Save Me the Waltz, by Zelda Fitzgerald, is a novel of an unusual kind. Based on some of the events the author’s husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, drew upon for his own novel, Tender is the Night, Mrs Fitzgerald’s book is, among other things, somewhat complementary to that volume. Yet it is not patterned exactly after it, since Fitzgerald’s novel didn’t come out until 1934, two years after his wife’s. This will need some explaining.
Whatever the merits or demerits of Mrs Fitzgerald’s book, it is a literary curio. She had at least a surface ability to write, as she had at least a surface ability to paint and dance in ballet. She had a sense of phrasing and colour in her writing, as we can see in such pieces as ‘“Show Mr and Mrs F. to Number—”’—both she and her husband signed their names to this as authors, but the wife seems to have written it, with the husband ordering it and making emendations. Of course, neat sentences about various hotel rooms the couple had stayed in do not make a novelist; but they do show that Zelda Fitzgerald had a flair. Putting a novel together, with all its problems of character and form (yes, form), was a different matter. Yet Save Me the Waltz has a life of its own, as a picture of a fabulous age and the people in it; the book is something more than a mere literary curio.
There are numerous books of that kind, one of which is particularly interesting because it concerns contemporaries of the Fitzgeralds’. The book is The Journey Down, published in 1938 by Aline Bernstein, who had been the Esther Jack of some of Thomas Wolfe’s autobiographical novels. The Journey Down the work of a sensitive and gifted woman, is only a thin echo of Wolfe’s own writing vitality, but the novel has an importance for those who want to view Wolfe from a single angle, that of a woman in love with him. One other example of books of this kind may be mentioned in passing : the American writer Nelson Algren and the French author Simone de Beauvoir have written separate fictional accounts of their relationship.
But among all such volumes, Zelda Fitzgerald’s stands out as unique because of the intense interest readers have today in the life and works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. At this point a rather elementary review may be needed for those not au courant with the Fitzgerald story. The review will be brief.
Soon after the First World War, Scott Fitzgerald persuaded Zelda Sayre—whom he had met while stationed near Montgomery, Alabama, on war service—to marry him. He was starting as a writer, and his prospects were good. Maxwell Perkins, the brilliant editor at Charles Scribner’s Sons, took a close interest in Fitzgerald’s writing, as he was later to do in the cases of Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe. In 1920 Fitzgerald’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, was a success with critics and public. Fitzgerald went on writing, too often forcing himself to turn out Saturday Evening Post stories in order to get money to keep up the high living upon which he and his wife soon came to depend. In 1925 Fitzgerald brought out one of his masterpieces, The Great Gatsby. The critics hailed the book, but it didn’t make money. Nine years later Fitzgerald published his prime masterpiece, Tender is the Night, and that brings us directly to the subject of Save Me the Waltz.
The bare synopsis of a life, as given just above, can hardly include the elaborate conflicts and complicated tensions of the Fitzgeralds’ existence. Hemingway saw that in this family the wife continually interfered with her husband’s work because she was jealous of it. Her frantic efforts to become a painter, a ballerina, and a writer were part of that jealousy. She had talents in all these directions, but was usually frustrated in trying to realize them; for example, she seriously took up ballet dancing when she was too old to achieve anything important in that field. She finally had to go to sanatoriums to be treated for schizophrenia. The foregoing sounds as if it were an outline of Save Me the Waltz, but then that book is rather literally autobiographical.
Until recently it was difficult to find out much about Save Me the Waltz. Andrew Turnbull’s biography makes only passing references to it, and even Arthur Mizener’s The Far Side of Paradise skips over the problem. But Henry Dan Piper devotes a chapter to Save Me the Waltz in his recent F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Critical Portrait. Mr Piper does more than explicate that novel; he has good words to say for it.
In her story, Zelda Fitzgerald appears as Alabama Beggs, a glamour girl from the Deep South. Fitzgerald had used his wife as the model for the glamour girl of the twenties in various novels and stories; indeed, both she and her husband had become emblematic of the flaming youth of the time. Then, after Zelda Fitzgerald’s breakdown, when she was in the Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, she wrote Save Me the Waltz in what Mr Piper has characterized as "a furious six weeks". He tells more of the history of the book :
It was a desperate and moving attempt to give order to her confused memories. It was also a bitter attack on Fitzgerald, who was thinly diguised in her manuscript as "Amory Blaine" [The Fitzgerald-like hero of This Side of Paradise]. She had sent it to Max Perkins in March without Fitzgerald’s knowledge, and Perkins was enough impressed to be willing to publish it. Besides its obvious merits, both he and Fitzgerald agreed with Zelda’s physicians that bringing it out would be good for her shattered ego.
Fitzgerald, however, possibly went through the manuscript and changed some of the passages that dealt intimately with his marriage. His wife at first refused to make any revisions, but finally agreed to do so; and both she and Fitzgerald probably worked on the galley proofs. The name of the principal male character was changed from Amory Blaine to David Knight.
When the book came out in New York in the autumn of 1932, the critics jabbed at it. Yet when an edition appeared in London in 1953. the British reviewers greeted it with enthusiasm. The Times Literary Supplement called the writing "powerful and memorable", with "qualities of earthiness and force". Other journals were also full of praise.
But five years earlier its author had died in a fire at a hospital for patients with nervous diseases, eight years after the death of her husband from a heart attack. He had not completed a novel after Tender is the Night. This is his true masterpiece, one of the few books of this century with an authentically tragic centre : the gifted man who destroys himself. The tragedy is all the more forceful because most of the action is intensified by the glare of Riviera sunlight.
Tender was Fitzgerald’s first novel after Gatsby, and he spent much of the nine years between those books writing, or trying to write, that story of exterior sunlight and interior shadow. He made several false starts, and at different times was developing the novel with such titles as The Boy Who Killed His Mother and The World’s Fair, the latter suggesting the novel-of-manners milieu of Thackeray. Fitzgerald had originally intended to write the story of a film technician who commits matricide. But, many drafts later (seventeen, including that of the book’s page proofs), Fitzgerald at last completed his story, and it was that of Dr Dick Diver. Various characters who appeared in the Diver version were, in one way or another, in earlier drafts; for example, the couple who were once Seth and Dina Piper, subsequently merging into Dick and Nicole Diver : based partly on Fitzgerald’s friends, the Gerald Murphys, they were, in later versions, also modelled after the Fitzgeralds themselves.
The story of those seventeen drafts of Tender—and for literary detectives it is a breathless story—has been fully told in The Composition of Tender is the Night : A Study of the Manuscripts, by Matthew J. Bruccoli, who is the textual editor of the present version of Save Me the Waltz.
As Fitzgerald worked on Tender is the Night after reading his wife’s story, his own book, according to Mr Piper, "clearly became a defence of their marriage". Readers of both books will notice parallels between points of action, especially in the Riviera scenes; and it is of absorbing interest to note the differences between the husband’s and the wife’s version of what was happening.
Of course Fitzgerald was a great artist, and the actuality behind the tale is of secondary consequence, though a knowledge of the underlying circumstances usually helps towards a better understanding of a story, its motivations, its attitudes, its tones. Fitzgerald transmutes everyday experience into significant art, raised to a high imaginative level, as he projects through the tragedy of Dick Diver that of his own life.
Obviously, Save Me the Waltz is not at this height of achievement. Yet it deserves to be read as something more than a mere commentary on or analogue of Tender is the Night. It is strikingly written—Mr Piper points out that the reader who is jarred by the prose at first will find it less turgid beginning about one-third of the way along—it draws upon many modernistic attitudes for its effects of style. And, besides being an authentic picture of an age, it is a revealing portrait of a woman. It may lack the finished craftsmanship of Scott Fitzgerald’s work, but Save Me the Waltz has a current of life running through it. It can be read for its own sake.
Southern Illinois University, 12 October 1966