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New Books Highlight the Mystery of Zelda Fitzgerald

Was Zelda Fitzgerald an unsung literary talent who supplied her husband with some of his best lines, and withered under his efforts to curb her writing? Or was she, as Hemingway and others would have it, an amateur who used his connections to get published, and who undermined his career by encouraging his partying and spending?
It’s one of the biggest unresolved literary feuds in history. Scott and Zelda’s relationship has been meticulously analyzed by scholars for decades, but many casual readers of Fitzgerald’s novels remain unaware of how much he borrowed from her. That could change this spring with the publication of three novels about Zelda and her tortured relationship with Scott (a fourth Zelda novel will land this fall).
Academics have found ample evidence that Scott used snippets of Zelda’s diaries and chunks of her letters in his novels. One of their biggest fights, about who had the right to fictionalize their relationship and her struggles with mental illness, was taken down by a stenographer. The 114-page transcript is preserved in her medical records, which are archived at Princeton. Scott was incensed when Zelda sent her autobiographical novel, “Save Me the Waltz,” to his publisher, Scribner, without his consent. He claimed that she stole material about their marriage that he was planning to use in his novel “Tender Is the Night,” and insisted the publisher cut parts of the novel that overlapped with his.
In her 2002 biography of Zelda, Sally Cline published some of the accusations that were lobbed during the argument, which was moderated by her doctor and lasted for hours on May 28, 1933. (Scott likely wouldn’t have wanted the feud to be aired publicly — he asked in his last will for Zelda’s medical records to be destroyed, Cline noted in an email).
The fight was brutal. Scott charged that Zelda was a “third rate” writer with “nothing essentially to say.”Zelda shot back: “It seems to me that you are making a rather violent attack on a third-rate talent then…Why in the hell you are so jealous, I don’t know. If I thought that about anybody, I would not care what they wrote.”
Scott tried to forbid Zelda from writing about her mental illness: “I don’t want you….to write a novel about insanity, because you know there is certain psychiatric stuff in my books, and if you publish a book before me, or even at the same time, in which the subject of psychiatry is taken up, and people see “Fitzgerald,” why, there is Scott Fitzgerald’s wife, they read that, and that spoils the whole central point of being a novelist, which is being yourself. You pick up the crumbs I drop at the dinner table and stick them in books.”
“You have picked up crumbs I have dropped for ten years, too,” Zelda replied.
Scott told her she couldn’t write about psychiatry, the Riviera, or Switzerland. “Everything we have done is mine. If we make a trip….and you and I go around, I am the professional novelist, and I am supporting you. This is all my material. None of it is your material.”
At one point, Zelda’s doctor asked her what she values more, her marriage or her desire to create. Zelda finally yielded: “I want to write, and I am going to write; I am going to be a writer, but I am not going to do it at Scott’s expense if I can possibly avoid it, so I agree not to do anything that he does not want, a complete negation of myself.”
It was a low point, even in a relationship tainted by blowout drunken fights and affairs.
Scott and Zelda’s artistic rivalry will be aired again in public with a cluster of novels coming out this spring. Here’s how three of the new novels tackle the issue of Zelda’s literary aspirations, and whether Scott plagiarized her.
“Z,” by Therese Anne Fowler, out March 26
“Z” begins when Scott and Zelda meet at a country club dance in Montgomery, Ala., in 1918, and ends with Scott’s death from a heart attack in 1940. As she details Zelda’s metamorphosis from Southern belle to a Jazz Age icon to a broken down mental patient, Fowler constructs an image of Zelda as a frustrated artist who bristles at her husband’s efforts to curtail her creativity.
In one of the saddest moments of a book that’s full of sad moments, Scott presents Zelda with a clipping of a short story that Zelda wrote. The story, “Our Own Movie Queen, was published under Scott’s name.
“I…it’s great,” I said, my eyes scanning the words that I’d labored over. My Gracie Axelrod was now as alive as she’d ever become, here in the Chicago Sunday Tribune. Right below Scott’s name…..I’d agreed to let Harold sell the story as Scott’s, never guessing the result would depress me so. We’d gotten a thousand dollars, but where had that thousand dollars gone? What did I have to show for it – except this brooch that, pretty and thoughtful as it was, announced nothing of my talent, my imagination, my skill.”
“Beautiful Fools,” by R. Clifton Spargo, out May 2
“Beautiful Fools” takes place in Cuba in 1939, when Scott and Zelda took a trip in what was likely a failed attempt to mend their marriage. It’s one of the most sparsely documented episodes in their lives. Scott got into a drunken knife fight. “This trip will never get more than a sentence or two because there isn’t any documentation of it,” Spargo said. “It was the last time they ever saw each other.”
In the novel, Spargo flicks at Zelda’s artistic ambitions. At the beginning of their trip, Zelda tells Scott about her desire to write novels (and manages to get in a dig at Ernest Hemingway, her nemesis).
“I’ve decided to concentrate my energies on becoming a writer such as yourself and Ernest. Someone who spends his time observing life passing and puts poignant remarks on the page about the many activities, such as fighting in wars or killing bulls, he himself cannot do.”
“True enough,” Scott said, “writers are like parasites.”
Later in the novel, Spargo describes Zelda recalling her playful, public attack on her husband, when she reviewed one of his novels. In her review, which was published in The New York Tribune, she claimed he used her letters and diaries in his novel: “On a lark she wrote a review of The Beautiful and Damned accusing Scott of plagiarizing her diaries, but she hadn’t meant anything by it.”
“Call Me Zelda,” by Erika Robuck, May 7
Robuck, who says she became interested in Zelda while researching her novel “Hemingway’s Girl,” focuses on Zelda’s time in a Maryland mental institution. It was one of her most fertile periods as a writer. While being treated, Zelda wrote an entire novel in a matter of weeks. She sent a copy of the novel, “Save Me the Waltz,” to Scott’s publisher. He was furious that she wrote about their marriage and her mental illness – topics that he was writing about in Tender is the Night.
Robuck, who studied Zelda’s medical records at Princeton, describes his rage over Zelda’s novel:
Mr. Fitzgerald had a tantrum that started in Alabama on paper, continued as he crashed through the doors of the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic, and exploded as he thundered, gin-soaked, into Dr. Meyer’s office.
“This is my material, my material,” he insisted, as he smoked and paced around the office. “How could she go behind my back with your doctor and submit to my editor before I had a chance to read it? I’ve been working on my novel for years, stopping over and over to s— out these short stories to pay the bills and keep her in comfort, and not only does she steal my material, but you help her to do it?