Beautiful Fools
by R. Clifton Spargo

April 1939

MORNINGS WERE A SUMMONS, THE URGENCY OF GUILT AND INDIgestion as he lay in bed not nearly as rested as he ought to be, the precarious act of swinging his feet to the ground, raising his head slowly so as to fend off the vertigo. His routine was monkish. A good morning included the absence of other people, casual neglect of the body’s needs, the ability (never to be taken for granted) to string together enough sentences that he might deem himself worthy of companionship. He started each day on the sentences he had been mulling over in his sleep, those unbidden gifts of the unconscious. The longer he remained at his desk, the longer he was able to suspend his visceral disgust in the presence of food, activity, optimism, any of which in even moderate doses might provoke a fit of vomiting. No matter what he did the nausea stayed with him, constant for months now, relenting in brief stretches, mostly while he was eating sweet foods or drinking hard liquor. In the kitchen he would bring himself to life on Benzedrine, on cups of coffee laced with cocoa and sugar, returning to his desk to write for another hour or two, putting off the breakfast his housekeeper prepared for him, postponing the glass of nerve-steadying gin until after lunch, sometimes into the evening. He stored the bottles, full or empty, in the drawers of his bedroom dresser.

For more than a week now he had been scheming how to break the news to Sheilah. In a few days he would travel to North Carolina to check Zelda out of the hospital and take her on vacation to Cuba, just the two of them, husband and wife, headed somewhere warm and new and within reach. He had promised the trip as far back as November. Zelda was counting on it; his plans could not be altered. Of course, Zelda herself knew nothing about his lover Sheilah Graham, the beautiful young Hollywood gossip columnist with whom he had been living for over a year. Last spring Sheilah had wrested him from his apartment at the Garden of Allah, a compound overrun with everyday temptations packaged as old friends—Dorothy Parker, Don Ogden Stewart, Robert Benchley, all of whom were writing for the studios and still going hard at it, pursuing thrills on which he too had once so capably depended, refusing to give up on bourbon, easy acquaintance, late-night revelry. He might have backslid into carnivalesque gaiety and tumult if not for Sheilah, who found him a cottage outside the orb of the industry. In the San Fernando Valley, in the anonymous town of Encino, on an estate called Belly Acres, the name so ridiculous he almost refused to sign the lease, he lived in tranquil exile from his own life. (Years later Sheilah would recall Scott’s dismay over the estate’s name. “How can I tell anyone,” she remembered him protesting, “I live at ‘Belly Acres’?”) During the winter it was ten degrees warmer here than on the coast, and the temperate, dry air was good for his tuberculosis, which had been flaring on and off for much of the past year. Sometimes Scott would stand on his porch, inhaling the breath of the valley, believing he could taste desert behind it, and he would think then of Sheilah, overcome with gratitude for this woman who so often did what was best for him before he’d thought to do it for himself.

Sheilah retained an apartment in the city, near the studio lots, and he often stayed there during the week. After years of turmoil, after the paralyzing fear that he might never write again, or never again write well, she helped dispel the sense of anonymity and purposelessness into which he had been ready to subside. She was even adept at cauterizing psychic wounds—when, for instance, he was introduced to a director, producer, or some Hollywood nobody who started on hearing his name. “F. Scott Fitzgerald?” a young screenwriter once asked on being introduced, studying him a minute, trying to decide if it was all a ruse, before declaring, “I had it from a reliable source you were dead.”

“Nobody who has written the books you’ve written,” Sheilah consoled him later that night, “will ever be dead.”

Much though he relied on Sheilah, it did nothing to alter his devotion to Zelda. These were the hard facts of his life. He had been brought to this end by circumstances, a man capable not only of loving two women at once, but of needing each to sustain his dented, almost shattered ego. He convinced himself he must do nothing to devastate Zelda’s spirit. The staff at the sanitarium assured him she wasn’t able to cope with unpleasant news. She relied primitively on hopes of imminent escape to get through each day, the vision of a return to her old life the only future she could construct for herself. Her belief in Scott’s faithfulness—he was, after all, faithful to her in the most important ways, paying her bills, writing frequent letters, visiting whenever he could—was at the center of the fragile yet intricate equilibrium she had achieved for herself. For this reason he instructed Scottie, now a student at Vassar College, as well as the few friends still in touch with Zelda, never to speak with her about his life in California.

Zelda had been in residence three years at the Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, under the care of Dr. Robert Carroll, who believed in fighting diseases of the mind such as schizophrenia with avant-garde medicines and the tried and true solace of recreational therapy. He was fond of citing the ancient adage, “Mens sana in corpore sano,” while counseling patients and their families not to be mystified by medical jargon. Insanity: the very word struck fear in all who experienced it in themselves or in the souls of people they loved. But Carroll summed up his approach in a peculiarly literal translation of that same Roman adage. “A sane mind in a sane body,” he insisted, ordering the days of his patients in constant activity: outdoor gymnastics, five-mile walks, hill-climbing, tennis, tossing the medicine ball, games of volleyball, painting and dance lessons. In the spring of 1936—when Zelda left Sheppard Pratt outside of Baltimore, her fourth institution in seven years—she had been a waif of ninety pounds. Under Carroll’s regimen she gained back twenty pounds in the first year, reclaiming her muscular dancer’s figure as well as her robust, handsome face, able to believe for the first time in ages that there was nothing that could keep her from retrieving her health.

The Highland arranged day trips and as many as half a dozen vacations per year, mostly to picturesque destinations. The excursions were expensive, over and above the regular cost of room, board, and medical care. This past January, Scott had given his permission for a trip to Havana. As he scavenged for cash to pay for it, he suffered pangs of regret over Fidelity, his labor of love for much of the past year, an artful script nurtured for months by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, then left to wither on the vine, yet another casualty of Hollywood’s moribund fear of censors, one more example of his own hard luck. When he couldn’t raise the money for her travel, Zelda, in that mercurial way she had of overlooking the infinite setbacks of the past decade and surrendering herself again to optimism, told him she couldn’t have enjoyed spending such a large sum of money without him. They had always only been extravagant together. He heard the invitation creep into her letters even before she declared offhandedly, weeks later, “We can go to Cuba ourselves, as far as that goes.” He pulled together the funds for her to spend the month of February in Florida under supervision of the hospital. From the bone-white sands of the Sarasota beaches she wrote thanking him, wishing he could have been there to share the sun and warm water with her. In steady beckons she began calling him to her side, her one reliable resource against the world’s severity.

He imagined that the right moment would announce itself, so he put her off, promising to come for her as soon as he could, certainly by the end of May. Here it was the middle of April and he still hadn’t chosen a date or said anything to Sheilah about the trip because there were only so many ways the conversation could go, none of them cheerful, none all that different from the last time he’d left her behind to go on holiday with Zelda.


“How do I know you haven’t been fucking her the entire time?”

“Sheilah, I’ve always told you the truth,” he had sworn a few months earlier.

“I can’t trust you. You know why I can’t trust you. After all this while, and you keep running back to her.”

“It was a promise I made.”

“When? What part?” she asked, having resisted for as long as she could because it was humiliating to compete with a sick woman. “Are we talking about wedding vows, Scott? Because that was a long time ago and though it’s chivalrous of you, even the Catholic Church might give you a pass on this one. After all, your wife has gone ins—”

“Don’t speak of her. You don’t know anything about Zelda, don’t you ever say a word against her.”

“The only thing that is sacred to you, that’s what she is. Not me, I’m not worth it. I’ll break off an engagement for you, but where’s the value in that compared to the ordeal of Zelda, for whom you’ve waged a war against the gods and fate, the two of you struggling for your place in the sun, finding it denied and so fighting tooth and claw with each other? Who knows, as long as we’re being honest, how much all that fighting contributed to her going crazy!”

“Now I am leaving,” he shouted.

“You need the excuse first? Sheilah is a bitch, so now I’m free to go. Well, I won’t be here waiting for you.”

She was, though, as she must have known she would be, biding her time, waiting on his return if only so as to give utterance to her outrage. He found her in the afternoon at her apartment, a couple of weeks after his return from New York City. He was not averse to hearing what she needed to say. It was her right, she deserved no less. First, though, he had to tell her about the trip, spilling the news of yet another disastrous outing with Zelda, racing through it, trying to keep pace with the rapid-fire memories all jumbled and out of sync, his voice hoarse and sharp, the adrenaline and exhaustion surging through him like a compulsion, the many bristling thoughts of the wrong Zelda had done him yet again. There was no one else to whom he could say any of it. This time he really was finished, he raged. Of all the things Zelda had ever done, none could compare to this latest. She had attempted to have him committed—how was that for irony? On the last morning of the trip Scott awakened to find Zelda and his pants missing, called downstairs to the manager, who answered in soothing tones, “Please stay calm, Mr. Fitzgerald. Your wife will be back shortly with someone from the hospital to escort you home.” Scott rushed to the door, dressed in bow tie and jacket but pantless, his irritation mounting toward panic (for Zelda was capable of harming herself) as he discovered two bellboys stationed outside his room. She had fed the hotel manager some tale in which she played the part of long-suffering wife, he the madman who could be checked out of his asylum every once in a while for a weekend in Manhattan. It took Scott ten minutes to persuade the manager that the spouse who was actually insane was even then roaming the streets of New York City, another ten to get him to send the guards at his door in pursuit, so that they might overtake her in Central Park, digging a hole in the ground in which to bury his pants.

He recounted the story for Sheilah, knowing that his fury and stupor made him sound just as crazy as his wife. He promised to break with Zelda so that the two of them—Sheilah Graham, his beloved infidel, and Scott Fitzgerald, her faithful paramour—could be married. He would find a lawyer, see the divorce through, he meant it this time. He would divorce Zelda. He uttered the words aloud like a vow and watched the eagerness for confrontation leave Sheilah’s eyes as sympathy took up residence where minutes earlier there had been only anger. What made the confession worse in hindsight was that Sheilah never once called him on those promises of a future they might yet spend together.


It had been six short months since New York and here he was ready to depart for Cuba within the week, and he still hadn’t mentioned it to Sheilah. Maybe that was how the fight started. Whenever he let himself sink into the alcohol he pushed her away, but she could sense that Zelda was again on his mind, inspiring his demands for privacy, time, and space. Sheilah had stopped by late morning and within minutes launched into a search of the cottage.

“What is this?” she asked, holding up an empty gin bottle pulled from the bottom drawer of his bureau, playing the part of innocence deceived all over again.

“Nothin’ that concernz you,” he said. “Now please shu’ the drawer.”

“Why? Because if I can’t see the bottles, I won’t know what’s going on?”

“No, because you have no right tuh be going through my drezz’r and my perz’nal—”

“Pronounce the words correctly, Scott,” she said. “Make a little effort, will you? How blind do you think I am?”

Really, how blind could she be? He wanted to throw the words back in her face. He resented her spells of indifference as much as her interferences. The tuberculosis active again in his lungs, he was hurtling toward collapse—how could she have failed to notice the signs?

“Did you think I wouldn’t notice you slurring words? Tell me, I’d like to understand how you live this duplicity. How much of it do you expect to keep secret, how much do you hope I’ll find out? What’s the fine ratio in your head? When am I overstepping my bounds and when am I acting as someone who loves you and wants to make sure you live, let’s be modest in our hopes, through the middle of this summer? Or is it all for the sake of form? Poor Sheilo, stowed by her mother in a London orphanage at age six, without even faint memories of a consumptive, dead father, witness thereafter to the degradations of poverty, alcoholic misery, and East End squalor—let’s pretend for her sake I’m not destroying myself.”

“Your powers of perception are truly stun—”

“You think I had to open this dresser to guess what was in here?”

“Then you won’t mind goddamned shutting it.” He started toward her, his hand balled in a fist.

“Go to hell, then,” she shouted, turning her back to him, heading for the door. “I’m sure you can find it without me.”

His plans with Sheilah aborted, nothing on his schedule for the week ahead, he was tempted to stay the course until he left for North Carolina in a few days, then maybe try to patch things up on his return. His day passed in misery, too many drinks. He tried alternating beer and Coca-Colas with the glasses of gin, but he had drained half a bottle by mid-afternoon, unable to work at all. Several times he almost got in his Ford coupe to drive himself to the airport, but he could no longer pretend his drinking was under control, and it would be reckless of him to visit Zelda in his present state. She was so superstitious about alcohol, about the scent of wine or beer on his breath. He’d have to straighten out before he left.

Sometime after midnight, after squandering the night on alcohol and indecision, he placed a call to a nurse he’d used several times before, and she agreed to arrive first thing in the morning. “Mr. Fitzgerald,” she said before hanging up, “how about a show of good faith? Put down the bottle for the night, maybe get yourself halfway to sober before I arrive.” So he brewed a pot of coffee and poured himself cup after cup, lacing each with sugar and cocoa, pacing the captain’s deck at the front of his cottage and smoking cigarettes as he stared off into the desert-cool night. Above the magnolias, firs, and birches to his west he concentrated on a shiftless moon, bobbing on the crown canopy of distant forest. After a while he went inside to check the time. Counting down the hours, the first part of any cure. Except when he looked at the clock, less than an hour had elapsed. He’d never make it until morning.

Fixing a second pot of coffee, nibbling on chocolate from the icebox, he endured another hour. Then he called Sheilah. She picked up, her voice sluggish yet responsive, sounding those rare notes that were only for him. “Scott, what is it? Are you all right? What time—”

“I’m sorry for the way I’ve behaved these past few weeks.”

“Sorry for what exactly?” She intended to make him say it, if only so she might know where she stood.

“About the drinking, of course. About the way I’ve treated you, with mistrust, with anger, resenting your interferences when you were only—”

“Okay, that’s enough,” she said. “What’s next?”

“I’ve called the nurse and she’s coming in the morning. I need to sober up because I’ve acted badly, quite badly.”

“And you probably won’t let me see you,” she said.

The fight with his body, the pain and convulsions, the days of constant retching, the sweat and stink—none of it would be pretty. He had grappled with all of this before and he preferred for Sheilah not to see him when he was drying out and in such sorry shape.

“Well, you could visit me tonight,” he offered.

“When?” she asked. “Tonight is just shy of over.”

“I don’t suppose I could talk you into coming to me now?”

It was more than a twenty-minute drive from the city to the valley. A lot to ask, especially at this hour.

He waited on her reply.

“Do you need me?” she asked.

“I promised the nurse I’d make it ’til morning without a drink and I’d really like to keep my promise, but the night lingers, and my will is rather debilitated.”

“Okay, I’ll be there within the half hour. You can hold on that long, can’t you?”


On the deck, dwelling on his dishonesty and his dread of telling Sheilah about Cuba, he was so overcome by remorse that he hardly registered the sound of her car pulling into the drive.

“How are you faring?” she called from the walkway, not yet his girl, the resistance still strong in her voice. He doubted he could win her back in time, or that he had the right to do so.

“The deck is the best feature of this cottage, don’t you think?” he asked. “I almost forget myself when I’m standing here beneath the tapestry of California night, the sky to our west like the last frontier of the American imagination, or so I tell myself—Hollywood, the place to which you come to die all the while believing you’re about to be born again.”

“Scott, we can’t have that kind of talk,” she said, “I simply won’t listen tonight to . . . ,” her voice tapering off as she slipped between the rose-covered trellises onto the porch.

Once inside the cottage, she refused to join him on the deck. The business for which she’d come pertained to what went on inside these walls, to the confinement soon to follow, to the sordid rebirth of a soul from the detritus of its own ugliness. Long days of darkness, cruelty, and torpor had transformed him into a person who shared little in common with the Scott she loved. The man before her was someone who could emerge only after weeks and weeks of drinking had warped both vision and memory. So she treated him with clinical coolness, making no decisions about the future.

“How many bottles will I find?” Sheilah asked, returning to the bureau where she’d made her stand earlier that day.

“Oh, let’s not bother with any of that. It’s a history of which I’m not proud, of which we’ll soon be free. Please, Sheilo,” he said, peering again into the graying light of the predawn sky, gesturing for her to join him outside. “Can we not think about that right now?”

“Why am I here?” she asked.

From where he stood he could make out a convex of light inside the door, Sheilah positioned within the recessed darkness, her silhouette just visible, the expression on her face illegible. She tugged at the chain on the freestanding lamp next to the dresser, then knelt down and jostled the bottom drawer, already ajar, widening the opening so she could run her hands through T-shirts and underwear, over the empty bottles, rattling and rolling together in a musical, hollow tinking. In the next drawer too, she took stock of how far he had descended into that part of him that wished never to be returned to the world. Her hands stayed longest in the top drawer, digging beneath handkerchiefs and socks until she must have felt the cold hard metal, most likely wrapping her fingers onto its grooved cylinders, knowing right away what it was.

“What are you doing?” Scott stepped inside. “Get away from there this instant.”

“What is it, Scott? What’s here that I’m not allowed to see?”

She pulled the object from the drawer and held it in her palm, thumb resting on its handle, fingers relaxed under the trigger guard.

“Sheilah, goddamnit, that’s not yours. It has nothing to do with you.”

“Like hell it doesn’t,” she said. “I want to know, I want you to tell me why you have it.”

He didn’t owe her an explanation, not for the gun anyway. The conversation they were supposed to be having was about Cuba. Her eyes shone with self-righteous indignation, only her mouth giving her away, her lower lip unable to hold its naturally gallant shape.

“Hand it over,” he said. “I’ll only ask once.”

“Fine, see if I give a goddamn,” she said, and threw the gun at his head. He ducked and the gun crashed against the wall behind him. “At least it would be efficient. You don’t want to change, you’re in love with your own ruin. I’m leaving. The nurse will be here before long and I don’t care anymore. What happens to you is none of my concern, I think you’ve made that perfectly clear.”

She waited to see what he would do next. When he said nothing, when he didn’t budge an inch, she walked out of the bedroom. Seconds later he was listening to the fall of her even, unhesitant steps on the stairs, the front door of the cottage opening, the lock rattling as she slammed it shut behind her.

By the time the car disappeared down the lane, he was again on the deck, surprised by his contentedness. By leaving him twice in the same day, Sheilah had absolved him of duplicity. For better or worse he was Zelda’s husband again; he could go to Asheville and rescue her from a loneliness that, if not identical to his, was so parallel as to be at times indistinguishable from it.

He would leave today, he told himself. He laid a suitcase on the floor and began reaching for clothing in his closet. Havana, he imagined, would be similar in climate to Southern California, and as someone who suffered chills even on seventy-degree Hollywood winter days, he packed four sport jackets and four pairs of heavy cloth pants, fistfuls of underwear and socks, the suitcase overflowing until he returned half of the clothing to the closet. The gun lay on the floor beside the bed, so he wrapped it in a pair of BVDs, burrowing it deep in the suitcase, explaining to Sheilah in some far-off future, “But darling, the gun was loaded,” wondering if that made a difference, if it justified anything.

By the clock on the night table he saw that it was nearly five. He could leave for the airport, attempt to board a postdawn flight. Then he remembered the nurse. Too late to call. He couldn’t strand her at the door of an empty cottage. He would have to postpone his departure for the airport until she arrived. He felt his spine slacken, his courage leaking from his pores as he succumbed to lightheadedness, vertigo, nausea. He would never make it through the day without sleep. He lay back on the bed and closed his eyes. The nurse, of course, would recommend he put off the trip, see the cure through, and make plans from the other side. But surrender to the regimen of drying out meant weeks as an invalid, and afterward he would need to call in favors across the city to see if he could pick up freelance work. All the while Zelda would be planted evenings in the foyer of the Highland, sitting quietly, reading, imploring him for as long as spring should last to be true to his promise to come for her.

The knocking from below—a steady pounding by the time he heard it—woke him. He made his way down the stairs and caught a whiff of his own alcoholic stench, disgusted on the nurse’s behalf. He unlocked the front door without so much as a hello, retreating to the second-floor bathroom, hearing her greeting while still on the stairs, “Mr. Fitzgerald? You all right?” Turning the faucet on, he removed the T-shirt and pajama trousers he had been wearing under his robe, lathering chest, armpits, groin, then toweling himself off. Next he doused his hair with water and cologne, scrubbed his face with soap, splashing water freely, squeezing toothpaste into his mouth, searching in vain for his toothbrush, then sawing each side of his mouth upper and lower with his finger, tasting the cologne in the toothpaste, spitting out the froth; and only after he’d done all of this did he swing open the bathroom door to answer the nurse.

Mrs. Carmichael chattered to him from the kitchen, cleaning the overflow of dirty dishes. “I’ll make you some breakfast. Get your strength up for the long battle. Were you sleeping? Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, you was out, Mr. Fitzgerald.”

He was annoyed by her maternally hovering presence.

“Mrs. Carmichael,” he called from the bedroom, trying to be heard above a boiling kettle. “My calendar’s changed. An appointment this morning, a matter of some urgency, it can’t be helped.”

“I’m sorry, did you say something, Mr. Fitzgerald?” She climbed the stairs and entered the bedroom doorway just as he was removing his underwear from beneath the robe, though, fortunately, with his back turned to her. Securing the robe in front, tucking the underwear in a pocket, he pivoted on his heels.

“I was saying I have to leave town this afternoon. Planning to return in a week or so. Headed for New York, can’t be—”

“Mr. Fitzgerald, you sure? Last night you sounded like the prodigal child who knows he better turn back or he’ll soon be knocking on death’s door.”

“Alcohol makes one melodramatic.”

“Alcohol makes one a lot of things, none of them very good, but I don’t know how many second chances we get in life. You’ve already had your fair share.”

It couldn’t be helped, he told her again, trying not to let her see how badly he was hurting, his hands shaky with the d.t.’s, nerves tensed in one long scream whose only solace was the dose of alcohol he would allow himself once he was out of her presence.

“I’m not nearly so bad off as I sounded, but I may want your help on my return.”

“Tell you what I thought this morning when you didn’t come to the door. I was pounding for better than ten minutes, readying myself to go for the police.”

“Guess I woke in the nick of time.”

“You mightn’t have.”

“It’s possible,” he said, hesitating. If she meant to frighten him, she was doing a fairly good job of it.

Informing her less than an hour later that he had to run to the studio but would be back in the evening, he left with suitcase in hand (just in case, he told Mrs. Carmichael, knowing he wouldn’t return). During the drive he thought of Sheilah, how she accepted the symptoms of being in a relationship with him but not quite the facts of it. As long as Zelda remained a tragic ghost, Sheilah could cope with the marriage, doing her best not to interfere. But any sign of Zelda creeping back into his life to lay claim to even a portion of what was rightfully hers and there was trouble. Only last week Sheilah had discovered a letter from Zelda.

“Oh, Scott, she is still so in love with you. What do you say to her? She is waiting every day for you to come and rescue her. Why don’t you go and be with her? She’ll take you back, she will always take you back.”

As if any of that were an option.

“I didn’t mean to read the letter,” Sheilah said afterward. “It was just sitting there among a stack of books in the living room, her dramatic penmanship, her untamed spirit, so much to admire in her. I only read enough to hurt me.” Scott was almost certain he’d stored the letter with the others, in a folder he kept in his dresser, but he didn’t press the issue.

At the studio he flashed his identification badge for the guard and drove beyond the heavily wired perimeter to park his Ford coupe in the commoners’ lot. Crossing the campus he felt his chest tighten in the humidity and pulled out a handkerchief to wipe his brow. A trickle of sweat gathered in the small of his back and he couldn’t wait to get upstairs to his office. On the stairs he remembered again the letter snatched last week from Sheilah, which he’d stowed in the breast pocket of his finely threaded tweed jacket, the same one in which he was now profusely sweating in the midmorning sun. He reached inside the pocket for the letter and, sure enough, it was there. He pulled the scented green stationery out of the envelope, surveying Zelda’s undated, amorous scrawl.

Monsieur mon cher,
Spring awakens in me memories of all the happiness that awaits us, and at times it presses on me like a pain in the heart the size of memory itself. I believe so much in your writing and your talent and your oh so handsome face, and I do not see how they can continue to postpone your much-deserved good fortune in Hollywood. Cannot they see what is right there in front of them? Shall I write a note to your boss, Mr. Goldwyn, conveying my outrage about their infidelity to your wonderful ode to adultery, the Fidelity that wasn’t to be? Well, only if you promise to spend your carnal appetites (assured always of my indulgences and special dispensations) in humble doses and on women who are not nearly so pretty as I once was.

Do you suppose you could ever again find me beautiful? I have my doubts. Some days I drown in regret over missed chances, our missed chances, and I become so bitter I am not fit company even for myself. But always I decide to be happy and hopeful for your sake, won’t you be so also for mine? I’m sure you’ll remember how charming I can be and how my hair once bobbed still pleases, how I too may be pleasing if you’ll please visit me soon. Regret seems frivolous. Who are we to question the fates? All things incline toward tragedy, we know this better than anyone. It is the way of the world not to value what you and I have fought to achieve. Scott, I know you have been sorry and unhappy, but you were once my religion, or the dream of us was like religion to me, and I cannot altogether believe that faith doesn’t bear fruit. I read the Bible at night and tell myself that prayer still works. Can you feel it? Shall I recite for you the Song of Songs, our favorite passages, all the dirty parts?

If you come for me, I will succumb to any and all forms of transportation. Oh, this newly discovered fear of flying! Another weakness of constitution, another missing piece in my inadequate psychic armor—how can you ever have loved such a woefully inadequate girl? But with you I am always brave and if the plane plunges into the ocean and you are there are at my side, well, you see how my imagination runs.

Devotedly, as ever, Zelda

Though no longer under contract with the studio, Scott retained a desk there, in a high-ceilinged office shared with several other writers. The office was empty, the air stifling. None of the fans running. No mail in his box. All in all, an extraordinarily useless errand. Nobody looking for him, his life unaccounted for. Still, he would leave a note, just in case someone should try to reach him. He dug a pad out of the desk and wiped his brow with his handkerchief. In big block letters he scrawled across the sheet of paper “GONE TO CUBA, then signed it “FSF, placing the note on his desk, where it was likely to raise more questions than it answered. Still, he liked the style of his reticence. Why tell the bastards anything?

He sat at the desk studying the note, then picked up the phone. Soon he was making arrangements for a plane that would deliver him on Zelda’s doorstep that very afternoon, and a second to take them to Miami, so they might leave for Havana the next morning.

And now he descended into the festive, superficial light of Los Angeles, pausing under a row of date palms at the far end of the studio lot, shading his eyes from an unreal sun situated atop the mountains, the late morning sky so blue and pristine as to provoke belief in nature’s regenerative power. The past twenty-four hours had simplified his life considerably. If Sheilah was gone for good, he would suffer for it, but he had lived so long and on such intimate terms with grief that it was no threat to him. He felt vital and self-sufficient, free to do whatever he chose, perhaps nothing at all. For just a second he entertained the thought of not traveling all the way to North Carolina, not running again to Zelda’s rescue. He could leave town and go almost anywhere, alone, accountable to no one. Except he could picture Zelda in the foyer of that sanitarium, seated there evenings, feeling important because her husband was coming (as if they were just any leisure-class couple) to take her on holiday.

What he needed was a drink to brace him against the requirements of conscience. Spotting a bar across the street, he decided he had time enough for one beer before heading to the airport to catch his flight—always pursuing the path of past promises, always returning to Zelda. He was all she had in the world, the ironclad law of his life. There was no other way of seeing it. Duty was the form his love for Zelda had assumed, this loyalty to a woman he’d always loved the one last truth to which he held firm.

Next: Chapter 2.

Published as Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald by R. Clifton Spargo (NY. Overlook Duckworth, 2013).