Sometimes Madness is Wisdom

My Name is Red

Montgomery and All That Jazz

No photograph ever captured Zelda's unique, unusual beauty. Ring Lardner Jr. agreed: "I have never seen a photograph of her that conveyed any real sense of what she looked like, or at least the way she looked to me. A camera recorded the imperfections of her face, missing the coloring and vitality that transcended them so absolutely." Her flawless skin tanned in summer to a deep brown, and her high cheekbones gave her the look of a fair-haired Cherokee crowned with a full head of silky, honey-gold hair. There was a stubbornness in her face and a piercing quality in her gray-green eyes. "She was not a legitimate beauty--thank God," recalled Gerald Murphy, who later became one of the Fitzgeralds' closest friends, "her beauty was not legitimate at all. It was all in her eyes. They were strange eyes, brooding but not sad, severe, almost masculine in their directness. She possessed an astounding gaze, one doesn't find it often in women, perfectly level and head-on." Her eyes suddenly could become intent and piercing, a glare caused in part from poor eyesight. Scott noticed it early in their relationship and later told her doctor, C. Jonathan Slocom, at Beacon House, that she was "almost totally blind in one eye from some childish accident." Her sister Rosalind had another explanation, remembering, "The specialist to whom Mama took her for her sinus trouble discovered that she had no retina in one eye. He told Mama about it, but I feel sure that Mama did not tell Zelda, or that Zelda ever realized it. I did not know until long after Zelda's death, when the doctor told me. It may have accounted for her squinting at times when she looked closely at things."

Her expression was so animated that no two photographs of her appear alike. "Zelda was really a great beauty," recalled John Biggs, Scott's Princeton roommate and later Zelda's lawyer, "but her pictures never showed this because she was terribly unphotogenic." Yet everything about her--from the long lashes of her deep-set gray-green eyes, down to her evenly tanned and shapely legs--was captivating. The Montgomery newspaper agreed: "Of bright, vivacious intellect, unusual beauty and charming manners, she was unusually admired." Endowed with an exceptionally lovely figure, Zelda once boasted she could sell it "to Cartier's for a gold mesh sweat shirt." The neighborhood boys spied on her from bushes around the Sayre's back porch, but when Minnie was warned about these peeping Toms, she remained unconcerned. Proud of her daughter's beautiful body, she saw no cause for embarrassment, a remarkable attitude to possess in an ultra-conservative Southern town.

Designated Alabama's state capitol in 1846, Zelda's hometown of Montgomery combined the two rival settlements of East Alabama and New Philadelphia, serving briefly as the capitol of the Confederacy. The town's center was Court Square at the intersection of Dexter, Commerce, and Court Streets. There, vendors sold their goods, auctioneers hawked cotton and cattle, and volunteers were recruited for war. By 1900, many impressive structures loomed over Court Square including the Italianate Winter Building and Central Bank. The Old Exchange Hotel was a popular meeting place for businessmen and politicians and its ballroom the site of Montgomery's most prestigious celebrations.

Not since the Civil War had there been so many outsiders in town, as nearby Camp Sheridan and Camp Taylor filled with new recruits to undergo training for World War I. On Friday evenings at the Old Exchange Hotel where Mrs. Jefferson Davis had been received as First Lady of the Confederacy, Montgomery's young women welcomed the visiting soldiers. As Ida and Sara Haardt danced nimbly up and down the Hotel's steps with their partners, Zelda circled the Old Exchange floor from midnight until dawn with scores of officers from surrounding encampments. Sara Haardt, who later married H.L. Mencken, recalled Zelda's extraordinary appearance there at one holiday ball. "I saw her as she had looked at that last Christmas dance we were together, wearing a flame dress and gold-laced slippers, her eyes starry and mocking flirting with an immense feather fan. Her bronze-gold hair was curled in a thousand ringlets, and as she whirled about, they twinkled enchantingly like little bells. Around her flashed hundreds of jellybeans--the Southern youth of the day--in formal black broadcloth and pearl-studded fronts and hundreds of other flappers in gold slippers and rainbow-colored skirts, but they seemed somehow vain and inarticulate beside her. Beauty they had, and grace, and a certain reckless abandon--yet none of them could match the glance of gay derision that flickered beneath the black edge of her eyelashes--and none of them could dance as she did, like a flame or a wind."

Full of energy even after dancing all night, Zelda would be up early the next morning working as a volunteer for the Service League, distributing coffee and donuts to soldiers in the train station canteen. At other times she rolled bandages for the Red Cross or sold tags on downtown streets for the innumerable benefits supporting the war effort. "Some of the girls who were heads of the committees, thought that because we talked so much, we of the younger generations would never get any work done, but we sold more tags and folded more bandages than all the rest of them put together. It was as if we were possessed with an insatiable vitality."

By eighteen, Zelda had already dated the city's wealthiest and most well bred young men: Peyton Spottswood Matthis, Dan Cody, John Sellers, Lloyd Hooper and Leon Ruth. Matthis, one of her favorites and Montgomery's most eligible bachelor, was popular with women because of his gracious manners and sense of humor. Later fictionalized as the "Dayton Bee" in John Kohn's book, The Cradle, Matthis was blessed with a multitude of talents. Proprietor of the Montgomery Marble Works and possessing a maturity beyond his years, he was highly artistic, creating two sculptural masterpieces for the town's cemetery--The Wings of Death and The Broken Column. Matthis and John Sellers became known as "the Gold Dust Twins" because of their knack for making money, and each was renowned for giving their dates a good time. It is likely that Sellers seduced Zelda while they were still in high school.

Zelda was the most sought-after girl at gatherings for northern soldiers, and young aviators soon took to doing air stunts over the Sayre's house on Pleasant Street, looping and barrel-rolling their planes to win her attention. The daily flybys continued until two second lieutenants, Henry Watson and Lincoln Weaver, crashed on the nearby Speedway while attempting a tailspin. Camp Taylor's commanding officer immediately issued orders that such frivolous activities cease. On another occasion, infantrymen from Camp Sheridan paraded before her house and executed a drill in her honor. Zelda loved the attention.

Her behavior embarrassed and infuriated Zelda's father whose frequent attempts to discipline her failed utterly. Recalling that wild year, Zelda told Sara Haardt: "I danced every night...through the late spring and summer until the Lenten season of another spring. There were Country Club dances, college and Pan-Hellenic dances, benefit dances for the Red Cross and Liberty Loan drives, officers' dances, Jackson Club and Beauvoir Club dances where mostly only officers went, Camp Sheridan dances, Beauty Balls and Folly Balls..." But it was the enlisted men's dances, which often ended in scuffles, that provided the element of danger she found most exciting. "The ones I enjoyed the most were the privates' dances down in the dirty old City Hall auditorium. Only a few girls went, because it was supposed to be rough, and there were no officers present--there weren't even any intermissions because there weren't enough girls to go around. We danced from nine until one, without once stopping, to the most marvelous music in the world--their bands were always better than the officers'...and somehow it brought the War, in all its tragedy and waste and horror, much more vividly to us. I'll never forget the way they used to play 'No Name Waltz,' 'Road to Home' and 'Rose of No Man's Land.'" Another girl might have been ostracized for such behavior, but being a Sayre, Zelda's social position in Montgomery was firmly established according to southern society. As a member of one of Alabama's best families, related to many other distinguished families, including that of Senator John Tyler, one of the state's best known politicians, Zelda could bend the rules without jeopardizing her social position. In addition to being the daughter of Judge Anthony Sayre, who would later become an Associate Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, Zelda was considered southern aristocracy.

Scott Fitzgerald was eagerly awaiting embarkation for the European front when he and Zelda met. He had applied for his commission in the spring of 1917 following three weeks of military training at Princeton, having unearthed a federal statute authorizing officer status for those speaking French. It was a proficiency he did not really have. Nevertheless, that summer he underwent examinations at Fort Snelling for a provisional appointment as a second lieutenant in the regular army. Returning to Princeton, he planned on remaining only until his Infantry commission arrived. Most of his friends had already enlisted and left the campus: Alex McKaig was an ensign in the navy, John Peale Bishop, his closest buddy, was in the infantry and Edmund Wilson, who had joined the Hospital Corps, awaited orders to France.

Scott's commission came on October 26 and on November 20 he received orders to leave for Officers' Training Camp at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The young captain in charge of his platoon was an ambitious West Pointer named Ike Eisenhower, but Fitzgerald was unimpressed. As poor a soldier as Princeton undergraduate, Scott was more interested in writing than military training. During lectures on trench warfare, he made voluminous notes for his novel-in-progress, "The Romantic Egotist," and during evenings and weekends worked on the manuscript at the officer's club. "Every Saturday at 1 o'clock, when the week's work was over, I hurried up to the Officers' Club and there in a corner of a room filled with smoke, conversation and rattling newspapers, I wrote a 120,000-word novel on the consecutive weekends of three months."

In February of 1918 he took leave and, sequestering himself in Princeton's Cottage Club, polished his novel about a young man coming of age. When it was finished, he sent it to John Biggs's father's law office in Wilmington, Delaware. Biggs had briefly been his Princeton roommate and had offered the typing services of his father's secretary, Mrs. Bradford. Scott instructed her to make only one typed copy, which she did, sending it back to him along with his original longhand manuscript. The package never arrived. This was the first of two mishaps connected with his manuscript. (The second occurred a year later when he sent the revised version to Scribner's via Tom Daniels.) Upset but undaunted, Fitzgerald rewrote an entire second version from notes and memory, and once again sent it to Biggs with the same instructions. The new manuscript was much improved. This time, however, Biggs kept a second typed copy in the office, posting the original to Fitzgerald who forwarded it to Shane Leslie, a Scribner's author and former teacher at Fitzgerald's prep school, Newman. On May 16, 1918, Leslie sent it on to Charles Scribner II, commenting that it expressed an authentic sense of America's youth. "In spite of its disguises, it has given me a vivid picture of the American generation that is hastening to the war. I marvel at its crudity and its cleverness."

Fitzgerald's Princeton English professor, Christian Gauss, had suggested Scribner's because Charles Scribner and his younger brother Arthur both were Princeton graduates--Charles the class of 1875 and Arthur the class of 1881. Fitzgerald had known Charles's son on campus and there were other Princeton graduates working as Scribner's editors who Fitzgerald felt would enjoy those chapters dealing with their alma mater. But Scribner's editor in chief William Crary Brownell took an instant dislike to the manuscript, as did many of his colleagues. Only Maxwell Evarts Perkins, who had joined the firm in 1910 and was Brownell's apprentice, recognized the manuscript's potential. It was five months before Fitzgerald heard from Perkins, who rejected it but encouraged Scott to try another revision. His primary complaints were that the story did not advance to a conclusion, and that the hero drifted from one situation to another with no real awareness or understanding. Writing Fitzgerald, "The story does not culminate in anything as it must to justify the readers' interest," he suggested changes for a revised submission. "We hope we shall see it again and we shall then reread it immediately." In two months an improved version arrived on Perkins's desk. Charles Scribner III liked it but the older editors still voted no, and again it was returned to Fitzgerald who, disappointed and temporarily dejected, put the manuscript away.

Scott had not anticipated this second rejection and was upset not only by the delay in finding a publisher, but also by the interminable time it was taking to see military action. In February of 1918, he was transferred with the Ninth Division of the Forty-fifth Infantry to Camp Zachary Taylor near Louisville, Kentucky, then posted to Camp Gordon in Georgia, and finally in April of 1918 sent to Camp Sheridan near Montgomery. His Princeton classmate John Peale Bishop impatiently wrote from France, "When are you coming? God I wish you'd hurry up. Aren't you almost a soldier now? We'll get a room in town the first night you are here, and read Brooke and Keats all night."

Princeton had given Fitzgerald an air of sophistication, and made him appear very different from the southern boys to whom Zelda was accustomed. He also stood out from fellow soldiers, "better dressed in their uniforms than ever before in their lives," and attired in his hand-tailored uniform--represented a world Zelda sought to enter. "He smelled like new goods," Zelda later wrote in her thinly veiled, autobiographical novel, Save Me The Waltz, and "being close to him with her face in the space between his ear and his stiff army collar was like being initiated into the subterranean reserves of a fine fabric store exuding the delicacy of cambrics and linen and luxury bound in bales." With hundreds of soldiers in town and not enough girls, Zelda recalled in her short story, "Southern Girl " how, "Girls too tall or too prim for the taste of Jeffersonville [Montgomery] were dragged from their spinsterly pursuits to dance with the soldiers and make them feel less lonely through the summer nights. You can imagine how the popular ones fared! "

Since he was assigned to Headquarters Company, First Lieutenant Fitzgerald was allowed to wear a custom-designed Brooks Brothers uniform and, instead of puttees, cream-colored boots extending up to just below his knees. With his chiseled nose, green eyes and blond hair parted down the middle, he made an impressive appearance despite his modest height of five feet eight and a half inches. Handsome in a pretty way and projecting excitement and optimism, Fitzgerald seemed confident around women, though he was fully aware of his shortcomings: "I didn't have the two top things; great animal magnetism or money. I had the two second things though: good looks and intelligence. So I always got the top girl."

Before he met Zelda, Fitzgerald had dated some other local girls. He had gotten their names from Montgomery native Ludlow Fowler, a Princeton classmate. Even after meeting Zelda, he continued to see May Steiner, a popular date of several Camp officers. But Steiner's relationship with Fitzgerald was never serious, in part because of Fitzgerald's continuing melancholy over Ginevra King's impending marriage to Ensign William Mitchell, an instructor at the Naval Air Station in Key West, Florida. Fitzgerald had been introduced to Ginevra King, a debutante from Lake Forest, Illinois and daughter of the fabulously wealthy Charles Garfield King, by his St. Paul friend Marie Hersey in January 1915. Along with a host of other suitors, he had pursued Ginevra the following year. Just sixteen when they met, Ginevra visited Scott at Princeton and rendezvoused with him in New York at the Midnight Frolic and Ritz Roof. But it was a superficial romance which Fitzgerald fantasized out of proportion. And there was unpleasant gossip. Scott overheard somebody remark at a house party they attended in Lake Forest that "poor boys shouldn't think of marrying rich girls," and believed the comment was directed at him. Ginevra's indifference towards the relationship finally registered when he asked back for his letters and discovered she had not kept them. "I'm sorry you think that I would hold them up to you as I never did think they meant anything," she wrote, offering instead to return his Triangle pin. Fitzgerald, for his part, had not only kept her letters, but had had them typed and bound in a volume numbering three hundred pages.

Ginevra would always represent the unattainable girl. He would use elements of her personality to create Isabelle Borge and Rosalind Connage in This Side of Paradise and his most famous heroine, Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby: "Her voice full of money--that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals' song of it... High in a white palace the King's daughter, the golden girl...." As a member of the privileged class, Ginevra represented a world Fitzgerald envied, and his conviction that the rich were a breed apart was born of this rejection. "Let me tell you about the very rich," he wrote, "They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different." His brief sojourn in King's world of privilege forever altered his attitude towards the poor, which he described in his first novel. "Never before in his life had Amory considered poor people. He thought cynically how completely he was lacking in all human sympathy. O. Henry had found in these people romance, pathos, love, hate--Amory saw only coarseness, physical filth, and stupidity... 'I detest poor people,' thought Amory suddenly. 'I hate them for being poor.'"

After rejections by both Scribner's and Ginevra King, Fitzgerald was primed in the summer of 1918 for a new emotional attachment. But it would take the sparkle of Zelda Sayre to reenergize him. When he met Zelda that July in Montgomery, Fitzgerald recognized her as another golden girl and was absolutely determined not to lose her. One of the youngest to date Northern soldiers, she was also their most popular choice. Sara Haardt recalled her precocious entry into the debutante's social circle. "One day, a lady who was on the committee arranging a Beauty Ball for the entertainment of the soldiers, offered little Zelda Sayre, whom she still regarded as a school-girl, a dollar if she would dance a ballet she had learned at dancing school. Zelda danced--in silver slippers and spangled skirts--and later when she appeared on the ball-room floor for her first, formal, grown-up dance, she had the most thrilling 'rush' of her life. The next night was the formal Saturday-night dance at the Country Club where, according to tradition, only very grown-up debutantes and very dignified married people danced, but Zelda had received her first invitation during a magical waltz at the Beauty Ball--and Zelda went."

Thereafter, the country club, where she frequently was asked to perform dance solos, became her domain. On the warm July evening Fitzgerald first saw her there, she was performing "Dance of the Hours" before the crowded ballroom. Afterwards she was surrounded by a swarm of admirers. No sooner would one officer dance off with her than another would cut in. Fitzgerald introduced himself, then swirled her around the dance floor and tried mightily to charm her. He was promptly rebuffed, however, when he suggested a midnight date. "I never make late dates with fast workers," she laughingly told him. He called the next day only to learn that she was booked for weeks. An expert at making suitors jealous, she heightened Fitzgerald's interest to a frenzied state within days. By the following Saturday, he found himself enormously agitated by the sight of her kissing a date under the overhanging gas lamp of a telephone booth near the club. Accelerating his pursuit, Scott convinced her to see him, and on July 24 hosted a country club party in honor of her eighteenth birthday. It was a magical evening she never forgot. "Remember there were three pines on one side and four on the other the night you gave me my birthday party and you were a young Lieutenant and I was a fragrant phantom, wasn't I? And it was a radiant night, a night of soft conspiracy and the trees agreed that it was all going to be for the best...."

Though a year had passed since Ginevra King's rejection, Scott was not entirely over her, and Zelda reminded him of the Chicago debutante. Fitzgerald told Zelda how closely she resembled Isabelle, (modeled after King) in his unfinished novel. Two weeks into their courtship, he gave her the chapter titled "Babes in the Woods " in which Isabelle was prominent. Never having been courted in this way, Zelda was swept off her feet. By fall, Fitzgerald also admitted to being in love, noting the exact day in his ledger as September 7. Just five days later, Zelda presented him with a silver flask bearing the inscription: "Forget Me Not, Zelda. 9/13/18."

One of Zelda's high school classmates recalled that romantic autumn: "We were more closely supervised than girls of our age today. For one of us to date a soldier was unthought of. Not only were these boys soldiers, they were 'Yankees,' foreign enemies. Scott Fitzgerald was one of them. I think it was through her older sister's friends that Zelda met him. We were a little shocked, but admired her for her conquest. They began going steady immediately. She was always more interested in the boys than the rest of us, and she liked to keep her favorite boy guessing by teasing and embarrassing him, good-naturedly on her part--in public. Scott fared as the others had. When he could be in town to see her, instead of keeping him to herself, she would bring him around the corner and join us on the wall in front of our house, the place where we gathered to talk. Scott was good-looking, quiet and sweet. Zelda did enjoy making him blush. He seemed to fit in with our crowd and they would join us in walking back to school meetings and games on Friday and Saturday nights."

Although only five feet five inches, Zelda seemed much taller and in shoes stood almost eye level with Scott. With a dancer's grace, she appeared to float across a room. Fitzgerald, too, seemed to have "some heavenly support beneath his shoulder blades that lifted his feet from the ground in ecstatic suspension, as if he secretly enjoyed the ability to fly but was walking as a compromise to convention." From the start, they were a matched pair.

But Zelda was not only beautiful; she also possessed the courage and self-confidence Scott lacked. Fitzgerald was determined to impress her, though enticing a girl so tantalizingly elusive, a girl exuding such cool reserve, was no easy task. Years later, Sara Murphy, Gerald's wife, recalled: "I don't believe she liked many people although her manners to everyone were perfect. Her dignity was never lost in the midst of the wildest escapades. No one ever took liberty with Zelda."

Using highly original phrases and syntax, she spoke with a southern accent in a low and husky voice. Only those who knew her best appreciated her unique sense of humor. Sara Haardt described it as a "devastating wit--yet not so much wit as philosophy--so peculiar to the South.... When Montgomery was swarming with soldiers' wives as well as soldiers, one particular grand lady was inexplicably annoyed by her high spirits. 'Who is that wild Comanche you've been dancing with?' she asked Fitzgerald during an intermission at a Jackson Club dance. Almost the next moment she had turned to Zelda and inquired in a syrupy voice, 'I don't suppose you wear fur coats very often in this climate.' 'Fur coats?' Zelda Sayre repeated, her soft voice suddenly as sharp as a blade. 'I've never seen a fur coat.'"

But that would not be true for long. Zelda's yearning for sophistication and glamour so paralleled Fitzgerald's own desires that Edmund Wilson observed, "If ever there was a pair whose fantasies matched it was Zelda Sayre and Scott Fitzgerald." Zelda once wrote Scott what a psychic had intuited about their relationship: "Mrs. Francesca--who never heard of you--got a message from Ouija for me. Nobody's hands were on it--but hers--and it told us to be married--that we were soul-mates. Theosophists think that two souls are incarnated together--not necessarily at the same time, but are mated--since the time when people were bisexual..." For a time Zelda's mother had been a theosophist, and she and Fitzgerald discussed the philosophy. Later, in The Beautiful and Damned, Scott would have Gloria express her beliefs about some people being mirror reflections of one other. "We're twins Mother says that two souls are sometimes created together--and in love before they're born." Those were also Zelda's thoughts which she expanded on in Save Me The Waltz, having her heroine Alabama explain, "So much she loved the man, so close and closer she felt herself that he became distorted in her vision, like pressing her nose upon a mirror and gazing into her own eyes."

Oddly, the Fitzgeralds looked enough alike to be taken for brother and sister. Scott, with his classical features, was so handsome as to be pretty. Zelda, with her gorgeous coloring and golden hair so vivid that Fitzgerald recalled, "The glow of her hair and cheeks, at once flushed and fragile, made her the most living person he had ever seen." Admittedly, she used rouge and lipstick to heighten her coloring, and was the first in her group to use mascara, but she was also naturally beautiful and always appeared fresh and healthy-looking. Both of them had that well-scrubbed look suggesting youthful innocence. "We were at a large round table with them, Fannie Hurst and other writers in New York at that time," Lillian Gish recalled. "They were both so beautiful, so blond, so clean and so clear--and drinking strait (sic) whiskey out of tall tumblers."

Obsessed with cleanliness, Zelda took three or four baths daily. Her high school friend Julia Garland recalled that "She was one of the cleanest people I've ever known. She looked like she'd always just had a bath." Fitzgerald infused Gloria in The Beautiful and Damned with Zelda's predilection for cleanliness. "Always intensely skeptical of her sex, her judgments were now concerned with the question of whether women were or were not clean. By uncleanliness she meant a variety of things, a lack of pride, a slackness in fibre, and most of all, the unmistakable aura of promiscuity. 'Women soil easily,' she said, 'far more easily than men. Unless a girl's very young and brave it's almost impossible for her to go down-hill without a certain hysterical animality, the cunning dirty sort of animality." As casual as she felt about sex, she always took a bath after it, and like Scott associated with intercourse some element of soiling.

Zelda had always preferred men to women, not only because they were less bound by convention, but also because women often seemed unclean to her. "You like men better, don't you?," Anthony asks Gloria in The Beautiful and Damned. "Oh, much better. I've got a man's mind." she replies." When Anthony counters, "Don't you ever intend to see any women?" Gloria responds: "I don't know. They never seem clean to me." Then, when asked why she wants to marry him, Gloria answers: "Because you're so clean. You're sort of blowy clean like I am. There's two sorts, you know. One's like Dick: he's clean like polished pans. You and I are dean like streams and winds. I can tell whenever I see a person whether he is clean, and if so, which kind of clean he is."

George Jean Nathan revealed Scott's own fixation on women and cleanliness. "During his undergraduate days [Fitzgerald] sent out questionnaires to prospective female dates as to: (1) Whether they had had their hair washed during the day and (2) how many baths they had taken. I can testify from personal observation," he wrote, "that it was his habit, to their consternation, to demand of any female companions in taxicabs that they open their mouths so he might determine that the insides of their teeth were free of tartar."

In the competition to win Zelda--his golden girl--Fitzgerald faced an uphill battle. Her parents strongly opposed the match--he came from a middle class family, had no money, drank too much, and might easily become a negative influence. Zelda's parents really did not know what to make of the midwesterner who seemed determined to outdistance her other suitors.

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Excerpted from Sometimes Madness is Wisdom by Kendall Taylor. Copyright 2001 by Tracy Quan. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.