My latest read has been Zelda, the biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, written by Nancy Milford.
Allison recommended it to me. Well, that is an understatement. Basically, Allison said to me, “Until you read this book, we don’t have anything to talk about.” So I picked it up – and had to call Allison this morning to tell her how I could not put the damn thing DOWN.
I have so many thoughts about Zelda – so much to ponder – I am early on in the book. Fitzgerald is already famous, but has not written Gatsby yet. They just had a little girl, and they have just moved to Paris. Basically to escape the financial wreck they had made of their lives in New York.
There is, as of yet, no real intimations of Zelda’s madness – although she was certainly a wild woman, and completely devoted to the cultivation of her own personality. She invented the personality cult! So I suppose in her intense narcissism there are some warning signs of how she would end up. Which already makes me very sad. That vibrant life – that child of the jazz age – a woman of uncommon gifts, with nowhere to focus them – The only place she could focus all of her talent was on the “spectacle” of her own life, which she consciously created.
All of this is endlessly fascinating.
I like the book because it is not too Freudian, like so many biographies are. It does not attempt to “explain” Zelda, which I find a highly condescending way to treat a human personality, it does not attempt to find root causes –
Milford describes events – Milford, whenever she can, lets the Fitzgeralds speak for themselves – excerpting from their journals and letters. This is the best part of the book.
Yeah, F. Scott Fitzgerald can write – but you know what? So could Zelda. He would put her letters word for word into his own stories and novels, and would not let her pursue publishing her journals (people offered her money to publish them) – because then it would have been revealed that This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and the Damned (and others) owed enormous debts to the scribbling talent of his wife.
In the book, at this moment, this kind of sucking-the-muse-dry aspect of their relationship has not yet caused any problems. But you can feel the battle that is to come.
Here is an amazing letter Zelda wrote to Scott, during their whirlwind courtship. In it, she presciently describes exactly what their relationship would become, and who the two of them, as a couple, would come to respresent to all the “children of the jazz age”:
Scott – there’s nothing in all the world I want but you – and your precious love – All the material things are nothing. I’d just hate to live a sordid, colorless existence – because you’d soon love me less – and less – and I’d do anything – anything – to keep your heart for my own – I don’t want to live – I want to love first, and live incidentally – Why don’t you feel that I’m waiting – I’ll come to you, Lover, when you’re ready – Don’t – don’t ever think of the things you can’t give me – You’ve trusted me wiht the dearest heart of all – and it’s so damn much more than anybody else in all the world has ever had –
How can you think deliberately of life without me – If you should die – O Darling – darling Scot – It’d be like going blind. I know I would, too – I’d have no purpose in life – just a pretty – decoration. Don’t you think I was made for you? I feel like you had me ordered – and I was delivered to you – to be worn – I want you to wear me, like a watch-charm or a button hole bouquet – to the world. And then, when we’re alone, I want to help – to know that you can’t do anything without me.
Zelda also wrote him letters such as this one – which obviously pushed Scott over the edge, already jealous of her wild ways:
Scott, you’re really awfully silly – In the first place, I haven’t kissed anybody good-bye, and in the second place, nobody’s left in the first place – You know, darling, that I love you too much to want to. If I did have an honest – or dishonest – desire to kiss just one or two people, I might – but I couldn’t ever want to – my mouth is yours.
But s’pose I did – Don’t you know it’d be just absolutely nothing – Why can’t you understand that nothing means anything except your darling self and your love –
Not quite a letter to soothe the savage beast, eh?
I don’t know – there are times when I really can understand Zelda. I told Allison this morning that there are moments, reading letters such as that, that I feel as if Zelda is my most-secret ID self. She IS an Id. She lives to please herself. We all have that desire to be happy, to only please ourselves, within us. Or maybe I shouldn’t presume to speak for those of you out there who will deny this, and who will only admit to the highest core values of self-sacrifice and doing the right thing? Well, for me, a lowly sinner down here, I have an enormous desire to only please myself, to live only for me, to never give a damn about what anybody thinks, to never ever ever be cooped up, fenced in, pinned down – to never ever accept any obligations that will infringe upon my ability to do what I want to do and go where I want to go –
This is the raging Id. This, I believe, is also the side of me that is the artist, the dreamer.
I put a tight lid on this Id. I rarely let her out. I am afraid of her. I am afraid of the damage she would wrought.
But in reading Zelda’s words, I think: Woah. I know that girl. I know that desire. I just do not act upon those desires. She does.
And you know what? I know the end of the story. I know what happens to Zelda. I know her breakdown, her descent into madness, a descent from which she never recovered, and her horrible horrible end. It makes me shiver with the cruelty of it, the – awful-ness of it – That such a bright and hopeful spirit, that a woman with such potential – would die like that – (she died locked up in her room in a mental institution, when the institution caught on fire) … is tragic. Just … fucking tragic.
If she had been born at another time … who knows what she might have become?
Listen to this excerpt of her writing, describing a summer dusk in Montgomery Alabama, where she grew up:
There exists in Montgomery a time and quality that appertains to nowhere else. It began about half past six on an early summer night, with the flicker and sputter of the corner street lights going on, and it lasted until the great incandescent globes were black inside with moths and beetles and the children were called into bed from the dusty streets … The drug stores are bright at night with the organdie baalloons of girls’ dresses under the big electric fans. Automobiles stand along the curbs in front of open frame houses at dusk, and sounds of supper being prepared drift through the soft splotches of darkness to the young world that moves every evening out of doors. Telephones ring, and the lacy blackness under the trees disgorges young girls in white and pink, leaping over the squares of warm light toward the tinkling sound with an expectancy that people have only in places where any event is a pleasant one. Nothing seems ever to happen.
And here is an excerpt from a review Zelda wrote of Scott’s book The Beautiful and the Damned. Gloria, in that book, is based entirely on Zelda – on Scott’s understanding of her, as well as taking the words right out of Zelda’s mouth and putting them into the character. Kind of like what Joyce did with Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses.
To Scott, there was only one woman on the planet who could hold his interest – and that was Zelda.
To Joyce, Nora was the woman who taught him about women. After their first “date”, walking through Dublin, June 16, 1904 (the day he later chose to make the entirety of Ulysses take place on, in honor of Nora) – Joyce wrote, “She has made a man of me.”
Amazing. These symbiotic relationships – between artists and their partners – artists and their muses –
Anyway, here is Zelda’s insouciant review of her husband’s book:
It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters, which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald – I believe that is how he spells his name – seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.
And here, finally, is an excerpt from Zelda’s essay “Eulogy on the Flapper”. As the “original” flapper, the woman who invented the role, it’s great to see what she has to say about it – (and again, when I read this, I felt an odd jolt of recognition – I feel that way! I know what she is talking about! – and it’s not a part of me that I am overwhelmingly PROUD of – not a part of me that ever has been given free reign, except for a couple of months in the fall of 1993 – but damn, she is there, inside of me):
How can a girl say again, “I do not want to be respectable because respectable girls are not attractive,” and how can she again so wisely arrive at the knowledge that “boys do dance most with the girls they kiss most,” and that “men will marry the girls they could kiss before they had asked papa?” Perceiving these things, the Flapper awoke from her lethargy of sub-deb-ism, bobbed her hair, put on her choicest pair of earrings and a great deal of audacity and rouge and went into the battle. She flirted because it was fun to flirt and wore a one-piece bathing suit because she had a good figure, she covered her face with powder and paint because she didn’t need it and she refused to be bored chiefly because she wasn’t boring. She was conscious that the things she did were the things she had always wanted to do. Mothers disapproved of their sons taking the Flapper to dances, to teas, to swim and most of all to heart. She had mostly masculine friends, but youth does not need friends – it needs only crowds …
A couple years ago, I had an obsessive Fitzgerald phase. I had read Gatsby in high school, obviously, and not much else. I don’t think any of his other stuff can really compare, but still – the books, even the earliest stories, are filled with arrestingly good prose – sentences which one MUST stop and relish – He was something else.
And so was Zelda.