“.…as a handsome young aviator stationed in Fréjus in 1924, Édouard Jozan (1899-1981) met Zelda Fitzgerald on the Riviera, and the pair commenced an ‘affair’ that reverberated thereafter throughout not only The Great Gatsby but all of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s subsequent writings. Quotation marks must surround any reference to this dalliance because no one can say with certainty whether the mutual attraction was consummated or whether it was merely a chaste flirtation. Late in life, hounded by Fitzgerald biographers, Jozan was the ultimate gentleman and chivalrously declined to discuss details of this romantic summer. Despite rampant speculation, the true story will never likely be known.…”
—Stanton H. P. Kale, Jr., Encyclopedia of Real People in Fiction
ONE DETAIL I CAN CONFIRM: the bit about the comb. It didn’t happen quite as the woman with whom my name is forever entwined described it in Save Me the Waltz, the novel I’m told few can finish because it’s so florid. I don’t sashay into a room “gesticulating Latin gallantries.” Yet when I first saw her tousling her hair with three pitchforked fingers, I seized the opportunity. Everything about the beachside casino my friends and I had just wandered into worked to my advantage. Scimitars hung from the walls, Algerian rugs carpeted the floor. The décor consisted of brass trays and African drumheads, mother-of-pearl inlays, red lamps, and damask drapes, all perfumed with the briny, salty smell of sea. I stepped behind this creature as she searched for herself amid the mirror’s mildew speckles and unsheathed the spare brush I carried for just this occasion. Even without a camel or a tent in which to creep I was the Sheik of Araby. Cupping her chin in my palm, with a flick of tines, I flipped her part from the left to the right.
“Voilà,” I smiled.
“Never seen it tried like that,” she whistled. “I like your originality.… And so does my husband!”
Only then did I notice that a certain speck I’d mistaken for mildew was a man’s head. It loomed from a corner of the mirror, which hung behind the bar. Unsure of how to apologize, I ended up insisting I carried no germs.
“I wish we could say the same.” The man raised his glass. “We’re infected with fun.”
I introduced my companions—Bobbé, Bellando, and Rivy—and then formally announced my own name.
“Joanne?” the husband said.
“Jozan,” I corrected him.
The woman admired her hairdo. “I don’t care what your name is. I’m going to give you a new one. I heard the loveliest French compound the other day. Chevre-feuille. In English it’s one of my favorite words because it tastes so good to say: honeysuckle. From here on out, that’s what you’ll answer to. Now what do you and your friends do for a living, lieutenant?”
My answer upset the husband more than my comb: “We fly airplanes.”
Nervous, the casino’s owner intervened. He understood the dangerous effect aviators can have on women. These people were celebrities, he insisted, a world-famous author and his muse. Not to be trifled with. To my ears the husband’s name couldn’t have sounded more American; I wasn’t surprised when Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald, as he introduced himself, insisted that his ancestor had authored their national anthem. The wife’s name was as foreign as her accent, though—short, hard, buzzing, with none of the sibilants we associated with women. Zelda.
“I believe she’s a gypsy,” I whispered to my friends.
“Lieutenant Honeysuckle,” Zelda meanwhile inquired. “Have you ever buzzed a woman’s house in your airplane?”
“But of course, Madame. It’s the only reason one would wish to fly.”
My friends cackled. The truth was that while we’d graduated flying school and were stationed at the airfield at Fréjus, we were chasers, not pilots. Instead of striking handsome silhouettes against the sun, our job was to escort and deliver supplies. To the real pilots we weren’t but errand boys. I wasn’t about to disillusion a lady, however.
“So that means you might tumble into a tailspin for me, Honeysuckle?”
Normally I wouldn’t recommend answering such a question within arm’s reach of a husband. Yet Scott was all grin. His smile twisted the tips of his two-week-old mustache. I couldn’t get over his handsomeness. His hair was parted sharply down the middle, with two curls framing the center of his forehead like a pair of quotation marks inviting you to read his thoughts. “Oh, go ahead, Joanne,” he said. “You won’t hurt my feelings. I’ll even still pop for the bill.”
I sensed them sizing me up, and a wisdom of my father’s beat a tattoo on my mind: Avoid the ménage a trois. Because no matter how you divide it, a ménage a trois is only ever a folie à deux staged for an audience of one. I stepped outside for fresh air. Scott joined me.
“Say now, I don’t mean to bully you, but you hurt my wife’s feelings walking off like that. Can’t you be a sport and play along? We’re just having fun—that’s what the Riviera is for, isn’t it? I don’t mind other men making fast with my wife as long as it’s only words. In fact, before we go back inside, I have a bit of a proposition I’d appreciate you entertaining.”
He told me they came to France because the distractions in America were too many. Only after a month abroad he’d realized the distractions had expatriated alongside them. Zelda was easily bored, and when that happened Scott’s writing didn’t. He worried he’d never finish the novel he’d started. “I saved up $17,000 to do it,” he sighed. “It’s my last shot at legitimacy, too. I’ll never prove my potential if someone won’t take my wife off my hands for me.”
It struck me what he was proposing.
“One moment: you want me, a French lieutenant and aviator, to occupy your wife? So you can write?”
“I’ll cover your expenses—lunches, drinks, whatnot. As far as salary, I would think twenty clams a week will do. That’s twenty American smackers—more than my maid makes. If you have half the savvy you seem to you’ll make a killing from the exchange rate.…”
I thought of another saying of my father’s: It’s not easy being the man every woman desires. It was what he told my mother every time she confronted him over his latest mistress. Scott didn’t notice my distraction.
“….The only condition is that Zelda can never know. I won’t have her hurt. She’s used to men falling in love with her, but as beautiful as she is, she’s nearly twenty-four, and you know what that means.”
I had no clue what that meant.
“Only six years ’til she’s thirty,” he lamented.
A BETTER MAN, A MORE MATURE MAN, might have recognized the perils of such a mission and pulled the rip cord right away. $20 a week enabled a poor officer to fill out his uniform, however, so I ingratiated myself. I arrived at the beach each day and dropped my towel closer to hers. I engaged her in conversation to the exclusion of her friends. I raked the pebbles from under her feet and fetched drinks from the concessionaire. Mostly I reclined on my side wearing swim trunks my friends bought me.
Trunks that were two sizes too small.
Slowly, the canvas mats upon which we sunned drifted loose from the continental ridge of her circle’s umbrellas, and Zelda and I formed an archipelago all our own. When our skin dried and threatened to crack we took to the sea. Once tired, we floated on our backs pointing at passing objects. Then we emerged dripping salt to lie caked in sand. After a respectable number of days I draped a towel across her shoulders and offered to dry her hair. Zelda grinned wickedly.
“You and the hair, Eddie.… Look at us—we’re as wet and smooth as two cats caught licking themselves.”
It was the moment I knew I’d earned my pay.
AND ONCE A WEEK I met my employer to collect that pay.
That was what was supposed to happen, at any rate.
“What does she say about me?” Scott would ask, making no effort to reach for his wallet.
“She says she loves you very much.”
“She hasn’t said anything that might … you know … embarrass a guy?”
“I know not what you mean.”
“I mean boudoir stuff, Joanne.”
“Jesus Christ, I know that. I’m just joshing—but not about her. You’ll let me know if she ever gets into any hubba-hubba?”
“Your wife is a lady. She would not indulge in any ‘hubba-hubba.’”
“If she does, I just want you to know, she has some … unrealistic expectations. Look, I topped out at 5’7’’. When that happens, everything’s going to be in proportion, if you catch my drift. I’ve tried to tell Zelda that not everybody comes out of the chute with as generous a portion as Rasputin.…”
When the conversation grew too personal I cut to the chase. “I will happily accept my twenty clams.”
“Yeah, well, about that.…” He made a grim face as he patted his pockets. “I’m going to have to catch up with you the next go-round. This week finds me this side of stony.”
THE CON WENT ON for six weeks until Zelda made a startling admission.
“Scott’s seething with jealousy. I don’t want to fret you, but he keeps going on about the code duello. Research for his next novel, he says, but he’s obsessed with proving he’s more manly than you. You have to promise me that if Scott challenges you to twenty paces you won’t hurt him too badly.”
The idea was preposterous, but I confronted my employer anyway. Scott shrugged.
“Don’t let the game swell your bean, Ed. I have my part to play in this farrago, and I’m just selling it. The arrangement’s working dandy. My writing is better than it’s ever been. I really do believe mine will be the greatest novel by any American ever.”
“But we’ve gone too far. She thinks you’re capable of violence. Zelda has this silly idea we would duel over her!”
He drained his gin and ran his tongue over his teeth.
“Then we’ll have to.”
I told Scott the very thought was insane, but he’d already hashed out a plan.
“We’ll build it up over dinner. You lay it on thick until I crack. I’ll jump and say something like, ‘You, sir, are a cad and a garter-snapper, and I would gladly show you what it means when a greasy gigolo insults the dignity of an American woman if only this country of yours still subscribed to the protocols of the code duello.…’ That’s your cue to stand up and clap me. Not too hard, now—I don’t need my jaw realigned. As for the duel itself, correct me if I’m wrong, but if we really wanted to kill each other, we’d only march off eight paces. Obviously, we can’t do that. But if we go for forty Zelda won’t take us seriously. Let’s settle for twenty. I read a book by Pushkin. He says twenty is heroic.”
“One moment—you expect me actually to duel you?”
“No point in going through the rigmarole of a challenge if we can’t carry through. There’s a golf course outside Juan les Pines. All we have to do is aim a little left, over the shoulder, and we’ll miss each other. My only fear is we might pot somebody stepping up to a nearby tee.…”
I begged him to dismiss this nonsense. That was when Scott’s eyes tightened and his voice dropped nearly an octave.
“You’re bought and paid for, Joanne. The only way you’re getting out of this deal is if you don’t aim over my shoulder tomorrow morning. But then you’ll go down in history as the man who killed the man writing the best novel to ever come out of America—before he could finish it.”
I CONSIDERED SIMPLY not showing up. I’d be denounced as a coward, however, an insult to my noble heritage. At the Hotel du Cap Scott and Zelda sat on opposite ends of the table and shared nary a word; whispers among their friends implied they’d argued violently. Over what wasn’t hard to guess. If stares could stain, my white uniform would have been mottled. I tried a thousand subtle times to relax the tension, but Zelda was as intent on provoking her husband as Scott was on being provoked.
“Today when I swam, Honeysuckle told me I had the grace of a seagull. You did tell me that, didn’t you, Lt. Suckle? I wasn’t dreaming?”
“I may have … perhaps … said something along those lines.”
Scott threw down his napkin. “God dammit, man! You expect me to sit here and have Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to my wife? I tell you, if only this country still subscribed to the code duello—”
The silence that greeted his climax was cavernous. As Scott blinked in anticipation, I felt gulped by the dead air.
“See what I mean?” he scrambled to recover. “If this country had half the tradition it claims to, my cheek would be redder than Sinclair Lewis’s scabby face!”
When I still didn’t reply he showered me in obscenities. And when that didn’t work he threw his drink in my face: “I say, you greasy gigolo, shall we take this outside or what?”
I dabbed the champagne from my eyes and coughed an excuse: “I cannot fight you. You’re my friend.”
I couldn’t have wounded him worse than if I’d swept his wife onto the table and made passionate love to her next to the bouillabaisse.
NEEDLESS TO SAY, I was relieved of my duties. A curt note awaited me at the barracks in Fréjus the following day: Take a short walk into a long propeller, traitor. For six weeks of work I received fifty dollars, a third of my due.
I only saw them once more. That October, after the exodus of summer tourists and while I awaited a transfer I’d requested to Indochina, I jogged up the Croisette in Cannes to avoid an autumn rain. Passing the Café des Alliés, I spotted Scott and Zelda enjoying a romantic aperitif. They looked so perfectly symbiotic I wondered if I hadn’t fantasized the whole summer. Then they caught me spying. The smile they gave each other had an unmistakable air of natural intimacy. Not just I, the rent-an-interloper, but anyone on the receiving end of it would’ve thought what I did: no way could they not have conspired together.
Because they looked exactly like two cats caught licking themselves.
I COULDN'T BEGRUDGE them their practical joke. I was a fool and a poor man, so when my opportunity came, I shed my bitterness and proved that honor and duty will redeem any dupe. My career was long and enviable. Four and a half decades after that summer, I retired at the rank of vice admiral, one of the most decorated officers in the French navy. I’d forgotten all about the Fitzgeralds, easily and thoroughly, because they bore no bearing on the Édouard Jozan I became--
At least not until the letters began arriving. Dear Sir, they said, We are looking for a man who may have answered to the name ‘Joanne.’ We’ve scoured the military archives and you fit two essential criteria. You’re French and an aviator. Would you mind answering a few questions?
I met with the biographers because I had no choice. I was terrified the Fitzgeralds had written about my gullibility. What they’d done, I discovered, was far worse. They stole my identity. The Édouard Jozan they described had come into their lives, taken what he’d wanted, and retreated into that vast carelessness that lets others clean up the mess. The way they spun the tale was brilliant in its caginess. I was a cartoon cad, an unrepentant rake, an unctuous, skirt-chasing gigolo, a Latin lothario. On one point—the most important point—they were so coyly ambiguous I knew they must’ve connived over it. I could picture them plotting in both senses of the word, not only mapping a storyline but hatching their scheme. They’d ensured I would spend eternity replying to the question that no gentleman wants asked because it’s an insult to the chivalry and courtliness he holds dear:
Did you sleep with her?
Do you know, I told my interrogators, that for forty-five years after that summer I served my country with distinction? I commanded a flotilla at Dunkirk. And when France fell I was captured by the Nazis. I survived the camps. And yet all you want to know is
Did you sleep with her?
I survived and afterward on my chest I wore the Croix de Guerre, the Grand Croix du Mérite de l’Ordre de Malte, and the Grand-Crois de la Legion d’Honneur—the highest honors in my country. I was promoted to vice-admiral and commanded the French fleet in Indochina.
Yes, but did you sleep with her?
I married the granddaughter of the man who stopped the Germans from taking the Marne in 1914. I raised my children to honor history and truth so when they were adults they could look to me and say proudly I feared nothing. I raised them to remember their father as a noble man who never failed them.
And still, even in the afterlife, I have to put up with your curiosity.
When the question comes I have only one recourse. I gesticulate a few Latin gallantries, and then I plead:
It’s not easy being the man every woman desires—nor the one every husband needs to invent as his nemesis.
Kirk Curnutt is professor and chair of English at Troy University’s Montgomery Campus in Montgomery, Alabama, where he also serves as a director of the Alabama Book Festival. His thirteen books include two novels--Breathing Out the Ghost (2008) and Dixie Noir (2009)—and studies of Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway. His latest book is Brian Wilson (2012), an entry in Equinox Publishing’s Icons of Pop Music series.