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Zelda Fitzgerald: The Tragic, Meticulously Researched Biography of the Jazz Age’s High Priestess

“Zelda Fitzgerald: The Tragic, Meticulously Researched Biography of the Jazz Age’s High Priestess”

Author: Sally Cline

Publisher: Arcade Publishing

Pages: 492

Price: $16.95 (Paper)

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald was a charismatic, vivacious, beautiful, enigmatic, creative, deeply disturbed woman. Several full-length biographies have attempted to explain her. Before she ever met F. Scott Fitzgerald in Montgomery she was already famous/notorious in Alabama for her wit, physical daring and risqué behavior.

As the subtitle says, this biography is indeed meticulously researched. Cline has read everything—letters, diaries, memoirs—and held dozens of interviews. Any problems here lie not in shallow research but in her interpretations of that research. Cline, like any biographer, brings her biases to the table.

Stationed at Fort Sheridan, Scott met and courted the belle of Montgomery in July of 1918. She was not yet 19. He was a Roman Catholic from Minnesota. She was the daughter of a dour justice of the Alabama Supreme Court. From the time of their wedding at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, the Fitzgeralds were both national celebrities, known for their style and talent and for their outrageous drunken behavior.

At first their high-jinks seemed exciting but harmless: living at the Biltmore Hotel, riding on the roof of the taxicab, jumping into the Washington Square fountain, but, as the years passed, it became more and more obvious that Scott was a serious alcoholic whose writing powers were waning and Zelda an unhappy, frustrated neurotic, finally institutionalized for profound depression, multiple suicide attempts and what was correctly or not diagnosed as schizophrenia.

This biography, like those by Sara Mayfield, Nancy Milford, Linda Wagner-Martin and others, tries to explain what happened, what went wrong and, if possible, whose fault it was.

Wagner-Martin’s biography is probably the most balanced. Sara Mayfield (who knew Scott and Zelda personally), Nancy Milford, and now Sally Cline, want to put the blame on Scott, as did Zelda’s family.

There is evidence for this. Once Scott took Zelda out of the South she had no support system of family and friends. Whenever they weren’t partying, Scott wanted her to be a dependent, conventional wife and that was impossible; she had no training for it.

To assert her selfhood and achieve some status as an artist, Zelda took up painting, assiduously. There were more than 400 works, many now lost. She studied ballet, in Paris and in Baltimore, obsessively, sometimes four lessons a day, to the point of exhaustion and physical breakdown. Zelda achieved considerable success as a dancer, even though conventional wisdom insisted a girl had to start very early to become first-rate.

Cline does more with the dancing and especially with the paintings, than any previous biographers, describing and analyzing them at considerable length. The paintings are not strictly realistic, sometimes even grotesque, and so lend themselves to interpretation.

It is true, as the feminist commentators insist, that Scott used Zelda’s diaries and letters and even witty bits of conversation in his fiction and gave her no credit. Sometimes they even published, under both their names, or just his, stories Zelda alone had written: they got bigger paychecks that way. (After a few years, however, Zelda did publish a novel and a number of pieces of fiction and nonfiction, so we can evaluate her talents as a writer.)

More than previous biographers, Cline makes the Fitzgeralds’ sexual history a big part of this biography. She asserts that Zelda was raped by two of Montgomery’s upper crust when she was only 15, and even drops in the idea that Zelda’s father may have had incestuous relations with Zelda, then backs away, only saying there were “rumors.”

Cline states the names and places for a string of affairs by Scott. She names the writer Dorothy Parker, actress Lois Moran, socialite Emily Vanderbilt and others. This is not in itself shocking but, in fact, previous biographies of Scott had suggested these were merely infatuations, not consummated, and that Scott was faithful to Zelda until it was clear Zelda was going to spend most of the rest of her life in mental hospitals.

Fitzgerald had a fairly open affair with the Hollywood columnist Sheilah Graham in the last years of his life. Scott’s biographers all agree he really liked her and she was very good for him, providing an orderly life and no drinking.

Cline, however, doesn’t care for Graham: “Sheilah had a streak of vulgarity and a line in lies that would have appalled Zelda.…” Cline says that Scott “saw through Sheilah’s glittering façade to her shallow ignorant nature...[but] found her spunky and sustaining.” This seems equal parts harsh and clairvoyant.

Cline also suggests numerous times that Scott had homosexual inclinations. Scott needn’t have felt singled out. Cline also suggests that Ernest Hemingway and Gerald Murphy, among others, were latent or secret homosexuals.

More inclined to bisexuality, it appears, was Zelda herself, but Cline explains it this way: “her motive was probably another attempt to do something for herself, to express new desires separate from Scott. That these tentative sexual expressions usually came only after she was drunk was because they were accompanied by anxiety.”

Cline has her chronologies and data right but doesn’t seem to see some of the contradictions in her own text. She insists that Scott, the domineering drunk husband, in collusion with the male chauvinist psychiatrists in clinics in France, Switzerland and America all conspired to crush Zelda’s spirit and make her a submissive housewife but doesn’t seem to notice that, even on the next page, she reports that Zelda’s father had a major nervous breakdown, as did her sister Marjorie. Zelda’s brother, Anthony, and her aunt Marjorie, among others in the family, committed suicide.

They were not married to F. Scott Fitzgerald. There’s no use blaming him.

The forces, internal and external, genetic and marital, that shaped and drove Zelda, that complicated , extraordinary woman, have still not all been found and understood.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.
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