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Zelda's Flowers

This past spring I provided some garden history background to the producers of the new Great Gatsby movie (who were lovely to work with), and now I shall have to wait all the way until summer to see the final result, as the release has been delayed.  I am anxious to see what they did with the garden.

In the reams of scholarly writing devoted to the material culture of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work, to the cars and the clothes and the interiors of the Great-American-Novel-Gatsby in particular, the garden has been entirely and strangely neglected.  It’s a reflection of how much the garden as an element of culture is neglected in all sort of historical analyses, really.  

Fitzgerald is at his best as a describer of moments that seem like flashbulbs of experience and nostalgia all at once:  written Instagrams.  Sometimes these include landscapes.  But there’s nothing in his biography to indicate a particular affinity for the garden, and most often his moments are rich in impressions but poor in details.  

His wife Zelda, on the other hand, was a Southern girl.  Raised on the verandas of Montgomery Alabama, creaking with heat and gossip and confederate jessamine.  I don’t think she was ever well-suited to the fast urbanity she adopted, poor thing.  Or bless her heart, as they’d say in the south.  Old family photos show her set amongst the flowers (in the springtime in my city, the parks are still full of parents setting their Easter dress-clad daughters amongst the daffodils.)  

And so it seems likely to me that she, not Frances Scott, included in the book ‘the sparkling odor of jonquils and the frothy odor of hawthorn and plum blossoms and the pale gold odor of kiss-me-at-the-gate”—quite old-fashioned garden elements for Gatsby’s modern life—and the white plum tree under which a ‘gorgeous, scarcely human orchid of a woman sat in state’. 

Zelda herself was photographed beneath a fruit tree in spring-white flower, near the time of the writing of the Great Gatsby, though I can’t tell if it is a plum. 
“I can’t, Amory.  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.”
Rosalind to Amory in This side of Paradise

In later, troubled times, making him hate her and on the verge of a complete breakdown far from the magnolias of Montgomery, Zelda wrote a remarkable synesthetic description of the flowers of Paris:

“Yellow roses she bought with her money like Empire satin brocade, and white lilacs and pink tulips like molded confectioner's frosting, and deep-red roses like a Villon poem, black and velvety as an insect wing, cold blue hydrangeas clean as a newly calcimined wall, the crystalline drops of lily-of-the-valley, a bowl of nasturtiums like beaten brass…she bought lemon yellow carnations perfumed with the taste of hard candy and garden roses purple as raspberry puddings…tulips like white kid gloves and forget-me-nots from the Madeleine stalls, threatening sprays of gladioli and the soft, even purrs of black tulips.” 

But these are hothouse flowers, flowers of a narrow atmosphere, of artifice and even threat: the description ends with ‘flowers with the brilliant carnivorous qualities of Van Gogh’.    Not the gentle flowers of Zelda's youth, the old-fashioned flowers she could transplant northwards to Gatsby’s East Coast garden but across the Atlantic was too far and she could not find them there and writing her semi-autobiographical novel in Paris she calls herself, achingly, ‘Alabama’.  
“The mistake I made was in marrying her.  We belonged to different worlds—she might have been happy with a kind simple man in a southern garden.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald to their daughter Scottie 

Sources:  early photographs of both Zelda and Scott can be found in The Romantic Egoists:  a pictorial autobiography edited by Matthew Bruccoli, Scottie Fitzgerald Smith, and Joan P. Kerr.; the picture at the top of this post is on page 44. The definitive non-pictorial autobiography is Some Sort of Epic Grandeur, also by Matthew Bruccoli with Scottie Fitzgerald Smith.  The description of the flowers was published originally in Zelda’s semi-autobiographic novel, Save me the Waltz.   Zelda’s mother was an avid gardener in Montgomery (see Zelda Fitzgerald by Sally Cline) and Zelda took comfort in gardening upon returning to Montgomery herself after her hospitalization for mental illness and Fitzgerald’s subsequent death.  If you have access, my article on Art Deco gardens for Apollo magazine is here
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College Gardener said...

Thank you so much for this wonderful post! I completely agree with you with regard to the undue neglect the garden suffers in most historical analysis, and I am so glad you are getting the opportunity to do consulting work for works like this film and The Help that maybe goes some way towards remedying that situation.

Also, that Zelda quotation is achingly beautiful and makes me wish we had learned more about her in high school English class than merely that she was Fitzgerald's unstable wife.

ChrisU said...

I was going to say thank you even before I read College Gardener! I swear. I love the post. Fascinating and I'm also ecstatic that respect is being paid to verisimilitude. Bravo and congratulations.

The Fern and Mossery said...

Very cool.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Literature and gardens? I swoon, as only an English PhD with 1500' of prairie can. :) Congrats on the consultation, too!

Commonweeder said...

I am always amazed at my own blindness when someone points out that gardens are so often ignored in historic research. Great post!

Catherine said...

Zelda's words, and the mental despair lurking behind them, remind me so much of Ophelia in Hamlet.
Many of Gatsby's film sets were in & around Sydney, around Centennial Park (est 1901) & Mt Wilson which is a haven of cool-climate trees west of Sydney. For outside Gatsby's mansion, they created a whole front entry garden on a derelict power station site - lawns, advanced shrubs - the works. You can see a gallery of the pics here (the first 15 or so are the outside garden - relevant ones). Be interested to hear whether they got it right!

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