One day, when Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald were staying at a villa on the French Riviera with friends, Scott played a prank on Ernest Hemingway that nearly killed them both. They had been spending the afternoon on the beach, when Scott went and sat in his car and called out for Hemingway and another friend to join him. When they were all in the car, he drove it up to the cliff top and headed straight for the edge, braking only just in time to prevent them from going over. The friend, Archie MacLeish, described how Scott ‘jumped out of the car and looked round at us; his face was very flushed and red, and he laughed like a mad-man, almost uncontrollably, for several minutes. I was petrified; I still couldn’t believe that it had happened; it had all taken place so quickly, and Ernest, beside me, was white as a sheet. Ernest was a very brave man, but he hated stupid risks such as Scott had taken, and it was probably well for Scott that he was so shocked and pale.’
I’m interested in tipping points, which in the case of the Fitzgerald’s marriage would be the moment when fun and hi-jinks began to turn into something purely vindictive and insane, and it seems to have been sometime around now in 1926 or so, not long before Hemingway and his first novel, The Sun Also Rises, would eclipse Scott Fitzgerald as America’s finest young writer. The Fitzgeralds had earned their celebrity status by acts of outrageous behaviour, often ones that hovered on the borderline of being unpleasant or dangerous. Leaping into the fountains of New York, boiling up all the handbags of their dinner guests in a vat of tomato sauce, waking up friends in the small hours telling them they were heading abroad the next day (when they weren’t), perplexing people they had just met with bizarre or shocking questions, and always drinking far more than they should. They were regularly thrown out of hotels and the homes of friends because of their rowdiness, and yet for many years they managed to make this all seem entertaining and scintillating and very much of the era of irresponsibility in which they lived.
Scott Fizgerald was drawn to Zelda because of her daredevil character. She was adventurous and spontaneous where he was fundamentally timid, and he recognised in her a wonderful source of creative material. He transposed her character and her antics into his novels and stories, and needed her to keep it up so that he would have something fresh to write about. Zelda was drawn to Scott because she loved the thought of being married to a famous and successful writer (she refused to marry him until copies of his first novel were on the shelves of the bookstores). It seemed enough for her initially to ride on the crest of a famous husband, and she was, in any case, wary of the demands of ambition. As the marriage progressed, though, she began to long for a creative outlet of her own. Zelda said herself that she relished the thought of having more natural talent than other people, which she could carry on thinking if she didn’t put herself to the test. But as their marriage soured, so that began to change, and Zelda was deeply conflicted by her desperate desire to prove herself, and a tenacious fear of doing so.
It’s easy to dislike the Fitzgeralds and see in their fate the inevitable reward of narcissism and lack of self-restraint. Scott in particular seems to have been a difficult character, controlling and possessive of Zelda whenever she tried to break out on her own, and with a really mean streak that alcoholism exacerbated. How much can we exonerate with his difficult childhood? His mother lost two toddlers just before he was born and another baby shortly afterwards, so it is unsurprising if she coddled and spoiled him. His father was a failure in business and a broken man. Scott grew up a poor boy in rich schools and unpopular, haunted by his father’s lack of backbone and afraid he had inherited it: ‘I knew I had no real courage, perseverance or self-respect.’ When he turned to drink it was out of a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure.
Zelda grew up beautiful, half-wild and popular, indulged by her parents, particularly her mother who felt her own chances had been lost. She was a one-note song of recklessness, and knew only how to exchange folly for admiration. Early in the marriage she grew restless and bored whenever Scott was writing and plunged into attention-seeking behaviour. A friend commented: ‘If she’s there, Fitzgerald can’t work – she bothers him – if she’s not there, he can’t work worried of what she might do.’ When they married they were so alike in looks that they could be taken for brother and sister, and there is an odd symmetry to their relationship too, one in which they admired the same qualities and magnified each other’s weaknesses. And yet as is so often the case, it was Zelda who was probably the most damaged by the marriage, descending into madness in the early 1930s and diagnosed with schizophrenia. Scott Fitzgerald died first, though, drinking himself into an early grave.
I can’t quite decide whether the Fitzgeralds are truly interesting or not. Generally I love the stories of artists and their marriages, even if they are disastrous. But Scott and Zelda seem simply to be a cautionary tale, a reminder that creativity is by no means enhanced by madness, that it requires discipline and respect to get the most out of it. Although Scott Fitzgerald is a fine example of an implausible genius, a brilliant writer emerging out of the mind and body of a weak, irresponsible man. As a couple, they fell in love with each other’s grandiose image; a recipe for chaos, when there is no place for all the ordinary but inevitable parts of life, like failure, sorrow, boredom, disappointment. It proved dangerous to the mental health of both to privilege the fantasies they preferred over the reality they had to live. Their mutual possessiveness was a negative bond, a dramatic and artificial substitute for the genuine and generous love they didn’t know how to give each other. Essentially, they both wanted to be the cherished child of the relationship, neither wanted the role of the sensible grown-up. But to try again to be kind to them, they were also brilliant, beautiful, over-sensitive people to whom the world seemed to offer a promise it couldn’t keep. They grew up hypnotised by the glittering prizes that ought to be theirs for the taking, and found that once they had taken them, the longing was not in the least assuaged, only made hungry for more.