If you thought people stopped writing like that around the time of "The Great Gatsby," you've got the idea. For the arch, aching pair is none other than Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among the 20th century's most famous couples.
Next spring, St. Martin's Press will issue "Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda," a volume containing many unpublished or out-of-print letters between these self-conscious icons of passion and doom. The Fitzgerald's granddaughter, Eleanor Lanahan, believes the book should prove especially helpful to the reputation of Zelda.
"For a long time, nobody cared about Zelda. But in recent years there's been a huge, growing interest and it seemed like a very good time to let her speak for herself," says Lanahan, a painter and writer from Burlington, Vt., who wrote an introduction for the book.
"I think she has an obvious gift of language. Her own descriptions of herself and Scott are better than anything said about them. I just came across a phrase - didn't he think of her as a `fragrant phantom'? I think that's just beautiful."
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre met at a country club dance in Montgomery, Ala., in 1918. They were engaged, then not engaged, then finally married, in 1920, when he was 23 and she 19. Lanahan's mother, "Scottie," was born in 1921; she died in 1986.
As they knew as well as anyone else, the Fitzgeralds represented an era - the Jazz Age: the mad, wide-eyed courtship; the gay high life in Manhattan and Europe; the manic, drunken peak and the depressive, drunken decline. Throughout, there is the commentary of actors observing their own performances.
"You do not walk like a person plowing a storm," Zelda writes to Scott, "but like a person very surprised at their means of locomotion, hardly touching the earth, as if each step were experimental."
They were in love with each other, and in love with Love. A mild affair was unthinkable. Destiny had summoned them and they arrived with bells on.
"If you should die - O Darling - darling Scot - It'd be like going blind," writes Zelda in 1919. "Don't you think I was made for you? I feel like you had me ordered - and I was delivered to you ... like a watch-charm or a button hole boquet."
At another time in 1919, Zelda thanks Scott for a pair of fancy pajamas ("the most adorably moon-shiny things on earth") and awaits the chance for them to be wrinkled "with the dearest arms I know - I hope you squeeze me so hard, I'll be just as full of wrinkles as it."
Few letters exist from the 1920s, partly because the Fitzgeralds were always together. But in 1930, the correspondence resumes.
Zelda is recovering from a breakdown, Scott is writing short stories to pay for her treatment and the happy talk about pajaas is long over.
"Living is cold and technical without you," Zelda writes, "a death mask of itself."
They despair, they fight, they comfort each other. Zelda is having more breakdowns. Scott is in Hollywood, working on screenplays, drinking and eventually getting fired. To his worried wife, he puts on his bravest face.
"(I)f you could see me dictating this now," he writes in 1939, "sitting up in a corner in my room, fully dressed with the sun shining and full of hope and plans ... you would lose the despondency which I detect in your letters."
But Scott is soon dead, of a heart attack in the apartment of columnist Sheilah Graham, whom he had met a few years earlier. In 1948, a sedated Zelda dies in a fire at a North Carolina hospital, just two months after the birth of her granddaughter.
Critics and scholars have since made careers out of what it all meant, and the Fitzgeralds wondered, too. In a pair of letters exchanged in 1930, they summed up their downfall.
Scott: "We ruined ourselves. I have never honestly thought that we ruined each other."
Zelda: "I still know in my heart that it is a Godless, dirty game; that love is bitter and all there is, and that the rest is for the emotional beggars of the earth and is about the equivalent of people who stimulate themselves with dirty post-cards."
By Hillel Italie
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