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.