…Scott, the bright hotels turn bleak;
The pace limps or stamps; the wines are weak;
The horns and violins come faint tonight.
—EDMUND WILSON, “Dedication”
CAREFULLY SCOTT EXPLAINED TO Zelda the terms of their limited finances: “… you will be a poor girl for awhile and there is nothing much to do about it.” He would send her $30 a week, half of which was to go to Mrs. Sayre for Zelda’s board. The other half he would give her in amounts of $10 or $20 in alternating weeks; she would therefore receive $25 one week and $35 the next. He said it was a way of saving for her so that in alternate weeks she’d have a larger sum for pocket money. He knew that she would be cramped, but he owed the government a considerable amount and he was deeply committed to having Scottie complete her education. He wrote Zelda that if Scottie were forced to leave Vassar, “I should feel like quitting all work and going to the free Veterans Hospital where I probably belong.”
Alone at dawn Zelda boarded a bus for Montgomery. She believed that this was her chance for another beginning, and balancing a sheet of paper on her lap she wrote Scott: “I think of you and the many mornings that we have left believing in new places to-gether. This country is so nostalgic with its imperative possibilities of escape from the doom of the mountains…” She did not know that she had been released with a letter which paroled her to her mother; she “rode toward Montgomery completely unaware that it was the cul-de-sac of her life, that for her there were to be no more fresh starts.
Zelda was nearly forty and she was largely alone. Friends stopped by to see her the first few days, but not many, and Zelda felt she had little in common with those who did. She was grateful for her mother’s company. Almost at once a tone of bewildered disappointment marked her letters to Scott, whom she had not seen for a year. She wrote him regularly each Monday and usually her letters began by thanking him for his check. She said there wasn’t much to do; she was not invited to parties and no one seemed particularly interested in her. “To this sort of town a beau is almost indespensible; but there don’t seem to be any left.” Soon the swimming pools would open, which she looked forward to, and she considered buying a bicycle. She told Scott she prayed for him, “for the just reward of your talent; and for a more proportionate acknowledgment of your contribution to American letters.” But she no longer addressed him as Dearest Do Do, or Goofo; from now on it was plain “Dear Scott.” Her letters were not signed “Love,” but “Devotedly.” It must have been clear to her that their estrangement was all but complete.
With Zelda out of Highland, Scott’s expenses were considerably reduced. He tried to think of things for her to do; he suggested renting a cool room as a studio for painting; he hoped she was happy. “I wish you read books (you know those things that look like blocks but come apart on one side)—I mean loads of books and not just early Hebrew metaphysics.” He even suggested that she try to write again, telling her that although she was completely unable to plot a story she might try something along the line of Chekhov’s “The Darling.” She did not answer that letter and Scott quickly apologized for having been snappish. He said he really did want to know about her life, and he questioned her relentlessly. How did she like her old friends; how was her mother’s health; did she have any plans for the hottest part of the summer? “I should have said in my letter that if you want to read those stories upon which I think you might make a new approach to writing some of your own, order Best Russian Stories, Modern Library, from Scribners and they will charge it to me.”
He had no idea how difficult it was for Zelda to readjust herself to life outside a clinic. She put it plainly. “I don’t write; and I don’t paint: largely because it requires most of my resources to keep out of the hospital. I’ve had such a difficult struggle over the last ten years that making the social adjustment is more difficult than I had supposed…”
But she did garden and she had learned something about patience, if not equanimity, during these long years of illness. She could be amused at planting a garden “full of 25 cents worth of 15 cents worth of mustard,” and refer to herself as a failed truck farmer. She did not mind when the weeds turned out to be hardier than the plants. What disturbed her were the unavoidable things she faced every day reminding her of her own past: The young girls in their sheer summer dresses; the deep green alleys that made her think of Cannes. The landmarks of her youth were as altered as she was, some beyond recognition. She walked out to the spot where Camp Sheridan had been and found in its place a cotton mill. She continued to walk five miles a day as part of her physical regimen, as she had promised Dr. Carroll. (She did, however, ask Scott if he thought Dr. Carroll would live forever holding her to that promise.) When friends saw her on the street they would stop their cars and offer her a ride, which she always refused. But they did not know why she refused and considered her walking a peculiarity. If they tried to engage her in conversation she would often seem uninterested, and although her eyes watched them as they spoke, they were left with the uncomfortable feeling that she did not quite take in what they said. Eventually they began to avoid her.
Scott toyed with the idea of sending Scottie to relatives in Virginia for part of the summer and of letting her visit Zelda in Alabama for the latter half. But Scottie wanted to go to summer school at Harvard and that struck him as a better idea. He wrote Zelda: “You remember your old idea that people ought to be born on the shores of the North Sea and only in later life drift south toward the Mediterranean in softness? … I want Scottie to be hardy and keen and able to fight her own battles and Virginia didn’t seem to be the right note—however charming.” Later on the same day, June 7, Scott wrote Scottie telling her he had just received a very depressed letter from Zelda, as well as one from Mrs. Sayre: “the second told me in cautious language that your mother had had a ’toxic attack.’ I know what this means, only I expected her to hold out at least two months.” Although Zelda seemed to have recovered, Scott could not be sure what was about to happen and he insisted that Scottie spend at least ten days with Zelda. He told her, “this may be the last time you have a chance to see your mother in a sane period…”
Much as he had fretted over Scottie’s development in the past— that she was not tough enough, that she was prone to exhaust herself, overextend herself as he had at Princeton—he was now pleased with her. For it seemed to him that she was at last proving herself to be, his highest accolade, “a worker…” Perhaps she would not turn out like Zelda, which was really his deepest fear. He wrote Scottie:
Your mother’s utterly endless mulling and brooding over insolubles paved the way to her ruin. She has no education—not from lack of opportunity because she could have learned with me—but from some inner stubborness. She was a great original in her way, with perhaps a more intense flame at its highest than I ever had, but she tried and is still trying to solve all ethical and moral problems on her own, without benefit of the thousands dead. Also she had nothing “kinetic,” which, in physics, means internal driving force—she had to be led or driven.
By the fourteenth it was settled that Scottie would visit Zelda briefly in Montgomery before summer school. Then in August, the worst part of the hot Alabama summer, if a movie script Scott had written from “Babylon Revisited” was produced, he might have enough money to send Zelda to the shore. In his letter to Zelda he explained the revised plans, then facing his own memories he wrote:
Twenty years ago This Side of Paradise was a best seller and we were settled in Westport. Ten years ago Paris was having almost its last great American season but we had quit the gay parade and you were gone to Switzerland. Five years ago I had my first bad stroke of illness and went to Asheville. Cards began falling badly for us much too early.
At the last minute just before Scottie was to leave for Alabama, Scott received a wire from Zelda: I WONT BE ABLE TO STICK THIS OUT. WILL YOU WIRE MONEY IMMEDIATELY THAT I MAY RETURN FRIDAY TO ASHVILLE. WILL SEE SCOTTIE THERE. DEVOTEDLY REGRETFULLY GRATEFULLY ZELDA. In the afternoon of the same day Zelda wired again: DISREGARD TELEGRAM AM FINE AGAIN. HAPPY TO SEE SCOTTIE. DEVOTEDLY. ZELDA.
Immediately he notified Scottie that the situation looked black. If it was, she should talk it over with the doctor in Montgomery herself and leave. “There’s a point beyond which families can do nothing.” But by the twentieth when Scottie arrived everything seemed fine. Relieved, Fitzgerald wrote them that all he wanted was to think of the two of them together, swimming, “diving from great heights and being very trim and graceful in the water.”
When Scottie left for Cambridge Zelda felt that although she hadn’t been able to “open any deep chanels of ’maternal advice’ I somehow seemed to have made a little headway as to ingratiating myself.” Zelda told Scott that Scottie seemed sorry to leave, and clearly she was pleased by that. Scottie discussed with Zelda the possibility of leaving Vassar, and Zelda told her Scott would never permit it, and would be deeply hurt by the suggestion. Still, Scottie turned the idea over in her mind; she could not help being keenly aware of the financial burden her education was to her father. And besides she half wanted to fend for herself. A sketch she wrote was published by The New Yorker that summer, and College Bazaar had taken a story, which was a promising start for an eighteen-year-old. She considered trying to find a job on the Baltimore Sun and she also thought of working in publishing in New York. Scott’s reaction was a predictable and succinct negative.
As July and August passed, Scott complained that Zelda never wrote him what she was doing; had she begun to paint or write? “I do wish you were sketching a little if only to keep your hand in. You’ve never done any drawing at all in Alabama and it’s so very different in flora and general atmosphere than North Carolina that I think it would be worthwhile to record your moods while down there.” He thought he could arrange an exhibition for her again. His letters to her were always alive with plans and questions. He realized that Zelda’s life had slowed to a tempo that was as unacceptable to him as it once would have been to her. Her existence was now largely a matter of taking her five-mile daily walk, working her garden, and spending two days a week at the local Red Cross, where she folded bandages. Other than that, she sat with her mother on their front porch fanning herself and drinking crushed ice with fruit.
On her fortieth birthday Scott sent a large box of dahlias and gladiolas. Her letter thanking him was to “Dearest Scott” and she said one of the hardest things about being in Montgomery again was that it reminded her of their early days together. She promised to paint “as soon as I attain the vitality to both live, and aspire.” But for once she did not mind playing casino with her mother, or lingering over dishes of peaches and fresh figs, or falling asleep in the rocker with only the thoughts of the tail end of the summer on her mind. She asked if Scottie could visit her again before fall term began at Vassar. Contact with Scottie was invigorating to her and she badly wanted another opportunity to strengthen their rapport.
Scott, sympathizing with Zelda’s sense of isolation, wrote Scottie reminding her of her obligation to her mother. “I know it will be dull going into that hot little town early in September—but you are helping me. Even invalids like your mother have to have mileposts —things to look forward to and back upon… Only think how empty her life is and you will see the importance of your going there.” Dutifully Scottie spent four days with Zelda in Montgomery at the end of the summer; to Zelda these days were rilled with moments she clung to. She wanted a chance to be a parent and to show off her lovely and talented daughter. She could not help remembering herself when she was Scottie’s age. “Things are so different than when I was young when girls sat an hour on the curbing waiting for a ride in one of the few extant automobiles; nowadays nobody seems to know what a script-dance was, and the jelly bean lingo is indeed obsolete.”
But for all Zelda’s good will there were still problems in her relationship to Scottie. Zelda was troubled when Scottie did not report her whereabouts to her and Scottie chafed at being continually checked up on like a child. In a letter to her father Scottie revealed how she felt about her visits.
I have been as an Angel with Halo with Mama and we have really gotten along rather well… I even went so far as to discuss marriage with her so’s she’d feel she had some ideas to contribute. She is really not unhappy … I always forget how people can dull their desire for an energetic life. She is nevertheless like a fish out of water. Her ideas are too elaborately worded to be even faintly comprehensible to anyone in the town, and yet too basically wrong to be of real interest to people who really know anything (I don’t mean me!)… I wonder what is ever to become of her when Grandma dies.
It was Scott who had guided his daughter’s life; he and not Zelda who made lists of books for her to read, who wanted to be kept posted about life at Vassar. “What proms and games? Let me at least renew my youth! As a papa … what do you do? and how?” It was he who now offered her advice about men. She would have the best range of choice for marriage between “nineteen years, 6 months, to 20 years, 6 months—or so I figure,” he wrote seriously. Businessmen and their wives developed into bores, he advised, unless the women were extraordinary and of great natural charm like Sara Murphy. He wanted Scottie to find someone with whom she could share a larger life. He asked her to question herself about any specific man, “is he his own man? Has he any force of character? Or imagination and generosity? Does he read books?” All he really cared about, he told her, “is that you should marry someone who is not too much a part of the crowd.” Scott, at the same time he advised Scottie, was making plans for Zelda, and forming what Sheilah Graham has called their “College of One,” setting out to give Miss Graham a liberal education based upon carefully drawn lists of recordings, books, and paintings. In this Scott revealed a penchant lor making Galateas of his women, simultaneously undertaking to stimulate and direct the lives of his daughter, his wife and his mistress. It took valuable time from his novel, but it was as if by educating his women he formed a buffer against his personal bogies of alcohol, debt, and sickness.
What few suggestions Zelda made to Scott were along the lines of their old terms of success. Why, for instance, she asked, couldn’t he write for the Saturday Evening Post again? Patiently, Scott tried to explain to her that it was not only that magazine writing was a “very definite trick” and that editors had changed. The special touches he brought to his early short stories were no longer within his grasp. “It was partly that times changed … but part of it was tied up somehow with you and me—the happy ending… essentially I got my public with stories of young love. I must have had a powerful imagination to project it so far and so often into the past.”
On September 28, 1940, Scott wrote to Zelda: “Autumn comes —I am forty-four—nothing changes.” He noted that Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls had been taken by the Book-of-the-Month Club and asked Zelda if she remembered “how superior he used to be about mere sales?” He told her about a tea that was being given at Dorothy Parker’s to which he thought he’d go. Zelda had forgotten his birthday and when she remembered she wired him immediately saying she was sorry, but she had lost her sense of time “due to being segregated from life and its problems,” and added a note of hurt at his no longer being with her. He had, she wrote, her “deepest impersonal gratitude for the many happy times we spent together—though it was long ago.”
In his next weekly letter Scott told her he’d felt “passe” at the tea party among a younger generation, and decided to buy himself a new suit. He still complained of a fever and cough, but was improving; “the constitution is an amazing thing and nothing quite kills it until the heart has run its entire race.” He told her he’d really try to come East at Christmas. He said his room looked like the study at La Paix, covered with notes and charts for his new novel. It was going to be shorter than Tender, more like Gatsby, closely patterned and tight. He aimed at completion the middle of December. “I am deep in the novel, living in it, and it makes me happy.” Other than working on it, he did little but listen to the Princeton football games on the radio and follow the war reports from Europe.
In the nostalgic mood which now often imbued Zelda’s letters she wrote: “Mamma’s little house is so sunshine-y and so full of grace; the moated mornings remind me of twenty-five years ago when life was as full of promise as it now is of memory. There were wars then, and now … but the race had more gallantry at that time and the more romantic terms in which we took life helped us through.”
Scott’s life with Sheilah Graham was a quiet one; she remembers him working in a faded blue dressing gown with lots of pencils around, one always behind his ear, a tuft of hair sticking up corkscrew-like, for he pulled at it as he wrote. But when he prepared to go out he dressed very carefully in an old Brooks jacket and pink shirt. He liked bow ties and he often wore sweaters. Buff Cobb used to say he looked like a cross between Lucius Beebe and Baudelaire. He was entirely unathletic and fretted about his health. Miss Graham remembers with amusement how he would order the swimming pool on an estate where they had rented a cottage filled for her, and then stand on the shady side of the pool giving her instructions. “The only thing we did together that was at all athletic was to play ping pong. We always had a ping pong table set up. Scott would be very funny, cross his eyes when he served, do pirouettes, that sort of thing and it was just killing. He was a very gay man when he felt well and it was an infectious gaiety—he would literally choke with laughter. Strange words amused him. We used to go to a delicatessen, a Jewish delicatessen, and he would ask the names of things. I think ’knish’ just floored him. He would ask again and again for it just to hear it pronounced.”
Sometimes they talked about Zelda, with Scott showing Miss Graham some of her letters. She said he told her so much about the South that she could taste it—about the heat and the girls putting their make-up on first and then getting in the bath to cool off until their dates arrived, and then dressing. He said he had once fought a duel for Zelda’s honor with her French aviator and that he had never loved her as well as when he had to fight for her. The duel, he said, was exactly as he had written it in Tender Is the Night.
On a gray Thursday afternoon in late November, 1940, Scott left Sheilah Graham for twenty minutes to get a pack of cigarettes at Schwab’s drugstore. He returned ashen and shaky. He told her he had almost fainted at the drugstore. The following morning he went to the doctor for a check-up and found that he had experienced a cardiac spasm. On December 6, 1940, he wrote Zelda that he was lucky he had not suffered a major heart attack and if he was careful not to overtire himself he would recover. He told her Scottie planned to visit her at Christmas and he envied their being together. “Everything is my novel now—it has become of absorbing interest.” But he realized that it would take him until February to complete. One week later he was writing her that another cardiogram showed that slowly his heart was repairing itself. “It is odd that the heart is one of the organs that does repair itself.”
In order to avoid the strain of climbing stairs he moved into Sheilah Graham’s apartment on the first floor; his had been on the third. He made her promise not to discuss his case with the doctor when he was not present, and she did not. They set up a writing board which could be moved into place over his bed or arm chair. He was completely engrossed in his book. He canceled a doctor’s appointment on Friday, December 20, in order to work out a problem in his writing. That night, having solved the quandary, he and Sheilah decided to celebrate and go to a press preview at the Pant-ages Theatre of This Thing Called Love. Standing before a mirror as he dressed to leave, he gave a last straightening touch to his bow tie and told her teasingly that he’d always wanted to be a dandy.
When the movie was over and they began to leave the theatre, Scott suddenly lurched forward, grabbing the armrest of his seat to steady himself. As Sheilah came to his side he told her he felt everything begin to go as it had that earlier afternoon at Schwab’s. But the air outside made him feel better and they went home. The next morning Scott, dressed in slacks, shirt, and a pullover, dictated a letter to Scottie. He talked a lot about his daughter that morning, about how pleased he was with her and how well she was doing at school. He said the one thing he wanted was to see her finish Vassar. After lunch while waiting for the doctor to arrive, he settled into an armchair before the fireplace and began making notes in the Princeton Alumni Weekly on an article about the football team. He was eating a chocolate bar. Suddenly he stood up, reached for the mantel and then collapsed to the floor. In a moment he was dead.
Harold Ober called Zelda and told her of Scott’s death. At first she could not believe it. On Christmas Day she wrote Ober:
In retrospect it seems as if he was always planning happinesses for Scottie and for me. Books to read—places to go. Life seemed so promisory always when he was around: and I always believed that he could take care of anything.
It seems so useless and purposeless that I won’t be able to tell him about all this. Although we were not close anymore, Scott was the best friend a person could have been to me….
Zelda was not able to attend Scott’s funeral in Rockville, Maryland, on December 27 and asked her brother-in-law, Newman Smith, to go in her stead. It was a raw wintry day and only a handful of Scott’s friends were there: Judge Biggs, Gerald and Sara Murphy, the Perkinses and Obers, Ludlow Fowler, the Turnbulls and Scottie with some of her friends. The Protestant service was simple and brief. Scott was denied the Catholic burial he had wanted because he had not died within the church. His books were proscribed. Therefore, he was not buried in the old tiny Catholic cemetery among the Scotts, the Keys, and the Fitzgeralds, but close by in the Rockville Union Cemetery. Afterward Scottie went to Montgomery to spend a few days with Zelda.
On the day of Scott’s funeral Edmund Wilson wrote Zelda from his home in Stamford, Connecticut:
I have been so terribly shocked by Scott’s death. I had had two letters from him lately, in which he had sounded as if he were getting along well with his book.— Though I hadn’t seen much of him of recent years, we had a sort of permanent relationship, due to our having known one another at college & having started in writing at the same time. It has brought so many things back—the days when you & he arrived in New York together—& I have been thinking about you a lot these last few days. I know how you must feel, because I feel myself as if I had been suddenly robbed of some part of my own personality—since there must have been some aspect of myself that had been developed in relation to him.
Zelda was touched by his letter and told him of her grief. She had known Scott was ill, but she could not believe that he would never come East again for her. Never again “with his pockets full of promise and his heart full of new refurbished hopes.” She mentioned to Wilson that Maxwell Perkins told her he wanted to publish the manuscript Scott left. She very much wanted this done, “as I have always felt that a genius has a right to live as long as the scene which evoked him (or he evoked). I thought that the bitter haunted stories in Esquire were very compelling and might warrant publication—
“Posthumous works seem to gain favor of late.”
In a letter to Rosalind she expressed herself more personally. She said Scott would be remembered, for he had “kept too many midnight vigils for others,” younger or less fortunate writers than he, not to be. “I am proud of his literary achievements, and of his faithful courage. All the long months he spent by my side in Switzerland, and the reams of hospital bills and diagnoses he bore so uncomplainingly are more poignant in retrospect than they were adequately appreciated at the time.” There was a certain pride in these statements to her sister, for they emphasized her unity with Scott, rather than their hard times. She told her sister she knew Scott was quick-tempered, but she balanced that by talking about his good looks, his talent, and his considerable charm, which won them friends wherever they went. “I miss him—that he isn’t somewhere, pursuing the policies that sustained him … is going to be a grievous loss.”
Zelda was more alone now than she had ever been. It was true that she had not seen Scott for over a year and a half, but he had written her every week. On Fitzgerald’s part these letters were to his invalid, but there was something more of himself invested in them than that word suggests. She was the person who had shared his life when it was most worth sharing. Only to her could he admit how forgotten he had become, because only Zelda knew fully how well known he had been. Their shared pasts did not give them grounds for the future, both had admitted that, but it gave them an intimacy that was immune to further alteration. With Scott gone Zelda retreated more and more deeply into their past, where things had been the best she’d known. Young men would now and then come to her as Scott’s widow and she was kind to them, talking about Paris and writing and Hemingway and Scott, telling them things they were eager to hear, and then making them promise before they left never to smoke or drink.
She had her mother and she had Scottie. But certainly she could not hope to share Scottie’s life in any real sense of that word. For years now she had been forced to accept reduced circumstances, not only in the sense of diminished finances, but of diminished relations with people. With Scott dead her life would become largely a matter of recollecting, and when it was not, of a courageous effort to face her recurring illness and live with it.
Maxwell Perkins showed Edmund Wilson the manuscript of The Last Tycoon, asking him if he thought it was worth publishing. Wilson said that it was and agreed to edit it for nothing, Perkins’s terms. Scott’s death had been unsettling to Wilson and going through his notes for the novel must have been even more so, for in the process of editing The Last Tycoon, Wilson came to realize Scott’s splendid literary gifts with greater intensity and admiration than ever before. When he was finished he placed Fitzgerald among the best of his generation.
Among the copious notes for the novel that Scott had been making since at least 1937 was a working title, The Love of the Last Tycoon, subtitled “A Western.” It was published in October, 1941, in a volume with The Great Gatsby, “May Day,” “The Diamond As Big As the Ritz,” “The Rich Boy,” “Absolution,” and “Crazy Sunday.” Shortly after its publication (which was ten months after Fitzgerald’s death), Stephen Vincent Benet reviewed the novel. In the review he struck a note that has reverberated through nearly three decades: “… the evidence is in. You can take off your hats now, gentlemen, and I think perhaps you had better. This is not a legend, this is a reputation—and, seen in perspective, it may well be one of the most secure reputations of our time.” He would have agreed with a note Scott made to himself while working on The Last Tycoon: “I’m the last of the novelists for a long time now.”
After Zelda read the novel she wrote Wilson her own assessment of Scott’s reputation: “Surely when future generations look for an indicative measure of the tragic and ominous imperatives which have been life to this one, Scott’s work will have become a source…” She thought that there was an American temperament grounded in belief in oneself and “will-to-survive” that Scott’s contemporaries had relinquished. Scott, she insisted, had not. His work possessed a vitality and stamina because of his indefatigable faith in himself.
She did not like the heroine, and in the same letter to Wilson she told him Kathleen was “undesirable: the sort of person who knows how to turn the ice-man’s advances to profitable account.” A week later she wrote Mrs. Turnbull in the same vein except that her jealousy of the heroine was more transparent. She may not have known of the specific existence of Sheilah Graham before Scott’s death, but she certainly sensed and resented the intrusion of another feminine model in Fitzgerald’s prose: “I confess that I don’t like the heroine, she seems the sort of person who knows too well how to capitalize the unwelcome advances of the ice-man and who smells a little of the rubber-shields in her dress. However, I see how Stahr might have found her redolent of the intimacies of forgotten homely glamours, and his imagination have endowed her with the magical properties of his early authorities.”
“He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was…”
—FITZGERALD, The Great Gatsby
AFTER THE PUBLICATION OF The Last Tycoon, probably in 1942, Zelda began writing a novel called Caesar’s Things. She never finished the book, but she worked on it throughout the rest of her life. When she died she left a typed manuscript of 135 pages which were divided into seven chapters (the last in rough draft), as well as several fragments involving the same cast of characters, which were presumably to be worked into the novel.
As early as 1940, in a letter to Scott about a short story she was sending to him, Zelda stated an attitude that had begun to mark all her writing. “Although you may not like it, and may find it moralistic, it conveys a message that I would be most grateful to put across: that the story of life is of far deeper implication in religious terms.” By the summer of 1942 she was writing Mrs. Turnbull: “I am trying to write a novel with the thematic intent of inducting the Biblical pattern of life into its everyday manifestations.” Taken together these two statements suggest a possible key to Caesar’s Things. The problem is that Zelda’s religious fervor seems to have been closely linked to the most delusional aspects of her illness, and therefore what might have been the central thematic device of the novel is instead the most forced and peculiar portion of her book. Its subject was once again the story of Zelda’s life. Only this time the reader confronts the rigidity of Zelda’s psychosis head on, and the novel moves at a strained pace, swinging in and out of fantasies whose meanings are known only to the author. It is a sort of collage of autobiographical writing, fantasy, and religiosity. There is no sum of the parts of this novel, but only the parts themselves, truncated and wildly incoherent.
The novel seems to have originally been written in the first person, but haphazardly throughout the manuscript the / was changed to she, or Janno, the narrator’s name. (All of the main characters’ names begin with the letter J: Janno’s husband’s name is Jacob, her French aviator’s name is Jacques, as it was in Save Me the Waltz. There is a confusion of names for Jacob. He is introduced as “Harold,” but that name is dropped almost immediately to be replaced by either “Jacob” or “Jacques”; most often he is “Jacob.” Fitzgerald had used a number of names beginning with J, Jay Gatsby, Judy Jones, and Jordan Baker among them, but whatever Zelda’s intentions may have been on this score they remain impenetrable.)
More than half of the book, the first four chapters, deals with Janno’s youth in a small town in the South, and although the town is not named, it is Montgomery. Chapters Five and Six and the incomplete Chapter Seven are about Janno’s marriage to Jacob (who is a painter as David was in Save Me the Waltz) and the gradual dissolution of their marriage as they move from New York to Paris and the Riviera.
Janno is the youngest girl in a large family. Her father is a judge. She has an older brother whom she adores and follows. He is called “Monsieur,” which was one of Zelda’s nicknames for Scott. (Within the Sayre family, “Mister” had been Anthony Sayre’s nickname.) One day the family moves into a small house across from which a hospital is being built. The Judge warns Janno and her brother to stay away from the building site. He gives them no reason, but he suggests that trouble is expected there that afternoon. (Later in the manuscript the Judge says a new wing is being added for “psychiatrists to practice in.”) Both children are intrigued by the building and the brother, disobeying his father and leaving Janno behind, runs off to play there. Janno walks down to the end of her street and begins to tell herself a story; she wants to follow her brother, but is uneasy about his disobedience.
Suddenly Janno starts to run toward the hospital. She falls. “The child was dead from strain, and effort, and excitement. She clung across the dried grass with the stubble sticking into her mouth, ’if you will only let me get there—let me get there lest such obscenity should be—’” Janno picks herself up and begins to run again. She hears the sound of violent whacking “and cries of a spectral ball-game reverberated through the lone air.” Perhaps her brother is playing ball, perhaps not; she wants to make sure. She is terrified as she approaches the spot where she thinks her brother is playing. She sees him astride something that looks like a scarecrow; the ground around him is in considerable disorder. Janno yells at him to stop whatever he is doing. The language of the little girl becomes stilted and oddly formal as if, within a scene that is becoming increasingly violent and surreal, Janno’s is the voice of balance, reason, and justice. She makes moralistic pronouncements on the action.
“What right have you to stop me?” The boy was angry at his rights being contested. He had found the thing. It was his—or more his than hers anyway.
Maybe she didn’t have a right.
“There are lots of other more felicitous things to do—a little further on in the pare,” she proffered fairly.
“Don’t you want to see me make a poppa?” This unidentified operation held possibilities of interest; her curiosity wavered.
“What’s that?” It had an interesting sound anyway, like the de-capping of a bottle of soda-watter.
Mysterious voices begin to advise Janno to stop her brother, but she is afraid to.
Before she could say anything, her brother had his thumb in the eye-sockets and the child died of horror as the eye-ball came out in a film of white plasm. It was a pale blue eye; and that was the first indication that the thing he was playing with was a corpse.
Janno screams in horror as her brother tries to remove the remaining eye. “That God would let this happen had broken her heart forever and that was the way she would live.” She runs from the scene “because she didn’t want to cause any trouble” and lies down beneath a big oak tree. While lying there Janno is visited by God in a splendor of piercing white light: “The light was Charity, the Justice of Cause and Effect and INFINITE MAJESTY.”
The action of the novel continues as if it were a natural order of events. Two men, apparently interns from the hospital, carry Janno home; she has a fever and is about to die. (“Janno was dead, and dying…”) Her brother is already at home when they bring her in and is lying on a couch with his face to the wall. Janno tries to apologize to him, but he only snarls at her. Her father’s voice reaches her as if from far away. Abruptly the novel has again shifted gears and the reader realizes that they are no longer in the home, but in a hospital where Janno has been taken for the night. The Judge is saying, “’ You’ve ruined her, now you can keep her.’” Shortly thereafter the story line totally disintegrates. Then the author steps in to provide another strangely formal commentary:
A successful life is able to summon to memory few episodes of the past save the contributing factors to success, but a soul fallen into the hands of psychiatrists find the seeds of nervous disorder and even abberation scattered plentifully over the past… She forgot all about this year of her life until she was grown, and married and tragedy had revivified its traces—as she then saw, carved from the beginning.
Zelda’s implication is that there was a biographical equivalent in her own life for the action that has taken place in Janno’s. If there was, it is unrecorded. All we can know is that Janno’s fantasy (never admitted as fantasy within the text), alive with images of mutilation and death, seems to be grounded on the simplest level in the fear of the consequences of disobeying her father’s authority. No one from her family comes to her rescue or assistance, and uncertain even whether she is alive, dying, or dead, Janno is completely at the mercy of those in the hospital (which need not be taken literally as a hospital at all, but could stand for any sort of institution—family, marriage, school). By the end of this scene Janno is totally rejected by her father, as well as by her brother. And, in a pattern that becomes central to the novel, there are revelations, a vision of God, strange and provocative “voices” which warn and direct Janno, which do nothing to alleviate the terror of the child, and lead her instead only deeper into the nightmare of her existence. Her voices become part of the natural order of the novel. She is moved by them; she is defenseless against them.
The third chapter begins with the death of Janno’s grandmother and the throwing away of her things. Janno is sent to school for the first time, but she doesn’t like it and runs away. It is decided that she may remain at home another year (as Zelda had in Montgomery). Janno wanders down to the springhouse where butter and fresh milk were kept; in an adjacent trough of water Negresses wash clothes. Janno decides to wash her doll’s clothes. A voice speaks to her from the well, telling her that she’s washing in an “antiquated method.” Janno ignores the advice. Then there are more voices and they turn grim; they suggest that Janno jump into the well, and their “authority was dark and ominous.” They offer her a golden kingdom which has been awaiting her. But she doesn’t want to jump; she’s afraid she won’t be able to get back out. The voices promise her food; she can become a Lorelei. The well goes through to China, the ’voices tell her, to a “golden kingdom asleep—a fat old China king and rich courts, sleeping forever, forever counting his money.” Still Janno refuses to leap in and goes home.
Another day she returns to the well. Its voices question her: has she learned Latin, can she play the piano? She regrets that she has neither of these accomplishments. Suddenly the well and the countryside around it begin to change before her eyes. It becomes a theatre curtain, the curtain “melts” and in its place “was the green room, and oak-panelled corridor and people in heated argument.” They are talking light-heartedly about scenes of violence: “seduction, theft, kid-napping and murder.” Janno wants to know what happened. She says it doesn’t make sense; the voices reply, “Far more sense than you do.” She says she tries to make sense and leaves the room. There is blood in the hallway; Janno waits and the scene changes again.
Two men and a woman sit at a long table, large enough for twelve. One of the men is in uniform, “at least a colonel”; he carries a sword “which rested in challenge with its tip on the floor.” The other man is pale, “chestnut-haired and fragile; he seemed to be on some other than the conventional relationship with the woman.” The military man says he does not accuse the pale man, but he cannot accept treason, and he intends to defend the honor of the house. The woman is wan. The men accuse her of looking “dissolute, but she was tired from self-abnegatory spiritual effort: the keeping of many rigorous and more materialistic obligations than a person was able.” A “Nubian” pours her something to drink from a gold cup. She realizes that it will kill her if she drinks; she can see a powder dissolving to “mucus” in the cup; “she leaned back in tragic defiance.”
Janno, who is not part of the scene, but only observing it, knows that if the woman does not drink from the cup her head will be cut off by the Nubian; Janno is, however, too exhausted to worry about how it comes out. The scene is summarized: “The weak dark man who seemed to have other things on his mind was evaluating. He acknowledged to no relationship with the woman other than as a good friend of the husband. After [a] while, when the colonel had challenged him and withdrawn, the pale man said, ’I wanted the jewels as much as the woman. The pearls were my family heritage.’”
Suppose that the uniformed colonel, the “weak dark man” is Jozan. He challenges “the pale man,” who may or may not be the woman’s husband, i.e., Scott. But whatever the colonel’s relationship to the woman has been, he now abandons her and withdraws from the scene. The pale man is no more interested in the woman than he is in “the jewels … The pearls,” and in essence both men have abandoned her. They turn on her and accuse her of being debauched. Her reply is similar to the language Zelda uses when discussing her mental illness, and seems to have nothing to do with the situation at hand. But nothing can be taken literally. What is the cup, and why is it gold? Why mucus? What jewels? The scene could be a distorted mirroring of Zelda’s self at various stages of life. The little girl, Janno-Zelda, views the young woman, who may represent an older Zelda, as foredoomed in her dilemma, and is incapable of doing anything to change the course of her life. But like symbols in a dream, or in a poem, there is no one meaning.
Following this scene is a series of fragmented fantasies which are completely impenetrable. At one point Janno is sitting on a throne in a bright light and doctors are conferring about “the case and they decided that in case of death they would proceed with the regular medical routine.” It is this sense of being handled or manipulated, of being a “case,” of being unable to alter or control what is happening to her, even of being moved helplessly toward her death, while being a witness of it, that gives the novel its terrifying air of nightmare.
In an abrupt time switch Janno begins to grow out of childhood; Zelda stresses her faulty upbringing, which makes her unsure of herself. She worries about her popularity with boys, and even more about her own standards of behavior. “Janno … wished that her mother had told her not to go like that with the boys; she wished that there had been rules and prescriptions for right. But there wasn’t.” In a passage punctuated by strange warnings about Christ’s right and the ways of the Lord, Zelda writes about Janno’s feelings of social inferiority.
Then something happened: they had better clothes than she did, and better manners, and she had better accept their standards of conduct. It was clearly a threat… Then the boys assumed the air of authorized committee “You won’t have any friends—nobody else will come to see you. That I promise you.” … They went up to the haunted school-yard so deep in shadows and creaking with felicities of murder to the splintery old swing and she was so miserable and trusting that her heart broke and for many years after she didn’t want to live…
Whatever happened to Janno in the schoolyard is suggested but left unsaid. Later in the manuscript Zelda writes that what happened to Janno was “the kind of thing one forgets… until years later… [when] this sort of thing looms up in a different light. It is then no longer a departure from an habitual rectitude, but a presage of the disasters which finally came; a monstrous weakness pervading life until finally it has prevailed, and declared that to corrupt and to degrade had always been its intent.” The manuscript is immersed in this sense of doom. Nothing is what it seems. The past holds only the seeds of future decay and corruption.
Janno’s romance with Jacob begins on a different footing. To her he is from the first a romantic figure and she imagines him living in a world totally different from her own. She makes up stories about him. “In some of the dreams he lived in a dark mahogany-haunted house with ferns and red-coated ancestors and sometimes he lived at various Country-clubs.” He is a young lieutenant stationed in Janno’s Southern town during World War I; he comes in with the army and he leaves with Janno. She has been equivocal about marrying him for a while, but she thinks (as Zelda had) that you can marry or you can be a stenographer, and “life was gayer and the things of marriage were more familiar to a young girl than the disciplines of offices.” In passages clotted with images of violence and destruction the author establishes what will become the dominant tone of the marriage. She forecasts disaster and moves toward it relentlessly.
“So they were desperately in love and being desperately in love involves a desperate existence.” Zelda uses the word “desperate” in its most literal sense, thereby extending the slang phrase into a darker area of meaning. Janno and Jacob drink, shoot good golf, and (as Zelda becomes apocalyptic again) survive on the “possibility, and hope, of sin.” Zelda calls this phase of Janno’s life “Nemesis incubating,” adding that she tried to adopt Jacob’s taste, failing miserably.
And Janno, who is not content to become Jacob’s “evocateur” (“to him women were agents—evocateurs of his own grace”), begins to examine Jacob’s relationship with other women in his life. She concentrates on the women in his family, for it was toward them (or in reaction against them) that she believes his attitudes were formed.
He hated his sister… largely because he never could find out what it was about her that he so heartily resented. He hated his mother because … he blamed her for the failure of his life. He hated Janno for the same reason but this did not come to light until many years later when it really had become difficult to make money and some of his portraits were—O well, over the garage in case they were ever wanted again.
The same cool, even cold, observation is given to Jacob’s person and mannerisms.
Jacob went on doing whatever it was that Jacob did; he was always doing something with pencils or pieces of string or note-books or things which he found in his wallet; this made him absent-minded and preoccupied and also gave savour of material purpose. He was more important than Janno; she always felt as if she should be helpful about his tinkerings; they were intricate enough to need an assistant.
Their marriage begins to fall apart: Jacob drinks too much, but when Janno asks him to stop he tells her to mind her own business. Janno is not able to cope with Jacob’s increasing success as a portrait painter. She envies New York, where they are living; its “wondrous chic … the nail-polish and orchids, the hushed florescence of the gilded restaurants, the subdued arrogance of people who really had much to lose, the disciplined pomp of winter hotels, the swish of leisure” intimidate her.
Jacob has a flirtation with a nineteen-year-old girl he has been commissioned to paint. Janno thinks the girl “vulgar” and feels strangled by her own inability to do anything other than watch. Suddenly Jacob decides to go to Europe; Janno does not want to go, but her husband “never tolerated any policies of inertia.” And then the about-face. Tacked on this description of the early days of their marriage is Janno’s comment that Jacob is really a “sweet man,” sweet because he gives her presents on holidays. “She was grateful and devoted; promising gratitude and devotion to God for having sent him. She was a lucky girl…”
At the opening of the sixth chapter, entitled “Over here, over there … Flight,” they arrive in Paris and once again enter the world of sophisticated wisecracking and general discontent. Janno is busy “redecorating the gilded cage.” Their time is spent at the Ritz bar, to which they are described as superior. But the entire opening is weighted with bitterness and irony. They run into chic people to whom Janno is “socially deferential.” She must pretend to admire them, all the while abhorring their taste and pretentiousness. “Everybody liked them as standard millionaires the same way a good hotel or a crack train is appreciated. They were able.”
At the parties among the rich Janno feels the restlessness, she and Jacob and the others must move on to other parties, driven by the idea “that somewhere else might be nearer the center.” Jacob’s flirtatiousness makes her unhappy.
Janno had always been jealous. Situations which had to be faced with dishonesty and endured for the sake of a code to which she did not subscribe made her sick. She couldn’t say to Jacob, “I don’t want you to go, you’re obligated to me. Anyway she’s not as nice as I am.” She sat being tragically poignantly courageous and saying to herself that after all, such was all in the game. This sophistry disoriented her momentarily and by the time she had organized an adequate humility to meet the humiliation the two people had got away and the table settled to another rhythm. The party went somewhere else and rattled negligibly along where the night was padded in red leather cushions.
“Now listen,” the baron kept saying, “you ought to be making something out of a promising girl like you.”
It was gratifying to feel that one might be a financial asset. However, she was making something of herself: the best she was able, under the circumstances. All these bedraggled wan spectres seemingly so immersed in the pattern of tragic futility were very much engaged in turning accident into memoir. They imagined things about themselves, then forgot the thread of the current romance and disintegrated through the fumes of the night in search of the story of their lives.
Couples begin to pair off, but Janno is excluded; she does not want to be left out, but she cannot participate in affairs such as those taking place right under her nose. “During the first shock of infidelities the realization that the ties in which one has invested are nevertheless perishable gives poignancy.” Janno realizes that she can’t force Jacob “to feel fidelity,” therefore she “trooped her colours and accepted this, the custom of the country, with tragedy, regret and compensation.”
Eventually, however, Janno leaves one of the parties with a Mr. Fish, and they drive out to St. Cloud, kissing and drinking wine until the morning. At the end of the scene in St. Cloud Janno makes a moral pronouncement, “This is wrong,” and she and Fish leave.
Jacob disapproves of Janno’s staying out all night, but he is in no position to protest. Finally he decides to forget it and presents her with a golden necktie. Janno calls it “a gala emblem.” Jacob replies, “I’ll let you wear it sometime—next time you want to hang yourself for instance.” And the conversation is left at that, as if it were a clever bon mot.
Janno and Jacob meet the Comings, a rich couple who own a house in St. Cloud set in a magnificent pebbled garden. The description of the couple and their house, with its black glass tables and gilded ceilings, recalls the Murphys; what is unexpected is the undertone of irony and dislike in Zelda’s description of them: “He and Charity put much effort into human relationships; having friends made such a difference.” Their house is filled with hundreds of dollars’ worth of the most recent magazines from America. Corning insists upon two Bacardi cocktails before meals; it is only one of the minor details in his plan for a correct evening. The Comings give wonderful dinners “to the stars and to migratory Americans and to French people of consequence; not on the same evening.” But there is a tradition, Zelda writes, “amongst the rich and famous that they have earned the right to know the people they want…”
All of the Corning’s parties have the air of having been rehearsed. The only thing Zelda says Corning worries about is never having lost his temper: he is afraid it is a defect of temperament. He perfects “his garden, his gadgets, his graces, his retainers, his dependents, his children,” each with the same attention to detail. He misses only one thing according to the narrator, “love.” He is charming and impersonal; the love he says he gives is, in the narrator’s estimation, “parental solicitude.”
“Corning said, ’I want all these people to love one another because I love all of them—’ … The guests obediently loved him: everything was so good and so new and so well-dramatized; he gave them some more.”
“Now this was paradise,” begins Zelda’s last chapter, echoing David’s reaction to the Riviera in Save Me the Waltz. “We are now in Paradise—as nearly as we’ll ever get….” Janno and Jacob are on the Riviera and Zelda tells of the young wife’s romance with a French aviator, Jacques. It is related in greater detail than in Save Me the Waltz. Janno and Jacob have met the son of an advocate “and several young flying officers from the depot at Frejus… The flying officer who looked like a Greek God was aloof.”
They meet at a pavilion set back from the sea, facing the ring of bright lights strung in a crescent around the perimeter of the shore. Jacob insists that Janno begin a conversation with the officer, but she is reluctant.
Janno was vaguely baffled by the pleasurable expectancy which she felt concerning the French lieutenant… life suddenly offered possibilities to a reckless extravagance which she didn’t like. She had premonitions of wanton adventure.
Jacob is rather bored; he
didn’t really like the sitting around in a wet bathing-suit and he hated the taste of sand. He liked expatiating about values and origins and was exhaustive in his way of making the stories of people fit into his impetuous pre-conclusions about them. He kept nagging and asking and third-degreeing his acquaintances till it all made acceptable continuity with what he thought it ought to be dramaticly. He said people had to have friends. She didn’t have to have anything save the baby and him and a pint of wine with meals.
The setting is permeated with a sense of furtiveness, concealment, and utter confusion. The villa on the Mediterranean becomes a place of seclusion, a “secret house,” hidden by the lushness of the landscape, a “design of escape,” a place “for the heart to die or the world be hid…”
When Janno again meets Jacques he immediately invites her to his apartment. “She said she would; she was horrified. She could not possibly not do so.” Apparently Janno’s idea of herself forces her to go to Jacques; she is driven into a tryst not because she is dominated by love, but because she is afraid of it. To succumb to her fear would be a weakness, a violation of her code, and therefore she must confront it. But there is at no point in the chapter a clarification of the romance and only by ominous reactions to it can we feel the author’s point of view.
Unable to reconcile or resolve the conflicts between her heroine’s feelings, her behavior, and convention, Zelda allows Janno to escape all responsibility for her actions by blaming destiny.
She could not bring herself to deny her love its right of hearing, of clarification. She could go and see what in this destiny was ultimately inalienable; let issues declare themselves so that they might be faced and mastered. It was confused because she so hardly spoke the language and she was never quite sure about what she was saying… One night the lights went out in the brine-blown pavillion. She danced with Jacques while the others drank the really good champagne on the porch… Janno forgot to think. The lightning played about mysteriously and the night swayed black with arbitrary might outside. She kissed Jacques on the neck. It doesn’t matter now. The storm raged; this might be the end of the world. One was afraid; it might be God’s mal-diction. The kiss lasted a long time and there were two of them. She did not mean to do this; and when the dance was over and she joined the others, and put the matter aside. The young French officer treated her preciously and she knew that no matter what it was it would be tragedy and death: ruin is a relative matter.
If she loved him anyway she could not possibly hurt her husband and her child… If she loved him, she could not possibly love him and live with another: she wouldn’t be able. If she loved him, there wasn’t any answer.
The trouble was she should never have kissed him. First, she should never have kissed Jacques; then she shouldn’t have kissed her husband; then after the kissing had become a spiritual vivisection and half-massochistic there should not have been any more. Life in those darkened days behind the blinds with unidentified purposes humming outside and poitesses [?] hanging abeyant and reproachful over the inside, was venemous and poisoned. There wasn’t much in calling the doctor; though she did. He prescribed champagne.
Janno considers her relationship to Jacques almost exclusively in terms of ruination, and Zelda’s writing is made uncertain by her circling around the situation. Jacob seems completely unaware of what is happening. “Jacob littered his fire-place with duplicates from his files and receipts for his insurance and cigarette-butts and pencil stubs and wine bottles. Then he shoved the screen across the disarray and tipped the maid a little extra and was absolved.” Eventually, Janno asks herself, “How was she going to live if she did run off; if he [Jacob] did acknowledge the situation? What was he supposed to do?” Janno daydreams “that she would come back over the red clay where the sharp pines shed the blood of summer some day and die. This was probably the influence of Byron. It was a sad love affair holding no promise and too impassioned to be dignified.” Then suddenly Jacob acts: “’I’ll get out of here as soon as I can. In the meantime, you are not to leave these premises—You understand?’
“Of course she understood, a locked door is not difficult of comprehension. So she told her husband that she loved the French officer and her husband locked her up in the villa.” She reads books and no longer goes to the beach. She desperately wants to see Jacques. But she makes no attempt to; Janno remains essentially passive, both in her love and in her thinking about it. The scene never closes, and the manuscript dwindles away after a discourse on adultery. There are a few more pages, but the life and love that Zelda has been trying to describe, which are beyond Janno’s control, are also beyond hers. Beyond even making an effort toward control. It is that failure that mars the entire novel and gives it its floating, directionless quality.
The writing of Caesar’s Things occupied the last six years of Zelda’s life, years without Scott, years of quiet balance punctuated by spells of relapse. It is a difficult novel to read and to understand not only because it is fragmentary and at times incoherent, but because of the peculiarity of Zelda’s grammar, her piling of image upon image, her displacement of conventional syntax.
There are a number of fragments that accompany the novel and there is a characteristic that they share: each hovers on the edge of something about to happen. There is always a portentous ambience, a precarious situation which remains unfulfilled. Nothing is resolved. And a word Zelda uses again and again is exigency. The novel itself seems to be in this state: situations press, but the characters are held immobile. Zelda reveals a confused anguish as she reviews her life. Caesar’s Things ends where it does by no accident, for Zelda is up against a decisive incident from her sane life and she cannot cope with it in conventional terms. She dodges the implications of Janno’s affair with Jacques and its effects upon her marriage to Jacob, just as it seems Zelda had done in her romance with Jozan. The covert-ness of her setting on the Riviera underlines the mood of the affair itself, and Zelda’s artistry lies in her being able to convey as much as she does. But in the end we blunder against the locks of her own vision, if not of her madness, and she veers from us.
Among the fragments of fiction left in Zelda’s papers is one entitled “The Big Top.” In this, Zelda again uses the names Janno and Jacob, but it has nothing to do with the novel as it stands. In it Zelda describes Janno’s feelings upon the death of her husband.
He was gone … they had been much in love. He had been gone all summer and all winter for about a hundred years. Everything he did had been important.
She wasn’t going to have him anymore; not to promise her things nor to comfort her, nor just be there as general compensation… She was too old to make any more plans—the rest would have to be the best compromise.
She remembered the ragged edges of his cuffs, and the neatness of his worn possessions, and the pleasure he always had from his pile of sheer linen handkerchiefs. When she had been away, or sick or something, Jacob never forgot the flowers, or big expensive books full of compensatory ideas about life. He never forgot to make life seem useful and promising, or forgot the grace of good friendship, or the use of making an effort.
This is not Janno, but Zelda, who in remembering Scott has registered his death. She ends by writing about herself.
Nobody has ever measured, even the poets, how much a heart can hold… When one really can’t stand anymore, the limits are transgressed, and one thing has become another; poetry registers itself on the hospital charts, and heart-break has to be taken care of… But heart-break perishes in public institutions.
All these were excellent people; personable companions. Morally, they were, perhaps, the last romantics, and it may be that the worst enemy the romantic has to fear is time. Or it may be that, like the earlier Romantics, they did not know enough. But at least they knew their own predicament.
—JOHN PEALE BISHOP
THROUGHOUT 1943 AND INTO THE beginning of 1944 Scott’s will was in probate. Under California law Zelda received half of Fitzgerald’s estate; she could count on roughly $15,000. Judge Biggs, who was Scott’s literary executor, advised the purchase of an annuity for Zelda, which would yield her about $50 a month for the rest of her life. There was also a small bank account established for her, to be used only in an emergency.
Zelda and her mother had lived since 1940 in a white frame bungalow at 322 Sayre Street, which was nicknamed “Rabbit Run” because of the compact arrangement of its small rooms. Its tiny front porch was trimmed with green paint, and an array of potted plants and climbing roses gave the exterior of the house a cozy air. The inside of the cottage was simply furnished: the front room contained an old upright piano, a chintz-covered sofa and rockers, and a handsome cherry secretary from the Machen home. A visitor there recalls that the top of the piano as well as the walls and end tables were covered with family mementos and photographs, primarily of Zelda, Scottie, and Scott, and that the general impression of the cottage was one of comfort without much style or flair. Two bedrooms, a kitchen with an outdoor patio behind it, and a dining room made up the rest of the house. Zelda’s eldest sister, Marjorie Brinson, and her family lived next door.
Sayre Street, which had once been in the most fashionable part of Montgomery, was in a declining neighborhood by the 1940’s. Rooming houses had sprung up on the street during the war, and there was constant noise from children running on the street, taxis honking, screen doors slamming shut. Mrs. Sayre used to say “Bottom Rail’s getting on top!” Zelda took refuge in the quiet of the patio, where she painted.
In May and again in December of 1942, Zelda’s paintings and sketches were put on exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts and at the Woman’s Club in Montgomery. In both exhibits there were a large number of pencil sketches of flowers. These were executed with exacting attention to detail; Zelda said they were drawn “after the Chinese.” Among the twenty-one water colors and pencil drawings in the December show was a self-portrait and a painting of Scott. The portrait of Fitzgerald has been lost, but the one of Zelda survives. She glares full face out of the painting, her eyes dominating the portrait. Her mouth is pale and tight, her high cheekbones wide and accented by a flush of rose color, which gives the face a curious flatness. The colors are muted and chalky. It is the intensity of the entire face that is jarring and memorable. There is something strained about the face; it has a stiffness, a quality of being visually tense that suffuses much of Zelda’s work. The painting looks rigid on the paper.
Since Scott’s death a change had slowly come over Zelda’s letters to Scottie. In her earlier letters to her daughter she had often seemed to be straining for an effect of cleverness, an amusing touch, a phrase in French, as if to add sparkle to the monotonous surfaces of her messages. The change of tone must have reflected what Zelda felt her new role to be: she offered advice, somewhat gingerly, and she tried hard to be a conscientious and sensible parent. She worried about her daughter; she wanted Scottie to say her prayers and to pray for her as well.
I trust that life will use you far less inexorably than it has used me, but should it prove harder to master in later years than at present seems probable—you will be most grateful that your past does not present any profound cause of regret… If I seem querulous, and severe—such is not the case. I simply must (from desire to communicate from my heart from parental obligation and devotion) offer you whatever my tragic experience has mercifully indicated to be the best way of life… It isnt just a frustrate inhibited desire to assert myself, but my deepest love that makes me want you to love God and pray.
In February, 1943, Scottie married Lieutenant (j.g.) Samuel Jackson Lanahan in New York. Lanahan was a Princeton man from Baltimore whom she had begun to date before Fitzgerald’s death while she was at Vassar. It was a quick wartime wedding, with the handsome young groom in his dress blues and Scottie in a long white gown which Mrs. Harold Ober (who had been a sort of foster mother to Scottie for years) bought for her the day before the ceremony. Shortly after their marriage Lanahan left Scottie for overseas duty.
Zelda did not go to her daughter’s wedding. On February 22 she wrote Harold Ober: “Giving Scottie away must have brought back the excitement of those days twenty-years ago when there was so much of everything adrift on the micaed spring time and so many aspirations afloat on the lethal twilights that one’s greatest concern was which taxi to take and which magazine to sell to.” New York was, she said, “a honey-moon mecca,” a perfect place to begin. To Anne Ober, who made all of the wedding arrangements, Zelda wrote that she was disappointed that she “couldn’t be of any service.” She added that she received the wedding cake and shared it with John Dos Passos, who was passing through Montgomery on his way to Mobile to observe the war construction there.
Zelda wrote that she wanted Scottie to have whatever was left of her and Scott’s housekeeping equipment. “Do not consider these mine; your life contributed the greatest solace and deepest pleasure of our domestic ventures and I wish that there were more adequate testimony of our happiness to give you—because, despite the brawls and the despairing, we had long periods of a felicity such as one does not often encounter when all we wanted was our family and to be together.” She said that after her mother died (quickly adding that she saw no reason why Mrs. Sayre wouldn’t continue for another decade) she might buy a cottage in North Carolina and just waste away under the pine trees.
Scottie decided that she would spend her 1943 summer vacation with Zelda in New York. The two-week trip in July was a delight for Zelda and a trial for Scottie, who could not help being edgy about her mother. Andrew Turnbull, who had just become a naval officer remembers going to see Oklahoma! with them both. He felt that Zelda, who extravagantly admired his handsomeness in his fresh white ducks, was “acting the flirtatious jeune fille.” Scottie, sensitive to the warning signals of her mother’s illness, was right to be uneasy about her behavior. In August 1943, Zelda was back at Highland Hospital for the first time since she left in 1940. She wrote Anne Ober: “Asheville is haunted by unhappy, uncharted remembrance for me.”
A staff member who worked closely with Zelda during her second stay at Highland remarked that when Zelda was ready to go home “she looked almost pretty again, and cheerful. But, you see, it just wasn’t permanent.” Her doctors knew perfectly well that Zelda’s situation with her mother would not last for very long. There was, however, no other place for her to live, and in February, 1944, Zelda returned to Montgomery.
Lucy Goldthwaite remembers seeing Zelda at a garden party that spring in Montgomery. Miss Goldthwaite had gone to high school with Zelda and had left Montgomery in the twenties for New York, where she eventually became an editor for McCall’s magazine. When she was first in New York people who knew she was from Alabama would come up to her at cocktail parties and ask her if she knew Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald. “You must remember how attractive they both were. They were so much of their time. I don’t know if they would be considered beautiful today, but Scott really did look like the man in the Arrow collar ad!” She did not recognize the haggard woman who came up to her in the Southern garden in 1944 and said, “Lucy, I’m Zelda Sayre.” Zelda’s hair was dark and her permanent badly styled; her dress was long and shapeless. While Miss Goldthwaite assured Zelda that she had recognized her, Zelda explained that she had just returned from Asheville, where she had been recuperating from an illness. Looking directly at Lucy for a moment, Zelda said, “We play parlor games from The Ladies Home Journal.” And in Miss Goldthwaite’s startled silence Zelda quickly moved away from her. Later, Miss Goldthwaite remembers that Zelda spoke to her about Scottie, saying that she wanted Lucy to talk to her daughter in New York and tell her about herself when she was young and life was before her.
Zelda became intensely religious again in 1944 and, evangelical in her zeal, she mimeographed tracts that she wrote to save the souls of her friends. Because her friends included Gertrude Stein, Edmund Wilson, and Carl Van Vechten, her little religious essays were saved. She believed that she was in direct communication with God and she envisioned her friends as hellhound. In February she wrote Wilson: “You should redeem yourself; pray and repent. Believing as I do that no matter what the floral catalogues may designate as rose, the odor remains funereal.” She later said that she did not like to think of his burning. “You are much to be respected and handsome and have a genius for interesting people. You must look to your salvation.”
She also wrote Scottie such directives as this:
Right things are the best things to pursue and to do, by the nature of their being. A thing is right to do because it contributes the most constructive possibility; is right because the concensus of the best authorities have endorsed it; and is the right course because it is the most spiritually remunerative of any possibility—Knowing the right there isn’t any alternative—because right is that which is most spiritually advantageous and all souls seek betterment. The purpose of life on earth is that the soul shall grow—
So grow—by doing what is right.
Zelda began to live more and more exclusively within these circles of rightness, altered only by remembering. Within a few months she was writing Scottie: “Time passes: the japonica still blooms and the garden has been expectantly promisory with jonquils and the peach trees bud… These rainy twilights are glamorous and sorrowful and make me wish that I weren’t too old to remember tragic love-affairs.” Her life was peopled with memories. The editors of The American Mercury wrote to her asking permission to reprint “Crazy Sunday” in a collection of their best work. They offered her $50. She told Scottie: “Scott would have been so pleased; it is good that he is still remembered. I wish that my reams of epic literature would spin themselves out to a felicitous end. I write and write and have, in fact, progressed. The book [Caesar’s Things] still makes little sense but makes it very beautifully and may find a reader or two eventually.”
Sometimes she got tired of making the best of everything, of having to be a financial wizard to keep herself off the rocks on $50 a month, and at those times she would admit to Scottie that her family in the South was “oppressive and I am sick to death of hypochrondia and the simplicities of the poor. Maybe a few months in the mountains will give me a more sociable attitude.” It was during such periods as these that she would think back on her life with Scott.
I always feel that Daddy was the key-note and prophet of his generation and deserves remembrance as such since he dramatized the last post-war era & gave the real signifigance to those gala and so-tragicly fated days. He tabulated and greatly envied foot-ball players & famous atheletes and liked girls from the popular songs; he loved gorging on canned voluptes at curious hours and, as you have had many controversial run-ins with, was the longest & most exhaustive conversationalist I ever met. He loved people but was given to quick judgments and venomous enmities: I had few friends but I never quarreled with any; save once with a friend in the Paris Opera whom I loved. Daddy loved glamour & so I also had a great respect for popular acclame. I wish that I had been able to do better one thing & not so give[n] to running into cul-de-sac with so many.
Her moods did not lift easily, and when her life seemed to her useless, only faith gave her respite. She wrote Mrs. Ober:
I used to feel desperately sad in the hospital when I thought of time going by and my being unable to turn it to any account, then I reconciled myself and had to accept with grace the implacable exigences of life. I would not exchange my experience for any other because it has brought me the knowledge of God. Revelations of His Divine presence are a greater honor than any which the world could give; a greater beauty and a more compelling inspiration.
She bought two doves and sat before the cage listening to their sounds, “wishing that somebody would send me a Valentine.”
When Zelda learned that Scottie’s husband was returning from active service she offered advice about decorating a home. She told Scottie to avoid “imitation decorator’s items.” Pewter pots, earthenware jugs, calico curtains, gingham table cloths and plain white Fiesta-ware dishes were more “engaging” and cheaper. “There isn’t any real reason why sheets should be white: pink sheets would be most entertaining and one could sew the strips together with narrow embroidery… Don’t buy all the spoons and sauce-pans which one always seems to need… They breed under the kitchen sink if left to themselves…” She suggested “croissants for breakfast” to make the meal more interesting for a man, “unless they’re like Daddy who not only wanted an egg every day but the same egg every day.”
At the beginning of 1946 she returned to Highland. Landon Ray, the athletic director, remembers one of their hikes together there, when they walked up and across Sunset Mountain near the Grove Park Inn. As they walked it began to rain, a light spring rain, “but she had no complaints about her own discomfort. She seemed to enjoy just being there. Once we made camp the first thing we did was to build a fire. Zelda went for wood and I remember stopping while I was talking to one of the other people and just watching her going through the deep laurel and wet briar selecting the best pieces for kindling. The hike was a sort of test of mettle.” That vignette formed his final memory of Zelda—a disheveled and middle-aged woman bending in the dim light and rain, alone and searching for wood.
While Zelda was at Highland, on April 26, 1946, Scottie’s first child was born. Zelda had been certain Scottie would have a son and couldn’t resist crowing with pleasure when it turned out she was right. Immediately after the birth of Timothy Lanahan, she wrote Scottie: “Aren’t you wonderful! What a good idea to have a 7 1/2 lb. boy! I don’t feel any older, but I suppose I should put strings on my bonnets.” Five days after Timothy’s birth Zelda sent Scottie another letter telling her she had been to see a movie of George White’s Scandals. She felt dated; “it brought back our honey-moon in New York. They sang ’Bowl of Cherries’ & I remembered our peregrinations through the lights of Broadway with Geo. Nathan so many years ago.” It was wonderful to be a grandmother: “I haven’t been so beaming in years and I can’t wait to hold him and see how he works… Continue to be good and eat your ice-cream and you will be well and at home in no time…”
To Ludlow Fowler she wrote: “It is completely incredible to me that one of my generation should be a grandmother; Time is no respecter of convention anymore and goes on as if behaving in a rational manner… Down here the little garden blows remotely poetic under the voluptes of late spring skies. I have a cage of doves who sing and woo the elements and die…”
At the end of the summer Zelda went East to see her grandson for herself. She went on from New York to visit the Biggses in Wilmington. Mrs. Biggs recalls that she had picked some berries for the center of her table because she thought Zelda might like them. As Zelda passed through the dining room she stopped by the table and said, “There are berries on your table!” Mrs. Biggs didn’t know what to say and waited. “They have thorns. The crown of thorns. Christ wore a crown of thorns. You must get rid of them immediately!” Not wanting to disturb her, Mrs. Biggs threw the berries out quickly, but for a moment she was afraid of Zelda.
On Zelda’s last evening at the Biggses’ they were all sitting on a porch waiting to leave. Mrs. Biggs remembers: “John mentioned that it was time to catch the train back to Montgomery. Zelda didn’t seem to pay any attention and we stressed it a little more obviously. It was late. Perhaps we’d better get into the car, and so forth. Zelda said we didn’t need to worry, the train would not be on time anyway. We laughed and said, perhaps, but it was a risk we didn’t intend to take. ’Oh, no,’ she said, ’it will be all right. Scott has told me. Can’t you see him sitting here beside me?’” The Biggses were speechless, neither knowing what to say or do. At last Judge Biggs insisted that they leave. “When we got to the station we had a half hour wait. The train was going to be late.” It was in an uneasy silence that they waited together until it came.
Mrs. Ober was on the train, since Zelda had persuaded her to visit Montgomery. She remembers the trip with mixed feelings; she had gone for Scottie’s sake, not for Zelda’s. She liked Mrs. Sayre enormously. “She was a marvelous woman, big and comfortable. She was very protective about Zelda; she was her baby, after all. I remember asking her about the South during the Civil War, and she answered me, ’Darling, just read Gone With the Wind.’” Zelda would not always get up in the mornings; when she did finally make her appearance they would all have their “meat” breakfast, which consisted of ham and sausages and bacon and grits and delicious hot cakes. They would eat again at mid-day for the last time, because the maid went home after that. “Zelda,” Mrs. Ober thinks, “played her mother’s protectiveness for all it was worth, played on it all the time. I don’t think Mrs. Sayre ever understood Zelda.” When they all talked together Zelda would reminisce about being a girl in Montgomery, and about her life with Scott.
By October, 1946, Zelda, who had caught cold in New York, was on the edge of another collapse. She wrote Anne Ober that she would despair were it not for the knowledge “that God can help me if He so wills—thus I live; hoping to find grace and knowing that no agency of man can be of any assistance.” In November her asthma returned. It kept her from sleeping half the night, and “evil spirits plague the other half. I beseech the Lord until I do not see how God could in justice ignore my plaints—still I do not progress.” She felt herself growing old “enveloped in dreams and lost in yearnings” and she fretted about her graying hair and her increased weight. Still, she held on. She painted bowls for Scottie depicting the various places they had lived during her childhood; Zelda said they would form “a real saga of your life.” She asked for a photograph of Scottie’s first house, or of the church she had been married in, for the salad bowl. She etched trays for the Biggses and the Obers. And when she could she received those few visitors who came to see her.
Paul McLendon met Zelda for the first time in 1941, when he was in high school in Montgomery. He was a friend of Livye Hart Ridgeway’s son, and Livye Hart and Zelda had been friends since girlhood. In his freshman year at the University of Alabama his roommate was crazy about F. Scott Fitzgerald and was trying, according to Paul, to run himself out as Fitzgerald had. When he learned that Paul had met Zelda he pressed him for details. A little embarrassed that he could remember none, Paul decided he would call on her the next weekend he was home. He did, and thereafter became a frequent visitor. Paul wanted to be a writer, and brought his stories to Zelda for criticism. After one such afternoon’s talk, Zelda wrote him, “I am not au-courrant with the affairs & morals of our day and live, indeed an anachronism…” But she was deeply troubled by a story he had written and she wanted to know: “What happened to you? Young men once believed in the Sunday school picnic & the Constitution of the United States. I grievously lament that so much of contemporary literature should present such bitterness and misgiving…” Still, whatever her doubts were, she gave him good direct advice about his story. She said it could use more atmosphere and she suggested he write it twice more, then send it off to Harper’s Magazine. At the end of her letter she asked him to “Be good.”
A few months later, when Paul told her about a novel he wanted to write and about his fears that it might draw too deeply upon the lives of people close to him, Zelda, who understood such problems all too well, told him that “the world is fair game to the greedy themes of the literary-minded. It is difficult to make one’s close associates realize that all things are meat to a writer’s imagination and that interpretation & transpositions are the biggest part of his game and are not always transgressions of devotion… I’d just go on & write & explain to my friends later, you’ll probably have to apologize anyway.” She also said she wasn’t looking forward to winter that year and she asked him if it was not too late for a picnic in the park together: “—The woods are a romantic idyll at this time of year over which I dream & reminisce.”
Paul realized that Zelda enjoyed his company partly because he brought her into contact with a younger world than the one in which she lived with her mother. Mrs. Sayre, who suffered from rheumatism, rarely left her house any more. Her snow-white hair was worn in braids about her head and she was always seen sitting in a rocker on her front porch wearing long cotton housedresses and solid Aunt Pittypat shoes. She was, however, an alert old woman with a tart wit and she enjoyed nothing better than talking with the cronies who gathered around her in the afternoon. But it was a restricted world for Zelda, who often spent long hours indoors listening to her record player. Once after Paul had invited her for a day at Tuscaloosa she replied: “… please forgive and ask me later again and I will be so happy to share with you the idyll of youth …” She said she was ill and harassed by “evil spirits” from the “spirit world (which really do not deserve a trip to a university.) …—Please let me come some other time.”
Usually when Paul came to visit, Mrs. Sayre would stay chatting for a few minutes with them both as if to make sure that everything was all right and then leave him and Zelda to their long conversations. But one afternoon Mrs. Sayre told him Zelda couldn’t talk to him that day, and she asked him to keep her company on the porch. They were talking when suddenly a cry came from inside the house. It was a low wail, like that of a wounded animal, rather than a human cry. In an instant the cry stopped and then a door slammed shut violently. Mrs. Sayre and McLendon were silent. Then Mrs. Sayre said, “You know I’ve had that door facing replaced three times.” McLendon left shortly afterward.
On good days Zelda and he would sit for hours talking about the times she had shared with Scott in Paris in the twenties. He noticed that it was in recollection and reverie that her conversation flowed most easily. But she seemed to him plagued with a sense of repentance. Again and again she would speak or write to him about Divine Purpose, atonement, and forgiveness of sins. McLendon would listen and try to remember. In the winter they sat in front of the fire, in summertime out on the patio at the rear of the cottage. On its walls Zelda had painted colorful murals from scenes of her life with Scott.
McLendon remembers one of the last times he saw Zelda.
The time was early, early spring. Flowers were beginning to bloom, though the air was still nippy and the wind brisk. It was a Saturday, and I was home from Tuscaloosa for the weekend. I went by to see Zelda, and while there, 1 told her of a pair of Alfred von Munchausen prints I had seen in a store window downtown, and of how much I liked them. Zelda said that we should walk to town so that I could point the pictures out to her, and then she would paint a similar picture for me.
Zelda went to her room for a moment, and returned wearing a rather strange collage of attire—a dress length coat of deep blue wool, with gray caracul fur about the collar & cuffs—& on her head, a very dark green felt cloche-type hat—from the crown of which were long streamers of green felt, end-tipped at the shoulders with white felt dogwood blossoms.
We began our walk to town, and her spirits were soaring—as were my own—the day was beautiful & we were off on a lark. After only a block & a half, or so, there were three children walking toward us on the sidewalk, two girls & a boy—ages about 9, 11, 12. As they approached, Zelda & I were talking, but when we were 3 or 4 yards from them we both saw one of the girls punch the other & say, “You see there, there’s that crazy woman mamma’s been telling us about!” and they passed on by us.
They continued walking in absolute silence. Zelda had heard the girl and turning to Paul she quietly told him she didn’t feel too well. They could go to town another day. Together they walked back to her little house.
On March 10, 1947, Zelda wrote to Paul and told him that she was ill, and although she suffered, “He sends His angels to help…” She said she could see a lone jonquil blooming in her garden. And she was painting to make “pin money with trays & trays & trays.”
Henry Dan Piper was discharged from the Army at Anniston, Alabama, that same March. He’d gone to Princeton as an undergraduate and while there became greatly intrigued by Scott Fitzgerald’s writing. He decided to take advantage of his proximity to Scott’s widow and to try to visit her in Montgomery. He had only a weekend, March 13 and 14, in which to see Zelda and he wasn’t sure she would want to talk to him. But he telephoned and Zelda immediately invited him to come by at four o’clock that same afternoon for tea. She met him at the door to the cottage and began by apologizing, “I don’t have much to tell you.”
As Piper took off an old camel’s hair polo coat he had bought from Finchley’s in New York while at Princeton, Zelda reached out to touch it and said, delightedly, “Oh, it looks just like Scott’s!”
Piper was moved by the winsomeness of her gesture and remembers feeling that there was something not only spontaneous about her reaction but very feminine. Watching her as she began to speak, Piper noticed that her hair was darker than he had expected, and graying. She wore black, a plain voile dress with girlish lace trimmings at the sleeves and throat. Her nose was sharp and pointed and she wore a little too much powder. Her mouth was thin-lipped. He says: “Every once in a while her face would grow strained, and the mouth fall away and be lost in a hundred deep lines that decomposed all her lower face and gave her an aged ugliness. She had a strange mannerism of now and then screwing up her eyes into many wrinkles and looking away into space, working her mouth and lips.” As his glance strayed over her he noticed that her legs and hands and fingers were older looking than his first impression of them. Her hands particularly looked gnarled from strain.
Mrs. Sayre was with them at the beginning of their conversation, but soon retired to the kitchen. Zelda followed her and began bringing out an abundance of cakes and pastries she said she had made herself. There were custards with meringue, small frosted cakes, honey biscuits with curls of sweet butter—much more than they could possibly eat.
Piper began by assuring Zelda of his interest in Scott’s writing. He let her know he had read everything Fitzgerald had written and he was considering writing a biography. Then he tried to draw her out about their life together. He says: “Zelda was amazed and touched, I think, by my interest. She several times said to me, ’Oh, how flattered Scott would be to think that people still remember him.’”
Then she began to discuss her own writing. She told Piper she had been working on a novel which would be called Caesar’s Things, for she had learned to separate, she said, Caesar’s things from God’s. Their conversation moved quickly from one subject to another. On the whole it tended to be a theoretical and energetic, but abstract discussion, with neither of them, according to Piper, paying much attention to the other’s opinions. She asked him at one point if he didn’t believe in revelations, saying, “I know! I’ve had them! I have been dead and seen another world and come back again alive to this one.” Zelda was taken with the idea of Fascism as a way of holding everything together, of ordering the masses. She told Piper she joined every organization she could “to keep things from falling apart and to keep the finer things from being lost or extinguished.”
Relaxing with him at last she said: “Well, now, tell me about your work. I think it’s a fine idea, by all means. Surely a biography— He was so fine a person and had a really interesting life.
“Nora Flynn—he loved her I think—not clandestinely, but she was one of several women he always needed around him to stimulate him and to turn to when he got low and needed a lift. Sara Murphy was that way, too.”
Piper then told her about the collection of Scott’s personal and literary papers he had seen five years earlier at Judge Biggs’s. Shortly after he mentioned this Zelda seemed shaken and told him she had to lie down. She said that her mother would take care of him, and that although she regretted leaving him, when she was tired she had to rest. She invited him to return for lunch the following day. They went back and forth about the time, finally settling on twelve-thirty, and Zelda left the room.
Piper wrote this down about the last few moments of that first day:
In our brief talk of Scott, I had emphasized the disparity between his good and bad stories—some were full of poetry, others of forced writing and a concocted plot. But she didn’t get my point.
[Zelda said] “I always felt a story in the Post was tops; a goal worth seeking. It really meant something, you know—they only took stories of real craftsmanship. But Scott couldn’t stand to write them. He was completely cerebral, you know. All mind.” … Only when I mentioned the marvelous passages at the opening of Gatsby, with the wind rippling coolly and setting everything in motion was she really alert—listening to me with more than half an ear. At this delightful reference her eyes lighted up and smiled charmingly. She has suffered much around the eyes, but they are still grey and very alert.
The next day Piper came promptly at twelve-thirty only to find Zelda wringing her hands and quite distressed, insisting that they had set the time for twelve. She and Mrs. Sayre had already eaten. But they had saved dinner for him and out of the kitchen came delicious fried chicken, rice, candied yams, tomatoes and lettuce, with cake and plums for dessert.
It was during their second meeting that Zelda showed Dan Piper her portfolio of paintings, as well as some illustrations she was painting for her eleven-month-old grandson based on the Book of Genesis and Grimm’s fairy tales. A great many were paintings of flowers. All were in motion, it seemed to him. Zelda said to him about her art: “What I want to do is to paint the basic, fundamental principle so that everyone will be forced to realize and experience it—I want to paint a ballet step so all will know what it is—to get the fundamental essence into the painting.”
After lunch they walked to Montgomery’s art museum to look at Zelda’s paintings. Walking back she told him Scottie and her family were coming for a visit in June and that she knew she would be tired out afterward and have to return to Asheville to rest. She said it was good to know that she could go there to rest, that it reassured her.
Piper remembers the energy that radiated from her, her quick tenseness. She walked rapidly and gestured jerkily. Afterward they stopped at a small bar in town. He had heard that she must absolutely have no liquor, but she insisted on going into the bar. Piper ordered a beer, and Zelda to his relief ordered a vanilla soda, which had to be brought in from a drugstore. He remembers sitting opposite her, making small talk, wondering if the alcohol was a temptation for her, wondering if the entire two days had been a charade, but deciding that they couldn’t have been. For a moment he just enjoyed having her opposite him, the legendary and forgotten Zelda as his companion. When they were finished they returned to her little house and she gave him the portrait of herself.
At the beginning of June, 1947, Scottie, her husband, and their baby did come South and Zelda gave a party for them at the Blue Moon restaurant. There were twenty at the table and the food was delicious, ample Southern fare. However, one of the women who was there commented about the guests: “If Charles Dickens had been present he would have written a sequel to Pickwick Papers. There was the oddest assortment of animals.” Nevertheless, neither Scottie nor Jack behaved as if that were the case. Jack stood and made a beautiful toast to his mother-in-law, which very much pleased Zelda.
But it was clear to everyone that Zelda was not well. By the end of the hot summer she was close to collapse, she grew weak and furtive, and she refused to see a doctor. Finally, Mrs. Sayre called Scottie. On November 2, 1947, Zelda returned to Highland Hospital for treatment and rest. A taxi was called to take her to the train. Mrs. Sayre, Marjorie, and Livye Hart stood on the sidewalk by the porch, having said their goodbyes. Suddenly, just as Zelda was about to enter the taxi, she turned and ran back up to her mother. She said, “Momma, don’t worry. I’m not afraid to die.” Then she left them.
At the beginning of 1948 Zelda was given a series of insulin treatments and was moved to the top floor of the main building at Highland, where patients stayed while recovering from them. In early March in a letter to her mother she wrote that in Asheville the jasmine was in full flower and crocuses dotted the lawns. She wanted to get home, she said, to see “our lillies and larkspur bloom in the garden and I’d like to be there to watch the fires die down.” She thought her bridge game was getting better and she played twice a week; she sewed and took long walks; she thanked her mother for her constant devotion.
On March 9 she wrote Scottie that the snow had fallen once again just as she thought winter was finally over. She had been at Highland four months and during that period Scottie’s second child, a daughter, was born. Zelda told her she had gained twenty pounds owing to the insulin treatments, “making a grand total of 130 lbs at which I shudder in the privacy of my boudoir.” Scottie’s maternity clothes would probably fit her perfectly, she said, and she would need something to travel home in when she would at last be released.
“Anyhow: to-day there is promise of spring in the air and an aura of sunshine over the mountains; the mountains seem to hold more weather than elsewhere and time and retrospect flood roseate down the long hill-sides… I long to see the new baby, Tim must be phenomenal by this time.”
At midnight the following night, March 10, a fire broke out in the diet kitchen of the main building where Zelda was sleeping. The flames shot up a small dumbwaiter shaft to the roof and leaped out onto each of the floors. The stairways and corridors were filled with smoke. A pair of stockings pinned to a line on a porch on the top floor could be seen dancing wildly in the wind created by the heat of the fire. There was no automatic fire-alarm system in the old stone-and-frame building and no sprinkler system. The fire escapes were external, but they were made of wood and quickly caught fire. Firemen and staff members struggled valiantly to bring the patients to safety, but they were hampered by locked doors, and by heavy windows shackled with chains. Nine women were killed, six of them trapped on the top floor. Zelda died with them.
Her body was identified by a charred slipper lying beneath it. She was taken to Maryland for burial. It was St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1948, and the day was warm and sunny, in striking contrast to the cold, raw afternoon when Scott was buried. The service was simple and a small group of friends stayed until her grave was filled in. Her death seemed a relief and they felt bound together by their memories of the Fitzgeralds; they shared a haunting intimacy in witnessing the last and mortal death of Zelda. Clusters of bright spring flowers were placed upon the raw turf of her grave, and Mrs. Turnbull brought two wreaths of pansies from La Paix and placed them over Scott and Zelda, who were at last in peace together.
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