Fictional Memoir

Zelda’s Last Letter

by Henry F. Tonn


My dearest Goofo,

So now it’s over. The night comes and I travel back to the times of gold and glitter, and if I am unable to distinguish fact from fiction, it does not matter, because no one cares.

I am amorphous: the perpetually institutionalized old woman fading from relevance and soon to be forgotten. This is my reality and I accept it. But I still dream, and in my dreams you continue to be the handsome young soldier with the soft blond hair and vibrant green eyes who read poetry to me on my front porch and promised solemnly to become famous. Which you did, ushering in a paradise that came directly from Paradise itself.

How high could we go? I wondered in those years. What are the limits here? But there were no limits, were there? We belonged to that special category of the rich, the young, the beautiful. No limits. We drank and smoked and flirted and relentlessly sowed the seeds of our own destruction.

We argued and made up and made love and then created more havoc. No limits. Like twin meteors, we illuminated the sky, burst into flame, fell to the earth. But in that downward spiral, I loved you and hated you and praised you and criticized you, and depended on you for everything.

And through it all, no matter how barren my life became, I always held a measure of hope that eventually everything would come back to us, that we would somehow reach a new beginning. This dream nourished and kept me going during the darkest hours and during the greatest depths of my insanity.

But now you are dead.

Where do I go from here? I have nothing and no one. Scottie lives her own life with her own concerns and harbors little interest in a mother who was absent when most needed. And for that I shall always bear the most profound guilt.

But how much control did I have over this? Yes, I admit that I left her with nannies to go out gallivanting when perhaps I should have remained home. But she attended the best schools money could buy and that is not something to be casually dismissed.

And when this wretched illness descended upon me, there was little I could do. It tore through my house of thoughts like a tornado, leaving everything in rubble. My mind flitted from one place to the next with no control.

And finally when all came into focus, I was on the edge of a terrible abyss. This was an experience beyond imagination. Death seemed a better option.

But, no, you shipped me off to mental institutions instead. In and out. In and out. In and out of the crazy wards. Insulin shock therapy. Psychotherapy. Hydrotherapy. Hallucinations. Group therapy. Art therapy. Delusions. Exercise therapy. Music therapy. Therapy therapy. Consultations with experts. More therapy.

Please, God, let it all end.

Now, in my periods of rationality, I realize that I have been a failure as a wife, a mother, a writer, a ballerina, and a painter. Even as a daughter. It is terrible to grow old with this realization.

Yes, I prefer fantasy. Of course I do. I prefer to remember the glitter and the gold and the extravagance of the people and the places we visited. I prefer to remember being the Golden Girl of the Roaring Twenties when I danced on tables in public restaurants and turned cartwheels in the lobbies of New York City’s finest hotels.

Boundless! We could travel anywhere and do anything: Paris, Rome, Capri, London, the Riviera — no limits. From the very beginning, our first trip to Europe in 1921, all doors opened because of your fame.

I remember Winston Churchill’s first cousin, Shane Leslie, escorting us on a walk along the waterfronts of London where Jack the Ripper once prowled. And later, that formal lunch with Lady Churchill, the famous Jenny Jerome... the dessert strawberries as big as tomatoes!

And I remember Paris in 1924, that great fair, that moveable feast: everyone so young, confident, imbued with talent and moving toward greatness.

I remember racing down the center of the Champs-Elysées and whirling through the traffic with the horns honking, with you strolling nattily behind me.

There were no limits.

I remember the beauty and lushness of the Riviera, and partying till the wee hours of the morning and then driving to the tip of Cap d’Antibes so I could peel off my dress and dive into the frigid water from those 35-foot-high rocks, unafraid, yes, unafraid, because nothing could happen to us, because we were absolutely invincible!

And the people. At one time we seemed to know every famous person in the world. John O’Hara, Maxwell Perkins, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker (yes, I know you had an affair with her, darling), Thomas Wolfe, Glenway Wescott, Somerset Maugham, Lillian Hellman, John Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, Cole Porter, Diaghilev, Woollcott, Miro.

I remember trading barbs with the members of the Algonquin Club, and flirting with H. L. Mencken who, despite his reticence about women, pronounced me “the fair Madonna.” I rode the Ferris wheel with John Dos Passos, accepted witty poems from Ring Lardner, and traded idle gossip with Tallulah Bankhead.

I took ballet lessons from Alexandre Gavrilo and chatted about painting with Matisse. I also remember discussing silly domestic issues with Alice B. Toklas while you men were busy being bombarded with the authoritative proclamations of The Stein. What an intimidating character she was!

There was good and there was bad but it was never dull. Our life together was a constantly changing landscape that left a kaleidoscope of brilliant memories.

Except for Hemingway. That pansy with chest hair. He was so macho I thought he was a fairy in disguise. He hated women. He never had a single well-rounded female character in any of his works.

Everything to him was manliness and courage. Lion hunting. Deep-sea fishing. Bullfighting. And bullshitting. He deplored weakness in everyone, but under his “larger than life” facade he was the weakest of men. The only thing “larger than life” about him was his capacity for phoniness.

I never understood your loyalty to him, especially after he skewered you in “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Couldn’t you recognize a viper when you saw one? He had this strict code of ethics when judging everybody else but never one for himself.

I was so gratified when you remarked in a moment of candor: “Ernest is always most happy to help somebody down to a lower rung on the ladder” or something like that. But was that the best you could do after all you did for him?

You read and critiqued his manuscripts when you should have been working on your own. You helped him get published, and he never forgave you for it. He never forgave anybody who helped him. He didn’t like to feel weak or beholden.

He was a goddamn pansy with chest hair.

I didn’t recognize till much later that the very act of marrying you would create changes I wasn’t prepared for. In Montgomery, I was the dazzling celebrity and you were the unknown writer. Then we got married and moved to New York, and you were the celebrity and I became “the wife of Scott Fitzgerald.” A mere consort. A glamorous possession of the writing star. You got the literary attention and I got the male attention — too much male attention. And it created problems. So much of what we did created problems.

We drank too much. We partied too much. The first year all we did was drink and party. We got home so late and slept so little that we had to take a nap at the next party in order to sober up and enjoy it. And get drunk again. We were enfants terribles, truly. It set a bad precedent.

We took everything for granted. We didn’t appreciate what we had. The money rolled in and we spent it. And yet we were always in debt. We could make $20,000 a year in depths of the Depression and spend $30,000. Always in debt. No control. Squandered money simply because we could. Never considered there would be darker days. Never realized that the only direction from the top of the mountain was down.

Do you remember Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem?

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends —
It gives a lovely light!

That’s us, darling.

We glowed, we glittered, and the newspapers couldn’t get enough of us. Do this. Do that. Pointing their cameras. They wanted stories; we gave them stories. We went out of our way to give them stories.

I jumped into the Washington Square Fountain to give them a story. Rode down Broadway perched on the hood of a taxi to give them a story. Spun around in the revolving doors of the Commodore Hotel until we got dizzy just for a story.

We did anything for a story.

Too much drinking. Too much craziness.

But when I got naked at the Sheppard-Pratt institution, I was sober, Goofo. Naked just to get your attention. Naked on the tennis court. Naked while you sat on your ass in the referee’s chair ignoring me. Naked when the attendants carried me away screaming. Naked. Naked. Naked.

I just wanted your goddamn attention. Was that asking too much?

It was all craziness.

Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness.

Goddamn craziness.

Too much drinking. Too much partying. The people in New York were sophisticated, so I became the “Barbarian Princess.” I’m from Montgomery, and they call me the Barbarian Princess. So ridiculous. And they called us the “it” couple. The “it” couple. We were “it” all right: it was a complete mess.

We should have treated each other better, Goofo. People in love shouldn’t talk that way. We were too harsh, too vicious. Always looking for the other’s jugular, for the vulnerability. Exploiting it. For what purpose? To ruin our self-esteem? Well, we did a good job of that. Instead of supporting each other, we undermined each other.

Goddamn craziness.

Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness. Craziness.

But I’ll survive. I’m going to get through this, Goofo. Mark my words. I’m going to revel in the glory of the past even while I struggle with the demons of the present. I’m going to get through this.

I’m not able to attend your funeral. No. I’m sorry. I can’t function in society anymore. I’m sorry.

People think I’m going back to the institution. But I’m not. I’m not going back.

I’m not going back to the institution.

Never.

Never again.

Well, maybe they’re right.

Maybe I’ll go back to the institution.

Yes, they’re probably right.

Sadly, they’re right.

The institution.

I’ll probably have to survive in the institution, Goofo. I can’t survive in society anymore.

I’d like to start over, though. Try again. Perhaps do better next time. Not act so crazy. Not party so much. Treat you better. You’d treat me better, too, of course.

We’d love each other and cherish each day the next time. We’d be better parents to Scottie. Be a family. Not move around so often. Settle in one place and have stable, normal, dependable friends.

I’d be a better housewife. I’d learn to cook. I’d clean and take care of the family the right way. I’d be a good wife. Yes, I’d be a good wife to you, Goofo. We wouldn’t squander money. We’d be responsible. It would all be better. We’d be happy. We’d nurture each other.

Yes, nurture each other.

We would nurture each other, Goofo.

Next time.


Author’s note: Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire at Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina in 1948, eight years after the death of her husband.


Copyright © 2015 by Henry F. Tonn

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