It would be no exaggeration to say that the lives of F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife, Zelda Fitzgerald, were packed with drama, replete with exhilarating heights and despairing lows. During the roaring ’20s, they were literary celebrities of the highest rank; during the ’30s, Zelda succumbed to mental illness and Scott to alcoholism. Both died young—Scott in 1940, at age 44, of a heart attack, and Zelda at 48, in a hospital fire eight years later.
In the decades since their deaths, Scott and Zelda’s relationship has been dissected by literary scholars. To many academics, Scott was a patriarchal villain—someone who hindered his wife’s creative talents and turned her, through his drinking, into an emotional mess. But the editors of a new book, Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Love Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, sought to sketch a more complete picture of the couple’s relationship. To do so, co-editors Jackson R. Bryer, a University of Maryland English professor, and Cathy W. Barks, an adjunct English professor at Maryland, went back to the original letters Scott and Zelda sent each other, including roughly 200 that had been unpublished and thus largely overlooked by scholars.
Unlike many works of literary scholarship, Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda strives to offer as much to the layperson as the scholar. “This is a book for people who are interested in a complex relationship between two people,” Bryer says. “To me, the book would have been equally interesting if the letters had been written by Sally and Sam Jones.”
In 1971, Bryer, now 64, published a volume of letters exchanged between Scott and his editor, Maxwell Perkins. Bryer began thinking about a volume of Scott-Zelda correspondence during the early ’80s, but the project foundered because of difficulties securing permission from the Fitzgerald estate. After some back and forth, Eleanor Lanahan—Scott and Zelda’s granddaughter—gave her blessing and even wrote an introduction to the volume. Bryer recruited Barks, 51, to the project after being impressed by a chapter about Zelda in her Ph.D. dissertation.
When Bryer first read Zelda’s letters to Scott, he was immediately impressed with her literary style. Her torrent of creative similes—”the sun was lying like a birth-day parcel on my table” and “the moon slips into the mountains like a lost penny,” among others—might have become oppressive had they filled a full-length novel, he says, but in the context of a letter, they’re memorable and evocative. “Her letters express a variety of moods,” notes Barks. “She was very good at describing the pain and suffering of illness, isolation, and loneliness. And she makes some beautiful declarations of love for Scott. They’re the words of a poet—dear, but also playful and fanciful.”
The letters reveal such consistent affection between the two—despite the couple’s enormous obstacles—that Bryer and Barks conclude that the common indictment of Scott is grossly unfair. Zelda’s mental illness—diagnosed at the time as schizophrenia but now thought more likely to have been bipolar disorder—probably stemmed from a genetic predisposition rather than Scott’s alcoholism. Moreover, Scott’s letters regularly express interest in, and encouragement of, his wife’s creative endeavors, including writing, dancing, and the visual arts. Scott’s frequent byline-sharing with Zelda was not an attempt to diminish her achievements, Bryer and Barks argue; he did it because the pieces would thus earn higher fees—and with Zelda’s infirmity, the couple needed the money.
Barks finds the claim that Zelda was some sort of oppressed protofeminist especially ironic. “She wasn’t a feminist—she was comfortable in a patriarchal world,” she says. “She liked the world of men. When Scott was living in Hollywood [making a living writing movie scripts] and Zelda’s father had just died, she complained that without men around, she was losing her identity.” Had she and Zelda lived at the same time, Barks says, “I think I would have appreciated her at a distance. As a woman, I don’t think she would have enjoyed my company.” —Louis Jacobson