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Beating on: the Heart of the Love Story of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

This month, I’m revisiting one of my favorite collections Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott & Zelda Fitzgerald edited by Jackson R. Bryer and Cathy W. Barks. It’s impossible to summarize the breadth of this excellent compilation, and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to fans of letters or the Fitzgeralds. Here, I’ve included moments that have inspired, challenged, and redefined my definition of a love story. I hope they inspire yours too.

The letters begin in 1918, when Zelda was a daring southern belle and Scott a lieutenant stationed nearby in Montgomery, Alabama. Scott tells a friend, “I fell in love with her courage, her sincerity, and her flaming self-respect” (p. 8). Many people know of Zelda’s physical courage—jumping into fountains, dancing on tables, diving off cliffs—but fewer know of her emotional courage, and that’s what readers get glimpses of in her letters. During their early courtship, Zelda tells Scott, “I’m not afraid of anything. To be afraid a person must be a coward or very great and big. I am neither” (p. 43).

But her courage would be tested the first ten years of marriage, the decade dubbed the Jazz Age for its music, drinking, and gaiety. Scott was an alcoholic, and the parties went on for days. He was also a successful writer who’d gained fame with his first novel This Side of Paradise in 1920. Although Zelda wrote and painted, she didn’t think of herself as an artist. In her younger years, she’d danced ballet, so she returned to it in 1925, despite being a mother now and twenty five years old.

After studying relentlessly and being offered a solo role in Aida at a professional dance company, Zelda suffered a major breakdown. She had hallucinations (“vaporous places peopled with one-dimensional figures and tremulous buildings” p. 83), and when she tried to drive off a cliff, Scott had her institutionalized. In the early letters from the facility, she struggles with the treatment and begs for her old life back. In September of 1930, she writes, “Please help me. Every day more of me dies with this beating I’m taking” (p. 90, emphasis Zelda’s). Many letters vacillate between blaming Scott and worshipping him, the mental illness blurring the reality of her condition.

Though Zelda would get better, life as they knew would change. She would be in and out of institutions the rest of her life; however, she would continue to paint, write, and take classes. In 1936, Zelda wrote, “I wish I had been what I thought I was; and so debonnaire; and so debonnaire” (p. 222, spelling original).

I imagine Scott wished that too, for he was as reliant on Zelda as she was on him. She was the flapper girl of his books, his muse. “If I have failed you is it just barely possible that you have failed me,” he writes in 1930 (p. 89).  But he never blamed her: “We ruined ourselves. I’ve never honestly thought we ruined each other” (p. 65).

For the couple, there would be “no second acts,” a line often accredited to Scott without much understanding. Fitzgerald indeed believed in second acts, as he would reinvent himself again and again throughout the years. In one of her letters, Zelda writes, “You have always had so much sympathy for people forced to start over late in life that I should think you could find the generosity to help me” (p. 80).  While Zelda battled mental illness, Scott battled ongoing money troubles. He moved to Hollywood (where he met Shelia Graham) to write for the big screen. Screenwriting didn’t pay off, and he began work on his final novel, The Last Tycoon. He would never finish it.

The last time Scott and Zelda saw each other was on a trip to Cuba in 1939. The vacation was a dismal failure. Scott had to be hospitalized for alcoholism when they returned to New York. Zelda was worried and wrote him two letters before ever leaving the city. These letters show the depth of their connection, despite their tumultuous and often separate lives, and even hope for the future. Zelda writes, “There are lots of happy places: it says so in the time tables, and before long we’ll surely find one. […] Meantime: You know I’ll be there waiting on that green hill-side and expecting you” (pp. 282-283). Scott replies, “You are the finest, loveliest, tenderest, most beautiful person I have ever known, but even that is an understatement because the length you went to there at the end would have tried anyone beyond endurance” (p. 283).

Scott died December 21, 1940, of a heart attack. His last letter to Zelda was dated December 19. Zelda would continue to live between her mother’s house in Montgomery, Alabama, and Highland Hospital. On March 10, 1948, she died in a fire at Highland Hospital. They were rejoined in burial, Scott’s famous quote from The Great Gatsby marking their headstone: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Beating on, like a heart—that was the Fitzgeralds. They didn’t have a perfect marriage or even a happy one. But they had passion for life, hope for the future, and love for one another. And sometimes that’s enough for a great love story.

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