The Gatsby Affair: Scott, Zelda, and the Betrayal that Shaped an American Classic

The Gatsby Affair: Scott, Zelda, and the Betrayal that Shaped an American Classic

by Kendall Taylor


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The romance between F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre has been celebrated as one of the greatest of the 20th century. From the beginning, their relationship was a tumultuous one, in which the couple’s excesses were as widely known as their passion for each other. Despite their love, both Scott and Zelda engaged in flirtations that threatened to tear the couple apart. But none had a more profound impact on the two—and on Scott’s writing—as the liaison between Zelda and a French aviator, Edouard Jozan. Though other biographies have written of Jozan as one of Scott’s romantic rivals, accounts of the pilot’s effect on the couple have been superficial at best.

In The Gatsby Affair: Scott, Zelda, and the Betrayal That Shaped an American Classic, Kendall Taylor examines the dalliance between the southern belle and the French pilot from a fresh perspective. Drawing on conversations and correspondence with Jozan’s daughter, as well as materials from the Jozan family archives, Taylor sheds new light on this romantic triangle. More than just a casual fling, Zelda’s tryst with Edouard affected Scott as much as it did his wife—and ultimately influenced the author’s most famous creation, Jay Gatsby. Were it not for Zelda’s affair with the pilot, Scott’s novel might be less about betrayal and more about lost illusions.

Exploring the private motives of these public figures, Taylor offers new explanations for their behavior. In addition to the love triangle that included Jozan, Taylor also delves into an earlier event in Zelda’s life—a sexual assault she suffered as a teenager—one that affected her future relationships. Both a literary study and a probing look at an iconic couple’s psychological makeup, The Gatsby Affair offers readers a bold interpretation of how one of America’s greatest novels was influenced.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781538104934
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 08/08/2018
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 731,419
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Kendall Taylor, Ph.D., is a cultural historian who has taught at George Washington University, The American University, and State University of New York. She also served as Head of the National Exhibitions Program at the Library of Congress, Academic Director of The American University’s Washington Semester Program in Art and Architecture, and Vice President for Planning, Research, and Institutional Advancement at Friends World College in Huntington, Long Island. A Fulbright scholar and winner of numerous awards, Taylor is the author of the critically acclaimed biography of the Fitzgeralds, Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom, which was published in 2001. She lives in New York and Florida.

Read an Excerpt


Recklessness in the Making

One sultry July night in 1918, First Lieutenant F. Scott Fitzgerald made his way into Montgomery from nearby Camp Sheridan and headed for the country club on Narrow Lane Road. Not a member, he had pulled strings to obtain an entry pass, and after presenting it at the door, headed for the sounds of Art Hickman's Rose Room Fox Trot coming from the ballroom. He found the crowd poised to watch seventeen-year-old Zelda Sayre perform Ponchielli's Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda. The operatic vignette portrayed time from morning through night, and before Zelda reached dusk, Scott was captivated, remembering how she glistened that evening, comparing that glow to the illumination Italian painters used to depict hovering angels.

She had started taking dance lessons at six and trained with several good teachers, the best being Professor Weisner, who was so exceptional, no one could understand why someone as talented should come to Montgomery. But there he was, and under his skillful tutelage, she appeared in numerous pageants and entertainments, receiving top billing in ballet recitals at the Grand Theater. Besides performing in classical ballet, Zelda knew the trendy dances, like the Blizzard Lop, Bunny Hug, and Tickle-Toe, and was the most popular girl in any ballroom. When her performance ended that Saturday night, Scott sauntered over to introduce himself and they began dancing, but it was impossible to sustain her attention. Boys lined the length of the ballroom and kept cutting in. To get her alone, Scott suggested a midnight date, to which Zelda laughingly responded that she never made late dates with fast workers. The demand for her was overwhelming, and frequently there were multiple dates during one evening: early dinner at six, a second engagement at nine, and a late date at eleven. Her strategy was to keep each suitor aching for more and it worked. In between, the Sayres' phone rang incessantly, and deliverymen brought boxes of chocolates, long-stemmed roses, and fragrant gardenias.

Nonetheless, Scott's smartly tailored uniform made some impression, because he managed to get her phone number. When he rang the next day, though, he learned she was booked for weeks and devised a way to see her sooner by organizing a party in honor of her eighteenth birthday. It was a magical evening she never forgot, with Zelda playing the fragrant phantom and Scott the handsome lieutenant, caught up in a radiant light of soft conspiracy, in which even the pine trees agreed, it was all going to be for the best.

Voted the prettiest and most popular in her class, Zelda was noticeably different from other girls and the most sought after of Montgomery's young women. Scott was fascinated by the way she was so universally admired, a prize to be won against worthy competition. She was being pursued by not only local suitors but also soldiers from the nearby base. Two of them — Lieutenants Henry Watson of Douglasville, Georgia, and Lincoln Weaver of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania — were doing regular flybys over her house, until their airplane took a nose dive and crashed on a nearby racetrack. Zelda gave the article, "Aviators Crash to Earth Monday at the Speedway," a prominent place in her scrapbook.

With his blond hair parted down the middle and heavily lashed lavender eyes, and at five feet seven and 160 pounds, Scott was not overly masculine but was popular with women. Although he didn't have the two top things, animal magnetism or money, he was good looking and intelligent so remained in competition for the top girl. Dressed in his custom-tailored Brooks Brothers uniform, designed with side pockets to distinguish it from regulation issue, and wearing jodhpurs with knee-high leather boots, he exuded a jaunty confidence that suggested he belonged to the intellectual and social elite. The impression was not lost on Zelda, who thought he epitomized Ivy League fellows who smelled of Russian leather and seemed very used to being alive. In those days, it was still exceptional for young men from Montgomery to leave for law school or medical colleges, and most lived locally their entire life. As a Midwesterner from Minnesota, Scott was different from Southern men, and his tenure at Princeton had given him an urbanity against which fellows from Auburn and Tuscaloosa could not compete. Although Zelda was pursued by many men from better families with more money, none were superficially as impressive or possessed such lofty ambitions. She was awed by his certainty over becoming a famous author and flattered to hear that she resembled the heroine in his novel. Only secretly she wondered, if he had met her somewhere else, would he have been as interested?

Although Scott lacked financial security, he had the cache of being named after the composer of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Although he was only a distant second cousin, three times removed, it was something he mentioned immediately upon introduction. His mother, Mollie McQuillan, was the eldest daughter of an Irish immigrant who settled in Illinois during 1843 and established a thriving grocery business that grew into one of the Midwest's largest wholesale companies. When Mollie's father died prematurely, the estate was worth $300,000, which enabled his widow to raise their five children comfortably. Mollie was twenty-nine when she married Edward Fitzgerald, who managed a small wicker factory in St. Paul, Minnesota. Never adept at business, when that enterprise went bankrupt, he found employment as a salesman with Procter & Gamble in Syracuse, New York, but was soon fired. Scott's insecurities were heightened by his father's failures, and he never forgot the day his father had left the house full of confidence, then returned home a broken man.

After his dismissal, Edward never again found firm footing, and the family moved from one rented house to another, ultimately returning to St. Paul where McQuillan money became their primary support. With her dwindling inheritance, Mollie managed to educate her two children in private schools, but Scott always was embarrassed by his family's circumstances. At the core he felt ineffectual and believed he lacked the necessary qualities for success. The one area in which Edward was a positive influence involved refinement and manners. He taught his son a sense of decorum, and to acquire certain skills sent Scott to dancing school where he became a star pupil. Practicing steps in his parents' front parlor, he became adept with waltzes and fox-trots, as well as the trendy Maxie and aeroplane glide.

When Scott performed poorly at St. Paul Academy, he transferred to Newman, a Catholic boarding school in Hackensack, New Jersey, where his grades were equally unimpressive. Already drinking and smoking by fifteen, due to a genetic disposition or because the "idea" of consuming alcohol disoriented him, he became easily intoxicated. Consistently late for classes or skipping them entirely, his January 1912 grades revealed unsatisfactory results in most subjects. Newman should have prepared him for Ivy League colleges but did not. When he underwent entrance exams for Princeton, even after cheating on the multiple-choice part, Scott failed the essay section. Then, after studying all summer for the makeup test, he failed again. He had always fantasized about attending Princeton, where he saw success linked to his writing ability, and his remaining hope was an interview. A meeting with the board of appeals was scheduled for his seventeenth birthday, and impeccably attired in clothing from Brooks Brothers and Jacob Reed, he took the train to Princeton and, largely on the virtue of his charm, convinced admissions officers to accept him into the class of 1917.

Through his work with the campus literary magazine Nassau Lit, Scott got to know Edmund Wilson and John Peale Bishop, who introduced him to the poetry of John Keats and the French Symbolists, teaching him more about literature than his instructors. He also befriended John Biggs, who, like Scott, was the indulged son of a doting mother. John had a shaky relationship with his father, a prominent Delaware attorney, who considered his son lacking in intelligence. Actually, he was dyslexic, which made studies difficult and got him dismissed from several schools. Although he finished Princeton and entered Harvard Law, he was an equally poor student there, where he seldom attended classes and barely graduated with Cs. His father's contempt only deepened over the years, and John harbored deep resentment about that. Beneath his calm exterior, anger churned.

John wasn't alone in having difficulty making it through Princeton. By the end of Scott's sophomore year, he had failed so many classes, he became ineligible to remain an English major, and six weeks into his junior year was barred from all extracurricular activities. Since his real interests lay in writing for the dramatic club literary magazines and making social connections, he dropped out before the end of fall semester and was then told he would have to repeat it. A year of terrible disappointment brought upon himself, it marked the end of his college dreams.

Since many classmates already had left for war, Scott applied for a commission, having unearthed a federal statute authorizing officer status for those speaking French. It was a proficiency he didn't have, but details aside, he took examinations at Fort Snelling for a provisional regular army appointment as second lieutenant. When he returned to Princeton the following August and enrolled in John Biggs's class of 1918, temporarily moving into his room, he anticipated it would only be for a short time.

Scott was correct, since his commission arrived on October 26, 1917, when he left for St. Paul to say good-bye to his parents. From there it was on to Officers' Training School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where the captain in charge was Dwight David Eisenhower. As poor a second lieutenant as a college student, instead of paying attention to lectures on trench warfare, he scribbled notes for a novel and worked on the manuscript during evenings and weekends at the Officers' Club and base library. In three months he finished a first draft. One of his Princeton professors suggested submitting it to Scribner's since Charles Scribner and his younger brother, Arthur, both were alumni. Unfortunately, the publishing house's chief editor, William Crary Brownell, disliked the manuscript, and it was only his apprentice, Maxwell Perkins, who thought it had potential. After graduating from Harvard, Max had joined Scribner's and was eager to shift its focus away from publishing established authors to bringing out the best new writers. They kept Scott waiting five months before announcing their decision, and the letter finally came from Max, who said the manuscript was original but needed more work. His major criticism was that the story never advanced to any conclusion, and the hero drifted from one situation to another without any awareness or understanding. He encouraged Scott to revise and resubmit. Two months later, Scott sent an improved version that Charles Scribner III liked, but other editors again vetoed.

In February 1918, Scott was transferred with the Ninth Division of the Forty-Fifth Infantry from Fort Leavenworth to Camp Zachary Taylor near Louisville, Kentucky, and then to Camp Gordon in Georgia, where he got lucky and received an assignment as aide-de-camp to Brigadier General James A. Ryan, commandant of the Seventeenth Infantry Brigade at Camp Sheridan, outside Montgomery, Alabama. His Princeton credentials, although abbreviated, and Irish Catholic background won him an easy posting at Headquarters Detachment, where he functioned as Ryan's social secretary.

Montgomery had been chosen Alabama's state capital in 1846 and was a picturesque place with restaurants and shops occupying tree-lined streets that ran from its Victorian train station, smelling of bananas and marshmallows, to the town's center at Dexter and Commerce. Many of its roads were still unpaved, so people had to wash their feet before going to bed. On the surface Montgomery seemed genteel, but just below, passions simmered. As Zelda explains in her unpublished novel Caesar's Things, men had been shot for committing flagrante delicto (Latin for being caught in the midst of sexual activity) under the Confederate Monument and in most commercial hotels, and one blew his brains out in the main thoroughfare. As the way Zelda viewed it, people made mistakes because they were generous of spirit and not given to restraint.

Montgomery was neither as tranquil nor as accepting of outsiders as might first appear; the Civil War still lingered on peoples' minds. A generation of men had been massacred in the conflict, including Zelda's two uncles; the residence of another uncle was used as the first White House of the Confederacy. A quiet community of forty thousand until becoming an air depot for Southern training contingents, Montgomery had been selected because of already existing air fields and the base, Camp Sheridan, named after Union Army general Phil Sheridan. It was an affront Montgomery's residents strongly resented. Soldiers began arriving in the fall of 1917 when Zelda was a high school senior. Not since the Civil War had so many Northerners been seen and the place swirled with activity, the base housing half as many people as the town itself. The First World War brought swarms of men to the town, and Zelda remembered the jaunty aviation officers with sunburned noses and white around their eyes from where goggles had been, better dressed in their uniforms than ever before. The town smelled of khaki and army leather, telephone booths were never empty, and there were rendezvous everywhere.

That July, Scott was still recovering from being rejected by Ginevra King, daughter of the Chicago stockbroker Charles Garfield King. The third daughter over three generations to be named after Leonardo da Vinci's Ginevra de Benci and an equally enigmatic beauty, at sixteen she already was popular with Ivy League boys. The two were introduced in St. Paul during January 1915 when Ginevra was visiting her classmate, Marie Hersey, a neighbor of Scott's on Summit Avenue. Both were sophomores at Westover, an exclusive girls' school in Middlebury, Connecticut. Scott initially appealed to Ginevra, and she accepted his invitation to Princeton, but it was a one-sided romance that he fantasized out of proportion. Her younger sister, Marjorie, considered Scott a nonentity and never understood why she bothered with him. Ginevra generally dated wealthy boys with status, and Scott unquestionably was middle class. Once, at a party the two attended in Lake Forest, Scott overheard someone remark that poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls, and knew the comment was directed at him. Ginevra's indifference toward their relationship finally registered after their breakup, when he asked for his letters back and discovered she had not kept them. Not only had he saved hers but had them typed and bound in a volume numbering three hundred pages.

Scott's feelings about the affluent being different from others stemmed from this rejection. He believed that possessing early made them soft where other people were hard and cynical rather than trusting. They simply considered themselves better than everyone else. Ginevra would always represent the golden girl who got away, and Scott was determined not to have that happen again. Just two weeks before meeting Zelda, his loss was reawakened when Ginevra wrote that she was marrying Ensign William Hamilton Mitchell, a Harvard grad and son of the president of the Illinois Trust and Savings Bank. The wedding was to occur on September 4, 1918, in Chicago at St. Chrysostom's Church, after which Mitchell would assume duties as a flight instructor in Florida at the Naval Air Station in Key West. To keep everything in the family, his younger brother, Clarence, would later wed Ginevra's sister, Marjorie.

When she met Scott, Zelda was days away from her eighteenth birthday, the last of Minnie Buckner Machen and Anthony Dickerson Sayre's six children. Her mother was almost forty when Zelda was born on July 24, 1900. The family was Episcopalian, and Zelda was baptized in the Church of the Holy Comforter where her three sisters were christened before her: Marjorie, the oldest, born in 1882; Rosalind, eleven years Zelda's elder, born in 1889; and Clothilde, nine years older, born in 1891. Her brother Daniel Morgan Sayre had died of spinal meningitis at eighteen months in 1885, leaving Anthony Jr., born in 1894, the remaining son.


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Table of Contents

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xix

Chronology of Edouard Jozan and the Fitzgeralds xxv

Chapter 1 Recklessness in the Making 1

Chapter 2 Seeds of Discontent 27

Chapter 3 The French Lieutenant 51

Chapter 4 A Mistress Not a Wife 65

Chapter 5 Truly a Sad Story 83

Chapter 6 Retribution and Remorse 103

Chapter 7 Locked Away 123

Chapter 8 No Hope Salvaged 139

Chapter 9 An Ailment No One Could Cure 157

Chapter 10 All in Disarray 169

Chapter 11 A Mind Washed Clean 187

Notes 207

Bibliography 237

Index 253

About the Author 261

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