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

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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.

Daisy's staged declaration of a variation on Zelda's phrase works on two levels. We're being asked as readers to see both sides, which is to say, both the inside and outside of a self. Even Daisy, ever self-aware, seems to have anticipated Nick in doubting that her own words can be trusted. If we spend our lives on a social stage, performing emotions, ideas, and acts for others, how are we ever to be sure of the authenticity of our feelings and memories? Might there be holes in her own story of which Daisy herself is half-aware?

In the larger sweep of the novel, a sense of irony--which might be defined precisely as those holes puncturing the surface meaning of every direct declaration--attaches to the very idea of the "beautiful fool." Daisy might mean to say there's foolishness in her belief in beauty as the ultimate commodity. A woman raised to be decorative must sooner or later become the occasion of disillusionment--as much for herself as for the men who pursue her. This is the proto-feminist theme of too many a Fitzgerald short story to count ("Winter Dreams" and "The Rich Boy" are the finest examples in this vein).

But the idea of the "beautiful fool" also nods to the beauty of those foolish enough to have reckless dreams, unrealistic hopes, untiring aspirations. I'm talking about Gatsby himself, of course, who is a fraud, a criminal, an aristocratic poseur, redeemed only by his uncompromisingly quixotic dream of winning Daisy back. It's Gatsby, not Daisy, who is the novel's truest "beautiful fool."

In pilfering the phrase for my new novel, Beautiful Fools: The Last Affair of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald, I was inspired in part by Fitzgerald's nagging reservations about his hero's foolishness, but also by memory of Zelda's playfully nagging charge of plagiarism. How much of the drama in any life belongs on the public stage? And how exactly do our truly private thoughts and our historically lived yet secret hopes inform the dramatic staging of personal lives on which all literary fiction thrives?

Historical fiction only makes our ethical worry about the line between private and public selves more urgent because it draws attention to the fact that as authors we're poaching material from documented, historically significant lives. The very act seems to cry, "Plagiarism, plagiarism!"

A few years ago novelist Jonathan Lethem butted heads with our culture's copyright-crazed management of everything from pop music to the fine arts, offering an impassioned plea on behalf of plagiarism. Appropriation, mimicry, masked and unmasked quotation--these are the very founts from which creativity springs. Not only that, but insofar as the artist creates a work of art as a gift to society, we ought to be free to borrow from that recreated world as freely as possible. Interestingly, Lethem fails to address literature's most fundamental thieving, its talent for raiding ordinary lives, even those that don't "belong" to the author.

In raiding a scene from Fitzgerald's Gatsby and the real-life incident behind it for my title Beautiful Fools, I was drawn in part to the cultural controversy (first provoked by Nancy Milford's fine 1970 biography Zelda) about Scott's use of Zelda's life. Whatever sense we make of Scott's relentless mining of her diaries, letters, and conversation, we have to remember that Zelda played the part of willing collaborator, and she deserves her due as a shaping influence on--not merely a model for--his best fictions. It's also important to note that Scott's free-handed use of their lives only became controversial for the Fitzgeralds during a period in which they fought, as rival authors, over which of them had dibs on the real-life drama of their relationship during Zelda's first major breakdown--material she effectively mined for Save Me the Waltz, and he for Tender Is the Night.

In raiding the Fitzgeralds' lives for my historical novel about them, I sought to explore not only the controversies their history provokes about authorship and ownership, but the intrigue their model of romance holds for so many. But if you're an author foolhardy enough to write about the Fitzgeralds--two people ever watching us watching them--you need to find the holes in received history. For me, then, Daisy Buchanan's reference to "beautiful little fools" is as much about what gets left out of any story as it is about what gets included. It's the ultimate invitation to begin again, retelling the tale with new possibility.

If you're foolhardy enough to write about the Fitzgeralds--two people ever watching us watching them--you need to find the holes in received history. Entering their lives at a moment when they're off the historical grid gave me license to invent the Fitzgeralds freely.

Beautiful Fools came about because I'd long been fascinated by a missing chapter in the Fitzgeralds' love story--a trip Scott and Zelda took to Cuba in 1939. It's effectively a lost trip, with scant reference to it in the vast Fitzgerald archive, and it was the very last time they saw each other. Entering their lives at a moment when they're off the historical grid, so to speak, gave me license to invent the Fitzgeralds freely even as they try, on this final trip, to reinvent themselves and their love affair. It's through that hole in a much-told story--much like the hole in the overly rehearsed tale Daisy recounts for Nick--that a new possibility enters the picture.

When Scott and Zelda gamble one last time on their long romance--we have no way of knowing whether something like what I propose in the pages of my novel really happened--they've become beautiful fools, one last time. It's admirable, Scott and Zelda's deep belief that they'll at last be able to conquer their demons, that they're still in some way beautiful, glamorous, and worthy, that they--in a last-ditch effort to salvage a great passion--are on a brave journey and not a fool's errand. It's a chance the careful and the contrived would never dare to take.

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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.

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