Reviewed by Aaron Sommers
The Gatsby Affair: Scott, Zelda, and the Betrayal that Shaped an American Classic
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (August 8, 2018)
“I’m rarely wrong in matters of narration, “ -F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1936.
Fitzgerald’s self-assessment is both generous and accurate. But despite a meteoric debut novel and a prodigious volume of short stories, his torrid personal life continues to fascinate the American public as much as—and in some cases, more than—his fiction ever did.
His courtship and marriage to Zelda Sayre in 1920, the year the manuscript of This Side of Paradise was accepted for publication, has been well-documented by scholars and gossip columnists alike. The couple’s private struggles became public fodder during the Jazz Age, and their subsequent descent into ruin has been a treasure trove for academics, readers and commentators since Fitzgerald’s untimely death in 1941.
Fulbright scholar and cultural historian Kimball Taylor judiciously pours through a variety of letters, stories and interviews in The Gatsby Affair, but she avoids any unnecessary commentary. Her interest here is clear: the 1924, when the Fitzgerald’s sojourned to the French Riviera. Upon their arrival in June, the author secludes himself and adheres to a strict writing schedule, toiling on his then-untitled novel, forbidding any interruptions or—per his policy—sexual intercourse. The two initially quarrel over the arrangements, but Zelda gradually respects the conditions necessary for her husbands’ work. Still, the arrangement proves lonely for her. Perpetually restless and curious, she explores the seaside, practices her French in local bistros during the day, and dances in the casinos at night.
Enter a French aviator named Eduardo Jozan, a man Kimball describes as, “square-jawed, athletic and muscular,” who catches the eye of Zelda. The two strike up a friendship and meet regularly in public. Rumors swirl and accusations fly until the Fitzgeralds pack up and leave for New York City at the end of the summer. The friendship—be it platonic, romantic or otherwise—was certainly a source of tension for Fitzgerald, and whether or not it is consummated is a question dwarfed by the enormity of his jealousy and doubt.
It’s easy for us to see parallels between Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan and the real-life Jozan. Both oozed machismo—a trait Fitzgerald found fascinating and repellant—and both were uneducated opportunists. They stood as direct contrasts to the fragile, sensitive, poetic disposition Fitzgerald embodied and—at varying times in his life—often resented.
Kimball makes a good case for the tension this episode placed on an already strained marriage. Zelda is at once enchanting, intense and domineering, while her husband is forever mercurial and distant. Fueled by alcohol and a need for attention, the couples exploits are well-known, however, little is made of the fact that ten years later, the two not only remained married, but profounder in love.
Fitzgerald’s quote above pertains to a story Zelda sent him during her stay at a psychiatric hospital (from Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda: The Letters of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald). Although deep in debt, alone and unwell, Scott read her work closely and provided honest feedback.
Kimball hints at, but never explicitly acknowledges any infidelity. In all likelihood, while Zelda found a valued confidante during her husband’s long working hours, his lack of artistic sensibility made any deeper connection unlikely. Likewise, Scott’s relationship with Sheila Graham—the young columnist he met in Hollywood in 1939—wasn’t surreptitious nor salacious, but timely.
There were no secrets between the Fitzgeralds. Between a man of letters and a woman who spoke her mind, they left no room for them. With that in mind, The Gatsby Affair provides an insightful and eminently readable account of this sliver of time in their fractured lives.
Aaron Sommers is a writer and teacher. His short stories have been published by The Emerson Review, Berkeley Fiction Review and The Olive Tree Review, among others. You can read more about him over at www.aaronsommers.com or follow him via Twitter (if that’s your thing) @aaronsommers. He lives in New Hampshire, with his wife and two daughters, in a house set deep in the woods and on the more inaccessible side of a mountain.