IF THERE WAS A CONFEDERATE establishment in the Deep South, Zelda Sayre came from the heart of it. Willis B. Machen, Zelda’s maternal grandfather, was an energetic entrepreneur tough enough to endure several careers and robust enough to outlive two of his three wives. He came to Kentucky from South Carolina as a boy when the new state was still a frontier. Young Machen began his career refining iron with a partner in Lyon County; soon he was successful enough to open his own business. It failed, and he was nearly ruined; but he managed to repay his debts and begin again. He built turnpikes until a severe injury forced him to turn in a completely fresh direction, the law. He never failed again. Soon he had built up a large clientele in the southwestern part of the state, and he became a member of the convention that framed the constitution of Kentucky.
He served as a state senator until the outbreak of the Civil War, at which time Kentucky, a border state, was violently embroiled in choosing sides. Although the state formally declared its allegiance to the Union, the secessionists, Machen prominent among them, set up a provisional state government. He was elected to the Confederate Congress by residents of his district and by the soldiers in the field. At the close of the war, fearing reprisals, he fled to Canada. His third wife and their young daughter Minnie joined him shortly afterward.
Machen was pardoned and returned to Kentucky. He was urged to accept the nomination for governor of the state but declined because of some confusion about his eligibility. In 1872 he was appointed to the United States Senate, in which he served for four months. At the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in July of the same year his name was presented by the delegation from Kentucky for the Vice-Presidential nomination. It was a distinction he did not achieve.
By 1880 Machen was a powerful member of the Kentucky railroad commission and his patronage was eagerly sought. He chose to retire to his fine red-brick manor house, Mineral Mount, near Eddyville, Kentucky; it stood on three thousand acres in the fertile valley of the Cumberland River, and there he raised tobacco. The pastoral elegance of Machen’s splendid home must have been somewhat diminished by the running of the Chesapeake & Ohio railroad line past the foot of the hill upon which Mineral Mount was built. Still, Machen had achieved the pinnacle of Southern society, for as both planter and lawyer he belonged to the ruling class. And it was in that atmosphere of privilege that young Minnie grew up.
In a scrapbook which Zelda kept during her girlhood there is a photograph of her mother taken when Minnie Machen was nineteen. Her curling hair is caught up in a braided bun behind her pierced ears, from which fall small jeweled earrings in the shape of flowers. It is a pretty face, which with maturity would become handsome, for it is wellboned and definite. Her nose is straight, her square chin determined-looking, and only the thinness of her lips mars a face that would otherwise have been called beautiful. Beneath the photograph is the inscription “The Wild Lily of the Cumberland.”
Minnie was the artistic member of her family and her poems and short sketches were frequently published in local Kentucky newspapers. She was an ardent reader of fiction and poetry, and when she ran out of books to read she turned to the encyclopedia. But her dreams centered upon the stage. She had a small clear soprano voice and she played the piano nicely. Her father sent her for “finishing” to Miss Chilton’s School in Montgomery, Alabama. His good friend Senator John Tyler Morgan lived in Montgomery, and it was at a New Year’s Eve ball given by the Morgans that Minnie met a nephew of Senator Morgan’s, the quiet and courtly young lawyer Anthony Dickinson Sayre, whom she would eventually marry.
She was not, however, so smitten by Mr. Sayre that she would relinquish a trip to Philadelphia which she had persuaded her father to allow her. She spent the winter season in Philadelphia with friends of her family, and while there she pursued her secret ambition by studying elocution. When Georgia Drew, the head of the famous Drew-Barrymore theatrical family, held a tryout for one of her plays, Minnie read for her and was offered a role in the company. Machen learned of his daughter’s adventure and was outraged. He ordered her home at once, telling her that he would rather see her dead than on the stage. Minnie returned to Kentucky immediately, but she had suffered a disappointment she never forgot. Years later, with her family grown and out of her home, she shifted the story slightly, remarking to a neighbor that if she hadn’t married Judge Sayre she would have had a career in the opera or on the stage; she reconciled herself by singing in the choir of the Church of the Holy Comforter, which she attended without her husband.
Anthony Sayre’s family took pride in having been among the early settlers of Long Island, and they eventually came to Alabama, via New Jersey and Ohio, after the territory achieved statehood in 1819. By the time of the Civil War, some forty years later, their sentiments were entirely Southern.
Anthony’s father founded and edited a newspaper in the rural town of Tuskegee and later moved to Montgomery, where he was editor of the Post. Sayre Street, which ran through the most fashionable section of Montgomery, was named in honor of Anthony’s uncle, who had built the White House of the Confederacy for Jefferson Davis and who was a founder of the First Presbyterian Church. Anthony’s mother, Musidora Morgan, was the sister of Senator John Tyler Morgan, who served in the United States Senate for thirty-one years.
Anthony Sayre was a brilliant student in mathematics at Roanoke College in Virginia; he graduated at nineteen and began teaching at Vanderbilt College. But he did not feel cut out to be a teacher and soon came back to Alabama, having decided to read law in Montgomery. It was two years later, in 1882, that he began to court Minnie Machen. It must have been an attraction of opposites, for Minnie was known for her gaiety and vivacious charm, while the grave A.D., as she called him, possessed an air of sober dignity that set him apart from other young men.
It was after Minnie’s abortive trip to Philadelphia and her return to Kentucky that Sayre won her hand; they were married in January, 1884, at Mineral Mount. Minnie was twenty-three, and no longer considered young. The war had taken its toll of eligible men and there was a surfeit of women of marriageable age in the South. Anthony Sayre had no source of private income when he married, and although he may not have married above himself socially, economically he probably had. But there was a sureness about him, a sense of authority matched by his complete dedication to the law, which must have been attractive. Clearly, he was a man who would not be easily checked by the uncertainties of life, or in the pursuit of his career. At the time of their marriage he was clerk of the city court in Montgomery.
The first years of the Sayres’ marriage were happy ones and they soon had a baby daughter, Marjorie. But the little girl was fretful and sickly from infancy. A beautiful, healthy son was born to them the following year, but when he was eighteen months old he died without warning of spinal meningitis. Mrs. Sayre shut herself away in her room and refused to see anyone or to eat. For a while her family humored her, hoping that she would recover her equilibrium. But she did not until their family doctor forced his way into her room and, taking her by her shoulders, told her that she had a little girl downstairs who needed her; she had to live for the living. It was prophetic advice and Mrs. Sayre would have occasion to remember it often during her long and full life.
Two more daughters were born to them, Rosalind and Clothilde, and a son, Anthony D. Sayre, Jr. Minnie was frequently ill during her pregnancies and it was all she could do to manage her large family. At one time a Louisville publisher asked her to write a novel for him, but she found less and less time to devote to her literary ambitions. Her younger sister, Marjorie, had come to live with them, as had Mr. Sayre’s bachelor brother, Reid, and the elderly Mrs. Sayre. The young children remembered their grandmother as a peculiar and strong-willed old woman who wove endless stories about bloodthirsty Yankees with horns and constantly reminded them of their Morgan heritage. Some people in Montgomery still remember old Mrs. Sayre sitting on the front porch in her bonnet and gray wrapper, watching the people who passed by. She was known to have “a whipping tongue.” There were two Mrs. Bells in Montgomery, and one day the wealthier of them was walking by the Sayres’ house and greeted the old lady. Mrs. Sayre replied, “Are you the nice Mrs. Bell, or are you the wealthy, ordinary, and very common Mrs. Bell?”
The family moved frequently as it grew in size. They usually rented homes, for Mr. Sayre refused to be in debt, even to the extent of taking on a mortgage. He worried constantly over their finances, for there were now nine members in his household, and he insisted that expenses be held to a minimum. He worked relentlessly and well, becoming in his thirties a member of the Alabama House of Representatives; after four years he was elected to the state Senate, governing it as president during his final year in office. By 1897 he was elected judge of the city court in Montgomery. He is remembered from this period as an increasingly remote and reserved figure in Montgomery and, one suspects, within his own family. It was remarked that the only place one saw Judge Sayre (as he would thereafter be called by everyone, including his wife) was waiting at the streetcar either on his way to work or on his way home.
On July 24, 1900, the Sayres’ sixth child, a daughter, was born at home on South Street. Minnie was nearly forty and Judge Sayre was forty-two. Minnie was still an avid reader and she named her baby after a gypsy queen in a novel: Zelda. Marjorie was fourteen at Zelda’s birth, Rosalind not quite eleven, Clothilde nine, and Tony seven. From the beginning she was her mother’s darling and her pet. She was the only one who took after the Machen side of the family, for Zelda was as fair, golden, and blue-eyed as the other children were dark. Treasuring the baby who would undoubtedly be her last, Mrs. Sayre nursed Zelda until she was four years old. She showered her with attention and praise; her faults were quickly excused.
Zelda was like a rush of fresh air into the Sayre household, lively and irrepressibly gay and wayward. Her sisters and brother were too old to be true playmates and they remember her only in motion: running with a dog, flying on a swing hung from a magnolia tree in their back yard, racing on roller skates as soon as she could stand well enough to navigate on them, swimming and diving fearlessly. And dancing. Showing off new steps and imitating dances she had seen.
When Zelda was asked later in her life to describe herself as a child, she said she was “independent—courageous—without thought for anyone else.” But she also remembered herself as “dreamy—a sensualist,” who was bright and loved sports, especially imaginative, active, competitive games. “I was a very active child and never tired, always running with no hat or coat even in the Negro district and far from my house. I liked houses under construction and often I walked on the open roofs; I liked to jump from high places… I liked to dive and climb in the tops of trees—I liked taking long walks far from town, sometimes going to a country churchyard where I went very often all by myself.” In summary she said: “When I was a little girl I had great confidence in myself, even to the extent of walking by myself against life as it was then. I did not have a single feeling of inferiority, or shyness, or doubt, and no moral principles.”
People in Montgomery still remember Zelda as being “smart as a whip” and “quick as a steel trap,” and recall seeing her pulling a red wagon with her rag doll Patsy in it and her little dog running behind. Once she arrived late at a birthday party carrying a big pot of pink geraniums. It seemed to be such an unusual gift that after the party the mother of the girl for whom the party had been given called Mrs. Sayre. After hearing the story, Mrs. Sayre said, “So that’s what became of my geranium!”
Mrs. Sayre indulged Zelda completely and was charmed by her. What direction or discipline Zelda (who was to be called Baby by both her mother and her father all her life) required was left to the Judge. There was a disarming vagueness and pleasant permissiveness about Mrs. Sayre. One of the Sayre children has said, “We were all independent characters, especially for Montgomery. Mother didn’t supervise us very much—I don’t know why; it was just the way our family was.”
Minnie Sayre was not thought to be “socially minded” by her neighbors, and people weren’t quite sure how to take her. There is a story that Zelda’s sisters used to bathe on their back porch. One day a group of respectable ladies felt they had to tell Mrs. Sayre about the young men who were watching the girls. They suggested that the girls bathe elsewhere. Mrs. Sayre is reputed to have replied, “Why should they? God gave them beautiful bodies.” The women quickly retreated. Mrs. Sayre was undoubtedly aware that such advice would not be repeated if she met it head on. If her neighbors found her a little odd, or “artistic,” as some of them chose to express it, perhaps she found them dull and provincial. To the end of her long life, when she had become known by everyone as Mama Sayre, she would insist that there were certain things she did not know about Montgomery, because she was not a native (although she was to live there for seventy-five years).
In Zelda’s scrapbook there is a snapshot of her mother and father and herself when she was about five. Her father’s face is entirely in the shadow cast by the brim of his white straw hat, his dark suit shines as though it were made of black silk, and he is leaning gently upon a furled black umbrella. Minnie, with stray wisps of hair curling out from beneath her hat, stands looking full face into the camera, solid and matronly in a white blouse with a high, snug collar. Zelda stands close to her mother, holding Patsy’s face pressed next to her own; her fair hair, cut in a Dutch bob, is very straight. None of them are touching or smiling.
Zelda started school in 1906, but didn’t like it, came home, and refused to return. Her mother waited another year, until she was seven, and sent her again. This time she stuck. At about the same period in her life, the family moved from the house on South Street, which had become too small for them, to another on Morgan Avenue. They were to move twice again before settling at 6 Pleasant Avenue, where Zelda lived until she married.
The Pleasant Avenue house was a roomy white frame building with five bedrooms and a large brick front porch. Zelda’s room was upstairs at the front of the house, above the tin roof of the porch, and overlooked gardens which were all that remained of the old Wilson plantation. It was painted white, with light cotton curtains and a plain white bed in the corner. A friend of hers said it looked like a hospital room in its spartan simplicity. All her life Zelda remembered the fragrance of the pear trees across the street that filled her room at night. She awoke in those soft, suffocatingly warm Southern mornings to the cries of black women taking their wares to market at the foot of Court Street.
The Sayres always lived in what was the silk-hat district of Montgomery, on “The Hill,” but never in one of the more elegant residences of the area. About forty thousand people lived in Montgomery at that time, and it retained all the charm as well as the many restrictions on privacy of a small town. Certainly most of the families in the Sayres’ neighborhood knew each other. They tacitly considered themselves the “thoroughbreds” of the genteel South, although it would have been considered a breach of decorum to mention it. Behind their backs in the surrounding blocks the residents of The Hill were called “The Elite and Sanitary,” with a measure of amusement and more of envy. For in Montgomery it was never simply wealth that counted socially, but family. There were very definite lines of social distinction; one was not invited to parties on The Hill if one was in trade, or Catholic, or Italian, or Shanty Irish. World War I would do a little to change the social rigidity, but for the time being it persisted. The young ladies of these families were expected to behave themselves, to be decorative and charming. One was taught to sit without letting one’s back touch the chair, to cross one’s ankles, but not one’s legs. White gloves were buttoned before one left the house and remained immaculate in the warmest weather. Zelda must have chafed under these restrictions. She was too full of life and deviltry to follow the rules for long, or to be throttled by them.
A younger friend of hers, Sara Mayfield, who was also the daughter of a judge, remembered one of Zelda’s shows of spirit. The May-fields had invited her for a ride in their new brougham, which was their mother’s pride. It was equipped with the latest fixtures, glass windows, and tufted red leather seats. As soon as Zelda laid eyes on it she said, “If I had a pumpkin, I’ll bet I could make me one!” And then quickly, before anyone realized what she was up to, she climbed ? into the driver’s seat and gave the matched bays a hard slap. The carriage shot forward, careering wildly toward the street. Within seconds, just as the horses cleared the gate, the hub of a rear wheel caught and brought the carriage to an abrupt stop. The family ran up to it, and Zelda calmly stepped out of the brougham and ran to play with her friend. It was that special combination of nerve and defiance which thrilled Miss Mayfield. She said that from that moment she adored Zelda.
For her part, even as a child Zelda was not unaware of the effect she created. She possessed early a certain command over others, making them do what she wanted them to. She also had a knack of drawing attention to herself. Stories about her escapades abound in Montgomery. There is one about when Zelda, having nothing better to do on a fine summery day, called up the fire department and told them that a child was caught on a roof and couldn’t get down. Then Zelda got a ladder, climbed up to the roof of her own house, pushed the ladder away and waited. The fire engine came clanging its bell and the neighbors rushed out to see where the fire was. There Zelda sat marooned, and delighted by the commotion. The Judge had no sympathy whatsoever for such pranks.
In 1909 Zelda’s father was appointed an associate justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama. His salary was $5,000. Her oldest sister, Marjorie, who had been teaching in the public schools, married that year, and Zelda began ballet lessons. As it later turned out they were to make a lasting impression upon her.
With sisters so much older than she and a brother to whom she apparently never felt close, Zelda was left to her own devices. Later in her life she said that she had no memories of a youth shared with any of them. She thought her sisters rather pretty (Clothilde was by reputation the prettiest after Zelda, and it was Clothilde with whom she quarreled most), but they were largely indifferent to each other. Rosalind would one day comment that Zelda was the most vigorous and healthy of all the Sayre children and that her one great attachment was for their mother.
There were summers spent in the cool mountains of North Carolina during the adjournment of the Supreme Court; from the time Zelda was ten she usually went with her parents while a relative from Kentucky stayed with the older Sayre children in Montgomery. They stayed at a hilltop inn in Saluda, where it was quiet and the food was delicious. There was nothing to do but sit on the veranda and look at the mountains or take walks to the post office in the tiny village below, or perhaps pick blackberries before the sun got hot. Sometimes the whole family would go to Mountain Creek in Alabama for the summer, with the Judge coming up on weekends. When he arrived his pockets would be filled with penny candies and he would take Zelda for walks by the railroad tracks to get handfuls of beautifully colored clay and would mold tiny animals for her. One of Zelda’s sisters remembers, “When we were children he was wonderful to us, but once we were grown I guess he just figured we were on our own. I know he must have loved us, though.”
In 1914 Zelda entered the new Sidney Lanier High School. Her teachers found her mischievous, but an apt pupil. In her first year she maintained a high B average, was rarely absent, and consistently did well in English and mathematics.
Her schoolmates noticed that Zelda had much more freedom after school than they did, and often instead of going directly home Zelda could be found at the local ice cream parlor having a double banana split or a dope, which was a concoction of Coca-Cola spiked with aromatic spirits of ammonia to give it a slight kick. Some of the girls envied her for not having to call home first to report where she was going. She rarely did her homework at home but instead raced through it during class.
Once the class had been told to write a poem as homework. Zelda jotted hers down in class the next day, then waved her hand to be called first. The poem was not quite what her teacher had in mind, but it delighted her classmates:
I do love my Charlie so.
It nearly drives me wild.
I’m so glad that he’s my beau
And I’m his baby child!
It was a typical prank of Zelda’s. She did not quite risk becoming a troublemaker but she was quickly establishing a reputation for cheekiness. To her teachers Zelda seemed increasingly impatient, restless, and undisciplined. They had the impression that she could have done much better had she cared enough to work—and had she been more closely supervised at home. Zelda was to offer a similar explanation later in her life. She said her studies simply had no value for her. She read whatever she found at home, “popular tales for boys, novels that my sisters had left on a table, books chosen by accident in my father’s library: a life of John Paul Jones, lives written by Plutarch, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Gibbons, and fairy tales a lot.” She read Wilde and Galsworthy and Kipling, “and all I found about the civil war… The fairy tales were my favorite.”
It was becoming clear that Zelda was just marking time at school. Her lack of interest was evident even in small details like her clothing. She wore the ordinary middy blouses and pleated skirts of the day, but hers were always worn carelessly. Her skirts, which were rolled at the waist to shorten them, were uneven, and her slip usually showed. There was a puzzling drabness, even dowdiness, about all of Zelda’s daytime garb. Her sister Rosalind, as well as several of her school chums, have said repeatedly that Zelda had no sense of style. But that lack of style must have been something she shared with her mother, for Mrs. Sayre rather than a seamstress made all her clothes. Whether she was stylish or not, at night Zelda shone in her mother’s creations. Eleanor Browder, one of Zelda’s friends from school, remembers that “Mrs. Sayre had an unerring sense of what would make her beautiful daughter glamorous and could turn out dresses of tulle and organdy that turned Zelda into a fairy princess.”
At fifteen Zelda was striking, her skin flawless and creamy and her hair as golden as a child’s. Other girls began secretly to use blondine on their hair, but Zelda didn’t need to. She borrowed rouge and lipstick from her older sisters to heighten her coloring and her powder was the whitest she could find. Eleanor remembers that Zelda wore mascara before any of the others did. Zelda was on the verge of becoming the most spectacular belle Montgomery would ever know; Mrs. Sayre’s party dresses were the first tributes paid to her daughter’s beauty.
High in a white palace the king’s daughter, the golden girl…
—F. SCOTT FITZGERALD, The Great Gatsby
In the spring of 1916 a ballet recital was held in the old City Auditorium in Montgomery. It was an exceptionally hot night and somewhat surprisingly the auditorium was filled. There was to be ballroom dancing afterward and perhaps that was why so many young men had come. Zelda Sayre, who was not yet sixteen, danced a solo. She wore a stiff pink organdy dress made by her mother, with fresh flowers at her waist, and as she began to dance the audience grew quiet. Her hair was long like a child’s, and she wore it in ringlets with lovelocks at her temples. She moved gracefully and seemed completely self-assured. After her dance the young men swarmed about her. Everyone wanted to know who she was. Zelda accepted the surge of admirers as if they were her due, and that night marked her transformation into a belle. It was as complete as the happy ending of a fairy tale.
Mrs. Sayre watched her daughter with pride. Before the program began she hadn’t been sure how Zelda, who was still considered a tomboy at home, would react to the ballroom dancing. To make sure that all went smoothly she’d requested a friend of Zelda’s, Leon Ruth, to ask her for the first dance. Then, in an odd gesture of complicity, Mrs. Sayre took the young man aside and showed him a large, chunky bracelet she’d bought for Zelda. She wanted him to offer it to her when he asked her to dance. He was puzzled and said he could get his own presents, but Mrs. Sayre insisted, and not wanting to be impolite he did give it to Zelda. He remembered: “We danced for no more than a few turns and then all the other boys came around and I didn’t have a chance to take Zelda’s hand again all evening. But we did walk home together down Monroe Street to Pleasant Avenue. It was dark walking there and I felt happy to be next to such a pretty girl in her pink ballet skirt who all the boys would now be after.”
That summer a story appeared on the society page of the Advertiser beneath the silhouette of Zelda wearing a tam.
You may keep an eye open for the possessor of this classic profile about a year from now when she advances just a little further beyond the sweet-sixteen stage. Already she is in the crowd at the Country Club every Saturday night and at the script dances every other night of the week.
She has the straightest nose, the most determined little chin and the bluest eyes in Montgomery. She might dance like Pavlowa if her nimble feet were not so busy keeping up with the pace a string of young but ardent admirers set for her.
The “script” (short for subscription) dances were held out of doors at Oak Park, where there was a large old dance pavilion with a hardwood floor. A group of young men, usually college boys, hired a dance band and then they posted a list of girls’ names on the door at Harry’s. Harry’s was an ice-cream parlor where the boys, who were called “Jelly Beans,” or “Jellies,” loafed and hung out with their girls. A young man then signed his name next to the name of the girl he wanted to take; it was first come first served, with the prettiest, most popular girls signed for first. The only hitch from the girls’ point of view was that they had almost no say about who signed for them, and their only out was refusing to go.
There were chaperones at the dances, but Zelda completely ignored them. She danced cheek to cheek, which was considered improper, and it took very little persuasion to get her to sneak out during intermission to the cars which were parked just out of sight. She “boodled” (which was local slang for necking in cars at a place called Boodler’s Bend), she smoked, and she drank gin, if there was any, or corn liquor cut with Coke, if there wasn’t.
Zelda did not have the knack for forming close friendships with girls her own age; she didn’t belong to any of their clubs, and she was not invited to their overnight parties. She didn’t indulge in the trading of confidences and gossip; she neither asked for advice nor gave it. It was the attention of the boys that she clearly preferred and got. She stopped taking ballet lessons because she was too busy going out; she had dates every night of the week. One of her beaus remembers her as “a restless person with lots of energy. She was in for anything. Let’s do something for the hell of it. I remember once at a dance that summer it got hot and Zelda slipped out of her petticoat and asked me to put it in my pocket for her until we got home. And I did. She was like none of the others.” He would pick her up for a dance and on the way she’d ask him to stop the car so she could go wading, and he’d join her, both of them all dressed up, splashing in the water, laughing. Maybe they wouldn’t make the dance at all and it didn’t seem to make a bit of difference to Zelda. “She lived on the cream at the top of the bottle.”
She looked fragile and fresh, but there was nothing demure in her appetite for life. Perhaps it was her brio and lack of inhibition that many of the girls found unmanageable. Zelda was equally impatient with their more conventional behavior. One evening, while double-dating at an outdoor play being given at Miss Margaret Booth’s School for Girls, Zelda suggested to her date and the other couple that they leave. It was a dull performance, but the other girl attended the school and could have been expelled if she had been caught walking out. She hesitated. Zelda watched her for a moment and drawled sharply, “Oh, get some guts about you!” and left. Miserably the other girl followed.
Zelda said of herself that she cared for two things: boys and swimming. There is a snapshot of her standing next to a boy beside a swimming pool, their arms draped jauntily around each other’s waists. Zelda is standing straight as a grenadier, her other hand on her hip, and she is laughing into the camera. Beneath the snapshot is the inscription “What the Hell—Zelda Sayre!” The man who was with her then says: “Zelda just wasn’t afraid of anything, of boys, of being talked about; she was absolutely fearless. There was this board rigged up at the swimming pool and, well, almost nobody ever dived from the top. But Zelda did, and I was hard put to match her. I really didn’t want to. She swam and dived as well as any of the boys and better than most of us. She had no more worries than a puppy would have, or a kitten… But she did have a bad reputation… There were two kinds of girls, those who would ride with you in your automobile at night and the nice girls who wouldn’t. But Zelda didn’t seem to give a damn.”
She wore a one-piece flesh-colored silk jersey swimming suit that summer. There were stories that she swam in the nude, which she laughed at but did not deny. She was sharply aware of the criticism that was being leveled against her. Later in her life she wrote about Alabama Beggs, the heroine of her intensely autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz: “’She’s the wildest one of the Beggs, but she’s a thoroughbred,’ people said.
“Alabama knew everything they said about her—there were so many boys who wanted to ’protect’ her that she couldn’t escape knowing… ’Thoroughbred!’ she thought, ’meaning that I never let them down on the dramatic possibilities of a scene—I give a damned good show.’”
Rumors about her behavior flew around Montgomery that summer; it was said that when Judge Sayre forbade her to go out at night she climbed out her bedroom window and went anyway—sometimes with the help of her mother. Outwardly Zelda flouted the Judge’s standards. She called him “old Dick” behind his back, and her waywardness was an open challenge to his authority.
Judge Sayre was a model of respectability and conservatism. His full head of hair had turned completely white; he wore striped diplomatic trousers with a black jacket, which were made for him by a tailor in Atlanta who came once a year for fittings; and he carried a walking stick. Colleagues called him “The Brains of the Bench,” and his conservative opinions were articulately written. His life seemed perfectly ordered. He kept a chessboard permanently set up in his office, at which he and Judge Mayfield played daily, resuming their game where they had left off the day before. When he came home in the evening he ate a sandwich and retired for the night promptly at eight o’clock. Entirely devoted to his work, he had very little time for Minnie and the children. He was not thought to be unkind, only remote. Minnie, on the other hand, loved to have people about, and the Judge called the odd collection of people who assembled at their house “Minnie’s Menagerie.” There was an old poet who smelled bad, and a Mormon who tried to convert Minnie. (One member of the family commented that Mrs. Sayre “loved to listen, but she never, never changed her mind.” She did, however, toy with the idea of becoming a theosophist.) She had more time now that her family was nearly grown; she gardened, and wrote occasional poems which were printed in the Advertiser.
With the gentility of the Sayres behind her Zelda was in an ? important sense immune to criticism. Her stunts and escapades would be commented upon in private to be sure, but as the daughter of Judge Sayre she was granted a sort of social deference. She could rely upon the knowledge that her father’s position and reputation would protect her. That immunity had, however, another and potentially damaging aspect, one which Zelda did not grasp fully at seventeen, but understood all too clearly later in her life. For even as her father’s position protected her, it also “absolved his children from the early social efforts necessary in life to construct strongholds for themselves.” In this respect they were “crippled” (Zelda’s word for it) by that insulation of family position. It was not only Zelda who was affected. Tony Sayre had a reputation for being dissolute, and he left Auburn after a mixed career without earning his degree. A fraternity brother of his remembers his spending more of his time at cards than books, and said that Tony was fonder of hazing the freshmen than his EAE brothers thought acceptable. He told his family that he would like to paint more than anything else in the world, but he never did.
As for the other Sayre children, Rosalind was intelligent, energetic, and perhaps most like Zelda in her spunk. She was one of the first young ladies from a good family to go to work in Montgomery. She wrote a column for the society page on her uncle’s newspaper, and she loved it. Clothilde and Marjorie were temperamentally alike, quiet and serious. Clothilde was dark-haired with flawless skin, dead white like the magnolia. Marjorie was never well. She taught school (which prior to Rosalind’s adventure was the only acceptable form of work for maiden ladies), married, and had one daughter, who was also named Marjorie. The Sayres were close-mouthed about her illnesses, and when Marjorie’s little daughter came to live with them she was told her mother was away on a “visit.” There was hushed talk of a nervous breakdown. The Sayres’ Victorian refusal to name her illness for what it was, not unusual in Montgomery or elsewhere at that time, was part of the essential make-up of their family. When Mrs. Sayre’s own mother died a suicide the children were never told directly about it, but were left to overhear what they could from more talkative relatives. Everyone knew, but covertly, for it was never openly discussed.
Zelda chafed against the emotional restraint of her family and she felt herself being suffocated in the small arena that both her family and Montgomery offered her. Zelda’s release from that world was suddenly within reach, for with the United States entry into World War I in the summer of 1917 Montgomery altered profoundly. Thousands of soldiers and aviators poured into the city to train at Camps Sheridan and Taylor, which were just outside of town. New shops, restaurants, and hotels opened to accommodate them; the country club became almost an auxiliary officers’ club, and unfamiliar faces from Ohio and New York and Pennsylvania were seen in the streets. There was token resistance to the quartering of Yankee soldiers just outside Montgomery, and one recalcitrant old Confederate even tried to form a club to rekindle the local youngsters’ hatred of Sherman and his dread troops. But it was no good; the young didn’t want to remember the past, and besides, as one lady remembers, the Yankees were such good dancers. Jolted from its somnolence, Montgomery became more festive, more alive, than it had been since the days when it was the headquarters to the Confederacy. Mrs. Sayre remembered, “There was a lot of excitement in the air, a lot of people here in Montgomery that we had never seen before, and I had three very good-looking daughters.” The men came from every imaginable economic and social level of American life, “men who were better dressed in their uniforms than ever before in their lives,” as Zelda wrote later, “and men from Princeton and Yale who smelled of Russian Leather and seemed very used to being alive…” The larger world that Zelda dreamed of was at her doorstep and accessible.
In September, 1917, Zelda began her senior year in a flurry of dances and parties. The Sayres’ front porch looked like a barracks, and in a glove box she began to collect the colorful insignia officers gave her from their uniforms, as tokens of their affection. Soon the little box was filled with gold and silver bars, castles and flags and curled serpents. The Judge disapproved of Zelda’s behavior and the hours she kept, but Mrs. Sayre came to her defense and was amused by Zelda’s pretty trinkets.
Zelda’s girlish imagination was fired by the idea that the droves of young soldiers who courted her were being trained to fight the Hun in Europe, and faced death in the trenches. In a burst of patriotic sentiment she wrote a poem about them for the school paper which won a prize and was published in the newspaper as well. (Mrs. Sayre probably had a hand in its composition, for when Zelda pasted it in her scrapbook she wrote across the face of the poem, “Not only is ‘Necessity the Mother of Invention,’ but a ‘Mother of Invention’ is a necessity!!”) She called it “Over the Top with Pershing.”
The night was dark, the rain came down,
The boys stepped off with never a frown.
Into the trench all mud and slime,
And thousands of miles from their native clime,
They took their places in face of death,
And waited their turn with bated breath,
’Til the order came to open fire,
They screwed their courage higher and higher.
Over the top they go to fight
For suffering friends and human right,
Over the top they see their way
To a clearer aim and a freer day,
Over the top, O God of Might,
Help our laddies to win the fight.
But it was not only the soldiers who pursued Zelda; during the Christmas holidays she attended balls and dances and fraternity parties in Anniston, Marion, Auburn, and Birmingham, all college towns in Alabama. She led the grand march at the Alpha Tau Omega ball at the Exchange Hotel in Montgomery and the newspapers reported that she looked exquisite in her gown of rose velvet, a bouquet of pink roses in her arms. During the intermission of that dance Zelda and a group of her friends left the hotel for refreshments at a nearby cafe. On their way they passed a photographer’s shop with a large framed picture of one of Zelda’s beaus in the display case and paused to admire it. One of the crowd teased Zelda about the boy’s being in the shop window rather than with her. In an instant Zelda kicked in the glass and took the photograph. Her friends were frightened by what she had done and tried to hurry her away, but Zelda laughed at them and gaily walked into the cafe with the photograph openly clasped under her arm.
One of Zelda’s attractions was that she was utterly herself; she did what she pleased when she pleased. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that she was unaware of the traditional attitude toward Southern women even when she ran contrary to it. In January, 1918, for example, she was invited to the house party and dance given by the Key-Ice Club at the University of Alabama. At the dance the boys sported hip flasks of whiskey, which they tried to persuade their brightly painted girls to share after they strutted to the new ragtime. Key-Ice had as its central ritual a ceremony which ? its young men performed during the intermission of their dances. The lights were lowered in the ballroom and the men marched in solemnly, carrying flaming torches, while at the rear of the procession four of them walked beside a long cake of ice drawn on a cart. One lifted a glass of water to his lips and began a toast: “To woman, lovely woman of the Southland, as pure and chaste as this sparkling water, as cold as this gleaming ice, we lift this cup, and we pledge our hearts and our lives to the protection of her virtue and chastity.”
This extravagant and somewhat sinister homage to Southern womanhood has the social context in which Zelda grew up, and against which she was reacting. Her family was firmly fixed in it, and if many of its tenets were more literary than practical it made ? little difference, for their acceptance in the Deep South was almost complete. Women were expected to be submissive, if not passive. The Southern belle had certain prerogatives that her more ordinary sisters were not granted, but she had won these by her beauty, her spirited veneer, and her ability to manage men without seeming to do so. The art of dissembling perforce became a valuable social asset for a girl. (In this respect the white Southern woman’s position was remarkably similar to the Negro’s.) The tensions inherent in that charade of Southern womanhood were to drive Zelda one day to write: “’… it’s very difficult to be two simple people at once, one who wants to have a law to itself and the other who wants to keep all the nice old things and be loved and safe and protected.’” It was not only difficult; it called upon contradicting definitions of herself. The ideal was perverse, but she had not yet realized its ability to damage.
School wasn’t going well and Zelda, who always started out at the top of her class, nearly flunked history and second-year French. She was absent frequently and her conduct report sank to “unsatisfactory” in the marking period before graduation. She remarked later: “I did not study a lot by then. I left my studies in school and as there were a lot of soldiers in town I passed my time going to dances—always in love with somebody, dancing all night, and carrying on my school work just with [the] idea of finishing.” Every Friday night she was at the vaudeville show, where she would take careful note of the dance routines in order to imitate them herself at the Saturday-night dances at the country club.
On April Fool’s Day the entire senior class played hookey and Zelda was one of the ringleaders. They pooled their money, and Zelda and Eleanor Browder cajoled the ticket taker at the Empire Theater into letting them all into the movies for ninety cents. Afterward they posed for a snapshot in front of the movie house, the boys in their soft-billed caps and high laced black shoes, sitting on the curb with their arms thrown around each other’s shoulders, the girls clowning in the back row. Then they went on a picnic. On April 2 they were all expelled. The president of their class, a handsome boy named Irby Jones, talked the principal into letting them return, and the penalties for having gone skylarking ended up being mild: there was to be no more stopping or talking in the halls, and the class was to attend school on Saturday to make up for the day they had cut.
Zelda was voted The Prettiest and The Most Attractive girl in her class, and in the composite picture of the ideal senior girl Zelda was chosen for her mouth. Her graduation picture shows her wearing a middy blouse, while all the other girls are pictured in their best dresses. Beneath her photograph are these lines:
Why should all life be work, when we all can borrow.
Let’s only think of today, and not worry about tomorrow.
Graduation was held at the Grand Theatre the evening of May 31. There had been a lot of discussion about what the girls should wear, some wanting expensive dresses and no flowers, while others thought that dresses for which the materials were not more than five dollars would be best, with each girl carrying red roses, which were plentiful and cheap. One of Zelda’s classmates, Lucy Goldthwaite, said, “None of us had too much money in those days in the South, and our vote was finally for the five-dollar dresses with flowers.“A few of the girls were disappointed but in an era when store-bought clothes were scarce everyone set about getting their Negro seamstresses to make the prettiest dresses possible within the five-dollar limit. That evening as they gathered behind the stage for the procession, Zelda turned up in a magnificent white silk dress with a tunic of chiffon floating over it, and a large-brimmed hat with long streamers down her back. “You can’t imagine how lovely she was,” Lucy said, “but of course we were all shocked and some of us were resentful. I mean, it wasn’t fair.” No one knows why Zelda ignored the five-dollar limit, or whether she had told her mother, who had undoubtedly made the costume, about it, but everyone agreed that it was just like her. One of the girls said rather cattily that maybe the Sayres couldn’t afford to give Zelda both a graduation dress and a dress for the parties and country club dances she went to every Saturday night, and so Zelda had chosen a dress that could be used more than once. At the last moment Zelda sat in the audience rather than on the stage with the other members of her class, and afterward told Irby Jones that she didn’t care much for ceremonies anyway and had come just to hear him speak. He swore she was laughing at them all.
In july, 1918, a little more than a month after her graduation, Zelda met Scott Fitzgerald at the country club. It was a hot Saturday night and she had almost not gone, but she had been asked to do a dance, and finally she relented and performed the “Dance of the Hours.” Scott, a first lieutenant in the 67th Infantry, which had moved into Camp Sheridan in the middle of June, was standing at the edge of the dance floor watching her and quickly he asked if anyone knew her. Someone told him that she was a local high-school girl and too young for him. But the vivid girl with the long golden hair was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen and he asked to be introduced to her. Later in her life Zelda remembered that when they danced, “There seemed to be some heavenly support beneath his shoulder blades that lifted his feet from the ground in ecstatic suspension, as if he secretly enjoyed the ability to fly but was walking as a compromise to convention.” Once having met they were irrevocably drawn toward each other, for if ever there was a pair whose fantasies matched, as Edmund Wilson was later to remark, it was Zelda Sayre and Scott Fitzgerald. They shared a beauty and youth which seemed to ally them against the more sober world before them. They even looked alike.
Scott was strikingly handsome, his features classically regular, almost delicate, with a high, wide brow and a straight nose. His eyes were perhaps his best feature, heavily lashed and a clear ice green that changed color with his moods, and his mouth was his worst, thin-lipped and tensely held. He was not tall, about five feet seven, but he cut a smart figure in his officer’s tunic, impeccably tailored by Brooks Brothers in New York. He chose to wear dashing yellow boots and spurs (other officers wore the puttees issued to them). It was his freshness, a clean, new look about him, that people immediately noticed.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was Irish, a Roman Catholic, and a Midwesterner. He was born in September, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota. When he was two his family moved to Buffalo, where they remained (except for a brief stint in Syracuse) for his boyhood. In 1908 his father, Edward Fitzgerald, was fired from his job with Procter & Gamble and the family returned to St. Paul. It was a frightened young son who, upon learning of his father’s dismissal, prayed that they would not all go to the poorhouse. His father’s career continued to founder, and he apparently never fully regained his self-respect. In St. Paul he fell back upon the cushion of his wife’s wealthy relatives and began to drink just a little too much.
Scott once wrote, “Almost everything worth while I may have in the way of brains or energy comes from mother’s side, where I am Irish.” Yet it was neither his mother nor his prosperous Irish relatives (who had made their money in the wholesale grocery business) whom Scott Fitzgerald admired. His mother had spoiled him badly and he resented her and the coddling. On his father’s side he was descended from old and aristocratic Maryland families, the Scotts and the Keys. “He … came from another America,” Scott wrote at his father’s death. “I loved my father—always deep in my subconscious I have referred judgements back to him, what he would have thought, or done… I was born several months after the sudden death of my two elder sisters & he felt what the effect of this would be on my mother, that he would be my only moral guide.” Edward Fitzgerald instilled in his son not only beautiful manners, but a sense of honor, an almost eighteenth-century code of decorum that Scott Fitzgerald prized. He also inadvertently gave him a model of masculine failure. “When I was a little older I did not understand at all why men that I knew were vulgar and not gentlemen made him stand up or give the better chair on our verandah. But I know now. There was new young peasant stock coming up every ten years & he was of the generation of the colonies and the revolution.” And it was from his father that he “acquired an extended and showy, if very superficial, knowledge of the Civil War (with an intense southern bias…).” It is not surprising, then, to discover that his son saw in that conflict the “broken link in the continuity of American life.”
The Fitzgeralds lived always on the edge of the best neighborhood in St. Paul, but never at its center. They settled finally and firmly at the end of the finest street in the area, Summit Avenue. As Scott’s biographer Arthur Mizener has said, “The symbolism is almost too neat, and Fitzgerald was acutely aware of it.” Scott also exaggerated it. For however uncertain Scott Fitzgerald felt socially, the wealth of his mother’s family assured him entree into St. Paul society; if anything held him back for a time, it was his own self-consciousness and conceit. He once wrote his daughter, with the disarming honesty that was an essential part of his make-up, “I didn’t know till 15 that there was anyone in the world except me, and it cost me plenty.”
When he was fourteen he began keeping a diary which he called his “Thoughtbook.” It is a curiously candid little book for a boy his age to have kept, for it records in great detail his ups and downs in the scale of popularity, and those of his friends. It was also an early manifestation of Fitzgerald’s lifelong habit of keeping a record of his experiences. He not only cared deeply about what others thought of him—“Jack Mitchell said that Violets opinean of my character was that I was polite and had a nice disposition and that I thought I was the whole push”—he also analyzed what he thought of others: “For a long time I was Pauls ardent admirer Cecil and I went with him all the time and we thought him a hero. Physically he is the strongest boy I have ever seen… He was awfully funny, strong as an ox, cool in the face of danger polite and at times very interesting. Now I dont dislike him. I have simply out grown him.”
[The spelling and punctuation used by both Fitzgeralds has been reproduced exactly; no error, no matter how glaring, has been corrected. What they wrote stands as they wrote it whenever the original sources were available to me. I do not use the pedantic sic.—N.M.]
He began at the same time to write stories for his school’s magazine, and at the end of the summer of 1911 he wrote a play which he directed and in which he starred. But he was not a good student, and his family decided to send him to Newman, a Catholic prep school in Hackensack, New Jersey, in the hope that some learning might be drilled into him. His first year was a miserable one; he was considered fresh, yellow at football, and his grades were poor. His only really happy times were when he escaped to New York to go to the theater; it provided the balm for his wounded self-esteem. “I saw a musical comedy called The Quaker Girl, and from that day forth my desk bulged with Gilbert & Sullivan librettos and dozens of notebooks containing the germs of dozens of musical comedies.” In the spring of his second year he found a musical score lying on top of a piano. It was for a show called His Honor the Sultan, put on by the Triangle Club of Princeton University. That settled it; he decided to go to Princeton, the Southerner’s Northern university.
During the summer he wrote and produced a Civil War melodrama called The Coward, and began to drink something suffer than the sherry of his boyhood. Mizener observes that “twice during the year Fitzgerald was drunk enough to remember the occasions as special ones. He began to be known around St. Paul as ’a man who drank,’ a reputation which gave him a certain romantic interest which he undoubtedly enjoyed.” In September, 1914, barely managing to pass his entrance exams, he enrolled at Princeton.
He decided to become one of the “gods of the class,” but the quickest path to that position was closed to him when he wrenched his knee at football practice, badly enough to keep him from playing for the rest of the season. If he was to make his mark, time was short and the pressure great, for the eating clubs which lined Prospect Avenue elected new members during their sophomore year. Where you fell as a sophomore was where you stayed at Princeton; there were no reprieves in this tight system. Scott was a Catholic boy from a little-known Catholic prep school, competing with boys from St. Paul’s, Groton, Hill, and Lawrenceville. With football out of the question, the Triangle Club was his next best route to achieving distinction.
While Scott Fitzgerald schemed to excel socially, there were men at Princeton whom Fitzgerald would come to know and know well who were of an entirely different bent. They were perhaps mavericks, but not obviously so. As a classmate of Scott’s said, with perfect Princetonian aplomb, “they dressed as everyone else did. [It was] just that they were literary, which was not something to be at Princeton.” Among these men were John Peale Bishop and Edmund Wilson, Alexander McKaig, Townsend Martin, and John Biggs, Jr. It was from the first two that Scott Fitzgerald acquired his first taste of the literary life. Bishop, older than the other undergraduates, austere and somewhat affected in his dress, was already something more than a fledgling poet. Edmund Wilson, whose extraordinary intelligence and taste had already begun to emerge at Hill, would serve as Fitzgerald’s “intellectual conscience” for the rest of his life. Wilson was rather scornful of Scott’s social ambitiousness, preferring to remain aloof from the undergraduate scene. However, both Bishop and Wilson were members of Triangle.
It was in this overlapping of the intellectual and social worlds at Princeton that Scott’s own talents began to take shape. Eagerly he plunged into the arena. He wrote the lyrics for Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi!, the Triangle show which, as he said later, “blooms in a dozen cities every Christmastide,” and only his academic ineligibility prevented him from appearing in it. He returned to St. Paul for the holidays and basked in the celebrity that Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi! brought him. At home he was beginning to be known as a man who had made it at Princeton. He met and fell in love with Ginevra King, a rich and wildly popular visitor from Chicago, who at sixteen had the social ease of a young duchess. A beauty with dark curling hair and large brown romantic eyes, she had an air of daring and innocent allure. To Fitzgerald, Ginevra King was the embodiment of a dream, and he was immediately and completely captivated. He later wrote that he would never forget “one night when she made luminous the Ritz Roof” at the Frolic in New York. For her part, Ginevra for a time considered Scott to be the “top man” among her many beaus.
At Princeton he made Cottage Club, the pinnacle of social success (and at the section party passed out from drinking for the first time in his life). In short order he was elected secretary of Triangle and to the editorial board of The Tiger; his stories and poems began to appear in the Nassau Lit.
Then at the beginning of his junior year his world fell in. The young man who would write of the hero of his autobiographical first novel, “It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being,” flunked examinations in Latin and chemistry and was again made ineligible for the prizes he had won through such single-minded pursuit. In November, 1916, he left Princeton because he was ill. He wrote later: “But I had lost certain offices, the chief one was the presidency of the Triangle Club… To me college would never be the same. There were to be no badges of pride, no medals, after all… I had lost every single thing I wanted—and that night was the first time that I hunted down the spectre of womanhood that, for a little while, makes everything else seem unimportant.”
Although he returned to Princeton the following fall grimly determined to make a fresh start, he had been badly hurt. As he wrote . later, “A man does not recover from such jolts—he becomes a different person and, eventually, the new person finds new things to care about.” In January, in a final coup de grace, he lost Ginevra King, and that too he took hard. As he tried to recover from his losses he did find something new to care about; he read more widely than ever before: Shaw, Tarkington, Wells, Swinburne, Compton Mackenzie. And he decided to become a writer. By the end of that academic year he had written and published nine poems, five reviews, and eight stories in the Nassau Lit.
There is no doubt that his reverses, including the loss of Ginevra King, marked his new fiction. But even before he met Miss King, Fitzgerald had begun to form the kind of heroine he would make famous, the romantic teen-age fatal woman. In “A Luckless Santa Claus,” written while Scott was at the Newman School, Christmas, 1912, Fitzgerald wrote: “Miss Harmon was responsible for the whole thing. If it had not been for her foolish whim, Talbot would not have made a fool of himself…” Her challenge to Talbot that he could not even give away 525 on Christmas Eve brings about his humiliation, for he tries and cannot and is beaten for his attempt. Five years later in a one-act play called The Debutante, his heroine has come into fuller bloom. Her name is Helen, she smokes, carries a silver flask, and as the scene opens she stands practicing expressions before a pier glass. She says of herself, “I like to run things, but it gets monotonous to always know that I am the key to the situation.” Selfish, exceedingly pretty, she belongs to herself, “or rather to the crowd,” rather than to any single suitor. In a reversal of the accepted sexual roles, it is not the female who is the prey. Helen says: “I like the feeling of going after them, I like the thrill when you meet them and notice that they’ve got black hair that’s wavey. … Then I like the way they begin to follow you with their eyes… Then I begin to plate him. Try to get his type … right then the romance begins to lessen for me and increase for him.” As the music begins downstairs for her party, she kisses the reflection of herself in the mirror and runs from her room.
In “Babes in the Woods,” also written in 1917, Fitzgerald has his young models perfectly paired. Of Isabelle and Kenneth he says: “They had both started with good looks and excitable temperaments and the rest was the result of certain accesable popular novels, and dressing room conversation culled from a slightly older set… He waited for the mask to drop off, but at the same time he did not question her right to wear it.” It is this final sentence that will reverberate in Fitzgerald’s adult fiction, as well as in his life. He grants his girls, for all their potential ability to promote ruin among their men, their right to do it. And, more than that, he admires their destructive high-handedness, for it is that female quality which attracts him.
His last undergraduate story, “The Pierian Springs and the Last Straw,” was his most ambitious and his best, for in it the reader comes to understand more about the nature of the woman who is able to reduce her men to pathetic figures. She demands that they be heroes while challenging them in such a way that they fail utterly. Then she rejects them. She has “beauty and the most direct, unprincipled personality I’ve ever come in contact with.” Fitzgerald then tells his reader something about the fatal flaw in his men that attracts them to their women:
All the time I was idealizing her to the last possibility, I was perfectly conscious that she was about the faultiest girl I’d ever met. She was selfish, conceited and uncontrolled and since these were my own faults I was doubly aware of them. Yet I never wanted to change her. Each fault was knit up with a sort of passionate energy that transcended it. Her selfishness made her play the game harder, her lack of control put me rather in awe of her and her conceit was punctuated by such delicious moments of remorse and self-denunciation that it was almost—almost dear to me… She had the strongest effect on me. She made me want to do something for her, to get something to show her. Every honor in college took on the semblance of a presentable trophy.
If his men idealize, or romanticize, his women do not. Their allure is apparently in their total self-centeredness and overwhelming instinct for conquest; it is matched only by their extraordinary spirit. When inevitably the man in the story loses his girl, he describes his reaction:
I wandered around … like a wild man trying to get a word with her and when I did I finished the job. I begged, pled, almost wept. She had no use for me from that hour. At two o’clock I walked out of that school a beaten man.
Why the rest—it’s a long nightmare—letters with all the nerve gone out of them, wild imploring letters; long silences hoping she’d care; rumors of her other affairs.
But for all the young author’s talk of the enticing loveliness of his girls, only one is made love to (in “Sentiment—and the Use of Rouge”), and even then Fitzgerald presents the lovemaking ambiguously. “He knew what was wrong, but he knew also that he wanted this woman, this warm creature of silk and life who crept so close to him. There were reasons why he oughtn’t to have her, but he had suddenly seen how love was a big word like Life and Death… Still they sat without moving for a long while and watched the fire.” Perhaps these girls were not meant to be possessed, but always lost, for the other girls are not even kissed, much less touched. The fault seems to lie in the puritanical restraint of Scott Fitzgerald’s boys rather than in his girls. Never evenly matched, the boys forfeit what might have been their upper hand to their girls’ imperious selfishness. By failing them again and again the boys, perhaps unwittingly, trap the girls into permanent performance of their game. Both sexes seem to survive on the nervous edge of the sexual maneuver while never achieving anything more than the retreat of the male and the end of the story. From the girls’ point of view it must have been a desperately unsatisfying sport they provoked; they are the creatures of a young man’s puritanical conscience, which is fascinated by the preliminary sexual game, the tease, but would prefer to lose it rather than enjoy the woman herself.
Fitzgerald spent the summer of 1917 in St. Paul and wrote to Edmund Wilson, who was already in the army, that he had taken his examinations for the regular army and had “given up the summer to drinking (gin) and philosophy (James and Schopenhauer and Bergson).” He returned to Princeton for his senior year really only waiting until his commission came through. In November he left for Officer’s Training Camp at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He had also begun a novel which he called The Romantic Egotist, about himself, Princeton, and his generation, “and really,” he wrote Wilson, “if Scribners takes it I know I’ll wake some morning and find that the debutantes have made me famous overnight. I really believe that no one else could have written so searchingly the story of the youth of our generation …”
Zelda Sayre was not like any of the girls Scott had known before. Zelda’s beauty and vivacity equaled Ginevra King’s, but her assurance stemmed entirely from confidence in her own good looks and drawing power. While Ginevra had moved in a larger world than Scott had known—a world of Eastern finishing schools, of wealth and social position taken for granted—Zelda’s was even more restricted than his own. To Zelda, Scott was a dazzling visitor from a place where life was lived on a grand scale.
Scott was a romancer who, never overly popular with men, was on the other hand completely at ease with girls. He was talkative, merry, imaginative, and filled by his own dreams of success and wealth and fame. His novel, which he had completed at breakneck speed on weekends at Fort Leavenworth, was still in Scribner’s hands. Shane Leslie, an Irish novelist and critic whom Scott had known from his days at Newman, and to whom he had sent the manuscript of The Romantic Egotist, gave this summary of its possibilities when he forwarded it to Scribner’s, his own publisher: “I marvel at its crudity and its cleverness… About a third of the book could be omitted… Though Scott Fitzgerald is still alive it has a literary value. Of course when he is killed it will also have a commercial value.” For he was certain that Fitzgerald would die in action in France as had Rupert Brooke. So was Scott, and his novel had an even greater value for him than it would have had under normal circumstances. By comparison his military career seemed to him a waste of time. To a fellow officer in his division who had been with him since Fort Leavenworth, Scott seemed pleasant enough, but immature and irresponsible.
In August, 1918, his novel was rejected by Scribner’s, but praised by an editor there named Maxwell Perkins. Scott sent a chapter of it to Zelda with a note saying:
Here is the mentioned chapter … a document in youthful melancholy…
However … the heroine does resemble you in more ways than four…
Needlessly I may add that the chapter and the sending of it are events for your knowledge alone…. Show it not to man woman or child.
I am frightfully bored today—
Desirously, F Scott Fit—
If his attitude of amorous nonchalance seemed a little stilted, nevertheless his note with its delicious secrecy intrigued Zelda and she carefully kept it with her mementos. Scott had appealed to something in Zelda which no one before him had perceived: a romantic sense of self-importance which was kindred to his own.
Whenever he was free Scott came into Montgomery on the great rattletrap bus that brought all the soldiers into town, and from there he took a taxi to 6 Pleasant Avenue. He telephoned every day, and when he couldn’t come he called twice. As the lazy summer passed, he too lost his insignia to Zelda’s little glove box. But Scott was not the only man who courted her; a mustached aviator amused her for a while, until he proposed and she flatly turned him down. Astonished at having been refused, he asked her why she had kissed him, and she replied that she’d never kissed a man with a mustache before.
Her honor was fought over so frequently behind the Baptist Church that it became known as a sort of personal battlefield. The aviation officers used to perform fancy stunts in their airplanes over the Sayre house until the gallant exhibitions were forbidden by the commanding officer of Taylor Field. But not before two officers had crashed on the nearby Speedway, one of them a desperate beau of Zelda’s—the mustached gentleman whom she had enjoyed kissing. In a spirit of rivalry, an inspired young infantry officer performed the manual of arms for the infantry before her door.
Scott never forgot his first invitation to dinner at the Sayres’ late that summer. Zelda teased her father into such a rage that, grabbing up the carving knife, he chased her around the dining table. Everyone else ignored them and after a few moments they both sat down. It was never mentioned again to Scott, but it was a harrowing introduction to the Sayre family.
They began to see more and more of each other. Scott carved their names in the doorpost of the country club to commemorate their first meeting, and it irritated her a little when he told her again and again how famous he would be, for he neglected to include Zelda in his enthusiastic prevision, or to compliment her on her own considerable local fame. Describing her attraction to him, she wrote: “Dancing with [him], he smelled like new goods. Being close to him with her face in the space between his ear and his stiff army collar was like being initiated into the subterranean reserves of a fine fabric store exuding the delicacy of cambrics and linen and luxury bound in bales.” When she saw him leave with another girl she was suddenly jealous, not only of the girl but of him; of the aloofness which he could summon and which held him apart from her. She wanted it to be herself alone with whom he shared that pale detachment. With the summer nearly gone Scott carefully noted in his Ledger that on September 7 he had fallen in love with Zelda. [This Ledger contains, among other records, his “Outline Chart of My Life,” an astonishingly accurate personal monthly account of his life, which he began in 1922 and continued into the middle of the 1930’s.—N.M.] He had many competitors, and she encouraged them, but that provoked his desire for her even further. Shrewdly, she understood that quite clearly. Many years later she wrote: “He was almost certainly falling in love which was acceptable to him. He had planned his life for story anyway. [She] told him about how poor she was and how he wouldn’t have wanted her had he seen her somewhere else. This displeased [him]; he could weave his own romance and was well able to do so with what there was at hand: [she] was wonderful despite, and partly because of, her rhapsodic disavowals of any appropriateness whatsoever… [He] was proud of the way the boys danced with her and she was so much admired. The glamour of public premium … gave [her] a desirability which became, indeed, indispensable to [him].”
They spent afternoons together talking about poetry, sitting in the swing on the Sayres’ front porch and sipping long drinks filled with fruit and crushed ice. Playfully Scott told her that according to both Browning and Keats he should marry her. They discussed love and seduction while they walked in the pine groves and fields at the edge of town. She teased him and said he was an “educational feature; an overture to romance which no young lady should be without.” When she treated him casually, or made fun of him, he was hurt and sulky, and, certain that he was to be sent overseas at any moment, he tried to press her for a commitment. But she was apparently wary of limiting herself to him alone. It was not only Scott himself, but the uncertainty of his future in those months prior to the end of the war, which were behind her reluctance. It did nothing to help his cause that the Judge disapproved of him because he drank too much. Surrounded by so many young men, she was impervious to Scott’s pleas.
In October, Fitzgerald at last received his orders to go North and from there presumably to France; he left Montgomery on the 26th. Once in New York, however, his orders were altered and he was sent to Camp Mills on Long Island. While he was waiting there, the Armistice ending the war was signed. In Montgomery it was celebrated with flowers and confetti dropped from the airplanes of the aviators stationed at Taylor Field. Fitzgerald returned to Montgomery to await discharge from the army. Once back, he and Zelda quarreled bitterly. He wrote a letter to an old friend in whom he had confided when he was East: “My affair still drifts— But my mind is firmly made up that I will not, shall not, can not, should not, must not marry—Still, she is remarkable—I’m trying desperately exire armis—” There is only this one piece of evidence that he ever seriously intended to break off with Zelda, and by December, after he had been back in Montgomery less than two weeks, he entered the single word “Love” in his Ledger. He had not tried very hard to disentangle himself from Zelda and it was during this interim period of his life that he again fell deeply and entirely in love with her. He was to call it “The most important year of my life. Every emotion and my life work decided. Miserable and exstatic but a great success.”
Soon they were alone together whenever he could borrow a car; they drank gin and kissed in the back rows of the Grand Theatre during the vaudeville shows; and Zelda showed him a diary she kept which Scott found so extraordinary that he was to use portions of it in his fiction, in This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, and “The Jelly Bean.” They spent Christmas together happily before the fire at the Sayre home, and they began to move, enchanted by each other, into a more passionate attachment. This time Zelda was more willing to commit herself. Cautious as she had been in the late autumn about pledging herself to Scott, her behavior was now incautious enough to earn his description of it, although he wrote it many years later, as “sexual recklessness,” for Zelda shared none of Scott’s Irish Catholic contrition.
Bewilderingly, she continued to go out with other men. She may have done so as a challenge to him, or to keep intact her private vision of herself as a belle; or she may have used her dates as a front for Montgomery. Whatever her motives, she felt her behavior did nothing to diminish her love for Scott, while it drove him into a frenzy of jealousy. It was at the very least a sign of her inability to place herself in his position, a sign of her refusal to feel the hurt she was capable of inflicting on Scott. Zelda did, as she always had in the past, as she pleased, and Scott, who admired her fearlessness in their affair to the point of awe, was unable to make her his alone. They quarreled when she went out, Scott drank in retaliation, but she managed to soothe his feelings and continued to see other men when she wanted to. He took pride in the fact that she was invited to the inaugural ball of the Governor of Alabama that January, 1919, and later in their lives he would tell people they had met there. All of the dances on Zelda’s card were taken, but Scott’s name was not on it.
From Zelda’s point of view Scott was a new breed of man. Unathletic, imaginative, and sensitive, he represented a world she did not know and could not hope to enter, much less possess, without him. Beguiled by his palaver and sharing with him the view that anything done moderately was better left undone, she decided that she loved him. They were both eager to conquer New York, and their entire future rested upon Scott’s success there. He decided to try journalism to support himself until his stories began to sell. He was not willing to have Zelda come North until he could show her the style of life he so wholeheartedly wanted them to share. Zelda was both astonished and delighted by the fervor of Scott’s dreams for glory, and there is no doubt she shared them. “She, she told herself, would move brightly along high places and stop to trespass and admire…”
On February 14, 1919, Scott’s discharge from the army came through and on the 18th he left Montgomery for the East. In a gesture of consummate confidence he wired Zelda from New York that the world was a game: “… WHILE I FEEL SURE OF YOUR LOVE EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE I AM IN THE LAND OF AMBITION AND SUCCESS AND MY ONLY HOPE AND FAITH IS THAT MY DARLING HEART WILL BE WITH ME SOON.”
Throughout the spring of 1919 their letters crossed, written in that first flush of romance and absence keenly felt. Eagerly each awaited the other’s reply, and the letters were in turn amorous and promising, filled with the news of what they did, wanted to do, and might yet accomplish. Unfortunately, Scott’s letters have not survived, except for several wires, which Zelda pasted in her scrapbook, and his calling card sent with a special present. But Scott did keep Zelda’s, and just as he had carefully noted in his Ledger when he had fallen in love, because there was “something in his mind that catalogued and classified,” so it was his instinct to preserve her love letters to him. She wrote in pencil usually, quickly and carelessly, not bothering to date her letters, nor to punctuate them, except for the characteristic school-girlish dash that separated each thought, or the occasional word underlined for emphasis. Her hand was large and round and upright; she called it her “sun-burned, open-air looking script.”
These letters form the only record we have of her side of the affair. In them are the clues, in her own words rather than through Scott’s interpretation, of what she was at eighteen. The only other written record that Zelda had kept up to this point in her life was her diary. And that apparently was lost or destroyed a long time ago. Scott had taken it with him to New York and showed it to at least one friend of his that spring, who said that it was “a very human document, but somehow I cannot altogether understand it.”
Zelda’s letters provide a key to her side of their romance. She had a striking ability with words that had nothing to do with formal education; her thoughts drifted, swerved, and tumbled in peculiarly ? swift transitions all her own; they teetered sometimes on the edge of that special guile she could wield toward Scott. But in these letters she could also be utterly open with him; they are like conversations held in the dark between lovers when they chart the small maneuvers and upheavals of their love.
Once in New York, Scott told his parents about his love for Zelda and asked his mother to write a letter of welcome. At the end of February Zelda told him: “I s’pose you knew your Mother’s anxiously anticipated epistle at last arrived—I really am so glad she wrote—Just a nice little note—untranslatable, but she called me ’Zelda’ —”
Scott knew that a few days after he left for New York Zelda was invited to Auburn for the week of February 22. Her date was Auburn’s football hero Francis Stubbs, one of the most skillful and attractive players the champions of the Southern League possessed. No two men could have differed more than Stubbs and Fitzgerald and no man could have seemed a more formidable suitor in Scott’s eyes than the dashing and superbly confident Stubbs. For her scrapbook, Zelda clipped a photograph of him standing indolently with the great letter A upon his jersey, his soft leather helmet hanging loosely from his hand. At the bottom of his invitation to Auburn he had written: “Have a date with you Saturday P. M. Look out.” Today he remembers Zelda as “a very popular and beautiful young lady and she was not what is known as wild … but she was very much full of life and pep.” He had not fallen in love with her, but his roommate had and kept a life-size photograph of her in his room and “thought he was going to marry her right up to the time she married Scott Fitzgerald.” In Zelda’s honor a special society was formed at Auburn, known waggishly as Zeta Sigma; its initiation rites included pilgrimages to 6 Pleasant Avenue in Montgomery, and its members, five football players, were, according to a newspaper clipping in her scrapbook, “noted for their almost rabid devotion to the principles of their fraternity.”
Understandably, Scott was worried. But Zelda rather blithely reassured him: “Sweetheart, please don’t worry about me—I want to always be a help—You know I am all yours and love you with all my heart.”
Still, her trip had disconcerted him, for while he was trying to break into journalism in New York his girl was not exactly cooling her heels at home. He had arrived in the city and presented his calling card “to the office boys of seven city editors asking to be taken on as a reporter. I had just turned twenty-two, the war was over, and I was going to trail murderers by day and do short stories by night. But the newspapers didn’t need me.” So he settled on writing advertising copy for ninety dollars a month and was not happy with his compromise. (He came up with only one snappy jingle, for a steam laundry in Iowa.) He wrote during every bit of spare time that he had and began a collection of rejection slips, which he carefully pinned on the walls of his rented room in the cheap and unfashionable Upper West Side. Zelda had promised to write every day.
Darling, I’ve nearly sat it off in the Strand to-day and all because W. E. Lawrence of the Movies is your physical counter-part. So I was informed by half a dozen girls before I could slam on a hat and see for myself—He made me so homesick—I thought at first waiting must grow easier later—but every day I want you more… I am acquiring myriad wrinkles pondering over a reply to your Mother’s note—I’m so dreadfully afraid of appearing fresh or presuming or casual—Most of my correspondents have always been boys, so I am at a loss—now in my hour of need—I really believe this is my first letter to a lady —… An old flame from the Stone Ages is calling to-night—He’ll probably leave in disgust because I just must talk about you—I love you so, and I’m so lonesome —
Her sister Clothilde was leaving for New York the following day to rejoin her husband, who had returned from service. The whole Sayre family got up before dawn to see Clothilde off.
It’s the first time I’ve seen early morning in a terribly long time—The sun all yellow and red, like a huge luminous peach hanging on a black shadow-tree—just visible thru the mist—and the family all sleepy-eyed and sad. Cold toes and tangled hair—I don’t think I’ll forget this morning. It’s so much nicer to wake up early—I’ve felt so clean and wholesome all day because I saw the sun rise —
She took her first swim in the icy spring waters, and she reminded Scott:
Remember last summer how hard we tried to get a swim to-gether? Tilde [Clothilde’s nickname] informed me that I’d certainly do all my swimming in a bath-tub in New York—So please have a huge one, big enough for us both —
Darling, your love is so wonderful—I even believe you do as much as I do—Cource I will come—as soon as you’re ready for me—There’s nothing on earth I want like you—and you know I am yours—forever—
Then she told him about a prize fight she’d gone to, her first, and how exciting she found it, and about the loan a boy had made her of his motorcycle:
… it’s most exhilirating—and I love flying thru the sand on the road where we walked once—and fussed about the woods —
March came and Scott sent her a glorious pair of pajamas, which she said made her feel like a Vogue cover: “… I feel sure I’ll never be able to keep off the street in ’em”; and he told her he adored short hair.
You really mustn’t say short hair thrills you— Just after I’ve lived in Vaseline, thereby turning mine dark, to make it long like you wanted it— But anyway, it didn’t grow, so I really am glad you’re becoming reconciled to the ways of convenience—I still think how nice the back of my neck would feel —
More seriously she told him:
Darling, I guess—I know—Mamma knows that we are going to be married some day— But she keeps leaving stories of young authors, turned out on a dark and stormy night, on my pillow— I wonder if you hadn’t better write to my Daddy—just before I leave—I wish I were detached—sorter without relatives. I’m not exactly scared of ’em, but they could be so unpleasant about what I’m going to do —
adding a little cryptically:
But you know we will, my Sweetheart—when you’re ready—… I don’t see how you can carry around as much love as I’ve given you —
But Scott’s life in New York was not going as smoothly as he had expected; his work bored and irritated him and, although there were parties and pleasant suppers in the evening with old friends from Princeton, he was no closer to having Zelda with him than when he left Montgomery. He was melancholy over his lack of funds and his inability to sell any of his stories, and his letters to Zelda reflected his unhappiness. Was she willing to wait for him and for how long could he count on her? Weren’t her letters less frequent than before? Zelda tried to reassure him, and if she too was worried by his uneasiness, she concealed it as best she could.
Please, please don’t be so depressed—We’ll be married soon, and then these lonesome nights will be over forever—and until we are, I am loving, loving every tiny minute of the day and night—Maybe you won’t understand this, but sometimes when I miss you most, it’s hardest to write—and you always know when I make myself— Just the ache of it all—and I CAN’T tell you. If we were together, you’d feel how strong it is—you’re so sweet when you’re melancholy. I love your sad tenderness—when I’ve hurt you— That’s one of the reasons I could never be sorry for our quarrels—and they bothered you so—Those dear, dear little fusses, when I always tried so hard to make you kiss and forget —
Scott—there’s nothing in all the world I want but you—and your precious love—All the material things are nothing. I’d just hate to live a sordid, colorless existence—because you’d soon love me less—and less—and I’d do anything—anything—to keep your heart for my own— I don’t want to live—I want to love first, and live incidentally— Why don’t you feel that I’m waiting— I’ll come to you, Lover, when you’re ready— Don’t—don’t ever think of the things you can’t give me— You’ve trusted me with the dearest heart of all—and it’s so damn much more than anybody else in all the world has ever had—
How can you think deliberately of life without me— If you should die— O Darling—darling Scot— It’d be like going blind. I know I would, too,— I’d have no purpose in life—just a pretty—decoration. Don’t you think I was made for you? I feel like you had me ordered—and I was delivered to you—to be worn— I want you to wear me, like a watch—charm or a button hole boquet—to the world. And then, when we’re alone, I want to help—to know that you can’t do anything without me.
I’m glad you wrote Mamma.[Scott had written to Mrs. Sayre telling her he loved Zelda, something she undoubtedly already knew.-N.M.] It was such a nice sincere letter—and mine to St Paul was very evasive and rambling. I’ve never, in all my life, been able to say anything to people older than me— Somehow I just instinctively avoid personal things with them—even my family. Kids are so much nicer.
It was an extraordinary letter, for it revealed Zelda’s perception of Scott in relation to herself and to money; they were inextricably bound together. That she seems to have understood something of that link was remarkable. Scott was far more aware of the power of money than Zelda; he wanted it badly. Once he had it he would treat it with indifference, but its possession, as well as the people who possessed it, would become major elements of his fiction. Zelda’s letter reassures Scott that while money, or “All the material things,” didn’t matter to her, she knew that they did to him, and that because they did so deeply he would love her less were she not embellished by them. The extravagant language of Zelda’s letter also expressed her feeling that without Scott she was nothing. It was through him, through private possession of him (“to know that you can’t do anything without me”), that she spoke of their love. It was unfortunate that she thought of herself as having been “ordered … to be worn” by Scott. She would accept being his creation, his fictional girl; she would match his ideal to the letter, if she could.
Buoyed by her letter, Scott offered Zelda an engagement ring which had been his mother’s. On March 22 he wired her: “DARLING … THE RING ARRIVED TONIGHT AND I AM SENDING IT MONDAY I LOVE YOU AND I THOUGHT I WOULD TELL YOU HOW MUCH ON THIS SATURDAY NIGHT WHEN WE OUGHT TO BE TOGETHER DONT LET YOUR FAMILY BE SHOCKED AT MY PRESENT.” When the small package arrived Rosalind inadvertently opened it. Enclosed along with the ring was Scott’s calling card with this note written across it: “Darling—I am sending this just the way it came—I hope it fits and I wish I were there to put it on. I love you so much, much, much that it just hurts every minute I’m without you—Do write every day because I love your letters so—Goodbye, My own Wife.” Scott had also written a letter to Judge Sayre, which he rather inappropriately intended Zelda to deliver for him. She read it and wrote Scott: “I like your letter to A. D. and I’m slowly mustering courage to deliver it—He’s so blind, it’ll probably be a terrible shock to him, but it seems the only straight-forward thing to do.” Scott again wired her: “… BETTER GIVE LETTER TO YOUR FATHER IM SORRY YOURE NERVOUS DONT WRITE UNLESS YOU WANT TO I LOVE YOU DEAR EVERYTHING WILL BE MIGHTY FINE ALL MY LOVE.”
Zelda was delighted with the ring and told Scott it was beautiful. “Every time I see it on my finger I am rather startled—I’ve never worn a ring before, they’ve always seemed so inappropriate——but I love to see this shining there so nice and white like our love— And it sorter says ’Soon’ to me all the time—Just sings it all day long.” That Saturday night she wore it to a dance at the country club to everyone’s astonishment. “You can’t imagine what havoc the ring wrought,” she reported. “A whole dance was completely upset last night—… I am so proud to be your gift—to have everybody know we are in love—It’s so good to know you’re always loving me—and that before long we’ll be together for all our lives—”
Opinion in Montgomery was, however, by no means as simple as Zelda expressed it to Scott. Privately more than one swain wondered just how long their long-distance romance would endure. Zelda was not known for the longevity of her amours and Scott had already been gone for more than a month. The Sayres did not consider Zelda seriously engaged to Scott, and among themselves hoped that she wouldn’t be. Although Mrs. Sayre genuinely liked Fitzgerald, her notes to Zelda about impoverished writers unable to make their way took the effect they were intended to. Fitzgerald was a charming and attractive but uncertain young man; he had not graduated from Princeton, he was Irish, he had no career to speak of, he drank too much, and he was a Catholic.
Still, their correspondence flourished. Zelda wrote Scott that she hoped his mother would like her. “I’ll be as nice as possible and try to make her—but I am afraid I’m losing all pretense of femininity, and I imagine she will demand it—” Then, because he wanted to know exactly what she did with her time, she told him about a “syndicate” she and Eleanor Browder had formed: “…we’re ’best friends’ to more college boys than Solomon had wives—Just sorter buddying with ’em and I really am enjoying it—as much as I could anything without you—I have always been inclined toward masculinity. It’s such a cheery atmosphere boys radiate—And we do such unique things—” The day before, a good friend of hers from the University of Alabama, John Sellers, was short of his return train fare. Zelda helped him collect what he needed by dressing up in long skirts, with a floppy old hat pulled low over her eyes, and carrying a tin cup at the railroad station while they begged for alms. She was having a grand time “acquiring a bad name,” as she put it, and thrived on the sensation she created.
As though to pacify any reaction to her cutting up, she added in one letter: “… every night I get very loud and coarse, and then I always wish for you so—so I wouldn’t be such a kid—” But this did little to assuage his feelings about her adventures, and wild letters again crossed between New York and Montgomery. Zelda was obviously having fun, and even as she assured him of her love she was also writing him: “The Ohio troops have started a wild and heated correspondence with Montgomery damsels… I guess the butterflies will flitter a trifle more—It seems dreadfully peculiar not to be worried over the prospects of the return of at least three or four fiancees. My brain is stagnating owing to the lack of scrapes—I haven’t had to exercise it in so long—” And in her fashion she added: “Sweetheart, I love you most of all the earth—and I want to be married soon—soon—Lover—Don’t say I’m not enthusiastic—You ought to know—” But Scott was beginning to wonder; April began and he visited Clothilde in New York in order to search for a suitable apartment for himself and Zelda.
Meanwhile Zelda was growing impatient in Montgomery; she was tired of waiting for Scott to make his fortune, and her petulance began to show in her letters. Writing about a woman she knew, she told Scott that all women “love to fancy themselves suffering—they’re nearly all moral and mental hypo-crondiacs— If they’d just awake to the fact that their excuse and explanation is the necessity for a disturbing element among men—they’d be much happier, and the men much more miserable—which is exactly what they need for the improvement of things in general.” It was a nearly perfect summary of Zelda’s own attitude toward men and Scott did not miss it. He put her letter almost verbatim into his novel This Side of Paradise as a pertinent description of “Rosalind,” who was partly patterned upon Zelda: “Women she detested. They represented qualities that she felt and despised in herself—incipient meanness, conceit, cowardice, and petty dishonesty. She once told a roomful of her mother’s friends that the only excuse for women was the necessity for a disturbing element among men.”
By the next letter Zelda’s mood had again shifted; she told him all about a wild drive to Auburn “with ten boys to liven things up” and an escapade down on Commerce Street near the river in the worst part of Montgomery, where she had donned men’s clothes and gone to the movies with a gang of boys. Fitzgerald was furious. Rather coolly she assured him:
Scott, you’re really awfully silly—In the first place, I haven’t kissed anybody good-bye, and in the second place, nobody’s left in the first place— You know, darling, that I love you too much to want to. If I did have an honest—or dishonest—desire to kiss just one or two people, I might—but I couldn’t ever want to—my mouth is yours.
Maddeningly, she went on:
But s’pose I did—Don’t you know it’d just be absolutely nothing—Why can’t you understand that nothing means anything except your darling self and your love—I wish we’d hurry and I’d be yours so you’d know— Sometimes I almost despair of making you feel sure—so sure that nothing could ever make you doubt like I do —
It was definitely not the sort of letter that would reassure Scott and, afraid that other men were seeing Zelda often, too often, on the 15th of April he took a few days’ holiday and went to Montgomery. After the trip he wrote in his Ledger: “Failure. I used to wonder why they locked princesses in towers.”
But, if Scott considered the trip a failure, Zelda did not seem to.
Scott my darling lover—
everything seems so smooth and restful, like this yellow dusk. Knowing that I’ll always be yours—that you really own me—that nothing can keep us apart—is such a relief after the strain and nervous excitement of the last month. I’m so glad you came—like Summer, just when I needed you most—and took me, back with you. Waiting doesn’t seem so hard now. The vague despondency has gone—I love you Sweetheart.
He’d apparently brought some gin when he came, the “best at the Exchange,” and Zelda told him, “I’d rather have had 10c a quart variety—I wanted it just to know you loved the sweetness—To breathe and know you loved the smell—” Then, abruptly, the transition being perhaps the aroma of the gin, she added:
I think I like breathing twilit gardens and moths more than beautiful pictures or good books—It seems the most sensual of all the senses—Something in me vibrates to a dusky, dreamy smell—a smell of dying moons and shadows —
I’ve spent to-day in the grave-yard— It really isn’t a cemetery, you know, trying to unlock a rusty iron vault built in the side of the hill. It’s all washed and covered with weepy, watery blue flowers that might have grown from dead eyes—sticky to touch with a sickening odor— The boys wanted to get in to test my nerve to-night—I wanted to feel “William Wreford, 1864.” Why should graves make people feel in vain? I’ve heard that so much, and Grey is so convincing, but somehow I can’t find anything hopeless in having lived—All the broken columnes and clasped hands and doves and angels mean romances—and in an hundred years I think I shall like having young people speculate on whether my eyes were brown or blue—of cource, they are neither—I hope my grave has an air of many, many years ago about it—Isn’t it funny how, out of a row of Confederate soldiers, two or three will make you think of dead lovers and dead loves—when they’re exactly like the others, even to the yellowish moss? Old death is so beautiful—so very beautiful—We will die together—I know —
Touched by the beauty of her letter, he sent her a marvelous flamingo-colored feather fan. It was the perfect gift for Zelda, frivolous and entirely beautiful; she was delighted by it.
Those feathers—those wonderful, wonderful feathers are the most beautiful things on earth—so soft like little chickens, and rosy like firelight. I feel so rich and pompous waving them around in the air and covering up myself with ’em. .. .
I love you most of everything on earth, and somehow you [your] visit made things so much saner, and I do believe in you—Just the wild rush and knowing what you did was distasteful to you—made me afraid—I’d die rather than see you miserable… I want to go to Italy—with you, Darling—It seems so yellow—dull, mellow yellow—and that’s your color —
Each year a secret society called Les Mysterieuses, which was composed of sixty socially prominent young matrons and girls, gave a ball. That April it was a “Folly Ball,” and Mrs. Sayre and Rosalind wrote the playlet that preceded it. The auditorium in which it was presented was covered with a canopy of yellow and black ribbons intertwined and baskets of yellow roses. The part of Folly was played by Zelda, who, dressed in a costume of black-and-gold malines trimmed with tiny bells, danced upon her toes, “using numbers of small balloons as she went through the mazes of the dance.” Zelda had Kodak snapshots taken of herself for Scott, as she posed in her costume among her mother’s roses in their back yard. Her face had taken on a haunting prettiness; she was slimmer than she had ever been before (she said in a letter to Scott that she wanted to be “5 ft. 4’’ x 2’’”), and with her piercing eyes, high cheekbones and straight nose she looked very much (as John Peale Bishop was later to describe her) the “barbarian princess.”
Zelda continued to cut up and just for the fun of it she and Eleanor Browder talked a streetcar conductor into letting them drive his trolley, and before the poor man realized what he’d done the girls had run it off the track, or so Zelda wrote to Scott.
Then we got fired—but we were tired, anyway! Mothers of our associates just stood by and gasped—much to our glee, of cource—Things like the preceeding incident are our only amusement—
Darling heart, I love you—truly… I must leave or my date (awful boob) will come before I can escape—
Good Night, Lover
She closed her letter with a pencil drawing of the outline of her lips; “This is the biggest kiss of any on earth—because I love you.”
Some of the fun was not so innocent, however:
Look at this communication from Mamma—all on account of a wine-stained dress— Darling heart—I won’t drink any if you object— Sometimes I get so bored—and sirk for you— It helps then—and afterwards, I’m just more bored and sicker for you—and ashamed—
When are you going to marry me— I don’t want to repeat those two months—but I’ve just got to have you— When you can—because I love you, my husband—
The enclosed note read:
If you have added whiskey to your tobacco you can substract your Mother… If you prefer the habits of a prostitute don’t try to mix them with gentility. Oil and water do not mix.
In May the 4th Alabama regiment arrived in Montgomery from France, and the town turned itself into a colorful Mardi Gras to welcome them. There were large booths built along the streets, decorated with flags and confetti and streamers, and all the houses including the Governor’s were opened to welcome the returning heroes. Old costumes and masks were taken out of chests and dusted off and refurbished for the celebration. Rosalind’s husband’s company was going to march with the ranks unfilled; twenty-three of his men had been lost. Zelda wrote: “It almost makes me cry— I would if I weren’t expending all my energy on gum.
“I’ve started a continuous chew again— Your disapproval used to put me on the wagon, but now I’ve got the habit again—” Scott had written her that he wanted to come to Montgomery again the middle of the month, and she replied, “Darling Sweetheart, I’ll be so glad to see you again—” But she didn’t leave it at that; she told him that if he waited until June he could accompany her as far as Atlanta, where she was to attend the commencement at Georgia Tech. “I’m going to … try my hand in new fields,” she added with a stunning insensitivity to his feelings. Ruthlessly she stimulated his already intense sense of competition for her.
In a rather pathetic attempt to keep her home, Scott had sent her Compton Mackenzie’s book Flasher’s Mead to read. But she didn’t like it: “Nothing annoys me more than having the most trivial action analyzed and explained.” She said the heroine was “ATROCIOUSLY uninteresting” and maybe she’d save the book and try to read it again in rainy weather. But she also tipped her hand more than she may have intended, for in the same letter she told him, “People seldom interest me except in their relations to things, and I like men to be just incidents in books so I can imagine their characters—” Everything, it seemed, had to revolve around her, her perceptions, her games, or she was not interested and refused to play. Certainly that letter carried a note of warning about herself, if Fitzgerald had been in any condition to receive it. But he was not. He knew the terms, they were remarkably like his own, and that exquisite egotism drew him even more completely to her.
But what he did not fully perceive, perhaps because Zelda did not, was the uncertainty within his girl. For, as worldly as she loved to seem to be, as reckless and ebullient as she was, Zelda knew nothing first hand of any world other than the protected Southern one of provincial towns and families who knew one another and were kin. For all her banter, New York, chic and fabulous, must have seemed as remote to her as the Orient.
Scott had sent Zelda a map of Manhattan, which she said might just as well have been China. “All I saw was the dot where we would live— I couldn’t help wondering over the fact that two rooms and bath took up the same space as Washington Square and Statue of Liberty.” In a last-ditch effort to arouse Zelda’s jealousy, Scott told her a story about an attractive girl he had met in New York, an actress, but it backfired when Zelda replied quite seriously, “Anyway, if she’s good-looking, and you want to one bit—I know you could and love me just the same.” That was not the reaction he had bargained for, and he was left without a rebuttal. If she was faking, she cleverly made it sound as if she meant what she said—and, if she approved such behavior for him, might she not intend to do the same herself?
Zelda had said she wanted him to come South again; he replied that he still preferred to make the trip in May. He arranged to come for a few days and they had fun together, but he returned to New York with nothing settled; he promised her he’d come again in three weeks. Feeling more and more disheartened by his dreary lack of fortune in New York, Scott began to take it out on his friends there. He threatened to jump from the window of his club and the rest of the young men, weary of his moping, encouraged him; abashedly he climbed back down. There was one piece of luck. His story “Babes in the Woods” (which he had written while at Princeton) was bought by The Smart Set for $30. It wasn’t much, but it was a beginning. With the money he bought himself a pair of smart white flannels and sent Zelda a sweater. She wrote that it was “perfectly delicious—and I’m going to save it till you come in June so you can tell me how nice I look— It’s funny, but I like being ’pink and helpless’— When I know I seem that way, I feel terribly competent—and superior.” Adding, with that touch of self-perception she summoned for Scott alone: “I keep thinking, ’Now those men think I’m purely decorative, and they’re just fools for not knowing better’— and I love being rather unfathomable. You are the only person on earth, Lover, who has ever known and loved all of me. Men love me cause I’m pretty—and they’re always afraid of mental wickedness—and men love me cause I’m clever, and they’re always afraid of my prettiness— One or two have even loved me cause I’m lovable, and then, of cource, I was acting.”
Zelda told him she was just beginning to realize the seriousness of their attachment, just beginning to believe in a future that would hold them together. “I can’t think of anything but nights with you— I want them warm and silvery—when we can be to-gether all our lives— … I don’t want you to see me growing old and ugly. I know you’ll be a beautiful old man—romantic and dreamy—and I’ll probably be most prosaic and wrinkled. We will just have to die when we’re thirty. I wish your name were Paul, or Jacquelyn. I’m going to name all our children that—and Peter—yours and mine— because we love each other—” That letter must have calmed him considerably.
But by the end of May the dances and parties at the colleges had begun in earnest and Zelda did not languish at home. She would soon be nineteen; her sisters were married; Clothilde and Rosalind were already in New York. Zelda was alone at home with her parents, and definitely not eager to stay there for long.
After one particularly gay weekend away from Montgomery she wrote Scott: “… I’ll never feel grown. I absolutely despair of it… And still I’m so mighty happy— It’s just sort of a ’thankful’ feeling—that I’m alive and that people are glad I am.” Her letters to him, however, had begun to be less frequent; she said he’d been sweet about writing “—but I’m so damned tired of being told that you ’used to wonder why they kept princesses in towers’—you’ve written that, verbatim, in your last six letters! It’s dreadfully hard to write so very much—and so many of your letters sound forced— I know you love me, Darling, and I love you more than anything in the world, but if its going to be so much longer, we just can’t keep up this frantic writing. It’s like the last week we were to-gether—” Evasively, she said she wanted to feel that he knew she was thinking of him always. “I hate writing when I haven’t time, and I just have to scribble a few lines— I’m saying all this so you’ll understand— Hectic affairs of any kind are rather trying, so please let’s write calmly and whenever you feel like it.”
She had a nervous habit of biting the skin on her lips, which irritated Scott and which she had tried hard to break. But it began again, she said, as she “relapsed into a nervous stupor. It feels like going crazy knowing everything you do and being utterly powerless not to do it—” She wrote that she felt like screaming. With what must have been a painful and supreme exercise of will power, he did not write to her for one week. When at last he did, Zelda said she appreciated his letter: “It must have been a desperate struggle to write it, but your efforts were not wasted on an unreceptive audience.” Then, in a typical aboutface, she chided him: “Just the same, the only thing that carried me through a muddy, rainy, boring Auburn Commencement was the knowledge that I’d have a note, at least, from you when I got home—but I didn’t… Not that letters make so much difference, and if you don’t want to write we’ll stop, but I love you so—and I hate being disappointed day after day.”
Scott’s next letter must have sounded hysterical, for that was a word he was using fairly frequently in his Ledger to describe these months. Zelda’s reply was hardly soothing.
There’s nothing to say—you know everything about me, and that’s mostly what I think about. I seem always curiously interested in myself, and it’s so much fun to stand off and look at me—
I know you’ve worried—and enjoyed doing it thoroughly, and I didn’t want you to because something always makes things the way they ought to be—even this time—AND ITS ALL RIGHT— Somehow, I rather hate to tell you that— I know its depriving you of an idea that horrifies and fascinates—you’re so morbidly exaggerative— Your mind dwells on things that don’t make people happy—I can’t explain, but its rather kin to the way kids 13 feel when everybody goes off and leaves them at home—if they aren’t scary, of cource. Sort of deliberately experimental and wiggly—
Two of his letters were not delivered because he had forgotten to put stamps on them. Zelda said it looked to her “like wild nights and headachy mornings,” and told Scott that because she had not heard from him she had sought consolation with a young man from Georgia Tech who was in Montgomery for the golf tournament at the country club. “I’ll be in Atlanta till Wednesday, and I hope—I want you to so much—you’ll come down soon as I get back.” But she was definitely set on going to Georgia Tech. She had said she was going to try her hand in new fields and she did. The society columns and rotogravure sections in both Atlanta and Montgomery newspapers burst with pictures and stories of her exploits in their Sunday sections: “Pretty Montgomery Girl Creates Stir Among Atlanta Youths”; they called her “One of Montgomery’s most popular girls, and bewitchingly pretty….”
Zelda left Montgomery wearing a fluffy light dress, and her Leghorn hat with streamers down the back. When she arrived in Atlanta there were four young men waiting to meet her at the train station. Each thought he was her date, for she had separately agreed to be the date of each of the gentlemen. This was just the beginning of the stir she raised in Georgia that weekend. At one point it was rumored that she was going to swim in the nude at a private pool, but it was simply her flesh-colored bathing suit again. One of the young ladies who was with Zelda that weekend remembered coming back late one night to the fraternity house where they were both guests to find Zelda and her date, drunk as lords, playfully smashing Victrola records over each other’s heads—an event that was not reported in the newspapers. When Zelda returned to Montgomery she was pinned to the young golfer she had met during the golf tournament.
Once home and sober, Zelda thought better about being pinned while being engaged to Scott and returned the Georgian’s fraternity pin with a sentimental note. Carelessly—for she was to insist that it was an accident—Zelda put the letter intended for the young golfer into an envelope that she sent to Scott. Furious, he asked her never to write to him again. Nevertheless, Zelda did try to explain, but it was an awkward situation for which there really was no explanation.
Scott wired her desperately that he would be in Montgomery on the next train. The precarious balance of their affair had tipped downward; neither of them could bear the strain of the past few months any longer. Edgy and fatigued, knowing full well, as he was to write, “I was in love with a whirlwind and I must spin a net big enough to catch it,” Scott decided that Zelda had to marry him immediately. They sat together in the familiar front room of the Sayres’ house and Scott asked her to marry him now. Zelda refused. Both cried, and Scott stormed and tried to force her into marrying him with wild kisses and frantic arguments. He began to beseech Zelda, which was not at all the right tactic, for it demeaned him in her eyes, and she more resolutely than ever shied from accepting his proposal. He became self-pitying and would not leave the house.
Scott had expected her to be certain of him when he was most uncertain of himself. When everything in New York had failed him, his career and his writing, he turned to Zelda with a proposal of immediate marriage made as much out of desperation as of love. It was an effort on Scott’s part to redeem at least a fraction of his dreams for success and happiness, but Zelda must have felt it to be founded in failure and she could not accept marriage on that basis. Scott said that he had to have her with him in order to succeed, but perhaps Zelda sensed that if she did marry him and he was still unsuccessful the onus of his failure would rest squarely on her shoulders. For Zelda marriage was the only means of altering the scope of her life. Scott would never forget her refusal; he would in time explain it away by saying that she was afraid to risk a life with him until he was a moneymaker. But that was unfair; it was only as his own faith in himself waned that hers became increasingly unsure. Finally Zelda told him to leave. He boarded the next train for New York, with his mother’s ring in his pocket, certain that he had lost his girl forever. But even as he left a part of him admired Zelda’s unwillingness to give up the bright and irrevocable dreams that possessed her. He believed, as he would soon write, “the girl really worth having won’t wait for anybody.”
However shaken Zelda was by her broken engagement, she did not confide her feelings to any of her friends, nor did she give her family a word of explanation. If there was a sense of relief from the strain of their affair, that too she kept to herself. With Scott gone, that summer in Montgomery drifted by as every one before it had for Zelda; the heat and the inertia caused by it slowed the tempo of the city into its usual lull. There were dances and swimming parties. On one particular summer afternoon Zelda went swimming with a group of girls at a pool which was built behind the local chemical plant to be used in case of fire. It had a diving board and Zelda eagerly climbed the ladder and got into position for a swan dive. As she moved her arms forward the straps on her swimming suit caught uncomfortably across her arms, and swiftly she released the straps and stepped out of the suit. She stood poised for an instant like a water nymph, rose upon her toes and leaped from the board. The others were held spellbound by her audacity and beauty; they were also terrified that she would be seen or that their mothers would hear about it.
In a story Zelda wrote later, she said there existed in Montgomery then “a time and quality that appertains to nowhere else. It began about half past six on an early summer night, with the flicker and sputter of the corner street lights going on, and it lasted until the great incandescent globes were black inside with moths and beetles and the children were called in to bed from the dusty streets.” Lawns were drenched with arcs of water thrown from hoses, and everything, even time, seemed to stand still before the onslaught of the heat. “The drug stores are bright at night with the organdie balloons of girls’ dresses under the big electric fans. Automobiles stand along the curbs in front of open frame houses at dusk, and sounds of supper being prepared drift through the soft splotches of darkness to the young world that moves every evening out of doors. Telephones ring, and the lacy blackness under the trees disgorges young girls in white and pink, leaping over the squares of warm light toward the tinkling sound with an expectancy that people have only in places where any event is a pleasant one. Nothing seems ever to happen…”
Scott had returned to New York just long enough to quit his job and indulge in a spectacular bender that lasted until Prohibition closed the bars three weeks later. On Independence Day, with Hugh Walpole’s novel Fortitude under his arm, he took the train home to St. Paul. He had decided to rewrite his novel; it was, he wrote, “my ace in the hole.” If it was good enough he could recoup all his losses, and if it wasn’t he was no worse off than when he began. For the rest of July and all of August he worked on the novel, which he had decided to call either The Education of a Personage, The Romantic Egotist, or This Side of Paradise. He wrote Edmund Wilson in August that since he had last seen him “I’ve tried to get married and then tried to drink myself to death but foiled, as have been so many good men, by the sex and the state I have returned to literature.” By September his novel was again at Scribner’s in the hands of Maxwell Perkins, who had read his earlier drafts. Within two weeks Scott was sent a contract for the publication of This Side of Paradise. As soon as he received word of its acceptance he wrote Perkins pressing for immediate publication. “I have so many things dependent on its success—including of course a girl—not that I expect it to make me a fortune but it will have a psychological effect on me and all my surroundings…” Zelda could not then have known anything about it, for Scott had not corresponded with her since their break in June. It was Fitzgerald, and not she, who connected the success of This Side of Paradise with a willingness on her part to marry him. But so far its only success was that Scribner’s was going to publish it.
In a section of the novel called “The Debutante,” Scott had come to terms with his loss of Zelda. He called her Rosalind and used portions of Zelda’s letters and diary to help create the atmosphere of her charm. (“The Debutante” had been written while Scott was at Princeton and still under the spell of Ginevra King, on whom he modeled the character of Helen. But in rewriting this section for his novel Helen became Rosalind, just as his impressions of Ginevra melded into those of Zelda.) “Rosalind,” he wrote, “is—utterly Rosalind. She is one of those girls who need never make the slightest effort to have men fall in love with them. Two types of men seldom do: dull men are usually afraid of her cleverness and intellectual men are usually afraid of her beauty. All others are hers by natural prerogative.” That was taken almost word for word from a letter Zelda had written him in the spring. Several paragraphs later he added: “She danced exceptionally well, drew cleverly but hastily, and had a startling facility with words, which she used only in love-letters… She was perhaps the delicious, inexpressible, once-in-a-century blend.”
Scott had not been able to put Zelda out of his mind and in October he wrote to her, telling of his success and asking whether he might come South to see her once again. She replied:
I’m mighty glad you’re coming—I’ve been wanting to see you (which you probably knew) but I couldn’t ask you— … It’s fine, and I’m tickled to death.
And another thing:
I’m just recovering from a wholesome amour with Auburn’s “startling quarter-back” so my disposition is excellent as well as my heath [health]. Mentally, you’ll find me dreadfully detiorated—but you never seemed to know when I was stupid and when I wasn’t, anyway—
Please bring me a quart of gin—I haven’t had a drink all summer, and you’re already ruined along alcoholic lines with Mrs. Sayre—After you left, every corner … was occupied by a bottle (or bottles)…
’S funny, Scott, I don’t feel a bit shaky and “do-don’t”ish like I used to when you came— I really want to see you—that’s all—
After he heard from Zelda, he wrote to Ludlow Fowler, in whom he had confided about his affair: “Hope you’ve guarded well the great secret. God! Lud I’ll never get over it as long as I live. There’s still a faint chance. Thank fortune.” It was less than five months since he and Zelda had last seen each other, and Scott went to Montgomery that November in 1919 to see if he wanted her as badly as he once had. Before he left he again wrote Fowler: “… not even the family knows I’m going to Montgomery so keep it dark… God knows tho’, Lud, I may be a wreck by the time I see you. I’m going to try to settle it definitely one way or the other.”
Certainly Scott was returning to Zelda triumphantly, but as they sat in the front room of the Sayres’ house everything looked smaller than he remembered it. In a story called “The Sensible Thing” Scott described how he felt that afternoon as he realized that for himself the first fresh exhilaration of love was a perishable sensation: “Well, let it pass, he thought… There are all kinds of love in the world, but never the same love twice.” He had fought for his rare girl; his novel, he could now tell her, would be published; but he wanted to force the scene of their reconciliation into a greater intensity than it could yield. He had had five months in which to let his imagination play over this meeting and the reality of it could not match his expectations. Nonetheless, before he left her for New York they had renewed their engagement; they decided to marry as soon as his book was published.
Zelda understood him better than he thought, for after he left Montgomery she wrote to him that if he felt he had lost his feeling for her, if he’d be happier without their marrying, she would release him from whatever promises had once been made. And she added: “Somehow ’When love has turned to kindliness’ doesn’t horrify me like it used to— It has such a peaceful sound—like something to come back to and rest—and sometimes I’m glad we’re not exactly like we used to be—and I can’t help feeling that it would all come again.”
Whether the timing of their marriage date was Zelda’s or Scott’s idea is unknown. What is certain is that Zelda could not possibly have agreed to marry him, as he later thought, on the basis of his having made money. He had made very little by November, 1919. But what she did see quite clearly was that Fitzgerald was no longer unsure of himself or the direction of his career. The cheeky young man who wrote (to a girl he knew in St. Paul),
Can’t berate Mr. Scott.
He is not
Marking time: …
on the news of the acceptance of his novel was as effervescent as the young lieutenant who had promised Zelda New York with “all the iridescence of the beginning of the world.”
When he left Montgomery he gave Zelda a manuscript copy of This Side of Paradise. After she had read it she wrote him: “Why can’t I write? I’d like to tell you how fine I think the book is and how miserably and and completely and—a little unexpectedly—I am thine.” In another letter, probably written a few days later, she added: “I am very proud of you— I hate to say this, but I don’t think I had much confidence in you at first… It’s so nice to know that you really can do things—anything— And I love to feel that maybe I can help just a little— I want to so much— … I’m so damn glad I love you— I wouldn’t love any other man on earth— I believe if I had deliberately decided on a sweetheart, he’d have been you—”
Scott had already begun to make plans for where they would live and Zelda asked him not to “accumulate a lot of furniture. Really, Scott, I’d just as soon live anywhere—and can’t we find a bed ready-made? Someday, you know we’ll want rugs and wicker furniture and a home— I’m terribly afraid it’ll just be in the way now. I wish New York were a little tiny town—so I could imagine how it’d be. I haven’t the remotest idea of what it’s like, so I am afraid to make any suggestions.” But she did tell him that she imagined their apartment decorated with large orange and black fruits on the walls and bright yellow ceilings.
Her sister Rosalind sent her a program from the Follies in New York, telling Zelda that she looked enough like Marilyn Miller to be her twin. Zelda wrote Scott that it “upset me so I couldn’t do anything but act and dance for a day or two—” But, despite the glimmer of ambition, she saw her own limitations with a good deal of perception. “I hope I’ll never get ambitious enough to try anything. It’s so much nicer to be damned sure I could do it better than other people—and I might not could if I tried—that, of cource, would break my heart—”
Scott was not content to suppose that he could do anything better than the next man; he was out to prove that he was a writer of the first water. Stimulated by the sale of This Side of Paradise, he was working hard, old stories were refurbished and tightened, and he wove fresh material into fiction almost as soon as something happened to him. All of it began to sell. He had acquired an agent in New York, the young Harold Ober, who worked for the Reynolds Agency, and it was Ober who sold Scott’s story “Head and Shoulders” to the Saturday Evening Post for $400. The first sale to the Post was important to Scott, for he intended to make money, a lot of it, and he knew that the smaller magazines or the more literary ones, like The Smart Set, to which he had sold a few stories, couldn’t be expected to pay as the Post would.
Each time a story was taken he wired Zelda of his success and he drank to celebrate it; he even acquired his own bootlegger, which was a bit of a novelty in those early days of Prohibition. Four pages of Zelda’s scrapbook are filled with these wires, which with very few exceptions coupled an assurance to her of his love with the latest news of his literary sales. “THE SATURDAY EVENING POST HAS JUST TAKEN TWO MORE STORIES PERIOD ALL MY LOVE.” “l HAVE SOLD THE MOVIE RIGHTS OF HEAD AND SHOULDERS TO THE METRO COMPANY FOR TWENTY FIVE HUNDRED DOLLARS I LOVE YOU DEAREST GIRL.” At this point in their lives Zelda was already committed to him and these wires were sent more for Scott’s satisfaction than hers. Perhaps he realized that Montgomery acquaintances were saying that of course it was nice that Scott was a writer and had sold things to the Saturday Evening Post, but it wasn’t really a position. By January, 1920, a combination of the emotional strain he put himself through in order to write and the drinking had worn him out, and he decided to go to New Orleans to rest and to search for new story material. He would also be only a few hours from Zelda. In his Ledger he wrote that by the 10th of January he had made $ 1,700.
Although Zelda told Scott that it would break her heart to try to do something and find out that she could not, and that faced with that choice she would rather not try, she was nevertheless aware that Scott had drawn on some of her own writing in This Side of Paradise, and half seriously, she suggested maybe she would try to write, too. In a letter to Scott she revealed something of her own ambivalence about the effort involved, and something of her idea of herself:
Yesterday I almost wrote a book or story, I hadn’t decided which, but after two pages on my heroine I discovered that I hadn’t even started her, and, since I couldn’t just write forever about a charmingly impossible creature, I began to despair. “Vamping Romeo” was the name, and I guess a man would have had to appear somewhere before the end. But there wasn’t any plot, so I thought I’d ask you how to decide what they’re going to do. Mamma answered my S.O.S. with one of O.Henry’s, verbatum, which I discarded because he never created people—just things to happen to the same old kind of folks and unexpected ends, and I like stories with all the ladies like Constance Talmadge and the men just sorter strong, silent characters or college boys—… And so you see, Scott, I’ll never be able to do anything because I’m much too lazy to care whether it’s done or not— And I don’t want to be famous and feted—all I want is to be very young always and very irresponsible and to feel that my life is my own—to live and be happy and die in my own way to please myself—
She also added a remarkably sensible reply to Scott’s anxiety about the lost intensity of their love. She said he was trying too hard to convince himself that they were like old people who had lost their most precious possession. “We really haven’t found it yet— And only weaklings … who lack courage and the power to feel they’re right when the whole world says they’re wrong, ever lose—” If Scott was worried about losing the fire and sweetness of desire, Zelda was not. “That first abandon couldn’t last, but the things that went to make it are tremendously alive,” and she asked him not to mourn for a memory when they had each other.
Scott made two trips to Montgomery during January, and after one of them he sent Zelda a lavish platinum-and-diamond wristwatch. He bought it with the $2,500 from the sale of “Head and Shoulders” to the movies. Zelda, who adored any gift but especially one which was like none anyone else in Montgomery possessed, was delighted with it. She said,”I’ve turned it over four hundred times to see ’from Scott to Zelda,’ “which was inscribed on its back.
Mamma came in with the package, and I thought maybe it might interest her to know, so she sat on the edge of the bed while I told her we were going to marry each other pretty soon. She wants me to come to New York, because she says you’d like to do it in St. Patrick’s. Now that she knows, everything seems mighty definite and nice, and I’m not a bit scared or shaky— What I dreaded most was telling her— Somehow I just didn’t think I could— Both of us are very splashy, vivid pictures, those kind with the details left out, but I know our colors will blend, and I think we’ll look very well hanging beside each other in the gallery of life.
She added in brackets that this was “not just another one of my ’subterranean river’ thoughts.” She even loved him enough, she reported, to read a novel by Frank Norris, McTeague, which Scott had recommended very highly to her.
It certainly makes a miserable start—… All authors who want to make things true to life make them smell bad—like McTeague’s room— and that’s my most sensitive sense. I do hope you’ll never be a realist— one of those kind that thinks being ugly is being forceful—
When my wedding’s going to be, write to me again—and if you’d rather have me come up there I will— I told Mamma I might just come and surprise you, but she said you mightn’t like to be surprised about “your own wedding”— I rather think it’s MY wedding—
During Scott’s trips up from New Orleans they resumed their affair. In February Scott left New Orleans for New York to await the publication of his novel. On the 26th of February, while staying at Cottage Club in Princeton, he wrote a friend of his who knew only that Scott and Zelda’s engagement had been broken the previous June. This friend had recently written Scott to tell him that he had been right in breaking off the relationship. The timing of the letter was, of course, awkward. Scott replied that candor compelled him to admit that it was Zelda and not he who had broken their earlier engagement. He said that he realized his friends were unanimous in advising him against marriage to Zelda and that he was used to it.
No personality as strong as Zelda’s could go without getting criticism… I’ve always known that, any girl who gets stewed in public, who frankly enjoys and tells shocking stories, who smokes constantly and makes the remark that she has “kissed thousands of men and intends to kiss thousands more,” cannot be considered beyond reproach even if above it… I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self respect and its these things I’d believe in even if the whole world indulged in wild suspicions that she wasn’t all that she should be… I love her and that’s the beginning and end of everything. You’re still a catholic but Zelda’s the only God I have left now.
He then wired Zelda, who had sent him a photograph of herself: “THE PICTURE IS LOVELY AND SO ARE YOU DARLING.”
Lawton Campbell, a tall, blond, and rather elegant young gentleman from Montgomery, who had gone to Princeton with Scott, ran into him in New York while lunching at the Yale Club, where the Princeton Club had temporary quarters that March. As Campbell started up the stairs to the second floor Scott was coming down, beaming.
He had in his hand a color-illustrated jacket cover of a book. On seeing me, with almost childish glee and radiating good news he said, “Look what I have here!”
He showed me the cover. I read “This Side of Paradise. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Charles Scribner and Sons.”. ..
“It’s all about Princeton,” Scott said in that breathless way he spoke when he was excited. “You’ll probably recognize some of your friends. You might even recognize something of yourself.”
Then he added, “It’ll be out before the end of the month.”
Zelda flashed across my mind. I told him I had seen her when I was in Montgomery and had put in a good word for him. He thanked me and then looked at the jacket-cover. He knitted his brow a minute as if to indicate that the months of hard labor on the book would be rewarded in more ways than one. He smiled and said:
“I phoned her long distance last night. She’s still on the fence and—I may have to go to Montgomery to get her but I believe this will do the trick.”
By March, of course, the trick had already been turned, but perhaps Scott was no longer taking anything for granted. At this point the only thing Scott and Zelda were on the fence about was the exact date of their marriage.
The Sayres announced Zelda’s engagement on March 20, and Scott sent her a corsage of orchids, her first. Scott had moved to his club in Princeton to await Zelda’s arrival and while there went to the prom and completed work on a story called “May Day.” Zelda ? wrote Scott one last letter before she came to him for good.
Darling Heart, our fairy tale is almost ended, and we’re going to marry and live happily ever afterward just like the princess in her tower who worried you so much—and made me so very cross by her constant recurrence— I’m sorry for all the times I’ve been mean and hateful—for all the miserable minutes I’ve caused you when we could have been so happy. You deserve so much—so very much—
I think our life together will be like these last four days—and I do want to marry you—even if you do think I “dread” it— I wish you hadn’t said that— I’m not afraid of anything. To be afraid a person has either to be a coward or very great and big. I am neither. Besides, I know you can take much better care of me than I can, and I’ll always be very, very happy with you—except sometimes when we engage in our weekly debates—and even then I rather enjoy myself. I like being very calm and masterful, while you become emotional and sulky… I’m absolutely nothing without you— Just the doll that I should have been born— You’re a necessity and a luxury and a darling, precious lover—and you’re going to be a husband to your wife—
This Side of Paradise was published on March 26. Scott took rooms at the Biltmore Hotel and waited for Zelda to arrive from Montgomery with her sister Marjorie; he was still not certain of the exact date of her arrival. At last they decided to marry on Saturday, April 3, and Scott wired her on March 30: “… WE WILL BE AWFULLY NERVOUS UNTIL IT IS OVER AND WOULD GET NO REST BY WAITING UNTIL MONDAY FIRST EDITION OF THE BOOK IS SOLD OUT.”
Zelda was giddy with excitement the night before she left Montgomery and stayed up until morning laughing and devising fantastic schemes with Eleanor Browder about what she would do as the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald in Manhattan. Her plots ran to turning cartwheels in hotel lobbies and sliding down the banisters of the great hotels. Right up to the last moment one of her beaus thought she might reconsider his proposal and not marry Scott. When friends of her mother’s saw her shopping for her trousseau and asked her if the lucky young man was indeed Scott Fitzgerald as they had heard, she winked at one of them and said, “It might be and it might be Red Ruth.”
Her friends thought she had made a brilliant match, but her family was still anxious about her marriage. Neither the Judge nor Mrs. Sayre went with Zelda to New York. Other members of the family thought that her parents would not have been happy about the prospect of a Catholic marriage in Montgomery.
The day before Easter Sunday, April 3, 1920, Scott and Zelda met in the rectory of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The entire wedding party was to consist of eight people—Marjorie, Clothilde and John Palmer, Rosalind and Newman Smith, and Scott’s best man, Ludlow Fowler. They were to be married at noon, but Scott grew fidgety before the appointed time and insisted that the ceremony begin immediately, before the Palmers had arrived. Zelda wore a suit of midnight blue with a matching hat trimmed with leather ribbons and buckles; she carried a bouquet of orchids and small white flowers. It was a brilliantly sunny day and when they stepped outside the cathedral Zelda looked for all the world like a young goddess of spring, with Scott at her side as consort.
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