Category: Biography 
Zelda Fitzgerald, after a painful life, suffered a terrible death --- she was a patient at the Highland Mental Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, and the building caught fire, and because the patients were locked in, Zelda and eight others died. She was 48.
Her life had, effectively, ended years earlier, when she had the first of her breakdowns and was diagnosed as a schizophrenic. Or had it ended earlier? Perhaps with the death of her estranged husband, the once-glamorous, then ruined F. Scott Fitzgerald, in 1940. Or maybe even earlier, on the Riviera, in 1924, when she had a dalliance with a French aviator that so enraged --- or was it deranged? --- her husband that she tried to kill herself a few months later. Or earlier yet, when Scott started appropriating her personality and her ideas for the characters in his novels.
Yes, but for a few years there, they had it all, didn't they? They were the Golden Couple, the personification of the '20s: young, beautiful, gifted. But not smart about fame, although, back then, almost no one understood how the flame of media draws you in, consumes you for the amusement of an uncaring public, and leaves you with ashes in your mouth and regret in your heart.
No, wait. Some people did grasp that. The Murphys did. And, as Amanda Vaill tells their story, they are considerably more interesting than their friends, the drunk and disorderly Fitzgeralds.[To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here . Sadly, there is no Kindle edition.]
And can we talk about turning life into art?
Late each morning in the summer of 1922, Gerald went outside his home in Antibes and created something never seen before --- a beach! --- by raking the seaweed and stones. For this, he is said to have invented the idea of the Riviera as a summer destination.
Moments later, Sara would join him and, on a blanket, read or write. She wore a white linen dress or bathing suit. And, always, a long strand of pearls, which she looped around her back so she wouldn't mar her tan (and, she said, because the sun was good for them). For this, she became a style-setter and muse.
Gerald and Sara together were not two but one. They were "The Murphys," a young and rich American couple who used their youth and money to establish themselves at the center of a cultural elite in which everybody was young, talented, acclaimed. Cole Porter, Stravinsky, Picasso (who was in love with Sara), Cocteau --- though they were stars on their own, they orbited the Murphys. "There was a shine to life wherever they were," Archibald MacLeish said. "It was as though custom and habit had been wiped away and the thing itself was, for an instant, seen. Don't ask me how."
Then F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway showed up.
If you've read Tender Is the Night, you know that Fitzgerald took the Murphys as models for the Divers. Whatever its merits, the novel reduced the Murphys to "Beautiful People." In fact, Gerald was an accomplished painter, an American Leger. He and Sara were experts on African-American spiritual music. They financed theatrical productions and helped worthy friends (Hemingway, for just one).
And they were far from untouched by the troubles of ordinary mortals.
First their young son Patrick came down with tuberculosis. Then, suddenly, their younger son Baoth died of meningitis. "Fancy. There's no other word for it," John Dos Passos said. "They could have thought & thought for a million years and they wouldn't have been able to think of one like that." And then, "fancy" again, a few years later, when Patrick died, and the Murphys had to carry on for their one remaining child.
It gets, if possible, more intense. Gerald must confront "a defect" he first noticed when he was 15 --- a distance from people which seems to be connected to a very personal, non-sexual brand of homosexuality. ("Outside of a man and a woman, and children and a house and a garden --- there's nothing much," he wrote.) He returned to America to run his family business, a posh New York leather store named Mark Cross. He sent money to the faltering Fitzgerald. He had some deep poetic attachments with young men. And then he died. Dorothy Parker sent his widow this telegram: "Dearest Sara Dearest Sara." The widow staged a funeral that was described as "courage disguised as taste." But that was his life. And hers.
It's easy to read a book like this for the anecdotes about the mighty. But Fitzgerald comes across here as an eternal college boy and a bit of a fool, Hemingway as cold and manipulative. In contrast, the Murphys seem like explorers of the rarest kind --- blessed with money, they set out to find beauty and harmony. That they also found tragedy only makes their story more fascinating.
College kids majoring in Gender Studies can find much in the life of Zelda Fitzgerald to ponder. I'm not knocking that --- there are lessons galore in that roller coaster of a life. But when you're further along the road, the Fitzgeralds start to be, at bottom, a lot of noise --- spoiled children breaking things.
The Murphys, in contrast, look more substantial, more worthy of a sustained view. The Murphys, for all their money and privilege, seem real. These days, I don't want to read about the Fitzgeralds; I want to read Fitzgerald. But the Murphys --- they're well worth 500 pages.