Beautiful and Damned

Scott and Ernest

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.

Young Zelda

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.

Scott and Zelda

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.

18 thoughts on “Beautiful and Damned

  1. Beautifully written post. I am fascinated by the Fitzgeralds and love to read about them. However, if I was alive and knew them in the 20s, I am sure I would have found them incredibly annoying because of their childish need for attention. As characters I love them, but irl not so much I think lol.

  2. They appear in Paula McLain’s book and seemed quite outrageous characters. I’ve read a little bit about them and they are fascinating but I think I would be exhausted to live the life they did. That was quite a decadent period, though, in a way the world seemed a little out of control.

  3. I feel so ignorant that I never have done any research on Fitzgerald and had no idea of the type of person he was or the relationship he had with his wife. They sounded quite self-destructive.

  4. When I was younger I avidly read all I could about the Fitzgeralds and thought them endlessly fascinating. Now I’m older, I think they were selfish. He was a genius and she was his muse. I don’t know if you’ve read Everybody Was So Young, by Amanda Vaill which examines the friendship of the Fitzgerald’s and the Murphy’s which presents as more sympathetic view of them. Enjoyed your post very much.

  5. I’ve always thought the Fitzgeralds would interest me if I ever got around to reading about them, but somehow I never have. They sound so much like the “careless people” Fitzgerald himself called Tom and Daisy — surely he realized he was describing himself with that line?

  6. Nothing bores and drains one’s attentions so much as an eternal prankster. I’ve read several accounts of FSF now that lead me to suspect I wouldn’t have been able to abide him – fantastic titles notwithstanding!

  7. Considering that both men, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, had an abusive streak – to say the least – I always managed to feel empathy for Hemingway but none for Fitzgerald at all.
    Tipping points are interesting, I agree.
    Did you read Gilles Leroy’s “Alabama Song”, the novel about Zelda? The way he tried to give her a voice is interesting.

  8. I’ve appreciated your insight throughout this post, esp. this: “creativity is by no means enhanced by madness, that it requires discipline and respect to get the most out of it. ” The character of F. you’ve depicted certainly is quite different from what I’ve conjured up in my mind. I always think of him to be more like Nick Caraway than Gatsby or Tom Buchanan. I was in Paris last summer and visited Shakespeare & Co. (If you’re interested, just click on the link to my post) After coming home I eagerly read about its history, and found that F. wanted to meet James Joyce but was so intimidated by him that he needed Sylvia Beach (owner of S. & Co.) as an intermediary. A very different F. there! BTW, I saw the portrait of Hemingway in the bookstore.

  9. What an interesting post. I can’t say I know much about the Fitzgeralds. From your post it seems in many ways they were perfect for each other and in so many other ways, perfectly wrong.

  10. Second the recommendation of the Vaill biography of the Murphys. You get to see that whole bunch of brilliant people in that book. I did read Nancy Milford’s biography of Zelda Fitzgerald, and while it was sympathetic, it was also analytical. Quite well done (though not as good as Savage Beauty, her bio of Edna St. Vincent Millay.)

    Wonderful post. It seems that art, like everything else, is a fine balance between giving to the world and a healthy selfishness.

  11. Agree totally with Shannon, who made the first comment. Love Fitzgerald’s prose, which I find very special, but can’t imagine wanting to spend any time with him. He would have been infuriating! In contemporary terms, a bit like discovering Jordan or Pete Doherty, more appositely maybe, writing the finest fiction of their generation.

  12. Shannon – thank you! And I couldn’t agree more. They were the sort of people I would have crossed the road to avoid in reality! But the anecdotes are good.

    Danielle – I am so looking forward to the Paula Mclain book and yes, the biography I’ve been reading talks a fair deal about Hemingway and his first wife (whose name has now escaped me – was she Pauline?) so I can see how come the Fitzgeralds would appear. I think you are quite right that it was a mad period in history, and the group of people they went around with were certainly hedonists with an edge.

    Kathleen – I knew nothing about them before I embarked on this biography. But I do find author’s lives very interesting, and I knew they’d had a tempestuous marriage. They most certainly were self-destructive.

    Nicola – I don’t know the Amanda Veill book, no, but it sounds fascinating. The Murphys come up a lot in the biography, so I can see that a book from their perspective would be really intriguing. And I can see why they might appeal more to a younger person – they lived as if they were 20 until it all caught up with them in a disastrous way.

    Jenny – I’m realising how much of Fitzgerald’s work was autobiography from reading up about them! It’s amazing – he more or less transposed his life straight into his fiction. Makes me want to read more of the fiction, though – I expect it is more satisfying there!

    Doctordi – eternal prankster is a very good term indeed. And I couldn’t agree more – he must have been tedious beyond belief at times!

    Caroline – I’m finding out all kind of books that were written about the Fitzgeralds that I knew nothing of – I can see why, though, as their life was so like a certain kind of story already. I wonder why Hemingway appeals to your compassion when Fitzgerald does not? They are sort of level pegging for me at the moment!

    Arti – I do think he was a very easily intimidated person, which is why he mucked about so appallingly, to hide it. After all, someone who is sure of themselves wouldn’t need to try to grab the limelight or act out. I think he was a man of contradictions – and they drove him to alcohol. How wonderful to have visited Shakespeare and Co! I would so love to see it.

    Stefanie- that’s exactly it! I have a weakness at the moment for the lives of writers. I’m just finding them fascinating. More Cather and Rilke next, I think.

    Jenny I like what you say about generosity and selfishness; I think that’s very true. And I can see I must read the Vaill bio – I had no idea so many books had been written about the Fitzgeralds from different perspectives. I’m very curious to know more.

    Lilian – oh thank you, how nice.

    Deborah – I have to thank you for starting me back reading Fitzgerald again, whose writing I also love. And I think your comparison to a literary Pete Doherty is brilliant. That’s so true – the disparity between how he lived and how he wrote is amazing.

  13. YIkes! cautionary tale indeed. Reminds me of that saying, ‘It’s too crazy to believe so it must be true.’ I think I will have to re-read The Great Gatsby.

  14. I loved this quote: “Essentially, they both wanted to be the cherished child of the relationship, neither wanted the role of the sensible grown-up.” So true of many couples I would say. Thanks for the insights into FSF and Zelda. As an aside, I wonder what would happen to all these writers if they blended a good dose of common-sense with their creativity. Would they be less interesting and less creative?

  15. Currently, Americans think of the “generation gap,” as something first conceived of in the 60s, marking the schism over Vietnam, drugs, and youthful rebellion. But the divide begins in the so-called roaring twenties, when America’s love of youth gained mass media traction. The older Victorian generation had kept the vote from women for so long, they had waged the Great War, they had passed Prohibition, which only drove the young to rebel and drink illegally in speakeasies.

    In short, the young knew the older generation were hypocrites, and they were creating a newer, more beautiful world. Scott and Zelda should be seen in that context, as kids who loved shocking their elders, and were viewed pejoratively by the older generation as much as hippies were circa 1965. If we were to look for more contemporary analogs, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin might be the rebels of the baby boom generation, and the sixties version of what Zelda and Scott were to the roaring twenties.

    Morrison didn’t live long enough to go through drug rehab, of course, while Fitzgerald tried to moderate his drinking, even writing about the need to stop at one drink, in the same decade when Alcoholics Anonymous was first started.

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