We chat with journalist and author Masha Gessen, whose newest book explores the complicated family history behind bombings at the 2013 Boston Marathon.
F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s complicated relationship captivated their contemporaries and continues to intrigue today. The writers fed off of each other’s work and found both inspiration and ruin in the excesses of the Jazz Age they personify. Zelda in particular has become a divisive, much mythologized figure. We talk to author Therese Anne Fowler about her fictional take on the woman, muse and icon who continues to fascinate.
- Therese Anne Fowler author, "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald"
Zelda Fitzgerald’s Artwork
Best known as the wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, Zelda honed her own artistic identity through dozens of paintings and illustrations.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from the book “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald” by Therese Anne Fowler. Published by St. Martin’s Press. Copyright © 2013 by Therese Anne Fowler. Reprinted with permission.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIWell, before Jay-Z and Beyonce, Brad and Angelina, or even Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, America's most talked about couple was Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Living large on the acclaim of his early novels, the couple attracted attention wherever their travels took them: New York, Paris, Rome, eventually, Baltimore. And the myth surrounding this larger-than-life couple began to take root. Zelda has proved an especially divisive figure, defended by some as a woman before her time, decried by others as the downfall of a literary genius.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help us gain a more nuanced understanding of the life and times of Zelda Fitzgerald through her new work of historical fiction is Therese Anne Fowler. She is the author of several novels, the latest of which is "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald." She joins us from the studios of WUNC in Chapel Hill. Therese Anne Fowler, thank you for joining us.
MS. THERESE ANNE FOWLERI am so pleased to be here. Thank you.
NNAMDIZelda Fitzgerald has become an iconic and often divisive figure. What attracted you to her as a character? And what was your impression of her as a person before writing your novel?
FOWLERSure. You know, my belief about Zelda was rather misinformed when I was first inspired to look into her story. I thought of her very much, as you've just described in the introduction, that she was essentially the architect of F. Scott Fitzgerald's ruin. But, you know, I had kind of been accosted by this idea unexpectedly when I was working on some other ideas that I thought I might write about. And because I'm so rarely accosted by an idea, I decided to look into it further.
FOWLERAnd the more I read about Zelda just in that initial sort of seeking of preliminary information, the more I got the sense that I was misinformed. And if I was, probably most the public also was. And what I discovered about her was that she was far -- you know, she was certainly an influence in Scott's troubles, but she was far more than that. And I felt like it was a story that would engage me and then would engage many other people as well.
NNAMDIA little more about why you were accosted, as you put it, by this idea because it's my understanding that you were initially resistant to the idea because, as you said, you thought you knew a lot more about her. But why did it persist?
FOWLEROne of the reasons was a very strange and sort of inexplicable coincidence, which was that I discovered that the date of Zelda's death -- you know, she died in the overnight hours of March 10, presumably in her sleep -- was also the date of my mother's death, many years apart, of course, and for different reasons. And so, you know, this -- I'm a skeptic, OK?
NNAMDIA connection was made.
FOWLERBut a connection was made, exactly. And, you know, I just felt compelled to see whether I was wrong. She was not, you know, insane. She was not Woody Allen's version of Zelda in the film "Midnight in Paris." And she seemed to me someone who had a lot to offer me as an individual to understand some things better about myself but also culturally. I don't know. She's fascinating to me.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join this conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org whether you belong to Team Zelda or Team F. Scott. If you've read "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald" and have questions for Therese Anne Fowler, 800-433-8850 is the number to call. Some are calling this the year of Zelda as yours is one of a few new books out about her.
NNAMDIBut beyond the focus on her in particular, there seems to be a fascination with the wives of famous men in historical fiction more broadly. What is it about these women that makes them well suited for such interpretation?
FOWLERI suppose it's that we kind of go through our educational upbringing with a certain version of the better known -- usually the husbands in these situations -- and they become these kind of iconic figures, both in the literary culture and in culture at large in some cases. But what happens very often when we start looking into their histories is that we discover that they didn't get there alone.
FOWLERAnd in some cases, the people behind their story often their wives, sometimes their lovers, as in the case of Mamah Cheney in "Loving Frank," Nancy Horan's novel from a few years back. We see that -- how the men became these iconic figures very much depended on the women in their lives, and I think that's what is so fascinating.
NNAMDIThere's no shortage of biographies and research materials on the Fitzgeralds. Given all that material, why do you think such a myth has sprung up around them and around Zelda in particular?
FOWLERWell, that was one of the questions that kind of drove my early interest was, you know, there are these wonderful biographies about Zelda Fitzgerald that really lay out the case for who she was that contradicts very much this popular conception of her. And I kept thinking, so why does this misperception persist?
FOWLERAnd, you know, I think one of the answers is that the most popular version of Zelda and Scott both together comes from Ernest Hemingway's book, "A Moveable Feast." And we have to sort of recognize that Hemingway wrote that, you know, decades after his friendship with the Fitzgeralds had mostly ended and that it was perhaps a revisionist look into his relationship with them, which was much more complex than I had understood.
NNAMDIAnd frankly, if one reads the novel "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald," you may understand why this revisionist vision took shape in the first place.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Therese Anne Fowler. She is the author several novels, the latest of which is "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald." Inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. If you've heard stories about Zelda Fitzgerald and wonder if they're true, give us a call. Maybe we can clear them up. 800-433-8850. Some of the mythologizing stems from their own work with a new film version of "The Great Gatsby." I wonder if you see strong parallels between Jay Gatsby and, oh, Daisy Buchanan and the Fitzgeralds.
FOWLERYes and no. You know, one thing I have to say about this new adaptation of "The Great Gatsby" was that I think Baz Luhrmann approached this project with, you know, the most genuine and honorable intentions. I had the opportunity to hear him speak about the film a week before it opened, and I was so impressed with the way he approached the research in this, I guess, a 10-year process between the time that he had reread "The Great Gatsby" and then, you know, the film actually arrives in theaters.
FOWLERAnd his approach was to understand the Fitzgeralds' lives quite thoroughly and to integrate much of Scott's other writing into, you know, this interpretation of "The Great Gatsby." And so Jay Gatsby is very much a side of Scott Fitzgerald, you know, this unendingly hopeful man who kind of resists the idea that you can't go back and redo the past. Daisy, I think, is a little less tied to Zelda.
FOWLERShe has Zelda's Southern, you know, heritage somewhat. But she is much wealthier character, and she's much more modeled on Scott Fitzgerald's first love, a woman named Ginevra King who broke his heart, who sort of let him know that he wasn't socially or financially the kind of man that she could marry. So she's much more Daisy than Zelda is.
NNAMDIShe was a wealthy socialite and debutant from Chicago. In the novel, you see more of Zelda's personality in the character of Jordan Baker.
FOWLERI think there is a little bit more of Zelda in Jordan, you know, the sort of woman who will, you know, move the ball if she doesn't like the lie as is the case of Jordan in "The Great Gatsby."
NNAMDIYour story begins after the couple's heyday, away from the excess of the Gatsby era. Was it important for you to start in a place that had some distance from the glamour so often associated with this couple?
FOWLERYeah. You know, there are a lot of ways to tell this story. I felt like this is Zelda who is a 40-year-old woman looking back, you know, two decades or so of her marriage to Scott is going to be necessarily a more thoughtful, sort of less manic woman than, say, the woman who would -- who, you know, the 18-year-old Zelda, for example.
FOWLERI don't think Zelda was a terrifically introspective navel-gazer type. I think she was much more of, you know, I'm going to do this now and think about it later. So I kind of wanted to balance those two impulses and, you know, represent the story with a little bit of distance but also kind of relive it through her recollections.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. The number is 800-433-8850. Have you read out the historical fiction about the women in legendary men's lives? What about it appeals to you? 800-433-8850. Here is Elizabeth in Arlington, Va. Elizabeth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ELIZABETHHi there. I had a question for your guest. I am doing some historical research right now for a book, I'm not sure if it's going to be fiction or non-fiction, that essentially what I've discovered contradicts the popular myths about the subject. And I'm wondering whether you had any pushback from people who have held on to the myths of your subject and how you work with that.
FOWLERThat's a great question. You know, when I came to the project, I didn't come from any particular side. You know, as Kojo mentioned in the introduction, there's sort of a team Scott and a team Zelda that these camps that have vociferous opinions about who's to blame for what in the Fitzgerald marriage and the outcome of Scott's career. And because I didn't have a position, I think I was pretty well prepared to just look at the evidence sort of objectively -- as objectively as I could determine because a lot of it, you know, is still hearsay and opinion.
FOWLERBut, sure, I knew by the time I was well-vested in the project that my interpretation might not please, you know, people who have a much greater ownership, at least in their own minds, of either Zelda or Scott's lives. So, you know, if you do the job, the research thoroughly, you know, you should be able to represent the story in a way that, you know, is defensible in the end. And when there is pushback, say, yes, you're entitled to your opinion and, you know, you don't let it change the way that you approach your project.
NNAMDII guess, Elizabeth, she's saying it's something you shouldn't worry about too much.
ELIZABETHAll right. I'll keep that in mind because there's descendants, so that people is still alive, and I have come to see that they do not want to hear what I have to say.
FOWLERYeah. It can be tough, but, you know, make sure you do your due diligence and, you know, have the strength of your convictions, I guess.
NNAMDI...thank you very much for your call. Speaking of descendants, I think we may have one in Robin in Washington, D.C. Robin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBINOh, hi, Kojo. I was calling about Ginevra King. She was, in fact, Ginevra King, and she married a man called Bill Mitchell, who was my stepfather-in-law in Chicago. And her daughter with Bill Mitchell actually lived here in the Washington area, Ginevra's daughter.
ROBINIsn't that fascinating?
FOWLERAnd I appreciate the correction of her -- the pronunciation of her name. Thank you.
ROBINOh, sure. It's Ginevra. She was the most...
ROBIN...beautiful woman and so elegant and so poised and actually rather intimidating, to be honest. And I can totally see how she would have said to Scott: You're just not good enough for me. She thought she was pretty special, and she was. She was amazing. About her daughter is very beautiful as well and a very well-known equestrian. She's always -- she must be in -- well into her 80s now, the daughter, but, again, another beautiful woman. And so I just thought that would be of some interest.
FOWLERIt is fascinating.
NNAMDI...it is of some interest because, throughout this novel, there are threads connecting the Fitzgeralds to this region: treatments at Johns Hopkins, family in D.C., a move to Baltimore and ultimately a burial in Maryland. How close were these ties to this area, and how did Rockville come to be their final resting place, Therese?
FOWLERYou know, Scott's family had the ties for, gosh, I think, you know, several decades back, and his parents had moved there. Hmm, I'm going to get the year wrong, so I'm not going to stake a claim on that one. But, you know, it was a place that seemed to live quite vividly in his heart. You know, there's a quote about how he imagines that someday he and Zelda will be buried together, you know, cozied up beneath, you know, a big tree there.
FOWLERAnd, of course, that is exactly, you know, what you find if you go to the cemetery in Rockville is, you know, the stone and their graves together under this very large tree. It's quite romantic, really. You know, I don't know exactly what it was about the Rockville area, Baltimore and D.C. that attracted Scott beyond the family connection.
FOWLERI know he was interested in the fact that Poe had lived there. It became a place that he could be perhaps a little more affordably than New York City, which I think kind of also held his heart. He was not good at staying put, though, in one place, as we know.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue our conversation with Therese Anne Fowler. She's the author of several novels, the latest of which is "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald." If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call: 800-433-8850. Have you visited the Fitzgeralds' grave site in Rockville?
NNAMDIWhat inspired you to go? You can also send email to email@example.com. Send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. If you go to our website, you will see the artwork of Zelda Fitzgerald. We have a slideshow at the website. 800 -- that's kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. Our guest is Therese Anne Fowler, author of several novels, the latest of which we're discussing today. It's called "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald." You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here is Shannon in Washington, D.C. Shannon, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
SHANNONHey. I just was wondering. I guess I don't know that much about Zelda, but I have read a usable piece, and I guess I've heard more of the stories of her sort of eccentric side. But I'm curious 'cause I've heard mention of her own kind of development as an artist and specifically her interest in dance and becoming a dancer. And I'm just wondering if the book talks about that or if you came across a lot of information on that topic.
NNAMDI...at many points in this novel, Zelda is carrying her sketchbook, sending paper dolls to her daughter at work in front of an easel. Can you talk a little bit about that, Therese?
FOWLERRight. Yeah. You know, these are things that often are under-recognized about who Zelda was. She was very interested in ballet as a child and took lessons, you know, in dance and then resumed her dancing later on Paris in 1927. She also was very interested in art as a child and had taken some painting lessons as a young woman.
FOWLERAnd then when she and Scott left the United States to sort of, you know, pursue the expatriate life, one of the things she did was connect with some artists on the island of Capri during one of their stays there and sort of began, you know, a kind of very dedicated training toward being, you know, as accomplished an artist as many of the women in this expatriate circle, especially in Paris, were becoming at that time.
FOWLERAnd then she was also influenced by a lot of the men who were painting at the time as well, including Gerald Murphy, who was a very good friend of her and Scott's, you know? So she was creating, you know, through dance. She was creating using paint. She experimented with a lot of different styles before sort of settling on what would become more recognizably her style, which I think you can see in that slideshow that Kojo mentioned.
FOWLERAnd then also, you know, she was writing. She wrote essays that were published in the early '20s. And then she wrote short fiction also and then wrote a novel in the early 1930s. So, you know, she was far more, I would say, quite well-rounded, I think, than people recognize.
NNAMDIHow does her artwork help and, in some ways, undo her, according to this novel?
FOWLEROh, well. You know -- I mean, in many ways, the art -- some of the early stuff represents, you know, her modernist vision. You know, she was studying under these artists who were doing some very unusual things. I mean, we're very familiar, I guess, with, say, Picasso's change from what was, you know, kind of realistic art to what became, you know, this very, you know, modern, modernist, sometimes unrecognizable kinds of subjects in his work.
FOWLERAnd, you know, so this, I think, helped her express some of that mania that she occasionally was undergoing, also helped deal with the periods of depression that she suffered also. You know, interesting fact about Zelda's artwork, a lot of it does still exist, but apparently her mother was so disturbed by some of the things that she painted that she burned the paintings after Zelda's death.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Shannon. You can call us: 800-433-8850. Here is Anne in College Park, Md. Hi, Anne.
ANNEHi. Well, he was originally buried in a cemetery in Rockville near the end of Avery Road and, I believe, Norbeck Road. And I visited...
ANNE...that grave when, you know, well before they moved it, and they moved it probably, oh, 15 so years ago or more and then moved him to the graveyard he's at now near the center of town.
FOWLERYeah, in the '70s, I think.
NNAMDIHave you visited the grave yourself, Anne?
ANNEYes. Both of them. Both sides.
FOWLERBoth sides, yeah.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us. One of the more famous tension points between Zelda and her husband comes in the person of another renowned author. How did Ernest Hemingway's influence shape their relationship?
FOWLEROh, my. I think we could spend an entire day talking about the ways that he influenced their lives. You know, Hemingway was the less known, in fact, almost entirely unknown writer when he and Scott and Zelda met in Paris in 1925. And Scott was the type of fellow who liked to take writers under his wing and help them, you know, shaped their work. And then he would often -- in many cases, he introduced these writers to his editor Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's.
FOWLERAnd many of them went on to be published by Scribner's. So, you know, this was kind of the beginning of the friendship between Hemingway and Scott. And what we know about Hemingway, of course, is that he was quite a forceful personality. And what we know about Scott is that he was kind of a tender-hearted guy underneath all the bravado.
FOWLERAnd so their relationship became, you know, sort of this cooperative one where Scott felt like he was helping Hemingway become, you know, a better writer and a more famous writer. But Hemingway was not so good at graciously giving credit for these kinds of acts. They had a very durable friendship for a long time. But, you know, there was this tension that involves Zelda that we can referenced earlier, and that became problematic for all of them. You know, I have to say, of course, you have to read the book, you know?
NNAMDII was about to say, I'm not going to spoil that by giving it way. But at this much I will say or ask, no one knows for sure what caused the rift between Zelda and Hemingway. But in this book, you venture, I guess, the one we're not revealing. But was it difficult for you to decide on a scenario, or did it come easily?
FOWLERYou know, it was such a big question. You know, why did they have this warm relationship to begin with, and then why did it suddenly become this contentious relationship where Zelda was telling people, you know, that she thought that he was a phony and he was telling people that he thought she was crazy, and he was, you know, advising Scott in all kinds of ways about how Scott should handle Zelda in the marriage.
FOWLERI didn't know what the answer was, but I had to say, all right, so what do we know about all of these people? Who were they at the time? And what was happening in their lives at the time? And sort of, you know, through a process of just deductive reasoning, this scenario that ends up in the book is actually the one that seemed most likely.
NNAMDIHey, you're a great deducer, all right.
NNAMDIYou can join the conversation by calling 800-433-8850. If you've heard stories about Zelda Fitzgerald and wonder if they're true, give us a call. If you have your own theory or your own ideas about the relationship between Ernest Hemingway and Zelda Fitzgerald, also give us a call, 800-433-8850. We'll be interested in hearing your hypothesis. We got an email from Sissy, who says, "Can the author please talk about Zelda as a mother and her relationship with daughter Scottie?"
FOWLERThat is really great question. You know, another one of those pervasive beliefs about Zelda when she is represented in popular culture is that she was, you know, entirely distanced from her daughter Scottie, who was born in 1921. You know, we see often Daisy Buchanan as Zelda, and, of course, the way that Daisy treats her daughter Pammy in "The Great Gatsby" is this sort of, you know, almost can't be bothered to be a mother sort of version of motherhood.
FOWLERAnd the fact of it was that Zelda was very young, as many women were, when her daughter was born and was sort of, you know, well enmeshed in this lifestyle that she and Scott had created for themselves that had more to do with, you know, partying and socializing than it had to do with domestic life together. And so they did what most of their well-to-do friends were doing is they hired, you know, a nanny or a nurse to take care of Scottie, you know, most of the time. And this was not an unusual relationship.
FOWLERBut, you know, I do feel that Zelda was well-attached to her daughter. And not until she was first hospitalized in 1930, you know, did this sort of distancing between the two of them become a problem. And, you know, at that point, both Zelda and Scott were rather poorly equipped to be parents, and it's probably fortunate that Scottie was being cared for by other people. I will say that their relationship was repaired somewhat once Zelda left the hospital in 1940 and then was actually quite good in the next eights years of Zelda's life.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned that because the extravagance of the jazz age, which the Fitzgeralds personified for a lot of people, and the contemporary popularity of his work can make it easy for us to forget that this family did not enjoy continued success while living. How did that strain their relationship?
FOWLERYou know, it was a feast or famine journey for them pretty much from the start. You know, his first book was, you know, considered -- I won't say, you know, a smashing success, but it was quite successful. And, you know, he got a lot of attention for that. But he was also getting a good amount of attention and a lot more money, frankly, for his popular short fiction and selling film rights to many of those stories to the, you know, studios.
FOWLERSo, you know, he would make these great amounts of money and feel like the kind of millionaire that so many of his classmates were at Princeton University and would enable him, enable them to live that sort of crazed lifestyle, and then they would run out of money.
FOWLERAnd he would have to write more of those short stories in order to, you know, pay the debts and then give himself a little breathing room in order to write the kind of fiction that he was determined to write, which was, you know, much more serious than the stuff he was getting well-paid for. People don't realize that most of his novels didn't make him very much money at all during his lifetime. It was the short fiction and the film stuff that really funded their lifestyle.
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly, but I know Nina wants to get her question in. Nina, your turn.
NINAGood afternoon. Thanks for taking my call. I'm wondering how this novel differs from the renowned book written by Nancy Milford entitled "Zelda." I'm late to the discussion today, but if you've already discussed it...
NNAMDINo, we have not. And we have...
NINAIf you have not, I'd like to hear also if she conferred with Nancy Milford, who has done extensive research on Zelda's life.
NINAAnd I'll take my answer off the air. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Nina. Here is Therese.
FOWLERSure. Yeah. That's a great question because I did mention earlier about how -- there are some wonderful biographies about Zelda, including Nancy Milford, which I did consult extensively, although I did not have contact with her personally. The novel is different because it's not, you know, a biography tends to be kind of a recitation of facts and, you know, every detail about a person's life from birth to death really.
FOWLERThe novel is a way of getting, you know, the inner landscape of the characters sort of, you know, taking on the emotional truths of the story and representing them, you know, as a novel rather than, like I say, this kind of recitation of information that you get from a biography.
NNAMDIAnd we only have about 20 seconds left, so I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Therese Anne Fowler is the author of several novels, the latest of which is "Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald." Therese Anne Fowler, thank you so much for joining us.
FOWLERThanks so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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