April 3, 1920: Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald Get Married and One of History’s Most Turbulent Romances Ensues, Recounted in Zelda’s Letter
“Love is bitter and all there is… the rest is for the emotional beggars of the earth.”
By Maria Popova
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.
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.
Published April 3, 2014