The Girl With Talent
by Zelda Fitzgerald

The febrile winter sun felt its way along the basement stairways, digging out the corners of the cold stone steps into live cubistic patterns. Tentatively it flicked the red and green electric bulbs that framed a Chinese restaurant into glassy momentary life. It slipped on the gilt of a second-story costumer’s sign and fell with a splash under the canopy of a Forty-third Street theater. Then it wound itself in and out around the noise and smells of trucks and taxis, a hurdy-gurdy, a porcelain lunchroom, a gigantic tooth over a dentist’s window—slithering its way through the warm oily fumes of a coiffeur’s, glinting the glass rectangle of a cheap photographer’s showcase. With cold calculation it avoided the alley up which I turned and left it sunless, trafficless, bounded with a network of fire escapes and filled with a stolid gray silence like a street in Dickens’ England.

It was a theatrical alley, lined with green baize doors; in its gutters bits of program from yesterday’s matinee floated morosely. Where the words, Stage Entrance, were hollowed out in green glass I went in.

The theater was dark and on the stage in the half gloom a girl with short black hair raced about, tapping out the rhythm of a mountain cataract to the tune of the hit of the winter. As she moved, her hair flowed back from her pert, serious face like the hair of a person coming up from a dive. She stopped suddenly and a deep chuckle rose from somewhere and enveloped her. All her gestures were involuntary like that, as if superimposed on a colossal dignity and restraint and as much a surprise to her as to the rest of the world. That quality was known to theatrical managers as hot stuff, to a large and discerning public as physical magnetism, and to a widish circle of enemies from lower theatrical planes as lack of talent. “Why,” they loved saying, “she can’t do anything. She doesn’t know how to sing or dance, and she’s built like a beef-eating beer bottle——” Which libelous slander had hindered her progress to the stars’ dressing room not at all.

Lou found her way through the maze of steel cables and slack ropes and bits of painted garden to the place where I waited against the bare concrete wall. I followed her courageous little lilt along the long stone corridor full of electric switches and signs about smoking, past a water cooler and a pile of Lily cups and an old man in a tilted chair, past two men with their hands in their pockets and a fire-extinguishing apparatus to a gray door with a star stenciled high up in the center and Miss Laurie in a box underneath. Two soft blue ballet skirts formed amorphous clouds against the door and a light swung in a cage, like a golden bird, above a long mirror framed with cards and papers. Among them I saw a poem written on the back of an old program, a lacy Victorian valentine, two long telegrams for austerity, a few calling cards, a beautiful picture of a baby playing in long curly grass, and by its side a newspaper picture of a handsome young husband, rich and famous enough to have claimed a good quarter of the front page.

All these things were hers. There was, as well, a grinning Bahama maid emanating an aura of irregularity, and the soft seduction of a gray squirrel coat hovering over the radiator in the corner. A big decisive automobile waited beyond the alley. I couldn’t restrain an involuntary, “Such a lucky girl—you’ve got everything,” as I ran my mind slowly over the delectable list of Lou’s possessions. She had a band of gauze about her hair and she was digging away at a big tin of cold cream. She answered me from the mirror. “Yes,” she said, “except a cocktail. Let’s go and have a drink.”

Out of the quiet resonance of the passage and down a short flight of stairs, we followed the loopings of the tinsel January sun and left it at the entrance to a dark dining room that smelt of orange juice and gin. Lou’s dancing partner was there, hard at work on creating a smokescreen about himself. They laughed and pushed each other about with friendly little pats, talking shop in a professional lingo that I only half understood. She was fond of him, I knew, and we were all having a good time, but even so she gave the impression of constraint and of awaiting the passage of time as one waits for the five-fifteen. Her partner was reading her a half-kidding lecture about drinking too much gin, and finally it made her angry and we left. Outside she stood on the curb like a fine, highbred hunter picking up a cosmic scent on the early winter night, the bright silver buckles on her slippers twinkling and twinkling with a restlessness to be off. “Oh, hell,” she said obscenely, “I wish there were——”

High up over Central Park the beautiful baby was eating carrot soup with nice crispy things in it that caused the tiny mouth to weave a rhythmic circle to and fro, almost obliterating its startling likeness to Lou. A cardboard nanny stood over the small wicker chair, waving a spoon about with the delicate emphasis of an orchestra leader and speculating mildly on the whereabouts of Madam. In the Tudor splendor and oaken shadows of the tall living room, a handsome young husband sat straining his cheekbones white against the gloom and feeling strongly the poignancy of his tilted, famous chin. Three expensive dresses lay pressing their Alice-blue pleats and twinkling buttons against discreet box tops.

Still no Lou—that is, no Lou in the high and fine apartment. No Lou running a noisy shower, changing the sterile tiles of the bath to a broadcasting apparatus for slushes and gurgles and burst of a piercing, unmusical whistle. No Lou wandering in and out of the massive shadows, overawed and defiant, shoulders pressed back and rounded out by the weight of the sky itself into a noble dignity of line that accepted no mastery from paneling or marble hearths. No Lou to feel sorry for such a little baby eating such a lot of soup.

At that moment she sat incredibly immobile in a beige corner of her snug limousine and turned wide eyes like holes in a frozen lake on the cross-stitching of the elevated, on the red and yellow lights that went round and round and the green lights that made squares and the lights that outlined stars and words and shapes of things. I supposed she was brooding, or maybe enjoying that delicious feeling of motion that makes children hum in motorcars, so I didn’t disturb her. We went all the way home in silence, crawling the pharmaceutical smells and the smell of hot bread, of gasoline and city dust, the overpowering smell of friction and all the used-up smells that escape into the New York streets with the letting down of business hour discipline.

We were late, and her husband was terribly annoyed when we finally got there. I suppose meeting her at the door all ready to be cross and finding himself frustrated by the presence of a stranger gave him a sensation like finding oneself at a ball in pajamas, or waking up in a dinner coat on a bright sunny morning.

“You’ll be late for the theater,” he said automatically.

“I know. I’ll hurry. Did my dresses come? I thought we’d all have dinner together.”

“Dinner! My God, it’s eight o’clock! Luckily gin’s very nourishing, I believe.”

“Absolutely no calibers at all—I mean calorics. Oh, don’t nag. I never nag, nag, nag at you.”

The buckled shoes beat out a lively rhythm. There were tears in the big, translucent eyes; back and forth flew the quiet angry words like a game of kitty o’cat. The sternness of a North American Indian settled over the famous profile.

“I wouldn’t care,” he said, “if it wasn’t always these cheap theatrical folks. I don’t see how Lou stands them—sitting on their laps, slobbering over them.”

Somehow feeling included in the sweeping condemnation, I felt emboldened to protest.

“There was once,” I began, “a house of such wonderful shining glass that it was almost a diamond——”

He froze to precision before my eyes and bade us good night with the austere benevolence of an early colonial minister saying good-bye to his flock as he softly closed the door. Lou’s “Well, I suppose that’s that” made me think morosely that she might be able to sing mammy songs with moving conviction.

The winter went on and packets of pansy seeds and tulip bulbs cluttered the bird stores along Sixth Avenue. Swift sudden winds lifted the sunshine high in the air and crumpled together the violet and yellow petals in the flower sellers’ baskets. Lou’s show had shut, that amateurish, fresh flavor that she had on the stage proving not strong enough to carry a star part through a winter of the caprices of a New York public. I thought when I read that the show was leaving that she would probably sink back into a more peaceful domesticity, away from the detested theatrical world. But nothing of the kind. Later in the spring, when the time came that any two people meeting on the street greeted each other with “What boat are you going on?” I bumped into Lou on a corner of Fifth Avenue.

“Oh, hello!” she gurgled. “When are you sailing?”

A gray cape floated out behind her, like a fairy story illustration, and the cool sun dusted the bits of metal about her costume. I knew by her exuberance that she was on her way from the steamship booking office.

“I’ll see you there before long,” I promised.

“Sure you will, because I’ll be dancing at Les Arcades, and you’ll be needing to go there to keep up with the monde——”

The lights changed and she, like a visiting officer in the frontline trenches, dashed appraisingly across the line of cars.

“Are you all going?” I called after her.

“Oh, no,” she grinned, and then, not smiling any more, she added, “Oh, no!”

Now a Paris nightclub during the season is a very serious affair. The seriousness begins with the waiters. If you are not known, they have an awful time finding you just the right table for your station in life, and if you are known they have an awful time giving your table to somebody else. The strain shows in their earnest white faces. There are clients who must be hidden without their knowledge behind palms and screens and may be even behind the cold buffet, and there are other clients who must be exploited and forced to like being put in the position of a sort of social sponsor to the party in spite of their inclination toward inaccessible corners.

Then there is the question of the orchestra: suave and supple it must be and conduct itself with grave decorum in moments of calculated abandon. It must transfer through the convolutions of its golden hours the certain hopes of the past into the uncertain expectancies of the future. It must make people want to eat and dance and drink and do what other people want them to, particularly what proprietors of nightclubs want them to. Naturally, all this responsibility makes fashionable orchestras pale and solicitous and scoops great bays deep into the hair of their foreheads.

Lastly there is the decor adding to the solemnity, being sometimes so restrained as to be almost inside out. Every night quite late, in any one of these sophisticated rendezvous, a powerful white spotlight falls blindly toward the dance floor, bodily picking out big men with cigars who turn themselves sideways and try not to smile, and thin hanging women who cover their eyes with long white hands, and fat women who fluff up their features, and sleek girls’ eyes giving back the glare from the dark like the eyes of an animal. The light lumps them all at the far, impersonal end of a telescope. Swooping about amid gilded chair legs and many strata of smoke, the fluffy ends of summer gowns and the sharp crease of black broadcloth, it finally fixes itself a transparent geometric cone, rising like a prestidigitator’s hat from the shining floor.

At Les Arcades it performed its magic for Lou. Straight into the suspended gravity of adults amusing themselves, she walked each midnight with the air of a child saying, “Now you can watch me play.” No heavenward smiling, no sidewise grimaces, no attempt to let the audience in on her secret. She moved about under the light with preoccupied exaltation, twirling and finding it pleasant; twirling again, then beating swiftly on the floor like a hammer tapping the turns into place. A pleasurable effort shone in the infinitesimal strain on her face, and her outstretched arms seemed to be resting on something soft and supporting, so clearly did you sense their weight and their pulling on the shoulder sockets.

“I like to dance,” she seemed to say. “There’s nothing so much fun as this is.”

Of course, she was an enormous success. People beat on the table with little hammers and, enchanted with the noise, beat louder. Lou asked for more money and got it, and asked for rake-offs in formidable couturieres’ and got them. She bought dark blue dresses with Peter Pan collars, and bright red dresses with skirts like carnations, and big hats that flopped over one eye and small ones that half covered the other. She bought masseurs to rub her in the morning, and too many sidecars before lunch, and underwear in which to find herself dead. There her expenses stopped. Her beaux bought champagne and taxis and curried chicken at Voisin’s and half the perfume in Babani’s. There wasn’t really much they could buy for her because she was such a boyish little person, with black hair turning up like a bell back of her jaws, so that only a fishing rod or a pocketknife would have been really appropriate. She liked best the men who bought her eating and drinking and excitement.

One day she got soaking wet in a leaden Paris rain and stopped into my place to dry her stockings. I tried making one of those appropriate drinks like mulled claret, and while we were waiting for the foul thing to cool, I said to her, “Lou, does your husband know you’re raising Cain over here?”

“Cain?” she echoed incredulously. “Why, I am so good as to make a mother superior seem like a glandular phenomenon.”

It was a week after that that she disappeared.

It seemed as if all Paris had been on a big bust all during the week, and the survivors of dozens of small groups were meeting every night under the pale late lights, driven by common fear of the stillness of a bedroom between midnight and dawn to hunt the morning over the cobblestones and pointed alleys of Montmartre. Now Lou was always a survivor, and one night, when it had got so late that we all sat huddled over the drum in a Negro joint, like people engaged in a tribal rite, we annexed another.

He was tall and dark, as neat as the washed flower beds around Les Ambassadeurs, as romantically presented as a soft waltz at Armenonville, and he shone like a prize apple even at six in the morning. I half expected to see him take a strip of dingy flannel from his immaculate dinner coat, spit in his palm, and begin polishing his head, rolling it round on the inside of his arms like a kitten washing itself, then swiftly sawing the cloth back and forth over his forehead. Instead, he sat down next to Lou so softly that I had a momentary illusion that he had come down on wires from heaven. He spoke low to her, bending himself almost to his knees with each word as if forcing the words out like notes from an accordion. There was a pained and questioning group of shadows just above his eyes and about the corners of his nose, and Lou talked to him with her face straight ahead and only moving her eyes in his direction. “Love at first sight, undoubtedly,” I thought philosophically.

We had all drunk enough champagne to keep us in bed for a day, and had begun saying quarrelsome things to each other, pretending that we were being friendly and frank, so when somebody suggested that we leave, everybody was ready to go. Standing in the corridor with the door swinging open and shut on a street full of yellowish blue, and the glitter of a red sunrise coursing along the flowing gutters, we shook off the gloom that had settled over the party and said robust good nights and felt rather fine and cozy and suddenly sleepy as we rolled off down the hill in rickety old red taxis.

The morning held a cool, fragile mist that did not permeate it but lay along its promise of heat like drops of water on a sprinkled rose. The July sun peeled the tops of trees to orange-gold, and warmed and shrunk the slim shadows tracing the buildings. All over, beyond and above the cracking red in the East, the sky was the dense and colorless blue of a dawn inalienably identified in my mind with the dawn of battles. I was so absorbed with all these things, and with the sweet smell of the woods and ferns given off by a cart piled high with raspberries on its way to the market, that I didn’t notice that Lou and the man with the high patina were not with us any more.

She had been staying with some very discreet mutual friends of ours, and if the telephone hadn’t got mixed up in the affair probably nobody would have known about it. The manager of the nightclub started it, naturally, by phoning all the people he’d ever seen Lou with to know what he should do about his grand gala. All the silk dolls and little hammers and balloons and, oh, my God, the champagne! Lou’s name out in front a mile high and Lou’s chiffon dresses floating out at the opening of the dressing room like colored papers on an electric fan—and Lou vanished off the face of the earth.

We couldn’t find her either, though there was no place that we could look except up and down the labyrinthine corridors of our friend’s apartment, in and out of speckled French bedrooms, searching through a maze of splitting yellow satin and deep sepulchral beds. She simply wasn’t there—until after five days of looking, just as we were about to notify the police, she suddenly was there again, stretched across the bed in such a state of fatigue that to look at the small body sleeping you would have thought it molded from lead, so heavy did it seem. She slept for hours and hours and hours, and I never saw her again until after her divorce.

It’s hard to tell what brave people think. Courage is almost like a sixth directing sense, and I think sometimes that their judgments and decisions wait on its dictates. I hadn’t been back to America the winter that Lou was getting her divorce, but stories of a desperate sort of dissipation slid down back of the leather cushions in the bar chairs of pompous ocean liners and reached Paris like a new edition of the Arabian Nights. It must have been hard, selling all that mess of pottage for a birthright, and Lou probably went through some pretty nightmarish times. Of course she was dancing all the time in a big hit and she didn’t have to be eternally fabricating complex philosophical reasons for why she cared about the things she liked.

When she came back to France she seemed taciturn, but Lou was always that way, as if she was afraid of what ecstatic sounds might escape that primitive throat of hers. To my mind, people never change until they actually look different, so I didn’t find her greatly modified. She missed the baby terribly. I suppose we always feel a deep regret for the things we leave behind incompleted, but it is a regret inextricably mixed with human disappointment at human imperfections and fastens itself to one thing in the past as readily as to another. She had never seen much of the child.

I saw her when she was passing through Paris, filling up her trunks like an engine drawing water. One day I found her helpless in the hands of two dressmakers. They were sticking mouthfuls of pins into her, and all about her feet were the white lights and deep apricot folds of gold satin. She stood there as rigid as a lighthouse, and I wondered vaguely where those fine muscles came from. Suddenly I remembered stories of a past trailing away over the water under ripe Hawaiian moons, doubling over itself like a game of hare and hounds about half the army posts of the Western world. She must have been brought up on baking horseback trails and bamboo verandas and swims miles long in fruitful Southern waters—a good school of unrest for adventurous, restless spirits.

“Well, Lou, or Brunnhilde, or whatever your name is, what do you intend to do now?”

“I am going to work so hard that my spirit will be completely broken, and I am going to be a very fine dancer,” she answered, trying to look as if she saw visions. “I have a magnificent contract in a magnificent casino on the Cote d’Azur, and I am now on my way to work and make money magnificently.”

Thinking that those were excellent defense plans that would never be carried out because of lack of attack, I made no comment. Neither could I think of anything appropriate to say later when somebody told me critically that just in the middle of a big success, when Lou was making an unprecedented hit, she ran off to China with a tall blond Englishman. Now, I believe, they have a beautiful baby almost big enough to eat carrot soup from a spoon.

Published in College Humor magazine (April 1930), published as by F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.

Illustrations by Chris Marie Meeker.