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Caesar’s Things

Zelda

by Nancy Milford
Harper & Row, 383 pp., $10.00

Zelda Fitzgerald’s sad, wasted life seemed to have been buried beneath the ground, covered over by the desperate violets of Scott Fitzgerald’s memories. It had gone by, we thought, interred in the mournful, expensive defeat of Fitzgerald’s last years. “I left my capacity for hoping on the little roads that led to Zelda’s sanitariums,” he wrote. And why dig it up again? For it is a more than twice-told tale, capped by Ernest Hemingway’s contemptuous epitaph in A Moveable Feast. There had always been about Zelda’s collapse, even her death at last in a fire at a nursing home in North Carolina—“her body was identified by a charred slipper lying beneath it”—something of a reckoning, the price to be paid for recklessness beyond endurance, for drink and arrogance and carelessness with one’s own life and that of those nearest. Or, perhaps, the reckoning, which was breakdown, insanity, was merely mysteriously there, compelling the earlier transgressions and excesses.

As persons, the Fitzgeralds were not, in my view, especially appealing. Their story has a sort of corruption clinging to it, the quality of a decadent fairy tale, some overgrown lushness and deformation. They seem, most of all, like incestuous brother and sister, brilliant, perverse, selfish, their handsome, self-loving faces melting into a mask. Sometimes they make one feel it is almost a deprivation to live without the correcting education of those common marital oppositions of temperament and taste.

In this couple defects were multiplied, as if by a dangerous doubling; weakness fed upon itself without a counter-strength and they were trapped; defaults, mutually committed, left holes everywhere in their lives. When you read their letters to each other it is often necessary to consult the signature in order to be sure which one has done the writing. Their tone about themselves, their mood is the fatal one of nostalgia—a passive, consuming, repetitive poetry. Sometimes one feels even its most felicitous and melodious moments are fixed, rigid in expression, and that their feelings have gradually merged with their manner, fallen under the domination of style. Even in their suffering, so deep and beyond relief, their tonal memory controls the words, shaping them into the Fitzgerald tune, always so regretful, regressive, and touched with a doleful beauty.

In nostalgia there is the pressure of ennui and even the Fitzgerald youth, extraordinary, successful, special, so often seemed threatened by this backward-looking boredom and emptiness. This, along with evil circumstances and crippling vices, made the very existence of Fitzgerald’s brilliant novels and stories a miracle. It was only at the end of his life, when he was composing the fascinating novel, The Last Tycoon, when he was tired and despondent but somehow, if only by time and fatigue and distance, free from the self-pity of his unproductive years, that he could subdue the half of himself that was Zelda. The mood of this novel, not necessarily more interesting than the others by any means, was at least new and one felt a severing had been accomplished, an amputation, feared and longed for…. But, as in a fairy tale, it was too late.

What then is the purpose of a new book about Zelda Fitzgerald, of a return to this thoroughly scrutinized marriage? Mrs. Milford is not very forthcoming as an analyst, nor is she a particularly interesting writer on her own. However, she has, by concentration upon her subject, and even perhaps by inadvertence, brought troubling thoughts to our minds, shifted the balance of things, and made it possible for the reader to see in this unhappy woman—a fleeting paragon of the 1920s—an instance of unexpected moral complexity, an example of peculiar failure and the object of a kind of unnamable injustice—domestic, social, cultural?—and the victim of many miseries that were not always unavoidable. Of course, with Zelda it is well-known that many faults lay in herself and in her stars, but new to discover a frantic will to overcome them, a strong talent and intelligence struggling to live—and most surprising of all, incredible energy and longing for discipline. She appeared to experience the desperate creative urge that some have without even having an art. None of it was fully understood or valued by those around her, those in charge of her fate.

First, the vicious portrait of Zelda in Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. In these interesting chapters both of the Fitzgeralds are hit, like baby seals, by the hunter’s club. Hemingway is smug and patronizing to Fitzgerald and urges upon us forgiveness by laying Fitzgerald’s weaknesses and pains at the feet of his wife. Hemingway sees Zelda as a “hawk.” She found him “bogus.” In a memoir one would seem to be obliged to belief, to accept in the larger outlines anecdotes recorded about distinguished contemporaries. Yet sometimes we cannot summon belief since only the storyteller seems to be in his own skin. This is the case, in my view, with the demeaning anecdote in which Hemingway claims that Fitzgerald, humiliated, longing for reassurance, asked him to consider whether his “measurements”—Hemingway’s title for this little memory is “A Matter of Measurements”—were adequate, since, he said, with great embarrassment and uncertainty, Zelda had told him he was not properly constructed to satisfy a woman. Hemingway took the poor questioner into the toilet, had an assessing look, gave a lordly verdict that all was as it should be, if looked at in profile as one gazes at statues in the Louvre, and that what was wrong was Zelda, trying to put him “out of business.”

It is very difficult for the mind to transport poor Fitzgerald, unzipped, to the WC—“le water,” Hemingway calls it—but not at all hard to imagine Hemingway falling into his role of sexual surveyor, measuring and judging. Another reason for some skepticism about the details of the memoir is the fascinating passage about Zelda at the end.

Zelda was very beautiful and was tanned…. Her hawk’s eyes were clear and calm…she leaned forward and said to me, telling me her great secret, “Ernest, don’t you think Al Jolson is greater than Jesus?”

In Mrs. Milford’s book this memorable high-camp remark is spoken to Gerald Murphy: “Gerald, don’t you think Al Jolson is just like Christ?”

Before her first breakdown, Zelda provoked extreme distaste and disdain among her friends and in the mind of her husband by taking up, after casual lessons in her youth, the determination to become a ballet dancer. This is a matter of great interest, because as it emerges in Mrs. Milford’s ordering of Zelda’s letters and statements and hopes, this new activity becomes more or less a model of the way in which her ambitions were forever to be viewed. Her desire in ballet study was profoundly intense and strained; it meant, as her letters show, many different things to her—release (“sudden fame” it was ungraciously called) and escape from alcohol, idleness, emptiness, and dependency. She wanted to have something of her own, she said over and over again. The enormous discipline required to study the ballet was not a deterrent, but rather something that appealed to her. The story has been told many times, as an example of insanity, of Zelda jumping out of a taxi in the middle of the street in Paris, for fear of being late for her lessons.

The ballet obsession came after a particularly bad time of quarreling and drinking. Fitzgerald’s attraction to the young actress, Lois Moran, and his taunt that “at least the girl did something with herself,” are thought to have played a part. Zelda began lessons with Catherine Littlefield in 1927 in Philadelphia, but the work became much more important to her a year or so later in Paris when she was studying with Madame Egorova. She went about her ferocious study with “grotesque intensity,” and a driven, outrageous energy. Her husband was not relieved and freed for his work, as one might have imagined, but vexed and angered by her concentration and likely to see it as a vengeance against himself.

What Zelda admired, loved even, in Madame Egorova was “her poverty and dedication.” The intensity, the practice, the determination became so extreme she was put in a hospital in Paris, where her great thoughts were grief for the loss of “her work,” for the example of Madame Egorova who had, she said, “given her the greatest possible joy.” Later on, her psychiatrists at the hospital were enlisted in the battle to destroy her concentration and passion. The reasons were always curious ones, no matter what she tried. It was felt that since she couldn’t be “great” as a dancer, a painter, a writer it was damaging to try, necessary to control her pleasure in these activities. About the dancing and the doctors’ opposition to it she said: “The light in which the thing presented itself to me was: I had got to the end of my physical resources…. If I couldn’t be great, it wasn’t worth going on with though I loved my work to the point of obsession…. It was all I had in the world at the time.”

With a deep feeling of having been wronged, Fitzgerald wrote, “After having worked all day at home, I would want to go out at night…my wife, on the contrary, having been gone all day, wanted only to stay home and go to bed.” One of the natural results of the long hours of ballet practice was the near ending of Zelda’s need for alcohol. This gratuity was not greatly considered by anyone, apparently, nor was the sheer advantage of the discipline itself, the joy she took in it, the glaring clarity of the good it might do in providing her not fame as a great dancer, but a milieu in which to live and to find work and satisfactions of some related kind. Instead,

Dr. Florel was absolutely certain that the way to Zelda’s recovery did not lie in further dancing, and he too thought Scott should write to Egorova. But he suggested that Fitzgerald make clear to her their preference that in her answer she discourage Zelda, even if it was a gross deception.

(This was merely the first solicitation by husband and friends of a professional discouragement, sought for the victim’s own good.)

They got their answer from Madame Egorova. It was far more positive than either of the men had wanted, but certainly less than Zelda would naturally have hoped for. It said what any observant, caring person could have seen for himself: she had started too late to become a first-class performer, but she had become by the sheer magnitude of perseverance and effort a good dancer and might have found professional work.

Zelda was diagnosed abroad by a Dr. Bleuler as a schizophrenic. She herself thought Dr. Bleuler “a great imbecile,” but we have little reason to imagine other physicians would have been more moderate or hopeful in their predictions. Her mental confusion was sometimes alarming, she suffered, on occasion, disorientation, hallucinations, great fears and depressions, even to the point of a number of suicide attempts. But these low periods could not have been other than transitory because her letters throughout her illness are much too lucid, controlled, alive with feeling and painful awareness. She showed eccentricities, shifts of mood, odd smiles, nightmares, withdrawals, obsessive behavior—at times. At the same time, and much more to the point, is the lucidity, the almost unbearable suffering over her condition and her full recognition of it—and the most important and moving thing, an extraordinary zeal and strenuous effort to get well, be real, to function—above all to work at something. The latter desperate need is an astonishing desire and hope for one who had been a great beauty, who was the wife of a famous man, and who had lived a life of spectacular indulgence, along with feminine expectations of protection and love.

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