LIANE HANSEN, host:
From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.
At a busy crossroads in Rockville, Maryland, just north of Washington, D.C., sits a small cemetery where Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald are buried. Their dramatic marriage is still a source of fascination for anyone interested in 20th Century American literature.
But before the author of The Great Gatsby met his wife, he fell in love with a cool heiress from Lake Forest, Illinois. Ginevra King was attending boarding school near Princeton University when F. Scott Fitzgerald was a freshman there. Their relationship was passionate but brief. She dumped him, and he never got over it.
The evidence of their romance is the basis for a new historical novel, Gatsby's Girl, by Caroline Preston. When we spoke to the author recently from the studio of the Virginia Foundation of the Humanities, in Charlottesville, she said that at fist Fitzgerald and King exchanged letters, almost daily. Some of his were 20 to 30 pages long.
Ms. CAROLINE PRESTON (Author): They corresponded for two years, but the major part of their correspondence was over six months. And at that point, you can tell that towards it she's just getting a little fed up with - he's a little over eager, and she's just getting a little irritated, finding him a pest and wanting to spend her time with other boys and not writing letters to Scott.
She burned his letters because when they finally, she finally broke off with him in 1917, he asked her to burn his letters. He was embarrassed by them, because he felt that he'd admitted so much in them. And she wrote rather callously back to him, she said, I destroyed your letters. I never did think they meant anything anyway. And she said, While you're at it, why don't you burn my letters.
In 1950, when Scottie Fitzgerald, his daughter, Scottie Smith, was giving his papers to Princeton, she came across something. And she got in touch with Ginevra King and returned it to her. And she wrote to Arthur Mizener, his biographer, that she just found them embarrassing, they were so self-centered and foolish. And she hid them away and she didn't show them to anybody.
HANSEN: It was her granddaughter that finally, you know, brought them to light?
Ms. PRESTON: Her granddaughter found them once and said, What are these? And she said, That's none of your business. But Ginevra King did die in 1981, but in fact, the letters weren't given to Princeton until 2003. They just surfaced. In fact, they surfaced two years after I started writing this book.
HANSEN: Really? You were writing this book without - what were you using as evidence of their relationship?
Ms. PRESTON: She had corresponded with Arthur Mizener, his first biographer, so I had the evidence of that. I had the evidence that was in his biographies. He did discuss her some in his journal, about how important she was, and he talks about, you know, the most significant year of his life, the Ginevra Triangle Year.
Oh, and then he says in his journal, The bad days at the McCormick - this is one of his visits to Lake Forest, and he says, Poor boys shouldn't consider marrying rich girls. He puts that in quotes, as if someone said that to him.
And then also he wrote about her in his fiction. And many of the characters, such as Isabelle Borge in This Side of Paradise, and Daisy Buchanan, less importantly in The Great Gatsby and Judy Jones in Winter Dreams, and then a whole series of stories called The Josephine Stories, were based on Ginevra King.
HANSEN: Was the real Ginevra aware of her place in Fitzgerald's fiction?
Ms. PRESTON: She was not. And again, I gather this from reading her correspondence with Arthur Mizener in 1950, because he said, what did you think of how he portrayed you in The Great Gatsby or in This Side of Paradise? And she said, Basically, maybe I read them. It was a long time ago. I really don't remember them. So he in fact sent her the books and she looked at them again.
So that's one of the real differences in my book. My character Ginevra Perry does read the stories as they are coming out in the '20s, and she begins to reexamine her life as this old boyfriend that she cast off writes her about her again and again.
HANSEN: In the novel itself, the scene at the Beverly Wilshire, where Ginevra is meeting him and they're older, and at one point you've created some dialogue where, you know, he says, I wanted to keep my illusion of you perfect. And she replies, I was such a stupid, shallow girl. Why would that be anyone's illusion? And then he says, I guess the perfect illusion was of myself. I want to remember myself back when I cared deeply and took everything hard. I mean this is a guy who really pined for this woman.
Ms. PRESTON: It is true and he really said those things too.
HANSEN: How do you know?
Ms. PRESTON: He said in a letter to Scottie, he said, I am going to be having - Ginevra Peary has turned up in town and I'm going to have lunch with her and I have faithfully, this is a quote, he said, I have faithfully avoided seeing her all these years because I wanted to keep the illusion perfect.
HANSEN: Why did you decide to create fiction? I mean in many ways it could be pretty gutsy, given the fact that Fitzgerald has already created fiction out of this relationship?
Ms. PRESTON: Well, there are two answers to that. One is yes, he did create fiction about these characters, but he always told it from the man's point of view. He was always writing about these women from a distance as the love object, and I wanted the woman to write about what Fitzgerald had been like. What it'd been like to have this young ardent man woo her. And the other question is why didn't write nonfiction about her? And that's because what I was interested in was what would this young woman who gave up a boyfriend when she was 16 years old, and he became a famous writer, what would she think about that man? What would she think about seeing herself appear again and again in his writing?
HANSEN: Did you go back and read the fiction? And did it appear different to you? Did you have a different reaction to it?
Ms. PRESTON: Yes, I did. It's interesting. When you do do research on a figure, your feelings for them change. And sometimes they change for the worse. You get sort of fed up with someone, but Fitzgerald, my respect and admiration and empathy for him really grew. First of all, my admiration for his writing. I'd read his novels. I'd read some of his short stories. But I was just amazed at just the quality, just this beautiful prose, and just sentence after sentence is just so gorgeous. And you just, you just sort of sit back and you can't - I just would just be amazed time and time again by his writing.
I also read his letters and I also read some of his later things such as the crack-up essays that he wrote in 1935 when he really hit bottom and he wrote about his disillusion and his problems with early success. And they are amazingly poignant and powerful.
One thing about Fitzgerald that I really came to admire is that despite the fact he was personally a very difficult person when he was drinking and, you know, could be very aggressive and hostile and just a difficult person, in his letters he was almost invariably very gracious and generous to other people. So in a way the written document that we have of him speaks very highly for him. It's an amazing story. I felt very privileged to be able to live in this world.
HANSEN: Caroline Preston's novel Gatsby's Girl is published by Houghton Mifflin. Caroline joined us from the studios of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities in Charlottesville. Thanks so much for your time.
Ms. PRESTON: Thank you so much for having me.