Kendall Taylor’s “The Gatsby Affair” is, basically, an updated version of her 2001 biography of Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald’s roller-coaster marriage, “Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom.” Even for readers of the latter book, however, there exists in Taylor’s latest enough that is new to make taking a look worthwhile.

To begin with, Taylor has unearthed more details about Edouard Jozan, the French naval aviator who may or may not have had a sexual relationship with Zelda while Scott worked on “The Great Gatsby.” (Taylor thinks he did.) The affair, the one to which Taylor refers in her title, altered the central conflict in the novel by compelling Scott to focus more on betrayal than lost love.

Ironically (given Scott’s obsession with money and matrimony), Zelda’s lack of financial resources meant she had no chance of a permanent relationship with Jozan, a misunderstanding of intentions that Taylor kindly attributes to poor English skills on Jozan’s part and poor French on Zelda’s. In the end, Jozan’s abandonment of Zelda released what Taylor referred to as “catastrophic forces” hidden since an earlier (possible) sexual assault by two of her male compatriots in Montgomery, Ala., when she was 15. The fact that one of Zelda’s good friends, Sara Haardt, almost married one of the alleged assailants, and another good friend, Sara Mayfield, did marry the other before quickly divorcing him for “alcoholism and sexual violence” certainly differentiates Zelda’s young adulthood from the typical teen’s angst-ridden years.

Although — in the aftermath of the Jozan affair — Scott and Zelda entertained friends with various versions of Jozan’s suicide, the young pilot actually thrived, married well and reached the rank of admiral in the French navy.

The most heart-rending portions of the book deal with Zelda’s purported schizophrenia, a disease Taylor is adamant she did not have. Had Freud done her consultation at Valmont Clinic instead of Swiss psychiatrist Eugene Bleuler, Taylor contends, then “she might have been diagnosed with an alcohol-induced anxiety psychosis,” a condition that more closely fit her symptoms. Zelda’s other physicians did not question Dr. Bleuler’s “hasty diagnosis,” dooming Zelda to harmful convulsive treatments induced by drugs, such as metrazol, or electroshock.

Scott, taking Zelda at her teenage word that she wanted nothing more than to be pampered, fought against her attempts to achieve emotional and financial independence, while at the same time struggling mightily to pay for the best mental health care then available.

“The Gatsby Affair,” while only weakly explaining how Zelda’s fling with Jozan “shaped an American classic,” certainly shows readers once more how the kind of emotional upheaval that inspires great art can also crush the strongest spirits. The fact Scott and Zelda remained bound together is the most amazing part of this tale.

 

Dave Page is the author of “F. Scott Fitzgerald in Minnesota.” He lives in Hastings.

The Gatsby Affair
By: Kendall Taylor.
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, 261 pages, $27.