Scott and Zelda

Jun 28, 2010, 5:29 PM |

My dear friend Deb was reading the biography of Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, the ill-fated wife of author F. Scott Fitzgerald. Noting some references to chess, she sent me excerpts from letters included in the biography.  I did some of my own searching coming up with only minor information while my friend found more, particularly on Zelda's chess heritage.

Chess seems an appropriate image symbolizing Zelda's and Scott's passionate, yet tempestuous relationship, with the opening so indicative of promise and hope, a middlegame fraught with complexity, missteps and intense fighting followed by a tragic, if almost predictable, endgame.

Zelda's father, coincidentally enough was, like Alonzo Morphy, a state supreme court justice. His state was Alabama. The coincidence lies in the fact that chess played an important part of his life and in that Sara Mayfield, a childhood friend of Zelda Syre (although Zelda was 5 years older) and an author in her own right, wrote in her book, Exiles from paradise: Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald:
"My father and Zelda's were on the Supreme Court of Alabama together for almost twenty years, and they frequently played chess together in the evenings. We were then living on Court Street, a few blocks from the Sayres (the Sayres lived on Pleasant St.)  and near enough for Zelda to run over to watch the game after she finished her lessons. She would stand for a while with her feet apart and her hands behind her back, studying the board as if she were deeply interested in the strategy.... It was some time before I discovered that what she was bidding for were the remains of the mint juleps with which Father and Judge Sayre began their games. Zelda's ploy was to have me take the silver julep cups back to the pantry before the bulter came for the tray so that she could drain the heeltaps and eat the bourbon-flavored mint while Judge Sayre was too absorbed in figuring out where to move his knight to notice what she was doing. The judge might have been another Paul Morphy had he concentrated on chess instead of law."

In her essay entitled Zelda Sayre, Belle [In Southern Cultures - Volume 10, Number 2,  2004],  Linda Wagner-Martin wrote:
"....There would be a quiet dinner, which Minnie [Zelda's mother] would have ready, and then the father of the Sayre family might play a game of chess with his neighbor, Judge Mayfield."

"Zelda learned, too, that the prominence that counted was what society could observe. Her father’s faithful regularity, waiting for the streetcar, walking to and from the car stop, lying down for his afternoon nap, playing chess with a man as socially prominent as he was—these were the events that had cultural significance."

Scott was a heavy drinker as was Zelda, but while their marriage suffered, Scott turned more to alcohol that led him half-hearedly to rehab (Scott never did admit that his drinking was a problem), while Zelda exhibited psychotic behavior that put her in and out of psychiatric hospitals.  In late 1932, the Fitzgeralds moved to Montgomery, Alabama were Zelda's father was dying. Scott went off to Hollywood to earn money their lavish lifestyle required, leaving Zelda alone with their child feeling abandoned in her already weakened state. Zelda's father's died in November 1931. In February of 1932, Zelda had a breakdown that put her in Phipps Psychiatric Clinic of Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore. While she was hopitalized, Scott rented a 15 room Victorian manor named La Paix at Towson, just outside Baltimore. Scott and their daughter Scottie lived there while Zelda reccuperated.

Scott Fitzgerald: Voice of the Jazz Age
by Caroline Evensen Lazo
"While Zelda remained at Phipps, Scott and eleven-year-old Scottie rented a fifteen-room house outside Baltimore not far from Henry Phipps Clinic.  The house was names La Paix (Peace) and Scott and Scottie enjoyed reading Charles Dicken's Great Expectations to her and teaching her to play chess."

Some Sort of Epic Grandeur: The Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald
by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli, Scottie Fitzgerald Smith [Scott's and Zelda's daughter]
"Fitzgerald shared his pleasure in verbal play with Scottie, tearching her riddles... and limmericks...He played the word game Hangman with her and encouraged her to read his favorite children's books, Thackeray's The Rose and the Ring and Kipling's Just-So Sto
ries.  There was also croquet and tennis at La Paix and Fitzgerald gave his daughet boxing lessons. He played chess with both Scottie and Zelda.".

Scott wrote this in a letter to Dr. Forel, 11 days prior to Zelda's committment:
"she had been working all day hard and complained of her eyes which were terribly strained. At dinner she was merry and a little excited. After dinner in the middle of a chess-game (which I was winning) she complained of her eyes, quit, began an arguement and for an hour behaved irrationally-"

One of the hallmarks of their relationship was their intense competitiveness. Even while committed Zelda started her own book which, based on personal experiences, included some material that Scott was using in his current project, Tender is the Night. Scott coerced Zelda to revise her creative effort to accomodate his own - the fact that Scott felt compelled to inform the doctor of the insignificant fact that he was winning the chess game, seems to be less indicative of pride in winning (which may also be the case) as to satisfy some perverted competitve need. [It occurs to me also that since Scott was writing to the doctor explaining Zelda's regression, he might have been hinting at the idea that his winning a chess game from Zelda was a sure sign of how far she had regressed!]

After Zelda was committed she wrote to Scott:
I brought the little chess set & the manual- so when you miss them don't think the social revolutionists have looted the house."
Thanks for the chess . It made me very lonely for you seeing our scores in the back. However, we are both such triumphant victors and such igonminious losers that it's just as well that we abandoned the emotional up-heaval of our tournaments. I shall return a shark, after having worked out all the attacks in the book."

and to her daughter, Scottie:
"...I am very glad that you and Daddy have found something to do in the evenings. Chess is such a good game — do learn to play it well. I have never been able to endow it with much of an existance apart from Alice-in -Wonderland and my pieces usually spend most of the game galloping in wild pandemonium before the onslaughts of Daddy, But we must play when I get home."