Save Me the Waltz
The first-edition cover of Save Me the Waltz
By the 1930s, Zelda Fitzgerald had already been in and out of psychiatric facilities, and her husband was stalled writing his next work; he had not produced a novel since 1925's The Great Gatsby. After an episode of hysteria, Zelda was admitted to the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore on February 12, 1932 for treatment by Dr. Adolf Meyer, an expert on schizophrenia. As part of her recovery routine, she spent at least two hours a day writing.
Zelda developed a bond with a young female resident, Dr. Mildred Squires, and toward the end of February she shared an aspect of her novel with Squires, who wrote to Scott that the novel was vivid and had charm. Meanwhile, Scott became worried that Zelda's treatment would consume all his money, so he set aside his novel to work on short stories to fund the treatment. Zelda wrote to Scott from the hospital, "I am proud of my novel, but I can hardly restrain myself enough to get it written. You will like it—It is distinctly École Fitzgerald, though more ecstatic than yours—perhaps too much so." Zelda was writing furiously; she finished the novel on March 9 and sent it to Scott's publisher, their friend Maxwell Perkins at Scribner's.
When Scott finally saw the manuscript, he was outraged. Zelda's novel had drawn heavily on her own life, as had Scott's previous writings; but Scott was irked because the novel he had been working on for four years drew on many of the same events in their shared life. He was also angry that she had named one of her characters Amory Blaine, the protagonist of Scott's first novel This Side of Paradise. Zelda wrote him "I was also afraid we might have touched the same material." Scott forced her to revise extensively, though the precise extent of the revisions is unknown because her original manuscript and initial revisions are all lost. (Scott would use much of the same autobiographical material in his 1934 novel Tender Is the Night.) Eventually she won Scott's approval; he wrote to Perkins, "Here is Zelda's novel. It is a good novel now, perhaps a very good novel—I am too close to tell. It has the faults and virtues of a first novel. ... It is about something and absolutely new, and should sell."
Zelda signed the contract to publish the book on June 14, 1932. It was published on October 7 with a printing of 3,010 copies (not unusually low for a first novel in the middle of the Great Depression) on cheap paper, with a cover of green linen.
Save Me the Waltz, according to its author, derives its title from a Victor record catalog, and it suggests the romantic glitter of the life which F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald lived and which Scott’s novels have so indelibly written into American literary and cultural history. Divided into four chapters, each of which is further divided into three parts, the novel is a chronological narrative of four periods in the lives of Alabama and David Knight, names that are but thin disguises for their real-life counterparts.
Save Me The Waltz is the story of Alabama Beggs, a Southern girl who marries a twenty-two-year-old artist, David Knight. As with Zelda and Scott, Alabama met David when he was in the South during World War I. Knight becomes a successful painter, and the family moves to the Riviera where Knight begins an affair with an actress. Determined to be successful in her own right, Alabama decides to become a ballet dancer and devotes herself relentlessly to the cause, eventually achieving success. Alabama dances her solo debut in the opera Faust. Though outwardly successful, Alabama and David are miserable. At the novel's end they return to the South when Alabama's father dies. Though she says otherwise, her friends from the South go on about how happy and lucky Alabama is. Alabama searches for meaning in her father's death, but finds none. While cleaning up after their final party before returning to their unhappy lives, Alabama remarks — an interesting contrast to the closing lines of The Great Gatsby — that emptying the ashtrays is "very expressive of myself. I just lump everything in a great heap which I have labeled 'the past,' and having thus emptied this deep reservoir that was once myself, I am ready to continue."
Critics were mostly negative about the book, considering the book overwritten, the characters weak and uninteresting, and scenes which should have been tragedy instead a "harlequinade". The New York Times wrote: "It is not only that her publishers have not seen fit to curb an almost ludicrous lushness of writing but they have not given the book the elementary services of a literate proofreader." Zelda was mostly depressed about the negative reviews, though she acknowledged to Perkins that a review from William McFee, writing in The New York Sun, was at least intelligible.
McFee wrote, "In this book, with all its crudity of conception, its ruthless purloinings of technical tricks and its pathetic striving after philosophic profundity, there is the promise of a new and vigorous personality in fiction." Malcolm Cowley, a friend of the Fitzgeralds, read the book and wrote to Scott, "It moves me a lot: she has something there that nobody got into words before."
The book sold only 1,392 copies for which she earned $120.73. (The book would be reprinted years after her and Scott's deaths, when interest in the Fitzgeralds was rekindled.) The failure of Save Me the Waltz crushed her spirits.
She had been working throughout the fall of 1932 on a second novel, based on her experiences in psychiatric treatment. But Scott's reaction was unkind. In a fight before Zelda was readmitted to treatment, Fitzgerald said her novel was "plagiaristic, unwise in every way... should not have been written." Zelda asked, "didn't you want me to be a writer?" Though Scott once had, he lashed out "No, I do not care whether you were a writer or not, if you were any good... you are a third-rate writer and a third-rate ballet." The psychiatrist agreed with Scott. Zelda was devastated; she never published another novel.