"Scott -- there's nothing in the world I want but you. ... All the material things are nothing. ... I want to love first and live incidentally. ... 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."
-- From a letter to Scott Fitzgerald by 19-year-old Zelda Sayre
DARLING HEART AMBITION ENTHUSIASM AND CONFIDENCE I DECLARE EVERYTHING GLORIOUS THIS WORLD IS A GAME AND WHILE I FEEL SURE OF YOU LOVE EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE I AM IN THE LAND OF AMBITION AND SUCCESS AND MY ONLY HOPE AND FAITH IS THAT MY DARLING HEART WILL BE WITH ME SOON.
-- Telegram to Zelda Sayre from 23-year-old Scott Fitzgerald
Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald lived life on a grand scale: Beautiful, outrageous, enormously gifted, emotionally extravagant, they were perhaps the most romantic celebrity couple of America's Roaring Twenties.
And their life together -- all the glamour, artistry, passion and trouble of it -- played out large in their fiction: The Beautiful and the Damned, Tender Is the Night, and Zelda's novel, Save Me the Waltz. Scholars have called their relationship the central theme of their art. In the early days, as they moved back and forth from America to Europe, brilliant and tormented, trailing scandalous behavior, the Fitzgeralds labored to craft their gifts and their marriage. They were also battling demons the world did not yet understand.
Scott was increasingly plagued by alcoholism, Zelda by mental illness. Often wounding and disappointing one another, they nevertheless managed to keep faith in their marriage. The evidence is preserved in hundreds of letters they wrote, which have been collected together for the first time.
Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald ($27.95, St. Martin's Press), edited by Fitzgerald scholars Jack-son Bryer and Cathy Barks, presents more than 300 letters the couple wrote from 1918 to 1940. The collection creates a narrative that may prove one of the pair's most enduring collaborations: a rich, poignant portrait of their complicated relationship.
"I don't think this book is about Scott Fitzgerald the writer, it's about two creative and tortured people who were trying to keep their marriage together," Jackson Bryer says. "This is their relationship in their own words."
Beginning with the flirtatious urgency of teen-age love, the letters trace Scott and Zelda from the passions of courtship to the gratitude and devotion of the couple's last years. Skipping the tumultuous decade of the 1920s, when the couple were rarely separated, the letters shed light on the years when Zelda was periodically confined in institutions and Scott struggled artistically and financially. They also portray the time (1932-1935) when the couple lived in Baltimore while Zelda sought treatment for her condition -- then diagnosed as schizophrenia -- at the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic of Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The last letters, written while Scott was in Hollywood, are fond and newsy, filled with tidbits about his work and their college-age daughter, Scottie. Zelda's letters, which usually begin by thanking Scott for money he has sent her, are equally warm. Their correspondence ends abruptly two days before Scott died of a heart attack in 1940, at the age of 44. Zelda's death followed seven years later. She was trapped in a fire that ravaged the North Carolina hospital where she was a psychiatric patient.
'Look at what is'
Over the years, misconceptions about the couple flourished, fueled by academic politics and conventional wisdom.
"There was one generation who believed Zelda was a mess and drove Scott to drink," Cathy Barks says. "Then, later, it was Scott who was a mess and drove Zelda crazy. ... [We realize now that] alcoholics are alcoholics, and you don't make them that. People have mental disorders because they have mental disorders, no one gives you one. ... It irritates me when people tend to say, 'What if Scott hadn't been an alcoholic, what if Zelda hadn't had mental illness?' I say, 'Well, look at what is, not what if! Look at what they both accomplished!' "
Several years ago, Barks and Bryer, both professors at the University of Maryland, received permission from the Fitzgeralds' granddaughter, Eleanor Lan-ahan, to publish these letters. All were in the Fitzgerald Papers at Princeton University's library and were either out-of-print or never before published.
The majority of the letters are from Zelda; Scott appears to have kept every letter she wrote to him. Most of the letters he wrote, however, have been lost. The editors speculate that many of them may have been consumed in the fire that killed Zelda.
The scholars read almost 500 letters that Zelda had written to Scott and selected roughly 250 for the book. (All 91 of Scott's existing letters and telegrams are included.) Because most of Zelda's handwritten letters were undated, organizing them chronologically proved quite challenging. Along the way, the editors filled in many blanks, setting up the various sections of letters with histories and explanations of what was happening in the couple's lives.
Bryer had previously edited a book of the letters of playwright Eugene O'Neill. He was first struck by Zelda's letters when he read a few in a book about Scott and eventually concluded she was the more gifted, and lyrical, letter writer.
I woke up this morning and the sun was lying like a birthday parcel on my table so I opened it up and so many happy things went fluttering into the air, she wrote from a hospital in Switzerland. And you phoned and said I had written something that pleased you and so I don't believe I've ever been so heavy with happiness. ... I walked on those telephone wires for two hours after holding your love like a parasol to balance me.
"One of the things that held the Fitzgeralds together is that they saw the world the same way," Barks says. "They had lovely things to say and really funny things to say. That's one of the things I enjoy most about them, just how funny they could be."
Take, for instance, Zelda's 1932 description of Baltimore:
It's a marvelous place, a prosperous middle-age distinguished lawyer with many artistic hobbies sort of a place. We must live here sometime.
A clear-eyed view
In 1934, when Scott was living in Baltimore -- at 1307 Park Ave. in Bolton Hill -- he wrote Zelda about his hopes for their future together. It was the spring that Tender Is the Night, the book he had worked on for 10 years, was finally published. In addition, there was also a small exhibit of Zelda's paintings in New York. It was a moment for optimism.
We haven't been happy just once, we've been happy a thousand times. ... Forget the past -- what you can of it, and turn about and swim back home to me, to your haven for ever and ever -- even though it may seem a dark cave at times and lit with torches of fury; it is the best refuge for you -- turn gently in the waters through which you move and sail back. ...
I want you here. The sadness of the past is with me always. The things that we have done together and the awful splits that have broken us into war survivals in the past stay like a sort of atmosphere around any house that I inhabit. The good things and the first years together and the good months that we had two years ago in Montgomery will stay with me forever, and you should feel like I do that they can be renewed, if not in a new spring, then in a new summer. I love you my darling, darling."
Bryer believes this letter contains the message of the book: Scott's conviction that his rocky, 14-year-old marriage still merited the struggle to preserve it.
"They saw each other very clear-eyed -- and what they did to each other very clear-eyed -- but they still saw that it was worth it, no matter what," he says.
Eleanor Lanahan, who was born after her grandparents died, wrote the forward to Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda. She is profoundly moved by their correspondence.
"I had never seen all of Zelda's letters in sequence and put together with Scott's responses," she says. "They were so sweet to each other, so caring -- but they also always took each other very seriously. They didn't seem to harbor grudges. In a sense, I've decided they were wise old souls, very immature in their behavior from time to time -- but as far as expressing their love, they were wise old souls."
During the last two years of Scott's life, Zelda wrote 142 letters and he wrote at least 64. At the time, she was going back and forth from the North Carolina hospital to her mother's home in Montgomery, Ala. He was in Hollywood, in failing health, at work on what would remain his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon.
The couple last spent time together in 1939. Scott drank his way through their vacation in Cuba until Zelda cut the trip short and managed to get him into a hospital in New York City. Despite the disastrous nature of their trip, the couple looked forward to seeing each other again. Her subsequent letters mentioned her concern for Scott's health and well-being, echoing the sentiments of an earlier letter that celebrated the rewards of their marriage.
Dearest: I am always grateful for all the loyalties you gave me, and I am always loyal to the concepts that held us to-gether so long: the belief that life is tragic, that a mans spiritual reward is the keeping of his faith: that we shouldn't hurt each other. And I love, always your fine writing talent, your tolerance and generosity; and all your happy endowments. Nothing could have survived our life.
Devotedly, and always with my deepest gratitude
A few samples from the correspondence between Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald:
Mrs. Killam and I hammered at golf-balls yesterday, taking enough swings to have built the Roxy Center -- at least I did. ... You know my psychological attitude toward golf: it was just the sort of thing they would have brought into England during the reign of Chas. II. The French probably played it in high-heels with stomachs full of wine and cheated a little. ... I hope all goes well at home. All you really have to do for Scottie is see that she does not go to Bryn Mawr in dirty blouses. Also, she will not voluntarily wash her ears. ... I can't say that I blame her but some people might, so am afraid you will have to go through a thorough inspection every now and then.
from Craig House hospital
in Beacon, N.Y.
The sense of sadness and of finality in leaving a place is a good emotion; I love that the story can't be changed again and one more place is haunted -- old sorrows and a half-forgotten happiness are stored where they can be recaptured.
Please bring everything you can find -- and a sense of the Baltimore streets in summers of elms and of the dappled shade over the brick, and of that white engulfing heat.
August 1936, from Highland Hospital, Asheville, N.C.
I enjoyed reading the interview given out by our learned Scottie. I'm glad to know she spends her time thinking about strikes, relief and starvation while feeling no slightest jealousy of the girls with silver foxes who choose to recline on country club porches. It shows that we have hatched a worthy egg and I do not doubt that someday, like George Washington, she will 'raise that standard to which all good men can repair.'
Seriously, I have never heard such a bunch of hokum in my life as she sold that newspaper reporter but I'm glad she has one quality which I have found almost as valuable as positive originality, viz: she can make the most of what she has read and heard -- make a few paragraphs from Marx, John Stuart Mill and the New Republic go further than most people can do with years of economic study. That is one way to grow learned, first pretend to be -- then have to live up to it.
July 1940, Hollywood, Calif.