Who didn't write about Zelda Fitzgerald?
This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email. Click here to learn about joining Printers Row.
Her husband, the great novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, did. She inspired his greatest heroines. She was his muse.
Ernest Hemingway wrote about her. So did Dorothy Parker. And John Dos Passos. And C. Lawton Campbell, Rebecca West and Louise Brooks, among others.
Zelda wrote about herself, too. She kept diaries. She wrote short stories, magazine articles and a semi-autobiographical book, "Save Me the Waltz."
A quick search on Amazon pulls up hundreds of books about her and about her and Scott. As a character, she has appeared in movies and television shows, from Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" to an episode of "Magnum P.I."
Beautiful, brilliant and quite bizarre, Zelda seems to have known her fame would continue many years after her death. According to the new graphic account of her life, "Superzelda," she wrote in a letter to Scott, "In a hundred years I think I shall like having young people speculate on whether my eyes were brown or blue — of course, they are neither."
On Friday the much-anticipated Baz Luhrmann movie "The Great Gatsby" opens, inspiring a fresh wave of books on Zelda, including a biography and three novels.
The writers of these new takes on Zelda's life face the same daunting challenges. How do you write about someone who has been written about so much? How do you compete with some of the best writers of the 20th century, including her husband, who is considered one of the most talented authors America has ever produced? What is left to be said about Zelda?
In "Superzelda: The Graphic Life of Zelda Fitzgerald," Tiziana Lo Porto and Daniele Marotta cleverly sidestep all of this by largely appropriating what she wrote about herself and what others said about her to narrate a graphic biography of her. Many of the illustrations are based on photographs of Zelda as well.
First published in Italy in 2011, "Superzelda" patiently walks us through Zelda's life, from her birth in 1900 into the prosperous Montgomery, Ala., Sayre family to her nightmarish death in a North Carolina hospital fire in 1948.
"Superzelda" covers her carefree childhood, Scott's courtship of her, the couple's famously wild days cavorting with the likes of Pablo Picasso, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, and their slow decline as a couple as he succumbed to alcoholism and she battled decades of debilitating mental illness.
Lo Porto and Marotta tell a straight story. They do not attempt to extract meaning from Zelda's life. They offer a nice basic overview of her life, and capture some of her enormous charisma.
But the book suffers from this approach, too, as most lives are not fascinating from birth to death — not even Zelda's life. A goodly chunk of this graphic account recounts one hospitalization after another. One chapter is labeled simply "More Hospitalizations." It's as riveting as it sounds.
Two new novels about her could carry the same label, as both revolve around her struggle with severe mental illness.
Erika Robuck's "Call Me Zelda" imagines Zelda's life as a sort of vampire story, though with no actual vampires. Scott is the vampire in this book, sucking the life out of a brilliant and fragile Zelda, who escapes to hospitals to regain strength, only to be sucked dry again and again.
In Robuck's book, Scott literally plagiarizes from Zelda, stealing her diaries and passing off excerpts from them as his own. Here, he is a controlling and jealous drunk, and Zelda is a weakened whirlwind of creativity. She can paint, she can dance, she can write. Everything she says is original and memorable.
Robuck tells their story through Anna, a psychiatric nurse who cares for Zelda and eventually completely subordinates her life to attend to the Fitzgeralds' needs. Anna becomes a little obsessed with Zelda, actually, and her fawning lends "Call Me Zelda" a certain fan fiction quality.
Here's Anna on Zelda, for example (one of many similar passages):
"She stood up from the water and stepped onto the tile. I moved to wrap a towel around her and pressed it into her skin to absorb the water. She allowed me to help her dry off, but put on her underclothes and dressed herself. Then she sat at the mirror and handed me the brush. I began brushing her tawny blond hair away from her face, and she closed her eyes and put her head back."
Anna sums up her arguably unhealthy attachment to the Fitzgeralds nicely in a paragraph that could apply to the book itself:
"Maybe it was their celebrity. Deep down I knew I longed for the blissful anonymity of becoming part of something beautiful and tragic and even historic — like a single stroke of paint on a large and detailed landscape."
Well, who could resist them, right?
In "Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald," author R. Clifton Spargo also finds himself in love with the couple in the days of Zelda's mental illness. The story focuses on the Fitzgeralds' trip to Cuba, a last-ditch, unsuccessful effort to rekindle the old fire of their love. The effort is half-hearted on Scott's part — he is cheating on Zelda. As for Zelda, she is ill and lost in the past.
Spargo's book is richly imagined, and paints a delightfully detailed portrait of Cuba of 1939. It's a positively delicious travelogue. Cuba of 1939 is hot and fun, and one wishes the couple would just go enjoy themselves. Yet they cannot escape their past, their problems and the wounds they have inflicted on each other.
Here they are on a drive through little Cuban villages on their way to the resort, Club Kawana (which is, incidentally, still around, rating three stars on TripAdvisor). Zelda starts in on some cheerful talk about how they once considered divorcing:
"'Once not many years ago,' she said, starting again, 'we traded bitter words about divorce, oh, when was that, it seems ages since, but I don't feel that way anymore.'"
A reader might find herself urging Zelda to shut up and enjoy the palm trees. But no. She continues: "'I can only recall all that barbaric hate and resentment in the abstract.'"
Wisely, Scott tries to shut down this line of conversation. "'We can let it go,' he said. 'It takes discipline, not to let ourselves return there.'"
But she continues until he reassures her: "'I'm still your future, Zelda. ... You're still mine. '"
Time to relax and enjoy life? No, alas: "Those were the words she'd come all this way to hear, but having won them so easily she couldn't trust their meaning."
Spargo's book is set in Cuba, contains violent crime and involves two of the most fascinating people who lived in the 20th century. Yet often the book feels like a recounting of extended and unsuccessful couples therapy sessions. Perhaps that's what their marriage felt like to them, too. Still, one yearns for the charisma, the fun.
Therese Anne Fowler's novel "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald" attempts to capture more of that Zelda, and much of the novel focuses on the couple's earlier days. In this telling, Zelda sometimes seems ripped from the pages of a chick lit novel. Listen to Fowler's Zelda as she meets Scott for the first time:
"As I stood near the doorway, cooling down and waiting for my latest partner to return with refreshments, here came the officer with the fawn-colored boots. Now I noticed the crisp white collar inside his tunic, his softly squared chin, the perfect almond shape of his eyes, and the long, feathery lashes that shadowed them. Oh, my."
Oh my. And here is Zelda wondering whether Hemingway might have a thing for her man after she finds a stash of his ardent letters to Scott:
"When it came to Scott's affections, I'd been displaced if not replaced and had only made the situation worse by confronting him. Probably, Scott loved Hemingway truly but platonically. Probably, he couldn't see that Hemingway's feelings weren't so clean."
"Z" bounds through the Fitzgeralds' lives with the same sort of energy, not taking itself too seriously. This is Zelda as BFF, confiding in the reader her deepest hopes and fears. She's a fine, if daffy, companion.
And yet, she is no Zelda as conjured by Scott, who captured her arresting presence in "The Beautiful and Damned," among other works. In "The Beautiful and Damned," the character Gloria Gilbert is, essentially, Zelda:
"She was dazzling — alight; it was agony to comprehend her beauty in a glance. Her hair, full of a heavenly glamour, was gay against the winter color of the room. … On a photograph she must have been completely classical, almost cold — but the glow of her hair and cheeks, at once flushed and fragile, made her the most living person he had ever seen."
And there she is. The most living person he had ever seen. Finally, we know her.
Trine Tsouderos is a frequent Printers Row Journal contributor.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun