This side of
A new book examines the marriage of one of Princetons 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.
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
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
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
Barks finds the claim that Zelda was some sort of oppressed proto-feminist
especially ironic. "She wasnt 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
Louis Jacobson 92
Louis Jacobson, a staff correspondent at National Journal magazine
in Washington, writes frequently about books and the arts for Washington