A great many of these letters were written while Zelda was institutionalized. At first glance it seems obscene to deem them “love letters,” these pleas for pocket money and visits, her desperation for meaningful work. “Lonesome,” she writes four times in one short note, and again in letter after letter. “I’m so lonesome all the time.” “It’s desperate to be so alone.” “Terribly lonely.” She demands to be let out of the institution: “Please. Please let me out now.” “Every day more of me dies.” “The longer I have to bear this the meaner and harder and sicker I get.”
But then, a mercurial shift in mood. “Do you still smell of pencils and sometimes of tweed?”
Ardor is her mode, and Scott her “sungod.” “Don’t you think I was made for you?” she writes. “I feel like you had me ordered — and I was delivered to you — to be worn. I want you to wear me, like a watch-charm.” In these letters — mostly written from institutions in Switzerland, North Carolina and Maryland — she sat in her room, yearning for and conjuring up her husband: the way he held his cigarettes (“way down, wedged between your fingers”), his smell (“the delicious damp grass that grows near old walls”), the look of his wrist emerging from his sleeve.
Her life never creeps into the letters; little can be gleaned about the institutions in which she often made her home. She scarcely mentions her doctors or treatments, which were reportedly barbarous. She doesn’t inquire about the world, the war, her friends. She croons only one song — “darling, my dearest”; “dearest, my love.” “If you will come back I will make the jasmine bloom and all the trees come out in flower,” she writes. There will be clouds to eat, and bathing “in the foam of the rain — and I will let you play with my pistol.”
They never did very well when he did come back, however. Her symptoms, including intolerable eczema over her whole body, would worsen; there were bitter fights. Their love flourished mainly in these letters, full of her intense longing for nights of “soft conspiracy,” for Scott at the seaside all “salty and sunburned,” his legs sticking together in the heat.
It’s a peculiar fact that “The Great Gatsby,” a fairly bitter, even furious novel about class and disillusionment, murder, bootlegging and corruption, is so often remembered only for its parties and shimmering love story. Strange, too, is the misapprehension when it comes to Scott and Zelda. We recall their raucous early days, their extravagant unhappiness, but after reading these letters what strikes you is their steadiness, a shocking word to apply to them. They could not handle early success, Bryer and Barks write, and after a point they did not live together. Fitzgerald took up with the writer Sheila Graham in his final years. But that bond with Zelda proved stubborn and sturdy, and survived it all. In their last letters, they are still loving and vexing and shoring each other up. “Happily, happily foreverafterwards,” Zelda once wrote. “The best we could.”