April 2002

Letters from a pair of legendary lovers

By Cathy W. Barks
Review by
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The relationship between Zelda Sayre and F. Scott Fitzgerald stands alongside Frieda and D.H. Lawrence or Elizabeth and Robert Browning as one of the legendary literary love stories of all time. Fitzgerald wrote lyrical and trenchant fiction about the Jazz Age, and with The Great Gatsby he crafted one of the most moving and memorable American novels of the 20th century. It might be argued that Zelda was both the source of his emotional fire and a central factor in his disintegration. For Zelda, it seems, Scott served the same dual role. In two decades of marriage, they managed to transform a vale of fame and talent and passionate love into a tragic landscape of drunkenness, mental illness and never-ending debt.

Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda, a collection of correspondence edited by two University of Maryland professors that spans a 22-year period, includes a few dozen previously unpublished letters. It would be more apt, perhaps, to call the volume "Mostly Dear Scott," for the majority of letters are from Zelda. Yet there are enough responses from her husband to give credibility to the title and, more importantly, to give a sense of the often sad symbiosis of their relationship.

Scott Fitzgerald was a famous novelist by the age of 24, thanks to the astonishing success of This Side of Paradise. His love for Zelda was made into a metaphor in The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night, as well as many short stories. His fictions were made of their life together, and their life seemed the stuff of fiction. The letters between Scott and Zelda trace the arc of their love its great passion, its failures and its enduring strengths. Scott made himself into the famous man that Zelda Sayre needed to marry, and she tried to be the proper accessory. As she wrote in an early letter to him, "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." She professed not minding to be "pink and helpless," but she soon thirsted for her own identity as dancer, as writer or as painter. She had talents in each art but not enough to make her name stand on the same plane as her husband's. She wrote to him, "I want to work at something, but I can't seem to get well enough to be of any use in the world." The beautiful Alabama belle was tormented with mental illness. Her extended stays in mental institutions drained Scott's money and separated the couple by a continent, forcing them to communicate with letters. Scott supported Zelda in the expensive hospitals and their daughter, Scottie, in costly schools, often through hackwork and Hollywood script writing. But, as Zelda wrote to Scott a year before his death, "Nothing could have survived our life." And, of course, she was right not the life they created, nor the one that rose up to meet them, not even the one they dreamed about when they first met.

Scott died of a heart attack in 1940, while he was in the process of completing what many think might have turned out to be one of his finest works, The Last Tycoon. Thirty people showed up for Scott's funeral. As with Gatsby, it seemed, the famous had forgotten him. Zelda died in 1948, burned beyond recognition in a fire in Highland Hospital, a mental institution near Asheville, North Carolina. The inscription on the Fitzgeralds' shared tombstone reads: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

Dr. Michael Pearson directs the Creative Writing Program at Old Dominion University.


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