Zelda’s teeth

Most of the information about psychoanalysis in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night is pinchbeck, but I noticed something unexpectedly genuine when re-reading it yesterday. After Nicole Diver grabs the steering wheel from her husband Dick and nearly gets the whole family killed, Dick decides to take a vacation of sorts from the psychiatric clinic where he works and his wife resides. His excuse is a psychiatrists’ conference.

He had no intention of attending so much as a single session of the congress—he could imagine it well enough, new pamphlets by Bleuler and the elder Forel that he could much better digest at home, the paper by the American who cured dementia praecox by pulling out his patient’s teeth or cauterizing their tonsils, the half-derisive respect with which this idea would be greeted, for no more reason than that America was such a rich and powerful country.

The American psychiatrist who pulled teeth to cure schizophrenia was a real person: Henry Cotton, profiled by historian Andrew Scull last year in Madhouse: A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern Medicine, a book I’ve been meaning to read. Cotton believed that schizophrenia occurred when brains were poisoned by toxins produced by infection. To cure the psychopathology, he thought, you had to treat the infection. He therefore pulled out his patients’ teeth, tonsils, and long sections of their colons, killing many of them in the process. Cotton’s mentor, and to some extent enabler, was Adolf Meyer, and as it happens, Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, upon whom the character of Nicole Diver was not very loosely based, was in Meyer’s care at the Phipps Clinic at Johns Hopkins in the early 1930s. Scott Fitzgerald wrote Meyer long letters protesting that he wasn’t really an alcoholic.

As near as I can suss out the chronology by skimming, by the time Zelda was in Meyer’s care, Cotton was in the process of being exposed as a fraud. But Cotton held to his scientific theories until he dropped dead in 1933, the year before Tender Is the Night was published. Fitzgerald probably resented Meyer’s authority, and he certainly envied it, so perhaps there was an intentional jab at Meyer in Dick Diver’s scorn for Meyer’s protégé. Or perhaps the novelist simply sensed what was bogus before the expert did.

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

On 6 July 1906, Grace Brown wrote to her lover, Chester Gillette, who had got her pregnant, that she had “been bidding good-bye to some places today. . .

Oh dear, you don’t realize what all of this is to me. I know I shall never see any of them again, and mamma! great heavens, how I do love mamma. I don’t know what I shall do without her. . . Sometimes I think if I could tell mamma, but I can’t. She has trouble enough as it is, and I couldn’t break her heart like that. If I come back dead, perhaps if she does know, she won’t be angry with me.”

Brown seems to have thought that she and Gillette were going to elope. They did take a trip soon after, to the Adirondacks, where they rowed a boat out onto a lake. You know where this is going. According to the indictment in People of the State of New York vs. Chester Gillette,

The said Chester Gillette, on the 11th day of July 1906 . . . did beat and strike the said Grace Brown . . . and . . . did push, cast, and throw the said Grace Brown into the water of Big Moose Lake . . . and did then and there smother, asphyxiate, and suffocate the said Grace Brown beneath the waters of said lake . . . and . . . the said Grace Brown did languish and languishing did die. . . .

If this sounds familiar, it may be because Theodore Dreiser wrote a book about the case, An American Tragedy, and because Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor starred in the movie, A Place in the Sun. (Elizabeth Taylor, I hasten to assure you, did not play the Grace Brown role. Shelley Winters did.) Now the Historical Society of the Courts of the State of New York has digitized the record and briefs of People vs. Gillette, which clock in at over 2,000 pages.

By the way, if the name “Edmund Pearson” means anything to you, and/or if you find that you’re developing a taste for antique murder, check out Clews, the Historic True Crime Blog, by Laura James, which I discovered because she was kind enough to link to an old article of mine not long ago.

“Steamboats” is moving

All nine of you who read this blog regularly, please adjust your bookmarks. I’m moving to a new location: steamthing.com. Mostly because of the elephant, which you’ll see if you click through. But also because it’s a shorter URL to type, because there’s the promise of allowing comments again (if the anti-spam tools work as advertised), and because this server goes down a lot. I’ll leave this site up for a while, anyway, as an archive, but not forever.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

The National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado has published a series of before-and-after shots of America’s glaciers. Their website says they’re affiliated with NOAA and funded by NASA, but the connections are tenuous enough for them to have escaped the long arm of the Bush administration.

Here’s McCarty Glacier in Alaska, as photographed by Ulysses Sherman Grant in 1909 (black-and-white) and by Bruce F. Molnia in 2004 (color):