Shiny, unhappy people

He was insecure about his manhood, alcoholic and dead in his early forties. She taunted him, went mad and burned to death in an attic. But for a brief moment they were the most glamorous couple of the Jazz Age, he its great chronicler. John Sutherland on the lives, literature and lingering mystique of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald
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'Literary mystique", like feminine mystique, is unfairly distributed. Some of them have "it", some don't. No group of writers (with the possible exception of the Beats) had more than the "Lost Generation", as Gertrude Stein labelled them. "The Beautiful and the Damned" was Scott Fitzgerald's rather more flattering term.

'Literary mystique", like feminine mystique, is unfairly distributed. Some of them have "it", some don't. No group of writers (with the possible exception of the Beats) had more than the "Lost Generation", as Gertrude Stein labelled them. "The Beautiful and the Damned" was Scott Fitzgerald's rather more flattering term.

None was more beautiful, none more damned, than Fitzgerald himself. He was the poète maudit of the Jazz Age (a term he invented) - also known as the "Long Weekend", the "Roaring Twenties", the decade of "Crazy Sundays" which stretched, riotously, between the end of the First World War, and the Great Crash of 1929. The "Smart Set" (another Fitzgerald coinage) mounted a sybaritic opposition to Prohibition - that bizarre manifestation of American puritanism. Cakes and ale - ie cocktails, canapés, the Charleston, short skirts and sex - were what the Lost Generation lived for. They kicked off "the greatest, gaudiest spree in history", and partied for a generation.

Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald's pranks are enshrined as the heroic legends of the Jazz Age. On one occasion, finding an audience of literary people too dull and sober for her taste, Zelda declared that words failed, tore off her black panties, and tossed them at her listeners ("Let them eat lingerie," as Marie Antoinette would have said). At one party, the two of them turned up outside the door on all fours, barking like dogs. At another party Scott solemnly requested everyone's wristwatch, placed them all in a saucepan of tomato soup, and boiled them (time would never be called on one of Scott's wing-dings). While they were staying at the exclusive seaside resort of Westport, Zelda called out the fire brigade. When they arrived with their routine question "Where's the fire?" she pointed, melodramatically, at her heart. Scott, a different kind of fire-raiser, would nonchalantly light his cigarettes with $5 bills. The two of them, gaily plastered and dressed to the nines, would ride the hoods of New York taxis. The "tart smell of gin" (bonded and bathtub varieties) hung over all their pranks. And hung over their hangovers - which were, like the drunks, appropriately heroic.

Paris ("where the 20th century was," as Stein loftily declared) was one Lost Generation capital. The other was New York. They lived fast and most of them died young and still beautiful. An exception was Ernest Hemingway. He may have been, as Zelda memorably put it, "all bullfighting and bullshit", but his manly addiction to the outdoor life, and an indestructible constitution, furnished him a longer span than Scott. "Papa" died old, ugly, drink-sodden, and mad. It wasn't just the beautiful who were damned.

Scott Fitzgerald, with his matinée-idol looks (he was voted the "prettiest" boy in his class at Princeton), and Zelda, with her "Elizabeth Arden face", were perfectly cast for the new fashion magazines; "slicks" as they were called, for the glossy paper they were printed on. The Fitzgeralds were shiny people for a shiny time - Scott would make a lot of money churning out short stories for the slicks, which also carried fiction. And yet, underneath the film-star looks ran a deep vein of Keatsian melancholy. When he first met Fitzgerald in Hollywood, David Niven, with his actor's eye for photogenic features, was struck by the "Valentino profile, rather weak mouth, and the haunted eyes". Those eyes look out, beautifully and mournfully, from all the photographs.

Sadness reached down to the core of Scott Fitzgerald. When he was six his parents threw a party for him. Not a single invited child turned up. Scott ate the whole cake himself, including the candles. As the twig was bent, so the tree was shaped. "Parties," according to the adult Scott, "are a kind of suicide." His chosen method. Parties are also a way of putting the future out of mind. "Eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die."

However wild the party, it was always there, of course, the future. Scott foresaw, even while the Twenties were still roaring, the looming "crack up". "Black Monday," the stock market crash of October 1929, put an end to "Crazy Sunday". The party was over for good. There followed what Zelda called, "the rickety world of aftermath": a decade of slump, terminating in Scott's death in 1940 and her madness and incarceration in a string of sanatoria and institutions. After 1930, the party was truly over. The Smart Set had become, as Budd Schulberg put it (in his 1950 roman-à-clef about Fitzgerald) "the disenchanted". Apart from anything else, the Thirties saw a temporary eclipse of Fitzgerald's vogue. Grim realism - as practised by John Dos Passos, James T Farrell, Sinclair Lewis, and John Steinbeck - would be the flavour of the new decade. The Joad family weren't ones for cocktails at five.

Celebrity is a short-lived thing. There will come a time (I would guess in around 15 years) when even readers of the News of the World will need to be reminded who Posh and Becks were ("something in Eastenders?") and whether Dirty Den was a person or a place. Celebrity authors are luckier in that they leave behind their writing. If it's good, they can hope to be remembered by posterity. Fitzgerald wanted to be not just "good" but the greatest. He wanted, he once said, to stamp his personal style on literary history so vividly "that people could read it like braille". "I want to be extravagantly admired," he declared, on delivering the manuscript of The Great Gatsby.

He succeeded. Extravagantly. That novel and its successor (his last complete work), Tender is the Night, nowadays sell 10 times more than they did in Fitzgerald's own lifetime. Who among us, then, is reading Scott Fitzgerald nowadays? Mainly, I suspect, he is "extravagantly admired" by the young and romantic. He has always been the laureate of adolescence. He recognised a condition of arrested adolescence in himself. "I didn't know till 15," he wrote in later life, "that there was anyone else in the world." Arguably the message (that there might be other people around to take account of) never entirely got through. And part of him never grew up.

For my un-beautiful generation it was a rite of passage to treasure Fitzgerald's novels and to murmur those wonderfully resonant Fitzgeraldisms: "In the really dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning"; "I do not lie to myself"; "So much fun - so long ago"; "The manner remains intact for some time after the morale cracks". So it does, so it does. Zelda, too, had her Zeldaisms, most famously: "We grew up founding our dreams on the infinite promise of American advertising." As true now as it was 70 years ago.

No one who has read them in the full tide of adolescence will forget those climactic moments in the novels. Dick Diver, for example, the "spoiled priest" of Tender is the Night, returning for the last time to the plage at Antibes, which he and his gilded friends have adorned: "'I must go,' he said. As he stood up he swayed a little; he did not feel well any more - his blood raced slow. He raised his right hand and with a papal cross he blessed the beach from the high terrace. Faces turned upwards from several umbrellas."

Wonderful, of course. The eye still moistens, as it did when one was 17 and first read it. But what does "His blood raced slow" actually mean? Is the blood coursing faster, or less fast, through Diver's veins? Even more sonorous, and - on cool examination - baffling is the famous last paragraph of The Great Gatsby: "Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther ... And one fine morning - So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

The words lap over one, like gentle, narcotic waves of literary fragrance. But what do they mean? What, one may ask, is an "orgastic" future? ("orgasmic"?, "orgiastic"?) What the hell does it mean "to believe in the green light"? Don't ask, the novel instructs. This is not the Highway Code. Might as well ask what a sunset means.

Literary mystique and symbolic green lights will doubtless give a lift to the musical about Scott and Zelda, The Beautiful and the Damned, due to open on 10 May at London's Lyric theatre. One wishes the show well. But the heart sinks at the thought of this literary couple's hugely complex relationship, and its considerable literary legacy, being revarnished with yet another layer of high gloss.

One of the successful critical achievements of the past half century has been to strip away the mystique around Scott and Zelda to reveal the people they were beneath their "invented lives" (the title of James R Mellow's 1985 biography). Investigative digging has uncovered the reality below the invention.

It began as a fairy-tale match. Scott, then a Princeton student, volunteered when America entered the war, to fight the Hun, in 1917. Alas, he never made it to France. But in Montgomery, Alabama, Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald met, fell in love with, wooed, and - against much local opposition - won the heart of Zelda Sayre. She was a beauty and the daughter of a judge (Sayre's Law, as it would be called, in effect kept blacks off the electoral register in the South until 1964).

Born in the "cradle of the Confederacy" Zelda was a southern belle, with golden hair, green eyes, and an irrepressible tomboy character. She loved dancing. Scott thought her, as she did her solo performances, "a Viking Madonna". Growing up surrounded by black servants, Zelda had "virtually no domestic skills" - but what did that matter? There were always servants.

Fitzgerald's background was Minnesota, middle-class and "half old-American stock, half-black Irish". He was also a Catholic - lapsed by 1918, but still permeated with indelibly unabsolved guilts. He was also at this early stage of life an incipient alcoholic. "He's never sober," complained the judge of his prospective son-in-law. Nor could Scott (unlike Ernest Hemingway) "hold" his drink. He was physically slight (5ft 7in and 138 pounds, soaking wet) and had a poor head for liquor. And in his cups he was, as his daughter Scottie recalled, a "mean drunk."

Zelda accepted the young officer's proposal when his future was assured with the acceptance and huge success of his debut novel, This Side of Paradise (hacked into shape, like all his major fiction, by the editorial genius of Maxwell Perkins). They married, a month after the novel's publication, in April 1920, as it rode the spring bestseller lists. They went up with it, to become New York's most glamorous couple.

How happy was the marriage? It was, as their friend Edmund Wilson put it, less a union of two people than an intertwining of two fantasies about what life was. Their immaturities, defects and aspirations (Zelda's favourite word) for a while, at least, meshed perfectly. Scott was, as he confessed, "half feminine". Zelda was, as would later emerge, at least half (perhaps more) lesbian. At this stage, their complementary homosexualities were latent and repressed.

Sex was a problem. Before the marriage, Scott was inexperienced and chronically nervous, she experienced and brazenly confident. On their first sleeping together, he was appalled to find she was not a virgo intacta. One (perhaps more) of the Montgomery beaux had been there before him. Years later, he would upbraid her in his characteristically stilted style: "you had been seduced and provincially outcast". Luckily the South, while it might lynch uppity negroes for looking at a white woman, did not punish its belles for discreet premarital lapses.

Zelda's past exacerbated Scott's insecurity about his anatomy. "There is," his biographer Jeffrey Meyers coolly observes, "a surprising amount of evidence about Fitzgerald's sexual organ." As Hemingway recalls in A Moveable Feast, Scott came to his friend with a delicate enquiry as to "size". He was distraught. Zelda, he said, had told him that "the way I was built, I could never make any woman happy". She had embarked on an affair, four years after marriage, with a French aviator, Edouard Josanne, who was, apparently, better "built".

In fact, as "Lottie", a prostitute patronised by Scott years later in Asheville, North Carolina (where Zelda was hospitalised) testified, he was "satisfactory" as regards size, but prone to premature ejaculation. Nor was he very libidinous. Another lover concluded, ruefully, that, "Scott just wasn't a very lively male animal." Lottie added: "He said he only made love to help him write" - as Kenneth Tynan, one is told, found it useful to masturbate before dashing off a review. (Hemingway, famously, merely sharpened his pencils before writing). At least three witnesses are on record to testify that Scott, although no John Holmes, was adequate.

Why then did Zelda, as she evidently did, taunt him about his manhood? Hemingway's analysis was uncompromising. "She said it to put you out of business ... to destroy you." As a writer, he meant. "Of all people on earth," Hemingway told Scott, "you needed discipline in your work and instead you marry someone who is jealous of your work, wants to compete with you, and ruins you."

The truth, as a series of pro-Zelda, feminist-slanted, biographies since the Sixties have shown, may be different from Hemingway's macho analysis. Zelda was stifled within her marriage. More specifically, her creativity (no less vital than Scott's) was stifled. She began painting seriously in 1925. Only quite recently has her artistic talent (particularly a skill in creating paper dolls) been thoroughly looked at.

At the age of 27 (in 1927) she resolved to turn to professional ballet. By this period, the Fitzgerald marriage, sodden in booze, was "an organised cat and dog fight". She was taught dancing in Paris by Lubov Egorova - the same teacher who taught Lucia Joyce (the coincidence is remarked on in To Dance in the Wake, by Carol Loeb Schloss, in her biography of Lucia - whose tragic career in other ways resembles Zelda's). Zelda went on to form a sexual fixation on Egorova. It was taken as a symptom of mental disturbance. She was discouraged by Scott from taking the solo roles that could have led to a career on the stage.

Scott wanted a "flapper", not an artist, for his wife. When his daughter, Scottie, was born, he wrote, by way of paternal wish: "I hope she'll be a fool - that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool." And when she grows up to womanhood? What then?

In 1930, there began the series of breakdowns which would render Zelda a mental invalid for the rest of her life. She became, as Fitzgerald describes Nicole Diver (based on Zelda), "a living, agonising sore". She was, as Fitzgerald laboured with Tender is the Night, writing up her own version of their marriage in her novel Save the Waltz for Me (the waltz, of course, being the last dance of the evening).

Scott, who had been "poaching" his wife's letters and diaries in his fiction for years ("plagiarism begins at home," Zelda tartly observed) ganged up with her psychiatrist in 1932 to coerce her into cutting material from her novel before publication. It was he, Scott asserted, who "owned" their joint life. It was his material. He alone had conjugal rights in it.

Like the wife in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's story, The Yellow Wall-Paper, Zelda was subjected to the cruelties of the "rest cure": effectively sensory deprivation. All stimuli were removed, all means of expression denied her. She was discouraged from pursuing her career as a novelist (too disturbing) as she had been discouraged from pursuing her career as a dancer.

The Fitzgeralds remained obsessed with each other, destructively so. "I wouldn't care if Zelda died," Scott told Edmund Wilson, "but I couldn't stand to have anyone else marry her." More generously, he later told Zelda, after both their lives had in effect been wrecked beyond repair: "We ruined ourselves - I have never thought we ruined each other." What difference did it make?

Zelda's end was that of the madwoman in the attic. She experienced breakdown after breakdown and was subjected to increasingly oppressive treatments: insulin comas, induced convulsions, multi-drug barrage therapies. The "cures" (as unsuccessful as those for Scott's now incurable drinking) rendered her, she complained, "an empty shell". The person who used to be Zelda. "She was crazy," declared an uncompromising Ernest Hemingway. End of story. There was, as John Dos Passos more delicately put it, a "basic fissure in her mental process."

Was she, as her reports claimed, schizophrenic? According to Sally Cline, who published her life of Zelda in 2002, it was Scott's alcoholism which "drove" her to the homosexuality which was seen as the main symptom of her condition. Was Zelda, as some of her partisans claim (as they do of TS Eliot's wife, Vivienne, Ted Hughes's wife, Sylvia Plath, and Leonard Woolf's wife, Virginia), the victim of a male chauvinist time? According to Nancy Milford, in her pioneering biography, "Zelda was the American girl living the American dream, and she became mad within it." And, by implication, because of it. Breakdown was what Matthew Arnold would have called Zelda's "criticism of life": a sane response to a mad world.

Zelda died eerily like Bertha Mason in Jane Eyre. Locked in an upstairs room (an attic, no less) in Highland Hospital, in March 1948, the madwoman was burned to death when the hospital caught fire. She was identified by a slipper under her charred corpse. A dancing pump, one would like to think.

Scott had long gone. He cut a pathetic figure in his last year, eking out a living screen-writing in Hollywood, dried out and dried up. He drank bottles of Coke by day, and took handfuls of nembutal at night. He died of a heart attack, in his early forties. "The poor son-of-a-bitch," was Dorothy Parker's epitaph, echoing Owl-Eye's comment at Gatsby's funeral. Zelda's epitaph is unrecorded.

Wonderful as the writing is, the Fitzgerald core has a strange hollowness. According to Hemingway, Scott's "heaven" was a "beautiful vacuum". There was, as Stein would put it, no there there. He adored the rich because, in his eyes, they were "different" (yes, quipped Hemingway, "they are richer"). What, when one comes down to it, makes Jay Gatsby "great"? He is a bootlegger, with a phoney CV who changed his name from James Gatz. What makes him great, we are to apprehend, is his dedication to "the Platonic conception of himself". That, and his "heightened sensitivity to the promises of life." Mystique, in a word.