I Cheated On My Husband With F. Scott Fitzgerald
When a novelist falls in love with the character she is writing about, it creates havoc in her real world
I was like every other female English major. I believed F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novels were written expressly for me. Ernest Hemingway was fine, hunky, and true, but if I’d wanted an alpha male I’d have become a cheerleader. It was Scott — we quickly got to first names — who was my type. I overlooked some of his hairdos and found him handsome, with a nose that belonged on a Roman coin and a height that wouldn’t give me a pain-in-the-neck to hear endearments I was sure he’d whisper.
Though I was nothing like Zelda — I come not from Alabama but from North Dakota, where people say “you betcha,” not “bless your heart”— I still had the feeling that Scott and I would hit it off. Soon enough he’d be leaning over to share a thought. OK, perhaps he wouldn’t say, “Your voice is full of money,” because I doubt mine is. His sentiment would be a point on which we’d agree, like, “Nothing is as obnoxious as other people’s luck.” Because nothing is.
My obsession lasted through sophomore year. Then I met Rob, a tall French major closer to my age (Scott was born in 1896). I graduated, moved to New York, married my boyfriend, and rappelled up editorial mastheads of magazines. Scott got shelved, literally. This Side of Paradise, The Great Gatsby, and the rest of the canon went untouched. Until three years ago.
Magazines had started dying off faster than corner-deli roses. I’d turned to writing novels, and with four behind me, I was sniffing around for my next idea when I ran into my old friend F. Scott in a book about his last years. No longer was my reckless romantic a golden boy or, for that matter, a boy at all. He was forty, regarded as a bourgeois reactionary who’d sucked up to the rich though he himself was deeply in debt, having squandered vast royalties on too many rides on the tops of taxis along with poor Zelda’s fancy sanitariums. Like others in his East Coast crowd, Scott was hitting up Hollywood, because during the Depression — it was 1937 — Louis B. Mayer and the other machers were paying writers thousands of dollars a week for screenplays.
This was a part of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life I’d missed in Literature from the 18th Century to the Present.
I discovered that on one of Scott’s first evenings in Hollywood, he’d attended an engagement party for a blonde-bombshell gossip columnist, Sheilah Graham, who was planning to marry a marquess, no less. For Scott, she might have been the ghost of 1920 Zelda. For Sheilah, he was simply a ghost, since she assumed F. Scott Fitzgerald was dead. Undeterred by the diamond as big as the Ritz on her finger, Scott invited Sheilah to a Sunset Strip nightclub. The man had the moves, and mid-tango she got hooked on Scott — and once again so did I. I’d found my idea for a novel and became consumed by the beguiling Sheilah and — even more — by Scott.
It isn’t unusual for novelists to think of our characters as bossy friends over whom we have little control. “Henry was supposed to be a nothing-burger, but damn if he didn’t take over the book like a mutant crayfish cloning himself.” They’ll tell you people on their pages are so real they dream about them. So it went for me, complicated by the fact that both Scott and Sheilah actually were real people.
We slipped briskly into an intimacy from which it seemed we’d never recover. At films, Scott would offer Sheilah running commentary. My husband and I see plenty of movies, though based on his theatrical snoring, I’ve learned not to bother asking what he thought of most plots. But what did Scott think of, say, La La Land? He and I had so much in common — the Midwest! writing! — though I didn’t let myself think about his indignation at the emojis in my Instagram posts. I was too worried about whether he’d be aghast by my hubris in trying to write a book about him, which required putting dialogue into his mouth.
Scott was really into me. Then, dammit, he had to fall off the wagon. Of course, Sheilah and I had heard the rumors. Yet for six months he’d been a Coca-Cola guy, sober, gentle, funny, self-deprecating, generous, and unwilling to blame anyone but himself for his shortcomings. When he got into the gin, not so much. After a bender, I could chart Sheilah’s cycle, which became my own. Biblical indignation. Silence. Apology, which she accepted. I began to understand how women stood by charming alcoholics, as Sheilah — and I — would fall in love all over again.
As an author, I endlessly rewrite. But eventually, even I know my book is done.
At this point we novelists often miss our characters to the degree that we have a bereavement hangover. So it went for me as I mourned Scott’s smile, his wicked sarcasm and ferocious work ethic. I felt nostalgic for how he twirled a lock of hair on the top of his head while he wrote, a handful of sharpened pencils peeking out of his breast pocket. Then one random day, my husband looked up from MSNBC and displayed his own wicked sarcasm. I took a hard look at Rob who, like Scott, is gentle, funny, self-deprecating, and generous. He is also someone who during the decades of our marriage has been knockdown drunk maybe twice. Since eggnog was involved, technically, it doesn’t count.
A Fitzgerald quote we often read is, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” As I slowly let go of Scott, I realized how grateful I was that throughout my Fitzgerald obsession, I’d not only been able to hold the opposing idea of Rob in my mind, but that it was he who allowed me to function as a writer. The coffee that started my engine each morning? Rob brewed it. Our swing dancing. The way a guy who’s never once glanced at an Amazon rating or listed a book on GoodReads endured my rumination about anesthetizing publishing minutiae.
It had been a great run with Scott, who taught me not only about why using exclamation marks is like laughing at your own joke but about abandoning yourself to both writing and love. As a couple, though, I realized we were done; I’d best leave him to history and Sheilah Graham, a much more complicated woman than I.
It’s fine to have a literary hero whose foibles you try to overlook, but far better to have a flesh and blood husband whose foibles are few. When I need F. Scott Fitzgerald, however, I know where to find him: in every one of his exquisite novels and short stories. Each protagonist is Scott, a man who always knows how to make a woman feel adored.
Sally Koslow is the author of Another Side of Paradise, a biographical novel about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sheilah Graham recently published by Harper.