F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Treatment of Zelda and the Appropriation of Her Writing
To say that F. Scott Fitzgerald had a complicated relationship with women is an understatement. Scott was fond of saying that he “married the heroine of [his] stories!” By this admission, Scott welds his personal life to his fiction, blurring the line that the biographical fallacy intends to separate. The Fitzgeralds actively encouraged the conflation between Scott’s heroines and Zelda herself and openly used their biographies as advertising. By conflating his life with his texts, Scott opens his biography to similar levels of attention that his texts receive from critics. Therefore, one can attend Scott’s treatment of Zelda in a similar manner that one would attend his treatment of a particular female character in his fiction, pressing for insights into Fitzgerald’s changing attitude toward gender roles.
Scott was praised for his well-written female characters, and is credited with inventing the flapper, that “virtual emblem of American modernity.” Scott claimed that he wrote such good female characters because his mind was half female. However, those insights and those characters were almost exclusively based upon his wife, Zelda, and often come directly from Zelda. Later, as his marriage declined, Scott regretted the flapper, claiming that “if [he] had anything to do with creating . . . the contemporary American girl [he] certainly made a botch of the job.” (Anderson, 143). When we consider his later ambivalence toward the flapper, as embodied by Zelda, what views of women and his wife remain? A clue can be found in Chapter xii of Book I of Tender is the Night, where Scott described what the three main female characters in the novel had in common—that “they were all happy to exist in a man’s world—they preserved their individuality through men and not by opposition to them. They would all three have made alternatively good courtesans or good wives not by the accident of birth but through the greater accident of finding their man” (53). That he wrote this during the decline of his marriage, during a time when Zelda was challenging Scott with a novel of her own, is particularly poignant. In that scene, our narrator is explaining what makes these three women ‘good’ in opposition to most American women, a description of how a woman should ideally express herself.
This could be easily chalked up to storytelling and character, that this statement was merely the description of of these three women and should not be read as indicative of Fitzgerald’s views of women’s place in the world. However, when coupled with the level of autobiography that Scott embedded in his writing, his treatment of his wife, and his appropriation of her own writing, those two sentences from Tender is the Night take on a much weightier significance. What can we say about the nature of authorship and originality in a case where so much of the material has been co-opted from another person? At what point does the shared experience of two people pass into co-authorship, or further, into plagiarism? If we read these two sentences as Fitzgerald’s view of how a good woman expresses herself in a man’s world—through her husband instead of in opposition to it—can we then be surprised about Scott’s appropriation of Zelda’s experiences and her creative works? Apparently not, since Scott was also fond of saying “It’s a man’s world; a smart woman’ll always follow a man’s lead.” (Tavernier-Courbin, 24). As his disillusionment with the flapper and his wife increases, Scott falls back on a more misogynistic paradigm in his treatment of women and his wife.
That Fitzgerald used much of Zelda’s writing, passing it off as his own, has been well-documented. Zelda herself—in an interview in the New York Tribune at the release of Scott’s The Beautiful and Damned—said that, “Mr. Fitzgerald . . . seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.” She then went on to describe portions of The Beautiful and Damned as being from “an old diary of [hers] which mysteriously disappeared shortly after [her] marriage and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound . . . vaguely familiar” (Petry, 20). Additionally, Fitzgerald rewrote much of This Side of Paradise after meeting Zelda, reshaping the character of Rosalind after her, even quoting Zelda verbatim for much of Rosalind’s dialogue (Auerbach). This was not an uncommon habit of Fitzgerald’s.
Lawton Campbell, a friend of the Fitzgerald’s recounts that “[Scott] would hang on her words and applaud her actions, often repeating them for future reference, often writing them down as they came from the fountainhead. I have seen Scott jot down Zelda’s remarks on odd pieces of paper or on the back of envelopes and stuff them in his pockets. At times, his pockets were fairly bulging with her bon-mots and bits of spontaneous observations” (Talley). Much of Daisy’s dialog in The Great Gatsby has also been attributed to Zelda as well, particularly the line, “I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool—that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool” (Keats).
Perhaps the most gross example of Scott’s appropriation is the case of Zelda’s semi-autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz. While Scott was struggling for years with Tender is the Night, Zelda wrote Save me the Waltz in six weeks, then sent it directly to Scott’s editor Maxwell Perkins.
When Perkins showed Scott the novel, all hell broke loose. On March 14, 1932, he wrote to Zelda’s psychiatrist, Dr. Squires, in a fury of resentment which dumbfounded the clinic’s doctors. They found it necessary to apologize to Scott for having let Zelda send her manuscript to Scribner’s without first securing Scott’s approval. Scott was outraged to be submitted to the same sort of psychological and literary dissection which he had performed on Zelda in his first three novels. Moreover, as he himself said, she had used material that he had “bought” by keeping her.
Scott absolutely forbade publication until it had been revised to his satisfaction. In another letter to Dr. Squires, he wrote that he could not assent to “see her build this dubitable career of hers with morsels of living matter chipped out of [his]mind, [his] belly, [his] nervous system and [his] loins.” Of course, he had built his own career on such morsels. In May 1933, he spelled it out to Zelda during a session with her psychologist: “Everything we have done is . . . [mine]. I am the professional novelist, and I am supporting you. This is all my material. None of it is your material.” When asked by Zelda what she should do to please him, he answered: “I want you to stop writing fiction.” (Tavernier-Courbin, 27).
Sociologist Heather Laine Talley, in an essay concerning gaslighting and so-called “crazy” women, further described how “Scott offered to edit the manuscript and promptly pilfered passages for his novel Tender Is the Night.” He also removed unflattering passages and “ironically, though he was then supposedly helping to edit it for Zelda’s sake, he . . . let it go to press unpruned of tangled metaphors and misspellings, of grammatical and typographical errors which obviously weaken it” (Tavernier-Courbin, 24). For further examples, Kendall Taylor’s biography of the couple, Sometimes Madness is Wisdom, contains an exhaustive study of Scott’s plagiarism of Zelda’s writing and ultimately declared that “in effect Zelda was Scott’s co-author.”
Scott did not only co-opt Zelda’s words, but also argued that he and Zelda’s shared experiences were solely his. Regarding Zelda’s affair with a French aviator Edouard Jozan, Scott realized that “watching his wife’s behavior toward her French lover, he could depict Daisy’s affair with Gatsby with greater veracity” and encouraged the affair until it “became a serious matter when Zelda informed her husband that she’d fallen in love and wished for a divorce” (Keats). In response to this, Scott put Zelda on house-arrest until her will broke in a suicide attempt after a month (Tavernier-Courbin, 28).
Again, the more notable example regards the previously mentioned Tender Is the Night and Zelda’s Save Me the Waltz, that contentious novel which “galled” Scott and “presented him as a pale figure, and in a rather humiliating light” (Long, 40). However, it is not just that time and those aspects of their marriage that Scott appropriated. In a parallel of Dick Diver’s affair with Rosemary Hoyt in Tender Is the Night, Scott carried on an affair with Lois Moran, a 17-year-old silent film actress. Zelda’s reaction to this affair is further paralleled in Tender Is the Night’s mysterious bathroom scene—once, when Scott went out with Lois, “Zelda filled a bathtub with her own clothing designs and set them on fire.” (Talley). In Chapter v of Book I of Tender is the Night, Scott states that “If her person was property, she could exercise whatever advantage was inherent in its ownership.” In these cases, Scott behaved as if Zelda were indeed property, though he was the one who exercised the advantage of his ownership.
Despite everything Zelda contributed to Scott’s career and the success of his writing, he blamed Zelda for the perceived failure of his career. In a letter to Oscar Forel, the head psychiatrist where Zelda was being treated at the time, Scott blamed her for instigating his drinking habit and eventual alcoholism, then went on to criticize Zelda’s requests that he stop drinking as “childish stubbornness and ingratitude” (Letters, 197). In his letters to his editor, Maxwell Perkins, Scott casts Zelda as a spendthrift whose hospitalizations are to blame for Scott’s constant need for money and failure to meet deadlines. This echos Franz Gregorovius’ warnings to Dick Diver that marrying Nicole would be like “half [his] life being a doctor and nurse all together” (140). Carrying this further, the narrator of Tender Is the Night describes Dick’s downfall partially because “his work became confused with Nicole’s problems,” that “it seemed to belittle his work,” and because of this, “Dick could no longer play what he wanted to play on the piano.” (171). It would be more accurate to say that Scott quite enjoyed playing Zelda’s song when it was fresh, and jazzy, when, “in his earliest writings [he] enthusiastically portrayed [Zelda] as the embodiment of . . . a new era of romantic individualism, rebellion, and liberation” (Sanderson, 143). But later, he was ill-equipped and unenthused to play Zelda’s new, melancholy tune. In his letters to Zelda while she was in treatment, he routinely downplayed her symptoms, stating that her “feelings of gloom” hadn’t the “slightest legitimacy.” (Letters, 257). Additionally, in Tender Is the Night, it is speculated that “Nicole is less sick than anyone thinks—she only cherishes her illness as an instrument of power.” (239). Again, her illness is belittled and used as an excuse for Dick’s loss of vitality. However, the clearest and most blatant blame is leveled when Dick says to Nicole, “You ruined me . . . then we’re both ruined.” (273). Dick’s failed career parallels Scott’s own—Dick “writes pop-psychology for the lay audience rather than serious scientific studies for experts” mirroring Scott’s frequent complaints in his letters (Sanderson, 158). Rather than novels “for experts,” Scott often claimed he only wrote “hack-work” (short stories and for the cinema—the lay audience) for the money, money that he resented earning, feeling that he was “exploited,” wondering why he continued to pay the bills for a domestic life with Zelda he described as a “despicable menage” (Letters, 188).
Most Fitzgerald critics are apt to dismiss Zelda’s part, ignoring the level of her involvement in Scott’s writing. There is much surface discussion of her role as muse, but little mention of her literary achievement. In an article regarding Save Me the Waltz and Zelda’s literary talent, Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin, quotes preeminent Fitzgerald expert Matthew J. Bruccoli who said that “Save Me the Waltz is worth reading because anything that illuminates the career of F. Scott Fitzgerald is worth reading . . . The blunt fact is that Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald’s work is interesting today mainly because she was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife.” Tavernier-Courbin echoes Scott’s own description of those three women from Tender Is the Night when she points out that “Such an attitude . . . is sharply illustrative of what Zelda was trying to fight in her marriage, that which might be seen as the very raison d’être of her novel: the fact that she was merely expected to be, to use Scott’s own words, ‘a complementary intelligence,’ a wife concerned exclusively with the interests of her husband” (23). In a review, James H. Meredith dismissed two biographies of the Fitzgeralds, arguing that it is “inappropriate . . . for literary critics to take sides in their marriage” and declares them “wrong-headed” for trying to parse this complicated subject (212). In an article directly addressing the claims of plagiarism, Jonathon Keats declared that “it makes no difference,” claiming that although what Scott did was technically plagiarism, arguments in favor of Zelda’s contributions are the equivalent of asking “the Mona Lisa be reattributed to the young wife of Francesco del Giocondo who sat, with that famous smile, as its model.” These arguments continue the status quo of erasing Zelda’s authorship and denying the proper attribution from where the jewels of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing were mined.
In a time period where women who bucked the status quo were routinely locked up in sanitariums, it should be unsurprising that Scott Fitzgerald acted in such a way. He routinely carried on affairs, denied them, gaslit his wife, and then plundered her creativity for his own work. And yet Scott is regarded as “a major male author [with] a particular insight into female psychology.” Even Zelda posthumously praised him in 1941, admitting that he “seized the essence of a girl . . . in that troubled epoch between world wars.” (Sanderson, 144). Even here, Zelda is sure to clarify a time frame for her husband’s insight into female psychology. Scott remains insightful about his flapper heroine and that new zeitgeist of the contemporary young woman, but as that woman aged, we can see Scott fall back into older, more misogynistic paradigms regarding the role of women in the world. When his insight into women began to fail him (if it could be said to have existed in the first place, outside of Zelda), he continued to mine his wife for that insight, often against her will. Zelda was not happy to exist in a man’s world and she attempted to preserve her individuality not through men but by opposition to them.