Zelda’s obsession with the dance could not have been predicted from a youth in which she demonstrated some artistic precociousness but not much ambition. Probably she sensed that such a drive would be out of place in the makeup of the well-bred Southern girl. She was exposed to the arts, but not expected to excel at them. “I hope I’ll never get ambitious enough to try anything,” she wrote Scott in 1919. “It’s so much nicer to be damned sure I could do it better than other people—and I might not could if I tried—that, of course, would break my heart—” Instead she played the lead role of “Folly” in Montgomery’s Les Mystirieuses ball, and much the same role in her own young life.
For the first seven years of her marriage she was content to maintain this attitude. Everyone who met her was struck with her brilliance, for she was a remarkably impressive person. The actress Louise Brooks has described meeting the Fitzgeralds at the Ambassador hotel in Los Angeles in 1927. “They were sitting close together on a sofa, like a comedy team, and the first thing that struck me was how small they were.” The next was Zelda herself. She “had come to see the genius writer,” Brooks said, “but what dominated the room was the blazing intelligence of Zelda’s profile… the profile of a witch.” Shortly afterwards, the Fitzgeralds’ marriage turned moribund. Only then did Zelda try seriously to establish herself as an artist. She had already written and published stories (and done some dabbling with paints), but now she decidedto proceed in a direction where her husband had not led. At twenty-seven, she undertook to shape herself into a first-rate ballerina.
“Daddy loved glamour and so I also had a great respect for popular acclame,” Zelda wrote her daughter in 1944, and then implied that such acclaim might have come to her if she’d stuck to a single field. “I wish that I had been able to do better one thing and not so given to running into cul-de-sacs with so many.” This is an extremely accurate self-analysis of Zelda Fitzgerald’s artistic career. In ballet she could not equal the skill of those who dedicated their entire lives to the craft. In fiction she lacked the economy of language, the sense of construction, and the gift for drama of the best writers. As a painter she was perhaps most successful, for here her curious use of proportion and unusual color palette fit into the expressionistic mode, yet her paintings remain more interesting biographically than intrinsically.
In all three pursuits she achieved the level of the inspired amateur, not that of the top-flight professional. It was this point that her husband made to her, over and over, often with a brutality and tactlessness that betrayed his own insecurity. Yet even in 1944 Zelda was unpersuaded. “I have always held a theory,” she continued in her letter to Scottie, “that one who does one thing superlatively could transfer his talents successfully to others. One never knows about genius.”
Zelda was not Blake or Leonardo, however. Nor was she destroyed by her husband’s insensitivity. As Scottie has observed, it is wrong to think that her father contributed to her mother’s mental problems by preventing her from pursuing her career. The upsurge of interest in her mother’s plight she attributes to the women’s liberation movement. “They had their consciousness raised and they needed a martyr.” Zelda Fitzgerald was it.
Fitzgerald did not object to his wife’s dancing until the ballet— and Egorova—became all that she could talk or think about. In her obsession Zelda pared down to a dangerous thinness and bruised herself through overexercise. Moreover, she stretched mind as well as body to the breaking point. “There’s no use killing yourself,’ Scott objected. “You’ll never be any good. “ He underestimated her progress. In September 1929, Zelda received an invitation to join the school of the San Carlo Opera ballet company in Naples.Madame Julie Sedova, head of the company, promised her a solo in Aida or another opera as a debut. The management of the theater would give her a monthly salary if she stayed the whole season, Sedova pointed out, and it would be “very useful” for Zelda to dance on the stage. One could get room and board in Naples for 35 lire a day, she added.
Zelda did not go, possibly because she was unwilling to leave Paris and Egorova, possibly because Scott prevented her. In Save Me the Waltz, David Knight attempts to stop Alabama from taking a similar position in Naples, but she goes anyway and makes a critical success. “She had promise and should be given a bigger role, the papers said. Italians like blondes; they said Alabama was as ethereal as a Fra Angelico angel because she was thinner than the others.” That was fiction; in actuality Zelda did not know how good she was.
In June 1930, two months after her hospitalization, she persuaded Scott to write Egorova and secure a professional opinion about her competence. “Please write immediately to Paris about the dancing,” she pleaded, adding that if the recommendation was that she should continue her studies, she would go to another school. “I know Egorova would not want to be bothered with me,” she reassured her husband. On July 9, Egorova wrote her assessment. Zelda could never become a dancer of the first rank, she said. She had started too late to become a star like Nemtchinova. Yet she had been a good, hard-working student, and could now dance important roles with success in the Ballet Massine in New York. In concluding, Egorova extended the best regards of her husband and herself to Fitzgerald and their sincere wishes for the recovery of Zelda, “que j’embrasse tendrement.”
In the light of what Scott knew about Zelda’s dancing, it is difficult to account for the way he belittled her accomplishments. He denigrated her to Harold Ober, for example, by inventing the tale that she had thought visitors to Egorova’s studio were scouting her for Diaghilev, while in reality—he said—they were looking her over as a possible “shimmy dancer” for the Folies-Bergere. Fitzgerald had told her she would never be any good; therefore, his reasoning must have gone, she never had been any good. Asa way of proving superiority, this was cruel enough. When it came to Zelda’s writing, Scott was even crueler.
During their courtship Zelda wrote Scott that she hoped to help him with his writing. She did. From the beginning she supplied him with story ideas, as for “The Ice Palace,” for example. Further, he appropriated her writings as well as her ideas. In The Beautiful and Damned, Zelda reported in a tongue-in-cheek review, she “recognized a portion of an old diary… which mysteriously disappeared” shortly after her marriage and “scraps of letters which… sound… vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” Clearly, he considered everything in their experience, Zelda’s as well as his own, as grist for the mill of his fiction.
More questionable financially was his habit of publishing her actual stories or articles as his own or as joint ventures. In 1923 she wrote her first story, “Our Own Movie Queen,” or wrote two-thirds of it anyway, with Scott adding a climax and revisions. The story appeared under his name, and earned $900. Later in the 1920s she wrote more fiction and published a series of stories in College Humor at prices ranging from $500 to $800. When one of these, “A Millionaire’s Girl,” was sent to the Saturday Evening Post as his work rather than hers, the price went up to $4,000. At this stage Scott was far from opposed to her writing, and not only for reasons of finance.
“A Millionaire’s Girl” appeared in the May 17, 1930, issue of the Post. With Zelda in the sanitarium, Scott tried to interest Scribner’s in bringing out a book of her short pieces to take her mind off the ballet and give her a sense of accomplishment. He also sent Max Perkins three “haunting and evocative” stories she’d written “in the dark middle of her nervous breakdown,” for possible publication in Scribner’s magazine.
Upon returning to the States in 1931, Zelda gave up ballet but continued work on her fiction. She also adopted a tone of humility toward Scott that sounded a new note in their relationship. “I wish you could teach me to write,” she implored. “I want to write like you some day…, I want to do everything like you—” Withinmonths, however, she suffered a second breakdown and while at Phipps Clinic in Baltimore early in 1932 produced Save Me the Waltz in a burst of energy. It marked the beginning of the end of Scott’s tolerance for her writing.
For one thing, she sent the novel directly to Perkins without consulting Scott as mentor. He was outraged by this attempt to bypass him, since he’d specifically asked to see the novel before anyone else. In fact, as Dr. Mildred Squires at Phipps indicated in a telegram, the novel had been addressed to Fitzgerald originally, “but patient changed address last moment.”
The manuscript was mailed to Perkins on March 9, 1932. That same day Zelda wrote Scott that she knew Scribner’s wouldn’t take it but thought Knopf might. She was going to put his copy in the mail on Monday, as soon as she knew the other one had reached New York safely. Whatever happened to her novel, she was now seeking a writing career of some kind. “Please let me ask somebody for a job on the paper somewhere,’ she concluded.
Why didn’t she send the ms. to Fitzgerald first? Perhaps she wanted Perkins’ opinion on her work, unmediated by her husband’s revisions or comments. “Also,” as she explained herself to Scott, “feeling it to be a dubious production due to my own instability I did not want a scathing criticism such as you have mercilessly—if for my own good given my last stories, poor things.” But the principal reason, surely, was that she had written about herself and Scott, material he regarded as exclusively his province, and that in doing so she had depicted him in unfavorable terms. “You will like it,” she had predicted early in the composition process. “It is distinctly Ecole Fitzgerald, though more ecstatic than yours.” But it was far too much of the school of Fitzgerald to suit him.
When he did read the novel, on March 14, he was furious and shot off letters demanding that some sections be cut and others revised. For one thing, the name “Amory Blaine” had to go. Not only had Zelda appropriated the name of his protagonist in This Side of Paradise, he wrote Dr. Squires, but “one whole section” of her novel imitated the book he’d been unable to finish “because of the necessity of keeping Zelda in sanitariums.”
In irritation Zelda wrote back that she would make some changes but only on aesthetic grounds. Apparently he also had accused her of fishing around in their past. If so, she answered, her fish-nets
… were beautiful gossamer pearl things to catch the glints of the sea and the slow breeze of the weaving seaweed and bubbles at dawn. If a crab filtered in and gnawed the threads and an octopus stagnated and slimed up their fine knots and many squids shot ink across their sheen and shad laid comfortable row on their lovely film, they are almost repaired once more and the things I meant to fish still bloom in the sea. Here’s hope for the irridescent haul that some day I shall have. What do you fish with, by the way? that so puts to shame my equipment which I seriously doubt that you have ever seen, Superior Being—
She could not bring herself to feel guilty about his having to interrupt his novel to write stories that would pay for the treatment that gave her time to write her novel. She couldn’t help her illness and, besides, he wouldn’t have wanted her to fold her hands during her long unoccupied hours. Later, in a more plaintive tone, she added, “I hope you’ll like my book—or something that I do sometime—”
He was willing to like her work as long as he could control its direction. Once he took charge of Save Me the Waltz, guiding Zelda through revisions and negotiating with Perkins himself, Scott became an advocate of the novel. “If you like it,” he instructed Perkins, “please don’t wire her congratulations, and please keep whatever praise you may see fit to give on the staid side—I mean, as you naturally would, rather than yield to a tendency one has with invalids to be extra nice to cheer them up.” Also, he cautioned his editor, “don’t discuss contract with her until I have talked with you.” In mid-May he sent the revised book to New York with his endorsement. “It is a good novel now, perhaps a very good novel— I am too close to it to tell.” If Perkins decided to refuse it, he should write Scott directly. If he accepted the novel, he could write Zelda, and Scott withdrew “all restraints” on praise. Scribner’s decided to publish Save Me the Waltz. The contract stipulated thathalf the royalties would be credited against “the indebtedness of F. Scott Fitzgerald” up to $5,000. Zelda’s novel, which sold very few copies, had no effect on her husband’s debt to Scribner’s.
Fitzgerald remained keenly sensitive to any encroachment on the autobiographical material he transformed into fiction. When, a year after completing Save Me the Waltz, Zelda began to plan a novel dealing with insanity, it seemed to Scott that she was covering some of the same ground as Tender Is the Night in order to justify herself and make him look bad. “Possibly she would have been a genius if we had never met,” he acknowledged in an April 1933 letter to Dr. Adolf Meyer. But as matters stood, she was only hurting him and his work by continuing to invade his territory in her own writing. The next month brought the issue to a head in a May 28 session organized by Dr. Thomas A.C. Rennie, Dr. Meyer’s colleague. The ostensible purpose was to talk out their differences. Scott’s real goal was to put a stop to Zelda’s fiction and redirect her energies elsewhere.
In advance of the confrontation, he planned to make this point in forceful but subdued fashion. He even devised an elaborate strategy—“Prepare physically,” he reminded himself, “begin with apology for repetition,” and so on through seven more points of debater’s notes—but when they faced each other the discussion became bitter.
“You are a third-rate writer and a third-rate ballet dancer,” Scott told Zelda, while he was “a professional writer with a huge following. .. the highest paid short story writer in the world.”
“It seems to me,” she replied, “that you are making a rather violent attack on a third-rate talent, then.” Why should he care what she wrote about?
Because, he said, “she was broaching at all times on [his] material,” she was picking up the crumbs he dropped at the dinner table and putting them into books. It was bad for her to undertake a novel about insanity (a point Dr. Rennie agreed with) but also bad for him, since as the professional writer in the family that was his material, the material he was going to use in Tender Is the Night.
At this stage Zelda struck back where it hurt the most, at herhusband’s long procrastination over finishing this novel he had been working on intermittently since completing Gatsby eight years earlier. If he ever got it written, she said, he wouldn’t feel “so miserable and suspicious and mean towards everybody else.” Meanwhile, he was so “full of self-reproach” that he’d stooped to the device of accusing her.
Things were said between the Fitzgeralds that afternoon that could not easily be unsaid. Both of them insisted that they could not stand living together without a change in their relationship. Zelda recounted what had happened the previous fall when Scott had come back from New York drunk: “You sat down and cried and cried… you said I had ruined your life and you did not love me and you were sick of me and wished you could get away.” She could not live under such conditions, Zelda said; she’d rather live in an insane asylum. The basic trouble lay in his drinking, she insisted. The basic trouble lay in her defiance about the novel, he insisted. They’d had no sex for three or four months, he revealed, though before that time their relations were pleasant enough. Then he posed the crucial question: “Would you like to go to law about it?” and she answered that she would, that she thought “the only thing is to get a divorce because there is nothing except ill will on your part and suspicion.” That was probably not what he had expected to hear, for he ignored the topic of divorce as the long afternoon of their confrontation waned. Finally he gave his ultimatum. Zelda was to stop writing about their lives in any form, novel or otherwise. “If you write a play, it cannot be a play about psychiatry and it cannot be a play laid on the Riviera, and it cannot be a play laid in Switzerland, and whatever the idea is it will have to be submitted to me.” Zelda reluctantly agreed to put aside her writing until he finished his book. After that, she said, “I think we’d better get a divorce and any decision you choose to make with regard to me is all right because I cannot live on those terms, and I cannot accept them.”
Soon after this session, Scott consulted Edgar Allan Poe, his lawyer in Baltimore, who reported that there were sixteen states that permitted divorce on the ground of insanity, with the most lenient law in Nevada. Fitzgerald also considered the issue of custody, and outlined his case in notes apparently prepared for a legal argument on the subject (the words, “keep cool but firm, ’ are written in red capitals across the first page):
As I got feeling worse Zelda got mentally better, but it seemed to me that as she did she was also coming to the conclusion she had it on me, if I broke down it justified her whole life—not a very healthy thought to live with about your own wife…. Finally four days ago told her frankly & furiously that had got & was getting rotten deal trading my health for her sanity and from now on I was going to look out for myself & Scotty exclusively, and let her go to Bedlam for all I cared.
“Either she gives up completely this attitude,” the memo concludes, “or I’m going to law to get Scotty.” In the end there was no divorce, though Fitzgerald—and, possibly, Zelda—repeatedly considered the idea, and no battle over custody.
He also considered at least one other way of dealing with what he came to regard as a mortal contest between them. Among Fitzgerald’s papers at Princeton resides the chilling document reproduced below. It was probably written late in 1933 or early in 1934.
Plan—To attack on all grounds
Play (suppress), novel (delay), pictures (suppress), character (showers??), child (detach), schedule (disorient to cause trouble) no typing
Probably result—new breakdown
Danger to Scotty (?)
“ “ herself (?)
All this in secret
Presumably he did not carry out this diabolical plan. Meanwhile, though restricted from writing about the subject matter of his novel-in-progress, there were other things Zelda could do. In his notes for the meeting with Dr. Rennie, Fitzgerald set down two such alternatives:
to try to write instead of self-justification (& working always on schedule) a series of short observations on things & facts, observed things which she can sell & make money if she wants that
go to art school or to learn commercial design & try to combine talent for art with etc. into some unit ? like cartooning & leave my field to me
In fact it was art she turned to—oils, watercolors, and drawings instead of cartoons. “I am not trying to make myself into a great artist or a great anything,” she wrote Scott in March 1934. It wasn’t the will to power or exaggerated ambition that drove her, but other “motivating elements.” She did not say what these elements were, for good reasons. Her husband would hardly have wanted to hear that her artistic pursuits helped to fill up the vacuum left by the collapse of their marriage. Nor was he tolerant of any talk of “self-expression,” since he was convinced that there was no such thing in the realm of art. Here his opinion ran counter to those of Zelda’s doctors. “I do not think she will ever be happy without some creative work,” Dr. Squires wrote to him in March 1932. Painting provided that creative outlet without driving her into dangerous depths, like her dancing, or invading Fitzgerald’s territory, like her writing. And, as in everything she tried, Zelda immediately demonstrated considerable talent and worked with dedication on her canvases.
From March 29 to April 30, 1934, the results were exhibited at Cary Ross’s studio in New York, with Scott once again organizing matters. As of May 4, Ross reported to him that sales totalling $328.75 had been made. Purchasers included the Gerald Murphys, Dorothy Parker, Mrs. Thomas Daniels, Tommy Hitchcock, Adele Lovett, Muriel Draper, and Mrs. Maxwell Perkins, all friends or prominent artists themselves. Another famous figure, Mabel Dodge Luhan, wrote from New Mexico expressing interest in the oil, “Portrait in Thorns,” that Zelda did not want sold.
Prior to her own show, Zelda came to New York and was so excited by seeing the Georgia O’Keeffe paintings at the American Place that she “felt quite sick afterwards.” She loved O’Keeffe’s rhythmic white trees winding in visceral choreography about thedeeper green ones” and “the voluptuous tree-trunk with a very pathetic blue flame shaped flower growing arbitrarily beneath it.” Diaghilev had a theory that successful art should shock the emotions, Zelda wrote, and that had happened to her; a “person could not walk about that exhibition and maintain any dormant feelings.’ O’Keeffe, she decided, “was the most moving and comprehensible painter” she’d ever seen. It made sense that Zelda should have been so affected by O’Keeffe’s paintings, since her own work treated the natural world, and especially flowers, with similar extravagance.
Zelda had no more exhibitions, but both Dr. Rennie and Dr. Robert S. Carroll, head of the hospital near Asheville where she was to spend much of her life after 1936, encouraged her painting as therapy. To allow her to earn money, Dr. Carroll commissioned her to paint screens for the patients’ bedrooms. She was not pleased, considering the project a waste of her professional talent, “the cumulate result of years of effort, aspiration, and heart-break… do you think I am socially obliged to undertake an oil painting of 3 panels each for every room in this hospital?’ she asked Scott. Eventually she did the screens in tempera, a less exacting process, but still felt resentful.
Not until after Scott’s death did Zelda turn back to writing, but by then she was incapable of producing coherent fiction. The result, a disorganized manuscript called Caesar’s Things, covered much of the autobiographical material in Save Me the Waltz, now mingled with religious visions and fantasies. It was the work of a fragmented mind.
Zelda’s malady was variously described, by her doctors, as schizophrenia and dementia praecox. Whatever the technical designation, both Fitzgeralds regarded her troubled mind metaphorically as a fragile house of thinly spun glass or as a broken eggshell. In Save Me the Waltz, for instance, Alabama feels “the essence of herself pulled finer and smaller like those streams of spun glass that pull and stretch till there remains but a glimmering illusion.” Once the house of glass—or the eggshell—fissured, the job of reconstruction became terribly difficult. As Scott wrote the Sayres in December 1930, “Humpty Dumpty fell off a wall and we are hoping that all the king’s horses will be able to put the delicateeggshell together. “ The psychiatrists tried to patch up the shatterings and failed. Instead, as Zelda wrote in 1932, they presented her “with a piece of bric-a-brac of their own forging which falls to the pavement on [the] way out of the clinic and luckily smashes to bits, and the patient is glad to be rid of their award.” She exaggerated, for the reconstructed shell did not always crack so soon. It always broke eventually, though, and each time the task of putting the pieces together became harder. As in most such cases, the survivors wondered whom to blame.
“Please don’t write to me about blame,” Zelda quite sensibly asked Scott during her stay at Prangins. How could she accept blame now when in the past she had felt none? “Anyway, blame doesn’t matter. The thing that counts is to apply the few resources available to turning life into a tenable orderly affair that resembles neither the black hole of Calcutta or Cardinal Ballou’s cage.” Fitzgerald could not resist the subject, however, and in the Humpty Dumpty letter to her parents made it a point to quote Dr. Paul Bleuler, the eminent consultant he’d brought in to examine his wife. “Stop blaming yourself,’ Bleuler told him. “You might have retarded it but you couldn’t have prevented it.” Fitzgerald needed such reassurance, for he feared that his dissolute life in Paris— often drunk, rarely conjugal—had exacerbated her illness. What he never knew was how much he was to blame for her condition. Zelda’s sister Rosalind held him almost one hundred percent culpable.
They had not liked each other from the time of the Fitzgeralds’ wedding in St. Patrick’s. Rosalind and Newman Smith had come to the affair—a very small wedding, with only family and a friend or two—to represent the Sayres, along with Zelda’s other sisters, Marjorie and Clothilde. When Clothilde and husband John Palmer were held up en route to the church, Scott insisted on going ahead without them. After the brief ceremony, he said goodbye, swept Zelda away, and left them standing there, the late-arriving Palmers too, without so much as a glass of champagne. Rosalind, feeling the slight for the family, was furious.
Her opinion of Scott worsened during a February 1928 visit to Ellerslie. Scott returned from a trip to Princeton drunk and on a crying jag. In the course of an argument he threw a favorite vaseof Zelda’s into the fireplace. When she belittlingly referred to his father as an Irish cop on the beat, he slapped her hard enough to cause a nosebleed. Rosalind, who had witnessed this display with outrage, left the next morning and urged Zelda to do the same. Zelda told her sister, in effect, to mind her own business.
With this scene fixed in her memory, Rosalind became convinced that Scott was badly mistreating Zelda and wrote him a bitterly nasty letter after Zelda’s collapse. “I would almost rather she die now,” Rosalind declared, “than escape only to go back to the mad world you and she have created for yourselves.” Things were bad enough without such correspondence, Scott replied. He knew Rosalind disliked him and disapproved of the life they led, but now he had Zelda and Scottie to take care of and could not be “upset and harrowed still further.” As time wore on, he came to interpret Rosalind’s remark as signifying that he’d driven Zelda crazy, which was very close to what she did in fact believe.
In his fiction and elsewhere, Fitzgerald vented his dislike of Zelda’s sister. The most condemning portrait occurs in “Babylon Revisited,” Fitzgerald’s 1931 story of how Marion Peters (modeled on Rosalind) prevented Charlie Wales from regaining custody of his daughter. The Peterses had taken charge of Honoria after the death of her mother, who was Marion’s sister—and after Charlie had engaged in a long, end-of-twenties binge in Paris. Now, although Charlie has reformed, Marion’s hostility toward him will not let her release Honoria. At one stage in the story, Mrs. Peters begins to utter the very phrase Rosalind had used in her letter to Scott. “I think if she were my child I’d rather see her—” she begins, and then manages to check herself as her real-life counterpart had not. Still, Marion Peters represents the most unattractive woman in Fitzgerald’s fictional gallery: small-minded, ill-tempered, afraid of life, and vindictive.
In letters and notebooks Scott further denigrated his sister-in-law as “a smooth-faced bitch person” who was “always hiding in closets till the battle is over and then coming back to say, ’I told you so. “ In two notes he belittled her intelligence as well. “Rosalind talks in several more syllables than she thinks in,” one reads, and the other: “Rosalind gave up thinking some time between the Civil war and the depression, and when I want to get anything over toher I tell it to her two dozen times till she begins to parrot it back to me as if it were an idea of her own.” Considering their mutual antipathy, Fitzgerald must have been in desperate straits when he asked Newman Smith for a loan to launch Scottie at Vassar in 1938. The loan was refused, with sanctimonious advice. “I think without doubt Newman’s instincts were to do the decent thing,” Scott angrily wrote Rosalind, “but knowing the very minor quantity of humanity that you pack under that suave exterior of yours I do not doubt that you dissuaded him.”
Relations between Scott and Zelda’s mother were never as hostile as that, but they were not good either. Mrs. Sayre—“Mama Sayre” to almost everyone—worried about Scott’s drinking and his interest in other women and thought he had exposed Zelda to evil influences. Scott resented her having spoiled Zelda so badly and her Pollyanna-like attempts to smooth over the pattern of mental instability in her family. This posture was the one the Sayres presented to the world, and even, as it turned out, to Zelda’s doctors. When Zelda first entered Prangins, Rosalind sent Dr. Forel a letter about the simple life at her girlhood home, adding that there was no history of insanity in the family. That information was contrary to fact.
The euphemism of the day was “nervous exhaustion,” and since Zelda suffered from that, Mrs. Sayre acknowledged to Scott in July 1930, her recovery would be slow and he would have to fight relapses. She knew because of experience. “Marjorie [Zelda’s eldest sister] could not be taxed for two years and… Judge Sayre was out of his office nine months.” The mind was always more or less involved, she said, and there was a tendency to melancholia. She wanted to forewarn Scott, but further than this she would not go. She did not tell him about the suicide of her mother and of her sister. Nor was she entirely frank about the death of Zelda’s brother Anthony in the summer of 1933. The ultimate cause, she told Scott, was a liver ailment. In fact he had committed suicide after nightmares that he would kill his mother. Furthermore, when she did admit a strain of “nervous prostration” in the family, she traced it to the “Morgan blood” on her husband’s side of the family, not her own. Fitzgerald naturally felt deceived as bits of the truth leaked out. “I believed what Zelda believed about her family until thewheels of the bicycle began to run backward,” he observed in his notebooks.
In fact Mama Sayre spoke to no one about certain skeletons from the past, and tended to fix the blame elsewhere. While her children were under her care, she argued, they had all prospered. She could not be responsible for what happened after they went off with Yankee writers to study with Russian ballet teachers who were no better than beasts of burden in a country like France, which with its “putrid literature” was “a good place for things to rot.” Scott “was a handsome thing,” she told a newspaper interviewer late in her life. “But he was not good for my daughter and he gave her things she shouldn’t have.” Throughout Zelda’s long periods in sanitariums and hospitals, Mama Sayre was convinced that if she could have her baby at home all would be well. She even accused Scott of institutionalizing Zelda in 1932 “for ulterior motives,” a charge that must have preyed on his mind during 1938 and 1939, when he was living with Sheilah Graham in Hollywood while the Sayres were trying to persuade him to have Zelda released from Highland Hospital in Asheville.
“That Zelda’s illness has wrecked our lives is no more important than the fact that it has cast a dark shadow over Mrs. Sayre’s mature years,” he observed sarcastically in his notebooks. It seemed to him that the family was less interested in Zelda’s well-being than in placating the desire of an eighty-year-old woman to have her baby with her at the end. “I’ve read that people suffering from her malady usually live to be about forty,” Mrs. Sayre wrote Scott in June 1939. “If this is true she is almost free from prisons and frustrations and we may cross over hand in hand.’ In the end she outlived Scott and Zelda both.
Not only did Rosalind and her mother blame Scott for most of Zelda’s difficulties, they also thought that he was mentally unbalanced. “I’m sure my family secretly thinks that you’re the crazy one,” Zelda jocularly wrote her husband in 1932. Matters became less amusing as these opinions became more overt and Zelda came to share them herself. Moreover, almost every doctor she consulted tended to regard theirs as really a joint case, since Fitzgerald’s excessive drinking pointed to an inner instability. Some of the psychiatrists who treated Zelda at Sheppard-Pratt Hospital in Baltimore felt that Scott profited more from the treatment than she. Zelda would remain stubbornly silent, refusing to reveal her thoughts and emotions. Then Scott would come to call, and talk freely of his problems, including his sense of guilt.
Nonetheless, Scott could function in the world, however uncertainly, while Zelda could not. It was a distinction she did her best to obliterate. In 1932 she called Dr. Dean Clark (not a psychiatrist) who arrived while Scott was delivering a tirade. He could have him committed, Clark declared, but Scott laid the incident to liquor and insisted that the doctor “could as easily have committed Mencken & half the Balt. Hunt on a Sat. night.” Zelda had fooled Dr. Squires the same way, he thought, and tried to convince Dr. Meyer and Dr. Rennie as well that they were treating the wrong person. “I will probably be carried off eventually by four strong guards,” he wrote Dr. Meyer in April 1933, “shrieking manicly that after all I was right and she was wrong, while Zelda is followed home by an adoring crowd in an automobile banked with flowers, and offered a vaudeville contract.”
Zelda did not recover, of course, but she continued to play the game of self-justification. In the spring of 1938 Scott took her and Scottie on a disastrous trip to Virginia Beach. Scott got drunk, and Zelda persuaded everyone in their corridor of the hotel that he “was a madman.” That incident showed him he could never again take care of her. Nor could he care for himself when Zelda was around. The following year, in the fall of 1939, he drank himself into a New York hospital during yet another husband-and-wife “vacation.” “I wish,” Dr. Carroll wrote him afterwards, “we had you tucked into one of our own beds.”
Destructively competitive though they had become when together, neither Scott nor Zelda could forget what once they had meant to each other. They had traveled a long road in tandem—even sharing the same toothbrush on the 1920 cruise of the “Rolling Junk”—and in retrospect the disputes hardly seemed to matter.
Do you remember, before keys turned in the locks,
When life was a closeup, and not an occasional letter,
That I hated to swim naked from the rocks
While you liked absolutely nothing better?
Do you remember many hotel bureaus that had
Only three drawers? But the only bother
Was that each of us argued stubbornly, got mad
Trying to give the third one to the other.
East, west, the little car turned, often wrong
Up an erroneous Alp, an unmapped Savoy river,
We blamed each other, wild were our words and strong,
And, in an hour, laughed and called it liver.
And, though the end was desolate and unkind:
To turn the calendar at June and find December
On the next leaf; still, stupid-got with grief, I find
These are the only quarrels that I can remember.
This poem of Scott’s, published in March 1935, was moving enough. But for a truly poignant tour of the journey to deprivation, nothing can compete with the letters Zelda wrote her husband from confinement. Only rarely did these letters become assertive: for every time she expressed defiance, there were ten when she rather pitifully thanked him. Forty-six of the more than 300 letters she wrote him began with “Thanks” or “Thank you.” Often the thanks were for money. She was the supplicant, he the provider. And she genuinely regretted the things she’d done to hurt them both. “You have never believed me when I said I was sorry—but I am.”
Reading through the letters chronologically uncovers an excruciating pattern. In the beginning, Zelda contemplated a full reconciliation, and offered herself up to Scott in tender disguises. The kisses splattering his balcony, she reminded him in one 1930 letter, came “from a lady who was once, in three separate letters, a princess in a high white tower and who has never forgotten her elevated station in life and who is waiting once more for her royal darling.” When he came to claim her he would find her changed but still loving:
We have here a kind of a maniac who seems to have been inspired with erotic aberrations on your behalf. Apart from that she is a person of excellent character, willing to work, would accept a nominal salary while learning, fair complexion, greeneyes would like correspondance with refined young man of your description with intent to marry. Previous experience unnecessary. Very fond of family life and a wonderful pet to have in the home. Marked behind the left ear with a slight tendency to schizophrenia.
These letters were sent from Prangins. Then, while Scott was in Hollywood and she in Montgomery late in 1931, Zelda took on a still more abjectly dehumanized persona. “There once upon a time lived a very lonesome old peasant woman, or maybe it was a faithful St. Bernard,” she wrote him.
Anyway something very lonesome… had great difficulties pushing its thoughts out swiftly enough so they would arrive fresh in California. These thoughts were just silly little things with practically no sense to them. They were mostly “I love you,” so one day on the thirteenth of November they went walking in the woods and there they met a great big strong postman who gave them a letter from El Paso and they all went home and married Dudo and loved very happily in the pocket of the King of the Roses for ever and ever and ever afterwards.
After her relapse early in 1932, she began to identify her plight with that of the “crazy people” she saw in Phipps: “a woman’s brother came to pay a visit, I thought how awful and poignant— that boney casket full of nothing that the man had ever loved and he was saying that he wanted her to come home again. It made me feel very sorry. I presume he was addressing his past.” That woman, she came to realize after a series of releases and re-institutionalizations, was very like herself. “I don’t need anything at all except hope, which I can’t find by looking backwards or forwards,” she wrote Scott at the beginning of one such confinement, “so I suppose the thing is to shut my eyes.”
With eyes shut, she could at least liberate her imagination. From Highland Hospital near Asheville she wrote Scott a series of “I wish” letters. Mostly she wished for one of two apparently dissimilar things: a trip to faraway places or a home of her own. Often she would write after reading the travel pages of the Sunday newspapers, and plead for journeys—to Cuba or Guatemala or MexicoCity, to France or Greece or Italy—that were somehow mingled with memories of the past:
I wish we could spend today by the sea, browning ourselves and feeling water-weighted hair flow behind us from a dive. I wish our gravest troubles were the summer gnats. I wish we were hungry for hot dogs and dopes and it would be nice to smell the starch of summer linens and the faint odors of talc in blistering bath-houses…. We could lie in long citroneuse beams of the five o’clock sun on the plage at Juan-les-Pins and hear the sound of the drum and piano being scooped out to sea by the waves. Dust and alfalfa in Alabama, pines and salt in Antibes, the lethal smells of city streets in summer, buttered popcorn and axle grease at Coney Island and Virginia Beach—and the sick sweet smells of old gardens at night, verbena and phlox or night blooming stock—we could see if those are still there.
If they couldn’t take trips that would recover their nomadic past, Zelda implored him, couldn’t they have a home of their own? In all his life Scott Fitzgerald never owned a house or settled in one spot for longer than a year or two. He even devised a form letter explaining that his “long delay in answering” correspondence was because “a pile of letters [was] sidetracked into an answered file just before I moved from one house to another.” The excuse rang false, but the part about moving was true more often than not. It was the way he’d been brought up by migratory parents who shifted frequently between apartments and rented houses. Zelda, on the contrary, had grown up with a strong sense of place, and was less well suited to the nomadic life.
At first, to be sure, she had not wanted “rugs and wicker furniture and a home,” since they’d get in the way. “I hate a room without an open suitcase in it,” she commented, “It seems so permanent.” But in 1927, as she watched her husband develop his infatuation with Lois Moran, she was “crazy to own a house” with a “lovely little Japanese room with pink cherry blossoms” for Scottie and a garden with lilac trees “like people have in France.” However, she told her daughter with dampened enthusiasm, “Daddy says we must rent a house first… to see if we are going to like America.’ The house they rented was the antebellum mansion Ellerslie, nearWilmington, Delaware, which functioned more as a site for weekend parties than as a family home.
No roots were sunk at Ellerslie, but Zelda had not given up hoping. The prospect of acquiring a home even cast a silver lining over her 1930 collapse. The “whole disgraceful mess” would be worth it, she wrote, if they stopped drinking because then Scott could finish his novel and they could “have a house with a room to paint and write” in “with friends for Scottie” and “Mondays that were different from Sundays. ’ In 1931, when Scott wrote from Hollywood that he might make as much as $75,000 if his screenplay were produced, Zelda immediately responded, “75,000! Goofo— I would do anything for that! We could build a house with the surplus.” She even knew the kind of house: “a great denuded square” painted “all over yellow” with “directoire wall lights with stars.”
As prospects for her recovery waned, this rather sophisticated picture-of-a-house became increasingly sentimentalized. “I wish you had a little house with hollyhocks and a sycamore tree and the afternoon sun imbedding itself in a silver tea-pot,” she wrote Scott in June 1935. “Scottie would be running about somewhere in white, in Renoir, and you will be writing books in dozens of volumes. And there will be honey still for tea, though the house should not be in Grantchester—” But the way the house or grounds looked did not really matter. “There are so many houses I’d like to live in with you,” she added. Couldn’t they manage to buy one somehow? “I don’t know how you get one but I think if we saved a great many things—stamps and cigar bands, soap wrappers and box-tops we could have it some way.”
She was no more willing to give up this dream than the woman in Fitzgerald’s story “The Long Way Out,” who waits each day for a visit from her husband that can never come. Zelda shared that fancy, too. In one of the many letters from Highland that describe the world outside to signify the one within, she wrote of a rainy afternoon with “abnegatory skies mirrored in the roads” and the houses etched against a silver background. Then the rain turned to snow “and lightly laden branches and a puffed protected world for Sunday. Snow domesticates horizons; the world is a fine white boudoir; the world is cared-for and expensive. I hope always thatyou’ll show up in it soon.” With its falling, the snow brought to mind all the things she longed for and did not have: home, boudoir, loving care, money, husband. But all that was fantasy. They could not live together without tearing each other apart, as she knew in times of absolute lucidity. “I want you to be happy,” she wrote Scott. If there was any justice he would be happy. Then she signed off:
I love you anyway—
even if there isn’t any me or any love or even any life
I love you
78 “ambitious enough”: ZS to FSF, December 1919, Firestone.
78 “comedy team”: Kenneth Tynan, “Profile (Louise Brooks),” The New Yorker (11 June 1979), p. 71.
79 “Daddy … cul-de-sacs”: ZF to SF, c. 1944, Egoists, p. 237.
79 “theory… genius”: Ibid.
79 “consciousness raised”: Leslie Wayne, “Scottie’s Childhood Undimmed by Shadows of Unhappiness,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 21 November 1974, Section D, pp. 1B-2B.
79 “no use killing”: Turnbull, p. 191.
80 solo in Aida: Julie Sedova to ZF, September 1929, Firestone.
80 “Please write …”: ZF to FSF, June 1930, Correspondence, p. 237.
80 too late…“tendrement”: Lubov Egorova to FSF, 9 July 1930, Firestone.
80 “shimmy dancer”: FSF to Harold Ober, 8 February 1936, Letters, p. 402.
81 “recognized… plagiarism”: ZF, “Friend Husband’s Latest,” Miscellany, p. 333.
81 questionable … finance: For a summary of FSF’s practice in this regard, see W. R. Anderson, “Rivalry and Partnership: The Short Fiction of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald,” Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 1977, pp. 19-42.
81 “dark middle”: Turnbull, p. 194.
81 “teach me… everything”: ZF to FSF, fall 1931 (two letters), Firestone.
82 “changed address”: Dr. Mildred T. Squires to FSF, 17 March 1932, Firestone.
82 “job on… paper”: ZF to FSF, 9 March 1932, Correspondence, p. 288.
82 “scathing criticism”: Milford, p. 220.
82 “Ecole Fitzgerald”: ZF to FSF, early March 1932, Correspondence, p. 286.
82 “one whole section”: Milford, p. 216.
83 “beautiful gossamer…”: ZF to FSF, April 1932, Correspondence, p. 291.
83 fold her hands: ZF to FSF, spring 1932, Correspondence, pp. 293-94.
83 “like … something”: ZF to FSF, 1932 (?), Firestone.
83 “praise … restraints”: FSF to MP, before 2 May 1932 and c. 14 May 1932, Letters, pp. 266-29.
84 “indebtedness”.. .$5,000: Milford, p. 226.
84 “Possibly… genius”: FSF to Dr. Adolf Meyer, 10 April 1933, Correspondence, p. 308.
84 elaborate strategy: FSF, Notes, Firestone.
84 confrontation: The transcript of this meeting is printed in Matthew J. Bruccoli, Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981), pp. 349-53 (hereafter Grandeur).
85 sixteen states… divorce: E. A. Poe to FSF, 1 June 1933, Firestone.
86 “KEEP COOL” … custody: FSF, Notes, Firestone.
86 chilling document: FSF, Notes, Firestone.
86-87 two … alternatives: FSF, Notes, Firestone.
87 “great artist”: ZF to FSF, March 1934, Correspondence, p. 334.
87 “self-expression”: FSF to ZF, 1932 (?), Correspondence, p. 300.
87 “I do not think ...”: Dr. Mildred T. Squires to FSF, 9 March 1932, Firestone.
87 exhibited… sales: Milford, pp. 289-90; Cary Ross to FSF,4 May 1934, Correspondence, pp. 359-60.
87-88 O’Keeffe …“dormant feelings”: ZF, letter about O’Keeffe show in New York, February-March 1934, Firestone.
88 screens … tempera: ZF to FSF, winter 1939-40 (two letters), Firestone.
88 glass… eggshell: Milford, pp. 232-33, 326; FSF to Judge and Mrs. A. D. Sayre, 1 December 1930, Correspondence, p. 254; FSF to Rosalind Sayre Smith, 19 July 1934, Correspondence, p. 373; Mizener, p. 254.
88 “don’t write … blame”: ZF to FSF, late 1930, Correspondence, p. 238.
89 “blaming yourself”: FSF to Judge and Mrs. A. D. Sayre, 1 December 1930, Correspondence, p. 255.
89 how much … to blame: Guthrie, p. 114.
89 wedding… champagne: SD, interview with SFS, 21 May 1978.
89-90 vase … nosebleed: Milford, p. 140.
90 “rather she die”: Rosalind Sayre Smith to FSF, 8 June 1930, Firestone.
90 “upset and harrowed’: FSF to Rosalind Sayre Smith, after 8 June 1930, Correspondence, p. 236; FSF to Marjorie Sayre Brinson, December 1938 (unsent), Firestone.
90 “bitch person”: FSF to SF, July 1939, Letters, p. 61 (identification of Rosalind and the word bitch are deleted in the printed letter).
90 “hiding in closets”: FSF, Notes, Firestone.
90-91 “syllables … parrot”: FSF, Notebooks, pp. 88, 151.
91 “decent… suave”: FSF to Rosalind Sayre Smith, 1938 (unsent?), Firestone.
91 Rosalind.. .Forel. Milford, p. 162.
91 Mrs. Sayre… melancholia: Mrs. A. D. Sayre to FSF, 16 July 1930, Firestone.
91 liver… suicide: Mrs. A. D. Sayre to FSF, 26 February 1934, Firestone; Milford, p. 280.
91 “Morgan blood”: Mrs. A. D. Sayre to FSF, 31 July 1933, Firestone.
91-92 “wheels … backward”: FSF, Notebooks, p. 205.
92 “putrid … rot”: Mrs. A. D. Sayre to FSF, 18 January 1939, Firestone.
92 “handsome … not good”: Helen F. Blackshear, “Mama Sayre, Scott Fitzgerald’s Mother-in-Law,” Georgia Review, 19 (Winter 1965), 467.
92 “ulterior motives”: FSF to Marjorie Sayre Brinson, December 1938 (unsent), Firestone.
92 “illness … wrecked”: FSF, Notebooks, p. 203.
92 “cross over”: Mrs. A. D. Sayre to FSF, 13 June 1939, Firestone.
92 “my family … thinks”: ZF to FSF, 1932 (?), Firestone.
92-93 joint case …: Milford, pp. 302-303; Thelma Nason, “Afternoon (and Evening) of an Author,” Johns Hopkins Magazine, 21 (February 1970), 12.
93 “committed Mencken”: FSF, Notes, Firestone.
93 “carried off...”: Milford, p. 270.
93 hotel… “madman”: FSF to Dr. Robert S. Carroll and Dr. R. Burke Suitt, 7 April 1938, Correspondence, p. 492.
93 “tucked into …”: Dr. Robert S. Carroll to FSF, 30 September 1939, Firestone.
93-94 “Do you remember…”: FSF, “Lamp in a Window,” The New Yorker (23 March 1935), Poems, p. 95.
94 “never believed me”: ZF to FSF, 1935 (?), Firestone.
94 “lady … royal darling”: ZF to FSF, 1930-31, Firestone.
94-95 “erotic aberrations”: ZF to FSF, 1930-31, Correspondence, p. 257.
95 “faithful St. Bernard…”: ZF to FSF, November 1931, Firestone.
95 “crazy people” …in Phipps: ZF to FSF, 1932, Firestone.
95 “need anything… hope”: ZF to FSF, 1936. (?), Firestone.
96 “today by the sea …”: ZF to FSF, 1936 (?), Firestone.
96 “long delay…”: FSF, “Form Letter II,” Correspondence,p. 621.
96 “open suitcase”: Sara Mayfield, Exiles from Paradise: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald (New York: Delacorte, 1971), p. 99.
96 “was crazy... America”: ZF to SF, 1927, Firestone.
97 “a room to paint… Sundays”: ZF to FSF, summer 1930, Firestone.
97 “75,000!”: ZF to FSF, November 1931, Correspondence, p. 277.
97 kind of house: ZF to FSF, November 1931 and February 1932, Correspondence, pp. 277, 283.
97 “sycamore … cigar bands”: ZF to FSF, June 1935, Correspondence, p. 414.
98 “abnegatory skies … soon”: ZF to FSF, late 1930s, Firestone.
98 “Oh, Do-Do …”: ZF to FSF, late 1930s, Firestone.
Published as Fool For Love: A Biography Of F. Scott Fitzgerald by Scott Donaldson (New York: Congdon & Weed, 1983).