Friday, July 24, 2020

Scott’s literary property

Zelda Fitzgerald, wife and muse of the great American novelist, Scott Fitzgerald, was born 120 years ago today. The couple married young, and their wild and extravagant New York lifestyle, on the back of Scott’s early publishing success, came to epitomise the so-called Jazz Age. By the age of 30, Zelda was already suffering from mental problems from which she suffered for the rest of her life. It was Nancy Milford, in her 1970 biography of Zelda, who first revealed the extent to which Scott plagiarised Zelda’s diaries. When an editor offered to publish Zelda’s diaries, she reveals, Scott vetoed the idea - Zelda apparently offered no resistance to the rather high-handed refusal, ‘and the diaries remained Scott’s literary property rather than hers.’

The youngest of six children Zelda Sayre was born into a prominent Southern family in Montgomery, Alabama, on 24 July 1900. Her father was a justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama, and one of her grandfathers had been a senator. Aged 14, she attended Sidney Lanier High School. An active member of the local youth scene, she was more interested in dancing and boys than education - indeed she developed an extrovert, flamboyant personality. In 1918, she met the future novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was some four years older than herself.
After an intense courtship, Zelda agreed to marry him as soon as his first novel - This Side of Paradise - was published; and she did in spring 1920. They settled in New York, living an extravagant lifestyle, and becoming celebrities, so-called chroniclers of the Jazz Age (Encyclopaedia Britannica). The following year, when she fell pregnant, they moved to Scott’s home in St. Paul, Minnesota. Their only child, Frances, was born in 1921. Zelda began contributing articles and short stories to magazines, and helping her husband with a play, but they were running up large debts.
In 1924, the couple relocated to Antibes on France’s south coast, and Scott set about completing what would be published as The Great Gatsby. Through the second half of the 1920s, the marriage became more strained, and Zelda had an affair with a French pilot. Around 1927, she became re-obsessed with ballet, taking up a gruelling routine of exercise, and eventually being invited to join an opera ballet company in Naples. However, she declined the offer, and subsequently had a breakdown spending time in Swiss sanatoriums. In late 1931, the couple returned to Montgomery, Alabama, where her judge father was dying. Scott left for Hollywood, and Zelda was admitted to Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore. This is where she wrote her only novel, Save Me the Waltz, a largely autobiographical version of her troubled marriage. It did not sell well, and she turned to painting.

Scott published Tender Is the Night in 1934, nearly 10 years after finishing his last novel, but by this time, the couple were greatly in debt. Scott was struggling with alcoholism, and Zelda was in and out of health clinics. In 1940, Scott died of a heart attack, and in 1948 Zelda died in a fire (one of nine) at Highland Hospital. Further information is readily available online at the F. Scott Fitzgerald Society, Wikipedia, and

Some 20 years after her death Nancy Milford’s biography - Zelda - was published by Harper & Row (1970) - this can be read online here. Milford portrayed her as a symbol of thwarted artistry, constantly  frustrated in her attempts to establish herself as an artist in her own right, and thus exemplifying the struggle women faced more generally in finding outlets and acceptance for their creativity. In particular, Milford uncovered a theme, through the first half of Zelda’s life with Scott, concerning the way he regularly plagiarised Zelda’s diaries for his own novels, treating her writing as if he owned it. There’s no trace today of Zelda’s diaries, other than in extracts from Scott’s novels. But here is some of what Milford had to say about the diaries.

‘Soon they were alone together whenever he could borrow a car; they drank gin and kissed in the back rows of the Grand Theatre during the vaudeville shows; and Zelda showed him a diary she kept which Scott found so extraordinary that he was to use portions of it in his fiction, in This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, and The Jelly Bean.’

‘The only other written record that Zelda had kept up to this point in her life was her diary. And that apparently was lost or destroyed a long time ago. Scott had taken it with him to New York and showed it to at least one friend of his that spring, who said that it was “a very human document, but somehow I cannot altogether understand it.” ’

‘George Jean Nathan, who with Mencken edited The Smart Set, which had first published Scott, began to visit them frequently during the summer. An urbane and witty bachelor, Nathan quickly took to Zelda and began a flirtation that consisted of teasing Scott and writing gay notes to Zelda facetiously signed “Yours, for the Empire, A Prisoner of Zelda.” [. . .]

During one of his weekends in Westport he had discovered her diaries. “They interested me so greatly that in my capacity as a magazine editor I later made her an offer for them. When I informed her husband, he said that he could not permit me to publish them since he had gained a lot of inspiration from them and wanted to use parts of them in his own novels and short stories, as for example The Jelly Bean.’ Zelda apparently offered no resistance to this rather high-handed refusal of Nathan’s offer, and the diaries remained Scott’s literary property rather than hers.’

‘While the Fitzgeralds were in New York at the Plaza, Burton Rascoe wrote to Zelda asking her to review The Beautiful and Damned. He had just begun a book department for the New York Tribune and wanted to include pieces that would add sparkle to his new venture. “I think if you could view it, or pretend to view it, objectively and get in a rub here and there it would cause a great deal of comment.” It would also help the sales of the book, he thought. Zelda accepted his challenge and wrote the review under her maiden name. It was her first published piece since high school.

The tone of the review was self-conscious as Zelda indulged in light mockery: she asked the reader to buy Scott’s book for a number of “aesthetic” reasons, which included her own desire for a dress in cloth of gold and a platinum ring. She humorously evoked a vision of herself as the author’s greedy and self-centered wife, and she saw the book as a manual of contemporary etiquette, an indispensable guide to interior decorating -and in Gloria’s adventures an example of how not to behave. About Anthony she said nothing at all; it was Gloria who dominated her attention. Zelda did not try to conceal the parallels between Gloria and herself:

It also seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters, which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald - I believe that is how he spells his name - seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.

We cannot know to what extent Scott used Zelda’s diary but we have her word for it (as well as George Jean Nathan’s) that he did. One such portion from the novel, called “The Diary,” reads:

April 24th—I want to marry Anthony, because husbands are so often “husbands” and I must marry a lover…

What grubworms women are to crawl on their bellies through colorless marriages! Marriage was created not to be a background but to need one. Mine is going to be outstanding. It can’t, shan’t be the setting - it’s going to be the performance, the live, lovely, glamorous performance, and the world shall be the scenery. I refuse to dedicate my life to posterity. Surely one owes as much to the current generation as to one’s unwanted children. What a fate - to grow rotund and unseemly, to lose my self-love.…

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