Some Sort of Epic Grandeur
It seems unlikely that any future biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald will supersede Matthew Bruccoli’s extensively researched and brilliantly written study of the most famous portrayer of America’s Jazz Age.
Appropriately, Bruccoli begins at the end, December 21, 1940, since Fitzgerald’s sudden death at forty-four was an end toward which he had been lurching for most of his life. He died of a heart attack at the apartment of Sheilah Graham, the Hollywood gossip columnist who had been his mistress for several years. He had anticipated his early death when he wrote in one of his notebooks: “Then I was drunk for many years, and then I died.”
In Bruccoli’s biography, Fitzgerald and his gifted, spoiled, erratic, schizoid wife Zelda appear vividly alive and, almost from the beginning of their love and life together—and apart—doomed to destruction. Bruccoli remarks that “it is folly to assign blame to either partner. They conspired in a dangerous game for which only they knew the rules.” If they really had any rules at the start, they changed or voided them at will as the game progressed toward its disastrous end.
Bruccoli’s revealing comments on both Fitzgeralds are supported by his extensive knowledge of their letters and other private manuscript materials as well as their published work. (He has edited several earlier books on the Fitzgeralds and their writings.) Because both Scott and Zelda were intelligent enough to understand some of their own and each other’s weaknesses, though unwilling or unable to control them, they indulged often in self-analysis or cross-analysis, and Bruccoli quotes frequently what they wrote about themselves and about or to each other.
In February, 1920, shortly before their marriage, Zelda wrote:
I’m so sorry for all the times I’ve been mean and hateful. . . . I know you can take much better care of me than I can, and I’ll always be very, very happy with you—except sometimes when we engage in our weekly debates—and even then I rather enjoy myself. I like being very calm and masterful, while you become emotional and sulky.
Zelda, a Southern belle accustomed to the attentions of numerous young men who had flocked around her, would attempt after marriage to maintain the “masterful” role and would sometimes feel jealous because her husband was receiving more attention and praise than she. The longer this continued the more Fitzgerald would resent it. Only two years later he would write: “the most enormous influence on me in the four + ½ years since I met her has been the complete fine and full hearted selfishness and chillmindedness of Zelda.” Trouble was obviously looming in the marriage.
The personal characteristics which brought so much pain and sorrow to the Fitzgeralds after their marriage, were present before they met. She was an “unconventional and even wild” young woman, says Bruccoli. By 1913, when Scott was still a student at St. Paul Academy, he had already advanced in his drinking from drugstore sherry to stronger liquors. As the years passed, Zelda’s mental condition deteriorated and Scott’s continued drinking took an increasing toll on both his body and his mind.
Fitzgerald confessed to John O’Hara in 1933 that he had developed early “a two cylinder inferiority complex.” He attempted to compensate by “alternately crawling in front of the kitchen maids and insulting the great.” This insecurity led also to some of his outrageous behavior when he was drinking. “All his life,” says Bruccoli, “he would play the clown when he found himself in a situation that he felt he could not handle.” Bruccoli reports that by 1923 to 1924 Fitzgerald had progressed from a party drinker to a steady drinker with increasingly erratic behavior. No longer was “playing the clown” in public enough for him. He was jailed several times for drunkenness or disorderly conduct.
Though Fitzgerald did not remember everything he said and did during his drinking bouts, he remembered enough...
(The entire section is 1660 words.)