Z: The End of Everything
Amazon just released an original show on Zelda Fitzgerald and her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and it’s so true it hurts. Of course, it’s not entirely historically accurate – you can only accomplish so much in 10 episodes of 25 minutes – but it’s pretty darn close, and as far as human nature goes, it’s completely true.
Spoiler Alert: Inasmuch as something biographical/historical can be a spoiler, there are spoilers.
Zelda is widely known to have been Scott’s muse: he based characters on her, he took inspiration from her life, he even lifted passages from her own writings and used them in his books. There’s no doubt that both were incredibly talented people with incredible potential, but perhaps it was too much in one couple. Muses can be depleted, and with Scott and Zelda’s temperaments combined, Zelda’s spark erupts into creative flame and dies just as quickly.
The Market’s Demands
Let’s start with that cold, unforgiving, never-resting taskmaster lurking in every episode: the market.
Scott Fitzgerald is not a rich man prior to the publication of This Side of Paradise. Zelda is. You would think that Scott would know how to appreciate money and that Zelda might know how to manage it, but neither do. Scott’s book wildly exceeds all expectations and becomes an overnight hit, and he and Zelda proceed to live like there’s no tomorrow and no money limit.
This also means that Scott is not writing. “Can’t a fellow enjoy his success?” he asks his publisher, Max Perkins. Perkins responds by informing him of his new competition – Sinclair Lewis – and showing him a graph of Scott’s book sales, saying, “See this? This is what we call a plateau. Sales of your book have leveled off. One can’t stay on top forever...”
“Obviously,” Scott huffs, but Perkins continues: “...unless one is a superb writer, as you are, and one generates another book to follow on the heels of one’s first success.”
The market needs to be fed at all times, and if Scott doesn’t do it, someone, else will. But Zelda doesn’t understand. People – the market – should love her husband for his sole success, and continue buying his sole book at the same astronomic rate as they first did so she and he can continue living in the limelight, rolling in money, without earning it. So she encourages him not to be boring and write. Her eclectic, energetic lifestyle that inspired Scott in fiction takes him down in real life.
The Creative Process
Fitzgerald’s first draft of Paradise is rejected by his publisher: “Let me start out by saying that while it’s not the worst thing I’ve ever read…” the rejection letter begins. After he meets Zelda and they’re corresponding, Scott pulls from Zelda’s letters to him, verbatim, adding them to his book and basing an entire character on her. That version was published, and Scott never stopped borrowing from Zelda's writings.
The best writing is based on the author’s real life, and an author’s first work is generally the most autobiographical. One of the Fitzgeralds’ friends calls Scott out on his blatant adaption of real life and says to him and Zelda, “You are Amory and Rosalind.” Zelda is flattered, but less so when Scott insists on being left to write his second book.
With the best of intentions, they rent a house in upstate New York, away from the parties of the city. “Off to battle,” he salutes as he enters his study to write. A week later, Zelda’s already desperate. She needs people, and people are very distracting when you’re trying to duplicate your best-selling novel.
Finally, she bursts into his study and derails him just as he’s putting his pen to paper again. “I was in the middle of a thought,” Scott groans. Zelda asks if they can go back to the city for a visit, but Scott says, “I have to finish. I can’t stop now. Not when I’m in the middle of it. You understand, don’t you, darling?” But she doesn’t, and as soon as she’s sulked away, his thought is gone and he crosses out the page again.
One night, Zelda wakes up and sees Scott never made it to bed. She goes to his study to investigate and finds him asleep at his desk, his writing out next to her diary, which he’s been copying. She looks at his pages but there aren’t many, and, incredulous, she wakes him, saying, “This is all you have? This whole time you’ve been locked away in here? Where’s your novel?”
Angry and offended he responds, “I told you I needed to be alone, and yet here you are, judging my pace, my process. You don’t just stumble into beauty, Zelda, it takes Herculean focus and effort.” “And gin,” she retorts. “There are more empty bottles in here than you have pages.”
If you can’t tell, this confrontation turns into a fight with both sides attacking the talent of the other. It ends with a compromise to bring the city to them for the weekend, and with that decision, they slip back into the lifestyle they tried to leave behind.
It took him two years to publish his second novel.
Zelda abandons everything. All of it. The show starts with her abandoning her clothes as she dives into a lake, and she continues abandoning more and more as life goes on. She starts over in a new place with something she knows nothing about (marriage), living a life she doesn’t even understand, with someone she’s hardly spent any time with. She’s living chaotically, grasping at anything and everything, desperate to shake off her small-town Alabama roots. And it destroys her and everyone she loves.
Scott is somewhat more used to big-city life, so he approaches it all more calmly, but they spur each other on in their antics. They quickly become the It celebrity couple, publicly known for their vibrant youth, privately spiraling into alcoholism despite because of Prohibition, which further prevents Scott from writing.
Not that staying entirely in the old ways is better, but throwing yourself entirely into the new ways, and making them up as you go along, isn’t the best either. It’s tiring, it’s frightening, it hurts more than it benefits, and it burns you out. It burns your relationships out too.
Sexism and Fame
Scott is all for Zelda having her own career and doing her own thing until it becomes inconvenient for him or threatens to overtake his own career. First, she has a shot at acting in films out in Hollywood. He’s supportive as long as he has the opportunity too, but as soon as his publisher points out that his involvement would diminish his future career, he’s resentful of Zelda’s remaining chance.
"And now you’re going to be a, a screen luminary. What am I supposed to do? Just chase you around the country, live off your money?” Scott asks as condescendingly as possible through his gin, jealous that all she had to do was take a screen test while he’s “working himself to the bone.” “No training, no experience, but instant success.”
Later, his publisher reads Zelda’s diary, the inspiration and word-box from which Scott frequently takes, and suggests publishing it as-is, under Zelda’s name. Zelda loves the idea, but Scott shoots it down.
He can peacock all he wants, but in the end, if his success isn’t loudly (drunkenly) shouted from the roof (or the podium), Scott doesn’t feel properly appreciated or respected. Naturally, this means that if people are paying more attention to anyone other than him – including his wife – he isn’t getting enough appreciation. And no one really blames him. No one is ready for Mrs. Fitzgerald, or Mrs. Anyone, to be the bigger star than her husband.
In the meantime, resentment builds.
Not Relationship Goals
Scott and Zelda’s relationship is painfully relatable in this age of relatively easy long-distance relationships:
Two artistic types meet. They’re both new and exciting kinds of people to each other, unlike anyone either has ever met. Both have very strong personalities, very strong opinions on everything. A few months later, he goes away to war. For two years they correspond without seeing each other. Finally, once he’s sold his book, she up and moves to New York and marries him mere hours after arriving.
Trouble starts immediately when her very pregnant sister shows up, on time, to discover she’s already missed the wedding. Then, of course, it turns out that Zelda doesn’t actually understand what it means to either be a writer nor be married to one, and Scott doesn’t understand Zelda’s needs. “They’re going to use each other up!” Zelda’s mother cries to her husband. Sadly, she wasn’t wrong.
When Zelda is offered publication for her diary, the conversation turns almost immediately into a heated argument between her and Scott. She accuses him of being unable to write without her, and he doesn’t deny it. Instead, he says, “This is the way we’ve always been, Zelda. And you’ve always loved that. This is the way that we work! Our sum total is greater than our parts.”
He’s right, but she responds, “Well what part am I and what part are you?” This blending is natural and even good within relationships, but with strong, territorial personalities like Scott and Zelda’s it becomes dangerous unless handled carefully – which is impossible when you’re both still small-minded and constantly drinking.
Only the Beginning
If you know the “spoilers” of what ends up happening with Scott, Zelda, and their relationship, you know that following seasons of Z are going to be rough. Arguably, Scott could not have written his four famous, enduring novels without his muse. But they lived in a time that wasn’t ready for them, and Scott and Zelda weren’t ready for each other either. Perhaps if they’d lived a century later they would have had a calmer time, instead of “beating on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
This first appeared at fee.org.