By Mary Ann Grossmann
In the summer of 1924 Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda, were living on the French Riviera, where they'd moved to repair their fraying marriage. They were short of money, and Scott was desperate to begin work on a new novel.
What happened when Zelda met a French aviator beside the blue Mediterranean would have a lasting impact on her relationship with her husband and on his writing, says Scott Donaldson, one of the nation's premier literary biographers.
Among Donaldson's nine books about 20th-century American authors are "Fool for Love: F. Scott Fitzgerald" and "Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship."
So this Minnesota native is eminently qualified to discuss "Summer of '24: Zelda's Affair" when he gives the first Richard P. McDermott-Fitzgerald Lecture this week at the University Club, one of the Fitzgeralds' hangouts. His talk -- he dislikes the word "lecture" -- is based on a chapter in his new book "The Impossible Craft: Literary Biography."
Before we get to 1924, we need to refresh our memories of the Fitzgeralds, who were the Jazz Age, a term coined by St. Paul-born Fitzgerald. Vivacious Zelda was the original flapper.
They were married in 1920, a week after publication of Fitzgerald's novel "This Side of Paradise," which he wrote in his parents' St. Paul apartment. The newlyweds spent time in Europe, returning to St. Paul to await the birth of daughter Scottie in 1921.
A year later "The Beautiful and Damned" was published, and they moved to Great Neck, Long Island, N.Y., where their interactions with society people provided the setting and mood for the novel germinating in Fitzgerald's head.
Which brings us to 1924, the beginning of a seven-year stay in Europe for the Fitzgeralds and their daughter.
Things were not going well for this celebrity couple, Donaldson said in a phone conversation from his home in Arizona:
"Scott and Zelda had been living in and around New York for two to three years and pretty much letting things evaporate in drinking and partying. Fitzgerald was very conscious of that. In early 1924, he wrote to Maxwell Perkins (his editor) that he had to get away and try to devote himself to finishing what would become 'The Great Gatsby.'
"They find this villa near Saint-Raphael, and he begins to live in the book, which occupies all his time. There is an English nanny for Scottie, and Zelda is bored silly. She goes down to the beach and befriends three young French naval officers and pairs off with one of them, Edouard Jozan."
Donaldson believes Zelda had a physical relationship with the young Frenchman, although some biographers think it was only a flirtation.
"If it wasn't physical, it was still psychologically crucial to Zelda and Scott," he says. "It impacted their relationship.
They both wrote and talked about it."
Fitzgerald, who at first was happy Jozan was keeping his wife company, finally realized they were spending all their time together. He supposedly insisted on a confrontation, boasting he could beat up the man who was 10 years younger and in better physical shape.
"That never happened. Jozan got out of town," Donaldson says. "But that (threat) was important because it influences major scenes in Fitzgerald's fiction. In 'Gatsby,' Tom and Jay (Gatsby) are fighting for Daisy. In 'Tender Is the Night,' Tommy (Barban) establishes he is going to take care of Nicole, and her husband, Dick, more or less accepts that. Someone says all of Fitzgerald should be regarded as a series of losses -- loss of the love of one's life, loss of the Golden Girl."
The Fitzgeralds' marriage survived, but Donaldson says, "I don't know if it was ever quite the same."
For one thing, Fitzgerald took over Zelda's life, using what happened to her in his fiction.
"He famously said in confrontations with her psychiatrists that it was his material and she wasn't supposed to write about it," Donaldson said. "Taking over her romance, making it something he had to write about, think about, talk about, diminished her.
"Strange psychological things were going on. Theirs was certainly a complicated relationship. Zelda's mental illness and Scott's alcoholism were crucial to making a very difficult marriage.
"But there is something admirable about Scott sticking to it. Although he thought about divorcing Zelda when she was at her most schizophrenic, he supported her as much and as well as he could and did his best for Scottie, sending her to expensive schools."
Zelda had her first nervous breakdown in 1930 and was in and out of mental institutions for the rest of her life. Fitzgerald was fighting his own demons with alcohol. In 1936, he recounted his mental breakdown in the three-part autobiographical essay "The Crack-Up."
By 1937, the Great Depression had driven the frivolous Jazz Age into history and Fitz-gerald headed for Hollywood, the only place a writer could make a living in those days. He died in 1940 in the apartment of his lover, columnist Sheilah Graham.
Zelda, who wrote a book and had her paintings exhibited with the help of her husband, died in 1948 in a fire at a mental hospital in North Carolina.
In his University Club talk, Donaldson will discuss the Fitzgeralds' summer of 1924 as an example of challenges facing biographers:
"I'll look at Scott and Zelda and Jozan and how that one relationship has been misconstrued by various biographers and by both Fitzgeralds, and what that has to say to us about difficulties of arriving at an accurate portrait of people who lived and died, loved and did not, nearly 100 years ago."
DONALD'S FASCINATION WITH FITZGERALD
Scott Fitzgerald was born in St. Paul in 1896 to an alcoholic father and socially-inept mother who had great aspirations for her son. The family never owned a home, living just off Summit Avenue in respectable apartments, and young Scott was welcomed into the homes of his wealthy classmates at St. Paul Academy. The Fitzgeralds were comfortable but not rich in the same sense as the Irvines and others whose children were Scott's friends, so he moved in a social class to which he never felt he belonged.
"I've always felt a kind of kinship with Fitzgerald, growing up somewhat like him," Scott Donaldson says. "My family lived across the river (near Lake Harriet) and was slightly more respectable than his. But I felt a social distance between myself and some of my classmates at the Blake School.
"I don't think Fitzgerald ever got over those differences in lots of ways. It was during his years in St. Paul when a lot of the impressions got formed in his life, when he became most sensitive to his sense of not quite belonging, a sense of social in-feriority that's in his best writing, like 'Gatsby' "
Donaldson graduated from Yale University. After serving in Korea, he was a suburban political reporter for the Minneapolis Star afternoon newspaper and started his own paper, the Bloomington Suburbanite, while working toward his doctorate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. He is emeritus professor of English at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
Among his books are "John Cheever: A Biography," "Archibald Mac-Leish: An American Life" and "Death of a Rebel: The Charlie Fenton Story."
Donaldson, whose son Andrew lives in Minneapolis, was a keynote speaker at the 1996 St. Paul celebration of Fitzgerald's 100th birthday and spoke at the 2002 F. Scott Fitzgerald Society's international conference at Landmark Center. He will be a keynoter at this year's conference in July in Dublin, Ireland.
Mary Ann Grossmann can be reached at 651-228-5574.
IF YOU GO
What: Scott Donaldson gives the first annual Richard P. McDermott-Fitzgerald Lecture
When/where: 7 p.m. Friday; University Club, 420 Summit Ave., St. Paul
Sponsor: Fitzgerald in Saint Paul