Not only the best collection of letters ever published between F. Scott and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda serves as perhaps the best biography ever written about the famed and fabled couple whose love affair began in Montgomery when he was a 21-year-old second lieutenant stationed at nearby Camp Sheridan and she was an 18-year-old Southern belle.
After meeting in July 1918 “probably at a country club dance,” the book’s narrative states, their correspondence begins with a few short, more or less perfunctory notes, then, on February of 1919, he wires her: “Darling heart, ambition enthusiasm and confidence I declare everything glorious in this world is a game.” He expresses his “only hope and faith is that my darling heart will be with me soon.”
Days later, she replies, “Lover -- I drifted into school this morning, and delivered a most enlightening talk on Browning. Of course I was well qualified, having read, approximately, two poems. However, the class declared themselves delighted and I departed with honors.”
In March, she wrote, “All these soft, warm nights going to waste when I ought to be lying in your arms under the moon -- the dearest arms in all the world -- darling arms that I love so to feel around me.”
Through their own words the reader sees and feels and experiences their love growing tenderly and resolutely. Unlike the latest biography of the marriage, Sometimes Madness is Wisdom by Kendall Taylor, who claims that Zelda’s letters “number in the thousands,” this book allows the rise and fall and final tumble of the emotional turmoil of their lives to be told by themselves with occasional succinct notes from the editors. Furthermore, the editors write that Taylor¹s statement is “disturbing” and “inaccurate.” While Taylor asserts that Zelda’s letters were “superbly crafted,” the editors write that they number around 500, and “although we agree that the letters are superb, they are not crafted: Zelda wrote spontaneously, impressionistically, and quickly.”
The editors maintain that the Taylor biography “is not all that important in itself, but it does represent for the first time a full-length study guided by a viewpoint that has ridden the wave of contemporary criticism for the past 30 years. The Fitzgeralds’ marriage was a chaotic one, but it is no more reasonable to say that Scott drove his wife made than it is to say that Zelda drove her husband to drink.” On this subject, their granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, writing in her introduction to the letters, states, “The myth persists that Scott drove Zelda crazy. My Mother (Scottie), who was eight years old when Zelda was first hospitalized, and who visited her mother in various clinics over the next 17 years, wrote to a biographer: ‘I think (short of documentary evidence to the contrary) that if people are not crazy, they get themselves out of crazy situations, so I have never been able to buy the notion that it was my father’s drinking which led her to the sanitarium. Nor do I think she led him to the drinking. I simply don’t know the answer, and of course, that is the conundrum that keeps the legend going...’”
There is no doubt about the beauty and the depth of their love. In March of 1919 Scott sent her an engagement ring and she wrote, “Every time I see it on my finger I am rather startled – I’ve never worn a ring before, they’ve always seemed so inappropriate -- but I love to see this shining there so nice and white like our love -- And it sorter says ‘soon’ to me all the time -- Just sings it all day long.”
The story of their Jazz Age marriage through the ‘20s, the birth of Scottie, their life in Long Island and Paris, all of it unfolds through their words to each other. In 1930, when she is hospitalized in Switzerland, her words turn melancholy. Like her legs, which she described as “flabby,” her words move in slow-motion: “You have always had so much sympathy for people forced to start over late in life that I should think you could find a generosity to help me amongst your many others -- not as you would a child but as an equal.”
In the summer, still at the clinic, she wrote, “Every day it seems to me that things are more barren and sterile and hopeless.” She implored him to visit. Her mind heavy with depression, she wrote, “I am thoroughly and completely humiliated and broken if that was what you wanted.” In the fall, she wrote, “Dearest, my Darling -- Living is cold and technical without you, a death mask of itself.” In each of her outpourings, her words echo with a resonance of love, pleading from a chasm of desperation.
Especially interesting to me are the letters from Montgomery, after she was released from the sanitarium and declared recovered. The family sailed to America and returned to Alabama, where they settled at 819 Felder Avenue.
It was not long before Scott was lured to Hollywood to write a screenplay for which he would be paid enough money to live on a finish his novel in the serene surroundings of Cloverdale.
Zelda wrote daily, describing Scottie’s growth (she’d celebrated her 10th birthday in October) and Zelda¹s father’s sickness and the quiet life of the pleasant town. “The air blows warm and soft as the swirl of a painter’s brush outside and the dry leaves sink in a slow nocturne. There is a frustrated melancholy floating on the wind in stagnant spirals and it feels like the nights in This Side of Paradise. Effulgent voluptuous rain smothers the tree tops and the darkness shoves along the street in scandalized puffs.”
It was a scene plagiarized slightly from her own novel which she was secretly writing. Visiting the country club, where she had danced with Scott and where now she occasionally played golf, she transformed herself back through time to her 18th year when out of a sea of southern suitors appeared a handsome lieutenant named David, who like Scott “smelled like new goods. Being close to him with her face in the space between his ear and his stiff army collar was like being initiated into the subterranean reserves of a fine fabric store exuding the delicacy of cambrics and linen and luxury bound in bales.”
Zelda never wrote Scott about writing the novel. She knew it would infuriate him. She kept it quiet. But I read between the lines, heavy with meaning, especially after her father died in mid-November. She wrote, “The sky lay over the city like a map showing the strata of things and the big full-moon toppled over in a furrow like the abandoned wheel of a gun carriage on a sun-set field of battle and the shadows walked like cats and I looked into the white and ghostly interior of things and thought of you and I looked on their structural outsides and thought of you and was lonesome.”
After Scott returned the family celebrated Christmas. Scott had returned to drink, due in part to a disastrous time with the movie studio in Hollywood. They vacationed in St. Petersburg, Florida. Zelda discovered Scott’s whiskey, drank from it herself, and soon began deteriorating mentally. Scott took her to Phipp’s Clinic at Baltimore in February. While there she polished the novel and again wrote to Scott, back home in Montgomery with Scottie, almost daily.
As she had predicted, when Scott discovered her novel, which she had sent to his agent Harold Ober in late March, her husband exploded. He accused her of stealing from him and worried that her work would compete unnecessarily with his own.
In the meantime, her own mental condition worsened. After the following summer at house near Baltimore, their life together would never be the same again. However, her letters and his would not fail to reach the emotional high they had shown in early years. She was in and out of mental hospitals. He returned to Hollywood. Their lives apart were melded by their letters, until he died of a heart attack in December of 1940. Eight years later she died in a fire at a sanitarium near Asheville, North Carolina.
Wayne Greenhaw wrote a play, The Spirit Tree, about Scott, Zelda and Scottie in Montgomery in 1931 and 1932. It was developed in workshop at the Southern Writers Project at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.
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