The Beautiful and The Damned

April 27, 2024


Before they leave for the night in Montparnasse is when Zelda loves Scott best. She loves the way they look together in the mirror, the small apartment crowded full of their ornate belongings. She loves how his suit is well cut to his slim body, how his silky tie matches her gloves. Even when they’re angry — even after she told him he couldn’t satisfy her in bed, after she accuses him of sleeping with Ernest Hemingway — he’ll kneel to help her with her shoes and zip up her dress. Scott will turn Zelda around to him with gentle hands, scan her up and down and help her from the stairwell.

In spite of all the screaming matches and burnt clothes and what happened on the French Riviera, they complement each other. Zelda has always been beautiful, and Scott’s androgyny complements his identity as a writer. Arm in arm, they disappear outside while their young daughter, Scottie, waits fast asleep.

They’ll re

turn to the apartment stumbling, half-past four, and fall into Indian cotton sheets. Drunk off one another and whatever they’ve taken that evening, they’ll dream. Scott wakes weeping, how he had that one afternoon in New York, in the back of that cab where he realized he would never be this successful again. Zelda sees visions of only pink ribbon in tight bows, wrapped around her ankles to her neck.

Their story begins in Montgomery, Alabama where he watches her dance for the first time. Dance doesn’t seem to be the right word for it — the way she floats across the stage in pink chiffon and whispering satin shoes. She doesn’t recognize she’s in a country club’s small theater and is not starlight incarnate. As Zelda glides, he loses thought for a moment of Ginevra, to whom he constantly sketches letters when his mind drifts, of the suicide note hidden in his army-commission drawers. He wonders what beautiful words he could write for this Southern Belle, so lost in the stage, instead.

While she turns, she fixes her eyes on the man — cheap charcoal suit, dark eyes boring into hers across the theater. Fix your eyes on a spot in the horizon, Zelda’s dance teacher had told her. You’ll never fall. While this country club set she’s known her whole life keeps their gaze on her feet and contorting body, this one man is searching through her very soul. It’s “Dance of Hours,” one of her favorite pieces. Tonight, for these ten minutes, she struggles between darkness and light, evil and good: more herself that she can admit. She becomes something other than the tongue-in-cheek debutante that everyone knows her to be. Zelda straightens her spine and catches his eye thrice more through the fouettes. Those are the eyes of a dreamer.

He’s materialized a flower when he approaches her after the show. She knew he would find her once she appeared from backstage. She’s flirtatious — she always is — and he blushes. Zelda can’t decide if it’s an act. She’s the most beautiful woman in this Alabama aristocracy and she knows this man — Scott — will remember her laugh. She doesn’t mind him either, though she feels her father taking in Scott’s work out shoes.

Scott goes home and writes another letter to Ginevra. But he’ll also pick up Zelda under the cover of night later that week, for dinner and dancing and drinks he cannot afford. Sitting in a dark speakeasy booth, he’ll lean close to tell her of his dreams, of the 120,000 word manuscript nestled safely in his army-issued trunk and his hope to publish before his inevitable death, fighting someone else’s war in Europe. In some ways, he’ll tell her, he looks forward to this death. While Zelda will finger her martini glass and lean in just as close, she’ll reject his proposals soon after the Great War ends for his lack of prospects. She loves him, she thinks, this dreaming boy with wondrous eyes. But there are standards to maintain.

She’ll wed him only once the manuscript, This Side of Paradise, is sold to Scribner’s for $90,569.

Together in New York, Paris, and the French Riviera, the newlyweds consummate their union in gin-fruit cocktails, sliding down the bannister at the illustrious Biltmore hotel. They live the life which both had always dreamed of and, at first, it’s as glamorous as they could have imagined. But that spark from the first night they met is missing. Scott writes in letters that the couple is little more than enemies. Behind closed doors, they argue with a drink in hand about cheating, about their quickly draining wealth.

She wonders, as she laces the ribbons on her pointe shoes, where the dream they’d begun with has gone. Scott is happy, she knows this much. He’d told her that one afternoon, he’d found himself weeping in the back of a Manhattan taxi.

I’ll never be this happy again, Zelda. What we have — this city, the money, this age — will never come back to us. She tightens the ribbons as she thinks about what her husband is doing at this moment, of the women with their hands all over him on the Long Island party circuit. The ribbons dig into her skin.

Scott flees to Rome with Zelda in tow to finish the manuscript. They settle again in Paris, and Zelda begins to dance 10 hours per day. When she sleeps, she dreams of curtains and roaring applause. Her husband waits in the rafters.

When Zelda dances, it’s with the abandon of her spirit, fingers raised as high as they can go, feet pressed together like a secret kiss. Yet it’s the order that has always called her to dance, discipline amongst chaotic emotion.

She needs that discipline as she overhears Scott’s phone calls about unpaid loans and reads the telegraphs forecasting impending eviction from their little home. Zelda pretends she doesn’t know, and bloodies her feet on pointe. This, at least, she can control, if she can’t handle her husband’s constant drinking and her daughter’s wailing.

There is magic in the room when she dances, her old teacher told her as a child — so Zelda has brought it with her throughout the world, while Scott has taken her to places where they can be wild and free. He has fulfilled the promise he made to her when they were just children. He wrote so he could steal her away from peach fields and that man who promised a Southern dynasty dating to the Confederation. Zelda leaves him to write again, to save them once more.

He is her partner in every pas de deux, her lover, her husband, her soulmate — and despite everything that is wrong with them, she trusts him to make it right. She leaves him to write, and goes to her ballet lessons.

She knows what they called her, that group of writers they run with in the city — gold-digger, psycho, alcoholic — as if they all weren’t bred of the same stuff. As if they didn’t all devour what her husband wrote, spit them out, and beg for more.

These Americans in Paris walked through city nights as if they’d belonged their entire lives, like they emanated the glamor and history of the city instead of replicating it. They were all here and pretending that they weren’t running from something. Something had been missing in America, so they’d been digging through libraries and galleries in Europe to find what they’d lost. They wrote, or crafted, or they tried drinking,  snorting, and smoking it all away. Once they’d burned all their bridges in one city, they’d travel to the next. They returned with words about their tiny hometowns and humble histories — they returned with the Great American Novels written in Europe.

Scott and Zelda had traveled the Western world but they were still themselves, who they were whispering in that Montgomery speakeasy and sliding down banisters in New York hotels. They are still a little too much, a dreamer and his muse, as crazy as they were when they first met. Here in Paris, Scott can write novels about it. And Zelda, she can dance.

They’ll curtsy and bow together at the end of each night, and face each other to offer performance in a kiss before sleep. ■

Layout: Sheryl Dsouza
Photographer: Alex Skowronski
Stylist: Emily Wager
Set Stylist: Evangelina Yang
HMUA: Angelynn Rivera & River Perrill
Models: Bella Rogoff & Xavier Ruiz

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