It’s a familiar story. In the closing days of World War I, F. Scott Fitzgerald is a young Army lieutenant stationed near Montgomery, Alabama, preparing to be shipped overseas. He meets and falls in love with 18-year old Zelda Sayre, a charming and vivacious southern belle. Scott proposes, but Zelda won’t have him until he proves he can support her. He tries working in advertising for a while—in New York—but gives that up to return to St. Paul, Minnesota, close himself up in his parents’ house and re-write yet again his novel. Scott is twenty-three, confident, handsome, full of charm.
When he sells the novel to Scribners’, it proves a run-away best-seller, and he claims his prize. He and Zelda are married, and they immediately set out on a spree that won’t end until Zelda winds up in the first of several mental institutions.
That’s the short version of the story. In Fowler’s book, we get the long version. Zelda and Scott are impetuous; they do madcap things, spend money like water, attract attention and alienate friends. They move to France, where the living is cheap. Scott’s drinking saps his ability to write novels, but he makes a pile writing short stories for the magazines. Zelda doesn’t work, but she is talented. Zelda wants to do things, but Scott considers her life his material. When she writes stories, sometimes they are published under his name (they get more money that way), sometimes under hers, sometimes under both names. She writes a novel while in yet another clinic, and it infuriates Scoot. The age is a chauvinistic and paternalistic one, and Fowler’s Zelda is not a woman to buckle under. She tries various ways to find something she too can be successful at—she paints, she dances, she writes, but Fowler’s Scott doesn’t want a woman who competes with him. He wants a traditional wife. And when he sends her to the various clinics, her doctors tell her that she won’t be happy until she learns to put her husband first in all things, to strive to make him a happy home. She doesn’t really buy it.
Scott has problems, too. He drinks like Hemingway. (It’s reported that once he went off gin and began to drink as many as 100 bottles of beer a day.) He has affairs and flirtations, and Zelda does too. Slowly, the booze, the cheating, the economic uncertainty, and the mental health problems destroy the marriage of America’s first real celebrity couple, and by 1940 Scott is dead in California, at age 44, of a heart attack, dying in the home of Sheila Graham while Zelda, released from the latest of the many, many mental institutions, is back home with her family in Montgomery, hoping he’ll send the money for a train ticket, so she can join him. (Zelda dies along with several other women in 1948 when a fire destroys the clinic she has checked herself into.)
The novel, for all its romance and name-dropping (Bunny Wilson, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, etc.) moves a bit slowly. Perhaps because any reader of twentieth century American literature knows the denouement from the get-go, there isn’t a lot of suspense, so there are times when it’s hard to keep turning the pages. The lives imagined in this book, though, were bright and brilliant if brief. We owe Fowler a debt for bringing those lives back to us.