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Biography Review    

 

Sometimes Madness is Wisdom
Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald: A Marriage
by Kendall Taylor
Ballantine Books, 2001
ISBN:  03-454-4715-8
 
 

I have read many biographies of F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife Zelda, their daughter Scottie, have interviewed numerous people who knew all, and have explored previously hidden corners of their lives. None of the books, articles and biographies have had a better title than Sometimes Madness is Wisdom.

The title comes from Zelda’s own voice, her own title for an exhibition of her art in New York in 1934, most of the work having been done while she was being treated for mental illness in several private sanitariums in Maryland and New York. She could have been describing her own work when she wrote about a Georgia O’Keefe exhibit she visited at the time: They are so lonely and magnificent and heartbreaking, and they inspire a desire to communicate which is perhaps the highest function of anything creative.

Unfortunately, Kendall Taylor’s biography does not ignite such a creative fire. In the beginning, when she describes young Zelda Sayre’s Montgomery, she makes so many small mistakes: Pleasant Street rather than Pleasant Avenue, the wrong address and street of an early Sayre relative’s house that eventually became the First White House of the Confederacy and was moved to its present location, the names of local clubs and restaurants, a confusion of people and dates. As I read, I began to wonder if she makes so many small mistakes, what about the larger canvas and its view of this very important literary couple who happened to live and work in Montgomery for a short period of time in the early 1930s.         

Although intensely drawn with elaborate footnotes and bibliography, I am not sure of the value of this new volume. It seems to me more repetitious than important. It is even repetitious within itself, while it also tends to repeat what has been written previously by such biographers as Matthew J. Bruccoli (of whom Scottie Fitzgerald Smith once told me: If he had his way, he’d describe every time my father went to the bathroom.), Sara Mayfield (who was a close friend of Zelda and knew their marriage as a witness and who could talk about them with great wit and wisdom), Nancy Milford, Andrew Turnbull, and many more.         

The first half of Madness draws a detailed portrait of a young couple madly in love with themselves, their world, each other, showing how their innocence became wrapped in fame and talent as they rushed into a giddy gay atmosphere of the 1920s, which Scott named the Jazz Age and which Zelda became its star Flapper. Ill-prepared for the glitter of such fame, they nevertheless thrust themselves upon the stage with the spotlight glaring and an entire generation watching.         

Beneath the glitter, as Dr. Taylor points out, Fitzgerald’s powerful portrayal of his time, illustrated best in The Great Gatsby, is overwhelmed by his weakness for alcohol that soon consumed his life and drowned his creative genius. Outrageously handsome, spoiled, self-centered, ego-driven, he was hardly the best companion and helpmate. The same could be said for Zelda: a youthful beauty and a talented ballet dancer whose beauty and talent dwindled tragically as her mental disease became more and more profound.         

I could not help but think while reading this book that a Fitzgerald biography could be written entitled The Unfinished Life. He never seemed to finish anything totally with the exception of The Great Gatsby. He went to Princeton, became a hit on campus, but he never really studied and never finished his work there. He went to the army, was stationed at Camp Sheridan near Montgomery, met Zelda, but the World War ended before he could be shipped overseas. He and Zelda fell in love, were married in the chapel at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, began endless parties, but their marriage fell apart in a nightmare of alcohol and mental illness. His first novels lacked the polish and sophistication of Gatsby. And he was never completely satisfied with his short story collections. Scott’s last novel, The Last Tycoon, was never finished. And Zelda too died relatively young.

In all of Dr. Taylor’s research, it seemed to me lacking in her shortage of detail about the Fitzgerald’s return to Montgomery, when Zelda’s father died, when she started writing her novel, Save Me the Waltz, and when Scott returned from Hollywood having begun anew his mammoth bout of drinking, which virtually turned Zelda’s life upside down and caused another breakdown.

The second half of Dr. Taylor’s book reads more like a doctatorial thesis than a biography. In agonizing clinical detail the author outlines the depth and despair not only of Zelda’s illness and the various treatments but Scott’s freefall into depression, emotional and financial bankruptcy brought on by displays of anti-social behavior that caused him to become persona non grata in the motion picture community in Hollywood, his last bastion for a steady income.

I have no doubt that Dr. Taylor has worked hard, researched long, and read voraciously about the Fitzgeralds. That work shows in the massive details, particularly in the second half, piling complication on top of complication as their Humpty Dumpty lives could never be put back together again.

This is not a book that could be read for enjoyment. It is too depressing. However, it works well as part of the puzzle, placed in context with the other biographies, for the Fitzgerald aficionado who cannot get enough of this illustrious but doomed couple.         

Wayne Greenhaw’s play, The Spirit Tree, about F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s return to Montgomery in 1931 was read in the Southern Writers Workshop at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.   

 

Wayne Greenhaw
Southern Scribe Reviews

 

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