Saturday, June 25, 2016

Saintly Max Perkins and the truly awful Zelda Fitzgerald

As he approached middle age, Perkins’ s tendency toward eccentricity began to flourish. He maintained an embarrassed belief in phrenology, the study of character as revealed by the protuberances of the skull. A prominent nasal bone was, he felt, the sign of individuality. He did not think any man who had a small nose or a flat back to his head could be especially worthwhile. To Perkins, it was a sign of mental weakness to confess a lapse of memory. "Never admit you can’t remember,” he would say. "Send a bucket into your subconscious.”

In his own engaging way he was becoming a fussbudget. Babies sucking on bottles disgusted him. Once, after a dinner honoring a famous beauty, he criticized her because "she had marks of her day clothes on her bare back.” He believed no "real lady” would ever drink beer or use Worcestershire sauce. -"In our family,” he admonished his own daughters, "we say underclothes, not underwear.”

When he brought books home to put on his shelves, he immediately ripped off their dust jackets and threw them away. He instinctively closed volumes he found lying open, pages down, and he winced when he observed someone licking fingers to turn pages.

He was a doodler and would ceaselessly sketch portraits of Napoleon, always 1n profile He also found pleasure 1n dreaming up "practical” solutions to everyday problems. Among his notions were that honey ought to be packaged in transparent containers and squeezed out like toothpaste. He went so far as to suggest to a friend in advertising that they should market the product as "Tubes of Liquid Sunshine.” He also thought typewriter paper ought to come in a long, perforated roll, like bathroom tissue.

Yet Perkins had no aptitude whatever for anything mechanical. "He couldn’t even drive in a screw,” said one daughter. One day several people on the fifth floor of the Scribner Building went running into Max’s office because they smelled smoke. They found Max totally ignoring a blaze in his wastebasket and carrying on with his work. One of old Charles Scribner’s grandsons, George Schieffelin, said, "I’m sure Max had no idea how it got started and even less how to put it out.”

Perkins’s daughters agreed their father was all but a menace behind the wheel of a car. Peggy said: ”He would drive along at a breakneck speed until he began to think about something that interested him. Then he would slow up and creep along. It infuriated him to have people pass him. He always refused to dim his lights. He said it was silly. Once we came up behind a man and woman walking together by the side of the road. He slowed up and drove very slowly behind them, trying to make us see from an artist’s point of view the difference between the way a man and a woman walk. We begged him to go past, because of course the poor people were bewildered, but he wouldn't. He was too interested in the problem of how to draw the difference.” '


Save Me The Waltz was the story of Alabama Beggs, a Montgomery judge’s daughter who married a handsome, promising artist she met during the war; through his early triumphs, she found herself unhappy and unfulhlled and started up a ballet career. Zelda had named the artist Amory Blaine, the protagonist of This Side of Paradise. Within the week Zelda wired Perkins: ACTING ON SCOTTS ADVICE WILL YOU RETURN MANUSCRIPT’ PHIPPS‘ CLINIC JOHNS HOPKINS WITH MANY THANKS REGRETS AND REGARDS. Fitzgerald had at last heard about the manuscript and wanted to read it himself before Max did. Perkins complied, writing: HAD READ ABOUT 60 PAGES WITH GREAT INTEREST VERY LIVE AND MOVING HOPE YOU WILL RETURN IT.

Perkins wrote Hemingway about the novel. "It looked as if there were a great deal that was good in it,” he said, ”but it seemed rather as though it somewhat dated back to the days of The Beauliful and Damned And of course it would not do at all the way it was, with Amory Blaine It would have been mighty rough on Scott. . . . I think the novel will be quite a good one when she finishes it.”

Scott interrupted his own novel to confer with Zelda, then wrote Max that the entire middle section of her book would have to be "radically rewritten.” The name of the artist, he said, would of course be changed. But Scott’s objections, in truth, went beyond the qualities of the manuscript itself. He was furious with Zelda. It was not just that she had sent the manuscript to Perkins before showing it to him, as if going behind his back. It was also that he soon realized how much use she had made of incidents from their life together-the rich material he had been too busy to use in the last few years because he had had to write cheaper stories to pay Zelda’s doctor bills.

In trying to placate Scott, Zelda all but threw herself at his feet. In a breast-beating letter she wrote, "Scott, I love you more than anything on earth and if you were offended I am miserable.” She knew what She had done: "I was . . . afraid we might have touched the same material.” But she explained: "Purposely I didn’t [send my book to you before I mailed it to Max]--knowing that you were working on your own and honestly feeling that I had no right to interrupt you to ask for a serious opinion. Also, I know Max will not want it and I prefer to do the corrections after having his opinion. . . . So, Dear, My Own, please realize that it was not from any sense of not turning first to you-but time and other ill-regulated elements that made me so bombastic about Max."

Fitzgerald had left Alabama on March 30 to be near his wife in Baltimore. In May he reported to Max, "Zelda's novel is now good. Improved in every way. It is new. She has largely eliminated the speakeasy-nights-and’ our-trip-to-Paris atmosphere. You’ll like it. . . . I am too close to it to judge it but it may be even better than I think.” In the middle of the month, when he mailed the manuscript to Perkins for a second reading he noted that it had the faults and virtues of any first novel.
She agreed to change any ”questionable parts,” but Perkins found Save Me the Waltz, strangely enough, virtually beyond editing. The entire manu. script was honeycombed with some of the most flowery language he had ever seen. Her similes flowed naturally if not always sensibly, some. times dozens of them on a single page. In describing the boatloads of Americans who wandered around France in the late twenties, for example, Zelda wrote:

"They ordered Veronese pastry on lawns like lace curtains at Versailles and chicken and hazlenuts at Fountainebleau where the woods wore powdered wigs. Discs of umbrellas poured over surburban terraces with the smooth round ebullience of a Chopin waltz. They sat in the distance under the lugubrious dripping elms, elms like maps of Europe, elms frayed at the end like bits of Chartreuse wool, elms heavy and bunchy as sour grapes. They ordered the weather with a continental appetite, and listened to the centaur complain about the price of hoofs."

Hardly a character, emotion, or scene was not adorned with her grandiloquence. But that was the very quality that distinguished her writing, just as it enlivened her speech. For the most part, Perkins benignly neglected the problem and chose to let it appear in public as it was, to live or die on its own.

Under her husband’s eye, Zelda revised the galley proofs considerably. The book was shortened, mostly by filing down the accounts of their marital jags. During the next few months proofs were shuttled around so hectically from Perkins to the author to the typesetter, to Perkins, back

.to the author, and back to the typesetter-that it seemed at last that every one, exhausted, had just quit, as if to avoid another mailing. Max thought of warning the Fitzgeralds they would have to pay for the excessive corrections, but he knew they wanted the book the way they thought it should be, regardless of cost. Ultimately, countless misspellings, unclear passages, and most of the rococo language found their way into print. Impressed with the bulk of her book once it was bound, Zelda wrote Max, “1 only hope it will be as satisfactory to you as it is to me.”

The Fitzgeralds’ marriage worked like a seesaw. In the spring of 1932, while Zelda was high with expectations for her book, Scott W215 feeling low. He was torn from his past but unattached to any future.

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