Brain Pickings

April 3, 1920: Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald Get Married and One of History’s Most Turbulent Romances Ensues, Recounted in Zelda’s Letter

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“Love is bitter and all there is… the rest is for the emotional beggars of the earth.”

During WWI, F. Scott Fitzgerald was assigned as a lieutenant in an infantry near Montgomery, Alabama. In a country club there, he met and instantly fell in love with Zelda Sayre, the wealthy daughter of an Alabama Supreme Court justice and the woman whom Fitzgerald would later anoint “the first American flapper.” The courtship continued through the war and once it ended, Fitzgerald — an aspiring writer working for an advertising agency and living in a single-room occupancy in Manhattan’s Morningside Heights — finally convinced Zelda to marry him. On April 3, 1920 — exactly a week after Fitzgerald’s debut novel, This Side of Paradise, was published — the two exchanged wedding vows at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. One of literary history’s most turbulent and dramatic relationships ensued — Scott was a ladies’ man since boyhood and Zelda developed an intoxicating obsession with ballet, which swept her into a downward spiral of physical and mental illness, which culminated with a breakdown in the spring of 1930. Perhaps ironically, despite spending the latter half of her life in and out of hospitals and psychiatric wards, Zelda outlived Scott, who died from a heart attack after years of heavy drinking, only to perish herself in a fire at Highland Hospital. Theirs was a love that burned with so destructive a flame that it charred both of them to the ground.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

From F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters (UK; public library) — the same volume that gave us Fitzgerald’s heartwarming fatherly advice to his daughter Scottie, his brilliantly acerbic response to hate mail, and his wisdom on the secret of great writing — comes this long and impassioned letter from Zelda. Filled with typos and penned in a stream-of-consciousness manner, it was written in the late summer of 1930 from the Princeton University Prangins Clinic in Nyon and traces the history of the relationship from their marriage to her hospitalization in Switzerland:

You say that you have been thinking of the past. The weeks since I haven’t slept more than three or four hours, swathed in bandages sick and unable to read so have I. There was: The strangeness and excitement of New York, of reporters and furry smothered hotel lobbies, the brightness of the sun on the window panes and the prickly dust of late spring: the impressiveness of the Fowlers and much tea-dancing and my eccentric behavior at Princeton. There were Townsend’s blue eyes and Ludlow’s rubbers and a trunk that exhuded sachet and the marshmallow odor of the Biltmore. There were always Ludow and Townsend and Alex and Bill Mackey and you and me. We did not like women and we were happy. There was Georges appartment and his absinth cock-tails and Ruth Findleys gold hair in his comb, and visits to the “Smart Set” and “Vanity Fair” — a collegiate literary world puffed into wide proportions by the New York papers. There were flowers and night clubs and Ludlow’s advice that moved us to the country. At West Port, we quarrelled over morals once, walking beside a colonial wall under the freshness of lilacs. We sat up all night over “Brass Knuckles and Guitar.” There was the road house where we bought gin, and Kate Hicks and the Maurices and the bright harness of the Rye Beach Club. We swam in the depth of the night with George before we quarrelled with him and went to John Williams parties where there were actresses who spoke French when they were drunk. George played “Cuddle up a Little Closer” on the piano. There were my white knickers that startled the Connecticut hills, and the swim in the sandaled lady’s bird-pool. The beach, and dozens of men, mad rides along the Post Road and trips to New York. We never could have a room at a hotel at night we looked so young, so once we filled an empty suit case with the telephone directory and spoons and a pin-cushion at The Manhattan—I was romanticly attached to Townsend and he went away to Tahatii—and there were your episodes of Gene Bankhead and Miriam. We bought the Marmon with Harvey Firestone and went south through the haunted swamps of Virginiia, the red clay hills of Georgia, the sweet rutted creek-bottoms of Alabama. We drank corn on the wings of an aeroplane in the moon-light and danced at the country-club and came back. I had a pink dress that floated and a very theatrical silver one that I bought with Don Stewart.

We moved to 59th Street. We quarrelled and you broke the bathroom door and hurt my eye. We went so much to the theatre that you took it off the income tax. We trailed through Central Park in the snow after a ball at the Plaza, I quarrelled with Zoë about Bottecelli at the Brevoort and went with her to buy a coat for David Belasco. We had Bourbon and Deviled Ham and Christmas at the Overmans and ate lots at the Lafayette. There was Tom Smith and his wall-paper and Mencken and our Valentine party and the time I danced all night with Alex and meals at Mollats with John and I skated, and was pregnant and you wrote the “Beautiful and Damned.” We came to Europe and I was sick and complained always. There was London, and Wopping with Shane Leslie and strawberries as big as tomatoes at Lady Randolph Churchills. There was St. Johns Ervines wooden leg and Bob Handley in the gloom of the Cecil — There was Paris and the heat and the ice-cream that did not melt and buying clothes — and Rome and your friends from the British Embassy and your drinking, drinking. We came home. There was “Dog” and lunch at the St. Regis with Townsend and Alex and John: Alabama and the unbearable heat and our almost buying a house. Then we went to St. Paul and hundreds of people came to call. There were the Indian forests and the moon on the sleeping porch and I was heavy and afraid of the storms. Then Scottie was born and we went to all the Christmas parties and a man asked Sandy “who is your fat friend?” Snow covered everything. We had the Flu and went lots to the Kalmans and Scottie grew strong. Joseph Hergesheimer came and Saturdays we went to the university Club. We went to the Yacht Club and we both had minor flirtatons. Joe began to dislike me, and I played so much golf that I had Tetena. Kollie almost died. We both adored him. We came to New York and rented a house when we were tight. There was Val Engelicheff and Ted Paramour and dinner with Bunny in Washington Square and pills and Doctor Lackin And we had a violent quarrell on the train going back, I don’t remember why. Then I brought Scottie to New York. She was round and funny in a pink coat and bonnet and you met us at the station. In Great Neck there was always disorder and quarrels: about the Golf Club, about the Foxes, about Peggy Weber, about Helen Buck, about everything. We went to the Rumseys, and that awful night at the Mackeys when Ring sat in the cloak-room. We saw Esther and Glen Hunter and Gilbert Seldes. We gave lots of parties: the biggest one for Rebecca West. We drank Bass Pale Ale and went always to the Bucks or the Lardners or the Swopes when they weren’t at our house. We saw lots of Sydney Howard and fought the week-end that Bill Motter was with us. We drank always and finally came to France because there were always too many people in the house. On the boat there was almost a scandal about Bunny Burgess. We found Nanny and went to Hyeres — Scottie and I were both sick there in the dusty garden full of Spanish Bayonet and Bourgainvilla. We went to St. Raphael. You wrote, and we went sometimes to Nice or Monte Carlo. We were alone, and gave big parties for the French aviators. Then there was Josen [Edouard Jozan, a French naval aviator with whom Zelda Fitzgerald was romantically involved in the summer of 1924] and you were justifiably angry. We went to Rome. We ate at the Castelli dei Cesari.

The sheets were always damp. There was Christmas in the echoes, and eternal walks. We cried when we saw the Pope. There were the luminous shadows of the Pinco and the officer’s shining boots. We went to Frascati and Tivoli. There was the jail, and Hal Rhodes at the Hotel de Russie and my not wanting to go to the moving-picture ball at the Excelsior and asking Hungary Cox to take me home. Then I was horribly sick, from trying to have a baby and you didn’t care much and when I was well we came back to Paris. We sat to-gether in Marseilles and thought how good France was. We lived in the rue Tilsitt, in red plush and Teddy came for tea and we went to the markets with the Murphies. There were the Wimans and Mary Hay and Eva La Galliene and rides in the Bois at dawn and the night we all played puss-in-the-corner at the Ritz. There was Tunti and nights in Mont Matre. We went to Antibes, and I was sick always and took too much Dial. The Murphy’s were at the Hotel du Cap and we saw them constantly. Back in Paris I began dancing lessons because I had nothing to do. I was sick again at Christmas when the Mac Leishes came and Doctor Gros said there was no use trying to save my ovaries. I was always sick and having picqures and things and you were naturally more and more away. You found Ernest and the Cafe des Lilas and you were unhappy when Dr. Gros sent me to Salies-de Beam. At the Villa Paquita I was always sick. Sara brought me things and we gave a lunch for Geralds father. We went to Cannes and and listned to Raquel Miller and dined under the rain of fireworks. You couldn’t work because your room was damp and you quarrelled with the Murphys. We moved to a bigger villa and I went to Paris and had my appendix out. You drank all the time and some man called up the hospital about a row you had had. We went home, and I wanted you to swim with me at Juan-les-Pins but you liked it better where it was gayer: at the Garoupe with Marice Hamilton and the Murphys and the Mac Leishes. Then you found Grace Moore and Ruth and Charlie and the summer passed, one party after another. We quarrelled about Dwight Wi-man and you left me lots alone. There were too many people and too many things to do: every-day there was something and our house was always full. There was Gerald and Ernest and you often did not come home. There were the English sleepers that I found downstairs one morning and Bob and Muriel and Walker and Anita Loos, always somebody — Alice Delamar and Ted Rousseau and our trips to St. Paul and the note from Isadora Duncan and the countryside slipping by through the haze of Chamberry-fraises and Graves — That was your summer. I swam with Scottie except when I followed you, mostly unwillingly. Then I had asthma and almost died in Genoa. And we were back in America — further apart than ever before. In California, though you would not allow me to go anywhere without you, you yourself engaged in flagrantly sentimental relations with a child. You said you wanted nothing more from me in all your life, though you made a scene when Carl suggested that I go to dinner with him and Betty Compson. We came east: I worked over Ellerslie incessantly and made it function. There was our first house-party and you and Lois — and when there was nothing more to do on the house I began dancing lessons. You did not like it when you saw it made me happy. You were angry about rehearsals and insistent about trains. You went to New York to see Lois and I met Dick Knight the night of that party for Paul Morand. Again, though you were by then thoroughly entangled sentimentally, you forbade my seeing Dick and were furious about a letter he wrote me. On the boat coming over you paid absolutely no attention of any kind to me except to refuse me the permission to stay to a concert with whatever-his-name-was. I think the most humiliating and bestial thing that ever happenned to me in my life is a scene that you probably don’t remember even in Genoa. We lived in the rue Vaugirard. You were constantly drunk. You didn’t work and were dragged home at night by taxi-drivers when you came home at all. You said it was my fault for dancing all day. What was I to do? You got up for lunch. You made no advances toward me and complained that I was un-responsive. You were literally eternally drunk the whole summer. I got so I couldn’t sleep and I had asthma again. You were angry when I wouldn’t go with you to Mont Matre. You brought drunken undergraduates in to meals when you came home for them, and it made you angry that I didn’t care any more. I began to like Egorowa — On the boat going back I told you I was afraid that there was something abnormal in the relationship and you laughed. There was more or less of a scandal about Philipson, but you did not even try to help me. You brought Philippe back and I couldn’t manage the house any more; he was insubordinate and disrespectful to me and you wouldn’t let him go. I began to work harder at dancing — I thought of nothing else but that. You were far away by then and I was alone. We came back to rue Palantine and you, in a drunken stupor told me a lot of things that I only half understood: but I understood the dinner we had at Ernests’. Only I didn’t understand that it matterred. You left me more and more alone, and though you complained that it was the appartment or the servants or me, you know the real reason you couldn’t work was because you were always out half the night and you were sick and you drank constantly. We went to Cannes. I kept up my lessons and we quarrelled. You wouldn’t let me fire the nurse that both Scottie and I hated. You disgraced yourself at the Barry’s party, on the yacht at Monte Carlo, at the casino with Gerald and Dotty. Many nights you didn’t come home. You came into my room once the whole summer, but I didn’t care because I went to the beach in the morning, I had my lesson in the afternoon and I walked at night. I was nervous and half-sick but I didn’t know what was the matter. I only knew that I had difficulty standing lots of people, like the party at Wm J. Locke’s and that I wanted to get back to Paris. We had lunch at the Murphy’s and Gerald said to me very pointedly several times that Nemchinova was at Antibes. Still I didn’t understand. We came back to Paris. You were miserable about your lung, and because you had wasted the summer , but you didn’t stop drinking I worked all the time and I became dependent on Egorowa. I couldn’t walk in the street unless I had been to my lesson. I couldn’t manage the appartment because I couldn’t speak to the servants. I couldn’t go into stores to buy clothes and my emotions became blindly involved. In February, when I was so sick with bronchitis that I had ventouses every day and fever for two weeks, I had to work because I couldn’t exist in the world without it, and still I didn’t understand what I was doing. I didn’t even know what I wanted. Then we went to Africa and when we came back I began to realize because I could feel what was happenning in others. You did not want me. Twice you left my bed saying “I can’t. Don’t you understand” — I didn’t. Then there was the Harvard man who lost his direction, and when I wanted you to come home with me you told me to sleep with the coal man. At Nancy Hoyt’s dinner she offerred her services but there was nothing the matter with my head then, though I was half dead, so I turned back to the studio. Lucienne was sent away but since I knew nothing about the situation, I didn’t know why there was something wrong. I just kept on going. Lucienne came back and later went away again and then the end happenned I went to Malmaison. You wouldn’t help me — I don’t blame you by now, but if you had explained I would have understood because all I wanted was to go on working. You had other things: drink and tennis, and we did not care about each other. You hated me for asking you not to drink. A girl came to work with me but I didn’t want her to. I still believed in love and I thought suddenly of Scottie and that you supported me. So at Valmont I was in tortue, and my head closed to-gether. You gave me a flower and said it was “plus petite et moins etendue” — We were friends — Then you took it away and I grew sicker, and there was nobody to teach me, so here I am, after five months of misery and agony and desperation. I’m glad you have found that the material for a Josepine story and I’m glad that you take such an interest in sports. Now that I can’t sleep any more I have lots to think about, and since I have gone so far alone I suppose I can go the rest of the way — but if it were Scottie I would not ask that she go through the same hell and if I were God I could not justify or find a reason for imposing it — except that it was wrong, of cource, to love my teacher when I should have loved you. But I didn’t have you to love — not since long before I loved her.

I have just begun to realize that sex and sentiment have little to do with each other. When I came to you twice last winter and asked you to start over it was because I thought I was becoming seriously involved sentimentally and preparing situations for which I was morally and practicly unfitted. You had a song about Gigolos: if that had ever entered my head there was, besides the whole studio, 3 other solutions in Paris. I came to you half-sick after a difficult lunch at Armonville and you kept me waiting until it was too late in front of the Guaranty Trust. . . . You didn’t care: so I went on and on — dancing alone, and, no matter what happens, I still know in my heart that it is a Godless, dirty game; that love is bitter and all there is, and that the rest is for the emotional beggars of the earth and is about the equivalent of people who stimulate themselves with dirty post-cards –

This heartbreaking whirlwind account of romantic wretchedness is just about the antithesis of history’s most poetic meditations of love, but in some strange way it appears necessary, for love is a spectrum far too rich and far too bedeviled by complexities to be reduced to optimistic aphorisms. Perhaps there is no more poignant an articulation of those uneasy dynamics than this short verse from the poem “Advice to Lovers,” written by Robert Graves a year before Scott and Zelda’s wedding:

Love is not kindly nor yet grim
But does to you as you to him.

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Happy 80th Birthday, Jane Goodall: The Beloved Primatologist on Science, Religion, and Our Human Responsibilities

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What the chimpanzees teach us about the fine line between faith and apathy.

Legendary British primatologist Jane Goodall (b. April 3, 1934) is celebrated not only as humanity’s greatest expert on chimpanzees but also as a remarkable mind that bridges the rigor of science with the sensitivity of spirituality. In a passage from her altogether fantastic 1999 exploration of science and spirituality, Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey (public library), which also gave us her gorgeous poem “The Old Wisdom”, Goodall reflects on a trying time in her life — her divorce in 1974, coupled with her quest to reconcile the faith in a higher power that she had harbored her whole life with the new understanding of and awe at evolution after her transformational experience of studying the chimpanzees at Gombe Stream National Park.

Portrait of Jane Goodall by Lisa Congdon from our collaborative project, 'The Reconstructionist.' Click image for details.

She writes:

Even if there was no God, even if human beings had no soul, it would still be true that evolution had created a remarkable animal — the human animal — during its millions of years of labor. So very like our closest biological relatives, the chimpanzees, yet so different. For our study of the chimpanzees had helped to pinpoint not only the similarities between them and us, but also those ways in which we are most different. Admittedly, we are not the only beings with personalities, reasoning powers, altruism, and emotions like joy and sorrow; nor are we the only beings capable of mental as well as physical suffering. But our intellect has grown mighty in complexity since the first true men branched off from the ape-man stock some two million years ago. And we, and only we, have developed a sophisticated spoken language. For the first time in evolution, a species evolved that was able to teach its young about objects and events not present, to pass on wisdom gleaned from the successes — and the mistakes — of the past, to make plans for the distant future, to discuss ideas so that they could grow, sometimes out of all recognition, through the combined wisdom of the group.

Echoing Mark Twain’s lament that we often use religion as a mask for human egotism, Goodall considers how these human capacities unfold beyond the intellectual and the spiritual to affect the very behaviors that shape our future and the responsibilities we have to our species, all species, and our precious shared planet:

With language we can ask, as can no other living beings, those questions about who we are and why we are here. And this highly developed intellect means, surely, that we have a responsibility toward the other life-forms of our planet whose continued existence is threatened by the thoughtless behavior of our own human species — quite regardless of whether or not we believe in God. Indeed, those who acknowledge no God, but are convinced that we are in this world as an evolutionary accident, may be more active in environmental responsibility — for if there is no God, then, obviously, it is entirely up to us to put things right. On the other hand, I have encountered a number of people with a strong faith in God who shrug off their own human responsibilities, believing that everything is safely “in God’s hands.” I was brought up to believe that “God helps those who help themselves.” We should all take responsibility, all play our part in helping to clean up and heal the planet that, in so many ways, we have desecrated.

Perhaps rather than disheartening, the awareness that we are, indeed, a cosmic accident is the most powerful gift we have.

Dame Jane Goodall, 2011 (Photograph by Angela George via Wikimedia Commons)

Reason for Hope is a beautiful read in its entirety. Complement it with Goodall’s conversation with Bill Moyers about science and spirit and her little-known, lovely children’s book, then see Carl Sagan on science and religion.

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Winston and George: An Illustrated Ode to Friendship, with an Incredible Creative Journey 50 Years in the Making

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A beautiful and bittersweet redemptive triumph.

In 1956, a twenty-something New Yorker named John Miller left Gotham for Rome to live the life of an aspiring writer, following in the expat footsteps of his heroes, literary legends like Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. There, he befriended Italian artist Giuliano Cucco, and the two created a beautiful series of four nature-inspired picture books. But when Miller returned to New York in 1966, carried on the wings of enormous enthusiasm for the collaboration, he quickly smashed against the realities of an industry which the great Ursula Nordstrom once accurately described as being run by “mediocre ladies in influential positions.” Publishers deemed the imaginative and uncommon books too unmarketable — not mainstream enough — or too costly to produce, given the vibrant colors of the illustrations.

John Miller (left) and Giuliano Cucco in the 1960s

Discouraged but not resigned, Miller followed the typical fate of the New Yorker and changed many apartments over the decades that followed, but he carried the manuscripts and portfolios faithfully with each move, until they ended up in the attic of his house in upstate New York. All along, he knew there was something very special about these books — as did the friends he showed to whom he showed the manuscripts over the years.

It was his friends, too, who encouraged him to resurrect his efforts to find a publisher nearly half a century after the books were created. Eventually, the manuscripts found their way to Muriel Bedrick, the mother of Claudia Zoe Bedrick, head of Enchanted Lion — the wonderful Brooklyn-based independent picture-book publisher that quietly and consistently churns out such award-winning treasures as Alessandro Sanna’s The River, Mark Twain’s Advice to Little Girls, Blexbolex’s Ballad, Øyvind Torseter’s The Hole, and Albertine’s Little Bird. Bedrick instantly fell in love with the heart and art of the books and decided to publish the series. The news came as exquisite creative redemption for 80-year-old Miller, who rushed to get a hold of his old artist friend. (He and Cucco had lost touch over the years.) But when he finally reached the artist’s sister, he was devastated to learn that Cucco and his wife had been killed in a motorcycle accident in 2006, but his son was thrilled to hear about the long-awaited creative validation.

And so the debut of the first book in the series, Winston and George (public library), is a bittersweet feat — an exuberant triumph for Miller after decades of harbored hopes, and a posthumous tribute to Cucco, who never lived to see his dream come true.

But the book itself counters the tragedy with its boundless hopefulness and celebration of life: It tells the story, both playful and poignant, of the unusual friendship between Winston the crocodile and George the crocodile bird who love each other dearly but who have to withstand a flurry of hazards to remain together. It’s a beautiful ode to what true friendship means and to what it necessitates — the unconditional acceptance of each other’s flaws, the ability to see past the surface behavior and into the deeper intention, and the capacity to defend the sanctity of the relationship from the poison of outside pressures.

Winston and George live happily together, fishing in the jungle river as pilot and co-pilot — perched up on the tip of Winston’s nose, George would look into the water for fish and shout “DIVE!” at the opportune moment. Winston would snap the fish up, then the two would share a delicious meal ashore.

But George has one rather irksome quirk: he likes to play pranks on Winston and the other crocodiles. He would fly over and cry “DANGER! DANGER!” just to see them startle from their afternoon nap and dive into the river, or he would push sleeping Winston off the shore into the water, so that his friend awakes in the middle of the water three miles down the river and has to swim back until after sundown.

Irritated, Winston’s crocodile friends would urge him to simply eat George to put an end to the pranks. But the idea is unthinkable to Winston.

In one particularly misplaced prank, Winston and George were coasting down the river in their usual arrangement when George, upon spotting a pile of mud rather than a fish, issued his customary command for Winston to dive.

Down Winston dove, but instead of a fish he found his snout stuck firmly in the mud.

It was very funny at first to see a crocodile’s feet and tail kicking and wagging in the air. But when George realized that his friend was stuck, he grew frightened.

George calls on the other crocodiles and the hippos for help but, fed up with his pranks, they agree to only help Winston if George agrees to accept the fate he deserves for his mischief and let himself be eaten by Winston. Desperate to save his friend’s life, George agrees and the crocodiles and hippos make a long chain to pull Winston out, tugging and tugging.

With one final yank, Winston flew over their heads and landed on a far shore.

Eventually, the crowd gathers around Winston and urges him to gobble up George. Puffing a mighty cloud of mud from his nostrils, Winston demonstratively agrees and opens his giant jaw for George to climb in.

Reluctantly, George stepped over Winston’s sharp teeth and stood inside, waiting for his end to come.

Winston snaps his jaw and emits a loud burp, which pleases the others enough and they disperse satisfied. But the end, of course, is not the end:

Winston opened his jaws, and there was George, alive as ever, safe on his friend’s soft tongue.

George has learned his lesson, but has also felt the bonds of friendship tighten as the two souls expand.

Winston and George is unspeakably magnificent, and the screen does absolutely no justice to Cucco’s rich and enchanting illustrations. Complement it with more of Enchanted Lion’s treasures, including My Father’s Arms Are a Boat, Little Boy Brown, and The River.

Images courtesy of Enchanted Lion

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