When their story began, World War I was raging, and Zelda Sayre was the reigning belle of Montgomery, Ala. Lovely and spirited, she had her choice of Southern men. But at 17, her glance lit fatefully on F. Scott Fitzgerald, a debonair Princeton dropout and aspiring novelist whose military service had landed him near Montgomery.
The war ended before Fitzgerald could fight, but, at 23, he published his first novel, “This Side of Paradise,” and persuaded Zelda to marry him. The book was a huge success, the marriage rather less so. The couple’s alternately buoyant and destructive romance would help define the Jazz Age, shape his literary output, and set the course of their lives.
The fascination with all things Fitzgerald hasn’t ebbed in the decades since their untimely deaths (Scott in 1940, at 44, of a heart attack, and Zelda in 1948, at 47, in a mental hospital fire). Baz Luhrmann’s current screen adaptation of “The Great Gatsby,” Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece about romantic illusion and self-invention, translates the Roaring Twenties into lavish 3-D.
Pegged to the movie’s release, two novels gamely tread well-plowed ground, reimagining the relationship between the novelist (talented, insecure, profligate, and alcoholic) and his flapper bride (dancer, artist, writer, and mental patient). That may be one more than any but the most ardent Scott-and-Zelda fan requires.
Therese Ann Fowler’s engaging “Z,” with Zelda as narrator, has a strong feminist slant that evokes Nancy Milford’s classic 1970 biography. Fowler’s sympathy for Zelda is passionate: In another era, the novel suggests, one kinder to women’s ambitions and more sophisticated in treating mental illness, Zelda would have amounted to more than a literary footnote; she would have been revered as an artist in her own right.
R. Clifton Spargo’s “Beautiful Fools” (the title derives from a Fitzgerald quote) is more narrowly focused, but almost as engrossing. Its narrative recreates a less than idyllic vacation that the couple took in Cuba in 1939, near the end of Fitzgerald’s life. Writing in third person, and alternating between Scott’s and Zelda’s perspectives, Spargo describes the imperfect communion of two troubled souls who can’t quite let go of their past or each other.
Like “Beautiful Fools,” “Z” begins with hope: Zelda fantasizing about joining Scott in Hollywood, where he is writing movie scripts (and, she knows, seeing other women). They exchange loving letters, and Zelda imagines herself poised on the brink of another, perhaps final chance at happiness.
She and Scott are not yet ruined, she insists: “Look closer and you’ll see something extraordinary, mystifying, something real and true. We have never been what we seemed.”
Then we flash back to their meeting, and all that ensued. “I looked at Scott there in the rosy light, his hair and skin and eyes aglow with joy and ambition and enthusiasm, and I was dazzled,” Fowler writes. He was “exotic, rare, desirable” — and equally smitten.
Zelda’s sister worries presciently that “the two of you would wear each other out.” There are early signs of trouble: Flitting from party to party in 1920s New York, both drink heavily, and Scott gives Zelda a black eye. Worse, he repeatedly deflects her attempts to fashion a career — as an actress, a dancer, an artist, a writer. When she does write short stories suitable for publication, he insists that she put his name on them to raise the price. They are perpetually broke, unfaithful to each other, emotionally brittle.
By the time they reach France, where Ernest Hemingway has a baleful effect on their relationship, Fowler’s Zelda is sounding like a feminist: “Single women could work all they wanted; married women locked themselves into a gilded cage. All of that had seemed natural before. Now, it made me angry.”
Her doctors diagnose her with schizophrenia (she was more likely bipolar, scholars say) and attribute the disease to her failure to accept the traditional female role. Meanwhile, Zelda sees herself as “fighting for my right to exist independently in the world, to realize myself, to steer my own boat if I felt like it.”
In “Beautiful Fools,” Zelda, on leave from the asylum, is still a victim of gender stereotyping: “Only when she agreed to play the part expected of her — of wife, of mother, of artist in moderation — only then could they begin to talk of her release.” Yet she is also self-willed, irresponsible, a magnet for trouble.
Scott, taking a break from his gossip-columnist girlfriend Sheilah Graham, is no saint either; he is firmly in the grip of alcoholism. Of Zelda, he thinks: “He could not stand to watch her suffer at the hands of anyone but himself.”
In Havana, the pair attract the attention of a Cuban eager for American investors and witness a bar fight that Zelda may have inadvertently incited. At one point, Zelda disappears, leaving Scott frantic with worry. He gambles money he can’t afford to lose and gets beaten up at a cockfight, barely escaping with his life.
“Beautiful Fools” skillfully evokes Cuba at the end of the 1930s, redolent of the music and scents and tastes of the tropics. Beyond the customary tourist haunts, adventure and danger seem to lurk in every bar and cafe, along every road and deserted beachfront. But the company isn’t always the best: Readers may well tire of flighty, insecure Zelda and perpetually inebriated Scott even before they exhaust each other.
More information on “Beautiful Fools”:
The Last Affair of Zelda
and Scott Fitzgerald
By R. Clifton Spargo
Overlook Duckworth, 366 pp. $26.95
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.