar in Paris? How curious that the same woman who kissed men on fire escapes because she liked the shapes of their noses or the cut of their dinner jackets would also spend hours drawing Scott pictures of Gatsby, drawing him again and again until her fingers ached and until Scott could see him. Certainly we knew more about Gloria and Sally Carrol and Nicole Diver than we did about Zelda Fitzgerald.
In the summer of 1963 my husband and I traveled more than a thousand miles from New York to Baltimore and Washington, into the Smoky Mountains to Asheville, and then down deeper through the heat and pines of Georgia to Montgomery, Alabama, in search of Zelda. It was on that first trip into the Deep South that, piecemeal, I began to read the documents that are the backbone of this book. The hundreds of letters, the albums of clippings, scrapbooks, the dark-red Moroccan leather book with its wonderful array of addresses—from “Charlie McA’s bootlegger” in Manhattan and “trick corsets” on the rue d’Alger in Paris to the peripatetic “Ernest Hemminway, 113 Rue Notre Dame des Champs,” “Ernest Hemminway, Hotel Taube, Schruns, Vorarlberg, Austria,” until she finally corrects the spelling of his name and settles his address firmly: “c/o Guaranty Trust Co.”
Sitting up late at night in Henderson, North Carolina, in a small tourist home reading Zelda’s letters to her husband moved me in a way I had never been moved before, touched something in me that before those letters had been untouched. We were not pursuing a nostalgic past, nor did the Fitzgeralds represent it to us. Rather we read those letters out loud to each other as if they had just arrived, not knowing from what terrain of their lives they had been written or what the next one would say. They were hopelessly mixed up and undated, without, in most cases, envelopes to give them dates. All the clues were internal, and were to be pieced together on other days arid nights during the ensuing years. A note from Gertrude Stein would fall out thanking the Fitzgeralds for their visit—but what visit, and where? A snapshot taken in North Africa of Scott and Zelda riding camels might come next or a gold lock of Zelda’s hair tied in a pink ribbon. I had somewhat innocently—if a passionate curiosity about another’s life is ever innocent—entered into something I neither could nor would put down for six years, and in that quest the direction of my life was changed. Ahead of me were encounters in this country, in London, Paris, and Switzerland I could never have dreamed of, never invented.
In Montgomery, at the end of her life, disfigured by years of fighting against a recurring mental illness, Zelda would often walk out to a large ante-bellum home when the sun was strong. She had been invited to paint in the gardens whenever she liked. It was a spacious house, encircled by a fine white portico and by lush and fragrant growths of flowers. There was a cutting garden, a formal garden, and a rambling one carefully cultivated to appear wild. In the summertime the grand pieces of richly carved dark furniture were draped in white cloth, and wooden-bladed fans gently stirred the heavy air. There, in the gardens by the house, Zelda would put up her easel and paint until the sun went down. The bold southern flowers now fascinated her more than the subtle violet or the complex rose; she liked the waxy, almost artificial-looking tropical flowers, the calla lily and the large blossoms of the japonica. Once Zelda asked the lady whose gardens they were, what a datura meant to her. The puzzled woman replied, “Well, it’s just a pretty flower, that’s all.” Zelda said nothing and continued to paint. The datura is also known as Angel’s Trumpet because of its shapely long white flaring blossom. It is not only beautiful but highly poisonous. Years later, sitting on the portico of that house as the summer light grew dim, the woman leaned toward me and asked quietly, “Where was she that she could not come back? Where did she go? Where?”
Writing about Montgomery, but calling it Jeffersonville, Zelda had said, “Every place has its hours… So in Jeffersonville there existed then, and I suppose now, a time and quality that appertains to nowhere else.” The time is of our past. The landscape is by Rousseau and something savage lurks in the extravagantly green gardens. Zelda would come full circle to her origin. She was the American girl living the American dream, and she became mad within it.
New York City February, 1970
Notes and sources:
The following abbreviations are used. My pagination is usually to the most available edition, which is indicated in parentheses.
It is difficult to imagine having had to work without the benefit of the two biographies of F. Scott Fitzgerald—the excellent The Far Side of Paradise by Arthur Mizener, and the deeply moving Scott Fitzgerald by the late Andrew Turnbull. I am grateful for them both. Among the many books and articles that I read while preparing to write this book, the following were especially helpful: The Composition of Tender Is the Night by Matthew J. Bruccoli; That Summer in Paris by Morley Callaghan; The Mind of the South by W. J. Cash; Beloved Infidel and College of One by Sheilah Graham; I Never Promised You a Rose Garden by Hannah Green; A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway; The Apprentice Fiction of F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1909-1917, edited by John Kuehl; The Divided Self, The Politics of Experience and The Bird of Paradise by R. D. Laing; The Genain Quadruplets, edited by David Rosenthal; Schizophrenia as a Human Process by Harry Stack Sullivan; “Living Well Is the Best Revenge,” Calvin Tomkins’ New Yorker profile of Gerald and Sara Murphy; Patriotic Gore and The Shores of Light by Edmund Wilson.