"The Iceberg: A Story by Zelda Fitzgerald"
December 24th, 2013
The New Yorker
In 1918, Zelda Sayre, later Zelda Fitzgerald, won a prize for this story, which she published in the Sidney Lanier High School Literary Journal. She was seventeen or eighteen years old when she wrote it; she would soon meet F. Scott Fitzgerald, her escape hatch from the restrictive world of Montgomery, Alabama, into a tumultuous life of literary striving. The story was recently unearthed, and the Fitzgerald estate was surprised to learn of its existence. The heroine of “The Iceberg” is Cornelia, a plucky young woman from an aristocratic Southern family, with no marriage prospects, who decides to seek her destiny at business college. She impresses a rich man with her dexterous typing, and, without telling her family, she marries him. When Zelda Fitzgerald’s granddaughter Eleanor Lanahan read the story, she said, “Who knew Zelda wrote stories before Scott entered her life? Who knew she’d give a working girl the happiest of destinies? This is a charming morality tale of sorts. Ironically, Cornelia’s ending up with a rich husband is her ultimate success. This is truly a fascinating story—about Zelda, the South, and women’s expectations in 1917 or so.” The tone is lighthearted, winking, and ironic, and the story seems to presage some of the tensions in Zelda’s own life: between independence and entanglement with a man, the twinned and, sometimes, conflicting desires to write and to be admired, and the pressures of a search for the right kind of self-expression. Read it in full below. (We’ve preserved most of the original spelling and typographical errors.)
Cornelia gazed out of the window and sighed, not because she was particularly unhappy, but because she had mortified her parents and disappointed her friends. Her two sisters, younger than she, were married and established for life long ago; yet here she remained at thirty years of age, like a belated apple or a faded bachelor’s button, either forgotten or not deemed worth the picking. Her father did not scold. He kindly suggested that perhaps Neilie would do more for herself if the rest of the family would leave her alone. Her brother said, “Cornie’s a fine girl and good looking enough, but she’s got no magnetism. A fellow might as well try to tackle an iceberg.” For all that, the family cat found her responsive enough, and the little fox-terrier fairly adored her, to say nothing of a blue jay that insisted upon a friendly dispute every time she stole to her retreat in the old-fashioned Southern garden. Her mother said, “Cornelia is not sympathetic. She looks at a man with her thoughts a thousand miles away, and no man’s vanity will stand for that. What good are beautiful clothes and musical genius if humanity is left out? No! No! Cornelia will never marry, Cornelia is my despair.”
Now Cornelia sometimes grew weary of disapproval and resented it. “Mother,” she would say, “is marriage the end and aim of life? Is there nothing else on which a woman might spend her energy? Sister Nettie is tied to a clerical man, and, between caring for the baby and making ends meet, looks older than I. Sister Blanche finds so little comfort in a worked-down husband that she has taken to foreign missions and suffrage for diversion. If I’m an economic proposition, I’ll turn to business.”
So, without more ado, she secretly took a course at business college, and taught the fingers that had rippled over Chopin and Chaminade to be equally dexterous on the typewriter. Her eyes seemed to grow larger and more luminous as she puzzled over the hieroglyphics of stenography.
“That Miss Holton is a wonder,” said the manager of the college. “Yes, she’s a social failure, but she bids fair to be a business success,” agreed a young man who had once fallen into her indifferent keeping.
Just then the phone rang. “At once, you say! Wait a moment, I’ll see.” Proceeding softly to her desk, he said, “Miss Holton, I consider you quite efficient as a pupil. Do you care to answer an emergency call? The firm of Gimbel, Brown and Company wishes a stenographer at once. What do you say to the place?”
“What do I say? Why, it just hits the spot. Let me get my hat and I’m off.”
“Well,” said the manager, “I do like a girl who knows what she wants.”
If her mother could only have heard that! Perhaps, after all, Cornelia had always known what she wanted—and failed to find it. Perhaps, after all, a social equation in trousers had not been just what Cornelia craved. Perhaps, after all, Cornelia was seeking self-expression. At any rate, she lost no time in finding Gimbel, Brown and company, and was not the least aghast that this was the mighty multi-millionaire Gimbel who needed her services.
“Miss Holton, you say? Cornelia Holton, the daughter of my old friend, Dan Holton? Why bless your heart, have a seat! This is so sudden! When did you enter the business arena, pray?”
Cornelia was not abashed. With her usual straight-forward earnestness, she said, “Yes, I’m Cornelia Holton, and I’m in business to stay. If the arena is full of Bulls and Bears, I’m here to wrestle. What can I do for you, Mr. Gimble?”
With a twinkle in his eye and a queer little smile, he pushed toward her the pile of snowy paper and began to dictate. North, South, East, and West the messages flew, and Cornelia’s fingers flew with them. White, slender, and shapely, they graced the machine as they had the piano, and, when lunch hour came, her face had flushed, and the little brown curls clung to her forehead with a slight moisture of effort. Cornelia was beautiful over her first conquest of the typewriter!
As she rose to go, she blushed, and stammered, “Mr. Gimble, I’ll thank you not to tell my parents of this. They have no knowledge of my business enterprise and would be quite horrified. You know, nothing succeeds like success. I have been a failure long enough.” And she smiled as she left, the old grace of the distasteful ball-room clinging to her in spite of her steady resolve.
“Well, by jove!” exclaimed Mr. Gimble. “By Jove!” he reiterated, “who’d a thought a Holton woman would go into business! Why, that girl’s mother was the greatest belle that this city ever produced. Well, she couldn’t get married, maybe.” So he too, went his way thinking of the little wife that had died years ago and of the great emptiness that had taken her place and that he had tried to fill with money.
Several months flew by. The Holton’s had their shock when Cornelia announced her business success, and were again in the normal path of life. The cat said, “I told you so! I knew she had the element of success in her!” The little dog barked, “Doggone her! I always knew I didn’t wag my tail for nothing.” The blue jay noisily called, “Aw, come on now and let’s finish our dispute. You can build a nest if I can, and you can hatch a family, too, if you try. Aw go awn!” But that was nothing to what the society world said when Cornelia Holton and James G. Gimble walked quietly to the study of the Reverend Devoted Divine and were made one, eve: to the millions and the famous homestead was also a palace of art and aesthetic refinement.*
Mrs. Holton fainted over her coffee-cup when she unfolded the morning paper and beheld the head-lines, side-by-side with, and quite as large as the war news. Mr. Holton chuckled, as he emptied the water-bottle over her most expensive negligee. “I always said Cornelia had something up her sleeve.” “Well, the old girl must have warmed up at last,” added her brother.
The front door opened and in walked the disheveled sisters, screaming, “Mamma, mamma—Cornelia, the old maid—she has out-married us all!”
*There’s something askew or missing in this sentence—the sense is that Gimble and Cornelia are made one, down to his millions and the famous homestead. I think the “eve:” should be “even.”—Eleanor Lanahan