I Agree with Zelda
The Fitzgeralds, Maxwell Perkins, and Save Me the Waltz
Copy-editing and Proof-reading
15 March 2013
Zelda Fitzgerald, whose first and only novel, Save Me the Waltz, was published by Maxwell Perkins at Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1932, had taken advantage of a personal connection with the editor to see her work through to publication. This relationship, while advantageous in securing a contract for publication, would also compromise the editorial quality of the published work.
Perkins and the Fitzgeralds
This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald was published on 26 March 1920 by Charles Scribner’s Sons (Berg, 19). The novel, which effectively ushered in the decade of flappers and Prohibition, concerned a largely autobiographical protagonist by the name of Amory Blaine. The 24-year-old author had been cultivated and championed by Perkins for years prior to this big literary splash in the new decade. “A week later,” writes Perkins’s biographer A. Scott Berg, “in the rectory of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, just blocks from the Scribner Building, Zelda Sayre and Scott Fitzgerald were married. They always considered their wedding to have occurred under Perkins’s auspices” (Berg, 19).
The lifelong friendship between the young couple and the erudite editor would see the Fitzgeralds through the Roaring Twenties. As Scott tinkered with his next novel, The Beautiful and Damned, Zelda warned him that the new ending he was considering would ruin the story. Writing to Perkins for advice, Scott received a literary ruling in the form of a wire containing only four words: “I agree with Zelda” (Berg, 46).
Success at such a young age left little time for financial concerns, and the Fitzgeralds displayed great talent for accumulating debt. The editor, staunchly situated at Scribner’s, would always find a way to help, either through advances on the next novel or the occasional personal loan. The wild party scene of post-war Manhattan, chronicled by Scott in 1924’s The Great Gatsby, gave way to the ex-patriot salons of Europe and the Lost Generation. It was Scott who introduced Perkins to a young writer named Ernest Hemingway (who had a well-documented dislike for Zelda).
On 24 October 1929, the stock market crashed, leaving Perkins in doubt as to the future of the publishing industry. He wrote to Scott: “It may have a very bad effect on all retail business, including that of books” (Berg, 151). The Fitzgeralds were coping with disaster of a more personal nature. In the spring of 1930, Zelda had her first mental breakdown, related to what would be diagnosed as schizophrenia (Bruccoli, 178). In his journal, Scott connected the two events that would change his world: “The Crash! Zelda & America!” (Berg, 155).
As Zelda slowly recovered, first in Switzerland and then near her family in Alabama, the death rattle of the Jazz Age continued in the outside world. Charles Scribner died, leaving Perkins with greater responsibilities in the publishing house that had nurtured the wild literary babies of the 1920s. Scott’s father died, then Zelda’s father died. Scott went to California to earn some quick cash working on screenplays.
Zelda, who had published a few short stories during the halcyon days of the 1920s, devoted herself to her own writing during Scott’s absence. When he returned, after eight weeks in Hollywood, Zelda began exhibiting the same behavior that had led to her hospitalization in Switzerland. “In February, 1932,” Berg writes, “Scott brought Zelda to the Henry Phipps Psychiatric Clinic of the Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore” (187).
A month later, Max Perkins received a letter from Zelda Fitzgerald at the Phipps Clinic, stating: “Under separate cover, as I believe is the professional phraseology, I have mailed you my first novel” (Berg, 187).
Save Me the Waltz
Neither the first draft submitted to Perkins nor the original title of Zelda’s manuscript have survived, but the book eventually published by Charles Scribner’s Sons on 7 October 1932 was titled Save Me the Waltz (Bruccoli, 178). It contained 285 pages and cost $2 (“Of the Jazz Age”). The novel was dedicated to Mildred Squires, Zelda’s therapist at the Phipps Clinic, and had a print run of 3,010 copies (Bruccoli, 208).
The story is highly autobiographical, and is concerned with some of Zelda’s other artistic pursuits besides literature; namely, ballet and painting. The novel ends with the death of the protagonist’s father. In her review in The Southern Literary Journal, Jacqueline Tavernier-Courbin writes: “The very reasons for writing it are mirrored and dramatized within the novel itself” (24).
The novel’s journey to publication was an unusual one, characterized by the author’s friendship with the most celebrated editor of the era, not to mention her marriage to one of the most talented authors of all time. It is impossible to discuss Save Me the Waltz without mentioning Scott’s input, but there are other factors that influenced the book’s reception; namely, Zelda’s writing style and the preponderance of proofreading errors that slipped through to publication.
Scott did not find out about his wife’s novel until after she had submitted it to Perkins. Within a week, Zelda wired the editor: “Acting on Scotts [sic] advice will you return manuscript to Phipps Clinic Johns Hopkins with many thanks regrets and regards.” Perkins obliged, replying: “Had read about 60 pages with great interest very live and moving hope you will return it” (Berg, 188).
Scott was incensed when he found out about the novel. Zelda had named the lead male character Amory Blaine, who was the protagonist in Scott’s own highly autobiographical novel of 1920, This Side of Paradise (Bruccoli, 209). Perkins had noticed this, writing to Hemingway: “And of course it would not do at all the way it was, with Amory Blaine. It would have been mighty rough on Scott…” (Berg, 188).
Perkins’s hands were tied. Zelda had written about the life she shared with her husband, and used his connections in order to find a home for her work – innocent acts of inspiration and influence that occur every day in the publishing world. However, in naming her character Amory Blaine, Zelda had crossed a line and forfeited any authorial autonomy she might have held apart from her husband. Perkins had to protect his published author against the plagiarism of an unsigned prospect, even if the two happened to be married.
The editorial process began a week after Perkins returned the manuscript. Scott took over as Zelda’s first editor, and along with the name changes, removed some of the autobiographical material he had incorporated into his own work in progress. Reporting to Perkins about Zelda, Scott wrote:
…at first she refused to revise – then she revised completely, added on her own suggestion + has changed what was a rather flashy and self-justifying ‘true confessions’ that wasn’t worthy of her into an honest piece of work. She can do more with the galley but I cant [sic] ask her to do more now… (Bruccoli, 212).
Two months after Zelda’s original submission, the Fitzgeralds resubmitted the work.
When he had read the revised version of Zelda’s manuscript, Perkins wired: “Had a grand Sunday reading your novel think it very unusual and at times deeply moving particularly dancing part delighted to publish” (Berg, 189). He followed with a letter, which was chiefly concerned with Zelda’s over-reliance on metaphors:
Many of them are brilliant, but I almost think … that they would be more effective if less numerous. And sometimes they seem to me to be too bold and interesting because then they have the effect of concentrating attention upon them for their own sake instead of for the illumination of the things they are meant to reveal (Berg, 189).
Perkins had never been known to meddle with an author’s particular style, editing both Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway with the same light hand. “He thinks that [editors] should not indulge their own creative instincts by changing the style and structure of other people’s books” (Cowley, 34). However, he possessed a gift for imposing structure on a novel, most famously with The Great Gatsby (Berg, 113).
In the case of Save Me the Waltz, Perkins seems to have accepted that Zelda wrote as Zelda lived. “Hardly a character, emotion, or scene was not adorned with her grandiloquence,” Berg writes, “But that was the very quality that distinguished her writing, just as it enlivened her speech” (190). Tavernier-Courbin adds: “As most critics have noted, Zelda’s style is decidedly her own. The tangled metaphors, the tossing together of technical tricks, the confusion of the senses, are an organic part of the style” (39).
Female readers especially connected with Zelda’s style. According to Sara Mayfield, Save Me the Waltz had a “quality derived from the persistence of tradition in the South and the advent of the avant-garde abroad; its style was a generation ahead of its time” (Mayfield, 184). The novel follows its protagonist’s thoughts over a decade, from a floating type of poetry and synesthetic imagery in girlhood to the confusion of a young wife who has no idea how to run a household, merging disjointedly with the hard-drinking babble of jet-set intellectuals, and finally finding solace in the visceral struggle of the ballet studio. If Gatsby’s beloved Daisy Buchanan had ever learned to speak for herself, her voice would have echoed through Save Me the Waltz.
When he finally did get a crack at the manuscript, Berg writes, “Perkins found Save Me the Waltz, strangely enough, virtually beyond editing. The entire manuscript was honeycombed with some of the most flowery language he had ever seen” (190). Perkins, who had a wife, five daughters, and a female best friend, yielded to this modern feminine influence in a publishing house whose last major female author had been Edith Wharton.
The galleys for Save Me the Waltz went back and forth between the Fitzgeralds, Perkins, and the typesetter so many times that the author was charged for the excessive corrections, and the numerous revisions rendered parts of the galleys illegible (Bruccoli, 226). “It seemed at last that everyone, exhausted, had just quit, as if to avoid another mailing” (Berg, 190).
Tavernier-Courier takes issue with Scott’s editorial motives. “Ironically, though he was then supposedly helping to edit it for Zelda’s sake, he carefully scrutinized the book for elements which might damage his public image, but he let it go to press unpruned of tangled metaphors and misspellings, of grammatical and typographical errors which obviously weaken it” (24).
Part of this neglect was enshrined in Perkins’s own editorial style. In his 1944 profile of Perkins for The New Yorker, Malcolm Cowley wrote: “When an author is sure of what he is trying to do, Perkins doesn’t make or suggest any revision, and the manuscript goes to the printer without so much as a shifted comma. This happens even when commas ought to be shifted, for Perkins has no interest in what he regards as unimportant details” (Cowley, 34).
Save Me the Waltz was published on 7 October 1932, and The New York Times reviewed the book on 12 October:
It is a pity, too, that the publishers could not have had more accurate proofreading; for it is inconceivable that the author should have undertaken to use as much of the French language as appears in this book, if she knew so little of it as this book indicates – almost every single French word (and there are many), as well as a many foreign names and a good many plain English words, are misspelled (“Of the Jazz Age”).
The anonymous New York Times reviewer also touched on Zelda’s penchant for “unwieldy metaphor,” but the critique was mostly concerned with the disrespect Scribner’s had shown for its readership by allowing so many errors to sneak through the editorial process. The review ended with a summation on the importance of proofreading: “This may sound like a small thing, but to meet such mistakes on practically every page is so annoying that it becomes almost impossible to read the book at all” (“Of the Jazz Age”).
Indeed, when Fitzgerald biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli edited the text of Save Me the Waltz for a 1967 edition produced by Southern Illinois University Press, taking great care to honor the author’s distinctive use of language, he still counted “some 550 emendations” concerning basic proofreading issues (Bruccoli, 225).
Reception and Legacy
The first edition of Save Me the Waltz sold 1,392 copies (Milford, 264). By way of comparison, the first edition of This Side of Paradise went through 12 printings and sold 49,075 copies (Bruccoli, 133).
Through her contract with Scribner’s, Zelda had agreed to use her royalties from Save Me the Waltz toward paying the Fitzgeralds’ debts to the company (Berg, 199). In the end, she made $120.73 from her first and only novel (Bachner). Ernest Hemingway offered his predictably misogynistic critique, writing to Perkins: “If you ever publish any books by any wives of mine I’ll bloody well shoot you” (Donaldson, 194).
Scott’s long-awaited novel Tender is the Night was published in 1934 (Berg, 230). It was also a tale of marital woe set along the Riviera, and Save Me the Waltz can be viewed as a companion piece to this novel (Moore, i). Though widely regarded as Scott’s masterpiece, Tender is the Night did not sell as well as he or Perkins had hoped. Though the Fitzgeralds never divorced, Scott moved to Hollywood with his girlfriend, Sheilah Graham, while Zelda remained close to her family and treatment centers. In December of 1940, while working on a new novel, Scott suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 44 (Berg, 389). Zelda and Perkins worked together to release his unfinished final novel, The Last Tycoon (Berg, 389).
Perkins worked himself to death in 1947 at the age of 62. A Harvard-educated economist, he had begun his career in the advertising department of Scribner’s before working his way up to editor-in-chief and vice-president of the company, the titles he held when he died. “He had been associated with one firm, Charles Scribner’s Sons, for thirty-six years, and during this time, no editor at any house even approached his record for finding gifted authors and getting them into print” (Berg, 4).
Zelda would die the next year in a fire at Highland Hospital in North Carolina while awaiting electroshock therapy. The patients on the upper floors were locked into rooms with barred windows, and therefore could not escape the fire as it spread throughout the building (Milford, 383).
Neither of the Fitzgeralds lived long enough to see the revival of their legacy, but years earlier, their shared friend and editor Max Perkins had already summed up Zelda’s story. In a letter to his dearest friend, written in the autumn of 1927, before the Twenties had faded into depression and disappointment, Perkins wrote of Zelda: “She’s a girl of character, meant for a far better life than she has led” (Berg, 119).
Bachner, Elizabeth. “$120.73: Reading Scandalous Women.” Bookslut. N.p., Sept. 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2013.
Berg, A. Scott. Max Perkins, Editor of Genius. New York: Dutton, 1978. Print.
Bruccoli, Matthew J. “A Note on the Text.” Afterword. Save Me the Waltz. By Zelda Fitzgerald. Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. London: Vintage, 2001. N. pag. Print.
Cowley, Malcolm. “Unshaken Friend: A Profile of Maxwell Perkins.” The New Yorker 1 Apr. 1944: 32-42. The New Yorker Digital Archives. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.
Donaldson, Scott. Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald: The Rise and Fall of a Literary Friendship. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 1999. Print.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott, Matthew J. Bruccoli, and Judith Baughman. F. Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters. New York: Scribner, 1994. Print.
Fitzgerald, Zelda. Save Me the Waltz. London: Vintage, 2001. Print.
Mayfield, Sara. Exiles From Paradise. New York: Delacorte, 1974. Print.
Milford, Nancy. Zelda: A Biography. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. Print.
Moore, Harry T. Preface. Save Me the Waltz. By Zelda Fitzgerald. London: Vintage, 2001. N. pag. Print.
“Of the Jazz Age.” Rev. of Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald. The New York Times 16 Oct. 1932: n. pag. Print.
Tavernier-Courbin, Jacqueline. “Art as Woman’s Response and Search: Zelda Fitzgerald’s “Save Me the Waltz”” The Southern Literary Journal 11.2 (1979): 22-42. JSTOR. Web. 11 Mar. 2013.