The summer of 1924 was a defining moment for F. Scott Fitzgerald: Most scholars agree that was when Scott, living with Zelda and their daughter in a rented villa on the French Riviera, finished the first draft of “The Great Gatsby.” To do so, Fitzgerald stuck to a rigid schedule, secluding himself and writing every day until dinner. After that summer’s labors — and the further labors of autumn and winter — Fitzgerald produced what many regard as the greatest of the great American novels.
According to Kendall Taylor in her new biography, “The Gatsby Affair,” Zelda had a defining moment of her own that summer. Freed by a nanny from child-care duties, Zelda swam and strolled the beaches; but she was also lonely. A welcome distraction came in the form of a handsome 25-year-old French lieutenant named Edouard Jozan, and he and Zelda soon began an affair, although biographers have disagreed on the nature of the liaison. After five weeks, Zelda told Scott she was in love with Jozan and, according to some accounts, asked for a divorce. The details are hazy, but the upshot was that Jozan, who seems to have had nothing more than a dalliance in mind, disappeared from Zelda’s life. A few weeks later, Zelda attempted suicide with sleeping pills.
The sad story of the Jozan affair is well known, but it’s been regarded as just one of many damaging episodes in the Fitzgeralds’ marriage. Both Scott and Zelda wove the Jozan affair into their novels, including “Tender Is the Night,” where Jozan appears as Tommy Barban. Taylor, however, sees the Jozan affair as much more than a bad bump: She claims that, for Zelda, the affair activated a traumatic memory of teenage sexual assault and sparked the decline that led to years spent in mental institutions. For Scott, Taylor says, the affair became the emotional center of his best-known work, with Jozan as the inspiration for Jay Gatsby.
Taylor has previously touched on the Jozan affair in her 2001 biography of the Fitzgeralds, “Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom.” Both of her books, like Therese Anne Fowler’s best-selling 2013 novel “Z,” set Taylor squarely in the “Team Zelda” camp of writers who see Scott as a Jazz Age Gothic villain jealously thwarting Zelda’s gifts as a writer, ballet dancer and artist.
In “The Gatsby Affair,” Taylor idealizes Zelda and carries forward the tradition (perfected by Ernest Hemingway in “A Moveable Feast”) of diminishing Scott by emasculating him. Thus, Taylor characterizes Scott as “inexperienced and prudish in bed” and possessed of “what could only be described as a modestly sized penis.” In contrast to Zelda and Jozan, who were “unafraid of strong currents near the shoreline,” Taylor observes that squeamish Scott was someone who “hated sitting on the sand in a wet bathing suit.” And, then, there’s the matter of his feet. Taylor notes that Scott was so sensitive about his hammertoes that he “rarely removed his shoes and socks.” Given all her husband’s flaws, who could blame Zelda for wanting to run away with Jozan, a man’s man “who exuded dominance”?
Most of these tidbits have been reshuffled time and again in earlier biographies. The new angle Taylor purports to offer is access to Jozan’s letters and recollections by his daughter Martine. As Taylor explains, her earlier biography caught the attention of Martine, who wrote her an admiring letter in 2003. Given that Jozan has always been an elusive figure, any mention of fresh material is tantalizing.
Regrettably, what Taylor mostly serves up is a pile of unsifted information about Jozan’s ancestry, schooling and military training. Descriptions here are so dense with trivia they make reading an act of the will. Jozan remained mum all his life about Zelda, so Taylor’s account must rely on well-worn biographical sources and Zelda’s fictionalized descriptions in “Save Me the Waltz” and her unpublished novel, “Caesar’s Things.” Perhaps it’s a sign of desperation that Taylor resorts to reading Zelda’s and Jozan’s astrological signs: “Both were born on Leo’s cusp . . . this meant passionate natures.” “The Gatsby Affair” is one of those wobbly biographies where a reader constantly flips to the “Notes” section, only to be frustrated by the lack of sources tethering pronouncements like: “Edouard Jozan was the type of man about whom Zelda always had fantasized.”
About Taylor’s assertion that the brief affair with Jozan reawakened Zelda’s earlier sexual trauma, one can only say, “Perhaps.” There simply isn’t enough medical or personal documentation. Taylor’s other big claim, that Jozan is the direct inspiration for Jay Gatsby, is less persuasive. To make that theory stick, Taylor all but ignores “The Great Gatsby’s” long gestation period, starting as far back as 1922. Gatsby himself is a composite of dreamers (chief among them, Scott himself), gangsters and con men.
The events of that summer of 1924 are magical and melancholy because, even as Gatsby took shape, other things began to fall apart. Zelda’s worsening depression and mental instability meant she would spend nearly two decades in and out of institutions, until her death at age 47 while awaiting electroshock treatment. Seven years earlier at the age of 44, Scott died of a heart attack in Hollywood believing himself a failure, partly because “The Great Gatsby” was a commercial flop. And Jozan? He went on to become a commander of the French Naval Air Force during World War II. He joined the French Resistance, was captured by the Gestapo, escaped from a prisoner of war camp, endured over two years in a German concentration camp and ended his military career as an admiral. Jozan died at 82 in his luxurious apartment in Cannes. Whatever else is true or not about Jozan, he, unlike Jay Gatsby or Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, was a survivor.
Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the number of years between the deaths of Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Maureen Corrigan, the book critic for the NPR program “Fresh Air,” teaches literature at Georgetown University and is the author of “So We Read On: How The Great Gatsby Came To Be and Why It Endures.”
By Kendall Taylor. 320 pp. $27.