The summer of 1924 in the South of France saw F. Scott Fitzgerald working hard on the novel that was shaping into The Great Gatsby, and his wife Zelda becoming bored and restless.
Fitzgerald met Zelda at a country club dance in July 1918, just weeks before her 18th birthday. A Southern belle gone rogue, Zelda smoked at a time when it was unacceptable for women, swigged corn liquor with the boys, and enjoyed necking. She needed to be the center of attention and would do anything—cartwheels or a Highland fling—to liven up a dance.
Zelda’s zest for life matched Scott’s own. In September 1919, when Scribner’s accepted his book This Side of Paradise, the young novelist’s desire to enjoy the best of two worlds was already apparent. He wanted to be a serious writer and to make a great deal of money.
By the time the couple were married in April 1920, the novel was already in a second printing and Fitzgerald was publishing financially rewarding magazine stories. He was the incarnation of the American Dream—handsome, and minting money with his early success. The cost was drink.
On the Fitzgeralds’ first trip to Paris in 1921, their hotel room became a chaos of overflowing ashtrays, books, papers, and half-filled wine glasses morning-aftering. They were eventually asked to leave after Zelda took the habit of trapping the lift with her belt so it would be on hand when she finished dressing for dinner.
Their drink-fueled behavior became notorious during their summers on the Riviera. When they left a party one night, they staggered down to Eden Roc at the tip of Cap d’Antibes, where Zelda slipped out of her evening dress and dived off the rocks that stood nearly 40 feet above the sea. Bored at the casino in Antibes one evening, Zelda raised her skirt above her waist and danced around the room. Driving along the twisty coastal road, Zelda asked Scott for a cigarette. Obliging, Scott took both hands off the wheel to light one.
While Fitzgerald was busy with The Great Gatsby, he wrote to his editor Max Perkins, “I think my novel is about the best American novel ever written. It is rough stuff in places, runs only to about 50,000 words… It’s been a fair summer. I’ve been unhappy but my work hasn’t suffered from it.”
The unhappiness could well have been Fitzgerald’s slow realization that while he was writing, Zelda had been carrying on with a glamorous young airman from the local air base. Years later, Edouard Jozan denied having had an affair, claiming Zelda flirted with him to grab Fitzgerald’s attention. Some critics, however, assert that he did.
In a sense, it isn’t important. The relationship between the couple was bumpy at the best of times, and Fitzgerald got mileage from her supposed dalliance when he created the character of Tommy Barban in his Riviera novel, Tender Is the Night.
When the Fitzgeralds left a party one night, they staggered down to Eden Roc, where Zelda slipped out of her evening dress and dived off the rocks that stood nearly 40 feet above the sea.
The Fitzgeralds came south again in 1925. The Great Gatsby had been well-received. T. S. Eliot read it three times and “thought it was the first step forward American fiction had taken since Henry James.”
Edith Wharton thought some passages “masterly,” but wondered if a short backstory would have lifted the final “tragedy” above the level of a mere incident for the morning papers. When Wharton invited Fitzgerald to tea—true to form—he arrived drunk and insultingly screamed at his host, “You don’t know anything about life.”
In August of that summer, when the Fitzgeralds were dining with friends in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, someone pointed out the legendary dancer Isadora Duncan. Fitzgerald rushed over and knelt before her, gushed, flirted, and Duncan—perhaps seeking advice about writing her memoirs—told Fitzgerald that he could visit her that night.
Driving along a twisty coastal road, Zelda asked Scott for a cigarette. Obliging, Scott took both hands off the wheel to light one.
This was too much for Zelda, who got up and threw herself down a 10-step flight of stone stairs. People thought she might be dead until she re-emerged with blood streaming from her knees. As Zelda wrote to a friend, “We went to Antibes to recuperate but all we recooped [sic] was drinking hours.”
In 1924, Fitzgerald had written to tell Perkins “about a man named Ernest Hemingway who lives in Paris (an American)” and “has a brilliant future.... I’d look him up right away. He’s the real thing.” According to the young American writer John Dos Passos, Fitzgerald—who was “selflessly generous about other men’s writing”—“had one of his literary crushes on Hem, the sportsman stylist, the pugilist storyteller.”
The American writers coming to France in the mid-1920s brought American vitality to a continent ravaged by war. Consuelo Vanderbilt had noted the “slow and weighty phrases” of eminent Americans in Europe in the 1890s. Gertrude Stein suggested this lingered—“America is the mother of twentieth century civilization, but she is now early Victorian.”
Escape to Europe meant liberation. From the Fitzgeralds’ villa in Juan-les-Pins, Fitzgerald later wrote, “I’m happier than I’ve been for years. It’s one of those strange, precious and all too transitory moments when everything in one’s life seems to be going well.”
Putting on the Ritz
In an interview in the July 1927 issue of Americans in France, a short-lived monthly review for temporary residents, the designer Charlotte Appert commented on current fashion habits. Ladies changed “dresses several times in the course of the day,” she wrote. “For morning and until tea-time, the sports costume is the preference, a very simple dress, often composed of a marinière, with long sleeves, a shirt and a little belt… But at five o’clock, our pretty chrysalid becomes a butterfly and dresses herself in light tissues, mousselines or lace.”
Cannes had the largest number of fashion houses on the Riviera—Poiret, Patou, Lanvin, Molyneux, Worth, Doucet, Drecoll, and Lucien Lelong. Writing in Vogue in 1925, Colette lamented: “Short, flat, geometrical and quadrangular. Feminine wear is fixed along the line of the parallelogram. And 1925 shall not see the comeback of soft curves, arrogant breasts and enticing hips.” Coco Chanel had banished “soft curves” and also opened a salon in Monte Carlo as she continued to dominate 1920s fashion.
During the summer, evening dress for men was stifling. What is more, the fashion for white “Eton jackets” at Sporting Club galas often rendered clients indistinguishable from waiters.
And the dress codes were draconian. Harpo Marx was refused entry to the casino in Monte Carlo for not wearing a tie. In true Marx Brothers fashion, Harpo darted around the back, took off his sock, knotted it round his neck, and was admitted—only to lose a lot of money.
Ladies could still be barred for wearing cotton rather than silk stockings—Dorothy Parker was refused entry for not even wearing them. She recalled, “I went and found my stockings and then came back and lost my shirt.”
Harpo Marx—who could talk off-screen—met George Bernard Shaw on Cap d’Antibes. The Irish playwright had been invited to lunch with the formidable critic and wit Alexander Woollcott, but couldn’t find him. Grabbing at Marx’s bathing towel to attract his attention, Shaw pulled too hard, and the scene played out between the writer and the naked comic. It was the luncheon host, Woollcott, who once remarked, “Nothing risqué, nothing gained.”
Marx and Shaw got on famously, and for the next few days Harpo drove the playwright all over the coast. At one point, they visited Nice’s Victorine film studios, where they became extras for a minor French film in a scene shot in a pool room that sadly ended up on the cutting-room floor.
In February of 1934, F. Scott Fitzgerald implored Maxwell Perkins, when advertising Tender Is the Night, “Please do not use the phrase ‘Riviera’ or ‘gay resorts.’ Not only does it sound like the triviality of which I am so often accused, but also the Riviera has been thoroughly exploited by E. Phillips Oppenheim and a whole generation of writers and its very mention invokes a feeling of unreality and unsubstantiality.”
Harvesting events that had played out in the mid-1920s among the social circle that summered on the Riviera, Fitzgerald was worried that the setting of the early part of the book might appear out of date.
The novel was begun in the wake of The Great Gatsby’s 1925 success. But when it was finished eight years later, Fitzgerald was a changed man. During the intervening years, Zelda had suffered a breakdown and American prosperity had evaporated. Writing the final draft back in the U.S., Fitzgerald found it necessary to fuel himself with gin.
When the book was published, objections centered on his decision to write about a group of neurotic expatriates. Hadn’t he heard of the Depression? As one reviewer put it, “Dear Mr Fitzgerald, you can’t hide from a hurricane under a beach umbrella.”
Hemingway took Fitzgerald to task for the book’s messy scheme of characterization. “Of all people on earth you needed discipline in your work and instead you marry someone who is jealous of your work, wants to compete with you and ruins you… I thought Zelda was crazy the first time I met her… and, of course, you’re a rummy.”
The novel was a commercial failure, and its quality was debated by critics. The bulk of Fitzgerald’s money came from his 160 magazine stories—the novels made comparatively little.
After years of riotous living, Fitzgerald died of a heart attack in 1940, and Zelda burned to death in an asylum fire in 1948. The writer Calvin Tomkins observed that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “life always attracted more attention than his work.”
Jonathan Miles is a journalist and the author of several books, including The Wreck of the Medusa and St. Petersburg. His latest, The Once upon a Time World, can be pre-ordered here