The thing that made you first notice Gay was that manner she had, as though she was masquerading as herself. All her clothes and jewelry were so good that she wore them “on the surface,” as superficially as a Christmas tree supports its ornaments. She could do that because she, too, was awfully good quality and had nothing to conceal except her past. That is to say, she had unquestionably the best figure in New York, otherwise she’d never have made all that money for just standing on the stage lending an air of importance to two yards of green tulle. And her hair was that blonde color that’s no color at all but a reflector of light, so that she seldom bothered to have it waved or “done.”
The first time I saw her she was eating raspberries and cream in the Japanese Garden at the Ritz. There was a cool sound on the air from the tiny fountain and the clink of jeweled bracelets, and the vaporous hush of midsummer had settled over the voices. I thought how appropriate she was—so airy, as if she had a long time ago dismissed herself as something decorative and amusing, and not to be confused with the vital elements of American life.
Her eyes were far apart and small. All of her was small, though she wasn’t in the least restricted or economized upon, rather, polished away. She was quite tall, and all of her fitted together with delightful precision, like the seeds of a pomegranate. I suppose that objet d’art quality was what drew about her a long string of men-about-town.
But she had another quality which you couldn’t help feeling would betray her sooner or later. It was the quality that made her like intellectual men, though I’m sure that she never read a book through and preferred beer to all other drinks; a quality that made her love “dives” and learn French and waver back and forth between Theosophy and Catholicism.
She wasn’t at all the tabloid sort of person. From the first, the men who liked her were very distinguished. She had learned discretion at the start, almost as if it were a thing she wanted for herself, to use so as to be freer therewith—the aristocratic viewpoint.
And then, though undeniably an adventuress of a quiet order, she was financially safe, which relieved her from the taint of hysteria that goes so often with her kind of life. Of course she hadn’t always had enough to live on, but in the early years, before producers found out that she made the rest of the chorus look like bologna sausages, there had been a husband with a gift of fantasy that cost him five thousand dollars a year for the rest of her life. That left Gay free to pay her respects to the primrose path, undoubting.
Those first years she came quite near destroying her value. She went to all the parties recorded in the Sunday supplement, and the press photographs of her were so startling that the mysterious notoriety about her was almost turned into vulgarity. But she learned to like absinthe cocktails and to want a serious stage career, which turned her toward successful people and saved her from the usual marriage-to-pugilist end.
She was very kaleidoscopic. There were times when she’d just sit and drink and drink, ending the evening with a heavy British accent, and there were other times when she’d drink nothing but would eat great trays of asparagus hollandaise and swear she was going to enter a convent. Once, when she seemed particularly serious about taking the veil, I asked her why and she said: “Because I’ve never done that.”
This was in the stage of her career when she lived in a silver apartment with mulberry carpets and lots of billowing old-blue taffeta, so you see how bored she must have been with her Louis XVI tea service and her grand piano, the huge silver vase that must have calla lilies in it and the white bearskin rug.
Gay was swamped in a flood of interior decorators’ pastel restraints. She knew she didn’t like the apartment, but the vanity of taking her friends there made her stick for quite a while. It had so obviously cost a lot.
In the vestibule the only French telephone in New York modestly hid itself. You worked the elevator yourself, which in Gay’s circle was very recherche and showed a fine disdain for American commercialism. She must have passed eternities just waiting in all this carefully faded finery, though she kept an engagement book and always had to look all through the Wednesdays and Sundays when you asked her to tea. There was a purple address book on the marble mantel shelf, chock-full of phone numbers from Naples to Nantucket; couturieres and expatriates, millionaires and hairdressers, the restaurants in Rome and the summer homes of producers. It was her attempt at system and gave her a sense of the solidity of organized life. Once you were inscribed in that book you were Gay’s friend and theoretically available for bridge or ocean crossings, or any unforeseen contingency such as making the extra man for the Fourth of July in Timbuktu.
But in spite of all the names and numbers, she lived mostly alone, and to soften the harsh loneliness she soon began to live in a great many places at once. She spent a year on the London stage, with a suite in Paris and innumerable trips to New York, carrying about with her an air of urgency and mystery that made her very elusive.
Gay en route meant the arrival of countless bandboxes, mountains of tissue paper, telephone calls in a rapid foreign tongue, people dropping in who didn’t know she was going and whom she hadn’t seen for years, and always newspaper reporters because they liked Gay and made up important-sounding little stories about her. The pictures that went above these anecdotes nowadays were heads, well-groomed, unpretentious heads, and the “Miss” was always printed in front of her name.
In Paris she lived in a blue velvet trunk. Lost in the intricate fragility of France’s imitation of its lost grandeur, there was a cold-looking bath hiding in the corner of a banquet-sized room, that all Gay’s bottles and atomizers and bright dressing gowns couldn’t make informal. Next to that there was a gray and gilt sitting room which she always kept full of South Americans. The marbletop tables were covered with champagne cocktails and big paperlike magenta roses with stems like pipes.
In her bedroom there was a picture of her sister’s child, a little girl with Gay’s wide eyes, lost in the square of a huge red leather frame.
She found the hotel apartment much less oppressive than the silver walls in New York, because it did not belong to her and she could wipe cold cream on the towels and rub her shoes with the bath mat.
At this time she was making an awful struggle to hang onto something that had never crystallized for her—it was the past. She wanted to get her hands on something tangible, to be able to say, “That is real, that is part of my experience, that goes into this or that category, this that happened to me is part of my memories.” She could not correlate the events that had made up her life, so now when she was beginning to feel time passing she felt as though she had just been born; born without a family, without a friendly house about her, without any scheme to settle into or to rebel against. The isolation of each day made her incapable of feeling surprise and caused her to be wonderfully tolerant, which is another way of saying that she was sick with spiritual boredom.
The blue velvet trunk became so plastered with hotel labels that it had to be revarnished. Then Gay filled it again with three thousand dollars’ worth of sunburn georgette crepe cobwebs and a statue that she went to Florence for, and set out for Biarritz. She was jaunty and courageous, and whenever the corners of life got stuffed up with laundry lists and stale cigarettes, she would be off for a new place with an ever-changing, starchy maid who she pretended had been with her for years.
She felt that people should be used to their surroundings, and should like old things. The intense obligation she felt of being appreciative was a thing she had learned by finding out, afterwards, how many of the things she hadn’t instinctively liked were of recognized merit.
Gay came back from Biarritz that year looking very pale. She was one of the few people who could have managed so many long hours on a beach and emerge positively bleached. It was part of a sadistic interpretation of Anglo-Saxon self-discipline that she should always be Hawaiian brown in winter and as white as the fox on the collars of her transparent coats in summer.
If she had lived longer, she would have owned innumerable lace parasols, long beige gloves, floppy hats, and a perroquet. Gay liked style, fluttering, feminine style, better than anything she knew, and she never even once suspected that she had it because she dealt so completely in fundamentals—how many children you’d had or how many millions you’d made, how many roles you’d acted or the number of lions you’d tamed.
All these wanderings about took time, and Gay was being forgotten in New York like all people are who are not constantly being casually run into. There were other girls from fresher choruses, with wide clear eyes and free boyish laughs, and you heard less and less about Gay. If you asked for news of her, a blank look or a look of hesitancy would cross the face opposite you as if its owner didn’t know whether he should have news of Gay or not, since her present status was undetermined. People said she was older that she was, when they talked about her—men, mostly, who were anxious that she should belong to a finished past.
She couldn’t possibly be the ages they said, because I saw her not long ago under the trees in the Champs-Elysees. She looked like a daffodil. She was taking a yellow linen sports thing for an airing and she reeked of a lemony perfume and Bacardi cocktails. She wouldn’t come to tea with me because her favorite barber had been ill for a long time and Gay was taking him the money for a month in the country.
Before I had half finished looking at all the little tailored bows that made the yellow thing just right for Gay, she was pressed up the broad avenue by the mist from the fountains and the glitter of bright flowers in the shadow, the curling blue haze and the smell of excitement that make a Paris summer dusk. I thought she seemed pale and fragile, but Gay was always on some sort of an ascetic diet to keep her beautiful figure. These long regimes would bore her so that afterwards she’d go on a terrific spree and have to spend two weeks at a rest cure. She wore herself out with the struggle between her desire for physical perfection and her desire to use it.
The next news of Gay was a small bit on the bottom of the front page. It was an obituary notice from Paris. The papers were sketchy and said pneumonia. Later, I saw an old friend of hers who had been with her just before she died, and she told me that Gay had wanted the baby. Well, the child lived. And Gay still lives, too—in all the restless souls who follow the season in its fashionable pilgrimage, who look for the lost spell of brown backs and summer beaches in musty cathedrals, who seek the necessity for solidity and accomplishment but never quite believe in it, in all of those who make the Ritz what it is, and ocean travel an informal affair of dinner clothes and diamond bracelets.
She was very courageous—braver than the things that happened to her, always—and since courage has a way of pushing itself out, I suppose that’s why she wanted a child. But it must have been awful, dying alone under the gilt curlicues of a Paris hotel, no matter how expensive the gilt, nor how used to them she was.
Gay was too good a companion and too pretty to go dying like that for a romanticism that she was always half afraid would slip away from her.
Published in College Humor magazine (July 1929), published as by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.
Illustrations by Chris Marie Meeker.