Fitzgerald, who was extremely self-absorbed, had no serious interest in or understanding of the greatest historical event of his lifetime: World War I. "Beyond a sporting interest in the German dash for Paris," he wrote with studied indifference in This Side of Paradise, "the whole affair failed either to thrill or interest him… He hoped it would be long and bloody." When the war bogged down in the trenches after the German invasion of France, he "felt like an irate ticket holder at a prizefight where the principals refused to mix it up." Fitzgerald joined the army for the same reasons that he went to Princeton. It was the fashionable thing to do. He imagined himself as a war hero as he had once pictured himself as a football star and wanted to prove his courage in combat. The army was also a convenient way, as malaria had been in 1916, to escape his recurrent failures in college.
Writing to his cousin Cecilia Taylor and to his mother (who had wanted him to become an army officer) after America had entered the war in April 1917, Fitzgerald emphatically rejected the patriotic motives that had inspired thousands of young men and had been immortalized in Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier": "If I should die, think only this of me: / That there's some corner of a foreign field / That is forever England." Instead, when explaining his voluntary enlistment to these good ladies, he alluded to Ireland's neutrality and stressed his own individuality and deliberate detachment: "Updike of Oxford or Harvard says 'I die for England' or 'I die for America'-not me. I'm too Irish for that-I may get killed for America-but I'm going to die for myself… About the army, please let's not have either tragedy or Heroics because they are equally distasteful to me. I went into this perfectly cold-bloodedly and don't sympathize with the 'Give my son to country' … stuff because I just went and purely for social reasons."
In July 1917, after his brief bout with Schopenhauer and Bergson, Fitzgerald went to Fort Snelling, near St. Paul, and took the exams required for an appointment as second lieutenant in the regular army. He could not become an officer until he reached the age of twenty-one in September. When he received his commission in the infantry on October 26, he immediately ordered his smart uniforms at Brooks Brothers-just as he had sent for his football equipment as soon as he was admitted to Princeton.
He was sent for three months of training, from November 1917 to February 1918, to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, on the Missouri River northwest of Kansas City. The captain in charge of training provisional lieutenants in exercises, calisthenics and bayonet drills was Dwight Eisenhower. One of his trainees wrote home enthusiastically about the young captain: "He has given us wonderful bayonet drills. He gets the fellows' imaginations worked up and hollers and yells and makes us shout and stomp until we go tearing into the air as if we meant business."1
Fitzgerald, however, was not so keen. He did as badly as an army officer as he had as a college student. Just as classes seemed to interfere with his theatrical career at Princeton, so drills and marches became an irritating interruption of the novel he wanted to write. Though he intended to lead an infantry platoon into battle, he never took his responsibility seriously, never realized that it was vitally important to acquire basic military skills. Like T. E. Lawrence, who would translate Homer's Odyssey, with a pad on his knees, in the RAF barracks in India in 1930, Fitzgerald, concealing his pad behind Small Problems for Infantry, continued to compose while in the army and "wrote paragraph after paragraph on a somewhat edited history of me and my imagination. The outline of twenty-two chapters, four of them in verse, was made, two chapters were completed; and then I was detected and the game was up. I could write no more during [evening] study period." Undeterred by this interruption, he continued to compose his book amidst noise and distractions: "Every Saturday at one o'clock when the week's work was over, I hurried to the Officers' Club, and there, in a corner of a room full of smoke, conversation and rattling newspapers, I wrote a one hundred and twenty thousand word novel on the consecutive weekends of three months."2
Fitzgerald had known Charles Scribner at Princeton; and Christian Gauss suggested that Scott send "The Romantic Egoist" to the venerable firm that published his own works as well as those of such eminent authors as Meredith, James, Stevenson, Barrie, Wharton and Galsworthy. Shane Leslie, another Scribner's author, wrote an encouraging letter to accompany the manuscript. He noted its weaknesses but felt it was worth publishing, and compared Fitzgerald to the handsome and romantic Rupert Brooke, who had died of a fever on a Greek island while on active service in 1915. Fitzgerald used Brooke's poem "Tiare Tahiti" for the title, epigraph and theme (age has nothing to tell the young in this world) of "The Romantic Egoist," which was published as This Side of Paradise.
"In spite of its disguises," Leslie wrote, "it has given me a vivid picture of the American generation that is hastening to war. I marvel at its crudity and its cleverness… About a third of the book could be omitted without losing the impression that it is written by an American Rupert Brooke." Since the mortality rate of infantry lieutenants was extremely high, Leslie thought that Fitzgerald, like Brooke, would die in the war. He urged Scribner's to accept the book in order to make Fitzgerald happy during the last few months of his life.
On August 19, 1918-about five months after submitting the novel-Fitzgerald received a constructive response from a young editor at Scribner's, Maxwell Perkins. Perkins saw considerable merit in the book, but felt its innovations were outweighed by its glaring defects: "We have been reading 'The Romantic Egoist' with a very unusual degree of interest;-in fact no ms. novel has come to us for a long time that seemed to display so much originality, and it is therefore hard for us to conclude that we cannot offer to publish it as it stands at present… It seems to us in short that the story does not culminate in anything as it must to justify the reader's interest as he follows it; and that it might be made to do so quite consistently with the characters and with its earlier stages."3 Perkins asked Fitzgerald to revise the book, changing the narrator from the first to the third person, and then submit it for reconsideration.
Fitzgerald, meanwhile, had become distracted by his military duties and by his frequent shifts around the country prior to embarkation for Europe. In March 1918 he joined the 45th Infantry Regiment in Camp Zachary Taylor, near Louisville, Kentucky-where Jay Gatsby would meet Daisy Fay in Fitzgerald's novel. In April he was sent to Camp Gordon in Augusta, Georgia; in June his unit combined with another regiment and became part of the Ninth Division at Camp Sheridan, near Montgomery, Alabama.
Despite Fitzgerald's three years in the sophisticated male milieu of Princeton, most of his military colleagues considered him weak, spoiled and immature. Devereux Josephs, an older officer and graduate of Harvard, criticized him for concentrating on writing instead of on training. He also felt that Fitzgerald, though incompetent and rebellious in the army, wanted to be admired: "He was eager to be liked by his companions and almost vain in seeking praise. At the same time he was unwilling to conform to the various patterns of dullness and majority opinion which would insure popularity." Major Dana Palmer, an army friend, was more tolerant of his faults, which were balanced by his charm, and anticipated the opinion of many men who met Fitzgerald later on: "Scott abused the kindness and friendship of nearly everyone, but at that time, one could not help liking him very much."
Alonzo Myers, who served with Fitzgerald for most of his military career, concluded that "as an Army officer, Fitzgerald was unusually dispensable." Myers felt he was a ludicrous figure: immature, irresponsible and unfit for command. Fitzgerald was therefore treated by his military companions in much the same way as he had been treated at Newman School: "Nobody took Fitzgerald seriously. His fellow officers generally conceded that he lacked sound judgment. Much of the time he even appeared to lack any independent judgment at all. The result was that we tended to take advantage of him and to perpetrate pranks on him that sometimes could have had quite serious consequences."4 On one occasion the officers encouraged Fitzgerald to contravene military regulations and force a conscientious objector to pick up a rifle and drill. On another, according to Myers, they persuaded their naive comrade to sleep through reveille instead of turning out for inspection by the commanding general. When Fitzgerald did report for parade he fell off his horse.
After his superiors had reluctantly entrusted him with a command, Fitzgerald got involved in dangerous and absurd misadventures. When directing a mortar company, he mistakenly ordered his men to fire on another unit. And his soldiers, nearly blown up when a shell jammed in a Stokes mortar, were saved at the last moment when Dana Palmer bravely tipped the barrel and spilled out the shell.
Responsible as a supply officer for unloading equipment on the docks of Hoboken, New Jersey, when his unit was on its way to France, Fitzgerald left the train to visit Princeton and allowed thousands of dollars of materiel to be stolen. He falsely claimed to have commandeered a special locomotive to take him to Washington with an urgent message for President Woodrow Wilson. While stationed at Camp Mills on Long Island, Fitzgerald went into New York for a party, borrowed a friend's room at the Hotel Astor and was caught there by the house detective-naked and in bed with a girl. He tried to bribe the detective with a dollar bill folded to look like a hundred, but was caught again and saved from jail only by being put under military arrest in his army camp.
His one redeeming act occurred when a ferry used to get troops across the Tallapoosa River near Montgomery was swamped during maneuvers. Fitzgerald helped save a number of men who had fallen into the water. He described this incident in his story "I Didn't Get Over" (1936)-whose title alludes both to crossing the river and crossing the ocean to fight in Europe-and gives the guilty hero, Hibbing, a name that recalls the president of Princeton in Fitzgerald's time, John Grier Hibben.
Despite his manifest incompetence, Fitzgerald's good looks, well-cut uniform, Princeton charm and Irish-Catholic background (for once, an advantage) attracted the attention of Brigadier General James Augustine Ryan, who in December 1918 appointed him aide-de-camp. Born in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1867, Ryan had graduated from West Point, become a cavalry officer and been put in charge of relations with the civil authorities. He apparently thought Fitzgerald would be useful-or at least harmlessly decorative-in this quasi-diplomatic role.
Fitzgerald's regiment was about to leave for France when the Armistice ended the war on November 11, 1918. He never even got close to making the fatal sacrifice of the twenty-one Princeton boys (five percent of his class) who were killed in the war. He wanted to prove his courage, gain glory and win the acceptance of his comrades, and always considered his lack of combat experience one of the deepest disappointments in his life. He equated athletic with military failure, called himself "the army's worst aide-de-camp," and in The Crack-Up said the two greatest regrets of his youth were "not being big enough (or good enough) to play football in college, and not getting overseas during the war." He later suggested that the army was merely a social extension of Princeton and declared: "I can't tell you how I wanted to get over. I wanted to belong to what every other bastard belonged to: the greatest club in history"5-a sort of Cottage Club of the trenches. His ludicrous career in the army explains why Hemingway believed that if Scott had gone to war he would have been shot for cowardice.
While his military life alternated between escapades and disasters, Fitzgerald turned for achievement and recognition to secret diplomacy, love affairs and literature. He had kept in close touch with his kindly benefactor Father Fay and while in the army had corresponded with this "brilliant enveloping personality." Since Stephan Parrott, Fay's other favorite at Newman, seemed ruined by having too much money and had failed to live up to Fay's expectations, the priest-who was the first to perceive Scott's unusual talents-pinned all his hopes on Fitzgerald.
The letters of this physically repulsive but personally enchanting priest express his sublimated homoeroticism and strongly suggest that he was in love with his handsome protege. Fay drew him into his ambience by mentioning his own connections with great figures in the world of religion and politics, by equating Fitzgerald with himself and by filling his seductive correspondence with outrageous flattery: "We are many other things-we're extraordinary, we're clever, we could be said I suppose to be brilliant. We can attract people, we can make atmosphere, we can almost always have our own way… I never deny that I need you boys-your companionship and all that-but I am also coming to the conclusion that you both need a little touch of me, and I do hope if you get leave in August you will fly to my paternal arms." Fitzgerald, always eager for admiration, was not fully aware of the intensity of Fay's feelings.
In August 1917, while Fitzgerald was waiting to come of age and obtain his commission, Fay included him in a tremendously exciting scheme. In March 1917 the first revolution had broken out in Russia; and in July the democratic socialist Alexander Kerensky had become prime minister and vigorously pursued the war against Germany. Fay's ambitious plan was to journey via Japan to Russia (where he had traveled in 1915 on an ecclesiastical visit), ostensibly as head of a Red Cross mission but actually, during these turbulent times, to lead the Russian masses back to the Catholic church. Fitzgerald, in the guise of a Red Cross lieutenant, would be Fay's traveling companion and confidential assistant.
On August 22 Fay wrote Fitzgerald, with dramatic exaggeration: "The conversion of Russia has already begun. Several millions of the Russians have already come over to the Catholic Church from the schism in the last month. Whether you look at it from the spiritual or the temporal point of view it is an immense opportunity and will be a help to you all the rest of your life." Fay wisely mentioned the kind of uniform Fitzgerald would wear as well as the expenses that would be paid by the church, and said they would have to work hard on his French-though the idea of Fitzgerald conducting diplomatic negotiations in a foreign tongue seems absurd.
Most importantly, Fay heightened the significance of their expedition by insisting on cloak-and-dagger secrecy: "Do be discreet about what you say to anybody. If anybody asks you, say you are going as secretary to a Red Cross Commission. Do not say anything more than that, and if you show this letter to anybody, show it only in the strictest confidence."6 But as Fitzgerald was applying for his Japanese and Russian visas, the Bolshevik coup d'etat on November 7 (in the Western calendar) extinguished all future hope of a Catholic church in godless Russia.
When the Russian mission failed, Fay immediately came up with another plan, which unfortunately did not include Fitzgerald. Fay joined the Red Cross and was sent to Rome by Cardinal Gibbons to acquaint the pope with the attitude of American Catholics toward the war and to stress their loyal determination to help the Allies (which included Italy) until the very end. In his patriotic essay, "The Genesis of the Super-German," published in the Dublin Review in April 1918, Fay also urged the Irish people, for religious and philosophical reasons, to support the Allied cause.
While in Italy Fay also became involved in negotiations to remove a clause from a secret treaty that had excluded the Holy See from participation in the peace conference after the war. Fay's diplomatic visit to Rome was considered valuable and in 1918 he was created a monsignor by Pope Benedict XV. Delighted as a child and camping it up with a vivid simile that Fitzgerald adopted in his first novel, Fay immediately announced: "the Holy Father has made me a Prelate, so that I am the Right Reverend Monsignor now, and my clothes are too gorgeous for words. I look like a Turner sunset when I am in full regalia."
Fay also used this occasion to emphasize the spiritual quality that bound him to Stephan Parrott and to Fitzgerald. Though Fitzgerald's religious beliefs were fading fast (he recorded that 1917 was his last year as a Catholic), Fay exclaimed: "I discovered that if I did not have a good hold on the mystical side of religion the romance [of my success] would have died down considerably. Sometimes I think that in all three of us, the secret of our success is the mystical element in us. Something flows into us that enlarges our personalities."
On August 17, two days before Scribner's rejected "The Romantic Egoist," Fay wrote another conspiratorial letter that ecstatically praised the unpublished work. Shane Leslie and Max Perkins had offered constructive criticism that would enable Fitzgerald to revise his book and get it published; Fay merely flattered his disciple in order to win his gratitude: "I have ten thousand things to say that I cannot write. There are intimacies that cannot be put upon paper… Really the whole thing is most startling; I am keen beyond words to read the rest of that book. I may be frightfully prejudiced but I have never read anything more interesting than that book… The more I see of it the more amazingly good I think it is."7
Fay died suddenly of influenza on January 10, 1919 (just before Fitzgerald was demobilized), on the eve of his departure for another diplomatic mission to London. He would have been even more fascinated by This Side of Paradise had he known that Fitzgerald's description of Monsignor Darcy's funeral would be taken nearly verbatim from Shane Leslie's letter describing the funeral of Monsignor Fay. Shattered by the loss of his friend, Fitzgerald responded to Leslie's account of the ceremony with heartfelt insincerity: "I can't tell you how I feel about Monsignor Fay's death.-He was the best friend I had in the world and last night he seemed so close and so good that I was almost glad-because I think he wanted to die… Your letter seemed to start a new flow of sorrows in me. I've never wanted so much to die in my life. Father Fay always thought that if one of us died the other would, and now how I've hoped so… This has made me nearly sure that I will become a priest. I feel as if in a way his mantle had descended upon me."8 But the momentarily pious Fitzgerald had no more intention of becoming a priest than he did of becoming a professional soldier. Fay's death meant that he would now have to find his own way to wealth and fame. In any case, he had already come under the powerful secular influence of Zelda Sayre.
Except for a brief time at Camp Mills on Long Island, Fitzgerald was stationed from June 1918 until February 1919 in Montgomery, Alabama. In that hot, static little town of forty thousand souls, nothing much had happened since the Civil War. In "The Ice Palace" (1920) Fitzgerald described Montgomery as a "languid paradise of dreamy skies and firefly evenings and noisy, niggery street fairs-and especially of gracious, soft-voiced girls, who [unlike Ginevra King] were brought up on memories instead of money."
At a country club dance on one of those "firefly evenings" in July 1918 Fitzgerald met a gracious, soft-voiced girl named Zelda Sayre. She let her long hair hang down loose and wore a frilly dress that made her look younger than eighteen. She came from a prominent though not wealthy family and had just graduated from Sidney Lanier High School.
The solid respectability of the Sayres disguised the dangerous currents swirling beneath the calm surface of their lives. Zelda's father, Anthony Sayre, son of the editor of the Montgomery Post, was born in Tuskegee, Alabama, in 1858, graduated from Roanoke College in Virginia and was admitted to the bar in 1881. He married three years later, and was elected and reelected associate justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama from 1909 until 1931. A man of fanatically regular habits, Judge Sayre always took the streetcar to and from work at exactly the same time every day and always retired for the night at exactly eight o'clock. Cold, humorless and hypercritical, the judge became increasingly unsociable and remote from his family. Zelda considered him inhumanly perfect and desperately tried to penetrate his stony reserve. The first time Fitzgerald was invited to dinner at the Sayres' house at 6 Pleasant Avenue, Zelda goaded her father into such a rage that he picked up a carving knife and, while the rest of the family ignored them, chased her around the dining room table. Fitzgerald, nervous and infatuated, failed to perceive that this was a familiar occurrence, that the judge was not as self-controlled as he appeared to be and that all was not well in the Sayre family.
Zelda's mother, Minnie Machen, the daughter of a Kentucky senator, was born in 1860 and had in her youth cherished hopes of an operatic career. The Sayres had three older daughters-Marjorie, Rosalind and Clothilde-whose ages ranged from nine to eighteen when Zelda was born, and a son, Anthony, who was then six. Minnie nursed Zelda, her youngest and favorite child, till the age of four.
Minnie's mother and sister had both committed suicide. Marjorie had had a mental breakdown and suffered from nervous illness throughout her life. Young Anthony became notorious for his dissolute behavior and left Auburn University without earning his degree. In 1933, after recurrent nightmares about killing his mother, he would also commit suicide by leaping from the window of his hospital room in Mobile. No one ever told Fitzgerald, when he was courting Zelda, about the terrifying history of insanity and suicide in her family.
Four years younger than Scott, Zelda was born on July 24, 1900, and named for the romantic gypsy heroine in Robert Edward Francillon's Zelda's Fortune (1874). In this popular novel, Zelda-who "could have been placed in no imaginable situation without drawing upon herself a hundred stares"-foresees that she will find a fortune of gold treasure and fall in love with the handsome Dr. Vaughan. Zelda Sayre had no close friends in girlhood or in later life, but was always close to her mother. Protected by the respectability and prestige of her family, Zelda was known for her striking beauty, her unconventional behavior and her sexual promiscuity. As she wrote in the opening sentence of her novel Save Me the Waltz (1932): " 'Those girls,' people said, 'think they can do anything and get away with it.' That was because of the sense of security they felt in their father. He was a living fortress."9
Zelda had a perfect peaches-and-cream complexion and honey-golden hair. In This Side of Paradise Fitzgerald portrayed her as Rosalind Connage and gave a delightful account of her physical attributes: "There was the eternally kissable mouth, small, slightly sensual, and utterly disturbing. There were gray eyes and an unimpeachable skin with two spots of vanishing color. She was slender and athletic, without underdevelopment, and it was a delight to watch her move about a room… Her vivid, instant personality escaped that conscious, theatrical quality that Amory had found in Isabelle [Ginevra]."
Fitzgerald was also keenly aware of the flaws in Zelda's character-her rudeness, selfishness and lack of restraint-but found them quite provocative and exciting: "She treats men terribly. She abuses them and cuts them and breaks dates with them and yawns in their faces-and they [like Scott himself] come back for more… [She] smokes sometimes, drinks [alcoholic] punch, frequently kissed… She is prone to make every one around her pretty miserable when she doesn't get [her way… She believed] the only excuse for women was the necessity for a disturbing element among men." She was, to Scott's delight, an inspiring example of the postwar modern girl.
Zelda's notorious reputation in Montgomery began in childhood. When she was only ten she called the fire department (a recurrent ploy), climbed onto the roof and waited to be rescued. Unlike her self-effacing father, she scorned convention, liked to attract attention to herself and exploited the dramatic possibilities of the scene. She always gave a good public performance. Virginia Foster Durr, who went to dances with Zelda and later became a leader in the civil rights movement, confirmed Zelda's powerful impact on her contemporaries: "Zelda always did things to shock people… She used to come up to the dances in Birmingham and she was just gorgeous. She had a glow around her. When she came into a ballroom, all the other girls would want to go home because they knew the boys were going to be concentrating on Zelda. The boys would line up the whole length of the ballroom to dance with her for one minute. She was pre-eminent and we recognized it."
Mrs. Durr later elaborated her view of Zelda's character and explained how her glorious youth left her especially vulnerable:
Zelda was like a vision of beauty dancing by. She was funny, amusing, the most popular girl; envied by all others, worshipped and adored, besieged by all the boys. She did try to shock. At a dance she pinned mistletoe on the back of her skirt, as if to challenge the young men to kiss her bottom.
In the South women were not supposed to do anything. It was sufficient to be beautiful and charming. Zelda, a spoiled baby just out of high school, never even learned to read or sew. She was always treated like a visiting film star: radiant, glowing, desired by all. Since she had absolutely nothing to do and no personal resources to draw on, she later bothered Scott when he was trying to write. She had no ability to suffer adversity, and was unprepared for it when it came.
Fitzgerald would have agreed with this analysis. He later told his daughter that Zelda had burnt herself out by refusing to accept ordinary norms of behavior: "She had no education-not from lack of opportunity because she could have learned with me-but from some inner stubbornness. 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."10
Despite the contrast in their backgrounds-a lower-middle-class Irish Catholic from the Upper Midwest, who had lived in five different towns and had been to college, and an upper-middle-class Anglo-Protestant from the Deep South, who had spent her entire life in Montgomery and had just completed a patchy high school education-Scott and Zelda had a great deal in common. They were both spoiled children of older parents. They had the same blond hair, fair skin, straight nose and thin lips, and looked enough alike to be brother and sister. They even wore matching jackets and knickerbockers on their drive from Connecticut to Montgomery in the summer of 1920. Both liked to exchange sexual roles. Scott dressed up as a show girl for the Triangle Club. Zelda put on men's clothing and went to the movies with a group of boys. Scott-who had a weak father, strong mother, younger sister and eventually a wife, daughter and several mistresses-was always surrounded by women. He believed: "I am half feminine-that is, my mind is." Zelda told a friend: "I have always been inclined toward masculinity."11 Both spent extravagantly, drank heavily, behaved irresponsibly and did not care what people thought of them.
Zelda's volatile mixture of beauty and daring was fatally attractive to men. Officers gathered on her sagging veranda, which resembled an army recruiting station, and gladly surrendered their military insignia to express their esteem. Flyers from Camp Sheridan performed aerial stunts over her house and two planes crashed during these daring exhibitions. Admirers at Auburn University, where she was tremendously popular, founded a fraternity based on her initials, Zeta Sigma. To be admitted, potential members had to pledge their devotion to Zelda and offer proof that they had had at least one date with her in Montgomery. Fitzgerald was excited-and sometimes tormented-by other men's love for Zelda, which enhanced her value in his eyes. And having lost Ginevra, he was determined to win Zelda from her Southern halfbacks and golfing beaux.
During their parabolic courtship Zelda used her power over men to make Scott unbearably jealous. She once grabbed a boy and started kissing him just as Fitzgerald approached; and later "regretted having flirted so much with other men and never telling Scott how far she'd gone with them, letting him guess the worst and neither denying nor correcting his suspicions." But selfishness in women had an irresistible appeal to Fitzgerald, and their fights (like those of Frieda and D. H. Lawrence) were a form of sexual foreplay that made their reconciliations and lovemaking even sweeter. "I love your tenderness-when I've hurt you," Zelda confessed. "That's one of the reasons I could never be sorry for our quarrels."12 The intensely romantic Fitzgerald had a Proustian impulse to construct an ideal image of the woman he loved-first Ginevra, then Zelda-to compensate for any defects in reality.
Fitzgerald often pondered the differences between the woman lost and the woman won. Ginevra's family was wealthy and socially prominent, Zelda's was more intellectual and artistic. Ginevra was cool and distant, Zelda spontaneous and sensual; Ginevra poised and self-assured, Zelda vivacious and impulsive. Though Ginevra was more worldly and sophisticated, Zelda was more beautiful and exciting. Zelda was much closer to Scott in temperament and, though pursued by legions of young men, soon fell in love with him. Ginevra was sexually unattainable, Zelda willing to sleep with him. He had nothing to give Ginevra that she did not already have, but could offer Zelda something she really wanted: an escape from constrictive provincial life into the glamorous world of New York.
The "unusually dispensable" Fitzgerald, one of the first officers to be discharged from his unit in February 1919, returned that month to New York. While still an undergraduate in 1916, he had looked up Edmund Wilson, who shared an apartment on West Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, worked for the Evening Sun and seemed to embody the ideal literary life. Fitzgerald discovered that "the shy little scholar of Holder Court" in Princeton had been transformed into a promising symbol of cosmopolitan sophistication. "That night, in Bunny's apartment," Fitzgerald recalled, "life was mellow and safe, a finer distillation of all that I had come to love at Princeton … and I began wondering about the rent of such apartments."13
Fitzgerald now assumed he could easily adopt Wilson's attractive way of life and earn enough money to marry Zelda. But he lacked his friend's discipline and found it difficult to break into commercial or literary life in New York. Instead of a congenial flat in the Village, shortage of money forced him into a remote and depressing room at 200 Claremont Avenue, near Columbia University in uptown Manhattan. After a fruitless search for work on a newspaper, he took an unappealing job with the Barron Collier advertising agency at thirty-five dollars a week. For several stupefying months he wrote ads for signs on street-cars. His best slogan, composed for a steam laundry in Iowa, was "We keep you clean in Muscatine."
When not working Fitzgerald got drunk with his college friends and self-consciously indulged in the kind of sophomoric pranks that would become tediously familiar to friends throughout his life. He threatened to jump out of the window of the Yale Club and was disappointed when nobody tried to stop him. He celebrated May Day in the Child's restaurant on Fifty-Ninth Street by carefully mixing hash, eggs and ketchup in a friend's hat.
His attempts to write were as depressing as his work and his drinking bouts. He wrote film scenarios, sketches, jokes and nineteen stories, and decorated his room with a frieze of 122 rejection slips. Near the end of June Wilson helped him get started by introducing him to George Jean Nathan, who paid thirty dollars for a trivial story, "Babes in the Woods" (which he had written at Princeton for the Nassau Lit.), and published it in the sophisticated Smart Set.
In the spring of 1919, while struggling to make his way in New York, Fitzgerald made three trips to Montgomery. In April he became engaged to Zelda and slept with her for the first time. One of her provocative and reassuring letters, written that spring, alludes to their sexual intimacy: "Sweetheart, I love you most of all the earth-and I want to be married soon-soon-Lover-Don't say I'm not enthusiastic-You ought to know."
Though Fitzgerald was undoubtedly thrilled that Zelda was willing to sleep with him, he was also shocked by her behavior. At Princeton he had discovered that half his classmates admitted they had never even kissed a girl. Girls of his class were not expected to grant sexual favors or express enthusiasm for sexual pleasure. Zelda had in fact lost her virginity at fifteen and openly flaunted her defiance of these conventions. He was also surprised and hurt to realize, despite her sexual responsiveness, that she would not marry him before he had achieved financial success.
His portrait of Rosalind in This Side of Paradise captures this impulsive yet calculating side of Zelda. It reveals that he was well aware of her desire to remain young and irresponsible forever, and have wealth to comfort and protect her. As his heroine ingenuously exclaims: "I'm just a little girl. I like sunshine and pretty things and cheerfulness-and I dread responsibility. I don't want to think about pots and kitchens and brooms. I want to worry whether my legs will get slick and brown when I swim in the summer."
Fitzgerald also resented her family's opposition to the marriage. They felt (with good reason) that she needed a strong, reliable husband who could control rather than encourage her wild behavior. In their view, he was an unstable Irish Catholic who had not graduated from college, had no career and drank too much. Zelda claimed that Scott was the sweetest person in the world when sober, to which Judge Sayre sternly replied: "He's never sober." In 1927, long after his marriage but still eager for acceptance, Fitzgerald would rather pathetically kneel beside the judge's sick bed and plead: "Tell me you believe in me." "Scott," the judge grudgingly conceded, "I think you will always pay your bills."14 This prediction proved accurate. Though often in debt, Scott did pay his bills.
Fitzgerald tried to persuade Zelda to marry him immediately by threatening, pleading and overwhelming her with kisses. But in June, impatient with his failures, she broke off their engagement and ended their sexual relations. In his plan for the "Count of Darkness" stories, Fitzgerald noted that his heroine, "after yielding, holds Philippe at bay like Zelda and me in [early] Summer 1919."
Fitzgerald felt he had foolishly allowed himself to be dominated by mentally inferior "authorities," first at St. Paul's Academy, Newman and Princeton, then in his regiment and in advertising. Clearly unsuited to a regular office job, he loathed business as much as he had hated academic and army life. He was fearful of losing Zelda to a prosperous local rival and determined to win her by writing a successful novel. He would express his love by including her diaries and portraying her character. Haunted by his drab room and by the crowded subway, obsessed by his shabby clothes, his poverty and his hopeless love, he quit his job: "I was a failure-mediocre at advertising work and unable to get started as a writer. Hating the city, I got roaring, weeping drunk on my last penny and went home."15
While estranged from Zelda and working hard on his novel in the top-floor room of the family house at 599 Summit Avenue in St. Paul, Fitzgerald met a kindred spirit: the lively and witty Donald Ogden Stewart. The tall, balding, bespectacled Stewart was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1894, the son of an improvident lawyer. After attending Exeter and Yale, he spent a few years working for the telephone company in St. Paul. He started his literary career as a popular writer of humorous and satiric fiction-Parody Outline of History (1921) and Mr. and Mrs. Haddock Abroad (1925)-and then became a successful novelist, dramatist and screenwriter.
Though Fitzgerald and Stewart interested each other, especially at the beginning of their careers, and later traveled in the same social circles, they never became intimate companions. Stewart felt that Fitzgerald's "note-taking watchfulness … kept me from ever feeling that he was really a friend." Fitzgerald called him "an intellectual simpleton" and criticized his ingratiating manner: "He pleases you not by direct design but because his desire to please is so intense that it is disarming. He pleases you most perhaps when his very words are irritants."
In early September Fitzgerald completed the second version of his novel, sent the manuscript back to Perkins and-eager to work outdoors-took a job repairing train roofs for James J. Hill's Northern Pacific Railroad. Instructed to wear old clothes, Fitzgerald turned up in elegant white flannels, irritated the foreman by sitting down when he tried to hammer in nails and-despite his experience in dealing with ordinary soldiers-complained that he was unable to talk to the working men.
Fitzgerald lasted no longer as a rude mechanical than he did as a writer of slogans. On September 16, 1919, Perkins freed him from his job with an enthusiastic letter: "I am very glad, personally, to be able to write to you that we are all for publishing your book, This Side of Paradise… I think you have improved it enormously. As the first manuscript did, it abounds in energy and life and it seems to me to be in much better proportion… The book is so different that it is hard to prophesy how it will sell but we are all for taking a chance and supporting it with vigor."16 Fitzgerald rushed up and down the streets of St. Paul, stopping friends and strangers on foot and in cars to announce his good fortune. He then returned to New York to await success.
Fitzgerald's period of concentrated work, when he revised and improved his novel in the summer of 1919, transformed him from an unemployed amateur into a professional writer. During that time he discovered his subject, his voice and his style. When he returned to New York, he began to turn out amusing, cleverly plotted and sometimes absurd tales about the innocent adventures of bright upper-class teenagers and young people. Instead of the massive series of rejections he had suffered in the spring, he now found that his stories were accepted as fast as he could produce them. Slight pieces like "The Debutante," "Porcelain and Pink," "Dalrymple Goes Wrong" and "Benediction" (one of his few overtly Catholic works) were gobbled up by the Smart Set in the fall of 1919. And Scribner's Magazine paid $150 each for more didactic pieces-"The Cut-Glass Bowl" and "The Four Fists"-from their firm's new author.
Fitzgerald also sold "Head and Shoulders"-in which a prodigy marries a chorus girl and they exchange roles: he becomes a trapeze artist and she a successful author-to the Saturday Evening Post for $400 and made his first appearance in a mass circulation magazine when it was published in February 1920. He energetically poured out five other stories between November 1919 and February 1920-including the more substantial "Ice Palace," which effectively portrays a Southern girl's horrified response to a frozen Northern city-and sold every one of them to the Post. Proud of his rapid composition, he boasted to Perkins that he had written and revised twelve thousand words of "The Camel's Back"-in which a suitor with a marriage license goes to a costume ball dressed as a camel and is accidentally married by a Negro waiter-minister to his irate and then pacified girl-in twenty-one straight hours of work.
When Fitzgerald returned to New York he resumed his uneasy friendship with Edmund Wilson. Soon after they left college Fitzgerald had presumptuously declared: "I want to be one of the greatest writers who ever lived, don't you?" Looking back on this period twenty-five years later and assuming his familiar Johnsonian persona with the Boswellian Fitzgerald, Wilson contrasted (as he had done in his satiric undergraduate poem) his own high intellectual standards with those of his bumbling disciple, who would take a long time to mature: "I had not myself quite entertained this fantasy because I had been reading Plato and Dante. Scott had been reading Booth Tarkington, Compton Mackenzie, H. G. Wells [all of whom influenced his early novels] and [the intoxicating rhythms of] Swinburne; but when he later got to better writers, his standards and his achievement went sharply up, and he would always have pitted himself against the very best in his own line that he knew." Wilson failed to acknowledge that Fitzgerald, despite his naivete, had actually achieved his fantasy by learning from his older contemporaries instead of pitting himself (as Wilson had done) against impossible standards.
In August 1919 Fitzgerald had sharply defined the difference in their talents and future careers by presciently warning Wilson, who would become an accomplished anthologist: "For God's sake, Bunny, write a novel and don't waste your time editing collections [of war stories]. It'll get to be a habit."17 Wilson longed to be an imaginative writer, but his knowledge and appreciation of the literature of the past inhibited his creative urge. He was making a living as a journalist and in time would become the most influential literary critic of his day. But now, like Fitzgerald, he aspired to be a novelist, and assumed that fiction was an altogether higher and more valuable kind of writing than literary criticism.
In college Wilson had been the older, wiser and more sophisticated student, and, with Bishop, a scornful critic who punctured Fitzgerald's illusions. Now he became Fitzgerald's literary mentor, discussing the art of the novel with him, urging him to pay more attention to form. Fitzgerald eagerly sought his comments on the manuscript of This Side of Paradise. On November 21, 1919, Wilson responded with his usual mixture of friendly derision, backhanded compliments and faint praise. He compared Fitzgerald's novel to the trivial current bestseller by the preadolescent Daisy Ashford, spotted the influence of the hero of Mackenzie's Sinister Street, mocked Fitzgerald's intellectual pretensions and warned him about preferring popularity to serious art-a question Fitzgerald had raised with Alfred Noyes: "I have just read your novel with more delight than I can well tell you. It ought to be a classic in a class with The Young Visiters… Your hero is an unreal imitation of Michael Fane, who was himself unreal… As an intellectual [Amory] is a fake of the first water and I read his views on art, politics, religion and society with more riotous mirth than I should care to have you know." At the same time he offered sound criticism, and warned him against adopting the cheap effects of commercial stories instead of doing the serious work needed to achieve high art: "It would all be better if you would tighten up your artistic conscience and pay a little more attention to form… I feel called upon to give you this advice because I believe you might become a very popular trashy novelist without much difficulty."18
In the years to come Wilson often read Fitzgerald's work before publication and also wrote reviews for public consumption. Wilson's private and public comments helped Fitzgerald define and develop his art. Fitzgerald constantly deferred to Wilson's literary judgment, appeared to surrender his intellectual conscience to him and retained him as mentor long after establishing himself as a serious novelist. (He later called Hemingway his "artistic conscience.") Wilson, however, clearly resented Fitzgerald's creative talent, and envied his enormous, apparently arbitrary financial success. In his view, Fitzgerald wasted his talent and sacrificed his integrity by publishing trashy stories in popular magazines.
In November, the month he received Wilson's letter, between the acceptance of the novel and his marriage to Zelda, Fitzgerald had a brief love affair with the English actress Rosalinde Fuller. Her picture had appeared in Vanity Fair, and she had also had an affair with her brother-in-law, the author Max Eastman. Fitzgerald may have wanted to retaliate for Zelda's promiscuous adventures or to have one final fling before committing himself to her. In her diary, Rosalinde provocatively described riding through the city-like Emma Bovary and Leon Dupuis-in a closed carriage that aroused their sexual appetites: "The clip-clop of the horse's hoofs made a background to our discovery of each other's bodies. Eager hands [were] feeling in warm secret places under the old rug, while the bouncing of the horse's bottom was our only contact with the outside world. 'You have Egyptian ears,' whispered Scott" (who could resist his "Egyptian ears"?) " 'and the look of a naughty boy.' "19
The money earned from his copious flow of stories enabled Fitzgerald, who had exhausted himself and was afraid of developing tuberculosis, to leave the harsh New York winter for the gentler climate of New Orleans. He rented a room in a boarding house at 2900 Prytania Street, but disliked the city and remained for only a month. While living in New Orleans he visited Zelda twice, finally persuaded her to marry him and became engaged for the second time. She knew she had inspired his novel and told him: "It's so nice to know you really can do things-anything-and I love to feel that maybe I can help just a little."
In February 1920 Zelda mistakenly thought she was pregnant, and Fitzgerald sent her some pills to induce an abortion. But she refused to take them, emphasizing that she did not regret their lovemaking and wanted above all to preserve her integrity:
I wanted to for your sake, because I know what a mess I'm making and how inconvenient it's all going to be-but I simply can't and won't take those awful pills-so I've thrown them away. I'd rather take carbolic acid. You see, as long as I feel that I had the right, I don't much mind what happens-and besides, I'd rather have a whole family than sacrifice my self-respect. They just seem to place everything on the wrong basis-and I'd feel like a damn whore if I took even one.
A few days later, Fitzgerald repeated the key phrase from Zelda's brave letter and, acknowledging her delicious faults to a friend's sister, explained why he wanted to marry her: "Any girl who gets stewed in public, who frankly enjoys and tells shocking stories, who smokes constantly and makes the remark that she has 'kissed thousands of men and intends to kiss thousands more,' cannot be considered beyond reproach… [But] I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity and her flaming self-respect."20 Zelda's courage to oppose conventional behavior, her sincere defiance of hypocrisy and the self-respect that made her want to have the baby impressed Fitzgerald tremendously. That same month, when he sold the movie rights of "Head and Shoulders" for the vast sum of $2,500, he expressed his generosity and love, and tried to assuage her wounded feelings, by spending the money on gifts for Zelda.
Just before their Catholic wedding Mrs. Sayre, who had always been fond of Fitzgerald, gave a lighthearted warning that deliberately obscured the darker side of Zelda's character: "It will take more than the Pope to make Zelda good: you will have to call on God Almighty direct… She is not amiable and she is given to yelping" when she does not get her own way. In the late 1930s, during bitter recriminations about the failure of their marriage, Scott, with retrospective insight, reminded Zelda that he had been deceived by Mrs. Sayre and by Zelda herself. Despite his admiration of her defiant courage, they had had serious sexual problems from the very beginning of their marriage:
[Your mother] chose me-and she did-and you submitted at the moment of our marriage when your passion for me was at as low ebb as mine for you-because she thought romantically that her projection of herself in you could best be shown through me. I never wanted the Zelda I married. I didn't love you again till after you became pregnant [in 1921]… You were the drunk-at seventeen, before I knew you-already notorious… The assumption [was] that you were a great prize package-by your own admission many years after (and for which I have never reproached you) you had been seduced and provincially outcast. I sensed this the night we slept together first, for you're a poor bluffer.
He also told his daughter that he had soon regretted his foolish decision: "I decided to marry your mother after all, even though I knew she was spoiled and meant no good to me. I was sorry immediately I had married her."21 Despite his misgivings, their wedding was scheduled to take place a week after his novel came out. His book and his wife were bound in a common destiny.
1. Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise, p. 55; Fitzgerald, Letters, pp. 434, 471; Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower (New York, 1983), p. 61.
2. Fitzgerald, "Who's Who-and Why," Afternoon of an Author, p. 84; Quoted in Living Authors, ed. Stanley Kunitz (New York, 1931), p. 128.
3. Quoted in Roger Burlingame, Of Making Many Books (New York, 1946), p. 48; Fitzgerald, Correspondence, p. 31.
4. Letter from Devereux Josephs to Henry Dan Piper, May 1, 1947, Southern Illinois University; Quoted in Mizener, The Far Side of Paradise, p. 84; Alonzo Myers, "Lieutenant F. Scott Fitzgerald, United States Army," Papers on Language and Literature, 1 (Spring 1965), 174, 171.
5. Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up, pp. 85, 70; Quoted in James Drawbell, An Autobiography (New York, 1963), p. 176.
6. Fitzgerald, Correspondence, p. 24 and Letter from Father Sigourney Fay to Fitzgerald, June 13, 1918, Princeton; Fitzgerald, Correspondence, p. 20.
7. Letter from Father Sigourney Fay to Fitzgerald, June 6, 1918, Princeton; Fitzgerald, Correspondence, pp. 29-30, 33.
8. Fitzgerald, Letters, pp. 394-395. For other sources on Fay, see The Catholic Encyclopedia and Its Makers (New York, 1917), pp. 56-57; the obituary in the Baltimore Catholic Review, January 18, 1919; "Monsignor Fay: In Memoriam," Catholic University Bulletin (Washington, D.C., 1919), pp. 177-178; Barry, Impressions and Opinions, pp. 219, 245; Monsignor Edward Hawks, William McGarvey and the Open Pulpit (Philadelphia, 1935), pp. 101-102, 110, 117, 128-129, 132, 135, 138, 153, 161-163, 178; William Hayward, The C.S.S.S. [Companions of the Holy Savior]: The Quest and Goal of the Founder, the Right Reverend William McGarvey (Philadelphia, 1940), p. 327; New Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1967), 5:862; Dictionary of American Catholic Biography (Garden City, New York, 1984), pp. 178-179.
9. Fitzgerald, "The Ice Palace," Flappers and Philosophers (New York, 1920), pp. 48-49; Robert Edward Francillon, Zelda's Fortune (Boston, 1874), p. 30; Zelda Fitzgerald, Save Me the Waltz, in The Collected Writings, ed. Matthew Bruccoli, Introduction by Mary Gordon (New York, 1991), p. 9.
10. Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise, pp. 170-172; Virginia Foster Durr, Outside the Magic Circle (Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 1985), p. 64; Interview with Virginia Foster Durr, Montgomery, Alabama, January 15, 1992; Fitzgerald, Letters, pp. 94-95.
11. Quoted in Laura Hearne, "A Summer with F. Scott Fitzgerald," Esquire, 62 (December 1964), 258; Quoted in Nancy Milford, Zelda (1970; New York, 1974), p. 64.
12. Quoted in Scott Donaldson, Fool for Love: A Biography of Scott Fitzgerald (1983; New York, 1989), pp. 71, 66.
13. Fitzgerald, "My Lost City," The Crack-Up, pp. 24-25.
14. Fitzgerald, Correspondence, p. 44; Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise, p. 196; Quoted in Turnbull, Scott Fitzgerald, p. 210.
15. Quoted in Donaldson, Fool for Love, p. 65; Fitzgerald, "My Lost City," Crack-Up, p. 26.
16. Donald Ogden Stewart, By a Stroke of Luck!: An Autobiography (New York, 1975), pp. 86-87; Fitzgerald, Notebooks, p. 153; Dear Scott/Dear Max, p. 21.
17. Edmund Wilson, "Thoughts on Being Bibliographed" (1944), Classics and Commercials (1950; New York, 1962), p. 110; Fitzgerald, Letters, p. 345.
18. Edmund Wilson, Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972, ed. Elena Wilson (New York, 1977), pp. 45-46.
19. Quoted in James Mellow, Invented Lives: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (Boston, 1984), p. 82.
20. Quoted in Turnbull, Scott Fitzgerald, p. 108; Fitzgerald, Correspondence, pp. 50, 53.
21. Quoted in Turnbull, Scott Fitzgerald, p. 111; Fitzgerald, Correspondence, p. 559; Fitzgerald, Letters, p. 47.
Next: chapter 4.
Published as Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography by Jeffrey Meyers (NY. Harper-Collins, 1994).