October 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 6
HOW TWO FAMOUS FIGURES OF THE TWENTIES GREW UP, MET, AND FELL IN LOVE
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. …” It was an odd way for a rich and world-famous young writer to end his third novel— The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yet looking back now, now that he is even more famous than he was in his short lifetime, with Gatsby made into a multimillion-dollar movie amidst enormous fanfare, we can see how touchingly appropriate that ending was. For Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre, his beautiful, doomed bride, their past was already a romantic lost world while both of them were still in their twenties.
They grew up in middle-class American families, he in the Midwest, she in the south; but both telt rrom the start that they were destined for great and fabulous things. “Marked for glory”—that was the way Scott put it later. Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1896, he went to private schools and was outstanding—not so much for academic work as for charm, almost excessive good looks, and easy success in extracurricular pursuits. He was small but played football with eager intensity; he wrote stories, poems, plays—one of his plays, when he was only sixteen, was produced locally with Scott himself as one character. Off to Princeton in 1913, he was soon writing for the college literary magazines as well as the famous Triangle Show; he was also learning to drink, to be a highly accomplished conversationalist and dancer at balls, and to dream of fortune and fame with a kind of astounding assurance. “I’m only interested in the best,” he told his friends.
When the World War came, volunteering was de rigueur for a young man like Fitzgerald. He expected to be killed in some heroic engagement in France; instead he was alternately thrilled and lacerated in a stormy love affair with the most beautiful belle in Montgomery, Alabama, where his infantry regiment went for training. Zelda Sayre, born in 1900, was the spoiled youngest daughter of an Alabama supreme court justice. In the big house on Pleasant Avenue she grew up doing just as she pleased; in school she did the same. She was goldenhaired, irrepressible, mischievous; everyone forgave her except possibly her girl friends, for by the time she was fourteen the boys were crowding round her like—well, moths around a flame. Nobody did things with quite the flair that Zelda did, nor quite as well: she danced better, swam better, acted better, and (it was rumored) kissed better than any girl in town. And she was daring: she smoked and drank a bit; one of her frequent observations was “What the hell!” She read a lot, but seldom her school books—fairy tales, she said, were her favorites.
Scott and Zelda met at a country-club dance in the summer of 1918. She had just graduated from Sidney Lanier High as the “most attractive” girl in her class; he was resplendent in his officer’s uniform. They danced together “in ecstatic suspension,” as Zelda remembered it later; neither of them had ever before met anyone like the other. It was as if their stars had been fated to cross from the beginning, and by summer’s end they were turbulently in love. They quarrelled and made up, quarrelled again and made up again. She lived on amorous attention and went on dating other swains by the dozen when Scott, discharged from the Army without ever seeing France, went to New York to launch his career as a professional writer. He was baffled and jealous but strangely proud, too; wasn’t he engaged to the most stunning and popular girl in the world? In the spring of 1919 they broke up; in the fall Scott’s first novel, This Side of Paradise, was accepted by Scribner’s—and he was accepted again by Zelda. The book was an instant hit; Zelda came to New York, and they were married on April 3, 1920, attended by a handful of friends and no parents.
They were not to live happily ever after, or even long after. Their “fairy tale,” as Zelda called it, went to pieces fast despite the success of The Beautiful and Damned (1922). There were endless parties in New York and Paris, on Long Island and on the Riviera, with Edmund Wilson, George Jean Nathan, Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Hemingways, all the flaring young comets of the “lost generation"; there was endless drinking and arguing and weeping, and by 1930 Zelda had gone off to a Swiss sanitarium with the first of a series of mental breakdowns. Meanwhile Scott’s star was in declension: The Great Gatsby (1925) had been a critical but not a financial triumph; Tender Is the Night (1934), a big novel finished in the middle of what was, for Scott, a depression mental as well as economic, failed in both respects. There were temporary reunions with Zelda and their little girl, Scottie; there was a brief renaissance of Scott’s creative talent in Hollywood, where he began another novel, The Last Tycoon . But the pageant was prematurely over; the show that had started so bravely simply did not go on. Scott Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 1940; he was forty-four. Zelda lingered on until 1948, when she perished in a fire in a mental hospital in North Carolina.
We present here a selection from The Romantic Egoists, a pictorial autobiography from the scrapbooks and albums of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, edited by Scottie Fitzgerald Smith (their daughter), Matthew J. Bruccoli, and Joan P. Kerr, to be published next month by Charles Scribner’s Sons.