Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads

Overview

What happened off the page was often a lot spicier than what was written on it...
 
 Why did Norman Mailer stab his second wife at a party?  Who was Edith Wharton’s secret transatlantic lover? What motivated Anaïs Nin to become a bigamist?
 
Writers Between the Covers rips the sheets off these and other real-life love stories of the literati—some with ...

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Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads

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Overview

What happened off the page was often a lot spicier than what was written on it...
 
 Why did Norman Mailer stab his second wife at a party?  Who was Edith Wharton’s secret transatlantic lover? What motivated Anaïs Nin to become a bigamist?
 
Writers Between the Covers rips the sheets off these and other real-life love stories of the literati—some with fairy tale endings and others that resulted in break-ups, breakdowns, and brawls. Among the writers laid bare are Agatha Christie, who sparked the largest-ever manhunt in England as her marriage fell apart; Arthur Miller, whose jaw-dropping pairing with Marilyn Monroe proved that opposites attract, at least initially; and T.S. Eliot, who slept in a deckchair on his disastrous honeymoon.
 
From the best break-up letters to the stormiest love triangles to the boldest cougars and cradle-robbers, this fun and accessible volume—packed with lists, quizzes and in-depth exposés—reveals literary history’s most titillating loves, lusts, and longings. 

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452298460
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 10/29/2013
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 948,512
  • Product dimensions: 5.41 (w) x 8.03 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon have worked at Penguin, Random House, HarperCollins, Simon & Schuster, Macmillan, and Hyperion. Rendon lives in London; Schmidt is a committed peripatetic, currently traveling the U.S. by RV.

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Read an Excerpt

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***

  Copyright © 2013 by Joni Rendon and Shannon McKenna Schmidt 

 

The Love Song of T. S. Eliot

 

T.S. Eliot

 

*

 

What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.

—T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding

During his disastrous honeymoon, T. S. Eliot reportedly spent the night in a deck chair while his bride barri­caded herself inside their hotel room. The neurotic pair’s eighteen-year partnership produced numerous nervous breakdowns and some of the twentieth cen­tury’s finest poetry.

*

The truth will all come out, if not in our life—then after it,” promised Vivienne Eliot, wife of famed modernist poet t. S. (Thomas Stearns) Eliot, from the asylum where she had been committed against her will in 1938. She blamed Eliot’s cruelty for causing her breakdown and longed for the world to know her side of the story.

Although she was eccentric and plagued by a nervous disposi­tion, Vivienne may not have been the “mad” Ophelia that history has made her out to be. Decades after her death in 1947, her brother, who signed her incarceration papers, admitted, “It was only when I saw Vivie in the asylum for the last time I realised I had done something very wrong. . . . She was as sane as I was.” Like Zelda Fitzgerald, the neurotic wife of another famous writer, Vivi­enne died while institutionalized.

She had spent her last hours of freedom wandering the streets of London in a delusional state, not unlike the tortured wife in Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, who proclaims in desperation, “I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street.” When her brother was sum­moned to collect her, he wrote alarmingly to the vacationing poet that Vivienne was “full of the most fantastic suspicions. She asked me if it was true that you had been beheaded.”

Vivienne’s grip on reality had steadily loosened after Eliot de­serted her five years earlier. Coldly, he had informed her of his de­sire to separate in a letter from his solicitor, sent while he was abroad teaching. His cowardly action avoided a painful confronta­tion, which he continued to forestall after his return to England by going into hiding.

Denied even the chance to meet with her husband, Vivienne refused to accept their breakup and became convinced she could change his mind if she could only speak to him again in person. Eliot refused, insisting through his lawyers that further discussions were “fruitless and unnecessary.” His abrupt and inexplicable with­drawal would have driven even the sanest of wives to the brink, but for a woman already plagued by abandonment issues, it spelled di­saster. Overcome with a growing sense of helplessness and hyste­ria, Vivienne began to stalk him.

Her attempts to track him down through the passport office and their dentist were foiled by his frequent moves, and she took to haunting his workplace. Embarrassingly, she would sit weeping in the waiting room while Eliot slipped out the back door, alerted by a special ring from his secretary. Evenings would find her canvas­sing performances of his plays, hoping for a sighting.

Out of options, she attempted to place an advertisement in the Times personals, which the newspaper withheld from publication. The ad pleaded: “Will t. S. Eliot please return to his home 68 Clar­ence Gate Gardens which he abandoned Sept. 17th, 1932.” even after bailiffs raided her apartment to repossess her estranged hus­band’s belongings, she clung to the hope that he might return and would often leave the door ajar.

After three long years, Vivienne’s perseverance was briefly re­warded when she tracked Eliot down at a book signing. She ap­proached him but was swiftly rebuffed: “I cannot talk to you now,” Eliot said dismissively, before rushing off. He never again made an effort to see her, either before or during her nine-year incarcera­tion. Although he was said to be acting on the advice of her doctors, his complete disengagement seems unfeeling and inhumane.

When Vivienne’s brother rang in 1947 to tell him she had un­expectedly died (possibly from a deliberate overdose), the poet is said to have become profoundly distressed, crying out, “Oh God, oh God.” Despite his conviction that leaving had been a necessary act of self-preservation, he was nonetheless tormented by his deci­sion. His autobiographical play The Family Reunion, about a tortured man who may or may not have killed his wife, is thought to have been an attempt to grapple with his conflicted feelings.

For a repressed man who spent a lifetime fleeing emotion, Eliot’s choice of a flamboyant, high-strung bride like Vivienne is puz­zling. The mismatched pair had wed after a whirlwind courtship while the shy American poet was a student at Oxford. Cracks in their marriage began showing immediately, when Vivienne’s un­predictable menstrual period arrived on their honeymoon.

It’s hard to say who was more distressed, the nervous bride or the inexperienced poet, who was still a virgin and squeamish about female sexuality. The reluctant Romeo was also hamstrung by em­barrassment over his hernia, and the abortive first night of passion did little to boost his confidence. Vivienne’s insistence on bringing home the soiled sheets for laundering only prolonged the painful ordeal.

Flummoxed by her husband’s disinterest in sex, Vivienne con­soled herself in the arms of his former teacher, the philosopher Ber­trand Russell. Eliot may have tacitly condoned the affair, happy to be off the hook in the bedroom. At the time, he was preoccupied with his dawning awareness of Vivienne’s many maladies. In addi­tion to suffering from manic depression and a hormonal imbalance, she had debilitating migraines, neuralgia, rheumatism, and later developed an eating disorder and addiction to pain medication.

Vivienne’s illnesses blighted every aspect of their existence, but Eliot stuck it out for more than a decade. He bore her difficul­ties with saintly patience, even giving up teaching for a higher-paid job in a bank so he could afford her mounting medical expenses. His round-the-clock ministrations brought on his own collapses, which would render him bedridden for weeks at a time.

Still, there were unexpected compensations. “Vivienne ruined him as a man but she made him as a poet,” claimed an acquaintance. Eliot himself later admitted, “to her the marriage brought no hap­piness . . . to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.” the 434-line confessional poem, considered one of the greatest of the twentieth century, was largely composed in a Swiss sanitarium while he was being treated for his own breakdown.

Eliot’s illnesses and heavy drinking offered him a refuge from his marriage as his wife’s bizarre behavior intensified. Among other eccentricities, she took to carrying a toy knife in her handbag, once using it to threaten Virginia Woolf, whom she accused of being Eliot’s mistress. Sympathetic to the poet, Woolf spoke of Vivienne as a “bag of ferrets” around his neck, forever “biting, wriggling, raving, scratching.” Vivienne’s erratic actions, Eliot’s compensa­tory drinking, and their constant mutual sniping hampered their social life. Friends described being sucked dry by their presence, and many refused to see the dysfunctional pair together anymore.

As the marriage reached its inexorable conclusion, Eliot laid the foundations for a separate life by joining the Church of England and taking a vow of chastity, an insurance policy against any more bad sex. He also began a secret correspondence with Bostonian Emily Hale, who had been his first love while he was a student at Harvard. Both of their families had assumed the sweethearts would marry, until Eliot’s move to Europe and his impulsive decision to wed Vivi­enne. Twelve years after being thrown over, Emily wrote to her for­mer flame, instigating a furtive but chaste cross-Atlantic friendship.

Over the next three decades, the poet penned her more than a thousand letters, and she frequently visited him in England. When Vivienne was found wandering the streets and committed to an asylum, Emily and Eliot were away together. Despite their close­ness, Eliot imposed a wall of secrecy around their relationship and few in his circle knew of Emily’s existence.

Emily acquiesced to remaining in the shadows, believing her virtuous silence would be rewarded with a walk down the aisle. But after Vivienne passed away, she was dismayed to find Eliot un­willing to make a commitment. Instead he claimed he felt incapable of ever sharing a life with anyone again. Their friendship continued in spite of the crushing rejection, perhaps because Emily, like Vivi­enne before her, did not give up hope that he might reconsider.

She might have reacted differently if she had known that the unlikely playboy had another gal pal in the wings. Englishwoman Mary Trevelyan had been Eliot’s confidante and frequent escort to social events since the year of Vivienne’s confinement. Although he gave off mixed signals by sending her presents and sometimes hold­ing her hand, he also discouraged intimacy by limiting their contact to once every two weeks. Undeterred by Eliot’s standoffishness, Mary proposed to him three times. Each time the poet demurred, claiming he thought they were just friends and that the idea of re­marrying was like a nightmare.

Despite his seemingly implacable stance on marriage, at the age of sixty-eight Eliot stunned everyone by tying the knot with his thirty-year-old secretary, Valerie Fletcher. The couple exchanged vows in a secret ceremony that took place at 7:00 a.m. to avoid publicity, and was witnessed only by the bride’s parents and a single friend. Not a soul had known of this covert office romance. After hearing the shocking news, Mary Trevelyan stopped speaking to him, while Emily Hale had a nervous breakdown.

Eliot’s second marriage brought him immense happiness. He and Valerie were inseparable, and those who knew him marveled at his profound contentment. Not known for sentimentality or romanti­cism, he broke the stereotype by publishing a love poem called “a Dedication to My Wife.” the verse describes an ideal union between two people “Who think the same thoughts without need of speech / and babble the same speech without need of meaning.”

The second Mrs. Eliot was equally besotted, having been a dev­otee of the poet since age fourteen when she heard a recording of his poem “Journey of the Magi.” Fate was on her side when, after train­ing as a secretary, she learned of an opening working for Eliot at the publishing firm Faber and Faber. During Valerie’s seven years as his devoted employee, the couple’s feelings quietly blossomed until she received Eliot’s coy handwritten proposal in a batch of typing.

Cynics claim the ailing poet, who suffered from emphysema and heart problems, had married to secure a trustworthy nurse­maid and literary executor, though Valerie disputed this interpreta­tion. “He obviously needed to have a happy marriage. He wouldn’t die until he’d had it,” she said. “There was a little boy in him that needed to be released.”

*

BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO

*

Before social media made saying sayonara as easy as changing your Facebook status, the time-honored tradi­tion of the breakup letter did the dirty work.

To have and have not. Prior to earning his macho reputation as a love ’em and leave ’em ladies man, eighteen-­year-old Ernest Hemingway had his heart broken by an older woman during World War I. While serving as an ambulance driver on the Italian front, the writer was injured by exploding shrapnel and tended to by Agnes von Kurowsky, a pretty American Red Cross nurse. A heady romance ensued, but their plans to marry were dashed when Agnes (the model for Catherine Barkley in A Farewell to Arms) fell for someone else and crushed him with a Dear John letter:

For quite awhile before you left, I was trying to con­vince myself it was a real love-affair. . . . Now, after a couple of months away from you, I know that I am still very fond of you, but, it is more as a mother than as a sweetheart.

Valley girl. Before Jacqueline Susann found stardom with her tale of bed-hopping, pill-popping starlets, Valley of the Dolls, the struggling actress funded her glamorous life­style by marrying wealthy publicist Irving Mansfield. The two sybarites enjoyed the good life, living in a posh New York City hotel and dining on steak and Dom Pérignon. But after Irving was drafted into the army, Susann fell for someone else. She composed a heartlessly humorous kiss-off letter and read it aloud to her shocked cast mates before mailing it to Mansfield:

Irving, when we were at the Essex House and I had room service and I could buy all my Florence Lustig dresses, I found that I loved you very much, but now that you’re in the army and getting $56 a month, I feel that my love has waned.

It’s not you; it’s me. Like her famous character Jane Eyre, who turned down a marriage proposal from a man she didn’t love, Charlotte Brontë did the same when her best friend’s brother popped the question. Although the twenty­-three-year-old novelist thought herself unattractive and doubted other offers would come her way, she refused to make a passionless match simply for the sake of security. Re­buffing her dull clergyman-suitor, she gently explained that she was not the right wife for him:

My answer to your proposal must be a decided nega­tive. . . . I have no personal repugnance to the idea of a union with you—but I feel convinced that mine is not the sort of disposition calculated to form the happiness of a man like you. . . . I am not the serious, grave, cool-headed individual you suppose.

Exile on Main Street. The marriage between Nobel laureate Sinclair Lewis and foreign correspondent Dorothy Thompson was troubled from the start. Thompson mistak­enly thought she could reform the notorious alcoholic, while the insecure author of classics like Babbitt and Main Street was jealous of his wife’s political clout. (Once, while they were in bed together, President Roosevelt rang for Dorothy.) After more than a decade of marriage, Lewis stormed out, claiming his wife’s success had robbed him of his creativity. While Dorothy was reluctant to part ways, she finally agreed to call it quits four years later:

Go ahead and get a divorce. I won’t oppose it. I also won’t get it. For God’s sake, let’s be honest. You left me, I didn’t leave you. You want it. I don’t. You get it. On any ground your lawyers can fake up. Say I “de­serted” you. Make a case for mental cruelty. You can make a case. Go and get it.

Beautiful and Damned

 

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

 

*

 

Nobody has ever measured, even the poets, how much a heart can hold.

Zelda Fitzgerald, “The Big Top”

During one unforgettable week in 1920, F. Scott Fitzger­ald published his debut novel, This Side of Paradise, and married his dream girl, Zelda Sayre. Their charmed life cracked up within a decade, heartbreakingly mired in alcoholism, mental illness, infidelity, and artistic rivalry— leading Fitzgerald to bitterly lament that his capacity for hope was left on the road to Zelda’s sanitarium.

In the summer of 1918, at a country club dance in Montgomery, Alabama, dashing young army lieutenant F. Scott Fitzgerald met free-spirited, flirtatious Zelda Sayre, who had a reputation for speaking her mind and engaging in wild behavior like smoking in public. A stormy courtship ensued, with endearing, passionate, and angry letters exchanged between the southern belle and her beau, who worked as a poorly paid advertising copywriter in New York City after leaving the military.

While eager to escape her parents’ home and start a new life, Zelda nonetheless took a hard line with Fitzgerald. She broke off their relationship and refused to marry him until he made something of himself and could support them in high style. Zelda’s declaration, along with steep competition for her affections, spurred the aspiring novelist to take a leap of faith. He jettisoned his job and sequestered himself in his parents’ attic in Saint Paul, Minnesota, to work on his writing.

Within months of being given this ultimatum, Fitzgerald jubi­lantly ran up and down the streets of his hometown as he shouted out the news that his first novel, This Side of Paradise, was going to appear in print. Picked up by a renowned publisher, the book brought him instant fame, considerable cash, and a new bride. A week after it debuted in April 1920, selling out the initial printing within days, he and Zelda tied the knot at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. The twenty-three-year-old groom and his nineteen-­year-old bride honeymooned at the Biltmore Hotel, where their drunken revels got so out of hand that they were asked to check out and take the festivities elsewhere.

The public was fascinated by the striking pair, who epitomized the glamour and lavishness of the postwar 1920s, a period Scott famously dubbed the Jazz age. The fashionable, vivacious Zelda shared the limelight with her spouse and even gave joint interviews with him. She represented a new generation of liberated women who emerged in the roaring twenties, as young people disillusioned by the devastation of World War I rebelled against old-fashioned conventions and attitudes. Determined to be recognized as men’s equals, flappers like Zelda boldly cut their hair into boyish bobs, abandoned corsets for shift dresses with shortened hemlines, drove motorcars, defied Prohibition at speakeasies, and treated sex in a newly casual manner.

“I married the heroine of my stories,” boasted the novelist. He was already writing about flappers when he met Zelda, the flesh­-and-blood embodiment of his fictional creations. Scott infused the character of Rosalind Connage in This Side of Paradise with aspects of his love interest’s personality, mannerisms, and witticisms (often verbatim). He gave Zelda chapters of the novel to read, courting her in a unique way that both charmed her and appealed to her vanity.

Despite flattering Zelda by immortalizing her in print, Scott was still smarting over being dumped by her until his coffers increased. He denied the novel’s lovesick Princeton University stu­dent Amory Blaine a walk down the aisle with the debutante Rosalind. “Marrying you would be a failure and I never fail,” she blithely informs her smitten suitor before running off with a wealthier man. The fictional heartbreaker’s callous treatment of Amory, however, didn’t dissuade Zelda from identifying with her. “I like the ones that are like me! That’s why I love Rosalind in This Side of Paradise,” she proclaimed. “I like their courage, their recklessness and spend­thriftness.”

Before Fitzgerald published any additional novels, he and Zelda produced their only child. Following a two-month trip to England, France, and Italy, they retreated to Saint Paul to await the arrival of their daughter, Scottie, in October 1921. Becoming parents didn’t slow down their hard-partying ways. They headed east, baby in tow, resuming their life of excess in Manhattan and Great neck, the suburban Long Island town that provided a model for West egg in The Great Gatsby.

The couple regularly showed up in gossip columns because of outrageous escapades like riding atop a taxi down Fifth Avenue, jumping into a public fountain (Zelda), and undressing at a theater (Scott). Their turbulent, hedonistic lifestyle and alcohol-fueled fights offered fodder for Scott’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned. The story follows New York City socialites Anthony and Gloria Patch from heady days of extravagance and nonstop revelry to a sobering new reality when an anticipated inheritance doesn’t mate­rialize.

Zelda penned a cheeky review of The Beautiful and Damned in which she implored readers to buy the book as she had her eye on a pricey gold dress and a platinum ring. But underlying the seemingly irreverent piece is a serious admission. “On one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar,” revealed Zelda. “In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald . . . seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”

Not only did Fitzgerald attribute some of Zelda’s physical char­acteristics and personality traits to his characters, with her consent he lifted passages from her journals and letters to use in his fiction. At the time this “plagiarism” was something of a lark to Zelda and a way for her to support the breadwinner who funded their swanky lifestyle. When a well-known drama critic happened upon her lively diaries during one of the couple’s soirées and expressed inter­est in publishing them, Scott opposed the idea because he wanted dibs on the material for his novels and short stories.

The Fitzgerald’s’ finances were perpetually shaky, with the roy­alty checks spent almost as soon as they were cashed. In 1924, after the failure of a play they were counting on to boost their bank ac­count, the couple and their daughter set sail for Europe, where a favorable exchange rate meant they could afford a grander lifestyle.

After a brief stay in Paris, Scott and Zelda headed to the French Riviera in search of the solitude he needed to write. At a seaside villa, he shut himself away for long periods and forbade any interruptions while he worked on The Great Gatsby. Lonely and resentful at being abandoned, Zelda struck up an intimate friendship with French avia­tor Edouard Jozan. “I must say everyone knew about it but Scott,” remarked an acquaintance who witnessed the budding affair.

A histrionic scene ensued when Zelda confessed to Scott that she was in love with Jozan and asked for a divorce. He furiously responded that her lover would have to confront him in her pres­ence. Zelda backed down and ultimately decided to stay with Scott, having regained his attention with the illicit fling but still desper­ately unhappy. The incident further damaged their already strained relationship, and shortly afterward she tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of sleeping pills.

“That September 1924 I knew something had happened that could never be repaired,” Fitzgerald said of the unhappy period. He admitted having encouraged his wife to spend time with Jozan as a distraction while he worked. Although other men routinely fell in love with Zelda, “it never occurred to me that the friendship could turn into an affair,” he said. And yet he acknowledged that he may have unconsciously encouraged the situation to stimulate his fiction. An affair with tragic consequences is integral to The Great Gatsby’s storyline. Infidelity is also a pivotal plot point in a later work, Tender Is the Night, in which Nicole Diver leaves her psychiatrist husband for a mercenary soldier.

The couple’s incessant love of drama found expression in the various embellished accounts of the love triangle they shared with friends and acquaintances, including the claim that Scott locked Zelda in the villa for a month after finding out about her romance. She falsely reported that a despondent Jozan killed himself, while her husband boasted that he had challenged her admirer to a duel. According to Scott’s fantasized account, both men fired and missed— an episode that appears in Tender Is the Night.

Back in Paris, the Fitzgeralds fell in with other expatriate writ­ers, including Ernest Hemingway, who made some sharp observa­tions about the couple’s relationship in the memoir A Moveable Feast. He believed his fellow writer was talented enough that he might have surpassed his masterwork, The Great Gatsby, if not for a critical factor. “I did not know Zelda yet,” Hemingway wrote, “and so I did not know the terrible odds that were against him.”

In Hemingway’s opinion, Zelda was jealous of Scott’s work and encouraged him to drink to excess so he wouldn’t be able to write. “As soon as he was working well Zelda would begin complaining about how bored she was and get him off on another drunken party,” he recalled. “They would quarrel and then make up and he would sweat out the alcohol on long walks with me, and make up his mind that this time he would really work, and would start off well. Then it would start all over again.”

According to the gossipy Hemingway, who had a notoriously contentious acquaintance with Zelda, she verbally emasculated her husband by telling him he could never make a woman happy in bed. “She said it was a matter of measurements,” confided Fitzgerald, who hadn’t slept with anyone expect his wife. In the bathroom of a Paris restaurant, Hemingway assessed his writer pal’s implement, deemed it acceptable, and called Zelda crazy.

On subsequent trips to the Riviera following Zelda’s affair, both Fitzgeralds began drinking more heavily. They became in­creasingly and deliberately reckless, daring each other to cliff dive into the sea at night and driving dangerously on winding mountain roads. While dining out one evening, Scott flirted with dancer Isa­dora Duncan, who was seated at a nearby table. As she stroked his hair and called him her centurion, Zelda launched herself down a set of stone stairs.

After two and a half tumultuous years abroad, the Fitzgeralds returned stateside but found little respite from their marital woes. During a stay in Hollywood, Zelda was distressed by Scott’s blatant infatuation with seventeen-year-old actress Lois Moran. He would often take the young girl and her mother out on the town, leaving his wife behind. Scott further upset Zelda with his effusive praise of Moran’s initiative in forging a career, something she desired for herself. (When she had expressed an interest in acting, years ear­lier, he derided her ambition and ultimately persuaded her against it.) During one desolate evening alone, she made a bonfire in the hotel bathtub and destroyed clothes she had designed herself.

On their way back east by train, Scott informed his wife that he had invited Moran to visit them once they found a home. Zelda responded to this malicious pronouncement by tossing out the win­dow a platinum and diamond wristwatch Scott had bought her as an engagement gift.

It’s not known for certain if Fitzgerald’s involvement with Moran—whose short blonde hair and facial features were strikingly similar to his wife’s—was merely emotional or turned physical. She did, at any rate, leave enough of an impression to inspire rosemary Hoyt, the beautiful teenaged actress with whom Dick Diver, a mar­ried man twice her age, has an affair in Tender Is the Night. Even the name rosemary is a not-so-subtle reference to Moran, taken from the character she played in the film The Road to Mandalay.

When introducing readers to rosemary, Fitzgerald waxed po­etic about the character’s youth and looks. “Her fine forehead sloped gently up to where her hair, bordering it like an armorial shield, burst into lovelocks and waves and curlicues of ash blonde and gold,” he wrote. “Her body hovered delicately on the last edge of childhood—she was almost eighteen, nearly complete, but the dew was still on her.”

Fitzgerald toiled for years on Tender Is the Night, which appeared nine years after The Great Gatsby. Zelda meanwhile had a creative awakening of her own and began painting, writing, and taking bal­let lessons, a youthful interest revived during her time in Paris. She penned articles and short stories that appeared under a dual byline with her husband, who was seen as the top draw by magazine edi­tors. In at least one instance, a tale she wrote appeared solely as his creation.

The couple crossed the Atlantic two more times for extended stays. While living in Paris, thirty-year-old Zelda suffered her first mental breakdown, triggered in part by obsessive and strenuous ballet practice. In 1930, less than a month after the couple’s tenth wedding anniversary, she entered a clinic for a short time. When hallucinations recurred and she again attempted suicide, Fitzgerald took her to a sanatorium in Switzerland. Zelda spent the rest of her life in and out of institutions in Europe and the United States, with Scott standing by her and often taking lodgings nearby.

The deck may have been stacked against the couple from the start. It’s possible that Zelda, whose family had a history of mental illness, suffered from manic depression or schizophrenia, or per­haps both. Not much was known about either disease at the time. Likewise, the alcoholism that afflicted Scott was not yet recognized as an addiction but instead seen as a moral failing or a character flaw. Others speculate that Zelda’s maladies had a far simpler cause: stifled artistic creativity.

During a stay at a Baltimore clinic in 1932, Zelda turned out, in less than two months, the autobiographical novel Save Me the Waltz. She incorporated elements of her life with Scott, which infu­riated him because it overlapped with material he was using in Ten­der Is the Night. He became even more enraged when he learned that Zelda had sent her novel to his editor, who wanted to publish it. Along with demanding that half the royalties be applied to debts he owed the publisher, Scott took a heavy hand in editing the story, including reworking the portrayal of the fictional husband to make him more sympathetic.

When Hollywood beckoned again, Fitzgerald heeded the call and signed on as a scriptwriter with a movie studio. He took up romantically with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham and started working on a novel, The Love of the Last Tycoon. Living a fairly quiet life, he altered some of his self-destructive behavior, even giving up drinking in his last year. But it was too little too late, and the forty­-our-year-old writer died of a heart attack at Graham’s apartment in December 1940.

A year and a half before Scott’s death, he and Zelda saw each other for the last time during a drama-filled holiday in Cuba. After Scott became drunk and was severely beaten while trying to break up a cockfight, Zelda took charge and got them back to the States. Upon their return, he wrote to her of the affection he still had for her: “You are the finest, loveliest, tenderest, most beautiful person I have ever known.”

Seven years after Scott’s death, Zelda too met an untimely and tragic end. While she was locked in a north Carolina hospital room awaiting electroshock treatment, a nighttime fire broke out, killing her and eight other women. The Jazz age chronicler and his muse are laid to rest in a Maryland cemetery, where their shared tomb is etched with The Great Gatsby’s concluding line: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

*

 COUGERS AND CRADLE ROBBERS

 

*

These May-December romantics were undeterred by their vast differences in age.

Fourteen years. Cradle robber Edgar Allan Poe wed

His thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, though he respectfully waited until his bride turned sixteen before consummating their union.

Sixteen years. With a failed heterosexual marriage

Behind her, venerated 1960s essayist Susan Sontag found her soul mate in celebrity photographer Annie Leibo­vitz, sixteen years her junior.

Seventeen years. Nineteen-year-old Rebecca West

Captured H. G. Wells’s attention when she panned his novel Marriage in a feminist journal. The married, middle-aged writer’s subsequent invitation to dine morphed into a decade-long affair that produced a son.

Eighteen years. Thomas Wolfe’s long-term affair

With MILF Aline Bernstein began on the last night of a transatlantic voyage, when the two jumped in the sack just hours after meeting.

Twenty-four years. Under pressure to write a novel

In one month or face losing all of his copyrights, debt-ridden Fyodor Dostoyevsky hired stenographer Anna Snitkina. Impressed by more than just her shorthand skills, he proposed within nine days of dictating The Gambler.

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