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This side of love
A new book examines the marriage of one of Princeton’s favorite literary sons, F. Scott Fitzgerald ’17

Was F. Scott Fitzgerald '17 a patriarchal villain — someone who hindered his wife Zelda's creative talents and turned her, through his drinking, into an emotional mess? Or was he a tender and supportive — albeit imperfect — husband who was married to a deeply troubled woman? A new book of correspondence between the two halves of this celebrity couple decisively makes the latter interpretation.

The editors of the new book — Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald (St. Martin's) — drew heavily upon a cache of yellowing documents donated by the Fitzgerald estate to Princeton University Library. Though the letters have been open to researchers for decades, they were largely overlooked by scholars because many are being published for the first time.

According to the book's coeditors — Jackson R. Bryer, a University of Maryland English professor, and University of Maryland adjunct professor Cathy W. Barks — the letters suggest that Scott and Zelda's marriage was a good deal more complex — and loving — than is widely believed. Theirs is a revisionist view that is likely to spark lively debate within corner of the literary world devoted to Fitzgeraldiana.

The new book "gets behind the myths by providing a first-hand view from the front, rather than second-hand, self-serving views made by academics," said Bryer, who serves as president of the Fitzgerald Society and who edited a 1971 volume of correspondence between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his editor, Maxwell Perkins. "We didn't come to the project with any preconceptions. Personally, I think we put a pretty light hand on the material."

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda includes 333 separate missives, most of them featuring explanatory footnotes, bracketed by several brief overviews by Bryer and Barks. The editors say they used "detective work" to provide a rough chronological order to the correspondence — a tricky task, since many of the letters were undated. The volume includes an introduction written by the Fitzgeralds' granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, who gave Bryer and Barks permission to print the unpublished letters.

Bryer argues that, unlike many works of literary scholarship, Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda offers as much to the layperson as the scholar. "This is a book for people who are interested in a complex relationship between two people," Bryer says. "To me, the book would have been equally interesting if the letters had been written by Sally and Sam Jones."

Still, the lives of Scott and Zelda retain celebrity cachet even a half-century after their deaths. Their drama-packed marriage alternated between exhilarating heights and despairing lows. During the Roaring Twenties, the Fitzgeralds were literary icons of the highest rank. But during the 1930s, Zelda succumbed to mental illness and Scott to alcoholism. Both died young — Scott at 44 in 1940, and Zelda at 48, eight years later.

When Bryer first read Zelda's letters to Scott, he was immediately impressed with her literary style. Her torrent of creative similes — "the sun was lying like a birth-day parcel on my table," "the moon slips into the mountains like a lost penny," among many others — might become oppressive in the context of a full-length novel, Bryer argues. But in the context of a letter, he contends, they're memorable and evocative.

Barks says she was equally impressed by Zelda's "beautiful declarations of love" as well as her skill at describing "the pain and suffering of illness, isolation, and loneliness." Her letters are "the words of a poet — dear, but also playful and fanciful."

The letters revealed such consistent affection — despite the couple's enormous obstacles — that Bryer and Barks consider the common academic indictment of Scott to be grossly unfair. Zelda's mental illness — diagnosed at the time as schizophrenia, but now thought likelier to be bipolar disorder — probably stemmed from genetics, not Scott's alcoholism. And in his letters, Scott regularly expressed interest in, and encouragement of, his wife's creative endeavors.

While Zelda's published articles often included Scott's name in the byline, Bryer and Barks believe that it was because his name assured publication and high payments — not because he was trying to horn in on her literary career. And while Scott — having struggled to write his novel Tender is the Night for almost a decade — did become angry with Zelda after she whipped up a similar novel, Save Me the Waltz, in the space of a few months, Bryer chalks up the fight to "a knee-jerk, and very human, reaction." In the book, the editors emphasize the oft-forgotten coda to that episode — namely, that the couple quickly reconciled and helped each other complete and publish their respective novels.

Barks finds the claim that Zelda was some sort of oppressed proto-feminist especially ironic. "She wasn’t a feminist — she was comfortable in a patriarchal world," she says. "She liked the world of men. When Scott was living in Hollywood [making a living writing movie scripts] and her father had just died, Zelda complained that without men around, she was losing her identity." Barks adds that, had she and Zelda lived at the same time, "I think I would have appreciated her at a distance. As a woman, I don't think she would have enjoyed my company."

Scott moved to Hollywood in the late 1930s, the editors say, partly to earn enough money to pay for Zelda's spells of institutionalization. Despite Scott's alcoholism — and his affair with a woman in Hollywood named Sheilah Graham — the editors write that the last years of Scott and Zelda's marriage "reveal the couple at their best." The affection between them was consistent and mutual, the editors say, and despite many obstacles, the couple worked well together to raise their daughter, Scottie.
The letters also demonstrate Scott's long-lasting attachment to Princeton University — an attachment not always requited by university officials, who sometimes regretted his portrayal of the campus as a country club in his early novel, This Side of Paradise.

Though Princeton doesn't come up during long stretches of their correspondence, Scott mentions the university's name increasingly during his final years in Hollywood, usually nostalgically. Many of these mentions have to do with Scott listening to Princeton play football on the radio. In his very last recorded letter — dated December 19, 1940, two days before his death — Scott urges Zelda to join with him in trying to convince Scottie not to leave Vassar, where she had enrolled as an undergraduate:

"I am very anxious for Scottie to finish this year at college at least, so please do not stress to her that it is done at any inconvenience," he writes. "The thing for which I am most grateful to my mother and father are my four years at Princeton, and I would be ashamed not to hand it on to another generation so there is no question of Scottie quitting. Do tell her this."

On December 21, Scott died of a heart attack at his home in Hollywood, sustained while reading a copy of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. Zelda died, along with seven other patients, in a fire on March 10, 1948, in a mental hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Despite their early deaths, Barks is impressed by how much the couple was able to accomplish — novels, short stories, plays, and, in the case of Zelda, works of visual art and dance.

"I'm on the other side of the age they were when they died, and I'm astonished at their accomplishments," said Barks, 51. "Given the drama and sensationalism of their lives, they were both sincerely devoted to the work ethic. As sick as Zelda was, she tried valiantly throughout her life to create a vocational identity for herself."

— Louis Jacobson ’92

Louis Jacobson, a staff correspondent at
National Journal magazine in Washington, writes frequently about books and the arts for Washington City Paper.