"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
When F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel was published, a newspaper editor asked the author’s wife whether she’d consider reviewing it for the New York Herald Tribune. As she read her husband’s book with the sharp eye of a paid professional, she recognized not only the autobiographical tenor of “The Beautiful and Damned,” but also, cleverly attributed to a female lead much like herself, whole passages authored by her: “It seems to me,” she wrote in her review, “that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and also scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald — I believe that is how he spells his name — seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.”
She was being modest. The truth is that Scott used a great deal of Zelda’s writing, credited to characters he modeled after her, in every book he completed in his abbreviated life. That Zelda was Scott’s muse is hardly news, and it comes as no surprise that her frank sexuality, the wild abandon with which she flaunted her body at parties, gave color to his stories: More has been written about the Fitzgeralds, their antics and affairs, than they can possibly have known about themselves.
Yet, while others have certainly noted the spill of life into art, and even marked passages of Scott’s books actually written by Zelda (“What grubworms women are to crawl on their bellies through colorless marriages”), Kendall Taylor’s new biography of the couple, “Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom” (to be released in September) is the first to provide adequate groundwork for a thorough account of literary custody. Examining sources new and old to find just where within the Fitzgerald home plagiarism began, and at what madhouse it ended, Taylor attempts to make the case that “In effect Zelda was Scott’s co-author.”
Taylor’s documentation is formidable, and were she simply out to argue that Scott could be a despicable creature, a liar and a cheat and a philandering drunk, we could shrug our assent and go back to Gatsby’s house party or Dick and Nicole Diver’s swath of Riviera beach. But the contention that, as literature, Scott’s novels are in any meaningful degree a creation of Zelda is as insupportable as that the Mona Lisa be reattributed to the young wife of Francesco del Giocondo who sat, with that famous smile, as its model. Technically, Scott was a plagiarist. Artistically, that makes no difference.
Like their marriage, the Fitzgeralds’ creative relationship went to extremes no couple could be expected to endure, not quite innocent from the start. Young Scott, an Army lieutenant stationed in Alabama awaiting orders to fight overseas, had always found it easy to interest girls by talking up his literary ambitions and asking them, “What sort of heroine would you like to be?” He quickly perceived, though, that to attract 17-year-old Zelda Sayre would demand more: Locals had to wait months for a date, and Army aviators vying with one another to get her attention regularly flew stunts over the Sayre family home risky enough to cause a collision.
So Scott, suited in a uniform of Brooks Brothers cut, not only boasted that he intended to be a famous author and had Francis Scott Key as an ancestor, but also suggested that the female lead in his novel-in-progress was a girl a lot like her. That was true — albeit only because she resembled the young heiress who’d dumped him in Chicago. Still he intrigued her, enough to take him seriously, and try him out sexually, in spite of his poverty and her intention to marry wealth.
A tacit agreement was reached. As she expressed it to one of his Princeton classmates, “If Scott sells the book, I’ll marry the man, because he is sweet.” After that, she gave Scott all her support, sending him love letters full of spirited encouragement and quotable wit: A running account of night after night on the town with the heir to one or another Southern fortune.
Stung by jealousy, Scott used those letters, as well as material she let him copy from her diaries, to nuance the novel that would become “This Side of Paradise,” a book he almost wholly rewrote to meet his image of her. But, while he flattered Zelda by showing her scenes in which she was depicted as could only be accomplished by a spectacularly talented writer in a state of hopeless infatuation, she cut off all sexual relations with him, and locked the engagement ring he’d offered her (borrowed from his mother) away in a box until he proved himself a literary success.
“This Side of Paradise” was rejected by Charles Scribner’s Sons twice, with massive revisions including an about-face from first-person to third. Finally the estimable publisher of Henry James and Edith Wharton offered to print an initial run of 5,000 copies. After that, Zelda tentatively consented to an engagement, and when Scott bought her a diamond-studded wristwatch from Cartier with the earnings of a story he sold to the movies, her parents made their plans public.
Yet Zelda, romantic pragmatist, refused to marry Scott until the novel was in print. She’d broken off his attempted engagement once already, using words he’d promptly written into his book. (“I can’t be shut away from the trees and flowers, cooped up in a little flat, waiting for you. You’d hate me in a narrow atmosphere. I’d make you hate me.”) If the book flopped, Zelda Sayre, Southern belle, could always replace her beloved with any moneyed bachelor she liked.
His book sold. More than half the edition ran out in the first three days. Almost as quickly, Scott got Zelda to a church and, without waiting for her parents or his, had her to hold — for richer and poorer — in their honeymoon suite at New York’s Biltmore Hotel. There they stayed for weeks. As he explained to one reporter, “I married the heroine of my stories.”
Ring Lardner Jr. had a different way of phrasing it: “Scott is a novelist and Zelda is a novelty.” The Fitzgeralds were New York’s most notorious couple in the early 1920s, and by encouraging Zelda’s antics, Scott had material enough to supply countless short stories to the Saturday Evening Post at an obscene $2,500 apiece — $25,000 by today’s standards — funding their dipsomaniacal lifestyle while reserving for his second novel the most memorable episodes.
Zelda’s behavior remains almost as mythical as Scott’s fiction: Her fountain dives and dancing on tabletops, and her outré way of making Scott’s friends help her undress and bathe her, were astonishing enough that William Randolph Hearst hired a reporter to cover the couple full-time. But Scott proved more diligent still, writing down on odd scraps of paper for future adaptation anything amusing his wife did or said. He was even there to record her words at the birth of their child: “Goofo, I’m drunk,” Zelda told him. “Isn’t she smart — she has the hiccups. I hope it’s beautiful and a fool — a beautiful little fool.” That language appeared several years later in “The Great Gatsby,” with Daisy saying of her newborn child, “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.”
Zelda may have been right. In any case, already her own life was beginning to go wrong: Both she and Scott must have been aware of the precarious role she’d taken, and both seem to have been equally eager to avoid seeing the inevitable catastrophe, the catastrophic inevitability, of continued acceleration. That’s the context of her most serious affair. They were living on the French Riviera by then, Scott busy with “The Great Gatsby.” As Zelda’s sole occupation was as the famous novelist’s novelty wife, she found herself out of work while he wrote.
Naturally she was bored. So she found someone new to interest her, and to make her, once again, more interesting to Scott than mere fiction. The man was a French lieutenant, as dark and handsome as required, given the role he had to play. At first Scott encouraged the time she spent with him, but what began as a convenient distraction became a serious matter when Zelda informed her husband that she’d fallen in love and wished for a divorce.
Scott wasn’t ready to lose his best character, and ended the affair by force. Whether that involved a duel, as he later boasted to a mistress, seems doubtful, but it hardly matters since the month-long house arrest he inflicted on his wife effectively broke her will. That he could mete out such a punishment is distressing, and the danger done to her psyche would haunt them both to the grave, but more disturbing still is that he later confessed to encouraging the affair before he crushed it. He recognized that by watching his wife’s behavior toward her French lover, he could depict Daisy’s affair with Gatsby with greater veracity. So human decency bowed its head to artistic excellence, and somewhere within the misery of two people, neither quite innocent, was born “The Great Gatsby,” novel of its generation.
Things went from bad to worse for Scott and Zelda both. As in Jay Gatsby’s life, the affair marked a turning point in the Fitzgerald marriage. Just how it contributed to Zelda’s madness and Scott’s alcoholism is open to speculation, but one clear effect was Zelda’s determination to find her own voice apart from Scott’s novels. She didn’t mean to do so through writing. Her first passion was for ballet: She meant to be the next Isadora Duncan, an almost impossible goal made still more difficult by her age and lack of practice since childhood. Nevertheless, she enrolled with one of Europe’s premier instructors, a woman retired from the Ballets Russe, and worked herself so hard that she and Scott barely even spoke. He resented the expense of what he considered a waste of her time, and she despised equally her financial dependence on him.
So, to earn some of her own money, she did what came naturally to her in all those letters and diaries: She wrote stories. Scott’s agent got top dollar for her prose sketches of popular female types, but only by selling them under their joint byline, or, in the case of one piece the Saturday Evening Post purchased for $5,000, under Scott’s name alone. The articles were well done, but certainly not literature, and if Scott got credit he didn’t deserve, Zelda made money on a reputation she hadn’t earned. It hardly seems worth determining who got the better of whom.
But what happened when Zelda opted to write her own novel is another matter. She intended “Save Me the Waltz” to be a bestseller, and he intended to prevent her from writing it in the first place. His claim to her life as literature had already been challenged a decade earlier when Smart Set editor George Jean Nathan offered to publish her diaries. Zelda expressed interest, but Scott insisted he needed them as “inspiration” for future novels, to support their extravagant lifestyle. He got his way, she had a brief affair with Nathan and all was forgotten.
Matters were rather different 10 years later. “The Great Gatsby” had been a financial failure, and a mental breakdown had forced Zelda to give up ballet. Sexually estranged and alienated by Scott’s public courtship of a 17-year-old movie starlet named Lois Moran, she saw the creative potential of authoring a novel, and found in her unhappy marriage spectacular material. She argued in a letter to Scott that their ruined life was “legitimate stuff, which has cost me a pretty emotional penny to amass.” Fearful for what damage an autobiographical novel by his wife could do to his image, and for what would be left for him to write, Scott browbeat Zelda into making paper dolls instead.
Another breakdown put her back into an asylum where she was encouraged to write for therapeutic effect. She finished “Save Me the Waltz” and sent it to Maxwell Perkins, Scott’s editor at Scribner’s. Perkins was impressed. Scott was not. “My God,” he said, “my books made her a legend and her single intention in this somewhat thin portrait is to make me a non-entity.”
That novel is the only significant work completed by Zelda, and the version Perkins eventually published was considerably abridged by Scott. In spite of extensive damage done to make his character less obviously alcoholic, the novel is a work of extraordinary beauty, written in a voice absolutely original and pitch-perfect. Unfortunately, few have read it; Scott prevented Scribner’s from providing publicity, and a mere 1,392 copies sold. Nor was Zelda helped by his judgment of her talent, an opinion he made so public that she parroted it in her book: “I hope you realize that the biggest difference in the world,” the character she modeled on him proclaims, “is between the amateur and the professional in the arts.”
But Scott was mistaken. Truth be told, the biggest difference in the world is between life and art. That’s the flaw in any argument on behalf of Zelda as Scott’s co-author. Maybe she would have been as good a writer as Scott. We can’t even rule out that she’d have been greater. But that’s only because we lack adequate evidence to judge. “Save Me the Waltz” shows that anything could have happened had she realized her potential as a novelist. For a whole host of reasons, she didn’t. The only potential she ever realized was as a novelty.
Zelda was the novelty of the decade, even the century, and we ought to appreciate the originality that involves. Even had she not written “Save Me the Waltz,” she’d deserve as much credit as Scott for the role she played in making the ’20s roar. In all their antics, they were collaborators. They set one another up and watched each other fall. But Scott did something more. He wrote novels that will be read for as long as humanity endures. They will be read after anyone remembers, or even cares, what happened in the decades they were written. They will be read after the whole society they depict is gone. They will be read in the spirit that we already appreciate Sophocles anad Shakespeare, for the high color that great tragedy lends our perception of the human condition. And they will be read for the redemption to be found in anything of true beauty.
Three charges may be leveled against Scott in Zelda’s bid for joint custody of his literary progeny. The first, and most easily dismissed, is that he prevented her from writing to protect his own work. Of course he’s guilty as charged, and his characteristic cowardice and intense jealousy (to which he readily confessed) are no excuse for the abuse he inflicted on his wife. But that doesn’t make a difference when assessing his literature, any more than Jean Genet’s prose is less or more compelling on account of his criminal record. Contrary to what Scott believed, greatness among authors is not an either/or proposition, and words are in unlimited supply. Neither “Save Me the Waltz” nor anything else that might have come from Zelda’s pen could adversely affect the literary worth of what was written by Scott.
So, having roundly condemned Scott as a husband, we can turn to the serious business of judging him as an author. The second case that might be advanced against him is that he relied on Zelda so completely for inspiration that the part her character plays in his novels isn’t honestly his creation.
To begin with, we make a crucial factual error when we assume that Scott acted just as an observer. More to hold against him as a husband, sure: Anyone who would encourage a spouse to have an affair for his benefit deserves to be divorced with extreme prejudice. Yet the fact remains that most of what Zelda did, and especially the stage on which she acted it out, depended on them both.
Maybe her scenes belong to her at least in part? In life yes, but certainly not in art. The crucial distinction is between originality and creativity. The former is all around us, boundless. It may involve great wit, verve, beauty. What it lacks, though, is any underlying structure. Zelda’s novelty was a scene unframed by a camera, a performance without footlights or curtain. Scott’s work as a novelist involved the organization of wit and verve and beauty into discrete units of meaning. Even in “The Beautiful and Damned,” his most autobiographical novel and his weakest, Scott made the omissions and insertions that transformed a senseless summer spent drunk on Long Island into an emblem of an era gone to waste.
Scott could be candid about the subservience of others, and even himself, to his work: “I have just emerged not totally unscathed, from a short violent love affair,” he confessed toward the end of his life in a letter to a friend. “Still it’s done now and tied up in cellophane and — and maybe someday I’ll get a chapter out of it. God, what a hell of a profession to be a writer.” He’d run himself down, written off what was once human in him as surplus equipment. “I remember him telling me,” one prostitute he hired later recounted, “that he only made love to help him write.”
Or look at it in another way. Compare Kendall Taylor’s thoroughly competent biographical account of the Fitzgeralds to the literature Scott distilled from their life together. “At dinner parties, after falling into a stupor,” Taylor reveals of the summer spent on Long Island, “[Scott] would often crawl under a table and babble incoherently, or try to eat his soup with a fork.” That’s good material, an apt example of Scott’s immaturity, his drunken instability, yet it has no lift, no significance above and beyond the specific. So, describing the same period in “The Beautiful and Damned” Scott skipped that dumb prank. With much less, he accomplished far more: “There was an odor of tobacco always — both of them smoked incessantly; it was in their clothes, their blankets, the curtains, and the ash-littered carpets. Added to this was the wretched aura of stale wine, with its inevitable suggestion of beauty gone foul and revelry remembered in disgust.”
Beyond the intoxicating effect of Fitzgerald’s fluency is the vast difference between his own sophomoric behavior and the brilliant use to which his fiction puts that drunken era. The accumulation of sordid details is much more than a biographer’s collection of facts and figures, or the raw moment of life itself. The reason why biographies of Scott and Zelda can’t compete with those novels, no matter how deep the research, is that the Fitzgeralds themselves can’t compete.
Of course, in addition to animating Scott’s work, Zelda contributed to the actual wording on the page. “Plagiarism begins at home,” she teased in her review of “The Beautiful and Damned,” and by the publication of “Tender Is the Night” saw to her horror that, with neither her permission nor her knowledge, Scott had copied letters she’d sent him from the asylum, to lend greater realism to mad Nicole Diver. So, here at last is a substantive claim against Fitzgerald the novelist, a potential case of copyright infringement and certainly grounds for grammar school detention. As a claim against Scott’s art, though, it still doesn’t hold: No matter how much he copied down Zelda’s conversation or quoted without attribution from her letters and diaries, he committed plagiarism only in fact — which, contrary to popular opinion, is not a matter of any literary significance.
Our poor middlebrow society loathes plagiarism. We hate it with such passion that a minor instance nearly tarred and feathered the previously unimpeachable reputation of Martin Luther King. We ought to take a moment, though, to ask why. We ought to question whether we condemn it just because we’re told to do so, encouraged in print by writers for whom such theft of language matters more than anything in all the world.
Legally speaking, we ought to be outraged: An author’s words are his intellectual property, as worthy of statutory protection as ownership of an automobile, say, or a ukulele. For somebody else to use them without permission and attribution, to kidnap them (as the word plagiary once literally meant) is to gain unfairly something of value at its author’s expense. But that can’t alone account for the degree of our disgust: Had Martin Luther King merely robbed a bank, his reputation would hardly have suffered so much so many decades after the fact. Put in other terms, we would still accuse someone of plagiarism were they, like Fitzgerald, given unrestricted permission to use material not their own but, again like Fitzgerald, not to provide attribution of the material used. So our ire isn’t merely a healthy legal concern: There also lingers an anxiety about artistic creation.
Godless as our culture may be, we seem still to believe that books are born as wholly and independently as Zeus begat Athena. But that’s patently false. Literary creativity isn’t truly an act of creation. A writer doesn’t manufacture words. Rather, he chooses them: He chooses to include some and to exclude others, by those means to kidnap their implications with greater or lesser precision of phrasing. A writer gives structure to preexisting cultural associations, finding new meanings by arranging them in previously unimagined juxtapositions. So it goes with scenes and chapters, an entire book.
We take for granted that individual words are the building blocks of writing, but only because most authors adhere to that tradition. Fitzgerald didn’t. He wasn’t trying to sneak something by his readers: He jotted Zelda’s bon mots in public, sent a typescript of her diaries to Maxwell Perkins and on his letterhead ironically titled himself “hack writer and plagiarist.” He told people openly that Zelda was his source for stories such as “The Ice Palace.” He didn’t mean by that to offer her credit for his fiction; given his radical notion of authorship, well ahead of its day, such nonsense would never have occurred to him.
In the end, Fitzgerald’s unprecedented talent justifies his unorthodox tactics. The first test of literature is whether the whole is greater than the parts. As difficult as it is to manipulate the meanings loaded into individual words, to make literature by arranging whole sentences and paragraphs, to work with material as full of itself as Zelda’s diaries and letters, and to make it support a whole worldview, is a monumental feat. We already venerate F. Scott Fitzgerald the wordsmith as even he couldn’t have dreamed. Now with more reason than ever to deplore him as a man and a husband, we equally, astonishingly, have means to appreciate the sublimation of his wife, her novelty, into art.
Jonathon Keats is an artist and writer. His collection of fables, "The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six," was published this year.More Jonathon Keats.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)