F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are the subjects of this weeks KWYG. Move over Bey, these two gave a whole new meaning to “Drunk in Love.”
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
What a sentence. These are the final words of The Great Gatsby. They encapsulate an essential truth: no matter how hard we try, the past is always with us in some form or other.
The novel captures the heart of the American dream – with hard work, you can become anything – but in Gatsby’s case, his wealth and successes are based on elaborate lies.
It’s dream versus reality, and in a way, this was the great dichotomy in the shared life of F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) and his wife Zelda (1900-1948). Scott’s dream was to be a successful and prosperous author and while he achieved some renown and some wealth, his life didn’t pan out as he’d imagined.
He went to Princeton University, but left without graduating and in 1917, joined the army. It was while he was stationed in Alabama that he met the beautiful, free-spirited southern belle, Zelda Sayre. She refused to marry him until she could be sure he was able to support her.
Fortunately, Scott had an acute talent for writing and his first novel, This Side of Paradise (1920), became an instant bestseller. Scott was a celebrity – and rolling in money – so he and Zelda married.
The glamorous couple came to personify the excesses of the “Jazz Age.” Zelda is often called “The First American Flapper.” They partied, they drank, they had a blast and they drank some more. It was a time of extravagance, of fun before seriousness. Clifton Spargo says that their names “were synonymous with the adventures and follies of an entire generation.”
Such a life wasn’t to last. After a few halcyon years, Zelda perhaps grew a little envious of her husband’s growing fame and Scott drank his way to alcoholism.
After The Beautiful and the Damned (1922), the Fitzgeralds moved to France for a time, and it was here that Scott wrote his masterwork The Great Gatsby (1924). Although it received critical acclaim, it wasn’t a good seller and it was after Gatsby that their marriage really began to fall apart. Scott always drank to excess and Zelda was exhibiting signs of mental illness.
Zelda had an affair of sorts in France and while Scott was working in Hollywood in the mid-1920s, he had an affair with an actress. Zelda took it badly and had a breakdown. She continued to worsen over the years and was essentially in and out of hospitals and sanitaria for the rest of her life. Scott had to churn out more short stories to pay for her treatment. Among the more well-known of his 178 stories are The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.
The bitterness between them grew too. Zelda had always provided plenty of material for Scott’s work. The character of Rosalind Connage in This Side of Paradise was based on Zelda. The Beautiful and the Damned (1922) is widely regarded as being solidly based in the Fitzgeralds’ own marriage. Even the cover of the first edition shows a couple bearing a remarkable resemblance to Scott and Zelda.
In 1921, their only child Scottie was born. Zelda famously said of her infant daughter, “I hope she’s beautiful and a fool – a beautiful little fool.” Famous, because Scott put a version of those words into the mouth of Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby. The long painful breakdown of their marriage pervades the plot of Tender is the Night (1934).
In the beginning, Zelda seems not to have minded that Scott directly used her words and deeds in his novels, but when she was asked to write a review of The Beautiful and the Damned for the New York Tribune, she outed Scott as a plagiarist of her writing. Clearly, she was becoming resentful.
Zelda herself was a creative soul who couldn’t quite find her voice. Perhaps if she’d had a meaningful creative outlet, her health wouldn’t have been so precarious and the whole downward spiral might not have occurred. Ah, speculation!
She painted, took intensive ballet lessons hoping to become a professional dancer and also wrote stories, articles and one semi-autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz (1932). Zelda sent the manuscript to Scott’s editor, Max Perkins, but Scott also wished to use some of the same material in Tender is the Night, and he forced her to revise much of her manuscript.
Her book wasn’t well-received and, completely disheartened, Zelda never wrote another novel. It’s a shame because she had a way with words:
Being in love, she concluded, is simply the presentation of our pasts to another individual, mostly packages so unwieldy that we can no longer manage the loosened strings alone. Looking for love is like asking for a new point of departure, she thought, another chance in life.
Zelda has often been painted as the woman who brought down the genius of Scott Fitzgerald, but it’s not that simple. The realities of life got in the way. The long hours he spent writing left his wife feeling isolated, and this, coupled with her mental illness, exacerbated things. In addition, Scott’s heavy drinking made the time they spent together very disagreeable. Scott also had affairs, including a long relationship with journalist Sheilah Graham in the 1930s.
His 1934 novel Tender is the Night wasn’t well received by the critics and Scott sought further refuge in the bottle. He did essentially nothing for a few years, battling the twin demons of depression and alcoholism. Not to mention debt. The Fitzgeralds were short of money and cadged loans from Perkins and sympathetic friends. Money was tight because the novels weren’t financial successes and Zelda’s treatment was expensive.
In 1937, Scott went to Hollywood to work as a screenwriter and things seemed to be looking up. In 1939, he began writing what we now know as The Last Tycoon, but before he could complete it, he died of a heart attack in 1940, aged 44. Zelda had basically lived in an institution since the late 1930s and she was killed when a fire broke out there in 1948.
What a flawed tragic couple.
In the beginning they typified the excesses of the Jazz Age; their lifestyle was reflected in Scott’s books, especially where they examined the privileged lives of wannabe socialites. They lived it up, but such a dream was never going to be sustainable. Their coupledom was possibly doomed from the start.
After his death, Scott’s reputation as a great novelist – one of the finest in American literature – grew. The Great Gatsby is arguably one of the best novels of the twentieth century. It’s a deeply sad thing that Scott never saw the lasting impact of his writing. Gatsby is not only a rich evocation of 1920s prodigality, it’s a peerless work of art.
All of Fitzgerald’s prose is a joy to read. Consider this quotation from This Side of Paradise:
“Beauty and love pass, I know … Oh, there’s sadness, too. I suppose all great happiness is a little sad. Beauty means the scent of roses and then the death of roses.”
It could be a eulogy on the sadly imperfect marriage of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.