The Great Gatsby Line That Came From Fitzgerald's Life—and Inspired a Novel

F. Scott and Zelda's turbulent marriage gave both spouses material to write about, which in turn became writing material for subsequent generations of authors.
More

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

ByHeart_Spargo.jpg
Doug McLean

In 1939, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald stirred up one last fiasco--a disastrous and booze-fueled trip to Cuba. They had been separated. Zelda lived in Asheville's Highland Hospital, where she was institutionalized after suffering from anxiety and hearing imaginary voices; Scott left from Hollywood, where a screenwriting job for MGM stalled his fiction and depressed him terribly. We know very little about the trip, except that it was the last time they saw each other. Scott died less than two years later, succumbing to his weakened heart and broken spirit. Zelda perished in a North Carolina asylum, when a fire broke out and she, locked in a room awaiting electroshock therapy, could not escape.

Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald differs from recent Zelda-themed novels (Z, Call Me Zelda) by maintaining a tight focus on that Cuba trip, two dimmed stars' last grasp at love and happiness. The author, R. Clifton Spargo, dramatizes the few established historical events (we know, for instance, that Scott was beaten up for trying to stop a cockfight) and fills in the gaps and silences with moments of his own invention. Key to his depiction of the couple's torrid relationship is the literary competitiveness that thrived between them. As he writes in his essay for this series, both Zelda and Scott borrowed heavily from life--and from each other--to make their art, and they both criticized the other's plagiaristic tendencies. But what right do writers have to borrow from real people, and what should stay put in the domain of private life?

R. Clifton Spargo, a graduate of the doctoral program in literature at Yale University and the Iowa Writer's Workshop, is currently the Provost's Fellow in Fiction at the University of Iowa. He writes the "HI/LO" cultural criticism blog for The Huffington Post and publishes fiction in literary magazines like The Kenyon Review.


"It'll show you how I've gotten to feel about--things. Well, she was less than an hour old and Tom was God knows where. I woke up out of the ether with an utterly abandoned feeling and asked the nurse right away if it was a boy or a girl. She told me it was a girl, and so I turned my head away and wept. 'All right,' I said. 'I'm glad it's a girl. And I hope she'll be a fool--that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.'"

--Daisy Buchanan, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby

R. Clifton Spargo: Invention begins in the middle of things, torn from the messiness of the world around us. Most good writing plunders life, often the most intimate moments in life, but at what cost? As writers we treat our own experiences, and also other people's everyday lives, as the raw material of literature--though it's difficult to tell, as you wade through the now, which experiences will trouble your imagination long and hard enough to contribute to a story worth telling in the long run.

As Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald wrote in a rather meta review of her husband's second novel, The Beautiful and Damned (1922), "plagiarism begins at home." She had recognized her own diaries and scraps of her love letters repackaged in the book, and she was being playful--and pointed. F. Scott Fitzgerald spent a lifetime eavesdropping on the conversations of his peers, making a study of their character for his future literary characters. Scribbling notes from overheard conversations and inventing dialogue on the fly were part of his writerly process. And he wasn't discreet about it, sometimes interrupting an acquaintance in the middle of a conversation to ask her to repeat some clever phrase.

At times his curiosity became prurient, his scrutiny unbearable. When, in the late 1920s, he made a study of his friends Gerald and Sara Murphy for the novel that was to become Tender Is the Night, he tried their nerves so badly that Sara Murphy would later reprimand him, "You can't expect anyone to like or stand a continual feeling of analysis, & sub analysis & criticism . . . you can't have Theories about friends."

Zelda's 1922 review, however, was written on a lark--in point of fact, she'd given Scott permission to use her diaries for his second novel. Still, her charge of plagiarism, however playful, haunts me every time I read one of my favorite passages from The Great Gatsby. Early in Gatsby, Nick Carraway, while visiting the Long Island estate of his cousin Daisy Buchanan, learns of Daisy's husband's affair after Tom takes a phone call from his mistress; this intrusion inspires Daisy to confide her marital troubles to Nick, announcing that she's become "pretty cynical about everything." By way of proof, she recounts the story of what she said on the day her daughter was born.

The moment is brilliantly staged: almost immediately we begin to wonder, What's real here? What's performance? In recounting the episode, Daisy tells Nick how she broke into tears, but then bore up bravely in order to pronounce her verdict on the all-American girl's life:

And I hope she'll be a fool--that's the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.

Nick Carraway, neither a trusting man nor an altogether trustworthy narrator, doubts the sincerity of Daisy's words. Which sets us to wondering as readers: Would she really have been capable of such grandiloquence immediately after giving birth?

The answer is yes, or a qualified yes, since in this case the history behind a famous passage seems as important to its legacy as the final meaning of the words on the novel's page. In actuality Scott stole the words right out of Zelda's mouth, or, to be more accurate, out of the ledger in which he'd jotted down the words his wife said, while still floating on waves of ether, as she learned the sex of her child: "I hope it's beautiful and a fool--a beautiful little fool."

It's a brilliant line, and the fictional use Scott makes of it seems to me brilliantly loaded. Still, whenever I think of the backstory of Daisy's famous declaration, I can't help but wonder how one defines the ethics--and who gets to define them?--of cribbing lines from a wife while she's half-gassed and unlikely to recall the strange but lovely phrase she's just uttered.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

A Technicolor Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

A Time-Lapse of Alaska's Northern Lights

The beauty of aurora borealis, as seen from America's last frontier

Video

What Do You Wish You Learned in College?

Ivy League academics reveal their undergrad regrets

Video

Famous Movies, Reimagined

From Apocalypse Now to The Lord of the Rings, this clever video puts a new spin on Hollywood's greatest hits.

Video

What Is a City?

Cities are like nothing else on Earth.

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

Just In