The Engagement of Zelda Sayre to F. Scott Fitzgerald
(from an unpublished novel entitled “Ascent to Madness: Zelda Fitzgerald’s Gilded Cage.”)
by Henry F. Tonn
Montgomery, Alabama 1917
I met Scott Fitzgerald just before my eighteenth birthday at a country club in Montgomery, Alabama, where I had been persuaded to perform “Dance of the Hours” in a crowded ballroom full of servicemen. I was a veritable blonde sylph in those days; my feet seemed to barely touch the floor. After the performance all the servicemen swarmed around me wanting to dance, and I was whirled across the floor by a succession of admirers, one cutting in after another. Scott saw me and moved right in. He was a cocky little bugger with something of a supercilious attitude along with a distinctive strut to his walk.
We danced, but he was hampered in his attentions by other servicemen cutting in. Finally, as the evening drew to a close, Scott asked me for a date. Pretty quick, I thought! And laughed. “I never make late dates with fast workers,” I informed him, flipping my golden curls behind me.
“There appears to be a lot of competition for your companionship,” he observed, gently stroking the side of my face with two fingers and peering intently at me. “I don’t want to be left behind.”
I put five fingers on his chest and shoved. “Well, unless they’re shipping you off to the war tomorrow, mon chevalier, you’ll have plenty of time. I’m not going anywhere.”
This was a new experience for Scott who was accustomed to having his way with the fairer sex, being the pretty boy that he was. He thought since he was down South with the cotton pickers, he could have his way with any girl he chose.
I had many suitors in that era and was dated up for weeks. Scott had to put in some major effort to garner my attention. Hah! And that inaccessibility made me more desirable to him, made him more determined than ever to get me. It is an eternal truism in the world of love that that which is most elusive generally assumes the mantle of the most desirable.
But he was a good looking man, with his blonde hair and fresh complexion. He had luminous green eyes that seemed to change with his mood and a perfectly chiseled face. His uniform was tailored by Brooks Brothers of New York and he wore cream-colored boots with spurs. He was animated and passionate. His conversation glittered. He was somber and determined, but witty and urbane. I had never before met anyone like him. Later I would learn that the two things Scott Fitzgerald ultimately wanted most in life were literary success and me. He got both, but maybe eventually regretted it.
He called me every day from his barracks. He came to my house regularly, riding the rickety old bus to Montgomery from his camp and then taking a taxi. He wanted me exclusively but had to share me with others. He objected and complained bitterly. Sorry about that, darling, but I am queen of the belles here and shall play it to the hilt. When you have men lined up at the door, you pretty much do as you please.
Get in line, gentlemen—there’s enough of Zelda for everybody!
But Scott was relentless. He threw a party at the country club for my eighteenth birthday and managed to make it a magical evening: the lights, the music, the dancing. Scott was the dashing Lieutenant then and I was the elusive, fragrant, seductive phantom. I was there but I was not quite there for him. But gradually I found myself being drawn to the man, irresistibly, like a moth to a flickering flame. Our times together increased. I invited him to my house for dinner so he could become acquainted with my family.
This was serious business and it was supposed to a memorable event. And it was, but for the wrong reason.
I introduced Old Dick—my name for Daddy behind his back—to Scott and they chatted comfortably for ten minutes, then everyone sat down to the dinner table. Within the first minute I said something Daddy objected to and he just blew up. He grabbed a carving knife and started chasing me around the table brandishing the knife while Scott looked on with incredulity. Finally, after several rotations of the table and one side trip through the kitchen, the judge—not in the best of jogging condition—ran out of steam and sat back down to finish his dinner. I swear to God, it’s true. My father, a judge of the highest order, could control his emotions with everyone but me. I drove him crazy. But afterwards everybody chatted amiably as though nothing had happened. Pass the butter beans, Momma? Thank you so much. More corn, Daddy?
Scott never forgot it. He thought, What am I getting myself into here?
“It’s all right, son,” Old Dick said, patting Scott on the shoulder. “I haven’t killed her yet. Came close a couple of times but haven’t managed yet.”
“Yes, sir,” was all Scott could reply, picking at his food. He was real quiet that night.
“More roast?” the judge said amiably.
“No thank you, sir.”
“A Princeton man, are you?” the judge said, trying to make conversation.
“No, sir. Dropped out to serve my country.”
“Ah! Good man. Good man. So what are your plans after the war? What would you like to do with yourself?”
“I’d like to be a writer, sir.”
“A writer, you say?” The judge’s eyebrows constricted.
“A writer.” The judge’s moustache drooped.
It was obvious that Judge Anthony Sayre was not overly fond of his youngest daughter’s being courted by a soldier whose ambition was to support her by the power and glory of the written word.
We sat on my front porch later rocking in the swing and sipping non-alcoholic drinks with fruit and crushed ice. He quoted poetry to me. He had memorized poems that went on for fifteen minutes. I’ve never seen nor heard anything like it. He talked about his future and his writing, and was absolutely determined to be the greatest author in the world—both rich and famous.
“The rich are different than you and me,” he said, his chiseled features etched in the moonlight, his wonderful eyes brilliant and alive. “They have everything they want early in their lives and don’t have to work for it. It gives them a certain sense of entitlement. It causes them to feel they’re better than everyone else. There were a lot of people like that at Princeton. I could feel it. They sized you up, and if you had money and breeding and came from the right family, they allowed you into that unspoken fraternity that other people couldn’t hope to join. But I’m going to make it on my own terms. Then nobody can look down on me.”
“I haven’t noticed that sort of thing in Montgomery,” I said.
“It’s not the same,” he insisted. “You have to go up north to see what I’m talking about: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Boston, New York. These people think the sun rises and sets on themselves. They know it does. They don’t care about the poor, for example. The only poor people they’ve ever known are their own servants and laborers. They have no sensitivity, no concern for the human condition. The greatest writers understood and wrote about the human condition—which is what made them great: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Balzac, Dickens, Keats, Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Spengler. Some of these people rose above their own lofty beginnings—like Tolstoy, for example—to identify with the less fortunate, and you have to admire them for that. I doubt if any of my Princeton classmates will ever follow suit, but I certainly hope I’ll remember where I came from when I’m famous. I hope I never lose my concern for the human condition. If you’re a great writer, you should also be a great man.”
I was touched by this. I wanted to stand up and applaud. These were new ideas to me; they were not the typical ideas you heard in Montgomery. I slipped my arm through his and leaned against him. “That’s right, darling. Both of us will want to remember our humble beginnings.”
“It’s like the Nietzschean superman,” he said. “No matter how exalted you are, you never forget the unfortunates.”
“Yes,” I said somberly, though I had no idea what a “Nietzchean superman” was.
“I want to do this as much for you as for myself,” he swore. “I want us to take this journey together. We’d be so perfect.”
“It sounds like a wonderful life. I’m excited to think about it.”
He nodded with determination. “I’m going to make it happen.”
“We’d be linked like soul-mates,” I said. “Eternally. Two souls incarnated. That’s what the theosophists believe, you know. Together before they were born and linked as one in the afterlife. Mirror reflections of each other.”
He looked at me quizzically.
“My mother was a theosophist,” I explained. “She taught me about it.”
“I know a woman who’s a psychic,” I continued. “It’s simply amazing how accurate her predictions are. All of my friends have seen her one time or another. She uses a Ouija board. Only her hands are on it, nobody else’s, and you can ask her anything you want. And then the board spells out the answer. Have you ever seen a Ouija board?”
“I’ll go to her,” I promised, “and ask the question, ‘Will Scott Fitzgerald become rich and famous with his novel?’ What do you think? And I’ll tell you what she says.”
He nodded, looking abstractly into the distance. “I’d like to know,” he murmured.
We strolled around the fields near my home and discussed love. Crickets chirped, tree frogs croaked, and cicadas trilled as we were soon treated to a nocturnal serenade. We held hands and caressed each other. He asked me to marry him but I wouldn’t make the commitment. I teased him and was elusive and he got angry and sulked. It made me more desirable than ever.
I pressed myself against him and kissed him passionately in the shadows of the night but always withheld a part of myself. And he knew it. He found me enigmatic and confusing and said so. He couldn’t figure me out. Perhaps he never figured me out. I became the de facto heroine of many of his novels and stories because he could never quite figure me out. Of course, it’s always more interesting to write about a woman of mystery than one you understand, isn’t it?
But, in retrospect, I wonder if we were ever really right for each other.
I don’t know.
But I only had a few doubts at the time and they were mostly concerning his ability to support me properly.
He was fascinated by the way I conversed, by the way I put words together in a peculiar manner, sometimes in a peculiar sequence. I said whatever came into my head in those days, being utterly spontaneous. I saw things from a different perspective and wasn’t afraid to declare my uniqueness. Scott had never heard anyone express themselves in such a manner, with the peculiar word formations I used, the figures of speech, the observations. It was almost as though I were speaking a foreign language to him and he needed a translator.
He began jotting down things I said, preserving them in a notebook he always carried, and later I would find them in a story of his—often word for word. Later, when we were married, he stole my diary and incorporated vast sections of it into his novel—again, word for word! I was amused and annoyed at the same time.
We had so much fun talking. We had marathon conversations. Marathon! He had been to college and was educated, whereas I just talked off the top of my head as ideas flowed through my consciousness. It was perfect. We fit together. We complemented each other in so many ways.
He became my number one beau.
But not my only beau.
Definitely not my only beau. After all, I was the leading belle in Montgomery!
I told him I loved him and would always be there with him, but the next day I would feel differently. I love you. I love you not. I love you. I love you not. I love you. I love you not. Ho hum. How could I be certain he was right for me and could take care of me when he had no means of support? Perhaps he was going to be a great writer, as he assured me, but how could I know? My lack of certainty made him angrier than ever and he complained bitterly, causing heated battles between us. But he also understood my fear. I was a judge’s daughter and his prospects were questionable. He needed to prove himself. My parents didn’t approve of him. And there were many, many other suitors.
So, when the war ended, which terminated his plans to fight in Europe, he boarded a train to New York and began his quest to become the Great Author. I, meanwhile, became fully engaged with my various suitors. I dated two football players from Auburn plus the son of a wealthy cotton broker, among others. I was crowned prom queen on three different college campuses: the University of Alabama, the University of Georgia, and little Sewanee. The more men I dated, the more conflicted I became about Scott. He was there but they were here. “I want you more all the time and I love you with all my heart and soul,” I wrote to him, and then went out and rampaged my way through the night.
Line up, gentlemen. Line up. Zelda is here!
He got desperate and sent me an engagement ring. I kept it but placed it in a drawer. Five members of a football team created a fraternity in my honor in which the induction requirement was to have dated me. I had fantasies of dating the whole football team, kissing every one of them. Leave no stone unturned! They were everywhere, offering me rides, visiting my house, inviting me out on every imaginable kind of excursion. I promised Scott I would write to him regularly but quickly tired of it. “This long-distance affair is not helping my nerves at all, darling,” I wrote. “I wish we would get this business resolved one way or the other.” The less I thought of Scott the better. He was long-distance and creating too many problems. Gradually he receded into the distance.
He wrote nineteen short stories over a several-month period and got a hundred rejection slips, pasting them on the walls of his tiny apartment. He wrote bitterly to me about the rejections and I felt sorry for him. Not only were his hopes as a writer being dashed, but he was watching the woman he loved slip away. He cursed his poverty and became absolutely frantic. But there were limits to what I could do to assuage his misery. He visited me in Montgomery three times in three months, coming by train. The third visitation was a disaster and I returned his engagement ring. “If you can’t support me, I can’t marry you,” I hollered. “What do you expect? There’s nothing romantic about starving in an attic with an impecunious author. Call me insensitive if you wish, but that’s the way it is.” I stomped my foot, and he left a broken man, but as determined as ever to have me.
He was persistent, I’ll give him that.
His novel, what would eventually become This Side of Paradise, was rejected by Scribners Publishing Company, and his editor, Maxwell Perkins, made suggestions on how to revise it. There was nothing left for him in New York so he took a train back to his parents’ home in St. Paul, Minnesota, and moved into the guest room on the third floor. There he devoted himself solely to revising the manuscript, writing ten, twelve, fifteen hours a day. He wove parts of my diary and letters into the book, created new characters, and moved various scenes around. He stopped only to eat when his mother placed food on the floor outside the door. He became a writing machine.
During the same period I dated thirty-seven different men. I have always preferred male companionship to that of females because I seem perpetually to be in competition with the latter. I wrote about this to Scott and the communiqué ended up almost verbatim in his book: “Women she detested. They represented qualities that she felt and despised in herself—incipient meanness, conceit, cowardice, and petty dishonesty. She once told a roomful of her mother’s friends that the only excuse for women was the necessity for a disturbing element among men.”
There was, unfortunately, entirely too much truth to this statement.
My correspondence with him ran hot and cold. Generally I tried to be upbeat and even passionate:
There’s nothing in the world I want other than your love, darling. My lips are yours. My body is yours. My soul is yours. I think of you every minute of the day; I sleep with you at night even though you are far away. I don’t want to live; I want to love, and live incidentally. Without you I am nothing. My life is barren and meaningless. I want you to possess every molecule of my being. I am willing to be your slave, to follow your wishes whatever they may be. I want to be beautiful for you, thin, and perfect. I want to make you the happiest man on earth. I am proud to be the object of your love and desire.
But other times I had to be realistic about not accepting his marriage proposal:
This is not an issue of material things, my darling, which are meaningless to me. I simply can’t bear the thought of poverty, a sordid, colorless existence which would surely destroy the love we have for each other. Poverty sucks the life fluids from your body and leaves you dry, desiccated, and wasted. Poverty is a barren, joyless monotony which is antithetical to the rich, effulgent embrace of life we both possess. Poverty destroys the body and kills the spirit. Poverty is the opposite of the financial security we need, that we must have in order to achieve and preserve the happiness we deserve. I want you and need you, darling, and wish to devote the rest of my life to our happiness, but you must create a foundation on which we can build. This is your responsibility, not mine. I am waiting for you, darling. I am waiting for you and only you.
Scott finally completed his novel and submitted it again to Scribner’s. On September 16, 1919, Maxwell Perkins mailed him a letter which said, “I am very glad, personally to be able to write you that we are all for publishing your book, This Side of Paradise . . . The book is so different that it is hard to prophesy how it will sell, but we are all for taking a chance and supporting it with vigor.”
The floodgates suddenly opened and a tidal wave of success washed over Scott. Simultaneously, Saturday Evening Post purchased his story, “Head and Shoulders” for $400.00. This was followed by a series of acceptances by The Smart Set, then another round of acceptances by the Post which raised its payments for his work to $500.00. Finally, in February of 1920, Scott sold the movie rights to “Head and Shoulders” for the astronomical sum of $2500.00—a full year’s wages for the average worker in the United States at the time. To say that Scott felt vindicated would be an understatement.
He was now flush with money and decided he had established a sufficiently solid financial foundation to make me his bride. He bought a spectacular diamond and platinum wristwatch for me and engraved it “from Scott to Zelda,” then boarded a train to Montgomery. The next few days were passed in an orgy of eating, drinking, loving each other, and ardent discussions concerning our future. He wanted me to marry him immediately and move to New York. I was more cautious because his novel was not yet published and I had no idea what sort of reception it would receive.
“It doesn’t matter, darling,” he insisted as we strolled hand-in-hand down a dirt road bordering a cotton field a short distance from my house. It was nighttime and a full moon bathed both of us in a luminescent glow. “I’m selling short stories now for good money. And I’ll be starting a new novel soon. I can take care of you. You’ll be happy in New York. It’ll be a whole new life. The novel will sell big, I just know it will. We’ll be famous, me and you. This is what we’ve been waiting for.” He stopped and took both of my hands and lifted them reverently to his lips and kissed them passionately.
“Sweetheart, I love you so much,” I said, pressing against him. “But the novel hasn’t been published yet and there are so many questions. You’re asking me to move from little Montgomery to huge New York. I don’t know if I’m ready for that yet.”
Tears moistened Scott’s eyes as he stared at me pleadingly. I thought he was going to break down and cry right on the spot. “Trust me, darling, this is the time. All the work I’ve put in for the past year has been for you. I have sufficient funds right now to support us for the next year—not conservatively, but extravagantly. Anything you want is yours. I’ll dress you like a queen. You’ll have the finest furs and the most exquisite jewelry. We’ll eat at the best restaurants and you’ll have a different outfit to wear every time we go out. We’ll attend the symphony, the opera, the ballet. Wouldn’t you like to see the premier ballerinas of the world perform? Everything will be yours!”
“And the symphonies,” he continued, holding my head gently between his hands and peering into my eyes. “When I hear Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, I don’t know how he could have done better. But when I hear his Seventh Symphony, I don’t know how he could have done better. And then when I hear the final movement of his Ninth Symphony, I think, He did better, but I don’t know how. It’s a moment of rapture! You can’t get that in Montgomery, you’ve got to come to New York. I’ll be the famous author and you’ll be my Southern belle. We’ll be soul mates: two souls incarnated and forever linked. This is what we’ve both wanted. Without you to share my success, all of this will be pointless!” He threw his arms out as though embracing the world, his features animated in the moonlight’s soft light.
Scott never lacked for emotion, I’ll say that. He was handsome and passionate and persuasive, and after four days I finally relented. I agreed to marry him, but not before the publication of his book. “When is it coming out?” I asked.
“It’s on the fast track,” he said. “Next month.”
“Very well then.” I placed my arms around his neck and kissed him deeply, then bit him on the neck and breathed in deeply the richness of his cologne. I snuggled up close to him, pressing my body against his, and finally murmured warmly into his ear, “I’ll marry you in April.”
So this was how our wedding date was established. However, I had to tell my parents, and knowing that neither of them approved of Scott, I braced myself for the confrontation. I waited until Scott left before the discussion ensued, which took place in our library.
The judge was furious.
“This is completely absurd, young lady!” he bellowed, slamming his fist down on the desk. The judge, as always, was dressed formally and impeccably, and sat ramrod straight in his chair as he spoke. His white hair had grown even whiter in the past year and many blamed my wild antics on having caused it. “You’re throwing away your life. The man has not graduated from college, he’s Irish, he has no career to speak of, he drinks too much, and he’s Catholic. You have no business marrying anyone like him.”
The judge intimidated everyone but me, and I was in love. “None of those things matter,” I retorted. “He’s publishing a book and has sold a bunch of short stories to the magazines and already has enough money to support both of us for a year.”
The judge rolled his eyes. “You call writing a means of making a living? What piffle! He should be getting a respectable job that involves a salary, or open a business. Writing for a living is no better than being an actor on the stage or some such foolishness.”
I was seated opposite the judge on a hard wooden chair, my mother occupying the seat to my left. Unlike Old Dick, Momma was becoming stout in her advancing years, but still retained her hair color, a dark brown. She rarely contradicted her husband openly, but was the true power behind the throne in the Sayre household. She had been intimately involved in all of our lives during the formative years, not the judge, who granted the authority gladly.
Momma cleared her throat carefully. “Baby,” she said, addressing me by my family appellation, “I certainly find Mr. Fitzgerald to be a charming man. He’s bright and interesting and I can understand your attraction to him. But there are a lot of questionable issues involved here, and we’re only interested in your welfare. It seems to me he drinks too much and he’s not very . . . stable. He romanticizes everything, and I’m not sure that he’s truly responsible. On top of that, he’s going to take you out of Montgomery and move you all the way to New York, which might as well be another country. I’m very concerned and I think it’s too soon. Why do you have to jump into this so quickly? Why not wait a year, or at least six months? You’re so young and there’s no reason to be in such a rush. This is a very important decision you’re making.”
“I’ve known him for over a year,” I replied, “and I’m tired of a long-distance relationship. He can afford me now and I’m ready to go. Both of you know I’ve never been afraid of an adventure. Well, New York is an adventure and I’m ready. I’m sorry, but I plan to marry him with or without your consent. I’ve made up my mind.”
Old Dick let out a long sigh and regarded my mother with an expression of quiet resignation. He shook his head. “Very well, then,” he said, his lips drawn tightly together. “If this is your decision, then there’s nothing further to discuss. But I want you to understand that we do not approve of this union and we will not be attending the wedding. I hope we are wrong about this young man but at the present time I think there should be a modicum of prudence injected into these proceedings. That is all I have to say.”
And with that I prepared for my marriage to Scott Fitzgerald.
Henry F. Tonn is a semi-retired psychologist who has previously published fiction and nonfiction in journals such as the Gettysburg Review, Connecticut Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, and Eclectica. He also has two previous publications in The Writing Disorder. The present story, “The Engagement of Zelda Sayre to F. Scott Fitzgerald,” is excerpted from the second chapter of an unpublished novel entitled Ascent to Madness: Zelda Fitzgerald’s Gilded Cage. Though fiction, the novel follows with relative historical accuracy this fascinating woman’s life, the roaring ‘20’s, and her eventual descent into psychosis.