Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald is probably one of the most interesting characters in the 20th century. She was an icon of her age, dubbed ‘the first American flapper’, and married to one of the most famous and influential writers of the time, F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose work we now call ‘quintessential’.
Yet Zelda struggled her whole life with the expectations of society, and wanted nothing more than to be recognised as an artist in her own right…
From a young age Zelda rebelled against her role as a Southern belle of the influential and respected Sayre clan. The daughter of a prominent Alabama judge, Anthony Dickinson Sayre, Zelda was named by her mother after the two gypsy protagonists of little known stories Zelda: A tale of the Massachusetts Colony by Jane Howard and Zelda’s Fortune by Robert Edward Francillon.
As Zelda grew up she was much more like the gypsy she was named for than the respected Southern belle she was expected to be.
Zelda loved dancing and the outdoors, and was once quoted in a newspaper as saying that she cared only for ‘boys and swimming’. She dranked, smoked, spent time alone with boys, and was well on the way to becoming the Zelda Fitzgerald that we all know and love when she met second lieutenant Scott Fitzgerald, who was stationed outside of Montgomery, Alabama, Zelda’s hometown, for much of World War 1.
Becoming Zelda Fitzgerald
Soon after Zelda and Scott met, they were calling each other daily, and Scott would visit her on his days off. Scott wasn’t her only suitor at the time, and he competed fiercely for her attention. He was so struck by her that he rewrote portions of his novel-in-progress, This Side of Paradise, to make the character Rosalind more like her.
Zelda said later of the character, “I like girls like that…I like their courage, their recklessness, and spendthriftness. Rosalind was the original American flapper.”
By this point they were well and truly in love, and Zelda had agreed to marry Scott. In 1920 This Side of Paradise had been accepted for publication by Maxwell Perkins, whom he wrote to urging an accelerated release of the book.”I have so many things dependent on its success – including of course a girl.”
This Side of Paradise was published in March 1921; Zelda joined Scott in New York a few days later and they were married within a fortnight.
Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald soon became celebrities in New York, as much for their wild behaviour as for Scott’s wildly successful first novel. They drank excessively, jumping in fountains, riding on top of taxis and getting kicked out of hotels. They became known as icons of youth and success – the enfants terribles of the Jazz Age.
A beautiful little fool
In 1921, while Scott was working on The Beautiful and Damned, Zelda discovered she was pregnant. The couple moved back to Scott’s hometown, St Paul, Minnesota, to have the baby.
Frances “Scottie” Fitzgerald was born on October 26, 1921. As Zelda emerged from the anasthesia, Scott recorded her as saying, “Isn’t she smart—she has the hiccups. I hope it’s beautiful and a fool—a beautiful little fool.”
These words were later immortalised on the lips of Daisy Buchanan, and are probably one of the more famous examples of Scott’s reliance on Zelda for his work.
In 1922 Burton Rascoe, editor of the New York Tribune, asked Zelda to write a cheeky review of The Beautiful and Damned to create hype for it’s release. In her review she made joking references to Scott’s use of her diaries and letters in his work, though in truth his use of her writings became a source of genuine resentment. She wrote:
To begin with, every one must buy this book for the following aesthetic reasons: First, because I know where there is the cutest cloth of gold dress for only $300 in a store on Forty-second Street, and, also, if enough people buy it where there is a platinum ring with a complete circlet, and, also, if loads of people buy it my husband needs a new winter overcoat, although the one he has has done well enough for the last three years…
It seems to me that on one page I recognized a portion of an old diary of mine which mysteriously disappeared shortly after my marriage, and, also, scraps of letters which, though considerably edited, sound to me vaguely familiar. In fact, Mr. Fitzgerald—I believe that is how he spells his name—seems to believe that plagiarism begins at home.
This article opened the way for several editors to approach Zelda for work, and she published several short stories and articles in the coming months. Together the Fitzgeralds wrote a play, The Vegetable, which flopped horribly, and soon after they left for Paris.
Paris, je t’aime
In 1924, the Fitzgeralds left for the good life as expatriates in Paris. They joined a community of American writers there, including Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.
While there, Scott worked on The Great Gatsby and Zelda became infatuated with a dashing French pilot, Edmund Jorzun. Believing herself to be in love Zelda asked Scott for a divorce; he refused. Soon after Jorzun left France without ever knowing that Zelda had asked for a divorce. Scott was to hold this over her head for the rest of their relationship, despite himself being a chronic flirt.
It was around this time that the fragility of Zelda’s mental state began to show itself. Outwardly they were friendly and happy, a perfect couple. Behind closed doors, they bickered constantly and avoided each other. Zelda pined for a career of her own, a way to express herself creatively the way Scott did. To this end, she began training as a ballerina, rekindling a childhood dream. She studied obsessively, often practising for up to eight hours a day.
Eventually she overexhaused herself, and her first breakdown, diagnosed as ‘nervous exhaustion’, happened in 1930. Soon after this, she was admitted to a sanitorium in France, where she was eventually diagnosed as schitzophrenic. Zelda would be in and out of hospitals and sanitoriums for the rest of her life.
Save Me the Waltz
After years of writing short stories and articles, Zelda’s first and only novel Save Me the Waltz was published in 1932. She had written it over a six-week period while being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Like her husband, Zelda drew heavily on her personal life for material for her work, and the story of Alabama Beggs closely follows Zelda’s own.
Despite the Great Depression, publisher Scribner decided to publish Save Me the Waltz in the same year it was written. Despite Scribner’s confidence, Save Me the Waltz didn’t do very well, selling less than half of its initial print run. This, coupled with Scott’s fury at Zelda’s portrayal of him and her use of material similar to that which he was using in his upcoming novel Tender is the Night, ensured that Zelda never had the confidence to write or publish another book.
Thematically, Save Me the Waltz portrays Southern belle Alabama Beggs’ struggle to rise above “being a backseat driver about life” and become recognised for her own accomplishments, not just her famous husband’s. The novel shows Zelda’s yearning to become known as an artist in her own right, and somewhat reveals the reason for her obsessive ballet training a few years earlier.
From that time on, Zelda lived in varying states of mental distress. In 1936, Scott admitted her to Highlands Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, and she spent the rest of her days in and out of that facility. Scott moved to Hollywood to work for MGM; Zelda painted and worked on a novel, Caesar’s Things, which remained unfinished upon her death in 1948 in a hospital fire.
The Fitzgeralds are buried together in Saint Mary’s Catholic Cemetery, Rockville, Maryland.
So we beat on, boats against the current
Both Zelda and Scott Fitzgerald believed themselves to be failures when they died, but shortly after their death interest in the couple resurged. The legend of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the golden couple of the Jazz Age, continues to inspire through the many works of art they inspired.
Biographer Sally Cline wrote “Recently, myth has likened Zelda to those other twentieth-century icons, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana. With each she shares a defiance of convention, intense vulnerability, doomed beauty, unceasing struggle for a serious identity, short tragic life and quite impossible nature.”
For me, Zelda Fitzgerald is a bit of an inspiration. She tried her hand at many things and never, ever stopped trying to be the person she wanted to be – a creator, an artist, an independent woman.
You might also like these books about Zelda Fitzgerald:
- Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
- The Collected Writings of Zelda Fitzgerald
- On the Road to West Egg: The Volatile Relationship of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald by Paul Brody
- Zelda by Nancy Mitford
- The Romantic Egoists: A pictoral biography from the scrapbooks and albums of F Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald by Matthew J Bruccoli
- F Scott Fitzgerald: A Life in Letters by Matthew J Bruccoli
- Dear Scott, Dearest Zelda by Jackson R Bryer
More content from Luscious:
- Famous folk at home: F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald in Great Neck, Long Island, New York
- Historical style: A 1920s cocktail party