Vampire to Victim

Nina Auerbach

  • Zelda Fitzgerald: Her Voice in Paradise by Sally Cline
    Murray, 492 pp, £25.00, September 2003, ISBN 0 7195 5466 7

Zelda Fitzgerald would probably call herself a post-feminist today, but when she was alive, she made herself a flapper. In 1926, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s charmingly wild wife told an interviewer that she hoped her daughter’s generation would be even ‘jazzier’ than her own: ‘I think a woman gets more happiness out of being gay, light-hearted, unconventional, mistress of her own fate, than out of a career that calls for hard work, intellectual pessimism and loneliness. I don’t want Pat to be a genius, I want her to be a flapper, because flappers are brave and gay and beautiful.’

Did Zelda really say all this? So many creeds have been thrust on her by adoring Pygmalions, from Scott Fitzgerald himself to Sally Cline in this passionately partisan biography, that the real Zelda long ago drowned in images, including her own. Still, if she did not shower these particular scintillating adjectives on her flapper-self, her life proclaimed them.

A flapper in the 1920s, like a post-feminist today, hovers between defiance and compliance. She embraces the subordination the previous generation fled, but calls it ‘brave and gay and beautiful’, not self-sacrificial or boring. Because Zelda thought work was depressing as well as desirable, she is not my favourite biographical subject: she reminds me too much of my younger colleagues, who find it grim to buck the systems of profession and family it was so elating in the 1970s to defy. Unlike my own female heroes, Zelda never defined herself; she just flailed about under the aegis of her brilliant husband. As a girl, she did everything she was supposed to do: she was a Southern belle who married a dapper genius once he became rich enough to keep her. Until money and energy ran out, they lived the media-starred life of Beautiful People in New York and Paris, drowning domesticity (and, almost, their stoical daughter) in servants, fun and champagne.

Belatedly, Zelda saw that she was patronised as a tart-tongued appendage to glittering Scott. Jealous of his fame, she snatched at a career, but not in the frumpy way ‘that calls for hard work, intellectual pessimism and loneliness’. She flung herself into three arts simultaneously – ballet, painting and writing – with such ferocity that she plummeted into the madness that consumed her last 18 years, most of which were spent in mental hospitals and, finally, under the suffocating surveillance of the Alabama family from which Scott had been her escape.

Zelda lived to please, but nobody much liked her. Ernest Hemingway, who detested women writers, saw her as an insane harpy who destroyed Scott’s work. Though Cline insists, often on flimsy evidence, that Zelda was an authentic artist, she is fair-minded enough to surround her with women who really did make their careers on their own: Rebecca West, Dorothy Parker, Natalie Barney and Zelda’s Montgomery classmate and friend Sara Haardt, who fled belle-dom to write fiction; the serious and tubercular Sara eventually married H.L. Mencken and died shortly afterwards. These women were more or less kind to Zelda (Dorothy Parker bought two of her drawings in 1934, though she found them too tortured to hang), but she was not their peer. She may have been too angry for Hemingway, but she was too wifely for professional writers.

Yet in 1970 Zelda’s life, not the careers of her successful contemporaries, became, potentially, our own. Nancy Milford’s extraordinary biography gripped and chilled young literary women in America. I still recall the shock of her book, though as a Scott Fitzgerald fan I had thought I knew the story: the fame, the fun, the crash, the crack-up, the hospitals, the drain of money and love, and the ignominious trapped deaths – for him in the waste of Hollywood in 1940, for her in an asylum fire eight years later. Smart, stylish, funny, unmoored, Zelda had always seemed the figurehead of a lost generation, but in 1970 she became the symbol of lost women.

It had never occurred to me that Zelda Fitzgerald had a life outside her husband’s lyrical prose. Of course women writers had lives, but did wives? Did they need them? Milford’s revelation, which shouldn’t have been a shock, was that Zelda had lived outside Scott’s metaphors. In fact, his images of a shimmering golden girl, who in the great novels Gatsby and Tender Is the Night becomes something like a vampire, entangled Zelda in his fantasies; so did the role of wife itself. Pillaging her letters, her journals, her language (it was supposedly Zelda who said, at her daughter’s birth: ‘I hope it’s beautiful and a fool – a beautiful little fool,’ a blessing/curse with which Scott would pinion Daisy Buchanan in Gatsby), Scott did not glorify Zelda, but, according to Milford, drained her incipient identity.

Scott Fitzgerald was most women’s favourite Modernist, as Keats was our favourite Romantic, especially compared to myopic, preening Wordsworth. Compared to his sometime friend, the posturing bully Hemingway, Fitzgerald seemed gentle, almost girlish, breathlessly embracing his charmed fictional world. But Milford showed us another Fitzgerald face, one that appeared when his wife began to write.

In the traditional reading of her life, Zelda’s belated lunge at art (she was 27 when she threw herself into dancing) was a symptom of insanity. In hospital, she wrote, in an astonishing three weeks, her autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz. Scott, labouring for years over Tender Is the Night and transcribing his wife’s symptoms into its mad heroine, exploded when he read Zelda’s first draft. He claimed that she had stolen his material (her own life) and made him look like a weak fool (in the first draft, Zelda named the ineffectual husband Amory Blaine, the glamorous hero of Scott’s bestseller This Side of Paradise).

Save Me the Waltz is in fact vividly different from Scott’s work. For Zelda, marriage is a shadowy affair: the novel springs to life in ballet school, a female world of muscles, sweat, competition and community. Unlike Scott, intoxicated by hazy images, Zelda lives in bodies and smells. ‘Do you still smell of pencils and sometimes of tweed?’ she wrote longingly to Scott from hospital. Perhaps because he thought his wife was stealing his material, or perhaps because she had access to a tactile world beyond his, Scott did his hysterical best to enlist Zelda’s psychiatrists in suppressing not only her novel, but all her artistic aspirations. His collusion with her doctors in a ghastly attempt to ‘re-educate’ Zelda into wifehood was, for me, the shocking centre of Milford’s book. Mad Zelda went from vampire to victim, lovable Scott from victim to oppressor. Like the wife in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1892 story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper,’ which was reprinted around the same time Milford’s biography appeared, Zelda Fitzgerald was broken by an alliance among those quintessential good men, husbands and doctors.

Milford’s biography is saved from polemic by its grace and tact. Her own commentary is spare; most of the story is told in irresistible letters, by the principals and the many writers in their circle, so that the dynamic of a wife’s wreck becomes irrefutable, not imposed. Milford never denies that Zelda was ill as well as insulted. Scott is allowed his agony, romantic, creative and financial. Zelda’s story remains the one we knew, but told from a viewpoint that restores the life she experienced.

After Milford’s achievement, does Zelda Fitzgerald need another biography? I don’t think so, though Sally Cline’s account is lush and readable, with some telling new material. Cline, whose last book was a biography of Radclyffe Hall, gives full and fascinating accounts of the Fitzgeralds’ fraught relations with the homosexual community in bohemian Paris. We knew of the paranoid obsession with ‘fairies’ that terrorised Hemingway, Zelda and Scott himself (for Fitzgerald, some evil homosexual abstraction, not competitive tension, killed his friendship with Hemingway: ‘I really loved him, but of course it wore out like a love affair. The fairies have spoiled all that’). But Zelda’s undefined association with the lesbian community of Romaine Brooks, Natalie Barney and Djuna Barnes, her insistence during her first breakdown that she was in love with Barney, and also with her ballet teacher Lubov Egorova, are new to me. The obsessed Fitzgeralds, flayed with a terror of desires that were beyond the pale, present a touching picture of American innocents abroad, and also of the tortured artistic generation that came of age after Oscar Wilde’s trials in 1895. Adultery, of course, remained not sick but sophisticated: Scott had a series of affairs. She also itemises his alcoholic binges, whose details more reverent biographers want to forget. Cline places her characters in a tougher, less glamorous world than we are used to.

Still, her advocacy of Zelda is overwrought. Cline has written the sort of adoring biography Zelda herself might have conceived. Its subtitle, ‘Her Voice in Paradise’, has a double meaning. On the surface, of course, it echoes ironically the title of Scott’s famous first novel, This Side of Paradise, but there is a Spiritualist dimension as well, evoking a glorified Zelda dictating from the afterlife. Cline’s Zelda is so brilliant, so conspired against, ultimately so triumphant, that her life loses its contours.

For one thing, the quotations from the Fitzgeralds’ letters and journals that Cline uses are so truncated – no doubt because many others have already published this material – that she seems to be forcing a story rather than letting one unfold. From the harrowing series of letters that follow Zelda’s early hospitalisations, in which Scott rages about her stealing his material and she tries to mollify him, Cline quotes the following snippets:

Scott could not contain himself. ‘So you are taking my material, is that right?’

‘Is that your material?’ Zelda asked. The asylums? The madness? The terrors? Were they yours? Funny, she hadn’t noticed.

It takes a sharp reader to notice that the final five accusatory sentences are Cline’s, not Zelda’s, as if Cline were now the medium through which her subject vindicates herself.

Cline’s Scott is an unmitigated villain. She insinuates vast conspiracies, not typical sexist ignorance, in Scott’s and the doctors’ assumption that Zelda’s ambition and her sexuality were symptoms of insanity. She is equally conspiratorial about Zelda’s misdiagnosis as a schizophrenic. Scott did not invent his times: until quite recently, ‘schizophrenic’ was indeed a catch-all category for mental illness; throughout most of the 20th century, it was a commonplace that ambitious, sexually driven women were, by definition, mad.

Today, Zelda would no doubt be diagnosed as a manic depressive (hence her frenzied bouts of creative fever, followed by weeks of silence and withdrawal); she would probably have responded to lithium, a drug that was not used until the 1970s. Scott was no more responsible for medical ignorance than H.L. Mencken was responsible for Sara Haardt’s early death from tuberculosis. In fact, out of the welter of Scott’s laments and accusations comes some prophetic sense: ‘I can’t help clinging to the idea that some essential physical things like salt or iron or semen or some unguessed at holy water is either missing or is present in too great quantity.’ Psychopharmacology has discovered the truth in Scott’s wild guess, but Zelda is not the only hectored patient who might have been cured had she been born later.

Cline accuses Fitzgerald of out-and-out plagiarism in his literary use of Zelda’s material. This is a shaky charge: before our own litigious days, writers were licensed sponges. Moreover, we would lose voices like Dickens’s, Sylvia Plath’s and Philip Roth’s if their pillaged intimates had the right of censorship. Scott did publish some of Zelda’s stories under his own name, as Milford showed, but they might not otherwise have been published at all. Zelda’s achievement as a writer is not brilliant. Save Me the Waltz, her one published novel, is often violently alive, but it is also patchy and disconnected. When it appeared, it sold almost no copies. Her unfinished novel, Caesar’s Things, and her long play, Scandalabra, sound barely coherent. Cline puts an angry caption under a photograph of Sara Haardt: ‘Sara always received more encouragement from her husband H.L. Mencken than Zelda did from Scott.’ But Haardt was a professional writer long before she met Mencken. Finally, writers write their own careers. Encouragers are incidental.

For all his overbearing accusations, Scott seems to have helped as much as he impeded. In the early days, Zelda was glad enough to use Scott Fitzgerald’s name to promote her stories; his editor Max Perkins handled a slightly cut version of Save Me the Waltz; Scott tried tirelessly to edit the welter of Scandalabra into a presentable shape. His friends loyally attended Zelda’s art shows and bought her paintings; after his death, she exhibited in Montgomery, where, thanks to Scott, she was something of a local celebrity. But even before her illnesses, she made few attempts to strike out on her own.

Zelda was always on the verge of an independent identity she never embraced. In 1929, a ballet company in Naples invited her to join it as a soloist: she turned down the job and shortly afterwards became a professional invalid. In a vivid section of Save Me the Waltz, the heroine does go to Naples, not just as a soloist, but as the prima ballerina in Swan Lake. She is lonely and adrift. When her snooty daughter visits, she is embarrassed by her relative poverty. Naples sickens the child; both the girl and the dancing mother are relieved when she returns to her father. Shortly thereafter, as if in punishment, an infected foot ensures that the heroine will never dance again. Instead of living out this dark dream, even finding within it a possible happy ending, Zelda cracked up.

The Naples invitation makes nonsense of the condescending assumption that Zelda’s dancing was a pathetic symptom, not a vocation, but her refusal to follow through was, I think, the turning point of her life. Cline does her best to blame Scott for this failure of nerve with the vague suggestion that he somehow hypnotised his wife: Zelda’s ‘strange passivity at this critical moment implies an emotional fatigue from many months of professional subservience’. But if Zelda had wanted to go to Naples, her husband could have stopped her only by locking her in the closet. By that time, I suspect, he would have been relieved – and freer to work – had Zelda begun to make a career on her own. But she shrank from an opportunity she associated with ‘hard work, intellectual pessimism and loneliness’. One can blame something amorphous, such as ‘the backlash’ or ‘the times’ or whatever else might brainwash young women into associating careers with deprivation rather than challenge and power and fun, but it’s unreasonable to blame Fitzgerald for depriving his wife of a chance she refused to take.

I hope it isn’t reverting to the old ‘angelic Scott, demonic Zelda’ stereotype to grant Zelda Fitzgerald the power of all women to create her own failures as well as to endure them. Moreover, Cline seems to see no failures in Zelda’s three truncated careers. Not only does she enthusiastically insist on her talent at all three – about which she is surely right – but she also makes grandiose claims I find ridiculous. She solemnly compares Zelda’s prose to Faulkner’s (as well as Scott’s), her paintings to those of Picasso, O’Keeffe and Van Gogh. Is Zelda really on a par with them, or is she flailing around for a style of her own? Since Cline reproduces only a handful of her paintings, referring the reader to others (her mother destroyed most of them after her death), we must take her achievement on faith. Cline does reproduce Zelda’s unused jacket design for The Beautiful and Damned, in which a naked Zelda looks pertly out of a glass of champagne. It’s cute, but it looks less like a book jacket than an invitation to a party. The late flower paintings, which Brendan Gill provocatively called ‘the expression of a violent, undischarged rage’ and thus ‘radically unsuited to the New Yorker’, sound intriguing, but they might be better read about than seen.

One of Scott Fitzgerald’s cruellest remarks is also one of his truest: ‘Now the difference between the professional and the amateur is something that is awfully hard to analyse, it is awfully intangible. It just means the keen equipment; it means a scent, a smell of the future in one line.’ Zelda could smell bodies, but she did not have the scent of the professional. In Victorian England, her trio of talents would have been cooed over as ‘accomplishments’; in all times, women are loved for remaining amateurs. It was Zelda’s tragic flaw, not the fault of any man, that she would not take the leap into professionalism.

Instead, she became a professional patient, and thereby lost both husband and career. Cline tries to decorate these losses with Wagnerian triumphal strains: while Milford titled the section depicting Zelda’s first hospitalisations ‘Breakdown’, Cline calls it ‘Creative Voices’. Milford designated Zelda’s last drifting years as Scott’s widow, spent largely in her mother’s custody, ‘Going Home’; Cline calls it ‘In Her Own Voice’. We all would like Zelda Fitzgerald to have ended in feminist triumph, but Milford’s sad, simple words seem to be more appropriate to her lost life. Cline’s rhetorical elation makes me nervous about our own times. In thirty years Zelda Fitzgerald has gone from case history to cult figure. The life of this wrecked if gallant woman has become, not the cautionary tale it was in 1970, but an achievement to applaud.