Zelda Sayre to F. Scott Fitzgerald

Zelda Sayre
(1900-48)
was born in montgomery, Alabama. Daughter of an Alabama High Court judge, Zelda was strikingly beautiful but wild, intelligent but unevenly educated. She married Scott Fitzgerald in 1920 and they had one daughter, Frances (known as Scottie), in 1921. After several years of high and happy living, financed by Scott’s success as a writer and shaped by his drinking, her behavior became more erratic and obsessive, and their relationship more strained. In 1930 she had her first breakdown. The years that followed were largely spent in mental institutions, but also saw the publication of her confused and moving novel Save Me the Waltz (1932). She had considerable talent, which never quite fulfilled itself. Zelda died in 1948, victim of an asylum fire at the Highland Hospital, Asheville, North Carolina.

Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald
(1896-1940)
novelist and short story writer, was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. Irish on his mother’s side, he was a Catholic and was educated at Princeton University. He gained instant fame with his first novel This Side of Paradise (1920). Together with his wife Zelda, he came to represent the “Jazz Age”, both in his writing and in his lifestyle, with his wildness, generosity, heavy drinking, partying, and high spending. His finest novel was The Great Gatsby (1925), the story of rich financier Jay gatsby’s disastrous love for Daisy Buchanan and a key exploration of “The American Dream”. After that the writing came more slowly and the success less surely. He worked periodically as a scriptwriter in Hollywood, where he died of a heart attack in 1940. His final novel, The Last Tycoon, was unfinished when he died.

Letter
Spring 1919

Sweetheart,
Please, please don’t be so depressed–We’ll be married soon, and then these lonesome nights will be over forever–and until we are, I am loving, loving every tiny minute of the day and night–Maybe you won’t understand this, but sometimes when I miss you most, it’s hardest to write–and you always know when I make myself–Just the ache of it all–and I can’t tell you. If we were together, you’d feel how strong it is–you’re so sweet when you’re melancholy. I love your sad tenderness–when I’ve hurt you–That’s one of the reasons I could never be sorry for our quarrels–and they bothered you so–Those dear, dear little fusses, when I always tried so hard to make you kiss and forget–
Scott–there’s nothing in all the world I want but you–and your precious love–All the materials 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…Don’t–don’t ever think of the things you can’t give me–You’ve trusted me with 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 Scott–It’d be like going blind…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…
All my heart–
I love you

One hot Alabama night in July 1918, 23 year old Francis Scott Fitzgerald, First Lieutenant 67th Infantry and aspiring writer, met the beautiful young Zelda Sayre at a Country Club dance in her hometown, Montgomery. She was a teenage whirlwind, just out of high school, sweeping up the beaus of the town–the “jellybeans” as they were known–in her wake. As he danced with Zelda, the handsome Scott smelled to her:

“like new goods…luxury bound in bales.”

Several weeks later Scott seemed to have made up his mind to marry Zelda. A diary entry for September 1918 reads:

“Fell in love on the 7th.”

Other diary entries and reports from friends suggest that Scott rushed and dazzled her, calling almost daily and dating her regularly.
When they met, Scott was stationed at Camp Sheridan near Montgomery, awaiting the call to the war in Europe. But the war ended in November, and Scott did not have to go. Instead, still deeply attracted to Zelda as she was to him, he went to New York to pursue the wealth and influence that success as a novelist would bring them both. It was a dream that Zelda shared, a way into a new life. The extracted letter printed here–passionate and edgy–was written just before they got engaged. Scott mailed Zelda his mother’s engagement ring in late March 1919.
Back in Montgomery, Zelda was surrounded by suitors whom she encouraged, young men spilling liquor in fast cars. Scott, who was not finding it easy to make a career out of writing advertising copy in New York, was distraught when Zelda broke off their engagement that June. It seemed she wanted their marriage to be founded on self-confidence and success, not failure and poverty. Scott quit his job in advertising and returned to his family home in St. Paul, Minnesota, to rewrite his first novel, This Side of Paradise. Scribner’s accepted the book for publication in September. Over the next few months Scott visited Zelda several times. For all her reckless behavior, she was in love with him, and they renewed their engagement.
They were married in New York at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in April 1920, a month after This Side of Paradise had been published to rave reviews and big sales. They became the talk of the town, a golden couple who personified the stylish, reckless living of New York’s “Jazz Age” in the Twenties. They were also complex and vulnerable people, who found their role bewildering. Back in 1915 Scott had dropped out of Princeton to write. He was extremely dedicated, working long hours and drinking heavily to relax. Paradoxically, his newfound success threatened the solitude he needed to write. Zelda’s role was even more tangled. Just after the couple married, a friend of Scott’s from Princeton, Alexander McCaig, described her as a,

“temperamental, small-town Southern belle,”

who chewed gum and showed her knees. A year later he had changed his mind. She was,

“without doubt the most brilliant and most beautiful young woman I’ve ever known.”

Scott told him that her ideas figured large in the novel he was currently working on, The Beautiful and Damned. Zelda became, in effect, Scott’s material. Nearly all his book described variations on their life together, sometimes incorporating bits of her diaries and letters as well. As Zelda said at the time,

“Plagiarism begins at home.”

Their daughter, Scottie, was born in October 1921. Meanwhile the wear and tear of life on Long Island, with its heavy drinking and nonstop high living, began to show in the marriage.
In January 1922, with clinical yet admiring detachment, Scott wrote to the literary critic Edmund Wilson that,

“the complete, fine and full-hearted selfishness and chill-mindedness of Zelda”

enormously influenced his writing. Perhaps the “selfishness” to which Scott referred was Zelda’s struggle to realize herself beyond her role in Scott’s fiction. She too began to write.
In 1924, in an attempt to restore their disheveled lives and find space for Scott to write, they left New York for France, living first in Paris and then at St. Raphael, a small resort on the Riviera. There, within the beach community of bronzed young men, the Americans befriended a French aviator named Edouard Jozan. To Scott’s outrage and shock, Zelda fell in love with Edouard and asked Scott for a divorce. At the beginning of September, just when their crisis seemed to have passed, she overdosed on sleeping pills. The does was not fatal, and in November, with Zelda recovered and Scott’s new novel, The Great Gatsby, completed–they traveled together to Italy. There Zelda began to paint, a pastime she would maintain for life. Back in Paris in 1928, Zelda took up a new and compulsive interest–ballet. Much to Scott’s distress and anger she practiced for hours at a time, straining for:

“the flights of the human soul divorced from the person.”

She was 27, far too old to have any real success as a dancer. Not wanting Scott to pay for the ballet lessons, she wrote to earn the money for them. These twin pressures–along with the anxieties they concealed–exhausted her and in 1930 precipitated her first mental breakdown. Zelda moved from clinic to clinic in Europe and the United States with brief periods of fragile stability at home, increasingly apart from, but always in touch with, her husband. Many of their letters from this period are affectionate and nostalgic, Scott reminding her of old friends and Zelda thanking him for gifts of flowers, jewelry, and perfume. A few letters express Scott’s fears for her recovery. He saw Zelda’s writing as the most destructive of her bids to realize herself. Zelda was his raw material as well as her own, and who could use it better, the rambling amateur or the fine-honed professional? In the midst of her illness, he insisted,

“I want you to stop writing fiction.”

Later, after his death, Zelda dreamed that his voice called to her,

“I have lost the woman I put in my book.”

Even when they were fighting a battle of wills, they were fighting more for each other than against each other. As Scott put it,

“Liquor on my mouth is sweet to her; I cherish her most extravagant hallucinations.”

Scott died of a heart attack in 1940, while Zelda was still in the hospital. Looking back, she remembered the best things about their time together,

“It seems as if he was always planning happiness for Scottie and me.”

In the “golden boom” of Twenties’ New York they got too much too soon. Zelda said in 1939,

“Nothing could have survived our life.”

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