Mar 15 2013 11:00am
I wish I could tell everyone who thinks we’re ruined, Look closer…and you’ll see something extraordinary, mystifying, something real and true. We have never been what we seemed.
When beautiful, reckless Southern belle Zelda Sayre meets F. Scott Fitzgerald at a country club dance in 1918, she is seventeen years old and he is a young army lieutenant stationed in Alabama. Before long, the “ungettable” Zelda has fallen for him despite his unsuitability: Scott isn’t wealthy or prominent or even a Southerner, and keeps insisting, absurdly, that his writing will bring him both fortune and fame. Her father is deeply unimpressed. But after Scott sells his first novel, This Side of Paradise, to Scribner’s, Zelda optimistically boards a train north, to marry him in the vestry of St. Patrick’s Cathedral and take the rest as it comes.
What comes, here at the dawn of the Jazz Age, is unimagined attention and success and celebrity that will make Scott and Zelda legends in their own time. Everyone wants to meet the dashing young author of the scandalous novel—and his witty, perhaps even more scandalous wife. Zelda bobs her hair, adopts daring new fashions, and revels in this wild new world. Each place they go becomes a playground: New York City, Long Island, Hollywood, Paris, and the French Riviera—where they join the endless party of the glamorous, sometimes doomed Lost Generation that includes Ernest Hemingway, Sara and Gerald Murphy, and Gertrude Stein.
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That evening, the Montgomery Country Club’s high-ceilinged ballroom was ﬁlled to capacity. Along with the young men and women from the town’s top families were a handful of chaperones, and dozens of uniformed officers who’d been given honorary memberships while assigned to nearby Camp Sheridan or Taylor Field. Those fellas would soon be joining their army and air corps brothers in the skies or on battleﬁelds in places like Cantigny and Bois Belleau—but right now they were as youthful and happy and ready for romance as anyone there.
My ballet troupe readied itself behind a bank of curtains. Shoes snug, ribbons tied, skirts fastened and ﬂuffed. Lipstick, rouge—though not one of us needed it, as warm and excited as we were. A ﬁnal costume check. One more hamstring stretch, ankle ﬂex, knuckle crack. Instructions to spit out our gum.
“Two minutes, ladies,” Madame Katherine said. “Line up.”
One of the younger girls, Marie, moved a curtain to peek out at the audience. She said, “Look at all those offiocers! I sure wish I had the solo.”
Another replied, “If you were as good as Zelda, maybe you’d get one. Plus, you better quit eating so much cake.”
“Hush,” I said. “It’s baby fat. Time and practice is all you need, Marie.”
She sighed. “You look like a princess.” Mama had pinned my wavy hair into as neat a bun as it would tolerate, then encircled it with a garland of tiny tea roses from her garden. The roses were the same deep pink as my costume’s satin-trimmed bodice, and a shade darker than my diaphanous skirt. I was a princess, for right now anyway—and right now was all I ever cared about.
The orchestra began and I waited anxiously for my cue, glancing down once more to make sure my shoe ribbons were tied, that a bit of my skirt wasn’t tucked into my stockings. Would I remember the one-more fouetté the professor had added last minute? Would the two new girls remember to split the line when I came upstage from behind them?
When I took the stage, though, all of that disappeared, and I felt so light that I wondered if I’d been specially charmed by one of our Creole laundresses. Or maybe the lightness owed to the fact that I was ﬁ nally done with school. Maybe it was the energy of wartime, the sensation that all of time was faster now, and ﬂeeting. Whatever the case, my body was supple and tireless. It seemed I’d hardly begun the dance when the orchestra played the ﬁnal strains and the performance ended to cheers and applause.
While taking my bows, I noticed some officers at the front of the crowd. Like others I’d met, these fellas were a little older than my usual beaux. Th eir uniforms, with those serious brass buttons and knee-high leather boots, gave them sophistication that the local boys—even the ones in college—were lacking. The soldiers wore an air of impending adventure, the anticipation of travel and battles, of blood and bullets and, possibly, death, which made them more vibrant and alive.
A pair of tall boots paler than the others caught my eye. As I straightened, I followed the boots upward to olive-colored breeches, a ﬁ tted uniform tunic, and, above it, an angelic face with eyes as green and expressive as the Irish Sea, eyes that snagged and held me as surely as a bug sticks in a web, eyes that contained the entire world in their smiling depths, eyes like—
Something bumped my arm. “Go, Zelda,” one of the young ballerinas said, and nudged me into line for our exit.
That officer was nowhere in sight when I returned to the ballroom after changing into my dress—corset included in the ensemble; shoes, too—and dabbing on Mama’s own rose perfume. So I danced a tango with a boy I’d known my whole life, then followed it with a half-dozen more dances, a new fella for every new song. Sweaty brows, sweaty hands; sweat trickling down my back as I moved from one partner to the next, indulging no one of them more than another. They were useful accessories, these fellas were. Good dancers. Good company. Nothing more—though I wouldn’t have said so to them. It was far more fun to let them think they had a chance.
Finally I took a break to catch my breath and get something to drink. As I stood near the doorway, cooling down and waiting for my latest partner to return with refreshments, here came the officer with the fawn-colored boots. Now I noticed the crisp white collar inside his tunic, his softly squared chin, the perfect almond shape of his eyes, and the long, feathery lashes that shadowed them. Oh, my.
He bowed. “Lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald, hoping to make your acquaintance.” His voice was deeper than I’d expected, with no trace of Alabama or any place Southern.
I pretended to be shocked by his forwardness. “Without a proper introduction?”
“Life is potentially very short these days—and, your latest partner might return at any moment.” He leaned closer. “I’m wiser than I am impetuous or improper, rest assured.”
“Well. General Pershing ought to be consulting you on strategy. I’m Zelda Sayre.” I oﬀered my hand.
“Zelda? That’s unusual. A family name?”
“A Gypsy name, from a novel called Zelda’s Fortune.”
He laughed. “A novel, really?”
“What, do you think my mother is illiterate? Southern women can read.”
“No, of course. I’m impressed, is all. A Gypsy character—well, that’s just terriﬁc. I’m a writer, you see. In fact I’ve got a novel being read by Scribner’s right now—they’re a New York City publishing house.”
I didn’t know publishing houses from Adam. What I did know was that he held himself differently from the other boys—other men, I thought; he had to be in his twenties. And his speech had that dramatic ﬂair you ﬁnd in people accustomed to playacting in theater, as I was. When you’d spent so much time performing onstage, the habit bled into your life. Or, possibly it was the other way around.
I said, “I thought you were an officer.”
“My secondary occupation.”
“There’s not one bit of South in your voice, Lieutenant; where’s home?”
“Princeton, before my commission,” he said. “I did prep in New Jersey. My childhood was spent in Minnesota—St. Paul.”
“A Yankee in every single way.” I glanced beyond him; thirsty as I was, now I hoped my partner might forget to return.
“Yes—though I’ve developed quite an affection for the South since my assignment to Camp Sheridan. A growing affection, in fact.” In those captivating eyes was what Mama would call “an intention.” A spark, or sparkle; a glint or gleam. The fairy tales I’d read throughout my childhood were full of such words for such looks.
I said, “Well, that should make you more popular in these parts.”
He smiled then, and I felt that smile like a vibration moving through me, the way you might feel if you walked through a ghost or it walked through you. “Hopeful,” he repeated as the orchestra struck up a waltz, “and compelled to ask you for this dance.”
“Well, I am waiting for that nice fella from Birmingham to get back with a whistle-wetter. It is so blazing hot. I don’t know how you all can stand to wear all that”—I indicated his uniform—“and not want to just strip down and jump into some creek.”
“I think it’s because creeks are lacking somewhat in music and beautiful young women. Dancing, I’ve found, provides a good distraction from the discomfort of all this wool. Won’t you help a fellow out?”
He offered his hand. How could I refuse? Why would I want to?
“I suppose it would be a service to my country,” I said, just as the Birmingham boy returned with my drink. I took the glass from his hand, downed the punch, then returned the glass, saying, “Thank you so much,” and let Scott lead me off into the ballroom.
He danced as well as any of my partners ever had—better, maybe. It seemed to me that the energy I was feeling that night had infused him, too; we glided through the waltz as if we’d been dancing together for years.
I liked his starched, woolly, cologned smell. His height, about ﬁve inches taller than my ﬁve feet four inches, was, I thought, the exact right height. His shoulders were the exact right width. His grip on my hand was somehow both formal and familiar, his hand on my waist both possessive and tentative. His blue-green eyes were clear, yet mysterious, and his lips curved just slightly upward.
The result of all this was that although we danced well together, I felt off-balance the entire time. I wasn’t used to this feeling, but, my goodness, I liked it.
Two hours later, we stood facing each other in the pink glow of a driveway post lamp while the Club emptied out behind us. Any second now, Eleanor would come out, and then her daddy’s driver would be there to ferry us home in the old phaeton I’d once decided to drive myself. I was twelve at the time, and the horses nearly ran away with me before the whole thing went sideways and I was ﬂung into a hedge.
“Tell me more about this book business,” I said. “I’ve never known anyone who could write more than a news article—well, Mama wrote a short play once, but that hardly counts ’cause it was a musical and it only ran some fourteen minutes—it was for a charity ball, we’re always having charity balls here, do y’all do that, too, up North?”
He laughed. “Do you want to know about my novel, or St. Paul’s society habits?”
“The novel! Both! Tell me every single thing about every single thing until El drags me off.”
“How about this: I’ll send you a chapter, and you can see for yourself what I’m about. Then you’ll be able to say you were among the ﬁrst to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s phenomenal ﬁrst book.”
“Francis—after my cousin Francis Scott Key—The Star-Spangled Banner?”
“Oh yes. Besides which, F. Scott sounds weightier, don’t you agree? Authoritative.”
“Absolutely.” I nodded. “Why, I respect you more already and I haven’t read a word. Imagine how much I’ll admire you when I’m done. And then once it’s an actual book . . .” I let the sentence hang like that, allowing his imagination to ﬁll in the rest.
I wanted him to tell me more about how he’d done it, written a whole entire novel, and about what he liked to read, and I wanted to tell him what I liked to read, and then we could talk about things from those books. India, for instance; I’d been reading Kipling since forever. And Joseph Conrad’s made-up Costaguana, from Nostromo—had he ever heard of it? Where exactly did he think it was? Tarzan of the Apes—had he read that one? Africa, now that was a place to talk about!
“The ‘actual book’ part may be a while, yet,” he said. “Alas. I’ll lend you something else in the meantime, though, if you like. Do you enjoy reading?”
“I’ll read most anything. My friend Sara Haardt just sent me the strangest story, Herland, it was in a magazine, and it’s about a society that’s made only of women. I wouldn’t like that much.”
He grinned. “Good news, all.”
None of the boys I knew had much interest in books. For them it was football and horses and hounds. I looked at Scott there in the rosy light, his hair and skin and eyes aglow with joy and ambition and enthusiasm, and was dazzled.
“Here she is,” Eleanor said, slipping her arm around my waist. A linebacker- size fella was with her. “I thought maybe you’d snuck off like last time.”
Scott said, “Snuck off? Had I but known—”
“To smoke,” El said the moment after I pinched her. “She’d snuck off to smoke with a couple of the older girls.”
“Older than . . . ?”
“Seventeen,” I told him. “I’m seventeen ’til July twenty-fourth, that’s twenty-six—well, nearly twenty-ﬁve, really—days from now, given how it’s closing in on midnight. Twenty-ﬁve days, and then I’m eighteen.”
“After which time she’ll be far less annoying, I hope. We don’t smoke much,” El assured him. “But it’s good for preventing sore throats.”
“It’s good for making you feel good,” I said, “which is why the law and my daddy have always been against women doing it.”
“Who are you, by the way?” El asked Scott. She pointed at her companion and said, “This here new friend of mine, who is about to be on his way, is Wilson Crenshaw Whitney the Third.”
“Scott Fitzgerald, the one and only,” Scott told the two of them. Then, looking at me, he added, “Who very much wishes he didn’t have to do the same.”
“I purely hate that I have to go home,” I told him. “If I wasn’t a girl—”
“—I wouldn’t insist you allow me to phone you tomorrow. All right?”
“There’s my consolation, then,” I said. The phaeton was rolling to a stop in front of us. I followed El to its door, adding, “Judge Anthony Sayre’s residence. The operator will put you right through.”
The morning’s scattered clouds had, by afternoon, formed themselves into great towering columns with broad anvil tops while I lay on my bed, diary open, pencil in hand. I had one ear attuned to the thunder that might spoil my evening plans, and the other waiting for the telltale three short rings that indicated a telephone call for our residence. Scott still hadn’t phoned, and now I was almost certain that he wouldn’t. He’s all words, no substance, I thought. Writers are probably like that.
Tootsie appeared at my bedroom door. “Teatime. Katy’s got lemon pie, or tomato sandwiches—and I have gin.”
“So Mama has gone out.”
“Baby, I’m twenty-nine. Not exactly a schoolgirl, Lord.”
“Yet you still wait ’til Mama’s gone to pour a drink.”
“I try to be considerate. Anyway, it’s Daddy we need to worry about most . . . and God help me if he ever sees me smoking. I’m goin’ to muddle up some mint and raspberries to go with that gin. Are you game?”
“Okay, sure.” I glanced at my diary, where I’d been writing about the morning’s Service League work. We volunteers had served doughnuts and coffee to soldiers at the train station canteen, and a married officer had taken an obvious shine to me. Though I knew I was supposed to discourage his interest, I ﬂirted with him anyway. He was attractive and funny, and what harm was there in it? He was nothing more than a way to pass the time until we ﬁnished, until I could return home, until that charming lieutenant phoned.
I asked my sister, “Tootsie, how’d you know you were in love with Newman?”
“Oh-ho!” She sat down next to me. “Who is he? Tell!”
Katy called up the stairs, “Miz Rosalind, what’d you all decide?”
“What did we decide? Pie?”
I wrinkled my nose.
“The sandwiches,” Tootsie yelled. “And rinse those berries for me, would you?”
Tootsie turned back to me. “Now tell.”
“Nothin’ to tell. I guess I ought to be aware of what to look for, is all. The signs of true love, I mean. Is it like in Shakespeare?” I sat up and took Tootsie’s hands. “You know, is it all heaving bosoms and ﬂuttering hearts and mistaken identities and madness?”
The sound of the phone ringing downstairs made my heart leap.
“Yes,” Tootsie said with wide eyes, holding tightly to my hand as I jumped up. “Yes, it is exactly like that. Gird yourself, little sister.”
Copyright © 2013 by Therese Anne Fowler
Learn more about or pre-order a copy of Therese Anne Fowler's Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald before its March 26 release:
Therese Anne Fowler is an Illinois native and a graduate of North Carolina State University, where she earned a BA in sociology and an MFA in creative writing. She taught undergraduate fiction writing and was an editorial assistant for the literary magazine Obsidian III before leaving to write fiction full-time. Therese has two grown sons and two nearly grown stepsons, and currently lives with her husband in North Carolina.