Greater Than Gatsby: My Mom and the F. Scott Fitzgeralds
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because geniuses are sometimes not so very different from you and me after all.
By 1927, 30-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald was already widely acknowledged as a great American author. But all the laudatory reviews of his 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, hadn’t brought the big payoff that Fitzgerald had hoped for. And things weren’t going well with his highly anticipated next book.
Meanwhile, his marriage to wife Zelda was starting to unravel. In fact, as the raucous party that was the Roaring ’20s seemed to pursue the couple everywhere, the high-strung Zelda was herself becoming unraveled. So, when Scott and Zelda weren’t themselves participating in the festivities, they traveled around, seeking peace and quiet and a diversion from their own dysfunctional relationship.
It was at this juncture, in July 1927, that the Fitzgeralds, along with their 6-year-old daughter, Scottie, showed up at the brand-new Virginia Beach resort hotel the Cavalier. There to greet them was my mother, Mary Alfredine Doty, who, fresh out of the Columbia School of Journalism, had taken a summer job at the hotel as a press agent.
My mother was never one for garrulous reminiscences about her storied career as a journalist. Tales like that of her encounter with Scott and Zelda just sort of popped out at key moments in conversation.
“Oh, yeah, Scott and Zelda,” she’d say. “I met them in Virginia Beach. Zelda was quite a strange young woman.”
She recounted her experiences at the Cavalier when I told her that I was bingeing on Fitzgerald novels. I had just read The Great Gatsby and I was obsessed with the way Fitzgerald captured the ethos of excess and longing that characterized the Jazz Age. My mother said I should take a look at Frederick Lewis Allen’s lively history of the 1920s, Only Yesterday, pulling a dog-eared copy of the book out of a bookshelf.
But the Fitzgeralds were freshly arrived — battered and bruised — from a sojourn in Europe, where, as Scott later wrote in his journal, their life had consisted of “1,000 parties and no work.” They each came with scars from their troubled marriage. Scott was still bitter about Zelda’s affair with a young French naval pilot when the family was living on the Riviera (“Something had happened that could never be repaired,” he said), and Zelda seethed with jealousy about Scott’s attention to other attractive women.
There was also the incident in St. Paul de Vence, when Scott spied Isadora Duncan across a crowded restaurant. He rushed over to introduce himself to the famous dancer and dropped to his knees, lavishing praise on her as she ran her hand through his hair. Witnessing this from across the room, Zelda got up from her table and flung herself down a stairway at the edge of the restaurant’s terrace.
It was time to come home from Europe to seek equanimity, to get back to the comfortingly familiar, to do some writing and maybe even experiment with sobriety. But there was, of course, always the need for new diversions.
The Cavalier, a 195-room brick structure overlooking the Atlantic, had just opened in April of 1927 (and will reopen this July as a modernized, 85-room resort with a historic flavor). Part of the hotel’s marketing strategy was to book celebrities — probably either comping them or giving them hefty discounts — and then to tip off the newspapers. There were presidents and former presidents, athletes and movie stars. I like to think that it was my bookish mother’s influence that brought in authors like Fitzgerald and John Galsworthy.
The Fitzgeralds were invited down to Virginia Beach in July, arriving in a sleek sports car. My mother walked with them around the grounds. She found Scott to be distracted and ill at ease.
“For a man with his reputation for courtliness, he had surprisingly little to say,” my mother recalled. The discomfort was probably prompted by two things: He was struggling with writer’s block (while in the throes of writing Tender Is the Night) and he wasn’t drinking.
Zelda was just strange, looking at my mother with eerie suspicion. Though my mother would never have spoken about someone’s sexual jealousy, particularly when she herself might have been involved, there must have been an element of that. My mother was a slim, stylish young woman, dressed in the form-fitting flapper dresses of the times. Her presence could only have added more fuel to the simmering jealousy that impelled Scott and Zelda’s marriage.
My mother did get the Fitzgeralds to pose for a family portrait by the hotel’s saltwater swimming pool. The portrait captures the family dynamics that my mother described, with Scott offering a distracted half smile, Zelda, her back to the camera, posing grudgingly and Scottie squinting unhappily from the background.
The family made subdued appearances at mealtimes or at the hotel’s amenities, including the 290-acre golf course, sunken garden and sumptuous beach club, where Big Band greats Tommy Dorsey and Glenn Miller once played. But both husband and wife were mostly out of sight during their stay at the Cavalier, my mother said. Scott was apparently writing most of the day, while Zelda remained cloistered in the room she shared with Scottie.
“Zelda did come out at night, after most of the hotel clientèle had gone to bed,” my mother said. “She took the sports car out onto the road in front of the hotel and drove back and forth, back and forth, at high speeds, late into the night. You could hear the sound of the motor, zooming past again and again, as you fell asleep.”
Zelda was eventually hospitalized, diagnosed with schizophrenia. Some have argued that she was a great talent in her own right, stuck in the diminished role that talented women were allotted (she wrote a novel of her own, Save Me the Waltz, which was critically well-received). She spent most of her life after 1930 in hospitals, finally dying in 1948 in a hospital fire while awaiting electric shock treatments in a locked room.
Scott finally finished Tender Is the Night almost seven years later — after 17 drafts. Some critics have called it his greatest work, though the book suffers at times from Fitzgerald’s ambition for it. You sense the author straining for greatness. Fitzgerald, an alcoholic for most of his adult life, died of a heart attack in 1940.
“Zelda? Very sad,” my mother said. But he, F. Scott, “was a great one. One of the greatest.”