Zelda Sayre was 17 when she met Scott Fitzgerald, a green-eyed Yankee from Princeton, at a military ball in Montgomery, Ala., the town she ruled like a princess. It was 1918, and Lt. Fitzgerald was waiting. His superiors at Camp Sheridan might finally ship him out to a winding-down war, or Scribner’s might agree to publish his novel — and while he waited, he welcomed the distraction of a vivacious local belle. What they did, said and felt on that occasion was written down by both of them, torn up and rewritten many times over the course of lives devoted to self-mythologizing and, later, self-defense.
Even as “The Great Gatsby” tops the bestseller list in anticipation of the Leonardo DiCaprio movie version, three new novels reimagine the marriage and the myth that sprang from this meeting. Therese Anne Fowler’s “Z” is narrated by Zelda in Montgomery, shortly before Scott’s death in 1940 — during a calm hiatus between her confinements in mental institutions. A wistful tone distances Zelda from the frenzy of her past, but the retrospective structure dulls the energy of this inherently gripping story, in which a naive girl slowly wakes up to the double bind of being her husband’s muse. The novel is liveliest when Zelda expresses wonder in the moment, and when the distinctive voice Fowler has given her shines through — all “fellas” and dropped g’s. It’s weaker when Zelda has to play the diligent footnoter of her own life: “I’d soon learn that this Mr. Griffith was D.W. Griffith, who along with Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford had recently formed a company called United Artists.”
In a concluding note, Fowler characterizes Fitzgerald biography as a “raging argument” between Team Scott and Team Zelda. The former paints Zelda as the neurotic wife who burrowed into Scott and broke him down like a rampant strain of ivy. The latter, in the wake of Nancy Milford’s recuperative 1970 biography, sees her as a gifted artist destroyed by an alcoholic husband and a misogynistic medical establishment. Fiction offers freedom in two areas where biography is usually frustrated — dialogue and sex — and Fowler uses her novelistic license to score one for Team Zelda. Ernest Hemingway viciously turned on Zelda for unknown reasons at some point in 1925, and the novel offers a plausible, if tawdry, explanation: a failed seduction that ends with Zelda comparing Hem’s manhood unfavorably with Scott’s. Yet this creative rewriting of history only goes so far, and the novel remains torn between what is known and what can be imagined.
Erika Robuck’s “Call Me Zelda” strays further from the record by inventing a nurse, Anna Howard, who is driven to care for Zelda, Scott and their 10-year-old daughter, Scottie, by her own tragic past: a husband missing in action and a small daughter dead from tuberculosis. Anna meets Zelda at the Phipps Psychiatric Clinic in Baltimore, where she was admitted in 1932. After quickly becoming attached to the mercurial writer’s wife, Anna agrees to leave the hospital and work privately for the Fitzgeralds at La Paix, their Baltimore mansion. In order to delve into the Fitzgerald legend, Robuck has Anna encourage Zelda to write out stories from her past. These fragmentary essays evoke the wild energy of Zelda’s novel “Save Me the Waltz,” which she wrote at Phipps, but are too brief to write the character into life.
R. Clifton Spargo’s “Beautiful Fools” compresses the Scott-Zelda story even more, into a few days in 1939, when the two took a disastrous vacation to Cuba. The luxury of fictional space allows the novel to develop a languid atmosphere that is nonetheless charged with the threat of violence. Spargo’s descriptions of Scott’s washed-up state — his lack of appetite, his tubercular cough, the continual poisoning of his wrecked body with booze — are florid and relentless. He digs out Benzedrine pills coated in grainy melted chocolate from the pocket of a jacket; he tries to intervene in a cockfight and is beaten half to death; he drags himself out in a tropical storm in search of the wife who has disappeared after hearing of his infidelities from a witchlike clairvoyant.
In Spargo’s hands, the Fitzgeralds emerge as fully human, if crazed and ruined characters: Scott trapped by cowardice between a desperate wife and his lover, Sheilah Graham; Zelda deluding herself that their rift can be mended and they can live together again in peace. There’s no remnant of glamour in this final vacation, only the end of love, as they trade back and forth a valueless currency of hopes, promises and vows of loyalty. This is as far from the fantasy of DiCaprio’s “Gatsby” as an asylum in Baltimore is from the Riviera, but it’s the one version of the story that resists the temptation to glamorize Scott and Zelda out of their humanity.
Scutts is associate editor of the literary journal PEN America and teaches writing at New York University’s Gallatin School.
Z: A NOVEL OF ZELDA FITZGERALD
By Therese Anne Fowler. St. Martin’s. 375 pp. $25.99
CALL ME ZELDA
By Erika Robuck. New American Library. 326 pp. Paperback, $16
BEAUTIFUL FOOLS: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald
By R. Clifton Spargo. Overlook. 366 pp. $26.95