There isn’t a whole heap left to say about Zelda Fitzgerald. Common consensus states she was a drunk, a Southern Belle, a madwoman, one half of the 20’s most garrulous couple, the definitive Flapper, and a writer, painter, and dancer frustrated at every turn by some wider desire for conformity and the professional jealousy of her husband, Scott.
Numerous biographies back this up, attributing to Scott her rise and fall, her ascent into the literati and her descent into alcoholism and madness. Like a one-man chauvinist show, he paraded his wife as his glamorous assistant before boxing her up and sawing her into tiny pieces. He drunkenly abused her, ridiculed and plagiarised her work, and imprisoned her in a series of mental institutions.
All of which begs the question: why did she stay with him?
Scott courted her with letters and extravagant declarations of adoration. Zelda’s replies, though often equally gushing, reveal a degree of pragmatism one would have thought preceded a fairly rational assessment of Scott’s intentions as regards the treatment of his future wife. Though intended to charm Zelda, his disappointingly unoriginal pronouncement, “I used to wonder why they kept princesses in towers” speaks more of acquisition than love. Her reply, “Scott, you’ve been so sweet about writing, but I get so damned tired of being told that – you’ve written that verbatim, in your last six letters!” is reflective more of a woman all too aware of the fate of fairytale princesses destined for towers than one blindly in love. It’s a small – though hardly subtle – step from a princess fêted for her beauty and talent to the towers of a more gothic scenario. There was only so far the accoutrements of romance could take them before the champagne went flat, the roses wilted, and the old staple, Prince Charming, turned jailor and tormentor.
Aside from the occasional pastiche, the literary appeal of the gothic had all but faded from view by the 20’s, but I’m too tempted by the parallels between the Fitzgeralds and the genre to suggest it had faded from personal experience. Scott appeared to slip too easily into the role of jailor – if, indeed, he ever played any other part – holding Zelda captive in the institutions of psychiatry and marriage.
In 1932 she wrote her autobiographical novel, Save Me the Waltz, drawing on the material with which Scott was struggling for Tender is the Night. Both books detailed the decline and disintegration of the Jazz Age and of their marriage, but while Scott’s entered the canon of 20’s writing, he demanded Zelda’s be subjected to cuts and published only under his supervision. In a journal entry outlining his divorce strategy if Zelda continued to write, Scott noted: “Attack on all grounds. Play (suppress), novel (delay), pictures (suppress), character (showers), child (detach), schedule (disorient to cause trouble), no typing. Probable result – new breakdown.” It didn’t stop her writing, but faced with the prospect of estrangement from her child (daughter, Scottie, was born in 1921) and the suppression of her work, Zelda capitulated and an abridged version of her novel was published.
It’s possible the analogy of the gothic extended to the way in which they talked-up and used their infidelities as a means with which to taunt each other, suggesting they were meted out as a means of pleasurable punishment. The infidelities, her homosexual crushes (it’s questionable how appropriate “crush” is as a label – it may have been merely a convenient inclusion on a psychiatric admission form), and his fear of or fascination with homosexuality tended to precipitate the numerous crises within the marriage.
Although Save Me the Waltz, even in its tempered form, is considered Zelda’s testimony of her marriage and creative ventures, it is the short stories of Bits of Paradise that offer a more interesting and frank disclosure of her life. Though written by Zelda, they are attributed to F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald – occasionally only to F. Scott Fitzgerald, prompting Zelda’s remark, “Mr Fitzgerald – I believe that is how he spells his name – seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home”. By attributing them to both himself and Zelda, Scott presumably endorsed their content and could argue that the perceptions they detailed were at least in part his own. In a curious way this may have given Zelda greater freedom to divulge views and information missing from her novel, not least because recourse to the excuse that they were merely fictional characters remained.
It’s not exactly a robust excuse. Her characters buy underwear in which to find themselves dead, attempt suicide rather than be jilted by lovers, and find themselves disappearing into solitude, drudgery, and begrudging domesticity in place of the careers of which they dreamt.
The possibility that the awe expressed by the heroine of The Girl the Prince Liked is a reflection of that felt by Zelda at least in her initial dealings with Scott is too persuasive to resist. “There is something infinitely disturbing in the phosphorescent rosiness that surrounds the successful and the great, a mystic magnetism that promises the same freedom from doubt and trouble that is part of themselves to all who surround them.”
I could retrace my steps at this point and qualify Scott’s actions with the assertion that Zelda was no saint. She was accused by Hemingway of draining Scott emotionally and economically, and of undermining his artistic and sexual self-confidence. The declaration by Ring Lardner that, “Mr Fitzgerald is a novelist and Mrs Fitzgerald is a novelty”, suggests there was something of the hanger-on about Zelda. If so, then it was a tendency about which she wrote in a letter to Scott, describing herself as “that little fish who swims about under a shark and, I believe, lives indelicately on its offal”. It brings to mind Dorothy Parker’s take on the Flappers with which Zelda was allied: “Her golden rule is plain enough – Just get them young and treat them tough”. Perhaps that was how Zelda saw Scott. If she did then his regard for her was no more charitable.
There is also the line most commonly taken by biographers of the couple and the period that both parties were victims of societal expectation and psychological practice that sought to punish and suppress creative women. Aside from the fact that it sounds a rather trite argument, it seems highly unlikely that either would allow such apparently proscriptive doctrine to become so entrenched as to govern the dynamics of their relationship. “Women sometimes seem to share a quiet, unalterable dogma of persecution that endows even the most sophisticated of them with the inarticulate poignancy of the peasant” are, at the very least, the words of a woman sufficiently aware of the short-comings of those around her and not someone intending to follow the pattern.
Nancy Milford’s 1970 biography of Zelda may have delivered a more frank and personal account, but the manuscript so upset Scottie that she threatened suicide unless it was substantially cut. This does, however, dangle the possibility of a sequel.