For six years I’ve been in a band called the Submarines. Ups and downs in music careers abound—we’ve had some successes and some disappointments. There’s a lot that’s simply up to the fates when it comes to recording, touring, and trying to make a name for oneself in music. The uncertainty of it all can take a toll—on relationships, creative energies, and one’s own resolve. Still, we’ve soldiered through, having little doubt that this band was meant to be, even at the expense of our own security. It seems that no worthwhile artistic endeavor ever came without struggle. This is a lesson lived large by my great-grandparents, whose dramatic rise and fall might have warned me away from a creative life—or, at least, from the abandon it seems is required in order to produce anything good. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were my mother’s mother’s parents. Scottie—Grandmummy, to me—was their only daughter. My relationship to Scott and Zelda has been fraught at times, and, to some extent, the desire to escape it has spurred me on in making my own way.
The show is over. The lights have come up. Security has cleared the room of all those not holding backstage passes. I’ve packed away concert t-shirts and posters and closed shop on the last night of this month-long tour around the U.S. opening for the band Eels. After weeks of venues both big and small, some fancy and some with green rooms crammed full of buggy, anxiety-provoking couches, the tour has come to an end at the El Rey in Los Angeles. The theater seems to float in pinkish light, suspended by great chandeliers. The backstage is velvet-strewn—miniature but glamorous. We are concluding on a high note in this fine place.
I climb the iron staircase to the main dressing room, as I’ve been asked up for a celebratory drink with E, the Eels frontman. It’ll be the first time we’ve spoken, apart from stage-side banter between sets. I swoon past Jon Hamm on his way out—one in a string of celebrity Eels fans. E is upstairs in his low-lit Hollywood dressing room. I’m excited to finally thank the man who has brought my band around the country, allowing us to play in front of his audiences night after night.
I’ve brought him two of my favorite books as a gift: Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. As I hand him the books in a paper bag, he asks, “So is it true that you’re F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great-granddaughter?”
My heart drops. I wonder, “Is that the only reason he brought us on this tour? Did he even like our music?” I bumble a reply, “Well, yes, but of course I never knew him—he died long before I was born.”
I sense a certain disappointment in the room, as there always is when people realize that I’m not old enough to have known someone who was in his prime in the 1920s—especially someone who, rather famously, died young. I turn shy and slip out soon after, clattering my high heels back down the metal stairs.
The conversation repeats itself when I join a group of musicians who are hanging out by the stage. “Is it true that you’re the great-granddaughter of…?”
“Yes, and unfortunately no, I never knew them. But I’m a genuine fan and love both his and Zelda’s writing.” This enthusiasm rarely makes up for the lack of first-hand stories or little anecdotes I might have shared, had I only known them personally.
The next day, I’m still rattled by the suspicion of having been asked on tour only because of Scott and Zelda. I know that last night’s questions were only asked out of a natural curiosity, but still I feel troubled and call my mother to mull it over. My mom is an artist, a published writer, a beloved mother of three, and my favorite partner for mulling over any issue. When I call, she’s just received word that The New York Times wants to do a Style story about her house, and she’s worried. “I know they’re only interested in the Fitzgerald angle,” she says.
Last year, my stepfather, also an artist, finally moved in with my mother. He’d been living for decades in a house he designed and built on Lake Champlain. It was time to pare down and stop making the thirty-minute commute—sometimes in drastic weather—to see each other every night. Their solution was to build a small house for him across the driveway from my mom’s and to make a sky-bridge between the two so they could walk back and forth through the Vermont winter. They now share a bedroom and kitchen and have been cozy and productive in this arrangement. My mother says she dreads the headline about their place, “His and Her Side of Paradise,” which she regrets having conjured in jest while on the phone with the Times editor, trying to describe what she doesn’t want the story to be about. Now she’s sure they’ll use it. I find myself trying to convince my mom to agree to the Style piece, insisting that the story of two artists finding this unusual solution is interesting enough on its own. And then I tell her about the conversation from the night before, about my own mixed feelings concerning the Fitzgerald connection. We spend the rest of the call telling each other we are being silly and that our worries are unfounded. But the doubt is there, and the question never really goes away: “Will my work, my life, ever be judged on its own merits, or only in relation to my famous ancestors?”
The truth is, I adore Scott and Zelda and have come to think of them as irresponsible, talented cousins who simply live someplace so far away that I’ll never quite get to talk with them. I treasure their books and letters, which at times read like personal messages to which I simply can’t reply. I feel proud when I happen upon some reference to them in a magazine or paper, or when a book of theirs is turned into a movie, just as I would be of a living relative. I frequently think of their advice and observations—sometimes for reassurance, but often for reinforcement about unsticking myself from convention. Their energy still feels vital. They don’t seem to belong entirely to a bygone era, though they were considered to be so representative of their time. And, in fact, they don’t really even seem to belong to me. Yes, they are my great-grandparents, but (though they were at times devoted parents) they gave themselves over to the world long ago, even before they had their only child, my grandmother. They invented themselves in a romantic fashion, one not overly concerned with self-preservation.
I have little odds and ends of Scott and Zelda’s, things my mother has passed on to me over time. An initialed silver mirror they gave to my grandmother sits on my dresser; a scarab ring of Zelda’s fits just so on my finger; and in a recent Submarines video I wore a necklace of scattered stars set in gold that Scott once gave to Zelda. I’ve ruffled the lock of hair that Zelda tucked into the first edition of one of Scott’s novels, unruly in its little vellum envelope. So I have held and touched things that they have held and touched. In a way, these things make me feel more connected to them than the abstract idea that I possess some of their DNA. The books and objects they left behind are a lot easier to ponder than those physiological inheritances, both good and bad.
Of course, not everything about the Fitzgeralds’ lives was enviable. Their spectacular crash has always been part of their appeal, but no one among us would really like to meet the ends they met. For all of their wondrousness, the darker parts of their personalities (alcoholism, schizophrenia) make them worrisome ancestors, from a genetic perspective. Both of these diseases have had profound effects on our family. This may be another reason my mother and I baulk at the mention of the Fitzgeralds. We have been brought up with a shame-reaction neither of us totally understands. We admire Scott and Zelda endlessly and are proud of our family. We can’t figure out just why the topic feels so taboo, but when someone brings up the Fitzgeralds in our presence, we experience a reflex of embarrassment. If Scott and Zelda are like glamorous, far-away cousins to me, are they the ones who get too drunk and go too far in public? Or is it that they’re simply more exciting and magnetic than I could ever hope to be, so I’m left feeling like a chronic disappointment? And if I do happen to dance on a table or drink Champagne till dawn, is it because I’m Zelda’s great-granddaughter? If I stay in at night to watch old movies, is this a lackluster performance for the “great-granddaughter-of”? And most important, when I make art and music, will my abilities ever match theirs, or at least be able to escape comparison?
I’ve thrown my hands up at these questions over and over again. I’m grateful to have been raised in a creative family that finds it preferable to be wild and honest rather than buttoned-down and at odds with oneself. I often remind myself of the excellent things my grandmother taught in word and deed about working hard and being confident in that work, things she learned in part from her harrowing and fantastic upbringing and from Scott’s sometimes heavy hand in her education. Scott worked diligently through most of his life, even through some of his heaviest days of drinking, and was a strong disciplinarian with Scottie. There is a deep streak of reasonableness running through our family, with Scott and Zelda’s fall acting as a looming cautionary tale. But we all know how to throw that caution to the wind fairly well. Whatever creative legacy they might have left to my brothers, cousins, and me will always be a mystery—one that may give us a spark from time to time, and one that may trip us up, as well.
When I’m asked about my relationship to Scott and Zelda, and whether my songwriting has been affected by it, I am glad that I work in a different medium—songs. Scott often included lyrics in his books—some were taken from popular songs of his day, and some were lighthearted and often nonsensical things he composed himself. They were not his primary focus as a writer. Were I laboring as a novelist, I think the weight of comparison would be more overwhelming. As it is, when people ask me about my connection to them, I think they are mostly interested in their celebrity and my proximity to and reflection of it.
Two years ago, on a solo tour through the South opening for Aimee Mann, I stopped in Asheville, North Carolina, the town where Zelda lived and perished in a hospital fire. Aimee and I drove up to the Grove Park Inn, a great stone lodge in the hills where Scott stayed on his visits to Zelda. We had lunch, commiserating and laughing about our messy histories with love, gazing out over a hazy expanse of pines—the same pines that appeared in Zelda’s many landscape paintings. Afterward we were given a private tour of the rooms Scott once occupied. For a quiet minute or two, I looked out of windows he once opened and closed on the Asheville wilds. There was an unreality in the air, like we were on some kind of stage set, not standing on the same floor Scott must have tread, exhausted and often drunk after days of trying to coax and calm Zelda back into the world. I was glad the staff knew Aimee’s work—some of the otherness I feel around people who are interested in my relationship to Scott and Zelda was diffused by her talent and fame. And in my own state of exhaustion, having followed Aimee’s bus alone in my car over many miles and through many late nights, I started to feel some comfort in this shared space. The burdens Scott and I carried were not at all the same, but I felt a calming sympathy, an unconditional and familial love, a sadness for what he and Zelda experienced in this beautiful place. Any questions of comparison in our actual endeavors seemed entirely beside the point to our being related, to simply being family.
After our show that night, an unassuming young man introduced himself to me as Alex Matisse, the grandson of Henri Matisse. He wondered if I might like to take part in a project he was starting. As a potter, he’d considered his relationship to his grandfather quite a bit and thought it would be interesting to put together a collection of essays by the artistic offspring of famous creative people about those relationships. We agreed to write these pieces for each other and to keep them private, to use them as a way to investigate our feelings about working in a kind of shadow of greatness.
But it hasn’t happened. Over the past two years we’ve corresponded a bit, but never put pen to paper. Last week I received a note from him. He explained, “My hesitation with the whole subject may simply be because I am just not struggling with it all as much. I am making work and it is being accepted in the world. I imagine that you have been on that side of things for some time. It is the initial jump that is always the hardest, and then when we are in, things fall into place.”
This idea of taking comfort in our work rang true for me. No matter how our families have shaped who we are as artists, these pursuits and struggles will always be our own. We may never understand whether the shadows of our ancestors have obscured or guided our way, but I suspect it’s a little of both, as we are all “borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Blake Hazard is one half of indie-pop duo The Submarines. She has recorded and toured internationally for more than a decade. The Submarines' music has been featured in numerous films, television shows, and advertising campaigns. They've released three studio albums, Love Notes/Letter Bombs (2011), Honeysuckle Weeks (2008), Declare a New State! (2006). Hazard released a solo album, The Eleanor Islands, in 2013. Born in northern Vermont, she now lives in Los Angeles.
Casey Burns serves as Art Director of Radio Silence. He is an illustrator and graphic designer living in Brooklyn after many years in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Portland, Oregon. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Grantland, on record covers and posters for Sonic Youth, and on beer labels for Deschutes Brewery. By day, he is a digital producer for Victoria’s Secret.