Great Scott?

Scott Fitzgerald: A Biography

by Jeffrey Meyers
HarperCollins, 400 pp., $27.50

F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters

edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli
Scribners, 503 pp., $30.00

It’s a testament to the power of images over words that an aura of glamour continues to embellish the life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The black and white photographs of that handsome and dandyish young couple, Scott and Zelda, seem if anything to grow more beguiling over the years, as time overlays a tender quaintness upon all of their dramatically posed renderings of the bold and the chic. When documented in print, however, at least in Jeffrey Meyers’s new Scott Fitzgerald, their lives are something else again. By and large, the intervals when they were together and the later, lengthy separations brought on by Zelda’s madness and institutionalization alike appear squandered and dreary—when they were not altogether nightmarish. Jointly and singly, they lived with alcoholism, paranoia, sexual dysfunction, attacks of scarring eczema, colitis, bankruptcy, jail, brawls, drug abuse, premature aging, malaria, repeated suicide attempts, near-fatal accidents, religious mania…

It’s no wonder if, seeking some respite from Meyers’s tally of woes, the reader chooses to linger yet again over the photographs. Scott’s military career, as Meyers reminds us, was a comical shambles—culminating in his nearly disastrous order, when directing a mortar company, to fire upon friendly troops—but there’s no gainsaying that he glows commandingly in his Brooks Brothers army uniform. Under the ravages of her illness, Zelda’s beauty may have vanished early, as Meyers recounts, but she still looks irresistible—a studied blend of the vulnerable and the audacious—as a young woman engulfed in an immense fur coat. The glamour they wished for themselves endures, as seems only just—so few of their wishes, even of the most moderate sort, being fulfilled in the end.

Meyers succeeds better at chronicling the slow, downspiraling trend of Scott’s life than at capturing, on the wing, those dartings of charm or brilliance which, as much in the prose as in the life, made him so charismatic. As biographers of much-profiled subjects are apparently compelled to do, Meyers offers an introduction explaining why the portrait he has compiled is more balanced and complete than any predecessor. In truth, although I can’t claim to have exhausted that ever-mushrooming micro-genre, Fitzgeraldiana, most of what he presents has an already-heard quality—a familiarity perhaps bred from my having previously encountered so many of these events and assessments in Fitzgerald’s fiction, which was often nakedly autobiographical. It’s one of the ironies of Fitzgerald’s posthumous fate that a writer who worked to make biographers extraneous would attract so many of them.

If Meyers advances little that is revelatory (a shortcoming tacitly acknowledged in the self-trumpeting with which he announces that he, unlike previous biographers, has successfully tracked down some remote ancestors of an Englishwoman with whom, two thirds of a century before, Fitzgerald had had a brief boozy affair), he does create, in a prose commendably free of both equivocation and jargon, an appealingly pitiful portrait. By the close of the volume, during Fitzgerald’s third, final, most pathetic stint in Hollywood, when—desperately broke—he was openly seeking to debase his talents and finding…

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