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.
At her most ill an insight that was almost tragic persisted. She understood that something was wrong and that somehow she must pull out from under, by some strenuous effort of her own spirit. “I seem awfully queer to myself, but I know I used to have integrity even if it’s gone now…. You’ve got to come and tell me how I was. Now I see odd things, people’s arms too long or their faces as if they were stuffed and they look tiny and far away, or suddenly out of proportion.” Almost worse than the mental suffering was a raging eczema that spread over her whole body, making it impossible to sleep. At times she was swathed in bandages from head to toe. These eruptions often followed a visit from her husband and even periods of general improvement in her condition seemed, from the record, to coincide with his absence from her.
When they were still in France, Zelda was released from the hospital after a year and three months of treatment. Her case was summarized as “reaction to her feelings of inferiority (primarily toward her husband)….” She was stated to have had ambitions which were “self-deceptions” and which “caused difficulties between the couple.” Fitzgerald, weary of his own guilt, was relieved to learn of a history of mental troubles on both sides of Zelda’s family. When her brother committed suicide he said, “You see—it’s not my fault—it’s inherited.”
His own drinking made him uncertain of his moral rightness. Zelda begged him to stop, but he resisted suggestions about this from such men as Dr. Adolph Meyer in Baltimore. He would fall back upon the complaint that Zelda was living on him, in every spiritual and material way. She was
…under a greenhouse which is my money and my name and my love…. She is willing to use the greenhouse to protect her in every way, to nourish every sprout of talent and to exhibit it—and at the same time she feels no responsibility about the greenhouse and feels she can reach up and knock a piece of glass out of the roof any moment, yet she is shrewd enough to cringe when I open the door of the greenhouse and tell her to behave or go.
In Zelda’s fight against insanity and dependency she turned, as many disturbed people turn, the educated ones at least, to the hope of release through the practice of art. This hope rests upon the canny observation, clear even to the deranged and sequestered, that artists do not require the confidence of society to the same degree as other workers. And Zelda had lived since her teens with self-indulgent, damaged, and successful artists. There was a strangeness, not altogether promising for her, in the number of things she could do well. After her interrupted work in the ballet she turned often to painting, even though her eyes were not very good. In 1934 thirteen paintings and fifteen drawings were exhibited in Cary Ross’s studio and there had been an earlier showing in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel. Perhaps this exhibition was a curiosity more than anything else. An article about it in The New York Times shows again her enduring, passionate wish for self-reliance and personal freedom from dependency on others.
From the sanatorium last week which she temporarily left against doctors’ orders to see a show of Georgia O’Keefe’s art, Zelda Fitzgerald was hoping her pictures would gratify her great ambition—to earn her own living.
The very center of this study of Zelda Fitzgerald has to do, in a peripheral but interesting way, with literature, with her relation to her husband’s work and to her own writings. Unfortunately for her, the most pronounced of her gifts was indeed for writing. And here again she has the precious gift of fantastic energy—not energy of a frantic, chaotic, sick sort, but that of steady application, formed and sustained by a belief in the worth of work and the value of each solitary self. She does not seem to have received any special dividends from motherhood, and domestic life scarcely engaged her interest for a moment. Early in her marriage, a friend, Alec McKaig, wrote in his diary:
Went to Fitzgeralds. Usual problem there. What shall Zelda do? I think she might do a little more housework—apartment looks like a pig sty.
Andrew Turnbull reports: “Once Fitzgerald told my mother that there was nothing to eat in the house except five hams.”
Zelda’s greatest gift to Fitzgerald as a writer was her own startling and reckless personality and his almost paralyzing love of it. From McKaig’s diary: “Fitz made another true remark about himself…cannot depict how anyone thinks except himself and Zelda,” and “Fitz confessed this evening at dinner that Zelda’s ideas entirely responsible for ‘Jelly Bean’ & ‘Ice Palace.’ Her ideas largely in this new novel [The Beautiful and Damned]….” Portions of her diary and her letters had been used in This Side of Paradise.
When Edmund Wilson was listing the influences on Fitzgerald’s work (Midwest, Irishness, and liquor), the author said:
…your catalogue is not complete…the most enormous influence on me in the four and a half years since I met her has been the complete, fine and full-hearted selfishness and chill-mindedness of Zelda.
John Peale Bishop’s review of The Beautiful and Damned felt that the fictional heroine did not come up to Zelda as she was in life. Fitzgerald had not, he said, been able to get “the hard intelligence, that intricate emotional equipment of her prototype.”
Articles and stories written by Zelda alone or by both of them were sometimes signed by Fitzgerald for commercial reasons. In 1924 Zelda had written pieces for McCall’s and “during the remainder of 1927 she worked energetically on four articles, three of which were published the following year. The first, ‘The Changing Beauty of Park Avenue,’ was signed by both of them, even though in his Ledger Fitzgerald gave Zelda credit for the article….” In 1928 she began writing short stories. “Each story was written in an astonishing but hazardous burst of energy…. Five of these stories were to be published by College Humor…. Nevertheless, without exception the stories were published under both Fitzgerald’s names.” At this time began Fitzgerald’s preoccupation with “material,” his odd conception that there was such a thing for fiction, independent of its embodiment in style, character, and plot. He thought these stories of Zelda’s had “been pretty strong draughts on Zelda’s and my common store of material.” He worried about certain characters in the stories, “both of whom I had in my notebook to use.”
They had created themselves together, and they always saw themselves, their youth, their love, their lost youth and lost love, their failures and memories, as a sort of living fiction. It does not seem of much importance that the diaries and letters were appropriated, the stories wrongly attributed for an extra $500. Zelda herself did not seem greatly concerned about any of this. She wrote a mock review of The Beautiful and Damned in the New York Tribune and said, “I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine…and also scraps of letters…. Mr. Fitzgerald…seems to believe plagiarism begins at home.”
The real reason for Fitzgerald’s worry about “material” perhaps had to do with the narrow nature of their lives and interests. They had beauty and celebrity and they went everywhere and yet they were outside history for the most part, seldom making any mention of anything beyond their own feelings. Life, then, even at its best was an airless cell, and personal existence, the knots and tangles, the store of anecdote really counted in the long run. If there is any culpability on Fitzgerald’s part it may lie in his use of Zelda’s torment to create the destructive, mad heiress, Nicole, in Tender Is the Night.
Then, in the midst of insanity and incarceration, an astonishing thing happened. Zelda quite suddenly produced a finished novel, Save Me the Waltz. The drama around this achievement is disheartening and discreditable to everyone except Zelda. She did not consult her husband, but sent it off to Max Perkins at Scribner’s—and the horror of the ballet lessons began all over again. “On March 14th Scott wrote Dr. Squires in a fury. He had just received Zelda’s manuscript….” For four years, he went on in self-pity, he had been forced to work only intermittently on his own novel, “unable to proceed because of the necessity of keeping Zelda in sanitariums….”
There was an outcry about “my material,” and Zelda revised or deleted the offending passages. Again, one of those heartless letters went out, asking that Zelda be discouraged from hope. “Then he asked Perkins to keep whatever praise he wished to give Zelda ‘on the staid side’ ” and went on to say—not quite truthfully so far as the record shows—that the doctors at Phipps did not want Zelda to be made to feel too jubilant about “fame and money.” It was decided that she was too unstable for superlatives.
Save Me the Waltz is a novel of usual length, quite well-written, drawing on Zelda’s own life, and is thus a mixture of sharply observed Southern scenes and a contrasting worldliness. It is an entirely creditable effort, one that any new writer might be proud of and that any publisher would be sensible to offer, even though it was not a success when it did appear. That it was composed, hurriedly, by a “hopeless schizophrenic” is scarcely to be believed if one looks at it today.
Institutions, asthma, eczema, guilt, loneliness: none of this had subdued Zelda’s supernatural energy. She had always been able to call upon it, whether for swimming, dancing, or writing. Her routine at the hospital in North Carolina was a Spartan one of hiking, calisthenics, abstemious diet, and promotion of modesty and nunlike submission by the absence of mirrors and cosmetics. Zelda stayed in this odd place, endured it all, for years, always being reminded of her “limitations” and “permanent damage.” She died there and left in addition to her “legend” another memorial to her unkillable energy—an unfinished novel she intended to call Caesar’s Things.
What are we to make of all this? Her letters from the hospital are clear and courageous and searing to read. Fitzgerald’s assumption of responsibility was woefully burdensome to him—and to his wife—but we feel, thinking of them together, that the burden and his bearing of it were at the very center of his moral being. He is never free of the need to examine it once more, never quite able to leave off weighing the cost to his best self, and for that matter his weakest self. He is unimaginable to us without his weight of money to be made for others, memories to be faced in the middle of the night, the teasings of regret and the pleasures of loss.
Still, in taking the responsibility, however grumblingly and at whatever sacrifice, he was, unlike Zelda, able to find in it an action, a self-definition. A burden accepted is both a hump on your back and a star in your crown. To have disappeared, quit, even to have diminished his immense involvement would have left Fitzgerald with an unendurable emptiness and a feeling of masculine failure. For he not only worked in Hollywood and wrote for The Saturday Evening Post to support his wife and daughter, but he kept, week after week, month after month, this relentlessly punishing involvement of letters, arrangements, advice, complaints, nostalgia, new hope, new despair. (Hemingway, for instance, seems to have put aside his wives like last year’s tweed jacket. He is not even able to say why he left the beautiful Hadley and his charming son, Bumby. He speaks only, in that careless way he and the Fitzgerald generation share, of “new people” and in some way the never explained temptations to forgetfulness provided by “the rich.”)
The picture of Zelda we get from her letters is a disturbing one. The marriage was a misfortune, for they were prodigal partners, like a business marked for bankruptcy because of the ghostly, unbalancing similarities of their natures. Each needed just what the other lacked. Zelda was, for all her beauty and daring, hiding a deep sense of personal ambition, a feeling that there was something unique and possible inside her if only she could get at it, use it. Her energy and discipline never came to much, her brilliance could not flower. Her efforts to live, be reborn, to be free, were at war with her nature and the twisted love that burned out these two lives. Zelda’s talents were in no way comparable to Fitzgerald’s, but what difference does that make? Her development only seemed to others as a threat and her wish to be well was thought a further illness.
She reminds me of De Quincey’s brilliant portrait of Dorothy Words-worth, that soul, wild and deranged, submerged in a greater soul, her brother. She too lived almost as a twin and went mad.
…wild and startling…and some subtle fire of impassioned intellect apparently burned within her, which being alternately pushed forward into conspicuous expression, and then immediately checked…gave to her whole demeanour, and to her conversation, an air of embarrassment, and even of self-conflict that was almost distressing to witness.
De Quincey speaks of Dorothy’s lack of the usual feminine accomplishments and, pondering her gradual sinking into insanity, weighs the “narrow basis” of her education and literary interests. In his view a life lived at second-hand scars an original spirit and he believed it would have been far better and healthier for Dorothy to have become a writer in earnest, taken up with the “pleasant cares and solicitudes of one who has some little ventures, as it were, on that vast ocean….”
This new book about Zelda Fitzgerald has in it what one might speak of as considerable “woman interest.” A few years back the interest lay in the tragic grandeur and glamor of her love story. Now I should think it rests entirely in the heroism of her efforts and the bitterness of her defeats. She was flawed and rich with liability, but we suddenly find ourselves discontent and more than a little resentful that this strange, valuable girl from Montgomery, Alabama, had to endure unnecessary rebuffs and discouragement—in a life where so much suffering was foreordained and beyond repair.
In the end we feel about Zelda Fitzgerald just what De Quincey felt for Dorothy Wordsworth: “respectful pity.”
September 24, 1970